Whilst working through Mark’s Gospel in early 2015 at Bearwood Chapel, we kept coming back to some questions that followed a theme: “What stops me?”
“What stops me from seeing God for who He is?”
“What stops me from worshipping?”
“What stops me from truly knowing God?”
“What stops me from trusting and taking God at His Word?”
“What stops me from hearing God speak?”
Well if we are going to know, worship and hear God then there’s someone really vital that we need to talk about, The Holy Spirit. Failure to do so is to miss a vital part of the jigsaw. We end up saying theoretically that we believe in the Trinity but act as though we only believe in two of the persons.
Who is the Holy Spirit?
- He is another one (John 14:16)
In John 14, Jesus tells his disciples that he must now leave them. This is during the Last Supper meal It is close to the point when he will be betrayed and he is explaining that this is God’s plan, he will be executed, rise from the dead and ascend back to Heaven to his Father. The news is distressing for the disciples. So he assures them that they will not be left alone (cf John 14:1-7 see also John 15:26-6:4). He tells them that when he goes, he will send “another” to be with them.He is “another one” (John 14:16)
In other words, He is like Jesus –doing the same work. Just as the Son does the same work as the Father, so too, the Spirit does the same work as the Son. The Bigger Biblical picture is that like The Son, The Spirit is fully and equally God.
- He is another Paraclete (John 14:16)
The Greek Word “paraclete” has been translated variably as counsellor, encourager, comforter, advocate. The idea here is of one who comes alongside us, to be with us. Just as the advocate in the courtroom stands alongside the plaintiff, so the Holy Spirit comes alongside us to speak for us.  He does that before the Father, just as the Son intercedes for us, so too does the Spirit. When we pray, he is with us (Romans (8:26-27). He also does that before human accusers. Jesus told his disciples not to worry when they were dragged before secular and synagogue courts because the Holy Spirit would give them the Words to say (Matthew 10:19-20).
Older Bible versions such as the King James Authorised Version prefer the word “comforter.” We may be tempted to think purely in soft terms here, someone who says soothing things to us. Well we should not underplay the loving gentleness of God and miss out on that aspect of comfort but in fact, the older usage of the word “comfort” has a stronger meaning, it has the idea of strengthening someone.
- He is “The Spirit of truth” (John 14:17)
See here the contrasts with the lies and falsehood of the spirit of Anti-Christ that John talks about in 1 John 4. Paul also distinguishes between the Holy Spirit who brings truth and false, lying Spirits who bring error (1 Corinthians 12). The Holy Spirit glorifies Jesus and so he speaks truthfully about his incarnation and crucifixion. False spirits dishonour Jesus and denounce him as cursed. In other words, the Holy Spirit points to the truth of the Gospel.
- What does he do?
He convicts the world of sin, righteousness and judgement – in other words, he will continue the work Jesus has done in revealing God’s plan (John 16:8-9)
He can do this because it is His World. The Spirit is eternally and fully God, the third person of the Trinity. So he was there at the beginning where he is described as hovering over creation (Genesis 1:1). Just as the Son was fully involved in creation so that nothing was made that wasn’t made through Him, so too the Spirit is creator. This is why it’s wrong to replace the names Father, Son and Spirit with Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer. All three participated in the work of Creation.
Jesus told His disciples that when he returned to heaven, the Spirit would come and continue the work of convicting the World of its Sin. The World had rejected Jesus but they had not silenced God. The Holy Spirit would show them what righteousness was like and in showing them their sin and pointing to true righteousness, he would remind them of God’s righteous judgement (John 16:8).
- He reveals Jesus and so he glorifies Jesus (John 16:12-15)
Jesus told his disciples that he still had so much to teach them but that they could not bear this at that time. The Gospels show how much the disciples struggled to grasp what Jesus had to say to them. Things would only become clear on the other side of the Resurrection. So Jesus tells the disciples that one of the important things that the Holy spirit would do would be to reveal all truth to them, to complete God’s revelation.
So we can say three things about the Holy Spirit
- He is sent to be with us and to indwell us
- He comes to bring revelation and conviction to the World
- He comes to reveal the fullness of God’s truth to His people.
- How does he do this?
Tim Hughes has written the song, ”There must be more than this.” We have sung it sometimes in Church. Like most songs it has its strengths and weaknesses.
On the plus side, the phrase “There must be more than this” reminds us that we are not just here on our own, God is involved, God is present. It also challenges us because there’s a right sense of hunger for each of us to know God more – to know God’s truth, presence and power in our lives.
In other words, what we believe goes against the secular spirit of our age. Secularism erjects the Transcendent. It says that there isn’t more than this. It’s just us, here on our own. The human race is responsible for this World; there isn’t a higher authority who we are accountable to. We must do our best for ourselves. Charles Taylor describes this as “disenchantment” and suggests that there is something more belongs to a lost world. As he writes about the history of secularism, he starts with a description of how pre-modern societies functioned and comments.
