40 Days of Christmas | Book Review


Christmas doesn’t begin at my house until Thanksgiving is over. But once the turkey is digested, the tree goes up, Mariah Carey’s Christmas album gets played on endless loop (it’s that good!), and the countdown to December 25th begins. Literally. The kids have a chalkboard that says, “Santa comes to our house in _____ days.” (As of today, it’s 28 days, in case you’re wondering.) For my family, Christmas is a season, not just a day.

Joseph Castleberry’s family and mine are evidently of like mind about the Christmas season. In his new book, 40 Days of Christmas, he provides a daily devotional to guide individuals and families from November 28 to January 6. In the traditional Christian calendar, November 28 is the earliest date Advent can begin, and January 6 is the Feast of Epiphany — a total of 40 days to reflect on the humble birth of Jesus Christ at Bethlehem and to hope for His glorious Second Coming.

Castleberry — “Joe” to his friends, among whom I count myself — is president of Northwest University in Kirkland, Washington, a Pentecostal minister, and a former missionary. He brings scholarly erudition, pastoral insight, and intercultural sensitivity to bear in these short daily devotions. Even if you don’t follow the traditional Christian calendar, these devotional thoughts are certain to inspire your celebration of the Savior at this time of year.

I appreciated three things about 40 Days of Christmas in particular. First, the book skillfully handles Old Testament prophecy. At Christmastime, we too often detach messianic prophecies from their original contexts. But as Castleberry reminds us, “Old Testament prophecies [such as Isaiah 9:6–7] usually had a near-term meaning that related to the time in which they were given, but the prophecies would carry a ‘surplus of meaning’ — elements that contemporary fulfillment did not exhaust.” By noting both the “near-term meaning” and “surplus of meaning,” Castleberry’s devotions help us better understand and appreciate the prophecies Christ fulfilled.

Second, 40 Days of Christmas debunks several Christmas myths. There was no “inn” at Bethlehem that refused Joseph and Mary service. The Greek word refers to the extra room at a house. Christ was not born on December 25, but the reason we celebrate His birth on that date is not because early Christians sanctified pagan holidays. And, there’s nothing wrong with Christians singing “secular” holiday classics like “White Christmas” or “Jingle Bells.” For Christians, even Santa Claus is OK. “He’s a good brother, and he does good work,” as one Pentecostal “prophesied” after his pastor excoriated St. Nick in a sermon — a funny and true story Joe got from my dad, as it turns out.

Third, and most importantly, the book keeps its focus on Christ. Bing Crosby memorably sang, “I’ll be home for Christmas,” and many of us associate Christmastime with going “home for the holidays.” But as Castleberry notes, this isn’t what Christmas is really or ultimately about. Ironically, he writes, Christmas “has everything to do with leaving home on a noble and holy mission to save those who have become lost and helpless without God, who face the danger of losing their heavenly home for eternity.” Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners. That’s the reason for the season.

Castleberry concludes the book with a brief nod to Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, which speaks of the “Spirit of Christmas.” For Dickens, the spirits of Christmas Past, Present and Future showed Ebenezer Scrooge what his life could have been and still could be. For Castleberry — good Pentecostal that he is — the Spirit of Christmas is the Holy Spirit, who played such as prominent role in Christ’s birth (see Luke 1–2) and who “continues to deliver every good and perfect gift that comes from the Father.” If we want to celebrate Christmas all year long, we must be filled with the same Spirit who filled Jesus Christ.

If you’re looking for a devotional to read personally or with your family, I highly recommend my friend Joe Castleberry’s 40 Days of Christmas. Here are his closing words: “My prayer for you is that God will fill you richly with the Holy Spirit, bringing miraculous help to your everyday life throughout the year to come, and indeed throughout your whole life.”

Amen to that!

Book Reviewed
Joseph Castleberry, 40 Days of Christmas: Celebrating the Glory of Our Savior (Savage, MN: BroadStreet, 2018).

P.S. If you liked my review, please vote “Helpful” on my Amazon review page.

P.P.S. This review is cross-posted from InfluenceMagazine.com with permission.

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What’s Driving Christianity’s Global Growth? | Influence Podcast


In this episode, I talk to Brian Stiller about five drivers behind Christianity’s explosive growth worldwide.

Stiller is a global ambassador for the World Evangelical Alliance, an ordained minister in the Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada, and author of From Jerusalem to Timbuktu: A World Tour of the Spread of Christianity, recently published by IVP Books.

To learn more about Brian Stiller, visit BrianStiller.com.


Episode Notes

  • 00:00 Introduction of podcast
  • 00:45 TruFire Sunday school curriculum sponsor ad
  • 01:08 Introduction of Brian Stiller
  • 01:18 What From Jerusalem to Timbuktu is about
  • 03:30 Evangelicalism’s explosive growth over the last century
  • 05:46 An overview of the five drivers behind this growth
  • 07:28 Driver #1: The Holy Spirit
  • 11:57 Drivers #2 and 3: Bible translation and indigeneity
  • 19:19 Drivers #4 and 5: Engaging the public square and holistic ministry
  • 24:29 Hopeful or fearful about Christianity’s future?
  • 27:39 How to follow Brian Stiller or the World Evangelical Alliance online
  • 28:20 Conclusion

Friday’s Influence Online Articles


Today, over at InfluenceMagazine.com:

  • Chris Railey gives sound advice to church leaders who are hiring new staff. “When hiring personnel, consider more than just their obvious talents, ” he writes. “Look at some of the intangibles that a person won’t acquire through training alone.”
  • Kristi Northup makes a Pentecostal case for diversity. “I am all for fair legislation and pursuing justice through the legal system, but racial and ethnic divisions are as deeply rooted as original sin can get. The issue is massive. It is everywhere, on every continent and in every nation. Only a Holy Spirit visitation can heal us of this deep wound.”
  • We note a Barna study about Americans’ practice of prayer. “Nearly 8 in 10 American adults (79 percent) surveyed said they had prayed at least once in the past three months, Barna said. Of those who pray, a vast majority are most likely to do so alone (94 percent) and silently (82 percent).”

