In Scripture there are three basic descriptions of the Holy Spirit. These symbols of the Holy Spirit’s presence help us understand who the Holy Spirit is and what the Holy Spirit does.
The Holy Spirit is Like Wind
The first of these images or symbols is wind. We read about this on the day of Pentecost in the book of Acts:
When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. (Acts 2:1-2)
When the believers are gathered together in obedience to Jesus’ command to wait for the Spirit to come, they first of all encounter the wind or breath of God. Throughout the Hebrew Bible, the Hebrew word that ruach is translated as breath, wind, or spirit. It is this word used in Genesis 1:2, where we read of God’s creative work in creation: “and the Spirit [ruach] of God was hovering over the waters.” This is the word used in Genesis 2:7 where we read: “Then the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath [ruach] of life and the man became a living being.” The Holy Spirit is the basic breath of life – the spirit – that animates all creation and human beings.
Beyond bringing natural life, the Holy Spirit also brings spiritual life in the midst of humanity’s spiritual death through sin and ruptured relationship with God. In Ezekiel 376, when the prophet preaches to the valley of dry bones, they represent the spiritually dead people of God spiritually dead. It is the breath and wind that blows this mass of death into a living army of God. This is likely the idea behind Jesus’ words to Nicodemus in John 3:8: “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit” (John 3:8). The Holy Spirit is like wind that breathes life into us, spiritually restoring us with God through Christ. So, when the violent wind rushes into the house where the disciples were gathered on Pentecost Sunday in Acts 2 we see that the Holy Spirit is coming in fulfillment of prophesy to breathe God’s divine life back into humanity.
The Holy Spirit is Like Fire
Secondly, the Holy Spirit is described as fire. Here are the next two verses in Acts 2:
They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them. (Acts 2:3-4)
Throughout Scripture, fire is a symbol of the presence of God. When Moses knelt at the burning bush (Exodus 3) or Elijah battled the prophets of Baal at Mt. Carmel (1 Kings 18), fire symbolized the presence of God in holiness and power. Fire is a symbol of God’s leading presence, such as when God led His people out from slavery in Egypt to the Promised Land with a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. Fire also conveys God’s purifying presence, as when Isaiah had a vision of God and a coal was taken from the heavenly altar of God to purify Isaiah’s lips (Isaiah 6). Lastly, fire is a symbol of God’s passionate presence, seeking after people. When he received a message from God, the prophet Jeremiah heard these words, “I will make my words in your mouth a fire” (Jeremiah 5:14). Later on, Jeremiah exclaimed, “His word is in my heart like a fire, a fire shut up in my bones” (20:9)
And so, when the Holy Spirit comes upon the early disciples of Jesus in Acts 2 in the form of tongues of fire, He is kindling His presence within His people. That presence is for guidance, holiness, and passion for people into the early disciples.
The Holy Spirit is Like Water
Thirdly, the Holy Spirit is described as wind. Earlier in the book of Acts, just before His ascension, Jesus says to His disciples:
For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit. (Acts 1:5)
βαπτίζω (baptizo) means literally to immerse, and so Jesus is telling His followers that they will be washed or submerged in the Holy Spirit as we with water. The Apostle Peter echoes this later, after the Pentecost arrival of the Holy Spirit, when preaches with reference to the words of the prophet Joel, saying, “In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people” (Acts 2:17).
The Holy Spirit is like water poured into our lives from God. This reminds us of the Genesis account of Creation where the Spirit of God was hovering over the primordial waters of the cosmos that was still formless and void. The primordial deep was met with God’s Spirit to bring life.
It also calls to mind two episodes from Jesus’ life and ministry. The first is Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan Woman by the well in John 4. Moving from the earthly waters of Jacob’s well, Jesus says:
Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life. (John 4:13-14)
The second episode occurs when Jesus is at a great Jewish festival, the feast of tabernacles, in John 7. Speaking in the midst of a great crowd, Jesus says, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them.” John offers this explanatory statement immediately following: “By this He meant the Spirit, whom those who believe in him were later to receive” (John 7:37b-39). The Holy Spirit is a gift like water that brings life to our souls and cleanses our dry and thirsty world.
These three images – wind, fire, water – help us understand who the Holy Spirit is and what the Holy Spirit does. If the church wants to live and thrive, we must seek to live by the Holy Spirit, who breathes life into us, who sets us ablaze with God’s power, and revives us with waters of life.
[This is an excerpt from my message, “Activated by the Holy Spirit,” preached at Eastbrook Church on September 6/7.]