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!

How can non-believers overcome destructive patterns without the Spirit’s help?

Q. The non-believer goes to various secular sources for help in areas like drugs and alcohol, anger management, eating disorders, etc. The believer goes to the Lord trusting the Holy Spirit for power to help because he’s powerless. My question is, “What is the advantage for the believer?” He sees the non-believer progressing in these areas without the Spirit’s help, doesn’t he? Are there some domains of sin where the believer can say, “I received victory in these areas only by the power of God?”

I think it’s actually inaccurate to draw a contrast between non-believers getting help from community resources without God and believers getting help from God all on their own.

On the one hand, classic Christian theology holds that those who have not yet benefited from the “special grace” of God that leads us to salvation in Jesus Christ nevertheless still benefit from the “common grace” of God that is in the world because it is God’s good creation and because God is actively exerting a redemptive influence throughout the earth. So the non-believer is not necessarily making progress in finding freedom from destructive patterns of life “without the Spirit’s help.” This is particularly true if he or she is participating in a group whose members are all working together to overcome a common problem. Human community, when it is cooperative and directed towards a positive end, reflects the character of God and can be a powerful channel of common grace.

On the other hand, the biblical portrayal of salvation is not that we are saved in isolation and need to work out our sanctification (progress towards Christ-like character and life) all alone, just between ourselves and God. Paul writes to the Corinthians, for example, regarding our entrance into the Christian life, that “we have all been baptized into one body by one Spirit.” We are saved into community, not into individual self-reliance. (That’s the American individualistic version of “salvation” instead.)

So it’s not a matter of vindicating the need for faith by identifying certain areas of life where destructive patterns can only be overcome by the Holy Spirit’s help. Rather, it’s a matter of recognizing that we live out the model of life that God intended for us humans when the take part in a community whose members offer one another mutual support and encouragement. This is so powerful that it can have many beneficial effects for members even when the community is not built on a shared faith commitment. (Although many “secular” groups actually do talk about the need to rely on a “higher power.”) But I honestly believe that when followers of Jesus form close communities in which members can share their struggles honestly and receive help from people who do not judge them, but rather support and help them, even more powerful things can and do happen. That’s the kind of community I wish for you and for all of my readers.

Did the Holy Spirit raise Jesus from the dead?

Q. Paul writes in Romans, “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies.” Can this statement be used in support the idea that the Holy Spirit raised Jesus from the dead?

For this particular statement to be used that way, it would have to refer to “the Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead” rather than “the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead.” However, there’s another interesting statement in Romans that suggests that the Holy Spirit might indeed have had a role in raising Jesus from the dead. Paul says something a little earlier in the letter that’s parallel to this later statement: “Just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.” Here Jesus’ resurrection is not attributed directly to the Father, but to something (or someone?) associated with the Father.

We may observe more generally that all of the activities of the Trinity involve all of its persons, so it would have been uncharacteristic for the Father alone to have raised the Son, without the involvement of the Spirit. As Christian thinkers in the first few centuries after Jesus tried to wrap their minds around the Trinity, one thing they agreed on was that it would be inaccurate to distinguish between the persons of the Trinity by appealing to their roles or responsibilities. That is, we shouldn’t say, “The Father does this while the Son does that and the Spirit does this other thing,” or, “The Father is responsible for this, and the Son for something else, and the Spirit for yet another area.”

We have some vivid pictures in the Bible of the persons of the Trinity all working together to accomplish important things. For example, in the Genesis creation account, God the Father creates through the Word while the Spirit hovers over the waters. At Jesus’ baptism, the heavens open and the Father speaks while the Spirit descends like a dove. While he was on earth, Jesus himself said, “The Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son does also.” I think we can legitimately expand this to say, “Whatever the Father and the Son do, the Spirit does also.”

So in some way the Spirit must have been involved in the resurrection of Jesus. I picture it as being something like the way the “two witnesses” in the book of Revelation are raised from the dead: “The Spirit of life from God entered into them, and they stood upon their feet.” (Many English translations say “breath of life” or “spirit of life” instead, but I think the text could well be referring to the Holy Spirit.)

