HOW TO EXPERIENCE GOD’S LIFE TRANSFORMING PRESENCE

Over forty years ago, while Patty and I were serving as Youth Pastors in Fort McMurray, we chartered a bus and brought our youth group to Fort St. John for a weekend retreat. The idea was to come and join with another youth group in our Fellowship of Churches and enjoy God and one another. What happened that weekend has been etched in my memory ever since as one of the most powerful experiences with the Holy Spirit. I was a witness to an outpouring of the Holy Spirit that dramatically affected the lives of our young people. It started with a supernatural healing on our bus trip over there, to adult sponsors weeping quietly on the eleven-hour bus trip home. The youth group was so affected that many youths returned home and established daily quiet times, destroyed worldly and ungodly materials in their possession without any prompting or even mention of the need to do that. God, the Holy Spirit was convicting, challenging, and changing their lives. Parents were stunned and began asking questions as to what happened as their children’s attitudes were affected for the better. When we were asked to lead the following Sunday night service, even the shiest youth wanted to share what God had done in their hearts that weekend.

The greatest agent in transforming our lives is God, the Holy Spirit, as we yield to him. As a matter of fact, only God can really transform our hearts and give us the desire for spiritual things. Paul explains this in his letter to the Galatians.

So I say, live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.[i]

It begins with an encounter with God, the Holy Spirit.

After many years of successful ministry, Dwight L. Moody had an experience of which he himself said, ‘I cannot describe it, I seldom refer to it, it is almost too sacred an experience to name… I can only say God revealed Himself to me, and I had such an experience of His love that I had to ask Him to stay His hand, I went to preaching again. The sermons were not different; I did not present any new truths; and yet hundreds were converted. I would not now be placed back where I was before that blessed experience if you should give me all the world; it would be as small as dust in the balance.’[ii]

In his day Moody was a constant source of wonder precisely because the effects of his ministry were so totally incommensurable, even incongruent, with his obvious personal qualities. He was a man of very ordinary appearance, not ordained by an ecclesiastical group and quite uncultured and uneducated–even uncouth and crude to many.

At the height of Moody’s effectiveness, between 1874 and 1875, Dr. R. W. Dale, one of the leading clergymen in England, observed his work in Birmingham for three or four days. He wished to discover the secret of Moody’s power. After his observations were completed he told Moody that the work was most plainly the work of God, for he could see no relation between him personally and what he was accomplishing.[iii]

When we look around today, can we really say that God is working powerfully in our lives? Is it absolutely evident to others that we cannot be doing it ourselves? The need for the church today is the same as it always has been.

Going right back to the beginning of the church we find struggling disciples following Jesus dealing with all kinds of issues, from pride to jealousy. Then something supernatural happened to empower them which enabled the fledgling church to impact the world in which it was living in.  Whole cities were transformed. Can we say today that we are impacting our culture in a similar way?  If not, then the question needs to be asked, why not? But what may be even more important is how we can become an empowered church. As we celebrate Pentecost Sunday today, let us return to that moment in the beginning of the church and rediscover its power.

From our youth retreat forty years ago, to D. L. Moody’s experience, I’m suggesting that we need to have a transformational experience with the living God that will empower us beyond what we can do.

The New Testament church was born in the fires of revival. Pentecost was a life- transforming experience that empowered the early disciples to be dynamic witnesses in spite of their own limited understandings and personal fears. Dramatically and suddenly, the Pentecostal outpouring moved the church into the national and international scene. The workings of the Holy Spirit boldly testified of the person and redemptive work of Christ. Multitudes were swept into the kingdom of God. The lives of the disciples were forever changed. Similarities to this initial outpouring of the Holy Spirit are played out in different cultures and times. It is a truism to say that every revival of religion that the Church has ever known has been, in a sense, a kind of repetition of what happened on the day of Pentecost, that it has been a return to that origin, to that beginning, that it has been a reviving.[iv]

Revival reminds each generation of the supernatural characteristics of Christianity. The only explanation for the transformation in the lives of the early disciples is the workings of the Holy Spirit. It is the Holy Spirit that brings life and power to the believer. The image that comes to mind is Ezekiel’s valley of dry bones where God breathed on lifeless corpses and resurrection was the ensuing result. After the trauma of the crucifixion, it took the power of the Holy Spirit to launch the fearful followers of Christ into powerful communicators and miracle workers.

