It is quite common for people to make observations about the role or meaning of the Holy Spirit based on aspects of the language Scripture uses—including comments about the ‘gender’ role of the Spirit. But careful reading of the scriptural narrative shows a surprising diversity in the language that is used.
The Spirit as hovering
You don’t have to read very far in the Bible before you come across the Spirit of God. In Gen 1.2, the earth is formless and void, and ‘darkness was over the face of the deep’—and we encounter the ‘Spirit of God’ who is hovering, fluttering or trembling over these chaotic, formless waters, waiting in anticipation to bring God’s light, order and peace as God speaks the creation into being. The image hints at what we will find in the New Testament, when the Spirit comes bodily on Jesus in the form of a dove at his baptism.
The Spirit ‘comes on…’
Despite this promising beginning, throughout the Old Testament the Spirit appears to come occasionally and sporadically, usually for a specific purpose. So in Exodus 31.2 and 35.30, the Spirit fills a metalsmith, Bezalel son of Uri, to equip him for the task of making artefacts of gold, silver and bronze for the tabernacle where the God of Israel will make his home. The Spirit is here associated with creativity, discipline, skill, wisdom and holiness.
The Spirit is particularly associated with prophets and prophecy, though not always in the way we might expect. The Spirit comes on Balaam and enables him to speak a prophetic blessing over Israel, against his inclination, in Num 24. In the Book of Judges, ‘the Spirit of the Lord’ came on God’s leaders, often ‘in power’, to enable them to deliver the people from their enemies (Judges 3.10, 6.34, 11.29, 13.25, 14.6 and so on)—even empowering the rather wayward Samson. At several points, the Spirit comes on king Saul, and he unexpectedly joins in with bands of prophets (1 Sam 10.9, 19.19). On one occasion the Spirit makes him burn with anger and this terrifies the people (1 Sam 11.6), and on another the Spirit causes him to lie naked all day and night (1 Sam 19.24)—not perhaps spiritual gifts we will be looking for in the local church!
The Spirit puts into David’s heart his plans to build a temple (1 Chron 28.12) which he then passes to his son Solomon; the Spirit enables David to utter inspired speech (2 Sam 23.2); and the Spirit sustains him in repentance and grief (Ps 51.11). After the split of Israel into northern and southern kingdoms, the Spirit equips and transports the northern prophet Elijah (1 Kings 18.12, 2 Kings 2.16). And at the time of the exile, it is the Spirit that ‘lifts up’ Ezekiel and enables him to see and report his visions (Ezek 3.12, 8.3, 11.1), language that John repeats a key points in Revelation (such as Rev 4.1).
And the Spirit comes on Jesus at his baptism, as well as on the disciples at Pentecost. Luke is particularly clear that Jesus ministers in the ‘power of the Spirit’ after he returns from testing in the wilderness, and that the Spirit enables the apostles to do ‘signs and wonders’. Using slightly different language, Paul expects that all believers are continuously ‘filled’ with the Spirit (Eph 5.18).
The Spirit of future hope
Alongside this ‘occasional’ activity of the Spirit, there develops early on a hope and expectation that the Spirit of God will have a more extensive ministry. In an intriguing episode in the wilderness, God takes ‘the power of the Spirit that was on’ Moses and ‘put it on’ the seventy elders, and as the Spirit rests on them (both near the tabernacle and away from it) they prophesy. When Joshua objects, Moses replies: ‘I wish that all Yahweh’s people were prophets and that Yahweh would put his Spirit on them!’ (Num 11.29).
The prophet Isaiah looks forward, beyond the time when the ‘tree’ of Israel has been cut down in judgement and exile, to the coming of a new ‘branch’ who will be anointed with the Spirit of God (Is 11.1–4), an expectation that Matthew believes is fulfilled in Jesus. The Spirit here endows this anointed one with six qualities, listed in three pairs, and added to the mention of the ‘Spirit of the Lord’ this gave rise to the tradition of the ‘seven spirits’ in Rev 1.5 and the idea of the ‘sevenfold Spirit’ in Christian theology.
This ‘anointed one’ is later able to proclaim ‘good news to the poor’ and ‘the year of the Lord’s favour’ alongside judgement in Is 61, a text Jesus reads out in the synagogue at Nazareth, about himself, in Luke 4. Others see a still broader future for the people of God and the Spirit. Ezekiel repeatedly announces God’s promise that he will give the people ‘a new heart and a new spirit’ (Ezek 11.19, 18.31, 36.26).
The clearest statement of this hope comes in Joel 2, a description of the coming ‘day of the Lord’. This will be a time of judgement and disaster that calls for repentance, but also of blessing and restoration for those who are faithful. And the Spirit will no longer come on just a few, but be poured out ‘on all flesh’ or all people—male and female, young and old. At Pentecost, Peter explains to the crowd that these ‘last days’ have arrived, and they are witnessing the fulfilment of this promise (Acts 2.17).
