Many Christians say that the Holy Spirit’s purpose is to point to Jesus. But what if Jesus’ mission was to introduce us to the Holy Spirit?
Is the Holy Spirit Shy?
Growing up, I was always taught that the Holy Spirit is shy, and never points to himself. Holy Spirit, they said, points to Gentleman Jesus, who stands at the door and knocks, waiting to be invited in. The work of the Spirit, we were told, was to lead someone to a saving relationship with Jesus. After that, the Holy Spirit helps believers follow Jesus so that one day they can live with Jesus. “It’s all about Jesus,” I was taught. “The Holy Spirit simply points to him.” But what if they’ve got it backwards? What if the work of Jesus is to point us to the Holy Spirit?
An Ethical System Run Amok
The days of the old covenant were all about following rules from the divine Parent, the heavenly King, or the eternal Judge. From this foundation of rules and law, Israelite tribes built a Jewish nation. Behavioral modification was important at the beginning. Religiopolitical leaders needed a way to establish order. Lawless tribes required a moral system to learn right from wrong. By the time of Christ, religion become a list of dos and don’ts that were impossible to follow. Religious enforcers ran roughshod over people’s inner and outer lives. Priests administered ceremonies and sacrifices to cleanse believers from the guilt that was caused by religion itself. It was an ethical system run amok, and rife with spiritual abuse.
Life in the Spirit
First-century Judaism needed a reformer. Into that vacuum stepped Jesus, whose brief ministry transformed the religious landscape of the world. Three years is an incredibly short time to transform anything, much less the spirituality of a planet. And so, Jesus wisely chose not to make it all about himself. Instead, Jesus used his time to teach people about life in the Spirit. Jesus demonstrated works of power and mercy as prompted by the Spirit. He taught lessons about the spiritual path. Jesus modeled sensitivity to the Holy Spirit as he lived as an example to his disciples. He told them that he expected them to live as he did—which means they had to follow the Spirit, too.
Preparing Disciples for His Departure
Jesus began and ended his work with two Holy Spirit events, like bookends on his ministry. At the onset, the Holy Spirit descended like a dove at his baptism. After the resurrection, Jesus breathed on them and imparted the Holy Spirit. In the middle, he taught about life in the Spirit.
Frequently, Jesus reminded his followers that one day he would be gone. After Jesus’ death and ascension, they would need to follow the Holy Spirit’s lead. Most of his teaching was to prepare them for that eventuality. Like a good parent, he didn’t raise his children to be dependent on his presence forever. Instead, Jesus taught them just enough so they would be spiritual adults by the time he departed. After he was gone, the disciples experienced the Holy Spirit in miraculous fire which empowered them to preach the gospel as never before. This would prepare them for the way forward.
The Acts of the Holy Spirit
The rest of the New Testament is the story of the church’s growth as they followed the Holy Spirit. In fact, my seminary professor said that the book of Acts should be called “The Acts of the Holy Spirit,” instead of “The Acts of the Apostles.” The Holy Spirit, it seems, is the main character throughout the book. The rest of church history proceeds from the end of the apostolic age. Each generation follows the Holy Spirit as it interprets the life of Jesus and tries to live out his teachings. One of our problems is that we have confused Jesus’ main mission and forgotten why he came.
Jesus’ Main Mission
I know, there will be those who insist that Jesus came to die as a penal substitutionary atonement to save our souls from eternal, conscious torment. Those who adopt this viewpoint believe the primary purpose of Jesus’ life was to die as a sacrifice and be resurrected, to save us from eternal punishment. In other articles, I have expressed my views on penal substitutionary atonement and what I don’t believe about hell. Jesus did not come to die. He came to live and to show us how to live in the Spirit as well. In the process, he made enough enemies out of religious people that they ended up killing him. But sacrifice was not his purpose. Instead, his main mission was to demonstrate unrelenting love and model to others how to live in the spirit.
Jesus at the Center
Of course, Jesus is at the center of our faith— the religion is named after Christ! Yet, he was not the main point of his own teaching. What was his main point? Picture a teeter-totter that represents religion and spirituality. On one end is dogmatic religious rule-following. On the other end is spiritual freedom. At the center is Jesus, who is the fulcrum. Everything hinges on him. So, in that way, it’s understandable for someone to say Christianity is all about Jesus. Because of him, we separated time into BCE and CE.
Jesus Prepared Us to Live Without Him
Jesus wanted us to model our lives after his. Yet, Jesus never wanted us to make it all about him. He spent his three-year ministry preparing his followers to live without him. If he wanted it to be all about him, Jesus never would have left. He would have stayed in his resurrected body, hanging out on earth for the past couple thousand years to bask in our worship. But he didn’t do that. Instead, he said, “It is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you.” Jesus wanted his life to be an example for us, but he wanted the Spirit to guide us in his absence.
Why Does Any of This Matter?
At this point, I can hear you asking, “Why does any of this matter? Isn’t this just theological nitpicking? Here’s why this is important. Some allow others like Peter and Paul, or modern “prophets” to eclipse the teachings of Jesus in the Church. But I’m very much a red-letter Christian and believe that Jesus’ words supersede all other doctrines in the Bible. In short, if it doesn’t look like Jesus, it’s just human guesswork.
Yet, I also expect subsequent truth to be revealed by the Holy Spirit, as long as it doesn’t contradict Jesus. This is, after all, what the Teacher meant when he said there was more that the Spirit would show us. In the Christian life, there will come many times when we must decide on matters where Jesus’ instruction is silent. Thank God that Jesus points us to the Holy Spirit, whose wisdom picks up where Jesus left off!