Storytellers, poets, songwriters, historians, correspondents, legal scholars, apocalyptic dreamers. Perhaps it’s blindingly obvious: the books of the Bible were written by . . . writers. The Holy Spirit breathed upon each one, opened their hearts and ears and eyes to the spiritual realities around them. But they were still writers. They struggled to capture the inspired moment of clarity and present a finished work capable of blessing generations to come.
Peter described it this way: “the prophets, who spoke of the grace that was to come to you, searched intently and with the greatest care, trying to find out the time and circumstances to which the Spirit of Christ in them was pointing when he predicted the sufferings of the Messiah and the glories that would follow.” (1 Peter 1:10-11) Even though the Spirit was their guide, they searched intently. It was an inspired collaboration.
The prophet Habakkuk (that discontent whining wondering man who in turn inspired the Apostle Paul) recorded the process of capturing a flash of divine inspiration. Although the scripture is complete, inspiration still flashes today. Since we carry the inspired good news, Habakkuk’s words are a lesson for us as well:
"I will stand at my watch and station myself on the ramparts; I will look to see what he will say to me, and what answer I am to give to this complaint. Then the Lord replied: Write down the revelation and make it plain on tablets so that a herald may run with it. For the revelation awaits an appointed time; it speaks of the end and will not prove false. Though it linger, wait for it; it will certainly come and will not delay." (Habakkuk 2:1-3)
Here are four observations capable of making us partners with the Spirit’s inspiration:
“I will stand at my watch and station myself on the ramparts . . .” We ourselves create the space to receive revelation. Habakkuk purposefully took up the position of watchman: he was alone and vigilant, eager and confident that the Lord would speak to him. He was not disappointed; he had prepared himself for when the moment came. When we create space for the Spirit to come, he willingly accepts the invitation.
“Make it plain . . . “ God favors clarity. Beauty and art flow from inspiration, but we must make it plain. Our part is the clear expression of what he illuminates. There is a time to scatter rose petals among our words, but first comes content. Our words should carry a meaning clear enough that others may run with the message.
“The revelation awaits an appointed time . . .” Even revelation requires timing. Strangely, the appointed time is seldom in the heat of battle. When social debate rages back and forth in public media we are exposed to the heat of passion, but not much light. The prophets spoke to their day, but the prophetic message carried eternal weight. Neither human emotion nor intellect equal divine revelation; it comes only from God, and it requires his timing.
“Though it linger, wait for it; it will certainly come . . .” That's right: wait for it. Habakkuk stationed himself. He also waited. In the rush to say something important we often miss the opportunity to hear something eternal. Waiting is the discipline of writers who speak to generations. You can speak to the moment or you can speak to the ages; you can rarely do both.
I believe in the inspiration of the scripture, but I don’t believe the Holy Spirit used robots to mouth his words. We have a role to play, a role that compliments the word of the Spirit. Habakkuk shows us how it’s done.
Once there was a man who lived a life guided by a checklist. He did not always fulfill each item each day, but each and every day the checklist was his guide. All day long, eyes down, he navigated his life according to the inspired advice on the list. The man gained great wealth, and even some reputation among the people of his town, but at the end of his life he was no wiser than at the beginning, because the checklist was not enough. The checklist was his only friend, and he died alone. The end.
Is there anything handier than a checklist? But they can be deceiving. In the Old Testament the original checklist was ten items long. Eventually it grew to 613.
We cling to our checklists because we like to think they help us manage life. We refine the lists, prioritize the lists, interpret our lists, and look down on other people’s lists. We claim to have special insight into the most important items on the list. The problem is there’s no such thing as a checklist for the desires of our hearts. You could check off every item on your bucket list and still die unfulfilled.
It’s true: we were created for a purpose, but you can be sure the Creator isn’t using a checklist to keep your life’s score. Yet we like to keep score. It’s so much easier for us to keep our eyes on the clipboard. Give to the poor? Check. Relax one day a week? Check. Sacrifice? Pray? Memorize? Check. Check. Check. The checkmarks fall into a neat line from top to bottom. We start a new page each day. We smile at the winning streaks we string together; completely unaware the winning streaks came from playing the wrong game.
We like checklists because is it easier to relate to a book of rules than to relate to a living person. Checklists are unchanging and accessible. People are filled with mystery. Checklists are clear and unequivocal. Checklists make plain statements and tell us what to do, but there’s more to life than clarity, because people—even perfect people—present nonverbal hints and clues. Important things are not always listed plainly.
Checklists are easy; people are hard to read. Still, they yield rewards we never imagine. If we successfully keep a checklist, we have ourselves to thank. When we enter into relationships (especially a relationship with the Creator of the universe), we discover a world beyond ourselves.
What if we live our lives according the master checklist, but never meet the Master himself? Here’s one more item for the checklist: “Does anything on this list make an eternal difference?”
A long time ago one of my best friends was having difficulty resting in the grace of God. He was plagued by the memory of sin and tormented by the guilt he carried. He was a Christian--a committed Christian by nearly any standard--yet his heart was not at rest. I had no patience for problems like this. My approach was to confidently (and ignorantly) quote a Bible verse and move on to something more pleasant.
