All’s Well That Ends Well

For all of us there are many circumstances that we worry about in this life … wondering how things are going to eventuate. We might worry about the future of our careers, our long-term health, retirement and financial security, personal relationships with those we love, to name a few.

In the things we worry about, wouldn’t it be great to know that they all work out well in the end?

One of the great loves of my life was coaching high school runners and teams. Starting a new season at the end of the summer was always a fun event, seeing what new talents were joining the program and beginning to whip a team into shape. Early-season races were fun events to get a picture of what might lie ahead. But as the year went along, the meets took on more seriousness. At the end of the season were the four biggies: conference, county, regional and state championship meets. I thought about them every day; they loomed large in the back of my mind. Coaching was still fun, but it would have been a lot more enjoyable if I knew in September that we were going to be standing on the state championship platform in November.

But that is the great truth of the Christian life. We know that it ultimately ends in the most fantastic way possible! Yes, we’ll have some struggles along the way … to press the running metaphor, we’ll have some injuries, illnesses, bad weather and even lose a few races. But we are champions in the end.

At the end of Romans chapter 8 it lists an entire dossier of things that can go wrong in life: persecution, famine, peril, hardship, etc.  But it concludes that none of this can prevent us from winning in the end, that nothing can separate us from the love of Christ. In all these things, we are more than conquerors!

As we conclude this series on knowing God, that knowledge of Him informs us that there is a certainty that all things will be set right again. God will be glorified victoriously forever. Christ will return as the earthly ruler and the focus of worship around the throne. The Spirit will be active throughout to empower believers toward faith and worship of God for all eternity.

All of this is wonderful truth for us to ponder. The Apostle Paul prayed that the Ephesians would have this mindset (1:18-19) … I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in his holy people, and his incomparably great power for us who believe.

And so the story of stories ends with the true and best “happily ever after.”  It is this goal and moment and reality toward which our hearts are bent; and when we understand that, we understand truly what life is all about, what knowing God is about …

–           We know the perfect way things were originally made and were meant to be …

–           We know the total mess-up that happened that put us all under a death sentence …

–           We see that God in grace had a plan he has worked out through time and history, making all of history make sense …

–           We now know the pinnacle moment of the fulfillment of God’s plan was the death of Christ …

–           We understand now that the resurrection gives us through faith a new relationship with God and empowerment in this life through the Spirit living within …

–           And the hope of all things being made right again supports us through this life and even through our death, as an eternal life is promised us in Christ.

Rev. 21:2-5 – I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.  And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.  ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”  He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!”

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Shadowing God

So you’ve got a new job and it involves some complexity and a learning curve. Your boss understands this and sets up an arrangement for you to “shadow” an experienced employee, to watch what they do and how they do it, toward the end that you will serve and function like them someday. How successful would you be if you only marginally paid attention to your mentor and spent most of your time doing what you thought should be correct, or simply doing what you wanted to do?

We are told in Scripture that we are to be like God … “But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: ‘Be holy, because I am holy.’”  Yep, just do it! Just be like God! Don’t mess up!

That is the tallest of orders, to grow to be like God … like Christ. But here is where our series of studies on the Godhead becomes immensely practical. We call this process of becoming increasingly Godlike or Christlike “sanctification.”  Ultimate or final sanctification is the result of receiving our glorified bodies on the other side of this world. Progressive sanctification refers to the lifelong process of gradually and increasing growing in faith and character to become more like the model of such that we have in Jesus Christ.

And thank God for that model!  Jesus being God in the flesh gives us a visible, exemplary personification of the goal toward which we strive. Without this we would be much less informed as to what godliness would look like, the standard being much more ethereal.

I love these verses in John 1:14,18 – The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth … No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known.

That final verb for “making known” is interesting the Greek language. It describes what I’m doing with you right now – giving a detailed explanation about something. That is what the word means, to break something down into the details and unfold it in teaching. In Acts chapter 15, this word is used to tell how Paul and Barnabas at the Jerusalem Council went into great detail to rehearse for the hearers the details of God’s grace that was moving amongst the Gentiles.

So Jesus makes God known to us. He is the visible explanation of what God is like in character, thought and deed.

