“William Simerly has attended King University since the Spring of 2019 obtaining a B.S. in Religious Studies. In addition to his course work, William is currently the Director of Children, Youth, and Family Ministries at St. Elizabeth’s Episcopal Church in Knoxville, TN. William is a postulant for the priesthood in the Episcopal Church and will begin his seminary studies in the fall of 2021. William’s time at King has deeply impacted his discernment to ordained ministry and he is grateful for King University and the Bible and Religion Department for their role in his education.”
The Holy Spirit: God at Work in the World
Written by William Simerly, King University
The Holy Spirit has been, since the beginning of Christianity, a source of deep affection and deep division. The faithful have taken comfort from the beautiful descriptions of the Spirit found in the Bible throughout the millennia, while at the same time, theologians have debated what, who, and how the Spirit works among God’s people. Wars, schism, and more have been the result of these theological debates. In this paper, I hope not to cause a war or schism, but instead to shed light on how the Holy Spirit has moved and worked among God’s people and how it continues to do so to this day. There are two important ways of examining the Spirit: examining the nature of the Spirit, and the work of the Spirit. I will start by examining the nature of the Holy Spirit.
The Holy Spirit, by its nature, is a “spirit.” It is not a concrete thing by its original nature. The Spirit is however a person of the Trinity. Karl Barth states, “…the spirit is himself God, the same one God who is also the Father and the Son; he acts both as Creator and as Reconciler, as the Lord of the covenant” (Barth). The Bible, when describing the Spirit, always uses non-living, physical means when describing the Spirits appearance or perception by humans. Genesis 1: 1-2 states, “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.” In this first depiction of the Spirit, it is portrayed as a, “wind from God,” hovering over the primal waters of creation. However, this is not the only place in scripture where the Spirit of God is described as a wind. In Acts 2:1-2 it sates, “When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.” These two separate depiction of the Holy Spirit as a wind help to illustrate the fact that the Spirit found in Genesis is the same Spirit and God found in Acts with the birth of the Church on the day of Pentecost. By the Spirit being portrayed as a wind, it allows the reader to begin to understand the fluidity that it has by its very nature.
The Spirit is not only described as a wind in scripture, but also as the very breath of God. In Genesis 2:7 it states, “… then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.” This scene portraying God as breathing the very breath of life into Adam portrays the Spirit as the giver of life. In John 20:22-23 it says, “…he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’” Both of these passages from scripture portray the first and second persons of the trinity breathing onto humans and imparting the Spirit to those humans. This shows ultimately the power of the Spirit: the power to give life to Adam, and power to the apostles to do the work that Jesus has given them to do.
The Holy Spirit is also most famously described in the Bible as a fire. Exodus 13:21-22 states, “The Lord went in front of them in a pillar of cloud by day, to lead them along the way, and in a pillar of fire by night, to give them light, so that they might travel by day and by night. Neither the pillar of cloud by day nor the pillar of fire by night left its place in front of the people.” This depiction of God leading the people by day and night in a pillar of cloud and fire is one of the most recognizable depictions of God’s Spirit from the Old Testament. The Spirit is most famously depicted as fire in the Book of Acts. Acts 2:3-4 says, “Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.” This scene from the Day of Pentecost and the birth of the Church illustrates the Spirit as tongues of fire resting on the heads of the gathered disciples, and the Spirit allows them to speak in other languages and share the Good News with those gathered in Jerusalem. These two separate biblical stories show the Spirit as an agent of renewal. The Spirit led the Israelites out of Egypt and into a new life, and in Acts the Spirit gave the apostles the ability to build the church and renew the faith of the whole world in the God of Abraham and Jesus.
The second way that the Holy Spirit can be examined is by its work throughout the scripture. Hildegard of Bingen, a church mystic and writer wrote the following about the work of the Holy Spirit:
“I, the highest and fiery power, have kindled every spark of life, and I emit nothing that is deadly. With my lofty wings I fly above the globe: With wisdom I have rightly put the universe in order. I, the fiery life of divine essence, am aflame beyond the beauty of the meadows, I gleam in the waters, and I burn in the sun, moon and stars. With every breeze, as with invisible life that contains everything, I awake everything to life.”
This depiction of the Spirit helps to put a lens on the rest of the depictions of the work of the Spirit found in the Bible.
One of the very first actions the Holy Spirit does in the Bible is found in the Book of Genesis. As quoted earlier, the Spirit was with God at the beginning of creation. The Spirit was God’s agent of creation, hovering over the waters and bringing life to the world. The Gospel of Luke also portrays the Spirit as bringing life to the world, this time in the conception of Jesus, “The angel said to her, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God’” (Luke 1:35). Both of these biblical passages show the Holy Spirit to be the agent of creation and the incarnation. The Spirit brought life to the whole creation and also conceived new life in Jesus the Christ that would eventually renew the life of the world and bring about the Kingdom of God.
Another way that the Spirit works in the Bible and in our world today is that it leads us. In the Book of Exodus, the Spirit of God led the Hebrews out of bondage in Egypt into a new life in a new land. The Spirit did this by being a physical pillar of cloud and fire. John 14:12-13 states, “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth.” As Jesus says in this quotation from John, the Spirit will lead the apostles in their teaching and will lead the church. Jesus was not done teaching and God was not done revealing truths about himself, so the Spirit was sent to us to continue this revelation from God to this day.
Finally and most importantly, the Holy Spirit is the bearer of Good News. In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus reads from a portion of the prophet Isaiah, “He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’ And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing”” (Luke 4:17-21). This episode from scripture illustrates how the Spirit is the bearer of Good News. The Spirit seeks out and finds those on the margins and calls the Church to invite them in and make the family of God broader and wider. The Spirit gave Jesus the power to begin his ministry of reconciliation and sharing God’s love. That same Spirit calls us to the same ministry today.
In conclusion, the Holy Spirit is a complicated and compelling subject. The third person of the trinity has been given many names and has done many things throughout time, but to me the greatest of these is “comforter.” The Holy Spirit comforts and guides the Church on our mission of reconciliation; a mission of reconciliation to God and each other.
Barth, Karl. Evangelical Theology: an Introduction. W.B. Eerdmans, 1980.
The Bible. The New Oxford Annotated Version, 3rd ed., Oxford UP, 2001.