Session 1: Who is the Holy Spirit?
Who or what is the Holy Spirit? If anyone asked you this question, how would you respond?
Every time we affirm our faith in the words of the creed, we proclaim our faith in God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. Now we have some idea of who God the Father is, and the gospels tell us exactly who God the Son is. But for many believers the Holy Spirit is rather more of a mystery.
Partly this is because within the church there is a wide variety of teaching about the Holy Spirit, and not all of it is consistent. Partly this is because the work of the Holy Spirit is often tied up with personal experience, and of course we all have different experiences. Partly sometimes the Holy Spirit simply isn’t mentioned or explained, and we are left to draw our own conclusions about who He is or what He does.
So in the next few studies, we are going to look full on at the work of the Holy Spirit. We are going to answer some common questions about the Holy Spirit such as:
- Who is the Holy Spirit? (John 14:15-27)
- How do we receive the Holy Spirit? (Acts 2)
- How does the Holy Spirit affect the way we live?
- What are the fruit of the Holy Spirit?
- What are the gifts of the Holy Spirit?
- What about speaking in tongues?
(1 Corinthians 14:1-12)
- How does the Holy Spirit help the church grow?
Please do let me know if there are any other questions you have!
But to begin with, who is the Holy Spirit? To answer this question, let’s turn to John 14:15-27 which forms part of Jesus’ teaching at the Last Supper. As we read these words, we have to remember that within the space of the next twenty four hours, Jesus will be betrayed, arrested, put on trial, convicted, crucified and buried. So as even as Jesus is speaking, He knows that very soon His body will be broken and His blood outpoured. But His focus is not on Himself or the agonies that He will suffer. It’s on preparing His disciples for the task they very soon will be called to undertake, to bear witness to His very death and resurrection, both in word and indeed. And it’s against this background He begins to talk about the Holy Spirit…
- Look at verse 15 (and verse 23). What is the supreme evidence of our love for Jesus? Why is it that we simply cannot love Jesus as we ought in our own strength?
- In the Old Testament the Holy Spirit was given to particular individuals on particular occasions to carry out a particular task. What is different about the Father’s gift of the Holy Spirit to us (verse 16)? Take a moment to reflect why that is such good news, and how you have found that to be true in your own experience. (Note different translations will use different words in verse 16, such as “Paraclete” or “Encourager” or “Counsellor”. The basic idea is that the Holy Spirit draws alongside us, both in an emotional sense to give comfort and support, and also in a legal sense, to confirm our right status before God in Christ Jesus).
- Why is it that the world cannot accept the gift of the Holy Spirit?
- Look at verses 18-19. What does Jesus mean when He says, Because I live, you also will live? What role does the Holy Spirit play in granting us new life?
- What practical difference does it make that the risen Lord Jesus is in us (verse 20)? Again, share any personal testimony at this point.
- Look at verse 23. How do you respond when Jesus tells you that both God the Father and God the Son come make their home in you through the gift of the Holy Spirit?
- There is an awful lot of teaching in these few verses, and it must have been immensely difficult for the first disciples to take it all in. So how did the Holy Spirit help them to remember and accurately record what Jesus said (verse 26)? How do we know we can trust the words we find in Scripture about Jesus?
- How do we understand the peace that the Holy Spirit gives us? (verse 27).
I suggest it would be appropriate to finish by thanking God for the Spirit, and let’s pray that through our studies we would all grow in our understanding of this most precious gift.
Session 2: How do we receive the Holy Spirit?
Have you ever been promised a gift but not been told when you would receive it? Perhaps as a child you were told you would be given a new bicycle some day soon, or would receive given a special treat when the holidays came. How did you feel as you were waiting for that gift? What kind of thoughts were going through your mind?
We saw last time how in the Upper Room, shortly before his arrest, Jesus spoke in detail to the disciples about the promise of the Holy Spirit. They did not and could not fully understand what Jesus saying to them, but with Jesus’ resurrection something of what he had said at least began to make sense. Jesus had on one level fulfilled His promise not to leave them as orphans (John 14:18), and His risen presence assured them that He indeed had power of eternal life.
