In a dramatic scene in the movie A Few Good Men, Lieutenant Junior Grade Daniel Kaffee questions Base Commander Colonel Nathan Jessup about an event that occurred under Jessup’s command. Kaffee demands “I want the truth,” to which Jessup responds, “The Truth? You can’t handle the truth.” The Gospel of John describes another dramatic scene centered around truth. Beginning in chapter 13, Jesus meets with his disciples the night before his crucifixion to prepare them for his coming absence. Jesus assures them that he will not leave them alone, “as orphans.” He tells them that God will send “another Advocate” (Paraclete), the Holy Spirit. Jesus’ use of “another” indicates that Jesus has acted as Advocate until now. Jesus goes on to say that the Holy Spirit will dwell within them (14:17), teaching them and reminding them of what he (Jesus) said (v. 26) and guiding them into all truth (16:13).
To understand this verse and how the Holy Spirit continues to work today, we must first address two key questions: 1) Who is the Holy Spirit? and 2) What is truth?
The Holy Spirit
Although the Holy Spirit is present throughout both the Old and New Testaments, he is often overlooked. According to conservative theologian Millard J. Ericksonthe Holy Spirit can be difficult to understand because we lack a good metaphor for his role. God is the Father and Jesus is the Son, but the Holy Spirit is described using impersonal metaphors: a wind, or a power from on high. Use of the phrase “Holy Ghost” in older Bible translations complicates the problem. Theologian Michael F. Birdadds that evangelicals in particular tend to neglect the Holy Spirit for two reasons. First, the emphasis evangelicals place on Christ and his work can overshadow other members of the Trinity. Second, some evangelicals are wary of the emphasis placed on the Holy Spirit in Pentecostalism, resulting in what he terms a “virtual pneumaphobia.” Despite these limitations, both scholars agree that the Holy Spirit is central to Christianity and is the most active member of the Trinity today.
What Is Truth?
When we think about how the Holy Spirit leads to truth, it’s important to understand the type of truth Jesus was referring to. Truth can be broadly divided into two types: scientific/empirical truth and spiritual/moral truth. Empirical truths are statements of fact and are verifiable through observation. Spiritual truths involve a deeper level of understanding. Unlike empirical truths, they are not directly observed. Rather, spiritual truths are revealed and this revelation occurs over time, as one is ready to receive them. To put it simply, it’s the difference between simply knowing about Jesus and knowing Jesus. We can know a lot about Jesus without having our lives transformed by that knowledge through the work of the Holy Spirit.
The Holy Spirit and Truth
Biblical commentators agree that the truths the Holy Spirit leads to are spiritual truths, not empirical truths. Further, it is clear that empirical truths alone are not enough to bring about spiritual transformation. We see this in James 2:19, “You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.” The demons do not lack knowledge of empirical truth. They know about the nature of God and the work of Jesus. The problem the demons have is one of the heart and results from the lack of the Holy Spirit working in their lives. Without the Holy Spirit, the demons cannot internalize the empirical truth and apply it to themselves. We must be careful not to fall into the same trap. For many Christians, it is easy to substitute knowing about God for the hard work of applying that knowledge to our lives.
Another good illustration of this idea is seen in John 9, the story of the man born blind. After being healed by Jesus, the man was asked a series of complex questions about Jesus and the nature of the healing. The man was unable to answer these questions. He replied simply, “Whether he is a sinner or not, I don’t know. One thing I do know. I was blind but now I see!” (v. 25). Although he did not possess a great deal of empirical knowledge about Jesus, he nonetheless understood the fundamental spiritual truth of who Jesus was. The only thing the man could attest to is what the Savior had done in his own life, but that was enough. In contrast, the Pharisees possessed a great deal of empirical knowledge of God, yet they did not see the spiritual truth that Jesus was from God.
In John 16:13 Jesus told the disciples that the Holy Spirit would “tell you what is yet to come.” This verse is understood to mean that the Holy Spirit provided new insights into Scripture and revealed meanings that were not previously understood. Remember that an important dimension of spiritual truths are revealed over time, when we are ready to receive them. Like Daniel Kaffee, we have to be able to handle the truth.
A good illustration of the revelatory nature of spiritual truth is seen in Acts 10 and 11. The conversion of Cornelius began with Cornelius praying. During prayer he had a vision and was told to send for Peter. The scene then shifts to Peter, who was also praying. Peter also received a vision, one regarding clean and unclean animals. The vision was contrary to Peter’s understanding of Jewish dietary laws. He was being taught a new understanding of Scripture, but at first Peter was not ready to receive it. He was resistant, so he had the same vision two more times. Finally, Peter was able to accept the new teaching. But we will soon see that this teaching extended beyond clean and unclean animals, because while Peter was still pondering the meaning of his vision, Cornelius’ men arrived.
Ajith Fernandoexplains that Peter’s vision of clean and unclean animals laid the groundwork for Peter to reconsider the division of people into Jews and Gentiles. When Peter arrived at Cornelius’ house he said, “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right” (10:34, 35). This new understanding is essential to fulfilling the Great Commission. Before the early Christians could evangelize the Gentiles, they had to let go of their old ideas and prejudices. In Acts 10:34—11:18 we see that at first some “circumcised believers” were critical of Peter. They too were not ready to accept this new teaching. But after hearing about Peter’s vision and how the Holy Spirit descended on Cornelius and his friends and relatives, Peter’s critics realized that he was correct.
We can learn several things from this episode. First, both Peter and Cornelius received their messages while they were praying. We must engage in prayer and listen for God’s voice. But prayer alone is not enough. We also need to study Scripture and reflect on its meaning. Second, we may need to grapple with new understandings of Scripture, just as Peter and his critics struggled to let go of their old ideas. Finally, we need to remember Jesus’ words in John 16:14, “He will glorify me because it is from me that he will receive what he will make known to you.” Peter weighed his vision of clean and unclean animals against what he already knew. To look for new meaning in Scripture is potentially risky and unfortunately, has often been misused. It is important to use careful discernment in reading Scripture and to remember that no new meaning can contradict Jesus’ teachings or deflect glory from him.
Sharon R. Bloch is an Associate Professor of Science at Lincoln Christian University in Lincoln, IL. She would like to thank Chip Bloch for his contributions to this article.