What is the Holy Spirit?

To comprehend how God's Spirit can transform us, we must understand what that spirit is.

The biblical account of ancient Israel describes a people abundantly familiar with God's Word—more than any other people in history. Yet, with few exceptions, the Israelites failed to steadfastly live by their Creator's instructions. Though God gave them knowledge of His ways, He did not, while they lived, give them the inner strength they needed to consistently control their fleshly nature. Yet He promised that the time would come when that spiritual power would be made available not only to them but to the people of all nations through the gift of His Spirit.

Their experience helps us understand that humans are incomplete without God's Spirit. As the apostle Paul explains: "... No one knows the things of God except [through] the Spirit of God" (1 Corinthians:2:11, emphasis added throughout). He adds, "... The natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned" (verse 14).

This spiritual discernment is accessible only from God as a gift through His Spirit. God makes His Spirit available to those who genuinely repent and have their old selves symbolically buried with Christ in the watery grave of baptism. Jesus has promised the body of believers converted in this manner that the Holy Spirit will "guide [them] into all truth" (John:16:13).

To comprehend how God's Spirit can transform us, we must understand what that spirit is. We begin by considering what God is. Jesus explained that "God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth" (John:4:24). Spirit aptly describes the very essence of God, just as love describes the essence of His character (1 John:4:8, 16).

An angel, informing Mary that she would give birth to Jesus as the Messiah, describes the Holy Spirit as "the power of the Highest" (Luke:1:35). Jesus told His apostles, "... You shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you ..." (Acts:1:8). Paul explains, "... God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind" (2 Timothy:1:7). Paul and others performed "mighty signs and wonders, by the power of the Spirit of God" (Romans:15:19).

The Scriptures portray the Spirit of God as the manifestation of His divine power within His creation, especially in His called and converted people—the saints. Through the "power of the Highest" (Luke:1:35) He can instill attributes of His divine nature and character in us. These divine, spiritual attributes transform our weak human nature to the extent that we become "partakers of the divine nature" (2 Peter:1:4). By positive choice we then have to be willing to walk obediently in newness of life—to use God's Spirit to overcome our own weak, fleshly nature.

The words translated "Holy Spirit" convey the concept of power. In the original Greek the phrase for "Holy Spirit" is hagios pneuma , meaning literally " holy wind ." Pneuma can also mean breath, as in "the breath [ pneuma ] of life" (Revelation:11:11; compare Genesis:7:15). As breath is essential for physical life, so is God's Spirit essential for eternal life. And, just as wind is an invisible but powerful force in our physical environment, so the Holy Spirit is an invisible, powerful force in our spiritual development.

The Holman Bible Dictionary summarizes the comparison of God's Spirit to wind and breath in the Old Testament: "In one sense the Spirit of God is depicted as a mighty wind, [with] Hebrew using the same word ruach for wind, breath, and spirit. During the time of the Exodus, God deployed this wind to part the sea, thus enabling the Israelites to pass through safely and elude Pharaoh and his army (Ex 14:21) ... Of the eighty-seven times that the Spirit is described as wind, thirty-seven describe the wind as the agent of God, mostly baneful, and ever strong and intense. This property of the Spirit clearly reflects the power of God" (Multimedia Version software, "Holy Spirit").

One of Paul's prayers was that God would "give to [us] the spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of Him ... that [we] may know what is the hope of His calling ... and what is the exceeding greatness of His power toward us who believe, according to the working of His mighty power which He worked in Christ when He raised Him from the dead and seated Him at His right hand ..." (Ephesians:1:17-20).

God directly employed this comparison of the "the working of His mighty power" to a powerful wind when He first gave the Holy Spirit to Christ's disciples. As Luke wrote: "When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a noise like a strong, blowing wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw something like flames of fire that were separated and stood over each person there.

They were all filled with the Holy Spirit, and they began to speak different languages by the power the Holy Spirit was giving them" (Acts:2:1-4, New Century Version).

After Peter preached a powerful sermon that explained why Jesus had been put to death and what the miracle of the coming of the Holy Spirit on His disciples meant, many in Peter's audience were "cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, 'Men and brethren, what shall we do?' Then Peter said to them, 'Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is to you and to your children, and to all who are afar off, as many as the Lord our God will call'" (verses 37-39).

For the first time in history God was making His Spirit available to all who were willing to repent of their sins by beginning to obey Him (Acts:5:32). "Then those people who accepted what Peter said were baptized. About three thousand people were added to the number of believers that day. They spent their time learning the apostles' teaching ..." (Acts:2:41-42, NCV). Nothing like this had ever happened! God's transforming power was working mightily in the lives of the apostles and the others He was calling.

On an earlier occasion "Jesus stood and cried out, saying, 'If anyone thirsts, let him come to Me and drink. He who believes in Me, as the Scripture has said, out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.' But this He spoke concerning the Spirit, [which] those believing in Him would receive ..." (John:7:37-39). Here Jesus refers not only to our receiving the Holy Spirit but to its flowing out from us—to produce "the fruit of the Spirit ... in all goodness, righteousness, and truth" (Ephesians:5:9).

