What does the Bible teach about the Holy Spirit? Is the Spirit divine, as the Father and Son are? Is the Spirit a thing—a force? Is the Spirit’s work limited to certain groups of Christians? Which spiritual gifts are normative for the church? Here is an outline of seven points, with biblical references, to keep us grounded in the biblical revelation of the person and work of the Spirit of God, which is often broader, albeit more focused and purposeful, than we recognize.
1. The Holy Spirit was present at creation and active throughout the Old Testament.
The Bible begins with the Spirit of God hovering over the waters in the creation story (Genesis 1:1). The Spirit is the life-giving presence of God from the very beginning of Scripture, and is creatively at work in a beautiful union with God’s Word (Psalm 104:30). The dove hovering over Jesus at his baptism likely alludes back to this event in creation (John 1:29-33). The Spirit of God is visible throughout the rest of the Old Testament story in various places and fulfilling special ministry, such as enabling administrative skills (Exodus 31:3; 35:31; Numbers 27:18; Deuteronomy 34:9); effecting leadership and judgment (Judges 3:10; 6:34; 13:25; 1 Samuel 16:13); empowering for battle (1 Samuel 11:6); prophesying to the people of God (Ezekiel 11:5). Throughout the Old Testament, words such as “breath” or “wind,” “fire,” and “water” are used to describe the Spirit of God. Watch this Seven Minute Seminary by John Oswalt as he discusses the Holy Spirit in the Old Testament.
2. The Holy Spirit shares in the identity, character, and work of God, and is therefore a divine person.
As the presence of God acting in creation, the Holy Spirit is both divine and a person. This stands in contra-distinction to suggestions that the spirit is lower than the Father or Son (a creature), or that the Spirit is an impersonal force. Both of these are mistaken tendencies to which modern thought leans. The biblical evidence teaches that the Spirit of God is fully divine, since the Spirit shares in God’s divine attributes and God’s activity, such as omnipresence, omnipotence, and omniscience (see Job 33:4; Psalm 104:30; Psalm 139:7-8; John 14:6; Matthew 28:19; Acts 5:3; 1 Corinthians 2:10; 1 Corinthians 12:4-6; 1 Peter 1:2; Hebrews 9:14; Hebrews 10:15-17.) Indeed, the “Holy Spirit” is used interchangeably with “God” in places (Acts 5:3; 1 Corinthians 6:19). Furthermore, he is not a force but the very personal presence of God, since he can be grieved, lied to, and engages in other relational ways with his creation (Isaiah 32:14; Acts 5:3; Ephesians 4:20). The Spirit of God is shown to be co-equal with the Father and Son at baptism (Matthew 28:19-20), in benediction prayers (2 Corinthians 13:14), and in effecting salvation (Ephesians 1:3-14; 2:18). Watch this Seven Minute Seminary video by Steve Seamands as he explains the personhood of the Holy Spirit.
3. The Holy Spirit glorifies Jesus by testifying to his lordship and conforming Christians to his image.
The special relationship between the Word and Spirit is attested throughout Scripture. The Word of God—personified as the Son, Jesus Christ—and the Spirit share an intimate, unbreakable union. The Holy Spirit glorifies the Son (John 14:16) and is pleased to do so (John 15:26). In fact, he only leads the world into truth that he hears from the Father and Son (John 14:13). No one can come to the Father through Jesus unless they are led there by the conviction of the Holy Spirit (John 16:8-11). The Spirit was involved in the life and ministry of Jesus since his conception (Luke 1:35), Jesus performed miracles by the power of the Spirit (Luke 4:14-19), Jesus served as a sacrifice by the Spirit (Hebrews 9:14), and was raised by the power of the Spirit (Romans 1:4). The work of the Spirit in the life of Christians is to conform them to the image of Jesus Christ, who is the perfect image of God (Romans 8; 2 Corinthians 3:18). The Holy Spirit’s work does not contradict that given to us in the revelation of Jesus Christ and in Scripture (1 Corinthians 12:3; 2 Peter 1:21; 1 John 4:2-3; 5:6;). To un-tether the work of the Spirit of God from the Son of God usually has devastating results in the church, and leads to spirituality that is sub-Christian, heterodox, or at odds with biblical faith.
4. The Holy Spirit indwells and permanently seals believers under the new covenant.
Several figures in the Old Testament are said to have the Spirit of God dwell in them, although this appears not to be in a permanent sense. See for example Joshua (Numbers 27:18; Deuteronomy 34:9) Ezekiel (2:2; 3:24), Daniel (Daniel 4:8-9, 18; 5:11), Micah (Micah 3:8). Even John the Baptist (Luke 1:15), Elizabeth (Luke 1:41), and Zechariah (Luke 1:67) are said to be filled with the Holy Spirit. However, what happened at Pentecost was anticipated as a unique experience under the new covenant by Old Testament prophecy, and it was confirmed by the Apostolic witness (Joel 2:28-32; Isaiah 32:14-18; Ezekiel 36:26; John 7:39; 14:17; Acts 1:8). We learn that the work of the Spirit in the life of the Christians begins with new creation when believers are born again (John 3:5). But rather than merely changing the status of people before God—sometimes referred to as imputed righteousness—the people of God are actually indwelt and transformed by the Spirit of God, who takes up residence there, which may be referred to as imparted righteousness (see Isaiah 61:10; 2 Corinthians 3-5; 2 Peter 1:4; 1 John 3:9). This special work of the Holy Spirit, referring to the subjective work in the heart of every Christian, is attested to in nearly every place where teaching is given regarding the Spirit’s work (John 14:16-17; 1 Corinthians 3:16; 12:13). This is the meaning, or fulfillment, of the expression “baptism with (or of, in) the Holy Spirit” referred to in the Gospels and Acts (Matthew 3:11; Mark 1:8; Luke 3:16; John 1:33; Acts 1:4–5).
