Three Trees

The Beauty of Biblical Symbolism

One of the many things I love about Scripture is the symbolism stretched across its pages. It’s everywhere. Of course, it’s all meant to conjure imagery and teach lessons within lessons. Almost every story in the Bible contains a message within a lesson within another moral. I realize we can get carried away and start imagining things that aren’t actually there. We might extract beliefs that aren’t divinely intended without careful consideration, which can be dangerous. And many of my friends are understandably wary of focusing too much on biblical symbolism. I get that. However, avoiding biblical symbolism altogether robs us of vast, awe-inspiring realms of beauty that God intended for us to experience.

The Juxtaposition of Jesus’ Rhetoric

One thing many anti-symbolists forget is that Jesus alternated between straightforward and intensely parabolic teachings. What is a parable exactly? It uses imagery, stories, and symbols to illustrate a moral truth. Jesus is perhaps best known for His use of parables. And they weren’t always immediately understandable because the parables were peppered with prophetic meanings. Quite literally, many of the implications of the parables could not be understood because they weren’t intended to be comprehended at that moment. Like full-fledged prophecy, many parables only made sense in the future as events unfolded. It shouldn’t be surprising that Jesus interacted this way because God has always used signs, symbols, parables, types, and shadows in His communication with us. For example, when God rebuked Satan in the Garden after The Fall, He spoke cryptically: “And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel” (Genesis 3:15).

The First Good News

Genesis 3:15 is sometimes referred to as the “first good news” because it’s the first foretelling of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. God announced that a male descendant—He—would someday deal the serpent (meaning Satan) a fatal blow. The New Testament writers understood Jesus Christ to have fulfilled this prophecy (Hebrews 2:14, 1 John 3:8). In an extended sense, the New Testament also indicates that God would work through the Church—those indwelt by the Spirit of Christ—to destroy the works of the Devil (Romans 16:20).

The Significance of Symbolism

It’s worth considering why God would employ so much symbolism throughout Scripture. As best I can tell, there are three reasons: One, because Satan does not know the future, prophecy is purposefully vague to keep Satan confused. Two, if humanity knew the exact details of future events, we might be tempted to help them along when we need to get out of the way. Three, it builds faith when humans look back through the lens of history and see the puzzle pieces clicking into place.

The uninformed might assume the Bible is a carefully orchestrated body of literature. Perhaps, like an epic Tolkein novel, all the little loose ends are skillfully tied up in the mind of a genius for our consumption. However, the Bible is a library of individual books, with over thirty-three inspired writers spanning 1,500 years, written in different places, cultures, millennia, and perspectives. The only constant across the Bible’s pages is God’s inspiration. It would have been impossible, unthinkable, and unmanageable for mere humans to coordinate such a thing without the divine breath of God.

Therefore, when we see various symbols popping up throughout the inspired Book, we see glimpses of the marvelous mind of God. The magnificent consistency of eternal Truth peeks out from Genesis to Revelation offering fresh illuminations of ancient revelations. And while we should be careful not to build beliefs entirely on symbolism, it certainly can reinforce clearly defined doctrines. Powerful inspiration comes from recognizing that these symbols come from God’s throne, not men’s mere imaginations.

A Tale of Three Trees

It’s no exaggeration to say that trees are necessary for life to exist. They suck carbon dioxide out of the air and release the oxygen we need to breathe. Historically, trees have provided food, shelter, energy, sustenance, biodiversity, beauty, and soil preservation. We literally cannot survive without what trees provide for us daily. It’s also not an exaggeration to say a single tree was at the center of the utter destruction of God’s original created world.

Tree One: The Tree of the Knowledge of Good & Evil

And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat: But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die (Genesis 2:16-17).

In God’s interaction with Adam, He begins by offering a level of freedom that you and I have never seen or experienced. “Of every tree,” He said, “thou mayest freely eat.” Adam had unparalleled autonomy to do as he pleased. He had comfort, ease, authority, abundance, creativity, beauty, and eternality. The nature of God was to lead with freedom before establishing the first human law. This almost imperceptible detail allows us to glimpse the goodness of God towards humanity. We tend to view God’s laws as burdensome without taking the time to appreciate the freedoms God provides. God’s privileges and benefits far outweigh the weight of the laws He levies upon us. We also think it would be easier serving God if we had fewer rules and regulations. However, humanity’s first sin proves that God’s rules aren’t the problem. The frailty of our flesh and the pervasiveness of evil are the problems. The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil was not evil by its nature. There was nothing wicked about the tree. To claim this would imply that God created something evil, which would contradict Genesis 1:31. The tree was not the source of sin; humanity was. The tree didn’t contribute to man’s sinfulness beyond providing him with an opportunity to obey or disobey.

In Jewish tradition, the Tree of Knowledge and the eating of its fruit represents the beginning of the mixture of good and evil together. Before that time, the two were separate, and evil had only a nebulous existence in potential. While free choice did exist before eating the fruit, evil existed as an entity separate from the human psyche, and it was not in human nature to desire it. Eating and internalizing the forbidden fruit changed this, and thus was born the yetzer hara, the evil inclination. The closest comparison we have is the sadness of watching a child lose the sweet innocence of youth. No wonder Jesus commands us to be “born again” (John 3:5-7). It also sheds light on Jesus’ mysterious charge, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:1-5).

In Rashi’s notes on Genesis 3:3, the first sin came about because Eve added an additional clause to the divine command: “Neither shall you touch it.” By saying this, Eve added to God’s command and thereby came to detract from it, as it is written: “Do not add to His Words” (Proverbs 30:6). However, evil already existed in the heart of Lucifer. Adam and Eve’s first sin offended God in three ways: One, by rejecting God’s authority (we typically call that rebellion). Two, by distorting His instructions (His holy Word). Three, probably most offensive to God, by accepting Satan’s influence. All subsequent sins follow that same threefold pattern of offense against God.

Tree Two: The Cross on Golgotha’s Hill

Who his own self bare our sins in his own body on the tree, that we, being dead to sins, should live unto righteousness: by whose stripes ye were healed (1 Peter 2:24).

Because a tree became the symbol of condemnation looming before humanity in constant judgment. It’s fitting that a tree roughly formed into a cross by sinful hands would become the universal symbol of hope and salvation. In His infinite foreknowledge, God knew that He would become the sacrifice for our sins. Furthermore, God formed the tree that would become His mode of execution. When Lucifer slithered into Eve’s presence and convinced her to taste the fruit of the Forbidden Tree, he couldn’t have known that the mind of God had already formed the tree that would become crucial to the remedy. Only God can so thoroughly turn things around in such a beautifully poetic way.

Tree Three: The Tree of Life

22 And the LORD God said, Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil: and now, lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live forever: 23 Therefore the LORD God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from whence he was taken. 24 So he drove out the man, and he placed at the east of the garden of Eden Cherubim’s, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to keep the way of the tree of life (Genesis 3:22-24).

Contrary to popular belief, the Tree of Life did not predate God. The Tree of Life received its life-sustaining properties from the Lord: “And out of the ground made the Lord God to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight, and good for food; the tree of life also in the midst of the garden…” (Genesis 2:9). Mankind lost the privilege of accessing the Tree of Life by eating from the Forbidden Tree. In that instant, death became a looming inescapable aspect of human existence. Physical and spiritual pain throbbed into the hearts of the First Father and the First Mother and has been passed down to every subsequent family tree.

Every teardrop, every disappointment, every disease, and every act of unspeakable horror is a direct result of that first sin. Even worse, humanity lost connection and relationship with its Maker. Consequently, losing purpose, fulfillment, direction, inward peace, and intrinsic joy. In a symbolic gesture of finality, God placed an angel with a flaming sword at the entrance of the Garden to keep guard over the invaluable Tree of Life. Humanity was cast into a cruel cursed world. Yet, it’s sublimely splendid how God allowed Himself to be nailed onto the same roughly hewn materials central to humanity’s first sin. While that splintered tree bore Christ, He bore our sins in His own body (1 Peter 2:24). A tree for a tree, a perfect sacrifice in place of hopelessly flawed sacrifices, that’s what Christ did for us. And if we take up our crosses and follow Him in this fallen earthly realm, we will taste the Tree of Life’s exquisite fruit when we step into that faraway country beyond this kingdom.

He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches; To him that overcometh will I give to eat of the tree of life, which is in the midst of the paradise of God (Revelation 2:7).

The Lynching of Leo Frank

An innocent Jew hung unjustly from a tree to the great delight of an onlooking crowd. Only a handful of quietly spoken words crossed his lips before he died. His accusers craved his death long before it occurred. He wasn’t given a fair trial. An actual murderer went free. And history will forever grieve the tragedy. Although the details are similar in many ways, I’m not referring to Jesus Christ. Instead, I’m referencing the undeserved lynching of Leo Frank.

The Tragic Death of Mary Phagan

For the sake of time, I can only give the highlights of a story that sparked national attention in the Atlanta area in 1913. “Little Mary Phagan,” as she became known, left home on the morning of April 26 to pick up her wages at the pencil factory in Marietta and view Atlanta’s Confederate Day parade. She never returned home.

The next day, the factory night watchman found her bloody, sawdust-covered body in the factory basement. When the police asked Leo Frank to view her body, Frank became agitated. He confirmed personally paying Mary her wages but could not say where she went next. Frank, the last to admit seeing Mary alive, became the prime suspect. Sadly for Frank, he was a Northern-born, college-educated, wealthy Jewish man, making him the easy target of intense bias and hatred.

A Sham Trial

Cobb county prosecutor Hugh Dorsey painted Leo Frank as a pervert who was both a homosexual and also preyed on young girls. What he did not tell the grand jury was that a janitor at the factory, Jim Conley, had been arrested two days after Frank when he was seen washing blood off his shirt. Conley then admitted writing two notes found by Mary Phagan’s body. The police correctly assumed at the time that, as the author of those notes, Conley was the murderer, but Conley claimed, after coaching from Dorsey, that Leo Frank had confessed to murdering Mary in the tool room and then paid Conley to write the notes and help him move Mary’s body to the basement.

Even after Frank’s housekeeper placed him at home, having lunch at the time of the murder, and despite gross inconsistencies in Conley’s story, both the grand and trial jury chose to believe Conley. In August 1913, the jury found Frank guilty in less than four hours. Crowds outside the courthouse shouted, “Hang the Jew.”

Historian Leonard Dinnerstein reports that one juror had been overheard saying before his selection for the jury, “I am glad they indicted the… Jew. They ought to take him out and lynch him. And if I get on that jury, I’ll hang that Jew for sure.”

Facing intimidation and mob rule, the trial judge sentenced Frank to death. He barred Frank from the courtroom because, had he been acquitted, Frank might have been lynched by the crowd outside.

A Brave Man Tries

Georgia’s higher courts rejected Frank’s appeals despite these breaches of due process, and shockingly the U. S. Supreme Court voted, 7-2, against reopening the case. Frank’s survival depended on then Georgia Governor Frank Slaton. After a 12-day review of the evidence, Slaton commuted Frank’s sentence to life imprisonment. He hoped to allow Leo Frank time to clear his name and for further evidence to come forward as tempers abated. Governor Slaton told his wife on the day he decided to commute Leo Frank’s sentence, “My conscience is forcing me to commute Leo Frank’s sentence, but that means I can’t possibly run for a second term as governor, my life will be in constant danger, and our reputations will be ruined in this state.” Without hesitation, she responded, “I’d rather be married to a dead hero than a living coward.”

That night, state police kept a protesting crowd of 5,000 from the governor’s mansion. Wary Jewish families fled Atlanta. Slaton held firm. “Two thousand years ago,” he wrote a few days later, “another Governor washed his hands and turned over a Jew to a mob. For two thousand years, that governor’s name has been accursed. If today another Jew were lying in his grave because I had failed to do my duty, I would all through life find his blood on my hands and would consider myself an assassin through cowardice.”

A Midnight Lynching

On August 17, 1915, 28 men — described by peers as “sober, intelligent, of established good name and character”— stormed the Milledgeville, GA prison hospital where Leo Frank was recovering from having his throat slashed by a fellow inmate. They kidnapped Frank, drove him more than 100 miles to Mary Phagan’s hometown of Marietta, Georgia, and hanged him from a tree at the stroke of midnight. The Cobb county’s mayor and sheriff and former Georgia governor Joseph Brown were among the 28 vigilantes.

Frank conducted himself with dignity, calmly proclaiming his innocence.

Townsfolk were proudly photographed beneath Frank’s swinging corpse, pictures you can find with a quick online Google search today. When his term expired a year later, Slaton did not run for reelection, and the dishonest prosecutor, Dorsey, easily won the election to the governor’s office. None of the vigilantes were ever arrested or convicted of any crime. This story has gone down in the pages of history as Georgia’s Great Shame.

The Deadly Silence of a Good Man

In 1982, a death bed confession by a former office boy at National Pencil, along with hosts of other pieces of evidence, confirmed what many suspected. Alonzo Mann, 83 at the time he came forward, said he witnessed Jim Conley carrying Mary Phagan’s body to the factory’s basement on the day of her death. He kept silent, he said, because Conley threatened to kill him and his family.

Self-Righteous Vigilantes

Fascinatingly, from all the accounts I’ve read, the men who hanged Leo Frank for the murder of Mary Phagan did not go about it with a spirit of lawlessness or vindictiveness. They felt a duty to their state and commonwealth and a responsibility to the memory of Mary Phagan. In other words, they really thought they were correcting a breach of justice and doing the right thing. Now. Did their biased prejudice blind them to their own inconsistencies? Absolutely. Did they have their own sins and hypocrisies to deal with? Yes. Those men, who were otherwise upstanding citizens, committed a horrific act of unspeakable evil. They committed an atrocity while wearing self-aggrandizing badges of righteousness. They even called themselves the Nights of Mary Phagan. They died believing they’d done the right thing, and because they paid no earthly consequences, it seemed like a confirmation of righteousness.

Crucify Him

The people who screamed for the crucifixion of Jesus were the Old Testament equivalents of good church folks. They went to Temple services, paid their tithes, offered their sacrifices, and dressed right. The religious elites stirred them up, but the average saint got caught in the current of opinion and outrage. They believed in half-truths, complete falsehoods, and total misnomers. Folks otherwise considered “good” people released a murderer and killed their savior. This odd ability to consider ourselves good while being thoroughly evil is a product of The Fall. And therein lies the lesson within the lesson from the events leading to the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. Within each of us, “good” people reside carefully masked malevolence, unrealized potential for evil, and thinly veiled hypocrisy.

