a christian perspective on the world today

Who is the Holy Spirit?

Last October, my wife and I spent a weekend with our daughter and her family to celebrate two birthdays—our granddaughter’s third and my . . . well, that number isn’t essential to this story.

We had all piled into a van and gone out to enjoy the beautiful spring day. On the way back to my daughter’s house, we stopped at the shops to pick up some groceries and I noticed the black cats, witches and spiderwebs with which some stores, anticipating Halloween, had on display. Seeing a particularly spooky ghost mounted on the side of a store, I assumed my scariest quavery voice and started to call my grandchildren’s attention to it.

Before I could say more than a word or two though, my daughter cut me off, warning that if my granddaughter saw that ghost, someone would have to stand guard by her bedroom door that night.

Halloween’s ghosts are scary things—supernatural and otherworldly, and more often than not, actually evil. Why in the world then, and it appears mostly in the KJV and other older versions of the Bible, is the Third Member of the Trinity called the “Holy Ghost”? And should the emphasis be Holy Ghost or Holy Ghost? The two words just don’t seem to belong to each other.

Another word for ghost is spirit, which isn’t as spooky but still close. We commonly think of both spirits and ghosts as wispy, ethereal beings that skulk around invisibly and reveal themselves only when they want to. And often when they do, someone gets hurt.

Is the Holy Spirit some kind of a faceless—albeit divine—power too?

Other meanings

In both the Old Testament Hebrew and the New Testament Greek, the words translated as “ghost” and “spirit” can also be translated as “breath” and “wind.” For example, Genesis 2 describes the creation of the first human being in these simple terms: “The Lord God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being” (verse 7). The Hebrew word neshamah, translated as “breath” in this verse, is the same word that is translated as “wind” and “spirit” in other places.

It seems that Jesus had this story in mind when He compared the Spirit to wind. He said that just as the wind goes wherever it wants and no-one can control it, so the Spirit takes us to places we would never have thought of going without His guidance (verse 8).

Notice that I said “His guidance.” The Greek word for “spirit” (pneuma) is of the neuter gender, so technically the Spirit should be an “it.” But the writers of the New Testament used “he” and “his” to refer to the Holy Spirit (for example, John 16:7; Romans 8:16) in accordance with literary convention, not gender assignment.


I think they’re telling us that despite the fact that the word spirit suggests something that is less than a real, personal being, the Holy Spirit is every bit as much a Person as are the Father and the Son. In fact, speaking of God the Father, Jesus said that “God is spirit” (John 4:24). The Bible certainly pictures the Father as a Person and the Holy Spirit has the same essence as the Father. If the Father can be fully both a Spirit and a Person, then so can the Holy Spirit.

A real Person

Baptism, the ceremony through which people proclaim their commitment as Christians, gives the Holy Spirit equal status as the other Members of the Trinity. Jesus said the disciples were to baptise people “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19; emphasis added). There’s no distinction here between the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

When the leaders of the Christian church sent an official letter to the church in Antioch, they introduced it by writing, “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us . . .” (Acts 15:28). And Paul told the Corinthians that he was praying that “the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all” (2 Corinthians 13:14). Both of these seem appropriate only with a genuine Person.

In the Bible, the Spirit is pictured as contending, teaching, convicting, directing the church, helping and interceding, inspiring and sanctifying.* These aren’t the activities of some impersonal force. They imply independent intelligence, will and personality. We can only conclude the Holy Spirit is a real Person in His own right.

In fact, as you study the Bible, you’ll realise that what it says about who the Spirit is and what the Spirit does makes sense only if He has omniscience, omnipresence, omnipotence and all the other characteristics of divinity—including personhood.

The Spirit’s role

It seems to me that everything the Spirit does fits into one or the other of two categories:

(1) the Holy Spirit leads people to Jesus; and,

(2) the Holy Spirit helps people stay true to their commitment to Him.

It is only people who feel their spiritual need who turn to Jesus. By convicting “the world of guilt in regard to sin and righteousness and judgement” (John 16:8), the Holy Spirit makes people feel that need. And, as Paul told the Corinthians, “No one can say, ‘Jesus is Lord’ ”—the key confession of Christianity—“except by the Holy Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12:3). So, the Holy Spirit plays an essential role in people coming to Jesus.

As to what the Holy Spirit does to help people remain committed to Jesus, picture this. Several children are playing in the living room of their home when they notice that their mother is pulling on her coat and heading toward the front door. One of the children asks, “Where are you going?”

“I’m going to my father’s house to prepare a place for you.”

“Can we go with you?”

“Not now, but I will come back and take you to be with me.”

“How long will you be gone?”

“Just a little while.”

“Who will take care of us while you’re gone?”

That’s the key question. When the disciples asked Jesus that question, He replied, “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Counsellor to be with you forever—the Spirit of truth” (John 14:16, 17).

James Somerville, the man from whom I borrowed this illustration, said, “I don’t know that the Holy Spirit has ever been compared to a baby-sitter. But if you can imagine Jesus as a mother, then it may not be so hard to imagine the Spirit in this other role, as one who cares for the church in the interim between Jesus’ departure and return, as one who comforts, teaches, reminds and yes, sometimes even romps with the sons and daughters of God.”

Jesus’ promise to His disciples is a promise to us too. He may not be physically present with us, but through the Holy Spirit we can have the benefit of Jesus’ divine guidance as surely as did those who followed Him when He walked on this earth.

And Jesus said that while we wait for His return, far from scaring us, the Holy Spirit will be our Comforter. He substitutes for Jesus in the interim. And, therefore, He must be a Person just like Jesus.

* Genesis 6:3; Luke 12:12; John 16:8; Acts 13:2; Romans 8:26; 2 Peter 1:21; and 1 Peter 1:2, respectively.

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