Life in the Power of the Holy Spirit 1

The doctrine of the Holy Spirit is the source of much joy for many Christians throughout the ages. Unfortunately it has also been the source of much debate. Over the next few weeks I will write about a balanced biblical practical theology of ministry in the power of the Holy Spirit. Every believer lives and ministers in the power of the Holy Spirit. Ministry in the power of the Holy Spirit is the process of growing in active dependence on the Holy Spirit for the assurance of salvation, personal sanctification, empowering for Christian ministry and corporate identity in obedience to Scripture. I hope to expand this definition in a practical and encouraging way.

The Metanarrative of the Promise of the Holy Spirit and its Fulfilment

The New Covenant teaching on the work of the Spirit comes into clearer focus when considered within the broader literary context of the biblical redemption narrative. Throughout redemptive history the Holy Spirit has been actively at work as the third person of the Trinity. Yet as the redemptive story unfolds ‘promise and fulfilment’ language is introduced. The Spirit of God remains active throughout the Old Testament yet with the promise to be manifest in a remarkably different way with the coming of the awaited Messiah. This biblical meta-narrative is fuel for anticipating and appreciating the work of the Spirit for the New Covenant believer. It also provides the context for accurate interpretation of the work of the Spirit within the New Testament Scriptures.

Who is the Holy Spirit?

The Old Testament affirms the oneness of God and makes clear the violation of idolatry[1]. Yet the Bible defines God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Since God is one and three persons the Holy Spirit is equated with God[2]. He has the incommunicable attributes of God[3]. He therefore has been actively doing the work of God. This work stretches across the old and new covenants.

How did the Old Testament Believers Experience the Spirit?

There is much continuity and discontinuity between the covenants. In the opening chapters of the Bible the “Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters”[4]. Very early on in the redemptive drama we are introduced to a worn out character called Moses. Moses encounters the inexhaustible power of God through a burning bush[5]. Similarly a wondering Israel experienced the Holy Spirit on a mountain[6], then through the Tent of Meeting[7] and finally through the Temple[8] as it became the place that God dwelled. The common thread, not without exception, is that the presence of God was experienced in a physical location to lead and aid his people.

The exceptions where unique individuals who experienced the Spirit of God for certain task and mostly for a limited time. Bezaleel for artistic work[9], Samson for strength[10], Gideon for leadership[11], David for leadership[12] and the prophets to prophecy. The Spirit of God was experienced primarily in physical locations or on specific individuals for specific tasks. However as the redemptive story unfolds a promise begins to emerge. Moses who was one of these exceptions, a man filled with the Spirit, expresses a “wish that all the Lord’s people were prophets and that the Lord would put his Spirit on them”[13]. The prophet Joel affirms this longing that the Holy Spirit will be poured out on “all flesh”[14]. The Old Testament expresses a longing that all of God’s chosen people will be given various supernatural ability to prophecy and have visions.

These promises are fulfilled under the New Covenant. The gospel proclamation therefore included a call to “receive the gift of the Spirit”[15]. Instead of Tabernacle or Temple believers themselves are “a dwelling place for God by the Spirit”[16]. The Spirit came upon Jews[17], Samaritans[18] and Gentiles[19]. This New Covenant supernatural empowering came through receiving the Holy Spirit and means that “to each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good”[20].

Who is the Promise of the Spirit intended for?

During the exile, this longing is accentuated and tied to the restoration of Israel. The exiled Isaiah prophecies that “the palace is forsaken, the populous city deserted…until the Spirit is poured upon us from on high and the wilderness becomes a fruitful field”[21]. This is the backdrop to the disciples response in Acts 1.6 to the promise of the Spirit by the resurrected Lord; “will you at this time restore the Kingdom to Israel?” The ensuing discourse reveals two important features. That the disciples of Jesus along with the nation of Israel expected a final consummation of the Kingdom of God. Within the ministry of Jesus however we see a now and not yet tension emerge. The second feature is the unforeseen implication of the promise that had broader consequence than just the restoration of Israel. Since the Holy Spirit is promised to ‘all flesh’ this created the possibility of greater Gentile inclusion in the people of God. The Spirit no longer resides within the Temple but within the heart of believers; hence paving the way for the inclusion of Gentiles. Both these features have dramatic implications for the local church.

