It’s revealing that in our increasingly secular culture, people still have a hunger for the magical—the transcendent. Consider the top-grossing movies of 2018, for example. According to the-numbers.com, six of the top 10 were superhero movies, flying, fighting, and blasting their way off the screen and through our wallets. Like the ancient gods of Greek mythology, these superheroes struggle with doubt, jealousy and betrayal—all our human failings amped up with spectacularly destructive results.
While movie scriptwriters create plots that transparently explore contemporary issues and concerns—gender relations, racism, climate change—I believe there’s deeper psychology involved. Many of us look around the world, bewildered at the pace of change and struggling to comprehend the various threats of annihilation we face, whether it be via nuclear war, the mass extinction of plant and animal species, or even the off-chance of an asteroid impact. It’s hard to know how to cope or what to feel. One feeling is common: powerlessness. So when we see superheroes prevailing against villains bent on destroying the nation, the world or even the universe, it allows us, for a blissful 90 minutes, to glimpse the tantalising possibility of hope; that change is possible; that there are some people (ourselves perhaps?) who might possibly be empowered to make a difference.
But what if it’s not just fiction? What if that thrill within us at vicariously experiencing world-changing power is a faint echo of something that is in fact real? “He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end,” says Ecclesiastes 3:11, telling us that our thirst for the transcendent is not just wishful thinking, but a hint of a greater reality.
You will receive power
If anyone had the right to feel powerless it was the group of men and women who called themselves disciples of Jesus the Nazarene. In one of the final scenes of John’s Gospel we see them huddled in a tightly locked house, mourning the shocking and sudden execution of their Rabbi and fearing that the ruthless soldiers of the Roman Empire might seek them out next.
Without warning, Jesus is standing among them alive and well, but with the injuries from His crucifixion clearly visible—there’s no doubt it’s Him. “‘Peace be with you!’” He greets them. “‘As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.’ And with that he breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit’” (John 20:21,22).
Receive the Holy Spirit. But what did those words actually mean? New Testament writer Luke records Jesus’ additional instructions: “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. For John baptised with water, but in a few days you will be baptised with the Holy Spirit. . . . you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:4–8). Gift? Baptised? Power? Again, it wasn’t clear to the disciples exactly what Jesus was talking about.
But in the next chapter of Luke’s book, Acts of the Apostles, the reality of Jesus’ promise begins to be revealed: “When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them. . . . When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard their own language being spoken. Utterly amazed, they asked: ‘Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans? Then how is it that each of us hears them in our native language. . . . we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues. . . . What does this mean?’” (Acts 2:1–12).
What it meant was the beginning of the Christian movement—explosive growth throughout the Roman Empire. Acts recounts a series of events in which these Christ-followers not only suddenly spoke in foreign languages, but healed the sick, raised the dead, escaped prison, teleported, predicted the future and demonstrated incredible insight and courage that amazed even their enemies—“When they saw the courage of Peter and John and realised that they were unschooled, ordinary men, they were astonished and they took note that these men had been with Jesus” (Acts 4:13).
It’s clear though, that none of these “superpowers” came from the Christians themselves—these incredible gifts were from the Holy Spirit working through them. A number of Bible commentators have quipped that Acts of the Apostles really should have been named Acts of the Holy Spirit as this would be a more accurate descriptor of the events described.
What are spiritual gifts?
A number of spiritual gifts are mentioned within the New Testament—from prophecy to preaching, healing to hospitality (see page 44 for more details). Some are obviously supernatural, others are more everyday abilities only recognised as miraculous by those close to the action. (If I could suddenly juggle chainsaws or do complicated mathematical equations in my head, for example, that would truly be a miracle, even though others can do these things naturally.) The speaking in tongues event recorded in Acts 2 provides us with some important points about genuine spiritual gifts:
≈ Spiritual gifts are given to believers. It doesn’t matter whether the believer is new in the faith or more experienced and knowledgeable, spiritual gifts are reserved for those who have surrendered their lives completely to Jesus. Yes, the Holy Spirit still speaks to the hearts of unbelievers—they may even see miracles—but this differs from the ongoing presence of a spiritual gift.
