To best understand the identity of The Holy Spirit, let us first examine the etymology of His title. “Holy” is commonly used simply to distinguish from any other spiritual being and refers to His “otherness” and purity. However, the Bible may also refer to Him as “God’s Spirit,” “The Spirit of God,” or simply “The Spirit.” As such, the word “spirit” is the most important defining factor when referring to Him.
The word “Spirit” in the Old Testament is translated from the Hebrew and Aramaic word רוּחַ (ruach). I will attempt to summarize its rich depth of meaning without going into all 388 old testament appearances of the word, as exciting as that would be. It is important to note that not all appearances of ruach necessarily refer to the person of “THE Holy Spirit.” However, understanding the meaning of “spirit” is crucial, just as understanding the meaning of “lion” is crucial to understanding the meaning of “Lion King” even though not every reference to a lion is a reference to Lion King.
Ruach is often translated as “spirit” or “spirits” (212 times in the ESV) though sometimes it is translated as “wind,” “breath” and other similar concepts. The root רוח (rwch) means “to smell; to be relieved; wide, spacious” which relates the concept of “breath” specifically that which passes through the nose. That same root also refers to incense, burnt offerings, and aroma in general. (Genesis 8:21, 27:27, Exodus 29:18, Numbers 15:3-24, and many others).
Providentially, the concept of aroma can be a helpful analogy to the concept of The Holy Spirit. Aroma is intangible yet undeniable and, in fact at times inescapable! Anyone who has been sprayed by a skunk knows what it is like to be unable to “flee from the presence” of something! (Psalm 139:7-8) Aroma is powerful. It is invisible yet can dramatically alter the mood and emotion of any given situation, trigger vivid memories that were otherwise lying dormant, and is crucial to the full experience of tasting food.
Necessary to the experience of any aroma is the action of breathing, specifically by drawing air in through one’s nostrils. It is unsurprising, then, that “breath” is a core concept in ruach, and, like “aroma” is a helpful analogy. The same word translated in the ESV as “spirit” is translated 34 times as “breath.” In these cases, “breath” is generally used to refer to the life force of people and animals (i.e. “breath of life”). It is a logical association, as all creatures must breathe in order to live. Breath is the sustaining movement of an intangible, invisible presence, without which nothing on Earth could live. The same is true of The Holy Spirit. In this sense, the word “spirit” regarding any living beings can be well understood to mean something along the lines of “life force” or “the intangible but essential quality of life.”
Furthermore, we the created have none to thank but our Creator for the gift of this quality. Consider Genesis 2:7 (ESV): “Then the LORD God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature.” It is only by God that we have life. (See also Job 12:10, 33:4, 34:14-15)
At times “breath” or “breeze” is not a forceful enough translation to fit the context, and it does not always refer to a “spirit” or “life force.” As such, ruach is translated 114 times in the ESV as “wind” or “winds.” Most often it is a wind proceeding from or sent by God, and often has devastating or otherwise dramatic effects. (Genesis 8:1, Exodus 10:13, 19, 14:21, 1 Kings 19:11, Psalm 48:7, Ezekiel 13:13, Jonah 1:4, to name a few)
One of my favorite passages containing ruach is in Exodus 15, where the people of Israel are praising God in song after he brought them safely through the Red Sea and delivered them from the pursuing Egyptian army. Verses 8 and 10 (ESV) read:
“At the blast [ruach] of your nostrils the waters piled up; the floods stood up in a heap…You blew with your wind; the sea covered them; they sank like lead in the mighty waters.”
Such colorful, poetic phrasing paints a vivid picture and incorporates multiple concepts in one image. Moreover, once again, we have a helpful analogy for understanding the nature of God’s Spirit. Wind is a powerful force. It can uproot trees, level buildings, toss around enormous waves of water, and carry storms across hundreds of miles. It can also propel a ship filled with people across the ocean or distribute pollen and seeds to propagate the earth. Anyone who has started a fire without lighter fluid knows how handy it is to have a forceful set of lungs to blow a week pile of sparks and kindling into a powerful, consuming flame.
