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Who Is the Holy Spirit?
By Nicky Gumbel
I had a group of friends at university, five of whom were called Nicky! We used to meet for lunch most days. In February 1974 most of us came to faith in Jesus Christ. We immediately became very enthusiastic about our new-found faith. One of the Nickys, however, was slow to get going. He didn’t seem excited about his relationship with God, with reading the Bible or with praying.
One day, someone prayed for him to be filled with the Spirit. He was; and it transformed his life. A great big smile came across his face. He became well-known for his radiance—--he still is years later. Thereafter, if there was a Bible study or a prayer meeting or a church in reach, Nicky was there. He loved to be with other Christians. He became the most magnetic personality. People were drawn to him and he helped many others to believe and to be filled with the Spirit in the way that he had been.
What was it that made such a difference to Nicky? I think that he would answer that it was the experience of the Holy Spirit. Many people know a certain amount about God the Father and Jesus the Son. But there is a great deal of ignorance about the Holy Spirit. Hence, three chapters of this book are devoted to the third person of the Trinity.
Some old translations speak of the ‘Holy Ghost’ and this can make him seem a little frightening. The Holy Spirit is not a ghost but a Person. He has all the characteristics of personhood. He thinks (Acts 15:28), speaks (Acts 1:16), leads (Romans 8:14) and can be grieved (Ephesians 4:30). He is sometimes described as the Spirit of Christ (Romans 8:9) or the Spirit of Jesus (Acts 16:7). He is the way in which Jesus is present with his people. The schoolchild’s definition is ‘Jesus’ other self.
What is he like? He is sometimes described in the original Greek as the parakletos (John 14:16). This is a difficult word to translate. It means ‘one called alongside’--—a counsellor, a comforter and an encourager. Jesus said the Father will give you ‘another’ counsellor. The word for ‘another’ means ‘of the same kind’. In other words, the Holy Spirit is just like Jesus.
In this chapter I want to look at the person of the Holy Spirit: who he is and what we can learn about him as we trace his activity through the Bible from Genesis I right through to the Day of Pentecost. Because the Pentecostal movement began at the beginning of this century it might be tempting to think that the Holy Spirit is a twentieth-century phenomenon. This is, of course, far from the truth.
We see evidence of the activity of the Holy Spirit in the opening verses of the Bible: ‘In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters’ (Genesis 1:1-2).
We see in the account of the creation how the Spirit of God caused new things to come into being and brought order out of chaos. He is the same Spirit today. He often brings new things into people’s lives and into churches. He brings order and peace into chaotic lives, freeing people from harmful habits and addictions and from the confusion and mess of broken relationships.
When God created man, he ‘formed man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living being’ (Genesis 2:7). The Hebrew word implied here for breath is ruach, which is also the word for ‘Spirit’. The ruach of God brings physical life to man formed from dust. Likewise, he brings spiritual life to people and churches, both of which can be as dry as dust!
Some years ago I was speaking to a clergyman who was telling me that his life and his church had been like that—--a bit dusty. One day he and his wife were filled with the Spirit of God, they found a new enthusiasm for the Bible and their lives were transformed. His church became a centre of life. The youth group, started by his son who had also been filled with the Spirit, experienced explosive growth and became one of the largest in the area.
Many are hungry for life and are attracted to people and churches where they see the life of the Spirit of God.
2. He came on particular people at particular times for particular tasks
When the Spirit of God comes upon people something happens. He does not just bring a nice warm feeling! He comes for a purpose and we see examples of this in the Old Testament.
He filled people for artistic work. The Spirit of God filled Bezalel ‘with skill, ability and knowledge in all kinds of crafts—--to make artistic designs for work in gold, silver and bronze, to cut and set stones, to work in wood, and to engage in all kinds of craftsmanship’ (Exodus 31:3-5).
It is possible to be a talented musician, writer or artist without being filled with the Spirit. But when the Spirit of God fills people for these tasks their work often takes on a new dimension. It has a different effect on others. It has a far greater spiritual impact. This can be true even where the natural ability of the musician or artist is not particularly outstanding. Hearts can be touched and lives changed. No doubt something like this happened through Bezalel.
He also filled individuals for the task of leadership. During the time of the Judges, the people of Israel were often overrun by various foreign nations. At one time it was the Midianites. God called Gideon to lead Israel. Gideon was very conscious of his own weakness and asked, ‘How can I save Israel? My clan is the weakest in Manasseh, and I am the least in my family’ (Judges 6:15). Yet when the Spirit of God came upon Gideon (v. 34), he became one of the remarkable leaders of the Old Testament.
