by Rev. Dr. Mark D. Roberts November 21, 2004
Preached at Irvine Presbyterian Church
Copyright © 2004 by Mark D. Roberts
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Scripture Reading: Acts 2:41-43
41 So those who welcomed his message were baptized, and that day about three thousand persons were added. 42 They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. 43 Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles.
Signs and Wonders Today?
When I was in high school, a few of my friends starting going to a Pentecostal church where people spoke in tongues, raised their hands in worship, and claimed that people in their congregation regularly experienced physical healing when they received the laying on of hands in prayer. I was both intrigued and troubled by what my friends reported to me. I was intrigued because I wondered what it would be like to experience a more supernatural kind of the Christian life. I was troubled because I wondered if my friends were being duped. And if they weren't being deceived, then I was missing out on an exciting part of following Jesus. In my church only a few borderline people spoke in tongues, raised their hands in worship, and claimed that prayers for healing actually worked. The vast majority of us spoke in English, kept our hands nicely folded in worship, and prayed that God would guide the doctors' hands - the Presbyterian version of prayers for healing, I reckoned.
When I left for college, I figured that I had left far behind my questions about the supernatural aspects of Christianity. After all, who at godless Harvard would be into such an experiential and edgy kind of Christianity? Well, lots of Harvard students, as it turned out. A whole bunch of my fellow undergrads were going to an Episcopal church about an hour from Cambridge, where, once again, they spoke in tongues, raised their hands in worship, and claimed that God regularly healed people when they laid hands upon them in prayer. So, once again, I was both intrigued and troubled.
This time I decided to figure out for myself whether what my friends experienced was a bunch of hooey or an acceptable and even normative part of Christianity. Did I visit the charismatic Episcopal church with my friends? you might wonder. Of course not! Far too risky! Far too experiential for me! Instead, I decided to do a serious biblical and theological study in order to determine once and for all what the Bible really taught about miracles such as speaking in tongues, prophecy, and healing. Were they for today? Or not? And if they were for today, how could I know if what people experienced was genuinely from God or not? Moreover, what was the point of it all?
I launched my investigation by studying many relevant biblical passages and by reading commentators on all sides of the issue. One of the major passages I studied was, as you might guess, Acts 2. Among the commentators, the watershed question was this: Does Acts 2 present a picture of something that happened once-not-to-be-repeated? Or does Acts describe experiences that can and should be common to all Christians everywhere?
At first I was attracted to the theologians who argued that signs and wonders were only for the first century. The most influential proponents of this viewpoint, it turned out, had been Presbyterian professors at Princeton Seminary in the 19th century - my own theological ancestors. Professors Hodge and Warfield, along with their contemporary followers, tried to show from Scripture that the supernatural signs we read about in the New Testament were given only for the apostolic age, before the New Testament was written. Signs and wonders were given to point people to God, but only until the definitive signpost was finished, the whole Bible, both Old and New Testaments. Now that we have Scripture, it was argued, we don't need miracles anymore. Those who articulated this viewpoint were called "Cessationists," because they believed that signs and wonders had ceased.
I found this view comforting, partly because it meant that I wasn't missing anything authentic because I didn't speak in tongues, or lift my hands in worship, or pray for the sick and see them healed. So I felt relieved by what I read in the Cessationist theologians.
Yet not completely relieved. For one thing, I found their biblical interpretations to be less than convincing. If you know anything about the New Testament, you know that's it takes some tricky maneuvers to get around the plain sense of the text, which leads us to expect miracles in every age. For example, Jesus said in John 14:12: "Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father." The Cessationist interpreters found a way to dismiss the obvious sense of this verse and others like it. But I felt a nagging discomfort with their exegesis. It seemed to force the meaning of the text in the opposite direction from what the text clearly taught.
