The Holy Spirit: Go On Being Filled

One of my mentors is a British clergyman who was one of the pastors at my church when I was hired. He’s a man of God who loves the Bible and loves the Holy Spirit.

When he would teach on the Holy Spirit at our Alpha courses he would tell the story of when, on rare occasions, living in England and not making very much as a Vicar, he would take his children out to eat. He would tell his children in no uncertain terms that they could get one soda and one soda only. After that it was water. This is because, as you may know, in England there are no free refills. Then when they would come to the United States on vacation he would tell them they could order all the sodas they wanted!

His point and his punch line was that in this respect, and in this respect only, God is more of an American than an Englishman. God is the God of free refills.

First things first: you don’t come to Jesus apart from the Holy Spirit. In Titus 3:4-6, we’re told that God “saved us, not because of works done by us… but by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ…” You can’t become a Christian without the Holy Spirit.

And when you become a Christian you don’t receive 2/3 of God, as if the Holy Spirit comes later. 2 Corinthians 1:22 and Ephesians 1:13 tell us that the Holy Spirit seals us and guarantees that we belong to Jesus. When you put your trust in Jesus Christ, the Spirit seals you.

But in Ephesians 5:18, Paul commands the church to “be filled with the Holy Spirit”. The English language doesn’t quite do justice to Paul’s intent here. In the Greek, this command is a present imperative, indicating that this isn’t speaking of a onetime filling, but rather a regular pattern of being filled. So “go on being filled with the Holy Spirit” is more like it.

This makes some of us nervous, but it was normal language in the New Testament. In Luke 4:1, Jesus is described as being “full of the Holy Spirit”. In Acts 4:8, Peter is “filled with the Holy Spirit”. In Acts 9:17, Ananias lays his hands on Saul so that he can be “filled with the Holy Spirit”. Barnabas is described as being “full of the Holy Spirit and faith” in Acts 11:24.

And lest you point out that all these references just mention one person one single time, look at the three separate instances in Acts when the disciples are said to be “filled with the Holy Spirit”. First, in Acts 2:4 they’re “filled…” and begin to speak in tongues. Second, in Acts 4:31 they’re “filled…” again. And then in Acts 13:52 they’re again “filled with the Holy Spirit and with joy”.

Why else would Jesus describe the Holy Spirit as “rivers of living water” (John 7:38) and not a pool? A river is a constant flow whereas a pool is a dormant supply. God reconciles us to himself through Jesus, and by the work of the Holy Spirit, and then longs to continue to fill us and fill us and fill us again. He really is the God of free refills!

Resistance to this comes from a number of different places, of course.

Maybe we’ve seen abuses of this and we’ve experienced churches where it’s either implied or explicitly stated that people who have been converted still need to “receive” the Holy Spirit. This isn’t biblical and it leads to confusion and abuse.

Or maybe we’ve seen the excesses of this and we’ve experienced churches where the Holy Spirit is used to give license to chaos or disorder or shaky theology derived from a pastor’s “revelation”. This is contrary to scripture and leads believers and non-believers alike to the opposite excess of, in essence, turning the spigot of the Holy Spirit off.

The norm in the New Testament and the clear encouragement from Paul’s letters to the early church is a regular, ongoing, filling of the Holy Spirit. This isn’t wacky charismania, it’s biblical and good and exciting.

Worship leaders need to understand this for the sake of their ministry. Leading from a place of dormancy or burn-out isn’t what God intends. Leading from a place of being filled and being flowed through with “rivers of living water” is.

I think Bach understood this. At the top of all of his sacred works are the initials “J.J.” for “Jesu Juva”, or “Jesus help”. And at the bottom were the initials “S.D.G.” for “Soli Deo Gloria”, or “glory to God alone”.

God has given us a helper – his Holy Spirit – for every minute, every day, every service, every rehearsal, and every time we lead worship. So we shouldn’t feel selfish or embarrassed to pray the ancient prayer of Christians through the ages: “Veni Sancte Spiritus”, or “come Holy Spirit”. Fill us afresh, help us and empower us, for the glory of God alone.

