3 Signs of a religious spirit – and how to avoid developing one!

I don’t think I have ever preached on the danger of developing a religious spirit. However, having given a bit more time to reading the gospels over the summer, it is hard not to see how much opposition Jesus faced from the religious leaders of his day.

It would be handy if we could consign that kind of mentality to the days when Jesus was on earth. Unfortunately we can’t safely do that. It’s a mentality that manifested itself in the early church and throughout the subsequent history of the church.

Paul’s letter to the Galatians was written primarily to counter an extreme case of religion. If churches planted by the apostle Paul were vulnerable to the kind of legalism manifested by the religious leaders of Jesus’ day, the thought that we are immune to this religious virus is not rooted in reality.

So what are some of the signs? Let me give you three.

Firstly, we risk developing a religious spirit when we focus on our spiritual history at the expense of our future destiny.

Here’s what John the Baptist said to the Pharisees:

Therefore bear fruits worthy of repentance, 9 and do not think to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I say to you that God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones. Matthew 3.8-9

They were so caught up with their own spiritual pedigree that they overlooked the lack of fruit in their lives.

An impressive spiritual family tree is incomplete without spiritual fruit.

Secondly, we risk developing a religious spirit when we fail to embrace what God is doing.

In the revival that came about through John the Baptist’s ministry, baptism was the evidence that you had embraced what God was doing.

The religious leaders rejected it. Luke 7.30 says:

But the Pharisees and the experts in the law rejected God’s purpose for themselves, because they had not been baptised by John.

We often think that our impressive history with God guarantees that we’ll always be at the centre of what he is doing. Yet history proves that the opposite is almost always the case. The people of the previous move of God become so locked into a kind of spiritual nostalgia that they miss what God is doing in the present – and sometimes even reject it as “not the real thing”.

Finally, we risk developing a religious spirit when we become more concerned about forms of religious expression than helping people.

On one occasion Jesus healed a woman who had what we would call curvature of the spine on the Sabbath in a synagogue. You might think that everyone would rejoice. Not so! The synagogue leader responded with a lecture about the Sabbath not being a day for healing – there were six other days for that:

Then he put his hands on her, and immediately she straightened up and praised God. 14 Indignant because Jesus had healed on the Sabbath, the synagogue leader said to the people, ‘There are six days for work. So come and be healed on those days, not on the Sabbath.’ (Luke 13.13-14)

The reaction is almost comic, but tragically it reveals that this man is more concerned about the forms of his faith rather than the people that faith is meant to help.

It’s very easy for those of us in a Pentecostal / Charismatic church to apply this to some of the more established liturgical churches. It has to be said that more traditional churches are not the only churches susceptible to “formalism”. Contemporary worship expressions, prayer lines, altar calls, preaching, and the unwritten liturgy of “the way we do it here”, can become just as formal and every bit as people unfriendly as we think is the case in more traditional churches. In short, what was once something that was Holy Spirit empowered degenerates into turbo-charged religion.

How do we avoid this trap? Love and humility. That was how Jesus moved amongst the people. In His day it exposed religious spirits. In our day, if we will walk the path of love and humility, it might help to save us from developing a religious spirit.


Pentecost Plus One: 3 Things The Church Did After The Day Of Pentecost

What do you do after you have experienced an unprecedented outpouring of the Spirit?

I don’t know how many reading this post have had experience of a powerful move of God. Many, perhaps most or even all, have been in meetings where God has been powerfully at work. Or even seasons when God has been powerfully at work. But what do you do next?

The early church found itself in that position on the day after the day of Pentecost. One hundred and twenty previously fearful believers had been impacted by the Spirit in a way that was as public as it was powerful. And the church had three thousand new believers.

Now it was Pentecost plus one. What was next?

Perhaps what they didn’t do is as instructive as what they did do.

They didn’t try to revisit the events of the day before. No retreat to the upper room to wait for the rushing wind and tongues of fire. They weren’t looking for a repeat performance. They didn’t turn the life that they had experienced into a liturgy – a mistake sometimes made in the Pentecostal / charismatic world. We experience the Spirit moving in a particular way and then try to revisit the experience again and again. We use particular songs and even phraseology that “gets a response”.

God, because He is gracious, does meet us. The tendency is, however, to become “stuck” in a way of doing things, impeding the church’s further progress.

So what did the church do on Pentecost plus one?

Firstly, it developed a shape of corporate life.

That’s a fancy way of saying that the church gathered together at certain times, and it gathered together to do certain things.

Acts 2 .42 explains that they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.

Putting that in more contemporary terms, they prioritised learning (apostles’ teaching), spending meaningful time together (fellowship), worship (breaking of bread) and prayer (prayer!).

