During the time spent with his disciples in the Upper Room, the night of his betrayal, the Lord Jesus had an extended conversation with them about his departure to the Father and the Holy Spirit’s coming in his place. The few verses we are about to read are a part of that conversation. They belong to what is usually called “the Upper Room Discourse.” This is, in fact, the fourth of five paragraphs that makeup this “discourse.”
- The thought is what biblical scholars call “eschatological.” That is, there is a next step to be taken in the history of salvation and the progress of the kingdom of God and the Lord is looking forward to that next step and, if they only understood, the disciples would be too. They wouldn’t be sad that the Lord was leaving them; they would be glad that the Spirit was soon to come. Until the Spirit comes the nations cannot be reached, until the nations are reached the Lord cannot return, and until he returns the life of the new heavens and the new earth cannot begin.
- “World” is a very important word in the Upper Room discourse, occurring more than 40 times. And here the two great ideas of the discourse are brought together: the Holy Spirit and the world. This is, interestingly, the only place in the NT where the Holy Spirit is said to work in and for the world. There are other places where we are shown the Spirit working in the world, but most of the time in the NT the Spirit’s work is described it is a work in and for believers.
- Vv. 8-11 are very difficult because they are so compressed, much more so in John’s Greek than it appears in English translation. But the general idea seems clear enough. The Holy Spirit’s work will be to demonstrate to the world that it is wrong about sin, about righteousness, and about judgment and, thus, to call the world to repentance. Jesus himself had done this, showing self-satisfied people that what they did and the way they lived was actually sinful and the Holy Spirit will continue his work. In regard to sin the Spirit will expose the world for its willful ignorance of its need for Jesus and for his forgiveness. This work is a gracious work because only when people are convinced of their need do they come to Jesus to be saved. “He will convict the world of righteousness” almost certainly means that he will demonstrate to the world that its righteousness – its understanding of what righteousness is – is false, hypocritical, dishonest, and not at all what God himself regards as righteousness. The Holy Spirit will again continue the work Jesus was doing throughout his ministry. He will convict the world in regard to judgment means that he will convince the world that its principles of judgment – the spiritual principles in which the world walks as the servant of Satan – are utterly false and that the Evil One has been conquered by Jesus on the cross. So the Holy Spirit will continue Jesus’ work, convincing the world of its sinful neglect of Jesus Christ, that its pretended righteousness is as filthy rags before God, and that its slavish obedience to the Devil – a point the Lord Jesus had made emphatically earlier in chapter 8 – has been exposed for the folly it is by the triumph of the Lord Jesus Christ and his resurrection from the dead.
You expect, and rightly, at Christmas to hear sermons apropos the incarnation and the birth of our Savior. Similarly, on Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday you expect to hear sermons devoted to the suffering, death, and resurrection of the Lord. In the American evangelical tradition, including the Reformed tradition, you have been far less likely even to know that a Sunday in May or June was Pentecost, much less to hear a sermon devoted to the theme. I confess that this was true here for too long. But I am committed to changing that and to mark Pentecost every year not only with a liturgy shaped by the remembrance of that great event, but by a sermon devoted to the theme. It is, after all, one of the great turning points in the history of redemption and deserves its place, alongside Christmas and Easter in the remembrance and celebration of the church.
Here in John 16, in the Lord’s remarks about the coming of the Holy Spirit upon his own ascension to heaven, we are given another account of the meaning of Pentecost. We are, of course, given to see its meaning in the historical account of the event in Luke 2. But here too in John 16 Pentecost is seen to be a missionary event. It was the opening act in the drama of the world’s salvation. On that wonderful day the Holy Spirit came and enabled the disciples to proclaim the message of salvation in Jesus Christ to a representative selection of the world’s people. Luke makes a point of saying that present on that day were “Jews from every nation under heaven,” a hyperbole to be sure, an exaggeration but one with a point. The world was gathered in Jerusalem on Pentecost and the world heard the good news of Jesus Christ and thousands believed. The world fell under the spell of the Holy Spirit just as Jesus had said it would in John 16. People who woke up that morning in Jerusalem, who made their way to the temple for the services of the Jewish feast of Pentecost, had no idea that their lives were about to be turned upside down, that they were in a few hours to find themselves different people intent on living a different life for utterly different reasons. But that is what happened. They heard the most remarkable message about Jesus and, wonder of wonders, they believed it!
Think about that. Jesus’ ministry, which had caused a tremendous stir in Galilee and Judea for some three years, was over. He had died ignominiously by crucifixion a month and half before. Stories that he had risen from the dead were circulating everywhere, to be sure. But how likely is anyone to believe such a story. The opportunity of the Jesus movement surely had come and gone. No one was going to become a follower now that Jesus was no more. But then that Sunday the disciples, gathered together and waiting as Jesus had told them to wait, were overcome by a power from heaven. They began to speak in languages they did not know, the very languages of the people who had gathered from all over the Jewish Diaspora to attend the feast in Jerusalem. And what these people heard them say in their various languages was that God had entered the world in Jesus of Nazareth, that he had died on the cross not as a helpless victim but as a sacrifice for our sins, and that he had risen from the dead and was now seated at the Right Hand of God.
And then Peter stood up and preached his sermon and they found themselves listening in rapt attention. They couldn’t turn away. And his sermon convinced them that they were not righteous, that they had sinned greatly in not believing in Jesus Christ, that they had utterly mistaken what it means to be righteous before God, and it was preposterous for them to believe that they could meet God’s righteous demands by their own efforts. Suddenly all of this was preternaturally clear to them. They didn’t know why, but they knew they were face to face with the truth about themselves and about God. And thousands of them, all at once, were cut to the heart and cried out to Peter and the others, “What shall we do?” And when they were told to repent and be baptized, which is to say, to repent and to submit their lives to Jesus Christ, that is precisely what they did. They believed in Jesus, repented of their sins, and were baptized. By a single sermon on a single day, once the Holy Spirit began his work of convicting the world, it is possible the church of God grew more than it had through the entire three years of the Lord’s ministry! No wonder the Lord should say that it is better that he depart so that the Holy Spirit might come.
And think! Some, if not many of the folk who became followers of Christ that day were the same people who had crucified him just several weeks before! People who had been his implacable enemies came to Christ in faith and love in large numbers that day and in still greater numbers in the days that followed. There is no human explanation for this. To be sure, the apostles proclaimed the message about Jesus Christ to them in their own languages – an astonishing miracle – but Jesus had performed much more astonishing miracles before their very eyes and that had not persuaded them. But, when the Holy Spirit added his omnipotent witness in their hearts, when he drove the truth home like an arrow into their consciences, their unbelief, their rebellion, their stubborn refusal to face facts vanished in an instant and they found themselves face to face with God.
Nothing was further from their minds when they awoke that morning. They could do nothing else by the time Peter was finished speaking about Jesus and salvation. That is what Pentecost means and that is what has happened ever since all over the world. People have become convinced, how they hardly know, of their own unrighteousness and of their absolute need for the salvation that only Jesus Christ can give them. Who could have accomplished this but the Holy Spirit? What power could so utterly transform indifferent and uninterested hearts but God’s power?
And, what is more, who could employ the words and the works of ordinary people to effect such extraordinary transformations in people’s lives but the Holy Spirit? Jesus had said on an earlier occasion that when the Holy Spirit came out of the bellies of his disciples would flow rivers of living water. That is, the Holy Spirit would accomplish his work of convicting the world through Christ’s disciples, by the words and deeds of Jesus’ followers. In Acts 1:8, just before his ascension to heaven, the Lord told his disciples again: “…you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” The Spirit’s witness would make them powerful witnesses on behalf of Jesus Christ. And that is just what happened. And that what has continued to happen through the ages since. We cannot persuade, we cannot change a human heart. We cannot convince a person who has all his life been utterly indifferent to Jesus Christ that Jesus is in fact all that matters to him for time and eternity; but the Holy Spirit can. And he can use us to bring that conviction into a heart. That is the wonderful thing.
The Lord put these two things together earlier in his discourse about the Holy Spirit. In John 15:26-27 he said, “The Holy Spirit will testify about me and you must also testify.” And they did testify and the Holy Spirit working in the hearts of men and women made their witness powerful to turn the world upside down. It used to be said of the New England preacher, Thomas Hooker that those who heard him “felt that he could have picked up a king and put him in his pocket!” That is the authority that the Holy Spirit can add to the message of perfectly ordinary men who are bearing witness to Jesus Christ as the Son of God and the Savior of sinners. Such was Peter’s authority on the Day of Pentecost!
