Our subject on this first Sunday morning of 2013 is THE HOLY SPIRIT in our series on the Nicene Creed. This first Sunday sermon of 2013 is also the last Sunday morning sermon at JPC from the 1984 edition of the NIV of the Bible, before the great switchover, not to digital TV, but to the ESV next Sunday. Let's pray that the Holy Spirit will enable it to be a smooth and helpful switch. But back to John 3 in the NIV.
Let me begin by asking this question: Why don't people believe the gospel? Why doesn't everyone who comes to Carols by Candlelight and Christianity Explored go away believing and trusting in Christ? Well Jesus' meeting with Nicodemus in John 3 gives us the answer. V3:
Jesus declared, 'I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.' (3:3)
You need to be "born again", says Jesus, to "see" - really see - the things of God. And that means (Jesus says v 5) being born of "water and the spirit - [the Holy Spirit]". You see people, by nature, are spiritually blind. They can't see until the Holy Spirit works in their lives and opens their spiritual eyes. That's the fundamental reason why people don't believe in Jesus, and why they don't respond to the facts and the evidence. That's why we must always pray for the Holy Spirit to be working when we're working and witnessing for Christ, when, for example, Christianity Explored is running.
But who is the Holy Spirit? Well in the Nicene Creed, which reflects the Bible's teaching, we say this: “We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son. With the Father and the Son he is worshipped and glorified. He has spoken through the prophets.” The Holy Spirit is divine - he is holy and the Lord, and so worthy of the same worship due to the Father and the Son. He's the giver of life and he speaks to us through the Bible, where we read what he said through the prophets (and apostles). And we're now going to look at those three points.
1. GOD THE HOLY SPIRIT
The Holy Spirit is the third person of the Trinity. Too often he's the forgotten person of the Trinity. Now you say, "But I can't understand the Trinity." I was watching a film over Christmas in which a lapsed Catholic (LC), tried to explain the Trinity to someone totally unchurched (UM). It went something like this:
LC "Here's the pitch. You've got the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost. The three are one, like a shamrock, my old priest used to say. Three leafs, but one leaf. Now the Father sent down the Son, who was love, and then when he went away, he sent the Holy Spirit, who came down in the form of a..."
The UM interrupted: "You've told me already, a ghost.
LC "No a dove."
UM "The dove was a ghost?"
LC "No the Ghost was a dove."
UM "So let me try and summarise this. God is his Son, and his Son is God, but his Son moonlights as a Holy Ghost, a Holy Spirit, and a dove, and they all sent each other, even though they're all one and the same thing."
LC "You've got it. You really could be a priest."
UM "Wait a minute. What I said - does that make any sense to you?"
LC "Oh no, but it makes no sense to anybody. That's why you have to have faith. If it made sense, it wouldn't have to be a religion, would it?"
Well that maybe the view of some. During Carols by Candlelight a Christadelphian spoke to me about why we believe in the Trinity. They say that the idea of the Trinity is not one that's found in the Bible. Far from being part of the same being God, Christ and the Holy Spirit are quite separate. Well, according to the Bible, they're wrong. Yes the Trinity is largely a mystery. But let me very briefly explain what the Bible does teach. The Bible teaches in the OT that God is one - the only God who reveals himself as the creator of all and who alone is to be worshipped and loved. The NT agrees but speaks of one God in three persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit who work together for the salvation of the world. And the New Testament teaches that as Jesus is fully God (as well as fully man), so is the Holy Spirit God. Peter, for example, said that to lie to the Holy Spirit was to lie to God (Acts 5:3-4). So you shouldn't be surprised that Jesus said we are to baptise people (Mt 28:19):
...in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. (Mt 28:19)
In the original "name" is singular, not plural. It's not baptise "in the names" (plural) of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, but "in the name" (singular) of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
So God is one and three at the same time. Now remember, this isn't just an intellectual exercise. No, we're talking about reality - the real God that men and women have dealings with. We're talking about a threefold acquaintance with God that all believers have. It's not that the three persons are just different aspects of God. There aren't three roles played by one person. Rather there are three distinct persons who are coequal and coeternal but undivided. Nor is it that Jesus and the Spirit are not really divine but just two top special agents to do God's work. That's what the Jehovah's Witnesses teach. Nor is it that the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are three gods. That's what Mormons think. No the Bible teaches that there is "Unity in Trinity and Trinity in Unity". It's a mystery, but as God says through Isaiah (55:9):
As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways
higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. (Isaiah (55:9)
Now I haven't time this morning to look at all aspects of the Holy Spirit's work. But let me say this. The Holy Spirit makes Jesus real to each individual believer and equips and strengthens each individual Christian. And no longer does he come just to special people, as in the Old Testament, but to everyone who trusts Christ. On the day of Pentecost, not long after Jesus' Resurrection and Ascension, the Holy Spirit was poured out in a unique and new way for everyone who believed. This was the inauguration of a new era. The old era was marked by the giving of the Law at Mount Sinai in the time of Moses. It resulted in judgment and death because people couldn't live up to its standards. This new era, or new covenant era, is marked by freedom and life. Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 3:6 that the new covenant is ...
not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life. (2 Cor. 3:6)
Which brings me to my second heading
2. HIS LIFE GIVING WORK
Look again at John 3. I want to talk first about the necessity of experiencing the Holy Spirit's life-giving work, and secondly about how that work is experienced. So first the necessity of the Holy Spirit's work.
