The Heart Of It All (Part 6): The Spirit Gift & Our Experience of Christ
Christian claim #6: “I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and Giver of Life, who proceeds from the Father, who with the Father and the Son together is worshiped and glorified.”
The God of all grace, who rescued us–in Christ Jesus–even when we had nothing to offer him, calls us to a way of life that is patterned after His holiness. But knowing the right thing to do is only half the battle; finding the power to do it is, well, a different story.
Psychologists tell us that when we feel powerless, we give in to the systems that oppress us and work to our own detriment. Scripture says the same thing. Being told there is a God who loves you, a Christ who died for you, and a way of life that has been modeled for you, is only half the tale. The truth is that there is also a power available to become all that God intends for us to be.
We have talked about God as Father in the sense of originator and creator (the main way in which God is “Father” in the Hebrew Bible). We have discussed Jesus Christ–God incarnate as the Son–who opens up a new way to think of God as our intimate Father, shows us the interior life of God, and redeems us from our sin condition. It is time to speak of God as our empowering agent–the one in whom we live, and move, and have our Being. God as the beginning and end of our walk, the power through whom all good things are accomplished, the means by which we can be made anew in the likeness of our Maker, and the ground of our assurance for better things to come. In short, it is time to talk about God in the person of the Holy Spirit.
The Presence of God for the People of God
Shortly before Jesus began his personal ministry, all eyes were focused on a peculiar prophet in the wilderness by the name of John. Donning a strange garb, and enjoying an odd diet, John was widely recognized as a spiritual figure reminiscient of holy messengers from the past. John was also practicing “baptism”– a ritual immersion involving the washing of a person’s body coupled with repentance and the confession of sins. Undergoing baptism at the hands of John was a way of asking God to forgive sins (Mark 1:4; Luke 3:3) and served as a public witness of one’s decision to follow God’s future chosen deliverer known as “the Messiah.” All of these things placed a spotlight on John, and, according to the Gospel of Luke, created a buzz among the crowd that required John to explain himself. Here is the way Luke paints the scene:
The people were waiting expectantly and were all wondering in their hearts if John might possibly be the Messiah. John answered them all, “I baptize you with [or “in”] water. But one who is more powerful than I will come, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with [or “in”] the Holy Spirit and fire (Luke 3:15-16 NIV).
According to John the Baptist, a water baptism that is connected with repentance, confession, and forgiveness of sin is truly wonderful, and given by God. (In fact, we will see very similar language associated with Christian baptism later in the New Testament.) But water baptism would not be the “unique” feature of Christianity, just as it was not even original to John himself. For example, a group of Jewish believers in the desert at Qumran were practicing the same thing. John wanted his audience to know that if you keep your eye on the Messiah, you will find at least one more thing that is crucial–and different than anything John or others before him could offer. The main difference between John’s ministry and what Jesus–the true Messiah–will bring is that Jesus will plunge people in God’s Holy Spirit.
There is a background for this. In the Old Testament, God’s Spirit refers simply to God’s empowering presence. When Moses stood at the top of the mountain to catch a “glimpse” of God, God made a promise to Moses and His chosen people: “My presence will go with you.” Moses responded:
If your Presence does not go with us, do not send us up from here. How will anyone know that you are pleased with me and with your people unless you go with us? What else will distinguish me and your people from all the other people on the face of the earth? (Exodus 33:12-16 NIV)
God’s presence was symbolized by a number of things: a cloud during the day, a pillar of fire at night, the ark of the covenant–playing a crucial role when at war, and the tent of animal skin known as the tabernacle for worship. God even entered into people at times, in various ways, by placing “His Spirit” on certain people to accomplish certain tasks. But these experiences of God were occasional, partial and sometimes transitory (Num 11:25; Isaiah 63:9-13); God always wished for his presence to permeate creation in a more permanent way.
So, throughout the Old Testament, we are given glimpses of hope that one day God would open the floodgates and fill both Jews and Gentiles with His constant empowering presence, providing overwhelming assurance of His love and access to His power, protection, and encouragement.
To His people, God promises “I will gather you…I will cleanse you…I will give you a new heart…and I will put my Spirit in you” (Ezekiel 36:24-32 NIV). First, God will Send his Messiah, the deliverer. The Messiah will be full of God’s Spirit, exuding God’s empowering presence (Isaiah 11:1-3; 42:1-3). Through this Messiah, and by the power and promise of God, the Spirit will be unleashed and overwhelm all those who desire to be wrapped in the arms of the love of God. The people of God are told to wait “till the Spirit is poured on us from on High” (Isaiah 32:15-16 NIV). The Messiah would not only be filled with God’s spirit, but would bestow the blessings of God’s power and presence upon the people (Isaiah 61:1-4).
