The work of the Holy Spirit
Sermon: Sunday, 2nd May, 2021 John 16:5-16
Jim Snodgrass, 84, from South Queensferry, hit the Scottish headlines a few days ago because of the prescription his doctor gave him for his anxiety. Jim was intensely lonely following the death of his wife, and had little social contact. He felt all at sea. To his surprise, the doctor did not give him any pills, but prescribed him with the phone number of a local Ramblers group, a club where he could meet others and walk together. “The Ramblers saved me during the last year of lockdowns.”
It’s a well-known fact that our society was full of lonely people before lock-down, and the pandemic has only increased this alarming part of modern life. The church must be a family, where everyone is included, and where we are called to ‘bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ.’ (Galatians 6:2) We belong to one another and we need to function as a community. Loneliness is no fun. It’s so tough when we lack social contact. Perhaps you can think of how you can be a blessing to others, and yourself, by meeting up.
Christians can feel spiritually alone at times, especially when we struggle with sin, doubts, fears, and tough circumstances. God provides us with a church family for this very reason, that we might encourage one another, and build each other up. But he also does something else. He sends the Holy Spirit into the hearts of every single Christian, to be our Helper, Counsellor, Teacher and Guide. We need to lay hold of this truth more than we sometimes do, because it is a stunning truth, which, if we grasp it, ought to profoundly impact our thinking and Christian living on a daily basis. God comes to us today to remind us, you are not on your own, but are temples of the Holy Spirit: ‘Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore, honour God with your bodies.’ (1 Corinthians 6:19-20)
In John 16, Jesus has informed his disciples that he must leave them and return to his Father. How do the disciples respond? They are filled with grief (verse 6). Jesus has revealed to them that he must suffer and die, rise again, and then return to the Father. However, the disciples are so preoccupied by their own concerns and fears that they don’t ask Jesus about any of that. Rather, they grieve at the thought of being on their own, without Jesus. What medicine will Jesus prescribe for them?
Jesus confronts their fears with a magnificent truth; the reality is, the disciples will be better off when Jesus leaves them physically. ‘But I tell you the truth, it is for your good that I am going away…’ (Verse 7)
For our good? The disciples must have thought, how on earth can this be good? You’re our teacher Jesus- we follow you. Jesus goes on to explain: ‘Unless I go away, the Counsellor will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you.’ The disciples can only see the negatives about Jesus’ departure. But Jesus goes on to explain to them that the blessings of receiving the Counsellor far outweigh the physical presence of Jesus, in his human body.
Perhaps we wish Jesus could be with us physically here and now. Perhaps we wish that we could have been alive when he was physically present on earth, that we were some of the original disciples, seeing the miracles and observing Christ’s love and wisdom first-hand. If we think about it though, at that time, Jesus could only be in one place at one time. Most people didn’t meet Jesus at all, far less spent significant time with him. Surely, then, what Jesus promises is much better; the presence of Christ by his Spirit, means that Jesus is with us everywhere, every day. In God’s wisdom, it is better for us that Jesus is now in Heaven. We can receive his empowerment, strength, comfort and challenge each and every day. For the Holy Spirit will continue to do all that Jesus had been doing on earth, helping us to live lives for God, but he shall do so by supernaturally indwelling us. What a thrilling, mysterious, and important truth this is for us to ruminate on.
Jesus goes on in this passage to spell out what the Holy Spirit will do in the lives of those who aren’t yet Christians, and what he will do in the lives of his people. So, this is a great place for us to pause, as we continue our studies in the work of the Holy Spirit.
The Holy Spirit’s work in the world today
Verse 8 summarises for us what God the Spirit is doing all over the world today. ‘When he comes, he will convict the world of guilt in regard to sin and righteousness and judgment.’
What does the Holy Spirit do? He convicts people of their sin (verse 9) because people do not believe in Jesus. Most human beings think that essentially, they are good people. Sure, they aren’t perfect, but they are trying their best, and the good outweighs the bad, doesn’t it? That might be the human perspective, but God’s perspective is what really matters. For him, if we live our lives in his world ignoring him, and rebelling against his rightful rule in our lives, then this is very serious indeed. David Jackman: ‘The foundational sin of humanity is the rejection of Christ as God and therefore as the Lord of our lives. The essence of our human sinfulness is a unilateral declaration of independence from God.’
We’re very good at seeing the wrongs in the lives of others, but we fail miserably to see that when we live selfishly, get angry, disobey our parents, are economical with the truth, and are envious of others, these things are an offence to God. We just don’t see this. That is where the Holy Spirit comes in. He shines a light on our lives, revealing that actually we’re not good people, but are morally bankrupt, especially by refusing to let God be God in our lives, and taking that number 1 position for ourselves.
The Holy Spirit brings people to see things as they really are, so that like David in Psalm 51, they realise they have wronged their Maker: ‘against you, you only have I sinned’. We realise we need God’s forgiveness. We realise the truth about ourselves. We come to the place of the tax collector in Jesus’ parable, crying out ‘Lord, have mercy on me a sinner’. We used to think we could atone for our own sins, but now we realise only God can do that.