Moreover, I felt restless in my acceptance of Cessationist theology because it didn't fulfill the deep longing of my heart. As much as I was scared of the supernatural, deep inside I wished that God would do miracles in my life. I longed for the experience of praying for a sick person and seeing that person actually get well. Though the thought of a sovereign, powerful, miracle-working God made me very uncomfortable, I yearned nevertheless to know that kind of God, the God I read about in Scripture -- the God of the Exodus, the God of Elijah on Mt. Carmel, the God of the Resurrection, the God of Pentecost. I was tired of knowing God in such a safe, intellectual, limited way. I wanted the real deal. Yet I was at the same time afraid of the real deal.
Awe Before God
My emotional response to the miraculous power of God mirrored what we find in Acts 2:43. My translation reads, "Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles." "Awe" - now there's a word that's lost some of its punch, especially when you consider the omnipresence of "awesome" as an exclamation. Question: What do cute girls, crashing waves, six-dollar burgers, and cell phones with built-in cameras have in common? They're all awesome, Dude.
The Greek work behind "awe" is, literally, "fear." Now it can mean something like "reverence" or "awe." But, even then, the sense of the Greek borders on what we might call fear, at least fear of a certain kind. So as we talk about the awesomeness of God, we need to unload lots of cultural baggage. We need to get back to the biblical core, in which awe is closely related to fear.
This summer my family and I visited Yellowstone National Park. Throughout the park there are countless warnings about Grizzly bears, since they are wild in the park and they are truly dangerous. Every now and then some unsuspecting hiker is injured or even killed by a Grizzly. In our wanderings, however, we didn't see any Grizzlies. The only one my kids saw was in a pen in a nature center. This bear, though gigantic, was safely fenced in. Seeing such a mammoth Grizzly, Nathan and Kara felt a bit of awe, but not fear, because they were completely safe.
For many of us, this is how we view God: as an all-powerful, majestic Sovereign, but one from whom we are protected by our fences of theology and limited expectations. Sure, God once did amazing things, unpredictable things, even scary things with his people. But that was long ago in Bible times. Now we have the Bible itself, a document we can control with our exegetical cleverness, so the omnipotent Lord, the God of Pentecost, can remain safely within his pen of our biblical interpretations. We can study this God. We can admire this God. We can even feel a certain kind of awe for this God. But, thank God, we don't have to deal with the unpredictable might of a God who actually does supernatural things in our lives.
What I've just described is not biblical awe, however. Biblical awe is not like watching a giant Grizzly who's safely behind bars. Rather, encountering God is much more like stumbling upon a Grizzly in nature, where there's nothing between you and the bear but thin air. No doubt if my kids had seen that giant Grizzly out in the woods this summer, their awe would have been closer to the biblical variety -- awe mingled with genuine fear. They would not have felt safe.
My friends, the more we get to know the real God of the Bible, the less we'll feel safe, in a sense. Of course we mustn't forget the reassurances of Psalm 18:2: "The LORD is my rock, my fortress, and my deliverer, my God, my rock in whom I take refuge, my shield, and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold." As we hide in the shadow of God's wings, we are protected for eternity. We are safer than we've ever been in life. And yet, at the same time, we are not safe. We're not safe in the sense that we can control God. We're not safe in the sense that we can be sure that God won't mess with us. We're not safe in the sense that we get to live our lives how we want to live them, and to have only as much of God as our comfort levels determine. No. The God who is our fortress is also the God who drafts us, trains us, empowers us, and sends us into his battle. This God is both safe and profoundly unsafe. This God calls forth full-bodied awe, not the safe awe of distance, but unsettling awe of intimacy. Get to know this God, and your life will never be the same.
Perhaps nobody in modern times has captured the ironic "unsafety" of God more vividly than C.S. Lewis in the first book of his Chronicles of Narnia, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. This illustration will be familiar to many of you, because you heard it for the first time, as did I, from the lips of our founding pastor, Ben Patterson. In The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, four children are transported to the land of Narnia, a magical place where animals speak and things familiar are strangely unfamiliar. In this land there is a mysterious being named Aslan, the great lion and archetypal Christ figure. Though he is famous, few residents of Narnia have ever really seen him. Yet word has it that Aslan is on the prowl, come to deliver the land of Narnia from its bondage to the evil White Witch.