This raises another very interesting question: If all three persons of the Trinity work together in every one of their activities, was Jesus involved in his own resurrection? The book of Hebrews makes this interesting statement: “During the days of Jesus’ life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with fervent cries and tears to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission.” Jesus actually did die an earthly death, on the cross, and so this statement that his prayers to be saved from death were heard seems to be describing his resurrection. In that case, Jesus was involved in his own resurrection through his prayers and submission, that is, his trust in God.

Hebrews goes on to say, “Although he was the Son, he learned obedience from what he suffered. After he was perfected, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.” This, too, would suggest that the Second Person of the Trinity was involved in his own resurrection through his trusting obedience, and in that way he contributed to the achievement of salvation for humanity that the whole Trinity was working for together.

Why were the apostles filled with the Holy Spirit again right after Pentecost?

Q. Why are the apostles “filled with the Holy Spirit” when they pray for boldness after Peter and John are arrested, when they had just recently received the Spirit on Pentecost? Isn’t the receiving of the Holy Spirit a one-time thing, as opposed to how it was in Old Testament times? If there are deeper levels or experiences, what do they consist of?

A Coptic icon of the day of Pentecost. Wasn’t the filling with the Holy Spirit that the disciples received that day all they ever needed?

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.”)

This is indeed a one-time occasion.  The Spirit came to live in the “new temple” only once, just as in the cases of the tabernacle and physical temple. And presumably anyone who was constituting the “new temple” at the time, that is, each the 120 followers of Jesus who were meeting together on Pentecost, was filled with the Holy Spirit as the community was filled. But this is something different from the kind of filling that’s described later in Acts, both in the passage you mention and in others.

In those cases, it’s almost as if the Holy Spirit takes up a person and uses them as an instrument for something on a particular occasion.  We see this from what happens next: they speak the word of God boldly, or they announce God’s judgment on opponents, or (in Saul’s case) his lost sight is restored and he receives his divine calling.

This is directly analogous to the situations in the Old Testament where, in effect, the Spirit picks someone up and uses them for God’s purposes.  The Hebrew idiom is quite striking: It says that the Spirit of Yahweh “clothed herself* in” the person chosen as an instrument.  This is how Gideon, for example, was propelled into his mission of leading Israel’s tribes against an invading coalition of their enemies.

If you think about it, if the Spirit is wearing you like a garment, that’s the same thing as being filled with the Spirit: you’re the outside, and the Spirit is the inside!

This is a matter of special empowerment by the Spirit on a particular occasion for a particular purpose.  I’d say that, for its part, it’s different from yet another kind of “filling with the Spirit.”  I think that all believers receive the Spirit when they choose to follow Christ.  But they are not necessarily filled with the Spirit if they haven’t yet opened up every area of their being to the Spirit’s presence and control.  When we do “surrender all,” then the Spirit can flood our being throughout and we are filled.

This might be a gradual process for some people, but for others, it may be a powerful and moving experience that happens at a specific, memorable time.  In the mid-to-late 1800s, the phrase “baptism of the Holy Spirit” was used to describe this experience, synonymously with “complete surrender” and “entire sanctification.”  The idea was that people weren’t getting more of the Spirit, the Spirit was getting more of them, and so was able to fill them.  (The Greek verb “baptize” actually means “to fill by immersing,” and so it’s a suitable term to use for such an experience.)

Later, specifically within the Pentecostal movement starting in 1906, the phrase “baptism of the Holy Spirit” became associated with receiving the “gift of tongues,” that is, the ability to speak a language not naturally acquired, as the followers of Jesus did on the day of Pentecost.  But even within that movement, the primary emphasis remained on the complete surrender of one’s life and will to God.  I believe that God does still give the gift of tongues today, in a variety of forms and for a number of purposes, but that it is not the identifying sign of having been filled with the Holy Spirit.  Rather, a greater empowerment for service with whatever gifts God has given, and a greater consecration to God, are the evidence of that filling.

I hope this is helpful!


*I use the feminine pronoun because the word for “Spirit” is feminine in Hebrew. The language has no neuter pronoun, and even if it did, I don’t think either using the impersonal pronoun from English (“it”), or using a masculine pronoun (“him”) to represent a feminine word, would be appropriate for the Spirit as depicted in the Hebrew Bible.

