The Holy Spirit expresses his powerful presence on the Old Testament stage, creating, enlightening, transforming hearts, inspiring the written word. But as with the Father, he is only partially revealed until the ministry of Jesus Christ. Jesus reintroduces the awesome God of Israel, YHWH, as the loving, gracious Father who he had always been, but in a relationship now enabled by the reconciling work of the Son. Only through Jesus do we see the fuller revelation of who God really is, in himself. Likewise, the mighty Ruach YHWH, the Spirit who moved on the face of the waters and moved in men’s hearts to write the very words of God, is reintroduced by Jesus as “the other Comforter” (John 14:16-17).
This is perhaps surprising, if one has only ever thought of the Spirit as an impersonal force or perhaps an extension of the Father’s mind, the influence of Scripture, or even as a mighty angel bearing the name of YHWH, because “Comforter” is a very personal term, and an individual descriptor at that.
God is the God of all comfort, as Paul expresses with much emphasis in 2 Corinthians 1:3–6:
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too. If we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation; and if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which you experience when you patiently endure the same sufferings that we suffer.
Every italicised word in this passage is a derivative of the Greek word parakaleo, to call alongside, to be an advocate for the defence. This is the same meaning as the parakletos, the Comforter or Helper in John 14 and Advocate in 1 John 2:1.
A further interesting point about the passage in John 14 is that Jesus refers to the Spirit as the other Comforter, allos parakletos, meaning another of the same. The same as who? The same as Jesus, of course. In John 14, Jesus explains to his disciples that he must go away, to prepare a place for them in his Father’s house (14:1–4). But Jesus will not abandon them in this process; “I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. Yet a little while and the world will see me no more, but you will see me” (14:18–19). Jesus is not speaking in this instance of his second coming, when “every eye will see him” and the coming of the Son of Man will be like lightning as he descends with his angels and the trumpet of God. Instead, he is speaking of the way in which he will be present with his disciples until the future day when they will again see him physically (14:28). Jesus will send them another Helper or Comforter who will be with them forever; the Spirit of truth; he will live with them and be in them (14:16–17). Judas (not Iscariot) raises the question of why Jesus will only show himself to the disciples and not to the world (14:22) and Jesus expands on his previous statement, saying that for anyone who loves him and obeys his teaching, “my Father will love him and we will come to him and make our home with him” (14:23). The Counsellor/ Helper/ Comforter, specifically identified as the Holy Spirit in verse 26, will be the means by which the Father and the Son dwell in and with believers. In Romans 8:9–10 we see the interchange of terms; “Spirit of God dwells in you,” “have the Spirit of Christ” and “Christ is in you.” These are three ways of describing the reality of the indwelling of the Spirit.
The whole context of the discourse in John chapters 14 to 16 is the situation of the disciples between the two physical comings of Jesus; what we experience now, when the age of the Spirit is inaugurated, but not yet fully consummated. It is in this context that Jesus states that the Spirit of truth, the Helper or Counsellor, will testify about him, as they the disciples must also testify (15:26–27). A major theme of Acts is the witness of the Spirit through the apostles(for example, 1:8, 4:31). This was both an external witness to Jesus, convicting the world and speaking the truth about him (John 16:8, 13-15), and an internal witness to the indwelling of God in the believer. The Spirit is the ultimate witness to Jesus, because he has been with Jesus “from the beginning.” 1 John 5:6 declares, “The Spirit is the one who testifies, because the Spirit is the truth.
The “Holy Spirit” is sometimes used interchangeably with “God” (Acts 5:3-4; 1 Cor 3:16–17 and 1 Cor 6:19–20, cf. Eph 2:22). The Holy Spirit is also grouped on an equal basis and in working partnership with the Father and the Son (eg., Matt 28:19 in which “name” is singular; 2 Cor 13:14; 1 Cor 12:4-6; 1 Pet 1:2). This is really quite odd if the Spirit is an impersonal power or force, or an angel, or the influence of the Scriptures on the believer.
The Holy Spirit is presented as possessing attributes or qualities of God: omniscience (1 Cor 2:10–11, John 16:13) power (Luke 1:35, Rom 15:19) ability to convict and regenerate human hearts (John 3:5–8, 16:8–11 cf. Matt 19:26) eternal not temporal (Heb 9:14 cf. Heb 1:10–12) and intrinsic holiness (Rom 15:16).
The Spirit is also presented as possessing attributes or performing functions of Christ; their ministries are parallel. The Spirit is another parakletos, who glorifies the Son (John 16:14) and is called the Spirit of Christ (Rom 8:9, Phil 1:19, 1 Pet 1:11; Gal 4:6, 2 Cor 3:17). Both Jesus and the Spirit are sent by the Father and come from the Father, they both are truth, teachers, witnesses, both not recognized by the world. The coming of the Spirit is effectively the interim coming of Jesus (John 14:16–18).
