God is beyond human understanding. Yet the Jewish-Christian tradition insists that God dos not stand aloof from creation but freely chooses to relate to the world out of love. How then can the actions of this unknowable God be expressed? Only through limited human language. We must employ images drawn from human experience to describe God’s action in our midst. Our human words always fall short of the mystery of God, but they are the only words we have.
When we examine the descriptions of the Spirit of God in the scriptures, we should remember that they are efforts to express the inexpressible God. In both Hebrew and Greek the word which we translate as “spirit” indicates “a movement of air.” Thus “the Spirit of God” could correctly be translated “the wind of God” or “the breath of God.” This invisible movement of air is an inspired image for God’s presence and action among us.
The scriptures use this image consistently. God’s Spirit is found in the first chapter of the Book of Genesis and the last chapter of the Book of Revelation. Over time the Christian tradition has come to recognize that the Spirit is a person, the third person of the Blessed Trinity. But the scriptural descriptions of the Spirit are less concerned with essence and more with action. The scriptures are always showing us what the Spirit does. Tracing those actions is important, because what the Spirit does tells us what God does. A history of the Spirit’s actions etches a portrait of our invisible God. We can identify seven actions of God’s Spirit within the scriptures. God’s Spirit creates, sustains, saves, judges, inspires, equips, and guides.
There is a fundamental continuity regarding the Spirit which spans both Testaments in our bibles. Even though the New Testament differs from the Old in the central importance it places upon Jesus Christ as the Messiah of God, the new builds upon the old. What God’s Spirit does in the Hebrew scriptures is developed and specified in the New Testament in light of the revelation of Jesus.
God’s Spirit Creates
It is through God’s Spirit that all things come to be. In the first chapter of Genesis, before God says, “Let there be light,” we are told that “a wind (spirit) from God swept over the face of the waters” (Gen 1:2). When God creates the first human, again the image of moving air is used. God “breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being” (Gen 2:7). Psalm 33:6 proclaims that God created through the Spirit: “By the word of the Lord the heavens were made, and all their hosts by the breath of his mouth.” Job 33:4 speaks of creation in personal terms: “The spirit of God has made me, the breath of the Almighty gives me life.”
The New Testament asserts that God will establish a new creation inaugurated through the death and resurrection of Jesus. As at the first creation, God’s Spirit is instrumental in bringing about God’s intentions. At present, creation is in labor pains. Christians possess the first fruits of God’s Spirit as the new creation is born (Rom 8:22-23). God has bestowed the Spirit as a guarantee of the new creation which in Christ has already begun (2 Cor 5:5, 17).
God’s Spirit Sustains
God’s Spirit does not only create life but also sustains it. If God’s Spirit is taken away, life ends. When God’s Spirit is sent forth, life is renewed (Ps 104:29-30). Job 34:14-15 asserts that if God “should take back his spirit to himself, and gather to himself his breath, all flesh would perish together, and all mortals return to dust.”
In the New Testament the Spirit of God sustains those who believe in Christ. Paul reminds the Corinthians, “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?” (1 Cor 3:16). Paul tells the Galatians, “Live by the Spirit” (Gal 5:16). God’s Spirit also sustains the Body of Christ, activating all the gifts of the community (1 Cor 12:11).
God’s Spirit Saves
The Spirit saves God’s people. In the exodus God turns the sea into dry land by a strong wind (Exod 14:21-22). But God most often saves Israel by bestowing the Spirit upon great leaders who rescue the people. Moses (Num 11:17), Joshua (Num 27:18), the judges of Israel (Judg 3:10, 6:34, 11:29), Saul (1 Sam 11:6), and David (1 Sam 16:13) all receive the Spirit. The ultimate savior, the Messiah, will possess the Spirit in its fullness (Isa 11:2).
The New Testament proclaims that Jesus is God’s Messiah. Therefore his saving work is accomplished through the Spirit. Jesus is conceived in the Spirit (Luke 2:35). The Spirit descends upon him at his baptism (Mark 1:10). At Nazareth he defines his mission in the Spirit (Luke 4:18). Paul asserts that Jesus’ resurrection occurs through the Spirit (Rom 1:4) and that all believers have been saved “in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God” (1 Cor 6:11).
