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

In Scripture there are three commonly used images for 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 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)

As the believers gathered together in obedience to Jesus’ command to wait for the Holy Spirit to come, they first of all encounter the wind or breath of God. Throughout the Hebrew Bible, the Hebrew word ruach is translated as breath, wind, or spirit. This is the 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.” Again, ruach is describes God’s intimate creation of humanity 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 amidst humanity’s spiritual death caused by sin and ruptured relationship with God. In Ezekiel 37:6, Ezekiel the prophet preaches to a valley of dry bones, representing the spiritually dead people of God. It is God’s breath and wind that invigorates this mass of death into a living army of God. This image likely lingers behind Jesus’ memorable words to Nicodemus: “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 breathing divine life into us, spiritually restoring us with God through Jesus Christ.  In Acts 2, when the violent wind rushes into the house where the disciples were gathered on Pentecost day, we see that the Holy Spirit is coming in fulfillment of prophecy to breathe God’s divine life back into humanity.

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The Holy Spirit is Like Fire
Secondly, the Holy Spirit is often symbolized as fire. Return with me to 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), God’s powerful and holy presence is accompanied by fire. Fire is a symbol of God’s leading presence, such as when God led His people out of 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, best known through the prophet Isaiah’s striking vision of God where a fiery coal taken from the heavenly altar serves to purify Isaiah’s lips (Isaiah 6). Fire also symbolizes God’s passionate presence, seeking after people. After receiving 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)

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 indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit brings divine guidance, holiness, and passion into the lives of Jesus’ disciples.

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The Holy Spirit is Like Water
Thirdly, the Holy Spirit is symbolized as water. 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 just as they would be with water in baptism.  The Apostle Peter echoes this later, after the Pentecost arrival of the Holy Spirit, when he 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 hovered over the primordial waters of the cosmos that were still formless and void. The primordial deep was met with God’s Spirit to bring life in beauty, form, and ongoing creativity.

This image of the Holy Spirit as water may also call 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 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 the Evangelist follows Jesus’ words immediately with this explanatory statement: “By this He meant the Spirit, whom those who believe in him were later to receive” (John 7:37b-39). The Holy Spirit is 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.

I believe in the Holy Spirit

This past weekend at Eastbrook, we continued our preaching series entitled “Living the Creed: Connecting Life and Faith in the Apostles’ Creed.” This series walks through the Apostles Creed as a basic summary of our faith but also as a way to live our faith out with God in the world. Each weekend of this series will explore the biblical and theological roots of the Apostles Creed, while also providing specific spiritual practices and approaches to living out what we know as we ‘proclaim and embody’ the Creed in our daily lives.

This weekend I preached on the first phrase of the third article of the creed on the Holy Spirit, which begins with this statement: “I believe in the Holy Spirit.”

You can find the message video and outline below. You can also view the entire series here. Join us for weekend worship in-person or remotely via Eastbrook at Home.


“Therefore I want you to know that no one who is speaking by the Spirit of God says, ‘Jesus be cursed,’ and no one can say, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ except by the Holy Spirit.” (1 Corinthians 12:3)

The Nature of the Holy Spirit

Powerful – ruach; pneuma

Personal – parakletos

Two Gifts Given: Jesus’ Incarnation and the Holy Spirit’s Impartation

The Father gives Jesus the Son (John 3:16-17)

The Father gives the Holy Spirit (John 14:16, 26)

The Holy Spirit and God’s People

The Presence of the Holy Spirit (John 14:15-17; Ephesians 1:13-14)

The Guidance of the Holy Spirit (John 14:16-17; 16:13)

The Fruit of the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:19-26)

The Giftings of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:1-11; Romans 12:4-8)

The Mission of the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:7-8; 2:1-12)

Living Our Belief in the Holy Spirit


Dig Deeper

This week dig deeper in one or more of the following ways:

To Be Set on Fire :: Makoto Fujimura, “Pentecost”

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Makoto Fujimura, Pentecost, Mineral Pigments and Gold on Kumohada over Board; 2008.

What must the early disciples have been holding in their hearts and minds in those days after Jesus’ ascended? His final words to them were drenched with weighty anticipation: “I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high” (Luke 24:49). They knew it would be some gift of His Spirit coming on them with power for witness (Acts 1:8), but when or how it would happen or what exactly would happen were undefined. And so, they waited in worship and prayer until the festival of Pentecost arrived. The celebration of Pentecost in the Jewish calendar focused on thanking God for the firstfruits of the harvest, and later for the giving of the Law through Moses on Mount Sinai. But now there was something new happening, as the fires of Sinai touched earth, and the ingathering of God’s kingdom came. “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. 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 2:1-4). The early gathering of ordinary people was transformed by God’s indwelling presence. Contemporary artist Makoto Fujimura developed a series of liturgical paintings for a local congregation in Princeton, NJ, through paired diptychs: Advent/PentecostEpiphany/EasterLent/Good Friday and two Ordinary Time paintings. Fujimura’s unique Nihonga-influenced style brings together rich colors and radiant gold within this painting. Amidst ordinary worship, this congregation, and all who view it, are reminded of the Apostle Paul’s words: “Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God?” (1 Corinthians 6:19).

Love is Light Shining in the Darkness

The world around us has all sorts of darkness these days. There is the darkness that gathers around us in visible ways: violence, famine, global conflict, racial tension, unemployment, etc. For some of us, that darkness feels close and for others it feels distant.

However, I’d like to sharpen our understanding of darkness by remembering four aspects of Jesus’ life, and putting them into the context of light and darkness.

As the light of the world, first of all, Jesus came to shine God’s light into the world through His incarnation. As it says in Hebrews 1:3, “He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power.” Or as it says in John 1:14, “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” Jesus’ incarnation shines the light of God, displaying who God is.

