A Precious Promise: The Outpouring of God’s Spirit
Do you know why it is easier to be nice to people on Friday than it is on Monday? Isn't it because hope is like a river that flows into us from a bright future, fills up the reservoir of our joy, and then overflows in kindness to others? On Friday rest and recreation are just around the corner, so close we can taste them. By hope we taste the power of the weekend to come. The little reservoir of our joy begins to fill. And if the weekend looks bright enough, our reservoir of joy will fill to the brim and start to spill over. This spillover of joy onto other people is called love. So you are always nicer to people when you feel happy about your future. Hope fills you with joy, and joy spills over in smiles and kind words and helpful deeds. It happens before vacations, before birthdays, before Christmas, and for most people on Friday—T.G.I.F.!
All Weekends Are Imperfect
It won't be hard, then, to help people see that the good news of Christianity fits our need perfectly. Most people not only long for joy, but also for the great freedom of being so full in ourselves we can live for others. Nothing shows the fullness and freedom of the human soul more than love. Therefore, deep down people want to love. You can tell this by how many people admire Mother Teresa. Deep down we wish we were so full that our lives were a constant spring of life-giving water satisfying the needs of others. But instead we are confronted by the puny reality of our anxious, covetous hearts. Most of the time people are obstacles to our feeble pursuits of pleasure, or threats to our fragile peace of mind. Rarely do they find us so content that they can drink from the overflow of our joy.
Why? Because all weekends are imperfect. Vacations cost money and come to an end. Birthdays bring presents . . . and age. The Christmas tree dries up. You don't hear from your friend for another year. The problem for all of us is that the fullness of joy and the freedom of love which we crave won't ever come until we can be absolutely sure that the best and happiest future imaginable is guaranteed for us. Let me say it again: until we can feel full assurance of a guaranteed future of maximum joy, our lives will be a continual sequence of childish cravings and self-centered frustrations.
Christianity and the Longing to Love
The fact that we can all be happier and kinder on Friday ought to teach us that joy and love are impossible without hope. And the fact that all weekends peter out into Monday ought to make us Christians. Because the stunning message at the heart of the Christian gospel, which is almost too good to be true, is that the almighty God who made heaven and earth has said to those who trust in him, "I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope" (Jeremiah 29:11). The heart of the gospel is that by giving his own Son to die on the cross God has purchased and guaranteed the best possible future for those who trust him. Paul says to the church at Rome, "If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, will he not also give us all things with him?"
How can you have fullness of joy and the glorious freedom to be a loving person when the weekend brings loneliness and the car breaks down on vacation and your birthday carries you irrevocably toward death? Answer: Become a Christian and believe God when he says, "All things work together for good for those who love God and are called according to his purpose" (Romans 8:28). "Let us rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces tested character, and tested character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because the love of God has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us" (Romans 5:3–5).
Christians believe in a sovereign God who never says, "Oops." We believe that all our days—Fridays and Mondays!—are divine strokes on the canvas of our lives by the Master Artist who certified his skill, his power, and his love in the Masterpiece of Calvary. The Holy Spirit has been poured into our hearts assuring us that if God did not spare his Son, then he will not spare any effort to guarantee for us the best and happiest future. Therefore, hope does not disappoint. Therefore, joy is undaunted in the face of suffering. Therefore, the freedom to love is possible in this rotten world. That is, it is possible for those who follow Jesus into the storm and really believe that at the best time he can and will say to the wind and waves: "Peace! Be Still!"
Just like water is made for the gills of a fish, and wind is made for the wings of a bird, so the gospel of Christ is made for the soul of man. It gives the full assurance of hope (Hebrews 6:11), and from that the fullness of joy (Romans 5:2), and from that the freedom to love (Colossians 1:4–5). And from that the God who supplies it all is glorified (1 Peter 4:11). What more could anyone ask or imagine?
Hope, Joy, Love, and Being Filled with the Holy Spirit
Now if we pause and ask what this has to do with the work of the Holy Spirit, the answer is plain. Being filled with joy by the river of hope that overflows in the freedom to love, all to the glory of God—this is what the New Testament means by being filled with the Spirit (Ephesians 5:18). There are passages which make this very plain. For example, Romans 15:13 says, "May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, in order that by the power of the Holy Spirit you might abound in hope." How can we abound in hope? Answer: by the power of the Holy Spirit. When Paul says in Romans 5:5, "Hope does not disappoint us because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us," he means that the work of the Holy Spirit is to open our eyes to the staggering implications of the love of God for our future and thereby fill us with hope.
