The Holy Spirit

Considering his status as one of the three members of the Trinity, equal in power and glory to God the Father and God the Son, it seems to me that the Holy Spirit doesn’t get nearly enough attention in the world today. More so than both of the other two persons of the Trinity, the way that churches teach and approach the subject of the Holy Spirit varies dramatically. Whilst most forms of mainstream Christianity around today (that I’m aware of) are Trinitarian – that means they acknowledge that God is three in one, Father, Son and Spirit – the degree to which the power and work of the Spirit is taught and emphasised in churches around the world varies.

It is rare on this blog that I pin my colours to the mast in such a way as to really say things that might provoke disagreement among Christians. This is because of my strong belief in Christian unity, and my desire to write things that can bring believers of different backgrounds together and (hopefully) encourage a lot of people. However, in this post I can’t do that and be comfortable with myself.

You see, the Holy Spirit is utterly essential to my Christian faith, and I cannot imagine being a Christian without him. As far as I am concerned, the Holy Spirit is the presence and power of the living God on Earth today, and he is the person who enables me to live like Jesus. I come from a background of churches that would, I suppose, be labelled charismatic. This word is so broad that it could mean all sorts of things, but generally it refers to churches that are quite free and open in their expressions of worship, and emphasise the power of the Spirit as a reality today that all Christians can experience. Personally, I wouldn’t want to be in any other sort of church, and yet churches like the ones I’ve been to are sometimes looked down on as ‘happy-clappy’ or ‘emotional’, accused of ignoring the Bible and seeking fleeting experience over a more permanent spiritual truth or something.

I’m not going to say that my church experience is ‘right’, or that the churches I have been to are better than others, but what I do want to show in the rest of this post is that their emphasis on the presence and power of God, in the form of the Holy Spirit, is an important, Biblical teaching.

Now as far as I understand it, a lot of the Biblical teaching on the details of what living with the Holy Spirit looks like are found in the New Testament letters of Paul. He goes into a lot about the gifts and fruits of the Spirit and how the Spirit can change Christians’ lives. Unfortunately, those letters seem to be argued over a lot, with some Christians saying that the teachings about gifts and things aren’t relevant for today (something that I can’t help but find bizarre). So instead of focusing on that here, though Paul’s letters are essential for a fuller understanding of the Spirit, I want to look at Jesus, and I want to simply show how important living with the Spirit was to him. Jesus is, after all, the model that Christians seek to emulate – we are trying to be ‘Christ-like’ – so if he thinks something is important, the chances are it is important.

To show you how the Holy Spirit was central in Jesus’ life and ministry, I’ve got three episodes from his life, all of them right at the start of Jesus’ teaching career, and all of them showing the different ways that the Spirit is important in our lives. The first is Jesus’ baptism. This story, found in Matthew 3, Mark 1, Luke 3 and John 1, shows the Spirit of God descending on Jesus as he is baptised. According to Luke the Spirit had ‘bodily form’, and John records that he was not only visible to Jesus, but at the very least to John the Baptist as well. John the Baptist goes on to say that ‘this is he who baptises with the Holy Spirit’ (John 1:33). What’s going on here? For me, this episode shows the centrality of the Spirit at the start of Jesus’ ministry, and, by extension, at the start of a Christian’s ministry (i.e. their life as a representative of God). That baptism of the Spirit, mentioned in John, is something that Jesus has made possible for all believers, and it shows how the Holy Spirit is linked to the cleansing and changing of a person that baptism represents. I want to spend more time on this, but my word count restricts me, so on to the next passage!

