It is one thing knowing about spiritual gifts. It is quite another thing using them. You might have been in a situation where there is the opportunity to pray for someone’s healing but actually doing it is quite daunting. “Will these people think that I am super-spiritual? What of nothing happens; then I will look stupid and I’ll give people yet another reason to reject Jesus. This is a huge risk. How brave am I?”
Or maybe you have been encouraged to listen to the Holy Spirit and share with a group anything you think He is saying. “How do I know if it is the Holy Spirit or just my imagination? What if it sounds really dumb and I reveal my lack of spiritual maturity? What if people don’t like what I say? This is a huge risk. How brave am I?”
Do you know what I am talking about? These things are highly risky. It is easier staying quiet and not playing an active part in the work of God.
With that in mind, I had this brilliant idea for a sermon. I thought of a handful of incidents in which the disciples were encouraged, or expected, to use spiritual gifts. I thought that we might see a sequence; we might see them growing from inept and scared through to confident. We might be able to track their journey from failure through to success, and we might walk that same pathway to success.
These are the incidents I thought of:
- Initially, they did nothing except watch Jesus.
- The feeding of the 5000. Completely out of their depth. Failure.
- The attempted healing of the demon-possessed boy. Trying, but failing. The boy’s father was left saying to Jesus, “I asked your disciples to drive it out, but they could not.”
- Being sent out in pairs around the villages to preach the gospel, heal the sick, raise the dead etc. Great! Did it well.
- Pentecost and the leadership of the church after that. Fantastic! Teaching, signs and wonders, preaching, leadership… all manner of spiritual gifts being used.
This is a story of growth. And for us it will be a story of growth. Yes, there will be initial failures but look at what is possible if we let God take us on this journey.
If you are training someone to do something, here’s the process. (Driving, swimming, cleaning teeth…)
- I’ll do it. You watch.
- We will do it together.
- You do it and I will watch.
- You do it without me.
- You train someone else to do it.
You can see that that is very practical. Initially the teacher plays a big role but the intention is that the student plays an increasingly important part while the teacher fades out. And then the student becomes the teacher. It is brilliant. And I thought this is exactly what we see in Jesus’ training of the disciples.
They watched Him. In the feeding of the 5000, they did it together. Jesus performed the miracle but they were part of it. With the healing of the boy, they, at least, tried to do it on their own while Jesus was up the mountain but they were still under supervision and, when He returned, they reflected on it. “Why couldn’t we drive out this demon?” they asked Jesus. He helped them sharpen their skills.
And then they were sent out around the villages and they did cast out demons and heal the sick and preach the gospel. They came back rejoicing and reporting all that God had done. This is huge progress. They were still under supervision; they still came back and reported but they did it by themselves.
Then, of course, there is Pentecost when Jesus wasn’t with them anymore. They were fantastically successful and started training up others. What a brilliant example of training using that sequence.
But my clever little sermon ran into a problem – a major problem. When I looked all this up, I discovered that things didn’t happen in that order and so it didn’t support the sequence at all. Bother!
Well, actually, everything did happen in that order except for one thing: Jesus sent them out around the villages to heal the sick, preach the gospel etc. first. What? They had this really successful experience first and then seemed to go backwards. It wasn’t a nice progression from failure through to success. It was initial success and then a series of failures, slowly building up to success again.
And isn’t life like that? It is not unremitting progress. Sometimes we go backwards and we have to relearn something we had learnt in the past. Sometimes we can experience great success and we think we have got it sorted and then we are brought back to earth with a bump. Maybe our faith is tested because we thought God would act in a certain way – like He did last time – and He doesn’t do it that same way the next time. Sometimes you think you have discovered this really cool pattern and then you find that the Bible doesn’t support what you wanted it to.
The three events between just watching and Pentecost occur in the various gospels but always in the same order. Bother! Somewhat surprisingly, all three occur in Luke 9, so let’s look at that. READ Luke 9:1-6
Before sending them out, Jesus gave them power and authority. He also gave them instruction – don’t take extra stuff; stay when you are welcomed; move on when you are not. And, of course, He had already given them His example. They had seen Him do these things. So, they had the ability – the delegated power and authority – they had understanding and they had an example to follow.
But was that wise of Jesus – when they are so new to this? Today, we might expect someone to have been a Christian for 40 years before having that sort of responsibility but Jesus sent out these novices – proclaim the Kingdom, heal the sick and, as Matthew adds, raise the dead, and drive out demons.
Who are we to question Jesus’ wisdom? Let’s rather learn from His example. If nothing else, this is a demonstration of great trust. Jesus trusted them with very significant ministry. And it worked!
They must have also trusted – trusted that Jesus had truly given them this power and authority, and they obeyed. They were operating under the Lordship of Jesus. Jesus called them together. The power and authority came from Jesus. Jesus sent them out. They came back and reported to Jesus (v.10).
Obviously, this experience would have confirmed for them that this was possible. If they trusted Jesus and they were obedient to Jesus, they would be part of what God was doing.
