Jesus has just described the hostility that believers can expect to receive from the world. But is it a lost cause? If lost sinners, by their very nature, are hostile to the gospel, how would any of them come to faith in Christ? If the world crucified Christ, why would it believe in Him as the promised Messiah?
Once again Jesus comes back to the work of the Holy Spirit. “Nevertheless, I tell you the truth. It is to you advantage that I go away; for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you; but if I depart, I will send Him to you” (John 16:7; NKJV). It cannot be overemphasized how central the Holy Spirit’s work should be in the church. When Jesus walked here on earth, the lives of the disciples revolved around Him. He was their Master, their Lord, their Teacher. But now He was about to depart, leaving a void. The Holy Spirit is meant to fill that void.
But the very idea of the Spirit of God indwelling a human being is extraordinary, and it would only be possible after Christ had died on the cross and made an atonement for our sin. Having risen from the dead and ascended into heaven, He was then able to appear before God the Father as our intercessor, and ask that the Holy Spirit be given. Pentecost was the proof that Christ’s sacrifice had been accepted and that He was now in heaven making intercession on our behalf. The Holy Spirit now occupies a role in our lives analogous to the role that Jesus occupied in the lives of His disciples when He was here on earth. The Holy Spirit is to play a central role in our lives as individual believers and in our life together as a church.
In this passage Jesus specifically turns His attention to the role that the Holy Spirit will play in the world at large. “And when He has come, He will convict the world of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment” (v. 8). The word translated “convict” (elegcho) “implies rebuke which brings conviction” (Abbott-Smith). The Holy Spirit will overcome the natural resistance of the human heart to convince them of certain basic facts a person must know and believe in order to come to faith in Christ.
The first of these is sin. “. . . of sin, because they do not believe in Me” (v. 9). There is a great deal of discussion among the commentators about exactly how this and the next two verses should be translated and interpreted. We will take the position that the word “because” introduces a clause which states the reason why the Holy Spirit is convicting of these things. And the first thing of which the Holy Spirit convicts us is the terrible fact of sin. God is perfectly just, holy and loving. He created us to live our lives in accordance with His will. But instead we rebelled against Him and gave ourselves to a wide variety of sinful passions and desires – anger, pride, greed and lust. We have a general sense that these are wrong, but since everyone else is guilty of the same sins we tend not to take them seriously. And so the Holy Spirit must show us how serious a problem sin really is. And He does this ”because they do not believe in Me.” He came into the world to save people from their sins, and yet they do not believer. Why? Because they do not believe that sin is the serious problem that it is.
And the Holy Spirit will convict the world “of righteousness, because I go to My Father and you see Me no more” (v. 10). While Jesus was here on earth His life was a perfect example of what true righteousness is, and His teaching reflected the will of God on this more fully and completely than had ever been done before. As human beings we cannot see how lost we really are until we understand how perfect a righteousness God really requires. We compare ourselves with each other, and conclude that we are not so bad after all – after all, I am not as bad as the guy in the next cell – he got charged with first degree murder! But to see what God Himself is really like is to experience is to experience the reaction that Isaiah had when he saw God – “Woe is me, for I am undone! / Because I am a man of unclean lips. . . .” (Isa. 6:5). And so with Jesus physically departed the Holy Spirit must give the sinner a sense of what real righteousness is.
And then Jesus says that the Holy Spirit will convict the world “of judgment, because the ruler of this world is judged” (v. 11). It is tempting for us, as human beings, to think that no serious consequences will come from our sin, as long as we obey the laws of the civil authorities. We live, we pursue our dreams and ambitions, we have successes or failures, but hopefully most of us will avoid imprisonment. What we fail to recognize, however, is that there is coming a day of judgment in which each one of us individually must give an account to God for our actions here on earth. And what a terrifying prospect that is! To stand before an absolutely holy God who knows every impure thought and hidden fault that we ever had, and try to explain to Him, our Creator, why we did what He did not want us to do – who could possibly escape condemnation? And the fact of the matter is that “the ruler of this world is judged.” We think that we are fine if we are in conformity with the standards of human society around us. But human civilization in its entirety is in a state of rebellion against God, and its ruler is no one less than Satan himself. But Satan has already been judged, and while his influence may prevail now his cause is ultimately lost. This is why it makes no sense to keep conforming to this twisted and perverted standards of human conduct.
Most people have at least a vague sense of guilt. We have consciences – we have at least a sense that there is a difference between right and wrong. The apostle Paul calls it “the work of the law written on our hearts” (Rom. 2:15). Most people have a sense of moral standards imposed by society and feel guilty when caught. But the conviction brought on by the Holy Spirit is different. The apostle Paul, in his former life as a devout Jew, could say that “concerning the righteousness which is in the law” he was “blameless” (Phil. 3:4-6). But once he understood what God really required, once he understood how deeply engrained sin really was in his personality, he was led to exclaim, “O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from the body of death?” (Rom. 7:24). And the lost sinner, no matter how outwardly respectable he may be, can scarcely have any sense at all of the righteousness of God or the reality of the Last Judgment. Thus true conviction must be produced by the Holy Spirit.
The passage is also a sober reminder to the church of how dependent we are upon the work of the Holy Spirit in evangelism. Evangelism is not just a matter of marketing and intellectual persuasion. The lost sinner is spiritually blind. He “suppresses the truth in unrighteousness” (Rom. 1:18). They “walk, in the futility of their mind, having their understanding darkened, being alienated from the life of God, because of the ignorance that is in them, because of the blindness [“hardness” – NASV, ESV] of their heart . . .” (Eph. 4:17,18). Thus “the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned” (I Cor. 2:14).Thus what has to happen in true evangelism is, as Paul described his own ministry, “And my speech and my preaching were not with persuasive words of human wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith should not be in the wisdom of men but in the power of God” (I Cor. 2:4,5). “For our gospel did not come to you in word only, but also in power, and in the Holy Spirit, and in much assurance . . .” (I Thess. 1:5), and thus the Thessalonians, “when you received the word of God which you heard from me, you welcomed it not as the word of men, but as it is in truth, the word of God, which also effectively works in you who believer” (I Thess. 2:13).
True revival will come only when we acknowledge our dependence on the Holy Spirit for results, and ask for His anointing on the preaching of the word. Secular marketing techniques and methods will not bring lost sinners to Christ. Only the Holy Spirit can accomplish that. Even so come, heavenly Dove!