Let me begin with some good news. Our imperfect understanding of the work of the Spirit does not serve to limit his actions in our churches.
For thousands of years, humans enjoyed the benefits of oxygen without the slightest idea of its chemical properties or how it works in our bodies. When scientists began to better understand oxygen, however, their ability to work in partnership with it also grew. That increased knowledge has improved everything from fighting fires, to saving lives, to optimizing the performance of athletes.
Jesus likened the Spirit to wind in John 3, and later he said, “The Spirit gives life” (John 6:63). In Genesis 2, the Spirit of God literally inspired and animated Adam, giving him life. Psalm 104:30 says, “When you send your Spirit . . . you renew the face of the ground.”
The Spirit could be considered the oxygen of the church. But getting our arms around the work of the Holy Spirit is a bit like trying to embrace a whale. It’s bigger and more slippery than we can imagine. Nevertheless, it’s worth trying to learn how to keep in step with the Spirit and work in partnership with him. It can make a difference in fighting the wrong kinds of fires, starting the right kinds of fires, saving lives, and optimizing our effectiveness as believers.
The Biggest Fan of the Holy Spirit
Nobody had a higher view of the work of the Holy Spirit than Jesus. He once told his disciples, “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” (John 16:7). Apparently, Jesus considered his own earthly presence less important to his disciples than for the Spirit to be living in them. Some Christians may envy the disciples because they got to be with Jesus in the flesh. But the testimony of our Lord is that his departure paved the way for partnership between the Holy Spirit and all believers in all times.
Has it ever occurred to you that Jesus did things not just because he was the Son of God, but because he was anointed with the Spirit of God? It’s worth noting that the name Christ means “anointed one.” By the power of the Spirit Jesus was conceived (Luke 1:35), preached the gospel (Isaiah 61:1), drove out demons (Matthew 12:28), went about doing good and healing (Acts 10:38), offered himself unblemished to God (Hebrews 9:14), was raised from the dead (Romans 8:11), and taught the apostles about the kingdom of God (Acts 1:2). Everything Jesus did, he did by the Spirit of God!
Informed Isn’t Empowered
The events of Acts 1 support Jesus’ high view of the Spirit. After appearing before the apostles for 40 days and teaching them about the kingdom of God, Jesus tells them, “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about” (v. 4). Jesus says the disciples will receive power to be his witnesses to the ends of the earth when the gift of the Spirit comes upon them. Isn’t that interesting? Jesus teaches them for 40 days about the kingdom of God, yet doesn’t immediately send them out to be his witnesses. In many cases today, we consider people to be equipped for a task if they have studied under a great teacher and have covered the material. The apostles had the greatest teacher of all, yet even after covering the subject matter of the kingdom of God and what it means to be his witnesses, Jesus still doesn’t consider them to be equipped for the task at hand.
The disciples had been informed about the kingdom, but weren’t yet empowered with the kingdom. There’s a difference between being informed and being empowered. Once the Spirit was poured out upon those 120 or so meeting in the upper room in Acts 2, the informed disciples became empowered disciples. They were ready to be his witnesses because of the “with-ness” of the Spirit in their lives! And the world has never been the same.
From Temples of Wood and Stone to Temples of Flesh and Bone
From beginning to end, Scripture testifies that it’s through the abiding presence of the Spirit of God that God’s people are distinguished. As Moses said in Exodus 33:15, 16, “If your Presence does not go with us, do not send us up from here. . . . What else will distinguish me and your people from all the other people on the face of the earth?” As the Old Testament unfolds, we find the presence of God’s Spirit is what distinguishes his temple from the temples of other gods.
The presence of God’s Spirit descending on Jesus is what distinguishes Jesus from everyone else in John the Baptist’s eyes and how he knows Jesus is the Son of God (John 1:33). As Acts unfolds, it’s the presence of God’s Spirit that distinguishes his people from everyone else. In Acts 19, when Paul meets a few disciples for the first time in Ephesus, the first question he asks them is if they have received the Spirit.
