What further insight might these books give into the church’s understanding of the Holy Spirit as its members encountered the challenges of the Greco-Roman world, the variety and ferment of its own expanding membership, the emergence subtle heresies, and the articulation of its belief and behavior? What continued link may be observed between the Spirit’s descent at Pentecost and the church’s sustained vision of the resurrected Christ?
This means—from the standpoint of the Godhead—Triune atonement (Heb. 9:14; 10:29-31), invitation to know the Triune God (Acts 2:38, 39), Trinitarian salvation (Rom. 5:5, 6; 1 Peter 1:2), Trinitarian witness of salvation (Heb. 2:3, 4), and Trinitarian assurance of salvation (Rom. 8:14-17). From the standpoint of the believer, it includes a Triune understanding of spiritual things (1 Cor. 2:12, 13, 16), an abiding in the Triune God (1 John 3:23, 24), a Triune growing and building up in faith (Jude 20, 21), Trinitarian test of the spirits (1 John 4:2, 3), praying with Triune intercession (Jude 20, 21), Triune discipleship and making disciples (Matt. 28:19, 20), the Trinity and spiritual gifts (1 Cor. 12:3-6), Trinitarian ministry (Rom. 14:17, 18), a Trinitarian ecclesiology (Eph. 4:3-5), and Trinitarian peace and grace (Rev. 1:4-6), the future in Trinitarian hands (Rev. 1:4-6), and Triune doxology (2 Cor. 13:14).1 Obviously, the reality of the Holy Spirit is assumed throughout this view of triune God reality—therefore not needing either specific or considerable mention in any of the documents.
Together, these vibrant writings reveal the complex world of first-century Christianity and provide a sober look at the early church’s Spirit-driven life in spiritual, doctrinal, and ethical terms. In unique, yet complementary ways, each work unfolds the role of the Holy Spirit. The phenomenon of the Spirit in each underscores how the understanding of the Holy Spirit is more a matter of divine revelation and inspiration than it is a matter of the church or its growth in the first century.
The Holy Spirit in James
This verse would be an amplification of the theme picked up from verse 2 of the destructive power of human desire and envy, rather than that of God’s jealous relationship with His people. It would then be translated “The [human] spirit which He [God] has made to dwell in us is one which feels passionate envy.” In articulating such, James would not be suggesting a dualism, but rather that it is the same human spirit (which God has placed within humankind) that can bring forth good or evil, virtue or vice. This reading would suggest two spirits at war within individuals for the allegiance of human beings—a basic reality of fallen human nature.
Although some assert that pneuma here does refer to God’s Spirit, the only other use of the term in James clearly means the human spirit (2:26). Nevertheless, numerous commentators suggest that this passage refers to the Holy Spirit’s reaction to the believer’s envious worldliness. It is possible that humankind’s envy of the world, which expresses hostility toward God (4:4), is met by God’s own enmity toward human envy—via the Holy Spirit. In this case, a reference to the human spirit would be an unnecessarily indirect way of pointing to God’s own opposition to envy. To pneuma, then, would refer to the divine Spirit rather than the human spirit. If one understands the 10th commandment as in view here (“thou shalt not covet”) as per the preceding argument, it is possible that spirit could mean the Holy Spirit who speaks authoritatively through that commandment against the covetousness in the human heart and in the early Christian community. Or, following James’s discussion forward toward his ensuing reference about God giving “a greater grace” to the humble (vs. 6), one could conclude that God’s jealousy is surpassed by God’s grace. This, again, could open the way for understanding to pneuma as being the Holy Spirit. If James does have the Spirit in mind in the passage, he provides an early insight into the interior work of the Holy Spirit in relation to the grace, which God gives to those who are humble.
This being so, one could assert that the Holy Spirit is integral to James’ argumentation while not specifically named. If so, the wisdom of which James speaks as coming from God or coming from above could be understood as taking place via the person and work of the Holy Spirit. It would be tacit reference to the descent of the Spirit at Pentecost, which brought divine resource in His train.
Wisdom for James, then, would function much as the Spirit does elsewhere in the New Testament, thus explaining the fact that there is no unambiguous reference to the Holy Spirit in the book. This understanding, however, would not necessitate that to pneuma in 4:5 be a reference to the Holy Spirit.
If James does have the Spirit in view, the work provides an early insight into the interior work of the Holy Spirit in relation to the grace God gives to those who are humble. Nevertheless, the book reflects the Trinitarian thought mix, which includes the Spirit in its purview.