In leadership, God often uses those who feel weak, inadequate and ill-equipped. When they are filled with the Spirit, they become outstanding leaders in the church. A notable example of this was the Revd E. J. H. “Bash” Nash. As a nineteen-year-old clerk in an insurance office he had come to faith in Christ and was a man who was full of the Spirit of God. It has been written about him that ‘there was nothing particularly impressive about him... He was neither athletic nor adventurous. He claimed no academic prowess or artistic talent.’ Yet John Stott (whom he led to Christ) said of him: ‘Nondescript in outward appearance, his heart was ablaze with Christ.’ The obituary in the national and the church press summed up his life like this:
Bash . . . was a quiet, unassuming clergyman who never made the limelight, hit the headlines or wanted preferment, and yet whose influence within the Church of England during the last 50 years was probably greater than almost any of his contemporaries, for there must be hundreds of men today, many in positions of responsibility, who thank God for him for it was through his ministry that they were led to a Christian commitment.
Those who knew him well, and those who worked with him, never expect to see his like again; for rarely can anyone have meant so much to so many as this quietly spoken, modest and deeply spiritual man.
Elsewhere we see the Holy Spirit filling people with strength and power. The story of Samson is well-known. On one occasion, the Philistines tied him up by binding him with ropes. Then, ‘The Holy Spirit of the Lord came upon him in power. The ropes on his arms became like charred flax, and the bindings dropped from his hands’ (Judges 15:14).
What is true in the Old Testament physically is often true in the New Testament spiritually. It is not that we are physically bound by ropes, but that we are tied down by fears, habits or addictions which take a grip on our lives. We are controlled by bad temper or by patterns of thought such as envy, jealousy or lust. We know that we are bound when we cannot stop something, even when we want to. When the Spirit of God came upon Samson, the ropes became like charred flax and he was free. The Spirit of God is able to set people free today from anything that binds them.
Later on we see how the Spirit of God came upon the prophet Isaiah to enable him ‘to preach good news to the poor... to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release for the prisoners’ and ‘to comfort all who mourn’ (Isaiah 61:1-3).
We sometimes feel a sense of helplessness when confronted with the problems of the world. I often felt this before I was a Christian. I knew I had little or nothing to offer those whose lives were in a mess. I still feel like that sometimes. But I know that with the help of the Spirit of God, we do indeed have something to give. The Spirit of God enables us to bring the good news of Jesus Christ to bind up those with broken hearts; to proclaim freedom to those who are in captivity to things in their lives which deep down they hate; to release those who are imprisoned by their own wrong-doing; and to bring the comfort of the Holy Spirit (who is after all the comforter) to those who are sad, grieving or mourning. If we are going to help people in a way which lasts eternally, we cannot do so without the Spirit of God.
We have seen examples of the work of the Spirit of God in the Old Testament. But his activity was limited to particular people at particular times for particular tasks. As we go through the Old Testament we find that God promises that he is going to do something new. The New Testament calls this ‘the promise of the Father’. There is an increasing sense of anticipation. What was going to happen?
In the Old Testament God made a covenant with his people. He said that he would be their God and that they would be his people. He required that they should keep his laws. Sadly, the people found that they were unable to keep his commands. The Old Covenant was consistently broken.
God promised that one day he would make a New Covenant with his people. This covenant would be different from the first covenant: ‘I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts’ (Jeremiah 31:33). In other words, under the New Covenant the law would be internal rather than external. If you go on a long hike, you start off by carrying your provisions on your back. They weigh you down and slow you up. But when you have eaten them, not only has the weight gone but you also have a new energy coming from inside. What God promised through Jeremiah was a time when the law would no longer be a weight on the outside but would become a source of energy from inside. How was this going to happen?
Ezekiel gives us the answer. He was a prophet, and God spoke through him, elaborating on the earlier promise. ‘I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you,’ he said. ‘I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws’ (Ezekiel 36:26-27).
God was saying through the prophet Ezekiel that this is what will happen when God puts his Spirit within us. This is how he will change our hearts and make them soft (‘hearts of flesh’) rather than hard (‘hearts of stone’). The Spirit of God will move us to follow his decrees and keep his laws.
Jackie Pullinger has spent the last twenty years working in what was the lawless walled city of Hong Kong. She has given her life to working with prostitutes, heroin addicts and gang members. She began a memorable talk by saying, ‘God wants us to have soft hearts and hard feet. The trouble with many of us is that we have hard hearts and soft feet.’ Christians should have hard feet in that we should be tough rather than morally weak or ‘wet’. Jackie is a glowing example of this in her willingness to go without sleep, food and comfort in order to serve others. Yet she also has a soft heart: a heart filled with compassion. The toughness is in her feet, not her heart.
We have seen what ‘the promise of the Father’ involves and how it is going to happen. The prophet Joel tells us to whom it is going to happen. God says through Joel:
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)
Joel is foretelling that the promise will no longer be reserved for particular people at particular times for particular tasks, but it will be for all. God will pour out his Spirit regardless of sex (‘sons and daughters . . . men and women’); regardless of age (‘old men.., young men’); regardless of background, race, colour or rank (‘even on my servants’). There will be a new ability to hear God (‘prophesy.. .dream. . .see visions’). Joel prophesied that the Spirit would be poured out with great generosity on all God’s people.
