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The Work of the Holy Spirit -- a study of John 15:26-16:11

All Christians are baptized in the Holy Spirit.

Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for John 15:26-16:11

This week's lesson covers the second part of Jesus' major teaching on the Holy Spirit. With the understanding that the Spirit is a Person, not a force, we learn that the Spirit helps us testify to the world about Jesus, and the Spirit convicts the world of its sin, the coming judgment, and its need for a Savior. The Spirit guides us into God's truth today.

If I go, I will send him to you. (16:7)

Getting Started: Things to Think About

What You Remember Best from School (and why)

When I was in school, I had my method for strong performance down extremely well. I would diligently take notes, diligently keep up with the homework, and the night before a test I would cram everything into my head as much as possible.

I would do extremely well on the exam, and within two days I would have forgotten large portions of what I had studied (in order to clear space for the next exam).

It turns out that the things I remember are the things I had to practice and apply over and over again from one semester to the next. I remember so much from English Grammar. I remember basically nothing from French. (Bonjour?) I remember so much about how Greek tense influences English translation. But the pages upon pages of conjugations I memorized? Gone.

In other words, I remember those things that I consistently used.

So, how about you? What do you remember from school? What are you surprised that you don't remember?

In this week's passage, Jesus is going to spare the disciples the shock of realizing they hadn't taken enough notes or crammed enough. (Does anybody else still have the dream of forgetting that your final exam was that day? Just me?) They were going to get the ultimate "cheat sheet" for truth -- the Holy Spirit, who with the Father and Son is the Author of all truth.


Where We Are in John

Back up! Last week, we covered John's Easter passage in chapter 20 (spoilers!). Now, we're back in Jesus' "Farewell Discourse" of John 14-16. We've already talked at length about the purpose and importance of these chapters (Jesus' final sermon, a bookend to "The Sermon on the Mount" in Matthew 5-7)

We've already shown this video, so I'll make it smaller. (Inside joke.)

And then here's John 16, full sized:

Here's a quick outline of this discourse:

  1. I am the way (14:1-4) [truth]

  2. I will send the Spirit (14:15-31) [peace]

  3. I am the vine (15:1-17) [love]

  4. I have experienced the hate of the world (15:18-27) [testimony]

  5. I will empower you by the Spirit (16:1-15) [faith]

  6. I will turn your grief into joy (16:16-24) [joy]

Note the key themes: peace, love, joy, truth, faith, and testimony. In this discourse, Jesus not only promises our access to these great blessings, but He also explains the means by which we can enjoy them: the Holy Spirit.

I gave an overview of the doctrine of the Holy Spirit in our study of John 14, and I refer you back to that (if you need a refresher). In that post, I mentioned that Baptists have a few disagreements with other denominations with respect to what they believe about the Holy Spirit, so let's get to it.

This Week's Big Idea: Controversies about the Spirit

The verses we cover this week focus on the role of the Spirit in

  • illuminating our mind,

  • purifying our character,

  • convicting of sin,

  • bringing peace with God.

No problem. That's (of course) completely in line with what we talked about a few weeks ago. To make a long story short, that's basically what Baptists believe the Bible means by the phrase "baptized in the Spirit". When we are saved, the Holy Spirit indwells us, and He brings with Him all of these incalculable blessings described by Jesus.

What more could we want?

Well, apparently we could want more. Let me say up front that I am cynical about some of the conclusions other Christians have promoted about the Spirit, and you're going to hear that bleed through this summary. My apologies.

In Charismatic or Pentecostal circles, the phrase "baptism in the Spirit" means something very different from what I described above, and those differences are significant enough to result in the formation of hundreds of new Christian denominations in the 100 years Pentecostalism has existed (there's also significant disagreement within those circles about what the phrase means).

Let me give you a very, very abbreviated summary of the issue.

I trace things back to the Holiness Movement that came out of Methodism in the early 1800s. Teachers in this movement (e.g., Phoebe Palmer, John Inskip) were the first to suggest that "baptism in the Spirit" happened after salvation. Some even used the phrase "second blessing". They didn't go so far as John Wesley as to say that in this a Christian became entirely sanctified, but they talked about a powerful experience with the Holy Spirit where a person felt true peace and joy. (Yes, that's very vague.)

