Seven Metaphors of the Spirit in the Old Testament

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Just as there are seven ministries of the Holy Spirit in the Old Testament, there are also seven images of the Spirit that are found in the Old Testament. These include the dove, the cloud, fire, the breath/voice of God, the wind, water, and oil. We see the dove at Noah’s ark. We see the fire and cloud of God leading his people, and his fire in the burning bush calling forth Moses to lead his people. We see the breath of God at creation, and later, in Ezekiel’s vision. We hear the voice of God’s Spirit speaking through the prophets, and we see the Spirit’s presence in wind, water, and the use of oil in anointing men and women for leadership.

All seven of the metaphors for the Holy Spirit found in the Old Testament find their way into the New Testament, demonstrating the continuity of the Spirit’s work between the Old Testament and the New Testament. We meet the dove descending on Jesus at his baptism, a sign of the Holy Spirit. We see fire and wind on the day of Pentecost. We see breath as Jesus breathes on his disciples in John 20:22, imparting the Holy Spirit. Water, of course, is central to baptism, and also as the cleansing work of the Holy Spirit. Oil is used for anointing for the Spirit’s power and wisdom in leadership. And the cloud represents the manifest presence of God in the transfiguration of Jesus to the disciples on the holy mountain.

All seven images are brought over. The point is, when we come to the public ministry of Christ being launched, Jesus is being revealed in continuity with the Old Testament. In Luke 3:21–22, we find three things happening as Jesus is baptized. First, Jesus is baptized in water. Then, the heavens are opened up, and the Holy Spirit descends on him like a dove. And third, a voice from heaven says, “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” Now, the Old Testament was the only Scripture our early brothers and sisters in the faith had. As they are watching this baptism, they immediately recognize three of the signs of the Spirit that are present. First, there is the water of baptism. Then, there is the dove, which is a symbol of God’s covenant, going back to Noah and the ark. Doves are regarded throughout the literature of the ancient world as a source of direction. Their cooing could be heard over the waters and they would always fly toward land. And so they were very valuable. They symbolize the direction of God through the Holy Spirit. Finally, there is the voice of Yahweh speaking from heaven, which is the revelation of God.

So, from the very outset when you read the inauguration of Jesus’ ministry in Luke, you are seeing that Jesus is being anointed by the Holy Spirit in a way that makes sense to them because of what they know from the Old Testament. The Spirit ties everything together, from creation to Bezalel to judges to kings to the prophets, culminating in Jesus.

Jesus and the Spirit

When we read about the temptation of Jesus in Luke 4, we find that God tests those who receive the Spirit. Jesus is filled with the Holy Spirit, and led by the Holy Spirit out into the wilderness where he will be tested. Then, Luke 4:14 describes what happens to him after the temptations. It does not say that he was filled with the Spirit, but that he comes out in the power of the Holy Spirit. There’s a distinct language difference. After the temptation, he goes into Galilee, in the power of the Holy Spirit, to the synagogue in Capernaum, where he opens the scroll of Isaiah, and he reads these opening words of his public ministry:

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18–19)

As Jesus goes forth into his public ministry, the Spirit of God is present with him to preach, to proclaim, and to heal. He is empowered by the Holy Spirit for his ministry, and we also can be filled and empowered by the Spirit, just as Jesus was. Jesus is showing us how to live our lives fully in the power of the Holy Spirit.

Did you enjoy this entry? It is part of a book by Timothy Tennent titled, The Spirit-Filled Life. In its pages, Tennent studies acts of the Spirit in the Old and New Testament, historic conversion stories, as well as modern examples from around the world, exploring the three great channels through which the Holy Spirit works in our lives:

  • power for global witness
  • holiness for sanctified purity
  • discernment for faithful living

Are you ready to be filled with the Holy Spirit? Pentecost wasn’t just a one-time event but is an ongoing process—the knot that ties the church to its holy, empowered mission in the world.

Are you looking for the fire of God to fall upon your life? Be ready. You, too, can be filled with the Holy Spirit, and it will change your life and the life of your church forever.

Get it from our store here.

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Timothy C. Tennent is the President of Asbury Theological Seminary and a Professor of Global Christianity. His works include Invitation to World Missions: A Trinitarian Missiology for the Twenty-first Century and Theology in the Context of World Christianity: How the Global Church Is Influencing the Way We Think about and Discuss Theology. He blogs at timothytennent.com and can be followed on twitter @TimTennent.

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