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Weirdly Normal Spiritual Experiences

Many things in the Bible appear strange to us but not so odd to the Biblical authors. Most Westerners believe that you can be either rational or spiritual, but not both. A short read through the Bible will reveal that this either/or is a foreign concept to the Biblical worldview. Take, for example, Jesus' first interaction with his disciple Nathanael.

Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him.

'Here he comes,' he said. 'Look at him! He's a real Israelite. Genuine through and through.'

'How did you get to know me?' asked Nathanael.

'Oh,' replied Jesus, 'I saw you under the fig tree before Philip spoke to you.' John 1:47-48

How did Jesus "see" Nathanael and know what he was doing? Was Jesus secretly watching Nathanael from some hidden vantage point, or did Jesus somehow see Nathaniel with spiritual eyes? John doesn't tell us explicitly, but Nathaniel's amazement at Jesus' knowledge of him suggests that He didn't see Nathaniel in the usual way one sees things. This reaction indicates that the way Jesus "saw" was unusual but not unheard of in Nathanael's world.

Consider another strange story from the book of Acts:

...a vision appeared to Paul in the night: a man of Macedonia was standing and pleading with him, and saying, "Come over to Macedonia and help us." Acts 16:9

What was the substance or source of this vision? Were the people in Macedonia trying to contact Paul? Was God communicating to Paul through angels that looked like Macedonians in a dream? Is there any way to process this experience that doesn't involve what seems to us a strange spiritual phenomenon? Paul took the experience seriously and in stride, without question. Encounters with the spiritual realm in the Bible appear normal. The Christians in the first century seem comfortably engaged with the spiritual realm through the authority, permission, and power found in the name of Jesus.

Consider another passage from Luke's narrative in the book of Acts:

Many signs and wonders were performed by the apostles among the people. They were all together in Solomon's porch, while none of the others dared to join them, though the people spoke highly of them. But more people, a crowd both of men and women, believed in the Lord, and were added to their number. They used to bring the sick into the streets, and place them on beds and mats so that at least Peter's shadow might fall on them as he went by. Crowds gathered from the towns around Jerusalem, bringing people who were sick, or infested with unclean spirits. All of them were cured. Acts 5:12-16

Note that Luke does not say that these signs and wonders were performed by God but by the apostles. Luke takes for granted that the disciples performed these signs and wonders by the distributed power and authority of Jesus. But it is also clear that the signs and wonders came through the apostles and would not have manifested independently. These are not whimsical signs and wonders done by the Holy Spirit, who may have felt like doing miracles at the moment. Many people approach miracles, healing, and revival as sovereign acts of God over which we have no influence or no role to play. I have long held that this position is a serious mistake. As the epistles of James says, "You do not have because you do not ask." James 4:2. These signs and wonders came through the apostles because the apostles were actively engaged in the spiritual realm through the Holy Spirit, seeking to do the will of Jesus.

The statement "many signs and wonders" creates space for various manifestations and miracles of God's presence. Neither the book of Acts nor the rest of the Bible possesses a concordance of allowable miracles, signs, or wonders. Have we heard strange stories of spiritual experiences in the Church? Indeed we have. We should not discount them for being eccentric. In the case above, people received healing by Peter's shadow! Can you imagine what the internet would do with that if the person's shadow was Bill Johnson instead of Peter?! We should only dismiss fantastic tales when they produce unholiness. Jesus said we would know a good vine by its growing fruit (Matthew 7:20). If the spiritual experience creates holiness and more profound love for Jesus, it must be of God and His Holy Spirit.

Between the Gospels and Acts, the phrase "all of them were healed" appears uncomfortably often. When was the last time you saw one person in a crowd healed, much less everyone? We must be missing something. I believe that something is our engagement with the spiritual realm under the authority and protection of Jesus and His Holy Spirit. Indeed, sometimes things God calls us to engage in get weird for us Westerners bathed in the birth water of post-enlightenment materialism. So be it. God has not changed even if we have.

The number of strange occurrences in the Bible starts getting quite staggering when you list the weird events found in the New Testament. The most prolific writer of the New Testament, Paul, had more than his share of "weird" encounters with the spiritual realm.

On the day the Apostle Paul became convinced of the resurrection and the Lordship of Jesus, he saw a great light on the road and heard the voice of Jesus speaking to him. That's weird enough, but the men with Paul saw the light but did not hear the voice (Acts 22:9). How can we explain this? If we told this story in a modern context, many of us would conclude that Paul was delusional. Yet, God radically changed Paul's life by this event ("you will know them by their fruits"). Paul also lost his sight from this incident (clear evidence of the truth of the vision). We would not have the Bible as we know it if this encounter did not take place as well as the following odd event:

Another disciple of Jesus, Ananias, had a visitation from the Lord, even a conversation (Acts9)! Ananias received several words of knowledge from the Lord about Paul, and God instructed him to go pray for Paul. Picture what this must of looked might have looked like if you can. Did Ananias hear an audible voice, or did he "hear" a voice in his head? Did Ananias have a dream? Did he respond audibly or just in his mind? The Bible does not give any of these details.

Nevertheless, the book of Acts expects us to take the story at face value and understand it. According to Luke, this interaction with the spiritual realm is the usual way the world functions. The only thing that is not normal is why Luke wrote his Gospel and the book of Acts in the first place: Jesus' name carries a new authority and power, through Jesus' people, in this realm. The disciples of Jesus now function in the spiritual realm with the same authority of Jesus, and the results are equal too.

Weird things happen between the spiritual realm and the physical realm when the authority of Jesus is at work. Luke's narrative of Paul's conversion continues:

Ananias prayed for Paul, and "something like scales fell off his eyes, and he was able to see." (Acts 9:18).

When individuals are healed through "Ananiases" today, they often describe feeling a sense of "energy," "electricity," "heat," "tingling," etc., as they receive healing. Sometimes the experience is unique, like scales falling off someone's eyes. While these things seem sensational to us, I think they were considered far more typical in the ancient and first-century worlds. The uniqueness is not the sensations and experiences people have but the fact that Jesus, the name of Jesus, carries all the authority in both realms. We should take note that there were other healers, prophets, and exorcists before, during, and after the life and ministry of Jesus. They must have had some effect (which I would hesitate to call "success"), or else they could never have existed for long. There are pagan healers and witch doctors today, but they have no real power except to mask, deceive, and sometimes curse.

Nevertheless, in desperation, many people seek these healers. Yoga is a prolific and profound example of a modern-day healing solution that appears to work but has damaging long-term and unholy effects. But the effective power of the name of Jesus has only one result: life.

Today, the Western Christian world seems to have either ignored the spiritual realm entirely or embraced all spirituality as if it is Christian. We need to recognize that the spiritual realm is a normal part of human experience and then learn to appropriate the Gospel claim that Jesus is Lord of Heaven and Earth, that is, the spiritual realm and the earthly realm.

The unique message of the Gospel is not the fact that realms of spirit and material constantly intersect. The intersection of heaven and earth is part of the basic worldview of first-century Judaism, with the Temple in Jerusalem being the supreme example of heaven and earth mixing in a single spot. I believe that the intersection of heaven and earth is still "normal" because it has always happened and still happens today. The unique thing about our age (The age of the inaugurated Kingdom of God on earth) is where the center of life-giving intersection now place: Wherever Jesus is. Jesus' absolute authority in the realms of heaven and earth is THE uniqueness of the New Testament. It is the Gospel, the good news. As believers in the Gospel, our task is to live according to the truth of the claim: Jesus is Lord over heaven (the spiritual realm) and earth (the material realm). It's not one or the other—both the spiritual and the physical interact and interlock in many ways. I believe that we will have much more success in our mission when we learn to engage with the spiritual realm and the physical realm simultaneously, under the banner: Jesus is Lord.

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