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Bible Q

What is the “Holy Spirit”?

The word ‘spirit’

The word ‘spirit’ in Hebrew is the same word (ruakh) as  ‘breath’ or ‘wind’. These are the first two uses in the Bible:

Genesis 1:2  The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the spirit of God was hovering (or blowing) over the face of the waters.

Genesis 6:3  Then the Lord said, “My spirit shall not abide in man (or contend with man) forever , for he is flesh: his days shall be 120 years.”

‘Holy Spirit’

The Trinitarian concept of the Holy Spirit postdates the New Testament by 250 years. We are not going to consider that here.

The way that the Holy Spirit is used in the Bible shows, overall, that it does not literally “exist”, either as a person or as a power. True there are several verses the (Holy) Spirit is personified, but this happens less with the Spirit or the Holy Spirit than with several other concept words (e.g. the flesh, sin, the world, creation, etc). So, overall, the way that the phrase “the Holy Spirit” is used in the Bible indicates a concept, a way of expressing characteristics or activities of God, or of holiness in those who follow his Son, not a sentient being or literal power.

The addition of the adjective ‘holy’ is as simple as it appears – a spirit which is holy, a spirit of holiness. And the presence of the definite article, “the”, indicates a specific holy spirit, a specific spirit of holiness. In many cases, “the Spirit” means exactly the same as “the Holy Spirit”, since the idea of holiness is understood by context.

The variety of different terms — Spirit, the Holy Spirit, gifts of the Spirit — can be confusing. Therefore the subject area of the Spirit, Holy Spirit, and gifts of the Spirit is one where it pays to observe carefully what words are used, and what words are not used, in any given verse. Whether Spirit is modified by a definite article “the”, by an adjective “holy”, by a possessive “of the Lord”, or is itself a possessive “of the Spirit”, do affect the meaning. But on the other hand, since these are concepts, ideas – not fixed beings or powers which exist in a concrete sense – the terms will not always fit into neat boxes. The writers of the Bible do sometimes cross neat boundaries between these terms, for example in a few verses using “Holy Spirit” to mean “[gifts of the] Holy Spirit”, with [gifts of] being understood.

Old Testament

The term ‘Holy Spirit’ is all but unknown in the Old Testament – it is only found in two cases . The reason for this is that the word ‘holy’ would be obvious — since God is holy, so God’s spirit is also holy, and therefore to describe the Spirit of God as a “holy Spirit” is redundant in the Old Testament. For the same reason, the term “holy God” is only applied three times (Joshua 24:19, 1 Samuel 6:20, Isaiah 5:16), but this of course does not mean that God is not a holy God when the adjective “holy” is not stated. Nor does God have any ‘unholy’ spirit. This explains why the two cases below when the actual words “holy” and “spirit” are found together in the Old Testament in each case because a contrast is being made between the (unholy) spirit of man, and the (holy) spirit of God:

In Isaiah 63, the use of holy spirit seems to just be as we would expect from the adjective “holy”: emphasizing that God’s spirit is holy.

Isaiah 63:10-11 But they rebelled and grieved his Holy Spirit; therefore he turned to be their enemy, and himself fought against them. 11 Then he remembered the days of old, of Moses and his people. Where is he who brought them up out of the sea with the shepherds of his flock? Where is he who put in the midst of them his Holy Spirit.

Similarly, the way the terms “right spirit”, “holy spirit” and “willing spirit” occur equally in Psalm 51 suggest there is no special distinction of Holy Spirit as any kind of entity.

Psalm 51:10-12 Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and renew a right spirit within me.
11 Cast me not away from your presence,
and take not your holy spirit from me.
12 Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
and uphold me with a willing spirit.

New Testament

The Holy Spirit is primarily  New Testament idea, even though as we have seen Isaiah 63:11 foreshadows God putting his Holy Spirit among his people in the wilderness, and Psalm 51:11 foreshadows the idea of God putting his Holy Spirit in man. The reason why this idea occurs so little in the Old Testament and is so important in the New Testament can be compared to the reason why several other New Testament concepts, such as the devil, the new creation, etc. are barely found other than as foreshadows in the Old Testament.

The big difference between the Old Testament and the New Testament is self explanatory, the New Testament is a New Covenant with the work of Christ on men and women at its centre. The reason the idea of any Holy Spirit apart from God is not found in the Old Testament, other than as a pale foreshadow, is since Christ had not yet come. Not until a sinless man comes is it possible to separate out the light and darkness in man – and then allegories such as ‘Holy Spirit’ or ‘the Flesh’ or ‘the devil’, become more necessary than they were in the Old Testament.

In the New Testament, the idea of Holy Spirit comes in several connections:

1. In the virgin birth.

The first references to the Holy Spirit are found in relation to the birth of Christ, and his cousin John the Baptist.

Luke 1:15 for he will be great before the Lord. And he must not drink wine or strong drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb.

