Signs of the Spirit’s Presence…

Posted by on Jun 6, 2017 in Blog | 6 comments

I was with the good folk of Mt Hawthorn Community Church this Pentecost Sunday, and being Pentecost, thought it would be helpful to ask if there are signs we can look for that indicate that the Spirit is at work. One of the lovely features of Mt Hawthorn is that they have a Q and A after the message, and it provoked lots and lots of discussion, making me think it would be worth posting my notes on the blog. So with a very light editing, here they are…

A number of year ago noted evangelist Leighton Ford asked this question: “If God were to remove his Holy Spirit from the church, how many of our programmes would carry on just the same – without us even noticing the difference?”

It’s a good question – especially for Pentecost Sunday. How do we spot if the Spirit is at work? How can we know if what we do for God is just us… or if it is God empowered, and therefore actually matters?

While I don’t claim my list of 7 is the last word on the subject, perhaps it is a helpful start. So what signs should we look out for?

Sign 1: A community living out the Lordship of Jesus. 1 Cor 12:3 is interesting, “I want you to know that no one who is speaking by the Spirit of God says, ‘Jesus be cursed,’ and no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord,’ except by the Holy Spirit.” Now you may say – bit of a stretch. Anyone can read a script that says “Jesus is Lord”  – so it can’t possibly be true. But remember the Bible views words differently to us. Words in the Bible are instruments. They achieve what they say and are always taken seriously. So it is that in Genesis 1 God speaks, and the world comes into being. In John 1, Jesus is called the Word of God. Words are viewed as powerful and create reality. When Paul says you can’t say Jesus is Lord without the Spirit he means, you cannot live out the implications of Jesus being Lord without the Spirit. Indeed, you cannot be a Christian without the Spirit.

What does this mean in practice? Consider one simple area. If Jesus is Lord, I am not in charge of my life. There has to be a certain provisionality to everything I commit myself to do or say – and indeed Jame 4:15 says as much, telling us that we should preface our words about what we plan to do by saying “If it is the Lord’s will…” Now James wasn’t being mechanically legalistic – as if the magic words “If it is the Lord’s will” somehow protect us. Rather he is reflecting a deep attitude to life. I am not in charge. I cannot know exactly what will happen. Jesus is Lord, and so can over ride anything. And I have seen it happen so many times. As principal at Vose Seminary, I have met many students who thought their life was going in one direction and then heard God say “Actually you’re not to take that path… study to prepare yourself…”

To say Jesus is Lord is to have an internal disposition given by the Spirit to quickly defer to the plans of God… to approach all of life tentatively. Jesus is Lord – I am not. And if Jesus is Lord, I hold lightly all that I have. Lord Jesus might call me to another path or plan. The ability to hold lightly is given by the Spirit who helps us to live out the Lordship of Jesus.

Sign 2: A commitment to mission. The Spirit generates mission. This was clearly demonstrated at the first Pentecost. Jesus had promised the disciples that they would receive power when the Spirit came on them and that they would be Christ’s witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8). Prior to the Spirits coming at Pentecost that seemed like a pipe dream. But then the Spirit comes, and their focus changes from being inwardly tilted to being world facing. Up until then they were obsessed with how quickly God would restore the fortunes of Israel and release the Jews from Roman oppression (Acts 1:6). Comes Pentecost, and they view the world with new eyes. At Pentecost, the division caused at the Tower of Babel was reversed. The Tower of Babel saw language as a curse that divided people (Genesis 11). At Pentecost all people, no matter what their language, are able to hear and understand a universal language of the love of God. Different languages now united people and helped them to realise the greatness of God. Instead of lanaguage being a reason to view some as unreachable (they will never understand me), at Pentecost the believers suddenly realised: “Oh my goodness. There is so much more than my little world… All these people who God is working to reach. And I can’t use their inability to understand me as an excuse any more – because God is making that obstacle surmoutable.” Pentecost was the dramatic proclomation of “Mission Possible”.

