Who is the Holy Spirit?

Who is the Holy Spirit?

Genesis 1:2 says 'Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters'. In Hebrew the word for Spirit means the same as the word for wind. The idea here is that of a mighty energising wind. The word for hovering could be associated with the action of birds incubating their eggs. This fluttering motion was separate from the formless and empty atmosphere and it was a gentle and loving energy which mitigated and brought comfort to the harshness of the conditions. Note the direct connection between this description of the Spirit of God and that of the Day of Pentecost: 'a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting'. This Pentecostal wind of the Holy Spirit was likewise separate from the disciples and others present and it too brought not only comfort but overwhelming spiritual joy and happiness. The Holy Spirit then consistently is God's benevolent powerful energy in action.

In the Book of Judges the Holy Spirit comes upon chosen individuals who have a particular task or calling to fulfil. Chapter 3 says 'The Israelites did evil in the eyes of the Lord...but when they cried out to the Lord, he raised up for them a deliverer, Othniel, son of Kenaz...the Spirit of the Lord came upon him so that he became Israel's judge'… Everyone has heard of Samson. He too was a judge. Judges 13 says 'Samson grew and the Lord blessed him and the Spirit of the Lord began to stir him'.

Familiar words from the Isaiah 11 testify. 'The spirit of the LORD shall rest upon him: a spirit of wisdom and of understanding A spirit of counsel and of strength, a spirit of knowledge and of fear of the LORD, and his delight shall be the fear of the Lord'. Here the Spirit gives differentiation to a singular person to speak on behalf of God to the people. He is marked out as a man of God and has characteristics which are distinct from everyone else.

The angel Gabriel tells Mary, 'The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the Holy One to be born will be called the son of God'. There is a continuity with the description from Genesis 1, creation and salvation are together the work of God by means of the Holy Spirit.

When Jesus was baptised by John we are told heaven was opened and 'the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove'. In John's Gospel the resurrected Jesus says to his disciples 'Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven'. As the Church grew over the centuries this blessing changed into what is known as the power of excommunication. In the middle ages this was a serious issue for every Christian. Robert the Bruce was excommunicated. Martin Luther as excommunicated. Henry VIII was excommunicated and made himself ruler of both church and state in England. This also gave him the right as one radio wit put it this week – to set the dates and times of the jumble sales. Stephen the first Christian martyr is described in Acts 6 as being 'a man full of God's grace and power'. Some traditional Jews argued with him but the text says 'they could not stand up against his wisdom or the Spirit by whom he spoke'.

John Wesley was the founder of the Methodist Church. He had an experience close to that of the first Christians on the very day of Pentecost. He was already an Anglican minister but he struggled with his faith and was about to give up altogether. A friend said to him: 'Preach faith till you have it and then because you have it, you will preach faith'. John acted on the advice. He led a prisoner to Christ by preaching faith in Christ alone for forgiveness of sins. The prisoner was immediately converted. John was astonished. He had been struggling for years. Here was a man transformed instantly. John made a study of the New Testament and found to his astonishment that the longest recorded delay in salvation was three days - while the apostle Paul waited for his eyes to open. John Wesley found himself crying out, 'Lord, help my unbelief!' However, he felt dull within and little motivated even to pray for his own salvation. On May 24th, 1738 he reluctantly attended a meeting in Aldersgate. He later testified as follows: 'Someone read from Luther's Preface to the Epistle to Romans. About 8:45 p.m. 'while the speaker was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death'. It took John Wesley some time to learn how to live the life of faith, for he was not always possessed of joy and thought he had fallen from salvation. It took time for him to see that it is not Christ and good works, but Christ alone who saves, resulting in good works.

Where is the Holy Spirit today? This is a difficult question to answer. In John 16 Jesus gives a discourse on the work of the Holy Spirit that he promises to the disciples. Jesus calls the Holy Spirit the 'Counsellor'. The Holy Spirit will make distinctions of belief, attitude and behaviour among human beings. The text says 'When he comes, the Holy Spirit will prove the world to be in the wrong about sin and righteousness and judgement  about sin, because people do not believe in me; about righteousness, because I am going to the Father, where you can see me no longer; and about judgement, because the prince of this world now stands condemned'. It is a long time since there were any revivals in Scotland but there used to be such happenings especially in the highlands and islands. A significant aspect of these revivals was the phenomenon of being 'under conviction of sin'. This was a prelude to finding forgiveness and salvation, being converted and thereafter living as a Christian. In the close knit communities there was nowhere to hide. And those who became Christians were identified as such for the rest of their lives.

John 16 also records further words of Jesus about the Holy Spirit.  'But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come. He will glorify me because it is from me that he will receive what he will make known to you. All that belongs to the Father is mine. That is why I said the Spirit will receive from me what he will make known to you'. This actually happened at Pentecost. This was the means and power of the transformation that took place in the lives of the disciples changing them from being frightened and unsure people into world evangelists and Christian martyrs.

This gives us problems and issues today. What we inherited as Christian practice has been changed in our generation. Liberals in the Church understand this as the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Evangelicals stick with traditional models of personal and family life. That is why some of the strongest evangelical congregations have left the Church of Scotland in recent years. The sense of sin has changed – some might say that it has disappeared. There is little conviction of sin among most people. We might paraphrase the words of Judges 21. 'In those days Israel had no king; all the people did whatever seemed right in their own eyes'. Today we might say Today Scotland has little knowledge of God and everyone does what seems OK in their own eyes. This is educational policy in our primary and secondary schools. Political correctness is the basic principle of evaluation. It is not the Holy Spirit.

In the early Church there was a lot of spiritual chaos. Paul tried to bring order to things. He writes in 1 Corinthians 12: 'Now about the gifts of the Spirit, brothers and sisters, I do not want you to be uninformed. Therefore I want you to know that no one who is speaking by the Spirit of God says, “Jesus be cursed,” and no one can say, “Jesus is Lord,” except by the Holy Spirit'. Paul makes it clear that it is only if someone is already possessed by the Holy Spirit that that person can confess that 'Jesus is Lord'. We can sing that 'Jesus is Lord' but we may not have that inner conviction and that one to one knowledge of Jesus as Lord. If we receive the Holy Spirit we are enabled to testify that Jesus is Lord. And – if we are testifying that Jesus is Lord, Paul is saying that that is proof of the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives.

The Holy Spirit is further the agent of giving of spiritual gifts for the service of Jesus Christ and the upbuilding of the people of God, the Church. Paul describes these in 1 Corinthians 12. 'To one there is given through the Spirit a message of wisdom, to another a message of knowledge by means of the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by that one Spirit, to another miraculous powers, to another prophecy, to another distinguishing between spirits, to another speaking in different kinds of tongues, and to still another the interpretation of tongues'. Not only are there gifts of the Holy Spirit but there are fruits of the Holy Spirit in the lives of Christians. Paul lists these in Galatians 5. He says: 'the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness,  gentleness and self-control'. 

Who then is the Holy Spirit? The Holy Spirit is God in action. The Holy Spirit is the reaching out and proactive expression of God's love for us all. God is not distant and unconcerned. God does not even leave us to acknowledge Jesus Christ without helping us. The Holy Spirit is God doing stuff for us within us and by us. The personal power of creation and redemption. There's a lot more going on in Christianity because of the Holy Spirit. We can pray for an increase in the Holy Spirit's influence and power in our lives. That is how we may strengthen our faith and witness for Jesus Christ.

Robert Anderson 2017

To contact Robert, please use this email address: replies@robertandersonchurch.org.uk