The Supernatural Elephant

Mark Batterson

Welcome, welcome. What a joy to gather together this weekend. We are one church with four locations. I want to give a shout out to Georgetown, Union Station, Ballston and Ebenezers. What a joy! Aren’t you excited about what God is doing? God is always at work. The question is – are we aware of it and are we open to what He wants to be doing in our lives? We are coming out of a series called Wild Goose Chase and I am believing that He who began a good work in us is going to carry it to completion. So we are still chasing, we’re still on that journey, but this weekend we switch gears and we start a new series called ‘The Elephant in the Church.’  There is an old aphorism, the elephant in the room, that refers to an obvious truth that everybody ignores. And I hate to say it but there are lots of churches that are full of elephants and we want to talk about some of them during this series. We are going to talk about some tough topics and we are going to talk about some elephants, good and bad, that we generally ignore.

Last year, you may remember if you’ve been around NCC for a while, that we talked about six elephants and you can check those out at and I’d encourage you to go back and re-live last year’s. This year, we are talking about six more, everything from the political elephant to the suffering elephant, and this weekend we are talking about the supernatural elephant. Let me say this up front, these are tough topics and I don’t have all the answers, but as soon as I am omniscient, I will let you know. But don’t hold your breath. The truth is – there are theological issues that Christ-loving, Bible-believing, God-fearing Christians have disagreed about for 2,000 years, but that doesn’t mean that we ignore these things. We need to think about them, we need to talk about them, and that’s what this series is about. I’ll also say don’t take my word for it. I may be the guy up here talking, but the Bible is the ultimate authority and I hope that this series inspires you to drill down a little deeper, go back to the original source and study it for yourself. For what it’s worth, when I read the gospels, it doesn’t seem to me like Jesus spoon-fed people. In fact, He would often answer a question with a question. Sometimes I’m reading it and I’m like, “You could’ve closed the deal right there, just give them the easy answer.”  But it’s just not the way that Jesus operated. I discovered, I did a little Master’s program in Education and probably ought to know what the word educate means. Do you know that it means to draw out? I could’ve sworn it meant to cram in! All that classroom experience and even in our churches, wouldn’t you think it means to cram? But it actually means to draw out, and that’s what I’m hoping to accomplish in this series. We want to draw out some of these issues and I think it is going to be successful, not if we all walk away thinking the same thing but if we’re all talking about it and wrestling with it. Let’s live in these issues and see what God wants to do.

So this weekend, we are talking about the supernatural elephant. Turn over to I Corinthians Chapter 12, or you can follow along on the screen as I read. I Corinthians 12:1: Now about spiritual gifts, brothers, I do not want you to be ignorant. Now let me stop right there. That’s why we are talking about this. Paul says, “I do not want you to be ignorant about this.”  Now I’m not sure what your spiritual background is like. I know that there might be some folks from a Charismatic or Pentecostal background where the spiritual gifts that we are going to look at in these chapters are a given. I know that some people come from more of a mainline background where these gifts maybe weren’t talked about as much, or maybe in some theological systems, they were explained away, as to why they don’t exist. And I know that some of you are brand new to this and you are a blank canvas. So whatever your background is, for the record, I’m a denominational mutt, I’ve gone to churches of just about every stripe and in some churches, like, these chapters in the Bible might as well have been stuck together cause we just didn’t go there, and others, they are the most underlined pages in the Bible. There is a spectrum here where I think you can go from ignorant to maybe focusing on one thing in Scripture too much, but here is the bottom line, Paul says, ‘I don’t want you to be ignorant, let’s talk about it.’

Verse 4:

There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but the same God works all of them in all men. Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good. To one there is given through the Spirit the message of wisdom, to another the message of knowledge by means of the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by that one Spirit, to another miraculous powers, to another prophecy, to another distinguishing between spirits, to another speaking in different kinds of tongues, and to still another the interpretation of tongues. All these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and He gives them to each one, just as He determines.

This week, someone sent me a fascinating slide show on the human brain, and one of the slides contained a picture of a couple intimately embracing, and the image was shown to young children, but here’s the thing, it was kind of like a Rorschach test, it wasn’t immediately obvious but it’s what I saw immediately when I looked at it, but here’s what fascinated researchers, the young children couldn’t see the couple. Why? Because it didn’t have a cognitive category, they didn’t have a prior memory associated with that picture. For the record, most of the kids saw nine dolphins. I think what I want you to hear is this, what we see is determined by what we know. Our experience and our education in large part determine what we see and what we don’t see.

