Getting to know the Holy Spirit

Matthew 22:35-36

According to tradition, the great fourth century Christian theologian Augustine of Hippo was walking along the beach one day, puzzling over the doctrine of the Trinity, the idea that God is one being known to us as three Persons.  After a while, Augustine observed a young boy running back and forth between the shore and a small hole he had dug in the sand, pouring water from a bucket into the hole.

“What are you doing?” Augustine asked, and the boy replied, “I’m trying to put the ocean in this hole!”  And Augustine realised he had been trying to put an infinite God into his finite mind.

When an expert in the law confronted Jesus with the question, “Teacher, what is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus replied, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” (Matthew 22:35-36).

Perhaps Jesus alone fulfilled that command to the complete satisfaction of God.  Yet obedience to it is every person’s responsibility.  How should we obey this command of Jesus?

The New Testament teaches that we may know and love God as three divine Persons: the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Put very simply, the Bible teaches that God the Father is the immortal deity “who lives in unapproachable light” (1 Timothy 6:16).  Jesus, the Son of God, is the carpenter from Nazareth who died and rose again, and is now exalted in heaven at the right hand of the Father (Hebrews 1:3b).  The God who is with us is the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Christ.

Jesus ascended into heaven after his resurrection (Acts 1:6-9).  At Pentecost (Acts 2), the Holy Spirit descended in a once-for-all event, and has since ministered in the world and the church as the effective representative of Christ.  The New Testament teaches that the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Jesus (Romans 8:9; Galatians 4:6; Philippians 1:19).  If you have been born again into God’s family, Jesus is with you because the Holy Spirit brings the presence of Christ into your life.

But who (or what) is this Holy Spirit?  And what does the Holy Spirit do?  Attending a dramatic presentation of the Apostles’ Creed at a local school, a journalist watched eagerly as the first young student stood up and said, “I believe in God the Father Almighty.”

A second child rose and announced, “I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord.”  There was a long, uncomfortable pause.  Finally, a little girl raised her hand and said, “Excuse me, the boy who believes in the Holy Spirit isn’t here today!”

Many in the church today seem to have side-lined the Holy Spirit, eliminating the Spirit from conversations, sermons, prayers and songs.  Some churches emphasise experience to the detriment of biblical truth; others emphasise truth to the virtual exclusion of the valid and vital ministry of the Holy Spirit in the lives of those who follow Jesus.

The Spirit of God is often portrayed by popular culture as force, or as a projection of human religious consciousness.  Take, for example, the Star Wars trilogy – Darth Vader, Luke Skywalker, “May the force be with you!” – an impersonal force or energy, consistent with the ancient Zoroastrian philosophy to which I understand the script writers were committed.

Christian cults often promote similar thinking, denying the personality of the Holy Spirit.  The Jehovah’s Witness cult, for example, teaches that the Holy Spirit is an invisible, active, impersonal force of God.

But if the Holy Spirit is no more than force or energy, you can’t love him!  Have you ever had a love affair with electricity?  It’s absurd.  If I said, “I love you,” and I don’t know you, it would be a shallow comment. It’s only when I really know you as a person that I can genuinely express love toward you.  It’s the same with the Holy Spirit.

And yet, it is hard to fully comprehend what the Holy Spirit is like, and what the Spirit does, by way of our limited minds. Biblical images of the Holy Spirit include the force of wind, the intimacy of breathing, the instincts of a dove, the energy of fire, strong comfort, and the fragrant balm of oil.[1]  Of these, the most frequently used words for the Holy Spirit are ruach in the Old Testament, and pneuma in the New Testament, although these words do not overtly describe personality.

But we believe the New informs the Old, and that greater light comes with Christ.  Do the New Testament documents view the Old Testament “breath, wind, force, spirit” as having personality?

Yes.  For example, Jesus says to his followers in John 16:7, “Unless I go away, the Counsellor will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you.”  He could legitimately have used the word ‘it,’ but he chose instead to use the personal pronoun ‘him,’ denoting personality.

Further, the title Jesus uses for the Holy Spirit (“Counsellor” in the NIV) denotes a personal advocate who comes alongside and helps us in the midst of our struggles and temptations and trials.  No impersonal force or energy could do the work of this Counsellor.