The Holy Spirit in 1 Peter
An eschatological ministry. Though some would suggest that the Holy Spirit does not figure prominently in 1 Peter, the epistle begins with an extended threefold “Trinitarian structure,”4 consisting of parallel prepositional phrases, which includes the Father, the Spirit, and Jesus: “who are chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, by the sanctifying work of the Spirit, that you may obey Jesus Christ and be sprinkled with His blood: May grace and peace be yours in fullest measure” (1 Peter 1:1, 2). The epistle closes with references to two members of the Trinity: Jesus and the Father (5:10). This opening and closing set the context for understanding all of the material in the book in light of the three persons of the Godhead.
There is a clear view of the Triune God at play throughout the document. Everything that follows its opening assumes this Trinitarian vision and includes a Holy Spirit connection in all that is said. It is a given that within the church’s Trinitarian vision, the Holy Spirit is viewed as a distinct person who ontologically shares the divine being. The role of the Holy Spirit is thus more pervasive than the Epistle’s few references might suggest.
First Peter displays most of the main elements of the Holy Spirit’s work in relation to the believer that one finds mentioned elsewhere in the New Testament. And much of what unfolds appears to mirror Pauline tradition in particular (1 Cor. 3:16, 17; Thess. 2:13). The Epistle is strikingly original and comparably creative, however, with regard to the Holy Spirit’s function in Christian experience and life. Here, readers are encouraged to think of themselves as living in the new age of God’s salvation heralded by the prophets and brought to reality by Christ (1 Peter 1:10, 11). This suggests that the Spirit’s ministry is eschatological. The person and work of the Holy Spirit unfold within four broad areas: (1) salvation and becoming a disciple of the triune God (1:2, 23); (2) Christology (1:11; 3:18); (3) gospel proclamation (1:11; 3:18); and (4) suffering, trials, adversity (4:14).
Within biblical imagery, “holiness” is the chief attribute of God. Peter thus identifies the Spirit as both a distinct person and with the essential being of God (1 Peter 1:2, 15, 16). This making holy includes the Spirit’s cleansing work in applying the atonement accomplished by Christ to the sinner. Christian life begins now by the power of our share in Christ’s resurrection and regeneration by the Holy Spirit (vs. 23).
The Spirit’s work in salvation further includes the activity of the prophets, the proclamation of the good news, and an abiding divine presence as a source of hope (1 Peter 1:10-12). By implication, the injunction to live holy lives and to exhibit honorable and loving conduct—despite one’s difficulties—is made possible by the presence of the Spirit (vss. 15, 22). This is how one becomes a disciple of the Triune God. The Holy Spirit plays an important role in Christian initiation alongside Christ’s redeeming blood. He plays a role, too, in being born again through the imperishable word of God (vss. 12, 23-25). The person and work of the Holy Spirit are the effective mediating source of divine grace and peace (1 Peter 1:2).
The Spirit of Christ. 1 Peter provides an unusual combination of themes with respect to the Spirit in relation to Christ. It asserts that the Spirit that dwelt in the prophets was Christ’s Spirit, i.e., “the Spirit of Christ within them” (chap. 1:11). This is not to be read principally Christologically as the activity of the pre-existent Christ, but rather eschatologically as the divine Spirit who speaks of hidden things to come—in this case, Christ.
The work of the Spirit here is both revelatory and dynamic. It is not quite the same as the mode of inspiration and interpretation of the Scripture outlined in 2 Peter 1:19-21. The model for Christian living in 1 Peter is Christological in empowerment, model, and intimacy—for Christ is the chief shepherd and guardian of the flock (2:25). The Spirit plays a fundamental effective role in these realities, enabling one to love the unseen Christ (1:8).
The Spirit was an active agent in the resurrection of Christ (3:18). This is in contrast to Hebrews 9, where it was through the eternal Spirit that Jesus offered Himself without blemish to God (Heb. 9:14). Thus the Spirit would play a unique role in both the substitutionary atonement of Jesus and His glorious resurrection.
The link between “the Spirit sent from heaven” (1 Peter 1:12) and gospel proclamation echoes Pentecost (Acts 2:14-36) and implies that gospel proclamation by the Spirit is being made to the present generation (vs. 39). The author would have personal knowledge of these realities. Through the Spirit the gospel has been preached to Christians who have already died (1 Peter 4:6). The Spirit was also active in appeals to the antediluvian world (Gen. 6:3) and in the rebuke of demonic spirits (1 Peter 3:18, 19).
First Peter thus places the person and work of the Holy Spirit squarely in the experience of salvation and what it means to become a disciple of the Triune God (1:2, 23) as well as Christology (1:11; 3:18), gospel proclamation (1:11; 3:18), and suffering, perseverance, self-identity (4:14).
The Holy Spirit in 2 Peter
Spirit-engendered truth. Though considered an “elaborately constructed polemic document”6 and “on the fringe” of New Testament thinking,7 2 Peter nevertheless opens with the Trinitarian mindset that pervades the New Testament by referring to two members of the Godhead: Jesus and the Father (1:1, 2). Later in the same chapter it is the Father and the Spirit who are placed together (vs. 21). In this context, the Spirit is linked with the fundamental reality of God—holiness. All the implications of divine personhood, ontology, and diversity of the person and work of the Spirit in this thought matrix are assumed and implied.
Second Peter is a homily on Christian growth set in the context of threats to Christian stability from heretical teachings. The bold claims and fictitious anecdotes of false teachers were confusing the churches with notions that God’s Spirit was speaking a fresh message through them. There were accusations that the apostles had been following cleverly invented stories (vs. 16). There was need to assert the reliable eyewitness of the apostles’ gospel preaching (vss. 1:16-18). The book’s purpose is threefold: (1) to expose false teachers for what they are; (2) to link the words of the apostles with those of the prophets; and (3) to set before the churches the conditions of survival when doctrinal and moral perversions infiltrate their fellowships.
The question is: What can Peter put before the churches to counter the influence of the new voices being heard everywhere, especially when his own voice would soon be silent (vs. 14)? The answer is the apostolic eyewitnesses, which Peter sets against the firm backdrop of Spirit-engendered truth through the reality and certainty of the prophetic word (vss. 12-21). This is perhaps the greatest single treasure within this short letter, regarding a number of theological issues: the Holy Spirit, revelation and inspiration, prophecy of the Second Coming, Christology, spiritual life, and assurance.
The “prophetic word” (vs. 19) remains forever God’s Word. It is not merely the prophet of long ago who speaks (as per 2 Peter 1:17, 18), but the living God Himself via the Holy Spirit (vs. 21). The Spirit has spoken and continues to speak via the Word of truth already given. And if this is so, one is wise not to attempt to reinterpret what the Holy Spirit says as though he or she is now in possession of some superior wisdom. The Spirit continues to speak through the prophetic Word, which He initiated, rather than in a fresh message through new teachers. Believers are to be anchored in the Word of God, and thus the Spirit’s guiding influence.
Christian life and ethos. Peter’s call to trust God’s witness and pay attention to the Scriptures is followed by his assertion that the message of Scripture originates with the Holy Spirit of God (2 Peter 1:20, 21). Here we find the Holy Spirit in relation to the inspiration of Scripture and prophecy in particular. “We can have utter confidence that God truly speaks to us in His Word because both the divine revelation given to its authors and their interpretation of it was direct by the Holy Spirit.”8 The text describes a divine-human partnership, not that of equals but as a powerful, energetic superintendence by the Spirit: “men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (vs. 21, NIV).
These insights into the person and work of the Holy Spirit appear against the backdrop of an ill-defined spirituality. More than correct doctrine or the reliability of the biblical message is in view. It is Christian life and ethos that is nuanced. Peter understood that we have miraculous resources for godly living (2 Peter 1:3, 4). We have everything we need for life and godliness. One of those heavenly resources is the comprehensive nature of the revelation given to believers (1:16-21; 3:1, 2). The Holy Spirit brings divine resources for here and now via and alongside God’s Word. Ultimately, genuine spiritual life is linked to the true voice of the Holy Spirit via the prophetic word (1:19).
The reference of the Holy Spirit at the end of chapter 1 provides an interpretive hinge relating both backward and forward in the author’s discussion regarding the accusations by false teachers who suggest God’s Spirit is speaking a fresh message through them. Not only does the Spirit continue to speak through the prophetic word, which He initiated, but also genuine spiritual life is linked to the true voice of the Holy Spirit via the prophetic word.
The Holy Spirit in 1, 2, and 3 John
Fourth Gospel backdrop. Within the Johannine Epistles, only 1 John refers directly to the person and work of the Holy Spirit. Even there the prominence and role of the Holy Spirit does not appear to be a key theme. Any theology of the Spirit in 1 John appears restrained against a generally theocentric feel of the Epistle, suggesting that the writer may be more preoccupied with the “Godhead” itself than with individual members of the Godhead.
However, 1 John reveals a community struggling for a balanced understanding of the person of Jesus. The author seeks a balanced Christology. There were some who emphasized the divinity of Christ, while others exaggerated His humanity. The historical and life-giving Jesus is obviously central to the writer’s vision of the doctrine of God. This may further explain some of the constant ambivalence of John’s reference to the Spirit (i.e., anointing, seed, born, abide in you, etc.).
One of these thematic links is the gift of the Holy Spirit (1 John 4:13; John 14:16, 17). Both books begin with Christology (the incarnation), themes of divine light, and the reality of fellowship with God (1 John 1:1-7; John 1:1-14). Both books highlight love to God and love for one another (1 John 3:16-18; John 3:16). Both books highlight the atoning work of Christ (1 John 4:9, 10; John 3:14-17). More specifically, both books focus on the reality of the Holy Spirit in relation to the new-birth experience (1 John 3:9; John 3:5-8). Reading the letters against the backdrop of the fourth Gospel highlights the doctrine of the Holy Spirit as of fundamental concern for 1 John, indicating that any dealing with this Epistle must reckon with it its position on the role of the Holy Spirit. While guarded and indirect, what the Epistle does say about the Holy Spirit is significant.
