Is the Holy Spirit a person, a power or a ghost?
Many Christians don’t know what to think of the Holy Spirit. It does not help much that the King James Version (KJV) of the Bible refers to the Holy Spirit as the Holy Ghost.
Is he a ghost? What is a ghost? When I ask people whether they believe ghosts exist, I get an almost equal split between those who believe they do, and those who don’t. The word ‘Ghost’ as used in the KJV Bible is an old English word for spirit.
It also doesn’t help much that the word for Spirit in most languages also means ‘air’ or ‘wind’. We are told about Stephen who was full of the Spirit (Acts 6:5). Was he full of the Spirit in the same way that a balloon can be full of air?
What we think about the Holy Spirit matters a lot. As I was reflecting about the celebration of Pentecost, (24 May 2015), I realised how difficult it is to think about the Holy Spirit. Pentecost is the celebration of the coming of the Holy Spirit into humans, just as Christmas is the celebration of the coming of Jesus as a human.
Let me start by affirming what I believe. I believe God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and that God is One. I believe the Father is God, that the Son, Jesus Christ, is God, and that the Holy Spirit is God. I believe that these three are the One God who exists as three distinct persons. The Father is not the Son, the Son is not the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit is not the Father.
There are two senses in which the word ‘spirit’ is used in the Bible, apart from the references to air and wind. The first use of the word refers to the nature of God. For example, “God is spirit, and His worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth” (John 4:24). In other words, the Father is spirit, the Son is spirit, and the Holy Spirit is spirit. They are spirit, as opposed to being flesh and blood. It is the same as saying that the first human was Adam. In Hebrew I would say the first adam was Adam. The word for human and the name of the first human, Adam, are the same in the Hebrew. Adam refers to humans, but also happens to be the name of the first human as well. ‘Spirit’ refers to God, but it also happens to also be the name of the third person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit.
Therefore, the second sense in which the word ‘spirit’ is used in the Bible is to refer to the name and identity of the third person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is God, just as the Son is God, and the Father is God. It is in this sense that Peter was using it in Acts 5:3-4 “Then Peter said, “’Ananias, how is it that Satan has so filled your heart that you have lied to the Holy Spirit…You have not lied just to human beings but to God.’”
A relational sense
Paul refers to the Holy Spirit as God several times. For example, “Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in your midst?” (1 Corinthians 3:16). And, “Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit” (1 Corinthians 6:19). Paul refers to our bodies as the temple of God, or the temple of the Holy Spirit. It is also important to note that the Spirit is also used in a relational sense. To say ‘God’s Son’ is to show the relationship of the Son and God. In the same way, to say ‘God’s Spirit’ as in 1 Corinthians 3:16 above, is to show the relationship of the Spirit and God. It does not refer to the Spirit as a thing possessed by God, just as God’s Son does not make the Son a thing possessed by God. It is an expression of their relationship. The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of God, just as the Son is the Son of God.
Some Christians struggle to understand the Holy Spirit as a person who is God, just as the Father is God and the Son is God. They rather think of the Holy Spirit as an impersonal entity or a power of some sort. Didn’t Jesus say the disciples will receive power, referring to the Spirit? The best way I can explain this is to think of it this way. The power of God comes to humans in the person of the Holy Spirit. There is no manifestation of the power of God apart from the Holy Spirit. In the same way, the grace of God comes to humans in the person of Jesus Christ. Jesus is the grace of God. To say we are saved by grace is to say we are saved by Jesus. Max Lucado puts it this way:” Grace is everything Jesus. Grace lives because He does, works because He works, and matters because He matters...To be saved by grace is to be saved by Him.”1 The Holy Spirit is no less a person than Jesus is.
But does it matter how we think of the Holy Spirit, some may ask. It matters a great deal. The Holy Spirit was sent by God to effect our adoption as sons and daughters of God. Paul puts it this way. “For you have not received a spirit of slavery leading to fear again, but you have received a spirit of adoption as sons by whom we cry out, “Abba! Father!” (Romans 8:15). It is because we have received the Holy Spirit that we are able to call God our Father. “Because you are sons, God has sent forth the Spirit of His Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!“ (Galatians 4:6).
The Holy Spirit is like a guardian whom the Father has sent to look after His adopted children, whilst they wait to be brought home. He is our comforter when we face problems. He helps us to talk to our Father when we don’t know what to say. He helps us understand who God is because he is also God. He is ever present with us. Because he dwells in believers, wherever we go, He is there with us. When we do evil things we grieve Him. “And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with Whom you were sealed for the day of redemption” (Ephesians 4:30).
I think we need to take the personhood of the Holy Spirit more seriously. If we don’t, we will continue to grieve Him, lie to Him, defile our bodies which are His temple, and we will continue to live in the flesh, and not in the Spirit. The acts of the flesh are sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, quarrelling, jealousy, anger, hostility, slander, gossip, conceit and disorder (Galatians 5:19; 2 Corinthians 12:20).
On the other hand, if we take the personhood of the Holy Spirit seriously, and we are aware of his presence in us, our lives will change drastically, and it will be clear for all to see. We will show love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control, compassion, humility and patience (Galatians 5:22-23; Colossians 3:12).
One last thing, it is important to note that the Holy Spirit doesn’t bring attention to Himself. He continually points us to Jesus as Jesus predicted he would do (John 15:26). Jesus in turn continually points us to the Father from whom the Spirit comes. We should therefore be weary of those that want us to focus on the Holy Spirit. The Spirit wants us to focus on Jesus, who points us to the Father.
“I pray that God, the source of hope, will fill you completely with joy and peace because you trust in Him. Then you will overflow with confident hope through the power of the Holy Spirit.” (Romans 15:13) Amen!
1. Max Lucado, Grace: More than we deserve, greater than we imagine. Page. 10