“Seriously man, give it a rest,” I said. “The Bible says ‘Love covers a multitude of sins.’”
“Yes, but how?”
“Who cares how? I’m just glad it does.”
I was selfish: my version of the truth conveniently served me. There seemed only one possible interpretation of this verse--God loved me, and he covered my sin. Like so many things, I was technically right, yet completely missed God's heart.
This one exchange, uttered decades ago, recently found its way to the surface of my thoughts again. How does love cover sin? Whose love? And why? While I was correct that the love of Jesus is adequate for our guilt and shame, it turns out I quoted a verse that has very little to do with the sacrifice of Jesus. Here’s the actual verse in a slightly fuller context:
The end of all things is near. Therefore be clear minded and self-controlled so that you can pray. Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins. Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling. Each one should use whatever gift he has received to serve others, faithfully administering God's grace in its various forms. (I Peter 4: 7- 10)
Peter was talking not about the sacrificial love of Jesus, but rather the love we are called to demonstrate toward others. Peter expected the imminent return of Jesus, so he instructed us to think clearly, act reasonably, and pray hard. The intended result leads us to love deeply; we can cover the sins of others. The Spirit of God, speaking through Peter, is calling us to do for others what Jesus has done for us.
I can still hear my friend’s voice, “Yes, but how?” Perhaps it’s time to suggest three possibilities from Peter's words:
§ Love covers sin by filling the void: When we see the sins of others we have a choice; we can rush to expose the sinfulness we see, spreading guilt and condemnation, or we can come to the aid of those who are the victims of sin. We can become God's police force and blow the whistle on sinfulness, or we can become God's ambulance and provide triage to the wounded. All sin comes with a price. Someone, somewhere is paying the price. We are called to cover the losses left behind by sin: a husband leaves his wife and child--who will fill the void for a suddenly- single mother? A government exploits the people it should serve--who will serve the unmet needs of the people? We have a choice: crusade against injustice or love those in need.
§ Love covers sin by 'gifted service': In a practical expression of his grace, God himself lavishes gifts beyond reckoning and directs us to employ these gifts in the service of others. Too many believers revel in the crazy generosity of God assuming it's all about them. Do we see God's saving action as a hand-out to us or an invitation to join him in rescuing others? The way of the world is to receive a gift and enjoy it for our own pleasure. That's what consumers do. The way of the kingdom is ask the Father, “what would you like me to do with this?” That's what disciples do.
§ Love covers sin by offering hospitality: God's love serves people, especially strangers. The New Testament word for “hospitality” suggests showing love toward the stranger, the foreigner, and the outcast. It suggests quite literally that we should make a place for others. It's not as if there are a limited number of seats at the Father's banquet table. Our assignment is to joyfully welcome others. When we add another place at the table we prepare ourselves for the day when the Father will say, “you really did it for me.”
Whatever the Father has done for us, he encourages us to do for others. His gifts come with the empowerment for us to give them again and again. Jesus told Peter and the disciples, "freely you've received, therefore freely give" (Matthew 10:8) Every benefit we have ever received from the Father is also an empowerment to give to others. It will cover a multitude of sin--but don't take my word for it, take Peter's.
Honestly, who’s going to lock God out of their building?
God will sneak in anywhere. He’s eager to meet gentle and humble spirits, even if the gatekeepers try to keep him away. He’ll do anything to connect with the pure in heart: he’s been smuggled into the building wrapped in a baby-blanket, carried by a first-time mother. He wanted to meet two such hearts long ago. Do you remember their story?
Simeon and Anna were on the fringe of life in the temple. (You can find this account in Luke, chapter 2.) They were two harmless old people who held no religious office, had no power, and most likely had very little respect from the people in charge. This temple, the religious center of Judaism, was megachurch-big and just as busy. Who took time to notice a couple of slow-moving white-haired folks on the sidelines? God. God did.
Simeon had a secret, and his secret was so powerful it was keeping him alive. Simeon had been promised that he wouldn’t die until he had seen the “consolation of Israel.” Most people would have thought he was crazy: do you know how long Jewish people had been waiting for a Messiah? Decades. Centuries. Their country was overrun with Romans, and before that the Greeks had been in charge. Religious leaders had led failed uprisings and dashed the hopes of people for at least two hundred years. But Simeon was “righteous and devout,” a man dedicated to God and sensitive to the Holy Spirit. God told Simeon he would not die without seeing the promise.
Anna had eyes to see and ears to hear—even if she did work in the nursery. She was very old, and had been without her husband for decades. What religious system—run by men—would take any notice of a powerless widow, even if she held a title of “prophet”? Anna heard the voice of God amidst the busy-ness and din of the worship industry. The Spirit led her to that place where Simeon’s promise was fulfilled, and she saw him worshipping the Baby God. It was her turn; she took the child in her arms. That’s what a lifetime of prayer, fasting, and waiting will do: you see things other people miss. Anna, the prophet, was willing to tell anyone who would listen, but who listens to 84 year-old widows?
