The Holy Spirit, as the unseen God at work among us, sometimes can be seen, felt, heard, or experienced in some direct way. When the unseen shows itself in the seen, that is what is called a 'manifestation' (Greek phanerosis, anything by which something or someone openly shows itself). The idea that there are such things as manifestations should not seem so strange. This is the God who came to us in a feedbox for animals, and died on an instrument of execution as a criminal. This is the God of burning bushes, parted seas, stirred dry bones, deposed despots, and fallen empires. Though God usually works subtly, God occasionally shows a flair for the dramatic. God shows a willingness to act in a way that those of us who pay any attention, and sometimes even those who don't, will discover what's going on. When people speak of 'manifestations' or 'signs', they're not talking about the subtle gentle stuff, the still small voice, or God the Cosmic Teddy Bear. They're talking about the God of the Rushing Wind and the Pillar of Fire, and happenings which leave no room for 'business as usual' for those who go through them. They're talking about something happening that causes a physical, bodily response in them that could be seen and heard.
Purpose, Strategy, and Tactic
Jesus' life on earth was the foretaste of something to come, a taste so good that we pray for more: "Thy Kingdom come". We're baptized into the Kingdom. Yet, if we really are of the Kingdom, you'd expect that it would show itself in many ways, seen and unseen. There is nothing in Scripture that says it won't show itself in signs and wonders; in fact, Scripture says it has.
In Acts, the early church leadership had the gift of knowing when the Spirit was in action. Even where the gospel had spread, such as in Samaria, they could sometimes say flatly "The Holy Spirit had not yet fallen on any of them." (Acts 8:16). They didn't stand there and condemn, though. They started laying hands on them, and then the Spirit did come to those people (Acts 8:17). They knew because the Spirit was showing forth in some way.
In Acts 1:8, Jesus promised that the Spirit would come and would bring power. But the promise is not about power to achieve your aim in life, or to become rich or comfortable or loved. The power would be given for only one purpose : so that we may be witnesses for Jesus. This saying of the risen Jesus sets the context for all the other amazing signs that came thereafter. It's the purpose behind the tongues, the help to the widows, the sharing of goods, the healings, the traveling apostles, the fillings with the Spirit, the prophecies, even the jailings, the earthquake, and the shipwreck.
In Acts 2, it says that the crowd of Passover pilgrims was "amazed and perplexed" when they found the apostles "speaking about God's deeds of power" (v. 11b). Many others had spoken of God's mighty deeds throughout the Passover season -- indeed, those in the crowd had likely grown weary of hearing about it. But when talk of God's mighty deeds are accompanied by a mighty deed, now there's something special. Even then, though, Jews were trained since childhood to want to understand all things. They were puzzled, and wanted to know why God would choose their time and place to do a mighty deed. The question that was in their minds was, "What is God up to?". The fired-up preachers of the new Gospel supplied the answer.
In one of his letters, Paul addresses the church in Galatia's turn toward the Law over the Gospel. "Did you receive the Spirit by observing the law, or by believing what you have heard? Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to obtain your goal by human effort?....Does God give you his Spirit and work miracles among you because you observed the law, or because you believe what you heard?" (Galatians 3:2-5; see also the rest of Galatians 3). Paul didn't set an objective doctrine of justification against a subjective experience of the Spirit and powerful gifts. For Paul, the presence of the Spirit, received by faith and then experienced within, bore out the gospel of the cross to each of us.
Why a physical sign?
The Spirit can give signs not just for the overall purpose, but a specific purpose within that overall purpose. This awareness has caused many Charismatics to speak of the "strategy" of the Spirit. Many preachers have used this as a blank check for making their own purposes appear to be Spirit-supported. But that must not cause us to beg the question. When the Spirit gives signs, it is fair to ask why that specific sign is being shown in that person or persons at this specific time. What is the Spirit up to? Does it bear the true good news of the Christ, found in the Bible? How is the Spirit using it in building up the Body of believers?