“I have been drawing a portrait of the world we have lost, one in which spiritual forces impinged on porous agents, in which the social was grounded in the sacred and secular time in higher times.”
So Secularism is one way in which Jesus’ statement that this World does not know the Spirit because it cannot see him –or cannot see the reality of who he is and what is doing- is proved true.. However, we do know him because he is present with, among and in us (14:17).
Sadly though, even Christians can function as practical secularists. We may believe the theory that God is there but we act as though he is distant and not involved or interested in our daily lives.
I also said that there are some weaknesses with the song. Now, to be clear, I mean here that there are weaknesses in how we can understand it and what we can end up thinking as we sing it. I don’t think that the author intended to convey these sentiments.
First of all, we can talk about “more than this” as though there’s some inner circle within the church who have a special experience of God or a higher plain of Christian living thatwe need to get onto. At various times in history Christians have made the mistake of assuming that if they could have the right experience then they would make it up onto the higher plain, the top tier of Christian life, where they’d know God’s presence and power in such a special way that they’d be free from suffering, always successful in witness and immune to temptation. It just does not work like that and the Bible teaches no such thing.
Secondly, if on the one extreme you have secularism which denies the Supernatural; on the other extreme you have superstition. Even in secular societies, people can spend their lives chasing mystical experiences, living in fear of fate putting their trust in magic rites and trying to contact the spirit world. And that’s how a lot of religion operates. Sadly it’s also how a lot of Christianity ends up functioning so that talk of the Holy Spirit ends up kind of spooky. By the way, at first, I was going to talk about Secularism denying the Transcendent and Superstition accepting it but I realised that superstition also denies Transcendence. Whilst it recognises that there are other things beyond physical matter, it focuses on a spirit world which is imminent and can be controlled and manipulated. This also begs the question as to what spirit it is that some Christians invoke if they see it as something controllable and biddable.
So it is important for us to have a clear understanding of how the Holy Spirit works and how He reveals God’s character and God’s purpose to us. He does this in two ways:
The Holy Spirit is the one that reveals God’s truth. In John 14, the specific focus is on the disciples who will be led into all truth. –in other words, the Holy Spirit will enable or inspire them write Scripture. He will enable them to remember accurately all that Jesus said and did. He will reveal to them things that Jesus had not told them yet. This is why Paul was able to write that all of Scripture is God breathed and useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.
Now, remember that when Paul wrote this, he set his description of Scripture in the same context of a church seeking to live godly lives and facing persecution . as Jesus sets the sending of the Holy Spirit. In other words, Scripture’s role in encouraging, revealing and convicting is set in exactly the same context as the Holy Spirit’s role of encouraging, revealing and convicting. Note also that when Scripture does all these things then it is sufficient because it makes us complete.
The Holy Spirit indwells us and helps to recognise, understand and believe God’s Word. This involves that sense in my heart as Scripture is read and then as it’s preached, as we pray about it, as we sing about it that it is speaking personally to me. We could say that the lights go on! I don’t just intellectually respond to what I hear but I have a sense of conviction and it moves me to act.
I want to suggest three implications to this:
- The Holy Spirit is at work in our meetings as we are taught God’s Word and through the week as he brings Scripture to mind or helps us to study it, understand it and apply it. That’s why healthy churches need to take the regular, expository teaching of Scripture seriously and place it central to the life of the Church.
- The Holy Spirit is at work through us to speak to the World as we proclaim the Gospel to others. By the way, this rules out neat little catchphrases such as “witness and where necessary use words.” Words are always necessary!
- The Holy Spirit guides us in our decision making. In Acts it talks we find the church deciding something because it seemed good to them and to the Holy Spirit. There’s an aim to understand the mind of the Spirit on something important.
How does guidance work?
So how do we seek God’s guidance? How do we make decisions whilst avoiding the twin dangers of secularism and superstition? Let me give two examples. The first is about corporate church life and the second about individual pastoral situations.
A few years ago, our church had to make some big decisions. These included whether or not to plant a new congregation and whether to purchase a nearby building for use as a community.
How could we have approached these decisions? Well one way that some of us may have experiences is for a church leader or prominent person to stand up and announces that the Holy Spirit has told them that we must do this. Some of us might find it easier if we operate like that. We hope for “a word” that will confirm what we should do.
When we made the decision about the café and the new congregation as leaders we refused to go down that line. Why? Well because something like that ends up in bullying and manipulation, it tends to trump any wisdom, insight or discernment that others might bring to bear. We cannot question the decision because it has been announced as God’s will on the matter.
