The Holy Spirit, His Ministry, and the Preacher of God

Article by   October 2011

Editor's note: this is the first of a two part series by Pastor Ventura on this important topic. 

Preachers of the Word of God who would be the most useful laborers for our Lord and His church need to prepare themselves for their calling as Christian ministers.  Typically, if they would be the most effective preachers of the Bible, they should have a good working knowledge of the original languages, Hebrew and Greek.  In addition, they should be well versed in all of the various theological disciplines, such as exegetical theology, historical theology, systematic theology, biblical theology, practical and pastoral theology.  Along with these prerequisites, they should also be men who have acquired for themselves sufficient tools for the task of preaching, such as an adequate library and various bible study tools. 

Now, while all of these things are vitally important for the minister to be all that God would have him to be, none of them compares to the preacher's great need of having the Holy Spirit and His ministry resting upon him and all of his pulpit labors.  Now this axiom is so basic that one might consider an entire editorial on the subject unnecessary. However, the longer I am in the ministry, the more I am amazed at how often I forget it. In fact, I'm caused to wonder why so little is spoken about this subject in our day.  Brothers, with C. H. Spurgeon, in his classic work Lectures to My Students, I trust we all can say personally, "I believe in the Holy Ghost."  However, I wonder how many of us can say of a truth, "I need the Holy Ghost!"

How do we get to this point in our lives?  How do we become less independent and more dependent on Him who can do us and our people the great spiritual good that we desperately need?  I believe that answering a few fundamental questions will aid us in this regard.

Who is the Holy Spirit?  What is His ministry for the preacher of God and how can preachers know more of His ministry?  These are the questions that will be addressed in this article with a view to convincing us of the absolute necessity of the Holy Spirit and His ministry for all who would be preachers of the Word of God.[1]

Who is the Holy Spirit?

In answering this question, we turn to the Word of God itself.  The Scriptures are abundantly plain regarding this matter.

Consider first that the Holy Spirit is a person.[2]  Some distinct personal characteristics of the Holy Spirit are: His ability to teach (Neh 9:20; Lk 12:12; Jn 14:26), testify (Jn 15:26), convict (Jn 16:8), lead (Rm 8:14; Act 8:29; Acts 13:2; Acts 16:6-7; 2 Pet 1:21), seal (Eph 1:13-14, 4:30), appoint (Acts 13:2), equip (1 Cor 12:4-10; Rm 12:4-13), intercede (Rm 8:26-27), search (1 Cor 2:10-11), prohibit (Acts 16:6), judge (Acts 15:28), speak (Acts 8:29 Rm 8:26-27; Rev 2:7), hear (Jn 16:13), will (Heb 2:4; 1 Cor 12:11), love (Rm 15:30), comfort (Jn 14:26), commune (2 Cor 13:14), give (1 Cor 12:9-11), and grieve (Isa 63:10; Eph 4:30).  Also, the Holy Spirit can be lied to and insulted (Acts 5:3; Heb 10:29).

Consider secondly, that the Holy Spirit is a divine person.  The Bible tells us that the Holy Spirit is the eternal third person of the blessed Trinity (Mt 28:19). 

The Holy Spirit is God (Acts 5:3-4), in the same fashion as and equal to the Father and the Son (Mt 3:16,17; 1 Cor 12:4-6; 2 Cor 13:14; Eph 4:4-6; 1 Jn 5:7), yet all three are distinct (Lk 1:35; 3:21, 22, 12:10; Jn 16:7-15; 1 Cor 12: 4-6; Rev 1:4-5), while being one God (Deut 6:4; 1 Cor 8:6).

The Holy Spirit is called God (Acts 5:4; 2 Cor 3:17), and divine attributes are ascribed to Him, such as omnipresence (Ps 139:7-10; 2 Cor 3:17), omniscience (Isa 40:13-14; Jn 14:26; 1 Cor 2:10-11), omnipotence (Lk 1:35; Rm 8:11, 15:19), eternality (Heb 9:14), and creativity (Gen 1:2; Job 26:13, 33:4; Ps 104:30). 

In addition, the Holy Spirit regenerates (Jn 3:5-6, 6:63; Titus 3:5), sanctifies (2 Thes 2:13), and glorifies (Jn 16:14; Rm 8:11).  He inspired the Word of God (2 Pt 1:20-21).  The Holy Spirit can also be blasphemed (Mark 3:29).