As you might guess, if two blessings are good, then three blessings are better. (You might remember that line from our study of Acts 2.) So, in the late 1800s, people started advertising a "third blessing". Here's a simple description:

  • Blessing 1: salvation ("baptism in water").

  • Blessing 2: sanctification ("baptism in the Spirit").

  • Blessing 3: power ("baptism in fire").

It was fine to be saved, and it was good to have an experience with the Spirit, but what you really wanted was power. (Yes, there's some cynicism. Some of those early teachers did speak of power for the purpose of building God's kingdom, but it didn't take long for the purpose of that power to become perverted.)

In 1901, Charles Fox Parham announced that the proof of receiving this "baptism in fire" was "speaking in tongues". He also concluded that blessings 2 and 3 were one and the same. Importantly, one of his students (William Seymour) moved to Los Angeles and was central in an event called "The Azusa Street Revival" (1906-1909) which launched the modern Pentecostal movement. There will be lots of back-and-forth within this movement if there are two blessings or three and exactly what they entailed. In addition to speaking in tongues, other common examples of proof of the baptism of the Spirit included "divine healing" and "divine wealth".

The words "experience" and "crisis" are frequently repeated in Pentecostal literature. Not surprisingly, pursuing experiences (even by created crises) is a foundational part of Pentecostal church practice.

Long and short: Pentecostals believe that "baptism in the Spirit" is something that happens after salvation, is evidenced by speaking in tongues, and results in all kinds of wonderful things for that individual. Baptists believe that in salvation, every Christian is fully "baptized in the Spirit", that the miraculous gifts like speaking in tongues or divine healings are just that -- miraculous -- thus exceedingly rare and given for very specific situations, and that the purpose of any activity of the Spirit is to point to Jesus.

Here's my challenge to you this week: as you study this week's passage, write down what Jesus says the purpose of sending the Spirit is. And there's quite a bit in this passage! Get familiar with that. And then, when you hear other groups talk about the Holy Spirit, you will have biblical data to evaluate it by.

But please hear this -- Pentecostals rightly counter that Baptists downplay the gift of the Spirit. Many Baptists do so out of fear of the excesses seen in Pentecostal practice, as if that's the only way to "have" the Spirit. Paul speaks of "being filled with the Spirit" (Eph 5:18), something we studied in depth a few years ago:

Paul's point is not that there is a subsequent baptism of the Spirit which "fills" us with the Spirit. Rather, he's saying that we can fill our lives with things that "crowd the Spirit out". (We can have the Spirit fully, but not be filled with the Spirit.) When we eliminate those things from our lives, the Spirit fills us in a fresh and powerful way. There's nothing mystical about it -- no singular experience. It's what Jesus said in our study a few weeks ago: "if you want a fulfilling relationship with Me, obey My commands". Nothing "special" -- just Spirit-empowered, daily obedience, something Jesus expects of every Christian.

Here's a bonus exercise for you: read the lyrics to the hymn "Have Thine Own Way, Lord" which came out of this early movement (1906). How have you understood those lyrics? What do you think they mean? What do you think they should mean?

The Holy Spirit Is a Person, not a Force

Here's the best way I can think to explain the heart of the difference: the Holy Spirit is a Person we know, not a force we wield. A force is something we can channel to our own purposes; it's something we use. But a person is not that.

That's pretty easy to understand, right? But it's harder to explain than you might think. Here's the Bible Project video on the Holy Spirit.

The video uses the language of "energy". And that's pretty common! A lot of people describe the Spirit as being "the Power of God" or "the Hand of God". But if you push that too far, like some Christian groups have, the Spirit is reduced to a force that God "wields" (that we can too).

No, the Holy Spirit is a Person. A person is someone we know. In our passage this week, that's front-and-center. Jesus calls the Spirit our "Counselor/Paraclete" and talks about the things He does. It's all very personal. Think of the Spirit as a Person, and the controversies briefly described above kinda take care of themselves. (Unless you want to think of the Holy Spirit as a mercenary for hire, and then I don't know how to help you.)


Part 1: The Spirit Helps Us Testify (John 15:26-27)

26 “When the Counselor (Paraclete) comes, the one I will send to you from the Father —the Spirit of truth who proceeds from the Father—he will testify about me. 27 You also will testify, because you have been with me from the beginning.

