Who is the Holy Spirit?

I think it’s okay if we don’t quite understand this exactly alike. I don’t see any indication in Scripture that you have to have this all figured out in order to be saved. But certainly it would be helpful to understand the nature of the Holy Spirit. That way we could have a more precise understanding of those Scriptures that mention God’s Spirit, and we could have a more precise understanding of God. And I want you to know that my mind is not made up about this. I’ve changed mind many times before on matters related to the Holy Spirit, and I’m still open to doing so again if I’m shown that I’ve overlooked or misunderstood something.

Traditional View

What I’ll call the traditional view is that the Holy Spirit is the 3rd person of the Godhead or the 3rd member of the Trinity. Those words, Godhead and Trinity, are not Bible words, but words that theologians have come up with to explain their understanding of God as they see Him in the Scriptures. The Holy Spirit is seen as a separate and distinct person from the Father and the Son, or some say a separate being from the Father and the Son, but totally equal with the Father and the Son.

This understanding comes passages like John 15:26 Jesus says, “When the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, that is the Spirit of truth who proceeds from the Father, He will testify about Me.” So that sounds like 3 persons. You have Jesus speaking. And then you have the Father and then you have the Spirit of truth that is sent from the Father.

Or think about the baptism of Jesus, the gospels tell us that when Jesus came up out of the water, the heavens were opened and the Holy Spirit descended upon Him in bodily form like a dove, and a voice came out of heaven, “You are My beloved Son, in You I am well-pleased.” So again sounds like we have 3 persons. We have Jesus in the water, the Spirit coming down on Him in the form of a dove and then the voice from the Father in heaven.

And then you have in the NT what you could call triad statements. I Peter 1:1-2 for example, “To those… who are chosen 2 according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, by the sanctifying work of the Spirit, to obey Jesus Christ and be sprinkled with His blood…” Sounds like 3 distinct persons.

So there are good reasons for the traditional view. I’ll talk a little more about these passages here in a bit and how I understand them in my view.

My view

My view is not mine alone; there are many respected scholars who hold this view that I’ve been blessed to learn from. My view is that generally (I say generally because I think the expression “Spirit of God” can be used in different ways) the Holy Spirit refers not really to a separate person or being from the Father and the Son, but to God’s very being, God’s very self, God’s mind, heart, essence, God’s powerful, active, personal presence. In the NT sometimes it’s the powerful, active, presence of the Father and/or the risen Lord Jesus.

My understanding of the Godhead

There’s certainly a distinction between Jesus and the Father. Jesus prayed to the Father, Jesus was dependent on the Father, Jesus said in the Garden of Gethsemane, “If possible, let this cup pass from me, yet not My will, but Yours be done.” Clearly there’s a distinction. Absolutely.  And certainly we see a distinction between Jesus and the Holy Spirit when Jesus was a man on earth, because it speaks of Jesus being anointed with the Holy Spirit at His baptism (Acts 10:38), and the Spirit then led Jesus places and revealed things to Him and gave Him the power to do His miracles. So we see in the gospels this clear distinction between Jesus and the Holy Spirit.

But a question I wonder about is, why was there that distinction? Was there always from eternity that distinction in God, or was there that distinction because of the incarnation? Did there come to be that distinction because God became a human being, emptying Himself of the prerogatives of being God, giving up the knowledge and power and omnipresence to be weak, vulnerable, not knowing everything just as we are, and yet at the same time while a dependant human being on earth still remained the Almighty, all knowing, omnipresent sustainer of the universe? Now, I can’t wrap my mind around that. How could one being be two persons at the same time and in one person be weak and not knowing and dependent and in the other person, all knowing and all powerful and independent? I can’t wrap my mind around that. But He’s God. He’s not limited to time and space like we are. And there are many many things about God that I can’t wrap my mind around. How does He know everything we’re going to do today and rest of our lives if we have free will and He doesn’t make us do everything? How can He be everywhere at the same time? How can He know the silent thoughts of every heart all over the earth? I don’t know. I don’t see how that’s possible. But I believe it is. And likewise, though I don’t understand it, I think God, if He was just one being, could somehow empty Himself and become a weak dependent man, and at the same time still remain the omniscience, omnipotent, omnipresent Father in heaven. So maybe that distinction came because of the incarnation, or maybe it’s always been, I don’t know. I’ve heard arguments and Scriptures used for both sides, and I don’t know which is right.