Luke 1:35 And the angel answered her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born of you will be called holy—the Son of God.

Luke 1:41 And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the baby leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit,

Luke 1:15 is straightforward, the language is familiar from David in Psalm 51:11.  The difference being that John would be “filled” and from birth. Luke 1:41 illustrates the same for John’s mother, Elizabeth, and to be “filled” with Holy Spirit is common language in the New Testament for  someone being ready to prophesy, or praise, or take courageous action.

Luke 1:35 is less straightforward because it presents two things happening.

(1) “The Holy Spirit will come upon you,
(2) the power of the Most High will overshadow you;
therefore the child to be born of you will be called holy—the Son of God.

This verse is frequently a victim of misreading. It is important to note that the angel does not say “The Holy Spirit (which is) the power of the Most High will come upon and overshadow you”. This is a misreading of the text.  Firstly spirit [Greek pneuma] and power [Greek dynamis] are very different things. Secondly the verbs “come upon” and “overshadow” are not just repetition of the same event but describing two separate actions. Consider the Old Testament precedents:

First, here is a verse from the OT which shows that spirit and power are not the same thing:

Zechariah 4:6 Then he said to me, “This is the word of the Lord to Zerubbabel: Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the Lord of hosts.

Secondly, in the Old Testament for the Spirit to “come upon” someone means a state of holiness inducing prophecy or praise (e.g. Balaam in Numbers 24:2, Azariah in 2Chron15:1, Jahaziel in 2Chron.20:14, etc.). So it is no surprise that we read after “And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit” that Elizabeth exclaimed “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!”. Likewise we see Mary show that the Spirit has come on her in her song:

Luke 1:46 “My soul magnifies the Lord, 47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, 48 for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant. For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed;”

Luke 1:46 isn’t a specific example of Mary being “filled with the Spirit” as Elizabeth had been before her pronouncement, but, given that Mary has been selected as mother of the Son of God, it’s reasonable that the Holy Spirit “coming upon” Mary was a more intense and longer state than that upon Elizabeth. Luke 1:35 may well be intended to indicate the Spirit being upon Mary the full 9 months,  and for this reason the ‘Magnificat’ in Luke 1:46-50 may only be a selection by Luke of many songs of praise. But Mary’s song demonstrates that the physical “overshadowing” of Mary to produce the pregnancy was not the only effect the angel prophesied.

There are other verses occasionally misread to propose that “the Holy Spirit means power” (sic), but those verses also, like Luke 1:35, are talking about two things, not one. Apart from anything else, if the Holy Spirit meant power, then that would then make verses such as “power of the Spirit” mean “power of the Power” which would be tautology. Clearing up this misreading is important because we will see below  (particularly John 7:39; 20:22) that spirit [pneuma] and power [dynamis] are two distinct things in the NT.

2. Not given to the Twelve or Seventy when given ‘powers’

It is often mistakenly assumed that the Twelve and later Seventy were given the Holy Spirit to drive out demons. The text does not say this; in both cases it states that Christ gave them “power” [Greek dynamis] not “spirit” [pneuma]. These two concepts are strictly differentiated in the New Testament. It is possible to have “power” without “spirit” or “Holy Spirit”, like the Twelve when sent out; and possible to have “Holy Spirit” without “power” or “gifts”, like the Eleven (now minus Judas of course) in the 47-day gap between receiving the Holy Spirit (John 20:22) and receiving power from on high (Acts 2).

A key verse stating why the OT does not appear to know of a Holy Spirit is this:

John 7:39 Now this he said about the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were to receive, for as yet the Spirit had not been given, because Jesus was not yet glorified.*

* Strangely the Greek text actually says “for as yet the Spirit was not” [οὔπω γὰρ ἦν πνεῦμα], with no mention of “had not been given”, “not yet come”, or any of the other conclusions of this sentence found, often in italics, in English Bibles. The word “given” was first added to the English Bible here by Wycliffe (1384) even though the Latin which he was working from, like Greek, does not have it. (For comparison, the French Segond renders this “car l’Esprit n’était pas encore” — because the Holy Spirit was not”).  Presumably, the reason why Wycliffe and subsequent English translators have added in “given” is because of verses like these from Luke:

3. Christ first gives the Holy Spirit — without powers.

Returning to John 7:39, it becomes clear that what John is referring to in the phrase “because Jesus was not yet glorified” is the giving of the Spirit in John 20:22.

John 20:22 And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”

In many ways this is the most significant verse about the Holy Spirit in the New Testament, for three reasons.