I put the word "Paraclete" in parentheses to remind you that Jesus uses that word to identify the Spirit. When we talked about that a few weeks ago, my point was that the word "Counselor" was restrictive as to the role of the Spirit. Yes, He is a Counselor, but He is so much more. He is "another Paraclete" as Jesus was. As we think about everything Jesus was for His disciples, the Spirit is all of that for us.

Read the verses that precede these, about how the word will hate the disciples just as it hated Jesus. The Spirit is not simply our counselor -- as if He is a therapist we visit to work through our anxiety. Based on these words, we can say a lot about the Spirit:

  • the Spirit comforts us when we mourn the ill-treatment of the world;

  • the Spirit advises us as how best to respond to the attacks of the world;

  • the Spirit grounds us, reminding us why we face the world;

  • the Spirit refreshes us by keeping us in touch with God's hope and peace;

  • the Spirit helps us by offering His own testimony of Jesus.

Importantly, the Spirit doesn't do this job for us. He does it with us. And what is that job? To testify.

Based on everything we have read in John's Gospel, what do you think Jesus expects us to testify?

Now, let's be clear about one thing: the disciples had a unique charge here in that they had literally been with Jesus for the entirety of His earthly ministry. That is not true of us. How can we testify about Jesus like the disciples did? (And to build on that, how does the Holy Spirit specifically help us fulfill that charge?)

[Bonus Topic. Based on everything I said above about the Spirit being a person rather than a force, how does that uniquely shape the way we understand these verses?]


Part 2: Convicts (John 16:7-11)

7 Nevertheless, I am telling you the truth. It is for your benefit that I go away, because if I don’t go away the Counselor will not come to you. If I go, I will send him to you. 8 When he comes, he will convict the world about sin, righteousness, and judgment: 9 About sin, because they do not believe in me; 10 about righteousness, because I am going to the Father and you will no longer see me; 11 and about judgment, because the ruler of this world has been judged.

Lifeway skips the verses which remind the disciples of the kinds of ways the world will hate them and the extreme grief that will bring them (in addition to the obvious fact that the world will brutally kill their dear friend and teacher).

A few weeks ago, we talked about this verse:

If you loved me, you would rejoice that I am going to the Father, because the Father is greater than I. (14:28)

We said that the disciples' desire to keep Jesus with them was selfish -- that Jesus wanted to complete His work and return to God the Father in heaven, and the disciples should also want that for Him.

But now we learn that even what's best for Jesus is still also what's best for us. And yes, this opens a myriad of questions. Here are a few.

Why Could the Spirit Come Only After Jesus Left?

First, let's remember that the Spirit has always been here. Jesus is talking about the unique way the Spirit will indwell believers. Jesus accomplished our salvation on the cross, so it is appropriate for us to say that there were no "Christians" until after the crucifixion. (People were still saved before then, but that's a discussion for another day. Suffice it to say that it is such a blessing for us to live on this side of the cross.) So, if the plan of God was for the Spirit to indwell Christians, that couldn't happen until after Jesus' death. (People rightly point out that this is moot until after the Resurrection and Pentecost, but don't get sidetracked by that. We live post-Pentecost.)

Why Is the Spirit "Better" Than Jesus?

Hang on -- watch out how you word that. Jesus is saying that it is better for us that He go away. One, that means He has accomplished salvation. The Crucifixion is how Jesus pays the price for our sin and enables our forgiveness and restoration. But two, now Jesus can send the Spirit. The Spirit indwells us -- all of us. Jesus could be in one place at a time. The Spirit can be everywhere, even within us. Jesus is not saying that the Spirit is better; He's saying that the situation is better for us. It is better for us to have God within us than to have Jesus out there somewhere walking around on the earth and God not being within us.

Is the Spirit Sent for Believers or for the World?

This is where I'll step back into the passage. This has confused some readers in that all of a sudden Jesus is talking about what the Spirit will do to people in the "world" (which has been established in John's Gospel to mean those people who don't believe in Jesus). The long and short is this: the Holy Spirit is at work in all people. He indwells Christians in a way He does not for non-Christians, and His work is unique in Christians as opposed to non-Christians, but He is at work in all people. (Else, how would any of us been saved in the first place?)

Back to the passage.

