by Stephen Venable
The body of Christ in every generation must stand at a similar crossroads. As we read of the power of the Holy Spirit in the New Testament and feel the painful disparity between what we find on those pages and what we have known in our experience, what will we do? This question confronts us both individually and corporately. Though we may evade its pursuit for a season, at some point we must turn and reckon with its probing force. While much could be written of the marvelous works Jesus performed in and through the apostolic church, only a cursory journey through the middle portion of the book of Acts is necessary to shine the light on the barrenness of Western Christianity in the 21st century.
In a mere five verses in the fifth chapter, we are informed that signs and wonders were so prevalent that those who were in need from the cities surrounding Jerusalem were brought to the feet of the apostles and the sick were even laid out in the streets in the hope that Peter’s shadow might fall upon them. The result was that multitudes of men and women were added to the Lord (v 14) and all who came found healing and deliverance in His precious name (v 16). In verse 19 of Acts 5, the apostles are miraculously freed from imprisonment by an angel. Acts 6:8 describes how Stephen, who was simply responsible for distributing food and not actually one of the apostles, “did great wonders and signs among the people.” After baptizing the Ethiopian convert, Philip was caught up be the Spirit and transported to a different city (8:39-40). In the next chapter, a man who was paralyzed is healed through the ministry of Peter, followed by the remarkable account of the raising of a woman named Tabitha from the dead in the city of Joppa (9:36-43). The night before he was to be executed, an angel came to Peter in prison and escorted him out of bondage into safety (12:5-19). In a similar vein, Paul and Silas found themselves beaten and in shackles for the cause of Christ when suddenly a great earthquake shook the prison and released them from their chains (14:25-34). As the story continues to unfold we are told that “God worked unusual miracles by the hand of Paul, so that even handkerchiefs or aprons were brought from his body to the sick, and the diseases left them and the evil spirits went out of them (19:11-12).”
Furthermore, Divine communication is riddled throughout the tale of the first generation of followers of Christ. Jesus appeared to Stephen at his death, to Paul at his conversion, and to Ananias with instructions to restore Paul’s sight (7:56; 9:5; 9:10 respectively). Cornelius the centurion was visited by an angel in an open vision, after which Peter was caught up in a trance while in prayer (10:3, 10). Agabus prophesied of a famine that would come upon the land, the apostolic mission to the gentiles was directed to go to Macedonia through a vision in the night, and the Lord Jesus appeared again to Paul in order to encourage his heart (11:28; 16:9; 18:9). The testimonies go on and on, and this is not even highlighting the astonishing power of the Holy Spirit present in the preaching of the early Church.
By contrast, the sick in our midst very often stay sick, regardless of whether one is ‘evangelical’ or ‘charismatic’. In other words, possessing a rhetoric which includes the power of the Spirit is not at all synonymous with the reality of it. Not surprisingly, we don’t find diseased and tormented unbelievers flocking to our churches as they did to the apostles and their followers. We don’t even have the opportunity to be miraculously delivered from prison because our witness is not powerful enough to evoke the resistance from the world to put us in fetters. While the diluted, culturally assimilated proclamation going forth from so many pulpits in the land may be effective at making ‘seekers’ feel comfortable, we know nothing of words so laden with heavenly power that thousands are cut to the soul and conquered by the glory of Christ (Acts 2:37). And though there seems to be more people than ever with the word ‘prophet’ in front of their name, few and far between are those men and women who truly stand in the counsel of the Lord and declare His word in truth.
This is not the context to develop either the biblical theology of healing or that of suffering (both of which we have the propensity to monumentally err on), or to try to unearth the causes of the absence of the Spirit in our utterance. Still, from this juxtaposition at least one thing should be clear – we are missing something. And thus we arrive once more at the question posed at the outset: what will we do? Sadly the most common response throughout history has been the path of least resistance, accepting the way things are and explaining away the dissonance between the Bible and what we have known by putting the New Testament in a different category theologically. In effect, this puts the book of Acts high on a shelf to be admired and applauded but never emulated or sought after. Yet as our generation stands at the crossroads there is another option. It is the difficult way, and surely the road less traveled, but the one we must embrace. In opting for this lonely path we are allowing our hearts to be torn over the vision for the fullness of the Spirit and daring to believe in what we have never seen. Instead of finding a shallow peace with the way things are, we elect instead to throw ourselves into the crushing tension of intercession where we contend in faith for the way God desires them to be. This posture is that which embodies and undergirds the fourth value of the IHOP heart-standards – Prophetic, or prevailing faith. To prevail in our stand for the power of God does not mean that we are free from doubt, or that we do not grow weary, but simply that the slow passage of time without the answer we seek does not extinguish our tears and prayers for God to breakthrough. In the end, our conviction in the mercy of Jesus and His passion to pour out His Spirit triumphs over the weakness of our own hearts and years of waiting.
For me the revelation of the Lord’s desire to release His power today and not just on the pages of history came like an avalanche as I discovered the writings of Smith Wigglesworth and John G. Lake during my college years. At the time I did not realize how deeply my heart was being marked by the vision for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, nor was I aware of how much my motivation for His power needed to be purified, and how much the desire to see signs and wonders would be tested. Even in the ten short years that have intervened, I have found it increasingly difficult to avoid becoming calloused and to keep my heart soft and broken over our barrenness. Zeal is cheap, but endurance is costly. Yet through the pain of perseverance, I have gained clearer perspective on how we must contend for power from on high. Revival does not exist to cure the chronic boredom we wrestle with, or to enlarge our churches so we can finally feel a sense of significance in the landscape of ministry.
In the Divine heart, the unleashing of His miraculous might upon a region serves three primary aims. It is, first and foremost, intended to magnify the glory of Christ. Secondly, it is an expression of His deep compassion for hurting people. Finally, it is a witness of the age to come designed to cause the anchor of our hope to be fully set upon the return of Jesus (Heb. 6:5, 19; 1 Pet. 1:13). Unless our hearts are aligned with these three purposes, we will likely not prevail in our faith, and if revival does come we will almost certainly misinterpret its intent or be crushed by the pressure that accompanies authentic power. God insisted upon this final heart standard in the DNA of this movement because He is so zealous for the exaltation of His Son, so filled with tenderness and mercy for the sick and the oppressed as they suffer, and because He desires that our hope be fixed upon the Day of the LORD and not in this present, evil age. These currents in His heart are just as strong now as they were when the apostles turned the world upside down in the first-century. Let this be our confidence, and may His renown be our all-consuming aim as we stand at the crossroads. What will we do? We will take our stand and believe God for an unprecedented breakthrough of power and the full manifestation of the gifts of the Holy Spirit in our generation. May our faith prevail.