I think it was evidenced by the Vice-Presidential debate this week. I watched the debate on CNN and they had the analysts score card, and halfway through, I’m looking at the way different people are scoring this thing, and I’m thinking, ‘are you watching the same debate?’  because some analysts had Palin scoring a knock-out, and others had Biden scoring a knock-out and I mean, the funny thing is – it’s obvious who won, right? (pause) Ha ha. Give me a couple weeks, we are going to come to the political elephant!

The reason why many of us haven’t experienced these spiritual gifts, one simple reason, we don’t have a cognitive category for them. We don’t know what to do with them. A few years ago, I read a book by Philip Yancey called Rumors and I want to relay a couple of stories he told. I want to park here a few minutes so that you grasp what I’m trying to communicate. Ferdinand Magellan, if you remember from a history class, was the first European to sail through what he called the Tierra del Fuego, and as his ship sailed around the tip of Argentina, the crew noticed fires burning on the shore but the natives who were sitting around those fires totally ignored the ship as they sailed through the straight. It was later discovered through interpreters that the natives ignored the ships because they thought they were an apparition. They had no cognitive category for ship. They had never seen anything like them, they lacked the experience to decode the evidence that was right before their eyes. Hold that thought.

Yancey tells another story about Elizabeth Elliott, the widow of Jim Elliott, who was martyred by the Auca Indians. Elizabeth continued the work and found favor amongst the tribe and years later, Elizabeth Elliott took one of the Auca women, Diuma, to New York City, and she tried to explain the cars and fire hydrants and sidewalks and red lights, but it was sensory overload for Diuma. Diuma had no prior memory, no experience, no category for any of those things. Then they went to the top of the Empire State Building and Elizabeth Elliott is pointing out the tiny yellow cab and she is wondering what is going through her mind but she wasn’t saying anything, but then finally Diuma pointed to a large white spot, I’m guessing white paint, on a concrete wall and said, “What bird did that?”  It was the only thing she could relate to. What in the world does that have to do with I Corinthians Chapter 12? Well, I think that this is an elephant in the church. I think that spiritual gifts is one of those topics that is largely ignored because we don’t know exactly what to do with it. We have no prior memory, if we have no experience with it, if we haven’t really thought about it or studied it, it’s like ‘what is this?’  I mean, at first glance, this is wild and wacky stuff, and we are a lot like the natives who couldn’t see the ships or Diuma who couldn’t put New York City into perspective. We don’t have a category. So that’s why we are talking about this. I think that paradigm relates to anything in Scripture – if you don’t have experience with it, it is very difficult to put it into perspective.

So, I think a lot of us pretend as if they don’t exist, and because of it, we live way below the level of our spiritual potential. And that really gets to the heart of the matter because if you look at verses 4-7, I think Paul is trying to describe what is going on here. He says: There are different kinds of gifts, gifts or abilities, but the same Spirit; there are different kinds of service, but the same Lord; different kinds of working but the same God works all of them in all men. Now to each one, what a beautiful promise, now to each one, the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.

A couple of months ago, the Olympic Games were held in Beijing, China, and if you’re anything like me, you experienced sleep deprivation for several weeks watching those events, and I think the world’s eyes were focused on Michael Phelps of course, who was going for a record setting 8 gold medals, and he was favored in most of the races but not in the 4x100 meter relay. The French team held the world record, they had the fastest free-styler in the world, Elaine Bernard, world record holder, and Bernard was almost a full body length ahead going into the final leg of the race. And I remember watching the race and former Olympian Rowdy Gaines was making the call and at some point, it was like psychologically, all of America was ready to settle for a silver medal, because there was no way we were going to catch the fastest free-styler in the world. But Jason Lezak, by the way, the oldest man on the US team, he had one race left in him. It was almost an out-of-body experience, he literally swan the fastest leg of his entire life. I remember watching, it was probably the most memorable moment for me, Laura and I were watching it upstairs and screaming our lungs out and our kids were watching it downstairs and they were screaming their lungs out and we were going nuts in those final few moments when Lezak caught Bernard and we won the gold medal by a fingertip. Smashed the 15 year old world record, it had been broken in the preliminaries but the 15 year old record, smashed it by 4 seconds. That’s an eternity in swimming terms. I’m not sure what the right adjective is to describe what happened in that race. It was impossible, unbelievable, and inconceivable. Anyway you look at it, they swam beyond their ability. By the way, would you like to re-live it? Go ahead and show it.


