In this series on what is determinative for the Christian life I will move on past John the Baptist and past the life and teaching, the death on the Cross, and the Resurrection and Ascension of Jesus, to look at the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, and at how some Christians put an unbalanced emphasis on this.
It will be no surprise that here I am referring to Pentecostals, and to their successors in the Charismatic Movement. For many centuries the practical implications of the coming of the Holy Spirit, and especially the supernatural gifts which he gives, had been neglected in churches. These gifts were put back into use by the Pentecostals in the early 20th century, and in the second half of that century started to be practised in established denominations, as well as in numerous independent charismatic churches which would not label themselves as Pentecostal.
Whatever one might think of the more spectacular charismatic gifts, I hope my readers would agree with me that it is wrong to focus on them as the centre of the Christian life, especially if that leads to a neglect of Jesus Christ. In the past some Pentecostals have made speaking in tongues the determinative mark of a good Christian, but I am happy that that is no longer typical. Others in the charismatic movement have been accused of putting too much emphasis on healing, even though in most cases they see this at least in principle as glorifying Jesus and bringing people to him.
Less controversially, it is largely but not only in the Charismatic Movement that a new emphasis has been found on ordinary Christians living the Resurrection life. This is a biblical emphasis:
Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. 2 Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. 3 For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. 4 When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.
Colossians 3:1-4 (NIV)
The implication here is that Christians should move on from focusing on the sinful old life which they have died to, and instead live the new life for which they have been born again. But the danger comes when people presume that they have already reached the perfection of Resurrection life, that they are already reigning with Christ in his perfect kingdom. This view was widespread in the Corinthian church, and Paul responded to it with cutting irony:
Already you have all you want! Already you have become rich! You have begun to reign—and that without us! How I wish that you really had begun to reign so that we also might reign with you! 9 For it seems to me that God has put us apostles on display at the end of the procession, like those condemned to die in the arena. … 13 … We have become the scum of the earth, the garbage of the world—right up to this moment.
1 Corinthians 4:8-13 (NIV)
Clearly the Corinthians had gone too far in claiming to “reign”. Paul brings them back to reality by calling himself “the garbage of the world”, a point not about his sinfulness but about how people treated him. His life was not always the victorious one which some were claiming to live; he was often “hungry and thirsty”, and even “brutally treated” (v.11). He wanted to teach the Corinthians that the Christian life, following God’s call, would often be like this.
Yes, as Christians we have been raised with Christ. But we are still living in an in-between world. The kingdom of God is breaking through into it but is not yet fully established. And it is only within that kingdom that we can reign with Christ. To the extent that we are not surrounded by that kingdom, but are in a world that is under the control of the evil one (1 John 5:19), we can expect to struggle and suffer. If we retreat from that world into a Christian bubble, we are insulated in part from that struggle. But while there may be seasons for such retreat, the Christian calling at least for most people is to take the kingdom of God out into the world, and to risk the suffering which may come as we do, while expecting in the long term to see Jesus Christ bring the victory.
Continued in Cross or Resurrection 7: Jesus is Coming Soon.