In the days of Herod, king of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, of the division of Abijah. And he had a wife from the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. And they were both righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord. But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were advanced in years.
Now while he was serving as priest before God when his division was on duty, according to the custom of the priesthood, he was chosen by lot to enter the temple of the Lord and burn incense. And the whole multitude of the people were praying outside at the hour of incense. And there appeared to him an angel of the Lord standing on the right side of the altar of incense. And Zechariah was troubled when he saw him, and fear fell upon him. But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John. And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great before the Lord. And he must not drink wine or strong drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb. And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.”
And Zechariah said to the angel, “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.” And the angel answered him, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I was sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. And behold, you will be silent and unable to speak until the day that these things take place, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time.” And the people were waiting for Zechariah, and they were wondering at his delay in the temple. And when he came out, he was unable to speak to them, and they realized that he had seen a vision in the temple. And he kept making signs to them and remained mute. And when his time of service was ended, he went to his home.
After these days his wife Elizabeth conceived, and for five months she kept herself hidden, saying, “Thus the Lord has done for me in the days when he looked on me, to take away my reproach among people.” (Luke 1:5-25 ESV)
This story occurs months before Jesus was born, but is an important part of the story because it tells of the birth of the precursor, the forerunner, the last great Prophet of Jesus—the one who would come in the spirit of Elijah and preach repentence, paving the way for the Kingdom of God to be revealed in Christ.
Today I want to focus on one verse in this narrative – but it’s a great story, and we need context, so we should read the whole thing.
Because of his lack of faith, Zechariah was struck mute for months, but when he finally was able to speak, I’m sure he had a lot to say. He likely told the story of what happened in the temple, how foolish he was to argue with Gabriel, and what had been promised and commanded regarding Johns future and lifestyle. Verse 64 says that his first words were a blessing of God, and then it records a few verses later, a prophetic song he sang in praise to God.
Let’s read that together by skipping down to verse 57:
Now the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she bore a son. And her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her. And on the eighth day they came to circumcise the child. And they would have called him Zechariah after his father, but his mother answered, “No; he shall be called John.” And they said to her, “None of your relatives is called by this name.” And they made signs to his father, inquiring what he wanted him to be called. And he asked for a writing tablet and wrote, “His name is John.” And they all wondered. And immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue loosed, and he spoke, blessing God. And fear came on all their neighbors. And all these things were talked about through all the hill country of Judea, and all who heard them laid them up in their hearts, saying, “What then will this child be?” For the hand of the Lord was with him.
And his father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied, saying, “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has visited and redeemed his people and has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David, as he spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets from of old, that we should be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us; to show the mercy promised to our fathers and to remember his holy covenant, the oath that he swore to our father Abraham, to grant us that we, being delivered from the hand of our enemies, might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.
And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God, whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
And the child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day of his public appearance to Israel. (Luke 1:57-80 ESV)
Notice that this song and prophecy wasn’t generated by Zechariah, but by God. It says, “Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied…”. The Holy Spirit filled Him and gave Him words of praise and promise.
Before that, when his wife Elizabeth received a visit from Mary, it says “And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the baby leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit, and she exclaimed with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!’” (Luke 1:41-42)
During the promise that Zechariah received about his son John’s future ministry it says, “…for he will be great before the Lord. And he must not drink wine or strong drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb.” (Luke 1:15)
In Acts 2:4, at Pentecost, on the day of the birth of the Christian church, it says that all the Christians who were gathered in the room in Jerusalem “were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance…” and then went out and proclaimed the message of salvation through Jesus Christ in the native languages of the people that were gathered there that day.
When the first round of persecution started against the Christians, Peter and John were arrested and brought before a very dangerous group of people – the rulers, elders, scribes, the high priest and more – and questioned about their motives and allegiances. It says that after they asked their first question, Peter was “filled with the Holy Spirit” before he had uttered a word (Acts 4:8).
After that the church began to be worried about retribution from the authorities, and prayed for boldness and divine assistance. It says, “And when they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and continued to speak the word of God with boldness.” (Acts 4:31)
After Saul, the murderous enemy of the church, was confronted by Jesus on the road to Damascus, and sat blind and alone until a Christian named Ananias came and laid his hands on Him, called him “brother”, and prayed that he might regain his sight and “be filled with the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 9:17).
