Giving Instructions Through the Holy Spirit

Title: Giving Instructions Through the Holy Spirit

Text: Acts 1:1-2

Date: September 9, 2007

Last week I talked about the fact that Jesus did things and taught things during his ministry, and that was a pattern for our lives to follow: we believe in the teachings from God, and in addition, we live these things out in our lives. It’s not enough to simply believe in God or believe in what God teaches; we must also live out what we believe by our actions. The last thing I said was that it is impossible to both believe in God’s teachings and live out those teachings without the help of the Holy Spirit. The Book of Acts is the story of how God the Holy Spirit helps Christians to believe and live the truth from God. Today, I’ll talk about one of the ways the Holy Spirit helps us believe and live out truth from God: the Holy Spirit guides us if we listen closely enough. Acts 1:1-2 states, “In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach until the day he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles he had chosen.” Last week I talked about verse 1, today I’d like to talk about verse 2, particularly the phrase, “after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles.” What does that phrase mean? To set the context, we have to remember that the Book of Acts is a history of transition, from the time of Jesus in visible form, to the time of Jesus in invisible form. When Jesus was with them, he taught the disciples directly, he instructed them, he encouraged them, he trained them how to be Christians, how to live, think, and speak. But after the resurrection, Jesus would only appear to them from time to time for a period of some 40 days, and then after that, he didn’t appear any more visibly, but lived with them invisibly through the presence and power of the Holy Spirit. So the Book of Acts is an account of the transition time, from the visible Jesus to the invisible Jesus. We live in the time of the invisible Jesus, but when the Book of Acts starts Jesus is still visible from time to time, then later, Jesus ascends to heaven and the invisible Jesus period begins. How are we to live with an invisible Jesus. There’s the story of the little girl who was praying to God and all of a sudden stopped and asked her mother, “Where is God anyway?” Her mother told her that God is invisible, “Even though you can’t see Him, He’s there.” To that, the little girl replied, “I think I like it better when someone has skin on.” We might like it better if Jesus were visible to the eye and with skin on like he was when he taught his disciples, but for now we must accept the fact that he exists today in Spirit not flesh. After the resurrection, Jesus had 40 days to prepare the disciples to transition from his visible presence to his invisible presence. That’s the key to understanding the little phrase, “after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit.” Why is this important to us today? Because we like the disciples have to get used to Christ’s invisible presence in our lives. How are you interacting with the invisible Christ in your life? Most people today almost totally ignore Christ because they can’t see him with their eyes. Others acknowledge that he is there, but don’t relate with him very much, only occasionally. Is it possible to relate closely with the invisible Jesus today? Let’s explore further what the phrase, “after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit.”

First, some people try to deny that Jesus gives instructions to his followers through the Holy Spirit. Acts 1:2, “Until the day he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles he had chosen.” I’m using the New International Version of the Bible, but almost all other versions of the Bible say the same thing, except one. In the Jerusalem Bible, it translates the verse this way, “until the day he gave his instructions to the apostles he had chosen through the Holy Spirit, and was taken up to heaven.” According to this Bible translation, the Holy Spirit assists in choosing the apostles not instructing them. This strange version plays with the word order in the sentence and makes it appear that there is nothing unusual or spiritual about how Jesus instructs his disciples. In other words, according to this Bible Jesus simply instructed his disciples like he did before thousands of times during his ministry. This is the only version of the Bible that translates the verse this way; all others translate it: “after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit.” Well, it’s obvious why the translators of the Jerusalem Bible thought they had to change the word order of the verse and make it say something the original doesn’t say – they couldn’t understand what the phrase, “after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit” meant, so they tried to make the sentence make sense to them by changing the order of the words into something else. It is a strange phrase, “after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit.” What does it mean for Jesus to give instructions through the Holy Spirit? It sounds kind of mystical or spooky. We live in a very material and secular world today. Lots and lots of people like to think of themselves as scientific. They are skeptical of all talk of mystical experiences, spirits, or invisible reality. To them the only thing they can rely on is the world of matter and energy, science and the laws of science. These people seek to simplify life by claiming that unless they can see it, smell it, hear it, taste it, or touch it, it isn’t real. What we don’t realize is that we live in a secular society that spreads this kind of thinking and it even influences us as Christians too. While we may say that we believe in the Bible and Christianity, how do we really live our lives. Do you allow room for God to speak to you invisibly, spiritually? Does God ever do so, speak to you, by his Spirit to your spirit? Lots of secular people think that such a thing is nonsense, but even many Christians practically live as if it’s nonsense, because they never, ever focus on God long enough to see if he is speaking to them through his Spirit. Is your mind open to the instructions of God coming to you through the Holy Spirit to your spirit directly?

