The Holy Spirit

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The secret things belong unto the LORD our God: but those things which are revealed belong unto us and to our children for ever, that we may do all the words of this law (Deuteronomy 29:29).

There are things about God that we are never going to understand for the simplest of reasons. They have not been revealed, and theorizing isn’t going to help very much. It is revelation that we need if we are going to understand.

One of the things that has been revealed, in part, is the work and character of the Spirit of God, and yet even that is not well understood. A troubling set of questions surround the Holy Spirit, and they suggest that we may have taken a wrong turn somewhere and we need to retrace our steps.

In the Old Testament, a set of, what shall we call them, properties of the Holy Spirit are revealed. They are not found in one place, but scattered throughout the accounts. First, the terms.

Holy Spirit, Qodesh Ruach, occurring three times.

Spirit of God, Ruach Elohim, used 14 times.

Spirit of the Lord, Ruach Jehovah, 26 times.

And there are other synonyms, and parallel expressions that refer to the Spirit in other ways, but it is surprising that the dominant power in the New Testament is spoken of so rarely in the old testament.

Now it is important to realize that it can be easily demonstrated that all these terms refer to the same entity. Some amateurs like to find significance in the difference between the terms. That is a blind alley. Don’t go there.

Now, what can we know about the Holy Spirit from the Old Testament? What are some of the properties described there?

The Holy Spirit was with some people as an abiding presence. At the anointing of David as king, something very important took place.

Then Samuel took the horn of oil, and anointed him in the midst of his brethren: and the spirit of the LORD came upon David from that day forward. So Samuel rose up, and went to Ramah. But the spirit of the LORD departed from Saul, and an evil spirit from the LORD troubled him. (I Samuel 16:13-14).

Jesus will later say to his disciples that the Holy Spirit is with you and shall be in you. This distinction is not made here. We only know that it came upon David and stayed. It had rested on Saul, but now left.

And something else happened that is troubling and hard to explain. “And the evil spirit from the LORD was upon Saul.” How could anything evil come from the Lord? I have no idea why nearly every version renders the Hebrew word ra as “evil.” In modern usage, the word “evil” carries the sense of something morally reprehensible, of wickedness. But the Hebrew ra only means “bad.”

What troubled Saul was a Ra Ruach Yehovah. The idea that comes to mind is a corrupted file. The Spirit of the Lord, which had been upon Saul was taken away, but apparently not in total. It was still there, but was now “bad.”

If that is what is described there, it goes toward explaining something Peter said much later. Speaking of people who were being deceived by false teachers, he said, “For if after they have escaped the pollutions of the world through the knowledge of the Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, they are again entangled therein, and overcome, the latter end is worse with them than the beginning” (2 Peter 2:20).

In a way, it like trying to “un-know” something. If you once experience something, you are forever changed. You can’t return to the state of not having experienced it. If you once had the Holy Spirit and it is now gone, you are forever changed by the experience. And the change is for the worse.

So the Holy Spirit was with some people as an abiding presence, as it was with Saul and then with David. On the other hand, the Holy Spirit was with some people as a temporary presence or empowerment. It came and went. The prophet Balaam serves as an example.

Balaam is cited in the New Testament as a money hungry false prophet. And yet there was a moment, when he had been paid to curse Israel that he looked out over their tents, laid out by their tribes, “and the spirit of God came upon him” (Numbers 24:2). He found himself utterly unable to curse Israel, but there is no hint in the narrative of an abiding presence of that Spirit upon Balaam. It came and it went.

But even where there is an abiding presence, the Holy Spirit can come and go in special empowerment. There was a time when Saul was desperate to do away with David. He tried to kill him on more than one occasion. David had escaped him and was living with Samuel in Ramah. Saul sent troops there to take him. But a funny thing happened on the way to Ramah.

And Saul sent messengers to take David: and when they saw the company of the prophets prophesying, and Samuel standing as appointed over them, the spirit of God was upon the messengers of Saul, and they also prophesied. (I Samuel 19:20).

This is a striking example, because there is no sense of conversion on the part of Saul’s messengers. They were just overcome by the Spirit on the occasion. If you were an observer of this scene what you would have seen would have looked exactly like a men’s chorus being led by Samuel. They were singing. (Much prophecy in the Old Testament is in the form of poetry and was probably sung or chanted.) The men who approached were caught up in the moment of worship and they joined the choir.

This happened three times before Saul finally came himself. Saul, even with the bad Spirit upon him, was also overcome by the occasion

And the spirit of God was upon him also, and he went on, and prophesied, until he came to Naioth in Ramah. And he stripped off his clothes also, and prophesied before Samuel in like manner, and lay down naked all that day and all that night. Wherefore they say, Is Saul also among the prophets? (1 Samuel 19:23-24)

These are external occasions of the Holy Spirit coming upon a person, not an abiding presence.