Peter was no great shakes as an orator. He was raised and educated to be a Galilean fisherman for goodness sake. If I preached his Pentecost sermon over to you right now, you would not think that it was a sermon likely to save 3,000 souls all by itself. Richard Cecil, the Great Awakening preacher, who heard and preached some sermons of terrific power during the great revival of the 18th century, once wrote about Peter’s sermon:
“I once said to myself, in the foolishness of my heart: ‘What
sort of sermon must that have been which was preached by Peter
when three thousand souls were converted at once?’ What sort
of sermon? Such as other sermons. There is nothing to be found
in it extraordinary. The effect was not produced by eloquence,
but by the mighty power of God present with the Word.” [In
Tyler and Bonar, Life of Nettleton, vii]
And that has often been observed in Christian history. Some preachers of great power, through whose sermons great multitudes of people have come to believe in Christ, were orators of exhilarating imagination and power. But many others were not. Have you ever taken up a volume of John Wesley’s sermons? I defy you to take an unabridged Wesley sermon and read it this Sunday afternoon without nodding off to sleep somewhere in the middle and, I will predict, nearer the front than the back of the sermon. Historians read Wesley’s sermons and scratch their heads over the amazing grip with which they latched on to the minds and hearts of those who heard them. Compare a sermon of Wesley and a sermon of Charles Spurgeon, the 19th century London preacher, on the same text and you will think that Wesley’s sermon is not to be compared with Spurgeon’s. But why, then, Wesley’s unparalleled success in convicting and converting sinners to Christ? Well that is the lesson that every preacher must learn for himself. “Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the Lord.” [From Whyte, Thirteen Appreciations, 368-369]
Was there anything more unlikely in the world than that 3000 folk would hear one speech about Jesus – about a man the authorities despised, a man who had been rejected by the majority of the Jews, a man who had been crucified, dead, and buried 50 days ago – and become his followers and his servants who would devote themselves to his name and cause for the rest of their lives? Was there a result less likely than that? And then this same message was taken to the world and to people who had never heard of Jesus, who were inclined to despise the Jews, and whose religious thinking was utterly unlike that of the Christians, and lo and behold they responded by the thousands and then by the millions and have been doing so ever since. Was there ever a result less likely when the disciples awoke that morning before the Holy Spirit came?
But calculations of likelihood or unlikelihood are nothing in comparison with the power of the third person of the Godhead. In the Lord’s remarks about the Holy Spirit, Jesus refers to him as the paraklatos, first in John 14:16 and then several times thereafter. This is the word translated “Counselor” in 16:7. The ESV translates the term as “Helper.” The word refers to a counselor in the sense of a legal assistant or advocate, someone who helps another in court, often as a witness. This special term for the Holy Spirit occurs in all the five passages that mention the Holy Spirit in this discourse except the last, but the last follows immediately upon the fourth, the paragraph we read, and the “he” in v. 13 looks back to “Counselor” in v. 7, which is its antecedent. So “Counselor” is really the designation of the Holy Spirit in all of them. It is the Lord Jesus’ term for the Holy Spirit when referring to his work in the world.
The King James Version, you remember, translated “paraklatos” as “Comforter.” But that is too soft a word for us today. However, in sixteenth century English, the English of the KJV, the word “comforter” did not mean what it means today. It was an English word fashioned after a Latin word, confortare, which meant “to strengthen or to encourage.” That Latin word was stronger than the English word “comfort” is now and the early English word made from it was accordingly stronger too. I came across a reference to an entry in the Chronicles of the Monastery of St. Edmunds – an English monastery in the middle ages – which mentions that a certain schoolmaster “fortified or strengthened the boys with a stick!” The chronicles are in Latin and that word “fortified” is the word confortare. You comfort a young man by laying a cane across his backside. Now, that’s comfort! [“…comfortavit pueros baculo” in A.E. Bailey, The Gospel in Hymns, 241] That is more the idea we have here. The ministry of the Holy Spirit, the paraclete, is comfort of the old, strong kind. It is bracing a person with the truth, making him face it, hear it, feel it. That is the idea.
Remember, the Lord has already said that he would send to his disciples “another Counselor”, that is, one like himself. The Lord was a man who forced the truth on people, whether they liked it or not, whether they welcomed it or not. He was a controversial figure, hated as he was loved, precisely because he forced people to make a decision about him and because he drove the truth directly at the conscience. And now we hear that the Holy Spirit will be like him in that way. But here is the difference, the Holy Spirit will bear his witness to Christ to the whole world which the Lord Jesus explicitly did not do. Remember how in the Gospels the Lord Jesus said, “I have been sent to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But the Holy Spirit will be sent by the Father and the Son to the world.
How does the Holy Spirit do this? How does he make self-satisfied and uninterested people suddenly riveted by the message of Jesus and his love for sinners? How does he do this?
