Sermon illustrations

The Holy Spirit

All Flame

There’s a story told in The Sayings of the Desert Fathers…Abba Lot said to Abba Joseph, “Abba, as far as I can I say my little office, I fast a little, I pray and meditate, I live in peace and as far as I can, I purify my thoughts. What else can I do?”

In answer to Lot’s question, Joseph “stood up and stretched his hands towards heaven.” As he did so, “his fingers became like ten lamps of fire,” and he said to Lot, “If you will, you can become all flame.”

Andrew Arndt, All Flame: Entering into the Life of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, NavPress, 2020.

The Background Position

It is nothing short of remarkable that the Spirit clearly embraces and in no respect resents the fact that he has, eternally, what might be called “the background position” in the Trinity. It would be one thing for someone to accept and embrace a background position for a certain period of time knowing that eventually he would be brought out into the spotlight and given more central focus and attention. But here we see something far more amazing, something nearly unbelievable when considered from our perspective as fallen human beings. The Holy Spirit embraces eternally the backstage position in relation to the Father and the Son.

Bruce A Ware, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: Relationships, Roles, and Relevance, Good News Publishers.

Experiencing the Inner Radiance of a Fellow Believer

Have you ever met someone and known instantly, or at least guessed, that they were a fellow believer? When I was in college, I lived abroad for a year in Germany. We always had Fridays off so that we could travel around Europe on the Eurail pass. One weekend we were in the popular backpacker city of Interlaken, Switzerland, and having just checked in to our hostel, happened to meet some fellow college students/travelers from Wisconsin. There was a woman in the group with whom we began a conversation. It became clear to me that there was something special about her. 

Not her looks or her intellect, but rather, something like an inner radiance. But what was fascinating was, after returning to our room, I was chatting with one of the friends who had  also met the young woman and somehow, this woman came up in our conversation, and we both had the same impression. There was something about her, she was our age, a peer, who made us feel a sense of comfort in her presence. Somehow later we discovered she was, as we suspected, a faithful Christian. Looking back, I would say it was the Holy Spirit emanating from her, showing us an inner light that was so impressionable I remember it to this day, some twenty years later.

Stuart Strachan Jr.

The Holy Ghost?

Why is the Holy Spirit sometimes called the Holy Ghost? When the early translators of the Bible into English use the word “ghost,” it didn’t just mean as it does today, spooky things that haunt old houses. it meant what we now mean by the word “spirit”. In Old English, the word for “spirit” is “ghast.” The equivalent word in German “geist”  still has the broader sense as the word “Zeitgeist-spirit of the times-shows.

Who in the World is the Holy Spirit?, Tim Chester & Christopher de la Hoyde, The Good Book Company.

The Holy Spirit Births Faith

Hannah was one of my wife’s work colleagues. She used to love spending time with our congregation, but she found the gospel message just plain weird. We did some Bible studies with her over the summer and she kept looking at us in astonishment. We would read about Jesus walking on water, rising from the dead, and ascending into heaven. “You really believe all this?” she would ask. Later she told us what we believed sounded crazy. Yet she kept telling herself, “they seem like sensible people who are able to hold down jobs.

Then one day a member of our community challenged her, “don’t wait until all your questions have been answered, ”she said. Just ask yourself whether you can trust Jesus. Hannah went home and she describes how she was sitting on the floor in her front room when suddenly she knew it was all true. In that moment she became a Christian. What happened as she sat on her living room floor? The Holy Spirit came on her. There was no shining light or audible voice but the Holy Spirit came to give her faith in Jesus. This is what Jesus meant when in John chapter 3 verse 3 he says ”I tell you the truth no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.”

Then in verse 6 he explains, “flesh gives birth to flesh, but the spirit gives birth to spirit. In other words, the spirit gives us spiritual life. It’s like being born again into a new life. The theological word for this new birth is regeneration or rebirth.  Without regeneration we just can’t see God’s Kingdom.

