Spirit-inspired Christian living
1. What the Healing Ministry taught me
a) The expected conflict
Let me tell you what the Healing Ministry taught me. The expected conflict between me and the Healing Ministry at the Cathedral was a great disappointment to those who like fights and arguments, because I actually learned a great deal from it.
Since my youth, Christianity and Western culture has been struggling: our society has moved away from the Christian consensus, our churches have come under increasing pressure (especially in numbers and money), and our beliefs have been attacked by New Age and Eastern mysticism, on one hand, and atheistic rationalism on the other hand. Our society, then, has given itself over to internalised individualism and an irrationality of relativism. The old denominational differences and fights seem increasingly irrelevant as we struggle to connect the message of the gospel to a community of credulous cynics and gullible sceptics.
Broadly, we’ve seen the death of cultural Christianity and those churches that have responded to it by insisting on their traditions. We’ve also seen the death of liberal Christianity—not in the public arena, because the liberal Christian is always popular with the gatekeepers; the media, the university, the politicians love the liberals, because they are saying what they want said. But we’ve seen liberal Christianity as weak and ineffective in local churches, and we’ve seen the conflict between the evangelicals and the charismatics. And so, given that conflict, what would happen if Phillip Jensen became the Dean of the Cathedral where the Healing Ministry was?
Well, I went along to the healing services, got to know the people there, became involved in their lives, and listened carefully to the sermons and to the testimonies of these very fine Christian people. And over time, I came to understand the Healing Ministry—not in the way in which the members understood it, nor in the way that their opponents understood it, but instead I saw it as a very valuable ministry of need-centred evangelism that used the biblical imagery of healing to explain salvation and the gospel.
b) The map of misunderstanding
Out of this involvement, I developed what I called the “map of misunderstanding”. The key to this map is to realise that there are not two, but three different theologies at practice in view, and that the biblical understanding is being attacked not from one, but two contradictory viewpoints that confuse those who want to live by God’s word.
The first thing to understand is that God is King: he rules the world and he’s at work in everything. Because God is the King, he can change anything, and as we pray to God for healing of anything, God is able to do whatever we ask that he wishes to do and make whatever change he wants.
But as God’s people, we are content with God as our King in control of our lives. So not only do we pray for change, we also pray for contentment. The two seem strange to put together, and usually you pray for one or the other. But you can actually pray for both, because God is King and he knows which you need. All this, then, is the basis for biblical prayer—both praying for change and praying for contentment. All that is biblical Christianity.
But some people push change and prayer too far. They belong to the “Name it and claim it” brigade. They tell God what God must do: they demand and declare—they name it and then claim it. Others push contentment too far and become fatalistic. They see their present condition of life as a destiny God cannot change. The book by William Barclay on prayers tells you that God cannot do things, even if you pray for them.
The “Name it and claim it” people hear the Bible teaching on contentment as fatalism—as destiny. They assume that we who pray for contentment are unbelievers. In fact, they assume we’re atheists, because it’s atheists who believe that what is, is, and nothing can be done about it, because God doesn’t do anything.
In comparison, the fatalists—those who believe everything’s a matter of destiny and God is not able to change anything—the fatalists hear us teaching the Bible about change and think we are part of the “Name and claim it” brigade. They see our desire for God to change things as just magic and superstition: we are manipulating the world like magicians who have chants and certain sayings that can force God’s hands, the Spirit’s or the powers to bring about change.
So those of us in the box of biblical Christianity are misunderstood from both sides. Those outside the box do not understand those inside the box—that is, those outside of biblical Christianity constantly mishear what we’re saying, and we inside the box tend to either overreact or reinforce their misunderstanding. What we should be doing, of course, is developing our own biblical understanding of God, who hears our prayers and changes the world in response to our requests—a God whose loving sovereign control is such that we can trust him and be content with whatever he gives to us in response to our prayers. But we tend to fulfill the worst expectations of those who live outside the box.
Evangelicals in mainstream churches are dealing with both these alternatives—(for want of better word and to put it very crudely) the Charismatic and the Liberal alternatives (though you can see that within the box, there is great diversity). Putting it crudely, the Charismatics make too much of the ministry of the Spirit and the Liberals make too little of the ministry of the Spirit.
However, it’s not just the frequency of reference to the Spirit, but the scope of the Spirit’s work in our lives. For the Charismatics, the Spirit is associated with miraculous; for the Liberals, the Spirit is concerned with the intellectual spirit of the age, rather than the Holy Spirit. The Charismatics are associated with supernatural experiences, worship and magic; the Liberals, with natural rationality and politics of social justice. Both are concerned with power—the Charismatics with spiritual power, the Liberals with political power. And so, with Liberals on the one side, sounding like unbelieving atheists, and Charismatics on the other side, sounding like superstitious magicians, what does the Bible teach us about Spirit-inspired Christian living?
2. The Bible is about Jesus
a) The Bible is not about me
The first thing to say about it is the Bible is about Jesus, not me. This is one of those truisms all Christians would agree with: of course the Bible is about Jesus and of course the Bible is not about me. But it’s important—not as an orthodox statement of belief, but as the way in which we are supposed to function and think theologically, and act and live personally. A phrase like “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life” sounds as if it is about God. In fact, it’s about you and how important you are to God: “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life”. We may say the Bible is about Jesus, but when we read and when we preach the Bible, always looking applications to our own lives, we indicate that the real commitment we have is to ourselves and our belief that the Bible is really about us.
Now, do not misunderstand me: God does love us, he has got a wonderful plan for our lives and the Bible is applicable to our lives. But God is not there just for us; we are here for him. The Bible is not about us; it’s about Jesus—God’s only Son.
b) The Bible is about God’s action in Christ Jesus
In that regard, the Bible is about God’s action in Jesus. It’s what God has done in Christ Jesus that saves me; it’s not what I have done. My salvation must be read as part of God’s grand plan for the world and for his Son in particular. Take, for example, that wonderful passage in Romans 8:28-29:
And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.
Certainly God is at work in all things for our good. But what is the “good” for which God is at work in all things? It’s for the good of those “who are called according to his purpose” (v. 28). God is at work in all things to conform us to the image of his Son. That’s our good: our end point is to be like his Son. Verse 28, without the full extent of verse 29 and the like, sounds like God is going to bless you with a happy, materialistic, wealthy life. But that is not what is being spoken of. Instead, God is going to make you like Jesus, who is known as the “man of sorrows” (Isa 53:3).
But it’s more than that: we’re being made like God’s Son so that God’s Son may be “the firstborn among many brothers” (v. 29). We’re being made like him for his sake, not for our sake. It is for our sake and our enormous benefit! But it’s for his sake. He was not made for us; we are made for him. So our biblical personal salvation must be read as part of God’s salvation history, not about us. Spirit-inspired Christian living is going to be about Jesus.
c) The Bible is not about the Spirit
Which brings us to the idea that the Bible is about Jesus, not the Spirit. Now, please hear me out: be kind and generous to me, and read carefully, rather than writing me off as a heretic or a blasphemer. I firmly believe that the Holy Spirit is the third person of the triune God, and as such, is fully divine. And I believe that without the Bible, we wouldn’t know anything about the Holy Spirit and his work, because it’s in the Word of God that the Spirit is revealed.
However, the Spirit is not the principle subject of the Bible. The Spirit is not the saviour of the world. The Spirit is not the saviour of Christians. The Spirit is not the one for whom—by whom—all things were made (cf. Col 1:16). The Spirit’s work in salvation is to apply the saviour’s work of salvation. The Spirit does not have a separate work from Jesus’ work. The Bible is not about our spiritual experiences, but about Jesus’ work of salvation from sin and judgement by his death and resurrection.
3. The Spirit in the Bible
So if the Bible is about Jesus, rather than the Spirit, what do we know about the Spirit in the Bible?
a) The Old Testament expectation
Let’s start with three points about the Old Testament expectation. Firstly, when reading the Old Testament, there is no grounds for doubting the divinity of the Spirit of the Lord or the Spirit of God. But there is very little evidence for understanding the personhood of the Holy Spirit in the Old Testament.
JI Packer wrote about the person of the Holy Spirit, saying, “The Spirit’s distinct personhood can, and according to the New Testament should, be read into the Old Testament, but cannot be read out of it”.1 If you only have the Old Testament, you wouldn’t know of the Holy Spirit being the third person of the Trinity. Similarly, Gerald Bray has commented,
It is not always clear whether these [Old Testament] passages refer to the being or nature of God, or whether they should be seen as allusions to the third person of the Trinity who had not yet been revealed as such.2
This, in a sense, is the opposite to Jesus: nobody ever doubted that Jesus was a person, but his divinity was revealed slowly and was not quickly understood. Nobody doubts the divinity of the Holy Spirit, but his personhood is revealed slowly, and was not quickly understood.
Second observation: within the Old Testament, the Spirit of the Lord is active as God brings his plans into effect—but the Spirit is especially active in prophecy. Israel were the people of the Word: Yahweh spoke and spoke to Israel. In Numbers 11 when the 70 elders were appointed, we read,
Then the Lord came down in the cloud and spoke to [Moses], and took some of the Spirit that was on him and put it on the seventy elders. And as soon as the Spirit rested on them, they prophesied. But they did not continue doing it.
Now two men remained in the camp, one named Eldad, and the other named Medad, and the Spirit rested on them. They were among those registered, but they had not gone out to the tent, and so they prophesied in the camp. And a young man ran and told Moses, “Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp.” And Joshua the son of Nun, the assistant of Moses from his youth, said, “My lord Moses, stop them.” But Moses said to him, “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, that the Lord would put his Spirit on them!” (Num 11: 25-29)
There’s this strong connection with receiving the Spirit and prophesying. Prophecy was one of the marks of God’s people. So the people were warned not to follow the practices of the nations, but to listen to God’s word—to listen to God’s coming prophet, who will speak God’s word. In the Book of Deuteronomy, Moses says,
“When you come into the land that the Lord your God is giving you, you shall not learn to follow the abominable practices of those nations. There shall not be found among you anyone who burns his son or his daughter as an offering, anyone who practices divination or tells fortunes or interprets omens, or a sorcerer or a charmer or a medium or a necromancer or one who inquires of the dead, for whoever does these things is an abomination to the Lord. And because of these abominations the Lord your God is driving them out before you. You shall be blameless before the Lord your God, for these nations, which you are about to dispossess, listen to fortune-tellers and to diviners. But as for you, the Lord your God has not allowed you to do this.