Second, some people try to limit Jesus giving instructions to his followers through the Spirit to the Bible. Acts 1:2, “until the day he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles he had chosen.” Now while most Bible translations translate this verse to mean that Jesus taught his disciples through the Holy Spirit, many Christians believe that what it means is that Jesus simply instructed the disciples in the normal way that he always did and that just as before, they needed the Holy Spirit to open their minds to understand the meaning. In other words, for many Christians when they look at this verse they see it as a typical example of the importance of the Holy Spirit always in teaching God’s Word. Unless the Holy Spirit opens the hearts and the minds of people during the teaching of the Word of God nobody can even understand. So in this way, the Holy Spirit is always needed for Jesus to teach anybody anything. That was the way it was before the resurrection, that’s the way it is now after the resurrection. There is much truth in this understanding of the verse, after all we see examples of this in other passages of the New Testament. For example, remember the time when Jesus asked Peter, “Who do you say that I am?” To which Peter replies, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” Jesus replies to Peter, “Flesh and blood have not revealed this to you Peter but my Father in heaven.” While not mentioning the Holy Spirit, it’s clear that the truth of Jesus was revealed to Peter; and he didn’t just learn it naturally listening to Jesus or talking with others. Now today, there are many Christians who try to limit God’s revelation of himself to the Words of the Bible only. In other words, God doesn’t reveal himself apart from the words of the Bible. The Holy Spirit opens the eyes of those who read the Bible and God is revealed to them. Apart from the Bible or God’s Word, God doesn’t reveal himself today. The problem with this view is that it requires God to act different today than he did in the early church. The Bible was produced, as all prophecy has ever been produced, through the revelation of God through the Holy Spirit. While God is no longer inspiring the writing of the Bible, He certainly is still revealing himself through his Spirit, not only through the Bible but through direct revelation as well. The early church believed that God was able and willing to instruct anyone at any time through the Spirit directly. That doesn’t mean that everything everyone claims is from the Holy Spirit because it’s possible to be mistaken. That’s why many Christians try to limit God’s instructions to the Bible, because it’s hard to judge between a real revelation from God and a mistaken claim to the same. Just because someone claims the Holy Spirit spoke to them doesn’t mean He has, nor does it mean that He hasn’t. Like the Bible says, we must test all things.

Third, the truth is Jesus can speak directly to anyone at any time through the Holy Spirit. Acts 1:2, “Until the day he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles he had chosen.” In this verse, Jesus isn’t simply teaching the disciples the way he always did, he was training his disciples to listen to the Spirit speak apart from the visible presence of Christ. For 40 days Jesus would appear and disappear, come and go. He would go away and instruct them apart from his visible presence, then he would return and ask if they understood what he was teaching them while he was gone. This forced them to listen and focus in prayer and do spiritual reflection in order to hear what the Spirit was teaching. Didn’t Jesus say elsewhere that when he goes he would send the Spirit who would lead them into all truth? He wasn’t just talking about recalling all that Jesus taught when he was visibly with them, but also things that he would later reveal to them through the Holy Spirit. Now at this point they had not been baptized in the Holy Spirit which would come on the Day of Pentecost, but they did have the Holy Spirit in some sense, because in the Gospel of John after the account of the resurrection, Jesus breathes on them and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” So they had something of the Holy Spirit, even though they didn’t have the fullness of the Holy Spirit. During the 40 days that Jesus was appearing and reappearing to them after the resurrection but before the ascension, Jesus was training them to hear the voice of the Spirit, something they would need later in establishing the church, and something every Christian would need in living a truly Christian life. So what does the little phrase, “giving instructions through the Holy Spirit” mean? It means that Jesus would leave these disciples for a while, yet continue to speak to them and instruct them. Then he would return visibly to them and see if they picked up on what he was teaching them through the invisible Holy Spirit apart from his visible presence. Would they hear the Spirit? Were they sensitive enough to pick up on the “still, small voice” of the Spirit speaking to each of them? Could they come together and piece together truth from God’s Spirit apart from Jesus teaching them directly in visible form? This is what they had to learn because Jesus wasn’t always going to be with them; they would need to hear the invisible Spirit in order to know what to do and say later on. Did they learn to hear the Spirit eventually? From later in the Book of Acts it looks like they did. Acts 15 describes the famous Jerusalem Council where all the disciples gathered to discuss the issue of whether Gentiles could become Christians without converting to Judaism. Here is their decision in Acts 15:28, “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements . . .” They had learned to hear the instructions of Jesus through the Holy Spirit apart from the visible Jesus! This is what Jesus was trying to teach them.

Now what are the implications for us today in our lives? It means that the Holy Spirit is communicating the teachings of Jesus to people and we can hear these teachings if we listen close enough. Most of what the Holy Spirit is teaching is found in the Bible already, since we know that the Bible was created under inspiration of the Holy Spirit, as it says in 2 Peter 1:21, “For prophecy never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.” But that doesn’t mean that the only instruction we’ll get from the Holy Spirit will only come from reading the Bible. Most of what God wants to say to us today comes from the Bible and we should never neglect the Bible or belittle it. But some of what God wants to say to us today comes directly through the Holy Spirit. Do you know how to listen to the Holy Spirit? Jesus had to train the disciples how to listen to the Holy Spirit in order to get more instructions from him after he ascended into heaven. Once Jesus ascended into heaven out of their sight that was the last time he appeared and instructed them on anything. They had to have a means of staying in touch with Jesus even after he left them visibly. That means was through the instruction of the Holy Spirit. But that means isn’t as straightforward as Jesus visibly teaching them. The ‘still, small voice” of the Spirit isn’t something that is easy to pick up on even for mature Christians. It takes training and practice and focus to concentrate long enough and pray in order to hear a message from the Spirit. And even then, it’s so easy to be mistaken. I’ve mentioned the phrase, “still, small voice” a number of times, where do I get that? It comes from an account in the Old Testament where Elijah went up on a mountain and where there was thunder and lightening, but it says that God didn’t speak through these powerful means, but only in a “still, small voice,” a whisper that barely made it over the sound of the wind. That’s the way the Holy Spirit speaks today. It’s always possible to question whether you really have a message or not from the Holy Spirit because it’s almost always very soft or small. Unlike when Jesus taught the disciples when he was visible – that was loud and clear – the Holy Spirit speaks soft and still. That’s why it’s very easy to misinterpret what the Spirit is saying and be mistaken. That’s why some people dismiss all so-called revelations of the Spirit today. That’s why some people don’t ever listen to the Spirit – it’s not clear and distinct like Bible instructions. But if we are willing to pray and reflect and meditate on God and ask him to guide, direct, and instruct us, then we may be able to hear what the Spirit is saying to us directly. Certainly we should be open-minded to anything from God.

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