For some, that means mission to the furthest edges of the world. It will often mean a particular focus on the needs of the poor and vulnerable. Luke’s recollection of the launch of Jesus’ ministry has Jesus proclaiming the promise of Isaiah, “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has annointed me to proclaim good news to the poor” (Luke 4:18). When the Spirit works we feel a special tug towards the needs of the most vulnerable. Sometimes it is to see our local mission differently. When the Spirit works inside of us, we go into the workplace on Monday and see with new eyes. When the Spirit starts to work we get this excited sense, “actually, it is now mission possible”.

Sign 3: Prayer is real. The Puritans used to say that you must pray until you’ve prayed. I think they meant that there are times when prayer feels mechanical – like a child’s prayer quickly rattled off, “God bless mom, dad, the cat and the dog – Amen.” But notice that in Luke’s first summary of the church post Pentecost he tells us that they devoted themselves (and devoted is such a strong word) to the apostle’s teaching, and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and to prayer (Acts 2:42). For this Spirit crreated community, prayer was a key part of all they did. They were devoted to it.

People sometimes say the key to prayer is the acronym PUSH – Pray Until Something Happens. Fair enough, prayer can function like that. But I want to suggest that when the Spirit works the dynamic is often different. We pray not to make something happen but because something is happening. We quickly realise – we have to pray. This ship is moving, and unless we hear from God we will have no idea of how to steer it. Indeed, we quickly realise we can’t steer it. Our need is to stay on board… and so we pray for guidance to know how to keep in step with what the Spirit is doing. Often this is prayer at its most exciting.

Sign 4: Unity of purpose amongst believers. 1 Cor 12 stresses that the Spirit builds us together into one body under one head – Christ. 1 Cor 12:7 is such an important verse: “Now to EACH ONE the manifestation of the Spirit it given for the common good.” The church is this extraordinary community where the Spirit gifts us all differently, and as we together bring our gifts to the table, there is more than enough for what needs to be done, and we realise, realise very deeply, that we belong – everyone has a part to play, and we have a common mission – to live out that Jesus is Lord that the world might believe.

What does this look like in practice? It can take take many different forms. I remember many years ago when I was principal of Rosebank Bible College – the College had a bit of a financial crisis – which always spurs pretty urgent prayer. Out the blue a man came to me and gave me a cheque for the work. In today’s terms it was for about $70 000. As he saw me gawk at the cheque he said: “When someone gives you a cheque like that you can know one of two things… either they are mad – or the Spirit is at work.” And he looked at me and said: “Brian, I am not mad… Be encouraged, the Spirit is at work.”

Actually what he was living out was what the Spirit does in us. The Spirit builds us into a body where we each have a part to play. Indeed, Acts 4:32 tells us that in the early church:  No one claimed that any of their possessions were their own, but they shared everything they had. You see they lived, Jesus is Lord… I am not my own. And that only happens when the Spirit is at work. They bound together, even though they were actually a very diverse group of people. Roman society was very stratified. Slaves were slaves – free people were citizens. Rich and poor had nothing to do with each other. You knew your station in life and stayed there. And then the Spirit comes and the early church is this powerful group of people – Jews, Greeks, slaves, free, men, women – all one in Christ Jesus. No one had seen such a diverse group united before. Only the Spirit could do that. And the Spirit did it because the Spirit got them each to say… to live… Jesus is Lord.

Sign 5: Spiritual gifts are evident: 1 Cor 12 lists some of the gifts given by the Spirit – there are gifts of utterance; Prophecy, teaching tongues and the interpretation of tongues. There are gifts of action… the gifting to be an apostle, or prophet or teacher or a worker of miracles, or a healer or a helper or a guide. Then there were gifts of knowledge. 1 Cor 12:8 and 10 speak of those who have a word of knowledge or a word of wisdom or of discernment between spirits. And other passages speak of many other gifts that the Spirit gives… giving, suffering, celibacy, craftsmanship, hospitality… the list goes on and on and the fact that different passages list different gifts probably means there is not a defined number of spiritual gifts, as though the Holy Spirit is only able to give X number of gifts and then has to step back and say – “Oh dear, now they are all run out.

