The sending of the new covenant Spirit by the risen Christ
Last Sunday, Gail and I worshiped at the large Winnipeg church in which our daughter and son in law are very involved. During the sermon, the pastor commented on Jesus’ statement to his disciples (Jn 16:7) that it would be better if he left them and returned to the Father, because only then could the Spirit come. The pastor said that he did not know why Jesus (the Son) and the Spirit could not be here at the same time.
At that point, I felt the urge to put my hand up and offer some help, but I restrained myself. The pastor may not have intended it, but I got the impression that he thought the Spirit and Jesus were not here at the same time. They were, for the Spirit was active in the old covenant. In this regard, I think that Sinclair Ferguson has written very helpfully, in his book The Holy Spirit. He points out that Isaiah 63:7-14 reflects on the Exodus with explicit reference to the activity of the Spirit. Isaiah asked:
“Where is the one who brought Israel through the sea, with Moses as their shepherd? Where is the one who sent his Holy Spirit to be among his people? Where is the one whose power divided the sea before them . . . .As with cattle going down into a peaceful valley, the Spirit of the Lord gave them rest.”
The Spirit led and guided the people into the blessing of the covenant (Isa 63:14), and Ferguson writes: “What in the New Testament, Christ gives through the work of the Spirit (Mt 11:28-30), in the Old Testament God gives proleptically in the figure (type) of the Exodus and the entrance into the land through the same Spirit” (Ferguson, 24 [emphasis mine]). In rebelling against God, it was the Spirit that the people grieved, and it is the Spirit who redeems them. The Spirit was at work in the moral ordering of the people, in “personal renewal of a moral and spiritual nature” (Ferguson, 25).
In this light Ferguson views David’s concern that he might lose the Spirit (Ps 51:11), as a result of his adultery. This is more than a plea not to lose his anointing for office, for he pleads that he not be cast from the Lord’s presence and asks that the joy of salvation be restored to him (vss 10,12) (Ferguson, 24). David probably did fear the fate of Saul (1 Sam 16:14), “but on his lips the prayer has a personal-subjective-soteriological, and not merely an official-objective-theocratic, orientation. It is personal fellowship with God, not merely the security of his monarchy, that concerns him here. For David, the presence of the Spirit and the possession of salvation and its joy are correlative” (Ferguson, 24-25).
The moral and spiritual characteristics which the New Testament indicates are produced by the Holy Spirit, such as the fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5:22-23), are already found in Old Testament believers who are set before New Testament believers as examples of justification by faith (e.g., Abraham in Rom 4), but also of the life of faith (e.g., Heb 11:1ff; Jas 2:14-26; 5:17-18).
Thus Ferguson rightly concludes that “such exhibitions of the presence of the saving fruit of the Spirit argue for the presence of his soteriological ministry in the old covenant as well as in the new” (25). Similarly, Douglas Oss notes “clear instances in which the inner-transforming work of the Spirit is implied. For example, God commands the Israelites to circumcise their hearts (Lev 26:41; Deut 10:16; cf. Rom 2:28-29); the Israelites are said to have grieved God’s Holy Spirit in the desert through their rebellion (Isa 63:10-11); the Old Testament repeatedly asserts that God honors a humble and contrite spir (e.g., 2 Sam 22:28; 2 Kings 22:19; 2 Chron 7:14; Pss 25:9; 51:17; Isa 57:15; 66:2); the Spirit gives both moral instruction and guidance (Neh 9:20; Ps 143:10)” (in Grudem, Are Miraculous Gifts for Today?, 246). God commands the Israelites “to rid themselves of immorality and acquire a new heart and a new spirit (Ezek 18:31),” but Oss also notes that the Old Testament anticipates a future new age “in which the transformative work of the Spirit will become a universal reality among God’s people” (246).