Naturally people can't keep the Ten Commandments or Christ's teaching in the Sermon on the Mount. This failure to live up to an ethical or moral code highlights one of the main differences between Christianity and other religions and philosophies. They say: "do this, do that" or "don't do this; don't do that". They point to a huge mountain of good works to climb. Christianity, however, recognises that you and I, at the end of the day if left to ourselves, are "weak, impotent, vicious, worthless and rebellious" and unable to climb that mountain. But God in his love has provided us not only with a Saviour to deal with the guilt of the past in ignoring his instructions, but the power of the Holy Spirit to deal with the present and the future. Listen to William Temple, a former Archbishop of Canterbury.
"It is no good giving me a play like Hamlet or King Lear, and telling me to write a play like that. Shakespeare could do it; I can't. And it is no good showing me a life like the life of Jesus and telling me to live a life like that. Jesus could do it; I can't. But if the genius of Shakespeare could come and live in me, then I could write plays like that. And if the Spirit of Jesus could come and live in me, I could live a life like that."
That's what Jesus had to teach Nicodemus. Nicodemus was (v1) "a man of the Pharisees ... a member of the Jewish ruling council." Today he would be equivalent to a Professor of Theology. And he begins with polite and affirming remarks, v2:
Rabbi, we know you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the miraculous signs you are doing if God were not with him. (v2)
But Jesus knows that Nicodemus, like many church leaders and theologians today, hasn't a clue. So Jesus cuts to the chase.V3:
In reply Jesus declared, 'I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.' (v3)
Nicodemus still hasn't a clue. V4:
"How can a man be born when he is old?" Nicodemus asked. "Surely he cannot enter a second time into his mother's womb to be born!" Jesus answered, "I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, 'You must be born again.' (v4)
Jesus is saying that natural birth and spiritual birth are two quite different things. What is the kingdom of God Nicodemus can't enter? Answer: it's any life where God is king and Jesus is Saviour and Lord. This relationship brings salvation: Jesus forgives sin, you're adopted into God's family and you have the hope of heaven with death defeated.
But what is being "born again"? It's a phrase that's now being used of the redesigned VW Golf car. It's often been used disparagingly. But what did Jesus mean by this "two word parable"? Well look again at what Jesus says in v5:
...no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit... (v5)
Jesus seems to be referring to Ezekiel 36:25-27:
I will sprinkle clean water on you ... I will cleanse you from all your impurities ... I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you ... I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. (Ezekiel 36:25-27)
This is the great twofold work of God - to cleanse you from the guilt of sin and to empower you for holy living. This he does through Christ's work for you when he died on the Cross and bore your sin, and the Holy Spirit's work in you when he gives you faith and makes Christ real to you and strengthens you for godliness and service. And unless that happens, Jesus says, you are spiritually nowhere, for ...
... No one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit.
Jesus isn't talking about turning over a new leaf by way of New Year's resolutions but a radical new act of creation, a passing from death to life - spiritual death to spiritual life. And you can no more give yourself spiritual life than you could give yourself natural life. The Holy Spirit alone can give you that new spiritual life. Now there is never perfection this side of heaven. But as John Newton once said:
"I am not what I ought to be; I am not what I would like to be;
I am not what I hope to be; but I am not what I was; and by
the grace of God I am what I am."
Who here this morning needs to be born again today? You say, "how does it happen"? So secondly, how is the work of the Holy Spirit experienced? Look at v8:
The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit. (v8)
When the wind blows you can't precisely say where it is moving to or from. But you know it's there as your hair blows and you battle to walk against it. There's always evidence for the wind. And so there is always evidence for the work of the Holy Spirit. But how he works is so varied. With Nicodemus the working of the Holy Spirit seemed to take some time. But his working always involves our meeting Jesus Christ and trusting ourselves to Christ as the one who died for us and rose again. Nicodemus began very nervously - he came to Jesus (v2) "at night". But later in John 7:51 he's taking Jesus' side in the council. Later on in John 19:39 Nicodemus is one of only two men who honoured Jesus' dead body with a decent burial. By contrast the apostle Paul was converted in a dramatic moment.
But what matters is not how you come to new birth through faith in Christ and receive the Spirit of Christ for new life, but whether you have received the Holy Spirit and are born again. And there'll be evidence if you are born again. John tells us in his first letter that someone who is born again, "believes that Jesus is the Christ" (1 John 5:1); "does what is right" (1 John 2:29); "loves the brothers in Christ" (1 John 3:14); and "overcomes the world" (1 John 5:4). John's Gospel tells you that the Holy Spirit brings conviction of sin (John 16:8); the Acts of the Apostles tell us that the Holy Spirit motivates you for evangelism; and Paul tells you that he helps you pray and gives you gifts and graces. In Galatians 5:22-23 he tells us the fruit (not fruits) of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.
Now all this fruit of the Spirit may take time to grow. But where there is no fruit whatsoever, you may doubt whether the Holy Spirit is at work in your life. Have you received the Spirit of Christ - the Holy Spirit? If you have not, pray for him to give you new life. In Luke 11:13 Jesus promised that that prayer will always be answered:
If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him! (Luke 11:13)
Thirdly and finally how do we know all this? Because
3. HE HAS SPOKEN THROUGH THE PROPHETS (AND APOSTLES)
Hebrews 1:1 says that In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets. And we can say through the apostles. So the OT & NT. 2 Timothy 3:16-17:
All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work. (2 Timothy 3:16-17)
All Scripture is God-breathed. What does that mean? Well it doesn’t mean that Scripture itself or its human authors were breathed into by God. No rather that Scripture was breathed or breathed out by God. It was brought into existence by the breath or Spirit of God. It originated in God’s mind and was communicated from God’s mouth by God’s breath or Spirit. So the whole Bible is rightly known as ‘the Word of God’ for God spoke it. It is the word of truth. And the Holy Spirit speaks to us through the Bible where we read what he said. What is he saying to you through his word this morning? And what are you going to do about it, by his power and in his strength?