“Above All Else – Holy Spirit” – Acts 2
Introduction: Above All Else
For the next few weeks, I am going to use this book – “Above All Else” – and also a couple of other resource books to take us through the essentials of our Christian faith… what we believe and how we live. We have already considered the First and Second Articles of the Apostles’ Creed – God, the Creator, and Jesus, the Redeemer. Today we turn our attention to the Third Article, and the Third Person of the Trinity – the Holy Spirit.
One of the resource books I’m consulting is this one – Lutheranism 101. It’s interesting that the very first chapter is “Who is God?” and then there are three chapters entitled “It’s All About Jesus” with parts 1, 2 and 3. But the chapter about the Holy Spirit… is conspicuous by its absence. And maybe you notice that about the Lutheran Church, too… the Holy Spirit gets very little face-time in sermons and songs and prayers. But today is that one Sunday out of 52 that we do land solidly on a consideration of the Holy Spirit. The Old Testament Lesson from Genesis 11 focused on the confusing of languages in the Tower of Babel story – perhaps the handiwork of the Holy Spirit, especially in light of the “Come let us go down and confuse their language” statement of God. The Triune God, including the Holy Spirit, created that disorder in communication and trust. The Lesson from Acts 2 features an undoing of the Genesis 11 confusion, by the sending of the Holy Spirit and the common message of the wonders and works of God heard by the Jerusalem Pentecost worshipers, each in their own language. The Gospel reading reports Jesus’ promise to send the Holy Spirit, the Counselor, the Comforter, the Helper. The Greek word is ‘Paraclete’ – the one who would come alongside of the followers of Jesus to guide them in their living as His disciples. That includes us! So, let’s explore the person and the work of the Holy Spirit today. Oh, and just so that you don’t think a basic Lutheran theology book would completely miss out on the Holy Spirit, it’s in this Lutheranism 101 book… just hidden in some of the other chapters, coming alongside the topics in some other chapters, much like the impact of the Holy Spirit in our lives… hidden, not so noticeable, but there, coming alongside and being our daily Helper!
1. Holy Spirit: Who He Is
The first thing we need to understand about the Holy Spirit is that He is not merely the power or the energy of God. The Holy Spirit is the Third Person of the Triune God, with the Father and the Son. We believe that because of the evidence in the Bible. Like the Father and the Son, the Holy Spirit has divine names and is clearly called God. In the Acts 5 account of the sin of Ananias and Sapphira, they are first accused of lying to the Holy Spirit, and then later of lying to God… because lying to the Holy Spirit is lying to God. Paul’s letters call us both God’s temple and the temple of the Holy Spirit, because they are one and the same. In Jesus’ Great Commission, disciples are called to baptize in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit – name, not names, because the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit together are one God, with one name. The Spirit is referred to in personal terms. He speaks. He loves. He chooses. He teaches. He guides. He can be lied to and grieved.
The Holy Spirit also possesses divine characteristics, just like the Father and the Son. In Psalm 139, David acknowledges that there is nowhere – neither in the heavens, nor in the depths, neither in the east (the wings of dawn), nor in the west (the far side of the sea) – there is nowhere that he can escape the presence of the Spirit. That is to say that the Holy Spirit is omnipresent. In 1 Corinthians 2, Paul states that the Spirit is also omniscient – searching all things, knowing all things, even the deep things of God. Hebrews 9 talks about the eternal Spirit – another quality of God’s very nature.
Thirdly, the Holy Spirit carries out divine works, things that only God can do. The second verse of the Bible involves the Spirit of God in the very act of creation – something we normally associate only with God the Father. The Spirit is also integrally part of the salvation process – washing, regenerating, renewing and sanctifying people in the waters of Holy Baptism. The Spirit makes each one of us a child of God, and co-heirs with Christ. The Holy Spirit guides and shapes our daily living to be in tune with God’s will for our lives.
Finally, the Holy Spirit receives the same divine honour and glory and worship as the Father and the Son. In His conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well, Jesus affirmed that God is Spirit, and that He is to be worshiped in spirit and in truth. Our true and spiritual worship comes by offering our bodies, our lives as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God. Paul writes in Philippians 3 that believers “worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus.” There is one God who eternally exists in three Persons. When we worship God, we naturally worship all three members of the Godhead.
2. Holy spirit: His Work
a. Conversion / Regeneration / Faith
Now let’s move to the work of the Holy Spirit, and we’ll consider this under three headings. First… conversion or regeneration or coming to faith in Jesus.
To generate means to create, to give birth, and then to regenerate means to create again or a second time. When Jesus had His night-time conversation with Pharisee Nicodemus, He talked about being born again… that is, being regenerated, and Jesus connects that to the work of the Holy Spirit: “You must be born of water and of the Spirit.” Rebirth is also the word that Paul uses in Titus 3 – the washing of rebirth and renewal in the Holy Spirit. ‘Conversion’ and ‘converts’ are not very common terms in the New Testament, although we do refer to the conversion of Saul in Acts 9. Perhaps the simple phrase of ‘coming to faith in Jesus’ is more understandable and common. Case in point – on that Pentecost Day, 3,000 people accepted the message that Peter proclaimed about the crucified and risen Jesus being both Lord and Christ, and they believed and were baptized and counted among the Christian community. Other stories of people coming to faith in the Book of Acts include the crippled man on the temple steps, the Ethiopian man, the centurion Cornelius, the Philippian jailer and then groups of people as Paul brought the name of Jesus into communities in present-day Turkey and Greece.
