The Holy Spirit

The meaning of the word 'Spirit'

In both the Hebrew of the Old Testament and the Greek of the New Testament, the word translated as 'Spirit' has a variety of meanings. These would include:

  • wind (Psalm 1:4; 1 Kings 18:45; John 3:8)

  • the breath of life within a person (Matthew 27:50)

  • personality (1 Samuel 1:15; Matthew 26:41; 2Corinthians2:13)

  • the essence of a statement rather than the detail (2 Corinthians 3:6)

What these have in common is that they refer to things that are intangible rather than to things that have substance. Wind is the same as air, but it has an effect because the air is in motion. A living person is chemically the same as a dead person, but in the living person the chemistry is in action. Personality has no shape or weight.

The uses of the word 'Spirit' have a second connection. They are always to do with mind and with power.

One interesting example of this appears in Luke, with reference to John the Baptist:

"and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah…"           (Luke 1:17)

Elijah was a human being. While he did miracles, these were from God, not from the power of Elijah himself. The passage is telling us that John the Baptist had a message like that of Elijah and that he presented this in a way that was very like that of Elijah.

The Spirit of God

The Spirit of God is the power of God. It is the power that made the universe and that keeps it in existence. The Old Testament speaks of God creating the world by his spirit:

"By the word of the LORD the heavens were made, and by the breath of his mouth all their host."               (Psalm 33:6)

Here the word translated “breath” is the Hebrew word “ruach”, which is the word usually translated as 'spirit'. 

The word also describes the way that God keeps the universe in existence and preserves life:

"If he should set his heart to it and gather to himself his spirit and his breath, all flesh would perish together, and man would return to dust."                   (Job 34:14,15)

The Spirit of God is also seen as the presence of God, which extends throughout the universe so that there is nowhere where God is not present.

"Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there! If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me."                (Psalm 139:7-10)

In Hebrew poetry, like the Psalms, it is common for the same idea to be expressed in two parallel sentences. Here the word “presence” is parallel to the word “spirit”; the two words express the same idea.

 

In the New Testament the phrase 'Holy Spirit' is used more commonly than 'Spirit of God'. The two refer broadly to the same thing, the mind and influence of God. The New Testament contains no references which would suggest that the Holy Spirit was a person. One crucial piece of evidence is the words of the angel who announces the coming birth of Jesus to Mary:

"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 will be called holy—the Son of God.'"              (Luke 1:35)

 

It is the action of the Holy Spirit on the virgin Mary which causes the birth of Jesus. There is only one cause of the birth of Jesus in this sense; the Holy Spirit is the same as the power of God. If one decides that the Holy Spirit is a person, then one would also have to conclude that it is the Holy Spirit who is the father of Jesus, and not the Father! The reality is merely that the Holy Spirit is the impersonal power of God the Father, and that as a consequence Jesus really is the Son of God.

 

Another piece of evidence comes from a pair of parallel passages in Matthew and Luke. These are two different accounts of the same event.

"But if it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you."           (Matthew 12:28)

"But if it is by the finger of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you."            (Luke 11:20)

 

Notice that the phrase “Spirit of God” in the Matthew account is paralleled by the phrase “Finger of God” in the Luke account. In the original saying Jesus was probably speaking in Aramaic and used the phrase “Finger of God”, a typical Aramaic expression. Luke renders this literally in his Greek Gospel while Matthew produces a looser translation which conveys the meaning in different words. The point, though, is that the Holy Spirit is shown to be equivalent to the “Finger of God” - God working directly in the world.

 

Another parallel appears in the account of the Holy Spirit falling on the Apostles at Pentecost. After the resurrection of Jesus, when the Apostles had returned to Jerusalem, Jesus told them about the coming of the Spirit:

"And behold, I am sending the promise of my Father upon you. But stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high."                        (Luke 24:49)

 

This describes the Holy Spirit which, a few days later, fell on the disciples at Pentecost. The fact that this is the Holy Spirit is confirmed many times in Acts chapter 2, for example in v4 ("And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance.") However, in Luke 24:49 Jesus refers to the Holy Spirit as the “Power of God”.

 

Summary

The Holy Spirit is not a person, but is described in the Bible as the power of God, or as an expression of the mind of God.

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