In keeping with New Testament Trinitarian context, 1 John begins and ends with references to two persons of the Godhead: Jesus and the Father (1 John 1:3; 5:10). Second John likewise opens with reference to Jesus and the Father (2 John 3, 9). Only 3 John has a reference to God without any specific reference to the Father, the Son, or the Spirit. Implications of divine personhood, ontology, and diversity of the person and work of the Holy Spirit within this Trinitarian thought matrix are assumed and implied. First John never refers to the Spirit as the “Holy” Spirit.
A crisis in understanding the Holy Spirit. Despite the paucity of references to the Spirit, 1 John gives evidence that at least one of the theological/experiential crises facing the churches in John’s community pertained to the personhood and role of the Holy Spirit. Two broad areas of the Spirit’s person and work are articulated in response to this conflict. One is theological (Christological); the other is experiential (conduct or behavior).
Furthermore, as the custodian and guarantor of these Christological truths, the Spirit does not do this by mere subjective feeling, intuition, or experience, but as He bears witness of Christ who has acted in history. The Spirit brings believers back to what they have heard from the beginning (1 John 1:1). In this context, the Spirit is also the virtual presence of the absent Christ.
His witness in the believer summarizes Jesus’ ongoing self-disclosure until He returns. As such, John’s assertion that “there are three that testify” (1 John 5:7, NIV) affirms that there are three foundational underpinnings to Christ’s historical earthly self-disclosure: water, blood, and Spirit, i.e., baptism, crucifixion, and Pentecost. The Spirit was at work during each of these defining historical Christ-events. The Spirit is given priority over the witness of “water and blood” because He testifies through them (1 John 5:6). Though “water and blood” give witness of Christ as non-personal historical events, the Spirit does so as a personal being. The Spirit’s witness in relation to Christ’s baptism and crucifixion give them an enduring living witness and power.
Agent of new birth. According to 1 John, the Holy Spirit is the agent of the new birth as well as the practical evidence of it: “No one who is born of God practices sin, because His seed abides in him; and he cannot sin, because he is born of God” (3:9). Parallels with the fourth Gospel are evident. No one reading the phrase “born of God” would have missed the association with the Holy Spirit (John 3:5). Spiritual regeneration is the means of divine sonship (1 John 2:29). The use of the perfect tense born indicates not only the initial act of Christian rebirth, but also its continuing results (1 John 3:9). The words “his seed abides in him” point to the divine nature, which is implanted in the person who is spiritually reborn, and which is responsible for Christian growth and obedience (vs. 10). From the standpoint of Johannine theology, the “seed” refers to the Holy Spirit.
Twofold assurance. In 1 John 3:24 and 4:13, the work of the Spirit is described as bringing assurance to the believer who may question his or her standing with God, evidently one of the larger reasons for the Epistle. It is the knowledge of the indwelling Spirit that gives the believer assurance of his or her membership in the family of God: “The one who keeps His commandments abides in Him, and He in him. And we know by this that He abides in us, by the Spirit whom He has given us” (3:34); “By this we know that we abide in Him and He in us, because He has given us of His Spirit” (4:13). The primary evidence of our mutual abiding experience in God is the presence of the Spirit in our lives.
Here the study of the Holy Spirit in 1 John grants a twofold assurance: We are present possessors of the life of God, and we can enjoy a sense of confidence that we are identified as being in Christ. This is not a subjective feeling but is “knowledge obtained by drawing a conclusion based on facts. When one possesses the Spirit of God, it is divine evidence of the reciprocal relationship, enjoyed and experienced.”11
Safeguard against apostasy. The Spirit’s ministry of safeguarding Christians against apostasy is expressed in the vivid imagery of “anointing”: “You have an anointing from the Holy One, and you all know” (2:20); “as for you, the anointing which you received from Him abides in you, and you have no need for anyone to teach you; but as His anointing teaches you about all things, and is true and is not a lie, and just as it has taught you, you abide in Him” (vs. 27).
Believers are to be encouraged because they have received an anointing from “the anointed one,” here called the “Holy One.” Origin, character, and communion are all involved. Jesus sends the Spirit (John 14:16, 26; Acts 2:33). It is the Spirit who abides in the believer (John 14:17). It is the Spirit who teaches the truth (John 14:26; 1 John 4:6). It is the Spirit who enables one to continue in Jesus’ word and confess Him as the Christ (John 6:60-71). In 1 John the Word and Spirit complement each other. The proclamation of the gospel is an objective exercise; whereas the anointing of the Spirit is subjective, personal, inward—but also objective in that it is real. The Spirit “manifests himself objectively in the life and conduct of the believer,”12 inspiring a true confession of Jesus and enabling one to act righteously. The Spirit bears witness to God’s indwelling presence without explaining this phenomenon.
