“For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name, that He would grant you, according to the riches of His glory, to be strengthened with power through His Spirit in the inner man, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; and that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled up to all the fullness of God. Now to Him who is able to do far more abundantly beyond all that we ask or think, according to the power that works within us, to Him be the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations forever and ever. Amen” (Ephesians 3:14-21; all Scripture quotations are from the New American Standard Bible unless otherwise indicated).
The Sunday following Pentecost is Trinity Sunday in Roman Catholic, Episcopal/Anglican, and many other Western liturgical churches.
The Trinity is a mystery. In a sense, it is also a paradox. The Father is God; the Son also is God; and the Holy Spirit is God. They are distinct, separate entities, so they are three Persons. Yet, there is only one God. Attempts to explain how one God can be three Persons are usually unsatisfactory. Most people who think they can explain the Trinity usually end up describing either modalistic monarchianism (the belief that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are all the same person who merely manifests Himself in different ways at different times) or full-blown polytheism. Both are false teachings.
Illustrations and examples usually seem flawed. One illustration is the egg (shell, white, and yolk are all different parts, but they make one egg). My seminary systematic theology professor tried to use coffee as an example (water, sugar, and the juice of the coffee beans). Every such example falls a little short. Another professor, Stanley Horton, explained it best: God is the only real Trinity in existence; we will not understand it fully until we see Him in the fullness of His glory.
That is all we need to know. We are saved by faith, not by knowledge. Even when our understanding falls short, we merely have to trust God.
“I do not ask on behalf of these alone, but for those also who believe in Me through their word; that they may all be one; even as You, Father, are in Me and I in You, that they also may be in Us, so that the world may believe that You sent Me. The glory which You have given Me I have given to them, that they may be one, just as We are one; I in them and You in Me, that they may be perfected in unity, so that the world may know that You sent Me, and loved them, even as You have loved Me” (John 17:20-23).
All three Persons in the Trinity—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—are intimately involved in our salvation and spiritual growth. 1 John 2:23-24 tells us that “Whoever denies the Son does not have the Father; the one who confesses the Son has the Father also. As for you, let that abide in you which you heard from the beginning. If what you heard from the beginning abides in you, you also will abide in the Son and in the Father.” A personal relationship with Jesus Christ is identical to a relationship with God the Father; they are intertwined. The person who has a relationship with Jesus has the Holy Spirit dwelling within.
If we do not understand it, we merely have to trust Jesus, and He will guide us—with the help of the Father and the Holy Spirit.
Almighty and everlasting God, you have given to us your servants grace, by the confession of a true faith, to acknowledge the glory of the eternal Trinity, and in the power of your divine Majesty to worship the Unity: Keep us steadfast in this faith and worship, and bring us at last to see you in your one and eternal glory, O Father; who with the Son and the Holy Spirit live and reign, one God, for ever and ever. Amen (Book of Common Prayer).
“He alone loves the Creator perfectly who manifests a pure love for his neighbor.” “All the remaining time of my life I spent in that monastery, wholly applying myself to the study of Scripture, and amidst observance of regular discipline and the daily care of singing in the church. I always took delight in learning, teaching and writing” [St. Bede the Venerable; quotes from The New Encyclopedia of Christian Quotations, compiled by M. Water (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2000)].
Bede the Venerable is commemorated on May 25 in many churches.
Bede was a British monk who lived who died on May 25, 735 AD. He was ahead of his time: Christian biographer James Kiefer said that he was the first person to write scholarly works in the English language. Among his works were the History of the English Church and People, which remains an important account of early English history, and an English translation of the Gospel of John, which he completed on the very day that he died. Kiefer adds that “he was aware that the earth is a sphere, and he is the first historian to date events Anno Domini, and the earliest known writer to state that the solar year is not exactly 365 and a quarter days long, so that the Julian calendar (one leap year every four years) requires some adjusting if the months are not to get out of step with the seasons.” He certainly sounds like he was ahead of his time!
Most importantly, though, he was a man of faith. As a monk, his days were devoted to prayer and worship. However, he was also an accomplished scholar. The two went hand-in-hand. He submitted his zeal for learning and writing to the will of God. God gave him these talents. Bede returned them to God as an offering.
Bede’s life serves as a reminder: Whatever talents God gives us can be given back to Him as an offering and as a ministry to His people. It is not only our most “spiritual” talents that God uses. You do not need to be a pastor, author, theologian, or musician to be used by God. Ordinary talents and interests can be surrendered to Him. Crafts, carpentry, computers: skills in these areas can be used for God’s glory. A willingness to listen to hurting people, without judging or offering unsolicited advice, is a talent that is sadly lacking in many churches.
