The Spirit in Hebrew Scriptures
The word “spirit” appears in Hebrew scriptures over two hundred times, but many times it is not the “spirit of God,” but an evil spirit or the spirit of an individual.
Let us examine several mentions of God’s spirit in Hebrew scriptures.
During the creation process in Genesis, the writer had God say, “My spirit shall not abide in mortals forever…” (Genesis 6.3).
God told Moses that he had filled Bezalel with “divine spirit” so he could devise the plans, designs, and craftsmanship to build the tent of meeting and all its furnishings, the ark of the covenant, and the mercy seat (Exodus 31.3; also see Exodus 35.31).
When Moses appointed seventy elders of Israel, God “came down” and put of his spirit on the elders. Once the spirit rested on them, they prophesied (Numbers 11.25).
Balaam realized that it pleased the LORD to bless Israel. When he saw all the tribes of Israel camping, “the spirit of God came upon him” and he spoke an oracle (Numbers 24:2).
During the cycle of Judges who ruled Israel, “the spirit of the LORD came upon” Othniel, one of the judges (Judges 3:10). Later “the spirit of the LORD took possession of Gideon” who called the Abiezrites to follow him (Judges 6:34). Subsequently, “the spirit of the LORD came upon Jephthah” (Judges 11:29).
The same expression – “the spirit of the LORD” – was what enabled Samson to tear a lion apart with his bare hands (Judges 14:6). Later in the Samson story “the spirit of the LORD rushed on him” so he could kill thirty men of Ashkelon (Judges 14:19). “The spirit of the LORD rushed on him” again so the Philistine ropes on his hands melted off (Judges 15:14).
Samuel told Saul that “the spirit of the LORD” would possess him and he would “be in a prophetic frenzy” and turn into a different person (1 Samuel 10:6). He fell into another prophetic frenzy when “the spirit of God possessed him” on the way to Gibeah (1 Samuel 10:10). Another instance, when Saul received a message from the inhabitants of Jabesh, “the spirit of God came upon” him and he became very angry (1 Samuel 11:6). In 1 Samuel 19:20, “the spirit of God” inhabited Saul’s messengers and they “fell into a prophetic frenzy.” Similarly in 1 Samuel 19:23, “the spirit of God came upon” Saul on the way to Naioth in Ramah and “he fell into a prophetic frenzy.”
When Samuel anointed David “the spirit of the LORD came mightily upon” him “from that day forward.” The “spirit of the LORD” left Saul and “an evil spirit from the LORD tormented him” (1 Samuel 16:13-16). There are several other mentions of “the evil spirit from God” that plagued Saul (see 1 Samuel 16.23, 18:10, 19:9).
During David’s last words, he said, “The spirit of the LORD speaks through me, his word is upon my tongue” (2 Samuel 23:2).
In 1 Kings 18:12, Obadiah tells Elijah that he doesn’t know where “the spirit of the LORD” will carry him.
In 2 Kings 2:16, after Elijah was taken to heaven in a fiery chariot by a whirlwind, the prophets of Jericho told Elisha to find Elijah. They thought “the spirit of the LORD” had done something to him.
In second Chronicles, “the spirit of God” came upon or took possession of various individuals (2 Chronicles 15.1; 20:14; 24:20).
Job tells Bildad that as long as he has breath “and the spirit of God” was in him, he would not speak falsehoods or utter deceit (Job 27:3). Later another of Job’s friends, Elihu, said, “The spirit of God has made me, and the breath of the Almighty gives me life” (Job 33:4).
In Psalm 51:11, “holy spirit” was used for the first time, but it is not in capital letters: “Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me.”
Psalm 104:30 speaks of God’s spirit creating all things.
Psalm 139:7 tells us that wherever we go we cannot escape God’s spirit.
Isaiah speaks of several “spirits” in this one verse: “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 the fear of the LORD” (Isaiah 11:2).
The LORD has put his spirit upon his servant and he will bring justice to all nations (Isaiah 42:1).
The LORD tells Jacob he will pour his spirit upon his descendants and bless his offspring (Isaiah 44:3).
The LORD declares his covenant to Zion: “My spirit that is upon you, and my words that I have put in your mouth, shall not depart out of your mouth, or out of the mouths of your children, or out of the mouths of your children’s children… from now on and forever” (Isaiah 59:21).
An anonymous prophetic figure said: “The spirit of the LORD GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners…” (Isaiah 61:1).
The people of Edom rebelled and grieved God’s “holy spirit,” so he considered them his enemy and “he himself fought against them.” Later they remembered Moses who shepherded his flock and put God’s “holy spirit” within them (Isaiah 63:10-11).
