What an odd question: “Have you received the Holy Spirit?”

Paul arrives in Ephesus in Acts 19:1 and discovers a little pocket of John the Baptist’s followers. At some point in his conversation with them he asks in verse 2, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when (or after) you believed?”

To our ears that could seem like an odd question, because believers are supposed to automatically receive the Holy Spirit according to Ephesians 1:13. The process is the same for everyone: First of all, “you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation,” and then, “Having believed, you were marked in him (Christ) with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit.”  It’s a three step process: Hear the gospel, believe the gospel, receive the Holy Spirit.

The little pocket of disciples in Ephesus, however, hadn’t “even heard that there is a Holy Spirit,” Acts 19:2. And that raised another question in Paul’s mind in verse 3: “Then what baptism did you receive?”

Again, to our ears that might seem like an odd question as well, because what other baptism could there be? To a Jew, however, there were two baptisms: There was baptism with water, and baptism with the Holy Spirit, John 1:33. John the Baptist was sent by God to baptize the Jews with water, and Jesus was sent by God to baptize them with the Spirit. First the water baptism by John, followed by the Spirit baptism by Jesus.

The only baptism the disciples in Ephesus had received, however, was “John’s baptism” with water, Acts 19:3. That was good, of course, because God had sent John the Baptist to baptize his fellow Jews with water as a necessary first step, but John had also made it clear in Matthew 3:11 that “after me will come one who is more powerful than I. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” For the Jews of that time, therefore, there was another baptism to come.

So, when Paul discovered the disciples in Ephesus had only received “John’s baptism of repentance” in Acts 19:4, he reminded them of what John himself had said about “believing in the one coming after him, that is, in Jesus.” In John’s own words his baptism with water to repentance was only a first step to the baptism that Jesus would do. And when the disciples in Ephesus realized that, “they were baptized into the name of the Lord Jesus,” verse 5, and “the Holy Spirit came on them,” verse 6.

And that was the baptism Paul was interested in, their baptism with the Holy Spirit, because that was what “marked” and “sealed” them “in Christ,” Ephesians 1:13, “guaranteeing their inheritance,” verse 14. When he asked, therefore, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit?” it’s not such an odd question, is it?


How easy it can be to “blaspheme against the Spirit”

To blaspheme against the Holy Spirit is to ignore the obvious evidence of the Spirit at work. Jesus, for instance, was casting out demons “by the Spirit of God,” Matthew 12:28, but the Pharisees claimed he was doing it by the power of the devil. How ridiculous, because why would the devil spite his own nose by decreasing his influence in people’s heads? Well, of course he wouldn’t do that. But if it wasn’t the devil casting out demons, there was only one other power capable of doing it – God.

But the Pharisees ignored the obvious. Like a teenager who seeks to justify contempt for his parents by accusing them of not caring when he knows full well they do care, the Pharisees also came up with outrageous accusations to bring contempt on Jesus. So long as it made Jesus look bad. That’s what counted – NOT the obvious evidence of the Holy Spirit at work, but rather the chance to score points against Jesus to destroy his influence.

It’s like justifying contempt for other Christians today. Yes, other Christians have problems, they’re not perfect. Some denominations are making glaring mistakes. But they’re also doing a lot of good. They feed the poor, provide shelter, clothing, money, medication, encouragement, comfort, emergency help in disasters, education for struggling families, and they’re willing to go to the worst places on earth to help people. Their doctrines may be completely out to lunch, their churches cold and unfriendly, their manner a bit aggressive or over the top, and their emphasis on hell a bit steep, but there’s no denying that wherever imperfect Christians are there is lot of good being done.

When Jesus said, “The Spirit of the Lord is on me,” in Luke 4:18, “because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor, proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, and to release the oppressed,” the evidence was overwhelming that what he said was true, because wherever he went people were relieved of demons and dreadful diseases. All done, Jesus said, by the Holy Spirit.

We have clear evidence, therefore, of how the Spirit works. Wherever good is being done and evil is being suppressed, that’s the Holy Spirit. To ignore that evidence is to ignore the obvious evidence of the Holy Spirit at work. And to seek to score points against other Christians by focusing on their faults is to bring contempt on the Holy Spirit. That’s how easy it can be to blaspheme against the Spirit. As easy as it was for the Pharisees.

How on earth can the Spirit be “blasphemed”?

The story leading up to “blasphemy against the Spirit” in Matthew 12:31 began when Jesus healed a man who’d been made blind and dumb by a demon. Some Scribes and Pharisees from Jerusalem who’d seen the miracle decided among themselves that the only reason Jesus had been able to drive the demon out of the man was because Jesus was possessed by Satan, the ruler of the demons, and he was acting on Satan’s orders.

