The Holy Spirit

By Rev. David A Moffat

“Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes. So is everyone who is born of the Spirit.” (John 3:5-8)

Having grown up within the New Church, I find that my knowledge of the Holy Spirit has been sketchy at best. In our zeal to teach that God is one, not three separate persons, I think the Holy Spirit has often been a difficult topic of discussion. We are unsure how we should talk about it, whilst preserving the essential unity of God. Nevertheless, the Holy Spirit is a Biblical principle we cannot ignore. And it has been while reading and studying John’s gospel that the Holy Spirit has come into focus for me. So I want to look particularly at Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus in John chapter 3, drawing from it three things I have learned about the Holy Spirit.

What is the Holy Spirit?

There are two particularly important words in our Bibles which are translated as, “spirit”. The Greek word is “pneuma”, the Hebrew, “ruwach”. Both may also be translated, “wind” or “breath” (the Greek gives us the English word, “pneumatic”). These words give us a vital clue to the nature and function of the Holy Spirit. In Genesis chapter 2, the culmination of the creation story, God creates man on the sixth day, giving him the “breath of life” (verse 7). In our first reading this morning, we heard the same thing occur: Ezekiel sees a valley of dry bones, brought together and enclosed with flesh, yet they do not truly live until they are given breath (Ezekiel 37:9,10).

These passages show us that wind in the natural world corresponds to the Holy Spirit – that is, they teach us something about God. They teach us that just as the drawing of breath causes the physical body to live, so the activity of the Holy Spirit in the human soul brings us spiritual life. We can affirm this by reading verse 14 of Ezekiel chapter 37: “I will put my Spirit in you, and you shall live.” (read verses 11-14 for the full impact of those words). Jesus used this same analogy in John 3:8 when he said, “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes. So is everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

It is endlessly fascinating to me that as human beings, we seem to need adversity in order to grow. But the Holy Spirit is active in the face of adversity and crisis. We read in Matthew’s gospel:

“Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves. Therefore be wise as serpents and harmless as doves. But beware of men, for they will deliver you up to councils and scourge you in their synagogues. You will be brought before governors and kings for My sake, as a testimony to them and to the Gentiles. But when they deliver you up, do not worry about how or what you should speak. For it will be given to you in that hour what you should speak; for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father who speaks in you. (Matthew 10:16-20; also Mark 13)

Now, these words certainly have a natural, historical reality to them. As far as we know, every one of the disciples died at the hands of persecutors determined to stamp out this new Christian faith. The apostle John was the only exception. But they also apply to us, and they really hit home when we read them spiritually. You see, when we begin down the road of faith, part of us is resistant. When we first entertain thoughts of belief, our worldly reasoning kicks into action with its doubts and challenges: “Surely the things claimed for this many Jesus are just not possible? Surely it is all just a nice fairy story, a myth? How can we believe something so clearly imaginative? That is for simple fools to follow, we are so much more knowledgeable these days!” We think ourselves so clever, so rational, yet it is not actually our rationality which opposes the new teaching, it is our will. Our old motivation senses the changes this new belief could effect in us, and stirs our mind to defeat the fledgling belief with natural arguments. But in every person who meets this crisis, a secret weapon is already waiting in the wings: the Holy Spirit. If we are prepared to follow its leading, these objections can be answered in time. And in so doing, our lives can be transformed. The Lord provides us with all the tools we will need to bring about the happiness of heavenly life.

It is spiritual fruit which indicate the work of the Holy Spirit, not spiritual gifts.

Peppered throughout John’s gospel we find very many strange responses to questions, and Nicodemus comes in for his fair share. On the surface, Jesus seems to have been adept at avoiding the question. In fact his answer, here as always, points to deeper realities. When Nicodemus said, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him,” (John 3:2), Jesus replies, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” (John 3:3) Nicodemus must have been puzzled by this response, and it continues to intrigue readers today. To explain this further, let us turn to the writing of Paul.

In 1 Corinthians 12, Paul lists the gifts of the Spirit as, the word of wisdom, the word of knowledge, faith, healings, miracles, prophecy, discerning of spirits, different kinds of tongues, and the interpretation of tongues. (1 Corinthians 12:8-10 – there is no indication that this is an exhaustive list, by the way). Then in Galatians chapter 5, he lists what he calls the “fruit of the Spirit”: love, joy, peace, long-suffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22,23).

In my few years in ministry I have met many amazing people and witnessed many of the gifts of the Spirit. Sometimes I have been left wondering why a particular person has been given a particular gift, when they seem to me (in my limited capacity to judge) to be living a life which is far from spiritually mature. If you have seen the film Amadeus, you will have seen the composer Salieri contemplating much the same problem – why is this young upstart Mozart able to produce the most sublime, uplifting music when he is so plainly an immoral brigand?! Surely the fine, upstanding, religious Salieri is a much more suitable recipient for such a gift? Surely such gifts go hand in hand with righteous maturity? No, they clearly do not. Salieri is driven to the depths of depravity because he made the wrong assumption. Gifts of the Spirit are nothing more than abilities we may possess. Like all true gifts, they come without a price. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus makes one thing quite clear: it is by the fruit of their lives that we may get some insight into the spiritual character of another, not their abilities.

Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes from thornbushes or figs from thistles? Even so, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Therefore by their fruits you will know them. (Matthew 7:15-20)

My error is also made on a grand scale by many modern churches. Many believe, even demand, that the true sign of the working of the Holy Spirit is an ability to speak words of prophecy, or in foreign tongues. But nothing could be further from the truth. The reality is that the Holy Spirit is active in the life of every single individual on this planet. Spiritual gifts are given to some, but each gift should be focused upon the production of spiritual fruit in our lives. Every spiritual ability or gift is given to the end that our lives may be abundant with love, joy, peace, etc. These are the true result of what Swedenborg calls regeneration, termed “rebirth” in John chapter 3. Spiritual maturity may be observed only in these fruit, not in any psychic or spiritual ability.

This was Nicodemus’ mistake. He assumed that Jesus must have been “a teacher come from God” purely on the basis of the miraculous signs he performed. It is true that Jesus appealed to these signs at times, but here was a man who was ready for deeper teaching: “unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” No gift can show us the spiritual character of another. A person may well be given the gift of prophecy or healing – the question is, to what end does he use it?

The Holy Spirit cannot be bottled.

For my final point we will return to Jesus’ words, “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes. So is everyone who is born of the Spirit.” (John 3:8)

Like many of you, I receive a regular stream of emails from friends – words of wisdom, jokes and the like. Very often these simply annoy me, but on the odd occasion, I find some inspiration. Recently I received one such email, claiming to be an address given by Steve Jobs, CEO and cofounder of the Apple computer company. He talked about his college experience. Having some time spare, Jobs cast around his college handbook, looking for a course he thought he would enjoy, and settled upon calligraphy. He related how he learned all about serifs (the fancy bits on some letters and fonts), and kerning (the unique spacing between certain letter pairs). Years later, when Apple began to produce computers, he brought this knowledge of calligraphy to the computers he and Steve Wozniak designed. This one college course, taken on an off chance, was responsible for our modern computers being able to set their type in an attractive, readable fashion.

This is the way of the Holy Spirit. You cannot plan that sort of creative initiative. You can only be open to its possibilities and act upon them when they present themselves. It reminds me of the story of Moses, when he asked to see God. The Lord said that he could only see him in the back (Exodus 33:12-23). It reflects the way we see the Holy Spirit’s activity in our lives. I can look back over my life and recognise the Lord’s guidance in my journey. I can see all the unique experiences which have brought me to this point. But when I look to the future, I cannot see where I will be in five or ten years time. Yes, I can plan and I can guess, but nothing substitutes for simply being open to Divine inspiration and leading. It is just as well: the Lord has a future planned out for us which exceed even our wildest imaginings, if only we will trust and follow Him.

Now, I am afraid that even knowing this, I get impatient. I meet individuals who are so obviously miserable, who I fervently believe I can help, but who are nevertheless closed to any possibility other than what they see in front of them. To me, the truth seems blindingly obvious, yet they are unable to see or accept it. The same is true of the church sometimes. I have so many ideas which I know are worthwhile, so many insights into how the church must move ahead, but sometimes it seems to me that no one is prepared to listen or accept my suggestions. But I forget one important thing: it is not my job to effect change in the life of any individual or organisation, it is the work of the Holy Spirit. And it may be me who needs to change.

Only the Lord can know the true spiritual state of any person. Only He can see what a person needs in order to grow at any given time. I may think I know, but I cannot do this with any certainty. We are taught that every person is only given to know a truth which he can maintain to the end of his life. So before a person is ready to accept and practice a truth and all its implications for their lives, he is protected from it by shear ignorance. This is a mercy, because to learn something and still go against it is a great curse. Furthermore, to see all of my faults would be a great weight I would be unable to bear. This being the case, I have to accept that the Lord’s timing is crucial to a person’s spiritual development. Many experiences may be needed, many lessons may have to be learned before the principles I hold so dear can be fully recognised and practised. I either cooperate with that, or I stand in its way. My impatient insistence that any person or group should learn what I have to teach them is arrogant in the extreme. I can hear the Lord’s words to Nicodemus ringing in my ears, “Are you the teacher of Israel and do not know these things?” (John 3:10)

In conclusion, here are today’s main points again. The Holy Spirit is the activity of God within every person, striving towards our spiritual growth. We should be careful not to confuse any ability with spiritual maturity, which can only be observed in the fruits of the spirit. And we cannot predict or control the Holy Spirit’s action in our lives or in that of any other person.

“Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes. So is everyone who is born of the Spirit.” (John 3:5-8)