But Jesus would not remain physically present with them forever. The disciples had a task to do, to go into every nation with the good news of Jesus Christ, and they could not stay confined to one place. That is why in the Upper Room Jesus had already told them: It is for your good that I am going away (John 16:7) – even though His words utterly baffled them at the time. He was preparing them for the time after His ascension back into heaven, which would make the coming of the Holy Spirit possible, and which would fulfil the words He had spoken in the Upper Room.
So, building on His earlier teaching, the risen Lord Jesus gives this very specific instruction to His disciples: Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. For John baptised with water, but in a few days you will be baptised with the Holy Spirit. (Acts 1:4-5).
We do not know how the disciples felt as they waited for that gift. We do know that after Jesus’ return into heaven and before the day of Pentecost they spent their time constantly praying. Maybe as they prayed they also began to reflect on some of the great Old Testament prophecies which had also spoken of the coming of the Holy Spirit. Certainly the atmosphere must have been thick with anticipation, and perhaps not also a little nervousness about what might happen next.
And then the day of Pentecost came. Pentecost was fifty days after the Passover, so if the risen Lord Jesus had been with the disciples for about forty days (Acts 1:3), the disciples had been waiting by now for about ten days. Of course they had no idea what was about to happen. They probably had expected to be joining in with all the celebrations in the temple that day. But on the day when the Jewish people came to give thanks for the harvest, God gave a clear sign that a new work was beginning which would involve the gathering of all peoples to Himself.
What happened on that first Pentecost is both wonderful and hugely significant to us even today. But sadly the events of that day have also caused much controversy and dispute among Christians ever since. So what can we learn about that day and how do we rightly understand what it means to us? Let’s look more closely at Acts 2 to answer that question – it’s quite a long passage, so I suggest you look particularly at verses 1-6, 14-21 and 29-39.
Look at verse 1. It may only be a small detail, but we are told that the first disciples were all together in one place. How far is the Holy Spirit a gift to individuals and how far is it a gift to the gathered church? Why do we so often only focus on the Holy Spirit as a gift to individuals?
Look at verses 2-3. What was the significance of the wind and the fire coming upon the first disciples? (Look, for example at Genesis 1:2 and Exodus 3:2 – the Hebrew word for Spirit can also mean wind or breath). Should we expect the Holy Spirit to come upon us in the same way?
Look at verses 4-6. What did the Holy Spirit enable the first disciples to do? Can you give any examples when the Holy Spirit gave you the ability to communicate the good news effectively?
Look at Peter’s speech in verses 14-21. Peter’s quotation from Joel makes it clear that the coming of the Holy Spirit is linked with the coming of “the last days”. We now live in the end times between Jesus’ ascension into heaven and His return to earth – however long they may be. How should this fact give us urgency to share the good news in the power of the Holy Spirit?
What is the good news we are called to proclaim (verse 21)? How would you explain this verse to someone who has little knowledge of the Bible?
There is much detail in Peter’s speech, but we want to focus specifically upon what he teaches us about the Holy Spirit. How does the gift of the Holy Spirit confirm that Jesus is Lord? (Verses 33-36). Is it possible, or even desirable, to talk about the Holy Spirit without also talking about Jesus?
Take some time to go through verse 38 slowly. What according to Peter is the proper response to the good news of Jesus Christ? (Again try and explain what he means for those unfamiliar with the Bible). What according to Peter happens when we make this response?
Can you relate what Peter says to your own experience of becoming a Christian? Why is it that people today who say they follow Jesus often seem to be so unaware of who the Holy Spirit is?
There is an awful lot of information in this passage, and not every Christian will agree on every point I have outlined above. But one thing is clear. It is all very well to talk about the Holy Spirit and have a working understanding. There is no substitute, however, for being actually filled with the Holy Spirit and, as Paul tells us in Ephesians 5:18, we should keep on being filled with the Holy Spirit. It would be good to finish this study by waiting on the Lord, being still and asking Him to come afresh in power upon us.
Session 3: How do we live in the Holy Spirit?
Advertisers love making comparisons. When they launch a new soap powder, they want to show it is different from all the other leading brands. So here are two washing machines, one with new improved Persil, and the other with an unspecified competitor.
Which washing do you think will come out brighter?