The Lie of Innate Goodness

The Western preoccupation with people’s (especially our own) relative goodness is astonishing and spiritually toxic. It’s harmful because when we think of ourselves as relatively “good” or “descent,” we compare ourselves to other sinful human beings. Thus, creating a hierarchy of acceptable and unacceptable sins based on our feelings, current culture, upbringing, socioeconomics, and personality. Historically, Christianity has endeavored to walk the fine line between radically affirming the value of all human life because it is created in the image of God while concurrently rejecting the humanistic philosophy which presupposes people are innately good. Muddying the waters, even more, is the fact that even if we accept that people are not inherently good, we easily exempt ourselves (and our loved ones) from that incriminatory viewpoint and reckon that we are good deep down. We hear of horrible things individuals did in the distant past and, with the delightful advantage of hindsight, assume we would never have participated in such a terrible thing. But truthfully, we don’t really know that to be a fact.

Why Do You Call Me Good?

In Mark 10:17-23, a wealthy young ruler came running to Jesus and offered a greeting he never intended to be controversial. He asked, “Good Master, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” As usual, Jesus responded to a question with another question, “Why do you call me good? There is none good but one, and that is God?” The man called Jesus “good.” The Greek word the young man used is agathos, meaning “intrinsically good.” This word was not used lightly nor for every good thing. Had the man made the leap that Jesus was indeed God, who was intrinsically good? Was he prepared to accept the full weight of his pronouncements?

It became clear as the conversation continued that the young man considered himself quite good based on his actions. Maybe even intrinsically good. But Jesus zeroed in on the man’s secret sins: pride, love of money, and lack of generosity. And because he loved his money more than Jesus, he missed the opportunity to become a disciple. Or perhaps, we might assume the young man missed the broader point Jesus was inferring, which was that He was God manifest in the flesh and that alone made Him intrinsically good.

Capable of Good & Evil

To summarize a weighty biblical theme from this little interaction: Human beings are capable of both good and evil at any given time. Because we are capable of evil and often do bad things, we are not primarily good deep down. In fact, the deeper we go, the more malevolence we find within the human heart. To view ourselves and others as mostly good is to deny the reality and the seriousness of sin. Only God is good all the time. Only God is utterly incapable of evil. To think anything less of God is heresy. If humanity is essentially good, the cross was unnecessary, and the Bible is a colossal waste of time. Most Christians know this to be true but live as if it is not. We accept the grace and mercy of God and slowly begin to lean on our own goodness. And that’s the trap because once humans believe they’ve become thoroughly good, they do awful things without a hint of conviction or remorse. That is the very definition of self-righteousness.

How Can It Be So Wrong When I’m So Good?

Furthermore, most unsaved people believe their perceived goodness will buy them a ticket to Heaven. “After all,” they think to themselves, “only terrible people need saving, but I’m a decent person.” Meanwhile, they point fingers at other people’s splinters while ignoring the log poking out of their eyes. Self-justification says, “If I’m doing it, it can’t be so dreadfully wrong because I’m so good.” It’s sort of like the parent who criticizes everyone else’s kids but winks when their kids do the same things. How can that be? Well, their kids are innately better than your kids in their eyes.

A Flawed Pentecostal Preacher

I think it’s so interesting that God chose Peter to preach the first Gospel sermon on the Day of Pentecost. Of all the disciples, Peter was far from the most exemplary. By my hasty count, Peter failed twelve times before preaching that sermon. Of course, some of those failures were more severe than others. But some of them were pretty significant. Even outright sinful. To name a few, Peter, filled with selfish ambition, argued with the other disciples about who would be the greatest in the Kingdom of God. He rebuked Jesus for talking about His soon-to-be crucifixion and had to be severely corrected. He failed to stay alert in prayer during Jesus’ greatest hour of need. He denied Jesus with “oaths” and “curses” in the public arena. And after being completely overwhelmed by his sins and the self-discovery of his weaknesses, he abandoned the Apostolic Team and returned to his former life as a fisherman.

Yet, Peter was still allowed to preach the first apostolic declaration of the Gospel. I don’t think that was coincidental. In God’s grand design, a man thoroughly acquainted with his internal badness faithfully preached the convicting of sins to a self-righteous crowd. Peter didn’t waver when he declared (and I’m paraphrasing), “You have taken Jesus with wicked hands and have crucified Him and slain Him (Acts 2:23).” He didn’t stop there, “Therefore let all the house of Israel know assuredly, that God has made the same Jesus, whom you have crucified, both Lord and Christ (Acts 2:36).” Only a man fully convinced of his own capacity for badness could preach with such convicting fervor. Because Peter had faced his personal heart trouble, he could see the disease in others who couldn’t see it for themselves.

Convicts Always Recognize Convicts

An individual who’d spent a great deal of time in prison once told me he could always spot someone who had served jail time in any setting. And they could spot him too. I witnessed that very thing several times while with him. It was intriguing to watch. You might assume it was because of tattoos, stern expressions, or something obvious. But it wasn’t. Two perfectly normal-looking people could walk past each other and instantly know they’d served time somewhere. Besides, tattoos are so common now that you’d hardly assume they’re prison-related.  

When Peter called otherwise normal-looking people sinful cold-blooded murderers, it was a convict recognizing convicts. Because he acknowledged his sin, he could see there’s too. Peter’s conviction gave him the anointing to preach conviction. Notice the crowd’s response in Acts 2:37, “…When they heard this, they were pricked in their heart and said… ‘what shall we do?’” Peter didn’t convict them; they were already convicted and pronounced guilty by God. They just didn’t realize it until Peter made it clear. Thankfully, the burden of guilt doesn’t have to end with the punishment we deserve if we’ll obey the way of escape Peter preached. He said with God-given authority:

…Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost (Acts 2:38).

Reaching the Religious

Nearly everyone Peter preached to that day was religious. They didn’t consider themselves bad or lost. Every preacher knows the most challenging crowd to reach is a group of smugly religious people. People who can lynch an innocent man in cold blood in the name of God. People who’ve tasted the loaves and fishes yet still shouted: “crucify him.” Or people who once were blind but now see after one touch from Jesus who now use those healed eyes to find fault in the one who gave them sight. Or folks who had no voice until Jesus touched them, and now their voices are lifted in gossip and slander. Somehow, Peter had to reach these people and show them their spiritual blindness. That’s still the mission of the Church today. However, we won’t fulfill that mandate until we attend to our sin and then call others to do the same.

You Can’t Skip the Grave

We love to tell the story of the resurrection. And that’s a good thing, but we can’t skip over the grave to get to it. There’s no resurrection without a painful death and a dark grave. We modern Christians are far more comfortable with the celebration than with the necessary conviction that must precede that celebration. We don’t like to think about it, but we’re no better than the crowds that shouted for Jesus’ death. Our sin put him on the cross just as their sin did. We’re full of corruption too. Evil is always crouched at the door, waiting to pounce on us. We might even be the modern equivalent of a Sadducee or Pharisee. We might have been photographed standing under Leo Frank’s swinging body with smug grins in a different time and place.

Most folks want to skip right past the painful death-to-self repentance brings. But the apostle Paul, another flawed sinner turned preacher, called that death-to-self a daily process. Calvary brings graphic clarity to a twofold revelation: First, humanity is desperately sinful and deserves punishment. Second, God loves us so much that He took that punishment on our behalf and now offers pardon for our depravity. We aren’t good. Not even close. But He’s good—more good than we know. His blood can cleanse us from all unrighteousness, but first, we must face the ugly truth about ourselves. Letting the old you die hurts. It hurts a lot. But the resurrection that follows is worth it.

My Opinionated Opinion About Opinions

Your Opinion Matters

We’ve all received an email after visiting a retail or eating establishment titled something along the lines of Your Opinion Matters inviting us to give our feedback. Similar emails and text messages request our all-important answers for special surveys where our opinions are espoused to be desperately needed. I’ve even noticed this phenomenon at the beginning of a simple phone call. They ask right from the beginning if you’d be willing to stick around after the call for a brief survey—again, giving the illusion of an actual dependency on our opinions. In the latter case, I’ve been told by involved sources that those phone surveys don’t particularly care about our specific feedback as they claim. But companies know that if we’ve had a frustrating phone experience, we’re wired to feel better after complaining in a short survey, which means that we’re less likely to express our anger in some public way that might put the company in a bad light. In other words, we’re so prone to giving our opinion that we’ve become predictably naive and manipulatable. That’s one side of the equation.

Opinionated Opinions

On the other hand, I’ve noticed an ongoing social media trope declaring: People need your love more than your opinion. That statement may or may not be correct, depending on the circumstances. There are situations where I’d prefer my doctor to have valid opinions far more than lovingly offered incorrect opinions. Still, there are times I need a correct loving opinion. But who expects nuance in social media wisdom these days? However, let’s not let the irony pass us by that the statement, “People need your love more than your opinion,” is an opinionated opinion about having opinions. Perhaps it would be more correct to say make sure when giving your opinion you do so with love. But that doesn’t fit as easily in Instagram’s square box.

The Opinion that Cried Wolf

There’s a tug of war in our nature that does need reconciling. We do love to give our opinion. Even introverts can’t resist hinting at their firmly held opinions, even if they do so passive-aggressively or in coded language. Sometimes we are so loose with our opinions that we lose influence because people learn to tune us out. Sort of like the little boy who cried wolf when there was no wolf and when a wolf really did show up, no one believed the little boy’s warning. Similarly, many people waste their influence by spouting their opinion over myopic subjects that matter very little in the grand scheme of life. When their opinion really could make a difference, no one is listening.

The Facts Don’t Care About Your Opinion

To complicate things even more, we naturally enjoy giving our opinion much more than hearing the opinions of others. And that includes hearing the opinions of people who know more than we know about the topic at hand. No one likes a know-it-all, and no one wants to appear ignorant. It’s a conundrum that creates all kinds of problems. We like to feel as though we secretly or overtly know more than others. Of course, this is exacerbated by social media and the internet because we all have access to information that may or may not be correct. Let alone helpful. If you need an example, mess around on a medical self-diagnosing website for a few minutes. You’ll be convinced you have some rare condition you previously did not know existed.

Wisdom & Opinion

Because of my ministerial calling, the subject of opinions intrigues me deeply. The word alone is complicated to unpack because the question of how to separate opinion from fact (or truth) becomes paramount to this whole discussion. It’s easier to dismiss something as an “opinion” than to face it as an inconvenient fact we just don’t want to hear. Even the word opinion comes weighted with the “your truth” versus “my truth” connotation. Frequently we dump unwanted truth in the it’s-just-their-opinion basket. While other times, opinion givers package their unnecessary bias as a fact when it would be better to frame that thought as a personal opinion. Or better yet, leave the thought unstated altogether. That’s where wisdom comes into play. Oh, and humility too.

It would be misleading for me to infer I’ve perfected the art of knowing when and how to give my opinion. I’m certainly a work in progress. But I am slowly learning and struggling to grow in wisdom and humility. A case could be made that ministry and all forms of leadership revolve around the perfecting of opinions. Hopefully, those opinions are grounded in timeless biblical truths, Spirit-led wisdom, and intentional humility. Nonetheless, leadership in all its various forms is steeped in the wellspring of opinion. Indeed, preaching is divinely designed to shape, change, and rearrange fleshly views. Much of ministry encompasses the dispensing of opinion or offering wisdom to others.

The Difference Between Sacred & Secular Opinion

Ministry is dramatically unique from almost every secular leadership environment. Every opinion turned policy must be followed in the corporate leadership world, or you lose your job. That’s even more true in military leadership structures. All federal and local government jobs are that way too. There are typically immediate consequences for ignoring leaders’ opinions in secular leadership structures. But although ministers have God-given authority (and we could argue another time about how absolute that authority should be according to Scripture), that authority cannot and should not be imposed forcefully. The Bible is clear; shepherds must not lord over the flock (1 Peter 5:3). In this instance, I prefer the English Standard Version’s translation, “not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock (1 Peter 5:3).”

Influence: The Currency of the Ministry

The harsh reality of ministry is that you spend more time counseling and comforting people after they discarded your opinion (wise counsel) than just about anything else. And after a couple of hundred hours of those sad sessions where you bite your tongue half off to keep from saying I-told-you-so, authoritarianism seems awfully appealing. Or, you might be tempted never to offer a wise opinion and just live and let live. Countless burned-out ministers have expressed that very feeling to me in private. I understand and relate to their emotions. The currency of ministry is influence, and that’s challenging to maintain ethically, especially when staying true to complex yet fundamental principles. Everything in this world is striving to gain influence over the people under a shepherd’s care. Most of those opinionated influences seek to undermine spiritual guidance, and a shepherd can’t use his staff to beat sheep into submission. That sounds like a no-brainer, but it’s less obvious when a shepherd sees one of his sheep following a wolf into the wilderness. So, let me offer my opinionated opinions about dispensing opinions, most of which are things I’ve learned through trial and error.

More Listening and Less Speaking

James 1:19 instructs us to be quick to hear and slow to speak. Ecclesiastes 3:7 reminds us there is a time for silence and a time to speak. And Proverbs 17:27 in the English Standard Version says, “Whoever restrains his words has knowledge, and he who has a cool spirit is a man of understanding.” Again, in the English Standard Version, Proverbs 18:13 declares, “If one gives an answer before he hears, it is his folly and shame.” These, along with many other relevant Scriptures, underscore an important implied lesson about how every Christian should approach offering their opinions. Mainly, we should do less speaking and more listening.

There’s more wisdom in this little principle than we might recognize immediately. First, less speaking gives us more time to gather our thoughts and offer a well-worded opinion. Second, it allows us to hear all the relevant information before jumping to the wrong conclusion or getting ahead of the facts. Third, it enables us to maintain a calm demeanor that projects wisdom and understanding rather than impatience and impetuousness. There is a time to speak our opinion but learning to listen long enough is a discipline many leaders lack. I’ve found that many people will tell things they didn’t intend to reveal if I let them speak long enough, allowing me to understand what I’m really dealing with under the surface. If I’d spoken sooner, my advice would not have been helpful because I lacked awareness.

