This past Thursday was Jesus’ Ascension. He prepared us for his Ascension by giving us the hope of seeing him again, by comforting us with the promise of the Holy Spirit, and by giving us the gift of praying in his name. This week in the brief time between Jesus’ Ascension and the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, we hear about the Holy Spirit’s testimony and the persecution that will follow.
“But when the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness about me.” Jesus calls the Holy Spirit the Spirit of truth. The Holy Spirit is opposed to another spirit, the devil, whom Jesus previously called “a liar and the father of lies.” Against this lying spirit, Jesus has not left us alone, but he has sent the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of truth to contend against the lie.
While the devil lies about many things, the purpose of his every lie is to slander Jesus and blaspheme him. The devil lies about the meaning of life, he lies about where true joy is found, he lies about all of God’s institutions: the Church, the family, the government. And against these lies the Holy Spirit sets a single truth: Jesus, who is the truth. The Holy Spirit bears witness about Jesus: who he is, what he has said, what he has done. And this single truth – the truth about Jesus – is enough to make every lie of the devil come crashing down. Jesus promises that the Holy Spirit will do this work of truth-telling, the work of testifying about Jesus. And therefore we need not fear the devil’s lies.
Martin Luther wrote in the hymn “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” “This world’s prince may still scowl fierce as he will; he can harm us none; he’s judged, the deed is done. One little word can fell him.” Luther once commented that the little word is “liar.” That one word “liar” calls the devil what he is, and when once his lies have been seen for what they are, then he is powerless. The Holy Spirit is the one who exposes the devil’s lies and shows them for what they are. And the Holy Spirit exposes the devil’s lies simply by telling the truth, that is, by bearing witness about Jesus. Such testimony shines forth like a light in a dark place.
Jesus tells the apostles, “And you also will bear witness, because you have been with me from the beginning.” The apostles are eyewitnesses of what Jesus has said and done, and they bear witness about Jesus. To give an example, Peter preaches in Acts 10, “And we are witnesses of all that he did both in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree, but God raised him on the third day and made him to appear, not to all the people, but to us who had been chosen by God as witnesses, who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead.”
Our faith is dependent on this eyewitness testimony of the apostles, so much so that the Apostle Paul speaks of the Church as being “built on the foundation of the apostles” in Ephesians 2. And yet our faith does not rest on the words of men. Rather, it is through the apostles that the Holy Spirit does his testifying. Therefore, whenever the testimony of the apostles is read from the Scriptures and rightly preached, the Holy Spirit himself is bearing witness about Jesus and the salvation that he has won for us.
Now if the Spirit’s testimony delivers salvation through Jesus, it would be tempting to think that the Spirit’s testimony would be popular. This testimony about Jesus forgives sins and bestows eternal life. He who hates that testimony would only find himself hating his own soul. Who would do that?
Plenty of people, as Jesus makes clear. Just before today’s reading Jesus said, “If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you.” And in today’s reading Jesus gives his purpose for telling us such things: “I have said all these things to you to keep you from falling away.” We might suppose that the world will love the Gospel. We might suppose that the world will cherish the Church as the bearer of the Good News. Or we might suppose that we’ve done something wrong if the world doesn’t show us favor. And to all of these Jesus says, “No, that’s not how it is. The world will hate the Gospel, the world will hate you, and the world will hate you because you are faithful.”
“They will put you out of the synagogues,” Jesus says. “Indeed, the hour is coming when whoever kills you will think he is offering service to God.” These words have proven true: the world excludes Christians from its society, and kills us whenever it gets the chance.
The Apostle Peter was thrown into prison, and the Apostle James was killed by the sword. The Jews stoned the Apostle Paul in Lystra, and thinking he was dead (though he was not) they dragged him out of the city. The early Christians faced hatred and rejection from the Jews at every turn. And the Jews for their part had what they considered good intentions. They persecuted the apostles because they sincerely believed that the apostles were teaching lies in God’s name. Yet good intentions that are not founded on God’s Word only lead to sin.