You hardly need to guess. In fact one problem advertisers face is that people rarely believe their claims. It’s just a ploy to make more money, they say. There will be another new improved soap powder any time soon. We’ve heard it all before.
One of the things we claim as Christians is that in some way Jesus Christ has made us different. We say that in Christ we have been made new, if not always improved. But the question is: when people look at us do they see an actual difference? Or there instead little visible evidence of the change we say our faith has made?
Our reading from Romans 8:5-17 was written to a mature group of Christians who needed reminding they were called to be different.
Look carefully at verses 5-8. When Paul talks about the sinful nature, or as some translations more accurately translate it, the flesh he is describing the natural human state without the saving power of Jesus Christ. What do we learn about this natural human state in these verses?
In verse 6 Paul makes the strongest possible contrast between, literally, “the mindset of the flesh” and “the mindset of the Spirit”. What do you think Paul means by these words? How do they help us see how important is our faith in Jesus Christ? (It may help also to consider Romans 6:23 and Ephesians 2:1-5)
Look carefully at verses 9-10. What does Paul say is the change Jesus has already made in our lives? Do you recognise this as true in your own experience?
Look at verses 11-12. What does Paul say is the change Jesus will make in our lives? How should this future hope affect the way we live now?
In Mark 8:34 Jesus tells us that If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. How does verse 13 help us understand what Jesus expects us to do?
Look at verses 14-16. How does evidence of the Spirit working in us prove that we are children of God? Are you a child of God if you have not yet received the Holy Spirit? (It might help to think about the parable of the Prodigal Son to answer this question)
Look at verse 17. What is the inheritance which has been promised to us as believers? How does the Holy Spirit living in us guarantee that inheritance? (Look also at Ephesians 1:13-14)
Session 4: The fruit of the Spirit
Over the years I have read countless books on church growth. Some of them are down-to-earth accounts of how somebody with a faith grew a congregation. Some of them are more academic with lots of statistical tables. Some of them, it seems to me, are more based on the ideal than on reality. Making sense of all the stuff that’s out there on church growth can be hard work.
But maybe we have made this church growth business all a little too complicated. Maybe there’s just one simple truth we need to need to take on board and live by. If there is (and I’m sure I’m being far too simple) then it’s this: when you look at the church across the world and see where the growth is happening, people live by their faith 24/7. Faith isn’t something that’s confined to high days and holidays. Nor is it just a set of beliefs that folk recite on Sundays. Faith matters. It is the most important thing in their lives. It’s something saints are prepared to die for.
I guess what makes me most worried about the church in the West is that by and large there is a huge gap between Sunday morning and Monday morning. It’s not necessarily that we are reluctant to put our faith into practice. It’s just that so often the church ill equips its members to do so. Ministers may have little experience of the world of work, say, or of retirement. Or they may give out the message that serving the church is the only true vocation. Or they may make the Christian faith sound so abstract it has no real relevance.
Even more worryingly, I can see signs that one response to that gap is to downplay the distinctive nature of the Christian faith. Some church leaders seem to want to overthrow established traditions of morals and ethics. Others apparently want to get rid of key doctrines. No doubt they want our faith to appear relevant and acceptable in the 21st century. But the results will in the end only lead to empty churches, because those who look at us will conclude we really are no different from anyone else.
So this session I want to look at the fruit of the Spirit with a practical eye. We saw last week how the mindset of the flesh is radically different from the mindset of the Spirit. The one leads to death, the other to life. Our calling is to live in the power of the Holy Spirit day by day. But how exactly do we do this?
Let’s turn to our Bibles and look carefully at Galatians 5:13-26
Look at verses 13-18. In trying to be faithful to the gospel, the Galatian church was turning back to the old ways of keeping the law in every detail. Is that we are called to do as Christians day by day? If not, how, according to Paul, should we live?
Let’s spend some time considering that very familiar command to “love your neighbour as yourself” (Mark 12:31). What is the right way and what is the wrong way to love yourself? How does the Spirit help us find our true identity and so set us free to love our neighbour as ourselves? (You may find Philippians 2:1-4 helpful here)
Look at verses 19-21. Is there anything about the list which Paul sets out which surprises you? Are there other things you would wish to include?