Who in the World is the Holy Spirit?, Tim Chester & Christopher de la Hoyde, The Good Book Company.

The Holy Spirit or the Reverb?

A friend once told me about a Christian singer he knew who rented a recording studio. After an extensive setup and sound check, she began performing her first song. The sound technician thought it sounded great. But about halfway through the first verse, she stopped abruptly, threw up her hands, and said, “It s no use. Turn it off! He’s not here.”

“Him” she said, “the Holy Spirit. His presence—it’s missing.” She called a few friends into the studio, and they commenced to laying their hands on various pieces of equipment, praying for God’s presence and dabbing the equipment with oil.

After a few minutes, she began singing again. About thirty seconds in, she again said: “Stop! He’s not here. Let’s pray again.” Another fifteen-minute session of walking about the room: anointing, shouting, muttering incantations. Again she started … and again she stopped.

And again in came the prayer posse. By this time, the sound tech was getting annoyed. His equipment was getting greasy. As she began recording for the fourth time, he noticed that the reverb on her monitor was turned off, so he reached down and turned it up, at which point she put her hands in the air and began to say, “Hallelujah, there he is! He is here!” “The sound tech simply did not have the heart to say to her, “Uh … no ma’am. That was the reverb.”

J.D. Greear, Jesus, Continued, Why the Spirit Inside You is Better than Jesus Beside You, Zondervan.

Learning to Catch Bonefish

For many years my hobby has been bonefishing. It is essentially a sport. You don’t normally eat bonefish—they are too bony. The Latin name is Albula vulpes—white fox. The bonefish is a wily fish—very hard to catch—that swims in tropical waters of the world, as in the Florida Keys and the Bahamas. They are normally caught in shallow water—knee deep (twelve to fifteen inches) is perfect.

Bonefishing combines hunting and fishing; you look for them and hopefully spot them before you cast to them. I have introduced dozens of friends to bonefishing, most recently my friend the late John Paul Jackson. I began reading about bonefishing in 1964.

For some reason I was immediately fascinated. I was cautioned, however—don’t try it without a guide to help you find them. You need a guide for two reasons: to pole (punting) the boat and to help you find them. I went to a fishing camp in Jewfish Creek in Key Largo. I said to the manager, “I want to go bonefishing. Will you rent me a boat?” He replied, “Do you have a guide?” “No,” I said. “Sir, are you a bonefisherman?” “I will be after today.” “Have you ever been bonefishing before?” “No sir.” “Let me explain: nobody—no one—ever goes bonefishing for the first time without a guide.”

I was sure I did not need a guide. For one thing, I did not want to pay the fee (not cheap), and I did not want to admit I needed a guide. I simply said to the manager, “Will you rent me a boat?” “Certainly.” “Would you show me on a map where to go?” “Certainly. Head out Barnes Sound for about twenty minutes, come to the cut that leads to Largo Sound. Bonefish are on the other side of Largo Sound. Good luck.” I came back some eight hours later. “How many did you catch?” the manager asked. “There weren’t any,” I replied. Someone overhearing the conversation said, “I saw you in Largo Sound. There were fish all around you.” Almost humiliated at my failure, I left and vowed never to do that again.

However, I read a few more articles in fishing magazines and knew what I had done wrong. I returned to the same fishing camp and went to the same spot—looking everywhere for bonefish. I saw none. Everybody seemed to catch them but me. Months later, swallowing my pride, I yielded to the idea of a guide. He said, “Meet me at Mayo’s Fishing Camp in Largo Sound.” I thought to myself, “This guide doesn’t know what he is doing. There are no fish there.” We met at eight o’clock on June 1, 1965. I will never forget it.

He headed us in his boat directly to the same spot where I had looked in vain for months and months. Within minutes he whispered, “Look carefully, eleven o’clock, eighty feet. Huge bonefish. Eight to ten pounds.” “Where?” I asked. “Too late, he’s gone.” But minutes later, the guide calmly said, “Twelve o’clock. Moving to one, now two o’clock.” “Oh,” I moaned. “So that’s a bonefish.” The fish—by dozens—had been in the same area the whole time.

