Recently, many Christian charismatic leaders gathered at Toronto to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Toronto Blessing. The Toronto Blessing, a term coined by British newspapers, describes the revival and resulting phenomena that began in January 1994 at the Toronto Airport Vineyard Church, now the Toronto Airport Christian Fellowship, a charismatic church located in Toronto, Canada. It has also been referred to as the Father’s Blessing. The blessing has become known for ecstatic worship, including what is known as falling or resting in the Spirit, laughter, shaking, and crying.
At the time, the revival had a great impact in our church, Kensington Temple, and I wrote a short booklet to explain the phenomena around the revival. I am publishing the text here, and although the Toronto Blessing took place twenty years ago, my observations seem as relevant as ever.
Shake, Rattle & Roll: Understanding the Physical Effects of the Holy Spirit
Since the beginning of 1994, Church leaders have been speaking of a new move of God in Britain. At least 4,000 different churches from the full range of Christian denominations have been impacted by the ‘Toronto Blessing’, as it has been called. Although the move did not originate there, it has been ‘broadcast’ all over the world as people have converged on the Airport Vineyard Church in Toronto, Canada to see and experience for themselves. Despite the very real blessing of the Lord as evidenced by clear Biblical tests that are being applied to what is happening, some are in doubt about it. In the mind of many, the phenomena associated with this move of God are unusual and even bizarre. This booklet deals with some of the issues raised by the physical effects of the Holy Spirit as He comes in power today.
When the Holy Spirit v comes upon people powerfully, often there are clearly observable physical manifestations. In the current move of God we are seeing many of these manifestations, or physical effects, of the Holy Spirit. People are falling, shaking, laughing, weeping, jerking and jumping. It would be foolish to attribute everything that is happening totally to the Holy Spirit. There are a number of possible causes as the nature of the human personality and God’s interaction with it are complex matters. But, discernment and careful examination of the fruit shows that in many cases God is deeply at work.
However, that God would be involved in such ‘bizarre’ phenomena is a difficult concept for some to handle. But why? It seems God is challenging our preconceived notions of what He will or will not do. These preconceptions often lie behind such verbal disclaimers of what is happening as, “Oh, that cannot be God. He would never do that!”
Sometimes it is our tradition that speaks loudest or our lack of previous experience of powerful encounter with God and provokes snap judgements over the unusual. God wants a considered response from our hearts rather than hasty reactions. In considering the physical effects we will want to understand better what the Bible has to teach, the theological issues that are being raised, the historical precedents from times of revival and the psychological and sociological factors at work. Obviously, to do all of that is beyond the scope of this article. I think a good place to begin is to examine what the Bible says about the interaction between the spiritual and the natural world.
The western world often finds it difficult to believe that spirit can interact with the physical world. Much of Western thought derives from Greek philosophy, which often taught a spirit-matter dualism. It was believed that the ‘higher’ spirit world had very little to do with the ‘lower’ physical world. Our thinking in the west is also influenced by two other philosophies: materialism, which teaches that matter is all that exists, or all that we can really be certain about, and rationalism, which is the belief that all human knowledge comes from human reason. Clearly there is not much room for Holy Spirit ‘interference’ in the western worldview.
The non-western world
These views can be contrasted with the non-western worldviews such as animism (the view of the primal religions) and eastern mysticism (found in Buddhism and Hinduism). Animism teaches that the world is under the influence of spirits which freely and continually interact with the physical world. In eastern mysticism, the difference between spirit and matter is blurred even to the point of losing the distinction altogether, with spirit and matter becoming one. Both these approaches to the spiritual realm have a greater place for the supernatural and the miraculous than in the western worldviews but they do not provide answers or helpful precedents for Christians to follow. Our understanding of the world must come from the Bible.
God created the world, and therefore both spirit and the material world have a place in God’s order. There is contact and interaction between the spirit world and the natural world. In the Bible we see both angels and demons active in the physical world. And God, the Divine Spirit, is able to interact with both.
Mysticism sees spirit and matter as parts of the same unity, and is clearly contradicted by Scripture. This view is finding a new popularity around the world in the form of New Age teaching, but the Bible holds that God has made a distinction between spirit and matter, and He who created both, stands outside of both, as the Eternal uncreated God. But He is also present and active in His creation. He controls all things, takes care of His universe, and He reveals Himself to people as He acts to save and deliver or judge people. All this shows God can and does work powerfully in the physical world.
Charismatic Christians are no strangers to the idea of physical effects. The Baptism in the Spirit is accompanied by a physical manifestation. Tongues, a form of prophetic speech, is given as a ‘sign gift’ to demonstrate the presence of the Spirit. We are also familiar with the range of other NT spiritual gifts or manifestations that we can expect when the Holy Spirit is at work in the Church. The NT lists may not include every possible manifestation and the Lord may give other spiritual gifts that are not specifically mentioned, but in every case, it is clear what a spiritual gift is, and what is the real purpose of these manifestations. Every spiritual gift or manifestation of the Holy Spirit is intended to reveal Christ to the Church and to direct us to His mind, His heart and His will. It is given so that the Body of Christ may be built up in Christ.
But the manifestation of the Spirit is given to each one for the profit of all. (1 Corinthians 12:7)
Other physical effects of the Holy Spirit
In the Scripture we see clear indications of other physical effects that take place during powerful spiritual encounters. For example, falling (Ezekiel 1:28; Daniel 8:17; Revelation 1:17), tremblings or shakings (Jeremiah 23:9; Habakkuk 3:16) and loss of strength (Daniel 10:8-10). These cannot be strictly called spiritual gifts as they do not fit with the NT criteria as outlined above, however, this does not mean that they are not of God.
