On the evening of Resurrection Sunday, as most of the disciples were locked away in their hideout, trying to come to terms with the implications of an empty tomb and the odd encounters some reported to have had with the risen Lord, Jesus suddenly appeared among them. He reassured them of who he was and spoke peace to their troubled, disoriented hearts (Luke 24:33–43; John 20:19–21).
And then Jesus did something remarkable: “He breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit’” (John 20:22).
When Jesus breathed on his disciples — a resurrection miracle in itself! — and then said, “Receive the Holy Spirit,” he was communicating something of astonishing, fathomless profundity. And his disciples would have understood the implication. For the Holy Spirit proceeds only from God. And the Holy Spirit was proceeding from the Lord Jesus. Thomas, who wasn’t even there to witness this moment, confirmed that he grasped the implication eight days later when he called Jesus, “my Lord and my God!” (John 20:28).
We don’t know how much the apostles understood of the Holy Spirit’s nature in the moment Jesus breathed on them, but they would soon come to understand that the Spirit was also their Lord and their God. He was not merely a vague emanation of the presence of God; the Breath of God was not like the breath of humans. The Breath was not an it but a he. He was not simply the force or power of God, but God himself. The Holy Spirit was the breath of God personified.
That’s why Jesus spoke of the Holy Spirit in personal terms (notice the pronoun he throughout):
The Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you. (John 14:26)
But when the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness about me. (John 15:26).
I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you. (John 16:7)
When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you. (John 16:13–14)
Father, Son, Spirit
What Jesus revealed to his apostles when he came was that the one God (Mark 12:29) exists in three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (Matthew 28:19). The fact that the apostles fully embraced the Spirit’s personhood is clearly seen in how they speak of him in the New Testament. As my colleague, David Mathis, has so helpfully catalogued,
[The Holy Spirit] can be lied to (Acts 5:3), resisted (Acts 7:51), grieved (Ephesians 4:30), blasphemed (Matthew 12:32; Mark 3:29; Luke 12:10). He comforts us (Acts 9:31), guides and directs (Acts 13:2, 4; 15:28; 16:6; 20:23; 21:11), transforms us into the image of Christ (2 Corinthians 3:17–18), and empowers the everyday Christian life (Romans 14:17; 15:13; 1 Corinthians 12:3; Jude 20). He appoints leaders in the church (Acts 20:28), confirms God’s word with miraculous gifts (Hebrews 2:4), sanctifies our imperfect efforts (Romans 15:16), knits us together as a fellowship (2 Corinthians 13:14; Hebrews 6:4), and fills us with praise (Acts 2:4) and with boldness for ministry (Acts 1:8; 4:8, 31; 6:5; 7:55; 9:17; 11:24; 13:9, 52). He communicates the Father’s love to us (Romans 5:5; Ephesians 3:14–19) and infuses the Christian life with joy (Acts 13:52; Romans 14:17; 15:13; 1 Thessalonians 1:6). In him we are sealed, kept, and secured by God till the end (Ephesians 1:13–14).
These attributes, affections, and actions are clearly those of a person — a person who has a mind and who intercedes for us (Romans 8:27); a person to be known and trusted and loved and honored and worshiped; a person to be experienced.
Fellowship of the Holy Spirit
This is why Jesus said, “It is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you” (John 16:7). I’ve offered an explanation elsewhere why the Helper’s coming necessitated Jesus’s absence. But the great advantage to us of the Helper’s coming is that in him we are given the unspeakable gift of experiencing God in all the ways listed above (which are not scripturally exhaustive).
Listen to how Jesus speaks of this reality:
I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. . . . In that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. Whoever has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me. And he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him. . . . If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him. (John 14:18, 20–21, 23)
The Holy Spirit is given to us so that, with him dwelling in us, we are able to fellowship with the Father and the Son. The Spirit’s primary work is to show us the unique glory the Father receives from the Son and the Son from the Father in the plan of salvation (John 17:1–5). He especially points us to the Son. He teaches us the Son’s teachings (John 14:26), he testifies of the Son to us (John 15:26), he discloses to us what the Son wants to tell us (John 16:15), and he comforts us with the comfort the Father and Son want us to have (2 Corinthians 1:3–4).
But that’s not all. The Spirit is also given to us so that, with him dwelling in us, we are able to have fellowship with one another. It is the Spirit who distributes gifts from God “for the common good” of church communities (1 Corinthians 12:7–11). It is the Spirit who inspires us to address each other “in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” and to “[submit] to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Ephesians 5:18–21). And it is only in the Spirit that we will experience together “unity . . . in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3).
This is the great gift of the Holy Spirit: that in him we have fellowship with God and fellowship with one another (1 John 1:3). Paul simply calls it “the fellowship of the Holy Spirit” (2 Corinthians 13:14).
Receive the Holy Spirit
Whenever we speak of the nature of the Trinity, or any of the distinct persons, we are way over our heads. We are attempting to put words to things too wonderful for us. The best Christian minds spent the better part of five centuries defending, clarifying, and codifying for the rest of us the great mystery revealed in Scripture of the divine unity in diversity.
When we’re tempted to cynically question the strangeness of it all, it’s helpful to remember that we find all of reality strange the deeper we delve into it. The collective human genius still does not understand things like gravity, human consciousness, and even what matter is at the subatomic levels — things we experience all the time. It turns out, the most important things in life are not simple. They blow our minds.
We find reality easier to experience than to explain — both physical and spiritual reality. That’s not to say that we shouldn’t attempt to explain how the Holy Spirit functions with the Father and the Son. We must. But we can only go so far. The nature of the Holy Spirit is revealed to us not to dissect, but to receive and embrace and trust and love.
When Jesus, God the Son, breathed on his disciples, he didn’t say, “Comprehend the Holy Spirit.” He said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” For in receiving the Holy Spirit, they — and we — also receive the indwelling of the Father and the Son, or as Paul says, “all the fullness of God” (Ephesians 3:19).
Receive, don’t resist, the Holy Spirit.