What is the Holy Spirit?

by Rod Reynolds

Reynolds R. What is the Holy Spirit? LCN. May-June 2010

One important question we must consider in order to understand God’s nature—and our own nature—is, “What is the Holy Spirit?”

In answering this question, we may first want to ask, “What is ‘spirit’”? In any good dictionary, you will find several distinct but related definitions. It is important to recognize that in the Bible, too, you will find the word “spirit” used in different senses. Common dictionary definitions of “spirit” include:

The vital essence or animating force in living organisms…” (all definitions from the Reader’s Digest Great Encyclopedic Dictionary, 1966). God breathed into Adam the “breath of life” (Hebrew nishmat) and man became a living being (Genesis 2:7). Scripture also uses the Hebrew word ruach to denote the “breath of life”—the animating force that distinguishes a living being from a dead body, whether human or animal. Without an animating force, we would be just a collection of chemicals. Yet, unlike non-human life, only human beings have the “spirit in man”—an animating force given by God that imparts human intellect to our mammal brain (1 Corinthians 2:11).

• “The part of a human being that is incorporeal and invisible, and is characterized by intelligence, personality, self-consciousness, and will; the mind.” In his statement, “God is my witness, whom I serve with my spirit in the gospel of His Son” (Romans 1:9), Paul is implying that his will, his mind, his inner being is actively engaged in serving God. Christians are told to “be renewed in the spirit of your mind” (Ephesians 4:23). The link between the spirit and will is also illustrated in Jesus’ statement concerning His disciples, “The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Matthew 26:41). From this we can conclude that one’s spirit is expressed through his personality, will and mind. The indication is that the spirit in man working through the brain and related sensory faculties produces personality, mind and will.

• “In the Bible, the creative, animating power or divine influence of God.” The psalmist wrote: “You send forth Your Spirit, they are reated; and You renew the face of the earth” (Psalm 104:30). God’s creative, animating power was at work in the renewing of the face of the earth and the restoration of life upon it as recounted in Genesis 1 (cf. Genesis 1:1). Also: “But there is a spirit in man, and the breath of the Almighty gives him understanding” (Job 32:8). In this verse, “spirit” is from the Hebrew ruach; while “breath” is a translation of the Hebrew word neshamah. However, in this instance, neshamah should also be translated “spirit,” because it is through God’s Spirit that He imparts to us spiritual understanding (1 Corinthians 2:11–14). By searching the spirit in man, God uncovers the very thoughts and intents of our hearts (Proverbs 20:27). It is through the Holy Spirit dwelling in us that God is able to impress within us His character, as we submit to His will (Romans 8:4, 13–14; Galatians 5:22–23). Through His Spirit we are able to have fellowship with God, and become one with Him (2 Corinthians 13:14, Greek: koinonia, communion, fellowship, communication). Through that same Holy Spirit, God imparts not mere temporary, physical life, but His life—eternal life (Romans 8:11, 23; 2 Corinthians 5:1–5; Galatians 6:8)! The Holy Spirit is promised to those who obey God (Proverbs 1:23; John 14:15–16; Acts 5:32). To have the gift of eternal life imparted through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit requires believing the Gospel, repenting of sin and being baptized by immersion in water (Mark 1:14–15; Acts 2:38; Ephesians 1:13–14). Holy Spirit, expressing God’s nature in all its power, vitality, perfection and purity, is distinct from other categories of spirit—such as human spirit, animal spirit, angelic spirits, or evil spirits.

• “A supernatural or immaterial being, as an angel, demon…” Scripture explains that “God is Spirit” (John 4:24; cf. 2 Corinthians 3:17; 1 Corinthians 15:45). Angels are also spirits (Hebrews 1:13–14). Satan, an archangel who rebelled against God, is now a spirit who is evil (Ephesians 2:2). Other demons are also spirits who are fallen angels (Matthew 8:16; Revelation 12:3–4, 7–9). God is eternal (Romans 1:20). But Satan and the other angels are spirit beings who were created by God (Ezekiel 28:13–15; Colossians 1:16).

“A state of mind; mood; temper: Success raised his spirits.” Paul wrote of the presence and actions of certain individuals refreshing the spirits of others (1 Corinthians 16:17–18; 2 Corinthians 7:13). • “True intent or meaning… the spirit of the law.” Paul wrote of being circumcised in heart, representing the true spirit of circumcision (Romans 2:28–29). He wrote of serving God in the spirit of the law, its true intent, and not the mere letter (Romans 7:6). The New Covenant incorporates the law of God applied in the spirit, and not merely the letter, according to its full intent and meaning (2 Corinthians 3:6; Hebrews 8:10).