The Spirit may be trying to meet a need that you don't know about. The purpose of a sign may be to make that need known and to show how it is to be addressed -- even if it seems silly or trifling. The original charismatic emphases on intense prayer, spontaneity in worship, and small group meetings may well be tactical moves of the Spirit. They call us back to three of the key actions of a congregation: devotion, worship and fellowship. The Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox, and Evangelical churches of the mid-20th century had lost or stifled much of their task. Things promised only to get worse as the church made itself more institutional and more political. When gifts were rediscovered by charismatics, they showed themselves all over their churchly life. Perhaps the signs were sent so that we would learn about our needs as the Body of Christ. Perhaps they were made manifest so we would ask God to show us how we were to meet those Bodily needs, even if that was something dramatically different from what we'd been doing. Perhaps the arrival of signs itself was a sign, a wake-up call as to things the church was meant to be. The Spirit makes different moves in different places at different times, telling the rest of us where the holes are in our faith and practice.
In His day, Christ had to deal with those who sought signs from God. One instance mentioned in Mark is right after Jesus had healed a deaf-mute man, and fed four thousand people with almost nothing. These were very big signs of power, like a huge highway billboard saying 'this Jesus is the one God has sent'. He goes to a nearby village, and a group of Jewish leaders come to Him, and what do they ask for? A sign. Jesus knew that a sign is no help to those who choose not to pay attention to it. As Mark put it:
But He sighed deeply in His spirit, and said, "Why does this generation seek a sign?
Truly I tell you, no sign shall be given to this generation".
He was understandably frustrated. Yet, if you read Mark from that point on, Jesus in fact did not stop doing works of wonder and power -- signs of the Kingdom of God on earth. The signs were for those who had ears to hear, who let themselves pay attention to the sign. The biggest sign of them all was Jesus' death -- God on a stick, bleeding and dying at our hands.
THE TORONTO BLESSING and OTHER OUTBREAKS
The question of manifestations was a hot one in the 1990s, because of a phenomenon known as the "Toronto Blessing". It started at the former Airport Vineyard Fellowship (AVF) in Toronto Canada, which served the international airport there. Word spread at a rate that brought to mind the rapid spread of the Azusa outbreak in 1906, only now there was modern communications and air travel right to its doorstep. Church pastors from all over the world flew to Toronto to AVF, hoping to pick up something to bring home. Enough came there for honest spiritual endeavors to cause sparks back home. From those churches it spread like wildfire, especially in England, where in less than a year it totally shook up the English charismatic scene, including many Anglicans and even Baptists. The manifestations include laughter, weeping, shaking, and falling down. Supporters say that God is using this to refreshing the church and its members, giving joy and a fresh love and respect for God, a hunger for Scripture and for prayer. (Translated into less biased terms: the main effect was on inactive or marginal Christians and church burnouts.) As they saw it, thousands had been re-energized in spectacular fashion. They were released from feeling the heavy burden of life and of a stiff version of Christianity. Many people rediscovered their love for Jesus and their desire to bear witness about Him.
The Toronto-related manifestations were not in themselves different than what Finney or Spurgeon or Edwards saw in their times. However, the mark of those great revivals was not the signs and wonders. Those revivals became famous for the way they changed every aspect of the lives of those who came forward. Their new-found faith was manifested:
and so on. By changing lives, those revivals affected the whole nation, both believers and unbelievers. By that standard, the great number of people in the Blessing should have made a much greater impact.
There are other problems. When an outpouring comes to town, the Hallelujah Addicts come out in force. To them, vigorous manifestations are like an addiction to which they continually crave a fix. This is compounded by those who talk (or sing) about being 'addicted to God'. No matter how the idea is re-framed to answer critics, it's still an addiction to a feeling. God doesn't want you to be a God-addict but a clear-headed follower who chooses to be devoted to God.
Another effect is that the people who are 're-energized' often came from other congregations, but they don't usually go back to re-energize their church. Much of their church-switching is long overdue, leaving places where they no longer belonged. But how many workers did the Blessing take from other parishes' valuable ministries? The Charismatic movement arose from people who took it home with them into their own churches and traditions.
Also, there are a growing number of so-called signs that don't relate to any spiritual benefit at all, for example, the appearance of gold fillings in peoples' mouths, or gold sparkles in facial skin. A strange occurrence is not a sign unless it signifies something, and it is not a sign of the Spirit unless something happens directly through it that clearly furthers the gospel-spreading, people-building task of the Spirit among us. What a true sign signifies is God's reign on earth. Healings can do that. Shakeouts that revolutionize lives can do that. Mere 'positivity' or 'self-confidence' can't, nor can getting rid of a headache or a cavity, nor having golden 'holy glitter' in your skin. God's changes are not cosmetic.