Later, that same man, Saul, who would be called the Apostle Paul, would bring it right back around to where we started – to a similar prophecy given about John the Baptist, but about us, and now phrasing it as a command instead of a promise, saying, “And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart.” (Eph 5:18-19)
God Inspires His People
Paul’s command to the Ephesians was written as a series of contrasts. Let me read the whole thing. It says, “Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit…” (Eph 5:15-18) Do you see the contrasts? Wise and unwise. Using time and evil days, foolishness and understanding, wine and Spirit.
Paul’s concern was that the Ephesian church was going to all the wrong places to get the what they need to survive in this world. He wanted them to find their source of wisdom, understanding, strength, joy and peace in God, through the filling of the Holy Spirit, not through wine or anything else.
This is a common problem, isn’t it? Going to the wrong places for our strength and comfort. Not believing that God is sufficient for our needs, and then putting our faith in something else.
It was Zechariah’s problem as he looked into the face of Gabriel and implied that there was no force that could make his wife pregnant – she was barren and too old. They’d tried and failed. “Gabriel, don’t you know that a biological issue is too strong for even God to handle?”
It was Saul’s problem as he put his faith in the Law of Moses’, and His own spiritual strength and fervour’s ability to gain him salvation. He felt His strength, passion and religious obedience was enough to impress God and make him worthy of heaven.
It was the Ephesian church’s problem as some of them resorted to drinking and orgies in order to gain strength, feel joy, and… somehow… gain wisdom and knowledge of God as they mixed pagan worship practices with celebrating the Lord’s Table.
And it is our problem too.
The Holy Spirit as Motivator
In keeping with last week’s sermon, I’m going to make this a one point sermon again. Last week we said that God finds value in waiting, and therefore so should we. This week my singular point is that if we are to live as Christians in this troubled world, we must be filled by the Holy Spirit.
Saying that sounds very spiritual, and I’m sure everyone here would likely agree with me, but the way we live it out shows that we actually find it to be quite counter-intuitive. We’ve heard the phrase “God helps those who help themselves” so many times that we think it’s biblical (It’s not. Benjamin Franklin said it, apparently, maybe.) . It sounds right, doesn’t it? God wants us to pray, of course… but He then wants us to act, right? He wants faith and deeds, right? Faith and obedience are tied together, right?
True, yes. But we must realize that all of our faith, obedience, deeds, and even prayers, are meaningless, unless they are filled with the Holy Spirit’s power. Just as before we are saved our good deeds are meaningless to God (Isaiah 64:6; Eph 2:1-5; Titus 3:5), so, after we are saved, are our deeds meaningless unless they are empowered by the Holy Spirit. God doesn’t want our good deeds, prayers, songs, or religious activity if it is empty of the Holy Spirit.
The Holy Spirit in Prayer
Consider Jesus’ words about prayer.
“And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others… when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. ” (Matthew 6:5-7)
If our prayers are merely repetitive, empty words, they are not only fruitless, but they are not heard by God, and stand as a condemnation to us. If we speak them in our own strength, or worse, mindlessly repeat phrases as part of a religious ritual, then we are showing that we are not in a relationship with God, and the Holy Spirit is not motivating our words and actions.
That’s why the promise of Romans 8:26-27 is there:
“Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.”
Just as we cannot pray unless Jesus is our mediator between us and God (Psalm 66:18; John 9:31; James 1:6-7; 1 Tim 2:5) so prayer cannot exist outside the presence of the Holy Spirit. God does not hear spiritually empty prayers. He doesn’t want special words – and sometimes doesn’t even want any words – instead he wants us to be in communion and communication with Him through the person of Jesus and the presence of the Holy Spirit.
The Holy Spirit in Works
1 John 4:8 says that “God is Love”.
And in John 15:9 Jesus says, “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you. Abide in my love.”
And we know that one of the fruits of the Holy Spirit in our lives is “love” (Gal 5:22).
