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Lesson 85: How the Holy Spirit Works (John 16:12-15)

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March 8, 2015

Since the Pentecostal movement began a little over 100 years ago, there has been a lot of emphasis in evangelical circles on the ministry of the Holy Spirit. But there has also been a lot of confusion and error. Pastor John MacArthur wrote (Strange Fire [Thomas Nelson], p. xiii),

It is a sad twist of irony that those who claim to be most focused on the Holy Spirit are in actuality the ones doing the most to abuse, grieve, insult, misrepresent, quench, and dishonor Him. How do they do it? By attributing to Him words He did not say, deeds He did not do, phenomena He did not produce, and experiences that have nothing to do with Him. They boldly plaster His name on that which is not His work.

He goes on (p. 6) to cite many examples, which you can see on You Tube: “Whole congregations doing the ‘Holy Ghost Hokey Pokey,’ people ‘tokin’ the Ghost’ (pretending to inhale the Holy Spirit and get high, as if He were an invisible reefer), and women writhing on the floor, miming he process of childbirth. Old-fashioned snake handlers look tame by comparison.” He cites several Pentecostal preachers who say that the Holy Spirit told them to punch, kick, and violently assault people in an attempt to heal them. An elderly woman died at a Benny Hinn “miracle crusade” when he pushed her over backwards (p. 7). Hinn’s wife made such ludicrous, vulgar statements about the Holy Spirit that her antics were later mocked on Comedy Central’s The Daily Show (p. 8)!

Because of this widespread confusion about the ministry of the Holy Spirit, it is essential that we learn from our Lord as He teaches how the Holy Spirit will work in the disciples and, by extension, in the church, after Christ’s ascension into heaven. It is important to note that Jesus’ words here apply first to the apostles. They were the ones whom the Spirit would guide in all the truth and bring to their remembrance all that Jesus had said (John 14:26). We have the Spirit’s inspired teaching through the apostles in the New Testament. But in a secondary sense, our Lord’s words here apply to us, in that the Holy Spirit opens up the truths of the Bible to us as we diligently study it in dependence on Him (1 Cor. 2:9-13). In our text, we learn that …

The ministry of the Holy Spirit is progressive, personal, truth-centered, and Christ-centered and Christ-glorifying.

Before we look at Christ’s teaching here, I need to clear up one other error that the Pentecostal movement has promoted, namely, that believers need to receive the Holy Spirit. They base this on a mistaken interpretation of Paul’s question to some followers of John the Baptist in Ephesus (Acts 19:2), “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” When they replied that they did not even know that there is a Holy Spirit, Paul gave them further instruction and laid his hands on them. The Holy Spirit came on them and they began speaking with tongues and prophesying. Based on that model, believers are urged to receive the Spirit (or be baptized in the Spirit) and speak in tongues. If you have not had this experience, then your spiritual life is deficient.

But that teaching fails to recognize that the Book of Acts is a transitional book from the Old Testament era to the age of the Holy Spirit. Under the apostles, in Acts the ministry of the Spirit spreads in line with the pattern of Acts 1:8 from Jerusalem (Acts 2), to Judea and Samaria (Acts 8), to the Gentiles (Acts 10), to the uttermost parts of the earth (Acts 19).

But in this church age, Paul states emphatically (Rom. 8:9), “But if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Him.” He writes to the carnal Corinthians (1 Cor. 6:19), “Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own?” He didn’t tell them that they needed to receive the Spirit or be baptized in the Spirit, but rather, to recognize that He indwelled each of them. To the same church, he said (1 Cor. 12:13), “For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free, and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.” Paul told the Galatians (3:1-5) that we receive the Spirit by believing the gospel. He makes the same point in Ephesians 1:13-14,

In Him, you also, after listening to the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation—having also believed, you were sealed in Him with the Holy Spirit of promise, who is given as a pledge of our inheritance, with a view to the redemption of God’s own possession, to the praise of His glory.

This means that receiving the Holy Spirit is not an experience that you’re supposed to have subsequent to salvation. You may not even be aware of the Spirit’s presence in your life until you are taught about it. Receiving the Spirit is not connected with speaking in tongues. It is definitely not evidenced by writhing on the floor, barking like a dog, or laughing uncontrollably!

