The Holy Spirit and the Church

The second subject I would like to tackle is that of the Holy Spirit. Who is He? How does He operate and what does He do for the Church today? Hopefully I can do this subject justice. First, though, let me try to recount my pre-Easter 2018 understanding of the Holy Spirit.

Way back at the end of the 20th century I think that what I was told about the Holy Spirit must have sounded good. The thing is that without continued experience and the repetition of suitable rituals, whatever I was taught did not stay in my mind. For example, if Christian rituals are supposed to have an educative role, then the western way of making the sign of the cross did little, if anything, to help me in this respect. The Apostles’ Creed mentions the Holy Spirit twice, the last of which is greatly elaborated in the Nicene Creed. Thus over time making the sign of the cross became an almost meaningless gesture and repetitive use of the latter Creed was simply something one did for the sake of following a prearranged order of worship. (However, once I found out that the western church’s version of the Nicene Creed has an extra three words in it that the eastern version does not – because of differing views about the Holy Spirit’s ‘procession’ – I have not been able to recite it without having a cheeky grin on my face!)

Upon learning the eastern way of making the sign of the cross, I was set upon a path of discovery about the third Person of the Trinity. For here, as one says “and the Holy Spirit”, the practitioner brings their arm diagonally across from the top of the right shoulder to under the left one. This is to signify both the thief who repented and said “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom” (Luke 23:42 NIV) and the one who continued to pour scorn on Jesus. In this one is not just saying “and the Holy Spirit” to (in my eyes) a meaningly action, but is now by their very action affirming that the Holy Spirit was both present and active at the Cross . For “no one can say, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ except by the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor. 12:3).

So what does the Bible – both the Old and New Testaments – tell us about the Holy Spirit? The Holy Spirit (or “Spirit of God”) makes an appearance on the very first page, Genesis 1:2 to be exact. This verse says that God’s Spirit was “hovering over the waters”. Incidentally, the

“people of the Ancient Near East…believed that there were many gods and that they would argue over the sea. This would create storms and innocent humans would be swept up in their fighting; some were killed or injured.” [1]

Add to this the general chaos which is believed to have existed at creation and we can see that the Holy Spirit is shown to have a very calming effect on nature (in the same sort of way that Jesus calmed the storm, Mark 4:37-39).

Also in the Old Testament being filled with the Spirit of God is accompanied by the gifts of wisdom, understanding, knowledge, and “with all kinds of skills” (Ex. 35:31), courage and strength (Judges 6:34; 14:6; 1 Sam. 17:34-51), passion for God and His people (1 Sam. 11:6; Jer. 20:9), and preaching (Is. 61:1). The Spirit also has a cleansing effect (Is. 4.4). God pours His Spirit out on whoever He chooses, and its effect is like water falling on dry ground (Is. 44:3). By the time of Christ’s earthly ministry there was an urgent need for a sign of God’s love. Though John the Baptist was showing this in part, he said that one would come after him who would baptise with the Holy Spirit (Mark 1:7-8). The people who heard and believed the Baptist could thus look forward to a time sure to come soon when they would receive the same divine love as their ancestors.

Indeed, Christ appeared as one loved by God, and the Holy Spirit is said to have descended on Him in the form of a dove (Matt. 3:16). [2] From that time onwards Jesus, the One conceived by the Holy Spirit (Luke 1:35; cf. Is. 7:14), [3] exemplified God’s love in a way that no one else can. I think that the apostles were given temporary access to the Holy Spirit when Christ sent them out on missions (Matt. 10; Mark 6:7-13; Luke 10:1-20), but that on returning to the Master this was taken away from them in order that they might better understand that without the Holy Spirit’s guidance and empowerment they were weak and unable to fulfil the purposes of God.

