Welcome back to the podcast.
Well, God is happy in himself. Amen. And God wants us to be happy in himself. Amen. If you start applying biblical categories here, you begin to ask this question: How does God’s joy become my joy? That’s our question today — a really good one — from a listener named Heather in Chicago.
“Hello, Pastor John, and thank you for this podcast,” she writes. “My question for you is about the nature of who God is and how he relates to our joy. Can you explain to me, from the Bible, the person and work of the Holy Spirit as the love and joy shared between the Father and the Son? I don’t quite understand this without making his person seem more like a force or a cosmic energy. And then how does the person of the Spirit enable us to experience God’s joy within us? It seems like those two realities connect, the person of the Spirit and the joy in us. But it doesn’t connect for me. Not yet. Can you help me understand these two dynamics from the Bible?”
I think it’s crucial, as we try to understand our relationship with the Holy Spirit, that we fix it firmly in our minds that we are dealing with a distinct person. Just fix it, so that whatever else is uncertain, don’t let that be uncertain: a person, a divine person, the third person of the Trinity.
Fellowship of the Spirit
In fact, I’ve been struck recently — even before I heard this question — how the New Testament encourages us to enjoy fellowship with each of the three divine persons of the Trinity, not just fellowship with God in the abstract or general way, but fellowship with God the Father, fellowship with God the Son, fellowship with God the Spirit. For example, 1 Corinthians 1:9 says that God called us “into the fellowship of his Son.” Second Corinthians 13:14 refers to “the fellowship of the Holy Spirit.” First John 1:3 says, “Our fellowship is with the Father.” So, we’re taught to have fellowship — communion, personal relations — with the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit.
You know what book I would recommend, Tony: John Owen, Communion with the Triune God. Nobody, I don’t think, in the history of the church has helped people come to terms with what it means to relate to each person of the Trinity like John Owen. I would recommend Communion with the Triune God by John Owen.
Now, that implies that the Holy Spirit is a person — someone you can relate to, talk to — which is exactly the way Jesus spoke of him. He says in John 14:26, “The Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he” — and yes, it is masculine, not neuter (to agree with spirit, pneuma) — “he will teach you all things.” So, he is distinct from the Father, because the Father sends him, and he’s a teacher when he comes, not just a force or gas.
“The New Testament encourages us to enjoy fellowship with each of the three divine persons of the Trinity.”
The apostle Paul picks up on this very reality of the Spirit as distinct from the Father and a very personal teacher in 1 Corinthians 2:10, 13, where he says, “The Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God.” What an amazing statement. “The Spirit searches . . . the depths of God. . . . And we impart [things of God] in words . . . taught by the Spirit.” So, Paul is just like Jesus. Paul is picking it up and continuing what Jesus taught. Jesus and Paul treat the Holy Spirit not as an impersonal force or power, but as a person who comes and teaches and indwells believers and who can be related to personally.
Spirit of a Spirit?
Then consider that Jesus said in John 4:24, “God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” In other words, God is not material. He’s not physical. He is spirit, which means that when we say that one of the persons of the Trinity is the Spirit of God, we are saying he is the Spirit of a spirit.
Now, what does that mean? What does it mean to say the spirit has a Spirit? We are not saying he’s the image of the spirit or the radiance of the spirit or the logos or word of the spirit, all of which are said about the Son. So, what are we saying when we refer to the Holy Spirit of God, who is himself as Trinity spirit?
Here’s what Jonathan Edwards — who has helped me so much — says: “The word ‘spirit’ in Scripture, when used concerning minds . . . is put for the disposition, inclination, or temper of the mind.” For example, when Ephesians 4:23 says, “Be renewed in the spirit of your mind,” it refers to the disposition or temper of your mind. Edwards goes on,
So, I suppose when we read of the Spirit of God, who we are told is a spirit, it is to be understood of the disposition, temper, or affection of the divine mind. . . . Now, the sum of God’s temper or disposition is love, for he is infinite love. (Works of Jonathan Edwards, 21:122)
Now, when he says that, we must resist — as Heather pointed out — the temptation to think of love as a mere force or power rather than a person. Edwards is not denying the personhood of the Holy Spirit when he talks of him as the temper or the disposition or the love of God. Edwards is simply trying to put all the biblical pieces together.
Eternal Love of God
The New Testament doesn’t just come out and tell us in a doctrinal statement, “The Holy Spirit is a person,” or, “The person is the very embodiment of the love of God.” It doesn’t say that. The various statements of the New Testament point in this direction. But you have to put the pieces together, which means we need to be careful — oh, how careful — lest we go off the rails and become heretics. I think all of our human efforts — I’d say this in general now about Edwards, myself, or anybody else — to conceptualize the relationships within the Trinity need to confess that we see through a glass darkly until we know even as we are known (1 Corinthians 13:12), which means, “Be careful.”
“The Spirit, in his essence, is God’s joyful love, loving joy in person.”
Now, here’s another pointer to the question that Heather’s concerned about. First John 4:12–13 points to the Holy Spirit as the love of God in us. Here’s what it says: “If we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us. By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit.” So, if you put all that together, God in us, his love in us, his Spirit in us, all seem to point to the fact that the way the love of God abides in us is by his Spirit. That is his disposition, his temper. That is his love in person, abiding in us by the person of the Holy Spirit.
Eternal Joy of God
Now, the piece that remains to be added for Heather’s question is joy. This is added by pondering that the love that God is from all eternity is not a sacrificial love between the Father and the Son. They are infinitely beautiful, infinitely worthy of each other’s love, which means that they delight in each other infinitely. That’s what their love is.
“This is my beloved Son, with whom I am [totally delighted]” — that’s my paraphrase of “well pleased” (Matthew 3:17). To say that the love of the Father and the Son for each other is embodied in the Spirit is to say that the Spirit, in his essence, is God’s joyful love, loving joy in person, because God’s loving from eternity has been his enjoying from eternity. That’s how the persons of the Godhead have related to each other. They’re not disappointed; they don’t have to overcome any obstacles to delight in each other.
So, when Jesus says, “My joy I give to you” (see John 15:11), or when he says, “Enter into the joy of your master” (Matthew 25:21), he is welcoming us into the fullest experience of the Son’s love for the Father. It seems right, then, to say this is experienced by being filled with the Holy Spirit, who is the very person who is the love of God and the joy of God. Paul speaks in 1 Thessalonians 1:6 of “the joy of the Holy Spirit,” the joy that the Holy Spirit gives by coming himself to live in us as the very love and joy of God.
I pray that God would help you, Heather, and all of us, as we humbly and carefully try to faithfully put the pieces of God’s precious word together.