“The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your brothers—it is to him you shall listen—just as you desired of the Lord your God at Horeb on the day of the assembly, when you said, ‘Let me not hear again the voice of the Lord my God or see this great fire any more, lest I die.’ And the Lord said to me, ‘They are right in what they have spoken. I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their brothers. And I will put my words in his mouth, and he shall speak to them all that I command him. (Deut 18:9-18)
Thirdly, Moses’ hope and promise of the Spirit and prophecy finds further expectation in the Old Testament in the Books of Ezekiel and Joel, for example. So in Ezekiel 36, when God promises to restore the house of Israel out of Babylon and out of its scattering through the Assyrians, and restore them for the hallowing of his name, he promises not only to wash them clean of their impurities and give them new soft hearts, instead of their stone hearts, he also promises that “I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules” (Ezek 36:27).
This prophecy leads to the great resurrection passage in the next chapter—Ezekiel 37—where the prophet is to prophesy to the breath, or to the “spirit” (the word “breath” and “spirit” is the same here). The “breath” or “spirit” will come into the dead nation, whom God will raise up in this great valley of dry bones. He says, “And I will put my Spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you in your own land” (Ezek 37:14a). The rest of chapter 37 outlines the wonderful promises of the new kingdom, with the restoration of both Israel and Judah and the coming of the King David to be prince forever in the everlasting covenant of peace.
Furthermore, Joel 2:28-29 is where we read of the Day of the Lord coming, when God will pour out his Spirit on all flesh and all God’s people will then prophesy. We know this passage because Peter quotes it in Acts 2 on the Day of Pentecost:
“And it shall come to pass afterward,
that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh;
your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
your old men shall dream dreams,
and your young men shall see visions.
Even on the male and female servants
in those days I will pour out my Spirit.
But if we’re going to look from the New Testament into the Old Testament, then we should also remember that very important passage in 1 Peter 1:10-12, which talks about the work of the Spirit in the Old Testament:
Concerning this salvation, the prophets who prophesied about the grace that was to be yours searched and inquired carefully, inquiring what person or time the Spirit of Christ in them was indicating when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glories. It was revealed to them that they were serving not themselves but you, in the things that have now been announced to you through those who preached the good news to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven, things into which angels long to look.
This is a very important little passage: in it, you see certain things about the work of the Spirit in the Old Testament. We see again the connection between the Spirit and prophecy. But now we see that the Spirit is called “the Spirit of Christ” in the Old Testament (1 Pet 1:11). We also see the burden of their message in terms of the sufferings and subsequent glories of the Christ (1 Pet 1:11). And we see the eschatological importance of the prophets’ work. (“Eschatological” means “the end times”—the end of the world times—the new age times.) The prophets weren’t serving Old Testament contemporaries; they were serving New Testament Christians. They weren’t serving themselves, but we who have received the gospel. And so, finally, we learn something for later—namely, that the Spirit is at work in evangelism through gospel preachers (1 Pet 1:12). But that’s getting onto the New Testament.
c) The New Testament expectation of the Holy Spirit
So let’s turn our attention away from Old Testament expectations to New Testament expectations. What is the New Testament looking forward to about the work of the Holy Spirit?
Have you ever felt sorry for Nicodemus? He was a ruler of the Jews—a leading man in Jerusalem who was a teacher of Israel. In John 3, he came at night—presumably because of some danger or at least some shame in humbling himself and coming to this untaught Galilean preacher. He approaches Jesus respectfully: “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him” (John 3:2).
Jesus answers him even before he gets his question out with a rebuff that is confusing to him and seemingly insulting: “Truly, Truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3). As the dialogue proceeds, Jesus is talking about rebirth by the Spirit of God, and Nicodemus is totally lost and completely confused. “How can these things be?” he asks (John 3:9) or, more likely, he exclaims—only to be met by Jesus’ rebuke: “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things?” (John 3:10).
If you’ve ever felt sorry for Nicodemus, you shouldn’t: he had the responsibility of knowing and teaching the Old Testament—the coming of the messianic kingdom—the coming of the Messiah King—the coming of the resurrection—and the coming of the Spirit of God to bring new life to the nation. But Nicodemus was one of the men who looked for God in the wrong places: he looked for signs and wonders, instead of looking for words and regeneration. Look back at the passage’s context in John’s Gospel: Jesus cleanses the temple during the Passover Feast and the authorities demand a sign from him to justify his actions:
So the Jews said to him, “What sign do you show us for doing these things?” Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” The Jews then said, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and will you raise it up in three days?” But he was speaking about the temple of his body. When therefore he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this, and they believed the Scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken. (John 2:18-22)
You see, it’s a wicked and evil generation that desires signs, and Jesus consistently refuses to do them. He who did the greatest miracles in the world consistently refused to do them. The sign that authorizes Jesus’ cleansing of the temple is its ultimate destruction and his resurrection. But not even the disciples understood what he was talking about—until three things happened: after his resurrection, they remembered his words, and they believed the Scriptures and what he had said.
