This post is not meant to be a New Testament overview of the ministry of the Holy Spirit. Instead, it’s a follow-up to my recent The Holy Spirit in the Old Testament.
When the Holy Spirit returned after 400 years of silence, He did not come quietly. He bursts onto the scene. The Spirit overshadows Mary so she conceives a child (Luke 1:35). John the Baptist (Luke 1:15), his mother (1:41) and father (1:67) were all filled with the Holy Spirit and both parents prophesied as a result. The Holy Spirit was upon Simeon in the temple (2:25). When John began his ministry, he did so speaking of the one who would baptise with the Holy Spirit (3:16), and testifying of the one on whom the Spirit descended (John 1:32f).
The Holy Spirit’s activity in the early chapters of the gospels was remarkable. For the first time the Holy Spirit was described as having filled a person. For the first time we are told explicitly that He visited women. But it was after all only two women, and only half a dozen people in all – and all of them Jews. Remarkable and unexpected as it was, this was not a pouring out on all people. The promises in Isaiah, Ezekiel and Joel were not yet fulfilled.
But that does not mean the Spirit stopped working – His work can be clearly seen in the life of Christ. When Jesus began his ministry, He did so full of the Spirit (Luke 4:1, 4:14. 10:21), given ‘without limit’ (John 3:34). Jesus cites Isaiah’s prophecy that ‘the Spirit of the Lord is on me’ (Luke 4:18). He explained that all must be born of the Spirit (John 3:5-8), who gives life (6:63). He claimed to drive out demons by the Spirit of God (Matt. 12:28).
Yet the experience of Jesus’ disciples was somewhat different. Under the guidance and presence of Christ the disciples grow into a band of useful, confident servants. But there were many times when the disciples’ usefulness and confidence left them. When Christ was asleep, they thought they would drown (Matt. 8:23-27). In His absence they feared ghosts (14:25-6), lacked the strength to pray (26:40, 43), and even denied Him (26:69-74). Without Christ, they could not understand even the simplest parable (15:15-16, 16:12), nor believe in His resurrection (Luke 24:11, John 20:29).
In other words, Scripture shows us that rather than being consciously dependent on the Spirit of God, the disciples relied on Christ Himself. They could not imagine life without Him (John 6:68), and when they were apart from Him, things quickly fell to pieces. Given that Jesus is the incarnate Son of God, that was hardly surprising.
It’s better if Jesus goes
More surprising is that Jesus tells them that they would be better off without Him: ‘It is for your good that I am going away’ (John 16:6). It is a remarkable thought for a group of men who have spent the best part of three years living with God Himself. What can be better than the physical presence of Jesus Christ? Jesus answers that question clearly and unequivocally. It is better for us to have the Spirit with us than to have Christ present: ‘Unless I go away the Counsellor will not come to you’.
But isn’t Christ pre-eminent? Are the Scriptures teaching that the Holy Spirit is more important, more valuable than Christ Himself? Certainly not. Scripture makes it clear to us that when the Spirit is present Christ is present. That is why Jesus can say, ‘Surely I am with you always’ at just the point when He leaves our planet (Matthew 28:20), and why He can promise His disciples that, ‘I will not leave you as orphans, I will come to you.’ (John 14:18). It is why Paul and Peter can speak of the Spirit of Jesus Christ (Phil. 1:19, 1 Peter 1:11).
The presence of the Spirit is better than the physical presence of Christ because it is only by the Spirit that Christ can promise ‘I am with you always’. During His time on earth, when Christ was with His disciples in Jerusalem, that meant He wasn’t with Lazarus in Bethany, nor with John in prison.
That is no longer true. We are experiencing the totality of the promises and blessings of the Holy Spirit. Whilst we wait for Christ’s personal return and long for His appearing, we lack nothing of the Spirit’s presence in our day.
How can I be so sure? Simply because the Scriptures are.
Peter took the clearest and boldest Old Testament promise (Joel 2:28f) and declared confidently that it was fulfilled at Pentecost. And he was right! In those few hours it is likely that the Spirit came to more people than had experienced Him in the whole of human history until that point. Men and women, young and old, to them the Spirit came just as Joel had predicted. The pattern is repeated throughout Acts and into the present day. Every time we see a man or woman converted we are seeing the Spirit being poured out.
In contrast to Old Testament days, since Pentecost we know of no-one on whom the Spirit came again. Why? Because to come back, the Spirit would have to go, and He does not. He comes at conversion and He dwells in the believer.
In the Old Testament the vast majority of references to the Spirit were in the past tense – what the Spirit once did, or the future tense – what He will do. But there is not a single promise of the future work of the Spirit anywhere in the New Testament. There are a few references back to the initial work of the Spirit in a believer, but otherwise all the verbs are present continuous – the Spirit will continue to do what He is doing, He will not do anything new because we have received what was promised.
Does this mean that there is nothing to strive for in this life? Far from it. We have received the Spirit that has set us free from law and death. Because Christ has won salvation, and because the Spirit has been given, we cannot fail to be confident in our God and energetic in our evangelism. We must pray that the Spirit who is being poured out would fill each of us that we might declare Christ boldly.
What a glorious privelege to be a New Testament believer! Thank God that He is pouring out His Spirit!
Articles in this series:
- The Holy Spirit in the Old Testament
- The Promised Holy Spirit – arrived! <-- This article