Some places have gone through an even worse effect. When an outpouring hits, imitation Outpouring churches and revival meetings sprout up. Many see all the fuss and want a piece of the action: preachers who want to create a following for themselves, and church pastors who want the size of their flock to grow and don't care how. They squawk about manifestations and wonders for all to hear. But the real Holy Spirit can't be bottled, transported, and used for earthly gain. The real Spirit's work can't be copied, stapled, and distributed like another program. The most polite term to use for such folk is 'bloodsuckers'; they will get their comeuppance in the end. It's too much to demand that those in an outbreak itself take all of the responsibility for disciplining this, because by their very nature as a Spirit-movement they're weakly-organized and easily detach from any hierarchy. But it is something that ought to concern the church as a whole as well as the congregations and leaders in the movement. I get a lot of email from disappointed church members who have seen their pastor or church council bring in someone who uses a bag of tricks, and when they object, their pastor just tells them to lighten up and go with the flow. It brings to mind what Christ says in Matthew 18:6.
Pensacola's outbreak worked in a slightly different way than Toronto. Observers generally found that they were having some success in evangelizing younger adults, yet most of those over 30 years old were either church members switching churches or former churchgoers coming back. For these older people, the 'refreshing' was still the main effect. The 2000s outbreaks in Argentina showed more of the behavioral changes and evangelism that marked the US Great Awakenings, but also seemed to be prone toward extreme end-times beliefs and legalism toward their own members. Several leading speakers there espoused the 'health-and-wealth' approach, which is highly questionable as a way to follow Christ. Also present there and elsewhere is dominionism, which is all about power despite a Jesus who was about serving and loving.
What should you do if members of your church start being affected by a new outbreak of manifestations? (History shows that there will be more of them!) The first thing is to talk seriously about it among yourselves. The two things that will not help at all are silence and gossip. Encourage people to keep asking questions. Ask about the theology and the practices of the local version of the outpourings:
- do the chaotic meetings happen within a chaotic framework or a free-but-stable one? (The apostle Paul called for good order.)
- Is the Scriptural Word of God, and specifically the Good News of Jesus Christ, being spoken, portrayed, sung, and learned? (The Spirit acts through the Word.)
- is the ministry's focus on the leader, or on money, or on getting lots of attention? (If so, it needs to be directly challenged.)
- are they getting good training in the faith? (If so, it's a good sign. If not, you or your church might ask to help teach them.)
- is there sound oversight of the pastors, evangelists, and leaders? (If it doesn't matter to them, they will go astray.)
- is the church growing by drawing active members away from existing churches ('sheep-stealing')? (If so, then they are weakening the overall Body of Christ in the community, and must be repeatedly asked to refocus their efforts. Ask most persistently when they aren't listening.)
- are the members showing the fruit of the Spirit? (If the effects stay trapped within that congregation or preacher's circles, that's a bad sign.)
If all this leaves you stumped, ask outsiders who might know something more about it, making phone calls and sending them mail or E-mail. Use the means of discernment that the Spirit has given the Church, and always look to Scripture with an open mind. These outpourings take on different flavors in local areas over time, and these flavors are a result of the slow, hard work of sorting out spiritual things. Be persistent, patient, thorough, and most of all prayerful.
Descend Upon My Heart
Some of us really need something fast or miraculous sometimes. And it happens -- rarely, but it happens. However, that's not where most of us are at most of the time. Most people most of the time are not in the emergency room of the soul, or have not hit bottom. Much more often, we are empty (or get emptied), insides hollowed out, our lives a drudge, voided of purpose or direction, or tired of life. A dramatic action might help, but it is not what is really needed. George Croly understood this well when he wrote the hymn "Spirit Of God, Descend Upon My Heart":
I ask no dream, no prophet ecstasies, No sudden rending of the veil of clay, no angel visitant, no op'ning skies, But take the dimness of my soul away.
He wasn't speaking against manifestations of the supernatural. There's not even the slightest wisp of disbelief that angels can come or that ecstasies can be given. Yet such things would not help at all to fill the void or light his dimness. He doesn't need signs of anything. He needs (and requests) only the actual work itself, the work of powerful change and inner healing by the Spirit. The next verses show a grasp of the core solutions:
I see your cross, there teach my heart to cling
Then, in the last verse:
Teach me to love you as your angels love, One holy passion filling all my frame: The baptism of the heav'n-descended dove, My heart an altar, and your love the flame.