• “The emotional faculty of man; the heart: Great poetry stirs the spirit.” After a disturbing dream, Pharaoh’s “spirit was troubled,” implying he was emotionally upset (Genesis 41:8; cf. Daniel 2:1). The psalmist wrote of his being “troubled” in a time of adversity to the point that his “spirit was overwhelmed” (Psalm 77:3). Daniel wrote of being “grieved in my spirit” due to visions he had been given (Daniel 7:15). As Jesus testified to His closest disciples that one of them was about to betray Him, “He was troubled in spirit” (John 13:21).

Body and Spirit

God created human beings in His own image (Genesis 1:26–27). Man has a body and, as we have seen, a spirit. Is the spirit of a man a different person from the man? Paul wrote to Timothy, “The Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit” (2 Timothy 4:22). Was Timothy’s spirit a separate person from Timothy? The notion is absurd! Why, then, would we think God’s Spirit is a separate person from or within God? Paul said he was absent in body but present in spirit (1 Corinthians 5:3). Was Paul’s spirit a separate person? Of course not!

Paul, a mere human being, had the capacity to be present bodily in one location, but present in spirit elsewhere. Is God less capable?

In many places, the Bible reveals that God has a body—despite what the world’s philosophers have speculated. We read that “there is a spiritual body” (1 Corinthians 15:44). Jesus Christ was resurrected with such a body. The disciples saw Jesus bodily after His resurrection (John 20:29–21:1).

John later had a vision of how Jesus appears bodily in His glorified state (Revelation 1:12–16). Although the description in John’s vision is partly figurative, it nonetheless gives us an idea of how the glorified Jesus appears. We are told that, in the resurrection, Jesus “will transform our lowly body that it may be conformed to His glorious body” (Philippians 3:21).

In Christ “dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily” (Colossians 2:9). Before He became flesh and blood Jesus existed “in the form of God” (Philippians 2:6). “Form” is translated from the Greek morphe, which signifies the essential attributes as shown in the form. The “form by which a person or thing strikes the vision; external appearance” (Enhanced Strong’s Lexicon). This implies that God—both the Father and Jesus Christ—has form.

Jesus’ statement concerning the Father, that no one had “seen His form” (John 5:37), also implies that the Father has form, and hence a body. The Greek in this case is eidos (denoting the external or outward appearance, form, figure or shape), derived from eido, meaning “to perceive with the eyes, to see” (Enhanced Strong’s Lexicon).

Jesus sits bodily now in the third heaven at the Father’s right hand (Mark 16:19; Acts 2:33–34; Hebrews 10:12). But, through spirit, God is capable of being everywhere at once (1 Kings 8:27; Psalm 139:7–10; Jeremiah 23:24). However, it is not a separate person from or within God who can be everywhere in spirit, and who specifically dwells in those who have received His Spirit, but God Himself, in the persons of Jesus Christ and the Father (John 14:23; 15:26; Romans 8:9–11; Galatians 2:20; 4:6).

“He” or “It”? Pronouns and Gender

Some have been misled by English translations of John 14:16–17 and 14:26, which use English pronouns—he, him and whom—when referring to the Comforter, the Holy Spirit. Why is this?

In the Greek language, each noun is assigned a gender, which does not necessarily imply sex or personhood. Hamartia, for example, is a feminine noun meaning sin, though sin is neither male nor female. Hamartolos, on the other hand, is a masculine noun that means sinner, though a sinner can be either male or female.

The Greek word for “Comforter” or “Helper” is parakletos— a masculine noun. Where the Greek text uses a pronoun referring back to parakletos, it follows the masculine gender of its antecedent. The Greek word for spirit is pneuma, a neuter noun. Pronouns in the Greek text referring back to pneuma are neuter. In the original Greek, in the verses in question, most of the pronouns referring to the Holy Spirit are neuter, since most refer to pneuma as the antecedent. Literally rendered into English, these pronouns would be translated as “which” or “it.” Yet most translators have chosen to use he, him and whom because of their preconceived idea that the Holy Spirit is a distinct person within a Trinity.

We find that in John 16:5–15, masculine pronouns are used several times in reference to the parakletos—Comforter or Helper—as would be expected for a masculine word. Yet, elsewhere, neuter pronouns are used in reference to the Holy Spirit. Nothing definitive about the nature of the Holy Spirit can be determined by the gender of pronouns.

If we read carefully what Jesus said, and compare other scriptures, the truth becomes clear. Because Christ was with them bodily, the Spirit that would later be sent was already with them (John 14:17). Moreover, the Father Himself was already at work, granting them understanding through the Spirit (Matthew 16:17).