The prophets Ezekiel and Joel fill out more details of what–and when–to expect this promise from the Father. Ezekiel pictures a valley of dry, dead bones who are brought back to life when a strong wind (the Hebrew word for “spirit”) flows over the bones and fills them with breath. “I will pour out my Spirit on all people,” declares God through the prophet Joel; through prophecy, visions, and dreams coming from young and old, male and female, you will know the promise has come true. “I will pour out my Spirit in those days” (Joel 2:24-29 NIV).
This background is powerfully brought to life by a New Testament writer named Luke. As he begins his gospel, you hear angels announce promises from the Father concerning the Messiah, the presence of God, and blessings for God’s people; then, within two chapters, you find prophecy, dreams, and visions coming from young and old, male and female–all of whom have God’s Spirit poured out on them. Luke doesn’t whisper — he shouts to the reader that we are standing at the threshold of the coming of the Messiah, and the promises of God’s empowering presence are about to be unleashed upon the world. It’s no wonder Matthew tells us that the presence of Jesus means “God is with us” (Matthew 1:23). Throughout the Gospels, we see Jesus–full of God’s Spirit (Luke 4:1; 10:21; John 6:63)–offering the constant, empowering presence of God to those who never thought it possible (John 4:10-14; 7:37-39). He offers forgiveness, inclusion, healing, and empowerment to young and old, rich and poor, Jew and Gentile. To the few chosen apostles who walked with him daily, Jesus offered the experience of being in the very presence of God who, taking on flesh, “tabernacled” among us in the skin of Jesus Christ (John 1:14).
But Jesus came to fulfill a mission which included death, resurrection, and returning back to the throne room of God. You can feel the angst his disciples (and the world) might have felt. Is this it? Did we catch a “glimpse” of God, like Moses on the mountain, for a short time? Will God’s presence leave us orphaned? “I will not leave you as orphans,” promises Jesus; “I will come to you” (John 14:18 NIV).
“I will not leave you as orphans,” promises Jesus; “I will come to you” (John 14:18 NIV).
The risen Jesus responds. “Receive the Holy Spirit” says Jesus to his followers, as he “breathes” on them, reminiscent of Ezekiel’s vision (John 20:21-23). “I will not leave you as orphans,” promises Jesus; “I will come to you” (John 14:18 NIV). How will this happen? Once Jesus returns to the Father, God will send the Holy Spirit as an “advocate” “to help you and be with you forever” (John 14:16 NIV). The promise is permanent: The Spirit “lives with you and will be in you” (John 14:17 NIV). The empowering presence of God, seen in the person of Jesus Christ, will dwell within God’s people in the person of the Holy Spirit. In this way, the Father and Jesus will both “make a home” within the believer, since the presence of God is among them (John 14:18-23)!
When Luke opens his second volume–the book of Acts–he tells us that what God promised through the prophets and accomplished in Jesus Christ is now going to be offered far and wide and encompass “as many people as the Lord our God shall call” (Acts 2:39). As Jesus ascends to the father, he tells his followers to wait in Jerusalem for “the promise of the Father” (Luke 24:44-49) which is the promised outpouring of and plunging in the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:4-5; 2:33, 39). What happens on that powerful day of Pentecost, just 50 days after the resurrection of Jesus? Precisely what Ezekiel and Joel predicted–a strong wind and prophetic speech let the reader know that the Spirit is poured out on the gathered people of God (Acts 2:1-4). The Apostle Peter announces that Joel’s prophecy is coming true; the long-awaited day of God’s permanent empowering presence has arrived (Acts 2:16-21, 33).
The crowd is stunned. Convicted by their sin, bewildered by their circumstances, and eager for God’s promise to include them as well, they ask “what shall we do?” Peter responds precisely as John the Baptist had–calling for repentance and baptism for the forgiveness of sins (Mark 1:4; Luke 3:3). But he adds one crucially important line: “and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit; the promise is for you, your children, and all who are afar off” (Acts 2:38-39).
Just imagine! God’s permanent, empowering presence living fully within his people! This is true in two powerful senses. First, it is true in a “group” sense–in that the church is “God’s temple” and thus “the Holy Spirit lives in your midst” since “you together are that temple” (1 Cor 3:16-17 NIV). But its also true on an individual level. “Your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit who is in you,” writes Paul (1 Cor 6:19 NIV). “If anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ they do not belong to Christ,” he adds (Rom 8:9 NIV). We are called individually to respond to God’s urgent plea: to be born again of the Spirit (John 3:3-5), which brings personal renewal (Titus 3:5). By “receiving” God’s spirit we know we are adopted as sons, empowered to fulfill the righteous calling of God in Christ Jesus, and helped in prayer by the Spirit himself (Rom 8). Through thick and thin, years of lean and years of plenty, God is “with us always” (Matthew 28:20).
