Jesus says some strange and difficult things in the Gospels. Some just leave us confused and some are downright mind-boggling. But in John 16:7 he says something that most of us simply do not believe – even though we are inerrantists!
Nevertheless, I am telling you the truth. It is for your benefit that I go away, because if I don’t go away the Counselor will not come to you. If I go, I will send him to you.
Don’t worry, the disciples didn’t believe it either. He told them that he was going away and that he was doing so for their benefit. It is a remarkable assertion. The Spirit would be sent to them and they would be better off when that happened.
Imagine if I told you that Jesus Christ would be appearing in Sioux City for a conference. Of course, you’d question my sanity, but if you knew it to be true, you would do anything you could do to get here. How great would it be to ask Jesus to solve all the discussions we have bickered about and to clarify some of the issues of Scripture the church has argued about since the canon closed. Can you think of anything better?
Obviously, having Jesus with us and the Holy Spirit in us would be sublime, but that isn’t the way it works. He had to go to glory so that he could send the Spirit and when that happened, it would be better. That was what Jesus said.
Simply put, the Spirit in us is better than Jesus with us.
Does that sound shocking? First of all, that’s what Jesus said, so take it up with him! But think about the disciples. They were confused and bumbling even after the resurrection, right up until the moment they were baptized in and filled with the Holy Spirit. At that moment they instantly gained a wisdom they’d never known and experienced a power they’d never imagined. That is why Jesus told them in his last moments to wait in Jerusalem until it happened.
The work of the church is empowered by the inner work of the Holy Spirit. Perhaps our struggles today come partly because we are so unwilling to credit the Spirit, to walk in the fullness of the Spirit, and to permit his control in our lives.
The Promise of the Spirit
Jesus promised the Spirit repeatedly during his earthly ministry. It is fascinating that Jesus did not seem to view his earthly ministry as a culmination but as a preparation for the moment when the Spirit came on the disciples and empowered them to do the work. Jesus’ ministry here was seminary and Pentecost was graduation, ordination, and installation into ministry all rolled into one.
There are many promises of the Spirit during Jesus’ earthly ministry. At the very beginning, when he was baptized by John, the role of the Spirit was made plain. Matthew 3 records the story of Jesus’ baptism. Of course, when Jesus was baptized, the Spirit descended on him as a dove, filling him and empowering him for ministry. But before that, John promised that Jesus was planning to do something exciting.
I baptize you with water for repentance, but the one who is coming after me is more powerful than I. I am not worthy to remove his sandals. He himself will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. Matthew 3:11 (also Mark 1:8, Luke 3:16)
Jesus would be filled with the Spirit, then would baptize the disciples in the Spirit and they would experience fire, a symbol of the presence and power of God.
In John 7:38, Jesus gave more detail about this. He said that those who were thirsty should come to him and that they would find streams of living water bubbling up from within them. Then, in verse 39 John explains what this living water is.
He said this about the Spirit. Those who believed in Jesus were going to receive the Spirit, for the Spirit had not yet been given because Jesus had not yet been glorified.
The Spirit indwelling the disciples would bring real life, the living water of God flowing from within. But that Spirit had not yet been given, at least not in the same form that he would one day be given. That would not happen until Jesus was glorified, taken into heaven, and the events of Pentecost would occur.
There is a passage at the end of John that is confusing, to say the least. In John 20:21-22, Jesus speaks to his disciples after his resurrection and he says,
Jesus said to them again, “Peace to you. As the Father has sent me, I also send you.” 22 After saying this, he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”
This seems to be an obvious fulfillment of the promises of John 14-16, the peace that comes through the gift of the Spirit. But we know that the Spirit was given in fullness later, at Pentecost. While there are several possibilities to explain this, it seems best to see this as John’s summary of many of Jesus’ post-Resurrection sayings. There is a reference to the Great Commission (I also send you) and here there is a foretaste of the Spirit’s power that will come in a few days. John is often thematic more than chronological in his presentation. There is no evidence that his blessing came to pass here – none of the evidences that accompany the indwelling of the Spirit are present. It seems that John is simply summarizing what Jesus promises and what will be fulfilled on Pentecost.
The Spirit and Salvation
In John 3, when Jesus was dialoguing with Nicodemus, he made some references to the work of the Spirit in our salvation. The exact role of the Spirit in salvation is a point of constant debate, one we will steer away from to make a more important point. This study is not about the ordering of regeneration and faith, the interactions of divine sovereignty and human responsibility, but about living in the power of the Spirit.
In John 3, Jesus introduces the concept of the New Birth, of being born a second time, from above. This is a birth not of the flesh but of the Spirit. Look at verses 6-7.
Truly I tell you, unless someone is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. 6 Whatever is born of the flesh is flesh, and whatever is born of the Spirit is spirit.
We must be born once of the flesh and then again in a spiritual process. Whatever your soteriology, we must recognize that salvation is an inner work of the Holy Spirit. We are incapable of saving ourselves and only the supernatural inner work of God’s Spirit can accomplish the process.
