Jesus and the Spirit

John 16:5-15

30 April 2006

Woodley Baptist Church

Morning service


If you had a Tardis, where would you go?

The future would be interesting, but I expect it would also be incomprehensible. If we were to bring a medieval peasant into the 21st century it would completely blow his mind, and I suspect the same would be true if I were to go a few hundred years forward. Or even fifty years.

No, I'd head for the past. And there's absolutely no doubt in my mind that I would set the co-ordinates for first-century Judea. Wouldn't it be awesome to be there for the Sermon on the Mount? To witness the feeding of the 5000? To be a fly-on-the-wall at the Last Supper? What a spiritual boost that ought to be.

Well, the disciples had been there, and in our passage today they are still there in the upper room with Jesus at the Last Supper. They have had the extraordinary experience of living with Jesus for the last three years, but since the end of chapter 13 Jesus has been explaining to the them that he was about to leave them, and they are deeply distressed.

Verse 6: Because I have said these things, you are filled with griefref. And then he tells them something truly remarkable: I tell you the truth: It is for your good that I am going awayref.

How can it possibly be for their good that Jesus goes? What possible good can result from him being ripped away from them? Surely it is much better to be with him than without him! We might expect that spending time with Jesus on earth and seeing him in action would be the ultimate spiritual experience, but Jesus says "no, you're better off without me. Better to live after the cross than before it" .

He explains why in the rest of the verse Unless I go away, the Counsellor will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you.ref.

Who is this Counsellor? Well, Jesus first mentioned him a little while ago in John chapter 14 where he is clear that the Counsellor is the Holy Spirit.

It is better for the disciples that Jesus goes, because he will then send the Holy Spirit to them. It's not that Jesus and the Spirit can't be at the same place at the same time—after all the Spirit descended on Jesus at his baptism. No, the reason the Holy Spirit cannot come until after Jesus' death, is because the pouring out of the Spirit on the world is the mark of a new spiritual era: an era that cannot begin until Jesus has dealt with our sin. And he did that on the cross.

The prophets Isaiah and Joel, speaking on God's behalf several centuries earlier, each foretold a time to come when the Holy Spirit would be poured out on God's people, and his relationship with them would be restored ref ref ref.

The prophet Ezekiel had likewise spoken of a new age in which God would renew his relationship with his people, where he would truly save them from their sin, and pour blessings on them. And God said that the mark of this new age would be that I will put my Spirit within youref.

All the Jews had been waiting for this day, the day when God would restore his people. The old ways of continual religious failure would be behind them, and God would again bless his people. And here is Jesus saying to his disciples: that day is about to happen. "I need to die to make it happen, but when it does you'll know about it, because the Spirit will come, the new age will begin."

If we are Christians, we are living in this new age because we have a new Spirit within us. Jesus' death has dealt with our sin, so that we have been reborn as new people: truly spiritual people.

I don't know if you have noticed, but there is a huge interest in spirituality around today. People quite unselfconsciously talk about spiritual well-being on an equal footing with emotional or physical or mental well-being, don't they? But I think it is fair to say that the vast majority of this apparent spiritual awakening is founded on nothing more than wishful thinking and insubstantial pretexts.

But here, in John's gospel, we find a substantial Spirituality. A spirituality founded on a fact: the death of Jesus for our sins and his resurrection from the dead. It is a spirituality founded on a reality: the person of the Holy Spirit.

It might not be trendy. It might not have a groovy name. But it is real and solid and true. If you don't have the Holy Spirit, then what kind of spirituality do you have? It's got to be bogus hasn't it?

Jesus gave his life to bring in this new age. He laid down his life so that he could at last send the Holy Spirit amongst us. It is for your good that I am going awayref, he says. But what is it that the Spirit does that means it is even better than having Jesus himself with us?

Well, John goes on to tell us. He tells us a little bit about the Spirit's work in the believer, the Spirit's work in the world and the Spirit's work in the church.

The Spirit's work in the believer

First, the Spirit's work in the believer. There's an awful lot that could be said about this, and I happen to know that David Barter is planning a substantial series on the work of the Spirit, so I'm not even going to attempt to be comprehensive. For now I just want to pick up on one aspect of the Holy Spirit that the writer John makes very plain here: the Holy Spirit is a person.

Reading the Old Testament you could easily get the idea that the Spirit is a kind of force; he is God's creative energy. But Jesus in John's gospel clearly identifies him as a person in his own right, just as Jesus himself is.

He does this by the name he gives the Spirit, the Counsellor, or in Greek, the Paraclete. The word has no direct equivalent in English. It's been variously translated counsellor, comforter, helper, supporter, advocate, ally, defender and representative. Whatever the exact meaning, what is clear is that the role of the Paraclete is the role of a person.