But you may still be tempted to speak up for Nicodemus and say, “Well, at least he came to Jesus and accepted the signs Jesus did. I mean, Nicodemus saw the signs and he saw them as coming from God and attesting to Jesus’ authority. Surely you’ve got to give him credit for that!” Well, not if you’ve read chapter 2:
Now when [Jesus] was in Jerusalem at the Passover Feast, many believed in his name when they saw the signs that he was doing. But Jesus on his part did not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people and needed no one to bear witness about man, for he himself knew what was in man.
Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. (John 2:23-3:31)
We are being told explicitly not to trust people who believe because of the miraculous signs, and then one of those people comes along and says, “I believe in you because of the miraculous signs!” In comparison, the Spirit comes with words: look later in John 3:34: “For he whom God has sent utters the words of God.” Why? “For he gives the Spirit without measure.” When you’re full of the Spirit, you will speak the words of God.
ii. Words vs. signs
This theme runs all the way through John’s Gospel. Take the Samaritans in John 4:42: they heard the good news for themselves and said, “Now we believe that you are the Saviour of the world”. Or when the Galileans falsely welcome Jesus, because they had seen his signs in Jerusalem, and you know not to trust people who believe because they see signs (John 4:45). Or again in John 7:1-9, when Jesus’ unbelieving brothers want him to go up to the feast in Jerusalem in order that his works might be seen and so that he might become well known. But Jesus rejects their advice, because it’s the advice of this world, and he stays in Galilee, only to go up to the feast later privately.
We can see this theme in other Gospels, where Jesus refuses to do signs and wonders on request, and where he forbids people to tell of the healings he performed. Indeed, the whole Sermon on the Mount is a great warning against the popularity and success of a healing ministry. It’s introduced in Matthew 4:23-25 by the huge crowds that are coming from all over Palestine to see Jesus, who is performing incredible healing miracles. Jesus then calls his disciples away from the crowds and talks to them for three chapters, and in those chapters, he tells them to expect not popularity, but persecution. What they are to seek is not doing signs, but righteousness—to find the narrow, less popular way. Jesus warns them that,
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness. (Matt 7:21-23)
I’ve always thought that verse 23 is the worst verse in the whole New Testament, if not the whole Bible: one thing you would not want to have Jesus say to you on the last day is that. They’ve done the miracles, but he didn’t even know them. Then he goes on in the last little bit of the Sermon on the Mount to challenge them to not only hear his words, but to do them, for that is how to build on the rock (Matt 7:24-27).
iii. What to expect of the Spirit
So if we’re not to look for the work of the Spirit in miracles and signs, what should be our expectation of the Spirit and his work? John the Baptist and Jesus prophesy the coming of the Spirit, but as John the Gospel writer says in 7:39, the Spirit was to be received by all believers, but not until after Jesus is glorified. On the night on which he was betrayed, Jesus went into great detail about the Spirit coming to replace him. There are five passages in John 14-15 in which he outlines the coming of the Spirit: 14:15-17, 14:25-26, 15:26-27, 16:7-11, 16:12-15. Here is the clearest, most unambiguous teaching in the New Testament about the work of the Holy Spirit and about what Jesus expects of the work of the Holy Spirit. It teaches us what to expect and what to look for in the rest of the New Testament and in our Christian lives. Therefore a careful study of these passages is worthwhile if we’re to understand and figure out what to expect of the Spirit when he comes into our lives and into this world.
Now, we could spend the rest of this talk on these passages, but I’ve already done this exercise: on phillipjensen.com, there’s a whole series of sermons that you can download on Jesus and the Holy Spirit from 2009, and in it, you’ll get a sermon on each of those passages as well as on John 13-17. If you want to know what the work of the Holy Spirit is about, this is what Jesus teaches. There’s no more important passage of the Scriptures on the work of the Holy Spirit than John 14-16.
But let me summarise the main points for you. Firstly, the translation of the Greek word “paraclete” is difficult, for he is called “the paraclete”. Some translations don’t translate it; they just transliterate it into an English word that doesn’t exist called “paraclete”. The translation into “helper” is right, but it is too vague to know what that means. “Counsellor” is a better word, provided you understand “counsellor” not as a psychologist, but as a lawyer. That’s why another translation is “advocate”—lawyer—but as most people don’t know what an advocate is, that doesn’t help all that much.
Secondly, these are promises to the apostles. Now, the apostles are Christ’s disciples, and so some of it directly applies to all Christians. But these are promises also to the apostles, who are unique, so some of this is about the apostles’ ministry in the coming days. You have to weigh up the context and content of each one in order to work out the extent this is just for the apostles and the extent this is this for all of us. It is for all of us, but some of it is all of us through the apostles.
Thirdly, both the Father and the Son are engaged in sending the Spirit.
Fourthly, the Spirit comes in place of the Son. That’s why he doesn’t come until after the Son has left. But the Father is to send “another advocate” (John 14:16): in other words, Jesus is the advocate and he is not being replaced by the Spirit.
Fifthly, the Spirit is called “the Spirit of truth” (John 14:17). That tells you about his work, which is outlined for us in John 14-16.
iv. The work of the Spirit
Here are five points about the work of the Spirit. Firstly, the work of the Spirit is to be with the disciples in Jesus’ absence, and to be with the disciples forever in Jesus’ absence. (14:15-17). Jesus is leaving, but the Spirit comes and will not leave.