Are people “filled with the Holy Spirit” once or multiple times?

Q. Why are the apostles “filled with the Holy Spirit” when they pray for boldness after Peter and John are released from prison, when they have just recently received the Spirit on Pentecost? Isn’t the receiving of the Holy Spirit a one-time thing as opposed to how it was in the Old Testament times? If there are deeper levels / experiences, what do they consist of?

El Greco, “Pentecost” (detail). If the apostles were already filled with the Holy Spirit on this occasion, why did they need to be filled again?

As I understand it, on the day of Pentecost, it is the community of Jesus’ followers that is filled with the Holy Spirit, as the “new temple” of the new covenant.

Under the old covenant, when the tabernacle was first set up in the wilderness, “the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle,” to such an extent thatMoses could not enter the tent of meeting because the cloud had settled on it, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle.”  Later, when Solomon built the first temple in Jerusalem and brought the ark of the covenant there, similarly “the cloud filled the temple of the Lord, and the priests could not perform their service because of the cloud, for the glory of the Lord filled his temple.”

Unfortunately the Israelites broke this covenant and they were conquered and exiled, and the first temple was destroyed.  Shortly before this, as Ezekiel saw in one of his visions, “the glory of the God of Israel went up from above the cherubim [i.e. upon the ark], where it had been, and moved to the threshold of the temple.”  As Ezekiel looked on, “the glory of the Lord departed from over the threshold of the temple” and it was escorted away out of the city by angelic beings.  (I’m always horrified when I read about this departure of God’s glory and Spirit!)

There is no record in the Bible of God’s glory filling the second temple, which was rebuilt in various stages after the return from exile.  I believe this is because, under the promised new covenant, the community of believers was to constitute the new temple.  As Paul wrote to the Corinthians, addressing the community corporately, not the members individually, “Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in your midst?”  Paul wrote similarly to the Ephesians:

“You are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.”

So this is what I think was happening on the day of Pentecost.  As I put it in the title of a sermon I preached one Pentecost Sunday when I was a pastor, it is the “filling of the new temple.”  This is something different from the filling of an individual believer by the Holy Spirit.  I believe that such an individual filling takes place in one sense on a one-time basis, but that in another sense it can happen on a repeated basis.

Everyone who becomes a committed follower of Jesus receives the Holy Spirit as a gift, to equip and empower them to serve and to live a holy life.  So this one-time filling is not a matter of us getting more of the Holy Spirit.  Rather, it’s a matter of the Holy Spirit getting more of us.  Christians throughout the ages have reported an experience that sometimes goes by the name of “complete surrender,” in which they realize that Jesus must have unchallenged lordship in their lives.  They therefore surrender their wills to do only God’s will.  And many report that concurrently something happens that they call the “baptism in the Holy Spirit.”  (“Baptism” is simply the Greek word for “to fill by immersing,” so this is just another way of saying “the filling of the Holy Spirit.”)  The point is that the Holy Spirit, who has now been given free access to the whole being, fills all those areas in our lives that had once been closed off.

This experience is known by other names as well, such as the “Second Blessing,” but it does not have to come a long time after a person’s first commitment to Christ.  Churches in the Pentecostal tradition associate it with receiving the “gift of languages” (which I discuss in this post), but the experience was well attested in church history long before the Pentecostal movement began in 1906.  Basically it is a one-time “filling” with the Holy Spirit that occurs when we open our entire life for the Spirit to fill.

This is different from the kind of “filling” we might need and experience on a recurring basis when the Spirit makes use of us in a special way as an instrument of God’s work on earth.  This recurring kind of filling is, as you say, described in the Old Testament, as well as in New Testament passages like the one in which the apostles pray for boldness.  These are those situations in which, as I explain in this post, it is said that “the Spirit of Yahweh clothed herself with” a certain person, in effect “putting that person on” like a garment so that they could become God’s instrument.

Even when this particular language is not present, and we hear simply about the person being “filled with the Spirit,” the idea is the same.  A special measure of God’s presence and empowerment is needed for a particular task, and so it is granted for that occasion.

