Dove in stained glass window

What is the Holy Spirit?

Posted by

Christians believe in one God in three persons; Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This is a concept that can lead to confusion. For instance, while Jesus walked the earth He prayed to God the Father. But if Jesus is fully God (as in the Chalcedonian Creed), is there a sense in which He was praying to Himself? Also, did Jesus maintain attributes we normally associate with God (such as omnipotence and omniscience) during His earthly life?

As well as attempting to define the role of Jesus within the Trinity, the ecumenical councils in Christian history have also tried to define the Holy Spirit. In this article I would like to look at Scripture and make a few points and raise a few questions about what the Holy Spirit is and how it operates.

Well, I’ve barely begun and already we have a problem. I just described the Holy Spirit as ‘it’. Christians believe the Spirit is a person and would normally refer to it as ‘He’. There are many scriptures that support the idea that the Spirit is an agent with His own volition. Here are a couple of examples:

But when the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness about me. (John 15:26 ESV)

When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. (John 16:13 ESV)

These scriptures show Jesus talking to His disciples about the Holy Spirit and it is clear from what Jesus says that the Spirit can bear witness, guide them, speak, and declare; all activities that we would associate with personal agency. The above scriptures are from the New Testament, but references to the Holy Spirit in the Old Testament are numerous as well. For example:

The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters. (Genesis 1:2 ESV)

Then he said to me, “This is the word of the Lord to Zerubbabel: Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the Lord of hosts. (Zechariah 4:6 ESV)

In John 14:26 (in the New Testament) the Holy Spirit is referred to as the “comforter” (or “advocate” or “helper” depending on the translation) which clearly distinguishes Him as a person in contrast to any concept of the Spirit as an impersonal force.

So if the Spirit is a person, like God the Father and God the Son, does it make sense to pray to Him? Well, I can find little evidence of prayer directly to the Holy Spirit in the Bible. Instead, we are told to pray in the Spirit (see Ephesians 6:18). But there is some confusion about this among Christians. I have often heard Christians praying the phrase “Come, Holy Spirit”, which I suppose is a prayer to Him. In my experience, when praying or worshiping with a group of believers, there can be a real sense of the presence of God which we might also describe as the presence of the Holy Spirit.

So we could say that the Holy Spirit is a feeling of the presence of God during prayer and worship. Christians also ask for the assistance of the Spirit when studying the Bible. This implies that the Spirit is directly linked to our minds and has the power to speak to us and give us knowledge and understanding. It could perhaps be said that the Spirit is God’s way of communicating with us — the link between God the Father in heaven and the human mind here on Earth.

Perhaps the most well-known incidence in the Bible of the Holy Spirit working is on the Day of Pentecost, a historical event still celebrated by Christians today. We find in Acts 2 the following passage:

When the Day of Pentecost had fully come, they were all with one accord in one place. And suddenly there came a sound from heaven, as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting. Then there appeared to them divided tongues, as of fire, and one sat upon each of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance. (Acts 2:1-4 NKJV)

We see from this passage that an aspect of the Holy Spirit is that it can imbue certain supernatural powers into believers; in this case speaking in tongues. In 1 Corinthians, the apostle Paul explains the role of the Holy Spirit in more depth and describes the different gifts that believers can expect to receive from Him:

Brothers and sisters, I want you to know about the gifts of the Holy Spirit. You know that at one time you were unbelievers. You were somehow drawn away to worship statues of gods that couldn’t even speak. So I want you to know that no one who is speaking with the help of God’s Spirit says, “May Jesus be cursed.” And without the help of the Holy Spirit no one can say, “Jesus is Lord.”

There are different kinds of gifts. But they are all given to believers by the same Spirit. There are different ways to serve. But they all come from the same Lord. There are different ways the Spirit works. But the same God is working in all these ways and in all people.

The Holy Spirit is given to each of us in a special way. That is for the good of all. To some people the Spirit gives a message of wisdom. To others the same Spirit gives a message of knowledge. To others the same Spirit gives faith. To others that one Spirit gives gifts of healing. To others he gives the power to do miracles. To others he gives the ability to prophesy. To others he gives the ability to tell the spirits apart. To others he gives the ability to speak in different kinds of languages they had not known before. And to still others he gives the ability to explain what was said in those languages. All the gifts are produced by one and the same Spirit. He gives gifts to each person, just as he decides. (1 Corinthians 12: 1-11 NIV)

One of the most well-known scriptures that references the Holy Spirit is Matthew 3:16, where Jesus is being baptised. The scripture describes Jesus coming out of the water and the Spirit of God “descending like a dove and alighting on Him”. This is a very visual description of the Spirit but it is clearly a metaphor so shouldn’t be taken too literally. Nevertheless we see here another insight into how the person of the Holy Spirit acts.