It sounded like a great argument, that Jesus was able to cast out demons because he was one of Satan’s cronies and he was simply doing what Satan wanted, because Satan had a total hold over him. But Jesus asks them why on earth Satan would drive his own demons out of people when it would destroy Satan’s purpose of controlling people and expanding his kingdom. Why would Satan have a demon successfully take a person over and then drive the demon out freeing the person from the demon’s clutches? Clearly, then, it couldn’t be Satan who drove the demon out.

And Satan wouldn’t allow anyone else to drive his demons out of people either. Satan was far too powerful for any human being to break into his kingdom, steal his demons, and turn them against him. So how could they think Jesus was operating by the power of Satan when the last two things Satan would ever do was, first of all, give up control over someone and, secondly, allow someone else control over people instead?

So who was driving demons out of people instead, then, if it wasn’t Satan himself doing it, nor was it Satan allowing it?

Well, the only person who could break through Satan’s defences was someone stronger than him. But here was Jesus driving a demon out of someone, and Satan couldn’t stop him. Clearly, then, Jesus was operating by a power far greater than Satan’s. To continue accusing Jesus of operating by Satan’s power, therefore, was to accuse the power Jesus was operating by as Satan’s power too. And that to Jesus was a step too far, because he knew the Holy Spirit was the source of his power. People could say what they liked about him, but to directly accuse the Holy Spirit of being Satan was unforgivable from people who were supposed to be priests of God.

So Jesus lets them have it: “You accuse me of being demon-possessed, and the Holy Spirit being Satan. Well, you’ve just revealed yourselves for exactly who you are. You are a pit of snakes, and one day you will answer for every stupid, ridiculous word you’ve said” (verse 36).

The Holy Spirit can be grieved?

I was grieved as a parent when my children didn’t ask me for help, because the result was always negative. If they believed they knew better, for instance, it usually got them into trouble of some sort, which sometimes took a long time to resolve, which in turn put some heavy strains on our relationship. And if they insisted on trying to sort out difficult situations by themselves, it was heart rending watching them digging themselves deeper. Why could they not see that parents exist to help? It’s a simple rule of life played out billions of times every day, that parents all over the planet want the best for their kids, and will do anything to help them.

God’s like that too, Paul writes in Ephesians 3:20-21 – “Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations.” God wants to help, he has the power to help, and he’ll never stop helping “throughout all generations.” Billions of times every day he’s helping people. His help is so huge it’s immeasurable. He exists to help.

But we live in a world, just as our kids do, where people “are darkened in their understanding and (are) separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts,” Ephesians 4:18. The rule of the world, also played out billions of times every day, is the endless steeling of minds against asking for help, or even believing help is needed, resulting in massive “ignorance” and a constant flow of dumb decisions “corrupted by deceitful desires” by people at all levels (verse 22), which in turn keeps them “separated from the life of God” and never able to experience life as God intended it when “his power is at work within us.”

Worse still, though, are those who DO have his power at work within them, who know that God is able to do immeasurably more than all they ask or imagine, who realize it’s God’s glory in the church to help them, and it’s all being done beautifully and perfectly by the Holy Spirit, who then get to thinking, just like my kids, that they know better and can sort out their difficult situations by themselves. No wonder Paul says in Ephesians 4:30, “And do not grieve the Holy Spirit, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption,” because not trusting the Spirit to see us safely through, when he wants to and can, is heart rending.

Are we really “flying blind” in this life?

It was Jesus who introduced the thought of flying blind, when he talked to Nicodemus about the Spirit in John 3:8. Jesus compared the Spirit to the wind, which “blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”

Jesus was talking from experience too, because he’d been given “the Spirit without limit,” verse 34. From the moment he was baptized “the Spirit came down from heaven as a dove and remained on him” (John 1:32), so he knew what it was like living in the dimension of the Spirit, and in his words the Spirit “blows wherever it pleases.” We have no idea where it’s going. We’re flying blind like an aeroplane in a fog.

John then tells us that Jesus came to “baptize with the Holy Spirit” (John 1:33), meaning soak US in that same world of the Spirit too. And like Jesus we can know we’re in that Spirit world, John 14:17, “for he (the Spirit) lives with you and will be in you.” So we’ll know the Spirit is with us and in us, like a pilot can hear the hum of the engines, but where the Spirit is taking us we have no idea. We’re flying blind.

And this is what Jesus baptizes us into, because he knows what being baptized with the Spirit is like. The Spirit is “the Spirit of truth” (John 14:17), who “will guide you into all truth” (John 16:13). The Spirit is a perfect Guide. He knows exactly where he’s going and he will take us there. We have no idea where we’re going or how to get there – but he does.

