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.

image 2 - wind

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.

image 3 - fire


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.

image 4 - water

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.

When God Calls You by Name

“When the Lord saw that he had gone over to look, God called to him from within the bush, ‘Moses! Moses!'” (Exodus 3:4)

Moses draws near to this bush that is on fire, perhaps mostly out of curiosity about this strange sight. As Moses draws close, the Living God captures his attention and then begins speaking to him.

God says something simple, yet full of meaning: “Moses! Moses!”

Notice first of all that God invites Moses into a conversation. It is not an abstract or impersonal conversation, but one that is deeply personal. God calls Moses by his name. Moses is not anonymous to God but is known. Moses is not just a resource to be used by God, but a person. And this personal invitation is bathed in loved. Speaking his name twice, God addresses Moses in a way that reflects tender love by repeating his name twice This reminds us that God knows all people personally, even by name, and that God has tender love for people, regardless of their background.

Next pay attention to the fact that God’s address to Moses is an invitation into authentic relationship. This episode at the burning bush begins a long relationship between Moses and God. There are ups, like the literal journey up Mount Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments, and there are downs, like Moses’ disobedience in striking the rock. In the end, Moses was known as one who God knew and related with face to face (Deuteronomy 34:10). When we hear a computerized voice say our name, reading a text through our phone or car, it doesn’t do much for us emotionally. The message may be meaningful, but the voice often feels at odds with that, coming across as sterile and inhuman. But when I hear someone I personally know call my name—my wife, my child, or my friend—I am immediately drawn into intimate relationship and vulnerable conversation. This episode with Moses and God at the burning bush reminds us that God isn’t interested in standing at a distance. Instead, God risks entering into real relationship with human beings, knowing us and being known by us. This is an amazing and nearly incomprehensible gift.

Wherever you are right now, let me encourage you to pause. Let me encourage you to still yourself and remember there is a God who exists. He has reached out to us first in creation and He has reached out to us even more personally through the incarnation of Jesus Christ. Remember that He calls you by name and wants to know you. In the stillness of this moment, hear God call you name. Then, speak your response to Him.

Everyday Fire: Learning to Stop, See, and Draw Aside with Moses

Everyday Fire

There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in flames of fire from within a bush. Moses saw that though the bush was on fire it did not burn up. So Moses thought, “I will go over and see this strange sight—why the bush does not burn up.”

When the Lord saw that he had gone over to look, God called to him from within the bush, “Moses! Moses!”

And Moses said, “Here I am.” (Exodus 2:2-4)

Moses notices the “strange sight” in the midst of his ordinary life and chooses to draw aside in wonder. How often do we miss the strange sights of the Lord in the midst of our ordinary lives?

“Certainly,” we say, “I am no Moses.” Yes, this is true. But who was Moses anyway? An adopted son turned runaway? A murderer fleeing for his life? A rescued baby now lost in the wilderness as an adult?

Moses is not so different from us, other than perhaps in his willingness to be captured in the wonder of God’s appearance; captured enough to draw aside and see. It is just that simple: “I will go over and see this strange sight.” What he sees is inexplicable to him, yet he does not brush past it or ignore it. He stops, draws aside, and sees.

Could it be that this is a fundamental practice of the children of God? Could it be that interruptions of the strange are the activities of God? Could it be that curiosity and wonder are the beginnings of wild new journeys with God? How many bushes burning with divine fire will come our way today? We will never know until see stop, see, and draw aside.

The One Name (discussion questions)

Here are the discussion questions that accompany my message at Eastbrook Church this past weekend entitled “The One Name” from our series on Exodus 3 & 4, “The Name.”

Discussion Questions:

  1. Is there any significance from your given name related to family history, relatives or an event? What is it?
  2. This week, we continue our series “The Name” with a look at Exodus 3:13-22. Before you begin your study, ask God to speak to you through the Scripture. Then, read that passage aloud.
  3. As Moses converses with God in verse 13, he asks a question that leads into an extended response from God. What is the question and what do you think Moses is really asking?Read More »

The One Name

The-Name-Facebook-coverI continued our series, “The Name,” this weekend at Eastbrook Church by looking at Exodus 3:13-22. My message, “The One Name,” is really the heart of this series and this passage, where God reveals His name to Moses. I drew parallels for this message from Exodus 6:1-8.

You can listen to my message at the Eastbrook web-site here. You can also follow the RSS feed for Eastbrook sermons or follow Eastbrook Church on Twitter or Facebook.

The message outline from the bulletin is included below. 

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