How do we guard against such acts of the sinful nature in our own busy lives? (Look here also at verse 24). When is it right to draw apart from those who don’t necessarily see at least some of these acts as wrong?
Look at verse 22. What do you think Paul means when he talks about the “fruit” of the Spirit? Why does he use this particular image? (There are striking echoes here of Jesus words in Matthew 7:15-23). Can you see evidence of how such fruit has begun to grow in your life?
It’s all very well talking about love, joy, peace etc. but these things mean different things to different people. How do we rightly understand what Paul is talking about? As always, don’t forget the Paul isn’t writing to individual Christians here, but to a church community!
In verse 25, Paul tells us to keep in step with the Spirit. How do we do this day by day? What do we do when we find we have gotten out of step?
We began this session by thinking about church growth. Now imagine what our churches would be like if every time we met the fruits of the Spirit were so clearly growing and developing, that lives were being visibly changed. How can we realise that vision? Let’s spend some time praying that we might apply Paul’s teaching not just to our lives individually but as a church …
Session 5: The gifts of the Spirit
One of the most important images to describe the church in the New Testament is that of the body of Christ. It’s an expression designed to convey the fact that in Christ we are all connected to each other and that we all have a part to play. But of course the thing about a body is that different parts perform different functions. We can’t all be an eye, or an ear, or a foot or a hand. We each have our own role to play.
So as we begin this session – and this is something not to be taken too seriously – I want you all to think about which part of the body you might be, and explain the reason for your choice …
Over the past few sessions we have started looking at the work of the Holy Spirit. We have seen that He is the presence of the Lord Jesus Christ given to all who believe. His role is to help us lead lives that are new and different, to transform the attitudes of our hearts and minds, so that we bear spiritual fruit for Christ. And in this session, as we shall see, He also comes to equip us for the special role each one of us is called to play in the body of Christ.
We often talk about the way the Spirit equips us in terms of gifts, but that term can be slightly misleading, because it might sound as if we have to be particularly gifted or talented in order to serve the Lord. Paul’s aim in writing is to show that spiritual gifts are for everyone, and if you have the Holy Spirit living in you, then He will make you able to do the work He wants you do, no matter what your natural talents or abilities.
So without any further ado, let’s turn to our passage, 1 Corinthians 12:1-12.
Look at verses 2-3. As always Paul is seeking to draw out the difference between the old way of life and the life of the believer. Looking back, what kind of idols have you been tempted to worship? If idols are simply false gods, then why do they exert such a powerful spiritual influence?
What does it mean to confess that Jesus is Lord? Why might we need the Holy Spirit to do this?
Look at verses 4-6. If gifts are all given equally by the same God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, is it right to value some gifts more than others? What is the most important thing that we can do with our gifts? (look here also at Matthew 25:14-30)
Let’s look carefully at some of the gifts that Paul lists here. It’s worth noting that Paul gives us four different lists of gifts in four different places and none of them are exactly the same (see also 1 Corinthians 12:27-30, Romans 12:6-8 and Ephesians 4:11-13). What does this tell us about the nature and variety of the Holy Spirit’s gifts?
What is the message of wisdom Paul is talking about in verse 8? Is there such a thing as distinctively Christian wisdom or knowledge? (To answer this question fully, it’s important to refer back to 1 Corinthians 1:21-25).
Which of these spiritual gifts can you recognise in our churches? Why would you say that some of them may seem to be missing?
How do we help others understand what spiritual gifts are and the importance of seeking after them?
Session 6: Prophecies and tongues
Have you ever been in a situation where you have struggled to make yourself understood? Maybe you can think of a time in a foreign country where you couldn’t speak the language and the person you were talking to couldn’t speak English. How did you feel? Were there ways you could break down the communication barrier without using words?
For many people, coming into church is the equivalent of entering into a foreign country. They are nervous of the customs and habits of this strange group of people, and unsure what will be expected of them. That’s before we even start speaking to them, or thrust a notice sheet into their hands. So what are the ways we can break down the language barrier even before we make first contact?
If you entered the church in Corinth, I think you also would have found it a very strange and alien environment. It was an exciting place where men and women frequently spoke out in ecstatic utterance and there was a real sense of the Holy Spirit moving in power. But there wasn’t a lot of love being shown, to the outside or to fellow church members. People seemed to be competing with one another to show how spiritual they were, and they had forgotten they were all members of one body of Christ.
