A white dove in front of blue sky with clouds and a bright sun

What is the Holy Spirit?

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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 makes 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.