As Christians, our focus is on our Lord Jesus Christ. The catechism took quite some time (Lord’s Days 11 to 19) to discuss his identity and his work. It says much less about the Holy Spirit. An obvious reason is that the Apostles’ Creed has only that short line: “I believe in the Holy Spirit.” Also, the Holy Spirit does not call much attention to himself but always points to Jesus’ work.
Still, it is good to spend some time studying the person and work of the Holy Spirit. The catechism in Lord’s Day 20 focuses especially on the work of the Spirit; we will discuss this in detail in the next lesson. But first we consider who the Holy Spirit is. While the Apostles’ Creed has little to say about that, the Nicene Creed has a more detailed definition:
“And we believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and Giver of life,
who proceeds from the Father and the Son;
who with the Father and the Son is worshipped and glorified;
who spoke through the prophets.”
This confession of the church is the starting point for the current lesson.
Who is the Holy Spirit?
1. He is sent
2. He is God
3. He reveals
He is sent
During his ministry, Jesus mentioned the Holy Spirit on occasion. But the first detailed teaching about the Spirit is found in John 14. “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth … He dwells with you and will be in you.” (John 14:16-17).
In the Greek text of the New Testament, the Holy Spirit is called Paraclete. This word refers to a trusted friend, who would help out in difficult situations, defend your reputation, and speak up in court on your behalf. It can be translated as Helper (ESV), Advocate (NIV), or Comforter (KJV).
Jesus calls him “another Helper”, because Jesus himself was the first Helper for his disciples. But as he was about to leave them, to go the way of suffering and death in order to end up on the throne of heaven, he gave them another Helper in his place. A few verses later in John 14, Jesus added: “the Father will send [the Holy Spirit] in my name.” (John 14:26) God the Father had sent his Son Jesus (v. 24!); and when Jesus had completed his work on earth, the Father then sent the Holy Spirit.
Here we learn a most important thing about the Holy Spirit: he represents Jesus to us, even though Jesus Christ is now physically in heaven. Jesus himself is “Emmanuel”, “God-with-us”; but the Holy Spirit even becomes “God-in-us”, as Jesus said: “He dwells with you and will be in you.” What wonderful grace: not only is God the Father for us; not only is the Son with us; but in the Holy Spirit, God is in us.
There is much to say about how the Holy Spirit works in Christian believers. We will do that in the next lesson. But the work of the Holy Spirit is broader. The Bible gives a clear hint in Genesis 1:2: before the Lord created the light and all other things on earth, we find that “the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.” Psalm 104:30 says that when God sends out his Spirit, life is created. All in all, the Bible presents the Holy Spirit as the agent and immanent power of God. That is to say: while God is not part of this world, he is profoundly present in the world through his Holy Spirit.
The Holy Spirit comes from the Father and is sent by him. This is the heart of his identity. When asked what the foundational difference is between God the Father and the Son on one hand, and the Holy Spirit on the other, theologians will tell you that the Spirit proceeds from the other two. The word “proceeds” comes from John 15:26, where Jesus says that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father: literally, “coming out of” God the Father, just as water flows out of a spring or thoughts and words come forth out of a person. This is how the Holy Spirit is described in the Nicene Creed. It says that the Son is begotten of the Father, but the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father. What that entails precisely we cannot comprehend, but it clearly emphasizes that the Spirit does the work of the Father.
What is the relationship between the Holy Spirit and Jesus Christ, the Son of God? In John 15, Jesus not only says that the Spirit “proceeds from the Father,” but also: “I [Jesus] will send him to you from the Father.” It is fair to say that the Holy Spirit acts on behalf of both the Father and the Son. Around 600, several churches in the West added to the Nicene Creed that the Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son. This addition became one of the points of controversy that lead to the split between the churches of West and East in the year 1054. Some have suggested that it would have been better to say that the Holy Spirit “proceeds from the Father through the Son,” so that there is a distinction of sorts. In any case, it should be clear that the Holy Spirit acts in accordance with the work both of God and the Father and of our Saviour. Jesus Christ, the King of heaven, gives us as a most precious gift his very own Spirit, who is intimately connected to God the Father and God the Son, and also connects us to our Lord.
