If you have reached this article because of your search criteria, you are one of thousands of people who ask the questions every month:
Who or What is the Holy Spirit
And it is no wonder there is uncertainly when there are so many possible interpretations of scripture. Even people, who have experienced the Holy Spirit first hand, would have difficulty providing a satisfactory answer to someone who has not experienced the Spirit.
In my attempt to provide some understanding, I’ll tell you that the references to the Holy Spirit in the Old Testament are generally related to the words and actions of the prophets. In the New Testament, Jesus is the prime example of someone totally filled by God’s Holy Spirit as is evidenced by the many miracles he performed and wisdom he conveyed.
The big event that made the Holy Spirit available for the rest of us took place as follows:
Jesus prepares His followers to Receive the Holy Spirit
In A.D. 31, Jesus told His disciples what was soon to occur. At the Passover ceremony, which took place on the evening before His crucifixion, Jesus explained that He would ask God to give His followers another “Helper, … the Spirit of truth,” to dwell with them and be in them (John 14:16-17).
After spending three days and three nights in the grave, just as He had predicted (Matthew 12:40), Jesus miraculously rose from the dead and met with His disciples in Jerusalem and Galilee (Matthew 26:32; 28:7) before the Jewish holiday of Pentecost.
“And being assembled together with them, He [Jesus] commanded them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the Promise of the Father, ‘which,’ He said, ‘you heard from Me; for John truly baptized with water, but you shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now’” (Acts 1:4-5).
He went on to tell them something they could not have fully comprehended at the time: “You shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth”
As instructed, the disciples went to Jerusalem to wait for this promised power that would give them the courage and commitment to preach the gospel of the Kingdom of God to the world (Matthew 24:14). Within a matter of days, the gift of the Holy Spirit arrived
The Holy Spirit Comes to the Jesus’ Followers
The way the Holy Spirit came was spectacular and stunning! Along with the sound of a mighty wind, flames of fire appeared on the heads of all the believers who then, inexplicably, started speaking in other languages (Acts 2:2-4).
As multitudes of people from many countries began flowing to this scene, they, too, were caught up in the miracle—everyone understanding in his or her own native language the words being spoken. Who could deny this proof that the Holy Spirit now resided within the followers of Christ? They truly had received a power they had never previously possessed. Their understanding of the Holy Spirit was exactly what Christ had said—it was indeed the power of God that would be used to tell the world His true nature.
Thank you to David Treybig for such a succinct rundown of the events.
The Holy Spirit Today
The Holy Spirit today is still the motivating force behind telling others what Jesus Christ taught us about God. However, there are many other benefits that provide a better life to those who live with God’s infinite and invisible spirit. We feel God’s love for us and want to share it with others. His spirit opens our heart and minds so that He can work through us, speaking directly to our hearts and giving us courage to follow his guidance. God’s spirit directs our prayers and shows us how to meet the needs of others as well as ourselves. It is our teacher and reminds us of Jesus’ teachings. It is our comforting counselor and gives us peace.
The Gifts of the Spirit
Now there are diversities of gifts, but the same Spirit. And there are diversities of ministrations, and the same Lord. And there are diversities of workings, but the same God, who worketh all things in all. But to each one is given the manifestation of the Spirit to profit withal. [As an example] For to one is given the Spirit the word of wisdom; and to another the word of knowledge, according to the same Spirit: to another faith, in the same Spirit; and to another gifts of healings, in the one Spirit; and to another workings of miracles; and to another prophecy; and to another discernings of spirits: to another divers kinds of tongues; and to another the interpretation of tongues: but all these worketh the one and the same Spirit, dividing to each one severally even as he will. (1 Corinthians 12:4-11) Brackets are mine for clarification based on the following verses.
What does it Mean to Receive the Holy Spirit
Jesus taught that we must be born again to enter into the kingdom of heaven. He clarified this by saying that we must be born of the water (Baptism) and the Spiriit.
Then Peter said unto them, Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost. (Acts 2:38)
The first step to receiving the Holy Spirit is to make sure that your motives are right and pure with the Lord. You have to really want this gift because you want to be able to enter into a much deeper, personal relationship with God – and you will need His power and anointing to flow through you so that you can fully accomplish whatever His divine destiny is going to be for your life.
God will be able to read your thoughts and motives. If you are not sincere with Him as to why you really wanting this gift, or you are seeking after this gift for all of the wrong reasons, God will know and withhold this gift from you until you can come to Him with the right reasons and the right motives.