Secondly, the Spirit, when he comes, will teach them all things and remind them of Jesus’ words (14:25-26). You can see how this applies directly to the apostles, because you and I did not hear Jesus’ words. However, you will hear Jesus’ words spoken through the apostles, so it is for us through them. But the work of the Holy Spirit is to be the teacher: he is going to teach all things and, in particular, the things he’s teaching are the words of Jesus.
Thirdly, the Spirit is coming to bear witness about Jesus, because the apostles are also to bear witness (15:26-27). Bearing witness—testifying, if you like—is more than being an eyewitness—although it’s the apostles we’re talking about here, because they have been with Jesus from the beginning. The eyewitness sees things, but he hasn’t actually witnessed anything until he stands up and testifies. Witnessing involves speaking, as well as observing, and in witnessing, it always comes in the context of opposition and hostility. So when you read John 15:18-16:4, you see that bearing witness means speaking up for Jesus in the face of opposition. This is a particular reason why we need the Holy Spirit: when they drag us before courts and councils, we mustn’t be afraid, because the Holy Spirit will give us the words to say in those situations and circumstances, because it’s the Holy Spirit who bears witness.
Which leads us to my fourth point about the work of the Spirit: the work of the Holy Spirit is to expose and convict the world—of sin, righteousness and judgement (John 16:7-11). Each of those is spelled out in terms of Jesus: because of Jesus, the world, sin, the concept of righteousness and the certainty of judgement is coming. In other words, the work of the Holy Spirit is to take hold of Jesus’ death and resurrection, and apply it to the world—exposing the world to what it means.
Finally, the Holy Spirit will guide them into all truth (John 16:12-15). That’s not calculus; that’s the truth of what the Father has given to the Son. So everything about the world seen from the viewpoint and standpoint of the Son of God they will now know. That is why he is the Spirit of truth: he is the teacher, the witness, the evangelist, the guide in all truth. But that truth is all about Jesus.
So what are we expecting the Spirit to come and do? As a result of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, he is to come and, through the apostles, faithfully preserve and apply Jesus’ saving work and word to the world. He comes as the truthful teacher, witness and advocate, enabling the apostles to evangelise the world.
There’s one last reference to the Spirit and his work in John’s Gospel—John 20, on the day of resurrection, when Jesus appears to the disciples in the upper room and commissions them:
Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.” (John 20:21-23)
Again, we see the work of the Spirit in terms of continuing or applying the saving work of Jesus through the disciples’ ministry of the Word.
c) The arrival of the Spirit
While John’s Gospel presents us with all this, it’s Luke who recounts for us the arrival of the Spirit in the Book of Acts. In Acts 1, Jesus prepares the apostles for what is about to happen, promising them the baptism of the Spirit and telling them of the Spirit’s coming to enable them to do this terribly difficult work of witnessing “to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8). It may not be the ends of the world as is commonly understood, but the ends of the Promised Land, as the apostles are actually apostles to Israel, rather than to the world.
The apostles also prepare for the coming of the Spirit by asking Jesus to appoint a twelfth apostle: Matthias. He is to become a witness to the resurrection. He’s not to become an eyewitness to the resurrection; he’s already that, otherwise he couldn’t become a witness to the resurrection. But he needs to become a witness who is going to proclaim the resurrection in the face of opposition.
Then in chapter 2, the great event of Pentecost occurs, when all the nations hear the gospel—“the mighty works of God”, as it’s described in Acts 2:11—in their own language. The important thing is not so much that they hear it in their own language; the important thing is that they’re hearing the mighty works of God. With the arrival of the Spirit, the apostles are able to speak in “other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance” (Acts 2:4)—that is, in “tongues” or in the languages of all manner of Jewish people who were in Jerusalem at the time.
The explanation of this phenomenon is given by Peter in Acts 2:16-21. What is it about? He says, “This is the day of the Lord” (v. 20)—the last days. The prophet Joel spoke of a day when all God’s people would receive the Spirit of prophecy—the day of judgement. This day of judgement is when salvation will be available for all who call on the name of the Lord, because the end of the world has come. Then in verses 21-36, Peter turns their attention away from the Spirit—away from the phenomenon that has taken place—and onto Jesus—in particular, onto Jesus’ resurrection and fulfilment of the Old Testament promises to David. The punch line of this first great Christian sermon is Acts 2:36: “Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.”
Where does the coming of the Spirit fit in with this sermon—this punch line? It’s back in verse 33: having been raised up and exalted to sit at God’s right hand, Jesus has received and given the Holy Spirit. Who could possibly receive the Spirit from the Father in such a fashion as to be able to give it to his disciples? It can only be God! It can only be the Christ, the Davidic Son of God, who could do such a thing! So the coming of the Spirit at the hand of Jesus is the final vindication of Jesus—the final indication of the coming of the last days—the coming of the kingdom of God—the coronation of the King—Jesus, the Son of God, finally in power—finally made both Christ and Lord.
Suddenly the whole crowd is cut to the heart. Mass baptisms follow. Thousands of Israelites acknowledge the Saviour and come into new life in his kingdom. The age of the resurrection has commenced. The age of the Spirit of Christ has started, regenerating sinners to salvation.
