One of Jesus’ most startling statements is found in John 14:12: “Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father.” How can this possibly be true?
If we only had this verse to go on, the question would forever remain an unsolvable enigma. Fortunately, John does not leave us in the dark. Jesus’ departure opens the way for another agent, the Holy Spirit, to burst on the scene and offer supernatural help to the disciples. The Spirit will be a new helper (an “advocate”), who will remind them of all the things Jesus taught during his ministry, convict the world of sin, righteousness and judgment and guide them into all truth (John 14:16-17, 26; 15:26; 16:7-8, 13-15). And that is not all.
We also know that the Spirit takes residence in the hearts of men and women who have accepted Christ. The Spirit helps us resist sin, empowers for ministry, assists in prayer. The Spirit ennobles the human soul, transforms us into the image of Christ and enables us to love and to serve others (Rom. 8:26; 15:16; 1 Cor. 6:11, 19; 2 Cor. 1:22; 5:5; Gal. 3:2; 1 Thess. 1:5-6, etc.)
Many will counter that their experience of the Spirit does not even come close to what Jesus may be hinting at. For them, these words seem foreign, unreal and deeply inconsistent with their own lives. Who are the people doing these “greater things”? Where are the signs of such manifestations today?
Doing “Greater” Things
I have always been impressed by charismatic Christians. They seem to have and live with an awareness of the Spirit that is, frankly, puzzling to someone like me. About 30 years ago, I had lunch with Rev. Canon Dr. Michael Green, a self-declared charismatic, New Testament scholar and prolific author. In 2004, he published I Believe in the Holy Spirit, a book that offers extraordinary insights into the ministry of the Spirit.
Green, who recently passed away at the age of 79, was the kind of person who had a powerful impact on every person he met. Though he was not a man of large stature, he was bigger than life. He was an exceptional teacher and a compelling preacher. Above all, he was an evangelist who delighted in engaging people about Jesus. He used his many talents and effervescent personality to train countless people in how to defend the Christian faith and lead others to Christ. He was filled and energized by what can only be described as the power of the Spirit.
I was so inspired by Michael Green that I wondered whether I could experience more of the elusive presence of the Spirit if I tried to be a little more like him. But I soon realized that any attempt to emulate this great man would result in abject failure, as I did not have Green’s outgoing personality nor did I possess his intellectual and oratory skills.
So where does that leave us? Does the Spirit energize only those men and women who have the Michael Green personality profile?
The Purpose of the Spirit’s Power
The Old Testament offers an important insight into this question. In the few instances where the Spirit is linked to specific individuals, the Spirit is given to enable them to complete tasks that were humanly impossible but necessary for the advancement of God’s project. In Samson’s case, for instance, the Spirit manifests himself by giving Samson superhuman strength to harass the Philistines who were at that time oppressing the Israelites (Judges 13:25; 14:6; 14:19; 15:14).
While Samson’s experience of the Spirit may seem strange to us, it is important to remember that the manifestation of the Spirit is always adapted to the cultural and historical context in which it occurs. The key to identifying how the Spirit will manifest himself lies in determining what needs to be done to advance God’s project in any particular situation whether it pertains to an individual or a community.
On a personal level, we all need the power of the Spirit to live with moral integrity and courage, two qualities that are desperately needed but are in short supply these days. It is always easier to go along with whatever the predominant culture is peddling than to challenge it. Deception and falsehood only take center stage when good men and women remain silent.
“… the manifestation of the Spirit is always adapted to the cultural and historical context in which it occurs.”
Churches also need to think carefully about how they respond to the world’s (as the apostle John would say) relentless colonizing impulse. Secular humanism, an ideology that reduces men and women to the level of smart animals, leaving them without a meaningful past and no hope for the future, is doing irreparable damage to our society and especially so to our young people. While I do not expect Christian leaders to become professional philosophers, the time may well come for them to become a little more savvy with respect to understanding and challenging the destructive ideological shifts we are witnessing.
Those who feel that the world is spinning out of control may well be right. Human beings cannot live without a deep sense of the transcendent and the conviction that there is a personal God who loves them and has a future for them. Men and women live and die by the ideas they hold to be true. If we believe humanity is strictly the outcome of a mindless evolutionary process, we will see people as parasites to be eliminated or as tools to be used for the so called Greater Good. In that respect, it is worth noting that in the 20th century, atheistic regimes caused the death of nearly 100 million people. If, however, human beings are, as the Bible proclaims, the most precious of all the creatures God made, created in his image, that will entail entirely different implications for how we build our communities and treat each other.
If the kingdom of God is to expand despite these destructive trends, these issues must be addressed by men and women who are filled and energized by the Spirit of God.
Discerning and Proclaiming Truth
The importance of truth cannot be overstated. Truth provides an indispensable insight into reality and produces life. Falsehood creates chaos and generates death. Nothing is more important than proclaiming truth, for it is the source and sustainer of everything that is good. Little wonder it occupies so much real estate in Scripture.
Jesus describes himself as the Way, the Truth, and the Life (John 14:6). In John 3:21, he states that “whoever lives by the truth, comes into the light.…” In 8:32, he adds, “Then you will know the truth and the truth will set you free.” When Jesus tells his disciples about the helper who will come, he describes him as the “Spirit of Truth” (John 14:16-17, see also 15:26; 16:13; 1 John 5:6).
While no aspect of the Spirit’s work should be neglected, I am more convinced now than ever that in these troubled times, what we need most is the ability to discern truth and persuasively proclaim it. Does this sound like an impossible task? Absolutely! And there lies our hope, as this also signals an opportunity for the Holy Spirit to act.
What about those who express skepticism about the reality of the Spirit today? First, we must remember that the work of the Spirit is not the stuff of headline news. While it is real, it is rarely visible to the casual observer. Second, we should never lose sight of the importance of human free will when it comes to the work of the Spirit in our lives.
The Holy Spirit does not compel. His influence is subtle, more like a light breeze than a hurricane. The Spirit gently invites and graciously nudges us to act. Christians who choose to feed the dark impulses of human nature will grieve the Spirit and seriously curtail his ability to express his presence (Eph. 4:30). To be effective, the Spirit requires our constant cooperation.
Michael Green had a most remarkable impact for the kingdom of God, not primarily because of his extraordinary skills and personality, but because he allowed God’s Spirit to fill his heart and his soul. By doing so, the Spirit not only heightened his sensitivity to the spiritual world around him but also amplified the effectiveness of the great talents God entrusted to him.
“Be very careful, then, how you live—not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil. Therefore, do not be foolish, but understand what the Lord’s will is. Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit. Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Eph. 5:15-20).
[Pierre Gilbert is Adjunct Professor of Biblical Studies at MB Seminary and Associate Professor of Bible and Theology at Canadian Mennonite University.