They had been under my nose but I could not see them. Before the day was over, I hooked five bonefish. I could not do it without the guide, however. Jesus said of the Holy Spirit that He would “guide” us into all truth (John 16:13).

The work of the Holy Spirit is to reveal what is there. Right there in the Word. Under our nose. Paul said that the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God because they are “foolishness” to him.

R.T. Kendall, Pigeon Religion: Holy Spirit, Is That You?: Discerning Spiritual Manipulation, Charisma House, 2016.

A Life Re-Defined by The Spirit of God

In his excellent book on worship, The Dangerous Act of Worship, pastor and president of Fuller Seminary Mark Labberton shares a story of the transformation of one of his former congregants:

Ben was a very successful man. His professional life flourished. His family life was challenging, as a parent of several teenagers. For him, Christian faith was a distant and disconnected reality. But he began to have conversations about it with his wife and later with me.

One Sunday I was surprised but pleased to see him in the worship service. As he approached me at the door afterward, his eyes began to fill with tears. He explained that while visiting Washington, D.C, for a professional conference, he had gone to visit the National Cathedral. He slipped into an empty side chapel and sat down for some quiet time and reflection. There, unexpected and unsought, God’s Spirit simply came upon him. Ben became a new person. The awe and wonder of grace and truth beyond his own mind, his own questions, his own needs, simply met him and changed him. It was as though his life was utterly redefined, and it has been ever since.

Taken from The Dangerous Act of Worship by Mark Labberton. Copyright (c) 2007 by Mark Labberton. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com

A Sign of Consolation

Many years ago a great Arctic explorer started on an expedition to the North Pole. After two long years in the lonely northland, he wrote a short message, tied it under the wing of a carrier pigeon, and prepared to turn it loose to make the two thousand-mile journey to Norway. The explorer gazed around him at the desolation. Not a creature to be seen.

There was nothing but ice, snow, and never-ending bitter cold. He held the trembling little bird in his hand for a moment and then released her into the icy atmosphere. The bird circled three times, and then started her southward flight for multiplied hundreds of miles over ice and frozen ocean wastes until at last she dropped into the lap of the explorer’s wife. By the arrival of the bird, his wife knew that all was well with her husband in the dark night of the arctic North. Likewise the coming of the Holy Spirit, the Heavenly Dove, proved to the disciples that Christ had entered the heavenly sanctuary.

Billy Graham, The Holy Spirit: Activating God’s Power In Your Life , Thomas Nelson.

To Know The Holy Spirit

To profess to know a great deal about the Spirit of God is contrary to the nature of the Spirit of God. There is a hiddenness to the Spirit that cannot be uncovered. There is an immediacy of the Spirit that cannot be shoved into vision. There is an invisibility of the Spirit that cannot be forced into visibility. There is a reticence of the Spirit that cannot be converted into openness. For these reasons one feels helpless, inadequate and unworthy to write … about the Spirit.

Bernard Ramm, The Witness of the Spirit, Wipf & Stock Pub.

The Spirit & Temptation

In their excellent book Invitation to a Journey, M. Robert Mulholland and Ruth Haley Barton discuss the poignant insight that it is the Spirit that leads Jesus into the Wildnerness. What does this mean, from a Biblical, theological perspective?:

Isn’t it interesting that the Spirit, the source of Jesus’ empowerment, is also focal in the temptation that follows: “The Spirit led him into the wilderness to be tempted” (Mt 4:1)? We tend to think of temptation as something totally alien to us, something from outside that intrudes into our lives.

We learn from Jesus’ experience, however, that the most critical temptations attach themselves to the call and empowerment of God that defines the meaning, value and purpose of our existence. It was so for Jesus. His first temptation went to the heart of who he was, and it is the temptation our culture has succumbed to.

