When you read through any of the Gospels in the Bible, it’s pretty apparent that sometimes Jesus’ disciples could be pretty clueless. From the parables to his relationship with the Father, to the purpose of his ministry, to their future role in his kingdom, there was much that they did not understand. On the night he was betrayed, Jesus told them all that was about to change.
He told them that he was going to be leaving and returning to the Father, but that he would send them another helper, who would be with them and in them, and who would make everything clear. The helper that he sent was the Holy Spirit.
In this morning’s Gospel lesson, John records some of the things Jesus said that night about how the Spirit would help them. He would help them by testifying concerning Jesus and he would prepare them to testify as well.
Concerning the Spirit, Jesus said,
When he comes, he will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgement: concerning sin, because they do not believe in me; concerning righteousness, because I go to the Father, and you will see me no longer; concerning judgement, because the ruler of this world is judged.John 16:8-11 ESV
Thus, a major part of the Spirit’s work is to bring an unbelieving world to repentance and the fear of God. He would accomplish that through the preaching of the cross, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus.
The Spirit, Jesus said, convicts the world of sin because of their unbelief.
Unbelief is at the root of every willful sin. It was so in the garden. It is so today. In the garden, the serpent asked, “did God really say?” and sowed the seed of doubt. When Eve ate of the fruit, she did so because she doubted the word that she had been given, the goodness of God, and the judgement that would come.
The sins that led to Jesus’ crucifixion came from similar unbelief. Had they actually believed that Jesus was the Christ, they would never have crucified him. Had they believed in the power of God they would not have feared the Romans. Had they believed that God was merciful and compassionate, they would not have judged Jesus for healing on the sabbath. Had they not buried the law under their own traditions, they would have recognized their need for the repentance and grace that both Jesus and John the Baptist had proclaimed, and they would have gladly received baptism and Jesus words of forgiveness.
But when they had condemned Jesus and crucified him, God overturned their verdict by raising Jesus from the dead and seating him at his right hand.
Jesus said the Spirit would also convict the world concerning righteousness.
By raising Jesus from the dead, God declared him righteous. His opponents had branded Jesus a great sinner who was deceiving the people and turning them away from God. Such a man would surely deserve to die and rot in hell, but God demonstrated Christ’s righteousness by renewing his life and if that were not enough God also glorified him and exalted him catching him up to heaven in the plain view of many witnesses and then granting him authority and power at his right hand.
Righteousness, then, is not a matter of ritual. Nor is it acquired by careful obedience to law of God, for no one can keep the law perfectly. It is a matter of faith and truth and love. For God accounts people righteous who put their faith and trust in the death and resurrection of Jesus.
Since Christ has atoned for the sins of everyone who has ever lived or who will ever live, the only damning sin that remains is the refusal to believe. And as unbelief is the root of all sin, faith is the the root of all righteousness. For whoever would please God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who serve him and so become instruments of his love and grace.
Jesus also said that the Spirit would convict the world concerning the coming judgement.
You can see the Spirit doing this in Peter’s sermon on the day of Pentecost. When the Spirit came upon the believers who were waiting in Jerusalem a crowd gathered and Peter told them that the things they were hearing and seeing were the fulfillment of an ancient prophecy. Many of those present had seen the sun darkened when Jesus was crucified. Then just after the sun set, they had seen the full moon rise as red as blood. Peter’s listeners had heard the old men, the young men, and the women praising God and proclaiming his greatness in many of the languages of the world. Peter explained that all these things were indications that they were living in the last days and that the great and terrible day of the Lord was coming.
But, Peter pointed out, this was not yet good news for those listening. Because of their unbelief, Jesus the righteous one sent by God had been crucified in their city, with their complicity. But God had raised Jesus from the dead and had appointed him as their judge.
Peter had never preached like this before, but the Spirit who had come upon him enabled him to convict his hearers of their sin and unbelief, of the righteousness of the risen and ascended Christ, and of the judgement that was coming upon them and the rest of the world. “What should we do?” they cried. And Peter told them “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus the Christ for the forgiveness of your sins.”
The verdict of the world’s rulers had been overturned. Satan’s work had been undone. Jesus had been raised and had poured out his Spirit on those who had believed in him, and repentance and forgiveness of sins were being proclaimed in his name beginning in Jerusalem.
The Spirit’s purpose hasn’t changed
As the apostle’s and others spread out from Jerusalem taking the Word about Jesus with them the Holy Spirit went with them. God wants every nation on earth to have the opportunity to hear about Jesus, so whenever and wherever God’s people went they went in the power of the Spirit.
Some went as apostles. Some went as missionaries. Others as refugees. It didn’t matter. Wherever God’s people went the Spirit went with them to convict others of sin, and righteousness, and the coming judgement by proclaiming Christ’s cross, his resurrection, and his ascension into heaven.
Further, wherever the Word about Christ is proclaimed, the hearers also need the Spirit to open their ears. The apostle Paul wrote,
“Who knows a person’s thoughts except the spirit of that person, which is in him? So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God.”1 Corinthians 2:11-12 ESV
So the Spirit continues to work as he did on the day of Pentecost. To those who speak by his power, he gives words and wisdom to communicate the truth that calls people to repentance and faith for the sake of their salvation. And to some of those who hear, he grants understanding and faith so that they might believe and receive the grace that is offered.
The apostles who had so often failed to understand what Jesus was saying, finally began grasp the truth after they had received the Spirit. And now you know why Jesus sent him: to testify concerning Christ’s life, death, and resurrection, and to move the hearts of those who hear to faith.