Christ does, however, promise to send the Holy Spirit to them on a more permanent basis (John 14:16-17). But after the horror of seeing the Master betrayed, tortured and crucified, the unspeakable joy of having Him once again with them (at which point He again promises to send the Holy Spirit, Acts 1:8), and the sadness of watching Him leave for a final time, they have to endure what must have seemed to some like an empty and meaningless period in an upstairs room in Jerusalem. But then the waiting finally stopped. Jesus had kept His promise and the Holy Spirit descended on each of them as tongues of fire:

Pentecost

Each spoke in different languages which could be understood by different groups of pilgrims who were in Jerusalem at that time (Acts 2:6-11). It was not the 12 apostles themselves who had suddenly learned to speak in other languages, but it was the Holy Spirit Who was speaking through them (Acts 2:4; cf. Matt. 10:20). [4] That one astonishing event confirmed to the apostles that they had at last been empowered by God to take the Gospel not only to the farthest reaches of Palestine, but even further into Gentile lands. Their continuing experience revealed to them that the Holy Spirit is a helper Who brings divine leadership and assurance to their lives (Acts 13:3; 15:28; Rom. 8:14; cf. Matt. 4:1), and can bring the gifts of endurance (Rom. 5:3-5); prophecy, generosity, mercy, service, teaching, encouraging  (Rom. 12:6-8); celibacy and faithfulness (1 Cor. 7); administration, apostleship, discernment, faith, healing, support, knowledge, power to heal and work miracles, speaking in tongues, interpretation of tongues, wisdom (1 Cor. 12); love (1 Cor. 13; Gal. 5:6); humility, kindness, compassion, honesty, pastoral care (Eph. 4); hospitality (1 Pet. 4:9), power to imitate Christ’s lifestyle (1 John 2:5-6) and of prophecy (2 Pet. 1:21; Rev. 19:10; cf. 1 Sam. 19:23-24) to different people. [5]

But all that happened around 2000 years ago. Is the Holy Spirit relevant to recent history or to the modern Church? Well, as I implied on my About page I have recently spent some time in a Pentecostal community (which I recommend that everyone does at least once), and have been absolutely amazed by the Holy Spirit’s work within it. Because I feel that the Holy Spirit’s work can be seen more clearly within this denomination than others, and also my own very limited knowledge of Pentecostalism, I would just like to give a little space here to considering some of the great ‘Revival’ movements and leaders of the 20th Century.

After a year of prayer for the Christian faith in Wales, revival exploded onto the scene in north Wales in September 1904. It is interesting to read about the emotions which were stirred up in the general populous (a lot of the time simply as a result of singing), how the establishment of prayer groups was central for both missionary and newly-founded communities, and how other denominations were swept up by the charismatic waves. Kay’s short description of what happened in Los Angeles a few years later gives a typical example of Pentecostal revival:

“When, in 1906, revival broke out in Azusa Street (even today a poor area of Los Angeles), there were similarities with what happened in Wales. The meetings were spontaneous, unstructured and had little formal ministerial leadership. They grew out of intercessory prayer rather than from preaching…The prayer meetings [however], though they focused on Christ, began to expect speaking in tongues, and such speaking in tongues…drew further crowds of enquirers, both skeptical and pious.” [6]

Now we come to two groups which, built up by the Holy Spirit over the years, have already had a great impact in the 21st Century. From humble beginnings, both the Bethel Church (founded in America in 1952) and Hillsong (founded in Australia in 1983) have been nurtured so that today their music impacts large parts of the global Church. Add to this list China’s Brother Yun (b. 1958), America’s Billy Graham (1918-2018), Canada’s the Toronto blessing (1994), and all the other great examples I am yet to discover and hopefully you will see that the work of the Holy Spirit has definitely not disappeared. Rather, it is we who often give into the global culture which seeks to cover it up.