This again is why we need to know God and to know Jesus, for this is how we grow to be like them, like Him. Along with this, we have the work of the indwelling Spirit in our lives to empower us to be good shadows of the divine example.

But we need the desire and continually growing discipline to allow this process to happen in our lives. It is good for us to have a process where we regularly ask ourselves if we are indeed growing to be more like Christ.

God Dies

Biblical Christianity is totally different than all other religions. Every other religion teaches us to earn our way to God. Christianity is the only religion that teaches that God came to us. Other religions require man to die for God, Christianity has God dying for man.

We began this week of studies by talking about the reality of sin and its consequences that have extended to all mankind. There is no doubt that this is felt innately in the human soul. The natural sense is that there is a God … with a sense of resident guilt that this God has been offended by our sin, and thereby an additional sense that one has to do something to earn one’s way back into God’s graces.

And I began today by saying “Biblical Christianity,” because this feeling that one has to earn his way back to God has even corrupted various branches of the tree of those generally identifying as “Christian.”  A study of their doctrinal systems reveals that a person must do this and that to gain merit with God. But the Scriptures teach there is nothing we can do to gain merit. Our good works will always fall short of paying the bill; and teasing out that concept further we could say that our fleshly good works are a currency that is not accepted by God as payment for sin. Only the perfect sacrifice would do, and since no man is perfect, only a God-man would suffice.

Romans 5:8 says, “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”

When we were at our worst, God gave his best for us.

1 John 3:1,16 – See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are!  …  This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us.

Yesterday we referenced the annual Day of Atonement in the Old Testament sacrificial system. On that day the high priest was to go into the most holy place, behind the curtain. Therein was the Ark of the Covenant with Law on the inside and a covering called the mercy seat. On this day only could he approach it and not fear death within what was seen as coming into the localized presence of God. He first went in and sprinkled blood as a covering (atonement) for his own sin. His second trip inside was with the blood of a goat that was sprinkled to make atonement for the sins of the people. A second goat – a scapegoat – had the sins likewise pronounced over it, but rather than be sacrificed was led away into the wilderness, never to be seen again. This symbolized the removal of sin.

Jesus, the true high priest, is spoken of in Hebrews as coming but once into heaven – the true tabernacle – not with the blood of bulls and goats, but with his own perfect blood, thus making atonement for all mankind.

At the moment of Christ’s death, a great earthquake shook the ground. And the curtain in the Temple that separated the most holy place was ripped into two pieces from top to bottom, exposing the interior. The final price had been paid, once and for all. God died that man might live.

Hebrews 9:11-14 – But when Christ came as high priest of the good things that are now already here, he went through the greater and more perfect tabernacle that is not made with human hands, that is to say, is not a part of this creation. 12 He did not enter by means of the blood of goats and calves; but he entered the Most Holy Place once for all by his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption. 13 The blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkled on those who are ceremonially unclean sanctify them so that they are outwardly clean. 14 How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God!

God Didn’t Have to Do It

What do you think of the young adult child who is given everything over and over by a loving parent, but the child continues to return to a wasteful lifestyle?  What do you think of the husband who repeatedly cheats on his wife and comes back endlessly hoping for forgiveness and restoration?  What do you think of the employee who regularly cheats on the boss, and even though the employer knows it, he is not fired?

We would shake our heads at such displays of ingratitude and disrespect. But when it comes to our relationship with God, we are the insolent young adult, the cheating spouse, the impertinent employee. Like every generation before us, we have continued to sin and rebel against God and His good law. And whereas we reap what we sow in multitudinous ways, yet God continues to offer to us a plan of forgiveness, both in terms of daily fellowship and in regard to eternal standing.

Actually, it is impossible to pen any sort of human illustration that rises to the immensity of God’s grace. God could have justly walked away from Adam and Eve and let the natural course of sin lead to the destruction of the human race. Or he could have wiped out that race in the flood without saving Noah and his family.

But God had a plan, even before the creation of the world – and here again we get into a category of inability to understand time as related to God and eternity, who exist outside of time. But Jesus is spoken of as the lamb slain before the foundation of the world. And in Ephesians 1:4,5 …

For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will…

The first hint of a plan of grace that is seen within the actual human timeline occurs immediately after the fall of man into sin. As God pronounces curses upon Adam and Eve and Satan, He lets the Evil One know that a final day of reckoning is coming when this mess that has been created will be reversed…

Genesis 3:15 — And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.

Looking back from our vantage point in history we know that this anticipates the death of Christ, but also the final death of Satan and evil when Christ is exalted. Of course, little of this would be understood until the work of Christ was completed.

Throughout the Old Testament, God chases down His people through a series of formal promises known as “covenants.” A covenant is a promise God makes to His people, and also serves to ask and answer the question: “How do I experience the presence of God in my life?”

After the expulsion from the Garden, the total mess that has befallen man through the entrance of sin is evident in a series of accounts that are terribly painful to read:

–           The first murder of Cain killing Abel

–           The spread of evil with only Noah and his family found righteous – flood

–           The disobedience of man to obey God and spread throughout the earth – Babel

–           In the midst of new generations of people distant from God, He chooses to work through one man and his family – Abraham, giving him specific promises (a covenant) …

Genesis 12:2-3 … “I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.”

And the story goes on through Abraham’s offspring as promised > Isaac > Jacob > Judah, the last of these being the son/family/tribe that the kings of Israel and THE KING would come from …

Genesis 49:10 … The scepter will not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until he to whom it belongs shall come and the obedience of the nations shall be his.

The family becomes a nation that is enslaved for several centuries in Egypt, ultimately to be led out of Egypt by Moses who receives the Law. This detailed revelation of God is filled with covenants, particularly those related to sacrificial ordinances for the redemption of sin. The most significant of these (a shadow of the true and better sacrifice yet to come in Jesus Christ) was that of the annual Day of Atonement … Leviticus 16:15,16 …

He (the high priest) shall then slaughter the goat for the sin offering for the people and take its blood behind the curtain and do with it as he did with the bull’s blood: He shall sprinkle it on the atonement cover and in front of it. In this way he will make atonement for the Most Holy Place because of the uncleanness and rebellion of the Israelites

Once established in the land of Israel, the nation enters into a time of the rule of kings – the greatest being David of tribe of Judah, who it is promised will have the ultimate KING come from his lineage…

2 Samuel 7:16 – Your house and your kingdom will endure forever before me; your throne will be established forever.

And thus the promises and covenants continued from Abraham (roughly 2000 BC), from Moses (1500 BC), from David (1000 BC), followed by the prophets in the 700-400 BC era making more specific remarks about the Messiah to come.

Over and over throughout these many centuries, in spite of God’s blessings, miracles and promises, the people rebelled and repeatedly turned away from following God. But God persisted in working His plan of grace and redemption.

We’ve only touched the tip of the iceberg in terms of God’s magnanimous grace … only mentioned a few mountain peaks of its progression and display. There is nothing more YUGE than God’s love and grace. Let that seep deeply into our souls today.

As Bad as it Can Possibly Be

At one point or another in our lives, most of us get to face some critical health moments. Something isn’t right; we don’t feel well. So we go to the doctor or the emergency room to discover the underlying problem and gain some relief. We may have an expectation as to what is going wrong. The diagnosis may prove to be minimal compared to our concerns, or it may be something even beyond our worst imagination.

Several years ago when I had the one and only hospitalization of my life with the pulmonary emboli (blood clots in the lungs), I underestimated the situation. The doctor walked in and began with those words you don’t want to hear, “Well, I’ve got some bad news for you.”  I never once suspected what was actually happening. But the good news was that it didn’t kill me and the worst was over; it was just a matter of recovery.

Spiritually speaking, our diagnosis is very, very bad. In fact, it is as bad as it can get. We have inherited at the moment of inception a deadly condition for which there is no natural cure. There is nothing we can do to fix the problem that will result in our physical death and eternal separation from God. Yep, it’s bad.

As we wrap up this final week of our “Him Alone” series about the Godhead of the Father, Son, and Spirit, we will be talking about how to truly know God. And to know Him we need to recall the grand story that spans from eternity past to eternity future. And we will do so by making five divisions, beginning today with creation and the entrance of sin.

Creation: God Creates / Man Sins

There was a perfect once-upon-a-time beginning to God’s Big Story. We read in Genesis 1, on the 6th day, God made the animals and finally man as the pinnacle of creation …

Genesis 1:28 – God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”  …  31 God saw all that he had made, and it was very good. And there was evening, and there was morning—the sixth day.

Things were as good as they could possibly be. After all, you can’t beat perfect.

But you can mess up perfect, especially when Satan is involved. You know the story of the fall of man into sin, and everything changed. A curse of death was pronounced on all; and at the end of Genesis 3, man is driven out of the Garden …

Genesis 3:23-24 — So the Lord God banished him from the Garden of Eden to work the ground from which he had been taken. After he drove the man out, he placed on the east side of the Garden of Eden cherubim and a flaming sword flashing back and forth to guard the way to the tree of life.

So how bad is the situation?  Very bad. As bad as it can be. Man is destined to struggle all through life in a cursed environment, die physically, and be spiritually separated from God due to the debt of sin. This truth is picked up and spoken of throughout Scripture.

Psalm 14:2-3 — The Lord looks down from heaven on all mankind to see if there are any who understand, any who seek God. All have turned away, all have become corrupt; there is no one who does good, not even one.

This passage from Psalm 14 is quoted in Romans 3 at the final, decisive point of Paul’s argument about the lost condition of man. Paul wrote graphically of this as well to the Ephesians when reflecting on their condition prior to knowing the gospel …

Ephesian 2:1,3 — As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins … we were by nature deserving of wrath.

Dead is bad … very bad. It is not just a sickness from which recovery is possible. There is no life. The only hope is resurrection, and dead people can’t make that happen for themselves.

Why is it important to understand this clearly?  Let me suggest two reasons that come to my mind.

  1. Evangelism – There is an old saying about evangelism that you have to “get a person lost before you can get them found.” Think of those you know who scoff at the notion of God and a Savior. They have no sense of need. They errantly believe they are self-sufficiently in a good position. And until a person realizes they are lost, they will not reach out for a map or check the GPS system.
  1. Appropriate Gratitude – When we realize that biblically and spiritually speaking we were truly lost and dead in our sins, without God and without hope, we rightly realize that we did not find God, He found us. He chose us so that we could choose Him. The extent of grace is beyond our imagination, just as was the lost condition we faced … but all of that is a part of other portions of God’s Big Story.

In that second chapter to the Ephesians, Paul reminded these mostly Gentile readers of the extent of their lost condition …

2:11 – Therefore, remember that formerly you who are Gentiles by birth and called “uncircumcised” by those who call themselves “the circumcision” (which is done in the body by human hands)— 12 remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. 13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ.

It is good for us to remember how lost we were.

How do we learn to follow the Spirit?

There are some things you just can’t Google.

When it comes to life’s major decisions, we often stand at a crossroads and look around wondering what we should do. If we are followers of Jesus, this comes with the added desire to follow “God’s will for my life.” We have to decide whether or not to go to college, who to marry, where to find a job—and a whole host of other major life decisions.

How do we honor God with our decision making? How do we learn to listen to the guidance of the Holy Spirit?

Graham Cole’s extensive study of the Holy Spirit offers three basic “tests” for our decisions, which I’ll summarize below as a set of questions.

(1) IS THIS DECISION CONSISTENT WITH SCRIPTURE?

First, does our potential decision match up with Scripture? Naturally, if we are going to follow God’s leading, we should ensure that our decisions match the character of God revealed in the Bible.

But can’t the Holy Spirit speak to us today? Can’t the Spirit speak to us in new ways, regardless of what He may have communicated in the past?

Yes and no. The Holy Spirit does absolutely speak to us today. But He does so most directly through the Word of God. In the New Testament, three distinct writers tell us that the Spirit speaks through God’s word today.

  • Jesus:

When debating some religious leaders about the resurrection, Jesus quotes the text of Exodus to make His point. But He does so by saying: “[H]ave you not read what was said to you by God” (Matthew 22:31)? Ah, we should say; Jesus is telling the folks of His day that God spoke to them through Moses, even though Exodus was written something like 1500 years prior (!).

  • Paul

Paul says something similar. He talks to the Corinthians about Israel’s history, and argues that “these things happened to them [Israel] as an example, but they were clearly written down for our instruction” (1 Corinthians 10:11).

  • Hebrews

Finally, the writer of Hebrews applies Psalm 95 to the lives of his readers. He quotes Psalm 95, prefacing it by saying: “as the Holy Spirit says” (Hebrews 3:7), and that God “appoints a specific day, ‘Today,’ saying through David” (Hebrews 4:7). It’s easy to overlook that in both these verses, the writer is using the present tense. We could just as accurately translate the text to say that “the Holy Spirit is saying [through David].”

For Jesus, Paul, and the writer of Hebrews, the Bible isn’t just an ancient book; it is the contemporary means by which God communicates to His people. So does the Spirit speak to us today? Yes; at least through His Word. But the Spirit will never, ever speak in such a way as to contradict the Bible, because the Bible is the present Word of God in our lives today.

(2) DOES THIS DECISION MAGNIFY JESUS?

Secondly, we need to ask whether our decision will serve to magnify the name and reputation of Jesus in our lives and communities.

Recall that part of the Spirit’s job is to testify to Jesus (John 15:26). So if we follow the Spirit’s leading, others will see how our lives radiate the character of Jesus. That is, does our decision seek to serve others, or primarily ourselves? Does our decision enable us to serve as Christ’s witnesses in our communities? Will our decisions increase our dependence on God, or on ourselves?

(3) IS THIS DECISION CONSISTENT WITH MY CHURCH COMMUNITY?

Finally, our decisions should honor the values of the community to which we belong, the Church. Now, we have to be careful here, because unlike the Word of God the Church isn’t always right. Still, it’s not for nothing that Solomon once wrote that “with many advisors a plan succeeds” (Proverbs 15:22). Paul refers to the Church as “a pillar and buttress of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15). The Church represents a complex web of relationships, and these relationships overlap and reinforce each other. If the people in our lives disagree with our decisions, then perhaps this is a sign that we should at least consider alternatives.

WHY DOES IT REALLY MATTER?

Ultimately, though, we must recognize that our desire to “find God’s will” is determined more by our culture than we might realize. We assume that there’s some set path that we should take and if we miss it, we’ve failed. But there’s a reason God’s word tells us that “we are the potter, and [God] is the clay” (Isaiah 64:8). God shapes and molds us in time as we learn and grow in Him.

J.I. Packer says something helpful:

“That God has a comprehensive, foreordained purpose and plan for all of world history, form the greatest events to the smallest, and that this includes a specific, detailed intention for the life of every human being, is to my mind beyond doubt: the Bible is clear on it. That his intention, once you become a Christian, is comparable to an itinerary drawn up for you by a travel agent, where everything depends on you being in the right place at the right time to board the plane or train or bus or boat or whatever and where the itinerary is ruined once you miss one of the preplanned connections, is, by contrast, a sad misconception.”[1]

Trying to “discern God’s will” is a good impulse, to be sure. But if this desire turns to worry, it can paralyze us and prevent us from following God in the day-to-day. God has a plan for us. Let’s trust Him and step forward.

 

[1] J.I. Packer, “The Ministry of the Spirit in Discerning the Will of God.”  https://bible.org/seriespage/5-ministry-spirit-discerning-will-god

Can we pray to the Holy Spirit?

“We’re sorry, your call cannot be completed as dialed. Please check the number and dial again.”

Has there ever been a phrase that’s generated more frustration? Technology connects us across distances our ancestors never dared imagine, yet these connections are conditioned on our ability to enter the right string of numbers in just the right sequence.

Is prayer like that? Does God expect us to connect to Him in some specific way?

Even if you say “no,” you may find yourself wondering how prayer works with the Trinity. Or maybe you’ve caught yourself being a bit sloppy—you pray to the Father, but you thank Him for dying for your sins. Or you conclude with “in your name” when you’ve been speaking to the Father—not Jesus.

But what about this one: can we pray to the Holy Spirit?

SURE; WHY NOT?

Historically, the answer to this question has been an emphatic “yes.” The Holy Spirit is God, so why shouldn’t we seek to connect to Him directly? In Graham Cole’s recent book on the Holy Spirit, he cites an older prayer that children were taught to pray even from a very young age:

“Heavenly King, Paraclete, Spirit of truth, who are present everywhere and fillest all things, treasury of goodness and Giver of life, come, dwell in us and cleanse us from all stain, and, of thy mercy, save our souls.  Amen.”[1]

As a matter of fact, there have historically been a variety of prayers written to the Holy Spirit. And if we say “no,” we shouldn’t pray to the Holy Spirit, we may be in danger of denying His full equality with God.

HOW DID JESUS PRAY?

On the other hand, we simply can’t find examples of prayers to the Holy Spirit. We normally see prayers directed toward the Father, and occasionally the Son (Stephen in Acts 7:59-60; Paul in 2 Corinthians 12:8-10), but never the Holy Spirit.

Furthermore, Jesus taught His followers to pray to the Father directly (Matthew 6:9-13), and ask for things in the name of the Son (John 14:13). Still, even if this is the “typical” pattern, I don’t see why this prevents us from praying to the Spirt on occasion. But it may be helpful to get some clarification on the Spirit’s role in prayer.

HOW DOES THE HOLY SPIRIT HELP US PRAY?

First, the Spirit is what connects us to God. Paul says that “through [Jesus] we both have access in one Spirit to the Father” (Ephesians 2:18). So the Spirit empowers our connection to God.

Secondly, this also means that our prayers are meant to reflect the specific roles of the Trinity in prayer. Cole writes:

“Jesus is our great High Priest, and the believer is adopted into the family of God….Christ represents us to God and God to us….[The Holy Spirit] impels Christian prayer.”[2]

So can we pray to the Spirit? Sure; there’s no reason not to. But Scripture points us to a pattern that actually involves the whole Trinity: we pray to the Father in the name of the Son, and by the power of the Holy Spirit.

PRAYING “IN” THE SPIRIT

On select occasion, the writers of the New Testament encourage Christ’s followers to “pray in the Spirit.” What does this mean? It means that our prayers align with the character of God. This means that if we pray “in the Spirit,” our prayers will always be answered—that is, our prayers will be answered because they align with God’s perfect will.

Of course, the reason our prayers are not always answered is because we are unable to consistently pray in a way that reflects God’s will. But that’s ok; God has made provision for this:

26 Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. 27 And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. (Romans 8:26-27)

This doesn’t necessarily mean that the Spirit will put words in our mouth. What it means is that when we don’t know how to pray, or what to pray for—or if we accidentally pray for the wrong person!—God knows and God understands.

This also touches on how the gospel shapes our prayer life. Have you ever felt as though you were unfit to talk to God because of some “disqualifying” sin in your life? If the Spirit empowers prayer, don’t you see how foolish this is? Through the Spirit, God gives us the means and the ability to connect to Him through prayer. God gives us the means to connect with Him; we didn’t earn the privilege through our own merits. So in the end, the Spirit offers us assurance of God’s desire for relationship and for connection.

So put the phone down. Rejoice that the Spirit enables you to talk to the Father.

[1] Cited in Cole, 84.

[2] Cole, 85-6.

Magnify: How the Spirit Keeps the Son at the Center of Our Universe

A friend of mine was once given a piece of precious sports memorabilia: a baseball signed by a half dozen or so of the New York Yankees. Even those of us who’ve historically been O’s fans can appreciate the significance of this gift.

When something is beautiful, or valuable, or simply a conversation-starter, you want to show it off; you want people to know about it. That’s what the Holy Spirit does for Jesus—He illuminates the character of the Son; He magnifies His teachings in order that all men might be drawn toward Him.

In Jesus’ farewell address, He makes this clear to His disciples. He tells them that a major part of the Spirit’s role is to testify about Him:

26 “But when the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness about me. (John 15:26)

[…]

13 When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. 14 He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you. 15 All that the Father has is mine; therefore I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you. (John 16:13-15)

This doesn’t make the Spirit lesser than Jesus. They are, after all, equally God. But Jesus says that a part of the Spirit’s role is to “glorify” Jesus.