The Holy Spirit: Dry Bones Brought to Life

In Ezekiel 37:1, all he can see is a valley full of dry bones. It’s desolate, hopeless, and shocking. But just nine verses later, these bones are made to be an “exceedingly great army” (verse 10). What made the difference? The breath of God (verse 9).

God compares the dry bones to his people, at that time the “whole house of Israel”, who are dried up, without hope, and cut off. He tells Ezekiel to prophesy to them that he will (1) raise them to life (verses 12-13) and (2) put his Spirit within them (verse 14).

Fast forward to John 7:37-39 and we’re about to see this prophecy come true. Jesus, the one who has come to raise the dead to life, gives an invitation to the dry bones standing in front of him: 

“if anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes is me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’” Now this he said about the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were to receive, for as yet the Spirit had not been given, because Jesus was not yet glorified. 

The dry bones are still dry bones at this point but the water is coming. The dead are still dead but new life is coming.

Jesus brings that new life when he is crucified and then raised to life. Then in John 20:22 “he breathed on (his disciples) and said to them, “receive the Holy Spirit…” What a powerful picture. The very breath of God, present at creation (Genesis 1:2), given to particular people at particular times in the Old Testament, and speaking through the prophets, now breathed out on dry bones by God himself.

The Holy Spirit is who God uses to make what were once useless and cut off dry bones into an “exceedingly great army” for his glory (Ezekiel 37:10). The Holy Spirit gives that army its life (John 6:63) and power (Acts 1:8). The Holy Spirit leads the army into truth (John 16:12-15) and is its helper (John 14:16-17, 14:26, 15:26). He gives gifts (1 Corinthians 12:4) and dwells in us (Ephesians 2:22). I could go on.

In most of our congregations, or least the ones that I’ve observed (that’s a relatively small percentage, but go with me here…) my hunch is that our people might feel more like dry bones. And based on my conversations and relationships with other worship leaders over the years, what we see when we look out over our congregations during corporate worship might more closely resemble Ezekiel 37:1 than they do Ezekiel 37:10.

It’s not that they’re dead or hopeless (since Jesus has given us life!) but they sure do act like it. I think what’s missing is (1) an emphasis on, (2) an awareness of, (3) a desperation for, and (4) a boldness in the Holy Spirit. I’ve been convicted of this recently in my own life and in my worship leading – and I’ve had a growing sense that this is something that could use some highlighting in the worship leader world.

So part one was a lot of background to say that the Holy Spirit is the very breath of God in our very midst, present in creation, once reserved, and now poured out on all flesh. My point today is that the Holy Spirit turns dry bones into a great army and we can’t afford to ignore the Holy Spirit if we hope to look like one. My encouragement to myself and to other worship leaders is to reencounter the Holy Spirit if you’ve forgotten about him and the rest of the posts from here on out will be some practical ways we can do that.

Oh that you would rend the heavens and come down – that the mountains might quake at your presence! (Isaiah 64:1)

The Holy Spirit: The Very Breath of God in Our Very Midst

The Holy Spirit first appears in the second verse of the first chapter of the first book of the Bible, Genesis 1:2. The earth is formless and dark, and “the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters”. The word for “Spirit” is “Ruach”, meaning “breath of God”. The very breath of God is present at creation.

After that, we see the Holy Spirit again when he comes upon particular people at particular times. Here’s a quick walk through the places in the Old Testament where the Holy Spirit is mentioned.

The Spirit fills Moses with skill, intelligence, knowledge, and all craftsmanship (31:3, 35:3).

The Spirit rests on Moses’ elders and they prophesy (11:25). Moses wishes the Spirit would be in “all the Lord’s people” (11:29).

The Spirit “comes upon” Balaam (24:2). Joshua is a man “in whom is the Spirit” (27:18).