God hasn’t changed. He still entrusts very significant ministry opportunities to us – even when He knows that we are novices. The gospel is an amazing treasure. The ability to heal or raise the dead is an amazing treasure. Any spiritual gift is an amazing treasure. It is a God-given ability. We also have been given power and authority when we have received the Holy Spirit. “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you…” We also have received Jesus’ teaching. We also have been sent. And, maybe, we also have experienced being used by God. We trust God and God trusts us.
The disciples returned and Jesus took them away by themselves to rest. But the crowds followed and Jesus welcomed them, spoke to them about the Kingdom of God and healed those who needed healing. Luke is pointing out that their ministry was exactly the same as His. At the end of the day, the disciples advised Jesus to send them away so that they could find food and lodgings. Jesus said, “You feed them.”
The disciples, who had just had this amazing experience of ministering in the power of God, had nothing to offer. They had no expectation that a miracle was possible. All they could think of was their natural resources: “We have only 5 loaves and 2 fish”. Jesus took over, performed the miracle but, graciously, included them in it so that they would again experience the power of God.
But why did they fail so badly? What was missing? If Jesus had said, “Do you think my Father could multiply these loaves and fishes so as to feed this crowd?” my guess is that they would have said, “Yes”. They might have thought back to the manna in the desert. Of course God is able to provide food. They had just experience the amazing power of God. I don’t think it was lack of faith or lack of willingness. It was lack of expectation. It didn’t occur to them that this was a miracle opportunity. This didn’t exactly fit into the category of proclaiming the gospel, healing the sick and raising the dead. Maybe their understanding of God’s power was limited to those areas and they were thrown when God wanted to do something new. Did their previous success blind them to the possibility of something different?
Maybe that is something we can learn. Are we alert to the times when God wants to do something – maybe even something that is outside our experience? Feeding the 5000 was a huge miracle but are we open the smaller miracles – the times when God wants to speak to someone if only we would be His spokesperson, or wants to answer a prayer if only we would pray it, or wants to save someone if only we will tell him/her about Jesus? God wanted to do a miracle. Jesus told them to do it; but they almost missed the opportunity and the crowd would have missed out on this miracle. Everybody loses when God wants to act but His people are asleep.
Luke’s account then goes on to Peter declaring that Jesus is the Messiah. Jesus predicted His death. He then took Peter, James and John up a mountain where they saw Him glowing as bright as a flash of lightning and talking with Moses and Elijah. They saw His heavenly glory but when they came down the mountain, they immediately encountered earthly reality. READ Luke 9:37-43a.
The disciples believed and were willing and possibly expected a miracle. After all, they had cast out demons before. But nothing happened. Luke does not record it but Matthew and Mark both say that the disciples came to Jesus privately later and asked why they had not been able to cast out this demon. Jesus said (in Matthew) that it was because they had so little faith and (in Mark) that this sort of demon comes out only by prayer (or prayer and fasting).
It seems that this was a particularly difficult case. They had cast out other demons but this one required more faith than they had previously had and, for this one, prayer and fasting were required. Maybe we shouldn’t be critical of the disciples. This was a growing thing. This demon was a step up. This was about greater faith, more learning and upskilling. Even when we have a spiritual gift, we still have to learn how to use it and God might want to extend us beyond our past experience.
So what does all this mean? We can say that every Christian has been given some spiritual gift; we might know what those gifts are; but using them can be hard. It was for the disciples. They struggled. They failed. But look where they ended up. Failure is not bad. God is OK with us failing. It is easy for us to laugh at them but their failures were growth opportunities. At least they were willing to trust God and to try. It was through trying that they learned and that they became the people God could use so powerfully after Jesus’ ascension. It wasn’t constant progress. Sometimes they went backwards but going backwards taught them and they went forwards faster.
We too have the opportunity to be people through whom God works powerfully. But it will take courage – courage to trust God, courage to actually try, courage to fail and learn from that. Can we trust God to take us on that journey and to teach us so that we become the people He wants us to be? Will we try?
Jesus has shown that He is willing to give incredible treasures to His followers and He is willing to trust us long before we might have thought it was wise. The disciple must have been hugely encouraged by being trusted. Jesus trusts us with these treasures. They trusted Him too. They had to have an expectation that God would work. They had to have courage. They had to be willing to try and, sometimes, fail. We have to learn how to use our spiritual gifts. But the reward is fantastic – bearing fruit, knowing that God is using us and we are co-workers with Him, seeing lives changed, people set free, the church expanding rapidly and God receiving glory.
Dear Lord, thank you that you have called me to be a co-worker with You for Your Kingdom. Thank You that you have given me spiritual gifts. Thank You that You are willing to use me in ways beyond my natural abilities so as to have a Kingdom impact on others. I believe You want to change lives miraculously and I am open to being part of that. Please help me to notice the opportunities and to be obedient at those times. Please help me to have the courage to use the gifts You have given me. And please help me to be willing to fail. Better to have tried and failed and learned from it than to have never tried at all. Lord, please grow me so that one day I hear You say, “Well done, good and faithful servant”.