A small revelation: the Holy Spirit and understanding
A couple of evenings ago I had a small revelation. But first let me fill in the background. Back in 1977, a few weeks after Easter, when we were living in Goroka in the Highlands of Papua New Guinea, our friend Wendy turned up at our house and announced that she had come to pray for me to be baptised in/filled with the Holy Spirit (the terminology doesn’t matter). She and my wife Ingrid prayed for me. Nothing evident happened. I didn’t speak in tongues, usually taken to be the sign of the Holy Spirit’s baptism/infilling. And after they had stopped praying I went out into the kitchen to make some toast. As I was watching the eye-level grill on our old cooker, ‘I felt my heart strangely warmed.’ The experience was not of my making: of that I am sure. In the ensuing days I was suffused with a joy that I had never felt before (and only occasionally since). I believe it was the experience referred to in Acts 8:14–17 and 19:1–7. But I digress. The point is that until that moment in front of the grill, my faith had been a matter of the head, a matter of intellectual assent from which I tried to reason out my position on all sorts of issues. But at that moment, intellectual assent was overwhelmed by a sense of utter conviction that came from beyond me, and the way I saw the world was turned upside down—I suddenly saw the truth instead of struggling to find it.
I have often puzzled over this event, as I have never heard anyone else report quite the same experience. That doesn’t bother me, as I know that I know that this happened to me. What I have sometimes asked is, Why did the Holy Spirit do his longterm work on the underpinnings of my intellect? Why not on my prayer life? Why not on my emotions? Why not give me the gift of healing? And so on. Until the other night.
Recently I have been reading Scot McKnight’s The Blue Parakeet (the book explains its title). Its subtitle is Rethinking how you read the Bible. Actually, it should be something like ‘Rethinking how you understand and apply the Bible’. McKnight’s starting point is that some evangelicals view the Bible as a source of rules of behaviour, yet they pick and choose which rules count for today, ending up with rather an inconsistent approach to the Bible. Others read the Bible through the lens of a particular tradition, so that what it means accords with that tradition. Instead, McKnight suggests, we should read the Bible as God’s Story, written by its authors under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, yet operating within their own cultures. We, the Church, need to discern under the guidance of the Holy Spirit what the Bible is saying to us in our cultures. This is a potentially alarming prospect, as it leaves us with no rules-of-thumb, no inviolable framework. Instead, we need to allow the Holy Spirit help us do the discerning, and discernment entails thinking—and this, I realised, is why, 36 years ago, the Holy Spirit chose to affect my understanding.
The Apostle Paul writes about the connection between the Holy Spirit and understanding:
And we have received God’s Spirit (not the world’s spirit), so we can know the wonderful things God has freely given us. When we tell you these things, we do not use words that come from human wisdom. Instead, we speak words given to us by the Spirit, using the Spirit’s words to explain spiritual truths. But people who aren’t spiritual can’t receive these truths from God’s Spirit. It all sounds foolish to them and they can’t understand it, for only those who are spiritual can understand what the Spirit means. (1 Corinthians 2:12–14, New Living Translation)
- [^1] I sometimes puzzle over the theology of Holy Spirit baptism (and the disagreements about it across denominations) and why I received it long after I had become a Christian, but its presence in the New Testament seems to me undeniable (e.g. Mark 1:8, Acts 1:5, 8).
- [^2] The Journal of John Wesley, 24 May 1738. He continues, ‘I felt I did trust in Christ alone for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.’
- [^3] Published in 2008 (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan).
- [^4] Scot, McKnight expounds the Story in his 2011 book, The King Jesus gospel: The original good news revisited (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan). My notes on it are here.