Knowing that, we turn to something Paul said in Galatians 3:3.
Are you so foolish? After beginning by the Spirit, are you now finishing by the flesh?
He was rebuking the Galatians for believing that they could finish (their sanctification) in the flesh what was begun (their salvation) in the Spirit. We are just as helpless to walk in holiness as we are to gain salvation. We are fully dependent on the inner work of the Spirit for both. The Spirit accomplishes our salvation and empowers our sanctification.
Everything we are, all that we do, and whatever we have from God is a gift from Heaven worked in us by the power of the Spirit – from beginning to end. Holy is not the Spirit’s first name; it is his job description. His work in us is to bring us to salvation then to conform us to Christ. The entire process depends completely on his power.
Jesus Explains the Spirit: John 14-16
In John 14-16 Jesus is preparing his disciples for what will happen the next day. Their lives are about to be blown into a million pieces as he is betrayed, tried, and crucified. So, he promises them peace, a peace that is a gift of God. One key aspect of this peace that passes understanding is the work of the Holy Spirit that Jesus promises will come when he is gone. There are four passages in the sermon that build a powerful doctrine of the person and work of the Holy Spirit. They are like stairsteps. The first step, John 14:15-18, lays out several key facts about the who the Spirit is and what he does. In John 14:25-26, he builds on that and adds to it. The next step is John 15:26, and the final (and most complete) step in Jesus’ teaching is John 16:5-16.
Volumes could be written on this, but for the purposes of this study, we will just highlight the teachings in each step that are made about the person and work of the Spirit.
Step 1: John 14:16-18
16 And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Counselor to be with you forever. 17 He is the Spirit of truth. The world is unable to receive him because it doesn’t see him or know him. But you do know him, because he remains with you and will be in you. 18 I will not leave you as orphans; I am coming to you.
- The Spirit is a gift from Jesus, received from the Father and given to us by Jesus. The interactions of the Trinity are always mysterious, but the Spirit is Jesus’ gift to us to continue his work.
- The Spirit is “another counselor.” Counselor is not a word that has an easy English equivalent. It can mean advocate, assistant, helper. The Spirit is Jesus’ replacement, the one who Jesus sent to continue his work. The Spirit is, in a very real way, “Jesus indwelling.” Some object to the “Jesus in my heart” concept, and it can be misused. But that is exactly what the Holy Spirit is – the inner presence of Jesus in believers.
- The Spirit is with us forever. In the Old Testament, the Spirit came and went – as with King Saul, as David prayed would not happen to him in Psalm 51. But now, the Spirit once given is permanent. Of course, this is both a corporate promise that the Spirit is in the church and a personal one, that he is in us.
- The Spirit is God’s agent of truth. The term “Spirit of Truth” appears repeatedly in John 14-16. The concept, just mentioned here, is gradually developed during the four steps and culminates in the final step in John 16.
- The Spirit is hidden to the world. Ever wonder why things that seem clear to you seem so unclear to those who are not believers. It is not that they are stupid, but that the truths of God are “spiritually discerned.” God’s Spirit gives us understanding and without the Spirit much of what we believe seems ridiculous. Only as the Spirit opens eyes and hearts can the truth of God make sense.
- Again, the Spirit is our constant and permanent companion. This the key teaching Jesus is making here. “I am about to leave you and your world will explode. But when I am gone something wonderful will happen. The Spirit will indwell you and be my constant presence within you, empowering you to be and do all I have called you to be and do.”
- Jesus is not leaving us as orphans but returning. We speak of the Second Coming of Christ, but in a sense, the Spirit is Jesus’ second coming. Maybe the apocalypse should be called the Third Coming?
Step 2: John 14:25-26
I have spoken these things to you while I remain with you. 26 But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and remind you of everything I have told you.
- Several of the points of the previous step are reiterated here – the Spirit is the Counselor sent in Jesus’ name.
- While the term “Spirit of Truth” is not used, the concept is highlighted here. One primary role of the Spirit is to teach all things to the disciples and remind them of all that Christ said to them. This speaks of two processes. First, it speaks of inspiration. As the disciples wrote the Gospels, they would have the Spirit’s help in remembering everything he said. It also speaks of what I often called illumination as the Spirit teaches them all things – helping them understand what Jesus said. This was an immediate effect of the filling of the Spirit. The disciples who never seemed to understand Jesus had immediate insight the moment the Spirit filled them.
- This gives the lie to unfortunate dichotomy drawn by some between the way of the Spirit and the way of the word. The Spirit and the word of God are not in conflict. He inspired the word so that he could communicate the truth of God to us.
Step 3: John 15: 26
When the Counselor comes, the one I will send to you from the Father—the Spirit of truth who proceeds from the Father—he will testify about me.
- The concepts of the Spirit as Counselor and as Spirit of Truth who proceeds from the Father are repeated.