More Building Up and Less Tearing Down

Colossians 4:6 says, “Let your speech be always with grace, seasoned with salt, that ye may know how ye ought to answer every man.” Similarly, Ephesians 4:29 in the English Standard Version says, “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.”

It’s easy to focus on other people’s failures, negatives, and downright stupidity when offering opinions—that mindset results in an offensive, critical, condescending, and prideful demeanor. That doesn’t mean constructive criticism or outright correction is never warranted. Warnings and disapproval must be seasoned with grace and should fit the occasion. Don’t do a disapproval dump of the, and-while-I’m-at-it-let-me-say-this, variety. Most people can only handle so much constructive criticism at one time. If they feel like you’ve been waiting to pounce, it can be crushing to the heartiest of spirits. A good rule of thumb is to temper each negative statement with at least one or two positive comments. Never tear down without building up at the same time. Never lance an infection without applying ointment and bandaging it with care.

More Praying Before Answering

Numbers 9:1-14 recounts a fascinating leadership lesson from the early days of Moses’ ministry. The Israelites had been in the wilderness for one year after leaving Egypt, and God gave specific instructions on what day to celebrate the Passover. Moses dutifully passed the instructions along to the people, and preparations seemed to be going smoothly until a few men approached Moses with a problem. They had come into contact with a dead body rendering them ceremonially unclean which meant they were technically disqualified from celebrating the Passover at the God-ordained time. This might sound silly to our New Testament way of thinking, but this was a big deal with no obvious solution. And the way Moses responded to these men is an example for us all. He said, “Wait here until I have received instructions for you from the Lord (Numbers 9:8).” If we all prayed more before giving opinions, everyone would be in better shape. We’d likely throw our opinions out less often but with better results. Why? Because prayer forces us to make sure our opinion is actually God’s opinion, which makes all the difference.

More Replying and Less Coercing

One day King Zedekiah called for the prophet Jeremiah to come and speak with him. “I want to ask you something,” he said firmly. “And don’t try to hide the truth,” he demanded. Jeremiah’s response contains a lesson for us about when and how to handle knowledge. The prophet’s response is found in Jeremiah 38:15, and I’m using the English Standard Version, “If I tell you the truth, you will kill me. And if I give you advice, you won’t listen to me anyway.” Most people can’t wait to give their opinion, and they would be beside themselves if a king wanted their advice. Yet, Jeremiah knew opinions are a dime a dozen, and wasting advice on people who won’t receive it can produce more damage than good. After some back and forth, Jeremiah eventually did offer his opinion, but only after ensuring the king was sincerely ready to receive it.

Proverbs 1:5 in the English Standard Version declares, “Let the wise hear and increase in learning, and the one who understands obtain guidance.” Again, in the English Standard Version, Proverbs 15:12 asserts, “A scoffer does not like to be reproved; he will not go to the wise.” Here’s the harsh point, if you have to chase people down to give them your opinion (or advice), you’re wasting your time. The moment you find yourself trying to coerce people into enduring your opinion, the struggle for influence has already been lost. That doesn’t mean you can’t regain it, but the timing is off. People ready to receive counsel will come to you. And those who never seek wise opinions would do well to consider Ecclesiastes 4:13 (English Standard Version), “Better was a poor and wise youth than an old and foolish king who no longer knew how to take advice.”

More Love and Less of Everything Else

I know it gets taken out of context quite a bit, but it would be foolish to have this discussion without referencing the admonition of Ephesians 4:15 to speak the truth with love. The old saying is true: People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. Beyond that, some people will never care how much you care or how much you know. Love them anyway, but save your breath for those willing to listen. But remember, even people willing to listen will reject your opinion if you give it without love. Let’s commit ourselves to the hard work of loving more than spouting off opinions. Cold-hearted leaders harm the truth with their actions despite their correct words—cloak hard facts in the softness of love. If they reject your wisdom and leadership, you can stand before the Lord with a blameless heart.

More Wisdom and Less Foolishness

Let’s switch gears from the subject of giving opinions to the importance of receiving correct views from others. Regardless of status, we all need wise counsel, or we will descend into foolishness. Fyodor Dostoevsky, the legendary author of Crime & Punishment, once said, “The cleverest of all, in my opinion, is the man who calls himself a fool at least once a month.” President John F. Kennedy is noted as saying, “Too often we enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.” Those two quotes are self-deprecating ways of articulating that even the wisest among us still need the wisdom of those more discerning. Intelligent people know their weaknesses and acknowledge their blind spots. Foolish people insist on trusting their insufficiencies to their detriment.

The psalmist promised, “Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly (Psalm 1:1).” And Proverbs 13:20 warned, “He that walketh with wise men shall be wise: but a companion of fools shall be destroyed (Proverbs 13:20).” The apostle Paul cautioned the church in Colossians 2:8, “Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ.” It’s not enough to know you need the opinions of others. Having the prudence to find good godly counsel is the key that unlocks the door to sagacity. Astute people seek advice from wise people, and silly people glean from the opinions of foolish people.

More Peace and Less Drama

James 3:17-18 is one of my favorite passages of Scripture (I’m quoting from the English Standard Version):

But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.

If you’re wondering how to decipher the difference between righteous opinions and fleshly opinions, the above passage should be circled and boldly highlighted in your Bible. Pious opinions are always seeking peace. That doesn’t mean they’re weak or watered down. It simply means they’re working hard to be peaceful, merciful, sincere, and impartial. Each one of those four things takes courage, effort, and intentionality. Things like contentiousness, cantankerousness, condescension, and downright divisiveness don’t require much exertion because they’re baked into our sinful nature. Look for leaders who strive to keep peace and attempt to be that kind of leader yourself. And if you do, you will reap a harvest of righteousness.

It Filled the House – The Journey from Tabernacle to Temple to Earthen Vessels with Samuel Vaughn (Article + Podcast)

After reading It Filled the House (The Journey from Tabernacle to Temple to Earthen Vessel), I knew Samuel Vaughn needed to be a guest on the Apostolic Voice podcast. I’ve never met Samuel, but I knew we were like-minded thinkers from how his book was written. Vaughn is a systematic thinker. As the title suggests, It Filled the House takes the reader on a Holy Ghost journey from the book of Exodus to the New Testament. Actually, if you count some detours in the book, it takes the reader from Genesis to the New Testament.

Systematic Theology Made Enjoyable

Essentially, Vaughn has connected the theological dots between the types and shadows of the Old Testament and the explicit commands regarding the infilling of the Holy Spirit in the New Testament. Furthermore, It Filled the House does more than demonstrate the necessity of the Holy Ghost in the New Birth experience. It also highlights the continuing role of the Spirit in a believer’s life. But don’t mistake It Filled the House as a boring theological read. It’s not. Along the way, Vaughn scatters practical illuminations from the Scripture that encourage, uplift, and challenge our walk with God. It’s almost as if the systematic theological aspect of the book sneaks up on you from chapter to chapter, which is the mark of a good writer.

When the Glory Cloud Seems to Be Departing

Vaughn begins It Filled the House by noting the first instance the Bible refers to the glory cloud in Exodus 13:21-22. The cloud represented the Spirit of God, and it led them through the wilderness away from Egypt. The inference is that God’s Spirit still guides us today, but it does so internally rather than externally. It’s important to recognize that God purposefully led the Hebrews to a dead end at the Red Sea with Pharaoh’s army hot on their heels. And that’s the moment the glory cloud moved from the front to the back. Vaughn paints the picture like this:

What beautiful imagery of the cloud floating over the children of Israel toward their enemy. But can you imagine the confusion and anxiety of Israel? The God that had been leading them in front was now behind them instead. What did it mean? Did it mean God was leaving them or walking away? No doubt, many within the group believed God’s repositioning to be abandonment. But God was not abandoning them. He was posturing Himself.

Vaughn compares that Red Sea experience to how we often feel when faced with trials where God seems far away. I like the way Vaughn phrases the reality of what God was doing, “What we think is desertion is actually deterrence!” He continues:

God goes before His people. Sometimes, God goes behind them as well. He provides direction from the front and protection from behind. God is acting as the bookends of provision and protection. He is truly the author and the finisher of our faith.

God goes before His people. Sometimes, God goes behind them as well. He provides direction from the front and protection from behind. God is acting as the bookends of provision and protection.

Years ago, the Lord illuminated something that impacted my understanding of How God operates. I was studying the armor of God in Ephesians 6:10-18. And I was a little troubled because there’s nothing listed in the vast array of God’s spiritual armor that offers protection for our backs. It’s as if our backs are completely exposed to attack. And my life experience informs me that most spiritual and physical attacks come from behind. During that time of prayer and study, God reminded me of how the glory cloud moved from direction to protection at the Red Sea encounter. The principle of God’s word is that if we always move in the direction God leads when opposition arises, if we have put on the whole armor of God, the Lord Himself will fight from behind, and the Spirit empowers us to battle forward.

God Exposes the Egyptian False Gods

God manifested His glorious presence with a cloud during the day, and at night that cloud morphed into a pillar of fire. God did not choose these two symbols randomly. These symbols exposed two of the most revered false gods in the vast pantheon of Egyptian gods. Vaughn gives a short history lesson to set up a profound point:

The Egyptians worshipped the sun god, Ra, which used fire to create light. Another deity in their pantheon was the god, Shu. Shu was the god of the air and light. One of Shu’s responsibilities was to protect Ra from the evil snake-god Apep that tried to destroy Ra each night and prevent the sunrise.  

Vaughn leaps to the crux of the lesson:

God used fire at night to show that He could provide light when Ra could not, thus proving to Egypt that Ra was dead. He used a cloud that moved freely in the sky to show that He had power over the air, showing that Shu was no more.

God used fire at night to show that He could provide light when Ra could not, thus proving to Egypt that Ra was dead. He used a cloud that moved freely in the sky to show that He had power over the air, showing that Shu was no more.

God intentionally used symbols the Egyptians revered to prove that their gods were subdued. It was a magnificent display of God’s power over false gods, ideologies, and philosophies. Similarly, the Spirit of God is required for us today to expose falsehoods, strong delusion, and anything opposed to biblical Truth.

The Spirit of God is required for us today to expose falsehoods, strong delusion, and anything opposed to biblical Truth.

Types & Shadows Within the Exodus Story

Warning: I’m going to seriously nerd out on this topic. So, if you’re a casual reader looking for quick points, go ahead and skip down to the next subject.

The apostle Paul compared New Testament baptism to the crossing of the Red Sea in 1 Corinthians 10. Vaughn describes it this way, “The Red Sea is a shadow of water baptism for Christians today.” He continues, “Crossing the Red Sea, then, is akin to passing through the water for the remission of sins.” The typological imagery of the Hebrew’s deliverance from Egypt to New Testament salvation is fascinating. Each element of salvation and the Christian life is foreshadowed in the Exodus story.

Egypt represents both the bondage of sin and the world from which we need saving. Moses, as the deliverer, then becomes a type of Christ. The captive Hebrew’s decision to leave Egypt is a type of repentance. As mentioned, the Red Sea is a type of water baptism. The cloud and pillar of fire become symbolic of the Holy Spirit. The Hebrew’s subsequent wandering in the wilderness post-Red Sea is a type of a believer’s life as a stranger and pilgrim in this present world awaiting entrance into the Promised Land. And, of course, the Promised Land itself is emblematic of our eternal home in Heaven.

As Vaughn carefully points out, Acts 2:37-38 emphatically states that the three elements of the New Birth (or salvation) is repentance, water baptism in Jesus’ name, and the infilling of the Holy Ghost, first evidenced by speaking in other tongues (or previously unlearned languages) as the Spirit gives the utterance (or inspiration). Apostolics differ from numerous other persuasions in that we affirm the essentiality of baptism and Spirit infilling. However, this has caused some consternation when comparing the typology of the Exodus account to the apostolic view of New Testament salvation. The glory cloud typifying the Spirit of God leads them but does not fill them as the Spirit does in Acts 2.

Vaughn does an admirable job of continuing the biblical narrative of the cloud going from the Tabernacle to Solomon’s Temple and finally into human vessels in Acts 2. He demonstrates that Scripture doesn’t leave the typology of the infilling of the Spirit unfinished or unfulfilled. However, as is often the case in Scripture, there’s a mixing of metaphors that completes the short-term picture emblematic of salvation in the Exodus account. For those who would like a resolution of salvific foreshadowing, it can be found in Exodus 15:22-27, which describes the Hebrew’s encounter with the bitter waters of Marah.

Upon leaving the Red Sea (baptism), Moses led the people into the desert of Shur. The King James Version says, “Moses brought Israel from the Red Sea (Exodus 14:22).” The New Living Translation says, “Moses led the people of Israel away from the Red Sea (Exodus 15:22).” However, the literal translation of “brought” and “led” is that he “made them journey,” which is not a common expression in this context.[i] As you will see momentarily, the forcefulness of this language further drives home the Scriptural theme of moving from baptism to the infilling of the Spirit. Once again, I’m reminded of Acts 2:38 and its declaration to repent and be baptized, “and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost.” 

After three days in the desert, they desperately needed life-giving water. This typifies the believer’s need to be filled with the Spirit to survive life in the wilderness (this world) traveling to the Promised Land (Heaven). Arguing that the infilling of the Holy Ghost isn’t necessary for salvation is like arguing that water isn’t essential for life. When the Hebrews finally reached the waters of Marah, it was too bitter to drink. Some commentators suggest the bitterness of the water referred to the taste due to high mineral content. As if people literally dying of thirst would fuss about bad-tasting water. I find that view ludicrous. Likely the water was undrinkable due to high salt content.[ii]

Arguing that the infilling of the Holy Ghost isn’t necessary for salvation is like arguing that water isn’t essential for life.

So, in Exodus 15:24, Moses cried out to God, and the Lord showed him a tree. Isn’t that amazing? Now we have a tree that becomes a type of the cross. Interestingly, this verse doesn’t describe Moses receiving any Divine instructions about what to do with this tree. Although perhaps we can take it for granted that the instructions were given. Regardless, Moses cast the tree into the bitter water, and it miraculously became sweet (drinkable). Furthermore, after tasting the sweet water, the people received a standard from the Lord to listen carefully to His commands and obey all His ordinances and decrees. That instruction came with a promise that if they were obedient, they would not suffer the diseases of the Egyptians, and they would find healing from the hand of the Lord (Exodus 15:25-26).

