The Holy Spirit

Myths of Multiple Gods

Many ancient mythologies describe multiple gods. The Greeks had Zeus, Hera, Apollo and Ares. The Norse myths told of Odin, Frigga, Balder and Thor. Though the origins of these myths have been lost to history, one idea of how they developed so many gods begins with the many different qualities that God has. Because God is at once strong, wise and gentle, He might be called Warrior, King and Shepherd, with the understanding that these are not separate persons or gods, but simply various qualities of the one God, described symbolically by different names. But as ages passed, the idea of God’s unity was lost, and each archetype came to be seen as a separate god. In this way, what were once true symbolic descriptions of God evolved into polytheism and idolatry.

In the Bible, there are many names for God. Isaiah says, “Unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given, …and His name shall be called Wonderful, Counselor, the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9.6). Clearly these names all refer to the same Child. No one would think that because many names are used they refer to different people. The most important teaching in the Bible is that God is One (Deuteronomy 6.4; Mark 12.29; Exodus 20.3; 23.13; Deuteronomy 4.35, 39; 5.7; 1 Samuel 2.2; 2 Samuel 7.22; 1 Chronicles 17.20; Isaiah 45.6; 45.21; 47.8). If we start thinking of the separate names for God or symbols of God’s qualities as distinct beings or persons, we are moving away from thinking of One God towards the worship of multiple persons, such as we find in the Greek and Norse mythologies.

The Meaning of “Spirit”

One of the names referring to God is the “Holy Spirit.” Because God is called Father, Son and Holy Spirit, some people have considered each separately to be God, thus separating God into three People. A careful look at the Bible will show us not this myth-like conception of God as three People, but the Spirit as the activity and influence, words and breath of the One Person who is God.

In Hebrew and Greek the words for “spirit” are the same as the words for “breath” and “wind.” In fact even in English our word “spirit” comes from a Latin word meaning breath. “Inspiration” and “respiration” have the same root. This is no mistake. From the earliest times people could see the connection between breath and active life. When a person’s body stops breathing, it also becomes inactive and dies. Breath is the outward manifestation of activity and life. This intimate connection between breath and active life is the reason why the same word is used for both “spirit” and “breath” in Hebrew (ruach) and in Greek (pneuma).

This sometimes creates a problem for translators. In many passages, a translator must choose whether to use the Word “spirit” or the word “breath” when the original language actually means both of those. For example, in the Gospel of John we read, “The wind (pneuma) blows (pnei) where it wills, and you hear its sound but you do not know where it is coming from and where it is going. Everyone who has been born of the Spirit (or Wind—pneuma) is like this” (John 3.8). This same passage could be translated, “The Breath breathes where it wills…. Everyone who has been born of the Breath is like this.” Or we could say, “The Spirit inspires where it wills…. Everyone who has been born of the Spirit is like this.”

Everyone Has A Spirit

Every person has a soul, a body and a spirit. (1 Thessalonians 5.23, compare Hebrews 4.12, Job 7.11). The soul is the inward invisible part of a person. The body is the outward visible part of a person. The spirit is the active life of the soul within the body. The soul does not communicate directly with another, but communicates through the body. The soul needs the body in order to express itself. Yet even with soul and body together there is no communication if the body is mute and inactive. A body which is breathing and active can speak and communicate. The breath or spirit gives the body a voice. Through our spirit, that is through our activity, breath and speech, our thoughts and feelings can be shared with others.

Just as every person has breath, everyone has a spirit. For example, the Bible mentions the spirit of Pharaoh (Genesis 41.8), the spirit of Joseph (Genesis 45.27), the spirit of Caleb (Numbers 14.24), Sihon king of Heshbon (Deuteronomy 2.30), Samson (Judges 15.19), Hannah (1 Samuel 1.15), Ahab (1 Kings 21.5), Elijah (2 Kings 2.9), Pul and Tilgathpilneser, kings of Assyria (1 Chronicles 5.26), the Philistines (2 Chronicles 21.16), Job (Job 6.4; 7.11) and Zerubbabel (Haggai 1.14). The Bible speaks of the spirit of each of these people, but never is there the slightest hint that we should think of a person’s spirit as being a different individual from the person himself.

Of course, there is a distinction between me and my spirit, just as there is a difference between me and my breath. Consequently we have passages that mention a person’s spirit as something distinct from the person, such as when David says, “My spirit is overwhelmed within me” (Psalms 77.3; 142.3; 143.4, and when Job speaks of “the anguish of my spirit” (Job 7.11). The Bible says a person’s spirit is gone when the person is tired, hungry, thirsty or afraid, or unconscious, and the spirit returns when the person revives (Judges 15.19, 1 Samuel 30.12, Joshua 5.1, Genesis 45.27, Psalms 143.7).

The Spirit Is Not Another Person

This is vital to understanding the Holy Spirit. Throughout the Bible, God is pictured as a Person — not as an ordinary mortal of course, but as an infinite and eternal Divine Person. Consequently the Bible speaks of God’s hands and feet, His eyes and face, His mouth and speech, and His breath or Spirit. A great deal of confusion about the Holy Spirit arises from not understanding that the spirit is a part of a person. Some people think of God as three Persons. But if each person has a mouth and breath, active life and spirit, three Persons would imply three mouths breathing and three spirits speaking: the spirit of the Father, the spirit of the Son, and the spirit of the Holy Spirit. At best this is confusing; at worst it leaves a person thinking of three Gods.

