The Holy Spirit is Like…: Three Images of the Holy Spirit in Scripture

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.]

From Worry to Prayer: a reflection on Philippians 4

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In one of the most well-known passages from Paul on prayer, Philippians 4:6-7, we read these words:

Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Every time I read the first part of verse 6 – “Do not be anxious about anything” – I confess that I feel a tingle of guilt over my tendency to become anxious about things. However, if there’s one thing I have discovered, it’s that feeling unnecessarily guilty about the things of God often kills the growth that God wants to bring. I pointedly say “unnecessarily” there because there are certainly things we should feel guilty about, such as willful sin, disobedience to God’s express commands, or lack of love toward others. Guilt should lead us to repentance and the kindness of God’s grace.

However, when we start to feel false guilt over feeling anxious based on this verse, it doesn’t help us do what Paul is really after here in his words to the Philippians. He is most concerned with calling the believers to prayer. Perhaps the rendering of the old King James Version will help us here because it sounds so foreign:

Be careful for nothing; but in every thing by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known unto God.

The word (μεριμνᾶτε) literally means to be anxious or troubled by many cares. Paul is encouraging the believers not to be weighed down with their worries (or even guilt about having those worries), but to turn toward the presence of God in prayer to present to God those sources of care and worry, thankfully trusting that God will answer.

To put it in practical terms, when cares and worries are overtaking us we should immediately reach out to God in prayer. That is the sort of mental and spiritual activity that is most beneficial; much more than agonizing over the sources of worry, let alone being guilty about worrying. When the stresses of life – relationships, work, school, the future – reach out to grab us and hold us within their grubby hands, we should turn immediately and run into the arms of our good God. With Him we find open arms to receive us, hands capable of holding our troubles and worries, and divine peace that inexplicably enables us to find gratitude even in the midst of our stormy lives. The Apostle Peter echoes these words of Paul when he writes:

Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time. Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.

What anxieties or worries do you need to release into the hands of God today?

What would it look like now to turn to God in prayer to experience His provision, peace, and care?

 

Beating Off the Demons

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In Genesis 15, Abraham has a monumental experience with the Living God. In order to reaffirm the covenant God made with Abraham in Genesis 12, God asks Abraham to offer a sacrifice before Him. Abraham prepares the sacrifices, cutting them in half and spreading them out on the open fields of Canaan before the Lord.

All through the day, as Abraham waits to meet with God before the sacrifice, birds of prey come down to nibble and steal the sacrifice that Abraham has prepared before God. Jewish commentators and many of the early church fathers saw the correspondence between these birds and the demonic powers of Satan coming against Abraham. They described it as a picture of a holy life attacked in the midst of the world.

This helps me. Many times in my life, troubles rise up and I feel the tearing bites of the demons gathering around my life. In Romans 12, Paul describes the life of the Christian as a living sacrifice before God. We, too, cut open by the Word of God, offer our lives to the Lord, spreading them out on the promises of God’s truth, waiting to meet with God. Part of our task is to simply beat off the demons who come to attack us, confound us, and ultimately destroy us.

As the night descends, Abraham meets with God in perhaps one of the most bizarre theophanies in all Scripture. Floating between the bisected sacrifice, God appears as a smoking fire pot and a glowing torch before Abraham. God passes in the midst of the sacrifice to convey His glorious presence and His profound commitment to Abraham, taking upon Himself all the obligations of the covenant which Abraham could not fulfill himself.

This reminds us of the grace and power of God on our behalf. In Christ, God takes upon Himself the responsibilities of the covenant, showering us with the gifts of reconciliation and justification. In Christ, God has triumphed over the principalities and powers at the Cross, extending His victory to us. We, for our part, respond to the prevenient grace and victorious power of God with faith. In part, that includes us beating off the demons who strive to defile the responsive sacrifice of our lives. In this context, Paul’s words in Ephesians 6 about the nature of our conflict and the calling to stand make even more sense. So, too, do Peter’s words in chapter five of his first epistle about being sober and alert as the devil prowls around us.

As with Abraham, may God’s grace and power strengthen us daily to beat off the demons that strive to defile the living sacrifice of our lives that we bring to Him.

God’s Multifaceted Word: reflecting on Psalm 119

In my own daily times of Scripture reading and prayer, I’ve been meditating on Psalm 119. Psalm 119 is the longest of the Psalms by far with 176 verses. This psalm is an extended reflection on the delight and power of God’s word, structured as an acrostic poem with one stanza for each letter of the Hebrew alphabet.

The psalm offers an expansive catalog of the diverse characteristics of God’s word that is impressive. When I read through Psalm 119, I feel like I am getting a multifaceted look at the word of God that is enlightening, stretching, and encouraging.

This past weekend at Eastbrook, I preached on Ephesians 6:10-24 in a message entitled “A Crash Course in Spiritual Conflict.” In this well-known passage, we encounter Paul delineating the armor of God. The only offensive piece of that armor comes last: “and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God” (Ephesians 6:17b). The Word of God is powerful and a vital piece of our armor in the spiritual conflict we face daily as God’s people. As the writer of Hebrews says, “For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12).

Here is a brief list of some of the facets of God’s word outlined within Psalm 119. I’d encourage you to read through the list and, when one statement jumps out at you, to open your Bible to Psalm 119, read that verse, and then meditate on those words for the day. There is so much here in each verse to grow and deepen us with God.