5. The Holy Spirit gives gifts to all Christians for the purpose of building up the church.
As in the Old Testament, the Holy Spirit empowers people to do things that stretch their natural abilities. This work of the Spirit is referred to as charismata, or gifts in the New Testament. They are spelled out in four key places: Romans 12:3-8 ; 1 Corinthians 12-14; Ephesians 4:7-13 ; 1 Peter 4:10-11. In all passages, stress is placed on the purpose of the gifts—to build up the church. And while certain gifts seemingly invite special attention, the church is instructed to actually give more honor to the less visible gifts, without which the church could not function (1 Corinthians 12:22-23). Some gifts and offices may possibly build on natural dispositions, talents, and lifetime preparations—such as administration, apostleship, leadership, giving, mercy, wisdom, teaching, etc. Others, however, originate supernaturally and spontaneously as God’s Spirit wills—such as healing, speaking in tongues, prophecy. Many in this latter category are often referred to as “charismatic gifts” in modern theological debates, though this is a misnomer, since all gifts are termed charismata in the Bible, and no distinction is made between the two. The entirety of the gifts are said to be operative until the coming of “perfection,” which is understood by virtually all scholars to refer to the second coming of Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 13:8-12). View this Seven Minute Seminary by Craig Keener dealing with cessationism. Scripture invites Christians to “eagerly” ask for gifts originating in the Spirit, especially that of prophecy (1 Corinthians 14:1). The Spirit gives these gifts to the church as an expression of the loving heart of our heavenly Father (Matthew 7:11).
6. The Holy Spirit fills, sanctifies, and appropriates the on-going work of Jesus Christ to Christians.
The work of the Spirit in the life of Christians is not a one-time activity. Rather, as Christians open themselves up to the work of God, the Spirit continues to fill them to increasing measures of holiness and love (Ezekiel 37, 47; Matthew 5:48; Romans 6:19; Philippians 2:12; 1 Timothy 4:8-10; Hebrews 12:2-3). In the New Testament, Christians are instructed to be filled with the Spirit, implying an on-going work (Ephesians 5:18). Indeed, in the early church, the same group of people are said to be filled with the Spirit on multiple occasions in demonstrable ways (Acts 2; 4:8; 13:4). In this sense, it is possible to resist the work of the Spirit (Psalm 106:33; Isaiah 63:10; Zechariah 7:12; Acts 5:1; 7:51; 1 Thessalonians 5:19), but Christians are called to be open to his sanctifying and empowering work. The primary concern of the Spirit is to fill Christians with his good fruit, as spelled out in Galatians 5:22-23: love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (NIV). This moral dimension to the Spirit-filled life is the true measure of Christian maturity, because this fruit is evidence that one comes to share in the character of God. The charismata, or gifts of the Spirit, though sometimes more striking and visible, should not be confused for Christian maturity.
7. The Holy Spirit intercedes for the needs of Christians and all of creation.
When Jesus taught extensively on the Holy Spirit in John 14-16, he introduced the Spirit as our “advocate” (14:26). This means that one of the primary functions and purposes of the Holy Spirit is that of pleading the case of Christians, and in fact—of all creation—before the Father (Zechariah 12:10; Romans 8:22-27). In his omniscience, he knows what we need even in the face of our own ignorance, helplessness, or despair. The Spirit is God himself proving faithful to his original act of creation, with the promise that one day he will renew the heavens and the earth in an act of new creation. The description of his work in Romans 8 (“but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans”) has led many to believe that this alludes to, or at least conforms with, the gift of speaking in tongues as normed in 1 Corinthians 13:1; 14:27-28; Ephesians 6:18. This prayer language, endowed by God’s Spirit, carries our in-expressible needs to the Father. The Spirit’s work of signs and wonders, often most prevalent on missional frontiers, is also a tangible expression and foretaste of God’s promise to renew creation (Mark 16:17-18; Acts 14:3; Romans 15:18-19; 1 Corinthians 14:22; Hebrews 2:4). The Spirit is therefore the continual, acting, sustaining presence of God in his creation. His presence with us is God being faithful to Jesus’s promise to be with his church forever (John 14:16).
Would you like to learn more about the Holy Spirit and deepen your intimacy with God? Consider the following reading recommendations:
Gift and Giver: The Holy Spirit for Today by Craig Keener (Baker Academic, 2001)
Paul, the Spirit, and the People of God by Gordon Fee (Baker Academic, 1996)
Come, Creator Spirit: Meditations on the Veni Creator by Raniero Cantalamessa (Liturgical Press, 2003)
God the Spirit: Introducing Pneumatology in Wesleyan and Ecumenical Perspective by Beth Felker Jones (Cascade, 2014)
Every Breath We Take: Living in the Presence, Love, and Generosity of God by Terry Wardle (Leafwood, 2015)
Surprised by the Power of the Holy Spirit & Surprised by the Voice of God by Jack Deere (Prince Press, 2003)
Open to the Spirit: God in Us, God with Us, God Transforming Us by Scot McKnight (WaterBrook, 2018)
View some of Seedbed’s resources on the Holy Spirit: