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The loss of someone deeply loved awakens a profound anguish and grief within us. Even some time after a loved one has gone from us, we can unexpectedly find ourselves tearing up.
In the course of his last evening with his close followers Jesus told them he was going away and that they could not come with him (John 14:3). He knew what his going would mean for them and likened their state to orphaned children – destitute and alone. Significantly, he didn’t offer glib platitudes about his going but promised them a Counselor – literally, a Comforter.
In chapter 14:15-21 John the Gospel writer sets out the record of Jesus’ words of comfort and hope to his disciples. He was not going to leave them bereft. Rather, he promised them another companion to comfort and strengthen them.
‘If you love me you will keep my commandments,’ he said. ‘And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you…’ (John 14:16-17).
When we first read these words and the reference to the Spirit we might think that Jesus is speaking about an impersonal power or force. Indeed, in Acts chapter 8 we learn that Simon Magus thought the Holy Spirit was a force he could purchase (Acts 8:18f).
However, the personal pronouns ‘him’ and ‘he’ in John 14:17 with reference to the Spirit indicate that Jesus is not speaking about some impersonal force or a power, but a person. In the original language the word ‘spirit’ is a neuter noun, an ‘it’ word. But John breaks the rules of grammar. He refers to the Spirit as ‘he’: He dwells with you…
The moment we think of the Holy Spirit as an ‘it’, we miss the profundity of Jesus’ promise. He, Jesus, is going away. ‘He’ is to be replaced, not by an ‘it’, but a ‘he’, the ‘Helper’, the ‘Spirit’.
Helper translates two words in the original text – the preposition alongside and the verb, called. The fact that Jesus promises another Helper implies that He himself has been helping. Now in this time of the disciples’ deep need he promises the Holy Spirit – a Helper, a Comforter.
Furthermore, this Helper or Comforter doesn’t provide comfort like Linus’s blanket, nor is the Comforter simply a hot water bottle for cold, hard times. He comes to strengthen our hearts and minds – putting ‘backbone’ into our lives. Jesus has been helping for three years, now the Spirit of truth comes to help.
‘The Spirit of truth is not known by the world,’ Jesus says (verse 17), but ‘you know him – and he will be with you forever’.
We are living in the age of the Holy Spirit. Jesus is not physically in the world now, but he is through his Spirit. This is astonishing and something we don’t usually think about. The Lord Jesus Christ is present and at work in the world now, not in a physical way that we can see, but invisibly through his Spirit.
It’s something that was foreshadowed in the Old Testament. There we read that God’s people dearly wanted God to live with them. Even so, they found the whole idea hard to grasp. In his prayer at the beginning of his reign, King Solomon asked: ‘But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Behold, heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you;…’ (I Kings 8:27). To which the answer was ‘yes’: the Temple in Jerusalem was not only a place of worship, it symbolized God’s dwelling with his people, God’s special relationship with his people.
Furthermore, Ezekiel chapter 37, verse 27 says: ‘My dwelling place shall be with them, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people…’ What Solomon thought God was far too big for, God himself said he would do. He would come amongst his people.
The amazing thing is that the Bible tells us that God notices us and cares for us far beyond anything we can begin to imagine. Remember, back in chapter 1, verse 14, John records: And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.
Now in John chapter 14 we begin to see the wonder of Jesus’ promise: ‘And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you…’
The Spirit of God, the Spirit of Christ will not just be with us but also in us. Jesus takes his promise to another level here. He is saying that he is personally present with us in our lives. This is why Paul the Apostle writes in First Corinthians, chapter 6: Do you not know that your bodies are the temple of the Holy Spirit?
What does this mean in reality? Think of it like this. If someone put a powerful explosive in our apartment what would we do? We’d call in the explosive experts and keep clear. But if the newly crowned Charles III came to our place, what would we do? We’d surely welcome him and take the opportunity to get to know him.
Jesus promises his followers a powerful person, a counselor, a companion. For many, Christianity is little more than a moral code they must struggle to observe. But Jesus is saying, ‘I want you to understand that the faith I am talking about is, in its deepest essence, about a relationship, a relationship with the one who is at the heart of the universe.’ It’s about knowing Jesus and having him live with us through his Spirit. ‘God in the soul of men and women,’ is how one ancient writer put it.
Sometimes we can feel cut off from God by a sense of failure or unworthiness, ignorance or unbelief, or abandonment. Jesus is saying to his first followers, and to you and me today, ‘Do not despair: you can experience me in your life.’ We are not alone in life.
In his Letters Paul the Apostle develops this astonishing work of the Spirit. For example, in Romans chapter 8, verses 15 through 17: … You have received the Spirit of adoption as sons and daughters, by whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs – heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we might be glorified with him.
CS Lewis picks up this theme in his Narnia books with the analogy that the sons and daughters of Adam and Eve are the kings and queens of Narnia. The Bible tells us that God’s Spirit awakens us to the privilege God’s people have of being joint heirs with Jesus Christ in his inheritance.
A prayer. Heavenly Father, the giver of all good things, fill our hearts with thankfulness, and grant that by your holy inspiration we may think those things that are good, and by your grace and guidance do them; through our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.