In 1 John 2:20, 27, the abiding presence of the Spirit (the “anointing”) assures the believer of discernment in his or her struggle with the legion of antichrists (1 John 2:18). The Spirit enables one to know God. The Spirit mediates the knowledge of God. The Spirit invalidates the authority of false teachers, assures a proper doctrine of Christ, enables one to remain in the truth, and brings personal and corporate assurance. The anointing of the Spirit is an established fact for every believer.
Spiritual discernment. Finally there is the matter of the Spirit and spiritual discernment in relation to competing spirits or spiritual warfare (1 John 4:1-6). John asserts that there is the “Spirit of truth and the spirit of falsehood” (vs. 6, NIV), a divine Spirit and a diabolic spirit who manifest themselves in human behavior specifically in relation to true and false confessions of faith. Given this conflict between the two spiritual realms, and perhaps two spiritual beings, the Holy Spirit and Satan (though they are in opposition, the structure does not put them on a par). John exhorts the testing of all spirits to determine their truthfulness. Believers are warned not to believe every spirit as if it were the Spirit of God (3:24). They dare not be indiscriminate and accept everyone who claims that the Spirit directs his or her teachings.
The first is Christological: Who is Jesus Christ? What does this spirit say about Jesus Christ? Does the spirit confess Christ’s incarnation—that He came in the flesh? The true Spirit is one who affirms the historicity of Christ’s appearance, i.e., His incarnation. More precisely, this confession concerns Christ’s humanity together with its salvific importance. God actually came to earth, permanently taking upon Himself human nature (1 John 1:1-4).
The second is ecclesiological: Who listens to whom? What is the nature or character of the audience? John writes: “Greater is He who is in you than he who is in the world. They are from the world; therefore they speak as from the world, and the world listens to them. We are from God; he who knows God listens to us; he who is not from God does not listen to us. By this we know the spirit of truth and the spirit of error” (1 John 4:4-6).
“He who is in you” refers to the Spirit. “He who is in the world” refers to the “spirit of antichrist.” Heretics “align themselves with the world and speak the language of the world as evidenced in the denial of Christ.”13 True believers align themselves with the Spirit and receive only what the Spirit says regarding Christ. In other words, we listen to those who speak our own language.
This points to the true character of the listener(s) in response to the correct confession of Jesus as much as it does the content of that confession itself. This, too, is evidence of the Holy Spirit’s work within the community of faith in that He creates that community of spiritual discernment. Spiritual things are spiritually discerned via the Spirit. The greater Spirit of God who lives within believers renders the world powerless. Through the Spirit the church recognizes her own and listens to their message, which originates in the Spirit and reflects the Spirit’s perspectives. He who belongs to God hears what God says. This is how we know the Spirit of truth from the spirit of falsehood.
The Holy Spirit in Jude
Divine keeping power. Jude is basically a polemical document in which argument and arrangements of material are closely woven in artistic style. The 25-verse Epistle follows a well-known pattern in which an authoritative text is followed by an interpretive application to the reader’s own day. This implies theological/ethical reflection on implications of biblical materials in a contemporary context. Elements of faith regarding the Holy Spirit emerge through the running argumentation.
As Jude begins and ends with the theme of being kept by divine power (vss. 1, 24, 25), the assumption is that the Holy Spirit plays a crucial role providing divine power. More specifically, two insights emerge into Jude’s representation of the Holy Spirit regarding the aforementioned growth in faith: (1) the person and work of the Holy Spirit in relation to Christian orthodoxy, unity, and worldview (vs. 20); (2) the person and work of the Holy Spirit in relation to Christian spiritual discipline and growth (vs. 21).
Orthodoxy, unity, and worldview. In a section that might be termed “signs of the times” Jude invites readers to remember how the apostles spoke about life in the last times where mockers would arise and individuals would follow their own desires. There would be grumbling and faultfinding. There would be freethinking and loose theology. The combination of these realities would bring damaging effects on Christian life (vss. 15-18).
Jude asserts that the individuals against whom he writes are the very people whom the apostles have warned against. They divide. They follow mere natural instincts. And they do not have the Holy Spirit (vs. 20). The implication is that in their twisted theology, they not only misquote Scripture, but also are actually claiming that the Holy Spirit is guiding them in their lawless rebellion against both truth and church leaders. In the process, they assert that anyone reluctant to follow them (the false teachers) would not have the Spirit at all. Jude turns this argument on its head, stating that it is self-proclaimed “Spirit-led” people who do not have the divine Spirit and that their ideas are not open to the Spirit but to their own lower desires. Proof for this assertion is based on the writer’s text-and-interpretation pattern, which keeps readers coming back to biblical referents.
