“We have not even heard whether there is a Holy Spirit” (Acts 19:2, New American Standard Bible). This ancient statement, first uttered by some disciples of John the Baptist in Ephesus, could have fallen from the lips of many evangelical believers today.
While we believe in the Trinity and baptize people in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, we tend to speak a lot more about the Father and the Son than the Holy Spirit. Indeed, Alister McGrath has described the Holy Spirit as “the Cinderella of the Trinity.”
In 2009, Francis Chan released a book titled, Forgotten God: Reversing Our Tragic Neglect of the Holy Spirit. He wrote: “While no evangelical would deny [the Holy Spirit’s] existence, I’m willing to bet there are millions of churchgoers across America who cannot confidently say they have experienced His presence or action in their lives over the past year.”
We may be unaware of the reality, presence, and empowering of the Holy Spirit but the Bible makes it clear that the Spirit of God is at work in our lives whether we are aware or oblivious to him. He does not need our recognition or acknowledgement to get on with his work upon us, within us, and through us.
The preaching of Peter on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2) stunned his listeners on two fronts. First, he delivered the devastating news. The Messiah for whom Israel had waited and prayed for centuries had indeed come . . . and they had just killed him. He had risen from the dead, but they had crucified the Christ (Acts 2:36). The people felt an overwhelming conviction about their horrifying act of violence. Mortified, they cried out, “What shall we do?”
But then Peter followed up with the second equally stunning statement. “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call” (vv. 38, 39, NIV).
Until then, the only people who had really experienced “the gift of the Holy Spirit” had mostly been prophets, priests, and kings. But this new age, the age of the new covenant and the age of the church, would also be known as the age of the Spirit. This promise, foreshadowed hundreds of years earlier by the prophet Joel, had finally been fulfilled and would be true for those who stood there that day in utter astonishment, and for their children, and for all people of the world thereafter, even to our own day.
What an extraordinary promise.
In John’s Gospel, we find a unique word used to describe the Holy Spirit. John described him as the “Paraclete” (John 14:16, 26). The word simply means “one who is called (and comes) alongside.” Our Bibles use various terms to translate the word; counselor, comforter, advocate, helper. The terms are all helpful and describe beautifully the work and ministry of the Holy Spirit both to us and through us.
When we pray in great distress, he comes alongside and intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words (Romans 8:26), turning our own pain and confusion into something intelligible to the Father. Furthermore, the comfort which the Spirit gives us, he also often gives to others through us (2 Corinthians 1:3, 4).
The Apostle Paul concludes that since the Spirit has brought us to life (regenerated us), we should “walk by the Spirit” (Galatians 5:25). If he has come alongside us, we should walk intentionally and attentively with him. He has breathed life into us when we were dead to sin, so let’s “walk by the Spirit, and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh” (v. 16, NASB).
These are words of extraordinary invitation and opportunity.
God himself has come to us, come upon us, and come within us (John 14:17). The Spirit of truth sets us free. He empowers and enables us for both life and ministry. He points us to a deeper walk with Christ (v. 26).
None of this depends on us fully understanding how it happens. His work does not depend on our intellect but on our faith. Fully formed doctrine matters less than a fully devoted heart. He responds to our trust, not to our explanations.
The presence of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer is what sets us apart from other world religions. Christianity is not just a way of thinking about God but, far more importantly, a way to personally experience him day by day.
As Jesus prepared his disciples for the new age that was dawning, he declared, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8, NIV).
This idea of empowerment has certainly been understood in a range of ways. Some see it as the ability to perform signs and wonders; to replicate the miraculous ministry of the apostles. Others see empowerment in terms of testimony; the divine empowerment of our words—even when they don’t seem impressive or clever—to touch a life and draw people toward Christ. Still others interpret empowerment in less spectacular ways; the steady shaping (sanctifying) of a life that demonstrates how remarkable is the redemptive work of God.
The promised Paraclete empowers us for life and witness, but not all of us feel inspired or empowered. Indeed, many of us quietly and privately continue to say, “We have not even heard whether there is a Holy Spirit” (Acts 19:2, NASB). We can easily start feeling like second-class Christians, wondering why we seem so oblivious to such a spectacular gift.
Some Next Steps
How might we experience this empowerment in our own lives today? Try these three simple (biblical) steps.
First, lift your level of attentiveness. Read and reflect a little more on his Word. Then, pray throughout your day while on the road, having conversations, or doing work. These quick prayers, uttered constantly throughout the day, elevate our attentiveness. “Lord, show me your way.” “Jesus, more of you; less of me.” “Spirit, open my heart and my eyes.” “Come, Holy Spirit.” After all, he is the one whom we call alongside (the Paraclete). Try to pray these prayers, or prayers like them, every 10-15 minutes.
Second, deepen your level of willingness. Everything changes when we want what God wants. Seek ways to align yourself with his plans for your life. Pursue his heart for the world. Serve yourself less and him more. Assign some of your most precious resources (time and energy) to his purposes.
Third, strengthen your level of responsiveness. When you sense his leading, follow him there. An uncomfortable conversation? Contact with a stranger? A short-term mission trip? Service in your local church? Our action, in response to his leading, opens us to him in fresh ways.
No longer is God distant or inaccessible. He has come to us and works through us as we invite and embrace the promise of the Paraclete and experience his empowering presence.
David Timms is Dean of the Faculty of Theology at William Jessup University in Rocklin, California.