In Romans 8:9, Paul says if one does not have the Spirit of Christ, then he does not belong to Christ; in Romans 8:16, it’s the Spirit that testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. In Ephesians 1:13, Paul says we are marked with the seal of the Holy Spirit. In Paul’s day, an authority figure used a seal on a letter as a sign of authenticity. The bottom line is that the presence of the Spirit of God is what authenticates one as a person of God. (You might be thinking, Wait a second! I thought Jesus said we’d be known or distinguished by our love for another! Absolutely! And as Galatians 5:22 tells us, love is a fruit of the Spirit!)
The people of God today are “mobile temples”—through the Spirit at work within us, people of the world have opportunities to encounter the presence of God in temples of flesh and bone as opposed to temples of wood and stone.
You’ve heard of a person described as “Hell on wheels.” Through the Spirit of God, we are transformed into “Heaven on wheels.”
We often speak of people “going to church” on Sunday, when, in reality, it’s the church—the people empowered by the Spirit of God—who are found in the world throughout the week. This is, in essence, what happened in Acts 2—the Spirit’s filling in the upper room led to a Spirit spilling out into the streets of Jerusalem. The essence of our lives as witnesses is more about being the church to people than just bringing people to church.
This is what I love about Acts. It gives us glimpses of what happens when the same Spirit who anointed and filled Jesus is at work in the lives of Jesus’ followers. In Acts we see a continuation of the ongoing presence and ministry of Jesus himself through the Spirit at work in his followers’ lives. Look closely at how Luke starts his history book, “In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and teach until the day he was taken up to heaven” (Acts 1:1, 2).
Did you catch that? Everything that Jesus did and taught “until the day he was taken up to heaven” is considered to be “the beginning” of him doing and teaching! In Acts, Jesus is continuing to do and teach through the work of the Spirit in the lives of his followers!
This is why, when it comes to discerning the work of the Spirit among us in our churches, it’s helpful to consider this question: “How is Jesus (his nature, character, power, presence, gospel) being demonstrated and/or proclaimed in this (endeavor, event, person, etc.)?”
The Spirit of God at work in a person and church’s life points to Jesus—always. As Paul put it, “Therefore I want you to know that no one who is speaking by the Spirit of God says, ‘Jesus be cursed,’ and no one can say, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ except by the Holy Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12:3). The Holy Spirit and Jesus are inextricably intertwined with one another. Throughout Acts, in every instance of people being “filled with the Spirit,” the result is a proclamation of the message of Jesus and/or a demonstration of the power of Jesus in and through their lives.
Sometimes the work of the Spirit in a person or church’s life can be outside of our box in terms of what we’re comfortable with or how we expect things to happen. Other times, it can seem like very little is happening in a person or church’s life. In either case, before we dismiss them, we must ask, “How is Jesus being demonstrated and/or proclaimed through them right now?” It’s easy to be overwhelmed or underwhelmed by the containers, allowing the containers to distract us from the contents.
Mega Believers and Mega Churches
In Acts 2:11, Luke describes the disciples as “declaring the wonders of God” in many tongues. The word for wonders is megaleia—which can be translated as “great, marvelous, or excelling deeds”—deeds that are beyond our capacity to accomplish. The fact that these blue-collar Galileans were declaring the wonders of God and yet being heard and understood by 16 different nationalities—each in his own language—was a wonder of God, in and of itself!
This gives a whole new meaning to the term megachurch. We usually use megachurch to refer to the size of a church, when it really has more to do with the contents of a church. Is the church a wonder of God? Is something having to do with Jesus going on within it and spilling out of it that is beyond its capacity to pull off?
He’s a God of wonders, and he’s sent his Spirit to make the wonders possible in us and through us to transform the world around us. Breathe deep.
The material in this article originally was part of a 33-week series on the Holy Spirit presented in 2006-07 at The Branch Church in Dallas, Texas, where Chris Seidman serves as senior minister.