Understanding the Holy Spirit

The Holy Spirit is a mystery to churchgoers everywhere, and occasionally for some members of the Church of God. Strong opinions on the subject abound, but for many there are more questions than answers. What is the Holy Spirit and what is its purpose? 

Gerald E. Weston

On the night in which He was betrayed, Jesus promised His disciples that He would send to them the “Helper”—in Greek, parakletos. After telling them that if they loved Him they would keep His commandments, Jesus went on to say, “And I will pray the Father, and He will give you another Helper, that He may abide with you forever—the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees Him nor knows Him; but you know Him, for He dwells with you and will be in you. I will not leave you orphans; I will come to you” (John 14:16–18).

We sometimes see these verses with a certain uneasiness, feeling that we need to explain away the Trinity doctrine by inserting “it” instead of “He” when referring to the Helper Jesus would send. On the surface, taken by themselves, these verses, along with those in John 16:7–15, may seem to indicate to some that the Holy Spirit is a person, whom people identify as the third person in the Trinity, because of their past religious indoctrination. But is that really so?

The Challenge of Translation

We often explain that many languages use gendered words, even if the object in question is not a living thing. Each noun in the language, such as the words for chair or car, will have a masculine or feminine character to their spelling, articles, and pronouns.

Spanish provides a helpful example. In English we say “John’s chair,” but in Spanish it is “la silla de Juan.” La is a feminine article matching silla, a feminine noun; but the English word car, on the other hand, is a masculine Spanish word: el coche. El is a masculine article that accompanies the masculine noun. In Spanish, words that end in the letter “a” are normally feminine, whereas words that end in the letters “o” or “e” are often masculine, though there are exceptions to both. There are also neuter nouns in some languages, which are neither grammatically masculine nor grammatically feminine. The reasons for this vary from language to language, and in many cases there seems tobeno rhyme or reason—it’s just the way it is! The English language really does not provide a good comparison.

Greek is similar to Spanish, with some nouns requiring masculine pronouns. Translators from Greek to English often translate masculine or feminine pronouns with the neuter word it, to avoid using he or she when speaking of chairs, tables and other objects.

All of this relates to the gender-pronoun problem with the parakletos passages in chapters 14 and 16 of the book of John, since, although the Holy Spirit is not a person, the word parakletos is masculine in Greek. However, simply changing the pronoun from He to It still leaves us with an awkward and, for some, uncomfortable reading of these scriptures, especially in John 16:13—“However, when He, the Spirit of truth [the Helper or parakletos of v. 7], has come, He will guide you into all truth; for He will not speak on His own authority, but whatever He hears He will speak; and He will tell you things to come.” Even if we exchange It for He, the words in this verse can still come across as though Jesus is speaking of a person, primarily due to the way He speaks of the Helper—or, in the King James Version, the Comforter. The very words Helper or Comforter seem to communicate a sense of personhood! So how are we to understand this in the light of the rest of the Bible, which makes it clear that the Spirit is not a person? The answer is simpler than you might expect.

When Is a “He” Not Really a “He”?

In both John 14:16–18 and 16:7–15, Jesus used a literary technique known as personification to describe the Holy Spirit. Another biblical example of personification is found in Proverbs 8: “Does not wisdom cry out, and understanding lift up her voice? She takes her stand on the top of the high hill, beside the way, where the paths meet. She cries out by the gates, at the entry of the city, at the entrance of the doors” (vv. 1–3). Neither wisdom nor understanding are persons, but each is described as possessing personal characteristics in this passage. The personification of wisdom and understanding continues throughout the chapter: “I, wisdom, dwell with prudence, and find out knowledge and discretion…. Counsel is mine…. By me kings reign….” (vv. 12, 14, 15).

This device of giving inanimate objects the characteristics of a person is also found in the beginning verses of Proverbs 9: “Wisdom has built her house, she has hewn out her seven pillars; she has slaughtered her meat, she has mixed her wine, she has also furnished her table” (vv. 1–2). Whether or not we understand that this form of expression is called personification, we all understand the meaning of these passages. We would never conclude that wisdom or understanding are persons! So, when Jesus spoke of the Comforter, He was not contradicting other passages of Scripture that clearly show the Holy Spirit is the projection of the power and mind of God instead of a person.

Translators retain the masculine pronoun for the Greek parakletos when referring to “Comforter,” for one good reason and one not-so-good reason. The good reason is that parakletos is a masculine noun and requires a masculine pronoun in the Greek original. Grammatically, He is a correct literal translation, and corresponds in a way to Solomon’s use of she and her when he was personifying wisdom in the Proverbs we saw earlier. However, if one does not understand the bigger picture—that Jesus is clearly personifying the Holy Spirit in this passage—then the use of the pronoun He can be misleading. (See chapter one of my booklet, John 3:16—Hidden Truths of the Golden Verse for further clarification regarding the heretical Trinity doctrine.) The not-so-good reason is that translators often see this passage and are comfortable using the pronoun not because of their understanding of personification, but because of their misunderstanding of the nature of the Holy Spirit.

No, the Holy Spirit is not a person, and is not the third person in the non-existent Trinity!

Understood rightly and read in the light of the rest of the Bible, these two passages do not disagree in any way with the rest of God’s Word!

