One of the biggest points of confusion for many about Christianity is the doctrine surrounding the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit (also known as the Holy Ghost or the Spirit of God) is the third “Person” of the Trinity (another potentially confusing doctrine you can read about here) and is not mentioned in the Old Testament, only appearing in scripture after Jesus does. So who, or what, is the Holy Spirit, and why does it not appear in the early parts of the Bible.
When answering the second part of the question, it’s important to remember that the people early on in Bible history knew very little about God’s personality. Abraham, for example, was born into a pagan family who “worshipped other gods” (Joshua 24:2) when God selected him as the father of God’s people; a special family through whom God would restore the human race. God was careful to explain that the other “gods” were not genuine. “There is only one God,” he said (Deuteronomy 6:4). Skip forward to the time of the New Testament and you can understand why many of Abraham’s Jewish descendants struggled with Jesus Christ’s claim to be God and to have a “Father in heaven”. “That’s not possible,” they said. “There’s only one God.” “Yes,” Jesus replied, “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30). Proving His identity through signs and miracles and, ultimately, His resurrection, Jesus also talked of a Holy Spirit as a Third Person of God, who was also “One” with Him and His Father. One or Three? This puzzle is what led Christian author Tertullian in the third century to invent a new word, trinity (which some people also refer to as the Godhead), in an attempt to come to grips with how God described Himself as “Three” and “One” at the same time.
The Holy Spirit, the third person of the trinity, is perhaps as easy to identify with as the Father and the Son are. Whereas Jesus, who is God, has a human body, with human DNA and is limited to one place at one time, His Spirit is “omnipresent”—at all locations at once. And that’s just the start. This article describes in broad brushstrokes what the Bible teaches about the nature and activities of the Holy Spirit.
God’s Power—the Holy Spirit
Jesus had the power to perform miracles: He made sick people well, raised the dead, controlled storms and turned water to wine. In the closing days of Jesus’ time on earth, He promised this same power to His followers: “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you” (Acts 1:8). Consequently, a few pages forward in the Bible, we see this promise kept. The power of the Holy Spirit arrived in spectacular fashion, with an earthquake and the sound of wind, as “tongues of fire” landed on the believers’ heads—an event that would later come to be known as Pentecost. Filled with this Spirit of the Lord, the rag-tag band of Christ followers spoke in other languages, healed the sick, raised the dead and began to take the message of Jesus to the world. Furthermore, this early community of Spirit-led people shared their possessions and had “everything in common” (Acts 2:44). They had “deacons” and “elders”, but they were a very different “organised religion” from what we see in contemporary society. They were driven to love each other from the heart; they knew the secret of how to be content in any and every situation (Philippians 4:12).
A final generation
While genuine followers of Jesus have been empowered by the Holy Spirit ever since that time, the Bible teaches specifically that in the last moments of this era of human history, there will be a group of people who are empowered by the Holy Spirit in the same way as Jesus’ first followers: “In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days” (Acts 2:17, 18).
The Bible’s final book, Revelation, describes these people in two ways: First, they have a personal experience of Jesus. Second, they have the Holy Spirit (19:10). It’s predicted that these people will move out of corrupt organised religion (“Come out of her, my people”—18:4) and will live out a life of radical, day-to-day faith in Jesus (“They follow the Lamb wherever he goes”—14:4).
Dwelling inside you
The Bible teaches that while the Holy Spirit is omnipresent, He prefers to dwell inside people. “Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God?” asked the apostle Paul (1 Corinthians 6:9). Thus there is a direct connection between your mind and God’s mind—the Holy Spirit can directly communicate with you via this connection.
People who resonate with God in this way are described as having the “mind of Christ” (2 Corinthians 2:16) or as being “led by the Spirit” (Romans 8:14). Having the Spirt dwell inside you is where the idea of the “fruit of the spirit” (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faith, gentleness and self-control) comes from (Galatians 5:22). The spirit will help you, comfort you and intercede on your behalf if it dwells within you. But what does this feel like?
