Basic identification of the Spirit
The Spirit, or the Holy Spirit or the Holy Ghost, is the third personal manifestation of God in his revelation and work in the creation of the universe, all that is in it, and in his particular work to repair it and to redeem sinners from their slavery to Satan. The other two “persons” in this manifestation of God are the “Father” and his “Son”, Jesus. (For a brief explanation of this triune nature of God and the relationship that exists between these three “persons” see my statement on “The Trinity” here: “The Trinity”) Although the Spirit is easiest seen and defined by what he does, it should be clearly understood that he is an original and everlasting part of God who transcends time and what he does within its boundaries. The Spirit is not a created being, like angels or humans, but he is a person who has always been a part of God’s divine nature along with the Father and the Son.
First mention of the Spirit in relationship to God’s work
Moses in his account of God’s work of creation, which is given in Genesis 1:1-2:2 in the Bible, indicates that “in the beginning” the “Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters” (Gen. 1:1- 2). So this “person” of the Spirit was present and active in God’s initial work of creation. Centuries later Paul indicates in a very important statement about the Son that “by him all things were created in heaven and on earth” (Colossians 1:16), but don’t assume that this means that the Spirit wasn’t involved in this work. Note that when Moses gets to the point in his account of God’s creative activity where he creates human beings, he uses plural pronouns to refer to the source of this work as he cites God’s creative voice, which declared “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness” (Gen. 1:26). This means that each person in God’s triune nature, including the Spirit, was involved in God’s work of creation.
The presence and work of the Spirit with God’s people as cited in the Old Testament
The writers of the reports regarding God’s revelation and work with various human beings prior to the time of Jesus, which are collected in the documents of the Old Testament in the Bible, did not often specifically mention the presence of the Spirit or cite him as the source of what God was doing in the lives of his people, the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. These writers rather stated that God, or the “LORD”, spoke directly and worked personally with selected individuals like Noah, Abraham and his children and grandchildren, Moses and Joshua, Samuel and the other “judges” of his people, the kings of the nation of Israel like David and Solomon, and the “prophets” that followed them.
Samuel in his first account of God’s work in his life and that of king Saul, notes that the “Spirit of the LORD rushed upon David” (1 Samuel 16:13) when Samuel anointed him as the new king of Israel to replace Saul, whom God had rejected as the anointed leader of his people. Samuel even notes that the “Spirit of the LORD departed from Saul” (1 Samuel 16:14) after he had anointed David as king. After Saul’s death, David became the installed king of Israel in 1010 B.C. Throughout his reign, David seemed to have a genuine sense of God’s presence and work in his life and reign in the person of this Spirit. At the time of his great confession to God and his repentance for his sin with Bathsheba, he asks God to “take not your Holy Spirit from me” (Psalm 51:11), and God apparently didn’t remove his Spirit from David.
Isaiah, God’s great prophet to his people in his account of God’s revelation and work in the nation of Israel about 681 B.C., recalls the LORD’s previous work with Moses as the LORD led them out of Egypt after 400 years of slavery. He wrote that “like livestock that go down into the valley, the Spirit of the LORD gave them rest” (Isaiah 63:14). About 160 years later the prophet Zechariah had a special message to the people and their leaders. They had returned to Jerusalem in 538 B.C. under the leadership of Zerubbabel to rebuild the temple that had been destroyed 70 years earlier when the Babylonians had taken the Israelites of the area captive. But by 530 B.C. the work had stopped as the people became more concerned about their own personal needs and projects, so the prophet Zechariah utters this word of warning and rebuke to the people regarding the completion of this project that it will be done “Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the LORD of hosts” (Zechariah 4:6). So here we have two prophets of the LORD referring to the work of the Spirit among God’s people hundreds of years before the time of Jesus and the Spirit’s very active presence and work in his life and that of his converted disciples and Paul who led in the establishment of Christian churches and the world-wide spread of the “good news” (in the gospels) of God’s grace and love in Jesus.
