A New Perspective on the Holy Spirit
I learned something about the Holy Spirit the other day. Something I never understood even after decades of Bible study and a whole lot of post graduate theological training. This was new to me, even though it’s on page one of the Bible.
I learned it from listening to the Bible Project podcast, which I highly recommend. The host, Tim Mackie, is a scholar in the field of biblical theology. You can find the two episodes on the Holy Spirit here and here.
The Spirit of Power? Or Something More?
I’ve always thought of the Holy Spirit mainly in terms of power. The Spirit empowers us, he enables us, he gives spiritual gifts and activates them, powers them—he’s all about power and enablement.
And that’s true, but it’s not really the most important aspect of what the Spirit does. Our first introduction to the Holy Spirit in the Bible is in the creation account, where he hovers over the waters and turns the uninhabitable emptiness into a garden paradise fit for human habitation.
The word for “spirit” in the Bible is also the word for “wind” or “breath.” The Holy Spirit is like the breath of God. When God exhales on the primordial chaos, it’s transformed into an ideal environment for life. The picture is of God sending out his very life into the creation.
The Spirit as the Life-Giving Breath of God
The next occurrence is where God forms man out of dirt and then breathes life into him. He also breathes life into the animals. God’s Spirit, who is a person, is also the animating force that makes life out of nonlife.
Medical science cannot define life. Examine a corpse one second after the person dies and you will find all the chemical components that supposedly produce life. It’s all still there, yet the person is dead. What’s the difference in the person a minute before death vs. a minute after? Answer: the breath of God is removed.
Psalm 104:30 When you send your Spirit, [the sea creatures] are created, and you renew the face of the earth.
In verse 29 he says, “When take away their breath, they die and return to the dust.”
Job 34:14-15 If it were his intention and he withdrew his spirit and breath, all mankind would perish together and man would return to the dust.
So that’s how the Bible introduces the Holy Spirit in the Bible. More than anything else, the Spirit is the giver of the life of God. And not only for humans, but also for animals and the whole creation itself. The features of this world that sustain life—the food, water, sunshine, oxygen, beauty—all of it comes from God exhaling his very life into the creation.
As the cohost of the Bible Project podcast said, it’s a very enchanted way of understanding the world. Not enchanted in the sense of having to do with magic, but simply in the sense of having invisible life that animates it.
Supercharge Your Bible Reading
God introduces the Spirit to us this way on page 1 of the Bible so that whenever we see the Spirit later in the Bible, we will say, “Oh, the Holy Spirit. I should expect to see the infusion of life from God here.”
This insight has transformed the way I read Scripture because the Spirit appears so frequently. Just one quick example—the other day I was reading about the Church in Ephesians 2:
Ephesians 2:22 And in [Christ] you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.
It’s easy to just read past that last phrase without even noticing it. But if we stop and import the picture we are given in Genesis, the verse fills up with richer meaning. In the Church, we are being built into a temple, God’s dwelling place. And it happens at the hands of the life-giving, energizing force that creates flourishing breathed out of God himself.
When God Inhales
All of that happens when God exhales—what about when he inhales?
After the flood, God knew that the same problems that caused the flood still existed after the flood. Mankind would be just as evil as ever. But something happens that makes God decide he would never send another flood to wipe out humanity again—“even though every inclination of his heart is evil from childhood” (Genesis 8:21).
What was the event that moved God to say this?
Genesis 8:20 Then Noah built an altar to the LORD and, … sacrificed burnt offerings on it. 21 The LORD smelled the pleasing aroma and said in his heart: “Never again will I curse the ground because of man ….”
God made this promise in response to his pleasure in Noah’s worship. But notice how Scripture describes that pleasure. “The LORD smelled the pleasing aroma.” The word “smelled” is from the same root as the word “breath.” That makes sense, since inhaling and exhaling are both movements of air.
Given the picture the previous chapters in Genesis have painted, the idea here is that just as God’s life and favor comes to us from within God when he breathes out on us, so our worship is infused with life and favor by God when he breathes it in. The picture is not that Noah did something inherently worthy of reward. Rather, he did something rather ordinary, but God’s act of breathing it in infused that act with such goodness that it moved God to make his magnanimous promise. God’s Spirit gives life coming out and going in.
What amazing thought! When we ask, “What do I have to offer God?” we rightly think, “Nothing.” The idea that we could, on our own, generate something worthy of God’s favor is laughable. But when God, in his mercy, chooses to inhale our worship, that act of breathing it in transforms our lame offerings into something so glorious that it’s enough to delight the heart of an infinite being.