The Holy Spirit sits in the backseat of many people’s Christian theology. While you may hear a lot about God the Father and Jesus his Son, the role of the Holy Spirit is often neglected in Christian circles.
But as we look closer at who the Holy Spirit is and what he does, we will quickly realize that he is vital to any explanation of Christianity. To put it plainly, nothing of any consequence happens in the life of the Church or the Christian without the Holy Spirit.
The Spirit Appears Early in the Bible
We are introduced to God’s Spirit in the second verse of the Bible. At creation, the Spirit hovered over the surface of the waters (Genesis 1:2). Later, before the flood of Noah’s time, God’s Spirit is mentioned again (Genesis 6:3). Throughout the Old Testament, we see glimpses of the Spirit, like when the Spirit would anoint a prophet (e.g., 2 Chronicle 24:20) or give people special abilities (e.g., Exodus 31:3). But there is never a full-blown explanation as to who the Spirit is in the Old Testament.
However, with the revelation of Jesus Christ, we begin to understand that the Spirit is a person equal in essence to God the Father and God the Son.
The Spirit Is a Person
Because the Old Testament Hebrew and New Testament Greek words translated “spirit” simply mean “breath” or “wind,” people get confused about whether the Spirit is a thing or a person. How we view the Spirit will result in how we approach him and treat him.
The Bible is clear: The Holy Spirit is not a commodity or force, though many churches today treat him that way. The Spirit is as much a person as are the Father and the Son. We must remember to refer to the Holy Spirit as “he,” not as “it.”
This means that the Spirit is a relational being. For example, the Spirit teaches Jesus’ disciples (John 14:26); he speaks (Acts 13:2), guides (Galatians 5:16), and leads (Romans 8:4); he helps and prays and pleads (Romans 8:26-27). He can be lied to (Acts 5:3); he can be grieved (Isaiah 63:10; Ephesians 4:30). In John 16, where Jesus provides extensive comments about the promised Spirit, the Spirit is said to “come,” “convict,” “guide,” “speak,” “hear,” and “tell.” All of these activities are relational, personal activities.
In the Greek (e.g., John 14:16, 26), the Spirit is called the Paraklētos. The word literally means someone who comes alongside and is variously translated as Comforter, Helper, Counselor, and Advocate. Don’t think of these primarily as psychological terms. In their first-century context, these were legal terms, used in courtrooms. The Spirit does not simply comfort believers, he also counsels them. He intercedes for and defends them.
The Spirit Is God
But what kind of person is the Spirit? In numerous places, the Bible mentions the Holy Spirit alongside God the Father and Jesus the Son, implying an intimate and equal relationship between the three. For example, believers are baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—all three persons of the Trinity are brought together under one name (Matthew 28:19). This triune relationship is seen in passages like 2 Corinthians 13:14 and 2 Thessalonians 2:13-14. The Bible tells us that the Holy Spirit is not just a relational person—he is also a divine person. He’s God.
Other evidence that the Spirit is a divine Person includes:
- Quotations from God in the Old Testament are attributed to the Spirit in the New Testament (e.g., Hebrews 10:15-16).
- Old Testament prophets were given words from God, yet it was the Spirit who moved them (2 Peter 1:20-21).
- Peter accused Ananias of lying both to God and to the Spirit (Acts 5:3-4).
- Blasphemy against the Spirit is the only unforgivable sin, which would be strange if the Spirit were not God himself (Matthew 12:30-31).
For these reasons, the doctrine of the Trinity—that the Father, Son, and Spirit are all equally and eternally God—has been the teaching of the church through the centuries.
Another evidence that the Spirit is God is that believers are called God’s “temple,” because God’s Spirit indwells them (1 Corinthians 3:16; 6:19). The connotation of a temple is a place where God dwells. Calling a Christian the temple of the Holy Spirit indicates that the Spirit is, in fact, God.
How to Receive the Holy Spirit
But how do believers “get” the Spirit? Not surprisingly, Jesus tells us, and it’s as simple as asking.