- The single new concept here is that the role and purpose of the Spirit is to proclaim Christ. The Spirit is crucial, powerful, and focused on Jesus. When the Spirit is at work, the evidence is not emotion or some single manifestation, but the proclamation of the saving grace of Christ. Where the Spirit dwells in fullness, Jesus is proclaimed in power.
Step 4: John 16:5-16
This is the most extensive of the passages, completing Jesus’ teaching on the Spirit’s work.
But now I am going away to him who sent me, and not one of you asks me, ‘Where are you going?’ 6 Yet, because I have spoken these things to you, sorrow has filled your heart. 7 Nevertheless, I am telling you the truth. It is for your benefit that I go away, because if I don’t go away the Counselor will not come to you. If I go, I will send him to you. 8 When he comes, he will convict the world about sin, righteousness, and judgment: 9 About sin, because they do not believe in me; 10 about righteousness, because I am going to the Father and you will no longer see me; 11 and about judgment, because the ruler of this world has been judged.
12 “I still have many things to tell you, but you can’t bear them now. 13 When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth. For he will not speak on his own, but he will speak whatever he hears. He will also declare to you what is to come. 14 He will glorify me, because he will take from what is mine and declare it to you. 15 Everything the Father has is mine. This is why I told you that he takes from what is mine and will declare it to you.
A little while and you will no longer see me; again a little while and you will see me.
- This passage begins with the concept this post began with – that the disciples of Christ are better off with the Spirit in us than we would be if Jesus were with us (verse 7).
- In verses 8-11 there is an important new discussion of the role of the Spirit working in the hearts of both the lost and believers. This work is called “conviction” – essentially the work of convincing the heart of the truth of what God says. In step 1 we learned that the world couldn’t understand or receive Jesus, now we learn why. It is only when the Spirit convicts that man understands.
- The Spirit convicts the world of sin. The ultimate sin, mentioned in verse 9, is the failure to believe in Jesus, but the concept is that those who reject Christ have no moral or spiritual sense and only when the Spirit convicts are their eyes open.
- The Spirit convicts of righteousness. Jesus, according to verse 10, was leaving to go to the Father and wouldn’t be around anymore to be the perfect example of righteousness. So, instead of Jesus modeling righteousness before their eyes, the Spirit would convince them of righteous standards in their hearts.
- The Spirit convicts of judgment. Not only has the Enemy been judged by God on the Cross, but those who reject Jesus fall under that same judgment. Why don’t people understand sin and judgment? Because until the Spirit convicts, they can’t. They won’t.
- In the final paragraph (12-15), beginning in verse 12, Jesus returns to the topic of the Spirit of truth guiding the disciples into all truth. Jesus realized that he had more to say to the disciples than they could understand. They didn’t seem to grasp the most basic of concepts. But the Spirit would “from what is mine and will declare it to you.” He will glorify Christ by bringing the words of Jesus to the church he died to establish. There are four key aspects to the word of God coming to us. Inspiration is the process of God giving a perfect word to us through his prophets and apostles. Canonization was an early church process in which the books that were truly of God were recognized and those that only had human origin (such as the Apocrypha and pseudepigraphal writings) were rejected. There was transmission, the difficult process of copying the Bible – by hand for most of church history. And then, the illumination of the word which takes place when we read. In all of that, the Spirit guides so that God’s truth is communicated to the human heart.
- The role of the Spirit is hinted at in verse 16, the close of this section. Jesus is leaving and will one day return. In the meantime, he has sent “another Counselor” to be the interim Jesus.
A Recap of the Old Testament and Gospel Principles
This and the previous posts have been laying the foundation. Now it is time to begin building the main structure – what the Epistles say about the Holy Spirit. They build on the Old Testament principles and the Jesus Principles. Here is a brief summary of those Principles.
The Old Testament Principles
- The Spirit of God is his active presence in the world.
- The Spirit of God comes on his people to empower them for the work he does.
- The Spirit of God communicates the truth of God to the people of God.
- The Spirit of God is powerfully involved in the millennial future of Israel.
The Jesus Principles
- Jesus lived his life in the power of the Spirit. As he did, so must we.
- The Spirit comes from God and is given by Jesus.
- The Spirit is “another Counselor” – the interim Jesus, God’s presence in us between the Ascension of Christ and his Second (Third?) Coming.
- Since Pentecost, the Spirit’s presence in believers is permanent.
- The Spirit speaks truth to the church, inspiring God’s word and helping us understand it.
- The Spirit convicts human hearts, helping fallen people understand the truth of God.
- Since this is so, those in the world who are not indwelled by the Spirit or under his conviction cannot understand the things of God.
- The Spirit’s key work is to proclaim the Crucified and Risen Christ – to draw people to him and to conform believers to his image.
Previous Posts in this Series
- Baptist in the Spirit, Part 1: One Thing Changed
- Baptist in the Spirit Part 2: Overview
- Baptist in the Spirit, Part 3: The Holy Spirit in the Old Testament
- Baptist in the Spirit, part 4: Old Testament Pentecostal Power?
- Baptist in the Spirit, Part 5: The Spirit in the Life of Jesus