Rather, the Holy Spirit is God’s gift to all who believe in Jesus Christ. You must learn to walk in dependence on the Spirit so that you do not carry out the lusts of the flesh (Gal. 5:16). Another way to describe this is that you need to be filled with or controlled by the Spirit (Eph. 5:18). But if you have believed in Christ, you do not need to receive the Spirit, be baptized in the Spirit, or seek some dramatic experience with the Spirit.

With that as an introduction, let’s look at our Lord’s important teaching on how the Holy Spirit works:

1. The ministry of the Holy Spirit is progressive.

John 16:12-13a: “I have many more things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. But when He, the Spirit of truth, comes, He will guide you into all the truth; …” The Lord knew that the disciples were not ready at that point to bear all that He could teach them. This may have been due to their slowness to believe all that the prophets had spoken, especially the truths related to Messiah’s suffering (Luke 24:25-26). Jesus had repeatedly told the disciples that He was going to die and be raised from the dead, but they didn’t get it until after His resurrection (Luke 9:22, 44-45; 24:45-46). And there were other truths that they could not comprehend until the Holy Spirit came to dwell in them permanently. Here Jesus promises that the Spirit would guide them into (some good manuscripts read, “in”) all the truth.

“All the truth” does not mean “all the truth about science or math or world history.” It refers to all spiritual truth that the apostles and the church needs for growth in godliness. As Paul writes concerning the glorious things that God has prepared for those who love Him (1 Cor. 2:10-12):

For to us God revealed them through the Spirit; for the Spirit searches all things, even the depths of God. For who among men knows the thoughts of a man except the spirit of the man which is in him? Even so the thoughts of God no one knows except the Spirit of God. Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, so that we may know the things freely given to us by God ….

The point in our text is that the Lord doesn’t dump the whole thing on us at once. As a loving Father, He knows how much His children can bear, and so He patiently teaches us what we need for the stage of growth that we are in. A wise father doesn’t teach nuclear physics to his five-year-old. He teaches him the A-B-C’s, simple arithmetic, how to read, and other basic truths. As he grows, you take him deeper. The Holy Spirit does that with us spiritually. A young believer needs the milk of the Word: to understand what salvation means, who God is, how to live by faith, how to read and study the Bible, how to pray, etc. Later, he can begin to digest some meat (1 Cor. 3:1-3; Heb. 5:11-14; 1 Pet. 2:2).

“Guide” suggests that this is a process and since the subject is “the unfathomable riches of Christ” (Eph. 3:8), it is a never-ending process. Years ago, we took a tour through the fabulous Hearst Castle in central California. They don’t just turn you loose to wander around on your own in that mansion. You have to go with a guide, who takes you from room to room, revealing to you the riches of that mansion. On our tour, there was a woman whose mother had been a personal guest of William Randolph Hearst at the mansion, and our guide was eager to talk more with her to gain some inside knowledge about the history of that place that he may have lacked.

There is so much to see that there isn’t just one tour of the castle, but three separate tours. So if you go through once, you can’t rightly say, “I’ve seen all there is to see at Hearst Castle.” Even after taking all three tours, you could go back many times and still not see it all. Our guide told us that even though he had conducted that tour many times, nearly every time he discovered something new that he had never noticed before.

That’s how your study of God’s Word should be. The Holy Spirit is the divine guide, who takes you from room to room, revealing the riches of Christ to your soul. Sometimes, you’re on your twentieth trip through a book and you see something that you’d never seen before, so you stop and revel at the glory of God in Christ. At other times, you make a connection between one part of God’s Word and another part that lets you see afresh that this book is not a product of human genius, but rather the inspired word of the living God. But you’ll never get to a place in this lifetime or even in all eternity (Eph. 2:7) where you can say, “I know it all; there’s nothing more for me to learn from the Bible!” So keep reading your Bible over and over, asking the Holy Spirit to reveal more of Christ to your soul.

2. The ministry of the Holy Spirit is personal.

Jesus says (John 16:13), “When He, the Spirit of truth, comes, He will guide you into all the truth; for He will not speak on His own initiative, but whatever He hears, He will speak; and He will disclose to you what is to come.” The combination of “He” and “the Spirit” an unusual grammatical construction in Greek, because “Spirit” is a neuter noun that normally would take a neuter pronoun, but the pronoun is masculine, “He” (literally, “that One”). The Holy Spirit isn’t a force; He’s a person, the third person of the eternal Trinity, fully God in every way.