Instead what we did was that:
- We prayed about things together
- We looked at what Scripture had to say. Of course Scripture does not tell us whether we should buy shops or start another service but it does call us to seek God’s glory and to be witnesses. Also, we saw in Scripture some principles about life, growth and multiplication. So the proposals were in line with those principles. I guess that set the parameters for discussion as well. If we decided not to do something then we had to look at the alternatives and see how they would contribute to Gospel growth.
- We listened to practical wisdom. This included valuable insights about why we needed to act such as that newcomers will see a church as full even when there are seats spare once you hit 80% of your capacity and that our main building is set back from the road down a long drive which creates a psychological barrier to vulnerable people coming down and asking for help. We consulted people who had done similar things. We identified the risks associated and we quantified them
- But we also took time to get a sense of the mood. We listened to how people felt, some were excited and described how they felt that God was encouraging them about these things. Others were apprehensive or unsettled. We listened to all sides. Incidentally, just because we did go ahead did not mean that we hadn’t listened to those who were apprehensive. We took all facts and feelings into account but in the end a decision had to be made. Concerns raised shaped the way we went forward
Do you see what was happening?
- We were acting under the authority of Scripture
- The Holy Spirit was at work giving us all the gifts we needed to be able to honour and glorify God in our decision making.
Now this is both very practical and very spiritual –because you cannot separate the two. The Holy Spirit works through the insights of the architect and the accountant!
It also felt very risky. It was quite nerve racking for the elders. We’re not in the habit of sticking decisions in front of the Church because we feel like it. We were convinced that this was the right thing to do, that it was necessary and that it was urgent. So there were times when we thought “what if the church makes the wrong decision?” There was also a few moments when I did think “what if we have made the wrong decision?”
Now these factors come into play with pastoral care, one to one conversations and individual or family decisions too. In some circles, it is regularly the case that someone will go to another believer and announce that they’ve been given a word for them. Sometimes it’s simply to encourage them that they are loved and welcomed and that’s fair enough. But sometimes it’s to tell them about an aspect of their life and to insist that there’s something they should do.
I don’t think that this is a healthy approach to Church life and I don’t think it really is especially super spiritual. Again, such an approach opens the door to manipulation and to abuse.
There have been times when I could have told someone in advance what they were going to say and I could have predicted what they would do. Actually much of that goes from simply listening, observing and being aware through experience of how people tend to live their lives.
To have announced all this in advance would potentially have given me a lot of power and control over the individuals concerned but would it have really got them to hear what God had to say? I think not. It would have turned their eyes from God and Scripture to me as a sort of guru and it would have shut down their discernment.
But then in conversation, I don’t simply seek to give my own advice or the wisdom of some psychologist or even a Christian expert. Rather, my desire is that together we will find out what God has to say. This of course means that together we go to Scripture and prepare for God’s Word to disagree with us, challenge us, encourage us, rebuke us and change us.
Now, there’s a danger for us when this is the approach taken (both in the corporate and the personal examples). Because there isn’t the high drama, we can end up behaving like secularists. We can assume that it’s just us making decisions with all feelings and opinions equally valid. But there is truth in those circumstances, the Holy Spirit is working and so if we resist and rebel it is still grievous sin.
What I mean by this is not that you must therefore agree with the proposal but:
- We will want to approach decision making with the right motives and the right overarching principles. If we disagree then we must ensure that our reasons are Gospel reasons and that we are not driven by fear, jealousy, resentment or selfishness.
- If the decision seems to go against us then we will respond with generosity of spirit. We won’t simply flounce off and take our bat home. Now sometimes a decision takes a church in such a significant direction of travel that we recognise that we simply would not be able to continue without it being detrimental to the body and that it’s time to change. I think that such situations are very rare and it’s important that they are handled graciously. Sometimes it will mean that we prayerfully support what is happening. We wish it well. Often it means that we roll our sleeves up and get involved to ensure that the decision works.
God has sent his Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is at work among us now as we are gathered together with Scripture open.
What’s He saying?
- To some of us he is convicting us of sin, righteousness and judgement –we’ve been going along to church events, watching and listening. Now, Holy spirit is saying that it’s time to join the family.
- For all of us who are part of God’s Family, there’s the encouragement that God is with us through his Holy Spirit, to teach, encourage and empower us.
- There’s a call here. Will you let the Holy Spirit work through you to speak to others about the good news?
 See DA Carson, The Gospel According to John (PNTC. Apollos. Nottingham, 1991), 500.
 Though note that the Greek meaning is not narrowly tied down to legal contexts. See Carson, John, 499.
Carson, John, 499.
 For Lyrics see http://www.lyricsmode.com/lyrics/t/tim_hughes/consuming_fire.html (accessed 20/03/2015).or listen here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qFPzUcQkmmg (accessed 20/03/2015)
 Charles Taylor, A Secular Age, (Belknap Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts), 2007.