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?


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.

The Magic Key

If you have children of a certain age, you might well be familiar with The Magic Key stories. Three children and their dog set out on all sorts of adventures, courtesy of a magic key, helpfully attached to the dog’s collar. Unfortunately, I am a little too old to have had the pleasure of such reading material; we had stories that usually ended up with a dead giant or a dead wolf, or something like that.

If only we had magic keys to take us through life. Magic keys that would inject a bit of excitement into our sometimes mundane routines.

It has to be said that sometimes reading Christian literature and attending Christian conferences can at some level, usually an unconscious one, become a quest for a magic key. The one thing that will bring growth. The one thing that will bring revival. That elusive one thing.

Recently I spent twelve days in India. I spent time in two different locations. In one location I experienced the ministry of a city church. The other, was a mission station, though that is an inadequate description. If both ministries are not experiencing revival, then it must be pretty close to revival. If ever I had my chance to find the magic key, this was it.

So what was their magic key?

There are so many potential candidates.

For a start, the way they showed hospitality. What an incredible welcome we received. How we were honoured and cared for the whole time we were there was exemplary. In fact it was quite humbling. We were treated like kings.

The way these ministries reach out to their own communities in acts of service was also staggering. Feeding the hungry, educating children and caring for orphans. The mission station was even training nurses and ran a primary school for one thousand children and a secondary school for two thousand children and a hospital and…the list is almost endless. That was on one campus alone!

Evangelistic outreach was certainly not substituted for social action. Whether it was distributing Bibles or church planting, evangelistic outreach was to the fore. One church even decided that over the Christmas holidays – Boxing day and Christmas day included – that they would take a bus and drive, stopping to preach and sleeping wherever they could!

And then there are signs and wonders. The supernatural seems to be a normal aspect of life in India.

Of course, there was the very focused emphasis on prayer and fasting. Long lists of those committed to praying and fasting for a certain number of days during the year. Beginning the year with three days of prayer and fasting.

I could go on to talk about the dynamic, compelling worship, great steps of faith and acts of sacrifice, even to the point of laying down life for the sake of the gospel.

It was very clear that none of these things could or should stand alone. They all belonged together. It’s not all about prayer. Or social action. Or worship.

Or even evangelism. Though it has to be said that when I asked for some honest feedback about the western church, our lack of evangelism was highlighted. I might not have mentioned that, had not a missionary from Latin America said the same thing in a conversation seven months previously.

What, in my opinion, these Indian churches are doing that is so important, is that they have kept doing the things that are important since they were founded. There is no substitute for decades of commitment to the great commission.

So what’s the magic key? The magic key might just be to recognise that we have a whole bunch of keys which, if used consistently, will unlock doors and unlock God’s blessing over our churches. Perhaps the magic key is to recognise that there is no magic key.

It starts with you

There is a saying that is attributed to a rabbi. It goes something like this:

“When I was a young man, I wanted to change the world. As I grew older I realised I could not change the world. So I decided to change my nation. I soon realised I could not change my nation. So I decided to change my town. I soon realised I could not change my town. So I decided to change my family. As I grew older I realised I could not change my family. As an old man, I finally discovered that I could only change myself. I also realised that if as a young man I had decided to change myself, I might have changed my family. And if I had changed my family, I might have changed my town. And if I had changed my town, I might have changed the nation. And if I had changed the nation, I might have changed the world.”

Perhaps the said rabbi’s connection between changing himself and changing the world is not quite as assured as the quote makes it out to be. Nevertheless, it is true that change on a grander scale is the result of changes in the thoughts and behaviour of people at a personal level. And of course there are many examples in history – good and bad of people who have developed convictions which have impacted cities and nations and sometimes even the world.

In Revelation chapter three Jesus delivers the sternest of His seven letters to the churches of Asia Minor to the church at Laodicea. What He says has sometimes been seriously misinterpreted and the idea that Laodicea refers to the church of the last days has no scriptural foundation. His words about hot, cold and lukewarm are not a call to either be on fire for God or leave the faith altogether. They allude to the cool waters of Colosse, a city just a few miles from Laodicea and the hot springs of Hierapolis, a city a few miles in the other direction. Because Laodicea had no natural water supply, its piped in water was lukewarm. The Laodicean church’s activities, like the city’s water, provided neither refreshing nor healing.

The only way for a turn around in the Laodicean church was for a re-evaluation of their condition and their values, combined with repentance and a rediscovery of what was of true spiritual worth.

However, Jesus doesn’t stop there. He goes on to say that if anyone opens the door of their heart to Him, He’ll come and have fellowship with that person (Revelation 3.20). He starts with His concern for the whole church and ends up by appealing to individuals.

Jesus will start with one. One person who realised his or her need and opened their heart to Jesus could become the change agent for the whole of the church in Laodicea. One person could begin a revival.

Whatever else the letter to the Laodiceans teaches us, it is a reminder that we all have to make a personal response to Jesus. Not just in the sense of being born again, but also when it comes to our ongoing relationship with Him. And it is also a reminder that revival can begin in our hearts before it begins anywhere else –  indeed it might be that revival has to begin in our hearts before we see its impact anywhere else.

One rabbi says “Change yourself and you can change the world”. The greatest Rabbi of all simply says “Open the door of your heart”.

Everybody has a Uzziah

“In the year that King Uzziah died…” (Isaiah 6.1) those words on the surface seem not much more than a few words of narrative to plant Isaiah’s vision of God in historical context. In reality they describe the source of the spiritual shockwave experienced by Isaiah and his nation towards the end of the eighth century B.C..

Uzziah was one of the great kings of Judah. He did what was right in God’s eyes, having becoming king at sixteen years of age (2 Chronicles 26.3-5). His foreign policy successes were matched by a prosperous economy (2 Chronicles 26.6-9). The nation was at its most prosperous since the days of King Solomon.

But now the great king was gone and the great prophet did what great prophets and godly people do, sought God.

It is possibly stretching things too far to conclude dogmatically that Isaiah’s world was in meltdown because Uzziah had gone.There can, however, be little doubt in the way that Isaiah 6 is presented to us, that the author wants to contrast the uncertainty of human government and human affairs with the certainty of divine government and heavenly affairs. Isaiah had a Uzziah. And Isaiah had a God. When Uzziah, simply because he was a human being, could no longer deliver success and stability, Isaiah still had God.

Outstanding though he was as a king, Uzziah nevertheless had weaknesses.

First of all, he was human! And human beings have a limited shelf life. After fifty years on the throne of Judah, it must have felt as though Uzziah would go on and on. Well, he did. But just for two more years. Even great people are mortal.

Secondly, he wasn’t as good as some might have thought he was. Towards the end of his life, 2 Chronicles 26 vv.16-21 records that Uzziah became proud and tried to burn incense in the temple, a ceremony reserved for the priests. He was struck with leprosy and lived out the final years of his life in isolation.

Thirdly, it’s just possible, even probable, that some had begun to trust in Uzziah rather than Uzziah’s God. How easy that is! Of course, that was not Uzziah’s fault and no doubt he would have been the first to eschew any kind of attention that smacked of idolatry.

Most of us, perhaps all of us, have a Uzziah. What I mean is, most of us, in our humanity, are inclined to put something or someone in the place of God. The trouble is, the something or the someone does not last. Uzziahs can be preachers, leaders, politicians, experiences, relatives, friends. You get the idea. They are not necessarily bad things or bad people. Sometimes they are very good people. But somehow we come to rely on them. And somehow we allow them to take the place that rightfully belongs to God.

Times change. Uzziahs come and Uzziahs go. Change and uncertainty are times to seek a fresh perspective of God. To allow the Spirit to touch our own hearts and apply the cleasing blood of Jesus (Isaiah 6.5-7). And, like Isaiah, to listen for the voice of the Lord that sends us out into a broken world (Isaiah 6.8).