And since joy (Romans 15:13) and love (Colossians 1:4–5) flow from hope, which abounds by the power of the Holy Spirit, therefore it's not surprising to hear Paul say (in Galatians 5:22) that love and joy are the fruit of the Spirit. So there are two ways to describe the key to the treasures of the Christian life. One way is to say that the key is to abound in hope which gives fullness of joy which overflows in the freedom of love to the glory of God. And the other way is to say that the key is to be filled with the Holy Spirit.
How Can We Be Filled with the Holy Spirit?
When we see this connection—that the fullness of hope and joy and love and the fullness of the Holy Spirit are one fullness—then a very practical answer emerges to the burning question at Bethlehem these days, namely, the question, "How can we be filled with the Holy Spirit?" How can we experience an outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon our church that fills us with indomitable joy and frees us and empowers us to love those around us in ways so authentic that they are won to Christ? Answer: meditate day and night upon the incomparable, hope-giving promises of God. That's the way Paul kept his heart full of hope and joy and love. He said (in Romans 15:4) "whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction that by the steadfastness and encouragement of the scriptures we might abound in hope."
The full assurance of hope comes from meditating on the promises of God's Word. And this does not contradict the sentence eight verses later that says that the Holy Spirit gives us hope. For we learned last week that the Holy Spirit is the divine author of Scripture. It is no contradiction that the way he fills us with hope is by filling us with his own word of promise. Hope is not some vague emotion that comes out of nowhere, like a stomachache. Hope is the confidence that the stupendous future promised to us by the Word of the Spirit is going to really come true. Therefore, the way to be filled with the Spirit is to be filled with his Word. The way to have the power of the Spirit is to believe the promises of his Word. For it is the word of promise that fills us with hope, and hope fills us with joy, and joy overflows in the power and freedom to love our neighbor. And that is the fullness of the Holy Spirit.
God's Promise in Isaiah 44:1–5
Well, what I have said so far was originally intended to be a short introduction to a long exposition of Isaiah 44:1–5. But I got so carried away that it will have to serve as a long introduction to a short exposition.
Isaiah 44:1–5 is a promise which ought to fill us with hope and with the Holy Spirit. Let's pose just two brief questions to the text.
- To whom is the promise made?
- What is the promise?
1. To Whom Is the Promise Made?
In answer to the first question, the promise is not made to all Israelites, nor only to Israelites. In the verse immediately preceding chapter 44 (43:28) God shows what he does with unrepentant Israel: "I delivered Jacob to utter destruction and Israel to reviling." When Israel refuses to serve the Lord, he is punished. But Isaiah 44:1–5 promises blessing not punishment. Therefore God addresses Israel in verse 1 and verse 2 as "my servant." "Hear now, Jacob my servant" (v. 1). "Fear not, O Jacob my servant" (v. 2). Insofar as Israel serves God, it stands under the promise not the curse. Not only that, the name Jeshurun ("Jeshurun, whom I have chosen") in verse 2 probably means the "upright one." So God's promise is not made to all Israel with no qualification, but only to Israel as "upright." Israel as "servant of God." The promise does not apply to all Israelites.
Nor does it apply only to Israelites. Verse 5 is probably referring to converted Gentiles when it says, "This one will say, 'I am the Lord's,' another will call himself by the name of Jacob, and another will write on his hand, 'The Lord's,' and surname himself by the name of Israel." (Compare Psalm 87:4–5.) The promise is not going to be restricted to physical Israel because there will be many who accept Israel's God, who align themselves with God's people, and who give themselves to God. That includes you and me if we belong to Christ (Galatians 3:29). We are true Jews, Abraham's offspring and heirs of the promise.
So the answer to the first question is: the promise is made to Israel insofar as Israel serves God and is upright; and the promise reaches out to Gentiles who will say, "I am the Lord's," and submit themselves to the God of Israel, whom we know today as the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. The promise is ours.
2. What Is the Promise?
Second, what is the promise? The promise in verse 3 is that God will pour out his Spirit: "I will pour out my Spirit upon your descendants and my blessing on your offspring." God promised in the eighth century BC that a day was coming when he would fill his upright servants with himself. The idea of pouring is the idea of copiousness. When we say, "It's pouring outside," we mean something more than, "It's drizzling, or misting, or dripping." We mean, "If you go out, you'll get drenched." So God's pouring corresponds to our being drenched or soaked or filled. In other words, God promises a day when his people, his servants, will be drenched with the Spirit.