Once you realize what this gift entails and that you will have to be willing to fully surrender to whatever God’s perfect plan and destiny is going to be for your life – then the next step is to take that big leap of faith and fully surrender body, mind and soul to God the Father.
Then just ask God. “If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children: how much more shall your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to them that ask him?” (Luke 11:13)
Controversies Regarding the Holy Spirit
Is the Holy Spirit a Person?
Holy Spirit as a Separate Entity
There is some controversy as to whether the Holy Spirit is a separate entity from God. Those who believe so, generally site the anthropomorphic qualities described in the Bible as proof of this.
The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association points out that In John chapters 14, 15, and 16, Jesus spoke of the Holy Spirit as “He”. They also state that the Holy Spirit, as the third Person of the Holy Trinity, is made clear by His inclusion with the Father and the Son in such Bible passages as Matthew 28:19. Here the apostles are commanded to baptize those who receive the Gospel “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”
However, other Biblical verses indicate that the Holy Spirit is God’s power in the world. Still other verses can be interpreted either way.
Holy Spirit as the Power of God
Jesus began His ministry “in the power of the Spirit” (Luke 4:14). Peter relates that “God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power” (Acts 10). Likewise, Jesus worked through the apostle Paul “in mighty signs and wonders, by the power of the Spirit of God” (Romans 15)
Again and again the Scriptures depict the Holy Spirit as the power of God, the mind or spirit of God and the very essence and the life force through which the Father begets human beings as His spiritual children.
Paul wrote that God’s plan for humanity had been “revealed by the Spirit to His holy apostles and prophets” (Ephesians 3) and that his own teachings were inspired by the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 2:13 ). Paul further explains that it is through His Spirit that God has revealed to true Christians the things He has prepared for those who love Him (1 Corinthians 2). Working through the Spirit, God the Father is the revealer of truth to those who serve Him.
Jesus told His followers that the Holy Spirit, which the Father would send, “will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all things that I said to you” (John 14) It is through God’s Spirit within us that we gain spiritual insight and understanding. Indeed, we come to receive the very “mind of Christ” (1 Corinthians 2), also referred to as the “mind of the Spirit” (Romans 8).
The Father imparts the same Spirit to true Christians through Jesus Christ (John 14), leading and enabling them to be His children and “partakers of the divine nature” (Romans 8).
Impersonal Attributes of the Holy Spirit
The Holy Spirit is spoken of in many ways that demonstrate that it is not a divine person. For example, it is referred to as a gift (Acts 10) that God gives without limit (John 3). We are told that the Holy Spirit can be quenched (1 Thessalonians 5), that it can be poured out on people (Acts 2:17), and that we are baptized with it (Matthew 3).
People can drink of it (John 7:37), partake of it (Hebrews 6) and be filled with it (Acts 2). The Holy Spirit also renews us (Titus 3) and must be stirred up within us (2 Timothy 1). These impersonal characteristics are certainly not attributes of a person.
The Spirit is also described by other designations—”the Holy Spirit of promise,” “the guarantee of our inheritance” and “the spirit of wisdom and revelation” (Ephesians 1:13)-that show it is not a person.
In contrast to God the Father and Jesus Christ, who are consistently compared to human beings in Their form and shape, the Holy Spirit is frequently represented, by various symbols and manifestations, in a completely different manner—such as breath (John 20), wind (Acts 2), water (John 4), oil (Psalms 45), a dove (Matthew 3) and an “earnest,” or down payment, on eternal life (2 Corinthians 1).
These depictions are difficult to understand if the Holy Spirit is a person.
[includes excerpts from Bible Study Tools.]
The Development of the Trinity
One can hardly discuss the Holy Spirit without discussing it’s inclusion in the Trinity. Why question whether the Holy Spirit is a person unless possibly to justify a trinity? Where did this concept originate?
There is no trinitarian doctrine explicitly taught in the Old or New Testament. However, many Christian theologians, apologists, and philosophers hold that the doctrine can be inferred from what the New Testament does teach about God.
David Treybig tell us that “In the centuries that followed the Pentacostal experience, most people discarded the earliest Christians’ clear understanding of the Holy Spirit in favor of an evolving, humanly devised definition of the Godhead.
According to that new theory, now well-known as “the Trinity,” the Holy Spirit was elevated to be a coequal member of the Godhead….the Holy Spirit, God the Father, and Jesus Christ were now seen as three distinct entities that together comprised one triune God.