That’s why Paul spends such a lot of time in this letter talking about spiritual gifts, not only explaining what they are, but how they should be used, especially in the service of the church. It would have saddened him to know how despite his intentions in writing the letter, what he says about prophecies and tongues in chapter 14 has become too often a source of division in the church. We need to look carefully at what he says, so we understand what place these precious gifts should have in our Christian life today.
So let’s look at 1 Corinthians 14:1-12
Look at verse 1. What does it mean to quite literally “pursue love” in the life of our churches? Why is showing love even more important than exercising spiritual gifts? (glance for a moment up to 1 Corinthians 13:8).
Look at verse 2. Why is the gift of tongues such a special gift? Why has it become instead so often a cause of dispute among believers?
What do we mean by prophecy? Some people would say that prophecy is about forthtelling, that is declaring truths about God and applying God’s word to a given situation. Others would say that prophecy is about foretelling, that is declaring what God is about to do. (For examples of both in Scripture, look at Philip’s encounter with the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8:32-35 and Agabus’ predictions in Acts 11:28 and Acts 21:10-11). But whatever form it takes, what is the purpose of prophecy according to verses 3 and 4? (Note: when the NIV 1984 talks about strengthening or edification the original simply talks about “building up”)
What role should prophecy play in the life of the church today? Why is it so often a point of controversy?
Let’s look at verse 6 in rather more detail. Paul almost mentions them in passing, but he lists here several important methods by which the Lord builds up his church. What do we understand by revelation or knowledge or prophecy or, literally “teaching”? How should these spiritual insights be used? (see also 1 Corinthians 14:26-28).
Whether or not we speak in tongues, how can we be sure what we say or do in church be intelligible to other people? How do we make sure that our message can be understood? For an example in practice, look at Nehemiah 8:5-12 (but don’t try to read all the names!). The book Ezra was reading was in Hebrew, but the people spoke Aramaic, a related but more modern language. What happened when they finally understood what Ezra was saying?
Look forward to 1 Corinthians 14:23-25. What does Paul say should be the effect of prophecy on the unbeliever? Have you ever seen this happen in practice? Why or why not?
There is much that we still do not really understand about what was going on in the church at Corinth. But we can say at least that there was an expectation that the Lord would work in power, and to this extent Paul and the Corinthians were in agreement. What would happen if the Lord really showed up at a gathering of our churches? Would we be ready? As we prepare for the season of Advent, that’s a question we need to take seriously.
We all know what the church is like. It is, for better or worse, a flawed human institution made up of people who are a long way from being perfect. We can probably all tell stories of how the Lord has blessed the church at one time or another, but we can all tell stories of when life in the local church has gone wrong. We’ve seen the personality clashes and the petty arguments and the careless actions that have hurt or disillusioned people. Indeed we ourselves may still bear the scars from encounters in the past. And we are the ones that have stayed. There are plenty of others who have left, vowing never to return, and as we know, these can be the hardest people to reach afresh with the gospel.
So isn’t important, that as we think about the work of the Holy Spirit, we step back and gain a fresh vision of what the church is and what under God’s grace it is called to become?
That’s the aim of this session, as we look at Ephesians 4:1-16. In this breathtaking passage Paul gives us a wonderful and dynamic picture of the church as the body of Christ – not as some kind of unattainable ideal, but as what we could and should become in the plans and purposes of God, under the guidance and empowering of the Holy Spirit.
Look at verse 1 (and verse 4). What is the calling that we have received as the people of God? Why is it that we so often forget that we are a group of people called by God?
Look at verses 2 and 3. What is the unity of the Spirit that Paul talks about in verse 3? Why does it require so much effort to achieve it? (Consider here also the link between unity and spiritual maturity in verse 13).
If Paul emphasises oneness so much in verses 4-6, why are there so many different denominations? Should we aim for unity across denominations at any price?
We often talk about the gifts of the Holy Spirit. But in verses 7-10 Paul makes it clear that spiritual gifts are ultimately given by the risen and ascended Lord Jesus. What is Jesus’ purpose in giving each one of us gifts?