Let me try to unpack all the New Testament parallels in that brief passage of Scripture.

  • We have no access to the life-giving water of the Spirit without the cross (1 Corinthians 1:18, 1 Peter 2:24-25, John 3:16, Galatians 2:20, Galatians 3:13, Philippians 2:5-8, Colossians 2:14, Colossians 1:19-20, Ephesians 2:16, 1 John 2:1-4, Romans 6:6, Isaiah 53:5).
  • There is no life (salvation) without the infilling of the Spirit (Romans 8:5, Romans 8:9, Romans 8:14, 1 Corinthians 12:13, 1 John 4:13).
  • Not only is the Spirit necessary, but it is wonderfully sweet.
  • The infilling of the Spirit enables us to live in obedience to the commandments of the Lord. It empowers us to overcome the bondage of sin. Without the Spirit, we would quickly be enslaved again by the world (Egypt) (Luke 24:49, Acts 1:8, Acts 4:33, 1 Corinthians 12:10, Hebrews 2:4)
  • The Spirit opens the door to the miraculous. Spiritual and physical healing are obtainable because of the cross and the successive working of the Spirit in and through God’s people (James 5:14-15, Matthew 18:18, John 14:12).
  • Because of the supernatural empowerment over sin the Spirit provides, we can be impervious to common ailments typical of Egyptian (worldly) lifestyles.
  • For reference sake, here is a list of other Scriptures that speak metaphorically of the Spirit as water (John 4:10-15, John 7:37-39, Isaiah 12:3, Isaiah 44:3, Revelation 21:6, Revelation 22:17, 1 Corinthians 10:4, 1 Corinthians 12:13, John 6:63, Exodus 17:6).  

There is no life (salvation) without the infilling of the Spirit (Romans 8:5, Romans 8:9, Romans 8:14, 1 Corinthians 12:13, 1 John 4:13).

Without the Spirit, we would quickly be enslaved again by the world (Egypt) (Luke 24:49, Acts 1:8, Acts 4:33, 1 Corinthians 12:10, Hebrews 2:4)

Whew. Ok. One final thought on the typology found in the Exodus story: Exodus 16 introduces the miraculous manna from heaven that God provided for the children of Israel to sustain them during their wilderness wanderings. That manna typifies the Word of God a believer needs to be spiritually sustained today. Just as the people had to gather the manna for themselves each morning, we are to hide God’s word in our hearts daily. A day without feasting on the Word should be as rare as a day without food.

Just as the people had to gather the manna for themselves each morning, we are to hide God’s word in our hearts daily. A day without feasting on the Word should be as rare as a day without food.

Just as it was the ministry’s job to preserve the manna for future generations in Exodus 16:33, today it is the ministry’s responsibility to preserve the Word from generation to generation. Also, the Israelites grew tired of the manna. Eventually, their gratitude turned to ungratefulness, and they hungered for Egyptian foods (Numbers 11:6, Numbers 21:5). When the people spoke against Moses and the manna, God sent poisonous snakes among the people as a judgment. Here are a few lessons we should learn from the manna:

Just as it was the ministry’s job to preserve the manna for future generations in Exodus 16:33, today it is the ministry’s responsibility to preserve the Word from generation to generation.

  • People who grow tired of the Word will attack the man of God over them.
  • Tiring of the Word is a sign of carnality.
  • The Word is our spiritual sustenance. We die spiritually without the Word, just as we would die physically without food.
  • Grumbling about the Word invites poisonous things into our lives.
  • There is hidden manna in Heaven for those who are victorious (Revelation 2:17).
  • Deuteronomy 8:3 tells us that God humbled the Israelites by letting them go hungry and then feeding them with manna to teach them that man shall not live by bread alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of God. Jesus quoted this Scripture while being tempted by Satan in the wilderness (Matthew 4:4).
  • Jesus was the Word made flesh (John 1:14), the Word incarnate (John 1:1-3), the Living Word (John 6:63), the bread of life (John 6:35). One of the most dramatic links between Old Testament types and shadows is in John 6:58, where Jesus refers to Himself as the “true bread” that came down from heaven. Jesus describes how the ancient Israelites ate manna from heaven, but it did not provide eternal life. In contrast, Jesus promises that the manna He provides will live forever.

There is hidden manna in Heaven for those who are victorious (Revelation 2:17).

Desire Invites the Divine

Vaughn brings out a beautiful point from Moses’ forty days basking in the cloud of God’s glory as he received the Ten Commandments. I’d never thought of it this way, but Vaughn notes that the forty days on the mountain was a time of total isolation from people. While Moses was enjoying the presence of the Lord, the people were creating a golden calf and falling into idolatry. Vaughn says:

It was when the people wanted to distance themselves from God and the man of God that God called Moses to meet with Him. Often when we are ostracized from people who feel threatened by our relationship with God, He will call us up to the mountain to stay a bit longer with Him.

Often when we are ostracized from people who feel threatened by our relationship with God, He will call us up to the mountain to stay a bit longer with Him.

There is inevitable loneliness that accompanies true dedication to the Lord. A social dissidence resides in the heart of every lover of God’s presence. As Vaughn says, “God will always lead you where He can be with you.” If God has to sever friendships to be with you, He will do it. If God is leading you away from a relationship, rest assured He is doing so to be with you. God calls you to climb the mountain, not as a punishment, but as an invitation to be with Him uniquely and memorably. Never allow peer pressure or the desire to fit in keep you from climbing the mountain and experiencing the glory of God. Vaughn stresses that it takes discipline to climb a mountain, and it requires spiritual discipline to enter into God’s presence today. Vaughn gives this insightful thought:

God will always lead you where He can be with you. If God has to sever friendships to be with you, He will do it. If God is leading you away from a relationship, rest assured He is doing so to be with you.

Never allow peer pressure or the desire to fit in keep you from climbing the mountain and experiencing the glory of God.

The exclusive presence of God only seems exclusive to those who are unwilling to pursue Him. Praying, fasting, and studying are disciplines, but eventually, discipline becomes desire. And desire invites the Divine.

The exclusive presence of God only seems exclusive to those who are unwilling to pursue Him. Praying, fasting, and studying are disciplines, but eventually, discipline becomes desire. And desire invites the Divine.

The Difference Between the Cloud and the Glory

Vaughn spends a good deal of time underscoring how the cloud of God and the glory of God are two distinct manifestations. In reference to Exodus 40:33-35, Vaughn states, “The cloud covered the tent of the congregation while the glory of God filled the Tabernacle.” You might remember that Moses asked to see God’s glory. But God responded that no man could look fully at His glory and live. Therefore, God only partially granted Moses’ request by allowing him to look at the hinder parts of His glory. Even that little glimpse of God’s glory was so powerful that it caused Moses’ face to shine with a brilliant light.

The cloud was a shield or partition that covered the glory of God so the people could see it without really seeing it. But just as Moses’ shining face became a conduit for God’s glory to be glimpsed by the people, we can also become glowing lights of God’s glory for our generation. Consider this powerful quote from Vaughn:

Can people tell we have been in the presence of God? We should have an afterglow of His character in our attitude if we are spending time with God. More time in the presence of love will make us more loving. More time in the presence of peace will make us peaceful. More time in the presence of joy will make us joyful. Consequently, the people you come in contact with will notice the difference, and it will brighten their day. If your life is not shining light into this dark world, then perhaps you are not spending enough time with God.   

We should have an afterglow of His character in our attitude if we are spending time with God. More time in the presence of love will make us more loving. More time in the presence of peace will make us peaceful.

If your life is not shining light into this dark world, then perhaps you are not spending enough time with God.

The New Tabernacle of God

Vaughn draws an interesting comparison between the Tabernacle in the wilderness and the New Testament Church. He begins by quoting a portion of John 1:14, “…and the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us.” Vaughn points out that “dwelt” is the Greek word meaning “to tabernacle.” Jesus became flesh so that God could tabernacle with humanity in a new way. Vaughn makes his main point, saying:

Since the Tabernacle is a type of the Church, it can be argued that the Israelite camp represents our life. Just as the Tabernacle was at the center of the Israelite camp, we must build our lives around the Church, the dwelling place of God. God is not limited to a physical structure, but like the Tabernacle, the Church is a place where we regularly visit with God.

Just as the Tabernacle was at the center of the Israelite camp, we must build our lives around the Church, the dwelling place of God. God is not limited to a physical structure, but like the Tabernacle, the Church is a place where we regularly visit with God.

Three Factors Always Surrounding A Move of God

In great detail, Vaughn builds the case beginning with Leviticus 9:22-23 and moving carefully to the book of Acts, that three common factors always surround or proceed a move of God:

  1. A house was built.
  2. There were consecrated people who followed instructions.
  3. There was a sacrifice.

And there were two responses from God:

  1. The cloud.
  2. The fire.

To prove his point, Vaughn walks us through the parallels between the move of God surrounding the tabernacle and Solomon’s temple. In both instances, a house was constructed, consecrated people carefully followed instructions, and sacrifice was present. And both times, God responded with a cloud and fire. In true systematic fashion, Vaughn intended these images to fill our minds so we could fully comprehend the spiritual formation of the New Testament Church. And he begins that comparison in a unique manner which few other commentators have touched upon, by quoting Jesus’ shocking declaration found in John 2:19-20:

Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up… Forty and six years was this temple in building, and wilt thou rear it up in three days?

Of course, those words were shocking to the listeners because they didn’t understand that Solomon’s corrupted temple was about to become irrelevant within the New Testament paradigm. The presence of God was about to relocate from the Temple to earthen vessels thanks to the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. That same Spirit that raised Christ Jesus from the dead desires to dwell inside us individually (Romans 8:9-10). Vaughn says it best:

It was never enough to have a house among His people; He wanted to be inside of His people. God wants more than to dwell among us; He longs to live in us! In the Old Testament, the Tabernacle preceded the Temple because the Tabernacle was a mobile place for a mobile people while the Temple was a permanent place for a permanent people. God’s glory dwelt in the fleshly temple of Jesus while He walked with humanity. Now He resides in the fleshly Temple of our hearts as a permanent fixture in our lives. Jesus was the living Temple. Now we are the living Temple! When we receive the Holy Spirit, we carry the glory of God around with us.

It was never enough to have a house among His people; He wanted to be inside of His people. God wants more than to dwell among us; He longs to live in us!

Jesus was the living Temple. Now we are the living Temple! When we receive the Holy Spirit, we carry the glory of God around with us

The New House

In the final pages of It Filled the House, Vaughn begins tying the threads of prophecy and biblical symbolism into a coherent thread. Once he is done, the reader can easily see the tapestry of God’s design woven throughout Scripture. Vaughn draws from Hebrews 3:6, reminding us that Christians are now the house of Jesus or the dwelling place of God. Remember, the first factor surrounding a move of God is the building of a house. Vaughn explains:

The house built on the Day of Pentecost was not a physical structure like the Tabernacle or Temple. Instead, each individual became the Temple of the Holy Ghost. After the disciples were filled with the Holy Ghost on the Day of Pentecost, the Bible began referring to the group as the church.

The house built on the Day of Pentecost was not a physical structure like the Tabernacle or Temple. Instead, each individual became the Temple of the Holy Ghost.

The new house of God is bonded together, not with brick and mortar, but by the Holy Spirit. And while we are thankful for buildings dedicated exclusively to worshipping the Lord, buildings are not the church. The church is the collective body of Spirit-filled believers. Vaughn concisely drives that point home:

Whereas the people of God once worshipped solely at a physical place that God had filled, they now become the structure that God fills.

Whereas the people of God once worshipped solely at a physical place that God had filled, they now become the structure that God fills.

In a scene intended to remind us of Moses’ Tabernacle and Solomon’s Temple, cloven tongues of fire descended upon the heads of the disciples in the Upper Room (Acts 2). Furthermore, they spoke in other tongues (previously unlearned languages) as the Spirit gave them utterance. God responded to their sacrifice with Divine fire. Here we see that the people in the Upper Room became the house, the sacrifice, and they followed instructions. Anyone longing to receive the Holy Spirit today must follow that example. In other words, if a person longs to receive the Spirit of God, they must present themselves as a temple longing to be filled. Also, they must empty themselves through repentance, therefore presenting themselves as a living sacrifice. And they must be completely obedient to God’s Word. Anyone willing to do so will undoubtedly experience the glory of God.

The Superiority of the New House

The moving of the Spirit from Tabernacle to Temple to Earthen Vessels was a necessary progression that God intended all along. And because God does everything perfectly, the new house of God comprised of Spirit-filled people is superior to the former houses made with human hands. For example, Vaughn astutely points out that Solomon’s Temple, although massive, was fixed in size while the people multiplied around it. Meaning the Temple in all its splendor could not have accommodated worship forever. No building is large enough to accommodate and contain the worship of the countless multitudes God is reaching towards. Vaughn says:

Instead of adding to the Temple, God designed a new house that would always grow at the same rate as His people. This new house is called the church.

Instead of adding to the Temple, God designed a new house that would always grow at the same rate as His people. This new house is called the church.

This subject reminds us that when we become overly fixated on building better buildings rather than reaching souls, we have misplaced our mandate. That’s not to say that facilities aren’t good, necessary, and even wonderful. They are. Just as a family needs a house, the family of God requires a shared space that accommodates its needs. But there’s an old saying that applies to individual families, and it’s relevant to the church family as well: A house does not make a home. It takes far more than a building to make a group of people family, and it takes far more than a church house to make a group of people the church. Vaughn gives one last example of how the new house of God is superior to the Tabernacle and Temple of old:

When we become overly fixated on building better buildings rather than reaching souls, we have misplaced our mandate.

A house does not make a home. It takes far more than a building to make a group of people family, and it takes far more than a church house to make a group of people the church.

Like the Tabernacle in Moses’ day, the church is mobile… Like the Temple, the church has the permanence of God’s Spirit within the hearts of the believers. In this way, the church carries both the mobility of the Tabernacle and the permanence of the Temple.

Like the Tabernacle in Moses’ day, the church is mobile… Like the Temple, the church has the permanence of God’s Spirit within the hearts of the believers. In this way, the church carries both the mobility of the Tabernacle and the permanence of the Temple.

As you can see, the Spirit enables, unites, excites, and invites the whole world into fellowship with God. The infilling of the Spirit isn’t a side doctrine or a menial gift for some super-elite people. It’s the very thing that makes the church the church.