Actually, the Holy Spirit continues this work of conviction in the lives of Christians too. Repentance and faith in Jesus are things we need to exercise every day. David Jackman: ‘The Holy Spirit goes on showing us layers of sin, hidden deep in our consciences, ingrained attitudes and habitual reactions, which spoil and mar God’s work in us and through us.’ What does someone who is filled with the Holy Spirit look like? They become more aware of their sin!
The Holy Spirit convicts the world about righteousness: ‘…about righteousness, because I am going to the Father, where you can see me no longer…’ (Verse 10) What does this mean? The Jewish authorities claimed that executing Jesus was a righteous act, because he was a blasphemer. However, Jesus resurrection from the dead proved that in reality Jesus is the righteous one. Death could not hold him. We are the unrighteous ones and he alone is righteous. The Holy Spirit opens our eyes to see this fact. Jesus alone has lived the perfect life that we could never live, and the good news of the gospel is: ‘God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.’ (2 Corinthians 5:21)
Finally, the Holy Spirit convicts the world of judgement, because the prince of this world now stands condemned. (Verse 11) The Spirit convinces people that there is a Day of Judgment. When Jesus died and rose again, Satan was judged by God. Satan was shown to be false, and was defeated by the power of Jesus. The fact that Satan has been judged ought to remind all people that they too will be judged by God. We all must give an account of our lives to God. ‘He has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.’ (Acts 17:31)
Think of the day of Pentecost. Is that not what happened when the Holy Spirit was poured out? People who had shouted for Jesus to be crucified were brought to their senses. They were cut to the heart (Acts 2:37) and asked Peter what they must do. They must believe in Jesus as Saviour and Lord! When you became a Christian, the Spirit acted on your mind and conscience in the same way, showing you your own unrighteousness, Jesus’ righteousness, and causing you to repent and believe.
Last Sunday morning, we thought about how the Holy Spirit has been poured out to help us to be Jesus’ witnesses in the world. Sometimes we feel weighed down by this responsibility, and do very little in the way of intentionally sharing our faith. Well, may the behind-the-scenes work the Holy Spirit encourage us and propel us to witness more. Why should these truths propel us out? Because they remind us that we are unable to convict anyone of their sin and need of Jesus- not a single person. No matter how well we explain the gospel and how long we spend with someone, we are totally dependant on the Spirit to act. What a relief! The change doesn’t depend on us! All we are called to do is faithfully share the message, and then prayerfully look to the Holy Spirit to do his work of convicting people of sin, righteousness and judgment. And make no mistake, in 2021, the Spirit is still at work. Perhaps he is at work in your spouse, friend, or neighbour. We cannot ever tell in whom the Spirit will work in next, so we must just keep on witnessing and let God do his work.
If God wasn’t at work in the world today, telling people about Jesus would be a waste of time. But he is at work, so we keep on sharing the good news, trusting that in his time and way, lives will be changed. And as we pray for unbelievers, remember what we learned in 1 Thessalonians ch 1:5: ‘… our gospel came to you not simply with words but also with power, with the Holy Spirit and deep conviction.’ Pray for the Spirit to be at work.
The Holy Spirit’s Work in his people today
‘But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth.’ (Verse 13) Truth about what? I’m sure those who have exams coming up would like to be guided into all truth in their exams, whether that be in Spanish, Maths, Hebrew or English. Verse 14 tells us that it is all truth about Jesus Christ. In fact, the first 4 words of this verse are crucial for us for our understanding of the Spirit’s work: ‘He will glorify me.’
The Holy Spirit is often called the self-effacing member of the trinity, because when he is at work, he doesn’t draw attention to himself, but turns the attention on Jesus. He delights to show us Jesus- and teach us the truths of who Jesus is, and why he came into the world. J I Packer’s famous illustration is so good here. The Holy Spirit is light a spotlight, whose beams of light are focused on Jesus. If you drive past Stirling Castle at night, this great building is lit up. You don’t drive past thinking, what wonderful spotlights! You are drawn to the castle itself. The Holy Spirit’s key work is to light up Jesus, as it were, in all his beauty as the only Saviour. To help us see and understand his great love for the world.
For the apostles, there’s a wonderful application of this truth; the Holy Spirit would guide them by inspiring them to write the New Testament Scriptures. ‘For prophecy never had its origin in the human will, but prophets, though human, spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.’ (2 Peter 1:21) As a ferry carries people from the mainland to an island, so the Spirit carried truth from Christ to the apostles.
Fast forward to 2021, wed already have completed Bibles. But the Holy Spirit continues this work of guiding us into all truth by helping us to understand and apply the Bible’s teaching to our lives. That’s why each time we read the Bible, we ought to ask the Holy Spirit to give us understanding. Boys and girls, I hope you read the Bible on your own at home; when you do that always start in prayer asking God to help you understand his Word more and more.
Time spent with our Bibles open, depending on the holy Spirit to guide, is never time wasted. In fact, it is a precious spiritual investment, as the Lord will give us understanding, warm up our cold hearts, and give us the resolve to turn from sin and live for him. Here’s a marvellous verse we can use as a prayer before we read the Bible: ‘Open my eyes that I may see wonderful things in your law.’ (Psalm 119:18)
If we don’t pray before reading the Bible, we’re effectively saying: ‘God, I don’t need your help’.
‘I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better.’ (Ephesians 1:17)