The Spirit can, apparently, be an overpowering presence.

The there were people are filled with the spirit for a special task. Surprisingly, those tasks were not always what we would call “spiritual.” When the Tabernacle was under construction, God spoke to Moses and pointed out a man and said:

I have filled him with the spirit of God, in wisdom, and in understanding, and in knowledge, and in all manner of workmanship, To devise cunning works, to work in gold, and in silver, and in brass, And in cutting of stones, to set them, and in carving of timber, to work in all manner of workmanship (Exodus 31:3-5).

So the Spirit of God can live in a man and empower in matters of physical craftsmanship and artistic skill. The Spirit can also empower a man on special occasions to carry a message. The man may or may not be an ongoing messenger. He may normally function as, say, a priest, but have the Holy Spirit “come upon him” with a singular message. This could be in addition to an abiding presence if there is one.

It is also possible to “vex” the Holy Spirit.In a lengthy citation of Israel’s history, Isaiah reminds his readers of the time when they rebelled against God and “vexed his Holy Spirit,” which he had put “among them” (Isaiah 63:10).

The Spirit of the Lord had words it placed in the mouths of men. In the last words of David, he acknowledges that “The spirit of the LORD spake by me, and his word was in my tongue” (2 Samuel 23:2).

There is even a hint of the New Testament idea of the Holy Spirit coming to a person who is repentant, and even of it being passed on to a man’s descendants.

And the Redeemer shall come to Zion, and unto them that turn from transgression in Jacob, saith the LORD. As for me, this is my covenant with them, saith the LORD; My spirit that is upon thee, and my words which I have put in thy mouth, shall not depart out of thy mouth, nor out of the mouth of thy seed, nor out of the mouth of thy seed’s seed, saith the LORD, from henceforth and for ever (Isaiah 59:21).

There is a great deal more, but here is a partial list of the revealed properties of the Holy Spirit in the Old Testament.

• The Holy Spirit could reside in a person, as with Moses and Joseph, specifically.

• The abiding presence could be taken away, as David feared.

• It “comes upon,” falls on, or fills a person, all in a transitory sense, i.e. it comes and goes in terms of its influence – as with Balaam.

• It can overwhelm normal behavior, as with Saul, but only in a transitory way.

• It could inspire craftsmen and artisans for the work of the Tabernacle.

• It could speak with the tongue of a man, as with David.

• It can tend to run in families, according to Isaiah, but obviously conditionally.

• It can be vexed.

Now that is a lot, so what do we see in the New Testament that we did not see in the Old? Well, something quite new appears in the New Testament. But first, the words.

Hagia Pneuma, is the Greek translation of the Hebrew qodesh Ruach. It means “Holy Spirit,” or “Holy Wind,” actually. The word pneuma in the Greek is the same word used for the wind in the trees.

Hagia Kurious is the Greek for Ruach Jehovah. It means “Spirit of the Lord.”

Now among the many peculiarities in the King James Bible is this. Only four times is hagia pneuma translated “Holy Spirit.” Ninety times it is translated “Holy Ghost.” This is a singular difference, and it does not occur because they weren’t aware of “Holy Spirit.” that rendering is used once in Luke, and three times in Paul’s epistles.

One source thought it might be accounted for by the particular scholar doing the work, and that is possible. But the difference is so stark, I think it is deliberate. I think the scholars realized that there was something here that was different from the Holy Spirit in the Old Testament. But the difference was not in the words. The Greek is the same.

By the time the King James translators did their work, nearly all of Christendom had settled on the Trinity as the way to understand God. The Holy Spirit was seen as the third person in the Trinity. Furthermore, the scholars saw plainly the repeated personalizing of the Holy Spirit throughout the New Testament, especially by Luke and Paul.

The Holy Spirit could not be seen as family as were Father and Son, but to them it was something. And don’t worry about whether one calls the Holy Spirit he or it. In Greek, the pronouns have to agree with the nouns in gender and it has nothing to do with personality or the absence thereof.

The Trinitarian theologians could not find the Trinity in the words of Scripture. This is frankly admitted. They see the revelation of the Trinity in the incarnation of the Son, and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. And they see the validation of it in the baptismal formula Jesus gave.

And Jesus came and spake unto them, saying, All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth. Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world (Matthew 28:18-20).

And, believe it or not, that’s about it. The Trinity is never expressed in so many words.

Now, what are the properties of the Holy Spirit in the New Testament? First, It is the active agent for God in the world as exemplified in the begetting of Jesus.

Then said Mary unto the angel, How shall this be, seeing I know not a man? And the angel answered and said unto her, The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee: therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God (Luke 1:35).