“If you are the Son of God, speak, that these stones may become bread” (Mt 4:3). Do you see the nature of this temptation? The temptation is for Jesus to use his empowerment by the Spirit to do something that will authenticate God’s call. More significantly, it is a temptation to reverse the roles of being and doing, the temptation our culture has succumbed to. We tend to evaluate our own meaning, value and purpose, as well as those of others, not by the quality of our being but by what we do and how effectively we do it.

Taken from: Invitation to a Journey: A Road Map for Spiritual Formation by M. Robert Mulholland and Ruth Haley Barton. Copyright (c) 2016 by M. Robert Mulholland and Ruth Haley Barton. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com

Where is the Spirit?

My hunch is that most of you … have basic knowledge about the Holy Spirit; but when it comes to experiencing the Spirit in your life, it’s a different story. Take a moment and ask yourself this question: When was the last time I undeniably saw the Spirit at work in or around me?

If you are having trouble recounting a time when the Spirit was at work in or around you, perhaps that is because you have been ignoring the Spirit. Perhaps it is because you have a lot of head knowledge about the Spirit, but not much of a relationship with Him. My prayer is this book will draw you into deeper communion with the Spirit and greater experience of His power and presence in your life.

Francis Chan, Forgotten God: Reversing Our Tragic Neglect of the Holy Spirit, David C. Cook.

Writing Like Shakespeare, Living Like Jesus

In describing whether it is possible for us to live like Jesus, pastor John Stott shares an illustration from William Temple:

It is no good giving me a play like Hamlet or King Lear, and telling me to write a play like that.  Shakespeare could do it; I can’t. And it is no good showing me a life like the life of Jesus and telling me to live a life like that.  Jesus could do it; I can’t. But if the genius of Shakespeare could come and live in me, then I could write plays like his. And if the Spirit of Jesus could come and live in me, then I could live a life like his.

Taken from The Radical Disciple: Some Neglected Aspects of Our Calling by John R. W. Stott Copyright (c) 2010 by John R. W. Stott. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com

The Wild Goose

The Celtic Christians had a name for the Holy Spirit that has always intrigued me. They called Him An Geadh-Glas, or “the Wild Goose.” I love the imagery and implications. The name hints at the mysterious nature of the Holy Spirit. Much like a wild goose, the Spirit of God cannot be tracked or tamed.

An element of danger and an air of unpredictability surround Him. And while the name may sound a little sacrilegious at first earshot, I cannot think of a better description of what it’s like to pursue the Spirit’s leading through life than Wild Goose chase. I think the Celtic Christians were on to something that institutionalized Christianity has missed out on. And I wonder if we have clipped the wings of the Wild Goose and settled for something less—much less—than what God originally intended for us.

Mark Batterson, Wild Goose Chase, The Crown Publishing Group.

Your First Assignment: Do Nothing

I’ve always thought that Jesus gave a very odd first step to completing the Great Commission, basically telling them, “Do nothing until the Holy Spirit comes upon you” (Luke 24:49, my paraphrase). With millions of people waiting to hear the gospel, he instructed the only ones who knew anything about it to sit and wait until he had sent them something mysterious from above. That meant they were not to write books. They were not to go out to try to make converts. They were not co plan. They were to do nothing.

Why? Until he came, they couldn’t really do anything of value to the mission. Jesus had promised that he would build his church, and the mission. He could accomplish more in one moment through his Spirit than they could accomplish in 10,000 Iifetimes on their own.

J.D. Grear, Jesus, Continued: Why the Spirit Inside You is Better than Jesus Beside You, Zondervan.

See also Illustrations on Conscience, God, God’s PresenceGod’s WillJesus, The Trinity 

Still Looking for inspiration?

Consider checking out our quotes page on the Holy Spirit. Don’t forget, sometimes a great quote is an illustration in itself!

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