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The Holy Spirit (1)

Who is the Holy Spirit? I’m afraid that is a question that many Christians would have difficulty answering. Why is that? I think there are two causes: first, the Bible says far less about the Holy Spirit than it does about God the Father or Christ. The Spirit’s role is so entirely subservient that his business is never to attract attention to himself. Second, so many of the voices we hear speaking of the Holy Spirit are far from biblical, making him into the virtual center of the Godhead and Christian life, and a magician who exists to amaze us with signs and wonders. So on the one hand, we have the Bible saying less than we might like about the Spirit, and on the other hand, an abundance of extra-biblical nonsense about him. That profusion of error and the resulting confusion, I think, often causes Christians who do not accept that error to neglect learning even what Scripture does reveal of the Spirit.

In his book, Knowing God, J. I. Packer looks at the Gospel of John and helps us to gain a biblical understanding of the Holy Spirit.


[I]n his account of our Lord’s last talk to his disciples, [John] reports how the Savior, having explained that he was going to prepare a place for them in he Father’s house, went on to promise them the gift of “another Comforter”(Jn 14:16 KJV).

Note this phrase; it is full of meaning. It denotes a person, and a remarkable person too. A Comforter—the richness of the idea is seen form the clarity of rendering in different translations: “counselor”(RSV), “helper”(Moffatt), “advocate”(Weymouth), one “to befriend you”(Knox). The thoughts of encouragement, support, assistance, care, the shouldering of responsibility for another’s welfare, are all conveyed by this word. Another Comforter—yes, because Jesus was their original Comforter, and the newcomer’s task was to continue this side of his ministry. It follows, therefore, that we can only appreciate all that our Lord meant when he spoke of “another Comforter”as we look back over all that he himself had done in the way on love, and care, and patient instruction, and provision for the disciples”well-being, during his own three years of personal ministry to them. “He will care for you,”Christ was saying in effect, “in the way that I have cared for you.”Truly a remarkable person!

Our Lord went on to name the new Comforter. He is “the Spirit of truth,”“the Holy Spirit”(Jn 14:17, 26). This name denoted deity. In the Old Testament, God’s wordand God’s Spirit are parallel figures. God’s word is his almighty speech; God’s Spirit is his almighty breath. Both phrases convey the thought of his power in action. The speech and the breath of God appear together in the record of creation. “The Spirit [breath] of God was hovering over the waters. And God said . . . and there was . . .”(Gen 1:2–3). “By the word of the Lord were the heavens made, the starry host by the breath [Spirit] of his mouth”(Ps 33:6). John told us in the prologue that the divine Word spoken of here is a person. Our Lord now gives parallel teaching, to the effect that the divine Spirit is also a person. And he confirms his witness to the deity of the personal Spirit by calling him the holy Spirit, as later he was to speak to the holy Father (Jn 17:11).

John’s Gospel shows how Christ related to the Spirit’s mission to the will and purpose of the Father and the Son. In one place, it is the Father who will send the Spirit, as it was the Father who had sent the Son (see 5:23, 26–27). The Father will send the Spirit, says our Lord, “in my name”—that is, as Christ’s deputy, doing Christ’s will and acting as his representative and with his authority (Jn 14:26). Just as Jesus had come in his Father’s name (5:43), acting as the Father’s agent, doing the Father’s works (10:25; 17:4, 12)) and bearing witness throughout to the One whose emissary he was, so the Spirit would come in Jesus’ name, to act in the world as the agent and witness of Jesus. The Spirit “proceedeth from [para: “from the side of”] the Father”(16:28 KJV). Having sent the eternal Son into the world, the Father now recalls him to glory and sends the Spirit to take his place.

But this in only one way of looking at the matter. In another place, it is the Son who will send the Spirit “from the Father”(15:26). As the Father sent the Son into the world, so the Son will send the Spirit into the world (16:7). The spirit is sent by the Son as well as by the Father. Thus we have the following set of relationships:

1. The Son is subject to the Father, for the Son is sent by the Father in his (the Father’s) name.

2. The Spirit is subject to the Father, for the Spirit is sent by the Father in the Son’s name.

3. The Spirit is subject to the Son as well as to the Father, for the Spirit is sent by the Son as well as by the Father. (Compare 20:22: “He breathed on them and said ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’”)

Thus John records our Lord’s disclosure of the mystery of the Trinity: three persons, and one God, the Son doing the will of the Father and the Spirit doesn’t the will of the Father and the Son. And the point stressed is that the Spirit, who comes to Christ’s Disciples “to be with you forever”(14:16), is coming to exercise the ministry of the comforter in Christ’s stead. If, therefore, the ministry of Christ the Comforter was important, the ministry of the Holy Spirit the Comforter can scarcely be less important. If the work that Christ did matters to the church, the work that the Spirit does must matter also.

—J. I. Packer, Knowing God (InterVarsity Press, 1993), 66–68.

Posted 2008·11·11 by David Kjos
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Posted in: J I Packer · Knowing God · Pneumatology

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