But because there is this distinction between Jesus and the Father, Jesus and the Spirit of God, does that necessarily mean that the Spirit of God is also like a separate distinct person from the Father? It doesn’t necessarily mean that. When Scripture speaks of the Spirit coming upon Jesus at His baptism and there’s a voice speaking from heaven (Matt 3:16-17), and Jesus saying that something similar would happen to His disciples, that the Father would send the Spirit upon them (John 15:26), it doesn’t necessarily have to mean sending a separate distinct person. It can mean God sending His empowering, helping, guiding, personal, presence upon them. We’re going to notice here in a bit some other phrases that are used in Scripture interchangeably with the Holy Spirit are “the hand of the Lord” and “His glorious arm” and “the finger of God.” Like I can send my hand upon something to do something with it and that’s not me sending a separate individual from myself, so God can send His powerful, active, personal, presence on someone.

The triad statements in Scripture, those verses or paragraphs that mention Father, Son and Spirit, do not necessarily have to be understood as referring to three separate co-equal persons or beings. They could be simply mentioning the three ways that God has presented Himself to us. God has presented Himself to us as our Father, and God became a man in the person of Jesus to show us His nature better and what He desires of us and to die for our sins. And He presents Himself to us as the Spirit, the powerful, active, caring, presence in this world but that’s unseen.

Now, why would I have this view? Let’s look at some Scriptures.
Let’s first look at a good verse that illustrates this understanding of the Spirit of God.

I Corinthians 2:11

For who among men knows the thoughts of a man except the spirit of the man which is in him? Even so the thoughts of God no one knows except the Spirit of God.” Seems reasonable to me to understand that to suggest that the Spirit of God is to God what the spirit of a man is to that man. Think about your own spirit. What is the spirit of you? It’s not a person or being separate from you, it’s you yourself in your body, it’s your mind and heart, your inner self. And the only one who knows what you’re thinking right now, is the spirit of you. Like that, Paul says, no one knows the thoughts of God expect the Spirit of God. I don’t think he’s saying that no one knows the thoughts of the 1st person of the Godhead except the 3rd person of the Godhead. I think he means that the only one who knows God’s thoughts is God’s own Spirit, His own mind, heart, essence, self.

Let’s notice some terms Scripture uses as synonyms or as least close to synonyms with the Holy Spirit.

Terms of Similar or Same Meaning

The mind of the Lord

I Corinthians 2:16 Paul quotes from  Isaiah 40:13, “For who has known the mind of the Lord, that He will instruct Him?
Paul quotes this verse from Isaiah again in Romans 11:34, just translating it a little different, but the sense is the same, “who has known the mind of the Lord, or who became His counselor?”
But when you look back in Isaiah 40:13 where He’s quoting from it doesn’t say “the mind of the Lord,” it says “the Spirit of the Lord.” “Who has directed the Spirit of the LORD, Or as His counselor has informed Him?” So seems to me that the Spirit of the Lord is the Lord Himself, His mind and heart.

The presence of God

Psalm 51:11, “Do not cast me away from Your presence And do not take Your Holy Spirit from me.
Psalm 139:7, “Where can I go from Your Spirit? Or where can I flee from Your presence?
Haggai 2:4-5, “‘But now take courage, Zerubbabel,’ declares the Lord, ‘take courage also, Joshua son of Jehozadak, the high priest, and all you people of the land take courage,’ declares the Lord, ‘and work; for I am with you,’ declares the Lord of hosts. 5 ‘As for the promise which I made you when you came out of Egypt, My Spirit is abiding in your midst; do not fear!’” “I am with you,” seems to me, is the same as “My Spirit is abiding in your midst.”

The hand of the Lord

Ezekiel 37:1, “The hand of the Lord was upon me, and He brought me out by the Spirit of the Lord“.
Psalm 139:7,9-10, “Where can I go from Your Spirit? Or where can I flee from Your presence? … If I dwell in the remotest part of the sea, 10 Even there Your hand will lead me, And Your right hand will lay hold of me.

His glorious arm

Is 63:11-12, “Where is He who put His Holy Spirit in the midst of them, who caused His glorious arm to go at the right hand of Moses, Who divided the waters before them to make for Himself an everlasting name?” As “in the midst of them” is basically the same as “at the right hand of Moses” so “His Holy Spirit” is basically the same as “His glorious arm.”

The power of the Most High

Luke 1:35, “The angel answered and said to her [Mary], “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; and for that reason the holy Child shall be called the Son of God.” As “come upon you” is about the same as “overshadow you” so “the Holy Spirit” is about the same as “the power of the Most High.”

The finger of God

Matthew 12:28, “But if I cast out demons by the Spirit of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.
Luke 11:20, “But if I cast out demons by the finger of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.”

The Spirit of your Father

Luke 12:12, “for the Holy Spirit will teach you in that very hour what you ought to say.”
Matthew 10:20, “For it is not you who speak, but it is the Spirit of your Father who speaks in you.” Think about that language, “the Spirit of your Father.” Is that talking about a separate person from the Father? Or is that talking about the Father who is a spirit? John 4:24 says, “God is spirit,” or it could be translated, “God is a spirit.”