Through thick and thin, years of lean and years of plenty, God is “with us always” (Matthew 28:20).
Paul is careful to connect the great promise of the Old Testament with Christian living in the present. Our long-awaited hope of God’s pouring out and plunging us in God’s Holy Spirit has arrived! You must have God’s spirit to belong to God’s people. God’s promised spirit is available to all whom the Lord will call. Receiving the Spirit is to be adopted as sons of God, and empowered for Christian living. But Paul goes a step further to make this abundantly clear. To the church at Corinth, Paul echoes the prediction of John and the promise of Jesus by making a broad and bold declaration: “for we were all baptized by [“with” or “in”] one Spirit so as to form one body…and we were all given the one Spirit to drink” (1 Cor 12:13 NIV). This is “the promised Holy Spirit” (Eph 1:13). Scripture reminds us that God “saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Christ Jesus our Savior” (Titus 3:5-6 NIV).
Let us come full circle. This is why John the Baptist tells the bewildered crowd that Jesus brings the Holy Spirit of God with him, and he will plunge people into the empowering presence of God. Just think of it! God…in us, among us, around us, and through us…forever and ever and ever…starting now! Through thick and thin, years of lean and years of plenty, God is “with us always” (Matthew 28:20).
A Personal Touch: The Experience of Jesus
But you may be thinking to yourself, “isn’t having the Spirit something less powerful, and less convicting, than knowing Christ Jesus himself?” After all, Having a personal experience with Jesus Christ formed the basis of the first Christian witness. Listen to the experiential language with which John begins his first letter:
From the very first day, we were there, taking it all in—we heard it with our own ears, saw it with our own eyes, verified it with our own hands. The Word of Life appeared right before our eyes; we saw it happen! And now we’re telling you in most sober prose that what we witnessed was, incredibly, this: The infinite Life of God himself took shape before us. We saw it, we heard it, and now we’re telling you so you can experience it along with us, this experience of communion with the Father and his Son, Jesus Christ (1 John 1:1-3 MSG).
“We didn’t follow cleverly devised stories when we told you about the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ in power,” claims an early witness; instead, “we were eyewitnesses of his majesty” (2 Peter 1:16 NIV). In an earlier letter, Peter is described as “a witness of Christ’s sufferings” (1 Pet 5:1). On Pentecost day, Peter tells the crowd experiencing the inbreaking of God’s Spirit that “God raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of it” (Acts 2:32; see also 3:15; 5:32). Early Christian writings emphasized not only that Christ “gave himself as a ransom for all people,” but that “this has now been witnessed to at the proper time” (1 Tim 2:6 NIV). When Christ called Paul to be an apostle, he was charged to serve as a witness not only to past events but also present and future experiences of Christ: “I am Jesus…I have appeared to you to appoint you as a servant and a witness of what you have seen and will see of me” (Acts 26:15-16 NIV).
And there was certainly something “unique” and “special” about being an eyewitness. Peter told Cornelius “we are witnesses of everything he did” in his earthly ministry; however “he was not seen by all the people, but by witnesses whom God had already chosen–by us who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead” (Acts 10:39-41 NIV). This sense of personal encounter, retained vividly in their memory and shared experiences, formed the heart of their early witness to the truth and power of the gospel.
This sense of personal encounter, retained vividly in their memory and shared experiences, formed the heart of their early witness to the truth and power of the gospel.
Jesus knew the power of personal encounter. After rising from the grave, Jesus made several stops before returning to the Father. He made personal appearances to his followers, often sharing a meal as a way of reminding them of his presence, care, and protection. When Jesus finds the hurting, doubting, struggling disciples, he comes to them. To Thomas and the rest of the apostles, Jesus ignores the “keep out” sign hanging on the locked door, and appears among them, with scars and wounds to satisfy their lingering doubts. Peter needed one last chance to say “I’m sorry,” when Jesus called him over for breakfast. A disciple named Clopus needs to see Jesus; so Jesus walks beside him, and stays for dinner. Whether like Peter in the early morn, Thomas at noon, or Clopus in the evening, Jesus makes himself known to troubled hearts.
And these encounters made a lasting impact. My favorite painting of the resurrection appearances is that of Caravaggio entitled “the incredulity of St. Thomas.” There is Thomas, with finger piercing Jesus’ side. But his eyes tell the story. They are wide with shock, wonder, amazement, and just a hint of joyful excitement. You can almost hear him say with a faint whisper: “It’s….the Lord!”