When two of the children, Lucy and Susan, first hear about Aslan, they're concerned. Let me read their dialogue with Mr. and Mrs. Beaver.
"Is - is he a man?" asked Lucy.
"Aslan a man!" said Mr. Beaver sternly. "Certainly not. I tell you he is the King of the wood and the son of the great Emperor-beyond-the-Sea. Don't you know who is the King of the Beasts? Aslan is a lion - the Lion, the great Lion."
"Ooh!" said Susan, "I'd thought he was a man. Is he - quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion."
"That you will, dearie, and no mistake," said Mrs. Beaver; "if there's anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they're either braver than most or else just silly."
"Then he isn't safe?" said Lucy.
"Safe?" said Mr. Beaver; "don't you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you?" Who said anything about safe? 'Course he isn't safe. But he's good." (Endnote 1)
And so it is with the God revealed to us in Jesus Christ. This God, like a Grizzly bear in Yellowstone, is powerful, inspiring, and awesome, a being who could devour you in a moment. As the Letter to the Hebrews reminds us, "our God is a consuming fire" (Heb 12:29). Yet, unlike the Yellowstone Grizzly, God will not devour you because God is good, completely good. Like Aslan, God desires, not to hurt you, but to heal you. His healing touch may feel painful at times, but it's always for your best. As the Old Testament prophet Hosea says, "Come, let us return to the LORD; for it is he who has torn, and he heal us; he has struck down, and he will bind us up" (6:1).
Signs and Wonders for Today? Revisited
I need to finish the story of my collegiate investigation of miracles among contemporary Christians. Though I found the Cessationist position to be reassuring on one level, it really didn't satisfy me. The more I studied Scripture, the more I became convinced that signs and wonders are to be a normative part of Christian experience today, not something merely for the apostolic age. So, in the end, even though my experience was sorely lacking in the signs and wonders category, I took my stand not on the shifting sand of my experience, but on the solid rock of God's Word. Signs and wonders are for today, I concluded. The God of Acts 2 is the same God we serve today, and that God can and will do miracles according to his will, in his time, and for his glory. If my experience in this area is lacking, then this means I need to grow in my faith, my obedience, and my relationship with God. I need to be open to everything he wants to do in me and through me, no matter how much it might scare me.
Since I came to that conclusion twenty eight years ago, I have experienced more of God's miraculous power than I would ever have imagined possible. This is not to say my Christian experience looks very much like the Book of Acts. Hardly! I still haven't graduated from Signs and Wonders 101. But I have seen God do amazing things around me, sometimes even through me.
Awestruck Before a God of Power
When I was an associate pastor in Hollywood, a woman showed up one day at church. She had a chronic back condition owing to scoliosis of her spine. She had lived in continual pain for years and could hardly bend forward at the middle. A friend and I volunteered to pray for her. After about five minutes of prayer, she reported that the pain in her back began to subside. After about ten or so minutes of prayer, she shared that for the first time in years she couldn't feel any pain in her back. Moreover, as she stood, it was obvious that her back was straighter than it had been before. Plus, she could bend forward more easily and further than she could remember. This was an astounding moment for all three of us, and many tears of joy were shed as we thanked God for what he had done. (I only wish I had been able to keep up with that woman to find out what happened when she saw her doctor.)
Soon after that time of prayer, I managed to get alone with God. My response before him was rather like that of Peter in Luke 5 after Jesus miraculously enabled Peter and his colleagues to catch a boatful of fish: "But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus' knees, saying, 'Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!'" (5:8). As I prayed for the woman with the injured back, I was overwhelmed by the power, grace, and holiness of God. And, though I was filled with joyful gratitude, I was also overcome with fearful awe. I experienced in that moment the majesty and purity of God, and also my own unworthiness to be used in his ministry. I grasped as never before that God is not to be trifled with. I knew that, though he is good beyond my wildest dreams, he is not safe at all.
