Advent and the Holy Spirit
Rev. Charles Westby, Pastor
Isaiah 11:1-2, Matthew 3:11
December 08, 2019

Isaiah and John the Baptist announce the coming of Christ in the Old Testament (Isaiah 11:1-10) and Gospel (Matthew 3:1-11) readings today. They also both talk about the Holy Spirit in relation to the coming of Christ. This leads to talking about Advent and the Holy Spirit.

Isaiah 11 tells us about the shoot or sprig from the stem of Jesse. A branch from Jesus’s root will bear fruit (Isaiah 11:1). The imagery here is of a plant, even a tree.

And then what does Isaiah say: “The Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon Him; the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and might, the Spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the Lord” (Isaiah 11:2 NKJV). Thus, the Branch that will bear fruit is the Messiah, because He is from the family tree of Jesse, King David’s Father, and because He is anointed with the Holy Spirit (see also Isaiah 61:1-3).

The Gospel reading tells us about John the Baptist, the forerunner of the Christ. He proclaims to the people of Judah at that time that there is a man living among them who is mightier than John (Matthew 3:11). In fact, John says that he is not worthy to carry that man’s sandals around (Matthew 3:11), that is, to be his menial servant. What will that man do? John says that He will baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire (Matthew 3:11).

The Christ can baptize with the Holy Spirit because the Holy Spirit rests upon Him. The Christ is the bearer of the Spirit and He gives the Holy Spirit in His baptism to whom He wills it. And this is the Holy Spirit as Isaiah spoke: “the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and might, the Spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the Lord.”

Considering what Isaiah says about the Spirit, let us consider what we should expect the Holy Spirit to do in our lives. The words that capture this are “wisdom and understanding, counsel and might, knowledge and the fear of the Lord.

As I studied these words, I began to see how important they are in the book of Proverbs. Since Proverbs is a book of wisdom, making us wise appears to be central to the Holy Spirit’s work in our lives.

The word understanding is the same one used in Proverbs 3:5, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding.” Trust and understanding are going together. Proverbs 1:7 says, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction” (ESV). Proverbs 9:10 says, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight” (ESV).

We notice how understanding, trust, knowledge, and fear of the Lord are all running together. And since Isaiah tells us about the Spirit of “of wisdom and understanding, . . . of counsel and might, . . . of knowledge and of the fear of the Lord,” we see how the Holy Spirit is also concerned about these things and produces them in us.

The fear of the Lord. Since this is running with trust, it is not the kind of fear that is afraid of God’s wrath. It is a kind of fear that we could call reverence and respect. It has a bearing, an attitude, of humility and trust. It is the opposite of being proud, arrogant, self-sufficient, and a know-it-all in relation to God and the most important things in life.

The Scriptures teach that this kind of fear is the beginning of wisdom and knowledge. It is because this kind of fear can be taught God’s truth, and then can discern between truth and error. This kind of fear can be molded by God, because God can do good things with a person who has the trust implicit in this kind of fear.  

Fools reject this kind of fear. They are fools because they are proud. They are fools because they cannot be taught by God. They are fools by the estimation of the Scriptures, though they may think of themselves as supremely smart and full of knowledge. But they lack humility and fear of God. If a person has true fear of God, the one thing that they cannot regard themselves as being is a know-it-all, even God.

The Holy Spirit gives you the bearing or attitude of the fear of the Lord. In this bearing or attitude the Holy Spirit can teach you wisdom and understanding; knowledge of God, Christ, salvation, what is true and right. The Holy Spirit can even teach you knowledge about yourself as God’s special creation; as fallen and in need of redemption, which God has accomplished in Christ and freely gives to us; and of all the beautiful things it means to be human.

In this work the Holy Spirit will convict us of our sin. But then the Holy Spirit will also convict us of the Gospel and God’s faithfulness, love, and amazing grace in Jesus Christ. The conviction of sin humbles us. The Gospel lifts us up and gives us joy, strength, peace, and hope in God. In these ways the Holy Spirit makes you wise.

The Holy Spirit teaches you all these things through the word of God coming into your ears and into your heart, will, mind, and attitude, and He works there in your heart, will, mind, and attitude through the word. What wonderful work the Holy Spirit came to do. How wonderful it is that Jesus as the Savior, teacher, and healer of our souls gives us the Holy Spirit to make us wise.

