Years ago I had this friend, Stephen, who had this natural ability to turn any conversation into a real heartfelt conversation about God and Jesus, and I and another friend were hanging out with him one day as we all went to visit a friend who was undergoing some spiritual turmoil. Her family had invited us in and told us all to go wait for her in her room, that she would be home shortly. So while we waited, we prayed for her – and we asked the Lord to send His Spirit into her room to make Himself more real to her.
Not long thereafter, this gal came in and together we had a conversation about the Lord, where each person seemed to have something to share that flowed in perfect harmony with what the others shared. As we spoke with her, I noticed what seemed to look like a barely discernable “mist” that filled the air, and as I took notice of the mist, it became more and more visible to me. It seemed to sparkle, too, like this ambient light was filling the mist “particles” whatever they were, and as I paid more and more attention to this slightly glowing mist, I realized that the “light” seemed to glow not with some impersonal light, but with an extremely personable sense of affection and love, emanating from the mist. Describing this sounds somewhat insane to me, even as I write it: how could a glow emanate something personable and loving? These things just sound awful when one tries to put them into words, but this is the best I can describe what more or less is indescribable by normal terms, typical terms. I have to admit though, at the time, I did not voice this experience to anyone: I was accustomed to spiritual experiences being highly individualistic, and assumed I was the only one there that saw such a thing, that anyone else would have thought I was nuts or lost in my own imagination.
So I was shocked, when upon leaving this gal’s house, Stephen immediately turned to me and my other friend, and exclaimed, “Did you see the Shekinah glory of God filling her room?!?!” I was so surprised and gasped, “You saw it too?!?” We asked the third friend who said she also saw the mist, although I wasn’t ever sure if she was just going along with what Stephen and I were sharing, or if she had really seen it also – but I knew that day that as individualistic as spiritual experiences can be, that they’re not ALWAYS private, individual, non-confirmable occurrences.
This was years and years ago; since then I have had many, many opportunities to be confronted with the presence of God in a room – with rare exception this has always occurred when people were gathered together to declare Him and His love in song (aka, to worship and pray together.) There were many years of my life as a Christ-follower where I never saw or felt anything supernatural – during that time period, if you had told me then that you felt “the Spirit of God” during worship, I would have wondered firstly why I never could seem to share that experience, and secondly if you were just deluding yourself. But something happened in between the time of my life when I “felt nothing” and the time of my life when I grew in an awareness of God’s presence among His people: and that was encountering the Holy Spirit not in a room filled with other people, but within myself. It’s a long story for some other posting(s) to explain that journey, and how I came to know more what the indwelling Spirit of God was like in my own being; a journey that started with believing in the Messiah Himself and then asking, seeking, and crying out to know Him more – stumbling around in darkness wondering when and how He would turn the lights on for me, but still seeking, still reaching, still groping, knowing that there had to be something more than a “theory” of what it meant to have the Spirit come and live within me – that somehow this had to be something more than a belief or doctrine but an actual living experience. I would read verses like this one:
“Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’” (John 7:38)
and wonder what this was describing, because even as a believer and follower of Jesus I knew that nothing which had happened to me thus far could be described in words like those. So I went looking, and found that the Father was looking for me at the same time, to reveal His Son in me, to me, in a way that I didn’t know up to that point (and am still learning about even to this day.)
But this brings me to the point of this blog posting: that I believe there are two distinct ways in which the Spirit of God is made manifest to a believer. And all too often, I hear and see my friends getting hung up on one of those two ways, while completely dismissing and misunderstanding the other of the two. So to speak more clearly, there are two distinct ways (and these are not the only two, but for the sake of this discussion I am focusing on two) that the Holy Spirit frequently makes His presence known to those who know Jesus:
a) within themselves, in their own individual innermost being (in many various ways)
b) within a gathered, corporate expression of believers honoring Christ together
If you think about it, we know that our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, and that this is true on an individual level. You do not need to gather together with anyone else to alone be a temple of the Holy Spirit. Jesus said this about Himself on a solitary, individual level, when He refered to His own body as God’s temple, and we know that this is true for each individual believer who receives Him into themselves. We are each of us God’s temple. And thus within ourselves, God can be communed with, ministered to, petitioned, and each of us can be led by the light of His Spirit within, on an individual level. In the Old Testament, God sending His Spirit upon an individual is a recognized occurrence; sometimes New Testament believers will make a distinction about whether God wants to position Himself “upon” or “within” someone in the New Testament sense and whether or not there is a difference between the impartation of the Spirit to a person upon the initial commitment to Christ in one’s life, or sometime thereafter, but regardless of these discussions, most believers agree that the Holy Spirit is available to any individual believer in one sense or another.