[It is theorized that] theologians had devised the idea of the Trinity to combat polytheism—the belief in many gods—and after long debate had finally come to a general agreement that this explanation of God should be a central tenet of Christianity.” Brackets are mine
The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy indicates that “the many thinkers influential in the development of trinitarian doctrines were steeped in the thought of Greek philosophy (Hanson 1988, 856–869). Those developing the doctrine saw themselves as trying to build a systematic Christian theology on the Bible while remaining faithful to earlier post-biblical tradition. Many also aimed to show Christianity as consistent with the best of Greek philosophy” where the number three is seen again and again.
Paul J. Pastor suggests that Christians are forced to retain two equal and (seemingly) opposing truths; the God that is utterly and infinitely beyond creation with blazing uncovered glory; and the God that indwells our souls and sustains our lives. He suggests that a separate Holy Spirit entity helps us more clearly define and understand this dichotomy.
Biblical Definition Discarded
David Treybig goes on to say that “In spite of the theory’s nonbiblical and mysterious, logic-defying elements (how can three individual beings be only one being?), this man-made philosophy is today firmly entrenched in mainstream Christianity. In fact, most churches now consider adherence to the Trinity doctrine the litmus test for determining whether or not one is indeed a Christian.
But bothersome questions arise from this. For example, did theologians have the right to reject the understanding of the Holy Spirit that was held by first-century Christians—the people who actually experienced the miracle of that special Pentecost? And why don’t we give greater consideration to the understanding God gave those with the firsthand experience?”
The Biblical Definition
The Biblical teaching only shows a Godhead consisting of God the Father and His Son, Jesus Christ. The Holy Spirit is described and respected as the power of God, but is nowhere defined as a separate being.
Toward the end of the first century, Jude admonished the Church to “contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 1:3). “This faith, including its explanation of the Holy Spirit,” Treybig says, “provides the only biblically defensible definition of the Holy Spirit.
The first-century Christians clearly understood the Holy Spirit was the power of God. Through the power of His Spirit, God comforted them through trials, assisted them in learning the truth, identified them as Christians and offered them the promise of eternal life. But we find no evidence that the Christians considered the Holy Spirit to be a separate member of the Godhead.”
As for the Godhead, Paul succinctly noted the teaching that God had given him and his first-century brethren: “For us there is one God, the Father, of whom are all things, and we for Him; and one Lord Jesus Christ, through whom are all things, and through whom we live” (1 Corinthians 8:6). No mention of the Holy Spirit.
Whether you believe the Holy Spirit is a separate entity from God or God’s spirit existing in the world, it makes little difference in how you build your relationship with God. Different people may explain the Holy Spirit in different terms depending on their view point as discussed above. However, no matter what their belief on the subject, the Holy Spirit is always there guiding us, comforting us, protecting us and pushing us into Christian action.
Paul J. Pastor expressed it beautifully when he said “Without the Holy Spirit we lose the capacity for seeing the wonder and wisdom of God in places where we commonly overlook it. We lose the chance for God’s closeness in the world to give holy quiet shape to our inner lives.”
How the Holy Ghost Became the Holy Spirit?
I’ve been asked about this and whether it had any spiritual implications, so as an interesting aside, this is the explanation given by the Zenit Daily Dispatch – a Catholic publication.
Both Holy Ghost and Holy Spirit were used well before the 20th century,
The word ghost is of Germanic origin and comes from Old English gast, meaning soul, life, breath, good or bad spirit, angel or demon. Christian texts in Old English use gast to translate the Latin Spiritus from where we get Holy Ghost. The more modern sense of a disembodied dead person is first attested in the late 14th century but remained quite rare
Spirit comes to English from Latin through French and also means souls, courage, vigor, breath. Spirit, in the sense of a supernatural being, is found from the 13th century.
Practically all recent translations of the Bible, both Protestant and Catholic, have preferred Holy Spirit in most instances. The reason is probably because the meaning of the word ghost has gradually shifted over the last 300 years and now predominantly refers to the vision of the specter of a deceased person or a demonic apparition.
It must also be remembered that in literature the popularity of the “ghost story” had enjoyed an enormous boom from the mid-19th century on, a popularity compounded by the advent of the cinema and television.
All of this probably led translators to the conclusion that the meaning of the word Ghost had been so transformed and stereotyped that continuing to apply it to refer to the Divine Person was more likely to lead to confusion than would the alternative expression Holy Spirit.
Wherefore I give you to understand, that no man speaking by the Spirit of God calleth Jesus accursed: and that no man can say that Jesus is the Lord, but by the Holy Ghost. (1 Cor 12:3)