The Spirit is “upon”, “clothes”, or “rushes upon” Othniel (3:10), Gideon (6:34), Jepthah (11:29), and Samson (14:19, 15:14).

1 Samuel
The Spirit “rushes” upon Saul (10:10, 11:6) and David (16:13). He “departs” Saul (16:14), and comes upon Saul and his messengers (19:20, 19:23) and they prophesy.

2 Samuel
David says the Spirit “speaks by me, his word is on my tongue” (23:2).

1 Kings
Elijah says the “Spirit of the Lord” will “carry” Ahab (18:12).

2 Chronicles
The Spirit “came upon” Azariah (15:1) and Jahaziel (20:14), and “clothes” Zechariah (24:20).

The Spirit warns God’s people “through… prophets” (9:30).

Job says “the Spirit of God has made (him)” and “the breath of the Almighty gives (him) life” (33:4).

David prays that God will not take his Holy Spirit from him (51:11)

We are told that when God “send(s) forth (his) Spirit” people “are created and (he) renew(s) the face of the ground” 104:30.

There is nowhere David can flee from God’s Spirit/presence (139:7).

The Psalmist prays for the “Spirit to lead (him) on level ground” (143:10).

Isaiah prophesies that the Spirit will “rest upon” Jesus, a Spirit “of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and might, the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord” (11:2).

The Lord calls his children “stubborn” who “make an alliance, but not of my Spirit, that they may add sin to sin” (30:1).

The prophet longs for the day “the Spirit is poured upon us from high” (32:15).

Isaiah asks “who has measured the Spirit of the Lord, or what man shows him his counsel” (40:13).

We are told of “the chosen one” and that God will “put (his) Spirit upon him” (42:1).

God says he “will pour water on the thirsty ground, and streams on the dry ground” and that “(he) will pour his Spirit upon your offspring, and (his) blessing on your descendants” (44:3).

God makes a covenant that “(his) Spirit… and (his) word… shall not depart out of your mouth or out of the mouth of your offspring” (59:21).

Isaiah, speaking of himself, other prophets, and ultimately pointing to the Head of prophets, Jesus, says “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me…” (61:1)

Isaiah laments how God’s people “rebelled and grieved (God’s) Holy Spirit” (63:10).

The Spirit “lifts” him up (3:12, 3:14, 8:3, 11:1, 11:24, 43:5).

The Spirit “enters” him (2:2, 3:24).

The Spirit falls upon him (11:5).

The Spirit places him in a valley full of bones (37:1).

God says that he will not hide his face anymore, when he pours out his Spirit “upon the house of Israel” (39:29)

God declares that he will “pour out (his) Spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. Even on the male and female servants in those days (he) will pour out (his) Spirit” (2:28-29).

The prophet says that he is “filled with power, with the Spirit of the Lord…” (3:8).

God says that “(his) Spirit remains in your midst. Fear not” (2:5). “In a little while”, God says, “I will shake the heavens and the earth, and the sea and the dry land…” (2:6).

“The Lord of hosts” says that the obstacles to rebuilding of the temple will be overcome “not by might, nor by power, but by (his) Spirit” (4:6).

When we arrive at the New Testament, and when Jesus’ work is complete, the prophesies of Joel and Isaiah are fulfilled when the Holy Spirit is poured out in Acts 4:31. The very breath of God in our very midst.

We live in this reality and under this outpouring. We are the ones, the sons and daughters, about whom Joel prophesied. The Holy Spirit is no longer reserved for particular people at particular times, but has been poured out on all who put their trust in Jesus Christ.

But we don’t always experience the Holy Spirit in our lives or in our gatherings with the degree of power that God intends. And that’s a shame.

For our sake
We can so often be like cars along the side of the road that have run out of gas. That’s not what our manufacturer designed us for. We need power (Acts 1:8). Sure, we can coast to a certain degree, but we’re burned out, and we’re empty. When this describes us in our lives and/or in our ministry, the Holy Spirit whispers, “there’s more!”