In commenting on the divine personhood of the Holy Spirit, John Owen writes,

To suppose now that this Holy Ghost is not a divine person is for men to dream whilst they seem to be awake.  I suppose by all these testimonies we have fully confirmed what was designed to be proven by them,--namely, that the Holy Spirit is not a quality, as some speak, residing in the divine nature; not a mere emanation of virtue and power from God; not the acting of the power of God in and unto our sanctification; but a holy intelligent subsistent or person. And in our passage many instances have been given, whence it is undeniably evident that he is a divine, self-sufficient, self-subsisting person, together with the Father and the Son equally participant of the divine nature.[3] 

Commenting on the deity of the Holy Spirit, James White says,

It can be well argued that once the personality of the Spirit is established, the argument about His deity is over.  The "Spirit of God" who is said to be omnipresent (Ps 139:7), omniscient (1 Corinthians 2:10-11), and active in the very creation itself (Genesis 1:2; Psalm 104:30) hardly fits the description of some kind of lesser being.  But the fact that this Spirit shares the one divine name with the Father and the Son (Matthew 28:19) makes His deity indisputable.[4]

Having seen then in the first place, the scriptural witness to the personality and being of the Holy Spirit, can it not be stated at the outset that because of who He is, He Himself is absolutely essential to those who would preach God's Holy Word?  Dare any of us think that we can preach the very Word of God, without the help of God Himself?  Could it not be argued that to expect the blessing of God upon our labors without a conscious dependence upon the person of Holy Spirit is the height of presumption? 

Brothers, let us not be shortsighted at this point.  Just as we can do nothing without the aid of God the Father and the Son, we can do nothing without the assistance of the Holy Spirit!  Without Him, even our best efforts will prove unprofitable.  "It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing" (Jn 6:63a).

What is the Holy Spirit's Ministry for the preacher of God?

Having established from the Word of God who the Holy Spirit is, we must now consider what His ministry is, and how that ministry applies to those who preach His Word.  In this section, the focus of attention will be upon three specific aspects of the Spirit's ministry namely, illumination, filling and power.

Illumination

Illumination can be defined as the opening of the heart and mind to receive and apprehend divinely revealed scriptural truth.  Specifically, illumination relates to the ministry of the Holy Spirit whereby He helps the child of God to understand the truths of God as contained in the Bible.[5]  This of course is not the receiving of new divine truth but rather, as John Owen rightly says, it is, "the especial work of the Spirit of God on the minds of men, communicating spiritual wisdom, light, and understanding unto them, necessary unto their discerning and apprehending aright the mind of God in his word, and the understanding of the mysteries of heavenly truth contained therein."[6]

In reference to this aspect of the Holy Spirit's work, John MacArthur remarks,

It is impossible to properly understand God's objective revelation in Scripture apart from the illuminating work of the Holy Spirit.  Illumination is not equated with either revelation or inspiration.  It communicates no new truth, but rather enables us to comprehend God's truth in the final and complete revelation of it in Scripture.  No clear understanding of Scripture leading to powerful preaching is possible without the Spirit's work of illumination."[7]

The Apostle Paul wrote about the Spirit's work of illumination.  In writing to the church at Corinth he says,  "Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might know the things that have been freely given to us by God," (1 Cor 2:12).  Similarly, when praying for the Christians in Ephesus, Paul could say,

Therefore I also, after I heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all the saints, do not cease to give thanks for you, making mention of you in my prayers: that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give to you the spirit of the wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of Him, the eyes of your understanding being enlightened; that you may know what is the hope of His calling, what are the riches of the glory of his inheritance in the saints, and what is the exceeding greatness of His power toward us who believe, according to the working of His mighty power" (Eph 1:17-19).[8]

Clearly, the Apostle Paul saw the need for the Holy Spirit's ministry of revealing God's truth to His people and so he prayed in this manner.  In a similar way, the Psalmist prayed and said, "Open my eyes, that I may see wondrous things from your law" (Ps 119:18), and "Give me understanding according to Your Word" (verse 169).  Here is the desire of the true child of God, and the preacher who understands this work of the Holy Spirit should regularly be praying that He would remove the native darkness of his mind so that the spiritual light of God's Word will be plain to Him.