The Holy Spirit exhibits personal attributes; acting in ways which would naturally be associated with a person, rather than an impersonal force:
A course of action seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us (Acts 15:28)
The Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” (Acts 13:2)
The Spirit determines which gifts to give and distributes them (1 Cor 12:4–6, 11; Acts 20:28)
The Spirit can be grieved (Eph 4:30)
The Spirit can be lied to (Acts 5:3–4) and blasphemed (Matt 12:31, Mark 3:29)
The Spirit helps and intercedes in a personal involvement as we pray (Rom 8:26)
The Spirit teaches (John 14:26, 1 Cor 2:13) convicts of sin (John 16:8) sanctifies (Rom 15:16) loves (Rom 15:30) indwells (John 14:17, 2 Tim 1:14) testifies (John 15:26; Acts 5:32, 20:23) hears (John 16:13) speaks (John 16:13; Acts 8:29, 11:12, 13:2, 21:11) forbids (Acts 16:6–7) justifies (1 Cor 6:11)
The Spirit knows the deep things of God (1 Cor 2:10–11)
The Spirit has fellowship (2 Cor 13:14)
Those who repudiate doctrine of the Trinity must explain away these and other passages which speak of the Holy Spirit in both divine and personal terms. This requires some different footwork depending on what the doctrine is replaced with. A major line of attack presented against the deity of the Son is to emphasise his distinction from the Father as if that proved he is not divine. (Actually, all the cited passages prove is that the Son is not the Father, a basic tenet of the Trinitarian concept of God). Whereas with the Holy Spirit, the main approach seems to be to blur the distinction between Father and Spirit, to make them effectively the same. In other words, the Spirit becomes an extension of God, as the rays of light from the sun, yet in no way personal or distinct in his own right. But the Spirit is the agent of Christ as well as the Father; what the Spirit does in Christians Christ is said to do, just as elsewhere what the Spirit does is what God is said to do. There is a unity of activity and purpose here which transcends any concept of the Spirit as an impersonal power of the Father, which Christ has been given rights to utilize. Nevertheless, the Spirit must be distinguishable from both the Father and the Son in order to be sent by either of them. And what of those intriguing triadic associations between Father, Son and Holy Spirit?
Another perspective sees the Holy Spirit as an angelic presence or theophany (linking Exod 23:20-21 with Isa 63:7-14 and Heb 1:14) The Exodus account does not require this equation of the angel with the Holy Spirit, but even if this is allowed because this particular angel is specifically said to bear God’s name, it is a huge leap to make some/many/all (?) references to God’s Spirit in the Old and/or New Testaments a reference to angels. Which of all the Spirit of the LORD passages refer to angels and which do not? Did angels cause Saul to prophesy or prompt the writing of Scripture? Did an angel cause the conception of the Lord Jesus Christ and descend on him at his baptism? Did angels descend on the apostles at Pentecost and enable them to speak in tongues? Does an angel decide how to distribute the gifts of the Holy Spirit? Are our bodies the temple of an angel? Does an angel sanctify us? An essential perspective to retain is that Jesus Christ is always presented as being superior to the angels (Hebrews 1) and that they serve him (Matt 4:11; 26:53; Luke 22:43) — and us, actually (Heb 1:14).
When the impersonal aspect of “spirit” — the power aspect — is stressed, ignoring the relational aspects, non-trinitarians tend to shy away from discussion of the work of the Spirit in the believer. Instead, they focus on the question of whether the miraculous empowerments of the Spirit in the biblical narrative are available to believers today. Concluding that they are not, and viewing the Spirit primarily as a force or power, they are obliged to deny much contemporary activity to the Spirit at all. This links with a third method of explaining away the a divine, personal concept of the Holy Spirit: the teaching, convicting, sanctifying and testifying aspects of the Spirit’s work are transferred to the action of the Spirit-inspired Scriptures. Indeed, the living and abiding word of God is infallible, quick and powerful as a two-edged sword, a light to all humankind. But there is so much more to the Spirit’s work than inspiring the Scriptures and then leaving us to read them. The very reception of God’s word requires an action of the Spirit on the otherwise dead human heart. Try substituting “Scripture” for “Spirit” in the array of verses cited above. Certainly, Scripture can be said to “teach,” but Scriptures do not “love,” nor can they be “grieved.”
Consider the following passages, and whether the Scriptures, a representative angel or an impersonal force could substitute for the Spirit in them: Rom 5:5; 8:9, 11, 14-16, 27-27; 15:13; 1 Cor 3:16; 2 Cor 1:21-22; 3:3; Gal 5:16-25; Phil 3:3; 2 Thess 2:13; 2 Tim 1:14; Titus 3:5; 1 John 3:24.
Surely, in considering these verses and the whole testimony of the Spirit-inspired Scriptures, there can be no denial that the Spirit actively works within the believer in a very personal way, to regenerate, sanctify, convict and provide all manner of aid in the Christian life, just as we would expect from a divine Comforter and Advocate.