In a limited way the Holy Spirit, as the manifestation of God's power, can be compared to the flow of electric power. Electricity flows through conductive wires from its source to the devices using it. As long as the flow of the electric current from its source is unbroken, those devices have use of its power. But any interruption of the electric current is accompanied by a loss of power to the devices using it. Constant contact with the source of the electric power is essential.

The same is true of God's Spirit. We have no capacity to permanently store the power of the Holy Spirit for use when we don't feel like serving God. If we discontinue our relationship with God, we cut ourselves off from His power working in us. Therefore our "inward man" needs to be "renewed day by day" (2 Corinthians:4:16; compare Titus:3:5).

Someone might ask: How can the Holy Spirit be a gift if its effect on us depends on our maintaining a constant relationship with God?

Again, an analogy is helpful. Suppose a large electric-power company would offer free electric service to all mobile homes within a 10-mile radius of its power plant. Electric power to these homes would be a gift from the power company.

But suppose several of these homes were transported to locations beyond the limit set by the power company. Would they still be eligible for the free electric service?

No. The gift of free electric power would apply only to those living within the boundaries specified by the power company.

In like manner, our maintaining a close relationship with God is the key to our receiving spiritual power from Him. God is the Source of that power.

David, one of the few people mentioned in the Old Testament to receive the Holy Spirit, compared it to God's personal "presence" in his life (Psalm:51:11; 139:7). Paul expressed much the same thought when he wrote: "For it is God who [actively] works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure" (Philippians 2:13). The Holy Spirit is the power of God actively working within His called and chosen saints, transforming them into His sons and daughters, enabling them to "grow up in all things into Him who is the head—Christ" (Ephesians:4:15).

Jesus describes God's Spirit as "the Spirit of truth" and "the Helper" that "proceeds from the Father" (John:15:26). In other words, God actively and directly empowers us through His Spirit. It is His mighty power acting within in us, assisting us in living righteously.

The Greek word translated "Helper" is parakletos . When translated "Helper" or "Comforter," it refers to the Holy Spirit. However, in the one passage where it is translated " Advocate ," it refers to Jesus as our Advocate with the Father. The verb form of this word is para-kaleo , translated in the King James Version of the New Testament in various ways such as "beseech," "comfort," "desire," "exhort," "intreat" and "pray." A third form of the word, paraklesis , is a noun translated "consolation," "exhortation," "comfort" and "intreaty."

Parakletos means literally one "called to one's side" or "to one's aid" ( Vine's Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words , 1985, "Comfort, Comforter, Comfortless"). In the Greek usage of the time it was often used to refer to a legal counsel who pleaded one's case before a court. All three of these Greek words are derived from Greek root words meaning "to call to one's side"—implying a call for help.

From these meanings we can see that parakletos , when used to describe God's Spirit as our Helper, implies a source of help that is available to us in times of need or trouble—conveying to us God's guidance and assistance much like an attorney, a "counsel for the defense," might if we were on trial in a court of law.

Paul illustrated this in 2 Corinthians 1. But the full impact of Paul's description of the Holy Spirit as our Helper is lost in most English translations. This is because the Greek words parakletos , paraklesis and parakaleo are difficult to translate into the appropriate forms of a single English word. The English words most commonly used by translators— comfort and consolation —do not adequately express the meaning reflected by the Greek words.

To remedy this translation deficiency in the following quote, we have substituted, in brackets, appropriate forms of the word help , or phrases containing the word help , for the words comfort and consolation that were used by the translators. This better conveys the force of Paul's intent.

Paul wrote: "Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all [divine spiritual help], who [helps] us in all our tribulation, that we may be able to [help] those who are in any trouble, with the [spiritual help] with which we ourselves are [helped] by God. For as the sufferings of Christ abound in us, so our [spiritual help] also abounds through Christ. Now if we are afflicted, it is for your [spiritual help] and salvation, which is effective for enduring the same sufferings which we also suffer. Or if we are [spiritually helped], it is for your [spiritual help] and salvation. And our hope for you is steadfast, because we know that as you are partakers of the sufferings, so also you will partake of the [divine spiritual help]" (2 Corinthians:1:3-7).

Paul wanted the Corinthians never to forget they could access and rely on powerful assistance from the Creator of the universe. "For He Himself has said, 'I will never leave you nor forsake you.' So we may boldly say: 'The LORD is my helper; I will not fear. What can man do to me?'" (Hebrews:13:5-6).

God goes beyond just assisting those who serve Him. He inspires and leads them through His Spirit. Paul wrote, "For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God" (Romans:8:14). And Peter explained that "holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit" (2 Peter:1:21). Let's examine how God has led and inspired His servants through the ages.

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In this lesson we discuss this remarkable change, made possible by the transforming power of God's Spirit.

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