What does it mean that the Holy Spirit lives in us?

Q. I struggle with the concept of the Holy Spirit living in us due to two things that I have recently become aware of.

One is that in creation, God breathed life into us; wasn’t this the Holy Spirit? So since the Holy Spirit is the source of life and is living in us, how does this imagery work? If Mary had already conceived Jesus through the Spirit of God, what was happening when the Spirit descended on Him after His baptism?

My second question is the language used to describe the Pentecost event. It’s somehow similar to the temple imagery. I believe that I have the Spirit in me, but I have never experienced what happened to the early believers, as described in Acts. Well, maybe there are exceptions, but can you please help clarify what it means that we have the Spirit in our lives?

Thank you for your questions. Let me share some reflections in response.

First, the book of Genesis does say that “God formed a human from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life.” But while the word for “breath” in Hebrew can also mean “spirit,” in this case, the Bible is not talking about the Holy Spirit. Rather, it’d depicting how God brought humans to physical life as his creatures.

However, there’s an interesting parallel to this account in the Gospel of John. After Jesus rose from the dead, he met with his disciples and “breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.'” This seems to be an intentional re-enactment on Jesus’ part of the Genesis creation event, to signify that his followers would each become “a new creation” (as the apostle Paul would later put it) as their lives were transformed specifically by the influence of the Holy Spirit within.

This leads directly to your further question about Pentecost. If the disciples had already received the Holy Spirit when Jesus breathed on them, what was going on when they were “filled with the Holy Spirit” on Pentecost? I think you’re right to perceive temple imagery at work in this account. As I say in another post on this blog:

As I understand it, Pentecost is the occasion on which the community is  filled with the Holy Spirit. The New Testament speaks of the community of Jesus’ followers as “God’s temple” or a “temple in the Lord.” The physical temple in Jerusalem was destroyed in A.D. 70, and the New Testament envisions a new kind of temple, built of “living stones” (as Peter puts it—that is, of people), taking its place.  And so the scene on the day of Pentecost is just like the ones in the Old Testament when God’s Spirit fills the tabernacle built by Moses and the temple that Solomon built. (Along these lines, I once preached a Pentecost sermon entitled “The Filling of the New Temple.”)

Your question about Jesus can be answered along similar lines. Jesus was conceived through the power of the Holy Spirit, but this was what brought him to life physically, similarly to the way the breath/spirit of God first brought a human to life. Jesus would not, through this means, have been filled with the Holy Spirit from birth, any more than the first human was filled with the Spirit at his creation. (However, we shouldn’t necessarily conclude that Jesus was not filled with the Holy Spirit from his very conception; an angel promised that this would be true about John the Baptist, and there’s no reason to think that anything less was true of Jesus, whom John said was “greater than I am.” The fact that John was able to recognize Jesus when they were both still in the womb and their mothers met suggests to me that they were each already very much alive spiritually at that point.)

Jesus was already a genuine and committed follower of God and an instrument of God’s inbreaking kingdom activity even before he was baptized, so I don’t doubt that the Holy Spirit was already living in him by that time. But nevertheless the Holy Spirit descended on Jesus in a visible way at his baptism.

For one thing, this signified his identity and mission as the Messiah. It confirmed the Father’s voice from heaven, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” (As I observe in this post, “Generally all of the activities of the Trinity involve all of its persons.” That is, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit do their work together. When Jesus publicly and officially began his ministry with his baptism, the other two persons of the Trinity took part in the event.)

However, I don’t doubt that the Holy Spirit descending on Jesus was also a special equipping for the ministry that lay ahead—beginning immediately with the wilderness temptations that followed his baptism, and continuing on to further great challenges after that. We discover the same thing in many other passages in the Bible, that God sometimes gives a person a special filling of the Spirit to equip them for an urgent and difficult task. For example, the book of Acts tells us that when the apostles were arrested in Jerusalem for speaking and teaching in the name of Jesus, Peter was “filled with the Holy Spirit” so that he could offer a bold defense. The apostles were threatened and intimidated and then released, and the whole community of Jesus’ followers prayed for boldness. “After they prayed, the place where they were meeting was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly.” Similar episodes of people being specially filed with the Spirit for bold action are found throughout the Old and New Testaments.

So, to sum up, people who haven’t yet experienced the new birth by receiving Jesus as their Lord and Savior do not have the Holy Spirit living within them, although they do have the “breath of life” as a gift from God and they bear the image of God, and on that basis they can already begin to contribute to God’s kingdom activity. Once a person does come to follow Jesus, they are born again and become a “new creation,” and the Holy Spirit comes to live within them. The Holy Spirit will work within them to make them more and more like Jesus in their character, conduct, and attitudes, and the Holy Spirit will also give them gifts and opportunities for service.

It’s true that some people seem to experience a filling of the Holy Spirit as something separate from, and subsequent to, their initial commitment to follow Jesus. I recognize that some Christian groups teach that this is normative, that the two experiences are separate. While I respect their beliefs, my personal view is that when someone experiences the filling of the Holy Spirit later, some time after they’ve chosen to follow Jesus, it’s not that they get more of the Holy Spirit, it’s that the Holy Spirit gets more of them. They have opened up wide areas of their heart and life to the Spirit’s influence and control, and as a result they are experiencing the Spirit rushing in. (Indeed, even those groups that teach a subsequent experience of the “baptism of the Holy Spirit” associate it closely with “entire surrender” and “complete sanctification.”)

So, at least in my view, if you are a follower of Jesus, the Holy Spirit is already living within you, at work to make you like Jesus and equip you for service. You don’t need to get more of the Spirit. But make sure the Spirit gets all of you!

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is an an ordained minister, a writer, and a biblical scholar. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the New International Version (NIV) that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He was also a consultant to Tyndale House for the Immerse Bible, an edition of the New Living Translation (NLT) that similarly presents the Scriptures in their natural literary forms, without chapters and verses or section headings. He has a B.A. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

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