For those struggling with the validity of revival, scholar Walter Kaiser Jr. correctly points out the experiences of the first believers:

The fulfilment of the promise of God’s Spirit is the best response that we can give to doubt. The poor band of disciples that had suffered such doubt during the hours of the crucifixion–and for some, even up to Pentecost itself–were suddenly awakened to an inexplicable transformation by the gift of the Holy Spirit. All kinds of intellectual doubts and emotional blockages burst open in them before the convincing presence of the Holy Spirit.  Consequently, we can affirm without fear of contradiction that the greatest argument for the reality and effectiveness of revival and renewal in the church is the majestic work of the Holy Spirit in lives that only recently had been filled with everything but the power of God.[v]

Revival, therefore, is a glorious hope of life as it could be and should be for God’s people, a transformed church having a powerful witness to an ungodly culture. The only hope for the conforming, compromising Church today in North America is another spiritual awakening. 

One of the characteristics of the early church was their continuous intercession before God.  Gathered in the upper room, the early believers were united in heart and purpose, seeking the face of God. In fulfilment of Christ’s promise and in answer to their prayer, the Holy Spirit came upon them in reviving power.

In the second chapter of the book of Acts, see what happens when the Holy Spirit comes in an extraordinary way and empowers the church. If we are ever going to experience our own personal Pentecostal outpouring, or revival, we need to gain a better understanding of the event that we know as Pentecost Sunday. I want us to look at three different portraits of that event.

THE FIRST PORTRAIT OF THE FIRST PENTECOST WAS WHAT HAPPENED JUST PRIOR TO THAT DAY

What was transpiring at the time that the Holy Spirit came in such a powerful way? 

A. There was a unity of purpose in obedience to Christ’s command.

They were all together in one place. We know this meant both literally and spiritually. They were gathered together in the Upper Room waiting for the promise of the Holy Spirit. After Jesus’ resurrection, He appeared to his disciples for forty days, teaching them, but finally, He left very clear instructions that they were to stay in Jerusalem until the Holy Spirit would endue them with power, in order to be effective witnesses to their world.

But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.[vi]

To be a witness is not just the ability to communicate words, but to communicate a transformed life, so that others will be drawn to Christ. And so we read that they waited upon God until God poured out His Spirit to empower them.

They all joined together constantly in prayer…[vii]

I wonder what would happen if we really embraced the great commission as a group and began to seek God together how we might accomplish what God is asking of each of us individually and collectively. Are we taking the divine mandate to be witnesses seriously enough? Or are we allowing the many non-sinful activities of life to fill our calendars and crowd God out of His rightful place of preeminence in our lives. Are we just too busy to really seek and experience God in His fulness?

When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place.[viii] 

What had been a season of special prayer was about to explode with the presence of the living God empowering them for effective ministry. Yet, once this happened they didn’t stop praying but continued to gather and devote themselves to certain practices.

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.[ix]

THE SECOND PORTRAIT OF THE FIRST PENTECOST WAS WHAT ACTUALLY HAPPENED ON THAT DAY

Not only do we need to understand what went down that day, but how it affects us today.  D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones states that if Pentecost is a proto-type of revival, then we need to evaluate what actually happened that day and begin to learn what God wants to do in our day.

A. Notice that this outpouring of the Holy Spirit occurred in God’s timetable and for a specific purpose.

Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting.

They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them.

All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.[x]

God, the Holy Spirit came upon them in what seemed to them a visible manifestation of a tongue of fire resting over each of them, enabling them to speak in languages they had not learned.

They were now empowered to communicate the gospel through this miraculous sign, which was one of the convincing elements that what they were preaching was from God.