Now And Not Yet Kingdom

Jesus spoke of the future Kingdom to come. The opening declaration in Marks gospel is that “The Kingdom has drawn near”[22]. It has ‘drawn near’ is a reference to its approaching and coming. Similarly Jesus told the parable of the fig tree[23] in the context of his second coming and final consummation of the Kingdom. The illustration that Jesus uses is agricultural. The farmer knows that the “summer is near” when “the branches of the tree become tender and the leaves grow”. “So also when you see these things taking place”. The important fact is not the list of things that will precede the Kingdom coming but that summer is not spring. The Kingdom is not yet upon us. Jesus taught us to pray “May your Kingdom come”[24] pointing to its future nature. The future Kingdom would also usher in an “Eschatological reversal” (Dunn, 1989 p.412) that would see the poor, those who mourn, the persecuted and others lifted victoriously from this state[25]. The consummation of the Kingdom would also usher in a period of suffering[26], final judgement[27], reward and heavenly banquet[28]. The future coming Kingdom then is to be preceded by signs of cosmic turmoil and will be a place of vindication to the oppressed, no poverty, no suffering, no death, no injustice and great reward for the Christian. Evidently this is not descriptive of the world we live in.

However Jesus is clear that the Kingdom is presently at hand. He taught his disciples that “some standing here will not taste death”[29] before experiencing the king. “This generation will have by no means passed away before all these things happen”[30] referring to another list of atrocities that is believed to have taken place during the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70 and precede the Kingdom. Interestingly in Mark 1.15 the opening declaration the “time has come” is the Greek word ‘kairos’.Which means the appointed time, the time of fulfilment. The verb ‘to come’ is in the perfect tense which indicates a past event with present significance. The long awaited climax has arrived and it has immediate implications. This verse encapsulates the now and not yet sense of the Kingdom. The Kingdom can be possessed here and now like a “treasure” or like a “pearl” [31]. John the Baptist’s question to Jesus is essentially ‘are you the one – the promised Messiah?’ Jesus replied; “The blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me”[32]. The ministry of Jesus is a scandal (“offended” literally in Greek scandalon) to John because his eschatology was possibly under-realized. As Dunn notes “the scandal here has nothing to do with the offence of the cross” but the “scandalous character of his mission” (Dunn, 1989 p.450). Jesus spoke of healing and good news from Isaiah[33] but makes no mention of judgement which characterized John’s ministry. The nuanced omission is not accidental and is the reason for Jesus appeal to John to not take offence.

The Holy Spirit had come upon Jesus and he was healing the sick, casting out demons, speaking prophetically and proclaiming blessing on the poor. Jesus promised that his disciples “will do greater things”[34] and then four verses later spoke of the promised Holy Spirit. The same pattern is carried out in Acts as the Holy Spirit comes upon believers in the way it came upon Jesus and the same supernatural activity followed. To assume that this paradigm of Kingdom advance has ceased is to reverse the grand narrative of the promise of the Holy Spirit and to ignore the teaching of Jesus about his present reign and rule. This was the temptation of John.

The tension that exists then is that the Kingdom has come and is still coming. We live between the times and therefore with an eschatological tension. There is a danger of over emphasizing the future aspect of the Kingdom. This results in (1) a depreciation of healing, miracles, and other supernatural activity of God in this age, (2) a deification of the Bible and an over emphasis on teaching as the miraculous works recorded in Scripture are assumed to not be replicable and (3) an overly appreciative perspective of suffering since it is to be expected in this age and not resisted.

Conversely the overemphasis of the present establishment of the Kingdom could results in an over realized eschatology. The ‘prosperity gospel’ is one such example with an overemphasis on God’s present triumph over sickness, poverty, and suffering. In this theological camp God always heals, never uses suffering for our sanctification, and will add wealth in accordance with one’s faith. However health and wealth in this age is always unsure as (1) death is the inevitable consequence of the fall for every person, (2) consequently it’s not always God’s will to heal (3) God does use suffering for sanctification[35] and (3) God has allowed poverty to continue for various reasons. Secondly an over emphasis of the imminence of God’s present reign has historically been associated with dualism. For example within fringe Pentecostal camps there have been pockets who have rejected the usefulness of medical science or formal theological studies because its assumed that all we need is given through supernatural means – divine healing and revelation. This also tends to elevate particular miraculous gifts above seemingly natural ones. The Apostle Paul however viewed serving, encouraging and giving equally as Spirit inspired as prophecy[36].