I recently attended the annual conference of a church denomination in the developing world. In its own country it has seen extraordinary growth. Miracles are not uncommon. Yet one of the major concerns was that they had seen a slight decline at their mid-week prayer gatherings.

Impressive enough was the fact that they knew how many attended mid-week prayer throughout their denomination. Their urgency in addressing the matter was even more revealing. They made the connection between maintaining the flow of the Spirit and the shape of their corporate life.

Churches that want to stay Spirit-filled must develop a Spirit-shaped corporate life that revolves around engaging with the practices of teaching, fellowship, worship and prayer.

Secondly, they were open to the Spirit moving in fresh ways.

There were no recorded miracles or healings on the day of Pentecost. The only miracles were miracles of salvation.

That changed the day after. Acts 2.43 highlights the fresh move of the Spirit:

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

Notice a couple of things here.

Firstly, it was different to what happened the day before. Nothing like this had happened on the day of Pentecost.

Secondly, this was not a sovereign move of God as had happened on the day of Pentecost. It was more a case of God responding to the apostles’ faith.

Pentecost plus one teaches us to be ready for different.

It is also a reminder not to be waiting passively for God to do something. We can spend all our time waiting for Him, when all the time He’s waiting for us.

Finally, this was a church that was seen.

We know that they met publicly – in the temple courts (Acts 2.46) and they enjoyed the favour of all the people (v.47). It was a high profile church, certainly not a private club.

It is so easy for the church to resemble the latter. It’s a more comfortable existence; high profile churches attract favour and criticism.

I once heard someone say that a church can be internationally famous, yet locally anonymous. That has never been more possible than it is today. Our social networks and social media can lead us to the most exotic places without us ever having to confront the challenges on our own door step.

A church that is impacted by the Spirit will be visible locally, however visible or not it is internationally.

Pentecost plus one must have been a challenge for the early church with its three thousand new believers. But they rose to the challenge. And we can too. After all, it is the same Holy Spirit, is it not?


Ezekiel chapter 42 comes before Ezekiel chapter 43

Okay. I have to admit I wondered why I had got up early in the morning to read this particular passage. A few verses in I queried why this was even in the Bible. Then I questioned the whole idea of reading through the Bible in a year. After all, why bother reading Ezekiel when I could be reading about Jesus healing the sick? Or the disciples taking the Roman Empire by storm? And would my life be any less complete if I gave Ezekiel a miss entirely?

If you are feeling disappointed by my early morning attitude or affronted by my disrespect for scripture, read the following, imagining you are reading it in a dark, early morning in late autumn:

Then the man led me northward into the outer court and brought me to the rooms opposite the temple courtyard and opposite the outer wall on the north side. 2 The building whose door faced north was a hundred cubits long and fifty cubits wide. 3 Both in the section twenty cubits from the inner court and in the section opposite the pavement of the outer court, gallery faced gallery at the three levels. 4 In front of the rooms was an inner passageway ten cubits wide and a hundred cubits long. Their doors were on the north. 5 Now the upper rooms were narrower, for the galleries took more space from them than from the rooms on the lower and middle floors of the building. 6 The rooms on the top floor had no pillars, as the courts had; so they were smaller in floor space than those on the lower and middle floors. 7 There was an outer wall parallel to the rooms and the outer court; it extended in front of the rooms for fifty cubits. 8 While the row of rooms on the side next to the outer court was fifty cubits long, the row on the side nearest the sanctuary was a hundred cubits long. 9 The lower rooms had an entrance on the east side as one enters them from the outer court. Ezekiel  42.1-9

That’s for starters. The rest of the chapter is more of the same.

Thankfully, Ezekiel 42 eventually gives way to Ezekiel 43. Ezekiel 43 is a wonderful chapter that heralds the return of the glory and presence of God to His temple. It’s a chapter packed with prophetic, indeed messianic, symbolism and imagery. In short, it’s the sort of stuff you want to read.

By the time I had reached chapter 43 I was making a mental note to skip chapter 42 next time – if there was a next time.

And then I was struck by a thought: there must be a reason that chapter 42 is included. And there must be a reason that it precedes chapter 43. I can tell you are impressed by the dazzling logic.

That thought led to this thought: before God’s glory came back to the temple, a lot of detailed – and yes perhaps boring – preparation had to take place.

And then this thought: if we want to host God’s presence and glory we have to be prepared to do a lot of mundane, perhaps boring, detailed preparation. Emails. Spreadsheets. Cleaning the house to host your connect group. Phone calls. What seems like endless meetings.

Often we think those kinds of things are just necessary or even unnecessary evils that get in the way of the main business of ministry. In fact the reverse might be the case. Those “kinds of things” might actually make a way for the main business of ministry.

Perhaps it’s Ezekiel 42 kind of stuff is what takes us to Ezekiel 43 kind of experience – the kind of experience we all want.There is a reason that chapter 42 precedes chapter 43. The one is not complete without the other.

