Inadequate Faith: The Absence of the Spirit

Read Genesis 1: 1-5, Mark 1: 1-11 and Acts 19: 1-7; then pray; Lord, open my eyes to see the truth of your Word, the wonder and work of the Holy Spirit, and the glory of Jesus your beloved Son. Amen.

As you read (heard) the three important lectionary readings today for this opening Sunday of 2024, did you spot the golden link between them? The golden link was the person and work of the Holy Spirit. We will be concentrating on the Acts reading today, but first allow me to introduce key points from Genesis and Mark which highlight the work, place, and power of the Holy Spirit, and help us to grasp the importance of Paul’s message and ministry to individuals within the great city of Ephesus.

Genesis is all about beginnings. It is the book of beginnings – and starts with the beginning of all things – of all creation – the creation of the heavens and the earth. And at the beginning we have the Spirit (2) present, waiting and ready to implement the word of God. The Spirit is centrally involved in all creative acts of God. The Spirit is God and the “breath” of God’s mouth. “By the word of the Lord were the heavens made, their starry host by the breath of his mouth.” (Psalm 33:6).

There is a mysterious sense in which, just as the Spirit hovered like a mother bird over darkness, chaos, and emptiness at the beginning, so now the Spirit can hover over a single human life trapped in darkness, and breathe into that life the light and life of God as the purpose of God dictates. Every time a person becomes a Christian, repents of their sin, and puts their faith in Jesus Christ for salvation, the Spirit comes, descends, and brings God’s creative life and light, which is why Paul can write these words to the Church at Corinth;

“The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. For we do not preach ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’s sake. For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness” made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.” (2 Corinthians 4:4-6)

Paul is teaching that for anyone to become a Christian (a new creation in Christ – 2 Cor 5:17) divine light and life must come into that person’s heart and mind through the powerful and purposeful creative work of the Spirit. That is what happens when someone becomes a Christian. The Spirit causes a person to be born again or created anew; (John 3:5) they receive a new heart, mind, nature, and life. New creation of a staggering order takes place within a single human life. “Let there be light” pronounces God – and the Spirit comes, and there is light – and a person now sees and understands the spectacular glory of God in Jesus. In the words of Charles Wesley; Thine eye diffused a quickening ray, I woke, the dungeon flamed with light. Becoming a Christian involves moving from the kingdom of darkness and into the Kingdom of light, which is the Kingdom of God’s dear Son – Jesus Christ. (Colossians 1:13) This is the work of the Holy Spirit – a work of tremendous new creation and liberation – a new beginning – a genesis within a human life for whom Christ gave his life.

Just as the Spirit was so involved and central to creation at the beginning as described in the first two verses of Genesis in the Old Testament, so we see the Spirit hovering once again at the beginning of the New Testament. This time, the Spirit overshadows a young virgin called Mary, and works powerfully to create the life of the Son of God within her womb. (Read Luke 1:30-37)

When Jesus was about to begin his earthly ministry, he was of course baptised by John the Baptist in the river Jordon. Down came the hovering Spirit like a dove from heaven so that Jesus could move out by the power of God’s Spirit into his ministry. But John spoke about the fact that he baptised with water, but the One who would come after him, a much Greater and Mightier Person, would baptise people with the HOLY SPIRIT. (Luke 3:15-16). So, right from the outset of the gospel, we are told that Jesus has come to die for his people’s sin, and to baptise them with the Holy Spirit.

Now we can approach this passage in Acts 19 where Paul meets twelve disciples “of John” and enables them to become twelve disciples of Jesus. And the conversation that Paul has with these men all revolves around the vital subject of the presence and knowledge of the Holy Spirit in their lives. Paul’s question to them (and to us) is of very great significance;

Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?

Paul is concerned that there is something amiss in the lives of these men. Their faith is lacking in some obvious way. Their faith and experience of God’s grace is inadequate. There is a shortfall, and Paul senses that the vital missing ingredient is the person of the Holy Spirit. They had grasped the importance of repentance, which John the Baptist always called for in his preaching, but they had not moved on to receiving the baptism of the Holy Spirit which Jesus himself promises and provides, along with forgiveness for sins. John baptised with water (repentance) but Jesus gives the baptism with the Spirit – and the Spirit’s fire comes through believing, receiving, and accepting Him as Saviour and Lord.

Paul introduces these men to Jesus, the mighty One promised by John. They receive the teaching and they go to then receive the Spirit as Paul prays for them with the laying on of hands. The men then move into the joyful reality of Pentecost (the generous outpouring and reception of the Holy Spirit). True Christians know the reality of Pentecost. Remember what the apostle Peter preached on the day of Pentecost?

