For several months at All Nations Church we have been on an exciting journey. Each Sunday we have been exploring the Word of God in a series called ‘Adventures in Acts’ (you can watch them on our Youtube channel).
We have discovered how ordinary people just like us turned their world upside down within a generation with the message of the Gospel of the kingdom. They were able to do this because they had met and been empowered by the central character of the book of Acts – the Holy Spirit. Without the Holy Spirit the amazing things we read in Acts would never have happened – and the Gospel of Jesus Christ would never have reached the entire world.
In these three articles we’re going to dig a bit deeper into who the Holy Spirit is and some of the things he does in us and through us. This first article deals with the very simple but vital question: who is the Holy Spirit? Happily, the answer is also simple, yet mind-blowing at the same time. The Holy Spirit is God himself. Gordon Fee wrote:
In dealing with the Spirit we are dealing with none other than the personal presence of God himself.
The Holy Spirit is God
The Holy Spirit is just as much God as God the Father and Jesus, God the Son. He is equally as important as they are. The Holy Spirit is not the ‘junior partner’ of the Trinity; he is the eternal God himself. He didn’t come into existence or begin his activity at Pentecost: like the Father and the Son he is the uncreated, infinite God. We use the terms co-equal and co-eternal to say that the Persons in the Trinity are all God. While we also say the Holy Spirit is the third Person of the Trinity, that doesn’t mean he is any less God; it is only a term theologians use to explain how the Trinity functions and to show some of the things the Spirit specifically does. It’s worth noting that in the Word of God the first Person of the Trinity specifically mentioned is the Holy Spirit. In Genesis 1:2 we see this:
Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness covered the surface of the watery depths, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the surface of the waters.
It therefore naturally follows that the Holy Spirit has all the nature and character of God (what we call God’s attributes). When we read of God’s love, holiness, faithfulness, grace, mercy – anything like that – those attributes are not confined to God the Father; they are equally true of God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. Take creation for example: we have seen that in the beginning the Spirit was active, hovering over the waters. Imagine all the power and creative genius it took to create the universe; that power and genius is the Holy Spirit (as well as the Father and the Son). As we will see in a future article, all that power is now living in us! No wonder the adventurers in Acts succeeded.
The Holy Spirit is a Person
The Holy Spirit is not an object, a thing or some kind of impersonal power; he is a Person, just like the Father and the Son. Sometimes we can fall into the trap of thinking of him only as a powerful force; there is a reason for that. When we think of the Father and the Son we have images that help us assign personal characteristics: a Father, a Son. But the Spirit is the Holy Spirit, and that can appear to be rather impersonal. However, if we think of the King, behind that title is a person – Charles. We know that he’s a person; we know what he looks and sounds like. We don’t think of him as an impersonal thing. The same is true with the Holy Spirit: while it conveys a title and a function, behind all that is a Person who is just as personal as God the Father and God the Son. Also, sometimes people use the title the Holy Ghost; there is nothing wrong with that. However it can convey the idea of a disembodied, scary ghoul, who haunts old buildings and scares people! The Holy Spirit is not like that at all; he is the living God. Gordon Fee wrote:
The Spirit is not lightly called the Spirit of Jesus Christ. Christ has put a face on the Spirit.
Consider too Galatians 5:22-23; it is a list of personal characteristics:
The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faith, gentleness, self-control.
An object doesn’t love; a force can’t be joyful. Often when we read this passage we use these qualities to describe Jesus and to teach this is what we should be like. But this verse is initially about what the Holy Spirit is like; they are his personal qualities. That’s how we can be people of love, joy, when he comes to live in us. Also note that these are not separate fruits: it says ‘the fruit of the Spirit is’. There is only one fruit with several distinct qualities or flavours. The Spirit is all these things. It also tells us something particular about the relationship between the Holy Spirit and Jesus, as we will examine shortly.
On the subject of the Holy Spirit being a Person, also note Ephesians 4:30:
Don’t grieve the Holy Spirit, who sealed you for the day of redemption.
The word translated ‘grieve’ here means to cause pain or distress to someone. Impersonal objects or forces don’t feel pain or get distressed. The Holy Spirit does; God has feelings too.
Jesus and the Holy Spirit
Of particular importance to us as Christians is the relationship between Jesus and the Holy Spirit. The night before he died, Jesus spoke to his disciples about their – and our future. He spent a lot of time talking about the Holy Spirit, who would come from heaven and fill them a few weeks later at Pentecost. Jesus said this:
I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Counsellor to be with you forever - the Spirit of truth…you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you. (John 14:16-17)
It is for your good I am going away. Unless I go away the Counsellor will not come to you; but if I go away, I will send him to you. (John 16:7)
Jesus described the Holy Spirit as the Counsellor (other translations have Comforter or Advocate). The word (Paraklētos) means one who is called alongside to help; someone who comes near to be with you. It describes someone who intercedes on behalf of or who represents another person. In ancient times a counsellor/advocate/comforter was an intimate friend who acted as a personal adviser. The word came from the world of the law, where a special person represented you in legal matters. He was not a professionally trained lawyer such as we have today; the counsellor was someone who knew you well, and whose relationship to you enabled him to speak on your behalf. He counselled you, guided you, fought your case, stood by you. He was your representative. That’s what the Holy Spirit does; he is God’s ‘representative’, and he has come to enable us, guide us, help us, fight for us; we have all of God living in us in the Person of the Holy Spirit.
Note that Jesus said to his disciples he was sending them another Counsellor – that means they already had one – him! The word ‘another’ here means another of the same kind. That is really important for us: the disciples had been with the Holy Spirit all the time that Jesus – their Counsellor – had been with them; he was filled with the Holy Spirit and they had witnessed him active in the life of Jesus. Now Jesus was going away – for their good – and he would send the other Counsellor to live in them.
This is amazing! We have two Counsellors: one in heaven (Jesus) and one in us (the Holy Spirit). The Holy Spirit has come to live the life of Jesus in us as believers; that’s why we sometimes say Jesus lives in us. He actually lives in heaven, but he lives in us in the Person of the Holy Spirit. So having the Holy Spirit is just like having Jesus. This is what the new birth does for us: when we are born again God himself in the Person of the Holy Spirit, comes to live his life in us and through us (John 3:1-8).
So, we have established that the Holy Spirit is God, alongside God the Father and God the Son, Jesus Christ. He is a Person, not an impersonal force; and he has come from heaven with the resurrection life of Jesus. He now lives that life in all who have been born again. Next time we’ll unpack some of the consequences of this fantastic reality.