The Holy Spirit is as important to the modern Church as it was to the early apostolic movements in the Book of Acts. Indeed, the Church would not have started without Him. For throughout the Bible – in both Old and New Testaments – we find a call to holiness and perfection (e.g. Ex. 20:1-17; Lev. 11:44-45; 19:1-2; Job 1:5; Ps. 1; Is. 35:8; Matt. 5-7; Luke 6:22-26; John 8:11; 2 Cor. 6:14-7:1; 1 Pet. 1:13-16; 2:1-3; 2 Pet. 1:5-8; 3:11) that is all too easy for us humans to fall short of. It is by the Holy Spirit’s power that we worship the Triune God (John 4:23) and walk in the light as He does (1 John 1:5-7). Indeed we may look drunk (Acts 2:13); be geographically transported (Acts 8:39 – don’t scoff, in God all things are possible!); raise the dead (Acts 9:40), or ‘ooze’ holiness (Acts 19:12), [7] but one thing is certain for all of us who the Holy Spirit graces with His presence: we shall be filled with holy joy (Acts 13:52) because we are assured that our treasure, and that of our brothers and sisters, is safe and secure in Heaven (Luke 12:32-34).

Endnotes

[1] Edwards, Darren (2016) Getting to Know the Holy Spirit: a Guide for New Believers. Surrey: Onwards and Upwards Publishers, p. 16.

[2] And just like a dove, the Holy Spirit is extremely loyal:

“…once the Holy Spirit comes he is very reluctant to leave. Actually, he’s so reluctant to leave that not even your sin will make him leave. If you’re open to him teaching you and guiding you, he will keep on nudging you towards Jesus and judgement day when all sin and unrighteousness will be washed away anyhow” (Edwards, 2016, p. 101).

On this inner voice of God the Holy Spirit within believers, read 1 John 4:4 and listen to the song Greater by MercyMe.

[3] See Bayes, Jonathan F. (2010) The Apostles’ Creed: Truth with Passion. Oregon: Wipf & Stock, pp. 63-65 on how modern science is finding possible answers for this mysterious process.

[4] Here’s an interesting thing to ponder: were the apostles actually speaking indifferent languages, or were they speaking in strange tongues and the Holy Spirit was enabling their hearers to interpret the apostles’ ‘babbling’ in their own languages? (It is many many years since I first read about this idea and I wish I could remember which author and book it came from.)

[5] Edwards, 2016, pp. 63-82.

[6] Kay, William K. (2000) Pentecostals in Britain. Cumbria: Paternoster Press, pp. 10-11.

[7] Edwards, 2016, pp.33-38.

What Did Christ Do Between His Death on the Cross and His Resurrection?

The first subject I would like to discuss is Jesus’ descent into Hell. For everyone who is still reading this – who haven’t already denounced me as a heretic and given up before I’ve even begun to argue my case – this belief has helped me to become convinced about the significance of the Cross and the Resurrection, two fundamental beliefs that I have struggled with for so long. For me, Jesus’ descent into Hell acts like the cement which holds these two doctrinal ‘bricks’ firmly in place.

So what is the biblical evidence for Jesus descending into Hell? Principally, the image of Christ descending into Hell comes from 1 Peter 3:18-20:

“For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive by the Spirit, through whom also he went and preached to the spirits in prison who disobeyed long ago…” (NIV)

My interpretation of this passage is that Christ, the loving Son of God, Who while on Earth cast demons out of the living, did not forget those who had already died and were receiving the due punishment for their sins. Rather, on leaving this world, He descended (Eph. 4:7-10) to the demons’ home world in order to take the gospel to those beyond the limits of this physical earthly existence (cf. 1 Pet. 4:6).

