Mark Moore, a Stone/Campbell theologian who teaches at a Christian College in Missouri, explains the symbolism of the Holy Spirit as a donkey like this –
The Holy Spirit acts like a donkey. Sure there may be many other and perhaps even better metaphors for the Holy Spirit, but this one just fits so well. For if the Christian life is a pilgrimage or long journey, then the Holy Spirit is what makes the journey possible. On such pilgrimages, it wasn’t uncommon for the person making the trip to take along a donkey as a pack animal. That animal carried the burden of the needed supplies and materials to make the journey a success. In a sense, the donkey was the real secret to making the journey possible. And in exactly the same way it is the Holy Spirit who makes the Christian life possible and successful for us.
I’m pretty sure that this is what Jesus meant in John’s account of the Upper Room when He repeatedly called the Holy Spirit the “Paraclete.” Between John chapter 13 and John chapter 17 – the section of the Gospel of John that the scholars call the “Farewell Discourse” – Jesus named the Holy Spirit the “Paraclete” 4 times – in 14:14-17; in 14:25-26 in 15:26-27 and in 16:7. Depending on the translation of the Bible that you use, the word that Jesus used to talk about the Holy Spirit – the “Paraclete” – shows up as “comforter,” “advocate,” “counselor,” intercessor”, “teacher,” “helper” or “friend.” But to the best of my knowledge, no modern translation of the Bible ever renders the word as “donkey,” but that really wouldn’t be very far from the actual meaning of the word.
In the Greek of the New Testament, the word “Paraclete” that Jesus used four times in the Upper Room to talk about the Holy Spirit in the Gospel of John, is a compound word that consists of a preposition – “para” meaning “”from close-beside” and a verb “kaléō” meaning “to make a call.” A “Paraclete” is literally someone who is called alongside to help – like a donkey that carries the supplies that sustain you on a long and difficult journey. My favorite explanation of the meaning of this word was the way that E. Stanley Jones described the Holy Spirit as the “adequate spiritual dynamic” for the living of the Christian life. He was very clear that Christianity just doesn’t work without the Holy Spirit’s empowering presence. He wrote –
I cannot imagine that Jesus, whose coming was specifically to baptize us with the Holy Spirit, would lay before us the amazing charter of the new life [in His Sermon on the Mount], and then fail to mention the one power that could make the whole thing possible, namely, the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit. It is unthinkable! (257)
…There must be a transfusing in order for there to be a transformation. And so Jesus provided the one thing that makes effective everything He said about the new and different way that He was calling His disciples to live, the inner re-enforcement of our moral [and spiritual] natures with an immediate and saving contact with the divine. (258)
The tragedy of the Christian life for so many of us is that we have never been told this. We hear the Gospel, we become disciples of Christ in the waters of baptism, we are told to observe everything that Christ commanded, and then we get patted on the head and pushed out the door while being wished good luck. It’s not long before we are spiritually exhausted and discouraged. The experience of the Christian life that many of us have had has been compared to a schoolroom full of eager students who are given a difficult assignment by a teacher who then steps out of the room and leaves her students to try to get it done all by themselves (J.D. Greear). This is not New Testament Christianity.
New Testament Christianity is Holy Spirit-inspired, Holy Spirit-prompted and Holy Spirit-empowered. Jesus Christ never intended us to be Christians or to do church all on our own. This is why on the night before He died one of the last things that Jesus talked about with His friends was the advantage that would be theirs just as soon as the Paraclete – the “Helper” – the “Adequate Spiritual Dynamic” for the living of the Christian life and for the doing of the Church’s Mission – came.
Pentecost is the day in salvation history when the advantage that Jesus Christ promised would be ours just as soon as the Paraclete was given became a reality. But we are missing of Pentecost if we think of it only as a day when we are remembering something that happened a long time ago. “Pentecost is repeated in the heart of every Believer.” That’s what Charles Spurgeon used to say, and this, it seems to me, is the crucial spiritual discovery that every Christian and every church eventually has to make.
F.B. Meyer was “probably the most celebrated Baptist minister of the early 20th century.” He was a man with an active, and to all appearances, quite successful ministry. But deep inside he knew that he was like a false front building on a studio movie lot. From the outside everything looked great, but on the back side there was nothing but a bunch of 2×4’s propping up the facade. And so, one night at a preaching conference he got up and went for a long walk.
As I walked I said, “My Father, if there is one soul more than another within the circle of these hills that needs the gift of Pentecost, it is I. I want the Holy Spirit, but I do not know how to receive Him…” Then a Voice said to me, “As you took forgiveness from the hand of the dying Christ, so now take the Holy Ghost from the hand of the living Christ…” So I turned to Christ and said, ‘Lord, as I breathe in this whiff of warm night-air, so breathe into every part of me Thy blessed Spirit.’ I felt no hand laid on my head, there was no lambent flame, there was no rushing sound from heaven: but by faith without emotion, without excitement, I took, and took for the first time, and I have kept on taking ever since.”
In that moment Pentecost went from being an historic event of the Christian faith to the most urgent necessity of his life, and nothing was ever the same for F.B. Meyer or his ministry again. And this is the promise that Pentecost holds for all of us, but we’ve got to want it, and we’ve got to ask for it. Jesus said that our “Heavenly Father gives the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him.” Isn’t it time to ask? DBS+
Breathe in me O Holy Spirit that my thoughts may all be holy;
Act in me O Holy Spirit that my works, too, may be holy;
Draw my heart O Holy Spirit that I may love what is holy;
Strengthen me O Holy Spirit to defend that which is holy;
Guard me then O Holy Spirit that I may always be holy.
St. Augustine of Hippo (AD 354-430)