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Bridgeway Bible Dictionary

Holy Spirit

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There is only one God, and this God has always existed in a trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Our understanding of the Holy Spirit is therefore tied up with our understanding of the Trinity, and that in turn is tied up with the life and ministry of Jesus Christ. Yet, though the revelation reaches its climax in Christ, its origins are in the Old Testament.

The Old Testament period

When people of Old Testament times saw some remarkable demonstration of the power of God, they called that power by the Hebrew word ruach. This word was used in everyday speech without any particular reference to God and could have the meaning of wind (1 Kings 18:45), breath (Genesis 7:15; Genesis 7:22) or spirit (in the sense of a person’s life or feelings) (Genesis 41:8; Genesis 45:27).

In relation to God, ruach could apply to the wind that God used to direct the course of nature (Genesis 8:1; Exodus 10:19), to the breath of God’s ‘nostrils’ or ‘mouth’, by which he did mighty deeds (Psalms 18:15; Psalms 33:6), or to his spirit, through which he had power, actions and feelings as a living being (Genesis 1:2; Genesis 6:3). The ruach of God indicated to the Hebrews something that was powerful and irresistible. It was not only full of life itself but was also life-giving (Judges 6:34; 2 Kings 2:16; Job 33:4; Psalms 104:30; Ezekiel 37:14).

On certain occasions this Spirit of God, or power of God, came upon selected people for specific purposes. It may have resulted in victorious leadership (Judges 3:10; Judges 6:34; Zechariah 4:6), superhuman strength (Judges 14:6; Judges 14:19; Judges 15:14; Judges 16:20) or artistic ability and knowhow (Exodus 31:3-5). Frequently it produced unusual behaviour (Numbers 11:25-29; 1 Samuel 10:6; 1 Samuel 10:10-11; 1 Samuel 19:23-24). Always it was on the side of right and opposed to wrong (Psalms 51:10-12; Isaiah 32:15-16; Isaiah 63:10; Micah 3:8). Prophets who received God’s messages and passed them on to his people did so through the activity of God’s Spirit upon them (2 Samuel 23:2; 2 Chronicles 24:20; Nehemiah 9:30; Isaiah 61:1; Zechariah 7:12; see PROPHECY, PROPHET).

God promised that a day was coming when not merely selected people, but all God’s people, regardless of status, sex or age, would have God’s Spirit poured out upon them (Joel 2:28-29; cf. Numbers 11:29; Ezekiel 36:27). And the one upon whom God’s Spirit would rest in a special way was the Messiah (Isaiah 11:1-5; see MESSIAH).

In spite of all this, it is probably still true to say that when the Old Testament people spoke of the Spirit of God, they were thinking more of the living and active power of God than of a person within a trinity. They probably had no more understanding of the Spirit of God as a person within a triune Godhead than they had of the Son of God as a person within a triune Godhead.

These Old Testament believers, however, did not regard the Spirit as simply an impersonal force. They identified the Spirit with a personal God, yet at the same time they made some distinction between God the Almighty and his Spirit (Genesis 1:1-2; 1 Samuel 16:13; Ezekiel 37:26). It was all a preparation for the fuller revelation of the Trinity that came through the life and work of Jesus Christ.

The coming of Jesus

With the coming of Jesus came a much clearer revelation concerning the Spirit of God. People may not always have realized it, but every work ever done in people’s hearts, whether in turning them initially to God or in creating new character within them, was the work of God’s unseen Spirit. In more spectacular demonstrations of God’s working, the Spirit of God had come upon selected people for certain tasks, but Jesus had the Spirit without limit. He lived his life and carried out his work through the unlimited power of God’s Spirit working through him unceasingly (Isaiah 11:1-5; Isaiah 42:1-4; Matthew 1:18; Matthew 3:16-17; Matthew 12:28; Luke 4:1; Luke 4:14; Luke 4:18; John 3:34-35; Acts 10:38).

Through Jesus people now began to have a new understanding of the Spirit. As Jesus’ baptism showed, God the Father was in heaven, God the Son was on earth, and God the Spirit had come from the Father to rest upon the Son (Matthew 3:16-17). Through Jesus it was shown that the Spirit was more than merely the power of God. Certainly, the Spirit demonstrated the power of God, but people now began to see that the Spirit was a person – someone distinct from Father and Son, yet equal with them and inseparably united with them (Matthew 28:19; John 14:15-17; John 16:13-15; Acts 5:30-32; 1 Corinthians 12:4-6; see TRINITY).

Unlike the Son, the Spirit did not become flesh, but he was still a person, having knowledge, desires and feelings (Acts 16:6; Romans 8:27; Romans 15:30; 1 Corinthians 2:11; 1 Corinthians 2:13; Ephesians 4:30). Nor was the Spirit merely a ‘part’ of God. He was God himself (Acts 5:3-4; 1 Corinthians 3:16; 1 Corinthians 6:19-20).

