Who is the Spirit? What should we expect of him and how do we respond to him? It’s an important question, especially given what Jesus had to say. And what Paul said as well. It’s a question so important that our lives depend on getting it right.
We need to begin by getting the right answer . . . or, more to the point, the right connection. Jesus said as much to Nicodemus in John 3. The Spirit, Jesus told him, brings eternal life as a new birth. The Spirit is our bond with God and his eternal life. Jesus is our means for gaining eternal life by his atoning death; the Spirit then brings us into that saving work. His presence in us, Jesus said, is like a wind in a forest as he stirs us out of our former spiritual dormancy and alienation—our former death towards God—and brings about a conspicuous responsiveness of new life.
Christ’s incarnate ministry displayed his own bond with the Spirit. The Spirit conceived Jesus in Mary’s womb and later ordained him to ministry by descending on him. Jesus was then “full of the Holy Spirit . . . and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness” to be tempted by the devil (Luke 4:1). After that he “returned in the power of the Spirit to Galilee” (v. 14). Next, in presenting himself to the synagogue in Nazareth, he read Isaiah 61:1,2 and applied it to himself (v. 18). The text began, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me . . .” Elsewhere in Isaiah (11:1,2) there is another litany of Spirit-centered promises linked to the Christ.
This sort of portrayal establishes what some have called Spirit-Christicism: the belief that Jesus in his humanity relied on the Spirit in all he did, even though he was fully divine himself. Why this arrangement? So that as a man he could experience real humanity—and not live as a divine-human superman. And he then left us with his own spiritual capacity for life—the Spirit himself—so that we now live as God’s children although we are still only human.
In writing to the Corinthians Paul expanded on the truth of the Spirit-as-life-in-us. In writing about immoral behaviors Paul referred to Genesis 2:24—a text that inaugurated marriage (“the two shall become one”)—and applied it to Christ and the church. How so? By treating believers as “one” with Jesus by union with the Spirit: “But he who is joined to the Lord become one spirit with him. . . . Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God?” (1 Cor 6:17,19).
The believer’s union with Christ, then, is both a product and a display of the same spiritual life Jesus experienced in his earthly ministry. Just as the Father loved Jesus, we too are now given the intimate access in love to call the Father “Abba” at the Spirit’s urging (Romans 8:15; Galatians 4:6); and God also pours out his love in our hearts by the Spirit’s whispering presence (Romans 5:5). So, too, we share the same qualities of the Spirit-life that Jesus has: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness” and more (Galatians 5:22).
What do we do with this sort of truth? I fear that some of us try to treat the Spirit as our personal genie as in the tale of Aladdin. But this self-serving version of the Spirit hardly fits the picture of the one who led Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted, or filled Jesus as he taught and preached, cared for the needy, trashed the Temple trading exchange, and eventually died on the cross.
At a minimum, then, a proper grasp of the Spirit’s work in us is that he wants to change our hearts to be like the Son whose heart he now discloses to us. Let me wrap up, then, by citing Paul: “And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit” (Galatians 5:24,25). Amen!