So I say to you: Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened. Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead? Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him! (Luke 11:9-13 NIV)
Elsewhere, Jesus tells us when a person receives the Holy Spirit. When someone professes faith in Jesus Christ, the Spirit brings about the new birth, what Jesus calls being “born again” (John 3:3-8; 1 Corinthians 12:3).
The Old Testament prophet Ezekiel looked ahead to the new covenant and helped us understand that we receive a new heart when the Spirit comes to indwell us (Ezekiel 36:26-27). Since Pentecost (Acts 2), the Spirit has been given to all who have faith in Jesus (Ephesians 1:13-14).
The Spirit Empowers Believers
Everything in the Christian’s life has something to do with God’s Spirit. From the ability to confess Jesus as Lord (1 Corinthians 12:3), to being born again (John 3:5), to bearing spiritual fruit and growing in godly character (Galatians 5:22-23) and possessing spiritual gifts (1 Corinthians 12:11), nothing of any value or importance in the Christian life happens apart from the Spirit.
Believers are filled by the Spirit (Ephesians 5:18). God’s Word is the Spirit’s sword (Ephesians 6:17), inspired by him (2 Timothy 3:16; 2 Peter 1:20-21). The Spirit gives believers insight into God’s spiritual truths (1 Corinthians 2:14), helps Christians to pray (Jude 20), and makes them holy (Romans 15:16; 1 Corinthians 6:11).
The Spirit calls believers to special ministry, as was the case with Paul and Barnabas (Acts 13:2). He assures Christians of their relationship with God (1 John 4:13). Jesus’ resurrection and the raising of the believer’s mortal body are the Spirit’s work (Romans 8:11). Sacraments like baptism and communion have a spiritual aspect as we participate with Christ through them (Romans 6:3; 1 Corinthians 10:16). From the beginning of the Christian’s life until its end, the Spirit plays a vital role.
This is why believers are commanded to “keep in step with the Spirit” (Galatians 5:25 NIV). Without God’s Spirit in our lives, we cannot please God (Romans 8:5-8). And even when he dwells with us, we bear responsibility to honor and obey him.
The Spirit’s Ministry Has Expanded over Time
Earlier we noted that the Spirit’s role in creation has progressively expanded from when we first saw him in the Old Testament until Jesus more fully reveals him to us. As we close this article, it will be helpful to note what we mean by that.
It appears that the Holy Spirit’s role in the Old Testament was limited in several ways. To be clear, by “limited” we do not mean that the Spirit had less power or was inadequate in some way. We simply mean that in God’s providence, the Holy Spirit purposefully worked more narrowly in the Old Testament than in the New Testament.
Here are four ways God limited his Spirit’s work:
- Limited Extent: The Holy Spirit almost exclusively works among the nation of Israel in the Old Testament.
- Limited Scope: Even within Israel, the Spirit dwells with only a few key individuals like Moses or the prophets.
- Limited Power: We have very little evidence that God’s Old Testament people exercised spiritual power over demonic forces, as we see in the life of Jesus.
- Limited Duration: As was the case with King Saul, the Spirit’s presence in a person’s life was not necessarily permanent (1 Samuel 16:14).
In the New Testament, though, we see the widening of the Spirit’s work. The Old Testament prophesied this: “And afterward, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days” (Joel 2:28-29 NIV).
This prophecy was fulfilled when the Holy Spirit was poured out on Jesus’ disciples at Pentecost (Acts 2:14-21). Now everyone who is a follower of Jesus has the indwelling Spirit.
While our understanding and God’s revelation of the Spirit has expanded since Pentecost, we also need not worry that those who have the Spirit will ever lose him. Paul writes that the Spirit is a “deposit guaranteeing our inheritance.” God’s gift of his Spirit “seals” believers, making them “God’s possession” (Ephesians 1:13-14 NIV).
The Bible has quite a lot to say about the Holy Spirit. It’s a shame that so often we ignore him in our lives. If you do not know Jesus as your Lord and Savior, why not take a moment now to ask God to reveal him to you through his Spirit? For those who already trust Jesus, it’s our hope that you will more fully understand your dependence upon the Spirit.
The Holy Spirit does not take a backseat in the Christian life. He actually drives our life of faith in Jesus. The question is, will we let him have the wheel?