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The Pentecostal Blessing | Book Review


In How Pentecost Came to Los Angeles, Frank Bartleman offered this interpretation of the history of the Azusa Street Revival: “God found His Moses, in the person of Brother Smale, to lead us to the Jordan crossing. But He chose Brother Seymour, for our Joshua, to lead us over.”

Bartleman’s biblical allusion accurately captures the historical sequence of events at Azusa Street. “Brother Seymour” is, of course, William J. Seymour, the well-known and much-loved pastor of the Azusa Street Mission. “Brother Smale” — Joseph Smale — is less well known, however, even though his preaching laid the groundwork for revival in Los Angeles.

That preaching is on display in The Pentecostal Blessing, first published in 1905 and now brought back into print by Gospel Publishing House. The book contains the substance of several sermons Smale preached at the First New Testament Church of Los Angeles in the fall of 1905.

Smale describes the purpose of his book this way:

In the following pages a treatment of this subject of subjects [i.e., the ministry of the Holy Spirit] is attempted in the hope of imparting a vision, where it does not exist, of the Holy Ghost as the one and all-sufficient and divinely ordained Person, and inspiration, to meet the manifold needs of Christian souls individually, and in their corporate character of churches; and that a faith may be born in such that this blessed Person of the Trinity is only waiting to be rightfully honored by us before he will fill with glory and power these lives of ours and those of the whole church of God throughout the earth [emphasis in original].

Chapter 1 identifies four misconceptions of the gospel “which seriously affect a true embodiment and illustration of Christian life, experience and service.” Chapter 2 contrasts “The Church of Today” and “The Church of the Scriptures,” concluding that modern Christians “pretend to be what they are not, God’s representatives, and men know it.” Chapter 3 explains the contrast between today’s church and the biblical church. “Having failed to honor Him [i.e., the Holy Spirit], we have failed in all things vital to Christianity, and therefore vital to a true representation of the church of Jesus Christ.”

Chapter 4, “The Pentecostal Blessing,” argues that “Pentecost involves a second work of grace” [emphasis in original]. “There is something more than the act of union with Christ,” Smale writes. “There is a growing knowledge within the soul of all that is involved in that union.” Pentecost is this soul-knowledge or spiritual experience in ever-increasing measure. “Oh, believer, be ever going in for more and more, and more and MORE” [emphasis in original].

Chapter 5, “The Magnificence of Pentecost,” is the longest chapter in the book. It outlines Smale’s understanding of the person and work of the Holy Spirit. Chapter 6, “The Secrets of Pentecostal Fullness,” answers the question, “How are we to know the Holy Ghost in this, His Pentecostal character and fulness [sic]?” This knowledge is experiential and practical rather than abstract and theoretical.

Reading The Pentecostal Blessing, you can understand why Bartleman depicted Smale as the Azusa Street Revival’s “Moses.” On point after point, Smale enunciated a practical theology of the Holy Spirit that shaped the Pentecostal movement as it emerged from Azusa Street.

And yet, Smale never experienced what Charles Parham and William J. Seymour called “the Bible evidence” of baptism in the Spirit. He never spoke in tongues. Many of his congregants participated fully at Azusa Street, and he himself spoke well of Azusa Street and William J. Seymour to the end of his days. But in Bartleman’s arresting image, Smale was Moses, not Joshua. He came to the edge, but he did not cross over.

So why read The Pentecostal Blessing today? For historical purposes, of course. Revivals don’t happen in a vacuum, after all. They have precedents. Read it for spiritual purposes, too. The Pentecostal Blessing can still bless Pentecostal readers today as it challenges them to go deeper with the Holy Spirit. And finally, read it as a reminder that while God has worked mightily through the global Pentecostal revival that sprang from Azusa Street, He is at work in broader Christianity too. Pentecostals can teach the broader Christian community, but we can also learn from them.

Two final comments about this book: First, it has an excellent 21-page introduction to the life and thought of Joseph Smale by Tim Welch, who wrote his Ph.D. dissertation on Smale. Second, the book itself is a serendipity. Though historians knew of its existence, no one had a copy. Then, in 2008, a friend of the Assemblies of God archivist, Darrin Rodgers, found a copy in a garage sale in Oklahoma, bought it for 25 cents, and donated it to the Flower Pentecostal Heritage Center. It is the only known copy of this little gem of a book.

 

Book Reviewed:
Joseph Smale, The Pentecostal Blessing: Sermons that Prepared Los Angeles for the Azusa Street Revival (Springfield, MO: Gospel Publishing House, 2017; orig. 1905).

P.S. This review was written for InfluenceMagazine.com and appears here by permission.

Tuesday’s Influence Online Articles


Today, over at InfluenceMagazine.com:

  • Craig Keener explains from Scripture why Pentecostals need always to keep power and love together, because the Spirit is the source of both.
  • John Davidson reviews Chris Sonksen’s new book, When Your Church Feels Stuck. Make sure to listen to John’s Influence Podcast with Chris too!
  • We note a recent Gallup poll that finds a third of Americans thinking that religion is out of date.

Please make sure to follow and like InfluenceInfluence magazine on Facebook, Twitter, and iTunes!