What’s Better Than Jesus Beside You

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Pastor, Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina

When it comes to the Holy Spirit, most evangelicals fall into one of two extremes.

Some seem obsessed with him, relating to him in strange, mystical ways. Their experiences with the Spirit always seem to coincide with an emotionally ecstatic moment — triggered by a musical crescendo, the wail of the electric guitars, or that point at the end of a sermon when their pastor goes on an alliterated roll.

Other Christians react to that perceived excess by neglecting his ministry altogether. They believe in the Holy Spirit, but they relate to him the same way they relate to their pituitary gland: grateful it’s in there; know it’s essential for something; don’t pay much attention to it. There certainly isn’t a sense of the presence of God with them, or a living, moving, dynamic Person. I was like that for many years. For me, the Holy Trinity consisted of the Father, Son, and Holy Bible.

Yet Scripture indicates that God has always desired a close and personal presence with his people. He walked with Adam and Eve in the cool of the Garden, dwelled among his people in the pillar of cloud and fire, and descended upon the Temple of his presence. The Israelites even gave him the name Jehovah Shammah, “the God who is there” (Ezekiel 48:35). Now through the Holy Spirit, he is closer than ever — God in us.

An Astounding Promise

Most Christians, however, do not relate to God as if he is a dynamic, personal Presence in their lives. Jesus made some truly astounding promises about the Holy Spirit — ones so astounding, in fact, it is tempting to not even take them seriously. He told his disciples that if they understood what was being offered to them in the Holy Spirit, they would have been glad he was returning to heaven if that meant getting the Spirit (John 16:7). Having the Holy Spirit in them, he said, would be better than having his bodily presence beside them.

Think of the absurdity of that statement, on the surface! How awesome would it be to have Jesus as your ministry companion? What if an application for your next youth pastor landed on your desk, and you saw that it was from Jesus? Sure, that’s far-fetched. But if it were true, you’d be overjoyed. Are you just as excited that you and your people have the Spirit of God? Do you see the Spirit’s presence in you as an advantage to having Jesus’s presence beside you? If not, doesn’t that show you how far removed we are from the reality of what Jesus promised to us?

The Spirit inside you is better than Jesus beside you.

Or consider this: the Holy Spirit was apparently so vital that Jesus told his disciples not to even lift a finger toward the Great Commission until they had received him: wait in Jerusalem, he told them, until you receive the Holy Spirit (see Luke 24:49).

What was so important about the Holy Spirit that even the Great Commission could wait? How could Jesus assure his disciples that it would be better to have the Spirit than for Jesus himself to remain?

Presence Made Personal

As we noted above, personal and interactive relationship has always been God’s plan for his people. Living in the presence of God is absolutely essential to a thriving Christian life. As the Apostle Paul points out, only as we walk in the presence of the Spirit will we have the power to resist the passions of the flesh (Galatians 5:16). Victorious Christianity is not found in knowing a lot of theology, or manufacturing the right kind of feelings. It’s found in abiding in the presence of a Person.

The Spirit of God magnifies the love of God to us and makes it personal to us. D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones said that the best picture of what it means to be filled by the Spirit of God is given to us by Moses in Exodus 34, when Moses asks God to show him his glory. God puts Moses in the cleft of the rock and passes in front of him. As he does, he declares his name to him, his covenant love. The Spirit of God, Lloyd-Jones noted, does the same when he fills us. He puts us into Christ and declares the name of God to us, magnifying our covenant relationship as sons.

Lloyd-Jones compared this experience to the father who swoops his five-year-old son into his arms and whirls him around, saying, “You are my son and I love you!” In that moment, the boy is no more his son — legally speaking — than he was the moment before, but caught up in his father’s arms he feels his sonship more intimately. The Spirit of God, Paul says, when he fills us, sheds abroad God’s love in our heart, making our spirit rise up to say to God, “Abba, Father” (Romans 5:5; 8:15).

How would your relationship with God change if you saw his presence with you as a real person? What if you understood that feeling of conviction as his actual voice? What if you saw sin not so much as breaking a law but more as grieving someone? How would your Christianity change if you saw that when you walk through the valley of the shadow of death, he was the one bringing the promises of Scripture to mind to comfort you?

Depth in the Gospel, Fullness of the Spirit

As I’ve studied what it means to be filled with the Spirit, one of the most surprising insights I’ve made is that Paul constantly equates fullness of the Spirit with depth in the gospel. In Ephesians Paul says that as we become more intimately aware of the largeness of the love of God in Christ, we have an experience of “all the fullness of God” (Ephesians 3:14–18). In Galatians he says that we grow more full of the Spirit in the same manner we first received him — by hearing and believing the gospel (Galatians 3:1–3). Depth in one leads to fullness in the other.

Many Reformed and Baptist people don’t make that connection. We think growth in the gospel merely yields new affections for, and joy in, God. And of course, that it does. But sometimes we don’t realize that the presence of those affections and joy is, in reality, the presence of a Person — a living, moving Person. It is God himself. The Spirit himself “floods our hearts” with the love of God, and cries up from our spirit “Abba, Father!” (Romans 5:5; 8:15).

“Charismatic” Christians can sometimes forget that fullness of the Spirit is found primarily in depth in the gospel. We seek him in the mystical and the spectacular, forgetting that the Spirit’s primary desire is to magnify Jesus in our hearts (John 16:14).

On both sides, we risk missing something absolutely critical. The Baptist/Reformed side majors on gospel and doctrine, but often has little to no awareness of the presence of the Spirit. The more charismatic side majors on the Spirit, but often forgets that he is tied to the gospel. Both sides need to learn that there is a profound and inseparable unity between the two.

By going deep into the gospel you become alive in the Spirit. Thus, as D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones said, “I spend half my time telling Christians to study doctrine, and the other half telling them doctrine is not enough!” We need to hear both.