Repent and be baptised every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off – for all whom the Lord our God will call. Acts 2: 38-39

So now we must face the question and give an honest answer:

Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?

How does that question make you feel, and how do you respond to Paul’s enquiry?

Do you respond positively with a “Yes?” Do you respond negatively? Or are you in some way unsure how to answer?

Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?

One thing is for certain. According to the New Testament, everyone who is a true Christian has the gift of the Spirit. Listen to the quote again from Acts 2:39 – you will receive the gift of the Spirit. According to the plain teaching of the NT, all genuine believers possess the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit lives within them. Christmas has reminded us of Immanuel – God with us. Pentecost goes a step further – God (the Holy Spirit) in us. Paul teaches this in Romans; You however are controlled not by the sinful nature but by the Spirit, if the Spirit of God lives in you. And if anyone does not have Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Christ. (8:9) Next week, I will continue exploring this same theme, and the key lesson will be seen through Paul’s teaching to the Corinthians where he quite clearly declares that the physical body of every Christian is the temple (the dwelling place) of the Holy Spirit. (1 Corinthians 6:19) Today we celebrate and renew our covenant, our relationship with God. But at the heart of the new covenant is the gracious gift of the Spirit to every believer. (Ezekiel 36:26-27, Acts 2:17f)

If the Spirit lives in you, if you have the Spirit, you will experience clear evidence of the Spirit’s presence within you. If God lives in you by His Holy Spirit – there must be evidence of that? There must be experience of that? Surely? There must be evidence of this new act of creation that has taken root within the heart and mind, and this new Divine presence now taking up residence in a human life?

This is why Paul felt he could legitimately ask this vital question; Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?

Let me now give you some of the evidence which allows a person to answer that question either affirmatively or negatively. There is limited time this week, so I will come back to it next week as well as we think about Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 6.

It is helpful to ask this question? Why does Jesus deem it necessary for his people to possess the Holy Spirit? Why doesn’t he forgive sins and leave out the Spirit? Why does Jesus baptise with the Holy Spirit? Why do we need the Spirit?

The first answer to that is that we need the Spirit because the Holy Spirit makes Jesus and his glorious truth and reality real in the human heart. The Spirit is given to communicate the reality of the presence of God with us and within us. The Spirit confirms that Jesus is God and that God loves us and lives within us. This is therefore the personal experiential side of Christianity. The Christian is one who can say that Jesus is my personal Saviour and Lord and that He lives within me through the power and presence of the Holy Spirit. The twelve men at Ephesus could not say that to Paul when they met him.  Can you say that? The Christian has a living, personal and loving relationship with God, who dwells inside them through the presence of the Spirit. Pentecost is real to them.

Secondly, but deeply connected to that first vital point of personal experience is personal assurance. Jesus gives us the Spirit to assure us of at least 3 crucial things;

  • Our sins have been totally forgiven and forgotten by God.
  • We are now the beloved children of God
  • We have eternal life

Right at the heart of the new covenant is this promise from God; “For I will forgive their wickedness and remember their sins no more.” (Jeremiah 31:34) The Spirit is given to assure us that we have been washed, cleansed, and completely forgiven and set free from the guilt of sin. The Spirit though also comes to personally tell us again and again that we are now children of God in an eternal familial sense, and that God is indeed “our Father.” Paul comforts the Romans with these words; For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship. And by him we cry “Abba Father.” The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are children of God. (Romans 8:15-16) And then the Spirit’s presence within us also acts as a guarantee, a downpayment, a precious first instalment of the eternal life to come. Again, Paul teaches; He anointed us, set his seal of ownership on us, and put his Spirit in our hearts as a deposit guaranteeing what is to come. (2 Corinthians 1:22)

Let me ask you again? Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed? Paul wanted the twelve men in our story to have this precious peace giving assurance of sins forgiven, the fatherhood of God and personal knowledge of eternal life. Do you possess assurance in these areas? This is what the Spirit brings to the disciples of Jesus.

There are other evidences of the Spirit’s presence because this is such a huge subject. There is bound to be the ongoing development and desire for holiness. Anyone who has the Holy Spirit living them must manifest this desire for holiness and the aim to be made into the likeness of Jesus. The Holy Spirit comes to make us holy, to change us, to transform us from the inside, and starts the whole process by giving us a new heart and a new nature. The fruit of His presence begins to be seen in us and grow in our characters. That fruit of the Spirit’s presence consists of a growth in love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. (Galatians 5:22) Likewise, the person with the Spirit inside them will want to see their sinful nature and its desire die away altogether as they embrace all the pure teaching of Jesus. As I will share next week, they know themselves to be the temple of the Holy Spirit, and as such, seek to honour God will their bodies and chosen lifestyles. The Spirit also places within them a passion and care for justice, peace, and righteousness. The true Christian is never indifferent to social justice for the poor and care for creation – the creation which the Spirit loves and sustains and which He continues to watch over. (Gen 1:2)