How has God molded you? What gifts can you bring to Him? How can you serve the people He wants to touch through you?
Happy birthday to the church, the body of Christ! The following article is the conclusion of a four-part series I published three years ago between the Feast of the Ascension and Pentecost in 2018. I share it again as we celebrate the birth of the church and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon the followers of Jesus.
He said to them, “It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:7–8).
And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:18–20).
(This is Part 4 of a series. Part 3 appears here.)
As we saw in an earlier message, Jesus breathed on His disciples and told them to receive the Holy Spirit on the night following His resurrection (John 20:22). This reception of the Holy Spirit was essential to their work of proclaiming the Gospel. He told them to receive the Holy Spirit; then they could go forth and preach. In Acts 1:4–8, Jesus told them to wait for the Holy Spirit to come upon them before going out to preach.
We often speak of Pentecost as “the birthday of the church” because it is the day when the disciples received the baptism in the Holy Spirit and began to fulfill the Great Commission (see Acts 2, especially verses 1–4 and 37–41).
Entire books have been written about the role of the Holy Spirit in the life of the church and the believer, so this will be a very brief synopsis (if the Lord allows, I will write a more thorough series about the Holy Spirit one of these days). This conclusion to this series will show how the indwelling Holy Spirit provides our connection with the ascended Lord Jesus Christ and enables us to observe all that He has commanded us (Matthew 28:19–20).
As I have written several times in this series, several key themes tie the Feast of the Ascension and Pentecost together. Jesus’ ascension and the coming of the Holy Spirit tie Jesus’ transcendent power and glory closely together with His immanent and permanent presence in the believer’s life.
“Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you” (John 16:7).
In the upper room discourse, Jesus said that He would ask the Father to send the Spirit (John 14:16). After His ascension, they would send the Holy Spirit to fill believers and empower them.
What does the Holy Spirit do in the life of a believer? Jesus lists these roles:
He dwells with believers forever, thereby providing a permanent direct link between the Christian and the real presence of God in his life (John 14:16–20).
He teaches us and helps us to remember what Jesus has said (John 14:26; 16:13–15).
He enables us to experience the peace of God (John 14:27).
He bears witness about Jesus to believers so that we are able to bear witness about Him to others (John 15:26–27).
Convicts the world regarding sin, righteousness, and judgment (John 16:8–11).
In Galatians 5:22–23, we read that the Holy Spirit also produces fruit in the lives of believers: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
At the end of Mark’s Gospel, we read that several signs will follow the disciples while they proclaim the Gospel. According to several passages in the Acts, these signs are gifts from the Holy Spirit:
And he said to them, “Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned. And these signs will accompany those who believe: in my name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up serpents with their hands; and if they drink any deadly poison, it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover” (Mark 16:15–18).
As mentioned earlier, this is just a brief summary. However, we can summarize the Holy Spirit’s work in a Christian’s life as follows:
He equips us to preach the Gospel to others.
He empowers us to serve Christ.
He brings the life of God into our lives so that we can live like beloved children of God, bearing God’s presence in our lives (the fruit of the Spirit).
Before He ascended to heaven, Jesus promised that He would be with us, even to the end of the age. The Holy Spirit brings the presence of Jesus into our lives. When Jesus ascended into heaven, He took a human body with Him. When the Holy Spirit enters our lives, we become partakers of the divine nature (2 Peter 1:4) and God’s seed abides in us (1 John 3:9). While our bodies continue to preserve their human nature and the DNA we inherited from our earthly parents, we receive a sort of “spiritual DNA” from the heavenly Father Himself.
Ascension reminds us that Jesus is more than we can imagine. Pentecost reminds us that God’s plan is to make us more than we can envision. We are His children. Let us live like it. Let us rejoice in that special relationship we have with Him. Let us “be imitators of God, as beloved children” (Ephesians 5:1), living a life of holiness, forgiveness, and grace that draws others into our spiritual family.
The following article is Part III of a four-part series I published three years ago between the Feast of the Ascension and Pentecost in 2018. I share it again as we conclude Easter season 2021 and prepare to celebrate the birth of the church on Sunday.
On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being locked where the disciples were for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld” (John 20:19–23).
(This is Part 3 of a series. Part 2 appears here.)