Two followers who experience the risen Christ describe the event as having “our hearts burning within us” (Luke 24:32 NIV), a moving phrase that speaks to the passion and persuasion involved in an encounter with the living Christ. The early Christians believed that Jesus would be “with them always” (Matthew 28:20), and this sense of personal encounter, retained vividly in their memory and shared experiences, formed the heart of their early witness to the truth and power of the gospel.
And you and I hear this and…perhaps…begin to feel, well, disenfranchised.
But if you ever feel less fortunate, less connected, and less assured than those first followers of Christ…think again.
It’s important to note that, on several occasions, Paul identifies God’s Holy Spirit as “the spirit of Christ” (Rom 8:9; Phil 1:19). When God’s church–his holy temple–is assembled together, “the power of the Lord Jesus is present” (1 Cor 5:4) writes Paul. And do not forget that Jesus told his followers that when the Spirit comes, to “live with you and..be in you,” it in then that “I will come to you;” for those who receive God’s Holy Spirit, both Jesus and the Father will “come to them and make our home with them” (John 14:17-18, 23 NIV). This means that by having God’s Holy Spirit–filled and surrounded by God’s empowering presence–we are not less fortunate than the first disciples; in this way we, too, experience the presence and power of Jesus.
This is why we need to believe in the presence of God’s Holy Spirit! Listen to the words of Ignatius IV, Patriarch of Antioch:
Without the Holy Spirit, God remains distant, Christ remains in the past, the Gospel remains a dead letter. Without the Spirit, the Church is merely another organization, authority becomes tyranny, mission is only propaganda, the liturgy is a simple remembrance, and Christian life takes on the atmosphere of slavery. But in the Spirit, in an indissoluble synergism, the cosmos is freed and becomes a foreshadowing of the Reign of God, humans struggle against the flesh, and the Risen Christ is already present. The Gospel becomes a vivifying force; the Church echoes the Trinitarian communion; authority is Pentecostal; the liturgy is a memorial and an anticipation; and human activity is divinized.
Matt Love, who preaches for the Beebe Church of Christ in Beebe, Arkansas, makes a poignant observation by contrasting the popular emphasis on “the empty tomb” with the New Testament emphasis on an encounter with the risen Christ. The fact that Jesus rose bodily from the dead–leaving behind an empty tomb–is true and crucial for the Christian story. Indeed it is necessary for any true encounter with a risen Lord. But read the accounts again. What does experiencing “the empty tomb” produce? For the first followers of Jesus, it immediately produces bewilderment, fear, and hiding behind locked doors. For this reason, the absence of a body in a hollowed out tomb is not a “stand alone” teaching at the heart of the Christian faith. What, then, is?
If the empty tomb changes nothing, then what does? The answer: meeting the resurrected Lord. It’s only then in the Gospels that the disciples’ lives are transformed. Doubt persists (Matt. 28:17), but without encountering the risen Christ there is no transformation…
The issue today is not whether one knows the tomb is empty, but whether one has met the resurrected Lord. The resurrection is not solely about the absence of death found in the empty tomb, but the presence of life. The empty tomb simply leaves space for this living Lord.
As Christians, we wear the name of Christ, house the spirit of Christ, walk in the footsteps of Christ, worship and pray in the power of Christ, and live with the assurance of the abiding presence of Christ. Would to God that we all lived in the constant recognition of the powerful presence of Christ in our lives through the promised Holy Spirit! I continue to be moved by John Wesley’s autobiographical description of his own awakening to the power and presence of Christ in a quickly recorded journal entry from 1738:
In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.
Catch the thrill. Be inspired to speak of your life with Christ with the passion usually reserved for letters you send to much less significant others. We are not all wired the same way, and we tell our experiences in different words. But may we all speak of our experience! In the water of baptism as we unite with the death of Christ; in receiving the Spirit as we are empowered by the work of Christ; at the communion table as we sup with the risen Christ; in our Christian neighbor as they forgive us when we wrong them or as they hear us confess one to another in the name of Christ; in the conviction that comes from hearing God’s word proclaimed in the truth of Christ; in the circle of prayer as an assembled people in the hope of Christ; let us tell of our experience in the way our addictions are broken, our selfishness is lessened, and God’s spiritual fruit is brought to full bloom as we yield ourselves to the Spirit of Christ.
(photo credit: Caravaggio, Supper at Emmaus, 1601-03; National Gallery, London)
Nathan Guy believes the passionate pursuit of truth, goodness, and beauty culminates in Jesus Christ. He received formal training in philosophy, theology, biblical studies, and cultural & political ethics from Oxford, Cambridge, and the LSE. Nathan lives in Searcy, Arkansas, where he teaches in the College of Bible & Ministry at Harding University.