The analogous necessity of breath and wind in the world leads us to the activity of God’s Spirit. Understanding a little about His nature, what exactly does he do? The Bible describes The Spirit at work from the very beginning.
Genesis 1:2 describes the Spirit of God as “hovering over the midst of the waters.” (ESV)
Genesis provides a picture of God’s Spirit being the present, active force in the process of creation, ready to interact with the earth according to the Father’s will. Verses 3, 6, 9, 11, 14, 20, 24, and 26 all begin with “And/Then God Said” to open the explanation for the corresponding day of creation. This pattern itself invokes an implication of the ruach involvement, for, when one speaks, on what do the words ride? Speech is carried on the breath that proceeds from the mouth of the speaker. Consider also Job 26:13, Psalm 33:6, 104:30.
We also see cases of God’s Spirit selectively gifting or even overtaking various individuals throughout the Old Testament. Notable examples are Joshua (Num. 27:18), Othniel (Judg. 3:10), Gideon (6:34), Samson (13:25; 14:6), and Saul (1 Sam. 10:9, 10). In particular, prophecies and scripture itself are attributed to the intervention of God’s Spirit. (2 Samuel 23:2, Ezekiel 2:2, 2 Timothy 3:16-17) Note the significance of the phrase “inspired” or “God-breathed” considering our understanding of ruach.
Old Testament prophesies alluded to a future when God would put His Spirit in people, particularly in and through the Messiah, as an act of mercy and redemption. (Ezekiel 36:27, Isaiah 11:2, 61:1, Joel 2:28) Of course, Jesus claimed to be a fulfillment of said prophesies. (Luke 4:18-19, Acts 2:14-41) The claim in Luke 4 came on the heels of a pivotal series of events: the baptism, and subsequent testing of Jesus. During His baptism, The Spirit of God descended “like a dove,” and the voice of God the Father declared Jesus as His “beloved Son.” (Matthew 3:16-17) After his baptism, Jesus was “filled with” and “led by” the Spirit, setting a precedent for all those who would follow Him. (Luke 4:1)
After Jesus was raised from the dead, and before he ascended to heaven, he instructed his disciples to wait in Jerusalem for The Spirit to come to them (Luke 24:49, Acts 1:4-8). Then, on the day of Pentecost, The Spirit arrived as promised, and did so dramatically. (Acts 2:1-13) Some examples follow of all believers, including gentiles, and not just leaders or prominent figures, being similarly “filled with the Spirit” as were prophets and judges in the Old Testament. (Acts 4:31, 7:54, 8:39, 9:31, 10:44)
The Spirit of the New Testament is the same as that of the Old Testament. However, Christ brought a shift by making the indwelling of The Spirit available to all who follow Him, as opposed to those rare and select few, even among God’s people, in the Old Testament. (1 Samuel 3:1, John 3:34, Acts 2:38)
Even when not acting in dramatic and miraculous ways, The Spirit is described as the unifying and sanctifying power in the church, drawing people to God and providing a common experiential factor across all languages and cultures. Salvation in Christ is possible through The Spirit. God’s Spirit convicts, sustains, guides, and informs us. He is the seal of our inheritance, and the proof of the hope we have in God. (John 3:5, 4:24, 14:26 16:7-10, 3:1-8, 6:44, 1 Corinthians 2:10, 3:16, 12:13, Ephesians 1:13, 5:8, Romans 8:9, 8:16, 2 Corinthians 3:14, Galatians 5:22-23, Nehemiah 9:20, Acts 2:38, Hebrews 9:14, Matthew 10:20, Psalm 143:10)
As Christians in this age, we ought to cherish this gift of The Spirit, pray for His guidance, follow His leading, abide in His comfort, rely on His power, and dwell as a unified body in His presence.