Don Williams & James Mumford look at the role of the Holy Spirit in the life of a Christian.
Here is the answer I will give to President Roosevelt: ‘Give us the tools and we will finish the job.’ (Winston Churchill, Radio Broadcast, 9th February 1941.)
When Winston Churchill made this offer, Great Britain was in the middle of a great war, deep in a dark crisis. Hitler remained undefeated. Europe was either already occupied by Nazi Germany, or very much under threat. And the prime minister knew his nation needed help from abroad. He sought foreign “tools” – airplanes, ammunition and ultimately armies -to “finish the job” of allied victory.
The bible makes it very clear that we live in times of warfare. We live in-between this “present evil age” (as the apostle Paul terms it) and the one to come. Even more than that, Christians believe this future age isn’t just at odds with the present times (we will one day be at peace, though we certainly aren’t now!) but at war with them. We don’t just live in the tension between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of Satan. We live in the conflict. The devil has been defeated by Jesus, but not yet destroyed. And his evil work is quite apparent, isn’t it?
Jesus left us to fight, but he didn’t leave us stranded. He gave us his Holy Spirit to help finish the job.
But just as Churchill says, “Give us the tools”, in his letter to the church in Corinth, Paul encourages Christians to “eagerly desire spiritual gifts,” our spiritual tools for ministry. In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul explains that in these “end times” before “perfection comes” (chapter 13), before Christ “has put all his enemies under his feet” (chapter 15), God gives gifts to the community of Christians. Why? So that we can build each other up in the faith (edification) and reach out to the world (evangelism), doing the kingdom ministry of Jesus. Not only are these gifts from the Spirit. According to the scriptures, the Spirit himself is a gift! At the last supper, Jesus tells his nervous disciples, though he’ll soon be leaving the world, he “will not leave (them) as orphans.” In his place, the Father will give another “Counsellor” who will replace Jesus’ physical presence with them. During the battle Jesus left us to fight, he didn’t leave us stranded. He gave us his Holy Spirit to help finish the job.
God’s Empowering Presence
But to start with, what is the Holy Spirit? Who is this third person of the triune God? How can we describe him?
The bible presents the Holy Spirit as “God’s Empowering Presence.” Consider three things.
Firstly, the Holy Spirit is a person! Sometimes that’s hard to see. We understand the frustration of the student who said: “God the Father makes perfectly good sense to me; and God the Son I can quite understand; but the Holy Spirit is a grey oblong blur!” Gordon Fee talks about a Sunday school teacher who tried to describe what the Spirit was like. She was blowing on a piece of paper and letting it fly away. “The Spirit is like that,” she said to the children, “like the wind. Very real in its effects but invisible to us.” At which point a six-year old boy blurted out, “But I want the wind to be un-invisible!” What a profound theological moment. How often do we feel this way about God as Spirit? I also want the Holy Spirit to be un-invisible! And because he isn’t, we tend to think of him in impersonal terms. Listen to our images. Dove. Wind. Fire. Water. Oil. No wonder we find it hard to personalise him! It’s different with God and Jesus. The images the Old Testament uses to describe God- as father, as king, as shepherd – let us catch a glimpse of his true personality. And since this personality was “made flesh” in Jesus, when we talk about God’s character, we’re not stabbing in the dark! “We have seen his glory!” John reminds us. Well, it’s the same with the Spirit. When He is called “the Spirit of Christ,” we see he is fully personal. For in the New Testament he can be grieved, quenched, and followed. When Paul blesses the Corinthians he says, “May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you”, (II Corinthians 13:14).
So the Holy Spirit is a person. But, secondly, he is also none other than the personal presence of God himself with his people. When in anger God tells Moses, “My presence will not go with you,” Moses cries out to God, “What else will distinguish me and your people from all other people on the face of the earth?” The Israelites are “A People of the Presence.” Without God’s spirit, they are nothing. His presence rests on their anointed leaders. His presence inspires prophetic utterance, sustaining dialogue with the living God and directing their future. His presence fills the tabernacle in the wilderness and later Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem. When Jerusalem falls to the Babylonians, Ezekiel sees God’s manifest glory depart from the Temple. This is the ultimate tragedy. Until Jesus comes five hundred years later, the Israelites are no longer a people distinguished by the presence of the living God.
Thirdly, the Holy Spirit also means the empowering presence of God. In the Old Testament, the Spirit is not only the power behind creation, he also endows mere humans with extraordinary powers. In the Book of Judges, we’re told, “the Spirit of the Lord came upon Samson with power.” He is given a physical strength that surpasses all others. Even after his seduction by Delilah, after losing his strength and being delivered into the hands of enemy, he prays “0 Sovereign Lord, remember me, O God, please strengthen me just once more.” And the Holy Spirit does! He empowers him to crumble the pillars of the Philistine temple with his own bare hands. So the Israelites were not left on their own as far as their relationship with God is concerned. They weren’t left to “slug it out in the trenches.” God’s presence miraculously empowered them until they rejected him for the idols and alliances of this evil age.
