A Bible study from Faithbuilders Fellowship.
Requests for printed copies should be sent to: Faithbuilders Fellowship, 8060 Wing Span Drive, San Diego, CA 92119


WHAT IS THE HOLY SPIRIT?

THOSE WHO consider this question must bear in mind that the Bible sets truth forward in a positive way; that is, it does not examine alternatives suggested by philosophers in order to arrive at truth. This is true in the instance of this present topic. Scripture does not state in a concise expression that the holy spirit is not a person co- equal with God. Instead, a great number of positive statements concerning the spirit's functions and qualities are placed before us. By considering such statements, we shall arrive at an understanding of what the spirit is, because one scripture complements another; there are no contradictions. What the holy spirit is not becomes quite apparent when a thorough consideration is pursued.

In the Old Testament the phrase 'holy spirit' is used only three times in the King James Version--Psa. 51:11 and Isa. 63:10,11. Most references to it are in the phrases 'spirit of God' or 'spirit of the LORD.' There is, however, no special distinction to be understood among them; the three terms may be regarded as synonymous. In the Old Testament, 'spirit' is almost always from the Hebrew ruwach, #7307, which means "wind, by resemblance breath, i.e. a sensible (or even violent) exhalation...by resemblance spirit"-- Strong. Its New Testament equivalent is the Greek pneuma.

The word 'spirit' as it appears in the Bible is used in two broad senses. First, and most often, spirit denotes a quality, attitude or disposition usually possessed by individuals, occasionally by a group of people collectively (2 Chron. 21:16), of a nation (Isa. 19:3), even of the world (1 Cor. 2:12). The second use of 'spirit' denotes a spirit being such as God (John 4:24) or angels (Heb. 1:14), or denotes a demonic (Mark 3:11). Identification as to which group the holy spirit belongs will greatly assist to an understanding of what the 'spirit' is.

The Spirit's Effect Upon Men

It is significant that, with but few exceptions, what is said in the Bible of the spirit of God has to do with the spirit's effect upon men. This effect is most notable in those chosen individuals to whom God has given abilities above man's natural capacity that they might accomplish His purposes. Moses was given the ability to prophesy and the wisdom to judge Israel. God distributed of that gift to others so they might assist Moses (Num. 11:16-29). To certain Israelites under Moses, God gave the skills necessary to make the tabernacle, the ark of the covenant, and other special furniture of the sanctuary (Exod. 31:1-11). Samson was given immense physical strength, through which God punished the Philistines (Judges 13:24,25; 14:5,6). God's 'spirit' is specifically acknowledged in all such accounts as that which brought the abilities manifested. And the Apostle indicated that throughout Israel's history God put His words in the mouth of His prophets for the guidance of the people. "For no prophecy ever came by the will of man: but men spake from God, being moved by [the] holy spirit."--2 Pet. 1:21 ASR

The holy spirit anointed our Lord Jesus at His baptism, and many miraculous works were performed thereby at His command in the years following. During those years Jesus conferred the miracle-working power of the holy spirit upon the apostles; and later appointed seventy disciples who also received miraculous gifts (Matt. 3:13-17, John 1:29-34, Matt. 10:1-20, Luke 10:1-16). On the day of Pentecost, in fulfillment of Jesus' promise (John 16:7), holy spirit was poured out from heaven upon the apostles and other believers gathered in one place (Acts 2). From that day and on, during the time of the apostles, those who believed on Jesus Christ received various manifestations of holy spirit bestowed in special abilities to carry forward the early ministry.

These things were indeed examples of how God exerted a powerful effect upon men, but to say that holy spirit is purely the power of God is not in itself an adequate description of that spirit. Before the flood, in a time when intense evil prevailed on the earth, God said, "My spirit shall not always strive with man, for that he is also flesh; yet shall his days be an hundred and twenty years" (Gen. 6:3). This statement does not suggest that God's power was insufficient to deal with man. Rather, God set a time limit upon His efforts to persuade "the world that then was" (2 Pet. 3:6) to turn from its wicked course. In this statement, God's spirit was His influence.

Though man is a created being, Eccl. 8:8 ascribes to him a spirit. In that text the word 'breath' for the Hebrew ruwach would better suit the context. "There is no man that hath power over the spirit, to retain the spirit; neither hath he power over the day of death." 'Spirit' here indicates a man's power to live, his 'breath.'

'Spirit of God' Denotes a Quality

It has been noted foregoing that the spirit of God is His power or His influence. Now consider other qualities which the word 'spirit' may refer to. Genesis 41:8 mentions the spirit of a man, one man in particular, Egypt's Pharaoh of old. "And it came to pass in the morning that his spirit was troubled" (Gen. 41:8). None would say that Pharaoh's 'power' was troubled, or that his 'influence' was troubled. Nor would 'wind' or 'breath,' words usually represented in the Hebrew text by ruwach, fittingly represent it here, as to say that "in the morning Pharaoh had trouble breathing." Rather, it is clear that Pharaoh was troubled in his mind.

'Spirit' is used in the description of the response of the Israelites to the request of Moses for materials with which to construct the tabernacle. "And they came, every one whose heart stirred him up, and every one whose spirit made him willing" (Exod. 35:21). This, then, is another instance where 'mind' is the meaning of ruwach. And the KJV translators used that word six times to represent ruwach. In other places, the spirit of individuals is described as 'jealous' (Num. 5:14), 'hard' (Deut. 2:30), 'sad' (1 Kings 21:5), 'anguished' (Job 7:11), 'contrite' (Psa. 34:18), 'broken' (Psa. 51:17), 'faithful,' 'hasty,' 'haughty,' and 'humble' (Prov. 11:13, 14:29, 16:18,19), 'patient' and 'proud' (Eccl. 7:8), 'perverse,' 'erring,' and 'grieved' (Isa. 19:14, 29:24, 54:6), 'ready' (Mark 14:38), 'meek' and 'quiet' (1 Pet. 3:4). In all these instances, the context shows that the 'spirit' has to do with the inward man; the word 'spirit' has been used to indicate the state or quality of mind of the person described.

In instances where a particular moral condition exists in common, the word 'spirit' describes the quality of a group of people. Israel's idolatry is described in that manner in Hosea 4:12. "The spirit of whoredom hath caused them to err, and they have gone a whoring from under their God." The 'spirit of whoredom' was the disposition to be unfaithful, spiritually promiscuous, so to speak, as displayed by those who turned from the one true god to serve false ones. Their outward acts of idolatry demonstrated their inner 'spirit,' or mental attitude. And we find that, in almost every case, the 'spirit' of a man is a function of his mind.

God's Spirit Unrestricted

Man's 'spirit' has been considered foregoing in an effort to learn of the 'spirit' of God. Paul's words in 1 Cor. 2:11 RSV make this comparison valid. "For who among men knoweth the things of a man, save the spirit of the man, which is in him? even so, the things of God none knoweth, save the spirit of God." Note that the spirit of a man knows "the things of a man." A man's spirit is therefore not only a function of his mind, but also a conscious function. (The adjective 'conscious' and the noun 'conscience' both derive from the Latin scire, "to know.") And here Paul saw that an analogy would be helpful: because we are familiar with man, the Scripture uses what we can understand about ourselves to tell us something about God. The text says, "even so," that is, similarly, "the things of God none knoweth, save the spirit of God." The conclusion is inescapable that the holy spirit is a function of the mind of God.

Paul specially qualifies in two ways his statement here concerning man. Firstly, he says, "who among men knoweth the things of a man, save the spirit of the man..." Each of us may know why we do the things we do, and we may judge ourselves based upon principles developed by, and in our mind. But in the case of another we can only detect their mind by what they show us, through what they do or say. On the other hand, God is able to perceive the features of a man's spirit even before that spirit becomes manifest in words or deeds. But we lack His ability because man's spirit is limited. Furthermore, we perceive the things of God only as He is pleased to reveal them. Those with whom He is pleased are privileged to see "the things of the spirit of God."--1 Cor. 2:14

Secondly, Paul speaks of "the spirit of the man, which is in him," but does not restrict God's spirit with the same wording. God's spirit is not confined to a particular location, but proceeds from Him for the accomplishment of His purposes (John 15:26). And that is the Apostle's theme in Corinthians. "Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the spirit which is of God; that we might know the things that are freely given to us of God...God hath revealed them unto us by His spirit: for the spirit searcheth all things, yea, the deep things of God."--1 Cor. 2:12,10, Rom. 8:14-16

'Holy' Associated with God

God's prophets only used the noun 'holy' when referring to God Himself, or to persons and objects associated with Him or His worship. The Hebrew qodesh, #6944, is defined as "a sacred place or thing"-- Strong; "apartness, sacredness, holiness"--Gesenius. Clearly, it defines the purity of God's character, God's separateness from all unrighteousness. The Greek hagios, #40, is of the same meaning. When used of persons or things associated with God, those which are consecrated or dedicated to God are 'holy.'