Other evidence for the Spirit’s presence will include a love and a very deep appreciation for the Word of God (the Bible), which the Spirit inspired in its entirety, and which is given that Christian faith and life is built up and strengthened. You cannot claim to have the Spirit living in you and at the same time have no or little interest in the Word of God which he brought into being. Spirit and Word always go together and complement one another. The Spirit also draws us into the privilege of a personal and joyful prayer life. The Spirit is the one who inspires and enables prayer. He helps us in our weakness and prays in us and through us. The Spirit also gives us a thirst and deep desire to be in fellowship with other believers, others who also have the same Spirit, so that the true Christian always sets their heart on being part of an active, vibrant, Word-centred, prayer-filled local Church. A Christian wants and needs fellowship “in the Spirit.” Finally, the Spirit also gives individuals a desire to be a witness, an eagerness to share their faith in Jesus. That is why the Spirit came, why the Spirit was given – to make us witnesses. A person with the Spirit in them cannot help but be a mouth piece for God. (Acts 1:8) The Spirit is a witness for Jesus – the Primary Witness – but those He fills are also inspired and instructed to be witnesses for Jesus and his kingdom. A missionary Spirit leads a missionary Church.

Paul wanted these things for the twelve in Ephesus. He wanted them to know the joy and the strengthening and encouraging power of the Word, of true prayer and of true Spirit-filled fellowship with others. We are deeply, organically connected in the Church through the presence and power and life of the Holy Spirit. Paul wanted the twelve to truly be part of the body of Christ. Listen to how he put this when he wrote to the Corinthians. (read 1 Corinthians 12: 12-13)

Have you drunk in the Spirit? Did you receive the Spirit when you believed? Has what I have explained about the reality of the Spirit’s presence in a human life resonated with you? Do you know the presence of God? Do you have assurance in the ways I have outlined? Are you hungry for holiness and Christlikeness? Do you love the Word of God? Is the bible your daily bread? Do you see prayer as a joy and privilege? Do you love to enter the presence of your Father in prayer? Can you by the Spirit address the Almighty as “your Father”? Do you feel a deep connection with other Christians so that being part of a Church is an absolute “must” for you? The Spirit in us points us in holy directions. This is something you know to be true if the Spirit lives within you. Did you receive the Spirit when you believed?

(Please note also that all the above evidences of the presence of the Spirit are intensified during a genuine period of religious revival because a revival is, by definition, a mighty outpouring and distribution of the Holy Spirit among a particular community of people.)

Now if your answer that question is “yes” – then I encourage you today, on this day of covenant renewal, to give thanks for the gift and the living presence of the Spirit in your life and to pray for more of the Spirits power and sanctifying influence within you throughout 2024. As Walter Chantry put it; “A great part of your prayer work should be imploring the Almighty for a greater measure of the Spirit.”

However, if you feel that you are not at all sure about the presence of the Spirit in your life, if you think that you are rather like these Ephesian disciples of John who had no real experience or knowledge of the Spirit, then the way forward is as follows. Listen to the encouragement of the Lord Jesus himself as it is given to us in Luke 11: 9-13. Let me read it to you.

If you genuinely ask, seek, and knock in prayer – God will surely answer you. God will always mercifully pour out the living water of His Spirit on any soul truly seeking and thirsting after the Spirit. Secondly, if still in doubt, call in the Pastor (me), and I will with great joy pray with you and for you, and like the apostle Paul, I will lay hands on you and pray for you to be filled with Spirit. Many are indeed filled with the Spirit in this way today – and may be this is what you feel you would welcome. If so, please talk to me.

One thing is crystal clear. There is no Christianity, genuine Christian joy and peace, life, grace, and power without the presence of the Holy Spirit. Do not ever be satisfied merely with an outward show of Christian ritual and symbols. Rather embrace and know and come to love and enjoy, what Jesus came to bring. The Christian’s birthright is to know and enjoy and walk with the presence and power of the Holy Spirit. Have you claimed your birthright? Paul led these twelve Ephesians into a perfect knowledge of theirs. What about you?

John said that he came to baptise with water, but the One following him, the Messiah, the Lamb of God, would indeed baptise with the Holy Spirit – and for very good reason. Jesus knew his servants would need the Spirit to live Christian life authentically, victoriously, with solid hope, moral power, endurance, peace, and everlasting joy.

Thank you, O my Father, for giving us your Son and leaving your Spirit till the work on earth is done. Amen!

Revd Peter J Clarkson (7.1.24)