For some, this ends the discussion. If the Holy Spirit is a person, then it/he is the Father, ergo, the Holy Spirit cannot be a person. Those who believe the Holy Spirit is a person have a ready answer to that. The Holy Spirit is the agent of God. What the Spirit does is what God is deemed to have done. So Mary was with child of the Holy Spirit, and the child was the Son of God.

Next, the Holy Spirit can be separately blasphemed. Here is how Jesus explained it.

Wherefore I say unto you, All manner of sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven unto men: but the blasphemy against the Holy Ghost shall not be forgiven unto men. And whosoever speaketh a word against the Son of man, it shall be forgiven him: but whosoever speaketh against the Holy Ghost, it shall not be forgiven him, neither in this world, neither in the world to come (Matthew 12:31-32).

It is a rather chilling idea to consider. But what is of special interest is that the Holy Spirit is presented as distinct from the Son of Man, obviously Christ himself.

Next, as in the Old Testament, the Holy Spirit speaks (through men, but it speaks).

But when they shall lead you, and deliver you up, take no thought beforehand what ye shall speak, neither do ye premeditate: but whatsoever shall be given you in that hour, that speak ye: for it is not ye that speak, but the Holy Ghost (Mark 13:11).

As in the Old Testament, the Holy Spirit filled people on special occasion – it was transitory.

And it came to pass, that, when Elisabeth heard the salutation of Mary, the babe leaped in her womb; and Elisabeth was filled with the Holy Ghost (Luke 1:41).

The Holy Spirit was also “upon” people. It revealed things to them.

And, behold, there was a man in Jerusalem, whose name was Simeon; and the same man was just and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel: and the Holy Ghost was upon him. And it was revealed unto him by the Holy Ghost, that he should not see death, before he had seen the Lord’s Christ (Luke 2:25-26).

Now we come to a singular difference from the Old Testament. The Holy Spirit appeared, apparently for the first time ever, in a bodily form that could be see – it was like a dove.

And the Holy Ghost descended in a bodily shape like a dove upon him, and a voice came from heaven, which said, Thou art my beloved Son; in thee I am well pleased (Luke 3:22).

A person could be baptized with the Holy Spirit. “For John truly baptized with water; but ye shall be baptized with the Holy Ghost not many days hence.19

And this is important. The Holy Ghost is exactly the same thing in the New Testament as it was in the Old. “Men and brethren, this scripture must needs have been fulfilled, which the Holy Ghost by the mouth of David spake before concerning Judas, which was guide to them that took Jesus.” 20

The Holy Spirit is a source of power. “But ye shall receive power, after that the Holy Ghost is come upon you: and ye shall be witnesses unto me both in Jerusalem, and in all Judaea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth” (Acts 1:8).

The Holy Spirit calls, commissions and sends people to a work.

Now there were in the church that was at Antioch certain prophets and teachers; as Barnabas, and Simeon that was called Niger, and Lucius of Cyrene, and Manaen, which had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch, and Saul. As they ministered to the Lord, and fasted, the Holy Ghost said, Separate me Barnabas and Saul for the work whereunto I have called them. And when they had fasted and prayed, and laid their hands on them, they sent them away. So they, being sent forth by the Holy Ghost, departed unto Seleucia; and from thence they sailed to Cyprus (Acts 13:1-4).

And what is just as important, the Holy Spirit directs that work in some detail.

Now when they had gone throughout Phrygia and the region of Galatia, and were forbidden of the Holy Ghost to preach the word in Asia, After they were come to Mysia, they assayed to go into Bithynia: but the Spirit suffered them not (Acts 16:6).

There is more, but consider this list. The revealed properties of the Holy Ghost in the New Testament.

1.The Holy Spirit is an active agent for God.
2. The Holy Spirit can be singularly blasphemed.
3. The Holy Spirit speaks (through men, but it speaks.)
4. The Holy Spirit filled people on special occasion – transitory.
5. The Holy Spirit was “upon” people.
6. It revealed things to them.
7. It could actually appear in bodily form, though not human like form.
8. You could be baptized with the Holy Spirit.
9. The Holy Ghost is exactly the same thing in the New Testament as it was in the Old.
10. The Holy Spirit is a source of power.
11. The Holy Spirit is a gift of God.
12. It can be resisted.
13. It bears witness.
14. It fell on people.
15. The Holy Spirit. Calls, commissions and sends people to a work.
16. The Holy Spirit directs that work in some detail
17. The spirit hears from God and speaks what it hears to us.
18. The Holy Spirit teaches.