In view of the foregoing, a tentative answer can now be framed to the question, What is the holy spirit? Generally speaking, it may be said that the holy spirit is a function or activity always identified with the mind of God. Where the spirit proceeds from God, and exerts an effect upon man, it is His power, or influence. It remains to be seen if there is any mention in Scripture of holy spirit which cannot be accommodated in these terms.

The examination of the spirit of man now is carried a little further. It is obvious that man's spirit has often been opposed to God, and censured by the prophets, but at other times approved by God, making that man eligible for His blessings (Isa. 57:12-21, Num. 14:24, Psa. 34:18). But a man has control over his own spirit; he is not a helpless victim of it. This is as Paul taught, that a man's spirit "knoweth the things of a man"; therefore the spirit has to do with the conscious mind. God's counsel goes forth on the principle that the spirit of man is under the control of man's will. It is in harmony with this that the prophet Malachi rebuked Israel, saying, "...take heed to your spirit, that ye deal not treacherously" (Mal. 2:16). Those words imply the reality that a man may undergo a change in spirit if he wills to. Were it not possible, there would have been no point in the admonition. Gods desire in speaking thus through Malachi was that those to whom the prophet wrote might heed the word of God, and change their minds.

The Spirit of Man

Man's will has often stood between his spirit and the word and will of God. In Acts 7, Stephen gave inspired witness before the council of the Jews. He laid before them the shameful history of the apostacy of their ancestors, and then said, "Ye stiffnecked and uncircumcised in heart and ears; ye do always resist the holy spirit: as your fathers did, so do you" (Acts 7:51). The only way man can resist God is in his mind. The Jews against whom Stephen witnessed had filled up the measure of their fathers in refusing to submit to the words of God's prophets. They had put their wills in opposition to God, shutting out His influence. Their minds could not be changed and their spirit was unaltered; it was manifested by their actions. They had already betrayed and murdered the Righteous One, Jesus Christ, and upon hearing Stephen's testimony against them, they took him and stoned him to death.

Their wills were involved in this course of events in two ways. Firstly, they had the choice to receive Stephen's testimony or to close their minds to it. They chose the latter. "Uncircumcized in heart and ears" described their state of mind in terms they would well understand. Circumcision was a sign in the flesh of Israel's consecration, their dedication to God. "Uncircumcized in ears"-- unwilling to commit their hearing to, or heed, God's Word; "uncircumcized in heart"--unwilling to commit themselves to God in faith and trust. Secondly, though they refused to hear God's Word, they still had a choice regarding their actions toward Stephen. They were not compelled to kill him; they chose to do it, even though they made a pretense of obeying the Law.

It is seen that a man's will stands guard, not only on the way into the mind, but also on the way out. If a man is guided by his spirit, then his state of mind is revealed in his speech and actions. We call this the character of that man. Likewise, the things which God has said and done and caused to be recorded reveal to us His divine character.

Putting God's Spirit Within Man

During the Babylonian captivity, the word of the LORD came to Ezekiel, saying, "And I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and ye shall be clean: from all your filthiness, and from all your idols, will I cleanse you. A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you; and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you an heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes, and ye shall keep my judgments, and do them."--Ezek. 36:26-38

The spirit which God would put in His people would not be 'new' in the sense of an innovation. Rather, it would be His spirit, an holy spirit. "I, the LORD, change not" (Mal. 3:6). But in man it would indeed be new, entirely different from the 'spirit' of the natural fleshly man (1 Cor. 2:14). A new heart and a new spirit would amount to nothing less than a radical change in the inward man, with a corresponding change in character. And because the new spirit would be an holy spirit, the resulting new character would necessarily be like God's. They would walk in His statutes and keep His judgments not from any external constraint, but from the heart, because they and God would be of like mind. And His standards would be reflected in all their thinking.

A fundamental principle of God's dealings with the human family is that He will not override the will of man in order to make unfaithful men faithful. The choice has always belonged to man to respond to God or to turn away from Him. It was true of Adam (Gen. 2:17, 3:3,6), of Abraham (Gen. 22:2,12,18), of Moses (Heb. 11:25-27), of the nation of Israel (Exod. 19:5, Deut. 30:19), of Christ (Matt. 26:39, Heb. 5:7,8); it is so now (Heb. 4:7,11, 10:26,38, 12:25), and it will be so in the Earthly Kingdom Age, as expressed in Rev. 22:17 RSV: "..e that will, let him take the water of life freely."