Jesus’ discussion with Nicodemus in John 3 indicates that “Nicodemus should have been able to understand the need for a work of renewal, and the promise of a new covenant in which it would be effected, from his Hebrew Bible (John 3:7). He should not have been surprised. Already in the old covenant the Lord circumcised the hearts of the people (Deut 30:6)” (Ferguson, 25).
Of course, I concur with Ferguson that all of this does not diminish the epochal development from the old to the new covenant, which Paul describes in 2 Corinthians 3, specifically with reference to the ministry of the Spirit (Ferguson, 26). Nevertheless,
it was through the Spirit’s work that the disciples had come to know who Jesus really was, the Christ, the Son of the Living God. So, in John 16, I think that Jesus’ point was that the disciples experience of the Holy Spirit, at that time, was an old covenant experience. But Jesus had come to establish the new covenant, which he inaugurated in his blood (Lk 22:21). The Spirit was not going to more present after Pentecost than he was before. But he was going to be present differently – present as the Spirit of the new covenant, not compensating for Christ’s absence but making the risen Christ present in us (through our union with Christ by the Spirit) and among us.
So, there was important progress in redemptive history, and it was in that regard that Jesus had to do his atoning work, establishing the new covenant in his blood, and ascending to the right hand of the Father, before the Father and the Son could send the Spirit, baptizing believers into Christ and into the new covenant community, the church.
The “greater deeds” than Jesus did, that believers in Jesus now do
From time to time, over many months now, Gail and I have been listening to John Piper’s sermon series on the Gospel of John. Today, we heard him preach on John 14:12-14, and I was struck by a nice coincidence between Piper’s remarks and my thoughts concerning the sermon we heard last week which mentioned John 16:7.
[Incidentally, I speak of “coincidence” or of things occurring “coincidentally,” as a way of referring to a particular form of God’s providential working. This is also true when I speak of things happening “fortunately,” or “unfortunately” (or “happily” and “unhappily”), by which I refer to events that bring happiness or unhappiness, but all of which come about in and through the comprehensive providence of God.]
Jesus told his disciples that because he was going to the Father, those who believe in him would do the works that he did, “and, in fact, greater works” (Jn 14:12). I liked the approach that Piper took to this text, which correlated nicely with my thoughts above regarding John 16:7. He pointed out that the deeds which Jesus did in the Father’s name bore testimony to Jesus’ identity (Jn 10:25), just as the good deeds we do because of the light of God within us give honor to the Father in heaven (Mt 5:16). But in what sense are the deeds all believers do greater than the works done by Jesus? Here, Piper referred his congregation to the sermon he had preached at Easter this year, in which he had spoken about John 20:22-23. Piper understands Jesus’ breathing on the disciples, in the same way I do, as a parabolic action, proleptically describing what he was going to do to them at Pentecost, when he sent the Holy Spirit upon them. Their reception of the Spirit would equip them to announce the forgiveness of sins on the basis of Christ’s finished work on the cross and in the resurrection. This was something Christ himself could not do during his public ministry prior to his crucifixion. It is the particular privilege and blessing that believers in Christ experience with the reception of the Holy Spirit.
The Spirit with whom Christ baptizes us is, as to his identity, the same Spirit who had been at work in the lives of the disciples before Pentecost, the Spirit who worked in all old covenant believers. But, the Spirit’s own work had been significantly shaped by Christ’s atoning work. Having completed that work, Christ was able to return to his place of glory at the right hand of the Father and, from there, to send upon all who believe in him the Spirit of the risen Christ, the one who came, not to compensate for Jesus’ absence but to make Christ present to us, the one whose indwelling of us unites us to Christ as members of his body.
It is a great thing to live within the new covenant, having learned of Jesus, believed in him through the Spirit’s illumination and enablement, and having been baptized with the new covenant Spirit, the Spirit of the risen Christ. It is to these blessings that we are able to give testimony in ways that were impossible, even for Jesus, until he had done his work as Israel’s Messiah and the world’s Savior and King.