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Luther Seminary's Bible Q & A

Who is the Holy Spirit? - Lois Malcolm

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Podcast discussion with Eric Barreto, Kathryn Schifferdecker and Lois Malcolm.
Article written by Lois Malcolm
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Who is the Holy Spirit? We often have difficulty answering this question and perhaps are rightly suspicious of those who are only too eager with a response.

Yet the Spirit is as close to us as our nearest breath. The Hebrew word for "spirit" (ruach) means wind or breath of life -- the animating power in people, animals, and even evil spirits. The same word is used for God's life-giving presence in our lives, not just as a force but as God's efficacious presence within and among us.

The Bible is most interested in how the Spirit -- God's life-giving presence -- brings us into relationship with God and with one another. In Israel's early stories, the Spirit comes upon leaders and kings at certain times, giving them charismatic, or compelling power to perform extraordinary feats. When David is anointed as king, the Spirit remains with him so that he can embody and represent Israel's special relationship with God.

An Ethical Spirit

The Spirit is not just a charismatic Spirit. The Spirit is also an ethical Spirit who inspires prophets to speak truth to those in power -- although we should note that the "classic" pre-exilic prophets (Amos, Hosea, Micah, Isaiah, and Jeremiah) appealed to God's word (dabar) and not to God's Spirit (ruach) when they spoke out against idolatry and injustice. Nonetheless, during Israel's exile into Babylon, we find the Spirit explicitly linked with bringing justice not just to the nations, but to nature itself.

An eschatological Spirit

In Isaiah, the Spirit is an eschatological Spirit who will bring about a new messianic age in the line of David. Like a burning fire, the Spirit will cleanse the people of their sins, and in a final Exodus (that echoes Israel's Exodus from Egypt) death itself will be overcome. A new creative act of God will bring about "a new heavens and a new earth" (Isa 65). Likewise, Ezekiel describes how the Spirit will revivify dry and dead bones, infusing the people with God's life-giving presence.

In turn, Jeremiah describes how the Torah will be written on people's hearts. As Joel declares centuries later, the time will come when the Spirit will fill all people -- including young and old, slaves and free persons, and men and women -- in a way that is direct and enduring.

The Spirit's Presence in Jesus' Life

These images of the Spirit inform how the Gospels' depict the Spirit's presence in Jesus' life. At his baptism, the Spirit descends on Jesus like a dove and a voice from heaven declares Jesus to be God's chosen son. Echoing Isaiah, Jesus declares that the Spirit has empowered him "to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners" (Luke 4:18; see also Isa 61:1).

Through the Spirit, Jesus embodies the kingdom of God in his very person. Indeed, his intimacy with God is so complete that he surrenders to God's will for him -- even to the point of godforsakenness. As his followers would later interpret, in his crucifixion Jesus takes on our death, sin, and suffering so that God's creative justice and righteousness can be embodied in our lives.

Yet his disciples soon witness to the Spirit's raising Jesus from the dead. They also experience the presence and power of the Spirit within and among them. The book of Acts describes how, as Jesus had promised, the Spirit descends at Pentecost -- with tongues of fire and a multiplicity of languages. Similarly, the Gospel of John describes how Jesus promises an Advocate or Comforter, who will guide us into all truth, enabling us to be born anew as children of God with the power to forgive sins.

Paul and the Holy Spirit

In his letters, Paul describes how he was propelled by the Spirit to proclaim to Gentiles the good news about what God had done through Jesus the Messiah (or the Christ). For Paul, Jesus' death and resurrection had inaugurated a new covenant: God's promise of a new messianic age was now available to all people through faith in Jesus and in the Spirit's power.

Through baptism into Christ's death and resurrection, we too are given the same Spirit that was in Jesus -- the Spirit that enabled him to have intimacy with the one he called "Abba." Whether male or female, Jew or Greek, slave or free, we too have died to all other powers -- including death, sin, and even the law -- so that we can now can live out of Christ's life, freed to be both more fully ourselves and to love and be of service to those around us.

The Spirit in Our Lives

The Spirit enables us to see and be transformed by the face of Christ as we see it mirrored in our own lives and in the lives of those around us.

Of course, all of this only takes place within the reality of our lives where there is no escape from suffering.  We too "groan" with the rest of creation in the midst of what often seems futile. Yet within that groaning -- indeed, in the midst of every breath, even when we do not know how to pray -- the Spirit intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words (Rom 8:26). Like a mother giving birth, the Spirit brings forth new life out of whatever it is that happening in our lives.

In the Spirit, our very bodies become conduit for the Spirit's life-giving presence not only for ourselves but also for those around us.


Lois Malcolm is associate professor of systematic theology at Luther Seminary in Saint Paul, Minn.

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