Let’s consider something else here. There are several passages where the Holy Spirit, seems to me, is very strangely missing if He is a separate distinct yet co-equal being with the Father and the Son.

If the Spirit is a distinct but co-equal person with the Father and the Son, why is He not mentioned in….

Matthew 24:36

Talking about the day of His second coming, Jesus said, “But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father alone.” So only the Father knows when the end of the world will be, not even Jesus knew when He was a man on earth. What about the Holy Spirit? Does that mean the Holy Spirit doesn’t know when that day will be? Why didn’t Jesus mention the Holy Spirit? See, it seems to me that Jesus did not picture the Father and then separate from the Father the Spirit. He pictured the Father who is spirit. The Spirit is the Father. And so yes the Holy Spirit knows when that day will be because the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of the Father, the very self, mind, heart and essence of the Father.

Matthew 11:27

All things have been handed over to Me by My Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, nor does anyone know the Father except the Son, and anyone to whom the Son wills to reveal Him.” Does that mean the Holy Spirit doesn’t know the Father or the Son? Well, again it seems to me that Jesus didn’t draw a line and separate the Spirit from the Father like we do.

I Corinthians 8:4-6

Therefore concerning the eating of things sacrificed to idols, we know that there is no such thing as an idol in the world, and that there is no God but one. 5 For even if there are so-called gods whether in heaven or on earth, as indeed there are many gods and many lords, 6 yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom are all things and we exist for Him; and one Lord, Jesus Christ, by whom are all things, and we exist through Him.” It appears that that statement at the end of v4, “there is no God but one,” is explained in v6. And Paul seems to include the Lord Jesus in the one God by saying that all things are by Jesus and we exist through Him. That includes Jesus in the one God. But why doesn’t he mention the Holy Spirit there? It’s interesting that in some much later manuscripts of this letter of I Corinthians there are some addition clauses inserted in the text regarding the Spirit. In later generations because of the way Christians thought of the Spirit as separate and distinct person from the Father but co-equal and just as important, they felt Paul should have mentioned Him here and so they added a phrase here about the Spirit. But Paul didn’t see the need to do that. Why? Could it be that Paul didn’t make such a separation and distinction with the Spirit as we do?

I Timothy 5:21

I solemnly charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus and of His chosen angels, to maintain these principles without bias…

I John 1:3

what we have seen and heard we proclaim to you also, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father, and with His Son Jesus Christ.”

The traditional opening greeting in the letters of the NT

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom 1:7; I Cor 1:3; II Cor 1:2; Gal 1:3; Eph 1:2; Phil 1:2; I Thess 1:1; II Thess 1:2; I Tim 1:2; II Tim 1:2; Tit 1:4; Phile 1:3; II Pt 1:2; II Jn 3; Jd 1-2).

Why so often is the Spirit left out? Seems strange to me if the Spirit is a separate but just as important co-equal being. But it’s very understandable to me if the Spirit is the personal, powerful, active presence of God. Then the Spirit is not being left out.

Then let’s notice just…

A couple passages that seem to equate the risen Lord Jesus with the Spirit

II Corinthians 3:17-18

Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty. But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as from the Lord, the Spirit.”” Now, when you see the word “Lord” in II Corinthians and in all of Paul’s letters it pretty clear it’s almost always referring to the Lord Jesus. And I think what Paul is saying in II Corinthians 3:17 is that the Spirit that he’s talking in that chapter that helps us and gives us life (3:6) and transforms us (3:18), is the Spirit of risen the Lord Jesus, it’s the Lord Himself, it’s His powerful, active, personal, presence that is working in us Christians.

Acts 16:6-7

They passed through the Phrygian and Galatian region, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia; and after they came to Mysia, they were trying to go into Bithynia, and the Spirit of Jesus did not permit them.” Now, are those the same or different? Are those different beings? Or when it talks about the Holy Spirit is it talking about the Spirit of the Risen Lord Jesus? I think those are the same. And so in the NT in my view Holy Spirit refers to the personal, powerful, active presence of the Father and the risen Lord Jesus in the world.

See also – Romans 8:9-11; I Peter 1:11-12; Philippians 1:19

Adjustments I’d make to the Trinity diagram

On the right side where it says that “the Father is not the Holy Spirit,” I would remove the word “not.” It seems to me in Scripture that the Holy Spirit is the Father’s very own Spirit, not a distinct person from Him. And down on at the bottom where it says the Son is not the Holy Spirit, I would change the word “is” probably to “was”. In the gospels when Jesus was a man on earth it’s clear that there’s a distinction between Jesus and the Holy Spirit, because He’s anointed with the Holy Spirit and led and empowered by the Spirit. But after Jesus was risen and ascended to heaven and glorified it’s hard to draw a line between the Spirit of the Risen Lord and the Holy Spirit.

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