God’s word is:

  • to be fully obeyed (4)
  • righteous (7, 61, 106, 123, 137, 144, 164, 172)
  • a guide for purity of life (9)
  • a way to keep from sin (11)
  • from the Lord’s mouth (13, 88)
  • full of wonderful things (18)
  • a delight (24, 35, 70, 77, 143, 162, 174)
  • a counselor (24)
  • a revelation of God’s wonderful deeds (27)
  • a picture of the way of faithfulness (30)
  • good (39, 68)
  • a revelation of God’s salvation promises (41)
  • a bringer of freedom (45)
  • a promise to preserve our life (50)
  • ancient (52)
  • a comforter (52)
  • precious (72)
  • a pathway away from shame (80)
  • completely trustworthy (86, 138)
  • eternal (89, 152, 160)
  • firm in the heavens (89)
  • boundless in its perfection (90)
  • what makes us wiser than our enemies and our teachers (98, 99, 100)
  • sweet like honey (103)
  • a lamp and light for our path (105, 130)
  • the joy of our heart (111)
  • wonderful (129)
  • thoroughly tested (140)
  • true (142, 151, 160)
  • a bringer of peace (165)
  • sustenance (175)

Facing Failings in the Character of the Church

Crying in Church

Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. (Ephesians 4:2-3)

If, as Paul writes in Ephesians 2, Christ is our peace, who has reconciled us to the Father, then the calling upon us as God’s people is to walk in humility, gentleness, patience, peace, and love with one another. This will happen as we yield to the Holy Spirit, who is the deposit of our salvation and bond of our peace.

Yet you may say, “But, Matt, the church doesn’t look like that. I see pride, fierceness, impatience, discord, and lack of love at times.” I know. I see it too. When we see that in those around us, it should lead us to deeper humility and intercessory prayer on behalf of our local church and the church around the world. It should also lead us into meaningful conversations with others about areas of deficiency from our calling, not in judgment, but in the desire to grow together.

However, if we only see it in everyone else around us, but never in ourselves, it might be good for us to hold these characteristics up against our own lives for consideration. It might be good to ask: “Am I completely humble? Am I gentle? Patient? Am I bearing with others in love? Am I upholding the bond of peace?”

If we answered “yes” to all those questions, then it’s probably time to let the Holy Spirit bring us into a more honest self-assessment. Not any of us will perfectly live out our faith. As Paul says in Romans 3:10, “There is no one righteous, not even one.” This is not an excuse for sin and brokenness, but it is our reality. The revelation of our shortcomings is painful. Yet, that revelation is also a gift from God to push us back to God in repentance from our own sin and turning in greater reliance upon Him for power to walk worthy of our calling.  It is a return to the heart of justifying faith: “it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast” (Eph 2:8-9).

So let the words of the Apostle lead us into the humility of our human inadequacy and the exaltation of God’s superabundant grace in Christ.

Living in the Waves

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One of the most well-known stories in the New Testament must be when Jesus invites Peter to walk on water in Matthew 14:22-33. Peter is often held up as either an example of bold faith in stepping out of the boat or faltering faith in sinking into the waves.

However, there is another part of the story that captures my attention and it has to do with the waves. When this memorable episode from the life of Jesus and the life of Peter takes place, it is surrounded by waves of challenge.

The first type of waves is the waves of people. Immediately before this, Jesus miraculously feeds a crowd of more than five thousand people. This crowd was pressing in around Jesus. Jesus dismissed them, but, even after the walking on water episode, they hunted Him down and asked for more. It is likely, from what we read in parallel accounts, that the crowds actually hoped to make Jesus king. The waves of people surrounded Him.

Along with the waves of people came the waves of emotions. After an exciting yet stressful ministry day with people, the disciples were exhausted. They seem not only exhausted by the work they were doing with Jesus, but also by the fact that Jesus Himself was difficult to understand. This led to a sort of emotional exhaustion and anticipation that always kept the disciples on their toes. They needed to get away.  It seems that Jesus also needed to get away. The pressures on Him to live into a human-defined image of Messiah-ship, yet pushing against that in obedience to the Father, lead Him to want to draw away with the Father again.

Of course, along with these waves of human pressure and emotional pressure come a third type: the waves of natural life. The literal winds and waves that beat against the boat threaten everyone in this situation. The natural order was not on their side and could not be easily controlled. This heightened physical circumstance augments the other more subtle waves around Jesus and His disciples.

Attention to the waves in this situation tells me one important thing to keep in focus. The waves – the challenges we face – are a normal part of life.

I want to draw this out because so many of us are waiting for “someday.” We all do this at times. We have that tendency to wait for a day when we believe that everything will become calm or everything will be at perfect peaceful. If not that, many of us are simply looking for the day when everything feels “normal,” even if we have never defined what that is.

When that normal day comes, many of us say, we will then be ready to follow Christ or take some dramatic step of faith. Until then, we are on hold in fear or confusion.

However, the very setting in which Peter makes his bold step of faith is in the waves. This is important to pay attention to because the Lord is reminding us through the context of this story that waves are normal.

The challenges of people and relationships that Jesus and the apostles faced are similar to the waves with people that we face.  The challenges of emotions and pressures that Jesus and the apostles faced are similar to the emotional waves that we face. The challenges of the natural things that happen – natural life changes, natural aging, natural circumstances of the environment – are similar to the natural waves that we face.

And this is what strikes me today: these waves are the normal setting in which faith rises up. Because of this, we don’t need to wait for someday.  Someday will not come because it does not exist. The waves in which we find ourselves are the setting in which we must take a step of faith.

What Are You Waiting For?

MP900442844When someone asks you, “what are you waiting for?”, a number of responses may jump to your lips:

  • “The start of the football season.”
  • “A response to that job application I sent in.”
  • “That special someone to come along.”

Waiting is a regular part of our lives, but it is not something we are always very good at.

Where are you?
In Psalm 130, the writer cries out to God from the depths (verses 1-2). For the Israelites, the depths convey a place of fear, confusion, or trouble. Pharaoh and the Egyptian army “sank Read More »