Scripture readings: Acts 2:1-21; Ps. 104:24-35; Rom. 8:22-27; John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15 Sermon by Ted Johnston (from John 15:18-16:15) (Drawing on Wiersbe Bible Commentary, New Bible Commentary, Parable of Joy by Michael Card, and The Gospel of John by F.F. Bruce)
The Holy Spirit’s Three-Fold Ministry
Today is Pentecost and we celebrate the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. In today’s sermon today, we’ll look back to what Jesus said to his disciples about the Holy Spirit on the night before our Lord went to the cross. Jesus told his followers about the Spirit’s three-fold ministry as their Counselor, Witness and Teacher. What he said was vital then, and it’s still important today for our encouragement and instruction. Let’s listen and learn.
May the words of my mouth, and the meditation of my heart, be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, my strength, and my redeemer. (Ps. 19:14)
1. The Spirit as Counselor
On the way to the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus said this to his disciples:
If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you. Remember what I told you: “A servant is not greater than his master.” If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also. If they obeyed my teaching, they will obey yours also. They will treat you this way because of my name, for they do not know the one who sent me. If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not be guilty of sin; but now they have no excuse for their sin. Whoever hates me hates my Father as well. If I had not done among them the works no one else did, they would not be guilty of sin. As it is, they have seen, and yet they have hated both me and my Father. But this is to fulfill what is written in their Law: “They hated me without reason.”
When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father—the Spirit of truth who goes out from the Father—he will testify about me. And you also must testify, for you have been with me from the beginning.
All this I have told you so that you will not fall away. They will put you out of the synagogue; in fact, the time is coming when anyone who kills you will think they are offering a service to God. They will do such things because they have not known the Father or me. I have told you this, so that when their time comes you will remember that I warned you about them. I did not tell you this from the beginning because I was with you…. John 15:18-16:4)
Jesus pulls no punches in telling his followers that their situation in “the world” (mankind’s system, cut off from God) will be dangerous. Opposition will increase—moving from hatred (John 15:18–19), to persecution (John 15:20), to excommunication, and even to death (John 16:2). These stages are seen in the early church’s history described in Acts. But why does the world, including the religious world, hate Jesus’ followers? Our Lord gives four reasons:
- That we are identified with him (John 15:18, 20).
- That we do not belong to the world (John 15:19).
- That the world is spiritually ignorant and blind (John 15:21).
- That the world is not honest about its own sin (John 15:22–24; 16:1–4).
How does the Holy Spirit, the Counselor (Comforter in the KJV) encourage believers when they experience such hatred and opposition? It’s primarily through the Spirit’s testimony in Scripture. He ministered to Jesus that way. In John 15:25, Jesus quotes Psalms 35:19 and 69:4 where he found assurance that he was not hated for anything he had done. Today the Spirit “counsels” us through Scripture, giving us words of encouragement and instruction.
The Holy Spirit also witnesses to and through us during times of persecution (John 15:26–27). He reminds us that what we are experiencing is “the fellowship of sharing in his [Christ’s] sufferings,” as Paul says in Phil. 3:10, and that it is a privilege to bear reproach for his name, as Peter says in 1 Pet. 4:12–19. The Holy Spirit witnesses to us so that we can witness to the world. Jesus told his disciples that persecution need not cause them to stumble (“fall away,” John 16:1). Indeed, as followers of Jesus we can expect some degree of persecution. In particular, Jesus warned of persecution from “religious” people who think they are serving God. The word translated “service” in John 16:2 means “priestly service.” This statement is applicable to Saul of Tarsus, who thought he was serving God by persecuting, even killing Christians.
As we face hardship (even persecution) in following Jesus, we can be assured that the Spirit, our Counselor, will minister to us just as it ministered to these first disciples.
2. The Spirit as Witness
…but now I am going to him who sent me. None of you asks me, “Where are you going?” Rather, you are filled with grief because I have said these things. But very truly I tell you, it is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. When he comes, he will prove the world to be in the wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment: about sin, because people do not believe in me; about righteousness, because I am going to the Father, where you can see me no longer; and about judgment, because the prince of this world now stands condemned. (John 16:5–11)
For three years, Jesus had been with his disciples and had protected them from attack—but now he was leaving. He had told them this news earlier that evening, and Peter had asked where he was going. However, Peter’s question revealed more concern about himself than about Jesus. Also, his question centered on the immediate, not the ultimate. It was necessary for Jesus to explain why it was important for them that he return to the Father. The major reason is that the Spirit would come to empower the church for life and witness. Also, the ascended Lord Jesus would be active as High Priest, interceding for his people.
