I’ve been a big fan of the Bible all my life. As a child I was amazed by the miracles God did. As I got older it was His character that captivated me. These days I’m intrigued by His wisdom. I want to know how He thinks, what He’s planning, how to make sense of His creation. The Bible is at the center of my relationship with God, and it always has been.
But the Bible isn’t God, and the Bible isn’t the whole of my relationship with God. So why is it that I always come back here? I believe that God reveals Himself in Creation and in the Church; I believe I have His Holy Spirit. So why does my relationship with Him keep coming back to a book?
One passage that gives us some clues is John 13–17—known as the Upper Room Discourse. It’s Jesus’ last teaching time with His disciples before He goes to the cross. It’s a time of transition.
Up until now, having a personal relationship with God was as easy as ever. You just spend time with Jesus—the Jewish guy. You want to talk to God? Just go find Jesus. You want an answer from God? Ask Jesus a question. You need divine intervention? Call Jesus for help.
In fact, not only is Jesus God in the flesh as the second person of the Trinity, but we see that He also manifests the Father and is indwelt by the Spirit. This goes beyond the perfect unity of the Trinity: all three persons are present in unique ways.
But in the Upper Room, Jesus is about to leave. He won’t be there to answer questions, to heal the sick, to right the wrong. And if He’s gone, so is the manifestation of the Father, and so is the Holy Spirit within Him.
So what does a personal relationship with God look like when God leaves the building?
The Spirit of Truth
First and most importantly, God hasn’t really left. Even though God incarnate has ascended into heaven, He did not leave us alone. The Holy Spirit is God’s special presence in this age.
“And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you.” (John 14:16, 17 ESV)
The same Spirit that indwells Jesus will indwell His disciples, and if we skip ahead to Acts, we can see that this Spirit of Truth indwells all believers. He is described as a Helper—which should come as no surprise from the God who just washed His disciples’ feet. And at least one aspect of His ministry is to point back to Christ.
“But when the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness about me.” (John 15:26 ESV)
But it’s not as though the Spirit is a consolation prize. Even though His ministry is all about Christ, Jesus seems to say the Spirit’s ministry will be better than His!—at least for the next phase of God’s plan.
“Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you. And when he comes, he will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment: concerning sin, because they do not believe in me; concerning righteousness, because I go to the Father, and you will see me no longer; concerning judgment, because the ruler of this world is judged. I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine; therefore I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.” (John 16:7–15 ESV)
There’s a lot to unpack here, but first I just want you to notice: when we lost the Savior, we gained the Helper, and He’s exactly what we needed next. Even though Jesus fully paid for our sins, we need a Helper to teach us the perfect obedience that Jesus modeled, to realize the change that Jesus purchased for us.
Now we get a fuller picture of what the Spirit of Truth has come to do. To the unbelieving world, He is a source of conviction, confronting sinners with the reality of who Jesus really was and what He did. To believers, He is a source of wisdom and knowledge.
This is a ministry of words and truth. We usually call Him the Holy Spirit, which rightly emphasizes His character and the work that He does in our hearts, but He is also called the Spirit of Truth. He draws us back to the words Jesus spoke, which bear the Father’s authority.
The Sanctifying Word
These days we’ve become cautious about putting our trust in words or staking claim to truth. We’re allowed to have our own truth, and we’re expected to have our own interpretations. But to go beyond this is to invite conflict.
Some of us have also grown weary of knowledge because we’ve seen people devote themselves to a dead orthodoxy that devours truth and then does nothing with it. So we associate the Christian walk with a ministry of love and compassion and holiness—which it is—and try not to get too distracted by the rest.
But it’s clear that Jesus spent a good deal of time ministering in words and teaching truth, and that the Holy Spirit is also committed to a ministry of words and truth.
“Whoever does not love me does not keep my words. And the word that you hear is not mine but the Father’s who sent me. These things I have spoken to you while I am still with you. But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.” (John 14:24–26 ESV)
When Jesus prays, He even emphasizes this before the Father:
“Now they know that everything that you have given me is from you. For I have given them the words that you gave me, and they have received them and have come to know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me.” (John 17:7, 8 ESV)
It’s a precious thing to have the words of God. They came from the Father, through the Son, and by the Spirit. These words have been compiled in Scripture—the Bible—and it’s not God’s leftovers. At the heart of the Trinity’s ministry is a message. When we put our faith in Christ, we confess and believe specific realities.
“I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world.” (John 17:14 ESV)
But this word is not some passive collection of propositions to be absorbed. Just as the Holy Spirit is also the Spirit of Truth, so the true words and message of Scripture are given to make us holy.
“Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sake I consecrate myself, that they also may be sanctified in truth.” (John 17:17–19 ESV)
This truth has a purpose. God’s message—the words of the Father—they are to make us holy. They are to wash us and set us apart. We are to be purified by this message, and at the heart of these instructions is love.
“If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full. This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” (John 15:10–12 ESV)
God has not left us alone. We have the Holy Spirit of Truth, and we also have the words of the Father.
I think this must be what Jesus alluded to in John 4, when He told the Samaritan woman at the well about those who would worship in spirit and in truth. Jesus clearly leaves us here with His Spirit and His truth. These are the twin lights guiding us on our pilgrimage. These are the two ways God is present with us today. Even though He is not with us physically, He is with us personally, spiritually, and verbally.
Truth is good for its own sake, and sanctification is, too. But we must not forget that our relationship with God as Spirit and through the Word draws those two things together. We pursue truth in order to be sanctified. We are sanctified by the truth.
When we talk about how we relate to God, our first thought is often the Cross, and that’s not wrong. Without Jesus’ work on the Cross we could have no fellowship with God. But even though it is what made a relationship with God possible, our relationship with Him goes much deeper. God is specially present in the world today by His Holy Spirit, Who indwells each and every believer. And the words of the Father have come by the Son and the Spirit to us in the form of the Bible. It is the Holy Spirit of Truth together with the Holy Words of God that mark God’s presence in our lives. They are what guide us and sanctify us.
This is why we can’t get away from Scripture. This is why our relationship with God depends so much on our relationship with this book. Creation reveals God by what He has done, but it does not offer His words to us. The Church is united and empowered by the Spirit of God, but it cannot speak His words either. The Bible is how the Holy Spirit speaks to us; it is one of the means by which God has chosen to sanctify His people. Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God.