Resisting the Spirit

“You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you. Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One, whom you have now betrayed and murdered, you who received the law as delivered by angels and did not keep it.”

Acts 7:51-53

Emotional congruence with the Holy Spirit is a slippery notion for most Christians. Somehow, many of us have misconstrued the Holy Spirit as immutably nice. However, scripture tells us of exemplary saints who—while filled with the Holy Spirit—gave vent to His holy spleen.

Resisting begins with deceit. False witnesses stirred up the authorities by accusing Stephen of profaning the law and temple (Acts 6:11-14). However, the trouble wasn’t as simple as the lies which were spoken against a man, but that darkened hearts reveled in the deceit. God has illuminated human beings with the conscience so that we may know the truth and He crafted our hearts to love “the light of the knowledge of the glory of God” (2 Corinthians 4:61 John 4:7). But men “loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil” (John 3:19). There is no truth apart from or known autonomously from the Holy Spirit. He has been sent as the Guide into all truth (John 16:13). Sadly, we tend to prefer lies to truth and resistance of instead of resignation to the Spirit.

Resisting is disbelief. Using the word “always” is often a prelude to falsehood. Very rarely is even the worst of us always angry, wrong, or anything else. But Stephen didn’t exaggerate for dramatic effect. From his fullness with the Spirit of Truth (Acts 6:3-5), he commandingly reproached the Sanhedrin, “you always resist the Holy Spirit.”

Scripture teaches that there are at least three negative and progressively dangerous responses to God’s Spirit: grieving (Ephesians 4:30), quenching (1 Thessalonians 5:19), and resisting (Acts 7:51, Matthew 12:31). Sin hurts the Spirit who indwells all who are born again. In an opposite way, the Spirit burns with holy passion—a reverent fury and consuming flame—causing believers to desire what God desires and love what He loves. When we quench the Spirit, we “throw a wet blanket” on that fire. Thankfully, the Spirit is stronger than our sin and burns hotter than our apathy, He is, after all, the Spirit of the Almighty, Sovereign God who is not thwarted by our “old man”. Grieving and quenching are ways believers can sinfully respond to the Holy Spirit. However, resisting the Holy Spirit is an activity unique to unbelievers.

In prophetic fashion, Stephen proclaimed that the Sanhedrin’s resistance was due to their unregenerate and impenitent hearts. He presents them with two colorful word pictures illuminating their Spirit-resistance: “stiff-necked” and “uncircumcised in heart”. “Stiff-necked” was frequently used in the Old Testament to describe Israel’s stubborn slowness to believe God (Exodus 32:9, 2 Chronicles 30:8). However, “uncircumcised in heart” does not describe weak faith, but want of faith due to an unregenerate state. The filth of the “old man” had not been put off by the Holy Spirit. Jesus told Nicodemus that a person could not see or enter the kingdom of God unless one was born again by the Spirit (John 3:1-5). Stephen rightly diagnosed the problem of the Sanhedrin: they were spiritually dead! Their response to the Gospel was to lie still in the rigidity of their spiritual rigor mortis.

Resisting is detestable. Stephen disposed of the “kid gloves” as he punched out the charges of persecution and murder. The Sanhedrin accused him of slandering Moses, but Stephen counterpunched by saying they had slaughtered Messiah (Acts 7:52). False witnesses said he blasphemed the law; Stephen responded that the Sanhedrin had broken the law in its proceedings against Jesus (Acts 7:53). With a law so shattered by those sworn to love and uphold it, what kind of justice was being served?

Resistance is damnable. The 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation has inspired a mixed celebration. Certainly, Martin Luther was a complex and sinful man, but God used him mightily to sanctify His Church. The harsh rhetoric he directed at the Jews of Germany has left some to ask, “Was Luther Anti-Semitic?” However, Luther’s problem with the Jews wasn’t ethnic or social, but spiritual. Like Stephen before him, Luther didn’t speak softly to “good religious folks” who rejected Jesus. Perhaps both men accurately understood that a harsher judgment than their own awaited those who—through resisting the Spirit—were baptized into the blood-guilty league of those who crucified Christ Jesus (Matthew 27:25). As punitive as Luther’s pronouncements were, we must all consider that one day the sheep will be separated from the goats and none who have resisted the Spirit—neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female—will stand in resistance to the eternal wrath of God in hell.

Sometimes God uses a hammer. Luther nailed his remonstrance to a church. God nailed our Redeemer to a cross. The Spirit nails the repentant with Christ:

Did we in our own strength confide, our striving would be losing,
Were not the right Man on our side, the Man of God’s own choosing:
Dost ask who that may be? Christ Jesus, it is He;
Lord Sabaoth, His Name, from age to age the same,
And He must win the battle.

Have you resisted the Spirit? Repent and believe in Jesus—He must win the battle!

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