Here's a bird's eye view:

  • He will convict the world concerning sin (because they do not believe in Me)

  • concerning righteousness (because I go to the Father)

  • concerning judgment (because the ruler of this world has been judged)

So, huh. Okay.

Both the words for "paraclete" and "convict" are used in a legal context in Greek literature, thus many people have interpreted this as saying that the Holy Spirit is like a prosecuting attorney in the "trial" of the world -- His job is to prove the guilt of the world (convict them).

Clearly, that's in play here. However, there is no doubt as to the world's guilt. So, who is He convicting "to"?

Jesus used this word in 8:46:

46 Who among you can convict me of sin? If I am telling the truth, why don’t you believe me?

There, the word can go two different ways: "Who can prove that I have committed a sin?" or "Who can convince me that I have committed a sin?"

With that nuance, let's re-ask the question above: if God (who must be the Judge in any legal analogy) does not need convincing as to the world's guilt, who is the Spirit convincing?

The world itself!

Do you remember the old "ABCs of salvation" from VBS? [A]dmit, [b]elieve, [c]onfess? The "admit" is rooted in this idea. The Holy Spirit is at work within every person, convincing them of the guilt of their sin -- the first step of salvation is them admitting/acknowledging their guilt.

But Jesus doesn't say that the Spirit is simply going around convincing people they are guilty of sin. Let's dive into the rest of the words Jesus uses:

  • "Concerning sin". This is the most straightforward of the three (in terms of a traditional gospel presentation) -- "because they do not believe in Me" is akin to saying "because they do not admit that they need a Savior".

  • "Concerning righteousness" is tricky because we think of that word (dikaiosune) in a positive, Pauline sense ("the righteousness of God"). But here, Jesus is talking about "the righteousness of the world". What kind of righteousness does the world have? Exactly. In Jesus, the world saw the righteousness of God. But what was its "act of righteousness" in response? To kill Jesus. And now Jesus' absence is a testimony to their failed righteousness. This is like saying "because they choose to live by their own perverted standard of right and wrong".

  • "Concerning judgment" is more straightforward. If death is the consequence of sin and the weapon of Satan, then what does it mean that Jesus conquered death? If Jesus has defeated sin and death and hell (and thus also Satan), then what does that mean for the people of the world who live under Satan's power? In other words, "because God will always triumph over His enemies".

Exercise: write on a whiteboard a list of what Jesus said the Spirit has come to do in believers. Then, based on the verses we just read, write what the Spirit has come to do in non-believers. Compare and contrast those activities.

But don't erase your work any time soon! The final verses explain an overarching activity of the Spirit.


Part 3: Guides (John 16:12-15)

12 “I still have many things to tell you, but you can’t bear them now. 13 When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth. For he will not speak on his own, but he will speak whatever he hears. He will also declare to you what is to come. 14 He will glorify me, because he will take from what is mine and declare it to you. 15 Everything the Father has is mine. This is why I told you that he takes from what is mine and will declare it to you.

Verse 12 is not a throwaway verse! It sets up the ultimate ministry of the Spirit -- guiding into truth.

Pitfall: certain Christian traditions claim that 16:12-13 is proof that the Bible doesn't contain all of the truth that we need, but that the Spirit is still revealing new truths to us.

No! That's not at all what Jesus said!

There's a big difference between Jesus saying He should have said more and Jesus saying He could have said more. Jesus said everything to the disciples that they needed to know. The Spirit will remind them of those things and explain to them what it means in each situation they face. The Spirit will never say something "new" ("new" in the sense that it contradicts something said in the Bible). There is one truth -- Jesus -- and the Spirit will only ever guide us toward that one truth.

The word "guide" refers to instruction, like from a teacher (much akin to Jesus' role among the disciples). And the Spirit only has one truth on which to instruct us: Jesus. Is there something better or more important for the Spirit to teach us than Jesus?

John the author has been setting this up for a while now.

  • The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. We observed his glory, the glory as the one and only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. (1:14)

  • But anyone who lives by the truth comes to the light, so that his works may be shown to be accomplished by God. (3:21)

  • God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in Spirit and in truth. (4:24)

  • You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free. (8:32)

  • I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. (14:6)

Jesus is not referring to "truth" as a "right set of facts to believe". It's so much more than that -- it's a right way to view the world, a right way to relate to God, a right way to approach one's life.