The “spirit of the LORD” fell on Ezekiel and the LORD told him what the house of Israel was thinking (Ezekiel 11:5). The LORD says he would put his spirit within Israel and make them follow his statutes and observe his ordinances (Ezekiel 36:27). The hand of the LORD came upon Ezekiel and the spirit of the LORD set him down in a valley full of bones (Ezekiel 37:1; Ezekiel’s dry bones). The LORD promised to put his spirit within the whole house of Israel, and he would place them on their own soil; then they would know that he is the LORD (Ezekiel 37:14).
The LORD your GOD promises to pour out his “spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions.” GOD even promises to pour out his spirit on the male and female slaves (Joel 2:28-29).
Micah, who is “filled with power, with the spirit of the LORD, and with justice and might,” pointed out their transgressions and sins to Jacob and the rulers of the house of Israel (Micah 3:8).
Zechariah scolded the Israelites for their adamant hearts that would not hear the law or the words that the LORD of hosts sent by his spirit through the prophets (Zechariah 7:12).
The Spirit in the New Testament
There are well over one hundred passages that refer to the spirit or Holy Spirit in the New Testament. So what can we learn about the Holy Spirit from those passages?
While Mary was engaged to Joseph, she was found to be with child from or by “the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 1:18).
An angel told Mary that the Holy Spirit would come upon her so her child would be holy (Luke 1:35). When the eight-day-old Jesus was taken to the Temple in Jerusalem for his circumcision and presentation, there was a righteous and devout man there named Simeon “and the Holy Spirit rested on him” (Luke 2:25).
Before John was born, an angel told Zechariah that Elizabeth that “even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit” (Luke 1:15). When Mary visited Zechariah and Elizabeth, Elizabeth “was filled with the Holy Spirit” (Luke 1:41) and Zechariah was also filled with the Holy Spirit and he prophesied (Luke 1:67).
John the Baptizer said his baptisms with water were for repentance, but he assured his followers that someone more powerful would come to baptize them with the Holy Spirit (Matthew 3:11; also see Acts 1:5). After John baptized Jesus, the “Spirit,” not specifically “the Holy Spirit,” descended on him like a dove (Mark 1:10; Matthew 3:1; Luke 3:22; and John 1:32-34). Afterward, that same “Spirit” either led or drove him into the wilderness to be tempted (Mark 1:12; Matthew 4:1; and Luke 4:1).
Matthew quoted Isaiah: “I will put my Spirit upon him, and he will proclaim justice to the Gentiles” (Matthew 12:18b).
Luke quoted Isaiah: “The Spirit of the LORD is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor” (Luke 4:18).
Jesus said if his ability to cast out demons was through the Spirit of God, then the kingdom of God had arrived (Matthew 12:28).
If anyone blasphemes against the Holy Spirit, it is an eternal sin that cannot be forgiven (Mark 3:29; Matthew 12:31-32; and Luke 12:10).
When Jesus sent his disciples out, he warned them that they would most likely be arrested. However, he assured them that when they were brought to trial, the Holy Spirit would instruct them what to say (Mark 13:11; Matthew 10:20). Later, Jesus gives the disciples what is called “the Great Commission” – “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit…” (Matthew 28:19; Acts 1:8). Jesus also told the disciples that he would ask God to give them “another Advocate” to be with them forever. This Advocate “is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him” (John 14:16-17; similar to John 15:26). When this Spirit of truth arrives, it will guide them to the truth (John 16:13). According to the fourth gospel, after his resurrection, Jesus breathed on the disciples and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit” (John 20:22). Luke says in Acts 1:2 that Jesus gave instructions “through the Holy Spirit to the apostles” before he ascended into heaven.
According to Luke, Jesus said God will “give the Holy Spirit to those who ask” (Luke 11:13).
Jesus told Nicodemus, one of the Jewish leaders, that “no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit” (John 3:5-6).
Jesus told a Samaritan woman that “God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth” (John 4:24).
There are mentions of the Spirit in the Hebrew Scriptures and as early in the New Testament as prior to Jesus’ birth, but John’s gospel says there wasn’t a Spirit yet, because Jesus had not yet been glorified (John 7:39).
Peter claimed “the Holy Spirit through David” (in the Psalms apparently) predicted that Judas would become “a guide for those who arrested Jesus” (Acts 1:16).
Several of the disciples (Peter, John, James, Andrew, Philip, Thomas, Bartholomew, Matthew, James son of Alphaeus, Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James), Mary, Jesus’ mother, and his brothers entered Jerusalem and “went to a room upstairs where they were staying” (Acts 1:12-14). On the day of Pentecost, they were all together in the room upstairs when “suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind” and they became “filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability” (Acts 2:1-4). “Pentecost” is a Greek word that means fifty. It was a Jewish feast that began on the fiftieth day after the Passover.
Peter, speaking to the many Jews who had journeyed to Jerusalem for the feast, quoted Joel 2:28 to give an apocalyptic message that during the last days God would pour out his Spirit on everyone, and their sons and daughters would prophesy, their young men would see visions, and their old men would dream dreams (Acts 2:17). Peter also told his listeners that they must repent and be baptized “in the name of Jesus Christ” so their sins could be forgiven and they would receive “the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38). After Peter prayed, the place where they were gathered “was shaken” and they became “filled with the Holy Spirit…” (Acts 4:31).
After Peter had scolded Ananias for withholding proceeds of a land sale (“Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit”), he asked Sapphira, Ananias’ wife, how they agreed to test “the Spirit of the LORD” (Acts 5:3, 9).
The disciples instructed the Greek-speaking Jewish Christians (Hellenists) to select seven good men who were “full of the Spirit and of wisdom” as the first deacons. They chose “Stephen, a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit” and six others. Some former slaves argued with Stephen, but they could not compete with “the wisdom and the Spirit with which he spoke” (Acts 6:3, 5, 10).
During one of Stephen’s speeches, he chastised Israel past and present for resisting the Holy Spirit. He called them “stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears.” A few verses later, “filled with the Holy Spirit, he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God” (Acts 7:51, 55).
Peter and John prayed for the Samaritan converts that they might receive the Holy Spirit, because as yet none of them had received the Spirit. Once Peter and John laid their hands on them, they received the Holy Spirit (Acts 8:15-17).
One of the chosen deacons, Philip, was instructed by the Spirit to “Go over to this chariot and join it.” Immediately after Philip had baptized the Ethiopian eunuch, “the Spirit of the LORD snatched Philip away” (Acts 8:29, 39).
After Saul’s Damascus road conversion, he was blind for three days. Ananias went to Saul, laid his hands on him and told him that Jesus had sent him so he might regain his sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit (Acts 9:17). After Saul’s conversion, the church in Judea, Galilee, and Samaria was quite successful. “Living in the fear of the LORD and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it increased in numbers” (Acts 9:31b).
During Peter’s first sermon to the Gentiles, he proclaimed that “God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power.” During his sermon, the Holy Spirit fell on all who heard him speak. The Jewish believers who had accompanied Peter were amazed that the Holy Spirit had been given even to the Gentiles. They agreed that these Gentiles who had received the Holy Spirit had just as much right to be baptized as they did (Acts 10:38, 44, 45, 47).
Peter defended the baptism of the Gentiles before the Jerusalem church by telling them that “the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us.” And he reminded them that Jesus had said, “John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 11:15-16). On another occasion, after much debate among the apostles and elders concerning the Gentiles, Peter said, “God, who knows the human heart, testified to them by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as he did to us” (Acts 15:6-8).
In Antioch, the great Gentile center of the church, several prophets and teachers were together praying and fasting in preparation for a missionary journey, when the Holy Spirit instructed them to commission Barnabas and Saul for their mission. Having being sent forth by the Holy Spirit, they departed in obedience. Saul, whose name was now Paul, filled with the discernment by the Holy Spirit pronounced judgment on Elymas, Bar-Jesus, the instrument of Satan (Acts 13:2, 4, 9).
Paul and Barnabas were driven out of some regions, but they simply “shook the dust off their feet” and were filled with joy and the Holy Spirit (Acts 13:52).
In Ephesus, Paul asked if they had received the Holy Spirit when they became believers, but they had never even heard of the Holy Spirit. Later, “when Paul had laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came upon them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied” (Acts 19:2, 6).
The Spirit finally allowed Paul to return to Jerusalem, but the Holy Spirit warned him that he faced imprisonment and persecution in every city along the way. In Tyre, the Spirit warned Paul again not to go to Jerusalem. Agabus bound his feet and hands with Paul’s belt to illustrate how the Holy Spirit had revealed how he would be treated by the Jews in Jerusalem (Acts 20:22-23; 21:4, 11).
In Paul’s letter to the Roman church, he told them the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus had set them free from the law of sin and death (the old Jewish law). He reminded them that people who “live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit.” The Spirit of God dwelled in them, but if they do not have “the Spirit of Christ,” they do not belong to Christ. If the Spirit of God who raised Jesus from the dead dwelled in them, God would give life to their mortal bodies, and if by the Spirit they reject the deeds of the body, they would live. All who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. They have not received a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but have received a spirit of adoption. When they “cry ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God” (Romans 8:2, 5, 9, 11, 13b, 14-16).