And will I keep reading Ezekiel?  yes, I will keep reading Ezekiel. Even chapter 42.

Prayer: turning the language of weakness into the language of prayer

I don’t think I have ever met a Christian who has not at some point in their life struggled to pray.

There can be all sorts of reasons for this. Sometimes it is because of physical or emotional tiredness. Sometimes it is the pressure of a busy life. Sometimes we go through a season of what is vaguely described as a season of spiritual dryness. Difficulty in praying is often the result when we experience any of the preceding.

What can intensify the inner struggle that we experience, and even the sense of failure, is the recognition that we have all been given so much in Christ. We have the Holy Spirit living in us. We are adopted children of God. What’s the problem? Why should there be any problem whatsoever with prayer?

Thankfully, the Bible does take into account our humanity and the way that impacts on our prayer life. And God has given us His Spirit to help us precisely because we still live in mortal bodies in a fallen world.

In Romans 8.26, Paul says that the Spirit helps us, not in spite of our weakness, but because of our weakness. Our weakness is a combination of living in human bodies in a fallen world and not knowing what to pray for. That’s why we need the Spirit’s help.

The word helps is the same word as is used in Luke 10.40 when Martha asks Jesus to tell Mary to help her. She was seeking her sister’s assistance. The Spirit assists us.

The Spirit helps us by giving us a language of prayer. The words wordless groans have been interpreted in various ways. Some maintain that it is the Spirit who does the groaning. Some say it is a reference to speaking in tongues. Some say that the Spirit transforms our groans into the language of prayer.

I don’t think we can say that the Spirit does the praying for us, so that we don’t have to pray. It’s more a case that He helps us in prayer by praying through us. He prays through us in wordless groans. (This could I believe refer to speaking in tongues as an aspect of this kind of praying. I don’t have space to set out the reasons here. Leave a message if you want to know my thoughts on this!)

Groaning is not an unknown form of prayer. When Jesus healed the deaf and dumb man, as recorded in Mark 7, verse 34 says that He sighed. The word translated sighed is the same as the word translated groans in Romans 8.26.

Interestingly in Acts 7.34 we are told that God heard the groaning of the Israelites when they were in slavery in Egypt. And we know what happened there!

The Spirit takes what most would consider the language of pain and transforms it into the language of prayer.

It might seem at first glance that this kind of praying is praying in its weakest form. Nothing, however, could be further from the truth. It is through this kind of praying that we are able to pray for the church in accordance with God’s will. This kind of Holy Spirit empowered praying enables us to pray effectively because it enables us to pray in God’s will.

How do we pray like this? We simply open our hearts to God and let the Spirit take what is within us and turn it into effective prayer. Perhaps our weakness isn’t such a big deal after all.

3 Things Jesus Told Us About The Holy Spirit

“He will give you another Helper, that He may abide with you forever” (John 14.16) is one of the ways Jesus describes the Holy Spirit.

Much has been written about the Third Person of the Trinity, especially in the last fifty or sixty years. So much that it is very easy to overlook this very straightforward and practical description of Who the Spirit is and what He does.

First of all, He is another Helper.

The word another is important. The word translated another here, means “another of the same kind”. The another clearly compares this “second Helper” to the original Helper, namely Jesus Himself. Jesus had so much confidence in the Holy Spirit that He said it was to the advantage of the disciples for Him to return to His Father and send the Holy Spirit.

We have as much help from the Holy Spirit as the disciples had from Jesus – if not more. Jesus in His days on the earth was not omnipresent. The Holy Spirit is.

Secondly, the Holy Spirit is our Helper.

The word translated Helper (New King James Version) is a difficult word to translate. It is translated in lots of different ways in different translations. Helper sums them all up and goes to the heart of the Holy Spirit’s ministry. He’s here to help us. He’s an enabler Who is at work in and through us from before we came to know Christ until we finally reach heaven. Whenever you need help, wherever you need help, the Holy Spirit is available.

Finally, He has come to be with us forever.

Sometimes the Holy Spirit is presented as someone who is very sensitive. His dove like qualities are emphasised to the point that it can seem as though a bad day or an off moment can frighten Him away.

Of course, such teaching when it is used to encourage us to be sensitive to the Spirit is very helpful. But the Holy Spirit does not move out because we give in to things we should resist. That is when He gets on our case. He gets alongside us. He wants to help. To encourage. To draw us back and empower to live for Christ and impact the world in which He has placed us.

We all need help. Often much more help than we care to admit. Thankfully, the Helper is always with us.

I didn’t mean to hurt God

I can’t imagine that anyone ever really intends to hurt God. Atheists might rail against a God whom they do not believe exists. I am sure that if they knew Him, they would revise their opinions. Even in our moments of deep pain when we question God, our intention is not to hurt Him so much as it is to make sense of our lives.