Despite what has been explored in this article, there remains a mysterious element to the Holy Spirit, for me at least. When I am reading a novel, or a book about history, and I receive understanding – is that the Holy Spirit working in me? Does the Holy Spirit leave me when I am not engaged in prayer or Bible reading or other spiritual activities? Does the Spirit come and go, and is the Spirit absent from all non-Christians? What is the substance or essence of the Spirit, and is that linked with thoughts and feelings?

I suppose I think of God as a spiritual being, meaning that His essence is spirit rather than anything physical. I also believe God is omnipresent, which means His spirit (or He as Spirit) is everywhere without exception in existence. One scripture that supports this idea is Acts 17:28, which says, “For in Him we live, and move, and have our being”. It seems to me that this scripture only makes sense if God is a spiritual being. But it does beg the question: How might we describe God the Father ontologically as distinct from God the Holy Spirit?

Hopefully I have touched upon some of the most important aspects of the Holy Spirit as revealed in Scripture in this article (which is by no means exhaustive). In any case, it seems that there are some questions about the nature of the Holy Spirit that Scripture does not answer explicitly. But then maybe God is happy for there to be an element of mystery in relation to this subject. Like so many of God’s mysteries, it may be a subject that only fully makes sense when we have passed on from our earthly existence.

For in-depth discussions about a wide range of matters related to Christian theology, you may be interested in the books I’ve written. To explore my publications, visit the Books page.


    1. Hi Dinos!

      Many thanks for sharing the link from Got Questions. I read the article and there were some interesting points in there that I hadn’t covered in my article. It feels as though it’s a big topic! I’m particularly interested in the way Christians see the relationship between God the Father and God the Holy Spirit, so hopefully we’ll get a few comments on that subject in due course.

      Peace and blessings,



      1. good post
        i believe that pneumatology will be the discipline that will enable fruitful interreligious dialogue as well as effective actions for peace, justice and the integrity of creation in our world. the mysterious ways of the Spirit is beyond our feeble human minds but when we know, sense and live in the Spirit, grace abounds

        Liked by 1 person

  1. Thanks for your insightful post on the Holy Spirit. I am about to start on the Holy Spirit in my “What I Believe” series of posts.I will keep in mind what you have written because it is I think, quite well done.


  2. First here is a comment from another blog post entitled “God is not a Person” Theologically speaking “person-hood” does not require being a “Human Being”. Instead, person-hood is defined as having a will, self-awareness, emotions, being able to recognize others, speaking, etc. It is impossible to deny that God the Father, God the Son {who actually became a Human Being} and God the Holy Spirit individually and as the Triune Godhead meet this criteria. God is a person just not a human being as we are even though we are made in His (plural) image.

    To answer your question about the relationship between God the Father and God the Holy Spirit I would direct you first reading in the original languages and then the following: – London Baptist Confession 1689 Chapter 2 – The Doctrine of the Trinity: No Christianity Without It – Distinguishing Among the Three Persons of the Trinity within the Reformed Tradition (This one is very good because it looks at the argument of language used which is what most people trip over when trying to understand the Trinity)

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Hi there! Thanks for your response to my post.

      I’ve never heard anyone say that they think the Holy Spirit is a human being, and I certainly don’t think that’s an impression I gave in my article, so rest assured we’re on the same page in reference to that.

      If you’re able to provide any insights from the original languages, you’re welcome to do so, and I will read what you have to say with interest. Unfortunately I’m unable to commit to the study or Greek and Hebrew right now as I’m focused on other projects. But yes, feel free to enlighten me if you have specific knowledge that is relevant here.

      Thank you for the links, which I will check out.

      Best wishes,


      Liked by 1 person

  3. Wow Steven, you are digging some deep wells here. Your passion to know more about the Lord is evident. The subject of the Holy Ghost or Holy Spirit is an endless discovery. I heard someone say that if you ever get to the point where you have God “figured out”, He at that point no longer exists. Well, I can assure you that that is an impossibility because God is God and not man (Hosea 11:9).

    My experience in church and such does not speak about the Trinity so much, but focuses on the Oneness of God. God can be likened to water – He exists in three forms (Father, Son, Holy Ghost) like water can be a solid, liquid & gas). But, His essence is One as water is still water whether it be an ice cube, liquid in a glass or steam coming from a boiling kettle. Deep stuff to say the least.

    Take care and “Thank You” for dropping by my blog & the Like. Blessings!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Hi David! Many thanks for reading my post and sharing your thoughts, I appreciate it! Actually, your analogy of God with water is one I have used myself (though in a different context), and I certainly get your meaning 🙂 Blessings upon you too!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Hi Steven,

    Interesting and informative postings. Clearly proof of a mind searching for timeless truths rather than the time-based facts we a bombarded with on a daily basis.