In Matthew 12:32, Jesus says that the sin of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven.  How can you blaspheme against an impersonal force?  Blasphemy is, by definition, an action against God.

In Acts 5:3, Peter accuses Ananias of lying to the Holy Spirit.  Have you ever tried lying to energy?  Peter unequivocally declares, “You have not lied to men but to God” (verse 4b).

In Romans 8:27 and 1 Corinthians 2:11, the Spirit has a mind.  In Ephesians 4:30, Paul says, “Do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God.”  I can’t cause sorrow, pain or distress to energy.  I can only grieve a person.

The Holy Spirit is also given equal place with the Father and the Son in the ‘Trinity statements’ of the Great Commission (Matthew 28:19) and Paul’s benediction in 2 Corinthians 13:14.

The biblical evidence is clear: the Holy Spirit is a person.  But more than this: the Holy Spirit is God, just as Jesus Christ is God and the Father is God.

In contrast to biblical theology, many religious cults deny the deity of the Holy Spirit, and their evangelists may try to prove from John’s Gospel that the Spirit is sent to serve the Son, while the Son acknowledges that the Father is greater than himself.  Theologians call this subordinationism, and it results from confusing status and role.

If I said to you, “Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard is greater than I am,” you would say, “Yes, that’s right!”  Why?  Because she is greater in her role than I am in my role as an ethicist or as a minister of the gospel. But as a person, Julia Gillard has no greater or lesser dignity, or status, or human rights than I possess.

When the Bible refers to the Holy Spirit serving the Son, or the Son serving the Father, their roles may be said to be subordinate, but their status is equal.  The Holy Spirit is a person, and the Holy Spirit is God.

Why does all this matter?  First, it is OK to worship the Holy Spirit.  In AD 381 the Council of Constantinople declared, with biblical justification, “We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the life-giving, who proceeds from the Father, who is to be glorified with the Father and the Son.”

We don’t often worship the Holy Spirit in evangelical churches today. At a previous church I attended, whenever we sang the song in praise of the Trinity, titled “Father, we love you, we praise you, we adore you,” the majority of the congregation would change the words of the last line of the third verse to, “Glorify Christ’s name in all the earth.”

Why were they uncomfortable glorifying the Holy Spirit?  Perhaps they were uncomfortable or insecure, or they misinterpreted of John 16:13, but certainly not because the Bible prohibits Christians from glorifying the name of one of the three persons of the Trinity!  I believe it is good to worship, honour, glorify and pray to the Holy Spirit.

Second, we can grieve the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 4:30).  At work in our lives is not impersonal energy but a person who is shaping, guiding and directing our paths. When we turn our back on that work of the Holy Spirit, we grieve the Spirit.  I suggest the Holy Spirit, like Jesus, knows what it is to weep.

How do you grieve the Holy Spirit?  If you’re not a Christian, you grieve him by denying the Spirit the right to enter your life as you claim Jesus as your Lord and Saviour.  Christians can grieve the Holy Spirit by not opening their lives to the Spirit’s ministry in or through us, such as sanctification, or evangelism, or justice, or caring ministry.

The primary role of the Holy Spirit in the lives of Christians is to make us more like Jesus.  Anything we do that prevents or impedes that process of sanctification may grieve the Spirit.

Third, we know that God’s power lies within us: not according to New Age philosophy, or popular psychology, but according to biblical theology.  Life may be challenging or difficult, it may be boring or uneventful, but the power that lies (perhaps untapped) within you as a Christian is the power of God himself!

It is not empty hype to say, “I can overcome my fears or my addiction.”

It is not empty hype to say, “I can go out on the street and share boldly about the difference Jesus makes in my life.”

It is not empty hype to say, “This church will expand and grow, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”

It is only empty hype if the God within you is not God.

It is my prayer that you and I, and every Christian in Sydney today, will get to know the Holy Spirit better day by day, and in doing so become more and more like Jesus.


Sermon 616 copyright © 2013 Rod Benson. Preached at Mosman Baptist Church, Sydney, Australia, on Sunday 23 June 2012. Unless otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, New International Version (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011).

[1]  “Holy Spirit,” in Dictionary of Biblical Imagery (ed. L. Ryken; Downers Grove: IVP, 1998) 390.

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