≈ Spiritual gifts are for the benefit of others. The way of Jesus is based on the principle of servanthood, so the proper use of a believer’s time, effort and gifts should not be self-serving, but directed to helping other people. The Spiritdriven impulse of the disciples in Acts 2 was to immediately use their new gift to “declare the wonders of God” to others. “Each one should use whatever gift he has received to serve others, faithfully administering God’s grace in its various forms” (1 Peter 4:10).
≈ Spiritual gifts are diverse. Acts 2 recounts how the believers spoke in different languages, while the apostle Peter began to preach powerfully in the local language and, in the next chapter, healed a man who had been unable to walk from birth. All of these gifts were necessary to demonstrate that God’s kingdom had begun to infiltrate Earth. All of these gifts—and more—worked in harmony to change lives and spread the message of Jesus. “There are different kinds of gifts but the same Spirit. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord” (1 Corinthians 12:4,5).
Where’s my superpower?
Maybe you’re wondering, If this is all true, why don’t I see spiritual gifts in active use today? Many others have asked the same thing.
“You’re not looking hard enough,” might be the immediate retort from a believer. And it’s a valid point. If you spend enough time with genuine Christians, you’ll begin to hear stories of lives transformed and events that defy logic. The Holy Spirit is indeed active in people’s lives—He is giving them abilities they didn’t have before and guiding them to accomplish things they never thought they were capable of. Miracles still happen—“coincidences” that prove to be crucial turning points and even events like unexpected recoveries from terminal illnesses.
But having said that, we’re not seeing spectacular Acts-like growth in the numbers of Jesus’ followers today—at least in the West—let alone a series of public supernatural events that transcend rational explanation. But this kind of spiritual lull is not unprecedented. In 1 Samuel 3:1 we read: “In those days the word of the Lord was rare; there were not many visions.” Sound familiar? Similarly, in Jesus’ parable of the 10 bridesmaids, who are symbolic of believers awaiting Jesus’ second coming, all 10 of them fell asleep, both the wise and the foolish (Matthew 25:1–13).
Should we expect an awakening? A disruption of the lull? A fresh wind of the Spirit’s power? The Bible says yes: “Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days” (Joel 2:28,29). The apostle Peter quoted these verses to explain the miraculous events of Acts 2, but there’s every reason to believe that Joel’s ancient prophecy awaits a further and final fulfilment.
The Holy Spirit can’t be forced or hurried. His power will be released at the right time and in the right way. You may have sensed His presence and guidance already—He often speaks in a “gentle whisper” (1 Kings 19:12). He has a unique set of gifts designed for you. The first step is to learn how to listen.
He gives good gifts a treasure hunt
Different lists of spiritual gifts are provided in the New Testament. There’s overlap between the lists as well as unique gifts mentioned in each list. This suggests there are a larger number and variety of spiritual gifts than those listed.
Read these passages that each mention one or more spiritual gifts:
• Romans 12:6–8
• 1 Corinthians 7:7,8
• 1 Corinthians 12:8–10
• 1 Corinthians 13:1–3
• 1 Corinthians 14:26
• Ephesians 4:11
• 1 Peter 4:9,10
To recognise your spiritual gifts, consider each of the gifts in these lists carefully. Write them down separately on a sheet of paper. Pray for the presence and power of the Holy Spirit, asking Him to reveal to you which gift(s) He has given you or wants to give you. Discuss your search with some mature Christians—seek their guidance. And if God is leading you toward a particular conclusion, begin to use the gift He’s given you and prayerfully review the outcomes.
Kent Kingston is an Ant Man, Wonder Woman and Unbreakable fan who lives with his family in NSW’s Lake Macquarie region. He serves as editor of Signs of the Times magazine.