For the church’s sake
We need the Holy Spirit if we want to proclaim the good news of the Gospel in our churches, through our preaching, and with our music. The Holy Spirit brings unity where the church so often experiences division (1 Corinthians 12:12-31). The Holy Spirit brings a demonstration of God’s power where churches so often rely on the eloquence of words of wisdom (2 Corinthians 2:4). And the Holy Spirit points people to Jesus when worship leaders try to do it on their own (John 16:14).

For our gatherings’ sake
People come to church on Sunday morning, whether they realize it or not, longing for genuine joy, longing to encounter something great, longing to encounter something close, and longing to see God at work. The Holy Spirit helps people encounter the glory (2 Corinthians 3:18) and genuine love of God (Romans 5:5).

For Jesus’ sake
If we really want to be people and worship leaders who bring glory to Jesus and help people see him clearly, then how do we expect to do this without the help and the power of the one whose job it is to glorify Jesus? (John 16:14). The Holy Spirit glorifies Jesus! We often think we can glorify Jesus on our own and we are dangerously mistaken.

I am increasingly convinced that for a large number of worship leaders, the Holy Spirit plays no central role in their leading. They might pay homage to him on the periphery, or confess a belief in him doctrinally, but he is held at arm’s length practically. The sad result is services and singing that lack a demonstration of the very breath of God in our very midst and this needs to change for the sake of the glory of Jesus!

More later.

A Song for Those Who Are Waiting On the Lord

A few Saturday evenings ago as I was thinking about the songs I’d be leading the next morning, I began to get a strong sense that God wanted me to share a song of encouragement after “Everlasting God” for people who have been waiting for an answer from him for a very long time. Sometimes this kind of nudge happens in the moment, and so I attempt to convey a prophetic impression of God’s heart on-the-spot. This time, I was grateful that the Holy Spirit was giving me advance notice, and so I jotted down some quick lyrics and had them on my music stand the next morning in case it felt right.

When we ended “Everlasting God” I took a moment to discern how I felt the Holy Spirit leading me, and I went ahead and sang this song. The tune and music were just simple and improvised.

I’ve included a recording and the lyrics below. I hope and pray that these words might be an encouragement to you too.

I am the God who formed the earth
I am the One who gave you life
I knew you long before your birth
And I have never left your side

I know your doubts, I know your fears
I know you’re weary from all the years
You’ve waited for an answer
You’ve prayed with all your heart
You’ve wondered if I hear you
You’ve stared into the dark

I am the everlasting God
I am your Father
I’ve redeemed you through my son
He bore your burden
He knew your pain
He intercedes for you
He prays for you by name

And I will do what’s best for you, my love
I will work my perfect will, and I will lift you up
I am always faithful and I am always good
You don’t always see it but it is always true

Don’t listen to the lies the Devil says
He is the accuser and I have conquered him
You are my beloved and I am in control
You can’t always see it but I am on the throne

One day you will see that I have worked
All things for my glory and all things for your good
One day you will see me as I am
Your Everlasting Father, and your never failing friend

And I know you don’t always understand
But I give you a promise: your Father has a plan
Jesus gives you access. The Spirit gives you strength
I love you and I’m with you and will hold you while you wait

Waiting Until the Song is Really Finished

There are two extremes when it comes to leading songs in corporate worship. One extreme is to spend too much time on a song and sing it for so long that people are sick of it. Another extreme is to plow straight through each song and hurry along without any consideration of whether the Holy Spirit might be giving different directions.

I shared some thoughts a few months ago on how to protect against the first extreme. Today I’d like to offer some encouragement to you if you seem to experience the latter problem (i.e. plowing through songs) instead.