Whew! That gets the adrenaline going! Aren’t you glad you came to church this weekend!

Ok, yeah, I wanted to just watch it again, but there is a point here. The greatest moments in life are those moments when somehow, someway, you do something that is beyond your ability. You do something you aren’t capable of doing, or you do something better than you are able to do it. Can I tell you about one of mine? One of my most memorable basketball moments happened in college, and I’ve got to be honest up front, the older I get, the better I was! I’ll never forget one game, I stole the ball at half-court, headed toward the basket, a defender trying to cut me off before I get to the hoop, and one of those few moments, I got into the air without really knowing what I was going to do and I went up and turned in mid-air to shield the ball from the defender and the next thing I knew, I was hanging on the rim. I did a reverse dunk, and I got a technical because I just hung there. It was one of those moments like, ‘who am I and what just happened?’  I can’t do that in a game scenario, but for one split second, I was better than I really was. Those are the moments where you come alive, and I think what I want to communicate is this. I think the verses in I Corinthians 12 talk about spiritual gifts, this is about so much more than some cerebral discussion or debate about did the gifts cease when the last apostle died, or is it possible that God wants to continue doing now what He did then? It’s about so much more than that, it is about God empowering us to live beyond our abilities and I just had this thought this week as I was preparing to share this message, like, shouldn’t we have the same rush of adrenaline as we are reading these chapters as when we are watching something like that? Because God wants to empower us to live beyond what we are capable of doing. So I think I want to inspire us a little bit as we talk about this elephant. The bottom line is this – we are called to live beyond our ability. It is not negotiable, it is not optional, in order to do that, we need to the Spirit of God filling us and flowing through us and manifesting Himself through our lives.

Let me tell a little bit of my personal journey. I grew up in some great churches, Christ-centered, Bible-believing churches, but the Holy Spirit by and large was ignored. We believed that He was part of the Trinity but was sorta the silent partner, a little too mysterious to grapple with, and then in 8th grade, our family started attending Calvary Church, the church where my future father-in-law pastured, and I remember that we loved the church, it was so full of life, but we were also a little weirded out because we walked in and there were people raising their hands in worship and there was this one lady, please don’t take this the wrong way, we called her the washer lady, she was always on spin cycle. It was unbelievable, the equilibrium, how she kept her balance in worship as she swirled around was phenomenal. And sometimes in the middle of a service, someone would speak out in another language. I’m like, ‘What?’ And then someone else would give an English interpretation and it was really strange, I didn’t know what to do with this. All we did was hold the hymnal! At some point, I experienced some cognitive dissonance; I didn’t know what to do with it. What’s going on here? And I decided I should probably go back to the Bible and see what it has to say about this. I’m not going to explain it away and I’m not going to write it off, and honestly, it took me to these chapters that we are talking about this weekend, and I realized that everything that was happening was stuff that was described in different places in the Bible, and I had this thought, like, I wondered if what I think of as abnormal was actually normal? I wonder if somehow what is normative has become something that seems strange to me?

Now listen, I don’t think that everything I’ve experienced in all of the churches I’ve attended has been legitimate. Over the years, I’ve seen plenty of abuses and misuses. You do not have to say “Hyundai” five times fast to speak in tongues. That was meant to be funny. We need to guard against those uses and misuses and I’ll talk a little bit about that, but we better not throw the baby out with the bath water. Really, these two chapters, and I encourage you to read them and study them for yourself, are about the abuses and misuses, but Paul ends up with this conclusion. I Corinthians 14:39, right at the end of this section, he says: Therefore, my brothers, be eager to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues, but be sure everything is done properly and in order.

Here are a few clarifiers, because I believe that the spiritual gifts are legitimate. I believe they are something God empowers us with so that we can live beyond our abilities. But let’s talk about a couple of these qualifiers.

First of all, the gifts are not the goal. If you want to write that down, the gifts are not the goal. They are not a measuring stick of maturity; they are simply a means to an end. I Corinthians 13:1-3, read those verses and what you’ll discover is that the goal is love. The goal is that we would love each other.

Secondly, I think it is important that we take a both/and approach. This is huge, you know that one of my lynch-pin verses is Job 11:6: True wisdom has two sides, I think that’s the New Living Translation, but this idea that, in truth, you are going to find some tension of opposites, you are going to feel some of that tension, there are two sides to it, and I think it is important that we take an either/or mindset. I think we often miss what God wants for us, we need to take a both/and mindset. So I Corinthians 14:1 says: Follow the way of love and eagerly desire spiritual gifts. These are not exclusive things, you can do both. You can be gifted and you can love each other, and Paul encourages both, not either/or, it’s both/and.