The writer J.I. Packer puts it this way:

“It is as if the Spirit stands behind us, throwing light over on Jesus, who stands facing us.  The Spirit’s message to us is never, ‘Look at me; listen to me; come to me; get to know me,’ but always ‘Look at him and see him, and see his glory; get to know him, and hear his word; go to him, and have life; get to know him, and taste his gift of joy and peace.”[1]

Why is this so significant? Because where you place your focus determines a great deal about how you conduct yourself and how you treat others. This is why Paul appeals to the example of Jesus in his letter to the Philippians. If we place Christ at the center of our beliefs, we will conduct ourselves with Christ’s level of humility.

Part of the reason Christians have struggled with the nature of the Spirit over the years is because it’s been tempting to place the Spirit—not Christ—at the center of our belief system. There have been those who have organized their beliefs around the day of Pentecost rather the day of Calvary, and in so doing have focused on the day of empowerment rather than the day of humiliation. Granted, both events are important. But when we make the Spirit primary, we begin to look for God in extraordinary, miraculous events rather than in the simple, ordinary way of Christ.

Don’t misunderstand; I’d never deny the Spirit’s ability to do great things amongst God’s people. But if we only see the Spirit working in these sorts of events, we have placed God inside a box. If the Spirit moves someone to enter ministry or do something spectacular, it’s easy to nod and affirm that “it’s a God thing.” But no one says that when the Spirit moves someone to change diapers in the nursery, or to volunteer for ministry.

Yet the Spirit is no less active there than anywhere else. Why? Because in every small act we see the humble, loving example of Jesus, and see His love magnified in our midst. Sometimes God does something big. But plenty of other times, the Spirit’s work is seen as the sum of a series of small acts of Christian love. Don’t be afraid to dream of something big, but don’t ever be unwilling to commit to something small.

[1] J.I. Packer, Keep in Step with the Spirit. (Leicester, England: Intervarsity Press, 1984), 66.

What does the Holy Spirit do?

Like many people I know, I’ve committed the unpardonable, technological sin. I’m confident that my phone didn’t die from being dropped in a puddle; I think it was when I hit the “power” button to check to see if it was still working. All the rice in Panda Express couldn’t reverse the damage. My phone was fried.

The Holy Spirit doesn’t come into our lives for the purpose of improvement, but for the purpose of transformation. Like a damaged phone, there is brokenness inside us that can’t simply be repaired. We need renewal; we need a fresh work of God.

THE HOLY SPIRIT PRODUCES FAITH

For unbelievers, the Spirit works to convict men and women of the gravity of sin. Jesus told His disciples:

8 And when he comes, he will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment:  9 concerning sin, because they do not believe in me; 10 concerning righteousness, because I go to the Father, and you will see me no longer; 11 concerning judgment, because the ruler of this world is judged.(John 16:8-11)

Paul echoes something of this when he writes that faith is produced not through natural knowledge, but through supernatural intervention:

12 Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God.13 And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual. (1 Corinthians 2:12-13)

The point is that conviction and faith aren’t the outworking of a great sermon or through natural persuasion; they are the products of a living, active Spirit.

THE HOLY SPIRIT CONNECTS US TO GOD

The gospel tells us that through the cross, Jesus pays the debt of sin and grants us access to the Father. What is the Spirit’s role in this? Paul tells us that the Spirit unites people of diverse backgrounds together and to God:

15 by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace.. 8 For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. (Ephesians 2:15, 18)

This connection isn’t merely a one-time, past event; we also look forward to the day when we are granted eternal life in God’s future kingdom. Paul writes:

13 In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, 14 who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory. (Ephesians 1:13-14)

Paul is saying that the Holy Spirit is something of a “down payment,” almost like today’s engagement rings. The Spirit’s presence in our lives serves as a reminder and a promise of future restoration in God’s new heaven and new earth.

THE HOLY SPIRIT TRANSFORMS BELIEVERS

This also means that we can allow the Spirit to work in our lives in such a way that He transforms us from inside out.

