A meditation on the indicative mood

Posted on May 26, 2008


I won’t name the liturgical resource, because it is a good one, a very good one, and does not deserve to be vilified for one slip, but I was glancing through it, and lighted upon the Pentecost service. ‘Consider,’ it invited us, ‘Jesus’ command in Acts 1:8…’Acts 1:8 reads: ἀλλὰ λήμψεσθε δύναμιν ἐπελθόντος τοῦ ἀγίου πνεύματος ἐφ ὑμᾶς καὶ ἔσεσθέ μάτυρες ἔν τε Ἰερουσαλὴμ καὶ [ἐν] πάση τῆ Ἰουδαία καὶ Σαμαρεία καὶ ἔως ἐσχάτου τῆς γῆς. (‘But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you, and you will be witnesses in Jerusalem,and in all Judea, and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth’–my tr.)

Forgive the grammarian in me, but this is all in the indicative mood, not the imperative mood; there is no ‘command’. Jesus is here stating realities, not issuing instructions.

I suspect that the most common way of eviscerating the gospel in our churches is this: making indicatives imperatives. We turn promise into command; gospel into law. I know why we do it: anyone who has been a pastor does. We struggle with people who take the gospel for granted, and we want to illustrate to them the radical claims of Christ on their lives. I won’t even say that the instinct is wrong (although I will confess to giving in to it far too often and far too readily in my own ministry); but turning Biblical promises into demands is no way to deal with it. When Jesus says ‘you will…’ he means–you will. Not ‘you might’, or ‘you should’, or even ‘if you do x you will’, but ‘you will’. And so for the rest of Scripture.

And so Acts 1:8: the promise, to the eleven at least, and I suspect to all Christians (I take it that all who have come to Christ in penitence and faith, been baptized and received into the church have received the gift of the Spirit here promised), is that they will be witnesses. This is not an instruction that we should evangelise, but a promise that, somehow, at some level, in some way, despite so much of what we are and do, when people encounter us, they will see a glimpse of Jesus.

I wonder if we took this promise seriously as a promise, believed that Christian people will witness to Jesus regardless, whether our evangelistic strategies would look different?

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