Acts: The Gospel of The Holy Spirit (Part 31)

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For the next few months, we will be exploring the book of Acts in a series titled Acts: The Gospel of the Holy Spirit. We hope you enjoy and can benefit greatly from this study. To contact Jim, feel free to email him at or visit his website at
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Maybe When You’re tired…

“There’s no use in going farther, it’s the edge of cultivation.”
So they said and I believed it; broke my ground and sowed my crop
Built my barns and strung my fences in a little border station
Hid away beneath the foothills where the trails run out and stop.
But a voice as clear as conscience rang in terminable changes
On one everlasting whisper, day and night -repeated —so
“Something out there, something hidden—GO and look behind the ranges!
Something lost behind the ranges—Lost and waiting for you—GO!”

Rudyard Kipling, “Go!”

“O thou Spy upon Mankind”

I notice when I’m in pain or experiencing loss the whole world revolves around me. If it’s a really severe case, I have little or no time to think about anyone else, little interest in thinking about larger questions or theological explanations. But now and then I think I do my best thinking (for whatever that’s worth) when I’m feeling the burden of such things. I suspect that is true for most of us, don’t you?
Once the sky falls on him I’m sure Job experienced that. He has himself in mind, his own pain, his own bewilderment, his own frustration, his own weariness and near-despair. When he speaks it’s usually “me” and “I” that dominate his thought and speech and when the sense of loss is especially acute he forgets completely the years of blessing he enjoyed. In that respect, acute pain or loss tends to make us ungrateful and shorten our memories. Still, every now and then Job rises above his own personal agony and loss and makes contact with humanity in general. In chapter 7 he sees humanity from at least two angles. He sees people as sufferers and sinners and feels hurt for them on both counts.
He now sees himself as part of a humanity in which there is too much sorrow, too much pain, too much of everything that narrows and steals the life out of life. In 7:1-2 he groans, “Does not man have hard service on earth? Are not his days like those of a hired man? Like a slave longing for the evening shadows…?” (See also 14:1-4)
Of course he knew about this earlier in life and had been deeply involved in doing lovely things to ease the burdens of fellow-humans; but it’s a different kind of knowing now. When good and generous people are involved in easing burdens they see them more clearly than those of us who don’t see fit to involve ourselves, but that kind of work has its dangers too I suppose. When you’re in the helping end the burdens are real but when you’re on the receiving end they’re real in a different way. A healthy surgeon has one view of a malignant tumor in a patient with cancer but when he is the patient he now has a different view. (The 1991 move The Doctor with William Hurt is a good illustration of the point and the movie’s well worth watching.)
In any case, now knowing at a personal level how they feel, Job enters into their pain and not surprisingly he does it at God’s expense since he’s angry with God for his own personal reasons. Now that he thinks about it he concludes that the Creator and Provider doesn’t do such a great job for humanity at large. While he has no sympathy whatever for the violent and the oppressors, on the whole, he’s sure humanity has a tough existence. This is an insight he has gained at great cost; it’s one he would never have had as he now has it since he actually shared their painful experience. It’s still costly for anyone who truly wants to enter into an understanding of the human condition because it takes a bit more than reading Hugo, Dickens or George Gissing. Those of us whose lives run smoothly are able to see what’s going on in the world but talk like this, talk like Job’s, is hard for us to enter into emotionally. You don’t have to be Einstein to know that it’s hard for people who are chronically ill or ceaselessly oppressed to keep a civil tongue in their heads. If it isn’t God they’re mad at, it’s the society and authorities around them that do nothing about the injustice that’s rampant. Or if they don’t have enough energy to be angry they don’t have enough to pay any attention to a God who doesn’t seem to pay any attention to them. Do you find that strange?
But it isn’t just the suffering and deprivation that guts Job and his fellow humans. There’s the sin issue and the moral structure of the world.
You know only too well that Job thinks God is unjust and that enrages him but he’s also burning about the claustrophobic nature of God’s moral governance of the world. Human beings are feeble and shaped to become sinners from the moment that they are born. Because that’s true, Job thinks God is too hard on them and he lashes out against Him in 7:3-10, for why should a beaten human stay quiet? “The Lord of all Righteousness” won’t give humans a break. He screams at God: “Am I the sea, or the monster of the deep that you put me under guard?” (7:12). Is Job or any other feeble human a threat to world order, are they people storming heaven to dethrone God; are they in any real sense worth the fuss God makes about their sin? It’s all too absurd; this is a divine battleship with missiles fully loaded pursuing a beetle!
Does God enjoy frightening him (and people like him) by punishing them for their sins? Does he give him and them life and use it as an instrument of torture? If so, Job would much prefer it if someone would put him out of his misery. “Mercy killing” would be no bad thing.
Then he parodies Psalm 8 with this, “What is man that you make so much of him, that you give him so much attention, that you examine him every morning and test him every moment?” (7:17-18), Sarcasm drips from every syllable. David in grateful but astonished praise in Psalm 8 wonders why God is so good to man, why He pays him so much attention, honoring him so. Job in angry astonishment offers no praise and wants to know why God is so cruel and why He makes such a big deal out of man’s wrongs. “Will you never look away from me, or let me alone even for an instant? If I have sinned, what have I done to you, O watcher of men?” (7:19-20 and see 10:20).

