As I have watched my children advance through school in math, I have been reminded about how much learning you take for granted – about how many pieces must be put in place before you can do more advanced work. There is the need to learn addition and subtraction, and then these operations with multiple digits. One must learn the multiplication tables, and then learn division, and then learn to do these with multiple digits. There are fractions and decimals. There is geometry and algebra. It takes years to advance through these stages, and until you have completed the earlier learning you are not capable of handling what comes later. Until a person has been prepared, they are not capable of learning the new information.
This same basic truth describes what is happening in Jesus’ discussion with the disciples in our text today day. The Gospel lesson for a number of the Sundays of Easter comes from John chapters fifteen and sixteen. This material is often called the “Farewell Discourse.” It was spoken as Jesus and the disciples were making their way to the Garden of Gethsemane, and the general tone of it is one of farewell because Jesus talks about how he will be leaving to return to the Father.
Our Lord recognizes the disciples’ current state of learning and preparation. He says in chapter sixteen: “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.” The disciples weren’t ready for more. They couldn’t handle it. And so Jesus talks about what is going to happen in the future. He talks about a time when he will send the Holy Spirit, the Helper. Jesus says at the beginning of our text, “But when the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness about me. And you also will bear witness, because you have been with me from the beginning.”
Our Lord says that he will send the Spirit of truth from the Father – the Spirit who proceeds from the Father. Immediately after our text Jesus says that his approaching departure from the disciples is in fact a good thing for them. He says, “Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you.”
On Thursday we celebrated the Feast of the Ascension of Our Lord. Our Lord was exalted as he departed in the ascension and was seated at the right hand of God. We may wonder why it is that Jesus must depart in order for him to send the Spirit. God’s Word provides us with no explicit explanation. We are simply told that this is how God works.
Of course before he departed Jesus had work to do. Last week we heard how Jesus alluded to his own crucifixion by talking about Moses and the bronze serpent on a pole. He said, “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”
Earlier in the Gospel Jesus had said, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” Jesus had come to be lifted up on the cross as the sacrifice for sin. He was the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.
By his death he has taken away your sin. He has freed you from slavery. Jesus said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son remains forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.”
We like to think of ourselves as being independent and self-sufficient. We can take care of things, and we can do it on our own terms. But this is the lie of the devil. For when it comes to our standing before the holy God everything we think, do, and say has been infected by sin. It’s not just that we do things that are wrong. Even when we do things that are right, we do them with mixed motives. Sin permeates these things too and so in God’s eyes all our good works are as filthy rags.
Yet by his death on the cross, Jesus Christ has won forgiveness. And then on the third day God raised Jesus from the dead. Because of Jesus, death has been defeated. Those who believe in Jesus have forgiveness and eternal life now. And Jesus will share his resurrection with all who believe in him. Our Lord said, “For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.”
This is the Gospel. But for people to believe the Gospel it must be shared with them. And so Jesus says in our text, “But when the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness about me. And you also will bear witness, because you have been with me from the beginning.”
The apostles had accompanied Jesus during his ministry. They had heard his teaching. They had seen his miracles – his signs that he performed. Most importantly they would meet the risen Lord as he demonstrated to them again and again in unmistakable ways that the One who had been crucified was now alive.
This section of John’s Gospel speaks about what the Spirit will do. It becomes clear that the apostles will be the means by which the Spirit will work. Earlier the Lord said, “And the word that you hear is not mine but the Father's who sent me. These things I have spoken to you while I am still with you. But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.”
Jesus promises that the Spirit will teach the disciples all things and bring to their remembrance what Jesus has said. And then after our text the Lord goes on to say, “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.
He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you.”
The Spirit takes what belongs to Jesus – the saving work he has accomplished for us – and he makes it known to the disciples. The Spirit is the One who enabled the apostles to bear witness to Jesus, both in speaking to others and in what they wrote.
The Spirit borne witness continues in our midst today through the Scriptures the Spirit has inspired. After his first miracle that Jesus performed at the wedding at Cana in which he turned water into wine, John tells us, “This, the first of his signs, Jesus did at Cana in Galilee, and manifested his glory. And his disciples believed in him.” Then at the end of the Gospel John writes, “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book;
but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.”
We see the signs that call us to faith and sustain us in faith through the witness the Spirit has given us in Scripture. It is there that we encounter the Spirit’s work through the apostles of bringing to remembrance what Jesus said and making know what belongs to Jesus. Through these Spirit breathed words we now believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and so have life in his name.
And it is through these words – this witness – that the Spirit enables us to face the challenge that Jesus describes in our text. He says, “I have said all these things to you to keep you from falling away. They will put you out of the synagogues. Indeed, the hour is coming when whoever kills you will think he is offering service to God. And they will do these things because they have not known the Father, nor me.”
Because of the work of the Spirit you are different from the world. You have been born again of water and the Spirit in Holy Baptism. Jesus said, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him.” The Father has drawn you to faith in Christ through the work of the Spirit. Earlier in chapter fifteen Jesus said, “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you.”
The world is on the side of Satan, sin, and death. But the good news of the Gospel is that Jesus Christ has freed you from this. By his death and resurrection he has conquered them all. And he has sent the Spirit to give this victory to us through faith. Through the inspired witness of the Scriptures the Spirit continues to make known Jesus’ saving work to us. He has called us to faith. He has given us rebirth in baptism. Because of the Spirit of truth we now recognize the lie that Satan tells. And instead we believe in Jesus who is the way, the truth and the life.