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The Holy Spirit #2: Who Is the Holy Spirit?

We saw in our last study how the lives of the twelve apostles before Pentecost contrasted so strikingly with the life of the same twelve men after Pentecost. We concluded that whatever it means to be filled with the Holy Spirit, it makes a terrific difference in a person’s life. We also saw that before the Holy Spirit came, the disciples were devoting themselves to prayer and most probably to the study of the Scriptures about the coming of the Holy Spirit.

Our task in this article is to begin figuring out what the Bible says about who the Holy Spirit is. We have seen that we should be seeking the Holy Spirit, but if we don’t know who the Holy Spirit is, then we don’t know what we’re seeking. And so figuring out who the Holy Spirit is is the first step in understanding what it means to be filled with the Holy Spirit.

Note: If you already have a good grasp of how the Christian church arrived at the doctrine of the Trinity, you might skip the sections on the Person of the Spirit and the Distinction Between the Spirit and the Father/Son. But don’t skip the section on the Special Role of the Holy Spirit.

The Centrality of the Spirit

The Christian life is a life of the Spirit. We are to be filled with the Spirit, we are to walk in the Spirit, we are to never grieve the Spirit, we are to be led by the Spirit, we are to keep in step with the Spirit, we are to have the joy of the Spirit, we are to go forth in the power of the Spirit, we are sealed by the Spirit, we are given gifts by the Holy Spirit, we are supposed to bear the fruits of the Spirit, the Holy Spirit is said to live within us, He convicts us of sin, He enlightens our eyes and changes our hearts.

The Spirit was the key to the ministry of Jesus Himself. His baptism in the Spirit at the Jordan River signaled the beginning of His public ministry, and from there He went forth in the power of the Holy Spirit to do the work He had been called to do. He frequently emphasized the fact that a day was coming when His disciples would receive the Holy Spirit. He taught that the only unforgivable sin is a sin committed against the Holy Spirit. On the last night before His death, which He spent with His disciples, He talked repeatedly about the coming of the Spirit and the ministry He would have among them. He was to be their paraclete (a Greek word meaning one who is called to someone’s aid, one who appears on another’s behalf, comforter, counselor).

The coming of the Spirit and His subsequent work in the life of His church is the central feature of the book of Acts. The coming of the Spirit was the crowing achievement of Jesus Himself, after He had come and died and been raised again and ascended to heaven, He poured out His Spirit upon His people. It is safe to say that nothing good has ever happened Christ’s church or in the lives of any believer except by the power and grace of the Holy Spirit. And yet we know so little about this Spirit that is supposed to be the dominating feature of our Christian lives. In light of the tremendous importance attributed to Him in Scripture, it is clear that we ignore the Spirit to our own peril and that to seek Him is the wisest of all pursuits.

In future articles we will talk about the distinction between the Spirit’s role in the OT from that in the NT. And we will talk in much more depth about the Spirit’s role in our lives today. But today I want to focus on two things: who is the Holy Spirit is, and what His role is in general (that is, in ways that are the same today as they have always been). I don’t pretend that we will exhaust the subject in any way.

The Person of the Holy Spirit

Let’s start with how the Christian church came upon the doctrine of the Trinity. The early church, of course, started with the unmistakable teaching of the OT regarding the deity of the Father (deity, divinity = Godness). But then they were confronted by the reality of Jesus in the NT: by His own claims to deity, by His divine attributes, by His divine names, by the divine worship He accepted, by references to His deity. All in all, there are over 600 verses in the Bible on the deity of Christ. The early church was also confronted by the clear distinction made in the NT between the Father and the Son. It was clear that there could not be two Gods. And yet it was clear that Jesus was God. And yet it was also clear that Jesus was a distinct person from God the Father.

In addition to all this , the early believers were confronted by the reality of the Holy Spirit. They were confronted by His deity, both by divine characteristics being attributed to Him (e.g. creator -- Gen.1:2-3; Job 33:4; Ps. 104:30), and by references to the Spirit as divine (there are many of them). But the greater question was not whether the Spirit was divine but whether He was a distinct person from the Father and the Son or whether the Holy Spirit was an impersonal force or perhaps just the power of God. There were many references in the NT that spoke of the Spirit as a person. For instance, when Jesus speaks of the coming of the Paraclete in John14-16, He repeatedly uses the masculine Greek pronoun, "he," even though the word spirit is a neuter noun that would ordinarily take a neuter pronoun. Apparently God wants it to be perfectly clear to all that this Spirit is a "he" and not an "it." Also the Spirit is said to hear, to speak, to convince, to lead, to guide, to teach, to command, to forbid, to desire, to give help, to be lied to, to grieve and to intercede for God’s people, all of which point to the fact that He is a person. So it seems clear that the Spirit is not an impersonal force, nor is He just some kind of mystical influence. He is a distinct person, equal to the Father and the Son in deity, one with them in essence. (We should never call Him "it.")

Distinction Between the Spirit and the Father/Son

The obvious distinction between the Father and the Son set up the possibility of yet another distinction. If there is a two-ness in God, maybe there’s a three-ness. And this three-ness is well-established in many passages. We see it when Jesus is baptized: the Father is speaking from heaven, the Spirit is coming down in the form of a dove, upon Jesus the Son. We see it in John 14:16 "And I will ask the Father, and He will give you another Helper, that He may be with you forever." There are even some trinitarian formulations: in Matthew 28:19: "Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.", in 2Cor.13:14: "The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, be with you all.", in 1Pet.1:1-2: "Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, to those ...who are chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, by the sanctifying work of the Spirit, that you may obey Jesus Christ and be sprinkled with His blood..." (For others, see 1Cor.12:4-6; Eph1:3-13; 2:18; 3:14-19; 4:4-6; 2Th2:13-14.)

You can begin to see how the early Christians were forced by the word of God into the doctrine of the Trinity. They were backed into a corner, if you will. There was no other place for them to go, nor for us to go. There is only one God, that couldn’t be clearer. And yet the Son of God and the Spirit of God are distinct personalities from God the Father and yet still very much divine. The only thing you can say is that there is one God in three persons.

This triunity of God was not revealed explicitly in the OT, but there are indications of it that we can look back on now and see that they were indeed indicative of distinct persons of the Godhead. For example, Isaiah 61:1ff.: "The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me to bring good news to the afflicted; He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to captives, and freedom to prisoners; to proclaim the favorable year of the LORD..." which is quoted by Jesus in Luke 4 as being fulfilled in His baptism by the Spirit at the Jordan.

The Special Role of the Holy Spirit

What is unique about the role of the Holy Spirit? We know that Jesus is the One who was incarnated into human flesh and who came in order to die as an atoning sacrifice for sin. But what is the role of the Holy Spirit?

One good way to understand the distinction between the Father, Son and Spirit is in locational terms. The Scriptures speak of the Father as in heaven on His throne. The Son, having left the Father in order to dwell among us, He has now returned to heaven and sits at the Father’s right hand. And the Spirit comes down from God to deal with men, to work in the lives of men. The Spirit is the member of the Trinity who is constantly involved in dealing with us where we are. You don’t hear very much about the Holy Spirit being in heaven. You hear about the Spirit coming down from heaven to work with human beings.

What does it mean that the Holy Spirit is "down here with us"? Well, we must understand that locational language about God is always analogous, just as body language about God is analogous. God does not actually have a physical body. And yet there is a meaning to the body language, like when we read about God’s mighty arm or how His eyes roam to and fro upon the earth. Do your kids ever get mixed up about where God is? Is He everywhere? Or is He in heaven? Or is He in our hearts? When we talk about God being everywhere that can’t be taken to mean that God does have a location, but it’s just that He is so big that His location is everywhere. The fact is that God is not limited by time or space. So in an absolute sense we can’t speak of God being here or God being there. Ultimately locational language cannot be used of God in any literal sense. Remember what Solomon said after He built the temple? "But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Behold, heaven and the heaven of heavens cannot contain You. How much less this temple which I have built!" (1 Kings 8:27 NKJV) Even when God is said to be in heaven, it doesn’t mean that actually there is a realm that is called heaven that contains God. God cannot be contained.