I think one issue however with the Lord dwelling among us individually is that for some individuals, their only experience of the presence of God has occurred in corporate settings. Even their individual sense of His presence is only found when they meet with others to sing and pray. For a new believer, this isn’t immediately a problem as gathering with others can be like “training wheels” as they first recognize their ability to sense the Spirit in environments where others are setting the spiritual tone for them. Being in a corporate setting can help one to recognize not only the Spirit as He moves in the midst of music or sharing in a group, but also to become more sensitive to what He is like within the individual. But for some people, they remain dependent exclusively on the others in the group to manifest the presence of Spirit for them; and this is problematic; it is essential that each believer is uniquely aware of the Spirit of God in such a way that they are not depending on others to know Christ by the Spirit. People that are struggling with this dynamic are often very upset if something happens during a corporate meeting to distract from enjoying Christ together, and are not easily able to follow the leading of the Lord through disruptive situations to the corporate situation. For instance, if a nonbeliever is visiting in a small home meeting of Christians, and behaves in a way that is insensitive to an awareness of the Spirit of God – or if he or she has conversation with someone where the conversation does not focus on spiritual things, a believer who is not able to tap into Christ within themselves individually may not know how to extend grace and love to someone who has disrupted their corporate worship or sharing time, instead considering that person a trial or a tribulation. One who knows how to experience Christ within however is not dependent on an outward experience of Christ in a group to be edified or to have the wherewithal to give something of the Spirit to someone who doesn’t know how to see or touch Him yet; and there are many more reasons why it is essential that every believer be fluent in experiencing the Spirit of Christ for themselves without being dependent on gathering with others to tap into His presence among them, at least not most of the time. If one is dependent on the “corporate anointing” to experience the Spirit, one does not mature in their own ability to edify others, but remains a consumer of what others in the body bring forth to edify them. (Unfortunately, most churches are set up so that during the Sunday service particularly there is very little opportunity for anyone other than a few select people to exercise their giftings for the edification of others, and so people remain mostly consumers of the religious services offered to them, and the Lord still does make Himself manifest corporately from time to time in these settings; but I do believe that the more the church makes opportunities for people to go from being mere consumers to those who actively edify others that the corporate presence of God experienced in meetings of the body will increase in frequency and magnitude.)
This well known scripture, 1 Corinthians 14:24-25 demonstrates the difference between a group of people where believers are enjoying God’s presence corporately for themselves but unable to adjust to bringing forth a deeper measure of Christ individually, in contrast to a group of people that know how to listen to the Lord individually and make Him known corporately from their own individual reserves. When the latter is the case, out of a place of growing maturity individual believers can bring forth treasures from Christ in such a way that even a nonbeliever with undeveloped awareness of the spirit-realm can see that He is among them corporately: “Brothers, do not be children in your thinking. Be infants in evil, but in your thinking be mature….If, therefore, the whole church comes together and all speak in tongues, and outsiders or unbelievers enter, will they not say that you are out of your minds? But if all prophesy, and an unbeliever or an ungifted man enters, he is convicted by all, he is called to account by all; the secrets of his heart are disclosed; and so he will fall on his face and worship God, declaring that God is certainly among you.”