I Corinthians 14:29, here’s a third qualifier: Let two or three prophesy and let others evaluate what is said. I think this is interesting because I think this is where a lot of the abuses or misuses happen, like everything is fair game. But not everything is fair game. For example, when we are in the context of worship, we want people to feel the freedom to express their worship to God in a way that God is leading them to, and that may be raising their hands. Some people actually move a little bit, depending on personality, I think some people become more introspective. That’s all good. God wants us to worship Him within the context of our personality, but there is a line that is drawn. If the way you are worshipping God is distracting everybody around you, then you’ve crossed a line and you need to reign that back in. So it’s not just some mindless approach.

Another version says ‘weigh carefully,’ so we need to be spiritual and mindful. We need to evaluate what’s happening. Is it something that is from God?

And finally, here’s another qualifier. I Corinthians 14:40, and these aren’t all of them. You need to read all of these chapters, but it says: Be sure that everything is done properly and in order. So there is an appropriate context, and appropriate expression for these things. Now let me just speak to my personal experience over the years. I find it very interesting that so often it seems like the only place these gifts seem to function are in corporate settings where lots of people are gathered together. I remember years ago, I had the opportunity as a young pastor to spend a week with Jack Hayford, it was just a small group of us, it was awesome, we had dinner at his house and asked him questions and talked with him. He is someone I really admired as a spiritual leader, and I’ll never forget one of the things he said. He said, “Why is it that it seems like these gifts only function in the large corporate settings, but what about in small groups and what about in our one on one relationships? Why is it that we think that the gifts then cease in that context?”  So I think one of the things I want to communicate is that I think God wants these gifts to be manifested in us in lots of different contexts in lots of different ways. It is sort of like the anointing. Now, it’s probably a whole different topic, but the Bible talks about the anointing of God, it is God giving a measure of ability that is beyond human ability, so let me just push the envelope a little bit further. I don’t believe that God just wants to anoint pastors in pulpits on Sunday mornings, do you? I think He wants to anoint politicians who are drafting legislation. Some significant legislation this week, I would like to think that some wisdom beyond human ability has gone into it. I mean, well, we will talk about the political elephant in a few weeks.

He wants to anoint teachers in classrooms, he wants to anoint businesswomen in boardrooms, He wants to anoint athletes on my team in their locker room. I believe that God’s anointing is on this place of business we call Ebenezers. Why? Because every penny of profit goes to things like Convoy of Hope, overseas missions, the things we’re trying to do, the different we are trying to make. I believe God’s anointing is on them, that He is going to bless us beyond our ability. I think we’ve got to get out of this parochial thinking that God only moves for 60 or 90 minutes on Sunday in a place inaccurately called the church, because the church isn’t a building and the gifts aren’t something we just do when we come together for corporate worship. It is about living beyond our ability.

Let me talk about a couple of these gifts. I don’t have time to talk about all nine. I want to just salt the oats a little bit because this is something you need to seek out. It isn’t about me cramming in, it is about drawing out, it is about each one of us seeking out, ok, if verse 7 is true, now to each one has been given a manifestation of the Spirit, how does God want to work through me? So let me talk about a couple of them and we’ll see how much time we have.

It says: To another He gives the gift of special knowledge or the message of knowledge or words of knowledge. I want to talk about a couple of these just to help explain what I think and what I believe Scripture means by some of these different gifts. Granted, they are supernatural so they are tough to comprehend, but I think that this is God revealing something that cannot be discerned by our five senses. I do believe that we have a sixth sense, those of us that follow Christ, the Holy Spirit gives us a sixth sense and that the Spirit of God is able to communicate to us Spirit to spirit and it can bypass the human brain. Does that sound crazy? Is He God or not? I think sometimes we think in such human terms. I think a word of knowledge is when you know something you did not learn. Those are beautiful moments. Let me tell you how it functions in my life. Sometimes, I don’t always get up in a corporate context and say, ‘Thus saith the Lord,’ or ‘Yea, verily I have a word of knowledge.’  But I do believe that there are moments in our corporate context where God will beat something, sometimes even in the middle of a message and I’ll say something that wasn’t in my notes because I feel like God is revealing something that I’m just trying to discern from His Spirit and communicate it. I think it can be God revealing something about someone. I think it can be when I pray for people. Anybody else ever get frustrated when you feel like you’re praying for someone who has a serious prayer need and you feel like a total loser spiritually because all you’re doing in praying in platitudes? Or is that just me? You just feel like the person needs prayer, not a bunch of empty words that I’m spouting, so often when I’m praying, I’ll say, ‘God, give me some revelation, give me a word of knowledge to know what to pray for,’ and so often He will do that, and those are moments when I’m praying beyond my ability.

