By Ed Vasicek, Midrash Detective
One of the benefits of “book-by-book expository preaching” is that the preacher-teacher is more likely to present God’s balance of truth. But it is not merely a matter of teaching everything — it is also a matter of emphasis. Preaching book by book puts the emphasis upon what God’s Word emphasizes! This is especially true when the point of the text is the point of the sermon.
But the Scriptures are not evenly distributed by topic. This is particularly true when it comes to the Holy Spirit. Although the Holy Spirit is discussed in many Scriptures, He is absent from many more. This might seem odd because the Holy Spirit Himself has inspired all Scripture.
In light of this seeming disparity, I would like to contemplate two issues about the Holy Spirit: His “behind the scenes” influence (His preferred discretion) and his role as the “Divine Finisher.” These issues have been discussed since the early centuries of Christianity, but do not receive much air time today.
The Spirit Behind the Scenes: Discretion
When I preached through the Book of Colossians last year, one point I noted was that the Holy Spirit was only mentioned once within the entire book of Colossians.
What is said to be the result of the Holy Spirit in Ephesians 5:18-21 is said to be the result of the Word of Christ in Colossians3:16-17. Here, Paul felt no obligation to give the Spirit credit for the Spirit’s work behind the scenes, yet elsewhere he instructs us that it is, in fact, the Spirit who is at work. We see this phenomenon throughout the Word.
God is said to have parted the waters of the Red Sea (Joshua 4:23), yet Isaiah implies that the Holy Spirit was involved: “Where is he who put in the midst of them his Holy Spirit, who caused his glorious arm to go at the right hand of Moses…?” (Isaiah 63:11b-12a).
Psalm 43:3a reads, “Send out your light and your truth, let them lead me.” Yet in Psalm 143:10, David writes, “Let your good Spirit lead me on level ground.” We could postulate that God sends “light and truth” via the leading of the Spirit.
In Psalm 16:7, David writes, “I bless the Lord who gives me counsel, in the night also my heart instructs me.” Here we see David attributes the counsel he receives as being from the Lord, but — at the same time — coming from within his heart. This is a good description of our perception when the Holy Spirit leads us. Although this direction comes from God (particularly God the Spirit), we often sense this leading as a conviction or direction impressed upon our hearts. At least, that is how many of us understand the Spirit’s leading.
Jesus spoke about the fact that the Holy Spirit would shine the spotlight upon Jesus, not himself. In John 16:13-14 we read:
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. He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you.
The Persons of the Godhead seek to bring glory to one another. Jesus made it clear that all are to revere the Holy Spirit when He stated, “And whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come” in Matthew 12:32.
This may even be an amplification of the command not to take God’s Name in vain (Exodus 20:7). Because the Spirit is discreet does not mean He is somehow lesser than the other Persons of the Godhead. He is the only Person of the Trinity so honored!
In the above context, unbelieving Jewish leaders were attributing Jesus’ miracles — works empowered by the Holy Spirit — as being the doings of Satan. Such an attribution is the blasphemy against the Spirit.
We believe that all of Jesus’ miracles were worked with the Father’s permission and in the power of the Holy Spirit. Yet, only rarely, do we see Jesus calling attention to the Spirit.
My way to describe this is to say that the Holy Spirit seems to prefer to be discreet. Why this is so remains a mystery, but perhaps the answer lies in personality. The One God is Three Persons, each of which fully possesses all the attributes of deity. Yet the Persons of the Godhead are three distinct Persons — three distinct Personalities. Whether what appears to be personality differences are innate — or simply the result of the roles each Person plays in the plan of redemption — is not something we can know.
This is not to say that the Holy Spirit received NO attention or credit for His doings. On Pentecost, for example, the power of the Holy Spirit was manifest, and He was glorified. Paul tells us that the Holy Spirit is the one who sanctifies us (see Romans 8, the entire chapter), and is given quite a bit of attention in this chapter.
Even in salvation, the Holy Spirit is only partly in the limelight. We are held responsible to be born again, yet it is the Spirit who works invisibly within to make this happen (Acts 2:40, John 3:1-16). God expects us to understand his Word (Deuteronomy 30:11-14), yet we cannot unless the Spirit opens our eyes (2 Corinthians 3:13-18).
Just because the Holy Spirit is not always mentioned as part of a certain process or ministry does not mean He is not the active One behind it. He chooses to be the discreet member of the Trinity.
The Holy Spirit as Finisher
The creation account in Genesis one mentions — in a way — the Three Persons of the Trinity. God (the Father) creates the universe through speaking the Word (the Son), and the Holy Spirit hovers (1:2). The hovering Holy Spirit seems to somehow finishes the initial work of creation.
This same pattern is seen in the plan of salvation. The Father sends the Son to atone for sins. After His resurrection and 40 day “proof period,” the Son ascends back to the Father. Ten days later, the Holy Spirit descends on Pentecost to finish what has been started, and the church Jesus founded becomes one body empowered (I Corinthians 12:13).
He enables us to witness (Acts 1:8) to finish the Kingdom work Jesus began. There are many references to what the Holy Spirit does for us — things like gifting, leading, strengthening, comforting, enlightening, guiding, etc.
He finishes the work of Christian growth started at conversion through sanctifying us — helping us become more holy. Romans 15:16b reads, “… the offering of the Gentiles may be acceptable, sanctified by the Holy Spirit…”
The New Testament authors do not always give credit specifically to the Holy Spirit, but He is often understood as the active power behind God’s work in us. Thus, when Pau writes in Philippians 2:13, “… for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure,” we know — from other passages — that the One working is understood as “God the Spirit.” As Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 3:17-18:
Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.
- Because the writers of Scripture recognized but did not feel obligated to constantly mention the Spirit as the power behind the Christian life — neither must we. On the other hand, at times they did point out this fact — so should we.
- Many of the works of the Holy Spirit are generically attributed to God, not usually specifying the Person of the Godhead involved. We should feel comfortable doing the same thing.
- The mention of the Holy Spirit is concentrated within certain portions of Scripture. For example, there are over 110 references to the “Holy Spirit” (not including synonyms like “Spirit” or “Comforter) in the Bible (ESV). More than 41 of the 110 are found in the book of Acts. Thus, as I preach, you can expect an imbalance in addressing the Holy Spirit simply because the Scriptures are imbalanced.
- The Spirit is out to glorify the Son, as quoted above. We normally think of praying in the Spirit, not to the Spirit (Ephesians 6:18). This does not mean it is wrong to worship the Spirit. In the epistles, praying and other acts of worship are typically directed to the Father through the Son in the Spirit, but this does not mean it is not wrong to pray to or worship the Holy Spirit — just not the emphasis of Scripture. We see something similar in regards to praying to the ascended Jesus, with only one clear precedent for doing so (Acts 7:59).
- The Holy Spirit’s Name is to be revered! We should never use the leading of the Spirit as a way to shift blame or responsibility from ourselves. Better to say, for example, “I think I need to break up with you because you are not the right one for me” rather than, “The Holy Spirit [or God] has led me to break up with you.” Although such a break up might be God’s will, we don’t want to use the Holy Spirit as a scapegoat.
The Holy Spirit is constantly and discreetly active in your life if you are a believer. He dwells within you. Make your resident guest comfortable!