Text: John 16:12-15.
Last year about this time my father, my brother, my son and I travelled to Gettysburg Pennsylvania to tour the historic battlefield. As a gift to my father, who loves Civil War history, my brother and I hired a professional tour guide to lead us. My father already knew a lot about the battle, but we knew that a professional guide would be able to give even more insights than the books my father had read. Sure enough, our guide, Frank, a retired steel worker from Pittsburgh, gave us an excellent tour, tailoring the three hours to our specific interests and questions. We all agreed that hiring the guide was money well spent.
In today’s Gospel reading Jesus is telling his disciples about the Holy Spirit. He explains that one of the things the Spirit will do is “guide the disciples into all the truth.” People have often wondered which truth Jesus is talking about. The text contains the definite article (“the”) before the word “truth,” so it appears Jesus may have had a specific truth in mind. Or, he could mean that the Spirit would guide the disciples into all the truth they would need to know. As I have thought about the Spirit’s guidance to the disciples – both the immediate disciples of Jesus and we who follow him today—I have been moved to think of this guidance in three different ways.
First and foremost, Jesus must certainly mean that the Spirit would guide people to understand the Gospel. Jesus says in this text that the Spirit will “declare to you the things that are to come.” These “things that are to come” certainly point to Jesus’ arrest, trial, crucifixion and resurrection which all take place within a few days after this conversation. Jesus also says that the Spirit will “glorify me – taking what is mine and giving it to you.” Jesus died on the cross to atone for sins. He rose from death in order to defeat it. These glorious actions of Jesus, and his words of explanation which accompany them, form the substance of the Gospel—the “good news” message of Christ’s salvation.
The Holy Spirit guides people to believe this message. The Spirit’s guidance is in contrast to those voices which declare such things to be impossible. In Jesus’ day, the voice of unbelief often came from a group known as the Pharisees. When we do a study of the word “guide” in the scriptures we see two instances of Jesus using it as a negative description of the Pharisees. “Can a blind man lead a blind man? Will they not both fall into the pit?” he once said of them. Later he said to them directly, “Woe to you, blind guides.” Those who cannot see the merit of Jesus’ teachings are like guides whose eyes do not work. They will inevitably lead people astray.
Those who trust the message of Jesus, however, become guides that lead others to greater life. Acts chapter 8 records the story of a man from Ethiopia who was reading the Old Testament book of Isaiah but could not make any sense of it. The Holy Spirit directed Philip, a follower of Jesus, to go and speak with him. Philip asked: “Do you understand what this text says?” and the man replied: “how can I unless someone guides me?” So Philip guided him– explaining how the scripture pointed to Jesus Christ. The man soon recognized the greater life found in Jesus and asked to be baptized.
It is the Holy Spirit who guides people into all the truth. The Holy Spirit works through the means of grace—God’s Word and the Sacraments. He also works through witnesses such as Philip. The Spirit guides us to know and embrace the Gospel, even as he guided those first followers of Jesus to understand “the things that were to come.”
Today’s Gospel text from John 16 is appropriate for Trinity Sunday because it so clearly mentions the work of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. But I hear it witness to the Trinity in another way as well. When Jesus says the Spirit will “guide you into all the truth,” I hear him say he will guide the church into all the truths contained in the scriptures and how to best express those truths. In particular, I think of how he guided the church to that great and mysterious doctrine which we call the Trinity.
Analyzed from a rational perspective, the doctrine of the Trinity doesn’t make sense. How can there be three persons and one God? Many have stumbled over this description. The Jews, who worked so hard in their early history to maintain their monotheistic belief in a polytheistic world, had a hard time with the Christian expression of God. Mohammed famously includes the line “do not say that God is three” in the Koran. Critics are always quick to point out the early church’s struggle with this doctrine.