The Cross. Love. Passion. Faith. The Spirit's work in baptism. These are the gifts of God on which the other gifts are founded and built upon. Without them, no other gift, whether quiet or manifest, can have any positive meaning. Within them, there is a mind-boggling range of life-affirming gifts and life-changing experiences. Whether they are wonders or whispers, they all are there to serve the Gospel and build up God's followers.
There's more to read, on specific manifestations.
Study Questions on Manifestations
- Have you ever experienced a manifestation?
- If so, what changes happened within you over the course of the following few months, if any? Anything else since then?
- What has most stuck with you?
- If not, has anyone treated you as being less of a Christian because of it? And how did you respond?
- Have you experienced a congregation where you could sense the Spirit's absence (as far as you could tell)? What was that like?
- How could you tell? What indicated it to you?
- Could the Spirit have been at work in less obvious ways? Think back; did you see any signs of it? Where were the fruit?
- The Book of Acts has many references to the presence and work of the Holy Spirit. Take some time to go through several chapters of Acts and jot down on a pad whatever references you find (write the text of the full event, not just the line where the Spirit is named).
- What are the lessons each passage tells us about the Holy Spirit and the early church?
- What is in common between those passages?
- Which passages share a common message?
- What passages of Scripture are you reminded of, if any?
- What do you find hardest to accept about what Acts tells us? Why? Where else does Scripture deal with that matter?
ON A LIE THAT'S SPREADING AROUND
There is a belief going around in some Pentecostal circles that the great wonders of Acts were a sign to Jews that they had been judged by God. The biblical record, however, says something else. Tongues and other miracles are generally NOT signs of judgement, on Jews or anyone else. They may be signs of forgiveness and reconciliation, signs of a coming Kingdom of God, signs of the good news that Jesus fulfills the original promise of Judaism, a promise that could never have been entirely fulfilled by the Jews or anyone else because ultimately it takes God to fulfill it. If someone tries to teach you otherwise, they are in need of correction - pronto. History shows that such ideas eventually come back to harm the Jews, a fact that has put much blood on the hands of Christianity. It is a matter of the gospel to stand against this idea with the truth.
Response to a Letter On Power Deeds
> I want to learn how to do works and deeds like Jesus did -
> for example, turning water into wine, heal the sick... and so forth.
> Jesus said in John 14 that we will do greater deeds than He. I
> believe that he meant that we will be able to command the sick to
> get well and the dead to get alive.
You can't get there by wanting to do great works of power. God doesn't work that way. On the night in which He was betrayed, Jesus took a towel and cleaned off everyone's feet, and said, 'this is how you're going to be toward each other'. He had all that power, but gave a command to serve, something they should have understood long before that point by the way He lived. He then said, 'love as I have loved you', and the very next day showed what that meant.
Your job is to serve and love, not caring whether you get to do wonders. Be that way, and the Spirit may well work great wonders through you. But don't expect God's help if you just want the power. Simon Magus wanted to do the power works. He even tried to bribe the apostles, thinking they could sell him the power. But God is the one who does the miracles, not us.
The Trick Manifestations Just Keep On Coming
One of the places that more recently (2007-8) has emphasized some of the pseudo-manifestations mentioned above was Lakeland Church in Florida, USA. It seems people just can't seem to ask themselves -- and church leaders -- the tough questions in order to sort out what's God's. Once again, the Cerulean Sanctum blog of Dan Edelen speaks the truth from within the Pentecostalist subculture. I didn't know that Lakeland was into the gold glitter and fillings stuff. That type of 'manifestation' sounds so much more wrong in the face of the economic crisis which had hit Florida more than most other places. People were losing their jobs, their homes, and/or their retirement funds, and that church boasted about gold fillings or divine cosmetics?? What next, spontaneous plastic surgery? Conversion of VWs into Ferraris? Being cast by God into 'reality' shows? One of these days, we'll see the preacher or the elders in these pseudo-worship events get struck by the Spirit with the manifestation of an uncontrollable urge to shun the limelight, to serve, and to work among the poor.
Odd behavior often follows churches that are on the trick track. Weird stuff, like going to graves to 'suck in' blessings from the spirit of recently-departed Christian leaders, and other such stupidities, some of which border on the occultic. If a certain behavior seems too detached from reality to be worth pursuing, you're probably right. Don't do it.
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