Sixty years ago, I heard Liston Pope, Yale Divinity School dean, preach on “Spirit, Son and Father.” He reversed the Trinity’s usual order to give greater status to the Holy Spirit. Indeed, we seldom afford the Holy Spirit adequate importance.
Jesus, however, often talked about God’s gift of the Holy Spirit as God’s presence after Jesus’ death. When Jesus spoke at length to his disciples about his impending death, he emphasized the importance of the coming of God’s Spirit, “the Comforter.”
One of Jesus’ comments was especially significant. “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit comes, he will guide you into all truth.” (John 16:12-13a)
At first glance, that may not seem very striking. After all, we often talk about how God’s Spirit is our guide in life. Indeed, when we pray for guidance, we’re asking the Holy Spirit to provide us with the needed insights.
Nevertheless, Jesus’ words suggest something more profound than simply daily guidance. Jesus said, essentially, that God is not done with us. God has not revealed everything to us. God will continue to inspire us, to reveal thoughts we did not anticipate, even truths which can – and will – alter our thinking.
That concept can be jarring. We like to think (i.e. it’s easier to think) of God’s thoughts and laws as complete and unchangeable. But Jesus said the coming of the Holy Spirit will “guide you into ALL truth.” Jesus clearly suggests that the Bible’s spiritual revelations were not complete. There was more truth to come – even truth so new that the disciples (and we, too) would have difficulty bearing it.
To suggest that Biblical insights are not complete should not disconcert us. After all, that continuing revelation of truth is God’s gift through the Holy Spirit. It clearly affirms what we say in other contexts – that our God is a LIVING God. God’s presence in our lives is not just actions, but also includes new insights and fresh inspiration.
Because we know Jesus’ teaching, although considerable, is not complete, we must: 1) continue to look for new truth – as our LIVING God continues to lead us by the Holy Spirit’s ongoing work. 2) be ready for surprising insights from God’s Spirit. 3) understand Jesus’ warning that the new truth may be hard to accept.
Affirming that God’s spirit provides fresh ideas and thinking doesn’t mean God is fickle. The Bible has several stories in which God’s mind is changed. Rather we’re called to read the Bible with complete openness to the possibility that God has something new for us about some issue – even if it’s different from earlier understandings from the Word.
Those who deny God’s ability to change our thinking are rejecting the power of the Holy Spirit. In fact, to cling stubbornly to “The Bible says …” without recognizing this power of God’s Holy Spirit may be “blaspheming the Holy Spirit” that Jesus called the “unforgivable sin.”
We need the Holy Spirit to bring us new instructions on matters unknown in Jesus’ time. For instance, in Jesus’ time, people knew nothing about nuclear warfare, said nothing about gender identity, could not imagine genetic engineering, could not anticipate global warming, etc.
Thus, Jesus said nothing about any of these matters. Jesus, however, did promise that God’s Spirit would provide us the truth we need – truth people could not have understood in Jesus’ time.
This means two important things. 1) It prompts humility in us. We cannot be arrogant, presuming to know God’s intentions. Instead we must await the Holy Spirit’s guidance. 2) We must be ready for the possibility that God will lead us where we least expect.
Our living God has sent a living Holy Spirit, that we might have a living faith.
William McCartney is a retired United Methodist clergy and an emeritus professor from The Methodist Theological School.