Breathe on Me, Breath of God: Meditations on the Person and Work of the Holy Spirit
A Person We Need to Know
Judged by the standards of modern marketing techniques, the Holy Spirit has a PR problem. The idea of God the Father and of God the Son is one to which we can relate. We have analogies and parallels that help. But what is a spirit? Furthermore, a little knowledge of biblical language will quickly reveal that the word for the Spirit — ruach in Hebrew and pneuma in Greek— are the usual words for wind or breath. Then there are passages like Acts 2:18 where the Spirit is said to be “poured out,” like baptismal water, upon the church. Are we to conclude from all this that the Holy Spirit is an impersonal force — the wind or breath of God, the living water of God — a way to talk about God’s power, but not a distinct person within the unity of the Godhead? And what possible difference can it all make anyway?
In both the Old and the New Testaments, the Spirit of God is spoken of as possessing all the attributes of both full and distinct personhood, and complete and absolute identity with the Godhead. Thus, for example, in Psalm 139:7, David prays, “Where shall I go from your Spirit [ruach]? Or where shall I flee from your presence?” Notice the classic Hebrew poetic technique known as synonymous parallelism: the second line restates and elaborates the first. The inability to escape the Spirit of God is the same thing as saying that God himself is present everywhere. The Spirit is God. In Isaiah 63:10, the people of Israel are said to have “grieved” God’s Spirit, and in verse 14 “the Spirit of the LORD gave them rest.” These are attributes and actions proper only to distinct persons. Similarly, in 2 Samuel 23:2-3, David declares, “The Spirit of the LORD speaks by me; his word is on my tongue. The God of Israel has spoken…” Here the twin realities of the Spirit’s personhood and the Spirit’s deity are brought together. He speaks. Only persons speak. The prophetic word is the Spirit’s Word. But this Spirit who has spoken by David is “the God of Israel.”
In the New Testament, this testimony continues with even greater clarity. A person is one who can say “I.” The Father says “I” and “my” at the baptism of Jesus, for example (Matt. 3:17). Similarly, Jesus repeatedly spoke in these terms. One thinks in particular of the extraordinary statement of John 8:48 in which Christ asserts his deity in the clearest terms: “Before Abraham was I AM.” But, so too, does the Spirit. In Acts 13:2, “the Holy Spirit said, ‘Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.’” God the Spirit says “me” and “I.” He speaks, sets apart, and he calls. In John 14:16, Jesus told his disciples that he would send them “another Comforter.” The functions of comforter/advocate/counselor involved in the word Jesus used (parakletos) are necessarily personal activities. Indeed, the language means more than simply that the Spirit would be a second counselor in a sequence following Jesus, but that he would be a counselor of the same kind and order as Jesus; that his work and the Spirit’s work would enjoy a profound continuity and coherence. And so the Spirit will teach the disciples (14:26), bear witness to Christ (15:26), convict the world (16:8), guide the disciples (16:13), speak and declare what he hears from the Father (16:13), glorify and declare truth (16:14-15). It is sometimes pointed out that the Greek word for Spirit used in these passages in John is neuter in gender — technically an “it” not a “he.” Strikingly, however, though the neuter pronouns are required, in this part of John’s gospel Jesus repeatedly refers to the Spirit using the masculine pronoun “ekeinos”(“he”) instead of the neuter pronoun ekeino (“it”). J.I. Packer writes “this masculine pronoun… is the more striking because in 14:7, where the Spirit is first introduced, John had used the grammatically correct neuter pronouns (ho and auto), thus ensuring that his subsequent shift to the masculine would be perceived not as incompetent Greek, but as magisterial theology.”1
Next week we will continue to consider the Spirit as a person who can be known and whose work and leading are personal and real.
1 J. I. Packer, Keep in Step with the Spirit, 61