Many people have a pretty good idea of what we mean when we speak of “God”, and in our circles, at least, they might accept the famous definition of the Westminster Catechism, that “God is a Spirit, infinite, eternal and unchangeable in His being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness and truth!” a truly classic and memorable word indeed! And most people who have had any experience with the Christian Church – even just a few years in Sunday School – have some under-standing of who Jesus Christ is; this is not surprising since He once lived upon this earth as a man.
But even many faithful church-goers are at a loss to explain who the Holy Spirit is, or just what He does, or why it is so important that we should have Him within or be filled with Him: and yet this a constant New Testament theme. Therefore, as the feast of Pentecost approaches, I want to take up this most important matter of the Holy Spirit. Who is the Holy Spirit? Who or what did the Lord Jesus expect His disciples and us to look for when He said, John 14, verse 16, “I will pray the Father, and He shall give you another Comforter He may abide with you forever; even the SPIRIT…”
Jesus spoke these words the Spirit as you know – in the same night in which He was betrayed. At the table where He had instituted the Lord’s Supper, He had been telling the disciples that He was going away – and they were all well aware of the fact that He was going to His death. They were dismayed by the prospect, of course. They were beginning to feel like orphans, left destitute in this evil world, and without a friend to lean upon; and it was to counteract such feelings as these that Jesus now told them of “another comforter.” He himself had been their comforter hitherto: but now He would send them another, or He would pray to His heavenly Father and He would give them that comforter and He identified him as the “Spirit.” But who is the “Spirit” of whom He was speaking? That is the question that we must consider together today.
And first and foremost we must say that the “Spirit” is God, the third person of the Godhead, or Deity, and co-equal with the Father and the Son in dignity, honor and majesty. But I can hear your groans already! “You’ve lost me,” you say. “You’ve jumped right into the deep, deep waters of theology that I’ve never really been able to understand.”
So let us begin with something simple, something more familiar. Let us begin with the second commandment, “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image….thou shalt not bow down thyself to it nor serve it, for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God… ” You have all heard that many times before. Why does God hate pictures of Himself so much? Why does He attach such harsh words to His prohibition of graven generation to generation as long as it exists? For one reason above all: that no images of Him are true, none do Him justice, not even those
that we only have in our minds and never speak to transmit to paper or to sculpt or mold – none of them are reliable! God is so much greater than anything or anyone that we can imagine! The truth about Him exceeds all pictures, all images! The truth about Him can only be known as He reveals it to us, and that revelation has never been in pictures, seldom in visions – and then only symbolic, but mostly and most characteristically in words – His words through prophets and apostles – and Jesus Christ our Lord being the Word become flesh and dwelling among us, the only reliable image that we can ever expect. “He that hath seen me hath seen the Father,” he declared – and we must leave it at that.
It is always wrong of us, therefore, to say, I think that God is like this or that – or to say, I cannot understand this or that about God and so it cannot be, or it cannot be important. No – we must always listen and learn what God has said about Himself if we would gain true knowledge of Him, and one of the things that He has said is this: that His Being is different than ours, and one of the ways in which it is different is this: that He is a plurality of persons without ceasing to be one God! At first, God only hinted at this. He hinted at it in the very word that He used to speak of Himself, the word that we translated as “God’ in the Hebrew being a plural, “elohim” like those other Hebrew plurals with which we are familiar, Cherubim and seraphim, the ending “im” being one of the signs of the plural in the Hebrew language, like our “‘s”‘ or “es” at the end of a word! Other Semitic languages have the same word in the singular, Arabic (for example) saying always, “allah”, and never “Allahin’, or something like the Hebrew word – and yet this plural word for God in Hebrew is always regarded grammatically as a singular and referred to as “he”‘ and not “they”. Besides this, we have those places in the Old Testament, especially in Genesis, where God speaks of Himself in the plural, Gen. 1:26 for example, “Let us make man in Our image…” and Gen. 3:22, “Behold, the man is become as one of Us…”, and Gen. 11:7, “Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language… These are not accidents! Nor is the appearance of God to Abraham – Gen. 18 – as three men whom He nonetheless addresses as “MY LORD’, accidental either – but hints, indications of a fuller revelation to come. God maintained His unity in the Old Testament, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord thy God is one Lord…”, against the gods many and lords many of the gentile nations round about,
and yet not so strictly and exclusively that His people could not later
come to know Him more fully in the trinity of His persons!