On the night before Jesus died, He gave a final “pep talk” to His disciples, often referred to as “the upper room discourse” (John, chapters 13–17). During that discussion, He went into some depth about a few topics that He had touched on over the past three years: Serving one another; loving others; the promise of everlasting life; the coming, presence, and purpose of the Holy Spirit in the believer’s life; and the believers’ responsibility to spread His Gospel.
Between His resurrection and ascension, Jesus would go into greater detail on some of these topics. A few subjects that received passing mention earlier in the Gospels take greater emphasis during the 40 days after His resurrection. At that time, He gave them final instructions for continuing His work after He ascended to heaven. On Pentecost, He gave them His Holy Spirit so that they could fulfill those instructions. A few key themes continually arise in His final instructions.
One of the most important, and in many churches least emphasized, elements of Jesus’ post-resurrection teaching is the message of forgiveness. Yet, it is central to Jesus’ final instructions to His disciples, and it should be central to our message. As He prepared them for their forthcoming ministry, He said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld” (John 20:21–23).
Churches debate what this means. Some Roman Catholics will point to this passage to defend the practice of sacramental confession: according to them, this passage authorizes the priest to pronounce forgiveness of sins to those who confess their sins and request absolution. Some Protestants will say that this is little more than authorization to preach the Gospel so that people may receive forgiveness by believing in Jesus.
The Catholic view I described is definitely an exaggeration of that passage’s teaching; in fact, it is actually a caricature of Catholic teaching about forgiveness (from what I read in a few books and learned from a few devout Catholics). On the other hand, though, the Protestant view above (that Jesus was merely authorizing His disciples to preach the Gospel) seems a little inadequate. He did not say, “If you tell people they are forgiven, they might be forgiven”—but that really is the essence of much evangelical teaching on this subject. However, Jesus implies that the disciples had some kind of authority to extend OR withhold forgiveness in such a way that it is counted that way in heaven. God honors that forgiveness as if He extended it Himself. (I will add that this is an application of Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 16:19, when He told Peter, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” This had everything to do with preaching and teaching with divine authorization, and nothing to do with “naming and claiming” health and wealth for yourself. It also seems to be related to Matthew 9:8, where, after Jesus healed a paralytic by forgiving his sins, the crowd “glorified God, who had given such authority to men.”)
How do we, as ordinary twenty-first century Christians, exercise this authority to forgive? That is a complicated question, but here I offer at least three ways we can extend God’s forgiveness with His authority.
First, we need to actually live the message of forgiveness in our own lives. We need to live, think, and speak as people who know that we have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, but who have been fully forgiven of our sins through faith in Jesus. We must live as forgiven people.
Then, we need to forgive others as He has forgiven us (Colossians 3:13). Instead of harboring bitterness and resentment, we should forgive. Instead of gossiping about the sins and indiscretions of others, we pray for them, with a heart of forgiveness, seeking God’s mercy in their lives. Instead of looking down on those who sin differently than we do, we should forgive and love them, looking on them with mercy and compassion.
We see this in the life of Stephen, the first Christian martyr. As he was being stoned to death, his last words were, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (Acts 7:60). On the basis of John 20:23, it is a safe bet that none of them would have found the sin of killing Stephen held against them when they stand before God’s judgment seat. Furthermore, one of those people whom Stephen forgave (Saul of Tarsus, better known as the apostle Paul) would experience the forgiveness of Christ and become one of its greatest spokesmen.
Finally, we must proclaim a message of forgiveness:
Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem” (Luke 24:45-47).
The Gospel we are called to preach contains a few key points: Jesus died for our sins; He rose again; in response to that, we repent of our sins; on the foundation of all that, we receive His forgiveness. St. Paul would later describe it as a “free gift.” If Christ’s work on the cross is absent, it is not the Gospel. If repentance is absent, it is “cheap grace” that tramples the Son of God underfoot (Hebrews 10:29). If forgiveness is absent, we are without hope, for the wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23).
The Gospel is not a new set of rules, designed to make us act like we are better than others. The Bible has enough clear commandments: We do not need to add “Thou shalt not listen to this music” or “Thou shalt not dance” (or some of the other extra-canonical commandments that some Christians place on equal footing with the clear teaching of Scripture). In the Mel Brooks movie, “History of the World,” Moses initially comes down from the mountain with three stone tablets, containing 15 commandments, and accidentally drops one (leaving us with 10). Many Christians try to make up for this fumble by adding 666 new sins to the list. Jesus simplified it for us (and yet, in some ways, made it more intensive) by summarizing God’s will in the two commandments to love God and love your neighbor (Matthew 22:37–40).