Before we go any further let us take a moment to look at two theologians (a Reformed Baptist and an evangelical) who argue that this episode never took place. Both John Piper and Adrian Warnock (respectively) seek to dismiss the notion that Christ descended into Hell, and in doing so they both cite Christ’s words to “the repentant thief” [1] in Luke 23:43: “Jesus said to him, ‘I promise you that today you will be in Paradise with me’” (GNB). I just do not see how this could make a difference to Christ’s descent. All four of the canonical Gospels agree that Jesus died in the early afternoon, leaving between six and nine hours till the end of the day. There is thus no need to contemplate a timey-wimey effect between the earthly and other-worldly time-zones as in Stephen Seal’s 2006 novel. [2] Suppose a parent on the verge of exhaustion is invited out to a party at a few hours notice. Would the need to rearrange their routine and reason with their children necessarily mean that they would miss out on the fun, stress-free occasion? On the other hand, however, did Jesus’ Spirit need to go straight to Hell from the Cross? Having gone to Heaven first could Christ not have gone to Hell the following day? (God does only what God wants to do at the time He wants to. He is not bound by the constraints of human logic.)

If you have looked up the name of Seal’s novel you will have noticed that its title is not Christ’s Descent into Hell, but rather “The Harrowing of Hell”. To “harrow” is to cause distress to something or someone: in this case Christ’s activities in Satan’s domain upset the normal routine there. Again, the biblical evidence for what Christ did in Hell is very sketchy, [3] but the two things we do know are that:

  1. he preached, and
  2. An unspecified number of souls repented and were taken up to ‘Paradise’ / Heaven: cf. Acts 2:27; Eph. 4:8; 1 Pet. 4:6. (I think that the eight people referred to in 1 Pet. 3:20 are simply the people who were in Noah’s ark and were thus saved from the flood in Genesis 7-8.)

I think that the first point is fairly straightforward (although I would love to hear your thoughts on it), so here we shall consider the second. All that I have seen and read thus far leads me to believe that although Christ’s preaching certainly did set captives free, we do not know the exact number. But this has not stopped the Orthodox, Coptic, Catholic, Anglican or Episcopal churches from in some way recognising the significance of this event. It has also had an influence throughout Church history on the Apostles’ Creed [4] and other liturgical material, [5] the theatre, [6] literature and art. [7]

Music-wise, Hallelujah for the Cross is a song that I love to listen to a lot:

Though it may not be the Newsboys’ intention when they sing it, the chorus evokes in my mind imagery of this great rescue of repentant spirits:

Hallelujah for the war He fought,

Love has won, death has lost;

Hallelujah for the souls He bought,

Hallelujah for the cross.

Although I do not think that the Harrowing of Hell was the war against evil per se, I do believe it to have been the decisive battle. Let me illustrate this with reference to Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (2004). In this film Satan is depicted as gloating over the condemned Christ. Jesus had shown unstinting faithfulness to God while on earth, raised the dead (Matt. 9:23-25; John 11:11-44), and even cast out a number of Satan’s underlings (Matt. 8:28-32; 17:14-18; Mark 1:23-26; 5:2-13; Luke 4:33-35; 9:38-42). After all that, how can someone who claims to be God (rather than just a mere healer) be humiliated like this?

After the earth quakes, and the curtain in the Holy of Holies has been torn in two, “Satan is shown screaming in agonized defeat from the depths of Hell”. Without the benefit of this Wikipedia article it is unclear what exactly causes Satan’s outburst (although I am delighted to read that there is to be a sequel to this movie in which this will no doubt be explained in brilliant cinematic splendour), but here is what I believe. On entering Hell and freeing an unspecified number of captives, [8] Christ confronted Satan and warned him that his usurped reign (cf. Job 1-2) is coming to an end (see the Book of Revelation). And what happened next could have left Satan in no doubt that not even Christ Himself or His followers can be restrained by death’s prison (cf. Acts 2:31; 1 Cor. 15:54-55).

So what are the benefits for the Christian in incorporating such a belief into their faith? Well, maybe it would help them gain a wider biblical perspective as, along with the above, it seems to me that the Harrowing of Hell is prophesied in the Old Testament (e.g. Is. 24:22; Dan. 12:2-3; Zech. 9:11). Maybe Christians can believe wholeheartedly in the Cross and Resurrection without ever considering what Christ did in between. And that’s great, honestly. All I ask is that such people at least pray about and ponder this episode in Jesus’ (eternal) life. Maybe it is spiritual nourishment that they would otherwise have missed!