It’s important to note that the Spirit comes in this particular way to Jesus’ disciples, who are Jesus’ co-workers, his temple—and the Spirit works with and through Christians to glorify Jesus by witnessing to a lost world. The key word here in John 16:8 is prove —a legal word meaning “bring to light, expose, refute, convict and convince.” The Spirit convicts the world and does so through the testimony of Christ-followers. In accord with this legal metaphor, believers are the witnesses, the Spirit is the prosecuting attorney and the unsaved are the guilty. If that sounds harsh, we quickly note that the purpose of this conviction of the world is not to condemn it but to save it. Note that through the testimony of the church, the Holy Spirit convicts the world of three things:
a. Unbelief (John 16:9)
The law of God and the human conscience convict the sinner of their sins (plural); but it is the specific work of the Spirit, through the testimony of believers, to expose a lost world’s unbelief. This is the big sin of the world, and the sin that condemns lost sinners. A person could “clean up his life” and remain in unbelief and thus continue to be lost.
b. Righteousness (John 16:10)
Note that what the Holy Spirit convicts the world of is not unrighteousness but righteousness. What righteousness is this? The righteousness of Jesus Christ, the perfect Lamb of God. The world would not receive the Son of God, so he has returned to the Father. When he was here on earth, he was accused of being a blasphemer, a lawbreaker, a deceiver, and even a demoniac. The Spirit of God reveals the Savior in the word and in this way glorifies him (John 16:13–14). The Spirit also reveals Christ in the lives of believers. The world cannot receive or see the Spirit of God, but they can see what he does as they watch the lives of his followers.
c. Judgment (John 16:11)
Jesus is here referring to his judgment of Satan that was affected by his death on the cross. Satan is the prince of this world, but he is a defeated prince. Satan has already been judged and the verdict announced. All that must take place is the executing of that sentence, and that will occur when Jesus returns in glory.
When lost sinners are convicted in these ways, they see the folly and evil of their unbelief; they confess that what they do does not measure up to the righteousness of Christ; and they realize that they are under condemnation because they belong to the world and the devil. The only person who can rescue them from this situation is Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
Conversion involves this conviction, which comes through the ministry of the Holy Spirit, who uses the word of God, including the testimony of the children of God. Offering our testimony to Christ in the world is thus a great privilege and serious responsibility. We can depend on and cooperate with the Holy Spirit as he creatively (and often unexpectedly) guides us to the right persons, gives us the right words, and enables us to patiently testify to Jesus Christ by our actions and words, thus glorifying him.
3. The Spirit as Teacher
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 the 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. He will glorify me because it is from me that he will receive what he will make known to you. All that belongs to the Father is mine. That is why I said the Spirit will receive from me what he will make known to you. (John 16:12-15)
Jesus always gave his disciples just the right amount of truth at the best time. This is a mark of a great teacher. The Holy Spirit is our teacher today, and he follows the same principle, teaching us the truths we need to know, when we need to know them, and when we are ready to receive them.
Comparing John 14:26 with John 16:13, we see the wonderful process used by the Holy Spirit to teach these first disciples—a process reflected in the New Testament: The Spirit reminded them of what Jesus had taught them, reflected in the four Gospels. The Spirit guided them into all truth, reflected in the epistles. And he showed them “things to come”—leading them into what was, humanly, an uncertain and threatening future, as reflected in the book of Revelation.
The work of the Holy Spirit is never divorced from Jesus, the Living Word, or from Scripture, the written word. “He will testify about me” (John 15:26); “He will bring glory to me” (John 16:14). People who claim that the Spirit of God led them to do things contrary to the example of Jesus or the teaching of Holy Scripture are mistaken and are being led astray by Satan. Jesus is the truth (John 14:6), and God’s word (personified in Jesus and conveyed through Scripture) is truth (John 17:17), and the Holy Spirit is “the Spirit of truth.” Where the Holy Spirit is truly at work, truth prevails.
The phrase “He [the Spirit] will not speak on his own” (John 16:13) means that he does not speak apart from the Father and the Son; he does not have a different message. The entire Godhead is mentioned in John 16:13 because the Spirit of God does not ignore either the Father or the Son. They are one in doing, just as they are one in being.
The teaching of the Spirit through the apostles was not different from the teaching of the Spirit through Jesus. The same Holy Spirit communicated the truths found in the four Gospels, the epistles, Revelation, and Acts (where we see how he led the church into new territory and circumstances). Today the Spirit uses Holy Scripture (which he inspired) to enlighten us with God’s truth and to enrich us with God’s treasures.
One final note: the truth that the Holy Spirit guides us into is the truth that is Jesus. Some people study Scripture to argue religion or discover “new truth.” But such approaches are contrary to the intent of the Holy Spirit who inspired Scripture—his ministry is to reveal God to us in the person of Jesus—the one who is the way, the life and the truth. Then he sends us out with that truth to bear witness to it to a disbelieving world. The Spirit then uses our testimony to Jesus to do what we cannot do—convict the world of unbelief and open their hearts to believe.
How blessed we are as followers of Jesus to be indwelt and led by the Holy Spirit of God! As our Counselor, he guides and encourages us (and how greatly we need that at all times, but particularly in times when we face persecution); as Witness to Jesus he leads us to testify concerning our Lord; and as our Teacher he leads us ever deeper in participating in the life of the triune God: from the Father, in Christ, through the Spirit.
May our hearts and minds—indeed our whole beings—be ever open and responsive to the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives. Amen.