During Jesus’ earthly ministry, there were many who didn’t understand this inward transformation, instead favoring external religious performance. But after generating some attention among the religious leaders, a man named Nicodemus comes to ask Jesus who He really is. Jesus tells this religious leader that to truly know God, He must be born again:

5 Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. 6 That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ 8 The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” (John 3:5-8)

To be “born again” implies total renewal, a complete renovation of everything inside of us. This is why Paul would later say to Titus:

5 he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, (Titus 3:5)

“Regeneration.” It means “renewal,” a new start.

Admittedly, many of us don’t feel all that “new” from these promises. Even Paul acknowledged that even after coming to know Jesus his life was in a state of inner turmoil (Romans 7). But learning to live in line with the gospel means allowing the Spirit to take control. In Romans Paul writes:

5 For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. 6 For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. (Romans 8:5-6)

Similarly, he writes to the Church in Galatia:

16 But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. (Galatians 5:16)

To live by the Spirit means allowing the Spirit to transform us, and to live out that transformation as we grow into the image of Jesus.

Is the Holy Spirit a “He” or an “It?”

“Use the force, Luke.”

Like many in my generation, I grew up with my imagination firmly planted in places like Hoth and the Dagobah system—the fictional locales of the Star Wars universe. Lucas’ films gave us a story of stark contrast between good and evil; they also gave us “the force,” a mysterious form of energy that unites everything in the universe. By manipulating the force for selfish ends, some had the power to do evil; it was up to the Jedi to use the force to do good.

For many of us, I suspect we’ve assumed that the Holy Spirit is something like “the force” from Star Wars. It’s a power source, a mysterious form of energy that we can tap into when we need it.

Because of this, one of our primary misunderstandings about the Holy Spirit is that the Spirit is something we can “use” when problems become difficult or when we feel overwhelmed.

But the Holy Spirit isn’t like this. He is God. He is a person. And this changes the way we understand Him.

THE HOLY SPIRIT IS GOD

On the night that Jesus was betrayed, He gathered His closest followers in the upper room to share not only His last meal, but to deliver a farewell address—a “commencement speech,” as one writer puts it, ushering in a new way of living in His absence.

There, He delivers this promise:

15 “If you love me, you will keep my commandments. 16 And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever,17 even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you. (John 14:15-17)

Now, if you were reading this in the original Greek, you’d zero in on Jesus’ phrase allon parakleton, “another Helper.” Why would this stand out? Because Jesus is basically saying “another of the same type.” He’s saying that the Holy Spirit is fully God in every way that Jesus is fully God. The Holy Spirit, first and foremost, is God—not some force to be manipulated.

THE HOLY SPIRIT IS PERSONAL

This also means that like God, the Holy Spirit is personal. Again, we use this word in a very specific way. Usually when we say “personal” we mean something like “relational” or even “intimate.” But here say that God is personal in the sense that He has a personality; He has the characteristics of being a person.

In what sense is the Spirit a “person?”  On the one hand, we never see the Spirit ascribed a specific human form. When Jesus is baptized, the Holy Spirit is said to descend “like a dove,” for which reason the Spirit has often been depicted as a dove in Christian art. On the other hand, we can find at least three characteristics about the Spirit that help us see that He is indeed a personal being:

  • The Holy Spirit has intelligence

Paul writes:

27 And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. (Romans 8:27)

Here Paul emphasizes that the Spirit has a distinct “mind,” conveying a sense of intelligence and understanding.

  • The Holy Spirit has a will

When the early Church was struggling to decide how to handle the integration of Jews and Gentiles, the early council met to make a decision. They could confidently claim that their decision “has seemed good to the Holy Spirit” (Acts 15:28). The Holy Spirit seems to have a specific will and a specific purpose.

  • The Holy Spirit has emotions

Paul cautions his readers in Ephesus not to “grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption” (Ephesians 4:30). The Holy Spirit therefore also has emotions and can experience pain over our immoral character.

HE, NOT “IT”

One of the most immediate applications here is that we refer to the Holy Spirit not as an “it” but as a “He.” He is God. He is personal.

This changes everything. A “force” is something I can use—when I need help, when I’m feeling down, I can use a force to navigate life and get me through. But a person is someone I relate to—someone who challenges me in the context of a relationship. So if the Holy Spirit is personal just like the Father and Son, I am compelled to treat Him with the same dignity, respect, and love as I do the Father and Son.