The Israelites had been in Egyptian bondage for a little over 400 years, and millions of them had been born there, lived, died and were buried there in the sands of the Sinai Peninsula. I’d like us to consider five passages of scripture, which tell us about the ministry of the Holy Spirit.
The LORD went ahead of them in a pillar of cloud to lead them on their way during the day and in a pillar of fire to give them light at night, so that they could travel day or night. 22 The pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night never left its place in front of the people. (Exodus 13:21–22)
And the Angel of God, which went before the camp of Israel, removed and went behind them; and the pillar of cloud went from before their face, and stood behind them: and it came between the camp of the Egyptians and the camp of Israel; and it was a cloud of darkness to them, but it gave light by night to these: so that the one came not near the other all night.(Exodus 14: 19, 20)
Then a cloud covered the tent of the congregation, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. And Moses was not able to enter into the tent of the congregation, because the cloud abode thereon, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. And when the cloud was taken up from over the tabernacle, the children of Israel went onward in all their journeys: but if the cloud were not taken up then they journeyed not till the day that it was taken up. For the cloud of the Lord was upon the tabernacle by day, and the fire was on it by night, in the sight of all the house of Israel, throughout all their journeys. (Exodus 40: 34–38)
And the cloud of the Lord was upon them by day, when they went out of the camp. And it came to pass, when the ark set forward, that Moses said, ‘Rise up, Lord, and let Thine enemies be scattered, and let them that hate Thee flee before Thee.’ And when it rested, he said, ‘Return, 0 Lord, unto the many thousands of Israel.’ (Numbers 10: 34, 36)
Moreover, Moreover, brethren, I would not that ye should be ignorant, how that all our fathers were under the cloud, and all passed through the sea; and were all baptised unto Moses in the cloud and in the sea. (1 Corinthians 10: 1, 2)
The way the Holy Spirit works in our lives is beautifully clarified and explained to us in the Bible. The Holy Spirit should not be mysterious to you, rather he should be a distinct and clear part of the character and nature of Almighty God. The Holy Spirit appears in the first chapters of Genesis and is a magnificent figure running all the way through the Bible. For example, in Isaiah 63 we can read what that prophet says:
In all their affliction He was afflicted, and the angel of His presence saved them: in His love and in His pity He redeemed them: and He bare them, and carried them all the days of old. But they rebelled, and vexed His Holy Spirit: therefore He was turned to be their enemy, and He fought against them. Then He remembered the days of old, Moses, and his people, saying, Where is He that brought them up out of the sea with the shepherd of his flock? Where is He that put His Holy Spirit within him? That led them by the right hand of Moses with His glorious arm, dividing the water before them, to make Himself an everlasting name? That led them through the deep, as a horse in the wilderness, that they should not stumble? As a beast goeth down into the valley, the Spirit of the Lord caused him to rest: so didst Thou lead Thy people, to make Thyself a glorious name.”
Isaiah clearly recognises the Holy Spirit as the presence who dwells right in and amongst Israel, the one who led them through the Red Sea and the wilderness.
Think about the way he is represented in these passages — both striking and sublime. When ancient armies marched through a foreign country, it was usual to be to be led, especially by night, by great illuminations of torches and beacons carried in front of the advancing army.
So, an army would march into the darkness, following smoke and flame as torchbearers showed the way. In some ways the symbolic ideas behind being led by the majestic signal of the pillar of cloud and fire would not have been totally surprising to the Israelites, and yet, this was no merely human beacon light.
With unearthly majesty and a divine appearance, the fiery column reached to the sky, and led them along. When it stopped, they stopped, and when it moved, they moved. Often they had no idea that moving on again was to lead them away from their foes, and that other times the mighty cloud was confusing an enemy bent on destruction of the people of God. Sometimes the cloud spread its folds like the canopy of a massive heavenly tent, sheltering them from the fiery heat of the desert, sun.
It was a supernatural symbol.
From now on they were to personally led by God. God wants to lead His children. The pillar of cloud and fire was not an angel or two, it was the actual presence of God. It was the sign of God’s own presence.
Nothing has changed, the Church of the living God has a supernatural leadership. Christians have a divine guide. Christianity is not a collection of wise human opinions, and an organisation combining the best human wisdom and power. Christianity is a faith that has the supernatural God leading us: without that, it is nothing special.
The first century church was a living miracle, and the church of the twenty-first century should be exactly the same. Anything less cannot please God. I believe that when we believe we live in the presence of the God, we experience things not unlike the Moses, or Joshua did, or like the miracles of Pentecost?
The pillar of cloud and fire was a source of light, of truth and guidance to His people.
All over the world we find interest in the supernatural, but divine power always manifests itself in something practical and useful. God does not to play with us — he is not a magician in front of a mesmerised audience. He guides as a shepherd would guide his flock, because He wants to give us His life. His Word has little to say about things which appeal to our curiosity, but it has a lot to say about intelligently, with understanding, knowing God in our hearts.
The Holy Spirt does not exist to give us extraordinary manifestations, but to give us life and light. The nearer we come to Him, the more simple His illumination and leading is. He comes to “guide us into all truth.” He comes to shed light upon our own hearts, and to show us ourselves. He comes to reveal Christ, to give, and then to help us understand the Bible. He helps make God’s realities vivid and clear, and He comes as a Spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of Christ, to “enlighten our understanding, so we may know the hope of his calling, the riches of the glory of his inheritance in the saints, and the exceeding greatness of his power given to those who believe, according to the working of his mighty power.”
