Tattling on the Spirit
24 So Moses went out and told the people the words of the Lord; and he gathered seventy elders of the people, and placed them all around the tent. 25 Then the Lord came down in the cloud and spoke to him, and took some of the spirit that was on him and put it on the seventy elders; and when the spirit rested upon them, they prophesied. But they did not do so again. 26 Two men remained in the camp, one named Eldad, and the other named Medad, and the spirit rested on them; they were among those registered, but they had not gone out to the tent, and so they prophesied in the camp. 27 And a young man ran and told Moses, “Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp.” 28 And Joshua son of Nun, the assistant of Moses, one of his chosen men, said, “My lord Moses, stop them!” 29 But Moses said to him, “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them!” 30 And Moses and the elders of Israel returned to the camp.
I love this young man who runs to tattle to Moses, partially because I know that is exactly what I would have done if I were there. Without a doubt, I would have been the one who got all uptight about these two guys who were speaking out of order. After all, it was clear that the prophesying had ended, so why were these two still speaking with authority? And why were they not out at the tent with everyone else? Can you believe these guys?
I also love this young man who runs to tattle to Moses because he is so caught up in keeping things ‘the way they’re supposed to be’ that he ends up doing something I don’t think he’s aware he’s doing. This young man, bless his heart, is tattling on the Spirit of God. He is actually reporting to Moses that the Spirit is acting out of order, not minding the rules and expectations he has set up in his mind. Can we blame him though? I think he makes a good point, if I’m honest.
Can you believe that the Spirit would do this, let these two rogue prophets go on speaking with authority outside of the established boundaries? As one Pastor friend of mine put it, Eldad and Medad are ‘coloring outside the lines.’ But the real issue here is that it is the Spirit’s work. We aren’t surprised when people get loose with the rules, but the very Spirit of God is implicated in this young man’s accusation. Can we believe that the Spirit would do this?
Moses doesn’t seem to have a problem with it. But after all, he’s probably just glad that they’re complaining about someone other than him for a change. What does he know? I mean, really Moses? Are you really sticking with the “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them” story? Is anybody buying this? That’s just asking for chaos. But Moses, this young man might reply, if everybody were prophets, wouldn’t that be spreading the Spirit a little thin? Hasn’t the Spirit already been divided into seventy portions? How can you be sure there would be enough for you—or me, for that matter?
Can you believe the Spirit would do this?
If this is not enough evidence to win you over to this young man’s side, then let me hold up another picture of the Spirit’s poor judgement.
1 When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 2 And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. 3 Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. 4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
5 Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. 6 And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. 7 Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8 And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? 9 Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, 11 Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” 12 All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” 13 But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”
14 But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. 15 Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. 16 No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: 17 ‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. 18 Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. 19 And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist. 20 The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day. 21 Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’
Can you believe the Spirit would do this? Where does it stop? If the Spirit is just going to fall on everybody then what happens when the Spirit falls on the person who sits in a different political aisle than me? If the Spirit is just going to fall on everybody then how will we know who is in charge, and what happens when people don’t ask me permission to speak? I call this a bad plan at best.
Quite frankly, at this point I would like to speak to the Spirit’s manager; I’ve got a complaint or two to file. First, you can’t just throw social norms to the wind. You can’t just act like slaves and masters are on the same level—don’t get me started on this “both men and women!” thing. Absurd. Secondly, I mean, was this really a good idea? After all, it seems to have caused a good deal of chaos. Some people even thought that they were drunk. I don’t know about you, but I thought we were supposed to avoid all appearances of evil, so I’m not sure this is the kind of group activity I would want to be associated with, thank you very much.
Can you believe the Spirit would do this? I think the young man tattling on the Spirit might be well justified in his argument. What more do we need to hear?
There is, however, another young man who raises a different point. He is also an Israelite, and he has something to say about the Spirit. This young man’s words come to us after a bunch of people have been arguing about him, murmuring against him, wishing him harm and seeking ways to accomplish it.
37 On the last day of the festival, the great day, while Jesus was standing there, he cried out, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, 38 and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, ‘Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.’” 39 Now he said this about the Spirit, which believers in him were to receive; for as yet the Spirit had not been given, because Jesus was not yet glorified.
So this second young Jewish man has a different idea.
His picture is of a source of water, flowing through someone, giving life to others. Another pastor friend of mine observed, “He seems to have no problem at all not being the only one with the Spirit.” In fact, he seems to anticipate it, look forward to it, yearn for it. How is this possible?
He sounds a lot more like Moses who rightly recognizes that the Eldad and Medad phenomenon isn’t about him at all but about what the Spirit wants to say to the people. This young man is much more interested in being a conduit than retaining power for himself.
It is interesting to note that the word translated “heart” in verse thirty-eight more literally means “belly.” And while “out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water” sounds better than “out of the believer’s belly shall flow rivers of living water” there is an important image lost in translation. For the story goes on to tell how this young man will indeed experience suffering at the hands of those who wish him harm. They will wrongly accuse him. They will have a mistrial. They will sentence him to death. They will put him on a cross. They will drive nails into his hands and feet. They will lift him up, and they will pierce his side (belly) with a spear, and at once blood and water will come out (John 19:34). This young man imagines that this water, though caused by suffering, is actually a pouring out of a Water Source who desires to flow through him.