He is God
It is clear that the Holy Spirit is divine power, doing God’s work in the world. But we must take it a step further, and confess that the Holy Spirit is divine. Just as the Son of God is himself God, so also the Spirit of God is true God. Wherever the Holy Spirit is at work, God is directly present. The Holy Spirit is a full member of the Trinity, no less so than the Father and the Son. One Bible text that clearly shows this is the well-known command in Matthew 28, ”baptize them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”
What does it mean that the Holy Spirit is God? The Nicene Creed calls him the Lord and Giver of life. Both of these titles are fit for God alone! The name “Giver of life” highlights the active involvement of the Holy Spirit in the creation work of God, but also in his recreating work. When unbelievers become believers, and enemies of God become children of God, it is the Holy Spirit who changes the heart, who brings a principle of new life, and who gives faith. This is so central in the Christian life that Paul writes repeatedly that we should not live by the flesh, but by the Spirit. The Holy Spirit is no less than the new life principle of a Christian; he, who himself is God’s breath, is the breath we breathe, and so we are one with our Lord in a most intimate way.
That the Holy Spirit is God is also emphasized by the Nicene Creed when it says that the Spirit with the Father and the Son is worshipped and glorified. Worship is for God alone; but the Holy Spirit is just as much God as the Father and the Son, and therefore deserves the same worship and praise.
In practice, our worship is directed most at God the Father and God the Son. We usually pray to the Father; our hymns address God the Father, sometimes Jesus Christ, but rarely the Holy Spirit. This is understandable, because the Holy Spirit does not claim the limelight. He is the source of our worship, and not often the object of our worship. Yet it is proper to acknowledge him as the third Person of the Trinity. A number of Christian hymns in our Book of Praise are Trinitarian, deliberately praising Father, Son, and Spirit in turn. This is a good practice to help us remember God the Holy Spirit and his presence in our lives.
We have seen that the Holy Spirit is God himself, and the powerful presence of God himself in the world. One aspect of this work is emphasized in the Nicene Creed. He spoke through the prophets.
In the Old Testament, we hear very little about the Holy Spirit; but when priests, prophets, kings, and others received a special task of God, they were not only symbolically anointed with oil but actually filled with the Holy Spirit. When the prophets spoke, it was the Holy Spirit who gave them knowledge and words to speak. That is why Hebrews 3:7, for instance, we read: “This is what the Holy Spirit says,” when quoting a psalm by David. And Peter writes: “No prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.” (2 Pet. 1:21)
In a profound way, then, the Bible was written by the Holy Spirit. We call this the inspiration of the Bible. The words of prophets and other servants of God, put in writing, so that we can read and learn—for that we give thanks to the Holy Spirit. Through the Scriptures he reveals to us the words of God, so that we know his grace, his will, himself.
That revealing work of the Holy Spirit does not stop there. A related work of the Spirit is the illumination of believers. The Holy Spirit, as it were, shines a light in the hearts of people, so that they can understand—really understand and believe—God’s revelation in the Bible. As Christians we can look back on the way we came to faith. Each step of the way, the Spirit was at work. He provided the content of the gospel, or else we would never have been able to know God and his plan. He made sure that we heard and understood the gospel. And he convinced us, from inside, that the gospel is the truth, and that we should indeed give ourselves in faith to Jesus Christ. And he still works today, teaching us and motivating us to live more holy lives, in line with God’s will.
“I believe in the Holy Spirit.” The Nicene Creed spells out a number of details, which help us to understand who the Spirit is and how he is at work in the church and in our lives. “And we believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and Giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son; who with the Father and the Son is worshipped and glorified; who spoke through the prophets.”
This Holy Spirit is given to all of us, believers, so that he literally is God-in-us. As we will discuss next time, he gives us everything that belongs to Jesus and our salvation; faith, hope, love, and many other things. While we don’t often talk about the Holy Spirit, who instead focuses us on Jesus Christ, we should receive him gladly. The Holy Spirit is both a gift of God and the giver of Life. For that, he deserves all the glory. Let us worship not only the Father and the Son, but also the Holy Spirit.
- The Holy Spirit is called the Paraclete. What does this Greek word mean?
- What does it mean that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son?
- Why do we say that the Holy Spirit is God?
- What role did the Holy Spirit play in the making of the Bible?
- What do we mean by the illumination of believers?
Suggested Bible reading schedule
|Monday||Psalm 104:30. What work of the Holy Spirit is described here?|
|Tuesday||John 14:15-31. Who will send the Holy Spirit, and for what purpose?|
|Wednesday||John 16:4-15. Why does Jesus call the Spirit “the Spirit of truth”?|
|Thursday||2 Corinthians 2. How are Christians “taught by the Spirit”?|
|Friday||1 Peter 1:3-10. Which work of the Holy Spirit is described here?|
|Saturday||1 John 5:1-12. The Spirit testifies (v. 6-7). Of what?|