And finally, what's the clearest test for knowing if something is true? (Or knowing if something is of the Spirit?) It must bring glory to Jesus, and through Jesus to the Father.

There's our test for the ministry of the Spirit. And that's my test for these claims of some of the stranger things people claim the Spirit is doing. When Paul described how there should be "order" in worship services, he explained that "God is not a God of disorder but of peace" (1 Cor 14:33). In some church settings, it is hard to "see God" through all of the theatrics and shenanigans and chaos. Who is being glorified? Who is being highlighted?

But lest you think I'm talking about Pentecostal services, let me ask you this question: when you leave your church service, what is your primary thought?

  • What a nice sermon.

  • What a pretty song the choir sang. -or-

  • I did not like the songs today.

  • What an attractive suit he wore.

  • The sanctuary was so pretty today.

  • Etc.

If the answer to that question for you is anything other than "what a glorious God we serve", then either you or your church leadership is doing something wrong.

Because when the Spirit of the Lord is involved, everything always immediately points to Jesus, and through Jesus to God the Father.

Exercise: Try Some Test Cases

It's one to say that "truth is what points us to Jesus" and another thing to know how to apply that to scenarios in your life. Ask for some test cases of things that group members might have questions about, and as a group discuss how this test applies.

For example:

  • Is it true that God wants all Christians to be wealthy?

  • Is it true that "faith" is all we need to overcome an illness?

  • Is it true that God doesn't care if we come to church or not?

Those might stir the pot for you.

For the love of all things, don't let anybody in your group make some kind of vague "this makes me think of Jesus so it must be true" claim. What is the source of truth Jesus has repeatedly pointed us to? What He has said -- i.e., God's Word! Jesus has given us our test for how to know if we are interpreting and applying God's Word correctly, not giving us an excuse not to diligently search the Bible for our answers! Right? Right.

Before you leave, make sure everybody has written down your summary list of what the Spirit does -- in the world, and in believers.


Closing Thoughts: Trinity and the filioque Clause

This passage is all about the unity of Son and Spirit (and through them the entire Trinity). As Jesus was the Paraclete to His disciples, so the Spirit is now the Paraclete to us. God the Father gave all truth to God the Son, and God the Son shares that truth with us through God the Spirit. God the Spirit then lives inside of us and points us to God the Son, who then brings glory to God the Father (who in turn glorifies God the Son).

Got it?

Well, there is one more controversy to point out, one that caused the schism between the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church. Did God the Father send the Spirit? Or did God the Father and God the Son.

Before your eyes glaze over, remember this passage from the Nicene Creed:

I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father [and the Son], who with the Father and the Son is adored and glorified, who has spoken through the prophets.

The original creed does not include the phrase "and the Son" (in Latin, that's filioque).

The crux of the debate is the meaning of one of today's verses:

When the Counselor comes, the one I will send to you from the Father —the Spirit of truth who proceeds from the Father—he will testify about me. (15:26)

Does Jesus send the Spirit or the Son and Father together? Does the Spirit proceed from the Father, or from the Father and Son together? Or does the Spirit proceed from the Father but is sent by the Spirit?

So, um, forgive me, but what does that even matter?

Great question, and I don't think I can give you the best answer. In Roman Catholic thought, the hierarchy of Father->Son->Spirit is very important in that it's how they illustrate their structure of Pope->Cardinal->Bishop, and so they "need" the Spirit to come from both Father and Son. In Eastern Orthodox thought, the equality of Son and Spirit is very important in that it's how they illustrate their structure of equal apostolic sees.

Those arguments don't mean a whole lot to us as Baptists because we reject that kind of hierarchy altogether. Here's what we need to take away from this:

  • The Spirit is not subordinate to the Father or Son. Any interpretation of this verse which makes the Spirit out to be an errand boy of God or an impersonal force by which God acts is wrong.

  • The Son is not subordinate to the Father. Any interpretation of this verse which results in the idea that there's some kind of divide between Father and Son, in the sense that the Son has limitations or the Father has priority is wrong.

God the Father, God the Son, and God the Spirit are each fully and equally God, and there is only one God. There is no distinction of the divine essence between them, but they are unique Persons who have assumed unique roles in how they relate to humanity and the cause of human salvation. One God, three Persons.


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