Spiritual discipline and growth. The three linked verbs building, praying, and expecting (“the mercy of Jesus”) are a syntactical arrangement suggesting an intimate connection and emphasizing that human endeavor is needed to ensure divine protection. The phrase “keep yourselves in the love of God” (Jude 21) appears to be the focus of the complex sentence, suggesting that God’s love is not only the source of the believer’s election but also the protection of the faithful.
The reference to the Holy Spirit in relation to prayer (Jude 20) opens a window into spiritual discipline and experiential realities of spiritual life, growth, and perseverance. The preposition phrase “in the Holy Spirit” can designate a variety of situations including prophetic/apocalyptic inspiration (Rev. 1:10; Eph. 3:5) as well as the believer’s life in the Spirit (Rom. 8:9-11). Both the authenticating activity of the Spirit and the Spirit’s activity in the believer who comes to God in prayer are in view here. In sharp contrast with the heretics who are devoid of the Spirit (Jude 19), what explicitly marks the community of believers is the possession of the Spirit and communion with God through His agency. The context gives the sense that it is “by means of prayerful invocation of God’s Spirit that believers will remain in God’s domain where they will receive protection in view of Jesus’ return.”16 Jude affirms the activity of prayer as intrinsic to Christian life. “Believers cannot keep themselves in God’s love without depending on him by petitioning him in prayer. Love for God cannot be sustained without a relationship with him, and such a relationship is nurtured by prayer.”17 The sphere of this activity is the Holy Spirit.
Jude contains one of the few yet important Trinitarian passages that mentions the three members of the triune God together (vss. 20, 21). The Holy Spirit is seen in relation to Christian orthodoxy, unity, worldview, and ethics (vss. 19, 20) as well as Christian spiritual discipline and growth (vs. 21). In doing so, the Epistle unfolds spiritual growth as a “Trinitarian challenge.”
The Holy Spirit in the Book of Hebrews
Reorienting vision of reality. With the longest sustained argument in the New Testament, Hebrews provides “one of the earliest examples of Christian theology as faith seeking understanding.”18 The concepts are powerfully argued, difficult, sweeping, enigmatic—not the easiest book in the Bible to understand. Nevertheless its purpose is both plain and basic. It is a “word of exhortation” (Heb. 13:22), inviting a positive personal response to Jesus Christ. It is more a sermon that has been adapted to letter format than a standard Epistle or theological treatise.
It has long been asserted that Hebrews was written to Jewish Christians who were tempted to return to Judaism. In effect, though, the book provides a coherent reorienting picture of the issues any Christians living during the time were facing. It explains what the exalted Jesus has been doing for believers since His ascension, and why that matters now. In the process, readers are challenged with a vision of reality, an understanding of Jesus Christ, and a sense of Christian identity and hope in a world of ambiguity and uncertainty. They are invited to see beyond the realities of this visible world and take refuge in the promised certainty of the ultimate triumph of God in Christ. In doing so, the book posits a worldview.
Though Hebrews makes only seven references to the Holy Spirit (2:4; 3:7; 6:4; 9:8, 14; 10:15, 29), an understanding of the Holy Spirit is nevertheless integral to its vision of reality. The writer asserts how the Holy Spirit brings divine confirming witness of the definitive word spoken through Christ: “After it was at the first spoken through the Lord, it was confirmed to us by those who heard, God also bearing witness with them, both by signs and wonders and by various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit according to His own will” (2:3, 4). The verbal testimony of those who originally heard Jesus along with the Spirit-inspired deeds of His contemporary followers validated the truth of Christ’s message. These evidences of the miracle-working power of the Holy Spirit are joined by the other distributions of the Holy Spirit, which refer to an inward experience compared to the aforementioned outward phenomenon.
If these Holy Spirit-empowered confirmations have indeed occurred, then God has acted in Christ among believers, and they “are faced with a reality—and a demand—from which they truly cannot ‘escape’” (Heb. 2:3).19 This passage is key to the argument of Hebrews as a whole, and as such it places the person and work of the Holy Spirit at the very heart of the Christocentric reality that the book advances. The definitive expression of the divine will in relation to the Holy Spirit’s distributions describes the active exercise of will, i.e., continued intentional action. The Holy Spirit as both gift and Giver is still with the church—still casting vision regarding the exalted Christ. Echoes of Pentecost are evident (Acts 2:1-36).
