On Thursday we celebrated Jesus’ Ascension into heaven, and next Sunday we celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. During the ten days between Ascension and Pentecost, the apostles, the faithful women, and Jesus’ mother and brothers were in Jerusalem, and they “all continued with one accord in prayer and supplication” (Ac. 1:14). What did they ask for in prayer? Likely many things, but one thing specifically. Jesus had promised to send the Holy Spirit, and we’ve heard that promise several times over the last few services. Jesus had taught his disciples, “If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him!” (Lk. 11:13). Just last week we heard Jesus say, “Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full” (Jn. 16:24). So they prayed for the Holy Spirit, and we do the same.
To be sure, we live in the glorious time after Pentecost. We have received the Holy Spirit, as Peter preached on Pentecost, “Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Ac. 2:38). Nor do we believe like the Pentecostals that we have only partially received the Holy Spirit. Nothing in Scripture indicates that the Holy Spirit comes to us in measure, like a substance; rather, all Jesus’ words about the Holy Spirit indicate that He is an indivisible person. Nevertheless, we still ask for the Holy Spirit, that He would continue to accompany the Word of God as it is preached, that He would continue to come among us and bring many to faith in Christ, that He would remain with us always, warring within against our sinful flesh, preserving us in the true faith, bringing to remembrance the words of our Lord Jesus.
In this way we continue to ask for the Holy Spirit, and for very good reason. The Holy Spirit’s continued work among us is absolutely necessary for our steadfastness and salvation, especially since the world so fiercely opposes us. Jesus told His disciples a few verses before today’s reading, “If the world hates you, you know that it hated Me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love its own. Yet because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you” (Jn. 15:18-19). Today’s reading is our comfort in the midst of such opposition from the world. Jesus said, “But when the Helper comes, whom I shall send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who proceeds from the Father, He will testify of Me” (Jn. 15:26). This is to say, “The world will do all in its power to silence the Gospel, to destroy the Church, to wipe My name and all My Christians from the face of the earth. But the world will not succeed, because the world is not up against the mouths of men, but contends with the Holy Spirit Himself, who cannot be silenced. The Holy Spirit will testify of Me and will not be hindered, but will have free course in the world. Therefore take heart. You have an unfailing Helper, and by His help even the gates of hell will not prevail against the Church.”
And do we not see the truth of this all throughout history? For just a small sampling, we can look at the book of Acts. Not long after Pentecost Peter and John healed a lame man in the temple and preached to the people. Thus the Holy Spirit testified of Jesus. The Sadducees arrested them, yet it says, “However, many of those who heard the word believed” (Ac. 4:4). The Holy Spirit had been at work through His testimony. After Peter and John had stood trial, they were released, gathered with the church, and prayed, “Now, Lord, look on their threats, and grant to Your servants that with all boldness they may speak Your word” (Ac. 4:29). In answer to their prayer, “they were all filled with the Holy Spirit, and they spoke the word of God with boldness” (Ac. 4:31). And the Holy Spirit continued to testify of Jesus. Again the apostles were arrested and thrown into prison. During the night an angel came, released them, and told them to go preach in the temple. Still the Holy Spirit testified of Jesus. The leaders arrested them and put them on trial again, beat them, and released them. Then it says, “And daily in the temple, and in every house, they did not cease teaching and preaching Jesus as the Christ” (Ac. 5:42). And the Holy Spirit testified of Jesus. After this, Stephen was arrested and stoned to death, and Saul began persecuting the church. Yet what do we hear about it? “They were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles... Therefore those who were scattered went everywhere preaching the word” (Ac. 8:1, 4). And the Holy Spirit testified of Jesus. Jesus Himself appeared to Saul, rebuked him, blinded him, and sent Ananias to him to restore his sight. Ananias went to Saul and said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on the road as you came, has sent me that you may receive your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” The scales fell from Saul’s eyes, he was baptized and received the Holy Spirit, and “immediately he preached the Christ in the synagogues” (Ac. 9:20). No matter what, the Holy Spirit testified of Jesus. Then the Jews plotted to kill Saul, but he escaped, and rather than the Gospel being hindered or churches being silenced, we read, “Then the churches throughout all Judea, Galilee, and Samaria had peace and were edified. And walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, they were multiplied” (Ac. 9:31). The Holy Spirit suffered no hindrance and still testified of Jesus. And on it goes.
This is the story of the Church throughout her entire history. The world rages against the Church, yet the Holy Spirit is with her and continually preserves the Gospel and testifies of Jesus. And we’ve seen it time and again: the more fiercely the world rages, the more forcefully the Holy Spirit testifies. The world dumps out its buckets of water on the altar of the Lord, yet the Holy Spirit comes down like fire from heaven and wicks up the water and continues to testify of Jesus, the Lamb of our salvation.
This is important for us to keep in mind as we see rising hostility against Christ and His Church. Though wicked men rave and storm, though they go so far as to arrest and stone and behead like they did in the book of Acts, they will nevertheless accomplish nothing; or I should rather say, they will accomplish the exact opposite of their intent. Simply consider what happened when they raved against our Lord Himself. The apostles recount it beautifully in Acts 4, “‘Why did the nations rage, and the people plot vain things? The kings of the earth took their stand, and the rulers were gathered together against the Lord and against His Christ.’ For truly against Your holy Servant Jesus, whom You anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles and the people of Israel, were gathered together to do whatever Your hand and Your purpose determined before to be done” (Ac. 4:25-28). In crucifying Jesus the raging world only carried out what God’s hand and purpose had determined before to be done. And so it goes to this day. The wicked “made a pit and dug it out, and has fallen into the ditch which he made” (Ps. 7:15), while “the Word of the Lord endures forever” (1 Pet. 1:25, Is. 40:8).