It’s true that there was not complete unity in the church as this doctrine was fleshed out. And it’s true that harsh accusations were made, power-plays employed, trials, debates and voting ensued. And yet the church soon arrived at a remarkable unity on this remarkable doctrine. And for the most part it was arrived at peacefully through gatherings of the whole church. One must certainly point to a clear teaching of scripture when noting this unity. But I believe we should also point to a clear work of the Holy Spirit guiding God’s people into all the truth.
Interestingly, this paradox – of a doctrine already present and a doctrine that develops – is hinted at in today’s text. You may know by now that in the Greek text of the New Testament there are occasional variant readings, in which one ancient manuscript varies slightly from another. Today’s text is one of those occasions. Some of the manuscripts will use the preposition “into” to note that the Spirit will guide us “into all the truth.” Others will use the slightly different preposition “in,” which makes the phrase “in all the truth.” This slightest shade of difference between the two words certainly does not change the text’s meaning. However, it may speak to two slightly different ways in which the Spirit works. The preposition “in” implies that the disciples already have the truth and will be guided in understanding it. The preposition “into” implies that the disciples do not yet have the full picture of the truth but will be presented with it at a future time.
This tension, or paradox, not only describes the church’s journey toward describing God as Triune, but it also describes the individual Christian’s journey of discipleship. Christians have been given the truth about God in the Holy Scriptures. In this truth we are guided by the Spirit to apply the Scripture’s teachings and appreciate them. That being said, we still learn new truths under the continued guidance of the Spirit. These truths do not contradict the Scriptures but build on them. For example, I’ve known for many years the Biblical truth that “where two or three are gathered in the name of Jesus he is there with them.” But as I’ve gotten older I’ve learned more truths about this presence of Christ in the group—how it inspires, teaches and comforts me.
Our process of developing as Christian disciples is dependent on the ongoing guidance of the Holy Spirit, which he offers to those who call on him in prayer. Not surprisingly, we find prayers to this effect in both the Old and New Testament. Psalm 25:4-5 has us pray: “Make me to know your ways, O LORD; teach me your paths. Lead me in your truth and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation; for you I wait all the day long.” This prayer for being led in truth echoes directly the promise of the Spirit’s guidance which Jesus made to his disciples. Likewise, Psalm 143:10 voices this same prayer for being led, connected also with the presence of the Spirit. Here we pray: “Teach me to do your will, for you are my God! Let your good Spirit lead me on level ground!” And of course we also recall the great promise of God’s guidance as we remember the beloved words of Psalm 23: “The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want. He leads me beside still waters.”
The New Testament, also, leads us to pray for the Spirit’s guidance. Paul told the Colossian Christians: “We have not ceased to pray for you, asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding.” The Book of Acts continually tells how the first Christians prayed for God’s guidance and were filled with the Holy Spirit. And the last book of the New Testament, Revelation, in chapter seven, which contains one of the great songs of heaven recorded for us in that book, concludes: “For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”
When our church makes decisions together we always begin and end by asking for God’s guidance through prayer. We encourage you, also, to begin your tasks by asking for the Spirit to guide you. Life is filled with many choices. We make decisions based on our reason and understanding, and God even allows us to make decisions based on our preferences. But asking for the Spirit’s guidance is the most important thing we can do. The Spirit opens our eyes and directs us to the words of Christ, which always sheds the best light on our decisions.
Years ago the church had to decide on the best way to address God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Leaders of the church gathered for study, debate, and above all prayer. They were led to formulate the teachings we still hold to in our creeds.
The church’s formulation of the Trinity is a doctrine we accept by faith. That being said, it is also a doctrine which we believe is essential to a full understanding of God’s essence and mission. The God of the Scriptures is the God who reigns, who saves and who inspires. He is the God who has created, redeemed and sanctified. He is the God who is above us, with us and in us. If you are having trouble with the church’s teaching I advise you to pray for the Spirit’s guidance. The Spirit wishes to lead you into all the truth. The Spirit has led the church. He will lead you too. In the name of Jesus. Amen.