This triunity began to come out clearly when the Word of God, Who was in the beginning with God, and Who was God, became flesh and dwelt among us – as St. John explains the advent of Jesus Christ in the world, John 1. Jesus Christ was a real man, born of a woman as all men are, and increasing in wisdom and stature, as all men do. He ate and drank as other men eat and drink. He grew tired and slept as other men grow tired and sleep. And He died at last and was buried, as other men die and are buried – their hearts ceasing to function and their breath
ceasing to come, and so forth. Yet He was also true and eternal God! He has the attributes of God! He does the work of God! He speaks with the authority of God! And still, He is not God absolutely – for He speaks of His heavenly Father as dwelling above and speaks to Him constantly in His prayers. How can we explain this unless we see two persons at least in the one divine Being?
But there is more – and Jesus begins to bring it out clearly in our text today, spoken in the hour of His “glorification”, as He chose to call it. “I, who am the Father’s Son and who am in Him, and He in Me, will pray the Father and He shall give you another comforter, and such an- other must be like the first, like the Son, that he may abide with you forever – and eternity is a divine attribute, isn’t it? even the SPIRIT!” A Spirit as much God as the Son, or the Father – who is sent to the Father and of the Son – to dwell with us! A divine Spirit!
Just as we can say, “In the beginning was the Word…,” so we can say, “In the beginning was the Holy Spirit..” and Moses laid the foundation for it in Genesis 1:2 when he wrote, “And the earth was without form and void: and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters!”
Just as we call the Father almighty, the Maker of heaven and earth, and as we have learned to call the Son almighty, too, so we may speak of the power of the Spirit – He, too, is almighty!
The Spirit is everywhere present – David asks in Psalm 139, “Wither shall I flee from the Spirit…?” And He knows all things, too! Doesn’t Jesus call him from the first the Spirit of truth? So the first thing that we must affirm in answer to the question, Who is the Holy Spirit? – difficult as it may be for us to fathom – is this: that He is God, just as the Father is God and the Son is God, and even though there is one God still. The Bible says so – and we believe it. “Thy testimonies are very sure..O Lord,” Psalm 93:5.
The second thing that we must say about the Spirit, in answer to our question, Who is He? is this (and it goes hand in hand with the first), that He is a Person just as the Father and Son are persons: and our language lets us down at this point! As do many others! The word “spirit”, you see, does not necessarily mean a personal being – and it has always had this weakness. The word “ghost”‘ as applied to the Holy Spirit has a weakness – for this word has degenerated in meaning since it was first applied to the third person of the Trinity by the Anglo-Saxons, and now means in modern English only an evil spirit or a haunting spirit, and therefore apart from poetry we now use the term “Holy Spirit” instead of “Holy Ghost”. But the word “spirit’ also has a weakness – for it is derived from the Latin word of “breath” as we can see from such a word a “respiration” and can mean a pervading principle, such as the “spirit of the times”, or even a general, human enthusiasm, as the “spirit of snow”, and these other meanings have led to confusion! Is the Holy Spirit just a function of God – his living influence among men?
Yes, said the ancient heretics, the Arians, named after a certain Arius, an Egyptian theologian who taught that Christ was a created being and the Spirit merely His continued spiritual power among men – and their heresy was revived in the days of the Reformation by the Socinians, and it exists officially still in the Unitarian-Universalist Church.
Yes, again, said another ancient theologian, Sabellius, who said that Father, Son and Spirit were only different ways in which the one God existed as Father from the creation to the conception and birth of Christ, as Son during His earthly life, and as Spirit now: and many liberal Protestants follow this formula in one way or another. They are various ways of apprehending, or understanding, or experiencing the one, living God, they may say – or other variations of the theme.
No, say we, and all other Christians, ancient and modern, catholic and protestant. The Holy Spirit is a person just as the Father is a person and the Son is a person. And we say it, again, not because we love theological problems and difficult propositions that make “religion” hard for people, but simply because the Bible our only and infallible rule of faith and life says so, or as our Heidelberg Catechism so neatly puts it, “because God has so revealed Himself in His word!”
The Holy Spirit speaks in the Bible – Acts 8:29 – in the story of Philip the deacon and the Ethiopian eunuch who was riding in his chariot reading, but not understanding the 53rd chapter of Isaiah, “Then the Spirit said unto Philip, Go near, and join thyself to this chariot.” A mere influence does not speak like that!
The Holy Spirit teaches in the Bible – in the very place that we read earlier today, in John 14 Jesus declares, verse 26, “But the Comforter, which is the Holy Ghost, Whom the Father will send in My name, He shall teach you all things and bring all things to your remembrance, whatsoever I have said unto you.’ No influence can do that!
