I was asked some time ago to address the subject of being “Led by the Spirit.” While the phrase is in common use, it does not mean the same thing to all those who use it.
The role or work of the ‘third’ member of the godhead known as the Holy Spirit has been the subject of study and investigation for hundreds of years. Much has been written about what it means to be “led by the Spirit” or “Spirit led,” and just what that looks like in real life.
In the New Testament, the writings of Luke give prominent attention to the work of the Holy Spirit. The gospel of Luke highlights the Spirit’s role of inspiring Jesus and empowering him to do miracles. Following the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost in Acts, the apostles were also inspired to speak and able to do miracles by the power and presence of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit made them adequate to meet every situation and provided the words for them to speak. Jesus and the apostles were ‘led by the Spirit’ in this very unique way.
Now it turns out that there is only one context in which the phrase “led by the Spirit” is used in the Gospels :
“Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.” (Mat. 4:1 and Luke 4:1)
Immediately following his baptism, it was the Holy Spirit who led Jesus into the wilderness where he stayed for 40 days and during which he was tempted by Satan. This is a clear parallel to God leading his people in the wilderness of Sinai for 40 years for the purpose of testing them (Dt 8:1-4).
When Satan appealed to Jesus saying, “If you are the son of God, turn these stones into bread” Jesus answered: “Man shall not live by bread alone but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God”.
Moses had said:
“Remember how the Lord your God led you all the way in the wilderness these forty years, to humble and to test you in order to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commandments. He humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna…to teach you that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.”
The Holy Spirit provided Jesus with the same answers to temptation that he had given to Moses and preserved in scripture. The Holy Spirit leads those who know the scriptures and trust God enough to obey them.
Traditionally we have understood that the Spirit leads us for the purpose of bringing about our moral refinement. The sanctification of Christians is both immediate when we enter God’s kingdom and the process by which we grow ever more into the image of God’s Son.
The Pauline letters support this view and supply the only two passages where the phrase is used outside of the Gospels. In Romans 8:14 Paul wrote: “because those who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God” and then in Galatians 5:18 “but if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the Law.”
In Galatians Paul contrasts the fruit of the Spirit with the fruit of one’s sinful nature, concluding that those who “live by the Spirit will keep in step with the Spirit.” While sanctification is the goal and work of the Holy Spirit, our continued sanctification is the very thing that we are commanded to pursue. To be Spirit led then, is engage by faith in a process whereby the Lord humbles us, tests us and disciplines us. “The Lord disciplines those whom he loves” (Heb 12:6)
Even our Lord who was holy and pleasing to our Heavenly Father, needed to be tested. The writer of Hebrews identifies testing as an experience common to all humanity:
“Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.” Hebrews 2:18
Furthermore, Jesus needed to experience suffering to become our high priest in the service of God:
“Son though he was, he learned obedience from what he suffered…and once made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him.” Heb.5:8-9
Too often we desire the fruit of the Spirit without choosing to take the path of the Spirit, a path that shapes us into the image of Jesus through discipline, hardship, testing and suffering.
George Matheson puts it this way in the words of his prayer.
“My God, I have never thanked you for my thorns. I have thanked you a thousand times for my roses, but not once for my thorns. I have been looking forward to a world where I shall get compensation for my cross; but I never thought of my cross itself as a present glory. Teach me the glory of my cross; teach me the value of my thorn, show me that I have climbed to you by the path of pain. Show me that my tears have made my rainbow.”