The direct work of the Spirit in the life and ministries of Jesus
This aspect of the Spirit’s work is described in the books of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John in the New Testament documents of the Bible. It is these “gospels” that basically report on the life and ministries of Jesus. I will briefly try to summarize the Spirit’s work with Jesus with specific citations to the various passages of Scripture in these gospel records where it is reported. For a complete and clear understanding of this work it will help to study each of these passages in the larger context of their place in the gospel writers’ reports.
The Spirit was very actively involved in the birth of Jesus, preparing the setting for this entrance of physical and personal deity into the world as well as implementing the actual process by which it would be accomplished. Zechariah, a priest in the temple in Jerusalem, was told by the angel, Gabriel, that his wife, Elizabeth, would conceive a son, whose name would be “John”, who would be “filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb” (Luke 1:15). And John would serve the Lord “to make ready for the Lord a people prepared” (Luke 1:17). Gabriel also appeared to Mary to prepare her for the experience of becoming pregnant with a son by the power of the ”Holy Spirit” who he said “will come upon you” (Luke 1:35) while she would still be a “virgin” who is only “betrothed” (promised to become the bride) of Joseph (Luke 1:27). When Mary visited Elizabeth, the “Holy Spirit” “filled” (Luke 1:41) Elizabeth, and she testified about the blessing that God was giving to Mary and would give to her son, whom she understood would be her “Lord” (Luke 1:43). And an “angel of the Lord” appeared to Joseph in a dream to prepare him for the pregnancy of Mary, with whom he had not had intercourse, to explain to him that the child who was in her womb came “from the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 1:20).
After the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem, Mary and Joseph brought him to Jerusalem so that they could “present him to the Lord” (Luke 2:22) and offer the prescribed sacrifices to God for him in the temple. As they did this, Simeon, an old man who had been waiting all of his life to see the Lord’s anointed deliverer (the Christ) of Israel, was led by the Spirit into the temple where he took Jesus into his arms and offered a statement of praise and thanksgiving to God for the blessing that God had given to him to see Jesus, the “Christ”, before he died (Luke 2:25-32).
The next time that we see the direct work of the Spirit with Jesus is after he had become a man. He came from his home with Mary in Nazareth to the Jordan river to be baptized by John, who had grown up to become a prophet. Although John in sincere humility would have preferred to have Jesus baptize him, he did baptize Jesus. And when Jesus “went up from the water”, John saw “the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him” (Luke 3:16). And the Spirit convinced John that this man, Jesus, whom he had just baptized with water, was he who would baptize “with the Holy Spirit” because he was “the Son of God” (John 1:33-34).
Then the Spirit led Jesus “into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil” (Luke 4:1). He fasted there for 40 days and nights and was tempted by the devil with three very specific temptations regarding how he would use his divine powers in his life and whom would he worship. Jesus rejected all three temptations in very strong terms (see Luke 4:3-10), and so he was now ready to launch his public ministry to fulfill the work that God had sent him into the world to accomplish.
Because Jesus had such a direct and intimate connection to God, the Father, he apparently did not need to publically refer to the personal help of the Spirit as he conducted much of what he did during his three years of ministry throughout Judea and Galilee. There are very few specific references to the work of the Spirit or the Holy Spirit in the gospel records regarding Jesus’ public ministry. But it is clear from these records that Jesus often spent time alone in prayer with the Father. And he indicates that he “can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing” (John 5:19). And he indicates that even his speech is not his own, because “the Father who sent me has himself given me a commandment—what to say and what to speak…. What I say, therefore, I say as the Father has told me” (John 12:49-50). I think that it is reasonable to conclude from Jesus’s personal practice of prayer and these personal comments regarding his source of power and authority for what he did and said in his various ministries that the Spirit with the Father was involved in them.