The day of Pentecost is a Jewish festival celebrating the ingathering of the harvest, and it was this day that the Holy Spirit came to empower the church to gather up the spiritual harvest of lost souls.

This experience was a reversal of what transpired in the account of Babel found in Genesis 11, where the people were united in ‘making a name for themselves,’ so God came and confused their language, and scattered them from the tower they were building (cf. Gen. 11:6-9). Now, on the day of Pentecost, God brings the Jewish people from many nations, and allows a miracle of language in order to reveal Himself to them.

So, what is the purpose of the Holy Spirit coming to humanity? We discover that the Holy Spirit comes not only to help us as believers to become more like Jesus but also to fulfill the mission of Jesus. It is not just an inward experience, but it is designed to empower us to go outward to others. It was designed primarily to enable us to go beyond ourselves to others.

B. The Holy Spirit came suddenly.  

They had no idea what to expect and it happened suddenly. The manifestation was a great sound like a violent wind. This sound was supernatural in nature and was utilized by God to attract the Jews meeting together in Jerusalem to the 120 believers. 

When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard their own language being spoken.

Utterly amazed, they asked: ‘Are not all these who are speaking Galileans?’

Then how is it that each of us hears them in his own native language?[xi]

We need to remember that the 120 were in the upper room when they received the empowerment of the Holy Spirit. They were in the house, but the Spirit could not be contained.

Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting.[xii]

The supernatural workings of the Holy Spirit came as a violent wind, creating a sound which attracted a crowd to the believers. The believers had to have left the house and had gone out into the street for a crowd of that magnitude to be present. We see at the end of the chapter how many people were gathered by the response to the gospel, and we can be confident, that they were not all in the house. The point I’m trying to make is that when the Holy Spirit comes in power, believers are transformed, unbelievers are drawn, the gospel leaves the confines of the house of God and ends up in the places where unbelievers are affected.

God utilizes the supernatural to attract people to himself. This is what needs to happen again in our day, that what God does as we gather here in worship so impacts our lives that it cannot be contained but attracts those outside the church walls to be drawn and ask questions about our faith.

What brought Moses to hear the call of God? A bush that was burning but was not being consumed. The miraculous attracted Moses, and it was out of that bush that God spoke to Moses. 

We will never impact our culture by just dialoguing with them. God needs to confirm His word with signs following, and then we will see lives touched and changed. It takes the empowering work of the Holy Spirit to bring about changes in people’s lives.

C. It is significant in the way the Holy Spirit came to the disciples. 

He came in fire, and this fire affected their mouths. Fire speaks of a cleansing, purifying work.  There is probably no greater place of need than with our mouths. It is so easy to sin with our lips. 

We all stumble in many ways. If anyone is never at fault in what they say is perfect, able to keep their whole body in check.[xiii]

No one can tame our mouths apart from the Spirit of God helping us to control it. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. God’s Spirit can bridle our mouths. Notice what happened on the day of Pentecost. God wants to cleanse our hearts in order to cleanse and free our mouths to bring glory to Him.

They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them.[xiv]

D. Notice it states that the believers spoke as the Spirit enabled them.

We need the enabling work of the Holy Spirit to speak through us to others.

All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.[xv]

Many focus on speaking in tongues, yet, the focus here is on speaking so others heard the wonderful works of God. I’m not opposed to the gift of tongues, but its need must move beyond just self-edification (cf. 1 Cor. 14:2-4).

As I read the list of nations that were gathered in Jerusalem for the feast were Jews from every nation around the Mediterranean basin, I am struck by how God is drawing people to Canada from every nation in the world. We have an incredible audience to speak to right here in our city. People from all over the world are here. They are more open to the gospel here than in many places that are hostile to the gospel where many are from. It is easier to reach them here.

E. The Holy Spirit is working in lives in a supernatural way arrests the attention of others.

Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, ‘What does this mean?’[xvi]

Are people amazed today? Are people perplexed at what God is doing in our lives? Are people asking questions? Are people looking for answers from us? When God comes in a supernatural way, you can be sure it will raise questions. But it will also raise criticism and ridicule. 

