I wonder if you have ever wished that you had been there when Jesus was actually on earth. I was talking to someone the other day, not a Christian, who was asking me what I did and after a while she said, ‘It would make your job a lot easier if he was still around, wouldn’t it?’
And, as a Christian, I am tempted to believe that if Jesus was here on earth again, it would be easier for me to trust him and easier for others to come to trust him. Which is all another way of saying, ‘If only I’d been there, it would be so much easier to believe.’
Well, in the part of the Bible that we are going to look at this morning, Jesus said that is not true. He said faith in him does not depend on having been there, it depends on God giving a person the ability to put their faith in him. And God does that by the work of his Spirit. That’s the subject of this morning’s passage, so would you turn with me in the Bible to John 16.
We are in the middle of a conversation on the Thursday night before the Friday on which Jesus was crucified. Jesus knows that he is ‘going away’, as he puts it, via his death and his resurrection, to return to his Father in heaven. If we pick it up at 16.5 - Jesus said:
“Now I am going to him who sent me, yet none of you asks me, ‘Where are you going?’ Because I have said these things, you are filled with grief. But I tell you the truth: It is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Counsellor [another name he used for God’s Spirit] will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you.”(vv5-7)
So on this Thursday night they are thinking Jesus’ going away is bad news – it will make faith harder. Jesus says no, my going away is good news. Only by his going, in fact, is there anything to believe. Without his death and resurrection there would be no good news for us. And once those events have happened, Jesus is saying God’s Spirit will be at work bringing people to faith in him, left, right and centre.
I’ve got two headings and the first is this:
HOW GOD’S SPIRIT WORKS TO BRING UNBELIEVERS TO FAITH
- which, let’s face it, is where we all begin in life. John 15.26, if you would go back there - how is God going to bring unbelievers to faith in the first place?
“When the Counsellor comes, whom I will send to you from the Father [says Jesus], the Spirit of truth who goes out from the Father, he will testify about me. And you [which in the first case was those 11 apostles: Judas has already gone to betray him] also must testify for you have been with me from the beginning.” (vv26-27)
So the question is how on earth are people going to come to faith when, instead of Jesus to influence them all they have are unimpressive, imperfect Christians like the apostles and us to influence them?
In v26 Jesus calls the Spirit ‘the Counsellor’. The Greek word underneath that literally means ‘one called alongside’. It’s the word you would have used of a friend or of a defence lawyer, a person who is with you and on your side to help you. And this person is none other than God. In the Bible, the Spirit means God in his invisible but real presence at work in this world.
So how are unbelievers going to start believing? Two things from 15.27. Jesus tells the apostles that they are going to have to witness to what they have seen and heard. The equivalent for us today is to witness to what they saw and heard. In one way or another, to point people to the New Testament and say, ‘Please, please, would you take a first or a second look at Jesus and see what you make of him.’
At the same time, v26, Jesus says the Spirit will testify. God’s invisible but real presence will work, at least in some people’s minds and consciences, to bring them to see themselves as they really are and Jesus as he really is.
So the picture is really one of a law court. If you are a Christian with me, then we are the witnesses speaking up for Jesus who is in the dock. Jesus is under judgement. The world is saying, ‘He is guilty until proven innocent. We are not going to believe in him. We need convincing.’ So the world is like a hostile jury. Jesus knows that the world would be hostile to his claims. Have a look at 16.1 when you read on. He says to his first 11 witnesses:
“All this I have told you so that you will not go astray. They will put you out of the synagogue; in fact, a time is coming when anyone who kills you will think he is offering a service to God.” (vv1-2)
In other words, Jesus anticipated sometimes severe hostility to him which is now expressed towards those who witness for him. And if we went around here sharing stories of discouragement and setbacks in our witness, we would be here for quite a long time. Even if people are not openly nastily hostile, we know what it is to pick up that hostility underneath the polite surface.
And you end up saying, ‘What good is it sharing the gospel, if I can not change people’s minds, I can not reach people’s consciences?’ And the answer is, ‘No good at all, unless God is at work by his Spirit reaching the parts that others can’t reach.’ We can get the gospel to people’s eardrums and no further. God can work under the surface by his Spirit as a sort of fifth columnist. Against him, people actually have no defence.
And Jesus then spells out three things that the Spirit does for someone to get them from being unbelieving to believing. Glance down at 16.7. He’s said he’s going away. He says:
“I tell you the truth: It is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Counsellor will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. When he comes, he will convict the world [which in John’s gospel always means the not-yet-believing part of the world] of guilt in regard to sin and righteousness and judgement.”(vv7-8)
Let’s take those in turn.
First of all in regards to sin. The Spirit convinces people in their consciences of their sin and at the end of v9, Jesus adds:
“because men do not believe in me”
The world sees sin as a sort of snigger word, doesn’t it? Sin is what you read about in the News of the World. Sin is naughty but harmless. Sin’s not serious. And sin is certainly not what I do. That’s the world’s view of sin. And Jesus said, no, sin is men not believing in me. That is the sin.