The Gift of the Spirit
In the Old Testament, God’s empowering presence is particular. The Spirit’s activity is limited to particular people at particular times. But we also find promises in the Old Testament that God will do something new. He promises, of course, a messiah who will “save the people from their sins.” But he also promises that, in the end times, he will dwell with his people by his Spirit. Listen to the prophet Joel:
In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Yours sons and your daughters will prophesy, Your young men will see visions, Your old men will dream dreams. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, And they will prophesy.
In the past, hearing God was the particular privilege of a few great men and women. And his presence can only be experienced at a particular place, the temple. But here Joel prophesies that God’s empowering presence will no longer be reserved for a few people. It will be for everyone. God will pour out his Spirit regardless of sex (“both men and women”) and regardless of age (“old men…young men.”)
Yet all these promises remain unfulfilled for 300 years. But then Jesus arrives on the scene. And he makes the astounding declaration that, in him, God’s empowering presence had come back to his people. Even further, he says that he will leave his empowering presence on earth. As .J Jesus ministers in the power of the Spirit, so he promises his disciples will do the same. And then, after Jesus has ascended into heaven, while the disciples are hiding and waiting and praying,
Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where, they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit.
Next, the apostle Peter preaches in Jerusalem, boldly quoting Joel’s prophecy. He announces that God has kept his promise. He has now given his empowering presence to all people. And since that great outpouring, we now live in the age of the Spirit. God’s empowering presence is no longer just for some people. It is for you and me. As Gordon Fee says, Christians are “Spirit-People.”
For New Life
The Spirit, then, has been poured out “on all people.” But what for? Firstly, it’s for new life. For many people, Christian behaviour is a rather straightforward affair. They read the ‘Sermon on the Mount’ as a new form of law. They read Paul’s various commandments as fresh statutes. Then they try their best to abide by them. “Make sure you don’t forget to love your enemies,” we remind ourselves, “in your anger do not sin.” But this simply turns Christians ethics into codes of conduct, into a set of rules which requires only outward obedience. And that ignores the fulfilment of another great Old Testament promise:
I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh, I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. In other words, the new law is internal rather than external. If you go on a long hike, you start off carrying your provisions on your back. They weigh you down and slow you up. But when you have eaten them, not only has the weight gone but you also have a new energy inside of you! In the new covenant, the law is no longer a weight on the outside. It is a source of energy from inside. But how was this going to happen? How would God energize us from inside? Well, Jesus tells us in John 3 that when we accept him by faith alone, we are given a new heart. And he describes this as being “born of the Spirit.” That’s why Paul tells us that this new way of behaving, this freedom from the power of sin, begins with a renewed mind. Because as we become Christians, the Spirit changes our minds. He replaces old intentions with new ones. He gives us new desires. And therefore, the marks of this new life – love and peace and joy – are not things we can achieve by our own effort. They are the fruit of the Spirit. They are evidence that God has empowered us “to follow my decrees.” That he has written his law on our hearts.
Secondly, the Holy Spirit empowers us to act as God’s servants in this world. When Jesus began his public ministry in Nazareth, he opened the scroll of Isaiah in the synagogue and read aloud:
The Spirit of the Lord is on me, Because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind.
Jesus claimed that his empowered ministry had been prophesied by Isaiah. This is his agenda: in the power of the Spirit, to evangelise the poor, deliver the captives, heal the sick. Here is his kingdom overcoming the kingdom of Satan. And this is the ministry he hands on to his disciples. Therefore, we can say that “the Spirit of the Lord is on (us) / Because he has anointed (us) / To preach good news to the poor.” I don’t know about you, but I sometimes feel a sense of utter helplessness when confronted with the world’s problems. We know we have little to offer those whose lives are in a mess. But with the Spirit of God, we do indeed have something to give. It is he who empowers us to bind up broken hearts, cast out demons and heal the sick. It is his presence that goes with us into the office, into our universities, into our homes, into this world.
For Each Other
Finally, the Holy Spirit is poured out to edify the church. In 1 Corinthians the Apostle Paul encourages Christians, “Since you are eager for spiritual gifts, try to excel in gifts that build up the church.” The list of these gifts is not exhaustive, but they generally fall into three categories. Firstly, gifts of the word: inspired utterances, including messages of wisdom, prophecy, the discernment of spirits. They also include gifts of teaching and evangelism.
Secondly, gifts of divine intervention such as the gift of faith, working miracles, and gifts of healing. Thirdly, gifts of service, including giving and serving for “acts of guidance” and “helpful deeds.”
Such gifts are our tools which the Spirit gives so that we, in Churchill’s phrase, can “finish the job.” They are not given statically so that we possess them like an identity badge. Rather they are given dynamically, in the situation, when the community gathers in worship, so that we can be released to evangelise. Last year a group of Christians in Belfast, convinced that God heals today, set up a chair in the nearest high-street and offered to lay hands on whoever sat in it! As they did, the Spirit released the gifts of healing. Many were cured on the spot.
AW. Tozer says that for the New Testament, it is not “the Spirit and power,” but “the Spirit as power.” Pray for the Spirit to fill you. Gather in worship and receive his gifts to be built up. And then go for it. Seek Jesus’ kingdom ministry: evangelise the poor, deliver the demonised, heal the sick, overturn Satan’s dark rule. Jesus’ agenda for ministry has not changed. And nor has his power.