A POWER OR A PERSON?
Dr. W. A. Criswell
7-2-89 10:50 a.m.
We welcome once again the throngs of you who share this hour on radio and on television. You are now part of our dear First Baptist Church in Dallas, and this is the pastor bringing the message entitled A Power or a Presence? In our preaching through the Fourth Gospel, the Gospel of John, we are in chapter 20. And the sermon is an exegetical presentation study of the twenty-second and twenty-third verses of the twentieth chapter of the Gospel of John. The reading, beginning in verse 19 through 23, is this,
The same day at evening, being the first day of the week, when the doors were shut where the disciples were assembled…came Jesus and stood in the midst, and saith unto them, Peace be unto you.
And when He had so said, He showed unto them His hands and His side. Then were the disciples glad, when they saw the Lord.
Then said Jesus to them again, Peace be unto you: as My Father hath sent Me, even so send I you.
And when He had said this, He breathed on them, and saith unto them, Receive ye the Holy Spirit:
Whosoever sins you remit, they are remitted unto them; and whosesoever sins you retain, they are retained.
A solemn and significant and meaningful passage in the whole breadth and height and depth of the kingdom of God, “When He had said this, He breathed on them, and saith, Receive ye the Holy Ghost” [John 20:22]. There are any number of tremendously gifted theologians who avow that here is the giving of the Holy Spirit, the coming of the Holy Spirit, and that Pentecost was but a baptism of power, but the coming of the Holy Spirit is here in the twentieth chapter of the Book of John. For example, I suppose the greatest writer and author of the study of the Gospel of John is Dr. Arthur Pink. And in his Exposition of the Gospel of John, volume 3, page 287, he writes, and I quote him, “What happened at Pentecost was the baptism of power, not the coming of the Holy Spirit.”
I quote again from the Bible Commentary on the New Testament, volume 2, page 295, “The Spirit which the Lord imparted was the Holy Spirit here in verse 22. To regard the words and act as a promise only and a symbol of the future gift is wholly arbitrary and unnatural.” In no uncertain terms he avows that in this twenty-second verse of the twentieth chapter of the Gospel the Holy Spirit came down from heaven, and Pentecost was just a baptism of power, and for us to look upon this as a symbol is arbitrary and unnatural.
I quote just one other from a learned theologian, “The Holy Spirit did not come at Pentecost. He was given, He came, here in John 20:22. Pentecost was a baptism of power.”
Fine, but there are things about that interpretation that greatly trouble me, and I cannot understand the reading of the Word in the light of these interpretations. For example, the Book of Acts begins in chapter 1, the word of our Lord that His disciples, “should not depart from Jerusalem, but wait for the promise of the Father” [Acts 1:4]. Then in the next verse, “John truly baptized with water; but ye shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days hence” [Acts 1:5], the Holy Spirit Himself. And in verse 8, “Ye shall receive power, after that the Holy Spirit is come upon you” [Acts 1:8]. And in that the tremendous sermon of Simon Peter at Pentecost, in Acts 2:33 he avows this Lord Jesus whom “God raised up . . . being by the right hand of God exalted, and having received of the Father the Promise of the Holy Spirit, He hath shed forth this,” the coming of the Holy Spirit, “which ye now see and hear” [Acts 2:32-33].
Well, as I study and ask God to enlighten my mind concerning the presence and the coming of the third Person of the Trinity, I cannot but believe that in John 20:22 our Lord speaks of a future event of which this word in John 20 is a significant symbol and promise.
One of the problems that we have in seeking to understand the infallible mystery of God is this: it is hard for us to think of the Holy Spirit as a Person. It is easy for us to categorize Him as a Power, as an “It,” but it is not that easy for us to think of the Holy Spirit of God as a Person.
For example, it was not until the third Christian century that the churches began to use the word Trinity. Tertullian, the great church father in North Africa, was the first one to use the word “Trinity”: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And it was in that third century that the churches in controversy with the heretic Sabellius referred to the Holy Spirit as a Person.
It is so easy for us to think of Him in terms of an enigmatic power, as an indescribable indefinite something, but not as a dynamic Person, as Somebody. We think of the Holy Spirit in terms of a Power, like electricity; that’s an “it.” Or like gravity; that is an “it.” Or like the rushing mighty wind; that is an “it.” But to think of Him in terms of a Personality is somehow difficult for us.
