The Promise of the Spirit

After his resurrection Jesus gathered his disciples to give them his parting instructions and pass on his mission. Each of the gospel writers summarise his words a little differently but they all include what Luke calls “the promise of the Father” (Luke 24).

Matthew records it as a promise that Jesus would be with them until the end of the age, Mark that their preaching would be accompanied by miracles. Luke speaks about them being “clothed with power” and John tells how Jesus acted out what would happen to them soon after by breathing on them and telling them to “receive the Spirit.” (Matthew 28, Mark 16, Luke 24, John 20).

Jesus was reminding them of what he’d already been at great pains to teach them. In order to complete the task he had given them, making disciples of all kinds of people, they needed the Holy Spirit.

He was clear with them that even after he had gone back to be with God, they shouldn’t launch straight on with the task he gave them, but should wait for the Holy Spirit, who he’d called their “helper”.

On the face of it this seems a bit strange. If my manager at work gave me an important task to do and there was a sense of urgency about it, my natural inclination would be to get straight on with it, or at least find out which of the rest of my work I can stop doing so I have time to do what she needs. I would be confused if after giving me the task, spelling out what needs to be done, and impressing the urgency of it on me, she then made it clear that under no circumstances was I to start. I was to sit tight and wait for someone to help me. I’m sure I’d appreciate help, but I’d feel faintly patronised. Surely I can start, at least, even if I need some other resources?

The disciples have been given a really important job to do, with a sense of supreme urgency about it. They have a whole world to tell about Jesus, why wouldn’t they just get on with it?

Jesus was emphatic. “Don’t go yet, you can’t start without everything you need, so wait until you’ve got it all.” He is like a drill sergeant, surveying his fresh—and slightly deluded—new recruits who are raring to race into a mock battle. The sergeant cautions them against rushing straight in, until he’s given them each some basic training and their weapon. We can be a lot like that, eager to surge ahead without picking up the basic equipment we need to be effective.

 “Receiving the Spirit” was all that they were going to need. If we want to follow Jesus and fulfil his mission, presumably we need that too.

A couple of years before, Jesus and his disciples were at the Feast of Booths. This was when the Jewish people remembered God providing water for them when there were wandering in the desert, and it was when they looked forward to the Spirit being poured out like water in the future. On the last day of this festival, Jesus stood up in the Temple courts and shouted:

If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, “Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.”

John 7

Everyone was dismantling the structures they had built for the festival and getting ready to return home. Jesus was saying “the water you’ve been celebrating is available all the time, and the eventual gift of the Spirit you’re expecting has arrived. You can get it through me.” It’s an enormous claim.

It’s a very simple statement, but we learn a lot about the promise that the disciples had to wait for. Firstly this promise is for anyone. Which means what it looks like it does—anyone means anyone. It can be really easy to exclude ourselves for one reason or another, but if you are a person (which, if you weren’t sure, you definitely are) then Jesus’ promise to make your heart bubble up with running water is for you.

Secondly you have to be thirsty. That’s the only precondition, Jesus doesn’t require anything extra from us. We don’t have to be especially holy or spiritual; we simply need to want it. We all know that burning feeling in your throat on a hot day, when you’re absolutely parched and the longer you go on without a drink the less effective you are at anything you try to do. Then when you finally get your hands on a long cold drink of water, it’s like a balm to your soul. You feel refreshed and desperate for more. The Spirit is like this. All we need to receive him to recognise our need and take what’s being offered. We will find ourselves more refreshed than we knew possible and desperate for more.

It sounds easy enough, but how do I go about thirsting? It’s the same as with a drink: you need to know that you need it and you need to want to get it. I have been happy to find that by asking “how do I thirst?” you will find that you are thirsting.

Only scoffing has the power to make our dry hearts seem wet. Only seeing our spiritual drought is required to be given power to make our hearts into fountains. Those who thirst are sated, those who do not thirst wither. This is the strange logic of the kingdom.

Thirdly you have to come and drink. In order to receive we have to do something, it isn’t automatic. But it isn’t hard either, it’s as simple as moving over to someone and drinking some water. It requires a desire to receive—a thirst—but no special status, particular actions or magic words. It’s not like receiving a bonus at work, where you have to meet a target; or like graduating where you have to pass some exams; or even like buying a drink where you have to have found the money from somewhere.

It’s a bit more like going to someone else’s house and being fed. You have to turn up, but they look after everything else. And with Jesus, he’s not looking for a return invite.

If we accept that we’re part of ‘anyone’, if we want it, and if we’re willing to come to him for it, he promises that he will turn our hearts from dry stony riverbeds into rivers of running water.

Later with his disciples Jesus told them that after he had ‘gone away’, by which he meant be crucified, descend to the dead, walk out the grave, and ascend to heaven, he would send to them a “Helper,” the Holy Spirit (John 14). Jesus said that they would know him already and that it would be like Jesus himself was with them. As Terry Virgo loves to say, they would turn to each other and say, “Jesus is back!” even though he wouldn’t be physically next to them anymore.

He also told them that it was actually better that he go, so that he could send the Spirit. This must have been astonishing to be told—almost impossible to believe. It’s right there on the pages of the book where every word is true, and I struggle to believe it.

Jesus was still stood in front of them and they loved him dearly. The idea that him going away would be better for them somehow must have sounded like a bad break-up line, “it’s better this way, it’s not you, it’s me.” But after the Spirit had come to live in each one of them they would have started to understand. After he comes to dwell in us, we begin to understand.

So, how on earth is it better? For the disciples, receiving the Spirit was like Jesus was with them again. Except as they travelled around and spread across the earth, as they’ve been told to, he was still with each one of them. He could now be everywhere, including inside each of their hearts and minds speaking tenderly to them and empowering them for the next test.

To me it sounds too good to be true, but that’s the gospel. Jesus promises that the Spirit will live in us, and that therefore Jesus will live in us.

The promise is universal, it’s intended for everyone. And remember—however cheesy it might sound to repeat—everyone means you.

The promise is available. It’s just part of the normal Christian life. It’s what we need to get on with what Jesus has asked us to do.

So, drink deeply, friends.

Photo by Chinh Le Duc on Unsplash

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