And this young man imagines that this Water Source (Spirit) wants to flow through everyone, that all can be a conduit of living water. Me? You?
Can you believe the Spirit would do this? Through us?
These two young men represent two viewpoints. The first is like Bubbles the fish from Finding Nemo. He does everything in his power to keep the bubbles locked up in the treasure chest, making sure everyone knows they are “My bubbles!”
Watch this clip to jog your memory if it’s been a little while since you’ve seen the film. My Bubbles! Finding Nemo
The second young man lives according to a different image. I think he would imagine himself as a water hose. He is connected to a Source that flows through him. He does not let the derision of others to kink his hose. He does not shrivel up and recoil. He does not shut himself off from the flow, even when it gets difficult and pushes the boundaries. The truth is that the inside of a running water hose is never dry, nor does it turn stale. The water is always fresh as long as it keeps flowing.
This is the nature of the Spirit. We try to lock her up, keep her from doing what she wants. We try to tattle on her when she colors outside the lines, or includes people we’d rather exclude, or asks us to give up our false self for a truer thing about us. Oh that we would simply allow her to move through us with life-giving love for those in our ‘splash zone.’
Someone very dear to me, a genuine saint, recently shared a line from a film that troubled and moved her, and at the risk of ruffling some feathers I think it might be worth sharing—just the kind of thing that would make us want to tattle on the Spirit:
“Sometimes you just have to bless the hell out of someone.”
I think this is meant to be taken literally. People often live in their own private hell inside. How can we be a conduit of life to those who are truly in need of water? How can we be a source of life that is so powerful it moves people out of their hell and into God’s kingdom? Maybe you think I’ve taken it too far, so while I’m at it you might as well get this picture in your head: dog vs water hose
The second young man went on to say another troubling thing to his disciples. After he was raised from the dead, he appeared before them in body and showed them the place in his side where he had been pierced, the place from which the water flowed.
21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” 22 When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
This last verse is highly debated among theologians. I’m not certain I fully grasp it myself, nor am I certain that we have realized its implication for the church today. It’s definitely one of those ‘tattle on the Spirit’ moments. Forgiveness is God’s business! we might say. Or perhaps, God is the only one who can forgive. I am definitely with you on the fact that this seems somewhat out of order. And yet, there it is. What are we going to make of it? The Spirit is given, and with the Spirit comes a new responsibility.
It at least means that the church, the community of people named after the second young man, are responsible for ratifying the forgiveness of sins. We are the community that bears witness to the reality that ‘sinner’ is not the truest thing about anyone and that indeed “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved” (Acts 2:21b).
If we live according to the reality of forgiveness, if we allow ourselves to be a hose through which living water is flowing, if we let the Spirit call the shots, by our actions and words we can convince people that God has forgiven them. We do this when we embrace those rejected by others. We do this when we extend patience to those who have wronged us. We do this when we speak with kindness instead of name-calling. When we behave like people are indeed forgiven and take a posture of the Spirit flowing through us, we will enact God’s forgiveness in the world.
Can you believe the Spirit would do this? Through us? Really?
The scary part is that the inverse is also true. If we ‘retain the sins of any, they are retained.’ If we live life with kinks in our water hose, refusing to let the Spirit of forgiveness to flow through us, acting in ways that makes others feel incriminated and prosecuted, then they are likely to believe us rather than God. If we continually put the Spirit of God on trial for being too loosey-goosey, then we miss out on the whole point of the second young man and we reveal that we do not believe what we profess with our mouths.
God have mercy on us if that’s true.
Some of you may know the story in the novel Les Misérables by Victor Hugo. It tells the story of Jean Valjean, a man who stole bread to feed his family and ended up serving nineteen years in a labor prison. Upon his parole, he is unable to find any work because everyone sees only his papers that identify him as a criminal. It is in desperation that Valjean meets a priest who treats him differently, insisting that ‘criminal’ is not the truest thing about him. He welcomes him into his home and gives him a wildly generous gift of silver candlesticks. In the musical adaptation of the novel, Valjean sings,
“Yet why did I allow this man
To touch my soul and teach me love?
He treated me like any other.
He gave me his trust.
He called me brother.
My life he claims for God above,
Can such things be?
For I had come to hate the world,
This world that always hated me.”
Listen for yourself: Valjean's Soliloquy - Les Miserables (Film)
Can we believe the Spirit would do this? Through us? Even now?
Can we believe that the Eldads and Medads get to be a part of the story?
Can we believe that Moses is genuinely at peace with their sharing the Spirit?
Can we believe the second young man is not at all concerned with keeping the Spirit to himself?
Can we believe the Spirit’s very nature is to flow freely?
Can we believe that we are invited to be conduits of this flow of forgiveness?
Can we believe it?
I don’t know if we can, but I sure hope we do.