The sense of hopeful expectation continues in the New Testament, since the longed-for age has not yet been fully realised. Paul therefore talks of the Spirit as the ‘first fruits’ or foretaste of the future (Rom 8.23), a downpayment guaranteeing what is to come (Eph 1.14).
The Spirit of the Lord
Throughout the Old Testament, the Spirit is described as ‘the Spirit of Yahweh’, rendered in most English translations as ‘the Spirit of the Lord’, following Jewish avoidance of speaking the name of Israel’s God. We should be careful not to read back later understanding into these texts; the central conviction of the Old Testament is that ‘God is one’ (Deut 6.4), and there is never any sense in which ‘the Spirit of God’ is understood as anything other than the power and presence of God himself, at work amongst his people. (Note that the plural ‘Let us make…’ in Gen 1.27 is not a secret hint at plurality in the godhead or an anticipation of the doctrine of the Trinity, but a simple plural of majesty.)
In the New, the Spirit is always associated both with God and with Jesus, and with the close relationship between them. The Spirit is the ‘promise of the Father’ but is poured out by Jesus after his ascension. In Revelation 22, the river of the water of life, a symbol of the Spirit, flows from the single throne of God and the lamb. The Spirit is the one who make real for us the relationship of Jesus with his Father as ‘Abba’ (Rom 8.15), and the Spirit alone enables us to say ‘Jesus is Lord’ (1 Cor 12.1). He is the ‘Spirit of Jesus’ (Acts 16.7) and is himself ‘the Lord’ (2 Cor 3.17). What Jesus says to his people is what the Spirit says (Rev 2,7, 11, 17 and so on).
The Spirit as wind, water, birth
In Ezekiel’s remarkable vision of the valley of dry bones (Ezek 37), the people in exile seem like lifeless skeletons, yet the Spirit (or wind) of God will clothe them once more with flesh, and give them life. In context, this is a powerful metaphor of their return to the land from exile, but it soon came to be read as a description of the hope of resurrection life in the promised age to come. The image depends on the range of meanings of the Hebrew ruach, which can mean ‘spirit’ or ‘breath’ or ‘wind’. A person’s spirit is alive if they have breath in their body.
The Greek equivalent pneuma (from which we have ‘pneumatic’ tyres that have air in them) has the same double meaning. So in John 3.8, Jesus says ‘The pneuma blows where it wills…so it is with everyone who is born of the pneuma’. We have to decide which of these should be translated ‘wind’, and which ‘Spirit.’ The breath/wind/Spirit brings life, and so Jesus associates the Spirit with the waters of birth—and thus water baptism signifies both new birth to new life in Christ and immersion (baptism) in the Spirit.
The Spirit as fire
John the Baptist predicts that the ‘one who comes after me’ will baptise ‘with the Holy Spirit and fire’. Fire is an image of judgement, purification and destruction in the Old Testament, and is not linked with the Spirit (except perhaps in Joel 2). Fire is the central image of the Spirit at Pentecost, and must there signify purification and holiness, hence its description as the Holy Spirit, and Paul’s contrast of the fruit of the Spirit with the works of sinful human nature (‘the flesh’) in Gal 5.
And the Spirit is closely associated with judgement. In Acts 5.3, Ananias and Sapphira ‘lie to the Holy Spirit’ which is the same as ‘lying to God’ (Acts 5.3, 4) and face immediate judgement. And judgement, or discernment, is one of the gifts of the Spirit in 1 Cor 12.10.
Understanding the Spirit
From this variety of language, two things become clear. First, there is no differentiated role for the Spirit separate from God (the Father) and Jesus; it is not possible to say that there are some things that the Spirit does, and different things that the Father and Jesus do. Orthodox Christian belief has always believed that the three ‘persons’ of the godhead will with one will and act with one action. So the Spirit is involved in creation, in forming the people of God in holiness, in empowering them, healing them, judging them and filling them with hope. The Spirit speaks the words of God and of Jesus to his people, and enables them to speak words of life to one another.
Secondly, the language of the Spirit tells us nothing about God and gender. The Hebrew term ruach is grammatically feminine, but grammar does not determine sex. The equivalent Greek term, pneuma, is grammatically neuter—but that doesn’t mean that the Spirit is a ‘thing’! The Bible is insistent that God is beyond sex and gender, even though some of the things God does at times seem more typical of what men do, and at others what women do. At times the Spirit might be described in terms we would think of as more feminine (hovering, brooding, bringing birth) but at other times in terms we might think of as more masculine (bringing power and judgement). And some of the language of the Spirit (filling, water, fire) are impersonal or inanimate. We need to take all these images together for the whole picture.
A shorter form of this article can be found in the current edition of Preach Magazine, reproduced here: