From the May/June 2014 issue of Discern Magazine

What Is the Holy Spirit?

Perceptions about the Holy Spirit have changed since Acts 2. How would believers in the first century answer the question, What is the Holy Spirit?

The giving of God’s Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost in A.D. 31 was a watershed event in Church history. This miraculous event recorded in Acts 2 would forever change the lives of Jesus’ disciples meeting together on the Feast of Pentecost—and the lives of those who would follow in their footsteps.

It also gave these founding members of the New Testament Church a greater understanding of the Holy Spirit than they and most people who had lived before them had ever known.

Biblical definition of the Holy Spirit discarded

But, strangely, in the centuries that followed this watershed occasion, most people discarded the earliest Christians’ clear understanding of the Holy Spirit in favor of an evolving, humanly devised definition of the Godhead.

According to that new theory, now well-known as “the Trinity,” the Holy Spirit was elevated to be a coequal member of the Godhead. In other words, the Holy Spirit, God the Father, and Jesus Christ were now seen as three distinct entities that together comprised one triune God.

Theologians had devised the idea of the Trinity to combat polytheism—the belief in many gods—and after long debate had finally come to a general agreement that this explanation of God should be a central tenet of Christianity.

In spite of the theory’s nonbiblical (the word Trinity is not found in the Bible) and mysterious, logic-defying elements (how can three individual beings be only one being?), this man-made philosophy is today firmly entrenched in mainstream Christianity. In fact, most churches now consider adherence to the Trinity doctrine the litmus test for determining whether or not one is indeed a Christian!

But bothersome questions arise from this. For example, did theologians have the right to reject the understanding of the Holy Spirit that was held by first-century Christians—the people who actually experienced the miracle of that special Pentecost? And why don’t we give greater consideration to the understanding God gave those with the firsthand experience?

Surprisingly, their insights on the Holy Spirit not only contradict modern theology, but they also provide much-needed clarity on the confusing aspects of trinitarianism.

Jesus prepares His followers for Pentecost

In the days leading up to Pentecost in A.D. 31, Jesus told His disciples what was soon to occur. At the Passover ceremony, which took place on the evening before His crucifixion, Jesus explained that He would ask the Father to give His followers another “Helper, … the Spirit of truth,” to dwell with them and be in them (John 14:16-17).

After spending three days and three nights in the grave just as He had predicted (Matthew 12:40), Jesus miraculously rose from the dead and met with His disciples in Jerusalem and Galilee (Matthew 26:32; 28:7). Before Pentecost, the group traveled back to Jerusalem.

“And being assembled together with them, He [Jesus] commanded them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the Promise of the Father, ‘which,’ He said, ‘you heard from Me; for John truly baptized with water, but you shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now’” (Acts 1:4-5).

He went on to tell them something they could not have fully comprehended at the time: “You shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (verse 8, emphasis added throughout).

As instructed, the disciples went to Jerusalem to observe Pentecost and wait for this promised power that would give them the courage and commitment to preach the gospel of the Kingdom of God to the world (Matthew 24:14).

Within a matter of days, the holy day arrived; and with it, the gift of the Holy Spirit.

The Holy Spirit comes to the Church

The way the Holy Spirit came on that momentous Day of Pentecost in A.D. 31 was spectacular and stunning! Along with the sound of a mighty wind, flames of fire appeared on the heads of all the believers who then, inexplicably, started speaking in other languages (Acts 2:2-4). These unexplainable displays made it clear that something unusual had indeed occurred—something that required supernatural power.

Who could deny this proof that the Holy Spirit now resided within the followers of Christ? They truly had received a power they had never previously possessed.As multitudes of people from many countries began flowing to this scene, they, too, were caught up in the miracle—everyone understanding in his or her own native language the words being spoken! Who could deny this proof that the Holy Spirit now resided within the followers of Christ? They truly had received a power they had never previously possessed.

Their understanding of the Holy Spirit was exactly what Christ had said—it was indeed the power of God.

The Holy Spirit after Pentecost A.D. 31

Later, writing to the church at Rome, the apostle Paul referred to “the power of the Holy Spirit” (Romans 15:13). He said it was this “power of the Spirit of God” that allowed him to perform signs and wonders in his ministry (verse 19). To Timothy, Paul wrote: “For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind” (2 Timothy 1:7).

The first-century Christians clearly understood—the Holy Spirit was the power of God. Through the power of His Spirit, God comforted them through trials, assisted them in learning the truth, identified them as Christians and offered them the promise of eternal life. But we find no evidence that the Christians considered the Holy Spirit to be a separate member of the Godhead.

As for the Godhead, Paul succinctly noted the teaching God had given him and his first-century brethren: “For us there is one God, the Father, of whom are all things, and we for Him; and one Lord Jesus Christ, through whom are all things, and through whom we live” (1 Corinthians 8:6). No mention of the Holy Spirit!

The biblical definition of the Holy Spirit

The Trinity is simply a human invention. The biblical teaching only shows a Godhead consisting of God the Father and His Son, Jesus Christ. The Holy Spirit is described and respected as the power of God, but is nowhere defined as a separate being.

Toward the end of the first century, Jude admonished the Church to “contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 1:3). This faith—including its explanation of the Holy Spirit—provides the only biblically defensible definition of the Holy Spirit.

To learn more about this definition established and taught to men by God, see the other articles in this section on the “Holy Spirit.”


Sidebar: The Holy Spirit Defined Before Pentecost

One of the earliest New Testament references to the Holy Spirit is an angel’s announcement to Mary: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Highest will overshadow you; therefore, also, that Holy One who is to be born will be called the Son of God” (Luke 1:35).

In this passage the angel Gabriel describes the Holy Spirit as the “power” of God. As a being in close contact with the Godhead, this angel surely knew the correlation between God and the Holy Spirit.

Interestingly, this definition of the Holy Spirit as the power of God helps us understand why this passage refers to Jesus as the Son of God instead of the Son of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit was not presented as another divine being. Rather, it was described as the power of God the Father.

When Jesus successfully resisted Satan’s temptations, He “returned in the power of the Spirit to Galilee” (Luke 4:14). As for healing people, Luke 5:17 says, “And the power of the Lord was present to heal them.”

Prior to Pentecost A.D. 31, God had already revealed that the Holy Spirit was His power—not another divine being.


Sidebar: Evidence of the Holy Spirit

While today many within mainstream Christianity do not observe the annual biblical holy day of Pentecost and almost all have adopted the revised Trinitarian explanation of the Holy Spirit, some charismatic churches strive to replicate one of the miraculous components of the Pentecost experience described in Acts 2. They teach that people must speak in unknown tongues—usually an unintelligible babble—to show they have received the Holy Spirit.

A careful study of the biblical record dispels this perception. Although the believers who received the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost did speak in other recognizable languages (Acts 2:4-11) and this also occurred on two other occasions (Acts 10:44-46; 19:1-6), no biblical evidence exists that this miracle happened every time a believer was baptized, either then or thereafter.

This miracle of speaking in other languages occurred only on a few special occasions when the Holy Spirit was first being given to various people in the Church, apparently to demonstrate that God had indeed given believers a portion of His power. But after these initial instances, supernaturally speaking in other languages was not necessary as evidence of the Holy Spirit.

Today, understanding that God has fulfilled His promise, new Christians can have confidence that God will likewise give them His Holy Spirit when they repent of their sins and are baptized (Acts 2:38).

When God’s Spirit resides in them, the fruit of His Spirit—“love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23)—becomes evident in their lives. This fruit, not speaking in tongues, is the enduring proof of the Holy Spirit dwelling in a person.


Sidebar: Why We Need the Holy Spirit

Having God’s Spirit within us is vitally important. Here are a few of the reasons revealed in the Bible:

  • The Holy Spirit leads us into truth (John 16:13).
  • The Holy Spirit within us provides comfort (Acts 9:31).
  • Being led by the Holy Spirit identifies us as Christians (Romans 8:14).
  • The Holy Spirit gives us the love of God, which is demonstrated by keeping His commandments (Romans 5:5; 1 John 5:1-3).
  • The Holy Spirit within us guarantees us eternal life (Romans 8:16-17).

Read more about how to repent and be baptized—the way one receives the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38)—by downloading our free booklet Change Your Life! In addition, trained ministers are available to assist you in the process. You can contact us, and a minister will be pleased to provide you with personal counsel regarding this most important step.

About the Author

David Treybig

David Treybig

David Treybig is a husband, father and grandfather. He and his wife, Teddi, have two grown children and seven grandchildren. He currently pastors the Austin, Texas, congregation of the Church of God, a Worldwide Association. He has served in the pastoral ministry for over 40 years, pastoring congregations across six states.

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