Paul asked the Corinthians, “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?” (1 Corinthians 3:16)
As to the various gifts of the Spirit, Paul says “it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” The Spirit gives various gifts and he enumerates the gifts. They are all activated by the same Spirit, who grants “to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses” (1 Corinthians 12:4-11).
In Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians, he said, “Now the LORD is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the LORD is, there is freedom” (2 Corinthians 3:17).
Paul told the Galatians that the only thing he wanted to learn was if they received “the Spirit by doing the works of the law or by believing” what they heard (Galatians 3:2). Later Paul encouraged them to live by the Spirit and abstain from the desires of the flesh because those desires are “opposed to the Spirit, and what the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh.” However, if they were led by the Spirit, they were not subject to the law. “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control… If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit” (Galatians 5:16-18, 22-23a, 25; also see Ephesians 4:11).
In Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, he told the Gentiles that they were included; once they have heard the word, the gospel, and believed, they were “marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit.” Paul reminded them that previous generations would never have considered that Gentiles “should be fellow-heirs… and partakers of His promise in Christ by the Gospel. The Holy Spirit has revealed it. Paul also tells the Ephesians that they must “be filled with the Spirit.” And how is that accomplished? One way, according to Paul, is not to get drunk with wine, because that is debauchery. Paul recommends a spiritual battle – putting on “the helmet of salvation” to fend off evil powers and fighting with “the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. Pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and supplication” (Ephesians 1:13; 3:5-6; 5:18; 6:17-18a).
In his letter to the Thessalonians, Paul encouraged them, that in spite of their persecution, they had “received the word with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit.” Paul and Silas had not only brought them the gospel, but had, by the power of the Holy Spirit, set an example (“what kind of people we proved to be”) so they might become imitators (1 Thessalonians 1:5-6).
In first Timothy, there is a reminder that the Spirit had predicted that “some will renounce the faith by paying attention to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons” (1 Timothy 4:1).
In Titus, the author reminded his readers that God did not save us because of our works of righteousness, but only by God’s mercy, “through the water of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit.” And this Spirit was given to us through Jesus Christ (Titus 3:5-6).
According to Hebrews, those who have lost faith after having “been enlightened and have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit” cannot be restored to repentance (Hebrews 6:4).
Whenever Christians are reviled, they are blessed, because the Spirit of God is with them (1 Peter 4:14).
Conclusions about the Holy Spirit
There are many devout and sincere Christians who have great difficulty accepting the Holy Spirit. It is difficult for many believers to distinguish between God, Christ, and the Spirit.
For me, the Holy Spirit and God’s presence are synonymous. Therefore, instead of calling it the Holy Spirit, I prefer to think of it as God’s spirit. I agree with Leslie Weatherhead, who wrote: “I still believe in the Holy Spirit, but more and more, I have come to regard the phrase as a symbol of God’s activity in the world and in the hearts of men, and to spell the word ‘spirit’ with a small ‘s’.”
The phrase “God-with-us” is normally ascribed to Jesus, but I like the phrase as a description of God’s spirit. In 1600 CE, Socinianism defined the spirit as “energy flowing from God to man.” I agree with that definition; God’s spirit is a power or an influence.
The Greek word for spirit is pneuma which is neuter in gender, but the Bible uses the masculine pronouns “he” and “him” when referring to the spirit. If it is neuter, the proper grammatical term would be “it.” In Christian Doctrine, Shirley Guthrie claims that the spirit is not neuter, rather it is “someone who comes to dwell in and among us.” He also says that the Hebrew word for spirit, ruach, is feminine; therefore he contends that the spirit is “the feminine side of God.”
In The Shack, William Young characterizes the spirit as a female who is difficult to keep in focus; she almost shimmers in the light and her hair blows in all directions. I thought Young’s choice of the name “Sarayu” for the spirit was very interesting since in Sanskrit it means “moving fast” and also “air, wind.” Young felt it was important that Sarayu was not a violent or destructive wind. The lady who told him about the name described it as the “kind of wind that catches you by surprise. Like on a hot summer day when you are so hot and out of nowhere a cool wind hits you and cools you down.” What a wonderful analogy! Young also portrays Sarayu as a gardener who, as the book’s main character discovers, is working in the garden of his soul. In The Shack Sarayu is definitely a separate character from Papa and the son.
The best example of a spirit-filled human was Jesus. He showed us what it means to have God’s spirit within us and that was evidenced by the way he lived and interacted with others. And Jesus promised to send a comforter – a spirit to lead and guide his followers.
A potential problem arises when certain people claim to be “led by the spirit.” Which spirit? If this person claims that the Holy Spirit supports his particular gender, class, race, political party, nation or religious affiliation, we must question their claim. There are potentially evil spirits at work inside and outside the Christian religion.