The next passage is the Spirit’s role in leading Jesus into the desert. This is explicitly mentioned in Matthew 4, Mark 1 and Luke 4 (where Luke writes that Jesus was not only ‘led by the Spirit’, but ‘full of the Holy Spirit’). I don’t want to go into the temptations of the desert now, what I want to draw your attention to is the leading of the Spirit. Even Jesus, God himself, followed the guidance of the Spirit, which says something to me about how the Spirit represents God’s will and power on earth. The wording of Luke is also telling, as it confirms what was written in John 1 of the Spirit remaining with Jesus, and filling him up. I do want to bring Paul in here, because Paul confirms that this is not something extra special for Jesus, as it might appear in the gospels, but something for all believers, when he writes in Romans 8:11 that this Spirit also ‘dwells in you’ (you being the Christian reader of the letter). What this passage shows us is the ongoing importance of the Spirit in the life of a Christian, as he guides us and shows us where God wants us to be.

The final passage is found in Luke 4. When Jesus returns from the desert, Luke records that he went to the synagogue in his home town of Nazareth, and there he read some of the words written by the prophet Isaiah, several centuries before. Jesus says this:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.”

That’s pretty powerful. What I want to show from this is that it was the Spirit that was upon Jesus, and the Spirit that anointed Jesus (i.e. made him ready) to carry out his mission. But wait, isn’t this Jesus’ special Messianic mission? Partly. But remember that Jesus also said that whoever believes in him will do the same works that he did (John 14:12). How is this possible? We’re not strong enough on our own – and Jesus had the anointing of the Spirit! But we’re not alone, and we have that same Spirit. Jesus says that he will ask the Father to send a Helper, the Spirit of truth, who will dwell with us and be in us (John 14:16-17). Some argue that the work of the Spirit in this way ended with Biblical times, but Jesus makes it clear that whoever believes in him will do those works. That doesn’t seem very limited to me! What this all shows us is how important the Spirit is in providing strength and power to God’s followers so that we can carry out the work he has for us.

So those three passages from Jesus life show, on their own, how the Spirit is essential in the start of a Christian’s walk with God, in guiding us, and in giving us the strength to do God’s will, and there is so much more on the Spirit that I haven’t even touched on! This is why I believe in the presence and power of God today – the Spirit. It is so clear to me that he is an integral part of the Christian walk, and that the power that he gave to Jesus and the early church is still available for whoever believes in Jesus. To know God fully is to have him dwell with you, and that is the Holy Spirit. As one speaker I heard recently put it, the Spirit has become Emmanuel – God with us. And what is a Christian life without God?

2 Comments Add yours

  1. John Nelson says:

    Something that confuses me about the Trinity / the Christian doctrine of the Holy Spirit, is that the Israelites in the OT period would not (I’m assuming) have viewed the Holy Spirit as a separate person in a monotheistic ‘Godhead’. This makes me wonder whether the Jewish NT writers would have viewed Him as a separate person? (I know this is modalism!) I wonder whether you had any thoughts on this?

  2. bengarry says:

    Well I suppose (and this is just from my own reading of the Bible) that in looking from the OT to the NT we need to allow for a development in theology because of the way that Jesus shook up the Jewish Christians’ understanding of their religion. Someone like Paul, for example, would no doubt have a different idea of who God is to his ancestors in the exile, simply through having encountered Jesus and his teachings. I guess that one of the things that the first Jewish Christians had to get their heads round was the fact that God could appear in a way that they didn’t expect, and walk and suffer alongside them. I’m nowhere near enough of a theologian or historian to say exactly how Trinitarian the first Jewish Christians and NT writers were, though I’m aware that the doctrine of the Trinity developed in the first few centuries AD, but it doesn’t seem too much of a stretch to me, in light of Jesus’ teachings and actions, that the Jewish Christians could have had the capacity to view the Holy Spirit in more or less the way we do within orthodox Western Trinitarianism now. It definitely seems to me from my OT reading that the concept of God’s Spirit being active among people, guiding and anointing them, was widespread before Jesus came, so I can see how that might be developed into an understanding of the Trinitarian person, just as Jesus’ identity became understood to be part of the Godhead. It would be interesting to hear what you think on this, as this is just the first thing that came to mind for me!

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