I recently read a fascinating book in which I was reminded of the impossibly mysterious world of the atom, the world of quantum mechanics in which invisible particles come and go, appear and disappear, seem to be here but not here, can be followed but not found. This is existence at its simplest, most elemental form. It is utterly mystifying. But the more the physical world is studied, down to the smallest of sub-atomic particles, the greater the gap becomes between that world and our own daily existence. Existence at the most elemental level is utterly mysterious, even miraculous. How that existence, the existence of particle physics, relates to our everyday world is also utterly mysterious. What do the invisible, incomprehensible, inner workings of the atom, so devilishly unpredictable, have to do with our utterly predictable life: getting out of bed in the morning, working at our job, casting an anxious eye at the clock, hurrying home to dinner, raising our children, and so on? What have electrons and quarks have to do with love and hate, peace and war, longing, meaning, beauty, with hope, and with a heart troubled by questions that it cannot answer? [Cf. D. Berlinski, The Devil’s Delusion: Atheism and its Scientific Pretensions, 205]
Or put the same question this way, as it was put by one author recently. As you will see, he happens to live in Paris. He is speaking of sight and the chasm that separates chemistry and biology from the experience of human life.
“The physical details are in part understood. Light strikes the eye in the form of photons but it exits the eye in terms of electrical signals. In between, bipolar cells convey visual information to ganglion cells, which in turn conduct information to the optic nerve. Thereafter the optic nerve conveys electrical signals to the brain. The brain in turn twitches into life, neurons firing here and there, the gooey mass for a moment convulsed.
“And directly thereafter, I see the looming mass of Notre Dame, all gray stone and leering gargoyles, a long line of plodding tourists shuffling toward the door leading to the cathedral’s towers, the horses of the National Guard dropping their straw-filled waste in the center of the street as they clip-clop patiently toward their stables, the light, the hot haze, dust dancing in the air.
“I open my eyes and my eyes are filled.
“How do the twitching nerves, chemical exchanges, electrical flashes, and computational routines of the human eye and brain provide a human being with his experiences?”
The fact is, no one knows. No one has even the beginnings of an answer to that question. The gap between the one and the other is unfathomably large. [Berlinksi, 204] How the mindless processes of the atom produce the impossibly rich experience of human life is utterly beyond our knowing. But it is certainly not beyond God’s knowing, who alone can account for existence as we know it to be: intellect, emotion, morality, love, longing, betrayal, excitement, boredom, the knowledge and recollection of the past, the imagination of the future, and all the rest that makes up our lives every day.
What seem to us utterly mindless and infinitesimally small particles are the building blocks of our existence and our experience as human beings. Who makes the one to produce the other but God himself who created the vast array of this world and the impossibly wonderful existence of each and every human being. He alone knows the connection between the quantum world of the atom and the thoughts and intentions of a human heart. He alone knows how the one bears upon the other and how the one arises from the other. He knows, the Holy Spirit knows, how to flood a mind with light, warm a heart with love, prick a conscience, or bend a will. He can do this. He does do this. How he does it is not for us to know. That he does it is plain enough.
I read recently of a woman, a hospital nurse for many years, who had lived her adulthood as a firm agnostic, neither knowing God nor caring to search for him. But at a clinic one day, getting treatment for her arthritis, her kind physiotherapist made a remark about the Lord Jesus. Just a remark. She couldn’t later even remember what it was. She had replied, “Oh, I have no faith.” But, when asked, she agreed – again not sure why – to attend church. As she listened to the worship and then the sermon, she said, “I felt as if I was being torn in two.” She was furious with herself for getting so rattled and went home intending to return to her normal state of mind. But she found she could not. She spent a sleepless night. She picked up a thriller to read just to clear her mind and read it straight through. But she couldn’t clear her mind or settle her heart. She thought of what she had heard about Christ and his salvation and, then
“Quite suddenly I had a deep sensation of peace, something I cannot adequately describe, but I was completely wrapped round in it and lost to everything. It gradually came to me that the long, weary journey was over at last, that I was home, with a peace which passeth understanding and a living faith in Christ such as I had never known before.” [In Dudley-Smith, John Stott, i, 286-287]
That is what happened on Pentecost; the Holy Spirit convicted her as he had those three thousand that long ago Sunday of sin, righteousness, and judgment. He did what Jesus promised he would. He created faith where there had been unbelief. He created a conviction of sin and need where there had been self-satisfaction. He created longing where there had been at least some measure of contentment with the status quo. And he created understanding where there had been an impenetrable fog.
The world now believes in and follows Christ by the hundreds of millions. He is confessed in every tongue, tribe, and people on earth. There would be no salvation, of course, apart from Christ and his death on the cross for our sins. But there would be no salvation either were there no Holy Spirit to make Christ known, to make man’s need for him known, and to make men and women understand and believe.
That is why there is Pentecost as there is Good Friday and Easter. And that is why we celebrate Pentecost today. It is the final step in God’s great work of love: bringing salvation to the world. It is why Pentecost should be such a happy day for us; as it was for those on whom the Spirit fell that Sunday long ago.