We’re continuing in our series through Jesus’ farewell speech in John 14-17. So far, Jesus promised the Holy Spirit to those who love him and obey his teaching. The Spirit will be like Jesus – another advocate/counsellor who is God’s presence, with us and in us. But what’s the point of this presence? We now look at one of the most important functions of the Spirit: helping us to remember and put into practice Jesus’ teaching.
John 14:25-26 “All this I have spoken while still with you. 26 But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.”
The Holy Spirit will teach us ‘all things’. Don Carson points out that this can’t mean all things without exception:
“The Holy Spirit is not particularly concerned to impart to the disciples of Jesus an exhaustive knowledge of nuclear physics, astronomy, cell biology, the literature of Tanzania or the mating habits of the porcupine.” (Carson, The Farewell discourse, p.71.)
That would be to miss the point.
The ‘all things’ – in context – refers to all they need to know about the troubling events that were shortly to take place, and about the revelation of Jesus that they still didn’t understand.
And the Spirit’s role concerning ‘all things’ is to remind and to teach.
The Spirit was to remind the disciples of what Jesus had said beforehand: particularly those statements that pointed towards and explained his coming death. So that when they see the events happen, they will understand their significance.
John gave us one example of this back in chapter 12. Jesus enters riding on a donkey, which John links with a verse from Zechariah about the coming Messiah. However, at the time the disciples didn’t pick it up:
John 12:16 At first his disciples did not understand all this. Only after Jesus was glorified did they realize that these things had been written about him and that these things had been done to him.
This was to be the role of the Spirit: to interpret the events of Jesus’ death and resurrection by reminding the disciples of what Jesus had said beforehand. To recall what Jesus said at the appropriate time.
While we have the results of these recollections available to us first and foremost in the pages of the New Testament, it’s true that the Spirit continues to remind us of Jesus’ words at the appropriate time. Perhaps he brings to mind a verse of Scripture that helps us to resist temptation; or to encourage a person who is in difficulty; or to give us the courage and knowledge to tell others about Jesus. Again to quote Don Carson:
The Spirit “helps us to call to mind, as we need them, the words of Scripture we have first learnt. This blessed promise should not prompt us to think that we need not bother to learn what Scripture teachers; for the Spirit can scarcely enable us to remember what we have never read nor heard. But this promise can remove the pressure of the fear of personal failure in our witness: the Spirit of God is perfectly able to help us remember what we need to know.” (Carson, The Farewell discourse, p.74.)
In addition to reminding the disciples of what Jesus had said, the Spirit would also teach Jesus’ first disciples. He would guide them in applying Jesus’ teaching to new and different situations as they brought the gospel message to the nations, and as they established communities of faith throughout the world. This is, in effect, an assurance from Jesus himself that the teaching of his apostles would be inspired by God.
We have been given much of this teaching, in the form of our New Testament. This is why we shouldn’t expect to be given new authoritative teaching from the Holy Spirit today. However, the Spirit still works in helping us to apply these principles from Scripture into our own culture and context.
When I (or any Christian teacher) preach sermons or write bible studies like this one, I don’t do it just as some guy who can explain stuff. I write as the Spirit guides me in understanding; guiding my thoughts, as he guided the thoughts of the scholars who wrote the commentaries I read.
And you don’t read the bible just as an ordinary reader responding to an ordinary text. If you are a follower of Jesus, you read the Bible with the understanding of the Spirit alongside you and within you.
Not ‘insider information’
Now you may notice that the focus here is on a correct understanding of what God has already revealed to us – not on receiving a brand new revelation. The primary role of the HS in guiding us is to help us apply God’s existing revelation to our lives. For the disciples, that existing revelation was the OT and the words of Jesus; for us, it is the whole Bible.
By and large, the Spirit is not in the business of giving us special knowledge. And particularly not ‘insider information’ about choices we have to make. Sometimes we can view our life as a game show, where every so often we have to choose what’s behind door number one, two, or three. We then go running to God for these big decisions, looking for ‘inside information’ so we know what door to choose – which one will lead to wealth, happiness, and success. Whom should I marry? Which job should I take? What car should I buy?
Asking for God’s wisdom on these things is not wrong, of course. But the issue is more one of motivation. Are we asking God because we genuinely want the best opportunity to glorify him through our choices? Or do we seek God’s guidance because we’re looking for the option that guarantees happiness and avoids hardship?
A decade ago – when I was in the middle of writing a sermon on this very passage – someone called me, wanting guidance from God on which building contractor they should go with. (She needed advice, because she and her husband had both been told by the Holy Spirit to go with different contractors, and she wanted to break the deadlock…) Now I wouldn’t go as far as to say that God doesn’t care about these kinds of decisions; but a lot of the time he leaves them up to us and our own common sense that he has given us. And the common sense of those around us. Much of the time there probably isn’t a ‘right answer’ – like when it comes to what cereal I choose for breakfast, what colour I paint my walls, and whether or not I use the Oxford comma.*
Now there are a few cases in the Bible where someone receives a particular guidance from the Holy Spirit. And all of these relate to bigger themes than jobs, houses, and earthly things. They relate to something dear to the heart of the Holy Spirit: the spread of the gospel. Peter was led by the Spirit to explain the gospel to a non-Jew for the first time (Acts 10). The the council of Jerusalem (Acts 15) was guided to accept Gentile converts to Christianity without imposing upon them the law of Moses. Paul was prevented by the Spirit from entering one region so he could preach the gospel in Macedonia… This is what it’s about.
Let’s summarise the week…
The Holy Spirit, then, acts as Jesus’ substitute, or ‘replacement’, by continuing Jesus’ mission. As verse 26 says, he is ‘the Spirit whom the Father will send in my name’. He is to remind the disciples of what Jesus said beforehand, so that they will understand the true significance of his life, death, and resurrection. He is to teach them about the new order which Jesus’ ministry brought in, and how it should be made evident in the church. He is to oversee the compilation of this teaching into what we know today as the New Testament. And he is still at work in us: reminding us of Scripture, helping us to continue to apply it today, and guiding us so that we can fulfil our calling as God’s agents in the world today.
* Just kidding. The Oxford comma is clearly God-breathed.