Therefore, if God is love, Jesus demonstrates love, and the Holy Spirit gives us love to share, then consider that when Paul talks about Love in 1 Corinthians 13, that he is talking about a life devoid of the Spirit of God.
“If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love* , I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.” (1 Corinthians 13:1-3)
(*couldn’t we read that, the presence of God the Holy Spirit within us?)
There is nothing of value we can do for or with God, if it is not done through the power of the Holy Spirit. No one does any favours for God. God works through those people that open themselves to His guidance and strength. And as long as you are working on your own plans, in your own strength, for your own reasons – no matter how good your motives are – you gain nothing if they are not done through the power of the Holy Spirit.
The Holy Spirit in Worship
Consider that the Holy Spirit of God is the motivating force that convicts people of sin and brings them to repentance. John 16:8 says, “The Spirit will come and show the people of this world the truth about sin and God’s justice and the judgment.” And Paul is continuously telling the churches to seek the Holy Spirit so they can remain united together (Eph 4:3).
So, when God’s people are living in sin and refusing to forgiven one another, they are actively grieving the Holy Spirit of God, and purposefully distancing themselves from Him. This means that whatever activity they are involved in: worship, discipleship, evangelism, service, preaching, prayer, bible reading… or getting married, raising children, working a job, making daily decisions, giving gifts, planning for the future, dealing with their financial issues, battling an addiction, visiting a friend, or anything else… it is separate from God.
How can I say this? Look at what Jesus says in Matthew 5,
“So if you are about to place your gift on the altar and remember that someone is angry with you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. Make peace with that person, then come back and offer your gift to God.” (Matt 5:23-24)
Why would Jesus tell people to walk away from the act of worship to make things right with another person? Isn’t worshipping God more important than working through some relational problems?
Here’s the thing: If you are not at peace with someone, and there is bitterness, unforgiveness, greed, or malice in your heart, then you cannot worship God! Anything you would have done in that room would have been rejected. Your gift would have been meaningless. You may sing songs, read the bible, learn something, write a cheque to the church, and get a tingly feeling from being around nice people – but God will not have been in it because our refusal to deal with your sin.
Remember Zechariah’s song! The Holy Spirit will always point to Jesus. Even as he was thanking God for His Son John, all the first words were of praise to God for Jesus the Christ, and all the words spoken about John were focused on Him being the forerunner of Jesus! It is the Spirit of God that motivates our worship, not we ourselves. God wants His Holy Spirit to rule our lives so fully that everything we do is motivated by Him, because only then can we live the life-style of worship that honours and glorifies Him best.
Grieving and Quenching
The terms that the Bible uses for what happens when we let sin and self rule our lives and faith, are “grieving and quenching the spirit”. (Eph 4:30; 1 Thess 5:19)
I need to clarify something though: The presence of the Holy Spirit is a gift to believers. (John 14:15-31) His presence is a promise, given to us by Jesus, that He would be with us always. All believers, without exception, are given the permanent indwelling of the Holy Spirit. There are no conditions placed on this gift, and there is nothing we can do to lose Him. Once you put your faith in Jesus, the Holy Spirit comes to reside in your heart. That means you start to hate sin instead of make excuses for it, your conscience is more sensitive, you have a greater spiritual awareness, and your hard heart begins to soften as you learn to prefer the things of God to the things of this world.
The presence of the Holy Spirit is like a down-payment, a verification, that you are a Christian and that you will be with Him forever in Heaven.
Now, I’m not talking about that. What we’re talking about today is “being filled” with the Holy Spirit. One can be a Christian, and have the presence of God with them, but also be grieving and quenching the Holy Spirit.
Admittedly, this isn’t a great illustration, but it’s sort of like being married. You are committed to one another until death – but there are times when you hurt one another, refuse to listen, refuse to love, refuse to care. That harms the people involved and creates barriers between them. That’s what it means to grieve and quench the Holy Spirit. He doesn’t leave you… instead… He backs off because you told Him to get lost because you prefer sin.