An Open Mind Essential

A man's spirit will not be changed unless he is willing for that change to take place. The "new spirit" of which Ezekiel prophesied would consequently find no place in a man until that man first opens his mind to the influence of God. What Ezekiel promised involves a change in man's spirit, a transformation of that spirit, through the influence of God.

Ezekiel prophesied that the promised change would follow a cleansing process: "I will sprinkle clean water upon you." Peter had a moral cleansing in mind when, on the day of Pentecost, he urged the men of Israel, "Repent ye, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ unto the remission of your sins; and ye shall receive the gift of the holy spirit" (Acts 2:38 RSV). In this one sentence the vital steps toward a change in spirit are set forward. The first step: "Repent ye!" The Greek word metanoeo, #3340, means "to 'think differently' or to 'think afterwards,' i.e. 'reconsider' (mor. 'feel compunction)'"--Strong. Repentance is proof that the way to the mind is not closed.

The word of God is recognized as truth (John 17:17), and its preaching leads to one's acknowledgment of former disobedience and the humble request for God's forgiveness. This act of contrition is a sign that the mind has opened to the influence of God and that one is willing to act in accordance with the knowledge received. The next step is one of obedience: "...be baptized...in the name of Jesus Christ unto the remission of your sins..."

However, let us not think that the statement in Ezekiel, "I will sprinkle clean water upon you," refers to the literal water involved in the act of outward baptism. Rather, it refers to the cleansing by remission of sins through repentance and faith in Christ's atoning sacrifice. It is of this that 1 John 1:7,9 RSV promises: "...the blood of Jesus His Son cleanseth us from all sin...If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness." The 'filthiness' of Israel of which Ezekiel wrote was their unrighteousness.

God's blessings are not forced upon any, but are received voluntarily through the meeting of conditions set down by God. And note the assurance that God's spirit is intended for us: "...and ye shall receive the gift of the holy spirit" (Acts 2:38 RSV). Its implanting in the believer depends upon his willingness to receive it. Quite understandably, God's cleansing of the believer from unrighteousness through the blood of Jesus Christ could not take place before Christ's blood was shed. Also dependent upon that was the giving of the holy spirit, which was shed forth by our resurrected Savior who had faithfully offered the propitiatory sacrifice.

Grace and Truth

Attention is now directed to the teaching in John 1:17 of the element of progression in the dispensing of God's favors. There the apostle declares, "For the law was given by Moses; grace and truth came by Jesus Christ." Moses "was faithful in all his house, as a servant" during the Law Age; but Christ is faithful "as a son over his house" (Heb. 3:4-6) during the selection of His heavenly bride. Grace and truth introduced the higher relationship now enjoyed by "the sons of God."

Grace is the favor of God toward believers, and a principal manifestation of that grace is justification by faith. One receives justification when his "faith is counted for righteousness." "Blessed are they whose iniquities are forgiven, and whose sins are covered. Blessed is the man to whom the LORD will not impute sin" (Rom. 4:5,7,8). Justification is God's free gift.--Rom. 5:15-18

Truth is that revelation of knowledge given to us by God. It comprises the whole body of Scripture, to which the New Testament is the key. Repentance denotes a mind opened to the influence of God transmitted through an understanding of that knowledge. Our new-found understanding of God's grace manifests itself in the cleansing of our conscience (Heb. 10:22), and that forms the basis of our spiritual change by removing the impediment of guilt and self-reproach. There was no provision in the Law to accomplish this inner cleaning.

Conscience is not instinct or emotion, nor is it something we are born with. By definition it has to do with knowledge and understanding. It is formed from what we have learned and believe to be correct, and is our standard of morality, justice, and truth. It is the "inner judge" by which we can assess our own thoughts and conduct. The Jew in the Law Covenant would not have felt guilt had he not known that the Law condemned him for his smallest infringement of it (James 2:10). The Law was in his conscience, sitting in judgment upon him and pronouncing him guilty, without reprieve (Zech. 9:11). His 'spirit' or state of mind was one of bondage, bound for life to the service of the Law. Due to the weakness of the flesh, even one who would strive to be righteous always fell short of the Law's perfect standard of righteousness.