When you settle in to study the Holy Spirit, it becomes obvious that the church in that age was more intensely aware of the Holy Spirit than we seem to be. And they attributed most of what was done to the activity of the Holy spirit. Where we might say, “I just don’t think it was God’s will for me to go into Asia,” Luke said, “We were forbidden to go there, and not suffered to go in another direction.” Why not at least use the same language that Luke and Paul used of the work of the Holy Spirit.

Now, one more thing. I hinted earlier that there was something very different in the New Testament from the Old. There is, and it has been the subject of numerous questions over the years. Here is the problem.

Early on in the Gospel of John, Jesus speaks of living waters. John then includes an explanation in his own words, placed in parentheses by most versions: “But this spake he of the Spirit, which they that believe on him should receive: for the Holy Ghost was not yet given; because that Jesus was not yet glorified” (John 7:29).

Later, in his own words, Jesus says much the same thing: “Howbeit when he, the Spirit of truth, is come, he will guide you into all truth: for he shall not speak of himself; but whatsoever he shall hear, that shall he speak: and he will show you things to come” (John 16:13).

And yet, Elizabeth and Zecharias, the parents of John the Baptist, were filled with the Spirit. The old man and woman, Simeon and Anna brought by the Holy Spirit to the temple to see Jesus, had the spirit upon them. In fact, up until the last supper, there is no discernible difference between the activities of the Holy Spirit in the New Testament from the old.

John, writing much later, knows the answer to this when he writes these words, he just hasn’t got to it yet. The answer is in that wonderful conversation Jesus had with his disciples after the last supper.

If ye love me, keep my commandments. And I will pray the Father, and he shall give you another Comforter, that he may abide with you for ever; Even the Spirit of truth; whom the world cannot receive, because it seeth him not, neither knoweth him: but ye know him; for he dwelleth with you, and shall be in you (John 14:15-17).

At first blush, this seems like a distinction without a difference. But there is more. “These things,” said Jesus, “have I spoken unto you, being yet present with you. But the Comforter, which is the Holy Ghost, whom the Father will send in my name, he shall teach you all things, and bring all things to your remembrance, whatsoever I have said unto you.”

Jesus goes on to clarify: “But when the Comforter is come, whom I will send unto you from the Father, even the Spirit of truth, which proceedeth from the Father, he shall testify of me (John 15:26).

At no time in the Bible is there any suggestion that there are two Holy Spirits. Yet the Spirit of God is present all through the gospels and here, Jesus is saying that the Spirit of God is yet to be sent. In fact, Jesus made it clear that if he did not go away, the Comforter would not come.

But because I have said these things unto you, sorrow hath filled your heart. Nevertheless I tell you the truth; It is expedient for you that I go away: for if I go not away, the Comforter will not come unto you; but if I depart, I will send him unto you (John 16:6-7).

The comforter is the Greek parakletos. No other New Testament writer uses this form of the word. And John only uses it in one other place, his first epistle: “My little children, these things write I unto you, that ye sin not. And if any man sin, we have a parakletos with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous (1 John 2:1).

I can hear someone say, “Oh, then the Holy Spirit and Jesus are the same thing.” Well, no, not unless you and your lawyer are the same thing. The Holy Spirit is Jesus’ agent in the world.

I cannot imagine why the King James translators rendered this word “comforter.” The New International Version has it right. It means “Counselor.” It is the combined form of two Greek words. Para – alongside, and kaleo– to call. It is the one you call alongside to act as your counselor, your advocate, your lawyer.

So what has changed between the old and the new? Bear in mind that the Holy Spirit was present when Jesus spoke of it’s coming in the future tense.

The Holy Spirit was about to be sent in a new role. He was to serve as the counselor. What has changed is the relationship to the Holy Spirit. Jesus said that the Holy Spirit was already with them, but would be in them. Perhaps this distinction does indeed imply a difference.

It means the Holy Spirit is your guide, the family counselor, your lawyer. The Holy Spirit stands with you and closes one door and opens another. It sheds light and advice on choices you have to make. And woe to the man who grieves the Holy Spirit by whom we are sealed to the day of redemption. Woe to the man who quenches the Spirit.

Luke and Paul were so aware of the work of the Spirit in their life and work. When the Spirit closed a door, they knew it was the Spirit that did it. They didn’t have to guess. How could they be so sure? Because they were looking for it. They were listening for it. They were trusting for it.

What can we do? We can begin to speak about the Holy Spirit as the New Testament does. We can think about the role of the Spirit in our lives. We can pray that God would send his Spirit to light our way.


Ronald L. Dart

Ronald L. Dart (1934–2016) — People around the world have come to appreciate his easy style, non-combative approach to explaining the Bible, and the personal, almost one-on-one method of explaining what’s going on in the world in the light of the Bible. After retiring from teaching and church administration in 1995 he started Christian Educational Ministries and the Born to Win radio program.

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Image Credits: Joel Montes de Oca