I would like to encourage you to enjoy a particular experience of the ministry of the Holy Spirit promised by our Lord Jesus.
When he made this promise, he had in mind mainly the tense and dangerous moments when the adversaries of Christianity bring you before authorities and give you a chance to speak. For example, he said,
“When they bring you before the synagogues and the rulers and the authorities, do not be anxious about how you should defend yourself or what you should say, for the Holy Spirit will teach you in that very hour what you ought to say.” (Luke 12:11–12)
Or later he said,
“When they bring you to trial and deliver you over, do not be anxious beforehand what you are to say, but say whatever is given you in that hour, for it is not you who speak, but the Holy Spirit.” (Mark 13:11; compare with Matthew 10:19)
Perhaps something like this has happened to you. But most of us in the West have not yet encountered that kind of official arraignment for being a follower of Jesus.
Yes, It Applies to You
“The Holy Spirit will help us in the most frightening settings. How much more may we depend on him in less threatening situations.”
Does that mean this promise of Jesus has no application to us? No. It does apply to us. Notice, when Jesus says in Luke 12:11 that they may bring us before “synagogues and rulers and authorities,” he is not thinking of only one kind of arraignment. Being questioned in the synagogue was not the same as being interrogated by a Roman governor.
Jesus’s promise that the Holy Spirit will teach us what we ought to say is not meant to free us from anxiety in only one kind of trial and then leave us to ourselves in another. The promise is that the Holy Spirit will help us in the most frightening settings, and so how much more may we depend on him in less threatening situations.
One of the reasons I want you to enjoy this particular work of the Holy Spirit is that I have found it so true and amazing and precious in my own life. I am thinking particularly of two kinds of situations. One is cold-turkey street evangelism, and the other is spontaneous question-and-answer sessions in front of hundreds or thousands of people.
Jogging in Minnesota
During the eight months when I jog outside in Minnesota, I regularly carry booklets and Gospels of John in my pocket. I pray for guidance for someone to talk to about Jesus, and for the help of the Holy Spirit in what to say. It is usually quite early in the morning, and I am running in what most people would call “the inner city.” If I find a guy standing alone, I may stop and say, “Good morning! My name’s John. I run through the neighborhood and pray for people. Is there something I can pray about for you?” From this point on, it is unpredictable.
But ordinarily, they will give me something to pray for. Now and then it is something really significant. A couple months ago a young man said his girlfriend had just kicked him out, and he was devastated. He thought it would be long term. Sooner or later in my interaction, I say something like, “Do you know the best news in the world?” Depending on what they say, I ask, “May I tell it to you?” Ninety percent of the time they say yes. So I put the gospel into as few words as a I can and see where they are willing to go with that.
I come away from these brief encounters thankful and amazed at what just happened. Yes, I am often frustrated that I did not say things better. But I am also really happy that the Holy Spirit gave me something to say. Not only that, he inclined me to say it. He caused me to love it. He awakened compassion. He overcame anxiety. He put hope in my heart. He fulfilled the promise of Jesus, “The Holy Spirit will teach you in that very hour what you ought to say.”
One other situation where I enjoy this ministry of the Holy Spirit is during question-and-answer sessions at conferences or during media interviews. First, I pray for help (often using A.P.T.A.T.). If I know the general topic being addressed, I may think ahead of time about some biblical texts relating to the topic. But if I am asked whether I want to see the questions ahead of time, I say no, thank you. One reason is that, if I have the questions, I tend to feel more anxiety and then over-prepare. Another reason is that I really enjoy watching the Holy Spirit bring to mind answers on the spur of the moment. It is, to me, an amazing experience.
“Dozens of factors coalesce into a spontaneous witness to the truth. The Holy Spirit governs them all.”
Again, yes, I often feel afterward that I could have answered things better. Sometimes I kick myself for letting some unhelpful comment come out of my mouth. Sometimes I feel stupid for not remembering an obvious verse of Scripture that would have been, it seems, a perfect point to make. So you can see I don’t take Jesus’s promise of the Holy Spirit’s help to mean that I become infallible or flawless.
Even when Jesus promises in Luke 21:15, “I will give you a mouth and wisdom, which none of your adversaries will be able to withstand or contradict,” he doesn’t mean that we will always have the effect we want. Luke uses the very words of Jesus’s promise to describe Stephen’s speech before the council in Acts 6:10–15. “They could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he was speaking,” but they killed Stephen rather than agree. This amazing ministry of the Holy Spirit is no guarantee of evangelistic or edifying success.
