God is incomprehensible. This means that, while we can truly know him (because he reveals himself to us), we can never wrap our minds around him. He is infinite, eternal, and triune, and thus he reveals himself to us in ways that fit our capacities. As one theologian puts it, God speaks human to humans, and this makes true knowledge of God possible.
Even so, we still sometimes struggle to know God, and not just in the personal sense of knowledge, but in the basic what-are-we-even-talking-about sense. This is especially the case with our knowledge of the Holy Spirit.
When it comes to the Father, we have a concrete baseline from which to work. We all have earthly fathers (for good or for ill), and thus we have a starting place for engaging with God our heavenly Father. Likewise, when it comes to the Son, we have a concrete baseline in the incarnation. The Son was made man for us and for our salvation. The Gospels give us a magnificent picture of Jesus the Messiah, fully God and fully man, and this enables us to come to him.
“The fundamental work of the Holy Spirit in the new covenant is to point to and magnify Jesus.”
But the Spirit is elusive, even a bit abstract. Though we know and confess him as a divine “person,” we struggle to find a concrete baseline for understanding him. And at some level, this is by design. Jesus tells us that when the Holy Spirit comes, “he will glorify me” (John 16:14). In other words, the fundamental work of the Holy Spirit in the new covenant is to point to and magnify Jesus.
Nevertheless, Scripture does give us a number of images to help us better understand the person of the Holy Spirit.
Wind, Breath, Spirit
The Spirit’s very name (pneuma in Greek) links him to wind, breath, and spirit. Wind is moving air that has significant effects on the world while remaining invisible. In John 3, Jesus tells us that we must be born of the pneuma (John 3:5). He goes on to say that the pneuma blows where it wishes; we hear its sound but do not see where it comes from and where it goes (John 3:8). This suggests that we know the Spirit in the way we know the wind — by his effects.
“We know the Spirit in the way we know the wind — by his effects.”
Like wind, breath is invisible moving air — this time, air that animates a body. God breathes into Adam, and he becomes a living being (Genesis 2:7). In John 20:22, Jesus breathes on his disciples and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” Thus, we come to know the Spirit’s work by considering the way breath moves in and out and animates our physical bodies.
The word pneuma also refers to a person’s inner disposition or temper of mind. Jesus blesses those who are “poor in spirit” (Matthew 5:3). Peter describes the character of a godly woman as “the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit” (1 Peter 3:4). We might think of our spirit as the invisible bent of our souls that shapes our visible actions.
River, Oil, Dove
Beyond these, the Bible provides a number of additional images to help us understand the Spirit and his work. In John 7, Jesus describes the Spirit as a river flowing from the lives of his followers.
Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, “Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.” Now this he said about the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were to receive, for as yet the Spirit had not been given, because Jesus was not yet glorified. (John 7:38–39)
We might link the river of John 7 to the river of the water of life described in Revelation 22, “flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb, through the middle of the street of the city” (Revelation 22:1–2). The city is the New Jerusalem, the bride of Christ, the church of the living God. Thus, the Spirit is the river of living water flowing from Jesus to his people and from them out into the world for the healing of the nations. This is the river “whose streams make glad the city of God” (Psalm 46:4), the river of God’s delights and the fountain of life (Psalm 36:8–9).
Connecting the Spirit to the river of living water also calls to mind the notion that the Spirit is “poured out” upon his people (Acts 2:33; 10:45; Romans 5:5; Titus 3:6), that God’s people are “filled” with the Spirit (Ephesians 5:18), and that we are baptized in the Spirit just as we are baptized in water (Mark 1:8; Acts 1:5; 1 Corinthians 12:13).
Beyond water, the Scriptures connect the Holy Spirit to the anointing oil used to consecrate priests and kings in the Old Testament. David receives the Spirit when Samuel anoints him with oil in 1 Samuel 16:12–13. Both Isaiah and Peter in the book of Acts pick up this connection in their descriptions of the Messiah.
The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor. (Isaiah 61:1)
God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power. (Acts 10:38)
Finally, the Bible links the Spirit to imagery of the bird, especially a dove. The Spirit “hovers” like a bird over the waters at creation (Genesis 1:2). And most prominently, the Spirit descends on Jesus “like a dove” at his baptism (Matthew 3:16; John 1:32–33).
God on the Move
If we begin to draw these images together, we see the importance of movement in the descriptions of the Spirit. The Spirit blows like the wind, breathes like air in and out of the lungs, flows like water from a fountain, hovers and descends like a bird. Some images (wind, breath, and spirit) signify both the invisibility of the Spirit and the unmistakable evidence of his presence.
Even more than that, if we examine these images in detail, we see a repeated connection to God’s life, love, pleasure, and delight. The streams of God’s river make glad the city of God (Psalm 46:4). The love of God is “poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit” (Romans 5:5). When the servant of the Lord is anointed with God’s Spirit, he gives “the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit” (Isaiah 61:3).
This is no surprise since the Spirit is closely tied to God’s love throughout the Bible. Consider 1 John 4. There we learn that “God is love” (1 John 4:8), and that to abide in love is to abide in God and to have God abide in us (4:12; 4:16). And we know that we abide in him and he abides in us “by the Spirit he has given us” (4:13; 4:18). It’s almost as though God abiding, love abiding, and the Spirit abiding are different ways of expressing the same reality.
Psalm 36:7–9 brings together God’s steadfast love with the imagery of a bird who provides shelter, the fatness of God’s house (connected to oil), and a river and fountain.
How precious is your steadfast love, O God!
The children of mankind take refuge in the shadow of your wings.
They feast on the abundance of your house,
and you give them drink from the river of your delights.
For with you is the fountain of life;
in your light do we see light.
Spirit of the Groom — and Bride
All of these reach their climax in the baptism of Jesus. Here we have the incarnate Son of God at a river flowing with water. He is baptized in that water, and as he emerges, the Spirit descends upon him like a dove in what other passages call an anointing. And then God the Father speaks with his breath, bringing all of the imagery together with clear and unambiguous words: “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased” (Matthew 3:16–17).
In truth, the baptism of Jesus is the beginning of the climax. The Spirit-inspired Scriptures turn our eyes to the incarnate Christ. This Spirit then leads Jesus into the wilderness to be tested, and then propels him back into Israel to announce the arrival of God’s kingdom. God’s Spirit empowers Jesus for his ministry and strengthens him as he walks the Calvary Road. This River is so potent that it flows uphill, as Jesus climbs Golgotha with a cross on his back. And the Spirit blows through the empty tomb so that Jesus, the second Adam, becomes the life-giving Spirit.
Now, the same Spirit is poured out on God’s people, flowing into our lives with God’s love and joy, and out of our lives in fruitful service to others, all while giving us voice so that the Spirit and the bride, God’s Dove and Christ’s beloved, say to their heavenly Groom, “Come!”