Then What Is God’s Spirit?

So, what is the Holy Spirit? What is its purpose? And what does it do for us? Quoting from our Statement of Fundamental Beliefs,

The Holy Spirit is the very essence, the mind, life and power of God. It is not a Being. The Spirit is inherent in the Father and the Son, and emanates from Them throughout the entire universe (1 Kings 8:27; Psalm 139:7; Jeremiah 23:24). It was through the Spirit that God created all things (Genesis 1:1–2; Revelation 4:11). It is the power by which Christ maintains the universe (Hebrews 1:2–3). It is given to all who repent of their sins and are baptized (Acts 2:38–39) and is the power (Acts 1:8; 2 Timothy 1:6–7) by which all believers may be “overcomers” (Romans 8:37, KJV; Revelation 2:26–27) and will be led to eternal life” (Statement of Fundamental Beliefs, “The Holy Spirit”).

But let us look further, especially as the Holy Spirit relates to Pentecost. I often read a passage from Isaiah 55 to individuals seeking baptism. Part of the passage says, “‘For My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways My ways,’ says the Lord. ‘For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways, and My thoughts than your thoughts’” (vv. 8–9).

Some take this passage as a complete statement regarding man’s ability—or inability—to understand the mind of God, but it does not reveal the whole story. A similar passage found in 1 Corinthians 2 gives further insight. It is easy to focus on verse 9, where it tells us, “Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor have entered into the heart of man the things which God has prepared for those who love Him.” Again, some carelessly take this to mean that no one can understand the mind of God. This, of course, is partly true, but it is not the whole picture, as explained in the verses that follow. “But God has revealed them [the things of God] to us through His Spirit. For the Spirit searches all things, yes, the deep things of God” (v. 10).

Yes, the spiritual man can understand even “deep things of God”! What follows in this passage is, first of all, an explanation of what makes man different from animals. There is a spirit given to man that animals do not have! The Apostle Paul then compares the spirit in man to the Spirit of God, and how it makes the begotten children of God different from those who do not possess His Spirit. “For what man knows the things of a man except the spirit of the man which is in him? Even so no one knows the things of God except the Spirit of God” (v. 11). Yes, we can know the things of God, if the Spirit of God dwells in us (v. 12)! What an incredible revelation!

What did Isaiah mean when he wrote, “‘For My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways My ways,’ says the Lord” (Isaiah 55:8)? The prophet is speaking to the unconverted, as the context beginning in verse 1 shows. The carnal mind is the natural human mind without God’s Spirit. The Apostle Paul explains the difference between the carnal mind and the mind guided by the Holy Spirit in these terms: “For to be carnally minded is death, but to be spiritually minded is life and peace. Because the carnal mind is enmity against God; for it is not subject to the law of God, nor indeed can be. So then, those who are in the flesh cannot please God. But you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you. Now if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he is not His” (Romans 8:6–9). God’s ways are not our ways unless Christ lives in us. It is through Jesus’ dwelling in us that the hostility to God’s law is removed. It is then that the law, expressing the very mind of God, is written in our hearts.

This must not be understood to mean that our job is finished once we receive the Holy Spirit. Paul explains that we must fight against our human impulses (Romans 6:8–14) and allow Christ to lead us if we are to be God’s children. “For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God” (Romans 8:14).

The Pentecost Connection

The Old Covenant was given at Mount Sinai on the Day of Pentecost. Israel received the law written on stone. Tragically, they did not have the heart to obey it (Deuteronomy 5:29), thus the need for a new covenant (Hebrews 8:7–8). Jesus introduced this New Covenant at the Passover: “This cup is the new covenant in My blood, which is shed for you” (Luke 22:20). In other words, it is only through His shed blood that we can enter into the New Covenant. The Living Church of God Statement of Fundamental Beliefs explains:

At baptism, the Christian enters the “new covenant” with God (Matthew 26:28). That new covenant does not do away with the law of God. God writes His laws in our minds and hearts (Hebrews 8:8–10). When one is baptized, he or she makes a solemn covenant with God that, with the help of the Holy Spirit, he will keep His commandments and live a godly life from that day onward! It is Christ who actually lives His obedient life within us through the Holy Spirit. As the Apostle Paul was inspired to write, “I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20, KJV) (Statement of Fundamental Beliefs, “Receiving God’s Grace”).

One misunderstanding that many have is the idea that they should simply “listen to their heart” concerning what is right and wrong. You sometimes hear people say, “God speaks to my heart.” More often than not, they really mean, “My heart defines right and wrong.” They fail to realize that their human heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked (Jeremiah 17:9). It is not what they think. It is not what you or I think. It is God who defines right and wrong, which He reveals through His law. The hostility to His law must be removed and His way of thinking must replace our way of thinking. His law must be written in our hearts (Ezekiel 11:19–20; 36:26–27).

On the first Pentecost after the crucifixion and resurrection, God poured out the Holy Spirit on the fledgling Church of God. The law given to Israel was written on tablets of stone. That same law is now being written in our minds and hearts by the power of the Holy Spirit, but that does not happen magically. It happens as we put to death the old man and become a new man as we are led by the Holy Spirit. We have our part to play. Let us be sure we do our part!

Copyright © 2018 Living Church of God
www.lcg.org