Miracles are God's signposts. They point to the truth of the gospel, something I'll say more about next week. They point to the irrepressible presence of God among us. They point to the holiness of God who, though profoundly involved in this world, is not subject to its limitations. That's why we both yearn for and hesitate to draw near to the God who performs signs and wonders. We want such a God in our lives, desperately. And, then again, we're not quite so sure. If God is really all-powerful and sovereign, we wonder, then what will happen to me if I'm in relationship with such a God? What will God require of me? What will God do through me?
Yet, awestruck before God, we nevertheless draw near. We sense that though he is not safe in many ways, God is good in all ways. As I mentioned earlier, Hebrews remind us that "our God is a consuming fire" (Heb 12:29). So how do we respond to this God? Hebrews explains: "Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us give thanks, by which we offer to God an acceptable worship with reverence and awe; for indeed our God is a consuming fire" (12:28-39). We draw near to worship God, to bow before him with reverence and awe, to offer ourselves as living sacrifices, to lift up his majesty and declare his glory.
But that's not the whole story of our response to God. Earlier the Letter to the Hebrews speaks of Jesus, not as a consuming fire or roaring lion, but as our great high priest:
Since, then, we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. (Hebrews 4:14-16)
Isn't that astounding? The roaring fire is also the high priest who knows our every weakness. Through Jesus Christ, therefore, we can approach the throne of God, knowing, not only that we won't be consumed, but also that we will receive mercy and find grace. Wow!
And yet that mercy and grace doesn't leave us alone in our sin and our reticence and our comfort. It transforms us. It propels us out into the world, to invite others into the utterly safe and utterly unsafe presence of the living God. As we go forth with this good news, God goes with us, doing signs and wonders that point to his truth, power, and love.
I expect that this sermon has raised many questions for you, questions I haven't even begun to answer. You may be wondering why, if God does signs and wonders today, your own life seems so devoid of divine power. Or you may be wondering how we can know when a miracle is genuine, and when it's either a charade, a matter of wishful thinking, or merely a coincidence. And you may be wondering how this signs and wonders stuff should play out in an evangelical Presbyterian church like ours.
Obviously I don't have time to answer these questions today. So I've decided to spend another week on Acts 2:43. Today my focus has been more on the first part of the verse: "Awe came upon everyone." Next week I'll dig into the second part, "because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles."
I leave you today with the idea of awe. Perhaps one of the greatest discoveries in American Christianity in the last few decades is the approachability of God. We've learned, truly, that God is our Savior, our Comforter, our Healer, our Fortress, and our Friend. Yet at times we've become so enamored with these aspects of God's nature that we've overlooked the fact that God is also King of kings, Lord of lords, the thrice-holy God, a mighty warrior, the righteous Judge who tolerates no sin, and, to top it off, a consuming fire. This God demands, and, indeed, deserves awe, not just admiration, but humble, respectful, even fearful reverence.
God does signs and wonders among us in part to remind us who he is, both gracious and great, both gentle healer and consuming fire. As you approach this fire, however, you are not burned to a crisp. Rather, God is like a refiner's fire (see Malachi 3:1-4). His fire purifies us, cleansing us from sin, cauterizing our wounds, making us holy even as he is holy.Moreover, God's fire dwells within us. The same Spirit who came with tongues of fire at Pentecost lives within us, empowering us to live in the world for God's own glory. The Holy Spirit strengthens us so that we might bear witness to Jesus both here and everywhere. As we do, God himself works miraculously among us. And as he does, we are drawn to wonder and to worship with awe - genuine, full-bodied, facedown, reverent awe.
Wherever the church of Jesus Christ is truly alive, there you will find awe. May we be such a church! And may we be filled with awe!
C.S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (New York: HarperCollins, 1950, 1978), 86.