What does the Holy Spirit feel like?
If the Holy Spirit is living inside of you, and connecting directly with your thoughts and emotions, can you feel His presence? Many people who invite God into their minds report a deep sense of peace and rest. This is in line with biblical teaching, such as Jesus’ words in John 20:21, 22: “Peace be with you! . . . Receive the Holy Spirit.”
Personally, I have experienced episodes of what I can only describe as the Holy Spirit brooding over me. Just a few months ago I was driving alone, and praying my way through a particularly difficult ordeal, when I gradually became conscious of a heaviness above me. I felt pins and needles over my head and shoulders and had a strange, but not unpleasant, sensation of inhaling. This experience was so strong that I thought it best to pull over to the side of the road.
After a minute or two, the sensations faded and I was left with a sense of comfort . . . that I was not alone in the personal battle I was fighting. God was with me. I guess it felt like a hug, and there is good reason Jesus described the Holy Spirit not just as a “helper” but as a “Comforter” (John 15:26, KJV).
The Holy Spirit does not merely comfort. He is also a Teacher, who communicates ideas. Jesus promised His followers, “But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come” (John 16:12).
It’s worth remembering that, just as the best teachers don’t talk all the time, there are times when the Holy Spirit, while present, also falls silent. However, it is quite possible to learn to pick out God’s tone of voice in your mind in the same way that you can recognise friends and family simply from their voice over the phone. Hence Jesus said, “My sheep listen to my voice. I know them and they follow me” (John 10:26, 27).
Personally, I have had times where the Holy Spirit has communicated specific information very clearly. I recall praying about the dismal state of my marriage in our first year when I felt something like a curtain open in my head and a stream of very clear, cogent thought: Let me introduce you to your sparring partner. She is coming at you with a stick. The stick is a lie she has been led to believe about her lack of value as a person. You have a sword. Your job is to hit the stick out of her hand without hitting her—to choose the right words to cut her free instead of cutting her down.
There have been other times when the Holy Spirit has impressed on my mind to go to a certain location at a certain time, and I have found myself in a serendipitous meeting, being able to offer help or comfort to a person who needed it.
Again, at other times the Holy Spirit has brought snippets of the Bible to my mind, or has directed me to open a Bible and look up a certain verse for guidance to help me deal with a specific situation.
It’s no wonder that Jesus described people led by the Spirit as people who move like the wind: “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit” (John 3:8). So how is it possible that these unfettered, Spirit-led individuals who move like the wind, can actually live in any kind of harmony with one other? Surely, that would be like herding cats? The key point here is that Spirit-filled people are all moving in cooperation with the same Spirit, like blades of grass rippling with the wind—not in lockstep unison, but in harmony. Furthermore, the Bible describes a community of people who use their power not to lord it over one another and keep others in their place, but to serve one another and build others up.
In fact, the Bible details a list of “gifts” or abilities that were specifically given by the Holy Spirit to help build up the community. Some, for example, were given a special ability to teach, others to heal, others to prophesy, others to speak in foreign languages (1 Corinthians 12:7). These gifts still function today and are not restricted to people who have been followers of Jesus for a long time. Every person who follows Jesus has been given a spiritual gift. To begin to identify yours, find a community of believers and notice how you build others up.
‘But I’m isolated’
There are many people who are drawn to follow the Son of God, yet find themselves unattached to a community of Spirit-led people and don’t know where to start. If this is you, then I leave you two bits of good news in parting. First, a community doesn’t have to be a large gathering. Jesus said, “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am with them” (Matthew 18:20). And, secondly, the Bible teaches that if you have the Holy Spirit, “. . . you do not need anyone to teach you. But as his anointing teaches you about all things and as that anointing is real, not counterfeit—just as it has taught you, remain in him” (1 John 2:27).
Curious about some of the key beliefs of Christianity? Check out the other articles in our Fundamentals series to see if you can find the answers you need.
Jotham Kingston is a high school teacher who lives with his family near Kempsey, on Australia’s east coast.