Yet all these promises remained unfulfilled for at least 300 years. The people waited and waited for the ‘promise of the Father’ to be fulfilled until at the coming of Jesus there was a burst of activity of the Spirit of God.
With the birth of Jesus, the trumpet sounds. Almost everyone connected with the birth of Jesus was filled with the Spirit of God. John the Baptist, who was to prepare the way, was filled with the Spirit even before his birth (Luke 1:15). Mary, his mother, was promised: ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you’ (Luke 1:35). When Elizabeth her cousin came into the presence of Jesus, who was still in his mother’s womb, she too was ‘filled with the Holy Spirit’ (v. 41) and even John the Baptist’s father Zechariah was ‘filled with the Holy Spirit’ (v. 67). In almost every case there is an outburst of praise or prophecy.
4. John the Baptist links him with Jesus
When John was asked whether he was the Christ he replied: ‘I baptise you with water. But one more powerful than I will come, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and with fire’ (Luke 3:16). Baptism with water is very important, but it is not enough. Jesus is the Spirit baptiser. The Greek word means ‘to overwhelm’, ‘to immerse’ or ‘to plunge’. This is what should happen when we are baptised in the Spirit. We should be completely overwhelmed by, immersed in and plunged into the Spirit of God.
Sometimes this experience is like a hard, dry sponge being dropped into water. There can be a hardness in our lives which stops us absorbing the Spirit of God. It may take a little time for the initial hardness to wear off and for the sponge to be filled. So it is one thing for the sponge to be in the water (‘baptised’), but it is another for the water to be in the sponge (‘filled’). When the sponge is filled with water, the water literally pours out of it.
Jesus was a man completely filled with the Spirit of God. The Spirit of God descended on him in bodily form at his baptism (Luke 3:22). He returned to the Jordan ‘full of the Holy Spirit’ and was ‘led by the Spirit in the desert’ (Luke 4:1). He returned to Galilee ‘in the power of the Spirit’ (v. 14). In a synagogue in Nazareth he read the lesson from Isaiah 61:1, ‘The Spirit of the Lord is on me...’ and said, ‘Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing’ (v. 21).
5. Jesus predicted his presence
On one occasion Jesus went to a Jewish feast called the Feast of Tabernacles. Thousands of Jews would go to Jerusalem to celebrate the feast, looking back to the time when Moses brought water from a rock. They thanked God for providing water in the past year and prayed that he would do the same in the coming year. They looked forward to a time when water would pour out of the temple (as prophesied by Ezekiel), becoming deeper and deeper and bringing life, fruitfulness and healing wherever it went (Ezekiel 47).
This passage was read at the Feast of Tabernacles and enacted visually. The High Priest would go down to the pool of Siloam and fill a golden pitcher with water. He would then lead the people to the temple where he would pour water through a funnel in the west side of the altar, and into the ground, in anticipation of the great river that would flow from the temple. According to Rabbinic tradition, Jerusalem was the navel of the earth and the temple of Mount Zion was the centre of the navel (its ‘belly’ or ‘innermost being’),
On the last day of the feast...Jesus stood up and proclaimed, ‘If anyone thirst, let him come to me and drink. He who believes in me, as the scripture has said, “Out of his heart [the original word means ‘belly’ or ‘innermost being’] shall flow rivers of living water” (John 7:38, RSV). He was saying that the promises of Ezekiel and others would not be fulfilled in a place, but in a Person. It is out of the innermost being of Jesus that the river of life will flow. Also, in a derivative sense, the streams of living water will flow from every Christian! (‘Whoever believes in me’, v. 38). From us, Jesus says, this river will flow, bringing life, fruitfulness and healing to others promised by God through Ezekiel.
John went on to explain that Jesus was speaking about the Holy Spirit ‘whom those who believed in him were later to receive’ (v. 38). He added that ‘up to that time the Spirit had not been given’ (v. 39). The promise of the Father had still not been fulfilled. Even after the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, the Spirit was not poured out. Later, Jesus told his disciples, ‘I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high’ (Luke 24:49).
Just before he ascended to heaven Jesus again promised, ‘You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you’ (Acts 1:8). But still they had to wait and pray for another ten days. Then at last on the Day of Pentecost: ‘Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them’ (Acts 2:2-4).
It had happened. The promise of the Father had been fulfilled. The crowd was amazed and mystified.
Peter stood up and explained what had occurred. He looked back to the promises of God in the Old Testament and explained how all their hopes and aspirations were now being fulfilled before their eyes. He explained that Jesus had ‘received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit’ and had ‘poured out what you now see and hear’ (Acts 2:33).
When the crowd asked what they needed to do, Peter told them to repent and be baptised in the name of Jesus so that they could receive forgiveness. Then he promised that they would receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For, he said: ‘The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—--for all whom the Lord our God will call’ (v. 39, italics mine).
We now live in the age of the Spirit. The promise of the Father has been fulfilled. Every single Christian receives the promise of the Father. It is no longer just for particular people, at particular times for particular tasks. It is for all Christians, including you and me.
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