Job and his friends all agree that God is infinitely above humanity and that would mean He must be so far above man that He can’t be affected by human sin (see 7:20; 35:6; compare also 22:3). That makes sense, but only if it is isolated from other truths. With those truths in mind (that man is puny and lives a tough life and God is infinitely above humanity) Job is incensed that God makes a big deal of human failings. What does he expect? He punishes humans because they aren’t God? For Job this makes God appear all the more malignant when He ceaselessly watches them every second. Moffatt renders 7:20, “If I sin, what harm is that to thee, O thou Spy upon mankind?” The bottom line is that Job thinks God is guilty of overkill in the extreme. God takes man too seriously!
You must understand that Job is not speaking on behalf of the cruel and brutal and malevolent or those who live slyly and unrepentantly on the misery of their fellows. He has in mind the decent people, who know the difference between right and wrong and think it truly matters; he has in mind those who live lives of social usefulness and piety and who make the attempt to be “good” people. (I’m aware of a school of theology that doesn’t believe such people exist.)

He looks around the world with a new understanding, sympathy and fellow feeling for the rank and file. The Almighty, the ‘always-in-the-right Lord’, he would have protested, “These poor creatures are the ones you never take your probing eyes off of! These you come down on with the weight of a mountain! So what if they’ve sinned? What do you expect? They’ve been born into it and shaped by it, how then can they avoid it? You’re away up there and they’re way down here—why do you make such a big thing out of the sins of such puny creatures? What difference can it make to you? Why do you have to hurt them so? Why can’t you just forgive them and go on (7:21)? Even if they are decent and fine and work hard to be good and to be free from sin they are still vile compared with you (9:29-31). But what’s new about that? Not even the guardian angels are pure compared with you (see 4:18-19).

Must the world be a slaughterhouse or a slave camp because you are infinitely better than we are?”

Job has a point that must be heard if we’re to gain a true and balanced view of God. The truth that God is infinitely ‘just’ must not be the only truth we tell because when only that truth is told the whole of creation becomes a courthouse, humanity becomes a mass of criminals and the only matter of importance becomes handing down sentences! And if God’s chief concern is punishing sin, humans will become preoccupied with sin and punishment rather than life and joyful obedience. Gloom settles in because where there is only ‘just punishment’ there is no warmth and where there is no warmth there is no relationship or affection, no power and inspiration that cultivates glad righteousness.
Bad enough that our overriding view of God is that He’s zealous Judge who worships the law, it’s made worse by the truth that for humans sin is inevitable. It isn’t just “trouble” humans are bound to experience (14:1), they’re bound to experience sin—how can they avoid it? By the time they’re of the age to reflect on such matters they are already bent in favor of doing what’s sinful. The world humans are born into subsequent to the revolt in Eden is precisely the kind that “manufactures” sinners. David is astounded by his crimes against Uriah and Bathsheba and says the only thing that can explain it is that from the very beginning he was shaped to sin (Psalms 51:5—we don’t have to believe in a poorly worked out myopic theology to know we are pervasively corrupt and that our shaping began long before we made our first conscious choice to sin.) Humans are vulnerable to viruses and bacteria but no more so than they are to the sin “virus”. If God punishes us for our sin and our sin is inevitable—it’s easy to see that some would call the Final Judgment (or present judgment) a rip off! All right, so God is “just” and does no evil. But is his “justice” cold and clinical, the kind that can freeze salt water? Maybe we can’t convict Him of injustice but can we convict Him of being stingy and ungenerous?
These are important issues raised in the book of Job. Even Christians under pressure can be heard saying, “All right, God cannot be unjust but is He guilty of overkill? All right, He can’t be guilty of overkill but does He lack generosity and warmth? Yes, it’s true that sinners choose to sin but are they biased in favor of sin by forces too powerful for them long before they actually choose to sin? If that’s true, are these not extenuating circumstances that should be taken into account by God when he’s judging sin?”