But aside from the drawback of being fixated on a corporate experience at the expense of the individual experience, one can see that is a great deal of validity to being able to relate to His presence as a gathered people as well. For instance, while it is completely scripturally valid to think of each individual Christian as a temple of Christ, we also know from scriptures such as 2 Corinthians 6:16, that we are a corporate, collective temple as well. Also, 1 Peter 2:5 talks about each believer being a living stone, built TOGETHER into one spiritual house. Thus there is a sense in which the Spirit of God can fill not just us as individuals, but also us as a gathered, corporate expression of faith in Christ. In the Old Testament, God coming “among” His people is a persistent motif – from Him coming among them (Leviticus 26:12-13) and walking in their camp (Deuteronomy 23:14), going ahead of them and leading them corporately (Exodus 13:21, Exodus 33:14, Deuteronomy 31:8) and His desire to dwell among them as a people, corporately, in the New Covenant (Ezekiel 27:37). There is also a motif of the glory of God coming in a rather demonstrative way and filling His temple (*1 Kings 8:11, *Ezekiel 10:4, *2 Chronicles 5:14, *2 Chronicles 7:1-2, Ezekiel 43:5 & 44:4) remembering that we are not just individually temples, but are corporately a temple, it should be no surprise that the presence of Christ can be experienced corporately when believers gather together to minister to Him and each other.
Now, I have heard many objections to this whole idea. One common objection is the idea that God being experienced corporately is an Old Testament thing, not a New Testament thing, because Christ has made it possible for the three-in-one God to dwell within each of us. While I agree, obviously, that the work of the cross and resurrection and ascension of Christ has huge ramifications for the accessibility of the Spirit, I think it is a misconception that a *corporate* experience of God’s presence is uniquely ‘Old Testament.’ For one thing, an *individual experience* of God’s presence is very much an Old Testament occurrence so why do we believe that the distinction made by the New Testament is a matter of individuality vs. corporate life? I think this is a mistake. Another objection I think also to be a mistake is to believe that because God comes to dwell inwardly within an individual under the New Covenant that this means all outward experiences of God’s presence (which a corporate experience is in some aspects) are no longer valid. The reality is that if God dwells in me, but He is also dwelling IN you, for me to experience any aspect of communion with you in that same Spirit requires me to experience something outside myself – to experience a communion shared BETWEEN us, not only within myself. This can happen on many levels; I do not in any way mean to suggest the normal and presumed means of us experiencing His presence together will be to see a sparkling mist of love filling the room (although that is certainly one way I have personally experienced His presence being made manifest corporately on less than a handful of occasions) but experiencing His presence IS something that in one way or another is not a rare occurrence by any means – and learning to be sensitive to the Spirit within oneself sharpens one’s spiritual senses for discerning Him, via the inner sensitivity to His love or voice or glory or light or wisdom or movements, etc., to that same Spirit when He does things in the midst of a group people as well.
No, I think the largest difference between what we see in God filling the temple in the Old Testament, versus what He does when He fills His temple now, is that the temple NOW is not a building made of stone, but is now a building of LIVING stones. If God comes and fills a room, He’s not filling it because He has a thing about “rooms” as much as because He is meeting in a with the people gathering there. The motifs of the Old Covenant have become realized in flesh and blood more than in stone and mortar; in a very real way we have become the stones, and this was what He was after all along anyway. Even in the Old Testament God was still hanging out with people; in the New Testament He does this even more so, in an even much more relatable way. Christ has come as the incarnation, the “God with us” of the Father, and we have been caught up in this in such a way that even we have been transformed into the very incarnation of Christ, brothers together with Him. (1 Cor 6:15, 1 John 4:17, Hebrews 2:11)
Unfortunately many New Testament scriptures that reference God’s Spirit being among us as a group are scriptures that refer to His presence among us specifically to deal with matters of sin, but nevertheless the testimony of Scripture is that He does meet with us corporately.
“Again I say to you, that if two of you agree on earth about anything that they may ask, it shall be done for them by My Father who is in heaven. For where two or three have gathered together in My name, I am there in their midst.” (Matthew 18:19-20 ESV)
“When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus…” (1 Corinthians 5:4 ESV; Paul’s Spirit is present in the gathered assembly by extension, unity, and association with the Lord’s Spirit…)
The fact that these verses however refer to judgment and discipline is actually helpful; because to establish a matter in a court of law according to the law of Moses required 2 or 3 witnesses. Therefore there is something hidden in these verses that is wonderful – the concept that it is not just when people come together that they find Jesus present corporately, but when people come together for the sake of witnessing and testifying to something of the Lord that He is somehow “present” in a way beyond the general sense of God being present ubiquitously in the universe.
Another way in which believers testify of Christ’s reality is through their good works, their actions in the world. This testimony of Christ is compared in Scripture to a lamp, placed on a stand where others can see it.