As you can see, the Spirit enables, unites, excites, and invites the whole world into fellowship with God. The infilling of the Spirit isn’t a side doctrine or a menial gift for some super-elite people. It’s the very thing that makes the church the church.


[i] John N. Oswalt, “Exodus,” in Genesis Exodus, vol. 1 of Cornerstone Biblical Commentary. Accordance electronic ed. (Carol Stream: Tyndale House Publishers, 2008), 401.

https://accordance.bible/link/read/Cornerstone_Commentary#4238

[ii] Duane A. Garrett, A Commentary on Exodus, Kregel Exegetical Library. Accordance electronic ed. (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 2014), 412.

https://accordance.bible/link/read/KEL_OT-7#4063

Link to purchase It Filled the House by Samuel Vaughn on Amazon.com

Your Past Is Not Your Future with Coley Reese (Article + Podcast)

Evangelist Coley Reese is a long-time friend. His ministry is a blessing, and it’s enjoyable talking with him. I knew we could sit down and talk about anything and have a good time, but I precisely wanted to focus on his conversion story. Because we have such different backgrounds, I wanted to learn from his past. I’m a fourth-generation apostolic, and Coley had no church upbringing. He’s the pioneer of Pentecost in his family, and that perspective permeates his ministry. I hope you’ll listen to the entire podcast (featured below). There’s no way I can cover even a tenth of the testimonies and nuggets of wisdom shared in our conversation. However, I want to share some highlights from the podcast in this post for those who prefer to read or as a quick reference for those listening and reading simultaneously. As always, thanks so much for reading and listening to Apostolic Voice. If you’d like to support this ministry financially, please follow this link www.anchor.fm/apostolicvoice/support. Or you can bless Apostolic Voice by leaving us a simple iTunes review at this this link www.podcast.apple.com.

Helping Sinners Receive the Holy Ghost

I’ve pulled several thoughts from Coley Reese’s conversion story: One, God can use backsliders and even totally unsaved individuals to push us towards the Truth. Two, a worshipping church will cause lost souls to feel a connection with God they don’t even understand. Three, it’s imperative that churches have at least a few individuals that know how to operate in the altar with wisdom, sensitivity, and apostolic boldness. Four, we must ensure that hungry hearts seeking the Holy Ghost understand how to repent and have repented of their sins. Otherwise, they will not receive the Holy Spirit, leaving them frustrated. All the shaking, praying, weeping, spitting, and gyrating in the world won’t change that fact. However, once a person has repented, we must encourage them to move past remorseful weeping, shame, doubt, and condemnation so they can accept God’s forgiveness and worship their way into the infilling of the Spirit.

A worshipping church will cause lost souls to feel a connection with God they don’t even understand.

It’s imperative that churches have at least a few individuals that know how to operate in the altar with wisdom, sensitivity, and apostolic boldness.

We must ensure hungry hearts seeking the Holy Ghost have repented of their sins. Otherwise, they will not receive the Holy Spirit, leaving them frustrated. All the shaking, praying, weeping, spitting, and gyrating in the world won’t change that fact.

Once a person has repented, we must encourage them to move past remorseful weeping, shame, doubt, and condemnation so they can accept God’s forgiveness and worship their way into the infilling of the Spirit.

Feel Called to the Ministry?

If you’re feeling called to the ministry, remember that God doesn’t care about your past, pedigree, education, or financial status. All God is concerned with is that you’re a willing vessel that can be used, changed, taught, and molded into His image. Often, we think of ministry and preaching in church or something lofty and mystical. But the reality of ministry is servanthood and sacrifice. If trash needs picked up, pick up trash. If chairs need set out or put away, do it. Do it without being asked. Stay longer than others, looking for ways to be a blessing in every church setting. If you are given a leadership position or an area of responsibility, refuse to view that as a stepping stone to something better. Throw yourself into those responsibilities, no matter how big, or small they seem, with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. That doesn’t mean you can’t or won’t feel called to something higher in the future, but if God can’t trust you in the process of exaltation, you will forfeit the higher calling. Many David’s have missed the anointing because they weren’t faithful in their father’s fields doing the menial work entrusted to them for that season of life.

God doesn’t care about your past, pedigree, education, or financial status. All God is concerned with is that you’re a willing vessel that can be used, changed, taught, and molded into His image.

The reality of ministry is servanthood and sacrifice. If trash needs picked up, pick up trash. Do it without being asked. Stay longer than others, looking for ways to be a blessing in every church setting.

If you are given a leadership position or an area of responsibility, refuse to view that as a stepping stone to something better. Throw yourself into those responsibilities, no matter how big, or small they seem, with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength.

Many David’s have missed the anointing because they weren’t faithful in their father’s fields doing the menial work entrusted to them for that season of life.

You Don’t Know Me

Coley Reese shared a story that moved me the most about the time he decided to preach at a homeless shelter without even being asked. This was long before he had much experience as a preacher, but he was passionate and wanted to do something for God. He simply got up and shared the plan of salvation as best he could. No one seemed like they gave his passionate sermon any attention. Twenty years later, he was preaching at Rev. Brandon Batton’s church in Columbus, GA, when a man walked up to him and said, “You don’t know me, but I was at that homeless shelter when you preached all those years back.” How amazing is that? A man was saved and serving God twenty years later because of one sermon that Coley Reese thought had been a moment of failure.

The Ground Doesn’t Care Where the Seed Comes From

Coley referenced a sermon by one of our favorite preachers, Rev. Wayne Huntley, called The Treasure’s in the Field. In that message, Rev. Wayne Huntley points out that the ground doesn’t care if the seed falls from the hands of a seasoned farmer, an inexperienced child, or a novice agriculturalist. All that matters to the ground is that it gets the seed. Could it be that we try too hard to package the seed just right and worry about our status too much? I think that analogy morphs well into another similar one; hungry people don’t care who hands them the food. They need their hunger satisfied. I think it’s time for us to all grab a handful of the Word and spread it everywhere we go until it finds good soil.

Bishop Wayne Huntley points out that the ground doesn’t care if the seed falls from the hands of a seasoned farmer, an inexperienced child, or a novice agriculturalist. All that matters to the ground is that it gets the seed.

Advice for Student Pastors and Ministers

Before Coley Reese hit the evangelistic field, he was a veteran Youth Pastor with fifteen years of hard-earned experience. Some jokingly referred to him as the “Bishop” of Youth Pastors. I’d personally witnessed his excellence in that role and wanted him to give a few quick words of advice to Student Pastors and ministers connected to Apostolic Voice. I’m just covering the basics of his response in this summary: One, don’t feel pressured always to put on a high-energy event. Two, don’t be discouraged because students are paying closer attention to your words than they might seem on the surface. Three, it sounds trite, but kids don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. Four, personal connections are more critical than your preaching. Five, don’t view your role in student ministry as a stepping stone to the next best position. Six, your life speaks louder than your words. Be a good example.

F.A.N.O.S.

While Coley and I discussed praying people through to the Holy Ghost, a thread popped up several times. The importance of leading people into repentance. Coley Reese mentioned how he often offers to repent with a person seeking the Holy Ghost. Sometimes, it’s good to call the entire congregation to repent together, which creates an environment of repentance. But evangelists and pastors may run into trouble when certain saints feel as though they are too sanctified to repent like an ordinary sinner. To push back against that ridiculous idea, I mentioned a marriage tip my wife, Taylor, and I have been using for many months.

For the sake of memory, we use the acronym F.A.N.O.S. which stands for Feelings, Affirmation, Needs, Ownership, and Struggles. Essentially, we take turns on each topic once a day, sharing our current status related to those five topics. Depending on the circumstances, the process can take anywhere from five minutes to a few hours. Everything usually flows naturally for me until I get to the subject of ownership. That’s the moment I’m supposed to own up to mistakes, failures, or attitudes, whether big or small. The same is true for my wife. It’s incredible how many times I can’t think of anything to take ownership over, only to realize Taylor is hurting over my actions that day or vice versa. We have a happy, loving, intentional marriage, and if that’s true in our earthly marriage, how much more do we grieve God without realizing it?

The bottom line is this. Repentance should be a daily activity in the life of a saint. We don’t always see actions the way God see’s our actions. It’s not that we technically sin intentionally, but we are frail humans in need of God’s constant grace. Beyond that, we should humbly demonstrate repentance so the lost can see it in action. If a call to repentance offends us, we probably need to repent of pride, arrogance, or self-righteousness.

Repentance should be a daily activity in the life of a saint. We don’t always see actions the way God see’s our actions. It’s not that we technically sin intentionally, but we are frail humans in need of God’s constant grace.

We should humbly demonstrate repentance so the lost can see it in action. If a call to repentance offends us, we probably need to repent of pride, arrogance, or self-righteousness.

Takis Fuego Lime Flavored Meat Sticks

Stick around to the very end of the episode to hear the entire Reese and French families taste and rate Takis Fuego Lime flavored meat sticks by Cattleman’s Cut. It was so much fun recording that tiny segment of Gross-Good-Great. We’d all love to hear your thoughts on the episode, your testimony, or your rating of Takis Fuego Lime flavored meat sticks. You can leave a voice recording at this link www.anchor.fm/apostolicvoice. Say hello, and we might just play it on the next episode. And friend, please know your past does not have to be your future. God can take you to heights and blessings you didn’t even know existed.

The Treasure Is In the Field by Rev. Wayne Huntley

My Interview With Bishop T.L. Craft

Life Impact

It’s impossible to adequately articulate how Bishop T.L. Craft has impacted my life and ministry. He is best known around the world as the Bishop of First United Pentecostal Church of Jackson, MS. To thousands like my mother, who attended Jackson College of Ministry, he left an indelible imprint as JCM’s founder and president. Many think of Bishop Craft as a pastor’s pastor and a friend’s friend. He’s the definition of a scholar and a gentleman. Untold numbers of ministers, preachers, teachers, pastors, evangelists, and missionaries found their start under T.L. Craft’s kindhearted tutelage. Furthermore, hundreds of dynamic women of God, like my precious wife, credit Bishop Craft as the pastor that enabled them to launch out successfully into life and ministry. But if you ramble past the thick haze of accolades and success, you see a man who is steadfastly apostolic, warm, sincere, and imminently approachable.

90

Bishop Craft recently turned ninety, although he seems much younger. His mind is sharp, and his thirst for knowledge remains unquenchable. When I walked into his home a few days ago for a podcast recording session, he was well-dressed and just as dapper as always. The only hint of aging was the residual pain and mobility issues associated with a minor stroke. While talking with or observing Bishop Craft, I’ve always felt that he could have been wildly successful within any vocation. He has an enviable knack for making anyone feel totally at ease within seconds. It’s not a show or a put-on. It’s just who he is at the core. He genuinely likes people, and they really want to like him right back because of it. His consistent, approachable demeanor is a refreshing departure from the unfortunate arms-length attitude many high-profile preachers adopt towards people outside their inner circle. After spending just a few minutes with Bishop Craft, it’s easy to see why he’s had to build lots of new buildings over the years to accommodate church growth.

Season 2, Episode 6

The other day I had the opportunity to sit down in Bishop’s home and record a conversation for Apostolic Voice (listen to the whole conversation below or wherever you enjoy podcasts). But I wanted to give a few highlights from that conversation and links to books Bishop mentioned during the episode. As always, if you’d like to support this ministry, please leave an iTunes rating and review. And if you’d like to help financially for as little as $0.99 per month, follow this link.

The Criticism Flip

Christians, especially ministers, tend to feel above criticism. Or at least, we avoid criticism like the plague. I think that’s universal to the human condition. Even “so-called” constructive criticism hurts, particularly when it’s given without an invitation. However, Bishop Craft echoes the sentiment of the CEO of Tesla Motors, Elon Musk, by inviting criticism from outsiders and insiders alike. Bishop Craft smiled and said, “You’ll never hear more honesty than when you invite a visitor to give you honest feedback about things you’re church could be doing better.” “Ignore that honest feedback to your detriment,” he said somberly. He continued, “Inviting criticism is a great way to witness and teach a Bible study.” “You wouldn’t think so,” he said wryly. He explained with a twinkle in his eyes, “By giving them the upper hand, they don’t feel defensive, and you can defend your faith without seeming pushy or overbearing.” You can invite criticism and flip it to your advantage with kindness and open dialogue in countless areas of life.

Advice to Ministers

I’m adding a few bonuses that Bishop Craft mentioned when the microphones were off. I specifically asked Bishop for some ministerial advice. I’m summarizing it in bullet points for quick reference:

  • Always be in service. Don’t miss church.
  • If you’re traveling, let people know where you’re going and what you’re doing.
  • Read voraciously.
  • Be a well-rounded reader by engaging in books on theology, Christian living, history, philosophy, leadership, business, biography, science, culture, and politics.
  • Give your phone number to everyone.
  • Don’t prioritize a secular job over the work of ministry. If you must work a secular job, don’t allow it to become your first priority and define you.
  • Take vacations.

Book & Commentary Recommendations

Apostolic Voice

The End Is Beginning – A Narrative Poem

The slumbering snore baffled the sages.
Long tattered rags masked the seismic rage.
For eons, scribes waited with bated breath.
Ominous groans bolted prophets out of sleep.
Fickle throngs belabored on with stopped-up ears.
Battle drums beat somewhere in time's vast space,
Faintly thumping as if Hell were marching in place.
The Great Bear rose, and the Red Dragon groaned,
The Eagle fluttered while the Rose tilted and swayed.

Have you not seen, have you not heard?
The time is at hand; the end is beginning. 
	
Faintly a horn blasts in the distance dreamily.
A weary few were watching and listening easily. 
Others barely noticed until their screens glistened. 
Where did they go? The anchors droned on and on.
An old tape squawked, I Wish We’d All Been Ready,
The irony of something ignored so warily ignited
Feelings of agony until now left unexcited.
How soon before vials break and wrath explodes?
A trumpet blasts from heavenly places like a war cry.
	
Have you not seen, have you not heard?
The time is at hand; the end is beginning. 

Two fire-breathing preachers wandered outside,
Speaking truths the world long shouted down.
The beginning of sorrows and woe is trickling now.
They shout in the streets like wild men of old.
Beastly fury stamps them out, they lie there cold.
Moses? Elijah? Peter? James? John? No one knows.
Fear, hunger, pain, madness, confusion, delusion 
Crouch in the shadows, waiting to pounce gleefully.
What does this mean? Every human lip screams.