Job thought so and so do I. Job didn’t have as big a picture as we do and in light of the coming of Jesus Christ we have reason to believe that God is generous and not coldly “just.” We have reason to believe that sin can never look as ugly and as devastating to us as it does in God’s eyes. But while God is implacably hostile to sin and will never view it as a trivial matter we have reason to believe His love for humanity can’t be fathomed.  No one sees our vulnerability and weakness more clearly than God and no one seeks our blessing as relentlessly as God. See John 3.16-17!
Listen, our sin can never be as bad to us as it is to God and one of the reasons our sins are so profoundly sinful is because they are so diametrically opposed to the character of God. In and of themselves they are pitiable and puerile. As sinners we’re not Godzillas, we’re cockroaches; we’re not storming the gates of heaven with fierce rebellious courage, we’re raping little girls and boys and robbing senior citizens, we’re cheating the defenseless and pillaging the little nations ignorant of the ways of big finance. Everything about our sinning is sleazy and weak and pathetic. It’s true that we generate pain and loss that beggars description but it isn’t brave sinning, as Milton in his Paradise Lost (books 1 & 2) makes the Satan appear. It isn’t glorious and romantic dismissal of human kindness and decency—it’s slimy and dirty, cheap and cowardly.

But there are millions who refuse to live that way! They sin, of course, but by the grace of God they aren’t so morally deformed that they can’t see they are sinners. They apologize with tears for wrongs they do to one another, their consciences accuse them and often won’t give them peace; they commit sins in part because they have been shaped that way and have often willingly gone along with it and so developed a capacity for sinning. They are not guiltless; but they aren’t out-and-out decadents and predators who don’t care about anyone but themselves. These are the people Job has in mind when he’s frustrated and angry with God’s constant record-keeping—the decent and the caring. These people aren’t sea-monsters or the sea itself (these are used at times in the ancients to speak of mythological anti-God forces)—a massive threat to world order and they’re certainly no threat to God or his divine sovereignty!
What should all of this mean to us? If we have an ounce of sympathy for any sinner who struggles against his/her environment, striving to be a decent human being, you can be sure God has sympathy for them. How humans live their lives will enter into how the Final Judgment will be conducted when God judges the world in light of Jesus Christ (Acts 17:30-31) who expresses both the faithful and saving justice of God and his redeeming heart and purpose. Be sure to see Romans 2:6-16 in this regard.
Job’s sense of things is right on target. The end of the entire Story will not be that the world will be a slaughterhouse because God is infinitely purer and holier than we are. “God so loved the world that he gave…” God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world but that through him the world might be saved (John 3:16-17).

Justice and retribution go hand in hand and we shouldn’t apologize for an honest attempt to factor that into our lives and the life of human society—and we won’t apologize! But he who alone knows completely what justice means is the God who created us for righteous and joy-filled life, sent Jesus to redeem and rescue us from a power that in practice is simply too powerful for us. The cross of Jesus isn’t meant to make it easier for us to sin or to think less of it but it casts a new and softer light over the issue that the anguished Job raised on our behalf.
His life in the shadows leads him to say things that shed the light of life on the human situation under God.

[I got this from by little book LIFE ON THE ASH-HEAP.]

Preparing a Young Person for Baptism

I’m one of those, right or wrong, who cannot believe that a child is born alienated from her/his Creator on the basis of someone else’s guilt. I’m acquainted with the texts used to say they are. It isn’t the texts I quarrel with—it’s the interpretation placed on them. Even John Piper a thrusting and forthright Calvinist no longer believes they are born sinners and alienated from God. Enough on that—Romans 9:11 will do for now.
With evangelicals there’s quite a bit of discussion about when children are ready to give themselves to Jesus Christ. Setting the above aside, we have questions like: “Is my child old enough?” “Does my child know enough?” “Is my child mature enough?” “Does my child ‘know’ what he/she is doing?”
These are all sensible questions and matter a great deal to people who are convinced that there is no covenant relationship with Jesus Christ unless there is a personal commitment of faith by the believer. Being one of those, and since I take the view that infant baptism hasn’t a shred of support from Scripture, the questions above do make sense.
But though they make sense and though they do indeed matter I don’t think there can be a generalized and satisfying answer to the questions. Children are all different! Some mature more quickly than others, some mature in some ways more quickly than others and at the same time more slowly in other ways. Their environments differ; their emotional make-up and their critical experiences differ from each other. Their parents differ and sometimes the parents aren’t able to assess their children’s life-experience. It makes no sense—and everyone knows it—to say, “My child gave her life to Jesus Christ when she was thirteen therefore all thirteen-year olds are capable.” There are too many variables in each life for us to be able to offer blanket and one-fits-all advice advice.
I’m certain we can more easily identify extreme positions than we can offer advice about children we know nothing about. Let me be silly just to make my point. He who says a three-year old child is capable of a faith commitment to Jesus Christ and he who says that a person must be at least eighteen is capable of rendering a faith-commitment to Jesus will have no credibility with us. It isn’t the extremes we have difficulty with.
While I presently judge we can do nothing do determine with precision when this child or that one is ready to give him/herself to Jesus in faith, we can certainly do something about taking seriously a child’s growing sense that she/he is being called by the gospel. It simply won’t do for parents to dismiss a child’s expression that he/she wants to belong to Jesus in a faith relationship.
It may well be that when my child comes saying, “I want to become a Christian” that she is responding merely to some want to do what a friend of hers did—so as not to be left out of anything, don’t you know. Hearing someone say something that frightens her might result in this emotional surge. (Her parents are Christ’s and she has heard something that suggests to her that if she isn’t a Christian she will never see her parents again—no wonder she wants to become a Christian.) List your own illustrations of what I’m getting at.
But there are times when we’re uncertain about motivation even though in our wise love for the child we think she is not yet “able” to say yes to Jesus in trust with the full consent of her heart to enter a saving covenant relationship.
Let’s say, for discussion’s sake, that she’s twelve or thirteen. She’s an ordinary little girl; enjoys life, plays children’s games, watches children’s television programs and sometimes pouts like a little girl when she’s crossed. (Are twelve or thirteen year olds still that “young” that they play with toys/dolls etc,? Shape the illustration as you see fit.)
It would be easy for adults to note all that and conclude that she isn’t “adult enough” to give a heart’s consent and surrender to the Lord (especially if she still sleeps with a doll in bed beside her).
But it’s just as easy to watch adults playing their childish games and draw a similar conclusion. See the programs they watch, note the games they play and how they pout and sulk if they’re beaten or crossed in their desires by a spouse or a boss.
That we wrestle with such questions is a good thing for it shows we’re interested in something vitally important (and a personal commitment to the Lord Jesus is vitally important). We won’t breezily dismiss the questions with barely a thought. Once we come to think that this child’s conscience is awakening, that he/she is coming alive to the message of the gospel and Jesus’ call on her we will not (certainly should not!) airily put her off even if we remain uncertain.
We mustn’t give her the impression that her feelings and thoughts are not to be taken seriously but we’re not to give her the impression that she is an adult. However we work with the matter it can only help her if she knows we’re anxious to give her a hearing and to help her, while we live up to our own responsibility toward her/him as our child. To put her off making a public commitment to Jesus with a few sentences while we’re watching television or heading for work, or wherever, should be avoided under all circumstances but especially if she is repeatedly raising the issue.
If the boy is persistent and anxious (that will be determined by those who are in the position to know) even if the parents are still in doubt, it might be best to set the wheels in motion for the child’s self-giving to the Lord who is graciously drawing the boy and calling him into the grand adventure. Once all who love the child and are in the position to know best [at least better than anyone else] think the time is right for him/her to render a faith commitment of themselves to the Lord Jesus the following suggestions might be useful.
What I have to say from this point is not meant as some “this is how it should be done” outline but some suggestions as to the direction I think we could go if we’re to act wisely and well in an area where sensitive parents and children have questions like those above.
But I offer the suggestions with seriousness and if you take them to be useful perhaps you could have discussions with others about them, looking for weaknesses or strengths and drop me a note.