I would argue that ever since the day of Pentecost, when this prophecy (as well as Joel 2:28, Ezekiel 39:29, and Zechariah 12:10) received its inaugural fulfillment, it has been a Christian duty to delight to seek and maintain the fullness of God's Spirit. Ever since Peter claimed in Acts 2:16–17 that the last days of outpouring had begun, none of us who reads this promise in Isaiah 44 should be content until we are drenched with the Holy Spirit.
What Does the Outpouring of the Spirit Accomplish?
What will that mean according to Isaiah?
1. Our Fears Are Taken Away
First, it will mean that our fears will be taken away. Verse 2: "Fear not, O Jacob, my servant." The Spirit of God is God. When he is poured out upon you, you are safe! Not safe from trouble, but safe from everything that God Almighty knows is not good for you. When we are drenched with the Spirit, we are drenched with the assurance that Mondays are made in heaven just like Fridays. Whatever seems fearful tomorrow does not need to be fearful if you are filled with the Spirit. Relations at home may be tense, health may be deteriorating, the boss may be planning your dismissal, tomorrow may bring a very threatening confrontation—whatever is making you anxious about tomorrow, open your heart to the outpouring of God's Spirit; look to his word of promise and he will fill you with hope and conquer your fear.
2. Our Longing for God Is Satisfied
Verse 3 describes the effect of the outpouring in another way. "I will pour water on the thirsty (land)." The word "land" is not in the original (KJV, "I will pour water on him that is thirsty"). I take this to mean that when the Holy Spirit is poured out, not only are fears removed but longings are satisfied. The soul's thirst for God is quenched—or at least we taste enough satisfaction in him to know where to spend the rest of our life drinking.
Our future can look bleak for two reasons: one is the prospect that misery is coming; the other is the prospect that happiness is not coming. And isn't virtually all the work of the human heart exhausted by these two things: fearing future misery and thirsting for future happiness? If so, then Isaiah's promise is just what we need: when the Spirit is poured out into our heart, fear is taken away and thirst is satisfied. Or to put it another way, if the Spirit has taken away what is fearful out of our future and put what is soul-satisfying into our future, then he has given to us the full assurance of hope. And we begin to see the ancient roots of Romans 15:13: "By the power of the Holy Spirit we abound in hope."
3. We Will Always Flourish
Verse 4 describes yet another effect of the outpouring of the Spirit. Those who experience it "will spring up among grass like willows by flowing streams." Doesn't this imply that the outpouring of the Holy Spirit is not supposed to be a one-time thing or a sporadic thing, but instead should be continual? We should drink up the Holy Spirit the way a tree by the stream continually drinks up water. In your life right now you might be surrounded by desert, but if your roots go down by the stream of the Spirit, you will always flourish. If you draw on his life, you will never thirst. The assurance of hope will give rise to the flourishing of joy.
4. We Will Overflow in Love
But what about the spillover of love? Does Isaiah promise that, too? Isaiah 58:11 shows that he does: "The Lord will guide you continually and satisfy your desire with good things, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters fail not." There it is. The final promise is that we will be springs, not sponges. The human heart cannot be satisfied until it becomes a spring from which others can drink. Hope we must have! Joy we must have! But the goal of our quest is reached when our joy in God spills over in love to others for the glory of God.
Pour the Word into Your Mind and Heart
It's not an accident that in Psalm 1 the tree planted by streams of water that brings forth fruit for others is a picture of the person who meditates on the Word of God day and night, while the tree planted by streams of water in Isaiah 44 is a picture of the person who has experienced the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. It's not an accident because the Spirit of God does not produce hope apart from the Word of God; and the Word of God does not produce hope apart from the Spirit of God. But the Spirit through the Word, and the Word by the Spirit, takes away fear, nourishes hope, fills with joy, overflows in love, and glorifies God. That's what it means to be filled with the Spirit. Therefore the way to experience the outpouring of the Spirit is to pour the Word of the Spirit into your mind and heart every day and believe it.
I urge you in the name of Jesus Christ, if you long for the touch of the Spirit of God upon your life, give yourself day and night to the reading of his Word.