The Spirit and the Inclusion of the Gentiles

The second implication of the link between the Spirit and the restoration of Israel is the inclusion of the Gentiles. Intrinsic to Abraham’s call was God’s intention to bless the nations of the world. Through Abraham “all the families of the earth shall be blessed”[37]. Similarly the Torah was given to Israel in part to draw the attention of the foreign nations and to incite worship of the true God. Israel was to “listen to the statutes and the rules that I am teaching you, and do them”[38] so that the nations will say “what great nation is there that has a god so near to it as the LORD our God is”[39]. Exiled Israel was called to bless the foreign nations they were in[40]. But Israel simultaneously assimilated into foreign cultures, compromised faithfulness to God, and developed national pride that dampened the mission of God. Converts did exist[41] but it was incomparable to rate of New Covenant conversions. The New Testament makes it clear that it was always and will continue to be God’s intention to have a people from “every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages[42]”.

The outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the Gentiles then became the basis for their acceptance into the chosen people of God. It was the final sign that God wanted the Jews and the Gentiles incorporated into one believing body. After the Apostle Peter reported to the Jerusalem leadership that the Spirit had been poured out on Cornelius and his household it was this event that was deemed the sign that “to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life”[43]. The plea for Christian unity became rooted in the common indwelling Spirit; “for in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body”[44]. Gordan Fee comments on this verse; “For Paul the reception of the Spirit is the sin qua non of Christian life. The Spirit is what essentially distinguishes believer from nonbeliever (2.10-14); the Spirit is what especially marks the beginning of the Christian life (Gal 3.2-3); the Spirit above all is what makes a person a child of God (Rom 8.14-17)” (Fee, 1994 p178). It is therefore unquestionable that the local church should attempt to reach out to all people with the gospel in the power of the Spirit.

In summary these dual implications have dual practical applications that I will discuss in more detail later. But the duel application is that (1) a believer that embraces the now and not yet nature of the Kingdom will be a humble pilgrim full of nuisance and tensions and course corrections as they follow the winds of the Spirit and (2) the local church should be custodians of good news for all and not homogeneous enclaves that simply mirror a post-apartheid South Africa.

[1] See Exodus 20.2-3 and note the Shema prayer of Deuteronomy 6 which called Jews to daily affirm that “the Lord our God is one” vs4. See also James 2.19, 1 Tim 2.5-6.

[2] Lying to the Holy Spirit (vs 3) is lying to God (vs 4) Acts 5.3-4 and note he has equal status as God the Father and the Son in the Baptismal formulae (Matt 28.19).

[3] Omniscience (1 Corinthians 2.10), omnipotence (Lk 1.35), Omnipresence (Ps 139.7-8).

[4] Genesis 1.2

[5] Exodus 3.4

[6] Exodus 19.18

[7] Exodus 40.34

[8] 1 Kings 8.11-13

[9] Exodus 35.30-34

[10] Judges 15.14

[11] Judges 6.34

[12] 1 Samuel 16.13

[13] Numbers 11.29

[14] Joel 2.28-32

[15] Acts 2.38

[16] Ephesians 2.22

[17] Acts 2.1-4

[18] Acts 8.5,17

[19] Acts 10.1-2,28,44-47

[20] 1 Corinthians 12.7

[21] Isaiah 32.14, 44.3

[22] Mark 1.15

[23] Mark 13.28-29

[24] Matthew 6.10, Luke 11.2

[25] Matthew 5.3-12, Luke 6.20-23

[26] Mark 13.1-37

[27] Matthew 11.21-24

[28] Rewards of eternal life – Mark 10.29-30, Heavenly rewards – Luke 17.7-10, The great banquet – Matthew 22.2-10.

[29] Matthew 16.28

[30] Mark 13.28

[31] Matthew 13.44-46

[32] Matthew 11.5-6

[33] Isaiah 29.18 (blind see), 35.6 (lame walk), 29.18 (deaf hear), 26.19 (dead raised), 61.1 (good news to the poor)

[34] John 14.12

[35] 1 Peter 4.12-13

[36] Romans 12.6-8

[37] Genesis 12.3

[38] Deuteronomy 4.1

[39] Deuteronomy 4.7

[40] Jeremiah 29.7

[41] For example; Ruth the Moabite, King Nebuchadnezzar, Rahab, foreigners who became slaves within Israel and the many God fearing Gentiles referenced in the New Testament.

[42] Revelation 7.9. It could be argued that a central question in the gospels is ‘who are the true people of God?’ and Acts and every epistle deals with Jew/Gentile conflict to various degrees thus stressing this issues importance.

[43] Acts 11.18

[44] 1 Corinthians 12.13


Dunn J.D.G, (2003) Christianity Remembered. Volume 1: Jesus Remembered. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.

Fee G.D, (1994) God’s Empowering Presence: The Holy Spirit in the letters of Paul. Hendrickson Publishers