Not Anxious Rehearsal
Besides thinking that the promise gives us infallibility and sure-fire effectiveness, we also should avoid thinking that the promise implies that the Holy Spirit will give wisdom and grace and power to a mind that is habituated to foolishness, flesh, and self-reliance. The promise says we should not be anxious, not that we should be empty-headed. We should be free from fear, not free from truth and faith.
It is plain from the life and teaching of Jesus, and from the ministry of the apostles, that the work of the Holy Spirit in “teaching us in that very hour what we ought to say” does not include creating new Scriptures in our heads. The way the Spirit works is by calling to mind the biblical truth we have already treasured in our hearts (Psalm 119:11), and by helping us with clarity and conviction and timing and situational discernment and love. Dozens of intellectual, emotional, verbal, physical, and spiritual factors coalesce into a spontaneous witness to the truth. The Holy Spirit governs them all.
“The words of Christ are the raw material that the Holy Spirit works with as he teaches us what to say.”
But he does not start from scratch with every opportunity we face. He stirs up his people to “let the word of Christ dwell in [them] richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom” (Colossians 3:16). If we hope to lay hold on his promise to teach us what we need to say in a pressured moment, then we should remember another promise: “If my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you” (John 15:7).
The words of Jesus have already been given to us. The four Gospels, formed out of Jesus’s teachings, are a mountain of treasures. We are to listen to the words of Christ (Mark 9:7), and give them a home in our minds (John 8:37), and treasure them (Colossians 3:16). This is the raw material that the Holy Spirit works with as he teaches us what to say. He inspired the words of Jesus the first time. He loves to use them when the time comes.
How the Spirit Works
Jesus modeled this for us when he was led by the Spirit to give an answer in crisis. When Satan challenged him in the wilderness, Jesus was filled with the Holy Spirit (Luke 4:1), and was given the right word for every moment. It is written,
“Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4).
“You shall not put the Lord your God to the test” (Matthew 4:7).
“You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve” (Matthew 4:10).
Jesus quoted Scripture every time. Clearly Jesus was not only full of the Holy Spirit, but full of the written word of God. This is how the Holy Spirit taught him “in that hour.”
Always Being Prepared
And that is how it works with us: “The word of God abides in you, and you have overcome the evil one” (1 John 2:14). The Holy Spirit inspired the Scriptures in the first century. Then in our century, he moves us to love, and read, and understand, and store up the Scriptures. He transforms us by it. And then, in the moment of need, he puts that biblical truth to work in an amazing way as he teaches us what to say.
This is what Peter was getting at when he said,
If you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you. (1 Peter 3:14–15)
This is not a contradiction of Jesus’s instruction that we not “meditate beforehand how to answer” (Luke 21:14). Jesus is warning against fearful rehearsing. Peter is telling us to always be nurturing our hope by piling the kindling of biblical truth on the fires of confidence. If we feed the fires of our hope every day with reasons from God’s word, the Holy Spirit will take that fuel of “preparation” and “teach you in that very hour what you ought to say.”
Consider the Lilies
And lest we think that the only knowledge the Holy Spirit uses is Bible knowledge, remember that Jesus said, “Look at the birds of the air. . . . Consider the lilies of the field” (Matthew 6:26–28). In other words, learn, learn, learn from God’s world as well as from God’s word.
When you are before the court, or in front of the classroom, or over lunch, or doing an interview, or witnessing on the street, the Holy Spirit is always putting to use your experience of the word and your experience of the world.
It Is Supernatural
Nothing is more natural, therefore, than to be anxious about whether your storehouse will be sufficient for the moment of crisis. That is why Jesus promises something supernatural, not merely something natural. “The Holy Spirit will teach you in that very hour what you ought to say” (Luke 12:12). God is going to work for you. God!
If you think you can know the Bible well enough, and know the world well enough, to take away your anxiety, you nullify this promise. The whole point is that what is needed in this moment is beyond you. You need the Holy Spirit. Jesus promises he will be there. So live with him day by day. And when the hour of trial comes, he will be there to give you what you need. It is an amazing and precious experience. Come, enjoy it.