Throughout the Book of Acts, we see in the last days the resurrection proclaimed—proclaimed by Jesus’ disciples, the apostles, enabled by the Spirit to keep speaking in the face of opposition and persecution. But they speak, not about the Spirit, for they hardly ever mention him, but about Jesus—Jesus and the resurrection. And they speak to see the lordship of Jesus spread from Jerusalem to Judea to Samaria and to the Gentile Cornelius, and then onto the nations of the world by Paul, the apostle to the nations. Here’s an example of their preaching and what happened:
And as they were speaking to the people, the priests and the captain of the temple and the Sadducees came upon them, greatly annoyed because they were teaching the people and proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection from the dead. And they arrested them and put them in custody until the next day, for it was already evening. But many of those who had heard the word believed, and the number of the men came to about five thousand. (Acts 4:1-4)
Notice three things in that little passage. Firstly, opposition and persecution: if you witness for Jesus, that’s what you’re going to get. Secondly, the conversions of many people. And thirdly, they weren’t preaching Jesus’ resurrection, but “in Jesus the resurrection” (Acts 4:2): they were preaching the end of the world. They were preaching the new age. They were preaching the spirituals. They were preaching the Spirit in the age to come.
Paul understands his mission in the same terms:
Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures, concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord. (Rom 1:1-4)
Hear in that the echo of Peter’s Pentecostal sermon: David and the resurrection, “the Son of God in power”, declared by the Holy Spirit, “by his resurrection from the dead”, Jesus has become both Christ and Lord. The arrival of the Spirit is the critical point in the establishment of Christ’s kingdom—in the judgement of the world by the resurrection—in which those who trust in Christ are to be saved. That is, we come to the Spirit when we come to the future of the kingdom. Its arrival is now. “Spiritual” is the future eschatological term. To be “in the Spirit” is to be in the age to come.
4. The Spirit and the Christian life
And so we turn at last to the Spirit in the Christian life now.
The commencement of the reign of Christ over the world is matched both corporately and privately in the lives of the church and the Christians. As we turn to the missionary letters that comprise the rest of the New Testament, we’re met with a plethora of references to the work of the Spirit and the age of the Spirit.
Romans 2:29 reflects what has been said in Ezekiel about true circumcision being of the heart: “But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter”. Or again in Romans 7:6, we talk about not serving by the law the old way, but now by the “new way of the Spirit”. These references are very brief—almost incidental—but without quoting or alluding to the Old Testament, they reflect the expectations of Ezekiel 36-37. They put the Spirit in contrast to the written code. So it’s very important for Paul to qualify it as he does in 7:14: “For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin”. Here is the primary contrast Paul uses between the spiritual (in this case, the law) and the flesh (in this case, my sinfulness). It’s not that the law was in any way defective or sinful; indeed, the law is spiritual. But it’s we who are of the flesh, and so we of the flesh are condemned by the spiritual law.
It’s important to grasp Paul’s usage of words here—the “spiritual” and “flesh”. In our modern world, “spiritual” means New Age mysticism—experiencing and feeling. It’s the inner life of blonde celebrities where no morals are found and virtue is constantly signalled. “Flesh” refers to the sensual delights of a sexually liberated society. But we have to free our minds from those kinds of thoughts. For Paul, “spiritual” the adjective means “that which comes from the Spirit”—that which is of the messianic age, the age to come, that has commenced already through the resurrection of Jesus and the outpouring of his Spirit. And for Paul with regards to the “flesh”, the adjective we should have is “fleshual”, but we don’t have that in English. Paul means that which is of the fallen world—the age that is in opposition to God and his Messiah—the age of this world under sin and condemnation.
So now at last we get to Romans 8, which is the great chapter in the letters on the Spirit in the Christian life—especially the commencement of that life. For having clarified the gospel in relation to law, Paul now talks of the law of the Spirit of life that sets us free “from the law of sin and death” (Rom 8:2). In Romans 8:5-11, we see a contrast between flesh and spirit: life according to the flesh is to set your mind on the things of the flesh, and is death. In comparison, life according to the Spirit is to set your mind on the things of the Spirit, and is life and peace. Notice how surprising this is to our modern ears. The contrast is a contrast between the minds: influenced by the world’s concepts of spirituality, people expect the difference to be experiential, emotional, mystical, intuitive, magical or miraculous, versus what would be sensual, rational, gluttonous and animalistic. Influenced by the world’s concept of the mind, people expect that they will be able to think about God, choose God and think of the truth all for themselves.
But the human condition is much more profound and sinful than that. The mind of the flesh, we are told in Romans 8:5-11, is hostile to God: it does not submit to God’s law, it cannot submit to God’s law, and it cannot please God. That is, there’s no hope for those dead in sin and trespasses to ever understand God, turn back to God or think their way to God. Liberalism theologically is profoundly unbiblical and stupid, because there’s no hope of ever pleasing God or rising again to new life out of human nature or the human mind. There’s no hope for any of us, except in God who raises the dead by his Spirit. Christians are no longer of the flesh, but of the Spirit—in the Spirit—if God’s Spirit lives in you. And if God’s Spirit lives in you, then you live in the Spirit. You live in the age to come—the age of the Spirit. You must have the Spirit of Christ to be Christian. But if you do have the Spirit of Christ, then although your body is dead (something some of us feel more acutely than others!), your mortal body will live. Oh, Nicodemus! You can’t enter the kingdom of God except by being born again by the Spirit of God.
