By Rev. Wesley Arning
“But what is the Holy Spirit?”
I was speaking at a confirmation class recently, and one of the teenagers asked this question after I had methodically read from my notes on the Trinity for fifteen minutes. The students’ glazed eyes proved to me that I had a long way to go in my communication skills with teenagers. I hadn’t even started talking about the complexity of Trinitarian theology, and this astute teenager was seeking clarity for good reason. Many of us are confused about the Holy Spirit’s role within the Trinity. But we are also confused about what (or who) he is to begin with.
The same question came up in a conversation I had with a group of young adults a few months ago. They willingly admitted they had not thought much about the Holy Spirit before. Of course, they recognized when the preacher began a sermon with, “In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,” but rarely had they heard a sermon dedicated to talking about the Holy Spirit. And if they weren’t hearing it from the pulpit, they definitely didn’t feel confident discussing this “Holy Ghost” in a small group setting.
But the season of Pentecost brings the topic of the Holy Spirit to the foreground. During the weeks of Pentecost on the church calendar, we know that we will hear about what the Holy Spirit did on that fateful day with the disciples in the upper room. And as we study the book of Acts, we can see that Pentecost marked the beginning of something entirely new.
Before Acts 2, Pentecost was a Jewish festival celebrating God’s gift to the people of Israel. The law was a precious gift from God to show the Israelites that they were not like the other nations. The law taught them how to live in a covenantal relationship with God and each other. The law set apart God’s people, through whom the world would be blessed.
Every year, fifty days after Passover, Jews from all over the world streamed into Jerusalem to remember and give thanks for God bestowing upon them his Torah (which means “teaching”).
But one Pentecost morning changed the world forever. Peter and the disciples were blessed with a new gift from God. The same God who had given them the law all those years ago had now given them the Spirit he had promised. “And in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh” (Acts 2:17). God would no longer dwell in the Temple but in the heart of every believer.
The same people who abandoned Jesus during his arrest and crucifixion are the ones who were given this transformational gift. They went from broken and ashamed to bold and passionate preachers who proclaimed that Jesus is Lord.
We have all followed Peter’s example in one form or another. We have all sinned and forgotten Jesus for our own selfish reasons. We may feel defined by our failure or held prisoner by our shame, but Pentecost reminds us that no one is beyond the bounds of God’s grace. Peter, the great denier, was transformed into a great evangelist on Pentecost. Peter was given the gift of the Spirit of God dwelling in him.
I don’t think there is a hymn that expresses the phenomenal power of the Holy Spirit more than the ancient hymn that begins:
“Come, Holy Ghost, our souls inspire
and lighten with celestial fire;
thou the anointing Spirit art
who dost thy seven-fold gifts impart.”1
The Spirit of God enlivens all we do. He breathes new life into us because he is the very Spirit and breath of resurrection, regeneration, and new creation. He emboldens us to be the body of Christ in this broken world. He dares us to claim whom we serve.
The Holy Spirit’s work on Pentecost continues today. We cannot force the Spirit to move, but we can understand that the Spirit is always moving, whether we realize it or not. The Spirit is at work in our lives, leading us to reflect the light of the Son in all we do. “For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God” (Romans 8:14–15). As Christians, we pray for the Spirit’s help to display the fruit of his work in our lives.
So, what is the Holy Spirit? The question really is: Who is the Holy Spirit? Within a lifetime of discipleship, we can trust God and receive the Spirit’s help in many ways.
One of the most important prayers we can make as Christians is, “Come, Holy Spirit!” In fact, this prayer is “the first and last prayer of the church.”2 The reverberations of Pentecost are still ringing today. Come, Holy Spirit, and light us with your celestial fire!
Jesus calls the Holy Spirit a "gift" who will guide us, lead us, and empower us. Yet many believers don't experience the power and presence of the Holy Spirit in their lives. This unique Christian small group Bible study provides a space in which we can explore what it truly means to "walk in the Spirit" on a daily basis. The Spirit-Filled Life small group curriculum centers on a 6-part video teaching series examining the life-giving and creative work of the Holy Spirit in our lives. Begin to experience the gift today!
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