Variety in physical effects
The first thing that strikes one in examining the Bible’s examples of the physical effects is their enormous variety. There are many different effects that people experience and it seems that there is no definitive list of examples given in the Bible. This means a simplistic ‘proof-text’ approach is not an adequate method of assessment. Even the fallings and tremblings, together with the other physical effects recorded in the Bible, cannot be taken as proof texts to justify the phenomena occurring today. They simply help us understand the kind of things that may happen when God is powerfully dealing with us in times of visitation, conviction or prophetic revelation. Therefore, if an effect takes place today for which there is no specific Biblical example that does not necessarily mean it is not of God. Often the effects are human reactions to the Divine presence rather than direct manifestations of the Holy Spirit.
A question of emphasis
Another important observation is that the Biblical record does not place a great emphasis on the effects themselves, but records them in a matter of fact way. They may be taken as evidences of a powerful encounter With God, but the emphasis is on the God who manifests Himself, rather than the immediate physical effect this has on the person involved.
Sometimes physical effects are strongly implied in the Scripture account, but hardly touched on. This shows the importance of meeting with God and seeking Him for Himself rather than chasing phenomena for phenomena’s sake.
On the day of Pentecost the disciples were accused of being drunk by the onlookers.
Others mocking said, “They are full of new wine.” (Acts 2:13)
The reason for this was probably not because they were speaking with other tongues, as the reaction to this was quite different (see Acts 216-8 and 11-12).
We can only guess what it was about the disciples’ behaviour that brought on the accusation of drunkenness. Perhaps they staggered around, fell to the ground, made a loud noise, or laughed like drunk people. One thing is certain: there was some physical manifestation or effect of the Holy Spirit upon them that was obvious enough to provoke that kind of response.
Strange but valid
It is also interesting to note that the whole manifestation was strange and not easily recognisable as being from God. Many today wrongly judge spiritual manifestations and physical effects of the Holy Spirit on the supposition that it would have to be instantly recognisable as God at work, but that is not the Bible view.
We are to judge by looking at the fruit of something rather than its immediate manifestation. A study of the phenomena accompanying many of the revivals of church history shows that during times of heightened spiritual activity we should not be surprised if God does things which appear bizarre when compared to ‘normal’ church life.
What should we make of the physical effects?
The Bible’s own treatment of the physical effects of the Holy Spirit and human responses to God’s power shows us how we should regard them.
Seek God not physical effects
The most important element is the encounter with God Himself. The emphasis is never on the effects it produces, other than long term fruit.
For example in Acts 8, we have the record of the Samaritan believers’ reception of the Holy Spirit. This was a dynamic experience, described as being “baptised in the Holy Spirit” which is clearly an overwhelming experience as the very word ‘baptism’ implies. In other places we read of the Holy Spirit, “coming upon” or “falling upon” people. All these descriptions clearly imply physical effects but in Acts 8, there is no record of what they were in that instance. We can assume that tongues were manifested, but what else happened? It was obviously a very powerful and impressive event, otherwise Simon the Magician would not have wanted to purchase the ability to produce it! But for good reason the Bible is silent.
Physical effects do not demonstrate spiritual depth
We are not to judge the depth of a spiritual experience by the nature of the physical effects it produces. Some could be touched very deeply with little or no physical effect, and others could have a very demonstrative experience while it has no profound effect on them internally. In the Wesleyan Revival in Britain and the Great Awakening under Jonathan Edwards in America during the 18th Century, there were many strange and powerful effects of the Holy Spirit upon people, and yet the Revivalists never took these things as indicators of true spirituality as such. Wesley recorded in his journal the weepings, wailings and “faintings” he saw in his meetings with such words as, “Many people appeared to be greatly affected by the conviction of God”, but then he added, “But, God alone knows how deeply.” In other words, in line with the teaching of the Bible, they emphasised the need for genuine long-term fruit as the real evidence of God at work.
No spiritual elitism
We are also not to compare our experiences with others as if we all have to have the same effects. This brings in a spiritual elitism and fosters false spirituality. That is why the Bible records physical effects only in a matter of fact manner.
There is no complete list of physical effects in the Bible and detail is scant. In a move of God every situation is different, varying from place to place and person to person. The Lord deals with us as individuals. Certain features of a move of God may be present in another move or they may not be. A new move of God may introduce new phenomena, not experienced in a previous revival. The Bible is clear: God moves where and how He wills and we are to follow Him, not the phenomena that may accompany the move.
Do not quench the Spirit
It hardly seems possible that Spirit-filled people who love the Lord would want to quench what God is doing, but it can and does happen. God warns us in advance that we are likely to reject some things He does if we are not careful. His ways are not our ways. He can do some very strange things and, worse than that, He can use some strange vessels. He does not seek our approval of His methods or His means.
Test all things
There is a need for careful discernment. Just because there is evidence of good fruit developing, it does not mean everything that is happening is of God. Even in a work of God, there can be much activity and the possibility of demonic counterfeit. We must keep our eyes on the Lord, avoid wrong motives and deal with false manifestations.
Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise prophecies. Test all things; hold fast what is good. Abstain from every form of evil. (1 Thessalonians 5:19-22)