The church has long believed in this aspect of the Spirit's ministry.  Martin Luther speaks of the need for it when he says,

Nobody who has not the Spirit of God sees a jot of what is in the Scriptures. All men have their hearts darkened, so that, even when they can discuss and quote all that is in Scripture, they do not understand or really know any of it. . . The spirit is needed for the understanding of all Scripture and every part of Scripture."[9] 

John Calvin also speaks of this matter when he says,

The testimony of the Spirit is superior to reason.  For as God alone can properly bear witness to his own words, so these words will not obtain full credit in the hearts of men, until they are sealed by the inward testimony of the Spirit. . . For though (Scripture) in its own majesty has enough to command reverence, nevertheless, it then begins truly to touch us when it is sealed in our hearts by the Holy Spirit."[10]

In addition, the framers of the great confessions of faith understood this aspect of the Spirit's ministry when they say,

The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for his    own glory, man's salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set       down or necessarily contained in the Holy Scripture: unto which   nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelation of     the Spirit, or traditions of men. Nevertheless, we acknowledge the inward illumination of the Spirit of God to be necessary for the saving understanding of such things as are revealed in the Word."[11]    

The application of this for those who preach God's Word is plain.  Since it is the Spirit of God who opens up the Word of God so that we can comprehend and perceive its sacred truth, it makes sense that preachers above all others should be most eager to see this aspect of the Holy Spirit's ministry consistently at work in their lives.  We who preach and teach God's Word should be earnest in our prayers that as we diligently study the Scriptures, God by the Spirit would come and do this very thing for us, giving us clear understanding and insight into the truths of the Bible as we labor to feed our people each Lord's Day.  This is how our labors will be effective.  This is how the people of God will be fed with the finest wheat of his Word.

Perhaps some think that those who traffic in the Word of God most frequently are able to perceive sacred truth most readily.  This would be nice, but it is not always the case.  Very often ministers find themselves with a great sense of dullness and spiritual lethargy as they come to the study of the Scriptures.  Therefore, as they labor in the study they must not neglect to ask that God, by His Holy Spirit, would come and break open the bread of life to them so that they can richly feed others. 

Human abilities, and good resource material, though helpful, will never compare to the insights that God the Holy Spirit alone can give.  May God so work this fact in our hearts and teach us this truth.  If the Spirit does not come reveal the truths of Gods word to us, we who labor in both "word and doctrine" are of all men most to be pitied.  The Bible will be as a dead letter to us.  So let us especially plead the Spirit's mercies in this regard.  Dr. W. R. Downing said it right when he wrote,

Academic attainment is no substitute for spiritual discernment, as witnessed by those critical biblical commentaries, some of which have been written by unregenerate rationalistic scholars.  They may have mastered the linguistics, history and the culture of biblical times, but remain strangers to the heart and the message of Scripture, and therefore misrepresent or undermine them (1 Cor 2: 9-14).  The Holy Spirit is the Divine Author of the Bible and unless he opens our understanding, it must largely remain a closed book.  The evangelical pastor Bishop, J. C. Ryle, put it succinctly, ". . . read the Bible with earnest prayer for the teaching and the help of the Holy Spirit.  Here is the rock on which many make shipwreck at the very outset. They do not ask for wisdom and instruction, and so they find the Bible a dark book, and carry nothing away from it. You should pray for the Spirit to guide you into all truth.  You should beg the Lord Jesus Christ to 'open your understanding,' as he did that of his disciples" (Lk 24:45).[12]

Filling

The Bible teaches that not only is the Holy Spirit given to the believer at conversion once, but that He is further supplied in varying measures throughout the Christian's life.  To be filled with the Spirit can be defined as "His temporary control or possession of the faculties and powers of a person's being, in order to enable that person to accomplish some specific task or service for God."[13] 

The Spirit's filling should be distinguished from certain other ministries of the Spirit's work in the life of the child of God, such as the baptism of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 12:13), the indwelling of the Spirit (Jn 14:16; 1 Cor 6:19-20), and the sealing of the Spirit (Eph1:13-14, 4:30), all of which happen at the moment of conversion.

Harold Hoehner rightly remarks, "It is interesting to note that the indwelling, sealing and baptizing ministries of the Spirit are bestowed on every believer at the time of salvation.  There are no injunctions for the believer regarding them because they are an integral part of the gift of salvation."[14]  The filling of the Holy Spirit is quite different; it is not a once for all experience.  In Ephesians 5:18, for example, the command to "be filled with the Spirit," reads in the original "be being filled (present, imperative, passive) with the Spirit," or more literally, "let the Spirit continually fill you," thus showing that this is to be an ongoing repeated action. 