One of the most important references that Jesus makes about the work of the Spirit comes as he was beginning his ministry. He had a discussion with Nicodemus, a “ruler of the Jews” and a “teacher” (John 3:1, 10) about heavenly matters and “the kingdom of God” (see John 3:1-21). In their discussion Jesus told Nicodemus that no one could enter “the kingdom of God” without being “born of the Spirit” (John 3:5-6). This is the process of being “born again” (vs. 7), which is the initial change for the individual who is transformed by the power of the Spirit from a rebellious sinner into a faithful servant of God, a disciple. Nicodemus had a hard time understanding how this could be done, and many individuals since then have also had a hard time understanding how the Spirit makes such drastic changes in individuals. But this is one of the Spirit’s primary responsibilities in God’s work to redeem his creation, including human beings, from its corruption by sin.
The next time that Jesus makes a reference to the work of the Spirit is during his words of encouragement and instruction to his disciples as he prepared to close his earthly ministry. He had shared a Passover meal with them in a room in a friend’s home in Jerusalem, and he had told them that he would soon be leaving them to return to be with the Father in heaven and that they would no longer be able to follow him around the countryside. But he said, “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth…” (John 14:16-17). And then a little bit later in his remarks, he explains in some details more of what this “Helper”, the “Spirit” is going to do with and through them. He indicated that the Spirit “will teach you all things” (John 14:26). This Spirit will “bear witness” (John 15:26) about Jesus, “convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment” (John 16:8), “guide” them and us “into all the truth” (vs. 13), “declare…the things that are to come” (vs. 13), and will “glorify” Jesus (vs. 14). In regard to the Spirit’s work with God’s truth, it should be noted that, according to Peter, “no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:21). This means that the Spirit is really the author of God’s word. Shortly after these remarks and some very personal prayers for himself and his disciples, Jesus is arrested and the ordeal of his trial and brutal crucifixion and death followed.
After a brief time in a tomb, Jesus arose from his death, and appeared for another forty days among his disciples and other specially selected “witnesses” to give them some further instructions regarding their new commission and to deliver the Spirit to them as the promised “Helper”. During the evening of the day of his resurrection, Jesus appeared to his disciples who were hiding in a locked room for their fear of the Jews who had arranged the crucifixion of Jesus. He offered them “Peace” (John 20:21), indicated that he was “sending” (vs. 21) them into the world, and he “breathed” (vs. 22) on them in order that they could “Receive the Holy Spirit” (vs. 22). In Luke’s record of the Acts of the Apostles, he reports that Jesus had instructed his disciples to stay in Jerusalem until they would be “baptized with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 1:4-5), and they stayed there even after witnessing Jesus ascension up “into heaven” (Acts 1:10).
The direct work of the Spirit in the ministries of the disciples and Christians who follow in their footsteps
On the day of Pentecost, which was 50 days after Jesus shared the Passover meal with his disciples and announced to them that he would be sending them a “Helper” to be with them after he returned to the Father, they were baptized in the power of the Spirit in the house where they were waiting as Jesus had instructed them to do. Luke describes the event in these words: “there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind….And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance” (Acts 2:2-4). And in response to this baptism, Peter preached a word of witness to the crowd of Jews who were in Jerusalem for the festival of Pentecost. Quoting from the Jewish prophets, he testified to them regarding who Jesus was and how they had arranged to have him crucified. As a result of his message, “about three thousand” (Acts 2:41) individuals repented from their sins and “were baptized” (vs. 41) as new believers in the saving work of God that was being done in them through Jesus. Not only were these spectators to the Spirit’s baptism of the disciples changed, but the disciples themselves were changed by the transforming power of the Spirit. And so the size of those who were following Jesus as committed disciples (which means “trained one”) was greatly increased. In a short time all of these followers, including the initial disciples, became known as “Christians”, which means “little Christs”. And the ministries of these Christians began through the indwelling leadership and enabling work of the Spirit who was changing them into fruitful servants of God who would bring him glory as sanctified disciples in his kingdom.
Rev. Brian Fairley, a Baptist pastor in California, published a list regarding the nature of the Holy Spirit and who “THE HOLY SPIRIT IS…” in his church’s newsletter, and it has been reproduced in a booklet on “Let’s Celebrate Pentecost” that was published in 2000 by the American Baptist Churches.1 It is such a concise and complete list that I will use it in the subsequent statements to add further details regarding the particular nature and work of this divine person, who is identified as the Spirit, in his ongoing work in and through Christians.