It turns out that Simeon and Anna are still speaking. They tell us that even in a corrupt religious system, people of purity can thrive and connect with God. Thirty years before Jesus began to preach in Galilee he was already connecting with people like Simeon and Anna, because God gives grace to the humble. It’s what he always does: he had already invited nameless shepherds and pagan astrologers to visit the divine delivery room of the child Christ. Now, eight days later, God whispered his secrets again, this time right in the Temple!
He has never stopped. Jesus made a big splash when he returned to the Temple years later. He invited people to drink deep of the Spirit. Later he made a whip and invited the greedy to leave. When the religious leaders finally took notice of Jesus, they plotted ways to keep him out. The chief priest even justified the thought of murder by saying it was better for one man to die for the sake of the nation. (If he only knew what he was saying.) The religious big shots tried their best: when they crucified his body, he returned in Spirit. When they got rid of the Rabbi, he came back through his disciples. God will never stop reaching out to those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. They will be filled.
There’s just one application from all this: let’s not waste our time blaming the system. Religious systems (like all systems) are flawed. But God finds a way to become present with his people. We can spend time criticizing the flaws and denouncing hypocrisy, or we become like Simeon and Anna, to whom God keeps his promise, as he always does.
I’m not a church historian and I’m not an academic, but I have been a Bible teacher for a few years, and a pastor for fewer still. During these years I have noticed among believers two responses to the book of Acts. Some regard Acts as a book of history, while others consider it a description of the possibilities of church life. In my walk with God I started in the first camp and eventually arrived at the second.
The book of Acts is indeed a history of the earliest church. It chronicles the growth of the gospel from Jerusalem to Rome. It details the actions of the Apostles and the first believers. It is inspiring the way great history should be. In the final analysis, however, history remains an account of the past, and the past is safely isolated from the present.
As I came to regard the book of Acts as normative, my comfortable Christian life was shaken to the core. Did the Holy Spirit inspire the book of Acts as an example for us today? Is it possible He wants us to consider the life of the earliest believers as normative? If so, then I—we—have fallen short. Consider just this one passage:
The apostles performed many miraculous signs and wonders among the people. And all the believers used to meet together in Solomon’s Colonnade. No one else dared join them, even though they were highly regarded by the people. Nevertheless, more and more men and women believed in the Lord and were added to their number. As a result, people brought the sick into the streets and laid them on beds and mats so that at least Peter’s shadow might fall on some of them as he passed by. Crowds gathered also from the towns around Jerusalem, bringing their sick and those tormented by evil spirits, and all of them were healed. ~ Acts 5: 12 – 16
Since I have determined to read the book of Acts as normative it has ruined me forever. Consider just a few points capable of changing our view of the church:
• This passage occurs immediately after two people dropped dead in the church (Acts 5: 1 – 11). Can you imagine the response if a husband and wife were carried away—dead—from an elders meeting in an American church today? Even more astounding: the deaths of Ananias and Sapphira did not cause a crisis in church leadership. Instead, the incident likely established the leadership even more!
• The earliest church had no facilities. They met on the Temple grounds out in the open. What a spectacle these followers of Jesus must have been. Everyone in town knew where they met and when. Christian community was demonstrated in public. The attraction of the church had nothing to do with facilities, bells or whistles but rather the authentic lives of the people.
• How many churches in our day are both “highly regarded” and also cause people to think twice before joining? (v13) The people in Jerusalem observed a group of believers so radical outsiders considered it a calculated risk to venture into their midst. In our day people join churches—and unjoin them—for a variety of reasons. The fear of God is not usually very high on anyone’s list.
• Notice the word, “Nevertheless” in verse 14: even though no one dared join them, “more and more men and women believed in the Lord and were added to their number.” Have you ever encountered an outreach program like that? The church in Jerusalem was so dynamic it was scary. It was also so dynamic outsiders couldn’t stay away! Imagine a church capable of inspiring fear and fascination.
• Peter, a leader in this church, had a reputation for healing. His reputation was so widespread the public observed his daily routine and dragged the sick into the streets just to be in his proximity. Peter’s “healing ministry” did not involve outreach, meetings, or even prayer! Yet the entire community knew the Peter was a follower of Jesus.
• The healing ministry associated with the early church in Jerusalem gathered crowds from the countryside. It would be no easy task to carry a sick family member up the hillside to Jerusalem, but the reputation of the first Christians was so strong that people came from literally miles around to encounter the same healing anointing that Jesus himself carried. These people did not go home disappointed, “all of them were healed.” If Acts is indeed intended to be normative, it presents a breathtaking standard: all of them were healed.
• Amazingly, this church still had a lot to learn! The next 23 chapters of Acts depict a group of believers still willing to learn and grow as followers of Christ. This Jerusalem church was not ethnically diverse. Its vision did not extend to the Gentiles. The leadership had plenty more to learn, and they made mistakes along the way.
There is a difference between history and revelation. It’s the difference between examining the scriptures or letting the scriptures examine us.