By Cheri Lynn Cowell
Most of us can give a long list of the things we know about God, and maybe an even longer list of what we know about Jesus. But the list grows short when it comes to the third person of the Trinity. Outside of seminaries, we rarely teach about the Holy Spirit. There is a modern trend to depersonalize the Spirit and reduce God the Spirit to the idea of spirituality or merely an attribute rather than a distinct person.
Jesus didn’t minimize the Holy Spirit. In fact, he told his followers he had to leave so the Helper could be sent—he said this was best for them (John 16:7, New American Standard Bible). In fact, there are over 90 references to the Holy Spirit or Spirit of God in the New Testament and nearly 70 in the Old Testament. The Spirit’s importance is declared in the Nicene Creed: “We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father [and the Son], who with the Father and the Son is worshiped and glorified, who has spoken through the prophets.”
But what else is there to know?
Pneumatology is the study of the Holy Spirit and is usually divided into two categories: the person and the work of the third person of the Godhead. Here is a brief overview of the identity and activity of the Holy Spirit.
Identity (Person) of the Holy Spirit
Confusing the subject of the identity of the Holy Spirit is when people use “it” instead of assigning a personal pronoun. Clearly, the Holy Spirit is not an entity, a thing, a concept, or a symbol. The Bible helps us clear up this issue by identifying the Holy Spirit as paraclete, ruach, and a coequal person of the Triune God.
Paraclete: The term can signify one who consoles or comforts, one who encourages or uplifts. In its Greek form the word is passive, meaning it is not describing what the Holy Spirit does but who the Spirit is. At the heart of who the Spirit is we find someone who cares, who is compassionate, and who can always be found by our side and on our side. The Holy Spirit is our Helper.
Ruach: It is the Hebrew word for breath, which is an indicator of life. Aliveness is where the center of personhood exists, including such areas as one’s thinking, feeling, and emotion. As we read in Genesis, it is from the breath of God that we actually receive our life. The Bible also tells us that “in him we live and move and have our being.” The Holy Spirit is, therefore, the essence of life.
Triune God: Whatever is said of God and the Son can rightly be said of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is, like God and Jesus, a distinguishable coeternal person. The Holy Spirit is the inwardly enlivening principle of union in the Trinity and, likewise, in humanity. It is said of the Trinity that the Father is the divine mind or memory, the Son is his expressed knowledge or Word, and the Spirit is the will or love that binds together the three-in-one.
Activity (Work) of the Holy Spirit
As the church searches for ways to communicate what God did for us through Jesus Christ, it is curious that we’ve neglected what God continues to do in us through his Holy Spirit. The Bible has provided us a way to understand the work of the Holy Spirit through the use of types and metaphors: wind, fire, water, dove, and oil.
Wind: In speaking with Nicodemus, Jesus compared the Spirit to the wind that moves where it wills. The Spirit enables as it invisibly moves us like wind to accept the invitation offered by God through Christ. Likewise, no words can be said without wind moving through our vocal chords. Therefore, the Holy Spirit enlivens the Word of God and moves us to receive it.
Fire: From Moses’ burning bush to Paul’s blindness on the road to Damascus, the Spirit has been seen as an all-consuming and purifying fire. The fire of the Holy Spirit has been known as a refiner’s fire, which purifies us for use in the hands of a Holy God. The Spirit’s fire turns a sacrifice to ash, such as when the Spirit removes sin from a sinner’s heart. The fire of the Holy Spirit symbolizes a guiding light—the pillar of fire that led the Israelites and today guides us through God’s Word and in his world. The Spirit’s fire is also a flaming love that compels us to acts of goodness and mercy.
Water: The Spirit is typified by water, a symbol for cleansing, reviving, and refreshing life. The Spirit is like life-giving water from a living stream, like a dew that falls abundantly upon all who believe, reviving parched souls. As viewed through the lens of baptism, the water of the Holy Spirit cleanses by washing away sins and renews by offering a new life in Christ.
Dove: The dove that descended upon Jesus signified the anointing ministry of the Holy Spirit. With the anointing of the Holy Spirit, believers are empowered to live the Christian life. The dove that was released and returned to the ark demonstrated the promise of peace, which the Spirit brings to the world.
Oil: Oil was used to light the tabernacle just as the Spirit lights our path. The Holy Spirit anoints believers just as oil was poured on the heads of priests to consecrate. In the early church believers were anointed on the head to signify the indwelling of the Spirit, on the ears so they would be quick to hear, the nostrils so they would be ready to savor the sweet smell of Christ, and on the chest, having put on the breastplate of righteousness.
Pentecost: A Celebration of the Holy Spirit
Before Jesus ascended, he told the believers to wait for the coming gift of the Holy Spirit. The Day of Pentecost was to be the Holy Spirit’s day. All on this day would know the person and the work of the Holy Spirit. As the Book of Acts describes it, the mighty wind rushed in and tongues of fire rested on everyone. The oil flowed as the anointing became apparent, and, although not visible, the dove of peace descended as everyone’s hearts were united as each heard in his or her own language.
Overcome by the Spirit, the once humiliated and fear-filled Peter addressed the crowd. He explained how the Helper had come because of what Jesus accomplished on the cross, which was foretold by the prophets sent by God. He helped them to see that new life had come to Jesus and now to all who believe through the power of the breath of God. Finally, he showed them that what they were witnessing was evidence of the work of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. Then, to seal it all, he invited them to be baptized in water and in Spirit.
Perhaps in our churches the celebration of Pentecost ought to be elevated, because on this day the identity and the activity of the Holy Spirit became known. The third person of the Trinity became real to us. Pentecost is a day we ought to celebrate as largely as we celebrate Christmas and Easter, for on this day we learned how God moves in us and through us to his glory.
Let us not neglect the study of the Holy Spirit, for there is much to learn.
Cheri Lynn Cowell is a freelance writer in Oviedo, Florida.
What other attributes does the Holy Spirit embody?
Comfort—John 14:16 (KJV)