    The following points should be taken as a personal view of the Trinity doctrine and not an attempt to influence others to change their own views on the subject. The English translations of the Holy Bible (many) appear to contain some errors of translation and of grammatical punctuation. Although appearing minor they can give an unintended false interpretation of the original texts.

    There are many people that truly believe that God is a Trinity because their church leaders have taught them that this is what the Scriptures say (2 Corinthians 11:13–15). Do the Scriptures reveal this knowledge?

    The word Trinity does not appear once in the Bible, although 1 John 5:7, is often quoted as proof that God is a Trinity – ‘For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one’.

    I will try to be brief and to the point.

    It did not take long for the true Gospel to be subverted, exemplified by Paul’s message to the Galatians-Galatians 1:6–10

    The Trinity was not a teaching of the early NT Church of God.

    In 325 A.D it was made a part of the teachings of Rome, by Emperor Constantine, at the Council of Nicea. It would appear to be a MAN-MADE teaching. It was also at this Council that the decision was taken to concentrate Roman Christianity on Christ the person rather than on the Word or Gospel that Jesus Christ taught. Many so-called mainstream churches appear to be quite content to continue doing so.

    The Holy Spirit is regarded by many as the third person of the Trinity and perhaps this is not so surprising when, as you state, it is sometimes translated in Scripture as IT, HE and HIM. The Holy Spirit is also referred to as the Comforter, as in John 14:26 (HE) and 16:7-8 (HE)

    The English word Comforter is translated from the Greek – ‘paraklētos’ – meaning – in the widest sense – a helper, succourer, aider, assistant of the Holy Spirit destined to take the place of Christ with the apostles (after his ascension to the Father), to lead them to a deeper knowledge of the gospel truth, and give them divine strength needed to enable them to undergo trials and persecutions on behalf of the divine kingdom.
    Source: Strong’s Concordat

    Normally, the Holy Spirit is referred to as IT in the KJV Bible, but in some passages of Scripture it is personified, therefore the English pronouns HE and HIM are used in conjunction with the word Comforter.

    Apparently, Greek pronouns must agree in gender. Greek ‘paraklētos’ (Comforter) is a masculine noun (gender) and has thus been translated HE and HIM.

    1 Corinthians 2:11 reveals that there is a spirit in man, but this spirit (human spirit) only knows the things of a man. It is not the Holy Spirit and it is not generally regarded as a person (This point is arguable considering the creation of man in two stages in Gen.1&2). It may perhaps be more helpful to understood as an essence? If that is the case, then why is the addition of God’s Holy Spirit to be regarded as a person?

    My understanding so far, is that the essence of God the Father (Holy Spirit) when combined with the spirit essence (human spirit) already in man allows an understanding of spiritual things that otherwise would be deemed foolishness to the natural man – It is the very same Spirit of God the Father that was in Jesus Christ when he lived as a mortal being on this planet. Christ in the flesh was as weak as any other average person, and it was not until He received the gift of the Holy Spirit that He was enabled to fight and overcome the forces that continually attacked Him.

    1 Corinthians 2:14 ‘But the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know [them], because they are spiritually discerned’.

    As I understand it the bestowing of the Holy Spirit upon Jesus Christ did not automatically make Him perfect in all his ways. He was continually praying and seeking spiritual help to overcome all the negative forces that battled against Him then, and battle against us today.


    The Holy Spirit is an unseen essence (spirit) which when combined with our own human spirit allows one to begin understanding the spiritual or unseen mysteries of the God realm.

    Job 32:8 But [there is] a spirit in man: and the inspiration of the Almighty giveth them understanding.),

    It should be noted that there is a distinct difference between the human spirit and the soul; some people mistake the one for the other or even believe they are the same.

    The Holy Spirit is not, to my way of thinking a person, and therefore can not be counted as the third person of a Trinity?

    The bestowing of the Holy Spirit is a gift and can not be obtained through works.
    There are certain qualifications required to enable one to receive the gift, and once received it must be continually renewed – or replenished. It is a dynamic force that needs to be used otherwise it is also possible to lose it. Over time, faults may appear and corrupt practices, deceit and spiritual laziness, can creep into people’s lives.
    Analogous perhaps to an electric lamp – it needs a constant supply of power to do its work effectively. If a fault should develop in the lamp the continuous supply of power can be cut-off – it ceases to flow. It can no longer do that for which it was created and designed to do – illuminate the darkness.

    Just a few thoughts that I hope will be received in a spirit of common faith


    Liked by 1 person

Comments are closed.