But that’s only the commencement—the commencement that introduces us into eternity, this continued life being Christian person in this world. You live in this world as you live in eternity, because you no longer live according to the flesh. You now put the flesh to death and, instead, are led by the Spirit, as Paul says in Romans 8:12-17.
But where does the Spirit lead you? Where do you think the Spirit’s going to lead you? If you look at verses 12-17, you’ll see that the Spirit leads you to put to death the life of the flesh and to call God “Abba, Father”—especially in times of suffering and difficulty when you do not know what to pray.
b) Gifts of the Spirit
But so far, I have not mentioned the gifts—the gifts of the Spirit. How do they feature in Christian living? For many people, the key passage is not Romans 8 or John’s Gospel, but 1 Corinthians 12-14. Surely this is the passage that explains how the Spirit works in Christians, and certainly this is the passage that’s introduced by, “Well, what about the spirituals?”: “Now concerning spiritual gifts, brothers, I do not want you to be uninformed” (1 Cor 12:1).
But right there, we have a problem, because it’s a mistranslation: the word “gifts” isn’t there in the Greek. It’s really “Now concerning spirituals, brother, I don’t want you to be uninformed”. However, the adjective plural refers to things or people, or is left unstated. So it’s really, “Now concerning spirituals, brothers, I do not want you to be uninformed”.
The little translation problem I’ve just pointed out is just the tip of the iceberg of the problem we have with most of our modern translations on this whole subject. The phrase “spiritual gifts” is used in the New Testament only once—in Romans 1:11, about mutual encouragement. It’s got nothing to do with what people normally talk about with spiritual gifts. The word “spiritual” occurs 26 times, and it’s only once connected to gifts in Romans 1:11. The word “gifts” occurs 17 times, and it’s only once connected to “spiritual” in Romans 1:11. Although in many translations, you’ll see “spiritual gifts” there in the English, it’s not in the Greek. Furthermore, the gifts that are mentioned in Romans 12:6-8 are given to you by God the Father; in Ephesians 4:7-13, they’re given to you by the risen Christ. So the giving of the gifts is not the distinctive work of the third person of the Trinity, seeing that the Son and the Father both give the same gifts.
“But—but—but,” I hear you say, “What about 1 Corinthians 12:4-11?” It may not use the exact phrase “gifts of the Spirit”, but it does talk about the Spirit giving gifts there. And the passage does speak of a variety of gifts from the same Spirit (v. 4). But verse 7 talks about the “manifestation” (singular) “of the Spirit for the common good”, and verse 11 talks about being empowered or enabled by the Spirit, and the Spirit not giving, but apportioning to each one as he wills.
I’d like to make five observations that are often missed when reading this passage, for the passage is not really about the gifts, nor, frankly, is it about the Spirit. Firstly, notice the Trinitarian nature of 1 Corinthians 12:4-6: it’s not just the Spirit and gifts, it’s also the Lord and services, and the Father and workings:
Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all in everyone.
Indeed, 1 Corinthians 12-14 are not primarily about the Spirit. I don’t know if you’ve ever noticed it, but the word “Spirit” does not occur in the second half of 1 Corinthians 12, it does not occur in chapter 13, and it only occurs once in chapter 14. Once you get past 1 Corinthians 12:13, the word “Spirit” is never mentioned in these three chapters. Furthermore, in verses 18 and 24, it’s God the Father who does the same things we’re told the Spirit does in verses 4-7. Similarly, in verse 28, the distribution of the gifts is the work not of the Spirit, but of God the Father.
The second thing to notice is that the emphasis of 1 Corinthians 12:4-11 is on diversity and oneness. Throughout this passage, you’ll see the little word “same”:
Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. For to one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the ability to distinguish between spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. All these are empowered by one and the same Spirit, who apportions to each one individually as he wills.
Why is the emphasis on the one and the “same”? I’ll explain in a moment.
Thirdly, notice the recounting way of love in chapter 13: after accounting that, where you put the concerns of others ahead of yourselves, we’re encouraged to pursue love and to desire spiritual prophesying. Nowhere in chapter 14 are we told to pursue the gift of prophecy, except the activity of prophesying that all of us may do. And the advantages of prophesying are spelled out compared to speaking in tongues.
Fourthly, notice that the Corinthians are the most unspiritual church in the New Testament (with the possible exception of Galatians, who don’t sound like they’re converted at all). Paul wrote, “I, brothers, could not address you as spiritual people” (1 Cor 3:1) for, as he says in 1 Corinthians 14:12, they are zealots for spirits. Now, again, we’re not helped by our English translations here: “So with yourselves, since you are eager for manifestations of the Spirit, strive to excel in building up the church.” Some translations have “gifts” instead of “manifestations” there. But, of course, the word “eager” is not there and the word “manifestations” is not there, nor “of the Spirit”. None of those are there in the Greek. The Greek actually says something quite different: “So with yourselves, since you are zealots for spirits, strive to excel in building up the church.” The Corinthians were mad about spirits, and Paul, in 1 Corinthians 12ff, is telling them about the Holy Spirit, whom you access not by magic, but by prophecy. That’s why he says, “All these come from the one and the same Spirit.” There are not many spirits—a spirit of this, a spirit of that. Instead, it’s one and the same Spirit, who gives many and diversified things.