Have you not seen, have you not heard?
The time is at hand; the end is beginning.

Breakers, Takers, Givers, Makers – What Kind of Saint Are You? (Article + Podcast)

Called to Be Saints Together

When the apostle Paul wrote to the church in Corinth, he referred to them as “those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 1:2, ESV).” I’m taking a slight liberty with the text, but I like the English Standard Version in this particular verse because it emphasizes that we are “called to be saints together.” We are together in our local church and with our brothers and sisters worldwide. And that’s the beauty and the beast of the situation. When things are as they should be, “togetherness” is beautiful, unifying, and extraordinarily powerful. But when things aren’t right, “togetherness” is beastly, gnarly, disunifying, and destabilizing. And even though this is most visible in our local churches, the ripple effects of a disunified local church negatively impact the global Church.

Three Types of Togetherness

We Pentecostals have all heard plenty of sermons about the importance of unity. We know they were in “one accord and in “one place” on the Day of Pentecost. Physical, spiritual, and emotional “togetherness” was vital to the first outpouring of the Holy Ghost, and the same is true today. Satan knows this as well. So, he is constantly attacking those three types of togetherness. He’ll either try to keep you from physically being together with other saints, spiritually disunified with other saints or emotionally disconnected from other saints. Revival becomes impossible if he can destroy any of those three types of togetherness among saints in a local church. If disunity becomes malignant in a church, it takes painful emergency surgery to fix it. Otherwise, the church will suffer a slow, agonizing death. In plain terms, spiritual surgery involves one of two things: Radical miraculous heart transplants among significant sources of disunity or those sources of contention leaving the local church permanently.

Physical, spiritual, and emotional togetherness was vital to the first outpouring of the Holy Ghost, and the same is true today. Satan knows this as well. So, he is constantly attacking those three types of togetherness.

Revival Begins with Decrease

If you understand that God is serious about cutting out cancerous growths of disunity, you’ll realize that not all “growth” is healthy, and not all “decrease” is unhealthy. If a doctor cuts a cancerous growth off your body, you wouldn’t consider that a loss. And when disunifying people leave a local church, that shouldn’t be considered a loss either. Instead, it’s God’s way of cleansing and positioning a local church for unity and revival. Most of the dynamic church growth I’ve witnessed in churches began with a numerical decrease before the increase was seen.

If you understand that God is serious about cutting out cancerous growths of disunity, you’ll realize that not all growth is healthy, and not all decrease is unhealthy.

This principle is on full display in the story of Gideon leading a ragtag army to fight the oppressive Midianites (Judges 7:1-24). Gideon had 32,000 men, which was still a tiny number compared to the massive Midianite army. But God was looking for unity in the camp. So, he told Gideon to send the men who were fearful back home. And boom! Twenty-two thousand men left, leaving just 10,000 soldiers. But God wasn’t done cutting the problems out of that army. The Lord instructed Gideon to take his army to the water and make them drink, and whoever got on their knees with their faces in the water could not fight the Midianites. One commentary gives an interesting take on why God would demand such a strange thing:

Those who drink water in a kneeling position with their heads in the water to lap it up are (1) easy targets, (2) unaware of any enemy movement while they drink, and (3) susceptible to leeches. The alternative is to lie down flat (where one presents less of a target) and to keep alert, bringing water to the mouth while continuing to look around.[i]

The men who put their faces in the water weren’t fit for the victory God was about to give. They weren’t alert enough to be unified with God’s plan, and they were vulnerable to leeches and disruptive diseases that endangered the camp. In the end, Gideon’s army was whittled down to just 300 men. That must have felt like a terrible loss to Gideon at the moment before the victory finally came. But it was God’s way of getting the glory and keeping that ragtag army unified and humble.

Three Kinds of Church Members

Recently, I ran across a comment describing three kinds of church members: Browsers, Customers, and Shareholders. Some people are chronic church “Browsers.” When someone approaches and says, “Can I help you with anything?” they respond with, “No, thank you, I’m just browsing.” Browsers are looking for the perfect fit before they commit. They have an idea of something they want in their minds, and they’re not sure if they’re buying yet. It’s understandable to be in this group for a little while. But if a person stays “browsing” a church for too long, it can become an excuse to attend without commitment or submission, which eventually leads to spiritual bankruptcy.

If a person stays “browsing” a church for too long, it can become an excuse to attend without commitment or submission, which eventually leads to spiritual bankruptcy.

There’s another category of church members called Consumers, and they are often the majority of people in a local congregation. They attend with the sole purpose of consuming from the church. They come because of the music, the kid’s program, missions, the Bible teaching, the great preaching, the active fellowship, or the convenience of the location, but if you take any of those things away, they leave. If the Consumers stay around long enough, they might be mistaken for a worker and asked to do or sacrifice something, but they’ll quickly remind you that “they don’t work here.” Ironically, this group of people is usually the most vocal about their opinions, dislikes, complaints, and gripes. They have an “it’s all about me” mentality that makes them very vocal about their wants. If they give financially (they often don’t), they do it as a consumer expecting a particular product or program in return for their payment. If they don’t change, they become a drain rather than a gain to the church.

There’s another category of church members called Consumers, and they are often the majority of people in a local congregation. They attend with the sole purpose of consuming from the church.

Finally, there are Shareholders in every church. Sometimes we call them the “core” or “backbone” of the church. These are the ones who show up to a workday. They give of their time, talent, and treasure without strings. They have invested in the kingdom of God, and they take ownership and responsibility for their involvement. They pray, work, and long for the spiritual success of the church. It’s “their” church. Not in the wrong way. They know ultimately that it’s God’s church. They speak that way because they’ve invested and bought into the vision and purpose of their local congregation. They are true saints of God. Most Shareholders began as Browsers or Consumers but somehow caught the vision and grew into what God intended for them to be all along.

There are Shareholders in every church. Sometimes we call them the “core” or “backbone” of the church. These are the ones who show up to a workday. They give of their time, talent, and treasure without strings.

Breakers, Takers, Givers, Makers

Personally, the Lord gave me a vision years ago of four types of people in a local church. The first two are harmful because they are Breakers and Takers. The last two are positive because they are Givers and Makers. The Lord showed me people who were physically breaking things in the church. God was showing me physically what Breakers do spiritually. They tear things apart and cause brokenness all around them. They engage in gossip, backbiting, and leadership bashing (almost exclusively in private). Breakers sow discord, engender strife, resist all healthy changes, and refuse responsibility for their actions. They hurt vulnerable new believers and discourage seasoned saints. Breakers are responsible for the failure of programs and hinder progression of their local church when left unchecked. Confusingly, they usually portray themselves as Shareholders, but they are toxic Consumers. Or, as Jesus said, “wolves in sheep’s clothing.”

Breakers sow discord, engender strife, resist all healthy changes, and refuse responsibility for their actions. They hurt vulnerable new believers and discourage seasoned saints.

Takers aren’t as toxic as the Breakers, but they aren’t where they need to be either. Sometimes they’re very kind, friendly people. However, they do have a deep flaw. Takers are selfish. They take far more than they give. Not just financially, they take in every area from the church. They come to be fed, but they never do any giving of their own. Takers watch while others work their fingers to the bone without feeling any desire to help. They’re not invested in the kingdom; they’re invested in themselves. Takers think it’s more blessed to receive than to give. They enjoy the benefits and comforts of the church without making meaningful contributions of their own time, treasure, or talent to bless others.

Takers think it’s more blessed to receive than to give. They enjoy the benefits and comforts of the church without making meaningful contributions of their own time, treasure, or talent to bless others.

One quick caveat about Breakers and Takers might seem like a paradox. They will work if given a level of power, leadership, or authority. Sometimes they will even work very hard and have the appearance of Shareholders because of their efforts. However, because their motivations are selfish ambition, self-promotion, or the love of influence and power, their work ultimately becomes destructive and draining to the church. Any apparent good they do is outweighed by the bad. God will not bless selfish efforts regardless of how noble they seem on the surface. Even worse, if they gain notoriety, their spirit becomes contagious to others. Correcting or removing them becomes a nightmare. Many churches have been destroyed because a Taker or a Breaker gained too much influence.

God will not bless selfish efforts regardless of how noble they seem on the surface.

Givers and Makers are the opposite of Breakers and Takers. Givers and Makers make things happen with their own sacrificial blood, sweat, and tears. They give generously and work graciously. They never tear down but strive to build others up continuously. They’re supportive, selfless, kingdom-minded, concerned, compassionate, caring, loving, devoted, faithful, hardworking, sacrificial (when needed), and committed to the greater good. They prefer others before themselves (Philippians 2:3-4). They handle it with a godly, peacemaking spirit if they are hurt, disappointed, or upset. They’re slow to anger, slow to speak, and quick to listen (James 1:19). Makers and Takers are passionate about their church’s physical, spiritual, and emotional unity.

Givers and Makers make things happen with their own sacrificial blood, sweat, and tears. They give generously and work graciously. They never tear down but strive to build others up continuously.

What Kind of Saint Are You?

It’s hard to admit it, but we’ve all had a little of the Browser or Consumer mindset as saints. It’s even possible we’ve been a Taker or a Breaker at some point or another. It takes real courage to examine our hearts to see what kind of saint we really are in God’s eyes. Hopefully, we all attain Shareholder status. To be a Giver and a Maker in the kingdom of God comes with tremendous benefits and privileges. It’s contrary to our fleshly understanding, but selflessness produces lasting satisfaction. Our flesh wants to fight and scrape for “our way” and “our stuff” and our “opinions,” but that only brings heartache. Maybe, just maybe, God reversed the order and decided the least will be the greatest and the greatest will be the least (Matthew 5:19). That’s how God operates. He loves to make the last become the first and send the first to the back of the line (Matthew 20:16).

It’s contrary to our fleshly understanding, but selflessness produces lasting satisfaction. Our flesh wants to fight and scrape for “our way” and “our stuff” and our “opinions,” but that only brings heartache.

God reversed the order and decided the least will be the greatest and the greatest will be the least. That’s how God operates. He loves to make the last become the first and send the first to the back of the line.

If you’ve felt a twinge of conviction, don’t worry, God can give you a heart transplant if you ask for it. You can be everything God has called you to be. If you’re honest with yourself, you’ll realize the browsing is tedious, and the consuming never fills you up. The breaking hurts you the most, and the taking leaves you with less than you had in the first place. Let God give you peace. For all the selfless Shareholders out there, please know that you are precious beyond compare. Your sacrifice is not in vain, and it doesn’t go unnoticed. You have great treasure stored up in Heaven. Let me say “thank you” for everything you do. I need you. Your church needs you. God is for you. Nothing can stand against you. And no weapon formed against you can prosper.

Church browsing is tedious, and the consuming never fills you up. The breaking hurts you the most, and the taking leaves you with less than you had in the first place. Let God give you peace.


[i] John H. Walton, Victor H. Matthews, and Mark W. Chavalas, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament, Accordance electronic ed. (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 255.

The Anatomy of a Failure (A Scriptural Survey of Why Sincere Souls Fail God) – Article + Podcast

The Anatomy of a Failure

During several formative years of my life, Bishop Douglas White ministered to my soul at camp meetings, conferences, and seminars. Time and time again, his stirring sermons send me running to an altar to touch God. His dynamic preaching ministry is in constant demand and has been for as long as I can remember. He has a way of preaching hard truths with love and urgency that compels you to respond. I’m grateful for his ministry. So, when I discovered his newest book, The Anatomy of a Failure: A Scriptural Survey of Why Sincere Souls Fail God, I purchased it faster than you can say “Visa.” Links to buy The Anatomy of a Failure are listed below. I suggest ordering several of them to give away.

Common Heartache

Every Apostolic reading this shares the familiar heartache of knowing friends and family members that have forfeited their salvation. And for those of us who genuinely believe what the Bible teaches about salvation and Hell, we agonize over the condition of their souls and the wasted earthly potential. We’ve all seen as White says:

A beautiful soul rushing back to a hideous condition. A victorious spirit tumbling back to a tortured existence. An honorable life stumbling to a dishonorable lifestyle. A blessed home collapsing into a cursed abode.

How does this happen? That’s the question White strives to answer in The Anatomy of a Failure. The book is a spiritual autopsy. A posthumous examination of dead souls that once thrived in the Spirit. More than that, however, White somberly reminds us that we too have the potential to fail God. This book equips us with defensive weapons and understanding that might be vital to finishing the race. Another byproduct of this book is the light it sheds on the process of backsliding. I finished reading The Anatomy of a Failure with a greater understanding of why good, and I mean “genuinely” good people, abandon Truth. My prayer is that by understanding backsliders better, I might assist them in finding restoration.

Losing Salvation is Possible

Grace is probably the most misunderstood, misconstrued, and misused doctrine in the Bible (I’ve written more about that here). It’s at least up there in the top five. With that in mind, White tackles that issue in the prologue titled The Fallacies of a Failing Soul. In what becomes the underlying text for the entire book, White cites Hebrews 12:14-15:

Follow peace with all men, and holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord: looking diligently lest any man fail of the grace of God.

Because grace is often tragically misrepresented as a Divine blank check enabling us to sin freely without consequence, White doubles down on the meaning of Hebrews 12:14-15, saying, “God’s grace never fails – but people can fail.” And he continues:

Nobody will ever stand before God, look Him in the eye, and say that His grace was anything but glorious and forgiving. However, when an individual spurns the grace that God is offering and continues in his sinful lifestyle, it is he who is failing God’s miraculous grace. It is one of the fallacies of a failing soul to think otherwise.

Nobody will ever stand before God and say His grace was anything but glorious and forgiving. However, when an individual spurns the grace God is offering and continues in a sinful lifestyle, it is he who is failing God’s miraculous grace. -Doug White

White moves on to address the most common objection to the reality that good people can fail the grace of God, “A loving God wouldn’t send anyone to Hell (I’ve written an in-depth study on the biblical doctrine of Hell here).” For me, White’s response was revelatory:

A loving God would not send anyone to Hell. But the moment a person dies, Jesus no longer sees him or her through the eyes of a loving God but through the eyes of a righteous judge that must judge every person by the same standard: Did they walk in obedience to God’s Word?