John goes out of his way to emphasise this in the way he writes. Like many languages, Greek has three genders: masculine, feminine and neuter, corresponding to "he", "she" and "it" in English. The word "spirit" is neuter in Greek, so John ought to refer to the Spirit as "it". But throughout he refers to the Spirit as "he". He does it to make the point: the Holy Spirit is a person, not an impersonal "it".

Actually, there is just one time he doesn't do this, which is when he first introduces the Spirit in John chapter 14. As one commentator brilliantly puts it, "he was thus ensuring that his subsequent shift to the masculine would be perceived not as incompetent Greek, but as magisterial theology."

The person-hood of the Holy Spirit is magisterial theology because it helps us to understand the most important thing about him: to receive the Spirit is to have Jesus and the Father move in with you. Jesus promised back in 14:23 If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching. My Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.ref This is what it is to receive the Holy Spirit. And the truth Jesus is teaching is that it is better to have the Spirit in us even than having Jesus with us.

So we must understand that the Spirit is a person: Jesus in the believer. We must always remember that he is not an impersonal force under our control, like Simon the Sorcerer believed in Acts chapter 8, or like some of the more excessive Telly Evangelists seem to believe today.

No, he is not an impersonal force to be controlled, he is a person to be obeyed. As Jesus was to the disciples, so the Spirit is to us, only more so.

What is your relationship with Jesus like? Is he purely outside you: an example to follow by trying as hard as you can? Or is he within you by his Spirit? Do you know his power at work changing your life, changing your heart?

The Spirit's work in the world

Next, in verse 8 to 11 we learn about the Spirit's work in the world. He convicts the world in regard to sin and righteousness and judgement.

These are three things that the world has got completely wrong; three things the world is in denial about; three truths the world is guilty of suppressing. But the spirit won't let the world get away with it: he is constantly at work in the world convicting it and exposing its wrongness.

First is sin, verse 9. The world is wrong about sin. By nature we don't believe we are guilty of sin. We believe that at heart we are fundamentally good people, and if we occasionally lapse, we always have an excuse.

If people truly knew they were sinners—that they'd offended the almighty and holy God—they'd be desperate for forgiveness, wouldn't they? The fact that they don't—the fact that they have rejected the one and only remedy for sin, belief in Jesus—demonstrates clearly how wrong people are about sin. They don't believe they are guilty; they don't believe it is serious.

But just as Jesus, the light of the world, shone light into darkness, so the Spirit continues his work. He pricks our consciences; he shines light into the dark corners of our lives; he doesn't let us get away with hiding our guilt, but presses it home to us, and the need to do something about it.

Second is righteousness, verse 10. The world is wrong about righteousness. A central part of God's character is his righteousness, but the world doesn't want it. Today it's almost an insult: how do you feel if someone says "don't be so righteous". It puts you in your place, doesn't it? The world doesn't desire true righteousness. If it did, it wouldn't have crucified the one who was righteousness personified.

We can no longer see Jesus, the Righteous One, because he has gone to be with the Father. But the Spirit continues his work of showing the world that they are wrong about righteousness. He does it by making us Christlike, and making sure that the world can see us. As the world looks at the church at its best they see what true righteousness is, and are convicted of their wrongness.

Third is judgement, verse 11. The world is wrong about judgement. Try telling your friends that they are going to have to stand before the throne of God one day and see what they say. The man with the bill-board proclaiming "the end is nigh" has become a cartoon joke, hasn't he? No one believes in judgement because no one wants to believe it. We'd all prefer to believe that our actions have no consequences.

Only the Holy Spirit will convince people of a truth like this. Only the Holy Spirit can persuade people that they are either with the devil or with God, and the devil is on the losing side.

People don't want to hear this stuff. Rebels against God don't want to hear that they've got it completely wrong about sin, righteousness and judgement. When it comes to these things the world has its hands firmly over its ears and the music turned up loud. If it were up to us alone the message would never get through, would it? But the Holy Spirit is at work in the world, whispering the truth to their spirits and doing his work of convicting. And in God's grace, sometimes people respond.

Don't you think all this is a great encouragement in our evangelism?

We have a crazy message to tell people, don't we? The apostle Paul calls it a foolish message. I don't know how you feel about it, but yes, personally I do sometimes feel pretty foolish telling people about it. Sin is so outmoded; righteousness is so negative; judgement is so unbelievable.

But it is a huge encouragement to know that the Spirit has gone before us, preparing the way, convicting the world, so that some are ready, even longing to hear our message.