Without the Holy Spirit there is no true light. I know from my own experience that the Holy Spirit helps me to understand God’s ways, when they seem so incomprehensible. Two people can hear the same truths, hear the same words, but only the one who has first trusted in God finds they are the words of life – the other finds them uninteresting or old-fashioned or simply unreal. Without the presence of the Holy Spirit, we cannot discern the deeper things of God, so we must seek him and welcome him.
It was a pillar of cloud as well as of light, so, the Holy Ghost seems dark to the unbeliever but light to the believer.
The things of God are as dark to the world as they are beautiful and plain to the true disciple. Sometimes, even to God’s children, it feels more cloudy than it does bright and shiny. I think that God chooses sometimes to only partly reveal, or even withhold His teachings from us because we are not ready for them. What we have to learn is how to trust the Lord. God will often lead you in ways that you would not have guessed or expected.
When clouds appear in your sky, and trials in your path, it is terrific evidence that you are following the pillar of God, and walking in His presence. Sometimes the most beautiful and gracious use of the cloud is to shelter us from the fiery sun. We simply have to trust that our Father above, knows best.
It was a pillar of fire.
Fire is more than light — it also warms, purifies, and destroys. The same Holy Spirit baptises with water and with fire. The baptism of fire penetrates the very fibres of our being, consuming our old life, cleansing and quickening us, and giving us power from on high.
The pillar went before them.
Just as the ancient pillar appeared, and then led them out of the land of bondage, so the Holy Spirit comes to us in our life of sin, and leads us out of the world to Christ. Once we have accepted him as Lord and Saviour, the Holy Spirit leads us step by step to our own Promised Land, to the things God wants us to know to do, to learn and to experience.
The pillar started far off, but came closer and closer, even passing through the camp, having a wonderful effect on people as he did. Same for us — when we step out in faith and follow God’s leading, He can seem far off at first, but as we get to know Him better, he draws closer and closer, and sometimes will happen when the most extraordinary things will happen. We will become hungry for the things of God, because the Holy Spirit creates a longing in us.
The pillar stood behind them.
The Holy Spirit is always our rearguard. He takes our past and hides it from us. Behind the Israelites was Egypt and the Egyptians, all the past sin, shame, and adversaries. The takes us away from all we have been, and everything that comes against. That is simply incredible. God gets in-between you and your enemies.
Later, the pillar of cloud and fire came and stayed amongst them.
There is a wonderful parallel in the way the Holy Spirit came and inhabited the tabernacle, and the way he came at Pentecost, for the first Christians. In both cases, blood had been shed. In the time of Moses, it was a looking forward to the time they would no longer need to regularly sacrifice a lamb, because the Lamb of God, Jesus, had come and dealt with sin once and for all. The Bibles very clear we are temples of the Holy Spirit, each one of us is a place in whom he can dwell. This is because His mercy has been shown, His forgiveness has been given, His setting us free from the power of sin has been accomplished. It starts at Calvary, the we accept by faith, the grace of God, and it continues as we receive the power and presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives.
The pillar of cloud and fire continued to lead.
When God wanted them to move, the pillar moved. When he wanted them forest, it stayed still. This is the same today concerning you and the Holy Spirit. He leads, but he is also your resting place. Sometimes he will lead us forward in prayer or service or suffering or new experiences, duties, or into new expressions of hope and love. Sometimes he will stop us, rest us, quieten 0ur hearts, so that we can hear his still, small voice. Always, he is leading us, and our responsibility is to know and hear his voice. Remember that Jesus said that the Good Shepherd knows his sheep and that the sheep know his voice.
So, in our early days as a follower of Jesus, we may only know the Holy Spirit at a distance. We experience his providence, His Word does speak to us, but later we learn to invite him in as a welcome guest. He starts to minister and speak into our lives more deeply than we ever knew possible, and we start to truly learn about the power of God. When you became a Christian, the Holy Spirit became yours too, and he deeply desires your invitation to receive him as a welcome guest.
The difference between then and now is that the external manifestation of the presence of God has been withdrawn and has been replaced by faith. We have the same Leader, the same presence, the same protection, the same power, but now God asks us to come into the fulness of Christ by faith and not by sight. Trust him and he will show himself to you. He will signal his presence in and around your life, and as he leads you into a deeper life of faith and power, he will reveal his mind and his plans. The important thing to remember is that God breaks proud and sinful hearts, he opens his love to unbelieving nations and communities, he works his providence, and he prepares the world for the eventual and sudden return of His Son Jesus.
We must learn to simply trust the Holy Spirit, even if we cannot always see or recognise or understand his ways.
Let me conclude today: have we kept pace with the leading of the Holy Spirit? Have we allowed him to lead us from bondage into freedom? Have we allowed him to prove his mighty works for us, in us and through us? Have we let him lead us into victory after victory of faith, for which his own hearts longs for us to experience? Are we living to glorify Jesus Christ so that God will hasten his return?
Let’s us pray together:
Holy Spirit, I welcome you to come and be my guest. Holy Spirit, come and make my heart and my life your home. Amen.