It is much simpler if we understand that each of us has been created in the image and likeness of God. Just as each of us has an invisible soul, a visible body and an active spirit in one person, so God has within Him the Trinity of the invisible “Father,” the visible “Son” and the active Spirit and life coming forth from them. Thoughout the Bible, the Spirit of God is pictured not as a separate person, but as the breath of God. Notice the connection between “spirit” and “breath”:

  • He that gives breath to the people upon [the earth], and spirit to those who walk in it. (Isaiah 42.5)
  • All the while my breath is in me, and the Spirit of God is in my nostrils… (Job 27.3)
  • The Spirit of God has made me, and the breath of the Almighty has given me life. (Job 33.4)
  • The grass withers, the flower fades: because the Spirit of the LORD blows upon it: surely the people is grass. (Isaiah 40.7)

The Spirit Is the Word, the Truth

Since the breath that goes out of us is what gives us speech, the Breath or Spirit of the Lord is identified with His speech, thus His Word and His Truth. Jesus calls it “the Spirit of Truth” (John 14.17; 15.26; 16.13). Other passages are similar:

The true worshipers shall worship the Father in Spirit and in truth. (John 4.23)

And it is the Spirit that bears witness, because the Spirit is truth. (1 John 5.6)

The Spirit of the Lord spoke by me, and His Word was in my tongue. (2 Samuel 23.2)

By the Word of the Lord were the heavens made; and all the host of them by the breath of His mouth. (Psalm 33:6)

My Spirit that is upon you, and My Words which I have put in your mouth, shall not depart out of thy mouth… (Isaiah 59.21)

And the Spirit of the Lord shall rest on Him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the Lord. (Isaiah 11.2)

While Peter yet spoke these words, the Holy Spirit fell on all those who heard the Word. (Acts 10.44)

For it is not you that speaks, but the Spirit of your Father which speaks in you. (Matthew 10.20)

For He whom God has sent speaks the words of God: for God does not give the Spirit by measure to Him. (John 3.34)

The words that I speak to you, they are Spirit, and they are life. (John 6.63. See also Ephesians 1.17; 6.17; Ezekiel 11.5; Isaiah 61.1; Luke 4.18)

The Spirit of Jesus Christ

One of the reasons for confusion about the Trinity is that people have taken literally words that Jesus meant to be taken figuratively. When Jesus spoke to His disciples about the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, He said, “These things I have spoken to you in figurative language; but the time is coming when I will no longer speak you in figurative language, but I will tell you plainly about the Father” (John 16.25). Using this figurative language Jesus sometimes speaks of the Holy Spirit almost as if it were another person. “It is to your advantage that I go away; for if I do not go away, the Comforter will not come to you; but if I depart, I will send Him to you…. I go to My Father and you see Me no more… I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. However when He, the Spirit of truth, has come, He will guide you into all truth; for He will not speak on His own, but whatever He hears He will speak; and He will tell you things to come. He will glorify Me for He will take of what is Mine and declare it to you. All things that the Father has are Mine. Therefore I said that He will take of Mine and declare it to you” (John 16.7-15). The gender of the pronouns referring to the Spirit in this passage in the Greek is ambiguous. It might be translated, “…when It, the Spirit of truth has come, It will guide you into all truth; for It will not speak on Its own.…” So it is when we hear a voice carried to us by a wind or breath, the wind or breath does not speak on its own–it simply relays to us whatever was spoken. This passage really does not portray the Spirit as a separate person, for one who cannot speak anything for himself, but only say what he has heard, is not an independent person, but rather a projection or voice of the person for whom it speaks. In fact the Bible nowhere describes the Holy Spirit as a person. The Spirit is symbolized by breath, wind (John 3.8, Isaiah 40.7 Acts 2.2), fire (Matthew 3.11; Luke 3.16; Acts 2.3) and a dove (Matthew 3.16; Mark 1.10; Luke 3.22; John 1.32), but we are never given a picture of the Holy Spirit as a person other than Jesus.

Jesus closely identifies the Holy Spirit with Himself. He says,

I will pray the Father, and He will give you another Comforter, that He may abide with you forever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees Him nor knows Him; but you know Him, for He dwells with you and will be in you. I will not leave you comfortless; I will come to you. A little while longer than the world will see Me no more, but you will see me. Because I live, you will live also. At that day you will know that I am in My Father, and He in Me, and I in you. (John 14.16-20)

Jesus says that the Comforter will come to them, and says that He Himself
will come and comfort them. Jesus says that the Spirit will be in them, and immediately after says that in that day He Himself will be in them. He says that they already know the Spirit of truth because He is living with them, yet in what way do they know the Spirit, and in what way is the Spirit living with them, except as Jesus Himself? This is why the Holy Spirit is called “the Spirit of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1.19; see also Romans 8.9; 1 Peter 1.11).

Jesus’ promise that they would receive the Holy Spirit was fulfilled in part after His resurrection when He commissioned His disciples. “He breathed on them, and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit’” (John 20.22). The same phrase could be translated, “Receive the Holy Breath.” Of course, the breath of Jesus was symbolic of all His words, and of all His activity and life, of His own Spirit. “The Holy Spirit” is the best translation here, but the point is that the disciples were not to think of the Holy Spirit as the influence of some third Person, but as the influence of Jesus Christ Himself. When Jesus breathes His Life and Spirit into us it is He Himself who becomes present with us, not some other Person. So if we ask the question, “Who is the Spirit?” The answer is clear: “The Lord is the Spirit” (2 Corinthians 3.17). “Who is the Comforter?” “We have a Comforter… Jesus Christ” (1 John 2.1). Like a gentle breeze or a warm breath, Jesus Christ’s Holy Spirit surrounds and inspires all who are open to receive Him.