When a person dies, Jesus no longer sees through the eyes of a loving God but through the eyes of a righteous judge that must judge every person by the same standard: Did they walk in obedience to God’s Word? -Doug White

Ultimately, when sheep refuse to follow God’s ways, they forfeit the benefits and protections of the Great Shepherd. White says it best, “Offering salvation is God’s task; maintaining salvation is our task.” Later he rephrases it like this, “A sinful nature and a saved nature cannot coexist in your life.” It’s important to remember that not every falling away from God is accompanied by a dramatic, loud exodus from the church. Of course, some do, and we remember those moments the best. But more often than not, people slip silently away from God while quietly justifying themselves and ultimately convincing themselves they’re just as saved as ever. That’s the fallacy of a failing soul.

When sheep refuse to follow God’s ways, they forfeit the benefits and protections of the Great Shepherd.

Offering salvation is God’s task; maintaining salvation is our task. A sinful nature and a saved nature cannot coexist in your life. -Doug White

Not every falling away from God is accompanied by a dramatic, loud exodus from the church. People slip silently away from God while quietly justifying themselves and ultimately convincing themselves they’re just as saved as ever.

Four Main Reasons Good People Make Bad Mistakes

Bishop White identifies the initial source or the root of every backslider’s eventual failure. He insightfully leans on forty years of ministry to pinpoint four common trouble areas that fit into the anatomy of a body. The four bodily diseased areas that rip people away from the Body of Christ are feet, stomach, head, and heart. Learning to protect, heal, defend, and cultivate these areas is the key to successfully serving God for a lifetime.

Feet: The Instability of an Unsure Foundation

White reminds us that “the only hope we have of standing firm in living for God is determined by the quality of our foundation.” He makes a classic reference to the parable of the man who built his house on the rock compared to the man who built his life upon the sand (Luke 6:48-49). Everything else in our spiritual life is built on our initial foundation. This is perhaps the most crucial area to get right early on in the spiritual journey.

The only hope we have of standing firm in living for God is determined by the quality of our foundation. -Doug White

Perhaps you’ve heard of the Millennium Tower located in downtown San Francisco. The luxury condominium cost a whopping 350 million dollars to build in early 2002. It’s a beautiful structure, made chiefly of elegant glass that towers high into the horizon, reflecting the radiant hues of the sun. Until 2015 everything went precisely as planned. The building became a status symbol of wealthy city living and garnered several awards. It became the residence of choice for affluent San Franciscans. But that all changed when residents began to report loud popping noises and large panes of glass started cracking unexpectedly. And worse, experts noticed the building was sinking and tilting drastically. So far, it has fallen nearly eighteen inches into the ground and tilted another fifteen inches to the northwest. All that lurching, turning, and twisting is breaking all kinds of things from the top of the structure to the bottom. Even after pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into the effort, the renovations have done little to stop the problem. Groundwater loss from adjacent construction has been blamed for the issue by the tower’s developers, while geotechnical experts say the key is that its foundation is not rooted in bedrock. You see, where I’m going, it doesn’t matter how incredible the exterior looks if your spiritual foundation isn’t rooted in bedrock.

It doesn’t matter how incredible the exterior looks if your spiritual foundation isn’t rooted in bedrock.

White points to three crucial materials that must form every spiritual foundation: The Bible, faithfulness, and integrity. He says:

Far too many individuals walking through those spiritual realms struggle with being ‘tossed to and fro,’ in and out of righteousness because their feet are not firmly planted on the sure foundation that is provided by God’s Word.

Too many individuals walking through spiritual realms struggle with being ‘tossed to and fro,’ in and out of righteousness because their feet are not firmly planted on the sure foundation that is provided by God’s Word. -Doug White

In our podcast conversation, Bishop White made a profound statement, “The person in most danger of failing God in your church is the one who loves the music, loves the preaching, loves the worship, loves the fellowship but never settles doctrinal absolutes in their minds.” Without using the words, White spends a great deal of time pushing back against universalism and ecumenicalism, both of which are prevailing heresies of our age. While there might be room for disagreement on some biblical points, central salvific doctrines like the oneness of God, baptism in Jesus’ name, the necessity of the infilling of the Holy Ghost, holiness, and righteous living must become the bedrock of faith.

The person in most danger of failing God in your church is the one who loves the music, loves the preaching, loves the worship, loves the fellowship but never settles doctrinal absolutes in their minds. -Doug White

The second element in the threefold mixture that forms a sure spiritual foundation is deep, abiding faithfulness. White describes it this way:

It is faithfulness that refuses to negotiate with sin or temptation or even emotional upheavals. Those who live on a sure, solid foundation are the individuals who choose daily to live a life of faithfulness to God: Faithful involvement with God’s kingdom. Faithful gathering together with the saints. Steadfast in our walk with God. Authentic in our representation of God to our world. Regardless of how much you claim to believe in biblical truth, this truth is rendered completely ineffective in your life if you don’t baptize it with faithfulness… Your belief in truth is null and void if you don’t act faithfully upon the principles of that truth.

Regardless of how much you claim to believe in biblical truth, truth is rendered completely ineffective in your life if you don’t baptize it with faithfulness. -Doug White

The third and final element in the foundation mixture is unshakable integrity. White defines integrity as “having the ability to see yourself the way God sees you, not the way you would like to be seen.” A life of integrity is devoid of hypocrisy and infused with humility. I consider this to be White’s most impactful quote in the first chapter:

In most cases pertaining to spiritual stability, if you let your feet provide your direction, you won’t have to worry about problems your head could cause.

In most cases pertaining to spiritual stability, if you let your feet provide your direction, you won’t have to worry about problems your head could cause. -Doug White

Stomach: The Pull of an Unholy Consumption

If you could only read one chapter of The Anatomy of a Failure for some strange reason, it should be this one. I consider unholy consumption to be the primary reason the average person falls prey to the enemy. Because our highly advanced, super technological culture allows for instant and nearly unlimited access to the consumption of carnal things, countless Christians develop a habitual taste for dainties that slowly pushes out their desire for holy things. Just like the eunuch thought Daniel would be weakened by abstaining from defiling foods from the king’s table, society views our restrictive lifestyle of purity as fanatical and unsustainable. But our separated lifestyle is the key to our power. Sadly, some have come to view it as a hindrance because they desire to fill their bellies with unrighteousness. Hungering and thirsting after righteousness includes separation from immodest appearance, fleshly vices, worldly entertainment, and unholy speech. White says:

Hungering and thirsting after righteousness includes separation from immodest appearance, fleshly vices, worldly entertainment, and unholy speech.

While the story of Daniel is old, the principle it promotes is just as true today: The spiritual life of a child of God will either excel or decline depending on what their appetites are… If you fit into the category of someone who constantly struggles in your walk with God, I suggest you take an immediate inventory of what you are putting in your spiritual stomach. Such an inventory is necessary because allowing your spiritual man to exist in perpetual struggle eventually eliminates vital elements like joy, passion, zeal, and even a desire to continue serving God.

The spiritual life of a child of God will either excel or decline depending on what their appetites are. -Doug White

What you consume will affect you spiritually just as surely as the physical things you consume will affect you physically. It’s also important to realize that it’s not just sinful things that can potentially harm you. But if consuming hobbies or benignly distracting things pull you away from faithfulness, you will eventually fail God. White gives a good measuring stick for measuring the quality of your consumption, “Anytime you start feeling a fondness for a former slavery, it is a sure sign of partaking in questionable consumption.”

It’s not just sinful things that can potentially harm you. But if consuming hobbies or benignly distracting things pull you away from faithfulness, you will eventually fail God.

Anytime you start feeling a fondness for a former slavery, it is a sure sign of partaking in questionable consumption. -Doug White

The conversation surrounding what is acceptable for Christians to consume and still be saved is always fraught with disagreement. At the core of this conversation is wisdom. It takes wisdom to know what is healthy, benign, and unhealthy for a Christian to ingest. Sadly, I’ve been around many conversations revolving around how much junk a Christian can devour and still be saved. White mirrors those questions, “How much poison can I consume and still stay alive? How much filth can I eat without getting sick? How much rottenness can I devour without suffering the consequences?” He continues, “Knowing the challenges every individual has to contend with to serve God with integrity, why would anybody challenge themselves further by deliberately empowering their flesh?”

There’s an old Indian story of a grandfather telling his grandson about two wolves that live inside us all. One wolf is good, loyal, pure, and full of integrity. The other wolf is violent, angry, evil, and dishonest. “Each day, these two wolves fight inside of me,” said the grandfather to his young grandson. Wide-eyed, the boy asked, “Which one will win?” “The one I feed,” replied the wise grandfather.

Head: The Hindrance of an Unbridled Mind

This issue is so important that the Bible speaks of our thoughts 138 times and refers to our minds 137 times. White emphasizes how the battle for our soul begins in the mind. And while temptation is not sin, a runaway thought can morph into an unholy intention if it isn’t taken into captivity and cast down. White puts it succinctly, “Sadly, over time those thoughts became temptations, which eventually developed intentions. Those intentions eventually found an occasion to sin.”

While temptation is not sin, a runaway thought can morph into an unholy intention if it isn’t taken into captivity and cast down.

The old-timers used to say, “You can’t keep a bird from flying over your head, but you can keep it from settling in and building a nest there.” We can’t keep unholy thoughts from flying through our minds, but we can make sure they don’t make a home there. As White wisely states, “Your mind will either assist you or assassinate you.” Gaining the self-control needed to retrain your mind from dwelling on ungodly things is paramount to every believer. White says it best:

To stop the catastrophic loss of salvation, your unbridled mind is hurling you toward; you must become spiritually mature enough to turn off the flow valve of the deadly sewage of unholy thoughts.

Your mind will either assist you or assassinate you. Gaining the self-control needed to retrain your mind from dwelling on ungodly things is paramount to every believer. -Doug White

Heart: The Delusion of Misplaced Passions

White comes out swinging in this chapter, “Our heart can either be our greatest advantage or our greatest adversary.” It’s eerily possible to be faithful, worship, praise, and go through the motions of godliness without engaging the heart thoroughly. White teaches that passion is the gauge for measuring spiritual heart health, “Passion is the tell-tale sign that our heart is involved; without passion, any work we do has ceased to be a matter of the heart.”

Our heart can either be our greatest advantage or our greatest adversary. It’s eerily possible to be faithful, worship, praise, and go through the motions of godliness without engaging the heart thoroughly.

This chapter revealed something that had perplexed me for a long time: How can people seem to love God but not serve him passionately? White reminds us that we are commanded to love God with all our hearts in no uncertain terms. He says:

Any time this commandment is casually diminished by placing a greater passion on something else, we have become the victim of a divided heart. The obvious way to tell if an all-the-way-salvation has become a divided-heart situation is to compare your passion for God with your passion for other things.

And here is the revelation that greatly enhanced my understanding:

Most people who backslide don’t fall out of love with God; they just fall in love with something else, leaving a divided heart.

Most people who backslide don’t fall out of love with God; they just fall in love with something else, leaving a divided heart. -Doug White

Conclusion & Summary

Pay prayerful attention, and you will find that everyone you have seen fail God fits into the four categories as defined by Bishop White:

  • They had spiritual feet that lacked a sure foundation, leaving them unstable and quick to fall.
  • They had a spiritual stomach that consistently fed on unholy things, leaving them weak and defenseless against the adversary.
  • They had a spiritual head that refused to restrain their unholy thoughts, allowing temptations to become sinful intentions, which led them to sin.
  • They had a spiritual heart that became careless, allowing them to misplace their passion in carnal things, deluding them with the idea that “selling-out” wasn’t as important as merely “claiming salvation.”

We are all susceptible to failing in these areas if we aren’t on guard. Awareness is half the battle. Viewing these anatomical areas invigorates my desire to put on the whole armor of God. Years ago, the Lord gave me a dream of thousands of Christians rushing into battle with incomplete armor. Some had everything but a helmet, while others had a sword. One by one, they fell to the enemy. In that graphic visual, the problem seemed so obvious. But Christians do this all the time, yet they feel safe because they have almost all the armor they need. They have an allusion of safety but lack the fullness of God’s necessary resources. I pray this is not so for you and for me too.

Our God Is One with Dr. Talmadge French (Article + Podcast)

Sweet Heat Skittles

My father, Dr. Talmadge French and I, just finished recording America and End Time Prophecy, the Oneness of God & Miracle Mission’s Moments for the podcast (linked below). You absolutely do not want to miss that episode. Dad recounted major miracles he’s witnessed and experienced from his missions trips around the world. We talk prophecy, rapture stuff, and think about where America fits into all of that. And dad gives an updated count of the number of oneness Pentecostal believers worldwide. We taste and rate Sweet Heat Skittles at the end. That was fun!

Our God Is One

We mentioned the release of his best-selling book Our God Is One: The Story of the Oneness Pentecostals in the Serbian language during that conversation. Dad originally released Our God Is One in 1999. It’s incredible to think that twenty-three years later, it’s impacting the Serbian work of God and has become an instrument to bring trinitarian churches into the oneness movement! Which inspired me to summarize Our God Is One in this format. Usually, I would include the link to purchase the book, but it’s been out of print for several months. Thankfully, it will be reprinted, rebranded, and updated in the near future. Our God Is One is a unique blending of oneness Pentecostal history, theology, methodology, and statistical analysis. This summary is not a replacement for the book itself but rather a complementarian, precursor, or refresher for those who have already read it. From this point forward, I will refer to dad as Dr. French for the sake of readability.

It’s All in Him!

Most apostolics are familiar with George Farrow’s classic song penned in 1920, “It’s All in Him.” It isn’t shocking to hear lyrics like that now, but there was a time at the turn of the twentieth century when lyrics like “For in Him Dwells All the Fullness of the Godhead and Lord of All is He” would have reeked of heresy to most Christians. Dr. French opens by quoting that and several other notable self-designated Jesus’ Name Pentecostal anthems. In those early days of the oneness movement, songs like that were an expression of separation and a brave exclamation of revelation. George Farrow and others differentiated themselves from their trinitarian counterparts with rhythms and rhymes.

Dr. French opens the book by quoting that great song in homage to those early oneness Pentecostal pioneers. Those first leaders couldn’t have imagined the phenomenal growth their movement would experience over the next one-hundred-plus years. In what Dr. French calls “those early, unassuming days of the movement,” their focus wasn’t on growth but correct doctrine and pleasing God.