What is meant then by locational language about God? When it says that God came and was in the burning bush, what does that mean? Or when the Lord filled the temple? Or when the Holy Spirit lives within us? When locational language is used of God in the Bible it means that God is manifesting His presence in a certain place. For instance, when it says that the Lord filled the temple, it means that God manifested His presence in the temple, He showed His presence in the temple. It’s not that He was actually there in His being and essence, as opposed to somewhere else. It is that He was showing Himself there in a way He wasn’t showing Himself everywhere else. God is invisible (1 Timothy 1:17 Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible... -NKJV). We can’t see Him with our eyes. But He can make a bush burn without being consumed and speak with a voice out of that bush to Moses. And when He does manifest His power in this way, it is as if Moses sees God Himself. But ultimately those flames observed by Moses are not God. God Himself can’t be seen. When God appears in the OT temple in the form of the glory cloud, He is displaying His glory, He is demonstrating His splendor and His closeness to His people (closeness in a relational sense, of course, not in a spacial sense). And the same thing is true when it says that our bodies are the temples of the Holy Spirit. It’s not that we are actually inhabited by the person of the Holy Spirit. It is not that we have actually become His home. When the Bible says that the Holy Spirit lives within us, it is using an analogy to communicate the relational not the spacial closeness of the Holy Spirit.

And this is why we can talk of having more of the Holy Spirit or less of the Holy Spirit, this is why the Bible can say that one Christian like Stephen stood out from the others as a man who was filled with the Holy Spirit. The point is that Stephen was a man in whom God’s glory and grace could be clearly seen. There was a very special manifestation of God in that man, more than in most of the others around Him.

If you think of the Holy Spirit’s presence in locational terms, one person having more than another doesn’t make sense. But when you think of it as the manifestation of His glory and power and His intimacy with men, it is very natural to think of one person being more under the sway of the Spirit than another, one person being godly, one person displaying more fruits of the Spirit than another. You cannot therefore separate the effect of God’s Spirit from the presence of His Spirit. They are the same thing.

The language of the Spirit coming down from God, then, doesn’t mean that the Spirit is down here while the Father and the Son are up there somewhere. It means that the Spirit has the role of dealing directly with us, to work in our lives, to open our eyes to the things of God. You can see this emphasis in benediction of 2Cor.13:14: "The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, be with you all." This word for fellowship in the Greek is KOINONIA, meaning communion, commonness, sharing. The Holy Spirit is the divine instrument who helps us to know the heart of God, who helps us to see how intimate He is with His beloved. In future articles we will discuss in greater detail the role of the Spirit in our lives, but at this point I want you to see that the Spirit is the person of the Godhead that deals directly with the spirits of men. He is the One who is showing us God’s love and mercy toward His people. He is the One who communicates spiritual good to us. He is the channel by which God’s grace flows into our lives. He is the One who regenerates men’s hearts. Remember what Jesus said to Nicodemus about being born again? He said "you must be born of the Spirit." (John 3:5,6,8) The Spirit also continues this work begun at regeneration, drawing us ever closer to Christ, filling us with righteous desires, giving us grief over our sin, giving us an appetite for Christ and for His word and a love for His people. "Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control" -- these are the fruits of His work in us (Gal.5:22-23).


Isn’t this just what we need? O sure, there are many things we need. But this is the thing we need more than anything else. We need a change of heart. We need to have certainty about God’s presence with us. We need to have our appetites adjusted. You could send out a million missionaries, you could fill every pulpit with a godly Bible preacher. But if the Holy Spirit isn’t at work, it will all be in vain.

Our countryside is filled with churches. Our stores are full of Christian books. Our hymnals are full of great songs. There are seminars and conferences and meetings on every side. And yet do the people of God live Christ-like lives? Is the world being abandoned and Christ embraced? Is interest in the word of God increasing and is prayer being done in earnest? Are homes growing more godly? Are the children more obedient and respectful? Is honesty in business on the rise? If not, why not? Our hearts are not filled with the Holy Spirit!

The greatest lack in the American church today is not volunteers or preachers or seminaries or Bibles or money. Our greatest lack is the Holy Spirit. It is the thing we most need. It’s not by great programs or by powerful orators or by worldly gimmicks that a new spirit of godliness will be born in the church. "Not by might nor by power, but by My Spirit," says the LORD of hosts in Zechariah 4:6.

That’s why I’m doing this series. That’s why we need to pray and seek the Spirit.