The Holy Spirit: Misconceptions and biblical truthWritten by Subby Szterszky
What's inside this article
“The wind blows where it pleases, and you hear its sound, but you don’t know where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.” (John 3:8)
Jesus offered this enigmatic metaphor of the Holy Spirit as he explained the new birth to Nicodemus in the middle of the night. The Spirit, according to Jesus, is sovereign in will, his movements untraceable and his presence detectable only by the effects of his work.
Of the three persons of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit is the most ineffable and mysterious. We have a mental image of Jesus, perhaps even of God the Father, but what about the Spirit? The same might be said of our theology. Christians have developed divergent beliefs about the Holy Spirit, many of them at odds with each other, often rooted in various church traditions as much as in Scripture.
However, it’s to Scripture we must turn if we are to root out our misconceptions and clarify our understanding of the third person of the Trinity.
Third person of the Trinity
Like the Father and the Son, the Holy Spirit is a person, not a thing. This may seem like Theology 101, and yet there are heresies and cults, past and present, that deny the Trinity and insist the Spirit is an impersonal force, more like the Force in Star Wars than the personal God of the Bible. Even as biblically faithful Christians, we may catch ourselves calling the Spirit “it” rather than “he.”
No doubt this is due, at least in part, to the fact that we readily grasp “Father” and “Son” as categories of personal relationship, while we have no human analog for “Holy Spirit.” However, Scripture always portrays the Spirit doing things – willing, speaking, leading, inspiring, empowering, advocating, testifying – that only a person can do.
When we think of the relationships within the Trinity, we typically focus on the Father and the Son, and this is understandable. Jesus had a lot to say about his relationship with the Father, and while much of it remains a mystery, we can resonate with the idea of this ultimate Father-Son connection. But Jesus, like the rest of Scripture, also spoke of the Spirit as an equal third member in this divine relationship. All three persons of the Trinity have existed eternally in a perfect bond of love, of one mind and purpose, each performing distinct yet unified roles in the eternal plans of God.
God’s active agent
The Holy Spirit is first mentioned at the beginning of the creation account in Genesis, hovering over the primordial watery abyss. The Hebrew word for hovering also suggests brooding and contemplation as a prelude to action. All three persons of the Trinity were involved in creation, as they would be in everything else. When creating humanity, God said, “Let us make humanity in our image, according to our likeness.” This wasn’t a royal “we,” but a declaration that our creator is the Triune God. Among other things, being made in his image means being made for relationship with our fellow humans, and with him.
Throughout history, the Holy Spirit has been God’s primary active agent amidst humanity and in the world. The Spirit is the source of life, both human and animal, and causes nature to thrive. Wisdom, knowledge and creativity in all its forms are gifts from the Spirit of God. The Spirit is at work in individuals and societies, convicting of sin, inciting toward good and striving against our sinful inclinations. During Old Testament times, the Holy Spirit empowered kings, judges and other individuals to lead and deliver his people or to perform crucial tasks at key moments in their history.
The most characteristic activity of the Holy Spirit throughout Scripture is to reveal God and speak for him. The prophets received their messages from the Spirit of God and were empowered by him to deliver those messages to God’s people. All of Scripture was written by human authors carried along by the Spirit, the way ships are carried along by the wind across the waves. The words, styles and genres are the authors’ own, but they’re also the words of God, inspired (breathed into them) by the Spirit of God.
Jesus and the Spirit
Jesus is God’s ultimate revelation of himself, the incarnate Son and living Word of God. As such, every aspect of his time on earth was intimately linked with the Holy Spirit. Jesus was conceived in the womb of his mother Mary by the power of the Holy Spirit. When Jesus was baptized, the Spirit descended onto him in a physical appearance like a dove and the Father’s voice called to him from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well-pleased.” All three members of the Trinity were present to inaugurate Jesus’ public ministry.
Immediately following Jesus’ baptism, the Holy Spirit led him into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil for 40 days. At the end of the 40 days, Jesus returned to Galilee by the power of the Spirit to begin his ministry. By humbling himself to take human form with all its limitations, Jesus became dependent on the Spirit in every aspect of his life and work. It was by the power of the Spirit that Jesus taught, performed miracles, cast out demons and perceived the thoughts of others. Everything Jesus did and said was in obedience to his Father, mediated and powered by the Spirit of God.
As he neared the end of his time on earth, Jesus left his disciples with concentrated teaching about the Holy Spirit’s nature and work. He promised he would send them the Holy Spirit from his Father, the same Spirit who was already with them but would now be in them. Also called the Counsellor and the Spirit of Truth, he would comfort them, teach them, lead them into all truth and be with them forever. The Spirit would testify about Jesus and glorify him by taking what the Father had given to Jesus and declaring it to his followers. It’s through the Spirit that the Father and the Son would come to live in the hearts of those who love and obey Jesus.
After he rose from the dead, Jesus breathed the Holy Spirit onto his disciples, thereby opening their minds to understand the Scriptures. Before returning to his Father in heaven, he gave further instructions to his apostles through the Spirit and told them to wait in Jerusalem for the promised baptism in the Spirit, which would empower them to be Jesus’ witnesses to the ends of the earth. In turn, the disciples were to baptize those who believed their message in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, the three equal persons of the one eternal God.
The Spirit and the Church
The book of Acts contains by far the most references to the Holy Spirit in all of Scripture. It’s the account of the birth and growth of the early church, accomplished through the power of the Spirit of God. After Jesus ascended, he sent the Spirit from the Father and poured him out on all people, both women and men. No longer would the Spirit only enter a select few for specific tasks, as in the Old Testament. Now, anyone who believed the message of Jesus’ death and resurrection would receive the Spirit, who would equip and embolden them to testify about Jesus according to Word of God.
The Holy Spirit is the driving force throughout the book of Acts. He made the preaching of the apostles effective, underscored their authority with signs and wonders, and used their message to give spiritual life to all who responded to their words, granting them the gifts of repentance and faith. Also called the Spirit of Christ, he directed all their activities, telling them whom to send where and forbidding them from entering certain territories while leading them into others.
Beyond the Gospels and Acts, the rest of the New Testament elaborates on the ongoing nature of the Holy Spirit’s activities within the Church. As followers of Jesus, we experience the comfort and encouragement of God through the Spirit’s presence in our hearts and receive his assurance that we are daughters and sons of God. When we don’t know how to pray, the Spirit intercedes for us in harmony with the will of God, because he is God.
The Spirit of Christ teaches and sanctifies us through the Word of God, giving us power over sin and conforming us to the image of Jesus, helping us live in a way that pleases our Father. To this end, the Spirit grows his fruit in us: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
So that we can edify our brothers and sisters in Christ, the Holy Spirit gives each of us specific gifts. We receive these gifts not because we pray harder or believe harder, but according to the Spirit’s sovereign will. God is building us into a dwelling for himself by his Spirit. We are individual members of Christ’s body, each of us a temple of the Spirit whom he is shaping and connecting to be unique living stones, part of an edifice where God will live with us forever.
Just as the Holy Spirit was present at the beginning of Genesis, so he is at the end of Revelation. As the Church, the Bride of Christ, anticipates the return of her Lord, the Spirit joins her in crying, “Come!” We also join the Spirit and our brothers and sisters, past and present, to raise our voice: “Amen! Come, Lord Jesus!”
Subby Szterszky is the managing editor of Focus on Faith and Culture, an e-newsletter produced by Focus on the Family Canada.
© 2023 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.
If you liked this article and would like to go deeper, we have some helpful resources below.Our recommended resources
Free advice on marriage, parenting and Christian living delivered straight to your inbox