In verse 11 Paul lists the various different spiritual gifts of leadership the Lord Jesus has given to the church. How do we understand these gifts today, and should we expect to see all these different gifts in the life of the local congregation?
Look at verses 12-13. What is the purpose of these leadership gifts? Why is it that people often seem willing to be led, without always understanding the part they need to play in serving the local church?
A theme constantly running this passage is the need to become mature. Although we do not know precisely the threat the Ephesian church was facing, clearly it was being unsettled by false and deceitful teaching (verse 14). How do we achieve maturity so that we too know how to stand firm for the Lord? (look at Paul’s teaching in this passage, but compare also Hebrews 5:11-6:2 and James 1:3-4).
In verses 15-16 Paul presents the ultimate goal and vision of the life of the local church. Looking back over the whole passage, how do you think Paul would say we get from here to there? Would you say that our church is growing up into him who is the head, Christ Jesus?
Session 8: The Holy Spirit and spiritual conflict
Advent is an uncomfortable season. It’s an uncomfortable season because it forces us to confront the tension between how things are now and what is yet to come. So we look forward to the annual remembrance of a Saviour who is born to us, Jesus Christ. But we yearn for the day when our salvation will be complete and we will be with Jesus together. We rejoice in the one who has come as our king, but we pray for the coming of the kingdom. We give thanks for the victory that Jesus won for us by coming to earth in human form, but we long for the day when the battle will be over. Advent confronts us with the reality of spiritual conflict, that although Jesus is already Lord, we have not reached the time when every knee will bow and every tongue confess His name.
So how do we as Christians respond to spiritual conflict? It seems to me it is important to avoid two opposite and equally dangerous reactions.
The first is to deny that spiritual conflict exists. This attitude comes from wanting a safe version of the Christian faith which is about God’s blessings and goodness, and ignores the reality that Jesus has come to deal with sin and evil in every form.
But the second and equally dangerous attitude is to see spiritual conflict in every setback, every sickness and every situation. This is to give the power of evil more credit than it is due. We are going to look at the most famous passage about spiritual conflict in the Bible, Eph 6:10-20 but even here the devil and his powers are given only very brief treatment. We might want to know about what Paul is talking about here, but it is important we do not lose our focus on the victory that is ours in Jesus Christ, because that it is where our attention should lie.
Let’s therefore read Ephesians 6:10-20
Look at verse 10. How do we know that the Lord’s mighty power is sufficient for us? (see Ephesians 1:18-21). Can anyone share an example of when they have found strength in the Lord during a time of testing?
Look at verses 11-12. What are these spiritual forces Paul is talking about? How can we help one another identify them and overcome them?
Look carefully at all the items of equipment in verses 14-17, and discuss what they might mean. Where would say your spiritual armour is strong and where does it need improvement? What practical steps do you need to take to help you stand more firmly in the spiritual conflict?
The second half of 15 should probably be translated as … “with your feet fitted with whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace” (It’s a reference back to Isaiah 52:7). So how can the gospel of peace be a weapon in spiritual conflict? Why is it that some will find it in the most literal sense of the word offensive?
How is it possible to pray in the Spirit on all occasions (verse 18)? Why is it so important nonetheless that we do so? (see Luke 21:34-36, 22:39-46)
Look at verses 19-20. Paul at the time of writing this letter was in prison for his faith, chained to a Roman guard. Yet how does he want the church at Ephesus to pray for him? What lessons can we learn how about how to pray for our brothers and sisters around the world?
We are coming here to the end of our short series about the Holy Spirit. But the Holy Spirit is not a subject we can learn about once and then forget! We are called to be constantly filled with the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 5:18) so that we keep on growing in the love and knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ, and that we are ready at any moment for His return. Let’s pray that we continue to experience more of the Holy Spirit both individually and in our life together so that we point others to the light and glory of Jesus day by day, and especially now in this season of Advent.
The post-communion prayer for the
First Sunday of Advent
O Lord our God,
make us watchful and keep us faithful
as we await the coming of your Son our Lord;
that, when he shall appear,
he may not find us sleeping in sin
but active in his service
and joyful in his praise;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.