But those ‘coming to faith’ stories were and still are the work of the Holy Spirit. You don’t just decide on your own one day that you’re tired of living apart from God and then turn your life around. The human state of ‘no faith’ is described in the Bible as being spiritually blind, spiritually dead, and spiritually enemies of God. We can’t undo any of those conditions on our own. That’s why Paul would write very emphatically to the Corinthians that “No one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit.” That’s why Martin Luther would affirm in his explanation of the Third Article of the Apostles’ Creed that “I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him, but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel…” We can’t come to faith when we are blind or dead. It is the work of the Holy Spirit to make the saving Gospel of Jesus Christ come alive for us and to bring us to see it and to believe it personally. And when that happens, when someone is in Christ, St. Paul says he / she is a new creation… the old has gone, the new has come.
If you believe in Jesus Christ as your Lord and Saviour from sin, then thanks for that gift of faith rightfully belongs in the realm of the Holy Spirit who has led you to make that confession.
b. Sanctification (broad and narrow)
The next thing to consider with respect to the work of the Holy Spirit is the word ‘sanctification.’ ‘Sanctification’ is connected with the word ‘saint’ which often translates the Biblical word ‘agios’ which means ‘holy one.’ ‘Sanctification’ then refers to the work of the Holy Spirit in making us holy and like Christ… saints.
There are two senses of ‘sanctification’ – the broad sense and the narrow sense. The broad sense refers to the general leading of a godly life after we have come to faith in Jesus. Our Monday night small group has been learning about what discipleship meant in the first century. Often a would-be learner would seek out a rabbi, maybe someone with a reputation, someone that they wanted to learn from and be like. With Jesus it was different. He looked for discipleship candidates with potential. He called them, saying simply, “Follow me.” From that point on, they would listen to Him, learn from His teachings, watch Him, try to be like Him, go to the places where He was going, walk so close behind Him that the dust from His sandals would scatter up on their legs. With Jesus’ apprentice disciples, it was all about being like Jesus. And that’s the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives… leading us, guiding us, equipping us, filling us to be like Jesus, the rabbi. We want to listen to Jesus’ words, learn from Jesus, and walk so close to Him that our lives look more and more like Jesus every day! That’s the broad sense of sanctification – leading a holy and godly and Christ-like life.
The narrow sense of ‘sanctification’ refers to a Christian’s life of godliness, doing good works. Good works can be performed only by those who have faith in Jesus, those in whom the Holy Spirit dwells. Hebrews 11 says that without faith it is impossible to please God. An unbeliever can perform deeds that we may find highly commendable, that render a noble service. But they are not the fruit that God desires. Their works do not spring from the right motives, nor are they directed to the glory of God.
But when the Holy Spirit lives within us, He is active in our thoughts, words and deeds, continually leading Christians toward Godly service. In his letter, James makes clear that good works spring from faith, and, in fact, that without good works faith is dead. Good works include… well, let me ask you… what would be good works in the eyes of God?
In God’s sight a good work is everything that a child of God does, speaks, or thinks… in faith… for the glory of God, and for the benefit of his or her neighbour.
c. Fruits and gifts
In my reading this week, someone wrote that Pentecost Day was like opening the floodgates of a dam, with the Holy Spirit bursting forth to create and to grow the church. When a dam is designed and built for hydroelectric power, some of the river continues to flow downstream to provide water to grow gardens and crops, and for towns to have water for drinking and bathing. But when the water running through the dam is used for generating electricity, the flow of the water increases dramatically. The Hoover Dam in Nevada, for example, provides 4 billion kilowatts per year, and powers homes and businesses for 1.3 million people in 3 states.
Before Pentecost, the work of the Holy Spirit was present but modest, like the river that continues to flow gently downstream. The prophets, for instance, were inspired in their messages by the Holy Spirit, and that spiritually nourished the Old Testament people for centuries. At Pentecost, the Holy Spirit’s work was unleashed, and the Church grew throughout the world, and still today empowers millions of people to believe in Jesus, and to produce the fruit of faith for others to see.
Fruit… that is one aspect of the Holy Spirit’s work in our lives. St. Paul catalogs the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5 – “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” When the Holy Spirit comes and dwells in a person, those fruit flow out – in a trickle, a stream or even a torrent – from one believer’s life out toward others. Like apples grow naturally on an apple tree, like peaches grow naturally on a peach tree, the fruit of the Spirit grow naturally in the lives of those who have been profoundly influenced by the Spirit. You can expect to develop peace and patience, gentleness and self-control as you continue to live in the Spirit of God.
The Holy Spirit also gives gifts, and St. Paul catalogs those, too, mostly in Romans, 1 Corinthians and Ephesians. Some of the gifts Paul mentions are rather extraordinary like miracles and healings and the gift of tongues as we heard about in the Acts 2 Pentecost account. Other gifts are more common, but still important, like hospitality, teaching, service, leadership and showing mercy. Paul teaches that to each believer the Spirit gives a gift or service – all for the common good of the Body of Christ. That means it is compelling that each of us discover, develop and utilize those Spirit-given gifts in the context of the Church, but also so that the name and the saving work of Jesus can be spread.
To wrap up… the Holy Spirit is the Third Person of the Trinity, with divine names, characteristics, works, and honour. The Holy Spirit’s primary work is to bring people to faith in Jesus, especially by revealing the truth of the Gospel – that Jesus died to forgive your sins, and that He rose to open the salvation doors of heaven for you. Once you have come to trust in Jesus as your Lord and Saviour, the Holy Spirit comes alongside, like a spiritual friend, to lead you in holy living to be more and more like Jesus, and to demonstrate your faith in Jesus with God-pleasing good works. Finally, the Holy Spirit naturally brings forth spiritual fruit in your life and gives spiritual gifts to be used for the good of the entire Church, and for the glory of God. We don’t want to relegate the Holy Spirit to being conspicuous by His absence from our lives. The Holy Spirit is our Helper, our Friend, our Counselor and Comforter. Thank God for that! Amen.