But after Jesus’ departure, the same Spirit— Christ’s Spirit—would be in them (v. 17). The promise of the Spirit dwelling in them was to be sent from the Father through Jesus Christ (John 14:16, 26; Acts 1:4–5; 2:33). “I will come to you,” Jesus said (John 14:18). He would come to them, and dwell in them, through His Spirit (vv. 17–18, 23; cf. Galatians 4:6; Philippians 1:19). It is the Father and Christ who dwell in converted Christians through the Holy Spirit that they share, and that we share with them (John 14:23; Revelation 3:20; 1 John 1:3; 1 Corinthians 12:13; 2 Corinthians 13:14). It is Jesus Christ Himself, and the Father, who comfort us through the Scriptures and through the Spirit they have given (Romans 15:4–5; 2 Corinthians 1:3–5; 2 Thessalonians 2:16–17).

Figurative and Symbolic Descriptions

Why, then—if the Holy Spirit is not a person— do we find references to it speaking or being lied to (See Acts 1:16; 5:3; Hebrews 3:7)? Just as the biblical writers wrote of wisdom in such terms, without conceiving of it as a person, so too did they describe the Holy Spirit in such terms, without conceiving of it as a person separate from or within God. Notice: “The mention of the ‘Holy Spirit,’ as speaking to individuals, is frequent in rabbinic writings. This, of course, does not imply their belief in the Personality of the Holy Spirit” (The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, Edersheim, p. 139 n.). If even the rabbis could write of the Spirit in such a way, without implying that it is a person distinct from the Father and Christ, so too could the authors of the New Testament. “The ‘Spirit of God’… is not distinct from God, nor does the phrase imply a distinction in the Godhead. The Spirit of God is God Himself, breathing, living, active, energizing in the world—‘God at work.’ The Spirit is personal because God is personal” (Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, Vol. VI, p. 255). Thus, Scripture clearly portrays the Holy Spirit as the instrumentality through which God expresses and accomplishes His will. It is an essential part of what He is—not a separate person!

The concept of the Holy Spirit as God’s divine power in action is reflected in symbols of the Spirit used in Scripture. The primary word for spirit in the Old Testament is ruach, of which the primary meaning is “wind.” The primary word for spirit in the New Testament is pneuma, with a similar meaning. Like the wind, the Holy Spirit is ubiquitous, invisible and powerful (Luke 4:14; Acts 1:8). And, just as the air we breathe sustains physical life, the Spirit sustains spiritual life (John 6:63). Oil as a source of light-giving energy is another symbol of the Holy Spirit (1 Samuel 16:13; Zechariah 4:1–6, 11–14; Luke 4:18–19). Water, a source of power and life, also symbolizes the Holy Spirit (John 7:37–39). Another emblem of God’s Spirit is the dove, connoting not only fluid movement and the power of communication and action from a distance, but also love, peace and purity (Genesis 8:8–12; Psalm 55:6, 68:13; Song of Solomon 2:14; Matthew 3:16; Romans 5:5; Galatians 5:22; 2 Timothy 1:7; 1 Peter 1:22).

As we have seen, the Holy Spirit is not the “third person” of an imaginary Trinity, but rather is God’s nature and power. It is His divine power in action. Through it, God creates, animates and influences. Through it, God can dwell in us and transform us. Through it, we have communion with God and can know Him and His mind. The Bible does not teach that the Holy Spirit is a separate person from God, any more than our spirit is from us!

COGwriter note: Regarding "gender" is should be noted that the Hebrew words used for spirit in the Old Testament (ruwach or ruah) are feminine. Hence to claim the Holy Spirit is a masculine "person" is not consistent with the words God inspired to be written about it.

For more on the Godhead, please study the following articles:

Binitarian View: One God, Two Beings Before the Beginning Is binitarianism the correct position? What about unitarianism or trinitarianism?
Is The Father God? What is the view of the Bible? What was the view of the early church?
Jesus is God, But Was Made Man Was Jesus fully human and fully God or what?
Virgin Birth: Does the Bible Teach It? What does the Bible teach? What is claimed in The Da Vinci Code?
Did Early Christians Think the Holy Spirit Was A Separate Person in a Trinity? Or did they have a different view?
Pentecost: Is it more than Acts 2? Many "Christians" somewhat observe Pentecost. Do they know what it means? It is also called the Feast of Harvest, the Feast of Weeks, and the day of firstfruits. What about "speaking in tongues" and being led by the Holy Spirit?
Did the True Church Ever Teach a Trinity? Most act like this is so, but is it?
Was Unitarianism the Teaching of the Bible or Early Church? Many, including Jehovah's Witnesses, claim it was, but was it?
Binitarianism: One God, Two Beings Before the Beginning This is a shorter article than the Binitarian View article, but has a little more information on binitarianism.

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