As a worship leader, I notice this on my worship team when I hear the rustling of pages behind or beside me when we’ve finished the last verse or chorus of a song. I know that my fellow musicians are just trying to be ready for the next song, but many times they’re jumping the gun. I’m sensing the Holy Spirit directing us to linger on the song for a while, to go back and do a certain section again, and when I start to do that, my team isn’t with me. They’ve moved on before the song was really finished.

I notice it in myself too. I can get in a hurry when I’m leading, or get anxious, or be so focused on how we did it in rehearsal, that when the last verse or chorus of a song is done, my mind and my fingers and my heart have moved on. We launch into the next song and miss an opportunity to respond to God’s leading.

So I’m guilty of it, my worship team is guilty of it, and if you’re a worship leader, then you’re guilty of it too. Sometimes we have good reasons to move on quickly (i.e. honoring our pastor’s request to keep to a certain time), but most often we don’t have a good reason at all. We aren’t paying attention to the Holy Spirit’s leading.

Stop talking and listen
One way to be really bad at having a good conversation with people is to be thinking about what you’re going to say next as opposed to listening to what the other person is actually saying. The same principle applies to worship leading. Of course we know what song comes next and we’re thinking through how we’ll get there, but are we listening to the Holy Spirit at all? Sadly, sometimes the answer is no. Effective worship teams and worship leaders learn how to lead/play/sing while at the same time listening to the Holy Spirit.

Practice spontaneity
If you lock all your arrangements down 100% at rehearsal, then you probably will need to plow through it during the service. There are times this is necessary, and the larger your team (i.e. if an orchestra is playing with you) or the more complex your situation (i.e. a video is accompanying the song) the more likely you’ll need to stick with the script. But I hardly ever tell my worship team that we will absolutelydo a song a certain way. I might say we’ll most likely or almost certainly do it a certain way, but I try to resist locking everything down too tightly. Rehearse well and talk through how you’ll most likely do things. Leave yourselves some wiggle room, practice being spontaneous, and talk through how you’ll cue them to where you’re going. They’ll get used to it.

Don’t try to squeeze in a ton of songs
If you have 20 minutes and 5 songs, then there’s not really any room for lingering. 4 minutes each and you’re done. Picking too many songs for a certain amount of time usually results in plowing through them. Pick 4 songs instead and then you have 5 minutes for each one. Or try picking 3. You might not take 20 minutes, but maybe you will. You’ve left some space and some freedom for not having to rush through the songs.

Learn to savor
When I eat vegetables, I eat them as quickly as I can. This is because I hate vegetables. But when I eat a really good steak, I savor it. I eat it slowly. I don’t want it to end. I’m sad when I’m done with it. Why would I rush through a meal that I love? What’s the hurry? Well, maybe dessert, but you get my point. Worship leaders and worship teams that savor (or “enjoy”) God’s presence, will be more able to sense his leading.

As an aside, this is why monthly or bi-monthly worship team gatherings are such a necessity, and why having an unhurried time of singing and “practicing the presence of God” at those meetings will benefit your team immensely. If you’re learning to savor God’s presence and discern his leading when you’re not up front, you’ll be more comfortable with it when the weekend services come.

See it modeled
Some things can be taught and other things need to be caught. If you aren’t comfortable arranging songs loosely or throwing in unplanned repeats at the leading of the Holy Spirit, I would encourage you and/or your team to see it being modeled. The Sovereign Grace Worship Conference is a great place to see this and learn how it can be done effectively. Or find other worship conferences or worship leaders who seem to “get” this.

Few things will hinder you more as a worship leader than being in a hurry. The major reason why a lot of worship leaders hurry and rush through songs is because they’re afraid that if they leave space, or even a few moments of silence, people in the congregation will get impatient or start looking around at each other like the worship leader has no idea what’s supposed to happen next.

Relax. They aren’t going to think that. (If they do think that, it doesn’t make any difference, by the way.) Take a few moments, or even longer, and before you move onto the next song, listen to whether or not the Holy Spirit is telling you to go back. These can be some of the sweetest times of corporate worship, so let’s try to avoid plowing through them if we can.