In his letter to the Romans in which he declares the basic doctrines of the Christian faith Paul has some very important things to say about the Spirit and his work in the lives of those who believe in Jesus and are seeking to follow him. He calls this divine person “the Spirit of life” (Romans 8:1) and describes some of the very special life-giving qualities of the Spirit. “He sets us free ‘free…from the law of sin and death’” (vs. 2). And the Spirit “directs our thoughts to ‘life and peace’” (vs. 6) as we set our minds on him, which “allows us to ‘please God’” (vs. 8). We do not live in accord with “the flesh” (vs. 9), but we live and serve “in the Spirit” (vs. 9), who “causes us to belong to Christ” (vs. 9) who “will also give life” to our “mortal bodies” (vss. 10, 11, and 13). It is “the Spirit of adoption” (vs. 15) who also enables us to be “sons” who can “cry” out “‘Abba! Father!’” (vs. 15) when we are afraid because of fleshly dangers, such as death, because the Spirit “now testifies that we are God’s children” (vs. 16).
In his first letter to the Christians at Corinth Paul has some specific things to say about the “wisdom and revelation” (as listed by Rev. Fairley) of God that comes to Christians from the Spirit. It is the Spirit who “reveals ‘what God has prepared for those who love him’” (1 Corinthians 2:9), and who “searches everything, even the depths of God” (vs. 10). It is the Spirit who “comprehends the thoughts of God” (vs. 11). And it is the Spirit who is therefore able to give “‘spiritual truths to those who are spiritual’” (vs. 13), because he gives them “the mind of Christ” (vs. 16). Please note that according to Paul, “the natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Cor. 2:14). Rev. Fairley in his list indicates that it is the Spirit who “allows us to know God better”, which includes even “the hope” (Ephesians 1:17) of our calling and the “greatness of his power” (vs. 18) that was revealed and demonstrated in the authoritative resurrection of Jesus from his tomb (See Ephesians 1:20-23).
In his second letter to the Christians at Corinth Paul describes some of the special work of the Spirit in regard to his revealing the glory of God. He indicates that the Spirit “establishes in us a glory that is permanent and without comparison”. Paul says, “will not the ministry of the Spirit have even more glory?” (2 Corinthians 3:8) than the “glory” (vs. 7) of God that was seen on the face of Moses when he came down from the top of the mountain after he had received a second time the commandments from God (See Exodus 34:29- 33). Paul taught that the “glory” of God that was revealed in Moses’ “ministry of condemnation”, which was “brought to an end” was replaced by the Spirit’s “ministry of righteousness” that was “permanent” (2 Cor. 3:8-11). And it is this Spirit, as Rev. Fairley states, that “makes it possible” for us Christians “to reflect the glory of the Lord” and “to be transformed into the likeness of Christ” “from one degree of glory to another” (vs. 18) in our lives and service for God.
According to Rev. Fairley, Paul in chapter 5 of his letter to the Christians of Galatia describes the work of the Spirit as being a source of “character” in the lives of Christians. Paul says that Christians were “called to freedom” (Galatians 5:13), so they should “walk by the Spirit” and not seek to “gratify the desires of the flesh” (vs. 16). Paul indicates that “the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do” (vs. 17). He then cites a specific list of fleshly behaviors (vss. 19- 21) that can keep individuals from entering “the kingdom of God”. But then he cites a specific list of the “fruit of the Spirit” (vss. 22-23). As Rev. Fairley indicates, it is this “fruit” that “causes the character of God to be” the “character” of “those who belong to Christ Jesus” and who “have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” (vs. 24). Moral character can only be manifested by those who live and walk through the indwelling power of the Spirit. It cannot be demonstrated by the power of human resolutions that are weakened by fleshly “passions and desires”(Gal. 5:24).
