We’re used to thinking that every good thing is in finite supply. We might think that way of grace too. Today let’s take a closer look at the way God gives. Is it from a finite store of goods, or is it from overflowing abundance?
Moses and the 70 Elders
We begin with a story from the book of Numbers. Numbers 11:24-29.
In this Chapter, we see Moses burdened by the heavy task of leading the people. He cries out to God for help. God tells him to summon 70 elders of the people, men of age, character and experience. Moses calls them to the tent of encounter, the sacred place outside the camp where God regularly descends in a cloud to speak face to face with Moses.
Picture the scene. Here is Moses, the man of the often radiant face. He stands before the tent of encounter, with 70 elders gathered around him. Moses, the man who once stood before the mighty waters of the Red Sea, with Pharoah’s army in hot pursuit. Winds whipping his face and hair, his staff raised, an image of fire in the night, inextinguishable. He was a picture of courage then, courage before the storm.
I imagine him uttering a prayer something like this: Lord, let it be as you say. Deliver this people! Open a way for us!
And there, in response to his prayer, upon the waters, descended some majestic rushing of wind, some never-before-seen force. Not a force of nature, a force of more-than-nature. A force that moved the waters.
A force that formed a corridor in the waters. A wall of water to their right and their left. Through it, Moses and the people stepped toward an un-imagined deliverance.
That same Moses now stands at the entrance of the tent, this visible sign of God’s presence among the people. Standing there, he said to the 70 that they would receive a portion of the Spirit of God.
One can imagine they were hesitant. A little afraid. What would that mean? Would it disrupt their life? Would they have to make any changes?
Moses gives them little time for deliberation. He gathers the elders and right away a cloud descends upon them. The same cloud that led the people forth on their journey through the desert (Ex 13:21).
From the cloud, God takes some of the spirit that was on Moses and bestows it on the 70 elders. As the spirit comes to rest on them, they speak in God’s name.
Here is where I want to pause and ask a question.
Portions of the Spirit
This taking of the spirit that rested on Moses and gifting it to the 70 elders: what was that like? Was there a concrete, finite amount of blessing Moses possessed, which was now being divided up among the 70? Does God share his gifts with his people from a limited store, or is there some mystery of abundance that characterizes the gifts of God?
Three passages come to mind and then a verse from John’s Gospel that sums it all up nicely.
The first passage is the most obvious: the multiplication of loaves and fishes. Mt 14:13-21. Recall there was a large crowd that day. They were hungering to hear Jesus’ teaching. Evening was approaching. Jesus wished to feed the crowd through the hands of his disciples. He wanted them to have an experience of how God’s providence could act through them. He asks the disciples what they have to feed the people. The answer: 5 loaves and 2 fish. Jesus then takes what is finite from the apostles and makes it overflow in abundance. Food enough for 5,000 with multiple baskets leftover.
This miracle rings to our ears as impossible. This sort of thing just isn’t done. But find a radical disciple of Jesus whom you know. And ask them if they have ever had a similar experience. They will tell you that this miracle is but an example of the abundant, overflowing nature of Jesus’ way of giving. A giving that springs not from finite supply.
Second example, from the Old Testament. 1 Kings 17:7-16. The land is choked by a 3-year drought. Food is scarce. Elijah is an ardent prophet who lives by God’s word. God sends him to Zarephath, where he encounters a widow and draws her into a parable of mysterious abundance.
On the day Elijah meets her, the woman is destitute, her hope exhausted. She and her son are near death and she has only enough food for one final meal. Elijah enters her life. Her tells her not to fear; tells her that, before preparing her last meal, she should first bring him some bread and water. He says:
“For the LORD, the God of Israel, says: The jar of flour shall not go empty, nor the jug of oil run dry, until the day when the LORD sends rain upon the earth.”
Elijah asks of her, in other words, an act of faith in the God of Israel. Just as Jesus asked it of his disciples when he bade them feed the crowd with 5 loaves and 2 fish. The widow hesitates but obeys the prophetic word. And somehow, ex nihilo, out of nothing – or rather out of some store of wondrous abundance – a steady supply of flour and oil emerges in the widow’s home each day until the drought that Elijah foretold would end actually ended. Flour without measure.
So again we see the mystery of abundance revealed as a principle of the spiritual order.
Third example: Pentecost. Acts 2: 1-12. In contrast to the loaves and fishes and the flour and oil, this is an example of spiritual gifts. All disciples of Jesus are gathered in a single room. At Jerusalem. 50 days after the Resurrection. Tongues of fire come to rest on each disciple and “they were all filled with the Holy Spirit.” And not just them but also the 3,000 people gathered in Jerusalem who heard Peter preach that day. The gifts of the Holy Spirit were not rationed. There was no finite supply.
A Gift Without Measure
These passages find a deep echo in John’s Gospel. Chapter 3. Jesus has just spoken to Nicodemus about the need to be born of the Spirit. This spirit that John says Jesus gives “without measure.”
“For it is without measure that he gives the spirit.” Jn 3:34.
Let that sink in: It is without measure that he gives the spirit.
This verse appears like a flash of lightning in this chapter. A deep truth revealed. It goes straight to the heart of the question we have asked. Does God give his spirit to us from a finite store, or does he give it in abundance, without measure?
We have the answer. God gives the spirit without measure. There are no bounds to his gift of the Spirit. And if one person is filled with the spirit of God, nothing prevents God from filling the hearts of many others as well.
He can fill the hearts of 70 elders of Israel. He can feed 5,000 people from 5 loaves and 2 fish. He can make a steady supply of food over several years for a poor widow and her son. He can send his spirit to over 100 disciples in an upper room, then fill the hearts of 3,000 hearers with the good news of the Resurrection.
And he can fill your heart with the portion of the spirit you need to take up, in earnest, the task given to you of building of his kingdom. Humble as that task may be.
The question is: do we ask him? Do we gather at the tent of encounter with an open heart? Do we gather with disciples in the upper room and wait upon the spirit? Do we enter our inner room each morning and pray to the Father in secret?
Let’s try to do so this week, more than we did last week. And let’s see what the Spirit says.
Father, you give your spirit without measure. Grant me that abundant, life-giving stream, like the rushing, living waters that Ezekiel saw flowing from your Temple. Breathe in me the breath of life you breathed into Adam, the breath that Jesus breathed upon his disciples in the upper room. I believe in you. Help my unbelief.