To be ignored is about the worst experience in life, isn’t it, to be ignored by
your husband or your wife or your children, unappreciated by them? If we can’t stand being ignored, just think how God feels about it – especially after he’d gone to the length of sending Jesus his Son to die on the cross so that we can be forgiven back into a relationship with him. That is the offence of which we need to be convicted first. That is sin.
Second, Jesus said the Spirit would convict people of righteousness. And I take it that just like their sin, it means their righteousness. Righteousness is a Bible word for where you stand with God. To be righteous means to be in the right with God. And if you talk to people, you’ll discover they think they are. Someone said to me after a talk that I did a while ago, ‘Well, if there is a God, I’m sure at the end of the day I’ll be ok. I reckon I’ll be able to talk my way in somehow,’ were his exact optimistic words. And that is actually the natural human condition. And Jesus said that kind of false confidence can only be blown away by the Holy Spirit. And he gives people that sixth sense of the presence and the reality of the almighty holy God and what they are actually like in his eyes by comparison with him.
I play classical guitar and at university we had a society where we would meet. Some of us would prepare something to play the others. And one time, Andres Segovia, who was the most brilliant guitarist who’s ever lived really, came to Cambridge to do a concert. And he agreed to come to the Classical Guitar Society and to play something for us and to listen to us. And you can just imagine how many of us volunteered to play in front of Segovia. Precisely none! Because once you’re in the presence of the master you realise just how poor you are. And that is what Jesus is saying about the Spirit. It gives the sixth sense of God and his reality and his presence and what I’m really like when I match up with him.
The other thing, the third thing, Jesus said the Spirit will convict of judgement. And, again, I am persuaded it means their judgement, their misjudgement of Jesus. Until someone comes to faith, they put Jesus in the dock and they judge him. Jesus is an idea to play with. In my experience, if you see people come to faith, there comes a time where they stop speaking about Jesus like that, as an idea or as a figure of the past. And you start realising they are reckoning with Jesus as a real and awesome person and that they are in the dock and that Jesus is the judge. And that overturning of their opinion, again, is the work of the Spirit.
So that’s how the Spirit works in unbelievers. And I just want to point out, it’s not sort of magical. The Spirit does use means to do his work. So 15.26 “he will testify” and v27 “you also must testify”. He works through the message of the apostles which is now encapsulated for us in the completed Bible, in the New Testament section of it.
So if, for example, we are praying for friends to come to faith, we are not just to pray as if the Spirit normally works by magic, through no means at all. The Spirit normally works through the gospel. So we’ve got to think – how can we get those friends on the receiving end of the gospel - and work towards that.
If you’re someone at the moment who is not a believer, but you’re thinking ‘I would love to have the faith that my friend has,’ then people in your position often tell me they are asking God to give them faith and I would encourage people to do that. But I would also say, ‘Get yourself exposed to the means by which God can create faith in you.’ That is, open the New Testament, look at Jesus in the pages of the New Testament. Because you are not asking for faith in nothing. Faith is never in nothing. It’s in the object of faith. If you look at the object, pray to God to give you the faith.
SECONDLY, HOW DOES THE SPIRIT WORK TO BRING BELIEVERS TO FULLER FAITH IN JESUS?
Remember we began with that temptation of thinking if we’d only been there it would be easier for us to believe, our faith would be fuller. Jesus actually said in the next bit of this passage (16.12 onwards) our faith would actually be less. If we had been there, all through that three-year ministry, seen everything, heard everything and been there on that Thursday night, at that stage our faith would have been less than it is now, if we have Christian faith.
Jesus said (16.12) to those first 11 disciples:
“I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear.”
Time is ticking by, there are 12 hours at most before the cross. For most human beings, their death is the last chance to speak. Not for Jesus, he knows he will die on the cross, rise from the dead, return to heaven and then, by his Spirit, he will keep teaching his apostles.
So, v13, he says:
“When he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth [which doesn’t mean truth about everything – you know, nuclear physics, biochemistry and everything. It means all truth that you need about Jesus]. He will not speak on his own, he will speak only what he hears and he will tell you what is yet to come.”
Remember, this is first spoken to those 11 apostles on the Thursday night. What is yet to come is Jesus’ death on the cross and his resurrection. That is what the Holy Spirit has yet to open their eyes to and explain. That is why they are not yet in the strict sense of the word Christian believers. Jesus says that the Spirit, in explaining those things, in opening their minds to those things, v14, will bring glory to him.
Glory is a God word. Glory is what God has. Jesus is saying that only on the other side of those events will they understand and we in turn understand who he really is and what he’s really done, who it is we are really trusting. The point Jesus is making is that even if we had been there for those two crucial events, his death and his resurrection, without the work of the Spirit helping us to understand those things, we would not be able to believe.