The Spirit always had been fully God and fully personal, even in Old Testament times. The difference between Old and New Testament times was not that there was some change or development in the Holy Spirit (for since he is God, he is eternal and unchanging; Hebrews 9:14). There may have been a change in the way the Spirit worked, and there was a development in how people understood the Spirit, but the Spirit himself did not change.

With the coming of Jesus and the events that followed in the early church, people now had a better understanding of what God had been doing during the pre-Christian era. They now saw more in Old Testament references to the Spirit of God than the Old Testament believers themselves understood (cf. Joel 2:28-29 with Acts 2:16-18; cf. Zechariah 7:12 with Acts 7:51; Acts 28:25; 1 Peter 1:11).

Once God had come into the world in the person of Jesus, Jesus became the means by which God gave his Spirit to others (John 1:33; John 20:22). Jesus became the one mediator between God and the human race. No one could come to the Father except through Jesus, and no one could receive God’s Spirit except through Jesus (John 14:6; John 14:16-17; John 14:26; John 15:26; Acts 2:33).

Jesus’ promise to his disciples

During his earthly life Jesus accepted the limitations of time and distance that apply to people in general. Consequently, the work that the Holy Spirit was doing in the world through him was limited to those times and places where Jesus worked. The Spirit was, so to speak, tied to Jesus.

Jesus, however, would not remain in the world indefinitely. After he had completed the work his Father had given him to do (a work that could be completed only through his death and resurrection), he would return to his Father, leaving his followers to carry on his work upon earth. To enable them to do this work satisfactorily, the Father would give them the same Spirit as had worked through Jesus (John 14:16-18; John 15:26; John 16:13-15).

This was why Jesus told his disciples that once he had returned triumphantly to his Father, they would do greater works than he had done. The power of the Spirit had previously been limited to the few years of one man’s ministry in one place; but now that power would be poured out on all Jesus’ disciples, and they would carry on his work in all countries, till the end of the age (John 14:12; John 14:16). In view of this, it was to the disciples’ advantage that Jesus leave them and return to his Father; for then they too would be indwelt by God’s Holy Spirit (John 14:17; John 16:7).

The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Christ

Although the Holy Spirit is a separate person from the Son, he is inseparably united with the Son, as the Son is with the Father (John 5:43; John 14:26). The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Jesus Christ. He bears the stamp of Jesus’ character, as Jesus bore the stamp of his Father’s character (Acts 16:6-7; Romans 8:9; Galatians 4:6; Philippians 1:19; 1 Peter 1:11; cf. Hebrews 1:3).

Through the Holy Spirit, Jesus continues to abide with his disciples, even though physically he is no longer in the world (John 14:18; Galatians 2:20; Colossians 1:27). The Spirit is called the Counsellor or Helper, for he gives Jesus’ followers the same counsel or help as Jesus gave them when he was physically with them. Through the Holy Spirit, the presence of Jesus, previously limited to first century Palestine, becomes timeless and worldwide (John 14:16; John 14:18; John 14:26; John 15:26; John 16:7).

It is impossible, therefore, to have the Spirit without having Christ. Equally it is impossible to have a relationship with God through the Spirit but not through Christ (Acts 2:38; Romans 8:9-11). The Spirit does not exalt himself above Christ, for the Spirit’s task is to direct people to Christ (John 15:26; 1 Corinthians 12:3).

There is no competition between the Spirit and Christ, for the Spirit is the Spirit of Christ. Life ‘in Christ’ is life ‘in the Spirit’ and vice versa (Romans 8:1; Romans 8:9; 2 Corinthians 3:14-18). Just as Jesus received his authority from the Father, glorified the Father and taught people about the Father, so the Spirit receives his authority from Christ, glorifies Christ and teaches people about Christ (cf. John 8:28 with John 16:13; cf. John 17:4 with John 16:14; cf. John 17:8 with John 14:26; John 16:15).

The Spirit and the early church

Because Jesus was to be the channel through whom God would give the Holy Spirit to believers in general, Jesus had to complete the work given him by his Father before believers could receive the Spirit. Moreover, the Father wanted to show his satisfaction with Christ’s work by raising him from the dead and giving him glory. Only after such a triumphant conclusion to Christ’s earthly ministry would the Father give the Spirit to others (John 7:39; 1 Peter 1:21).

Jesus therefore told his disciples to wait in Jerusalem after his ascension and they would receive the Holy Spirit as he had promised (Acts 1:4-5). The fulfilment of this promise came on the Day of Pentecost. Just as there were unusual happenings when God poured out the Spirit on Jesus, so there were when he poured out the Spirit on Jesus’ disciples (Acts 2:1-4; Acts 2:33; cf. Matthew 3:16-17; John 1:33; for details see BAPTISM WITH THE SPIRIT). The new age had dawned. God had promised to pour out his Spirit on all believers, regardless of status, sex or age, and that promise was now fulfilled (Joel 2:28-29; Acts 2:16-18; Acts 2:33; Acts 2:39).

Having received the Holy Spirit, the disciples then carried on the work of Jesus. Jesus had begun that work during the time of his earthly ministry (Acts 1:1-2), and he continued to do the work through his followers (Acts 3:6; Acts 4:10; Acts 4:27-30; Acts 5:12; cf. Luke 4:18).

Jesus was working through his disciples by the power of the Holy Spirit whom he had given them. Through that Spirit the disciples were bearing witness to Jesus, whose life, death and resurrection had changed the course of history. Jesus had made forgiveness available to the repentant, but judgment certain for the unrepentant. As the disciples made known this message, they presented their hearers with the alternatives of forgiveness and judgment (John 16:7-11; John 20:22-23; Acts 1:8; Acts 5:32).

All this may be summarized by saying that the Holy Spirit is the one who equips God’s people for the task of spreading the gospel of Jesus, making disciples of Jesus and establishing the church of Jesus (Acts 1:8; Acts 9:31; Acts 13:2; Acts 20:28). He gives different abilities to different people to enable the church to function harmoniously and fruitfully. These abilities are called gifts of the Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:4-7; see GIFTS OF THE SPIRIT).

Examples from the early church show that the Holy Spirit works in both spectacular and unspectacular ways. He gives Christians boldness in the face of opposition (Acts 4:8; Acts 6:10; Acts 13:9-10), but also the quiet ability to organize church affairs smoothly (Acts 6:3). He guides Christians through inner promptings and visions (Acts 8:29; Acts 8:39; Acts 10:19; Acts 11:28), but also through reasoned discussion (Acts 15:28). He directs Christian activity by opening new opportunities (Acts 13:4), but also through closing others (Acts 16:6-7). (See also CHURCH; PROPHECY; TONGUES.)

Salvation through the Spirit

By nature all people are dead in sin and under God’s judgment, with no way of saving themselves. Only by the work of the Holy Spirit can they be cleansed from sin and given spiritual life (John 3:5; John 6:63; John 16:7-11; 1 Corinthians 6:11; Ephesians 2:1-4; Titus 3:3-6; see REGENERATION). (Concerning the sin against the Holy Spirit see BLASPHEMY.) The Holy Spirit, having given believers new life, remains with them in an unbroken union. The Spirit dwells within them permanently (Romans 8:9-11; 1 Corinthians 6:19; 2 Timothy 1:14; 1 John 3:24; 1 John 4:13).

Christians, then, may be described as those who are ‘in the Spirit’ (Romans 8:9), who ‘have the Spirit’ (Romans 8:9), who are ‘led by the Spirit’ (Romans 8:14) and who ‘live by the Spirit’ (Galatians 5:25). The Spirit is God’s seal, God’s mark of ownership, upon them. He gives them the inner assurance that God has made them his sons, and he guarantees to them that they will inherit his eternal blessings (Romans 8:15-17; 2 Corinthians 1:22; Galatians 4:6; Ephesians 1:13-14; Ephesians 4:30; Hebrews 10:15-17).

Christian life and conduct

There is a constant conflict in the lives of believers, because the old sinful nature (the flesh) fights against the Spirit of God who has now come and dwelt in them (Romans 8:5-7; Galatians 5:17; Ephesians 4:29-32). They triumph over the sinful desires of the flesh not by putting themselves under a set of laws, but by allowing God’s Spirit to direct their lives (Galatians 3:3; Galatians 5:16-25).

Because of their union with Christ, believers have died to the law. The Spirit has given them life and freedom – not a freedom to do as they like, but a freedom from the bondage that the law brings (Romans 7:6; Galatians 5:1). Through the Spirit they now have the freedom, and the power, to develop the righteousness that the law aimed at but could never produce (Romans 8:1-4; 2 Corinthians 3:6; 2 Corinthians 3:17; Galatians 5:5; see FLESH; FREEDOM; LAW).

This change in the behaviour of believers does not happen automatically as a result of the Spirit’s dwelling within them. It requires self-discipline and effort (Romans 12:9-13; 1 Corinthians 9:27; Galatians 6:7-10; Ephesians 6:11-18; 2 Timothy 2:1-6; see SELF-DISCIPLINE). But if the Spirit of Christ has control in their lives and is directing their self-discipline and effort, the result will be a quality of character that is like that of Christ himself (Romans 14:17; 2 Corinthians 3:18; Galatians 5:22-23; see LOVE).