The Gospel is not a self-improvement program either. We do not accept Jesus Christ, then try to fix our lives to make ourselves acceptable to God, out of fear that He will reject us when we fail. We do not improve ourselves to make ourselves acceptable to God. Instead, God accepts us as we are when we come to Him in faith, and then He changes our lives on His own schedule.
This is the Gospel we are called to preach. Jesus died to forgive us. We come to Him to receive that forgiveness. That is why He came, and that is our source of confidence that we will enjoy eternal life with Him. If forgiveness is not at the center of your message, it is the wrong message. And, if the person is responsible for improving himself, it is not the Gospel; Scripture tells us it is the work of the Holy Spirit to improve us.
The following article is Part II of a four-part series I published three years ago between the Feast of the Ascension and Pentecost in 2018. I share it again as we conclude Easter season 2021 and prepare to celebrate the birth of the church on Sunday.
Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And behold, I am sending the promise of my Father upon you. But stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.” Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and lifting up his hands he blessed them. While he blessed them, he parted from them and was carried up into heaven (Luke 24:44-51).
Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (Philippians 2:5-11).
(This is part 2 of a series. Part 1 appears here.)
Jesus’ ascension into heaven, by John Singleton Copley (1738–1815), public domain painting via Wikimedia Commons
Immediately after Jesus ascended to heaven, while His disciples tried to make sense of all that had happened, two angels appeared with the most important message about end-time prophecy: Jesus will return in exactly the same way He left.
It is important to note that Jesus went to heaven with more than He had before He came to earth! From before the creation of the world, Jesus had been fully God, eternally begotten of the Father. He was the Word who was with God, and who was God (John 1:1). However, when the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary and announced God’s will for her to be the mother of the Messiah, the most incomprehensible moment in the history of the universe occurred: the fullness of deity dwelled bodily in a single-celled zygote making its way through her reproductive system into her womb (Colossians 1:19). That single cell grew to become the baby whose birth we celebrate at Christmas, who grew up to be baptized by John the Baptist, to face temptation in the wilderness, to preach the Kingdom of God and perform miracles of healing, and eventually to die for our sins on the cross.
Throughout the approximately 33 years of His life (plus the nine months He grew in Mary’s womb), His deity was hidden or suppressed. Philippians 2:7 tells us that He “emptied Himself.” During that time, He appeared to be an ordinary man. Ancient church creeds summarize this paradox by saying that Jesus was “fully God and fully man.” Although He remained divine throughout His earthly life, it was His humanity that was most visible.
At His Ascension to the right hand of the Father, He returned to heaven with that human body. According to Revelation, He bears the scars of His crucifixion even as He rules and reigns at His Father’s right hand in heaven. He came down as a spirit and took on a body; He lives forever in this glorified state. I realize this is hard to explain and can easily raise doubts in the skeptic’s mind. The same creed that says Jesus is fully God and fully man also says that God is “incomprehensible.” I dare not say (as some do) that this faith is “illogical” or “irrational.” I believe it is, in fact, “hyper-logical” or “super-rational.” It is beyond human comprehension, trapped as we are within the confines of space and time and the limits of our own perception. No matter how hard we try to explain it, or how diligently we struggle to address the paradoxes, we still find ourselves reaching a point where logic and wisdom must surrender to faith. However, I believe that in heaven it will all make sense. I expect that one of the first things I will say in heaven is, “So, that’s how You can be three-in-one. It all makes sense now!”
This truth ties together the core of Christian teaching: That Jesus Christ is fully God (the eternal Son of God) and yet fully human. At Christmas, we celebrate the birth of a human baby who was, in fact, had existed since before the foundation of the world as the Son of God. During Holy Week, we remember how the Son of God, now manifesting His full humanity, yielded Himself to death on a cross. On Easter, we remember that thanks to His divine nature, He conquered death and rose again. On the Feast of the Ascension, we remember how He ascended bodily into heaven, to completely reclaim His divine glory. And finally, on Pentecost, we celebrate how Christ has sent His Holy Spirit to dwell within His followers, so that we may be partakers of the divine nature.
A Bible teacher, writer, editor, and former pastor, with a B.A. in Psychology and Journalism from Syracuse University (1987) and an M.Div. in Pastoral Counseling from the Assemblies of God Theological Seminary (1991).