Then Rev. Fairley summarizes the work of the Spirit in regard to the “unity and ministry” of “the Church”. No one “speaking in the Spirit of God” will ever curse Jesus, and no one can even confess that Jesus is “Lord” apart from their living “in the Holy Spirit” (I Cor. 12:3). And the Spirit “is the disperser of Gifts for the good of the Church”, as Paul states in 1 Corinthians 12:1-4. The Spirit “gives different gifts to different people, making the body of Christ diverse (verses 5, 6) to meet the diverse need in the world (verse 7)”. Different gifts are given by the Spirit to different individuals, but they are given “for the common good” (vs. 7) of the Church and its ministries. And this work of the Spirit “creates unity in the diversity, and encourages mutual support and cooperation among the members (verses 12, 13).” As Paul says, “in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body” (vs. 13). As Rev. Fairley indicates, this “allows everyone to have a role in the Kingdom of God, according to God’s will and design (verses 14-27)”, in spite of their individual differences.
In addition to the above comments by Rev. Fairley regarding the work of the Spirit, I would add a few concluding notes. In 1 Corinthians chapter 3 Paul indicates that Christians are “God’s temple”, because “God’s Spirit dwells in” (vs. 16) them. He even goes so far as to say, speaking as to individual Christians, that “your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you” (1 Cor. 6:19). That makes the indwelling presence and work of the Spirit very intimate and personal in a Christian’s life and ministries. And in his letter to the Christians of Ephesus, Paul urges them and us not to “grieve the Holy Spirit of God” (Eph. 4:30) by negative attitudes and behavior such as “bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander” and “malice” (vs. 31).
Summary regarding the nature and work of the Spirit
The Spirit is the third person in the triune personal nature of God. This person is the expression of God that is most often seen in the work that God is doing in the world. This work of the Spirit began with creation, and his presences is next specifically mentioned in the Bible in reference to the life of king David, who ruled over the kingdom of Israel about 1000 B.C. The prophets Isaiah and Zechariah referred to the work of the Spirit in their accounts of God’s activity with Moses in leading the people of Israel out of Egypt and later in their efforts to rebuild the temple in 530 B.C. that had been destroyed earlier by the Babylonians. The record of God’s activity through the Spirit is greatly increased with the reports of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John in the gospel accounts of Jesus’ life and ministry. Not only did the Spirit prepare Mary for the miraculous conception of the baby Jesus, but this divine person also prepared Joseph, the man to whom she was promised in marriage, for this event as well as Zechariah, a priest in the temple, Elizabeth, Mary’s cousin, who would be the mother of John the Baptist, and Simeon, an old man in Jerusalem who had been waiting all of his life to see the anointed deliverer of Israel.
The Spirit was specifically mentioned as being present and active at the baptism of Jesus before he began his public ministry, and he also led Jesus “into the wilderness”, where he was tempted by the devil. Jesus made several very important points of instruction regarding the work of the Spirit in his remarks to Nicodemus and his disciples. He indicated to Nicodemus that it is the Spirit who enables a person to be “born again” (John 3:7) so that he or she may “enter the kingdom of God” (vs. 5). And he indicated to his disciples just before he would be arrested and crucified and temporarily taken out of their presence, that he would be sending the Spirit to them as a special “Helper” (John 14:26) who would teach them and guide them in the new lives of service as empowered disciples to which God would call them. And it should be noted that it is the Spirit who is the author of God’s word. Fifty days after Jesus’ crucifixion the Spirit came upon these disciples on the day of Pentecost, and the Christian expression of God’s redemptive work in the world was launched. Since that time the Spirit has been actively engaged in transforming rebellious sinners into faithful children and servants of God, teaching them the wisdom of God’s will, and inspiring them with God’s divine power to do what God calls them to do.
It must be understood that only if a person has the Spirit actively present in his or her life can he or she claim to be a redeemed and saved “child of God”. Paul says, “Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him.” (Rom. 8:9) This makes an understanding of the nature and work of the Spirit a very important and personal matter for one’s daily life.
1. Let’s Celebrate Pentecost Renewed for Mission, (Edited by Emmett V. Johnson, American Baptist Churches, Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, 2000) pp. 17-18.
Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway. Used by permission. All rights reserved.