“….nor does anyone light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house. Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 5:15-16 ESV)
This lampstand then comes to represent the testimony of believers about who God is, spread their good works, in a region or vicinity where a church is found. This testimony then results in praise, people “glorifying God” in response to what they see and hear. It is this combination of one group testifying to another group of people, which then results in praise, that makes up the lampstand motif – and this lampstand motif is then used for another image in Scripture which demonstrates the unique presence of Christ that is present among believers in a corporate sense, when believers are shining forth a testimony of who God and Christ are to their neighbors through their love and care for those around them, resulting in praise.
“Then I turned to see the voice that was speaking to me, and on turning I saw seven golden lampstands, and in the midst of the lampstands one like a Son of Man, clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash around his chest. ” (Revelation 1:12-13)
Christ is present “among the lampstands.” This is different than an individual experiencing Christ within themselves, this is a unique way that the Lord is present, found “in the midst” of what a collective group of people say and do together regarding Christ.
When a group of people remembers the character and works of the Lord together – how they’ve seen Him in their lives, and in the lives of others, and how they have experienced His testimony in their own life and the life of their community, this is meant to result in “praise and glory to God.” Charismatics are fond of the verse, not without cause, that says, “Yet you are holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel.” (Psalm 22:3 – People often paraphrase this as “God is enthroned on the praises of His people.”) As overused as this verse can be, there is a validity to how the glory and presence of the Lord is made manifest among those who declare, honor, and remember His goodnesses together. The testimony of the Lord expressed corporately, whether in song, outcry (“Come Lord Jesus!” aka, Maranatha!) or sharing the life and truth of who He is (such as my friends in the opening story of this blog) provides an environment in which the Spirit of Christ can agree and make Himself manifest and known more fully to those who look to Him for His appearances. If you sow to the Spirit, you reap from the Spirit, and this is not only a personal truth but a corporate truth as well – filling the atmosphere of our shared time together with words expressed from open and hungry hearts turned towards Him is like lifting up the loaves and fishes towards Heaven and suddenly finding that there is more in the baskets than what one started with – more to eat of Who He is than what was brought to the meeting originally by the participants.
What is the whole point though? Criticisms of “worship times” where people seem to be worshipping to “get something from God” or “have an emotional experience” of some type are not entirely without merit, although they are often unduly critical of those who simply enjoy meeting with God. (Really – is it wrong to get one’s sense of fulfillment and pleasure from experiencing the actual presence and glory of the Living God? If so, what *is* the acceptable thing in life that a human may rightly derive a sense of joy, fulfillment and pleasure from? Some might say He is worthy to be honored and glorified for His own sake, regardless of what we might enjoy or not enjoy of that – and this is true – but if one finds themselves deeply enjoying honoring and glorifying Him, and also finds a taste of Heavenly realities such as the glory and presence of God Himself – and responsive feelings to tasting those realities here on Earth – is this really so unseemly?) We all have seen worship meetings though that seemed to be filled with emotional and musical hype, even manipulation. These are real issues for the body of Christ to reckon with as it seeks to meet authentically and in reality with God, and give Him praise, and honor, and hunger, and love, as a gathered group of people. But the hype driven, or manipulative seeming music or styles are not by any means the real crux of the story here. The reality of this story is that we pray for the Kingdom to come to Earth – and while there are many, many facets to what this means, two facets are not be easily dismissed or ignored:
Each one of us has a heart of flesh, taken from the dust of this Earth – and that is one place that the King, and the Kingdom, is meant to come. He does that via His Spirit, which is His presence.
And, not only that, we are a people, a nation, a temple here on the Earth. And if His presence doesn’t comeand dwell among us when we gather together, how do we hope for His presence and His Kingdom to be made manifest anywhere else on this planet? Are we not, as those called by His name, ground zero for His appearances? What is it we partake in together as one body – is it only “truth” and “ideas” and “ways of life” or is there a facet of God coming to us, like the morning dew, or sometimes as a mist, or sometimes as a sense of His personhood, or sometimes as a Song, or as fresh revelation of His word to us, or in many other ways, is He welcome among us as a group? I hope we can say yes. Yes to Him, in however He makes Himself known to us – individually, or corporately, or any other way known to man.