The question that should be asked then at this point is, "Why should those who preach the Word of God be concerned with this aspect of the Spirit's ministry?"  While many answers could be given, perhaps the best one, given our general topic of consideration, is this: the Bible teaches that the Holy Spirit's ministry of filling is often connected to boldness in the preacher when he speaks.  By boldness, I am not referring to harshness, but rather, speaking freely and plainly as every minister should desire to do.  Arturo Azurdia III, in commenting on the New Testament use of the word "boldness" says, "It means, 'outspokenness, frankness...that conceals nothing and passes over nothing...confidence ... fearlessness, especially in the presence of persons of high rank."[15] 

Three clear examples of the Spirit's filling and boldness are seen in Scripture. Consider first the example of the Apostles.  In Acts chapter four verses one to four, Peter and John, after healing a lame man, preached Jesus to the people.  After this, they were arrested and imprisoned until the following day to be questioned by the Sanhedrin.  In verse seven we read, "And when they had set them in the midst, they asked, 'By what power or what name have you done this?'"  We read in verse eight, "Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit (emphasis mine), said, "Rulers of the people and elders of Israel:  "If we this day are judged for a good deed done to a helpless man, by what means he has been made well,  "let it be known to you all, and to all the people of Israel, that by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead, by Him this man stands before you whole.  "This is the 'stone which was rejected by you builders, which has become the chief corner stone.'  Nor is there salvation in any other, for there is no name under heaven given among men by which they must be saved." (vv. 8-12).  Verses thirteen and fourteen say, "Now they saw the boldness of Peter and John and perceived that they were uneducated and untrained men, they marveled.  And they realized that they had been with Jesus.  And seeing the man standing with them, they could say nothing against it" (vv. 13-14).[16] 

Shortly after this, Peter and John were released, and "they went back to their own companions and reported all that the chief priest and elders had said to them" (v. 23).  After hearing about how the Holy Spirit had filled the Apostles with such boldness and how great the result, is it any wonder that we see the whole church praying in verse twenty nine,  "Now, Lord look on their threats, and grant to your servants that with all boldness they may speak your word. . ."(emphasis mine).  The result of their prayer is described in verse thirty one: "And when they prayed, the place where they were assembled together was shaken; and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit, and they spoke the word of God with boldness"  (emphasis mine).

Consider secondly the example of Stephen.  The Bible describes him as a man who was "full of the Holy Spirit" (Acts 6:3).  We read in Acts chapter six, verse ten, that some men came to dispute with him and that "they were not able to resist the wisdom and the Spirit by which he spoke".  After being falsely accused by these men and brought before the council to answer for the charges that were made against him, Stephen stood to give his defense by preaching perhaps one of the longest recorded sermons in all of the Word of God. 

In this message Stephen brought the people all the way back to the time of Abraham, then to the Patriarchs, and then to the time of Moses, showing that this Jesus whom he had preached was indeed the long awaited promised one who would come to the Jewish people.  Stephen ended his sermon with a bold word of rebuke regarding the impenitence of the people in rejecting Christ their Messiah by saying, "You stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears!  You do always resist the Holy Spirit; as did your fathers did, so do you" (v. 51).

After this we read that the people "were cut to the heart, and they gnashed at him with their teeth" (v. 54).  Then of Stephen, it says, "But he, being full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God, and said, 'Look! I see the heavens opened and the son of Man standing at the right hand of God!' " (v. 56).

It should be asked, "From where did Stephen get such boldness to speak to these men, realizing that his own life was in great danger?"  The answer to this question lies in the description of the kind of man that Stephen was.  Stephen, according to the Bible, was a man of God who was filled with the Spirit of God.  

Consider thirdly the example of the Apostle Paul.  In Acts chapter thirteen Paul begins his first missionary journey.  We read of him and his traveling companions that "being sent out by the Holy Spirit, they went down to Seleucia, and from there they sailed to Cyprus."  And when they arrived in Salamis, they preached the Word of God in the synagogues of the Jews. . ."  (vv. 4-5a).  In verse seven, we are told of a man named Sergius Paulus, who "called for Barnabas and Saul and sought to hear the Word of God." 