The Old Testament often equates this to “adultery” (Hosea). When we sin, we’re basically choosing to get love, joy, hope, and peace from someone other than God. We are saying that we are in charge and He isn’t. We’re saying that we don’t trust Him to do it right, so we’ll do it ourselves. We’re saying that we believe ourselves to be wiser and smarter than him. And we’re saying that He can’t satisfy our deepest desires, so we need to find something else that is better than him. That’s sin. And that grieves and quenches the Holy Spirit.
When we allow that to happen, because of our love for sin, idols and self, we do not experience the fullness of the Holy Spirit’s power in our lives. Instead of having a free exchange of power, wisdom and peace coming from the Holy Spirit, making us fruitful for God, we step away from Him and seek someone or something else.
This can happen, as I said, by our actions, but also by our thoughts. Holding onto hatred, bitterness and fear quenches the Spirit. Preferring food, drink or a chemical to His presence quenches the Spirit. Believing ourselves to be so wise and spiritual that we have no need to talk to God grieves the Holy Spirit. Breaking the commandments grieves the spirit.
How to Be Filled
So how can we be filled with the Holy Spirit? The answer – and this may surprise you – is not to pray more. That whole list of people I gave before: Elizabeth, Zechariah, Peter, Paul, the first Christian missionaries, didn’t pray for a filling of Holy Spirit and then receive it. Instead, they were obeying God. “Sin hinders the filling of the Holy Spirit, and obedience to God is how the filling of the Holy Spirit is maintained.” (http://www.gotquestions.org/Spirit-filled.html)
The Christians were in prayer and asking for God’s help. Zechariah had just obeyed God by giving John the name God had commanded and by worshipping Him when he regained his power of speech. Elizabeth had just accepted young, outcast Mary in to her home. Saul had just repented of his sin and humbled himself before Ananias. Peter had willingly walked into a place where he would be persecuted for Jesus’ name.
The filling of the Holy Spirit doesn’t come as we ask for it, it is available to all Christians at all times – it happens as we seek to live out our Christian walk in obedience to God.
And so, the application this week is fairly straightforward. If you want to be filled with the Holy Spirit of God and experience the benefits of a soft conscience, courageous witness, wisdom beyond your abilities, strength in the midst of struggle, patience to endure, supernatural love, unbound joy, uncompromised discernment, meaningful worship, a passion for God’s Word, newfound humility, evangelistic opportunities, and abundant hope in the person and work of Jesus Christ as your Lord and Saviour – then I ask you to evaluate your obedience to God this week.
- When God convicts you of sin, do you kill it in your heart and then smash the idol that caused you to stumble? Or do you make an excuse and then let the idol stand?
- Some of you have heard hundreds of sermons about reading your bible and praying every day. Are you?
- God has told some of you to do some very specific things. Have you done them?
- God has commanded you to stop doing some things. Have you stopped?
If you want to be filled with the Holy Spirit and have a brand-new relationship with Jesus Christ, then it starts with your obedience to Him.
I thank God that He keeps taking me back every time I quench His spirit. Remember that if you are a Christian, there is nothing you can do to lose your salvation. All you must do is ask for forgiveness and strength, and He’ll give it to you. If you are not a Christian, then I encourage you to turn your life over to Him today. Ask God for forgiveness of your sins, in the name of His Son Jesus Christ, and then start walking in step with the Spirit who will be with you forever.
May I close with a dire warning? If you don’t care whether you have the Holy Spirit inside of you or not…. if you don’t care about knowing Jesus more… if you don’t care if you are more obedient to Him today than yesterday… if it doesn’t really matter to you that you are redeemed from Hell by the shedding of His precious blood… then I ask you to question whether you are even a Christian.
Yes, we stumble. Yes, we fail. Yes, we let God down all the time and keep ebbing and flowing toward and away from His Spirit… but a Christian feels the desire to get closer. We desire to put down sin. We desire to experience the presence of Jesus. We hope for more filling of the Holy Spirit. We want to worship the one who loved us so much He would trade His Son for us. We want to honour the one who paid our ransom with His life.
If you don’t care about what I’m saying right now, and think you are a Christian, I ask you to think again. Have you quenched the Spirit so thoroughly that you can’t even feel the sting of conviction anymore? That is a terrible place to be.