You know those “before and after” photos you sometimes get in adverts? Picture one: there’s a man looking scruffy and stubbly, obviously in serious need of a shave. Picture two: there’s the same man, his wife adoringly stroking his smooth-as-a-baby chin, looking immaculate… See what a new —- shaver does for you! Picture one: a woman is staggering into her home, weighed down with the shopping. She drops everything and slumps into a chair. Picture two: the same woman is out cheerfully mowing the grass and singing a song. Amazing what a cup of —- tea does for you! Magic!
Let me offer you a couple of before-and-after pictures out of the Bible.
Picture one: a group of frightened disciples of Jesus are sitting in an upstairs room; they’re hiding away from the authorities; they’re wondering where the risen Jesus has gone; and they’re anxious about what is going to happen to them next. Picture two: the same group of people are standing in an open space in Jerusalem and preaching to a great crowd of strangers.
In the space of an hour or so a massive religious revival has broken out and everybody is shaking their heads in amazement. The world will never be the same again.
And what has happened to bring about this change? Here it is, in the words of Luke… “They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.”
This is Pentecost. This is the fulfilment of John the Baptist’s prophecy to his disciples some three years earlier: “I baptise you with water for repentance. But after me will come one more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not fit to carry. He will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and with fire…” (Matthew 3). Water baptism is important (perhaps it’s time you asked for it?) – oh yes. But what is water baptism compared to this! To be inundated with the power of God through the Holy Spirit – that, surely, is, as the Americans say, “something else”.
It’s true that our experience of the Holy Spirit is rarely as dramatic as what happened on that momentous day. It’s important to recognise that what happened then was a group experience – there is no suggestion anywhere in the New Testament that such a thing is likely to happen to every believer individually.
Paul later uses the rather less dramatic expression “be filled with the Spirit.” But whichever passage we focus on, what matters is that the Holy Spirit means change, transformation. From weakness to strength; from fear to boldness; from mice to lions – that’s what we are seeing here. And that, in principle, is true for us too.
But – and this is the big question – how can we be sure of being filled with the Holy Spirit in our routine lives?
One thing is certain: there’s no formula to be worked through. Some Christians will tell you that you need to have some kind of very special experience – it may be speaking in unknown languages, as in the Pentecost story, or it may be some mystical or trance-like experience such as we occasionally read of in the Bible. Well, such things can and do happen – we mustn’t dismiss them out of hand.
But never forget that in the Bible “Be filled with the Spirit” is a command, and if God gives us a command, presumably he means that we should obey it. In other words, whether or not you and I are filled with the Spirit is fairly and squarely up to us. And there is no short cut to it. The secret is simple to say but hard to do: live, every day, a holy, Christ-like, trusting, humble, obedient, pure life. If you seek to do that, well, why would God not fill you with his Holy Spirit! (Have a quick look at Luke 11:13.)
The essence of the Spirit’s work can be summed up in two words. First, purity: the Holy Spirit is the Holy Spirit, and he enables us to live pure lives. Second, power: the Holy Spirit imparts power – power to overcome sin and temptation, power to do (and perhaps to bear) God’s holy will.
You can never have too much of the Holy Spirit. So… no excuses!
Lord Jesus, you encourage us to ask for more of the Holy Spirit. As we empty ourselves of self and sin, and as we open ourselves to the Spirit’s influence, may that purity and power be ours – all for your great glory. Amen.
“Huh!” we might respond, “that’s easy enough to say! But words are cheap – how does Paul know what I am going through?” But remember, Paul was no stranger to temptation and testing. He knew what it was to suffer – you only need look at 2 Corinthians 1:8-9 and 11:21-29 to be made aware of that. So when he says “God is faithful”, that is a conviction born out of personal experience. Paul was no armchair Christian.
Third, he promises that God will provide “a way out”. In other words, temptation and testing need not imprison us; there will be a way of escape. True, it may take some time to find it. True, it may prove hard and rocky. But it is there.
What might this “way of escape” be? Well, if we are talking of “temptation”, it may be a decision to remove ourselves resolutely from any situation that might cause us to weaken; to share our difficulty with a trusted Christian friend; to confess our weakness and failure; to ask God for forgiveness; to ask others for prayer and encouragement.
Well, Nina and I look back with gratitude to God for 16 August 1980. It hasn’t always been easy. It certainly hasn’t been perfect. But neither of us would undo a day of it. And for this we thank God. May God bless you too, whatever your situation may be!
Lord God, some of us are married, some unmarried. Some have lost their partner, some have been divorced. Whatever our situation, help us to accept it as from your loving hand, and to use our lives for your glory and for the happiness of others. Amen.