In Note 8 below I briefly touched upon the idea that in the ancient world there was an almost universal belief that no matter what good works people performed during their earthly lives they were doomed to share exactly the same fate as those who had either done bad things or tried to live neutrally. This belief has seen a resurgence in our time in the guise of “atheism”, and I feel that it may be interesting and of benefit to strike up conversations and discussions between followers of this bleak outlook and the afterlife happiness of Christians (some important ‘evidence’ for which is the main subject of this blog). In no way am I proposing an outright condemnation of atheists to the horrors of Hell (something akin to how Jeanette frightened all her wouldbe classmates with such imagery during her first year at school in Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit). [9] Rather, ‘genuine’ believers from both sides (i.e. those who can account for their faith in terms other than it was what they were told to believe) should engage in an open, frank but respectful debate. I believe much fruit will be borne of such things (1 John 4:1).

To conclude, I think that when Jesus’ descent into Hell is considered in isolation it may well lead the ‘doubting Thomases’ of this world to develop an unbiblical, heretical view of Christ. But, when considered together with the Cross and the Resurrection, the doctrine of the Harrowing of Hell could indeed serve to magnify and emphasize Jesus’ victory. For although Christ’s physical body lay wrapped in the tomb, His Spirit conquered Hell [10] and the Devil was left in no uncertain terms that “death has lost” (1 Cor. 15:55; Phil. 2:9-11; Col. 2:14; Heb. 2:14; Rev. 1:18)!

Endnotes

[1] Warnock, Adrian (2010) Raised with Christ: How the Resurrection Changed Everything. Illinois: Crossway, p. 33; cf. http://www.kencollins.com/answers/question-37.htm

[2] Seal, Stephen (2006) The Harrowing of Hell. Dublin: Griffin Enterprises. If you are interested in this subject, I wholeheartedly recommend this book: what a vision and what an adventure! Also see Psalm 90:4 and 2 Peter 3:8 and ask yourself how much time in Heaven would be taken up by three earthly days.

[3] At the back of Seal’s novel in a section entitled ‘Theological Justification’ he acknowledges that his story is based on a lot of extra-biblical sources, not least the Gospel of Nicodemus.

[4] Warnock, p. 34n.

[5] For example, the homily The Lord’s Descent into Hell.

[6] In September 2010 the York Mystery Plays Supporters Trust will perform a play about this episode which was written by the monks of Lindisfarne over 1100 years ago.

[7] For literature, see here. For art, google works by such artists as Peter Howson, Albrecht Durer, Andrea Mantegna, John Martin, Bartolomeo Bertejo and Hieronymus Bosch.

[8] Hell was extremely overpopulated. Everyone who had ever lived had ended up there, no matter their gender, age or what they had done during their earthly lives. (I think that God had graciously allowed a lot of religions and philosophies to share this belief in order that Christ’s victory would have a greater impact.) However, this doctrine was expressed slightly differently between different groups. These included Judaism (Ps. 49:15; 88:11; Prov. 15:11; Eccles. 2:14-16; 3:20; 9:2, 10; Is. 5:14; 14:14-15; 24:21-22; Ezek. 26:20), Mithraism, the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Odyssey, the Egyptian cult of Osiris, Buddhism, the Eleusinian Mysteries, etc. Read more here.

[9] Winsterson, Jeanette (1985, 2014) Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. London: Vintage, ch. 2. For an analysis of this chapter, see here.

[10] Ward, J. Neville (1971) Five for Sorrow, Ten for Joy: A Consideration of the Rosary. London: Epworth Press, p. 85.

Also see:

What Happened When Jesus Died? | D. L. DeBord: Restoration Theology