But as I have been thinking about this, I can’t help being taken back to something a famous modern theologian wrote. His name was Rudolph Bultmann. He died in 1976. He was a famous protestant Biblical scholar and theologian in Germany. In his “New Testament and Mythology: The Problem of Demythologizing the New Testament Proclamation,” he asserted that “[t]hose of us who understand ourselves in purely biological terms do not understand how a supernatural something or other like the πνευμα [i.e., the Spirit] could intervene in the closed context of natural forces and be effective in us” (6). He goes on to assert that “we each understand our self to be a closed inner unity that is not open to the interference of supernatural powers” (6).

Bultmann appears to deny any working of the Holy Spirit in the heart, mind, will, and attitude. He does so based on a worldview called Deism and based on existentialist philosophy. Deism is evident when he speaks of the “closed context of natural forces.” Deism and existentialism are evident when he speaks of the human self as “a closed inner unity.” This is modern philosophy reflected in theology.

Bultmann and the Scriptures see things in drastically different ways. The Scriptures assume that we need the Holy Spirit to work in us to mold us into a faithful and humble people, who trust what God does, what God teaches, and how God saves us. But Bultmann appears to regard the human self as a unity, integrated, apparently healthy and whole, or at least full of potential, if one just has the right philosophy. The worldview and philosophy he reflects teach us that we are all integrated selves, a closed inner unity, a person, living in one’s own autonomy, without any influence from the outside. Of course, then we humans are fully responsible for everything.

It seems that the point of view Bultmann refers to is quite rampant today. It is no wonder that we live in a culture that considers human action to be the determiner of the continued existence of humanity and the world we live in. But what a crushing burden. It is no wonder that we also see so much dysfunction among us humans, because we simply can’t do it; we can’t live up to the responsibility. But the modern philosophy Bultmann reflected tells us that we are fully responsible. Sure, in Deism, some notion of “God” exists somehow, but he has no effective role in human life and in the physical world. Actually, Deism is no different than atheism, as a practical matter, because in Deism God does not personally impact and effect the world and your life.

Thus, we can make our own laws, teach ourselves our own wisdom. We are the judge and arbiter of anything spoken to us. We are not shaped and molded, not taught and humbled, but the shaper and molder of our own reality. And we are closed off from the fear of the Lord, though we may be full of fear and anxiety over being responsible where God would otherwise be responsible. And unfortunately, being closed off from God, people with the philosophy Bultmann reflects have their hearts closed off from the only source of joy, wisdom, love, and peace.

Coming back to Isaiah, there is one thing he says about the Holy Spirit that is wonderful that I have not yet talked about. It is might. We can also think of strength, power. I am also thinking of Zechariah 4:6, “Not by might nor by power, but by My Spirit, Says the Lord of Hosts” (NKJV); That is, not by human might and power.

If Bultmann’s teaching about the human person is true, then we are left to ourselves in the face of all that we face. But the Scriptures teach that we are not left to ourselves in the face of all that. The Messiah gives us the Spirit of might, and He gives this within. There may be a mighty storm on the outside, but Christ gives us the Spirit within to steady us, to strengthen us, to ground us in Christ’s victory, in the hope we have in it; to establish us on God’s love and grace, when it may seem like the earth is giving way under our feet.

Bultmann thinks that in his existentialist philosophy, he finds a teaching about what it means to be authentically human. But this vision of humanity is a humanity left without strength and recourse when the things we face confront us, which things are more powerful than we are. But we can never be authentically human apart from God, Christ’s work, and the Spirit He gives.

And so we thank God today that the Messiah comes to us with the Spirt of God. And we thank God that Jesus our Lord has given this Spirit to us in His Word, Baptism and Supper to work in our lives throughout our lives. We thank God that the Spirit is the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, counsel and might, knowledge and the fear of the Lord. He is the Spirit of a sound mind (Luke 8:35), of love (Romans 5:5), of self-control (Galatians 5:23), of faith (Romans 8:15-17; Romans 15:13), and joy, and peace (Galatians 5:22). Let us pray always that the Spirit would do this wonderful work in our hearts and minds to the glory of Christ’s name and our present and eternal benefit. Amen.


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