  • First because it is the conclusion of, and key to, all the sometimes difficult Holy Spirit verses in John’s Gospel — beginning with Jesus’ reasoning to Nicodemus about being “born in water and spirit” in John 3:3-5. The Holy Spirit verses in John’s Gospel are explained far better by the conclusion in John’s Gospel than by looking for explanations in, for instance, Acts.
  • Second because it separates the original idea of Holy Spirit, as found in David’s Psalm 51:11, from the gifts — the “outpouring” experienced 47 days later at Pentecost when the disciples were “clothed with power from on high”. The absence of gifts during these 47 days shows clearly that modern claims of the Pentecostal movement that “holy spirit” or being “born again” must be accompanied by miraculous powers — such as tongues and healings — was the opposite of the experience of the apostles.
  • Third because the acted parable in Jesus’ breathing on them (presumably acting out Genesis 2:7, his Father breathing breath into Adam) shows that the “Holy Spirit” is often an allegory in the New Testament. In particular an allegory for the “new life” of the “new man” in the “new creation”.

John 20:19-23 On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being locked where the disciples were for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” 20 When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord. 21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” 22 And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.”

The above evidently has no connection to any miraculous powers. To forgive does not require a miracle. This lack of powers is confirmed by Jesus:

Acts 1:4,8 And while staying with them he ordered them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father, which, he said, “you heard from me; …8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”

4. The Spirit of Truth, The Comforter

This is a separate subject; but given that 1 John 2:1 identifies the Advocate, Comforter, Paraclete, as Christ himself (or rather his presence in the church), there is a strong case for reading “the Spirit of Truth” as just that, rather than connected with “powers” or “gifts”.

5. Paul’s use of Spirit

Paul’s use of Holy Spirit is a subject in its own right. But to simplify the many uses down to just two, it can be said that most of Paul’s uses of “spirit” and “holy spirit”.

Firstly the concept of the “holy spirit” as an extension of that acted-parable where Christ breathed this “holy spirit”, holy breath, into the disciples on that first Sunday morning. From this it is easy to see where Paul found the idea of that “breath” of Christ as an allegory of the new breath, new life, in the believer as he or she walks towards the kingdom:

Rom 5:5 and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us.

2 Co 1:22 and who has also put his seal on us and given us his Spirit in our hearts as a down payment.

2 Co 3:3 And you show that you are a letter from Christ delivered by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of fleshly hearts.

Gal 4:6 And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!”

Secondly the concept of a personified Spirit, equivalent to the New Man, warring with the Old Man, or the Flesh, inside the believer. Unfortunately some of the symmetry of Paul’s argument is lost by modern (and old) English versions insisting on capitalizing ‘the Spirit’ and changing out ‘the Flesh’ for other phrases like ‘human nature’ in Romans 7 & 8.

Romans 8:1-11 There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.
2 For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death.
For God has done what the law, weakened by the Flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful Flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the Flesh,
in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the Flesh but according to the Spirit.
For those who live according to the Flesh set their minds on the things of the Flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit.
For to set the mind on the Flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.
For the mind that is set on the Flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot.
8 Those who are in the Flesh cannot please God.
9 You, however, are not in the Flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him.
But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness.
If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit which dwells in you.

Again, none of this is miraculous, metaphysical, supernatural. Paul is not saying that the Christian must be possessed by some kind of good demon, or that this ‘mind of the Spirit’ or that ‘the Spirit of God dwells in you’ will bestow special wisdom that does not need to be found by listening to the words of the Bible (among them Paul’s own words!), Paul is simply drawing an allegory between this new Spirit, and the old Flesh. We cannot actually identify ‘the Spirit’ which ‘dwells’ any more than one can identify ‘the Flesh’, or ‘the devil’; these are allegories, metaphors — not real supernatural entities. Paul’s reasoning demonstrates that the Spirit is not a person, not even a power — just a figure of speech. The ‘Spirit’ doesn’t actually exist, other than God himself exists. So the spirit does not ‘dwell’ any more literally than God dwells in believers or Christ dwells in believers.

However just because the Spirit does not exist, other than as a metaphor for the word and will of God and Christ in the mind and action of the believer, doesn’t make it less real. There is still a direct relationship here, but the relationship through Christ is with God:

Rom 8:27 And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.

3 Replies to “What is the “Holy Spirit”?”

  1. “4. The Spirit of Truth, The Comforter

    This is a separate subject; but given that 2 John 1 identifies the Advocate, Comforter, Paraclete, as Christ himself …”

    (I assume the reference is to 1 John 2, not 2 John 1.) 1 John 2 actually says: “…we have a comforter with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous”. That doesn’t seem to identify the Comforter “as Christ himself”, but rather Jesus Christ as A (not The) comforter, which is saying a different thing.

    On the other hand, John 14:26, says “but the Comforter, (which is) the Holy Spirit, which the Father will send in my name ..”. That identifies “the Comforter” as the Holy Spirit, which does not agree with your explanation.

    • Thanks for spotting the typo in the reference which is now fixed. If you read a little earlier in John 14, Jesus also acknowledges that he is the Comforter:

      John 14:16-18. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, 17 even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you. I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you.

      So the first Helper (Comforter) was Jesus when he was on earth. And God will give “another Helper”, which is the spiritual presence of the risen Lord.