This is important because false cults, like the Jehovah’s Witnesses, deny the personality of the Holy Spirit (because they deny the Trinity). But as we’ve seen (John 15:26), the Spirit testifies about Christ; a force cannot testify. Here, the Spirit guides the disciples; a force cannot give guidance. He speaks, He hears, and He reveals what He has heard to the apostles. Beyond this text, Peter told Ananias that he had lied to the Holy Spirit, whom Peter calls God (Acts 5:3-4). You can’t lie to an impersonal force. Paul commands us not to grieve the Holy Spirit by our sin (Eph. 4:30); you can only grieve a person who loves you. Paul talks about the fellowship of the Holy Spirit (2 Cor. 13:14); you can’t enjoy fellowship with a force.

The comforting truth is, if you are a believer in Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit dwells in you and tailors His ministry to you personally. He knows what you’re feeling and ministers His comfort to you through the Word or through other believers or sometimes through your unique circumstances. As Jesus says here, the Spirit guides you in the truth, but He does that as you study the Word of truth. He knows what you need to know and when you need to know it. His aim is to make you holy in thought, word, and deed. When you don’t know how to pray as you should, the Spirit prays for you in ways that you don’t understand (Rom. 8:26). So it’s important that we don’t grieve or quench the Spirit through sin, but rather yield every area of our lives to the Spirit’s control.

3. The ministry of the Holy Spirit is truth-centered.

Jesus repeatedly refers to the Spirit as “the Spirit of truth” (John 14:17; 15:26). Here, He says (John 16:13), “When He, the Spirit of truth, comes, He will guide you into all the truth; for He will not speak on His own initiative, but whatever He hears, He will speak; and He will disclose to you what is to come.”

The designation, “the Spirit of truth,” implies, of course, that there is such a thing as knowable, unchanging truth in the spiritual realm. The fact that the Spirit communicates this truth by speaking shows that the truth is expressed by words and sentences that can be understood. That should not need to be affirmed among evangelicals, but the spirit of postmodernism has infiltrated the church so that fewer than one out of three who claim to be born again believe that there is such a thing as absolute moral truth. Among Christian teenagers, only 6 percent believe in absolute moral truth! (­cans -are-most-likely-to-base-truth-on-feelings#.VPYpZy7QOaY).

This de-emphasis on truth has also led to a de-emphasis on doctrine. The common refrain is, “They will know that we are Christians by our love, not by our doctrinal agreement!” A shorter version is, “Doctrine divides; love unites.” So we’re being encouraged to set aside the areas where we disagree with other Christians and come together around the things that unite us. Many even apply this to justification by faith alone and other vital truths that divide Roman Catholics and Protestants.

Of course there have always been cantankerous believers who pride themselves on being right about every fine point of doctrine. They rail against those who don’t agree totally with them. But the enemy has used that error to cause many to swing into the opposite error of tolerating damnable error under the banner of unity and love. But a major portion of the New Testament is written to warn us about false teaching. For example, Paul warned about the antichrist, who will come (2 Thess. 2:10-12) “with all the deception of wickedness for those who perish, because they did not receive the love of the truth so as to be saved. For this reason God will send upon them a deluding influence so that they will believe what is false, in order that they all may be judged who did not believe the truth, but took pleasure in wickedness.” Not believing the truth of the gospel results in judgment!

When Jesus says that the Spirit will reveal to the apostles “what is to come,” He probably includes prophetic teaching. But in this context, it mainly refers, as D. A. Carson explains (The Gospel According to John [Apollos/Eerdmans], p. 540, italics his), “to all that transpires in consequence of the pivotal revelation bound up with Jesus’ person, ministry, death, resurrection and exaltation.” Leon Morris (The Gospel According to John [Eerdmans], p. 701) says, “‘the things to come’ is a way of referring to the whole Christian system, yet future when Jesus spoke, and to be revealed to the disciples by the Spirit, not by natural insight.”

The Holy Spirit has not given new, authoritative revelation since the completion of the canon of Scripture. As Jesus affirmed (John 17:17), God’s Word is the truth. Psalm 119:160 puts it, “The sum of Your word is truth.” That truth is sufficient for life and godliness (2 Pet. 1:3). We need to ask the Holy Spirit to give us understanding and illumination as we study the Scriptures, but He is not giving new revelation on a par with that given to the apostles and prophets as contained in the Bible.