God’s Spirit Judges
What is contrary to God’s goodness cannot endure. God will judge the evil of this world and destroy it. The “breath” of God will “sift the nations with the sieve of destruction” (Isa 30:28). Those who do evil rebel against God’s “holy spirit,” and God will fight against them (Isa 63:10). God judges the world through the Spirit which will be poured out from on high and establish justice on the earth (Isa 32: 14-16). The Psalmist understands that it is through the Spirit that evil can be removed from the human heart (Ps 51:10-11). Jerusalem will be cleansed by “a spirit of judgment and a spirit of burning” (Isa 4:4).
The New Testament applies that burning judgment of the Spirit to the mission of Christ. John the Baptist announces that Jesus will baptize “with the Holy Spirit and fire” (Matt 3:11). It is the Spirit as Paraclete who proves the world wrong about sin, justice, and judgment (John 16:8-11). In the Spirit the church can judge which sins will be forgiven and which retained (John 20:22-23). Every disciple is challenged to fight against evil with the “sword of the Spirit” (Eph 6:17).
God’s Spirit Inspires
To communicate with humanity God chooses prophets to speak the divine message. God’s Spirit inspires these chosen men and women to announce God’s words. It is God’s Spirit which opens Balaam’s mouth to pronounce a blessing on Israel (Num 24:2). The Spirit places God’s words on David’s tongue (2 Sam 23:2). It is in the Spirit that the prophets teach God’s law (Zech 7:12) and Micah (3:8) declares Israel’s sin. Joel promises that in the fullness of time all humanity will prophesy in the Spirit (Joel 2:28-29).
The same Spirit of God inspires men and women in the New Testament to speak of the mystery of Christ. Filled with the Spirit Zachariah pronounces a canticle of praise for the Messiah (Luke 1:67) and Elizabeth blesses the mother of the Savior (Luke 1:42). Peter teaches in the Holy Spirit (Acts 4:8) and declares that the promise of Joel has been fulfilled (Acts 2:17-18). Stephen and Agabus are inspired by the Spirit (Acts 6:10; 11:28). The entire community speaks in the Spirit (Acts 4:31), and it is only in the Spirit that the individual believer can say, “Jesus is Lord” (1 Cor 12:3).
God’s Spirit Equips
The Spirit prepares men and women for service, granting them abilities and gifts. Intelligence, knowledge, and artistic ability are the Spirit’s gifts (Exod 31:3-5). Joseph and Daniel possess wisdom in the Spirit (Gen 41:38-39; Dan 5:14). Indeed true understanding and wisdom flow from God’s Spirit (Job 32:8-9; Sir 39:6; Wis 9:17).
The tongues of fire at Pentecost indicate that the Sprit’s gifts are given to every believer (Acts 2:1-4). It is the Spirit who equips the Church with every gift (1 Cor 12:7-11). Through the wisdom and revelation provided by the Spirit the believer can come to know the Father (Eph 1:17) and speak to God in prayer (Rom 8:26).
God’s Spirit Guides
The Spirit is not idle when decisions must be made, but guides men and women according to God’s will. It is God’s Spirit which leads Israel through the wilderness (Neh 9:20) and provides a new heart so that right decisions will be made according to the law (Ezek 11:19-20). The Psalmist prays, “Teach me to do your will, for you are my God. Let your good spirit lead me on a level path” (Ps 143:10). The guidance of the Spirit is not always subtle. Ezekiel is lifted up bodily and carried away to speak to the exiles of Israel (Ezek 3:12-15).
In the New Testament Philip, like Ezekiel, is transported by the Spirit on his mission (Acts 8:39). The same Spirit leads Simeon to the Christ child (Luke 2:27) and guides the mission of Peter (Acts 11:12) and Paul (Acts 16:6; 19:21; 21:4). The Spirit directs the church at Antioch to commission Paul and Barnabas (Acts 13:2) and the church at Jerusalem to ease the burden of the law upon the Gentiles (Acts 15:28). The Spirit as Paraclete reminds believers of all that Jesus said (John 14:26) and guides them into all truth (John 16:13). All Christians are directed by God’s Spirit (Gal 5:25), “For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God” (Rom 8:14).
A Portrait of God
The images of the Spirit within the scriptures establish a remarkable continuity between the two Testaments. They paint a portrait of our unknowable God. What does this portrait show us? Our God creates all things and sustains them. Our God judges evil and brings salvation. Our God does not remain aloof, but inspires creatures to speak the good news, equips men and women for service, and guides us through the journey of life.