A Cleansed Conscience

When we learn from His Word that God has reckoned us righteous, we can understand that our conscience is cleansed. Paul testified in Rom. 8:15 regarding our glorious liberty. "For ye have not received the spirit of bondage again to fear; but ye have received the spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, Abba, Father." The old spirit of bondage (Jews to the Law, Gentiles to false gods) and constant fear of retribution and death, is gone. We no longer have reason to fear, knowing that if we confess our sins, He is just to forgive us, for Christ's sake. We are able to continue in a cleansed, justified condition, in close relationship with God, realizing that we have not fallen from His favor because of the fleshly weaknesses. Although we still share in the fallen condition of our race, justification by faith is the means provided by God through which He receives us as sons. This brings the profound change in our state of mind, and in our attitude toward God. We "draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience, and our bodies washed with pure water."--Heb. 10:22

Faith in Christ is the sure foundation from which to approach God and develop a conscience restructured by His word. The glorious gospel of God contained in the New Testament enables us to realize that the whole Bible reveals His mind and character. We have especially the perfect example of our Lord Jesus. The conscience built according to the standards of truth and righteousness serves as a reliable guide in every judgment we are called upon to make. Such restructuring is only through watchful, prayerful and patient attention to Scripture and to our own self.

Truth is the mainspring of a pure conscience. Jesus expressed important sentiments in this regard in His prayer on our behalf. "Sanctify them in the truth: thy word is truth" (John 17:17 ASR). The Greek verb hagiazo, #47, translated 'sanctify,' means 'to make holy.' Believers are made holy by the influence of God's word. With a pure conscience directed by a mind appreciating truth, the influence of God is no longer solely on the outside; it also exists within.

Manifestation of the Holy Spirit

Grace, truth...? Another factor yet remains in our spiritual change, and that is the inner commitment to be guided by the knowledge that we have received. That might be called faith and its exercise, now but briefly mentioned. Faith is a many-faceted quality, but faith founded in truth will never disappoint, will never become credulity. A clear understanding of the truths regarding sin, salvation, and redemption, as they involve our Heavenly Father and His dearly beloved Son, lead to higher perceptions in fellowship with God.

The fact that miraculous abilities were given by God to believers at and following Pentecost should not distract us from the principles involved. Those special gifts were essentially no different from the manifestations of the holy spirit recorded in the Old Testament, and had no direct effect upon the character of those through whom they functioned. The miraculous gifts existed for a particular purpose in the early church, and when that purpose was served, they ceased. They were a means to God's end, and not an end in themselves. Their function was to establish the church; firstly, by demonstrating that the preaching was God-ordained, and, secondly, to provide the substance of the message preached in the absence of the New Testament. Once the New Testament had been delivered to the church, there was no further need for inspired human witnesses, and the miracles ceased.

It does not fit into the present phase of God's plan for God's earthly servants to work miracles; nor would it suit His purpose, with regard to our mental processes, to perform miracles on us. What God desires in us is the development of the likeness of His Son, Jesus Christ, who is Himself in the image of the Father (Rom. 8:29, Gal. 4:19, 2 Cor. 4:4). The outward likeness in character can be produced only as our minds are formed in the image of His mind. For that reason the apostle exhorts, "Let this mind be in you, which is also in Christ Jesus" (Phil. 2:5), and encourages, "...we have the mind of Christ" (1 Cor. 2:16). Of course our knowledge is not to be compared with His, for completeness, nor is our faith and self-control to be compared with His, for strength; but the principle is the same. As displayed in the man Christ Jesus, character is a product of a consecrated will guided by the knowledge of God.

What is the Holy Spirit?

The answer to our question is now summed up. The holy spirit is a quality of the mind of God; and where it proceeds from Him for the accomplishment of His purposes, it is His power or influence. And where holy spirit is within the believer, it renews the mind after the pattern of Christ, through the word of God. Regarding this, Paul wrote in Eph. 4:17-24 RSV: "This I say therefore, and testify in the Lord, that ye no longer walk as the Gentiles also walk, in the vanity of their mind, being darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God, because of the ignorance that is in them, because of the hardening of their heart; who being past feeling gave themselves up to lasciviousness, to work all uncleanness with greediness. But ye did not so learn Christ; if so be that ye heard Him, and were taught in Him, even as truth is in Jesus: that ye put away, as concerning your former manner of life, the old man, which waxeth corrupt after the lusts of deceit; and that ye be renewed in the spirit of your mind, and put on the new man, which after God hath been created in righteousness and holiness of truth."


Go To:
Faithbuilders Articles Menu
True Grace Ministries Articles Index
True Grace Ministries Main Menu