Such Christlike character is what the Bible calls the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22). The production of spiritual fruit, not the exercise of spiritual gift, is the evidence of the Spirit’s working in people’s lives. Even those who are unspiritual can exercise abilities given them by the Spirit, but they cannot produce the character that only the Spirit of God can create (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:7; 1 Corinthians 3:1-4; 1 Corinthians 12:1-3).

A constant helper

Christians should not think that the Spirit-controlled life will be without disappointment, hardship or sorrow. If Jesus suffered, his followers can expect to suffer also (Matthew 10:24-25; 2 Timothy 3:12), but the Spirit of Jesus within them will help them maintain joy and peace through their sufferings (John 14:18; John 14:26; John 16:33; Acts 13:52; Acts 20:23; 1 Thessalonians 1:5-6; 1 Peter 4:13-16; see JOY; PEACE).

When believers allow God’s Spirit within them to have full control in their lives, they are said to be filled with the Spirit. This filling of the Spirit is not a once-for-all event, but the constant spiritual state of all who live in a right relationship with God and with others (Acts 6:3; Acts 6:5; Acts 11:24; Ephesians 4:16; Ephesians 5:18-21).

A person full of the Spirit is, in other words, a spiritual person (as someone full of wisdom is a wise person, or someone full of joy a joyful person; Acts 6:3; Acts 6:5; Acts 6:8; Acts 9:36; Acts 11:24; Romans 15:13-14). Yet this Spirit-filled person may receive additional ‘fillings’ in certain circumstances. That is, the person who truly lives by the Spirit can be assured of the Spirit’s added help when special needs arise (cf. Acts 6:5 with 7:55; cf. Acts 9:17 with 13:9-11). Often the Spirit gives such special help to enable believers to have boldness when facing opposition because of their allegiance to Jesus Christ (Acts 2:4; Acts 4:8-12; Acts 4:31; Acts 7:55; Acts 13:50-52).

Just as believers who allow God to control their lives are said to be filled with the Spirit, so those who allow the old sinful nature to control their lives are said to grieve the Spirit (Ephesians 4:29-32; cf. Acts 5:9; 1 Thessalonians 5:15-19). Obedience and faith are as necessary for enjoying the Spirit’s power as they are for receiving the Spirit in the first place (Acts 5:32; Galatians 3:2).

Worship, prayer and the Word

The Holy Spirit creates unity and fellowship among Christians (1 Corinthians 12:12-13; 2 Corinthians 13:14; Ephesians 4:3-4; Philippians 2:1-2; see FELLOWSHIP). When Christians join together in worship, the Holy Spirit is the one who unites them in a common purpose and directs their worship (Acts 13:2; 1 Corinthians 12:7-8). In fact, they can worship God acceptably only as the Spirit works in their thoughts and words (John 4:24; Philippians 3:3; see WORSHIP).

True prayer, like true worship, is an activity that believers can carry out only through the activity of the Holy Spirit in them (Ephesians 6:18; Judges 1:20). Jesus Christ is their mediator in heaven (Romans 8:34; Hebrews 7:25), and the Spirit of Jesus Christ is within them on earth (Romans 8:9). As believers pray, the Spirit helps them and brings their real desires before God. This is particularly so when they themselves cannot find the right words to express those desires (Romans 8:26-27; Ephesians 2:18; see PRAYER).

Not only the believer’s word to God, but also God’s word to the believer involves the activity of the Spirit. Just as a person’s own spirit, and no one else’s, knows what is going on inside that person, so the Spirit of God, and no one else, knows what is going on within God. Therefore, only those who have the Spirit of God can properly understand the Word of God or teach it to others (1 Corinthians 2:10-13). Christian teachers or preachers, while they are careful to make sure that the hearers understand their message, must nevertheless rely upon the working of God’s Spirit for that message to be effectual (Acts 4:8; 1 Corinthians 2:3-5; see PREACHING).

God’s Spirit and God’s Word are inseparable, because each works through the other. The Old Testament Scriptures were written by the inspiration of God’s Spirit upon the writers (2 Timothy 3:16; 2 Peter 1:20-21; see INSPIRATION). This same Spirit worked in his fulness through Jesus, and enlightened Jesus’ followers by applying and developing his teachings (John 14:26; John 16:12-15; 1 Peter 1:12). Through the work of the Holy Spirit in those men, the New Testament Scriptures came into being. As people read those Scriptures, the Spirit continues to bear witness to Jesus (John 15:26).


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Bibliography Information
Fleming, Don. Entry for 'Holy Spirit'. Bridgeway Bible Dictionary. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/bbd/h/holy-spirit.html. 2004.

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