I hope these distinctions are helpful in answering your question.

Has the Holy Spirit ever taken on human form?

 

Francesco Albani, “The Baptism of Christ” (detail). The Holy Spirit appeared in material form, as a dove, at Christ’s baptism. But has the Holy Spirit ever appeared in human form?

Q. I know God and Jesus have taken human form before, and I was wondering, has the Holy Spirit ever done so? I don’t remember any passages where He does, but are there any?

(This is the second part of a question whose first part is answered in this post.)

I’m not aware of any biblical passages that describe the Holy Spirit taking on human form quite the way Jesus did in his incarnation, or the way God the Father did on several occasions in the Old Testament when He appeared as the “angel of the LORD” (that is, “the angel of Yahweh”). In some of those episodes, the so-called “angel” is identified directly with Yahweh. For example, after the angel of the LORD’s very first appearance in the Old Testament, to Hagar, we read that she “gave this name to Yahweh who had spoken to her: ‘You are the God who sees me.’”

However, there are at least a couple of places in the Bible where the Holy Spirit appears in material form. Luke tells us in his gospel that when Jesus was baptized, “the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove.” And Luke tells us in Acts that “what seemed to be tongues of fire” came to rest on each of the disciples as they were filled with the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost.

Beyond this, there are three very intriguing occasions in the Old Testament when the Holy Spirit is said to put on the body of an existing human being as if it were clothing, in order to speak and act on earth.

Before I discuss these places, I need to say a word about Hebrew grammar so that I can quote from the original language without being misunderstood. The word for “Spirit” in Hebrew is feminine. This doesn’t mean that the Holy Spirit, the third person of the Trinity, is a woman (biologically female), any more than the masculine pronouns that are used conventionally in Hebrew and Greek (and typically in English) for the first person of the Trinity, whom Jesus taught us to call “Father,” mean that this person is a man (biologically male). Rather, “Spirit” in Hebrew is feminine because it’s the same word as “wind,” and natural forces (sun, fire, wind, etc.) are conventionally feminine in Hebrew. But the Holy Spirit is a person, not a thing, and so the Spirit should definitely be given a personal pronoun, not an impersonal one (“it”). For this reason, when translating directly from the Hebrew, I say “she,” “her,” and “herself” for the Spirit.

Now here are the places in the Bible where the Holy Spirit is said to put on the body of an existing human being.

First, in the book of Judges, after God called Gideon to deliver the ancient Israelites from Midianite domination, “the Spirit of the Lord came on Gideon” and he gathered an army to fight. The Hebrew text says literally, “The Spirit of Yahweh clothed herself with Gideon.” The text is saying that the Spirit put on Gideon as if he were a garment, in order to be the one who was really acting to bring victory and liberation in this situation.

The next episode took place when David was living in Ziklag after he’d had to flee from Saul. Some men from the tribes of Benjamin and Judah came to him there and offered to join him. David couldn’t be sure whether they were sincere or whether they were trying to trick him and turn him over to Saul. So he told them, “if you have come to betray me . . . may the God of our ancestors see it and judge you!” In response to this challenge, which really amounted to a curse if the men were insincere, “the Spirit came on Amasai,” who would become one of David’s most trusted commanders, and he made an impassioned poetic protest of their loyalty and sincerity:

“We are yours, David!
We are with you, son of Jesse!
Success, success to you,
and success to those who help you,
for your God will help you.”

Once again, the Hebrew text reads literally, “The Spirit clothed herself with Amasai.”

Finally, some centuries later in the kingdom of Judah, when the formerly godly king Joash began to worship idols, “the Spirit of God came on Zechariah son of Jehoiada the priest” and he warned the people that they would not prosper because they had forsaken Yahweh. In this instance as well, the Hebrew text says that “the Spirit of Elohim clothed herself with Zechariah.”

So although the Holy Spirit has apparently never taken on human form in the sense of appearing on earth as if human, on three occasions the Spirit has put on the body of an existing human being as if it were clothing, in order to speak and act to bring deliverance, affirmation, or judgment in a situation.