And the Spirit's work in people is so effective! In Acts chapter 1 we are told that during his three-year ministry Jesus had managed to build up a church of about 120 believers. In Acts chapter 2, when the Spirit is doing his work, we find 3000 converted in a single day. So we see how seriously Jesus meant it when he said it is for your good that I am going awayref.

The Spirit's work in the church

Finally, in verses 12-15 we see the Spirit's work in the church.

As far as we know, Jesus never wrote anything down in permanent form. He relied on his disciples to record his teaching accurately for the worldwide church they would build. And he knew he could trust them to do so because the Holy Spirit would be guiding them.

He tells them, I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear. But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come.ref

At the time these disciples saw the truth only dimly. During Jesus' earthly ministry they frequently got things wrong and had to be corrected. Even in the course of these last few hours with Jesus on Earth they often seem confused, and openly admit to not understanding him in verse 18 of this chapter. Jesus knows that humanly speaking they are not able to bear much more of his teaching, although there is much more to give.

Are these really the people Jesus trusted to teach his word and to found a church in his name? Yes they are, and his trust was based on the promise that he makes here. To see the force of it, we only need to look at the change that came over the disciples when they received the Spirit at Pentecost. For example, I don't recall a single instance of Peter quoting the Old Testament in the gospel accounts, but after Pentecost he just can't be stopped, can he? The keen but slightly clueless Peter of the gospels is transformed into the keen and brilliant Bible teacher of Acts. Only the Holy Spirit could have done this.

Jesus' promise is that the Spirit will teach the disciples the significance of his life and ministry. He cannot do it all, but the Spirit will complete the work. As he says in chapter 14, the Counsellor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to youref. And he promises that the Spirit will reveal to them the significance of the things yet to come for them, as it says at the end of verse 13: that is, Jesus' death, resurrection and ascension. The coming of the Holy Spirit himself, the spread of the gospel to the whole world, the expectation of the return of Jesus, and so on.

Two things are important to notice. The first is the promise that the Spirit would guide the disciples into all truth. There is no more truth available than what they were led into. There is no great new truth about God out there waiting to be discovered. Dan Brown, I'm sorry! Christianity is spiritual, but it is never mystical: there are no big secrets; all the truth is available to all believers.

Of course the Spirit continues in his ministry of guiding believers into the truth today, but he guides us into the truth that has already been revealed. If we believe we have a stunning new revelation that is not in the Bible, then we are quite simply wrong. If the Mormons or the Moonies try to persuade us that there are other spiritual truths that the Apostles didn't know, we know that they are lies.

The second thing to notice is that the content of that truth, all truth, is Jesus himself. Jesus is the focal point of God's revelation of himself, and the Spirit takes that revelation and further reveals it the disciples and to us. The Spirit's work is to glorify Jesus by revealing him to the church. To become obsessed with the Spirit himself is a mistake. We should instead be obsessed with the glory of Christ.

With the Bible's integrity so much under attack these days, it is a great encouragement that we have Jesus' promise here, isn't it. The New Testament is far from being the cobbled-together recollections of a bunch of fallible humans each with their own agendas. It is the Spirit-guided writings of Spirit-filled people, empowered by Jesus to teach his truth.

So, we can have tremendous confidence in the Bible's reliability, and tremendous confidence as we read it, because the same Spirit who guided the Apostles is within us too. Through their words he glorifies Jesus today by making him known to us.

So, it is better for the disciples that Jesus went, because only with the Spirit of Truth within them could they understand everything they needed. They could not bear all of Jesus' teaching in their own strength, but the Spirit could make it known to them. And it is better for us that Jesus went, because the Spirit continues to make him known to the church today, far more thoroughly than Jesus could do if he were only here in bodily form.


So, we have seen that in his death Jesus brought in a new age, the age of the Spirit being poured out on the world. This was a brand new thing, nothing like it had happened before and it continues to this day.

But in another way we've seen that it wasn't quite brand new, because all of the work of the Spirit is a continuation of Jesus' work while he was with us. He is Jesus' presence in the heart of the believer; he presents the challenges of Jesus to a godless world; he reveals the truth of Jesus to the church worldwide.

Doesn't this give you enormous confidence for your Christian life? We don't profess a dead faith in a dead man, we profess a living faith powered by a living Spirit. If we are Christians we can have enormous confidence in our relationship with God, because the Spirit of God is at work within us. If we are Christians we can have enormous confidence in our witness to the world, because the Spirit does all the hard work for us. If we are Christians we can have enormous confidence in the word of God, because the Spirit inspired it and inspires us to understand it.

Obviously, I'd love to have a Tardis, and I'd still love to have seen Jesus at work. But the truth is that through his Spirit his work is far more effective than it ever was when he was with us in body. My confidence as a Christian relies on being this side of the cross. Is that your experience as well?