Applying Scripture today. Elsewhere, Hebrews places emphasis upon the Holy Spirit as the source of Scripture’s inspiration (3:7, 9; 9:8; 10:15). The Holy Spirit speaks through the written word enabling Scripture’s message and appeal to remain current and contemporary: “Therefore, just as the Holy Spirit says, ‘Today if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as when they provoked me, as in the day of trial in the wilderness’” (3:7). Because of the Holy Spirit, the words of Scripture are living words and have power. Scripture is not simply revelation in the past, but the present ongoing Word of God. The Holy Spirit speaks in the present. Holy Spirit interprets Scripture for today.
In Hebrews 3:7-11 the author repeats five verses from Psalm 95. Then he explains the passage (which is the main subject for Hebrews 3 and 4). He introduces reference to Psalm 95 with the words: “as the Holy Spirit says” (3:7). Two meanings are possible: (1) Although David wrote that Psalm (Heb. 4:7), the Holy Spirit inspired him to write. This would mean that the Scripture’s origin is not human and that its authors did not just write from their own initiative or intelligence. Scripture then is the Word of God; (2) The Holy Spirit is saying these very things again now. These are not just some words that God spoke long ago. God’s Word is active and alive today (vs. 12), and its message is ever contemporary—for today.
The author undoubtedly believes both, so the message of the Psalm still warns. Believers today must obey God’s message from the past, as they hear His voice. This is so because of the Spirit’s activity both past and present. The Holy Spirit is principally One who both inspires Scripture and interprets it for contemporary believers. He speaks to humanity by means of the inspired Word of God. In this context He even speaks to those reading the Book of Hebrews. Because this is so, it is always today that one is to both hear and keep his or her heart open to the Holy Spirit’s appeal (3:7, 13, 15; 4:7). This moves the Holy Spirit’s interpretation of and appeal from the Word of God into the very depths of the human self: heart, soul, spirit, mind, motives, conscience.
Interior transformation. This generative and interpretive work of the Spirit in relation to Scripture involves the believer’s experience of worship and conscience: “The Holy Spirit is signifying this, that the way into the holy place has not yet been disclosed, while the outer tabernacle is still standing, which is a symbol for the present time. Accordingly both gifts and sacrifices are offered which cannot make the worshiper perfect in conscience” (9:8, 9). Here the Holy Spirit reveals the limitations of the ministry of the Israel’s sacrificial system as well as its deeper meaning in relation to fulfillment in Christ.
It is the Holy Spirit who unlocks how the earthly sanctuary accomplished the purpose for which God created it, but even more so how only the sacrifice and ministry of Christ would eliminate once-for-all the problem related to sin and condemnation. As one who so speaks and interprets the Word of God in relation to Jesus’ sacrifice and priestly ministry, the Holy Spirit is clearly involved in the work of life-transforming redemption on a very practical, interior level (heart, thought, motive, conscience).
Jeremiah nowhere places the hope of this profound experience in the context of the Holy Spirit. Ezekiel does, but not Jeremiah (Eze. 36:23-27; 37:1-28; Jer. 31:31-34). Yet Hebrews ascribes Jeremiah’s prophecy to the Holy Spirit, and by implication the realization of the very experience to which the prophecy points. Evidently it is not only the once-for-all sacrifice of Jesus that brings about such an interior change in humanity and the removal of sin. Such interior transformation and release from guilt falls within the Holy Spirit’s realm as well (Heb. 6:4, 5), at least here in terms of the Holy Spirit bringing to one’s consciousness the conviction of the profound work of Christ and how with the completion of His sacrificial work the promised era of the new covenant has commenced, something each believer can experience—today! If this is true, then any believer who responds to the Holy Spirit’s prompting on these matters can realize the full assurance of hope that Jesus alone brings.
The individual who rebels against God during this time of new covenant opportunity rejects the person of Christ, the work of Christ, and the person of the Holy Spirit—thus placing himself or herself in spiritual and eternal jeopardy: “How much severer punishment do you think he will deserve who has trampled under foot the Son of God, and has regarded as unclean the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has insulted the Spirit of grace?” (Heb. 10:29). The contrast posed between insults hurled at the Holy Spirit and the grace granted by the Holy Spirit highlights the personhood of the Holy Spirit, who can be intentionally insulted.
This implies that any speaking by the Holy Spirit in relation to the incredible truths about Christ is expressed personally. It is a Person who addresses persons. And one’s response to this Person will ever be personal. The implication is that such personal insult can result in the loss of the Holy Spirit’s personal work of grace in the life.
The Spirit of grace. The phrase “Spirit of grace” (Heb. 10:29) draws together for the first time two terms, each of which points to the presence and power of God among humans. In Hebrews, the Spirit speaks through Scripture. The Spirit is the source of the many gifts distributed to believers. One becomes a partaker of the Holy Spirit when he or she accepts Jesus Christ. Here the Holy Spirit and grace are connected. The Spirit is the source of grace and an expression of divine grace.