Some, however, made fun of them and said, ‘They have had too much wine.’[xvii]

One of the most insightful definitions of worship is wonder, or awe. When was the last time, you came to God with a sense of amazement, wonder, and awe? We live in a society that thinks it has all the answers. The sad part is we know so little. There are incredible mysteries that remain in life. Oh, for God to be working in a manner that it would take the inspiration of the Holy Spirit to explain what is happening!

Peter stood up with the eleven and addressed the crowd that day. Under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, Peter began to explain from the Old Testament Scriptures the fulfillment of the prophecies occurring at that moment in the gospel of Jesus Christ.

THE THIRD PORTRAIT OF THE FIRST PENTECOST IS THE RESULT OF THE INFILLING OF THE HOLY SPIRIT AND HIS IMPACT ON THE CHURCH AND COMMUNITY

What difference did this make beyond that initial day? What difference will revival have on us as believers today? Is it just a crazy experience that has no significant long-term effect? In other words, why all the fuss?

What strikes me about this outpouring of the Holy Spirit into the lives of this small congregation of 120 believers is the effect it had upon their city, and the believers themselves.

In one day, the church grew from 120 members to 3,120 members. What would it be like if God added 3,000 people to this congregation in one day? How would that impact this congregation? How would that impact our community? What may be even greater than the incredible conversion growth is the transformation growth in everyone’s life. Notice the spiritual transformation described that continued on for many years.

Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day.

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.

Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and miraculous signs performed by the apostles.

All the believers were together and had everything in common.

They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need.

Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.[xviii]

Notice their commitments. They continually gave themselves to spiritual disciplines that reflected their desire for God, and to grow in their understanding of His word. They enjoyed being together. Miracles were happening, they were a generous people, able to trust God with their needs, and free to give to those in need.

What is the greatest need in the church today? A fresh outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Read the Scriptures and you will discover that it takes the Holy Spirit at work in and through people in order for God’s purposes to be fulfilled. It takes God, the Holy Spirit to bring real conviction and motivation to bring about transformation in our lives.

When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, Brothers, what shall we do?’

Peter replied, ‘Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.

The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off – for all whom the Lord our God will call.’[xix]

One of the great dangers in the Christian life is to resist the workings of the Holy Spirit in our lives. Notice when Stephen was standing in defense of the gospel before the Jewish leaders, and explaining how God was at work throughout their history, he summarizes his message with this powerful premise.

You stiff-necked people, with uncircumcised hearts and ears! You are just like your fathers: You always resist the Holy Spirit![xx]

We must guard our hearts against resisting what the Holy Spirit wants to do in and through our lives. What is the end result of seeking God? That we would seek and receive God’s Spirit in power and then to respond in obedience to what He is calling us to do.

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[i]     Galatians 5:16 The New International Version of the Bible, Zondervan, 2011.

[ii]    Dallas Willard, Hearing God: Developing A Conversational Relationship With God, (Downers Grove, Il: Inter Varsity Press, 1983), 49; as quoted from A.P. Pitts, The Shorter Life of D. L. Moody, (Chicago, Il: Moody Press, 1900), 67. 

[iii]    Ibid, 76.

[iv]    Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Revival, (Wheaton, Il:  Crossway Books, 1987), 199.

[v]     Walter G. Kaiser Jr., Revive Us Again: Biblical Insights For Encouraging Spiritual Renewal, (Nashville, Tn: Broadman and Holman Publishers, 1999), 191.

[vi]    Acts 1:8.

[vii]   Acts 1:14.

[viii] Acts 2:1.

[ix]    Acts 2:42.

[x]     Acts 2:2-4.

[xi]    Acts 2:6-8.

[xii]   Acts 2:2.

[xiii] James 3:2.

[xiv]   Acts 2:3.

[xv]   Acts 2:4.

[xvi]   Acts 2:12.

[xvii] Acts 2:13.

[xviii]          Acts 2:41-47.

[xix]   Acts 2:37-39.

[xx]   Acts 7:51.

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