In the early, unassuming days of the Oneness Pentecostal movement, their focus wasn’t on growth but correct doctrine and pleasing God. -Dr. Talmadge French

Important Definitions

It would be challenging to follow Our God Is One or this article without clarifying definitions. Thankfully, Dr. French gives two helpful definitions right away. He defines Oneness Pentecostalism below:

Oneness Pentecostalism is that theologically distinctive branch of the Pentecostal movement which emphasizes what it views as the Scriptural formula for water baptism – baptism ‘in the name of Jesus’ – and the absolute, indivisible ‘Oneness’ of God revealed in the full Deity of Jesus Christ. It emerged within the context of the fervor of restorationism and “back to the Bible” literalism at the turn of the century. Classical Pentecostalism’s argumentation for a return to “the Bible” regarding speaking with tongues and spiritual gifts was simply applied to the issues of baptism and the Godhead.

Notice the term Dr. French used in the above quote, “Classical Pentecostalism.” For some, that might not be a familiar term, so he goes on to explain further:

Oneness Pentecostals have usually been categorized as ‘classical’ Pentecostals, referring not only to their roots in the early movement but their shared belief in the essentiality of tongues as the “initial evidence” of the Spirit baptism.

Doctrinal Distinctives

The explosive growth of the oneness movement is intrinsically linked with its doctrinal distinctives. Dr. French gives a succinct overview of classical oneness theology:

In its rejection of the classical conception of the Trinity, it embraced, in actuality, a highly Christocentric, simultaneous modalism of the Father, Son, and Spirit, in which Jesus is God. Jesus is the Yahweh of the Old Testament, the one and only God in totality, incarnate in the New Testament. The ‘Oneness of God’ is an all-encompassing Jesus-centrism in which Father, Son, and Spirit are not conceived as separate, distinct ‘persons’ within the Godhead, but rather as ‘modes’ or ‘manifestations’ of God.

The explosive growth of the oneness movement is intrinsically linked with its doctrinal distinctives.

The Oneness of God is an all-encompassing Jesus-centrism in which Father, Son, and Spirit are not conceived as separate, distinct persons within the Godhead, but rather as modes or manifestations of God. -Dr. Talmadge French

Not unlike the theological constructs of early Jewish Christianity, Oneness theology link the Shema, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is One,” with the most primitive of the kerygmatic confessions of the early church – “Jesus is Lord.” That is, Jesus is the one and only Lord, the ‘totality’ of the Godhead, incarnate. Thus, He is not a part, or a second part, or second person, but God in totality, manifest in human form as the unique God-man. “Father” and “Son” are viewed simply as incarnational terms necessary for the discussion of God in His dual nature, God and man. Likewise, “Holy Spirit” is the distinguishing expression for “Christ in,” God indwelling, the believer at and after Pentecost, in the unique manner made possible only by the reality of the resurrection.

Not unlike the theological constructs of early Jewish Christianity, Oneness theology link the Shema: Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is One, with the most primitive of the kerygmatic confessions of the early church – Jesus is Lord. -Dr. Talmadge French

Oneness Roots

Interestingly, Dr. French clarifies an often-asked question: Are oneness Pentecostal evangelical? And the answer to that is “yes.” The oneness movement is rooted in a passion for Jesus Christ, Scripture, life-changing new birth experiences, and evangelism. But that doesn’t mean mainstream Evangelicalism embraces the oneness movement. Dr. French mentions J.I. Packer, who referred to Pentecostalism as Evangelicalism’s “half-sister.” Sadly, that kind of pejorative, and worse, is historically typical. But oneness Pentecostalism traces its roots back to the holiness and restorationist movements of the nineteenth century, which, as Dr. French points out, “is sometimes referred to as ‘radical’ Evangelicalism.”

At its onset, the oneness movement was shunned, ostracized, criticized, and belittled by Evangelicals and classical trinitarian Pentecostals. The oneness movement’s explicit rejection of Trinitarian doctrine combined with its strong holiness underpinnings has made it a target for charges of cultism, bigotry, and heresy. And while Dr. French acknowledges that the oneness movement has become more widely accepted, “mainstream” Christianity still views it derisively. Especially in light of Evangelicalism’s rapid drift away from moral absolutes, biblical inerrancy, and godly living. This creates what Dr. French calls the “dilemma and paradox” of the oneness movement. He boils it down in this statement:

Their (the oneness movement’s) distinctive theological identity is, at one and the same time, both rooted in Pentecostal-Evangelicalism, and yet at enormous tension with it.

Though rooted in the holiness movement and budding trinitarian Pentecostalism, the oneness movement is best described as restorationism. Dr. French describes it this way:

Oneness Pentecostalism, within a dozen years of the rise of Pentecostalism, was birthed in a rekindling of restorationist fervor which swept through the entire movement, vigorously promoting a return to the New Testament baptismal formula and understanding of the Godhead.

Oneness Pentecostalism was birthed in a rekindling of restorationist fervor which swept through the entire movement, vigorously promoting a return to the New Testament baptismal formula and understanding of the Godhead. -Dr. Talmadge French

Pentecost In My Soul

Few things capture the essence of oneness theology as accurately and concisely as the songs birthed in those early days. To illustrate this, Dr. French highlights the famous Black Holiness songwriter Thoro Harris who, after converting to Pentecostalism, penned “Pentecost In My Soul” in 1914. He wrote many beloved Pentecostal hymns such as “Jesus Only” and “All That Thrills My Soul Is Jesus.” Those songs and many others encapsulate the highly Christocentric pietism that made the oneness movement radically distinct from its counterparts. And it was enormously successful. But that doesn’t mean it was easy, Dr. French notes:

Pentecostals were struggling with an inevitable clash with historic Christianity, the heritage of the Protestant Reformation, and their own spiritual identity. Central to this struggle was the conviction that the historic church, largely apostatized, required restoration to primitive Christian faith.

To be sure, there was some disagreement about what primitive Christianity was in practice and theology. However, Pentecostals genuinely believed they were experiencing a ‘latter day’ restoration. And they viewed the Reformation as a steppingstone towards restorationism. Dr. French summarizes those early views this way:

Pentecostalism, in this way, perceived the period from the Reformation forward as restoration, from Luther’s sola scriptura to Wesley’s holiness to Seymour’s Azusa revival. Oneness adherents have also identified elements within the Radical Reformation, especially Michael Servetus and the immersion and anti-Trinitarianism of the Anabaptists, as evidence of glimmers of restoration.

Pentecostalism, perceived the period from the Reformation forward as restoration, from Luther’s sola scriptura to Wesley’s holiness to Seymour’s Azusa revival. Dr. Talmadge French

Fundamentalist Influences

It would be incorrect to say that Pentecostalism is rooted in Fundamentalism. However, it is substantially influenced by it. Dr. French is quick to mention there is “considerable” debate about “the extent and precise nature of Fundamentalism’s influence upon Pentecostalism.” He clarifies the distinctions and the influences, stating:

Fundamentalism, like Pentecostalism, embraced premillennialism, dispensationalism, and the verbally inerrant inspiration of Scripture. At the turn of the century, as Pentecostalism was emerging, Fundamentalism was the point conservative force opposing the higher critics and the modernist attacks on the miracles of the Bible. Although these were issues with which Pentecostalism readily identified, it was tenuous indeed, for Fundamentalism opposed with equal rigor Pentecostalism’s belief in modern miracles and tongues.

Regardless, Pentecostalism often utilized Fundamentalist arguments to further the points they agreed with. And even found Fundamentalist writers who openly favored oneness doctrinal positions.

Higher Life Influences

In 1875, the Keswick movement formed a holiness group that emphasized “higher life” and promoted “experiential holiness.” Dr. French states:

Important themes included enduement with power and the infilling of the Spirit, stressed by such leaders as R.A. Torrey and D.L. Moody. Yet it rejected the phenomenon of emerging Pentecostalism.

If I understand correctly, it seems John Wesley’s Methodism, including its holiness beliefs and emphasis on Spirit baptism, greatly influenced the Keswick movement, which influenced the early Oneness Pentecostals. Dr. French says it like this:

As did their forerunners in the holiness movement, the Pentecostals emphasized holiness, enthusiastically and with restorationist zeal, as separation from sin and worldliness. And, due perhaps to the intensity of the restorationist motif as the dominant influence within Oneness Pentecostalism, the emphasis upon strict standards of holiness remains a prominent feature of the movement. Apart from the issue of the means of sanctification, holiness was considered a restored, essential element in the life of a believer. “A holiness preacher?” wrote D.C.O. Opperman, “God has no other kind. Might as well say `wet water’ as to say `holiness preacher.’”

As did their forerunners in the holiness movement, the Pentecostals emphasized holiness, enthusiastically and with restorationist zeal, as separation from sin and worldliness. -Dr. Talmadge French

Holiness was considered a restored, essential element in the life of a believer. A holiness preacher? wrote D.C.O. Opperman, God has no other kind. Might as well say wet water as to say holiness preacher.

The Predominant Impulse of Oneness Pentecostalism

Indeed, all of the above-mentioned theological strands converged at the dawning of the twentieth century to form the oneness movement. Even early healing movements helped weave conditions for Oneness Pentecostalism to emerge successfully. But Dr. French views restorationism as “the dominant and overarching influence amidst other significant streams which intermingled in important ways.” Unique to Oneness Pentecostalism was a predominant restorationist impulse that viewed the entire New Testament through the lens of the book of Acts. In doing so, they made the book of Acts accounts typical experiences for all believers.

The Founding of Pentecostalism

In addition to the “latter rain” metaphor, Pentecostal founders like Howard Goss referred to the movement as “the winds of God.” They spoke of tongues as falling “suddenly from Heaven.” And although glossolalia had occurred among earlier holiness movements sporadically, it was Charles Fox Parham that, as Dr. French says, “provided the spark which ignited Pentecostalism as a distinctive movement by theologically linking `tongues’ with the baptism of the Spirit.” Parham was the first to articulate that tongues were the evidence of Spirit baptism. Although he still considered tongues a “second work of grace.” Dr. French describes the early oneness movements preferences regarding their identity:

Interestingly, Oneness Pentecostals tended to self-identify most readily with Parham’s original designation for the movement, “Apostolic,” even more so than the term “Pentecostal.” “Pentecostal” related mostly to the experience of Spirit baptism, whereas “Apostolic” was a more direct identification with the restoration of the doctrine, faith, and experience of the New Testament witness of the apostles.

Early Pentecostal Controversies

Like every movement, the early Pentecostal movement was plagued with controversies and fraught with disagreements. Dr. French describes debates that surrounded the issue of sanctification:

William H. Durham, a Baptist minister from Chicago who experienced tongues at Azusa in 1907, opposed the commonly accepted holiness view of sanctification as a separate, second crisis experience, or a “second work of grace” distinct from salvation. Instead, Durham espoused a view that posited the work of sanctification in the single experience of conversion, not subsequent to conversion. This view was predicated on the sufficiency of Calvary to ascribe sanctification to the believer at the time of conversion but experienced as a spiritual process throughout life. Durham referred to this as the “finished work of Calvary” view of sanctification.

But the sanctification issue paled in comparison to the Oneness controversy. Dr. French summarizes the debate saying:

At issue in the Oneness controversy was the centrality of the name of Jesus in baptism, the soteriological significance of Spirit baptism, and the nature of the unity of the Godhead. The Oneness issue was commonly referred to as the “new issue” by its opponents, not for its novelty, but to distinguish the issue from the recent controversy over salvation.

The early Pentecostal movement prayed in the name of Jesus, claimed healing in Jesus’ name, sang Christocentric songs, and “largely ignored” the precision of Trinitarian faith. So, it shouldn’t have been all that shocking that many would eventually desire to be baptized in Jesus’ name. Dr. French quotes Charles F. Parham on this subject:

We were waiting upon God that we might know the Scriptural teaching of water baptism. Finally, the Spirit of God said: “We are buried by baptism into His death.” …Then how quickly we recognized the fact that we could not be buried by baptism in the name of the Father and in the name of the Holy Ghost because it stood for nothing as they never died or were resurrected.

The Spark That Lit the Flame

A Pentecostal camp meeting called the World-Wide Apostolic Camp Meeting took place in April of 1913. It was a much-anticipated meeting lauded as a great unifier. Yet, in actuality, it was the initial spark that lit the flame of the oneness movement, eventually separating it from Trinitarian Pentecostalism altogether. Canadian minister R.E. McAlister wasn’t the main speaker or even on the program. McAlister simply gave a short sermon as they were preparing for a baptismal service “in a pool near the big tent.” Dr. French describes the intense and pivotal moment this way:

In a cursory defense of single immersion, McAlister noted that apostolic baptism was administered as a single immersion in a single name, Jesus Christ. “The words Father, Son, and Holy Ghost were never used in Christian baptism.”

History records an “audible shudder” swept the preachers at the mention that the name Jesus was used exclusively in apostolic baptism. Of course, they tried to stop and sensor him, but the inspired words had already been spoken. The impact of that little sermon was far more significant than McAlister could have ever dreamed. Dr. French states:

The implications concerning Jesus’ name baptism raised at Arroyo Seco fueled the theological flame within many who attended. John G. Sharpe, a young minister, was so moved that, after praying and reading the Bible all night, he ran through the camp the following morning shouting that he’d received a “revelation” of the power of Jesus’ name. Frank J. Ewart, G.T. Haywood, Harry Morse, John G. Schaepe, R.J. Scott, George Studd, R.E. McAlister, Andrew D. Urshan, Homer L. Faulkner, and Frank Denny… would soon enthusiastically embrace baptism in the name of Jesus as the exclusive apostolic formula.

In Conclusion

Our God Is One goes on in far more detail concerning various splits among Pentecostal groups, eventually forming oneness groups like the Pentecostal Assemblies of the World and the United Pentecostal Church International, and many others. He recounts the stories of now-infamous pastors who were hepatized in Jesus’ name and branded as heretics by their peers. Many of those pastors went on to rebaptize entire congregations in Jesus’ name as revival swept the world. But Dr. French is most acclaimed for his unparalleled documentation of modern Oneness Pentecostalism worldwide. In 1999, it was staggering when Dr. French provided careful documentation of twenty million Oneness Pentecostals. He updates the number on the podcast episode below, but you’ll have to listen for yourself to hear that.