At the minimum, insulting the “Spirit of grace” would mean insulting everything that has come from God. But on the other hand, welcoming the “Spirit of grace” would mean not just receiving all that comes from God, but actually opening one’s way via the Spirit to the very “throne of grace,” where divine grace through our great High Priest is anchored, offered, and sure. It is there at the “throne of grace” via “the Spirit of grace” that the interior transformational work in relation to the new covenant experience is fully realized in the heart (Heb. 10:15).
Falling away or holding fast. The Holy Spirit is integral in yet another discussion of how the enormity of apostasy is measured by the greatness of the experience of God it abandons: “In the case of those who have once been enlightened and have tasted of the heavenly gift and have been made partakers of the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the good word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away” (Heb. 6:4-6). This describes a singular event in the lives of the readers. The cumulative effect is to recall the enormity of the conversion experience as personal participation in an unrepeatable event in which believers became participants in the victory of Christ. What lies behind all these images is the church’s claim to have received the Spirit of God. To be a “partaker of the Holy Spirit” (3:14, “partakers of Christ”) is to receive the heavenly power of the new age.
Again, the Holy Spirit is integral to profound spiritual realities of the most powerful and transforming interior experience. Sharing in the Holy Spirit implies an experience that is realized in fellowship with other believers. Implications for our understanding of the Holy Spirit in relation to empowering grace and perseverance are obvious. Both “falling away” and “holding fast” have obvious significance. People are capable of turning away from their own most powerful and transforming experience with the Holy Spirit. Likewise, they are capable of holding it fast through continued faith in Christ.
Interior application of Christ’s atonement. A possible reference to the Holy Spirit in partnership with Christ in providing an unblemished sacrifice for sin is found in a discussion of the unique saving work of Christ: “If the blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkling those who have been defiled, sanctify for the cleansing of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without blemish to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?” (Heb. 9:13, 14).
Many suggest that the word spirit describes not the Holy Spirit, but the selfhood or person of Jesus, who, by virtue of His resurrection, is eternal. No doubt, the trajectory of the author’s argument does revolve around Christ’s eternal personhood in the context of the power of an indestructible life. It is because Jesus continues forever (does not die) that He holds His priesthood permanently. In the immediate context the author speaks of “eternal redemption” (Heb. 9:12) and “eternal inheritance” (vs. 15). Elsewhere, he refers to “eternal salvation” (5:9), “eternal judgment” (6:2), and “eternal covenant” (13:20). Each of these adjectival references however, has personal dimensions in the context of the believers’ experience as well as the one mediating such an experience to individual and corporate life.
Though the eternal personhood of Jesus is integral to the ensuing argument, so is the reality that the purification of the flesh by the blood of goats and calves or the ashes of a heifer does not adequately address the human dilemma of defiled conscience. What was lacking in earthly sacrifices was the perfection of conscience, i.e., interior cleansing (Heb. 9:9, 10). The “once for all” (7:27) Christ event, however, provides an eternal redemption (9:12) that in effect cleanses one’s “conscience from dead works to serve the living God” (vs. 14).
But how is this so? Clearly this is interior heart work, which we have already seen Hebrews posits as facilitated by Holy Spirit in personalizing the better work of Christ. The believer does not become perfect in conscience merely because Jesus is eternal. He or she experiences such profound cleansing on the deepest level of conscience and spiritual awareness: both because the eternal Christ who died for the sins of humanity lives forever and because the Holy Spirit brings the effective power of Christ’s crucifixion and mediatorial work to a person’s innermost being.
We must catch the thread of inner and outer defilement and cleansing running throughout the discussion. This cleansing is absolutely dependent on the once-for-all sacrifice of Christ. The blood of Christ does that which the blood of goats and calves could not do. This is so because the Holy Spirit effects the application and implications of Christ’s blood to the soul.
Though the four Gospels say nothing about the Holy Spirit’s role in the sufferings of Christ, John’s first Epistle asserts that the Spirit gives testimony of each of significant turning points of Christ’s life: baptism, death, and ascension (1 John 5:7). Likewise, Revelation affirms an organic link between the slain-but-resurrected and now exalted Christ and the partnering role of the Holy Spirit in each of these experiences. As the Holy Spirit was at work during each of these Christ-events, it is very likely that He played a profound role in the moments of Christ’s offering Himself without blemish to God on the Cross. If so, the phrase “eternal Spirit” would hint of the spiritual mystery of how Divinity could both die and come to life as well as to how Christ’s offering would be both unblemished and bring in eternal redemption.
Larry Lichtenwalter, Ph.D., is Dean of Philosophy and Theology and the Director of the Institute for Islamic and Arabic Studies at Middle East University in Beirut, Lebanon.
NOTES AND REFERENCES