The Holy Spirit testifies or bears witness in the Bible – Romans 8, verses 15-17, For ye have not received the Spirit of bondage again to fear, but ye have received the Spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, Abba, Father. The Spirit itself beareth witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God, and if children then heirs, etc…”
The Holy Spirit forbade Paul the apostle to preach the Word in Asia, Acts 16:6 and that was not an influence. The Holy Spirit can be provoked to wrath – as He as by the Ananias and Sapphira – to whom Peter said “Why hath Satan filled thine heart to lie to the Holy Ghost…?’ And you remember the judgment that overtook these two people!
And there are many other such places in scripture that show us clearly that He is a person – that He must be called “He” and not “it” – the KJV has erred in those few places, following the peculiarities of Greek grammar rather than the proper sense of the passage, when it says “it” of the Spirit! – and we may pray to Him even as we may pray to the Father and the Son.
“Come Thou Almighty King, help us Thy name to sing… we address the Father! “Come Thou Incarnate Word, gird on Thy mighty sword…” we address the Son! “Come Holy Comforter, Thy sacred witness bear in this glad hour” we address the Spirit!
“To Thee, Great One in Three, eternal praises be, hence evermore” – we address all three at once, we adore God, the trinity in unity and the unity in trinity, who so was, so is, and so will be forevermore.
There is still a third thing that we must say in answer to our question, Who is the Holy Spirit? – and it is a reminder that as a person who is to be worshipped and glorified together with the Father and the Son, the Holy Spirit is also actively engaged in all the work of the Godhead, including the work of our salvation! One of the reasons for the neglect of the Holy Spirit in the past has been our failure, on the whole, to realize this. We ascribe creation to the Father, and that is an important function that we can readily grasp: and we ascribe salvation to the Son, and many can see that; but what is the work of the Spirit? Our sanctification, we say – but that often remains rather indefinite in our minds! It is true, of course, that the Father is more dominant in the work of creation – but the Bible says that without the Son, the eternal Word, nothing was made that was made, and we have seen that the Holy Spirit was also present at the creation! It is true that the Son is most prominent in the work of redemption – but He did not undertake anything except in unity with His Father, and His prayer life so clearly indicates, and the Spirit of God dwelt within Him without measure throughout His earthly life – yes, and through His passion, death, and resurrection, too. And now the spirit, with the Father’s blessing, takes the Son’s special work of redemption and applies it to the hearts of those whom the Father chose in Christ from all eternity. Though there are three each of whom is God – and each of whom is a person and each of whom is prominent in one aspect of the divine work – yet they are one, and not a one acts without the other. Our salvation in particular is the Father’s work. He is God our Savior! It is most assuredly the Son’s work. But it is also the Spirit’s work, He convicts us of our sin and guilt. He convicts us of the judgment to come. He leads us into all the truth. He brings us to Christ for salvation. He applies the Blood. He works faith within our hearts. He holds us fast unto the end. Without Him, we could no more be saved than without the death of Christ or
without the Father’s good pleasure!
Do you see, then, how essential it is that we know who the Holy Spirit is? Do you see how important it is to realize that He is a person with whom we may and must sustain a personal relationship? Do you begin to realize His great importance to you if you desire to be a Christian and to entertain a reasonable hope of salvation? Take special notice of every reference to the Holy Spirit in your reading of the Scriptures – and seek to form a clearer notion of His person and work. Look up again the reference to this matter in your catechism – and in your best books of- Christian doctrine. Beware of some of the more popular books on this subject for an interest in the work of the Holy Spirit has been growing recently among Christians, and many are writing on this subject, but their writing is not necessarily sound. Watch out for these. But most important of all: ask the Holy Spirit to make Himself known to you and to fill your life with His presence and blessing! There is no better way to get to know a person than to associate with him more and more: and the Spirit comes and joins company with those who invite Him in! For a thousand years now the church has been praying, Veni Creator Spiritus, Come, Holy Ghost, our souls inspire, enlighten with celestial fire! This ancient prayer ought to find an echo in every heart today and every day – for the Spirit’s presence is the presence of our God and Savior, another Comforter, even the Spirit of truth whom the world cannot receive…but ye know Him, for He dwelleth with you and shall be in yours. Blessed promise – may it be fulfilled in us all.
Sermon written by: Rev. Charles W. Krahe, Seventh Reformed Church