Christians didn’t fare any better in the pagan Roman Empire. Belonging to a trade guild, for instance, meant participating in the sacrifices to the guild’s patron deity. If a Christian refused to participate in the sacrifices, he could not be part of the guild. To ply one’s trade apart from the guild meant less work. It also meant being regarded with suspicion by society. This in part led to the poverty of many Christians in the first century. The Romans, like the Jews, didn’t think they were acting out of malice, but with good intentions. The Romans excluded Christians from society and murdered them because they were afraid that if they tolerated Christians, then the Roman gods would be displeased and forsake their nation. Again we see that without God’s Word, good intentions give birth to sin.
And these things were not confined to the first century. At the time of the Reformation in the 16th century, the Roman Catholic Church excluded and murdered people who taught against them. At the same time, Muslims were actively killing Christians. And both the papists and the Muslims thought they were offering service to God.
Nothing has changed in our day. The world constantly seeks a charge against the Church. The world excludes us from its society if we don’t bend the knee to the devil’s lies. It seeks to impoverish us by trying to make employment dependent on confessing falsehood. And the world creates what excuses it can for silencing the Church, whether by making church services illegal or by arresting pastors or by killing Christians. In all of this, the world thinks it’s being loving, not malicious. It thinks it’s serving truth and justice, and yet apart from the Holy Spirit’s testimony, it does not know truth or justice. As Jesus says, “And they will do these things because they have not known the Father, nor me.”
This is a lesson for us in “good intentions.” The intentions of man’s mind and heart are only good when they are governed by the Word of God. In 1 Samuel 15, the Lord commanded King Saul to devote the Amalekites to destruction, to utterly destroy them and their animals. But Saul spared some of the best of the animals to sacrifice to the Lord. “I have performed the commandment of the Lord,” Saul said to Samuel. Samuel replied, “What then is this bleating of the sheep in my ears and the lowing of the oxen that I hear?” And the Lord passed judgment on Saul, “Because you have rejected the word of the Lord, he has also rejected you from being king.” Good intentions are no substitute for living according to the Word of God. Indeed, as Samuel makes painfully clear to Saul, apart from the Word of God there is no such thing as “good intentions,” no matter how much someone claims to be offering service to God.
But where does the matter rest? The children in the marketplace still cry out, “We played the flute and you did not dance; we sang a dirge and you did not mourn.” You wouldn’t play our game, so we must eliminate you. Is that the point of this Sunday, that the Holy Spirit testifies about Jesus and the world wants us dead for it? Jesus does make those points, but that’s not where he leaves off. He says, “But I have said these things to you, that when their hour comes you may remember that I told them to you.” Jesus speaks here of “their hour,” that is, the time of the world’s persecution. This certainly applies to all times of the world’s persecution. Yet Jesus has a particular hour in mind, the same hour that he has previously called “my hour,” the time of his suffering and death.
It was on the cross that Jesus showed us what he does with the world’s self-styled “good” intentions. At the cross, the world did not have its way: God did. The result of Jesus’ crucifixion was not what the world intended, but what Father, Son, and Holy Spirit intended. At the cross Jesus could say to the world what Joseph said to his brothers in Genesis 50, “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.” For all their hatred and malice, the devil and the world acted according to God’s intentions and did not accomplish their own. In the end, mankind had been saved, and Jesus had risen from the dead.
And we must always regard the world in light of the cross. This Jesus who took the world’s intentions in his nail-pierced hands and marshaled them for his own purpose is the same Jesus who is Lord of his Church today and continues to do the same thing. As it says in Proverbs 19, “Many are the plans in the mind of a man, but it is the purpose of the Lord that will stand.” If the world devoted all its scheming and skill, all its power and members to the overthrow of Christ and did not succeed, then what can the world ultimately accomplish? “And take they our life, goods, fame, child, or wife, though these all be gone, they yet have nothing won. The kingdom ours remaineth.”
So what do you have to fear? As we sang in the Introit, “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?” The Holy Spirit testifies about Jesus: he has rescued us from sin and evil, he has taken us as his own, nothing can thwart him. The Holy Spirit testifies, and the corrupt heart of man raves. But it is the Holy Spirit’s testimony that endures. Amen.