Following this news, the Apostle encounters a distraction bound up in a certain sorcerer named Elymas, who according to verse eight was "seeking to turn the proconsul from the faith."  Realizing the seriousness of the situation, "Then Saul, who is called Paul, filled with the Holy Spirit, looked intently at him and said, 'O full of all deceit and all fraud, you son of the devil, you enemy of all righteousness, will you not cease perverting the straight ways of the Lord?' " (emphasis mine). 

No doubt, these are very bold words.  It should be asked again, "Where did such bold speaking come from?"  Our passage tells us plainly that it was when Paul was filled with the Holy Spirit that he was enabled to speak in such a way.

The connection between the filling of the Spirit and boldness in speech is evident in these passages.  In commenting on this dynamic, Sinclair Ferguson says,

The hallmark of the preaching which the Spirit effects is 'boldness'. . . As in the Old Testament, when the Spirit fills the servant of God he 'clothes himself' with that person, and aspects of the Spirit's authority are illustrated in the courageous declaration of the word of God.  This boldness appears to involve exactly what it denotes: there is freedom of speech.  We catch occasional glimpses of this in the Acts of the Apostles.  What was said of the early New England preacher Thomas Hooker becomes a visible reality: when he preached, those who heard him felt that he could pick up a king and put him in his pocket!"[17]

One is reminded of the prayer request of the Apostle Paul to the church at Ephesus.  Of all of the things for which the Apostle Paul could have asked prayer for, he asked the Ephesian church to pray for him, "that utterance may be given to me, that I may open my mouth boldly to make known the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains; that I may speak boldly, as I ought to speak" (Eph 6:19-20) (emphasis mine).

May this be our prayer as well.

Rob Ventura is the pastor of Grace Community Baptist Church in Cumberland, Rhode Island and the co-author (along with Jeremy Walker) of A Portrait of Paul: Identifying a True Minister of Christ.


         [1] I am glad to see that Reformation Heritage Books has published Albert Martin's sermons on this subject in his new book entitled, Preaching in the Holy Spirit.  This work will further aid the reader in this most vital topic.

[2] The Holy Spirit is not a vague, impersonal force.  This is the teaching of the Jehovah's Witness organization.  For a discussion of this subject, I refer to the book by James R. White, The Forgotten Trinity (Bethany House Publishers, 1998), p.140.

[3] John Owen, The Holy Spirit, in vol.3 of The Works of John Owen, ed. William H. Goold (Edinburgh: Banner Of Truth Trust, 1965), p.89.

[4] James R. White, The Forgotten Trinity (Minnesota: Bethany House Publishers, 1998), p.147.

[5] In emphasizing the Spirit's work of illumination upon the minister I believe that this can happen both in the study and in the act of preaching itself.

[6] John Owen, The Reason of Faith, in vol.4 of The Works of John Owen, ed. William H. Goold (Edinburgh: Banner Of Truth Trust, 1965), p.124.

[7] John MacArthur, Jr., Rediscovering Expository Preaching (Dallas: Word, Inc.1992), p. 102.

[8] I am aware of some who suggest that the word "spirit" spoken of in these verses refers to the "human spirit"; however, I am of the opinion based upon the context that Paul is speaking about the "Holy Spirit."  For a full-length discussion of this issue I point the reader to Harold Hoehner, Ephesians: An Exegetical Commentary, (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 2002), pp. 256-258.

[9] John MacArthur, Jr., Rediscovering Expository Preaching (Dallas: Word, Inc.1992), p. 109.

[10] Ibid., 110.

            [11] 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith, Chapter one, paragraph six, entitled, Of the Holy Scriptures. Also, see The Westminster Confession of Faith.

[12] W. R. Downing, How to Study the Bible (Morgan Hill: PIRS Publications, 2001), pp. 15-16.

[13] John Reuther, "The Filling and Fullness of the Spirit" (Manuscript from unpublished class notes on The Gift of the Holy Spirit quoting Robert J. Dunzweiler), p.170.

[14] Harold Hoehner, Ephesians An Exegetical Commentary, (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 2002), p. 705.

            [15] Arturo Azurdia III, Spirit Empowered Preaching (Geanies House, Fern, Ross-shire: Christian Focus Publication, 2003), p.125.

[16] It is interesting to note that the text tells us that the people who heard the boldness of Peter and John attributed it to the fact that "they had been with Jesus," indicating the kind of preacher our Lord was.

[17] Sinclair B. Ferguson, The Holy Spirit (Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1996), p. 238.



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