May I point out one other thing that is so true? And that is gender in human speech, in human language. English has natural gender. You are a woman, so you are referred to as “she.” Or, you are a man, you are referred to as a “he.” And if you are not feminine or masculine, you are referred to in the neutral gender. It is an “it.” That is English. We have been speaking like that all our lives.
But other languages are not like that. Other languages have grammatical gender or assigned gender. German is one of those. German has der, die, and das, masculine, feminine, and neuter. And in the German language a girl is a neuter. She is not feminine, it is das mädchen. Doesn’t that beat anything you ever saw, that a girl is neuter? Well, that is the way they talk.
Now Greek is like that. Greek has gender that is grammatical, assigned. For example, in Romans 8:16 the King James Version is translating the Greek very, very actual. “The Spirit Itself beareth witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God,” the Spirit Itself, not Himself, the Spirit Itself, neuter. Well, that’s the Greek language. But by no means does that reflect the revelation of God. In the fourteenth, fifteenth, and sixteenth chapters of the Gospel of John, the Lord refers constantly to the coming of the Holy Spirit as a “Him” and as a “He.” The presence of the third Person of the Trinity in our midst is a Somebody. As God the Father is a person, a somebody, as God the Son is a Person, a Somebody, so God the Holy Spirit is a Person, He is a Somebody.
And the Lord speaks of His presence with us, in this marvelous verse that I am expounding today, “And when the Lord had said this, He breathed on them, and saith unto them, ‘Receive ye the Holy Spirit’” [John 20:22]; emphusa, the only place in the New Testament where that word is used, “breathed,” “He breathed upon.”
The word in the Greek, in the Greek Septuagint, in the Hebrew translation of the Bible, you will find again and again in the Old Testament. For example, in the second chapter of Genesis God created Adam and “breathed into him the breath of life; and he became a living soul” [Genesis 2:7]. Or take again a typical instance, in the thirty-seventh chapter of the Book of Ezekiel, the valley of dry bones, that vast army that had been slain, God says to Ezekiel, “You prophesy to the four winds, and say to them, ‘The four winds, you come and breathe upon these dead bones,’ and they will come to life…And they stood up, a great army” [Ezekiel 37:9-10].
This is the only time that word is used in the New Testament, and it is so significant, “He breathed upon them” [John 20:22]. It is a mighty symbolic act of what God is doing in the kingdom of Christ in the earth. For one thing, it is a one-time expression and symbol. One time He uses the word, “As the Father hath sent Me, so send I you” [John 20:21]. The Lord, in the beginning of His ministry, was anointed by the Holy Spirit for His work [Matthew 3:16]. So we, Jesus says here, so we will be anointed by the Holy Spirit of God for our work [John 20:22].
And as I have said, it is a meaningful and significant symbol. The Holy Spirit is coming, the Promise of the Father, on the Day of Pentecost [Acts 1:4]. But this is a symbol of His arrival. It is a seal of their prophetic calling. It is an earnest of the power and the presence by which they will witness to the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ [John 20:22].
Just look at that for a moment. It is a symbol of the presence of the Holy Spirit of God. First is the breath [John 20:22], then is the Pentecost [Acts 2:4]. How often do I see that in the working of the kingdom of God? First, there will be Moses on the back side of the desert, there looking at the bush that burned and was not consumed [Exodus 3:1-3]. Then there is the same Moses standing in confrontation to Pharaoh, the ruler of Egypt [Exodus 7:1-4]. First, there is here Gideon and the dew upon the fleece [Judges 6:36-37]. Then there is the blowing of the trumpets and the breaking of the pitchers [Judges 7:16-22]. First, there is David and the green pastures and the still waters [Psalm 23:1-2]. Then there is the slaying of Goliath [1 Samuel 17:48-51].
First, there is Elijah and the still small voice [1 Kings 19:12]. Then there is the whirlwind and the golden chariot [2 Kings 2:11]. First, there will be Daniel on his knees before the open window toward Jerusalem, praying and interceding [Daniel 6:10]. Then there is the closing of the mouths of the lions [Daniel 6:22]. First, there is Nehemiah weeping before God [Nehemiah 1:4]. Then there is the defiance of Sanballat and Tobiah and the rearing of the walls in Jerusalem [Nehemiah 4:7-23].