We’re like those blind skiers in the Winter Paralympics, who thunder down the slopes at breakneck speeds with carefree abandon, even though they can’t see where they’re going, because in front of them they have a skier who can see, feeding instructions to them through an ear piece. And it works. The sighted skier guides the blind skier down the hill to the finish line, even though the blind skier can’t see where he’s going the whole way.

And neither can we. We’re flying blind, just like that blind skier, from the moment we’re born of the Spirit. We’ve entered a completely new dimension totally depending on the Spirit to guide us. But that’s why Jesus came to baptize us with the Spirit, so that we too can have “the Spirit without limit” guiding us through our lives like the Spirit guided him, because in his own experience as a human being it worked just perfectly.

Is it possible to have a free and confident relationship with God?

We are fortunate as Christians knowing about “the law of the Spirit,” Romans 8:2, because the Spirit is the only solution to our “sinful nature,” verse 3. As Paul writes in verse 9, we “are controlled not by the sinful nature but by the Spirit,” and that’s good because our sinful nature always made us “hostile to God,” verse 7. We could never grasp that “we are God’s children” (16), so we never felt free and confident in our relationship with God, like Jesus did.

But when “the Spirit of God lives in you,” we have the Spirit creating the same life and nature of the resurrected Christ in us (11), and that gives us a mind full of “life and peace” as we come to realize we are “sons of God” just like Jesus is right now (14). We are God’s very own children, so why on earth did we resist him so much, and think he was against us?

The Spirit frees us of all those stupid thoughts we had about God. As the Spirit installs Christ’s nature and relationship with God in us we find ourselves thinking about God as our “Abba, Father” (15), not as some awful ogre like the gods of Greek mythology. And because we have the Spirit of Christ in us we can walk in that father/son relationship with God every day.

We have a problem, though, don’t we? Our sinful nature “with its passions and desires,” Galatians 5:24, is trying to wreck our free and confident relationship with God. But, Paul writes in verse 16, if we “live by the Spirit” we “will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature.” If we’re “led by the Spirit” (18) we are “not under law,” meaning we’re no longer ruled by or controlled by the law of our sinful nature. Instead we are filled by the Spirit with “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control,” just as Christ was (and is), giving us the same free and confident relationship with God that he has.

“Since we live by the Spirit” then, Paul writes in verse 25, “let us keep in step with the Spirit.” Since the Spirit is constantly filling us with all the qualities of Christ’s nature that gave him a lovely relationship with God, walk in that every day, realizing that’s what the Spirit is doing for us. Walk in step with the Spirit who wants us “to be free,” verse 15, free in the knowledge that he is gradually getting rid of the ugly qualities of our sinful nature and replacing them with Christ’s nature so we can walk with God every day in the same relationship Jesus had.

The “law of the Spirit”

According to Paul in Romans 8:2 there are two laws that govern human life and well being – “the law of sin and death” and “the law of the Spirit,” and it’s either one or the other that we are controlled by (verses 8-9).

Another way of describing the law of sin and death is the law of “the sinful nature” (verse 3), because it operates just like a law too: “live according to the sinful nature,” Paul writes in verse 5, and automatically, just like a law, we “have our minds set on what that nature desires.” But “those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set” – just like a law again – “on what the Spirit desires.” Two laws in action, that automatically control what goes on inside our heads.

The difference for Christians is that we “are controlled not by the sinful nature but by the Spirit,” verse 9, and when we’re controlled by the Spirit a law is now operating in our heads that enables us, at last, “to put to death the misdeeds of the body,” verse 13. This is “the law of the Spirit.”

The Spirit is committed to setting us free (verse 2) by gently and relentlessly transforming our natural instincts and ungodly desires into the nature and desires that Christ has. That’s why the Spirit is also called “the Spirit of Christ” (verse 9), because it’s Christ’s nature that the Spirit is gradually installing in our heads, replacing our sinful nature  – and the Spirit will keep on installing Christ’s nature in our heads even when we’re too weak to care. That’s when the Spirit sighs on our behalf (verse 26), to get us back on the road to “life and peace” (verse 6), brimming with confidence and peace of mind again as we find ourselves able and willing to “please God” (verse 8) instead of being “hostile” to him (verse 7).

Fortunately, the Spirit knows exactly what God put in human heads when he created us, so while we’re helplessly unable to be what God meant us to be, the Spirit is carting off the accumulated rubbish that’s been blocking all those lovely desires and longings God tucked away inside our heads in the beginning, when he made us in his image.

And like a law, again, there isn’t a time in our lives, or a situation we come up against, that can stop the Spirit working it out for our good (verse 28). He is constantly and faithfully digging away inside our heads creating the same unclogged, smoothly running, freely purring motor that powers Jesus, because “the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is (now) living in you,” verse 11.