Some people, of course, think that it is preposterous to talk about hurting God. How could puny human creatures hurt the creator of the universe?

And yet we can hurt God. Unless you try to dilute some very explicit statements in scripture, the possibility of hurting God is a real risk.

And we do hurt God. Probably more often than we think.

In Ephesians 4.29-30 Paul challenges us with these words:

Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. 30 And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption.

As a preacher, I have often quoted verse 29. And I have often quoted verse 30. The former, I have used as a basis to encourage and challenge Christians to speak in a way that encourages and builds up their brothers and sisters. The latter, as a warning against upsetting the Holy Spirit.

What only struck me very recently is that both verses are intimately connected. The and at the beginning of verse 30 is the giveaway. It connects speaking in a way that builds up others with preserving the health of our relationship with the Holy Spirit.

I probably knew intuitively that our speech impacted on our relationship with the Spirit. But reading these verses again just recently proved to be somewhat of a light bulb moment: how I speak to you affects my relationship with Him.

The question then arises “What happens when the Holy Spirit is grieved?” That is a hard question to answer. Why? Because, as far as I am aware the scriptures, certainly the New Testament scriptures, do not explicitly indicate what happens when the Spirit is grieved. Genesis 6.6 (KJV) and Hebrews 3.10 and 3.17 (both KJV) mention God being grieved. The word used in Hebrews, however, has a much stronger connotation than being upset or even offended. Anger is more than likely its meaning.

What is clear is that the way we speak to and about others can put distance in our relationship with the Holy Spirit or preserve intimacy with Him. (Notice too that intimacy with the Spirit is what we start out with and we can become distant. For many, the default in our relationship with the Spirit is distance and intimacy is something to be attained.)

Making that connection between verses 29 and 30 means I cannot neatly file verse 29 away under some heading like “Healthy relationships within the body of Christ” and verse 30 under something akin to “How to walk in the Spirit”, because, fact is, they both belong together.

We have closeness with the Spirit, and that closeness is preserved and strengthened by the words we use in our interactions with one another.

Of course we don’t mean to hurt God. Ephesians 4.29-30 shows us how we can avoid doing just that.

I’ll leave you with The Message rendering of those crucial verses:

Watch the way you talk. Let nothing foul or dirty come out of your mouth. Say only what helps, each word a gift. 30 Don’t grieve God. Don’t break his heart. His Holy Spirit, moving and breathing in you, is the most intimate part of your life, making you fit for himself. Don’t take such a gift for granted.

The God Who Spares No Expense

Our house isn’t coming down with family heirlooms. In fact, I could count on one hand those that spring immediately to mind, and still have fingers left to count how many of them would make it on to the Antiques Roadshow.

There is one however that my late grandfather gave me a long time ago. It is a pocket watch, given to him by his father. His father’s name is engraved on it and the year 1899.

As it was no longer functional, I decided some years ago to take it to a jeweller and have it repaired. Unfortunately he returned the watch in the same condition. He said that, whilst it might have great sentimental value, it was beyond economic repair. Priceless, but broken and, in his eyes, not worth the cost of fixing.

When Isaiah spoke the prophetic words to the people of Judah recorded in Isaiah 44.24-28, he was speaking to a people who, in God’s eyes, were priceless but broken. And a people who in the eyes of the world were beyond economic repair.

If you had looked west to Jerusalem during Judah’s Babylonian exile, you might well have concluded that Jerusalem and the temple of God were also beyond economic repair.

God had other plans, better plans. He would restore His people to their land. He would restore Jerusalem. The temple would be rebuilt. And how would he do it? He would use a pagan King, Cyrus, to initiate the return and restoration of his people. (Incidentally, the Jewish historian Josephus relates a story that Cyrus somehow got hold of Isaiah’s prophecy and was so impressed that he had personally been mentioned that he was moved to action!)

Earlier in the chapter, Isaiah outlined how God would move among His people as He moved to restore what had been lost. He promised to pour out His Spirit (1-5). He challenged them to confront and renounce their idols (6-20). And He reminded them of His grace (21-23).

God is still in the business of restoring what is “beyond economic repair”. He has done and is doing just that in everyone of us who respond to Him in faith. He is still in the business of restoring families, churches, communities, cities – even whole nations – let’s not limit His ability!

He usually works to the kind of pattern seen in Isaiah 44. The outpouring of the Spirit on those who are thirsty. Confronting and renouncing our idols – for idol read “anything that we put in the place of God”. And, of course, His grace. If we forget grace our most sincere desires for the Spirit to move and our most godly instincts for holiness can so easily work themselves out in legalistic self- effort.

No life, no situation is beyond economic repair because Christ has already paid the repair price at the cross. God spared no expense for us. That’s why it’s called grace.