First, there is Saul of Tarsus, there is Paul as he is for three years in the silence of Arabia [Galatians 1:17-18]. Then there is the great apostle, proclaiming the message of salvation to Damascus [Acts 9:22], and to the empire of Rome [Acts 13:1- 28:31].
First, there is, and you read it just now, first, there is John, “in the Spirit” on the Lord’s Day [Revelation 1:10]. Then there is the marvelous vision of the Apocalypse, the coming and the victory of our Lord [Revelation 1:11- 22:21].
Always it is that. First, there is your preacher in his study with an open Bible, reading and praying and preparing. Then, there is your pastor, standing here before this pulpit and before the radio and before the television, proclaiming the marvelous message of Christ. You have the Sunday school teacher or your own personal life in a devotion, in a quiet time before the Lord, then facing the vicissitudes and the fortunes and the providences of life. Just like this. It is a wonderful and a marvelous thing how God has done it: the quietness, the breath, the symbol, then the outpouring of the presence of the coming of, the Lord.
Now, what an awesome responsibility and assignment, “Whosoever sins you remit, they are remitted unto them; and whosoever sins you retain, they are retained” [John 20:23]. Dear God, what an awesome responsibility! And that is why He says, “Labete, take, the Holy Spirit.” Labete, an imperative of lambanō, “Take the Holy Spirit” [John 20:22]. They are not to be passive. We are to seek Him and to ask His presence, because of the awesomeness of our assignment. “Whosoever sins you remit, they are remitted; whosoever sins you retain, they are retained” [John 20:23].
God has given that power unto us. It is found in the proclamation, in the preaching of the gospel of Christ. If someone will listen and turn and believe, they will be saved [Romans 10:9-13]. Their sins are remitted; their sins melt away [John 20:23]. But if someone listens and rejects the gospel and turns aside, he is forever damned. He is in hell; he is shut out from God forever! [John 3:36]. I tremble every time I read this passage in the tenth chapter of the Book of Hebrews, beginning in verse 26:
If we sin willfully, if we turn aside from the gospel message, there remaineth no more sacrifice for sins,
But a fearful looking for of judgment and of fiery indignation, that shall devour the adversaries.
He that despised Moses’ law died without mercy under two or three witnesses;
Of how much more sorer punishment, suppose ye, shall he be thought worthy, who hath trodden under foot the Son of God, and hath counted the [blood of the] covenant, wherewith he was sanctified, an unholy thing, and hath done despite unto the Spirit of grace?
For we know Him who saith, Judgment is Mine, saith the Lord, I will recompense. And again, God shall judge His people.
And finally, “It is a fearful thing,” the author writes, “to fall into the hands of the living God” [Hebrews 10:31].
That is what God hath placed in our hands, “The sins you remit, they are remitted; the sins you retain, they are retained” [John 20:23]. It has a double reaction. Those that listen and turn are saved. And those who listen and refuse are damned. They are lost. O God, what a responsibility! The same heat that melts wax will harden clay, a double response to the message that is delivered from God.
We don’t have any other hope; there is no other way of salvation except in our Lord [John 14:6, Acts 4:12]. The forgiveness of our sins and our hope of redemption lies completely in Him. There is no other way. John the Baptist preached, “Behold the Lamb of God, that taketh away the sin of the world” [John 1:29]. Simon Peter preached, “Neither is there salvation in any other; for there is no other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved” [Acts 4:12]. The apostle Paul preached in Pisidia Antioch, “By this Man is the forgiveness of sins” [Acts 13:14-41]. The sainted apostle John, who wrote this Revelation and who wrote this Gospel, writes in 1 John, “By Him, in Him is the forgiveness of sin” [1 John 1:9]. We don’t have any other message. We don’t have any other hope. We don’t have any other way.
Standing here beneath the cross of Christ and with the Holy Spirit by our sides, witnessing to the Lord, we carry on His work. We are Christ’s incarnations. His work and His power and His presence are in us. Dear God, if He is the light of the world [John 8:12], we are to be the light of the world. If He came seeking to save those who were lost [Luke 19:10], we are to seek and to save those who are lost. If He came not to do His will, but His Father’s will [Luke 22:42], we are to do the Father’s will, not ours. The whole message of Christ is given unto us. And if there is any salvation, it lies in the message that we deliver. There is none other [Acts 4:12].