Just think of the cross. Just think of Jesus hanging, naked, bleeding on a Roman gibbet. Imagine that you are there. Now, unaided, would you be saying to yourself, ‘There is my Saviour, dying for my sins in order that I may be forgiven for everything, past and present and future.’ I think not. You see the apostles only got to that point after the event, puzzling it through, remembering the words of Jesus:
“I come to give my life as a ransom for many. The Son of Man must be crucified and on the third day rise again.”
Going back to the Old Testament, looking at that, putting it all together with the help of the Spirit and the penny suddenly dropping - he was there for me, he did that for me so that I never have to be there under God’s judgement.
You never see that unaided, you never work that out. It’s not a function of IQ or anything like that.
Well, take the resurrection. Imagine you had been there on the Sunday morning. You had seen the empty tomb. You’ve gone in. You’ve ruffled through the grave clothes and you’re quite clear there was no body there at all. Would you have come out of the tomb saying to yourself, ‘Jesus has risen, he really is Lord of the universe. My life and the whole world are in his good hands.’
I think not. Because Luke 24 says the apostle Peter, who had exactly that privilege, went away:
wondering to himself what had happened
It took remembering Jesus’ predictions, Jesus’ explanations, going back to the Old Testament, putting it all together with the help of the Spirit to realise that that meant the Jesus whom they now could no longer see was back on the throne of heaven where he came from in the first place.
Just as we do not actually see the truth about ourselves unaided, about our sin and our ‘righteousness’, so we do not see the truth about Jesus unaided, still less trust that he died for me and he reigns for me. My life is in his hands, I have nothing to fear from sin or circumstances.
So how do we tie up and apply that? If we had been there, even to witness his death, his empty tomb and his resurrection appearances, that in itself would not have brought us to faith. Like the apostles, if we have come to faith it's through the same process of seeing those things in scripture, seeing the apostles’ once and for all explanation of it all and the help of the Holy Spirit making the penny drop with us as it did for them.
So if you ask the question – how can I grow in faith, how can I come to fuller faith – it’s the same answer as the question – ‘how can I come to faith in the first place?’ The way in is the way on. The way I grow is to open the Bible, to expose myself to its testimony to Jesus, to pray to the Lord to increase my faith as I do that. And that means that when our faith is low, when we least want to open the Bible or come here or to whatever other group you belong to, that is when we most need to. It is an intensely vicious circle - to feel my faith is low therefore I am not going to read the Bible and call on God to kindle my faith.
Notice another thing from v14 by way of application – the Spirit brings glory to Jesus. That’s his whole ministry. So, to honour the Spirit means not being preoccupied with the Spirit, but being preoccupied with Jesus.
You often find that when people say that we need more emphasis on the Spirit, all the emphasis goes on the Spirit and people are seeking experience of the Spirit where what the Spirit is actually wanting to do is to say go to Jesus, trust Jesus, love Jesus, obey Jesus, live for Jesus. He wants us to have an experience of Jesus and we can get it very badly wrong when we put the emphasis and try to redress the balance on the Spirit. And the Spirit, if you like, wants to floodlight Jesus, so that we see him, everything that he is to us – Shepherd, Friend, King, Lord, Saviour – and trust him and love him. And it backfires when we put all our emphasis on the Spirit, if that’s what we do.
I took my brother down to see the Millennium Bridge when he was up visiting the other day and it was at night and it was superbly floodlit with all the colours. And my brother’s a bit of a techy. And I was there gazing at the bridge and I suddenly realised he was there gazing at the lights. He was thinking, ‘I wonder how they do that?’ Now is that the architect’s purpose, that we should go down to the Millennium Bridge and look at the lights? No it’s not. And it’s not God’s purpose that we should concentrate on the Spirit, but that we should concentrate on Jesus and the Spirit will light him up for us, if you like, make real to us, in our lives and hearts and minds and consciences everything that he is said to be in the Bible.
The last application to make is this – you often find Christians saying in a sort of Eeyore moment – the Spirit hasn’t really done very much in my life – you know I hear about other people or other movements in the church, claiming all sorts of experiences of the Spirit. And I want to say, Jesus has described to us here, in this passage, the most fundamental ministry, the most fundamental experience of the Spirit that there is. End of v13 - that he will tell us “what is yet to come” [remember that is the cross and the resurrection, that was what was about to happen] and (v14) he will therefore “bring glory to me.”
And I would say if you are able, look at Jesus’ death and resurrection and say God sent him to do that for me. My sins are dealt with; I am now safe from any judgement for all time; and the risen Jesus is now my Lord; and my life, not to mention the whole world, is in his good hands; and I really have nothing to fear. If you are able to say those things, then the Spirit has done the greatest work that he possibly can do in a human life – in your life. And anything else, to be honest, is detail.