One of the nine gifts is the gift of healing. Let me talk about that one, then I’m going to have to fast forward and let you look at the other ones yourself. I thank God for medicine. If it wasn’t for medicine, I would be dead, many times over. I’m messed up. I got an 18-inch scar on my abdomen from ruptured intestines, and emergency surgery saved my life. But the way, my physician’s name, I kid you not, was Jesus. “Hey-sus” by pronunciation but spelled Jesus. I’m like, whew! I’m in good hands! I have asthma, I’ve been code blue, I’ve been in the hospital, you add it all up, months and months and months. So I have a little inhaler that I thank God for. Take your medication, go in for your annual physical, take care of your temple, but I also believe that God is able to heal us. We are fearfully and wonderfully made. I want to give God the credit that He deserves. We are fearfully and wonderfully made, God has created us with these amazing immune systems. He has created us with a clotting mechanism in case we get cut. When was the last time you thanked God for that? He has created us, designed us with muscles in a way that they break down and build back up, and so in a sense, I believe that God deserves all credit for all natural healing, because He created us that way and it is nothing short of miraculous. But I also believe God is able to bypass normal timelines and normal mechanisms and heal people’s bodies and beyond our bodies, heal us in every way imaginable. He can cure AIDS in an instant. I have met people who have been cured, healed of AIDS. How many of us know people who have had cancer and the doctors have no explanation for what has happened? Here’s the thing, He doesn’t do it every time does He? And that’s confusing. We’ll talk some about the suffering elephant because there are things that we are like, why does God sometimes do this and not do this? Listen, I don’t have it all figured out but it shouldn’t keep us from praying. A day is coming where the Book of Revelations says there will be no more pain. Can you say Amen! Where there will be no more suffering, where there will be no more sickness. Our bodies will be raised incorruptible. I don’t even know all that that means but I can’t wait! That reverse dunk was nothing, wait ‘til you see what I do on the other side! Half court!

But in the meantime, I believe God can heal us. Sometimes, I think we as Christians function almost like we are practical atheists. We believe in God, we talk the talk but do we really believe it? Is God still doing what God did 2,000 years ago? Is He capable of doing that? I believe that He is. Bottom line, I’m out of time, so you are going to have to continue studying this, thinking about this, talking about this and we can dialogue about it. But let me close with this, what I’m trying to accomplish. I’ll never forget my first visit to the great state of Colorado. I flew into Denver airport, our family flew in and it was night and we made the drive from Denver to Frisco, Colorado, and we checked into our rental unit. On the way, it was dark out so we saw the shadows of mountains, something was there but we didn’t fully experience it, and went to sleep that night. Honestly we were a little spooked because it was dark and shadowy, and I will never forget, as long as I live, waking up that next morning. One of the most memorable wake-up calls I’ve ever had. I got up and I looked outside and we were just surrounded by some of the most majestic mountains I had ever seen. I couldn’t appreciate them the night before because we were in the dark, but in the light, oh man! What a sight! What an experience!

I think a lot of us are like that when it comes to spiritual gifts, we’re kind of in the dark, like we’ve never really studied it or thought about it or eagerly desired the gifts. All I’m saying, all I want to do this weekend is turn on the light, and say, personally, that I want any gift that God wants to give me. Any gift that God wants to give me, I want to receive it because I need it. There’s an old saying – you have to see it to believe it, I think that’s true on one level, but I think the opposite is true as well – you have to believe it to see it. So I want to encourage you. Let’s eagerly desire and seek after what God has for each one of us. Let’s pray together.

Lord thank You. What a joy it is to know You. God, thank You that when we come into relationship with You, we enter this realm of infinite possibilities. God thank You that there is no more exciting way to live than living beyond our abilities. God I pray right now that right here right now, and God in your own way and your own time, Lord it is not about seeking these gifts, it is about seeking You, and I believe that as we seek You, that You will fill us with your Spirit and that You will manifest yourself through our lives and our lives will make a greater difference for your kingdom because of it. We offer ourselves to You as a vessel, as a temple, as a conduit. God fill us and use us beyond our ability. In Jesus’ Name, Amen.

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