Fifthly, notice what the Spirit is doing: prior to becoming Christians, the Corinthians were led astray to idols. These zealots for spirits were taken captive to the folly of dumb idols. But Paul adamantly wants these Corinthians to understand the difference the Spirit of God makes: the one and only true Spirit of God would never say, “Jesus is accursed”, but he is always the reason why anybody could ever say, “Jesus is Lord” (1 Cor 12:3). This thoroughly conforms to the teaching of Jesus on the night he was betrayed—that what the Spirit of truth will be doing is bringing us to the Lordship of Jesus (John 14:26).
Notice also what the passage tells us about what the Spirit is doing in 1 Corinthians 12:13: “in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit”. This is the work of the same Spirit—the Spirit, the Holy Spirit of God—the Spirit of truth—the Spirit of Christ—who baptises us into one body in order to baptise us into Christ. So the centre of the work of the Spirit lies in the commencement of our faith in Christ Jesus, not in giving gifts.
c) Fruit of the Spirit
What is the Spirit doing in our lives once we’ve commenced in Christ? Well, that is the fruit of the Spirit. In Galatians 5, we see the great contrast between the works of the flesh and the fruit of the Spirit. We must not use our freedom from the law as an opportunity for the flesh, but rather we are to lovingly serve one another. So we are to walk by the Spirit (Gal 5:16) and keep in step with the Spirit (Gal 5:25), for the Spirit is producing in us “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (Gal 5:22–23). Because we have crucified the flesh with Christ, we must put to death that which we have crucified—“sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies” (Gal 5:19-21).
Here’s the stark contrast: the things that exclude people from God’s kingdom that wage war within us—the things for which Christ died and which we renounce in embracing his death—these are the things that we must continue to kill by the Spirit of holiness who lives within us. Instead, the Spirit produces fruit that reflects the very character of God—love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. (I preached a nine-sermon series on each of these that you can download from my website.)
The fruit of the Spirit is wholly unnatural and demonstrates the miraculous transforming work of the Spirit in our lives. It’s by our love for one another that people know that we are Jesus’ disciples. We are to be people of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. We are not just the nicest flatmates, family members, work colleagues and neighbours that you are ever likely to meet; we are people who have been transformed out of the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of God’s beloved Son by the Spirit of God’s Son.
This work of the Spirit in the lives of all Christians is significantly more important than the supposed gifts of the Spirit—just as the character and convictions of a Christian are more important than their competencies and capabilities. The truly gifted, but immoral or heretical Christian leader is the most dangerous of all leaders. If he were less gifted, his damage would be more limited. But his great gifts only further his immorality and heresy. It’s the same comparing the fruit to the gifts: the fruit of the Spirit is vastly more important than the gifts, and is the true sign of the Spirit’s ongoing work in our lives.
5. Christian spirituality
So Christian spirituality is living the life of the next age while still in this world. It’s being born again by the Spirit of the risen Lord Jesus, so that we call God “Abba, Father” and we call Jesus Christ our Lord. It’s constantly being at war within ourselves, putting to death the old way of life as we walk in the way of the fruit the Spirit produces in us. It’s serving others in love as we seek to build the church—especially by speaking the word of God to each other for upbuilding, encouragement and consolation.
So to return to our Map of Misunderstanding, firstly, we must be wary of the non-spiritual Christianity of theological liberalism—as if apologetics is evangelism—as if evangelism can be undertaken without the Spirit’s regenerating work—or as if changes can happen in people’s lives without the Spirit producing repentance and fruit.
Because God is sovereign, we pray for contentment as we accept his ruling in all of the affairs of life. But that is quite different to assuming God cannot make changes in those same affairs if he so desires. This in no way rules out praying for changes—healing for the sick, rain for the drought, transformation of government policy, and so on. In fact, it’s just the opposite: because God is sovereign, he can make changes.
On the other hand, we must be wary of the non-Christian spirituality of Pentecostal practices—as if exhibiting miraculous powers is the sign of the Spirit, or as if we can demand God’s actions or command his response to our prayers.
Because God is sovereign, we pray to the God who can change the circumstances of our lives. However, that does not mean we can order, command or tell God what to do. He is sovereign, not slave—master not minion. We can humbly ask our loving Father to do things for us, but we must willingly accepting that his will is better than ours. To name and claim God’s power to change things is an abhorrent arrogance of sinful humanity.
Far more important than clever arguments and intellectual respectability, or miraculous powers and overwhelming experiences, is the faithful declaration of the gospel whereby the power of God is at work for our salvation. It is by the inspired word of God that we hear God speak to us, assuring us of our restored relationship with him and transforming us into the likeness of his Son.
1 JI Packer, ‘Holy Spirit’ in S B Ferguson and D F Wright (eds), New Dictionary of Theology, IVP, Downers Grove, 1988, p. 316.
2 Gerald Bray, God Has Spoken: A History of Christian Theology, Crossway, Wheaton, 2014, p. 612.