As the light of the world, second of all, Jesus came to shine God’s light into the world through His proclamation and teaching.  After Jesus’ powerful teaching in the Sermon on the Mount, we read, “the crowds were amazed at his teaching,because he taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law” (Matthew 7:28-29). Jesus’ teaching shines the light of God, telling who God is.

As the light of the world, thirdly, Jesus came to shine God’s light into the world through works of service and healing. Peter, one of Jesus’ followers, spoke of Jesus’ wonder-working power in this way: “Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him” (Acts 2:22). The works of service and the healing—these signs and wonders—display God’s purposes for humanity. And it is through His service and miracles shining God’s light, that Jesus also displays who God is.

As the light of the world, fourthly, Jesus came to shine God’s light into the world through enter into human suffering and transforming it. We read about Jesus’ transformative suffering on the Cross in the first letter of the Apostle John, chapter 4, verses 9 and 10: “This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins” (1 John 4:9-10).  Jesus’ crucifixion shines the light of God, displaying who God is and just how far God will go on behalf of humanity.

Jesus was shining God’s light into the gathering darkness. As His followers we also have the opportunity to shine His light into the gathering darkness.

And those four aspects of Jesus’ light-shining life speak to us about shining light as well. We shine God’s light:

  • through living incarnate
  • through proclaiming good news and telling of God’s ways
  • through works of service and even miraculous signs
  • through entering into the suffering of the world through Christ’s transformative sacrifice

And so that we don’t lose sight of just how basic this is, the love for our literal neighbor saves us from abstraction about these things. Because often our ideas about life become abstract.

In her quirky book, How to Do Nothing, artist Jenny Odell talks about how neighborliness keeps us from being abstract. She writes:

My boyfriend and I live in a large apartment complex that’s next to the house of a family of four, and when we’re sitting on our balcony and they’re sitting on their porch, we can easily see each other….But we didn’t learn each other’s names for two years, and we may not have chatted at all if it hadn’t been for the neighborliness of Paul, the dad.

One day Paul invited us over for dinner. Because I hadn’t been in a neighbor’s home since I was a teenager, it was unexpectedly surreal to be inside the house that forms a permanent part of the view from our apartment. The interior of the house went from being an idea to a palpable reality….we probably all saw ourselves from a new angle. For my part, the experience made me realize how similar the life situations of most of my friends are, and how little time I spend in the amazing bizarro world of kids.

When we arrived back to our apartment, it felt different to me­–less like the center of things. Instead the street was full of such “centers,” and each one contained other lives, other rooms, other people turning in for the night and worrying their own worries for the next day. Of course I had already accepted all of this in an abstract sense, but it wasn’t felt.

Jenny Odell, How to Do Nothing (Brooklyn, NY: Melville House, 2019), 134-135.

Shining the light of God is something that is true, but is not intended to be abstract. It is intended to be felt. It is intended to be heard. It is intended to be like flesh and bone moving into the neighborhood.

Loving our literal neighbors – our apartment-mates, those in the condo next door, those in the duplex unit above or below us, those on our dorm floor, those in the retirement community, or those in the house next door – forces us to shine the light of God in ways that are real, practical, and tangible. If we cannot love our literal neighbor, then it is unlikely that we will truly love anyone else in our lives.

The Radical Simplicity and Generosity of Jesus and His People

“For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich” (2 Corinthians 8:9)

One of the most notable things about Jesus was His radical relationship with wealth and possessions. Jesus lived simply and had no tangible possessions that we know of. He relied on the generosity of others but also lived radically generous with what He had and who He was. Jesus’ life abounded with simplicity and generosity.

It is because of this that the early church had a marked freedom in relation to wealth and physical possessions. The early church was a community of simplicity and generosity, living unchained to wealth and possessions. As we read in Acts: “All the believers were together and had everything in common.” (Acts 2:44)

Throughout Paul’s letters we see a radical simplicity and generosity in relation to wealth and possessions. When writing to Timothy, Paul describes how believers can live simply, not holding onto possessions because we know we only need a few things: “For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that.” (1 Timothy 6:7-8).

We also read, both in Paul and in Luke’s account of Jesus, warnings about the power of possessions. Paul tells us that a dedication to wealth can destroy us: “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs” (1 Timothy 6:10). And when Jesus warns the rich young ruler, He does so knowing how wealth can take the place of God: “When Jesus heard this, he said to him, ‘You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow Me.’ When he heard this, he became very sad, because he was very wealthy” (Luke 18:22-23).

Jesus and the early church lived with radical simplicity.

But that simplicity overflowed with generosity.

The radical generosity of the church is so clear in Acts 2-6, where the life of the church was marked by an open-handedness with what they owned: “They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need” (Acts 2:45). Whereas many of us may be tempted to turn a blind eye to the needs in our midst, the early believers faced into those needs, not only becoming aware of them but helping to meet those needs. In Acts 4, finances were shared directly with the needy: “It was distributed to anyone who had need” (4:35). And when the Greek widows were facing inequity in the generous distribution, deacons were appointed specifically to address that situation (6:1-7).

The early church’s generosity was marked by sacrificial living. We are told in Acts 2 that early believers were so moved by the compassion of Christ that they “sold property and possessions” (2:45). And later in the account, we hear that “from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them” (4:34). This was then brought to the apostles for distribution to those in need.

There was a radical generosity and simplicity that marked the life of the early church. Where did this come from? It came from an overflow of the grace of the Lord Jesus, who gave everything for them. But it also came from a life oriented around life in God’s kingdom as seen in the simplicity and generosity of life that Jesus modeled on earth.