In addition to comforting us by holding up the Holy Spirit’s testimony, Jesus also flat out says that the world will be hostile, and He says this outright so that we are not scandalized when we see that hostility. Jesus says, “They will put you out of the synagogues” (Jn. 16:2). We should not be surprised at the world’s hostility. Jesus told us last week, “In the world you will have tribulation” (Jn. 16:33). The Apostle John writes, “Do not marvel, my brethren, if the world hates you” (1 Jn. 3:13). Paul reminds us, “Yes, and all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution” (2 Tim. 3:12). The world should love the Word of Jesus, because the Word of Jesus is life. Yet that Word also exposes the world’s sin, and so the world prefers to avoid it. The world’s hostility should not surprise us, should not cause us to doubt God’s Word, should not make us think we’re doing something wrong. Jesus said this is how it would be.
Jesus also emphasized, and it’s important for us to understand, that the world thinks it’s doing the right thing when it persecutes the Church. “Yes, the time is coming that whoever kills you will think that he offers God service” (Jn. 16:2). The world doesn’t do its evil in the name of evil, but in the name of good and under the guise of the best possible intentions. The Jews in the New Testament thought that they were upholding the Law of God when they sought to kill Jesus and His apostles. The Romans in the early centuries of the Church thought that they were acting in the name of true religion when they persecuted Christians and sought to turn the Roman people back to their ancestral gods. The Roman Catholic Church at the time of the Reformation thought it was offering service to God by seeking to kill Lutherans. In our own day we don’t see the wicked dressed in black and claiming to be criminal masterminds or serial killers. We see the wicked dressed in white and claiming to uphold things like love and justice. In the world’s mind, love means supporting a woman in getting an abortion and decrying those who would prevent her. In the world’s mind, justice means using someone’s preferred pronouns and lambasting those who refuse to play the game. In short, evil never claims to be evil, so again we shouldn’t be surprised to hear the world co-opting our theological vocabulary and twisting it to its own ends. It’s like the character Antonio says in Shakespeare’s play, The Merchant of Venice: “The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose. / An evil soul producing holy witness / Is like a villain with a smiling cheek, / A goodly apple rotten at the heart: / O, what a goodly outside falsehood hath!” (Act I, scene 3).
When both the wicked and the righteous use the same words and claim to be good, how do we know who’s right? Jesus clarifies for us when He says, “And these things they will do to you because they have not known the Father nor Me” (Jn. 16:3). The world’s definition of terms and justification of action does not stem from the knowledge of God, but from the imagination of their own hearts. Love does not mean giving someone permission to do whatever makes life more convenient. Rather, it says in 1 John 4, “In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another” (1 Jn. 4:10-11). Love means suffering for one another as Christ suffered for us. Love means covering over sin and forgiving it, not excusing it. Or take the word freedom. Freedom does not mean license to do whatever we want. Rather, as it says in Galatians 5, “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Gal. 5:1). Freedom means that we are no longer enslaved to lies; it does not mean that we are free to believe lies. Freedom means that we are no longer slaves of sin; it does not mean that we are free to sin. And we could talk similarly about terms like unity, equality, justice, and peace. These are God’s words, His to define, and He has defined them clearly in Scripture in a way that the wicked do not understand. Why do they not understand? Because they know neither the Father nor the Son.
Jesus says at the end of today’s reading, “But these things I have told you, that when the time comes, you may remember that I told you of them” (Jn. 16:4). When the world rages, Jesus wants us to remember what He said. First, Jesus wants us to remember that the Holy Spirit will forever testify of Him, and the world cannot prevail against that testimony. We need not worry about the world overcoming the Church. Even when the world seems to be causing harm in its persecution, we recall that in killing Christians, the world only succeeds in fulfilling their desire to depart this valley of sorrow and be with Jesus. In seeking to hinder the spread of God’s Word, the world only succeeds in spreading the Word further. The world did not get its way when it sought to destroy Jesus, but in the end Jesus is alive, the devil’s kingdom overthrown, sin forgiven, and our life restored.
Second, Jesus wants us to remember that the world acts in ignorance. It acts the way it does because it does not know better, because it does not know the Father nor the Son. While the world can seem scary in its opposition to the truth, we have the Spirit of truth who will not let truth fall to the ground. The world crucified Jesus, but Jesus has risen from the dead and has ascended into heaven. He rules and fills all things. All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Him. As it says in Psalm 110, “The Lord said to my Lord, ‘Sit at My right hand, till I make Your enemies Your footstool.’ The Lord shall send the rod of Your strength out of Zion. Rule in the midst of Your enemies!” (Ps. 110:1-2). Jesus does rule in the midst of His enemies. He does not let them accomplish their own purpose, but marshals them for His own ends.
We therefore have no reason to fear the world, since it can ultimately do nothing against us Christians. We have less reason to hate it, since God Himself loved the world and gave His Son for it. We have every reason to pity it. We pity those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death. We pity those who in their minds seek good, but in reality pursue evil, who have good intentions, but are only harming themselves and paving their way to hell with those good intentions. And as we pity the world, we speak. We speak the Word of truth and live according to it. Jesus says that the world will hate us for this, but He doesn’t say that in order to frighten us. Why then does Jesus tell us all these things? He says, “These things I have spoken to you, that in Me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world” (Jn. 16:33). Jesus tells you all this so that you may have peace in Him: peace as the Holy Spirit forever testifies of Him, peace as the world rages to no avail, peace in our Savior who has overcome the world. Alleluia! Christ is risen!