I cannot but think of the apostle Paul as he speaks of this awesome assignment. In 2 Corinthians, chapter 2, verses 15 and 16, Paul writes:
We are unto God a sweet savor of Christ, to them who are saved, and in them that perish:
To the one we are the savor of death unto death; and to the other the savor of life unto life. And who is sufficient for these things?
[2 Corinthians 2:15-16]
Great God, if our eternal destiny depends upon us, O Lord, who is sufficient? Great God, how can we be responsible? Study; yes. Try to understand; yes. Pour our lives into the ministry; yes. But O God, still who is able? That is why we pray for the coming of the Holy Spirit of God anew in our hearts, in our minds, in our pulpits, in our church, and in all witnessing. O Lord, how we need Him to work with us! In ourselves so feeble and so unable, how we need God.
I think of our opening our hearts to the presence of the Spirit of God and opening our church and opening our witnessing. O Lord God, in power come and move in our midst, like a mother receiving in her heart the gentleness of love, or like an olive tree receiving the infusion of oil, or like a green pasture receiving the freshness of the morning dew, or like a furnace receiving the blast of fire, or like a ship receiving in the sail the fullness of the wind, or like a storm receiving the outpouring of the rain, or like a marsh receiving the tide from the sea. Lord God, how we pray that the Holy Spirit will come and live and move and empower in our witnessing work, and in our dear church, and in all the ministries of our dear, dear people.
May I illustrate that? I cannot tell you how I feel when a mother or a father will bring to me the smallest, littlest child and say, “Pastor, my little boy or my little girl wants to be saved. And I brought the child to you that you teach the youngster how to be saved. Show him how to be saved.”
When I get through with this sermon today, I am to go over to the study. And there is a man with his wife coming to see me, wanting to know how to be saved. Well, what do I do in the presence of this humblest little child to convert the child, to save the child, to “born-again” the child? [Matthew 19:14]. How can I do that? O God, I feel so Lilliputianly inadequate. God has to do it. God has to rebirth the child. God has to bring into the child the conviction and the faith and the commitment that makes the child a kingdom of heaven. God has to do it [John 6:44].
We are dependent upon the presence of the Lord, and it is thus in all of our work in the church. O God, Your presence and the might of Your power must work with us. God, You must do it, and we are but instruments, pawns, in Thy hands.
I want to take, if I may, just one thing. I spoke a moment ago of those marshlands receiving the tide from the sea. In our dear church, you who are older remember, Robert Coleman was here for forty-two years. He was the song leader for Dr. Truett for forty years behind this very pulpit. And God let him live two years more to help me begin my ministry. We named Coleman Hall for Robert Coleman. He was a publisher of songs; he published hymnbooks. And in 1927 Robert H. Coleman copyrighted this hymn,
We thank Thee, Lord, that power is flowing
Joy is coming, sorrow growing.
Thy ransom host is growing, growing.
But let the tide, O God, come in.
Life’s precious hours are quickly flying,
Men are dying, always dying.
Thy pleading church is crying, crying.
“O God, let the tide come in.”
We praise Thee for the tidings cheering,
Signs of conquest now appearing.
The day of victory is nearing.
Thank God, the tide is coming in.
[“Let the Tide Come In,” Robert Coleman]
God, grant it! Lord, grant it: the presence and power of the Holy Spirit of God falling upon us and moving in saving grace in our midst! [Ephesians 5:18].
And sweet people who have listened on radio and on television, may this be the day of salvation in your heart, in your house, and in your home. On the screen you will find a telephone number and to answer it will be a godly counselor. If you want to know how to be saved, how to accept Christ as your Savior, you call us. It will be the infinite joy of our deepest souls to point you to the Lamb of God, that taketh away the sin of the world [John 1:29]. Thank you for listening. Thank you for praying and welcome into the kingdom of our Savior, and I’ll see you someday in heaven.
And to the great throng in the presence of God in this sanctuary; to give your heart to the Lord, come and welcome; to accept Jesus as your Savior [Romans 10:9-13], a family you to come into the fellowship of our dear church; a couple you to give your house, and home, and marriage to the Lord; a one somebody you, answering the call of God in your heart, on the first note of the first stanza, come. May angels attend you in the way, while we stand and while we sing.