Again note the key point made in 1 Cor 12:7. To each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.

What does this mean? Look at what you do with new eyes. Could it be that the Spirit wants to gift you to serve in some way? What is needed for the common good? Ask – for those who ask receive, those who seek find, those who knock, find the door is answered.

Sign 6: There is comfort. In John 14:26 Jesus promises that when he goes, the disciples needs will be met by the coming of the Spirit. Depending on the translation you work with, the Spirit is described as the comforter, advocate, intercessor, helper, standby, strengther or counsellor. Each adds a little more depth to our understanding of the work of the Spirit. Earlier Jesus had refered to the Spirit as the Spirit of truth (John 14:17). The deepest truth of our life that the Spirit points us back to is that we are not alone, (“I will not leave you as orphans” John 14:18), but that we have the ultimate security of being embraced by the Father’s love. That does not lead to a life devoid of difficulty, but it does mean that even in the midst of adversity, there is hope and comfort. That gentle assurance – often tangibly present – is a sign that the Spirit has drawn alongside and is at work.

Sign 7: Lives are changed. Gal 5:22 tells us that the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness and self control. It is fruit (singular) – not fruits (plural). It all starts to grow in us… we find ourselves being changed. How does this happen? I remember a man telling his story of what happened after he came to faith in Jesus. He said that before he met Jesus, he had a real anger problem. “The slightest thing,” he said, “and I lost my temper. Then I met Jesus… and I lost my temper… – it was just gone. All that underlying rage taken away – that sense of being cheated and of life being out of control and going no where – suddenly all that was turned around. I just wasn’t angry anymore. I’d a new found joy, and peace and purpose.” That’s the Spirit at work… changing life for the good. True, sometimes it is not as quick and immediate as that, and it can be a bit of a journey, but the bottom line remains the same. When the Spirit is at work, a life serving journey begins. We don’t stay the same. Change becomes par for the course.

And so…

Perhaps you say – interesting, but so what? Is this about looking at some church communities and saying, “Yes, looks like the Spirit is at work there” and at others and saying, “Hmmm, not so sure about that place. At best, it’s a pretty thin harvest.” That would be to miss the point. We look for the signs of the Spirits work so that we can know what to co-operate with. When we feel ourselves being challenged to live out the Lordship of Jesus, we can confidently say, “Actually, that’s the Spirit”. And when we feel the nudge to mission, or the call to prayer, or to work at promoting unity amongst believers, or to grow our spiritual gifts, or to receive the comfort of the Spirit, or to risk embraking upon personal change – we can open our hearts hopefully and say, “Could be that the Spirit is at work…”

As always, nice chatting…


  1. So many meaty nuggets there Brian, sense and insight, thanks.

  2. I fully agree with the statement you made!

  3. Brilliant post, Brian. Loved it! Inspired me to think of some others that follow on from what you think (based on Scriptural and traditional understandings.)
    – A genuine search for and love of the truth – (based on the Spirit leading us into all truth etc.)
    – A celebration of the Eucharist that is alive with passion, potential and the presence of Christ (based on the Spirit’s role in the Eucharist etc.)
    – An intentional self-giving love for one another (based on the Spirit being the bond of love that joins Father and Son, believers etc., although this is probably a repeat of your sign 4.)
    And perhaps we could even say the very existence of the church is a sign of the Spirit. No spirit, no church – hey. Hope all is well with you and yours. Keep up the awesome blogging. Really appreciate it. Greg

    • Thanks Greg. Good to hear from you. I especially like your last point on the existence of the church as a sign of the Spirit… worth remembering, particularly in more difficult seasons.

  4. Beautiful reflection. Very helpful, thanks

  5. Always love what you write Brian. This is no exception and the people a Mt Hawthorn were privileged to hear this. So clear, concise and right to the point. Thank God for your ability to communicate so well.

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