I think the young girl should be told how wonderful it is that she is going to become Christ’s covenant child because He has loved her all her life.

I think he should be told he is going to make a solemn and joyous meeting with and commitment to Lord and that he must prepare for it.

I think the church leaders should be consulted and asked for input on what can be done to make this momentous event memorable and substantial.

I think a period of time (maybe four to six weeks, for perhaps thirty minutes a session) should be set aside to bring the lovely matter to a conclusion.

I think a room in the meeting-house (or a home other than his/her own) should be committed to which the child travels “to prepare” herself/himself to meet the Lord.

I think the parents and select people should be there to make the child aware that his/her purpose is being taken with the joyful seriousness it deserves.

I think a curriculum should be devised for such occasions that includes foundational truths about God and the gospel and the Body of Christ into which she/he is being brought and received by the Lord Jesus who will come to live in them by His Holy Spirit.

I think it should be announced to the entire assembly in the presence of the young person what she/he is doing in preparation to give his/her life to the Lord, and the assembly should be asked to pray for and encourage this person at this special time. If screens are used for announcements, the names and perhaps pictures of those who  are in preparation for such a glorious event could be kept in the minds of the congregation—parents and young people.

I think when all this heart preparation is done and the time has come to immerse this young person into a faith-union and covenant relationship with the Savior & Lord Jesus Christ that it should be done in the presence of the entire assembly.

I think that his/her first engagement in Holy Communion at the Lord’s Supper should be underscored perhaps by having them come to the front to be served first.

Other things, little things, could be done to emphasize “the magnitude of the moment.” (Discussion with creative women teachers might be especially beneficial on such occasions. I say women only because in my experience they are more attentive to class-creativity than men.)

The room at the appointed time could have his/her name put on it and the time appointed. The night before the morning of baptism could be made a special evening in the home, some people appointed for the purpose could call him/her and commend them to God. Congregational leaders and teachers might visit and speak God’s name in blessing on the young people. Perhaps women who will continue in a teaching capacity with the young girl might be especially appropriate.

The object of it all is to focus the mind of the young person and the minds of the parents and the assembly on what is happening. My own view is that the “salvation” and “initiation” (?) of young people in this situation is taken far too lightly, off-handed almost, and where that occurs it’s tragic.
Perhaps a document could be created and framed marking the grand occasion, and an opportunity for the entire congregation to sing its welcome could be recorded and given as a gift. It’s nice to imagine such a person, when many years have passed, being able to look back on such a momentous occasion with joy and contentment and saying, “After that experience there was no going back!” It must be made joyful, but but the faith commitment is made to One who says, Follow Me!”

There is more than one benefit to such a period of preparation (however it is structured). Once completed, we would know that this child wasn’t simply expressing a momentary and passing emotional desire that rose out of fear or merely wanting to do what some other young person did. We will know that this child’s coming to Christ in a covenant commitment mattered not only to the young person. When this boy or girl is buried into Christ’s death and rises again in Christ’s resurrection everyone will have had the opportunity to hear again cries around the cross, the rumbling of a great grave stone and the good news, “He is not here. He is risen just as he said.”

`       (Holy Father, help us to help one another to take younger persons seriously in such seriously WONDROUS situations.)