Also, the Spirit does not reveal anything to anyone contrary to Scripture. For example, I’ve had young women tell me that the Lord told them that they could marry an unbeliever. But that’s contrary to His written Word (2 Cor. 6:14), and so it was not the Holy Spirit who revealed that to them. The Holy Spirit guides us in all the truth, which is now contained in the written Word of God.

Thus, the ministry of the Holy Spirit is progressive, personal, and truth-centered. Finally,

4. The ministry of the Holy Spirit is Christ-centered and Christ-glorifying.

John 16:14-15: “He will glorify Me, for He will take of Mine and will disclose it to you. All things that the Father has are Mine; therefore I said that He takes of Mine and will disclose it to you.” Jesus implicitly affirms His deity in these verses. No mere man and not even the greatest created being (as the Jehovah’s Witnesses erroneously think Jesus is) could say that the Holy Spirit will glorify Him or that all things that the Father has are His. But Jesus said it.

The Holy Spirit’s role is not to glorify Himself, but Christ. He does not call attention to Himself, but to Christ. He does not lead us to focus on our experiences, but on Christ. When people continually emphasize the Holy Spirit and their supposed experiences in the Spirit, they are not filled with the Spirit. The Spirit exalts Jesus Christ. Dr. Carson (The Farewell Discourse and Final Prayer of Jesus [Baker], p. 151) states: “Nothing brings more glory to our exalted Lord Jesus than for his followers to become steeped in all truth concerning him…. Glory comes to Jesus as the truths of the gospel are established in the lives of men.”

When Jesus says, “All things that the Father has are Mine,” and that the Spirit will take these things and disclose them to the apostles, He is referring to all the glorious truths about Himself that are written in God’s Word. As I mentioned, it’s what Paul called (Eph. 3:8) “the unfathomable riches of Christ.” If the Holy Spirit is working in your life, you will be reveling in Christ, exalting Christ, loving Christ, and telling others of His glory.

These verses can also be plumbed for their insights on the nature of the Triune God. The three persons are distinct and yet each is fully God. Each person has different roles or functions. The Father sent the Son and the Son sent the Spirit. The Spirit does not act independently (“on His own initiative,” v. 13), but rather in submission to the Father and the Son. Just as the Son only speaks what He hears from the Father (John 3:34; 5:19, 20; 7:16-18; 8:26-29, 42-43; 12:47-50; 14:10), so the Spirit only speaks what He hears. He completes God’s revelation of His Son to us. The three members of the Trinity are co-equal as God, distinct in their functions, and yet one God.


The Lord wants us to apply His teaching here to our walk with God: Is the Holy Spirit progressively guiding you in all the truth, especially the truth about Christ, as you study His Word? Do you see His personal ministry in your life as He works to conform you to Christ? Are you growing to understand more deeply the great truths of Scripture, centered in Christ and the gospel? And, is your life increasingly Christ-centered and Christ-glorifying?

If you honestly can’t answer “yes,” there could be two causes: First, you may not be walking in the Spirit or be filled with the Spirit. To walk in the Spirit means to depend on Him, not yourself. To be filled with the Spirit means to yield completely to Him, so that He controls your life. It’s a lifelong process, but you should be practicing it every day.

Second, it is possible that you do not have the Holy Spirit because you have never trusted in Christ. The Spirit is given to those who trust in the Lord Jesus Christ to save them from God’s righteous judgment. Here is the Spirit’s invitation to you (Rev. 22:17): “The Spirit and the bride say, ‘Come.’ And let the one who hears say, ‘Come.’ And let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who wishes take the water of life without cost.”

Application Questions

  1. Believers are never commanded to be baptized with the Spirit, but rather to walk in the Spirit and to be filled with the Spirit. Why is this distinction important?
  2. Some argue that the Holy Spirit still gives non-authoritative revelation today. Agree/disagree? What are the practical implications of this?
  3. To what extent (if any) does the Spirit guide us through our thoughts, impressions, or feelings? Give biblical support.
  4. How can we know which biblical truths are essential and thus worth dividing over, and which doctrines should not divide us?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2015, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Pneumatology (The Holy Spirit)

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