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What’s the Holy Spirit like?
11 Biblical images of the Holy Spirit
It’s Australia’s State of Origin match for rugby league football today. Can the Blues (New South Wales, also called the cockroaches) win or will it be the Maroons (Queensland, also called the canetoads)? It will be a tough game. Defence is vital. The big men will run at the smaller ones. And there will be big collisions and hits. Life can be a struggle like that. How can we get though? Satan can attack us like an opposition footballer. In this post we will see how God helps Christians in daily life.
In particular, we will look at what the Holy Spirit is like from the images given in the Bible.
The big picture
The Bible says that there are three aspects of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. That’s where the word “Trinity” comes from. God the Holy Spirit is invisible because He is spirit and not part of the physical world. So, He doesn’t have a body like us.
Spirits, such as angels and demons, are invisible beings. When the Greek adjective hagios, which is translated “holy” (Strongs #40), is used with the word “spirit” it refers to a spirit that is divine, which is the Holy Spirit. The core meaning for “holy” is “different”. In the New Testament it often means set apart by God or set apart for God. It’s also used to describe things or people associated with God and the attribute of purity and sinlessness.
God the Father sent Jesus to earth to be our Savior by sacrificing His life. He came as a baby (which is called the incarnation) who grew up to be a man. After this, Jesus returned to heaven and God sent the Holy Spirit to earth to live in all those who repent of their sin and trust in Christ’s sacrifice. The Holy Spirit was sent to earth on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2; 1 Pt. 1:12). Since then He lives in believers from the time of their conversion (Rom. 8:9; Eph. 1:13-14). And He will be with them forever (Jn.14:16). Jesus said, “I am with you always, to the very end of the age (Mt. 28:20NIV). But Jesus is in heaven, seated at the right hand of the Father. Instead He’s with us spiritually by the Holy Spirit. One of the names of the Holy Spirit is “Spirit of Christ” (Rom. 8:9; 1 Pt. 1:11). This is different to Old Testament times, when the Holy Spirit came on people for a while and then left them (1 Sam. 16:14; Ps. 51:11).
The Holy Spirit’s mission is to testify about Jesus (Jn. 15:26). He guided those who wrote the New Testament (Jn. 16:13). He also convicts people of sin (Jn. 16:8-11). He empowers Christians to live by the Spirit and “not gratify the desires of the sinful flesh” (Galatians 5:16). Then the Holy Spirit can produce His fruit in our lives (Galatians 5:22–23). The Holy Spirit also supports good (1 Cor. 12:3) and restrains evil (Gen. 6:3; 2 Th.2:5-8).
We will see that the Bible uses figures of speech to describe the Holy Spirit. That’s one way of describing someone who is invisible.
Metaphors as images of the Holy Spirit
The best way to know what the Holy Spirit is like is to look at what the Bible says about Him because it’s a message from God. In particular, we’re looking at images of the Holy Spirit in the Bible. These are mainly metaphors which are powerful images that show what the Holy Spirit does.
The Holy Spirit is like a lawyer. A lawyer (or advocate or intercessor) helps defend people who are accused of breaking a law. They give evidence that stands up in court.
Jesus asked the Father to give His disciples “another advocate to help you and be with you forever” (Jn. 14:16, 26; 15:26; 16:7). An advocate supports a position or viewpoint and this is what the Holy Spirit did for the preaching of the disciples. Paul said, “the Spirit helps us in our weakness” (Rom 8:26-27). He intercedes for us with God the Father by praying for us. So the Holy Spirit is on our side.
Jesus is also like a lawyer (or advocate or intercessor) – He represents Christians to God the Father (1 Jn. 2:1). He is the “other advocate” (Jn. 14:16). When we sin, Jesus pleads with God the Father for a pardon. He pleads our case on the basis of His death, by which forgiveness of sins was made possible. He is our mediator with God the Father (1 Tim. 2:5). He’s at God’s right hand, interceding for us (Rom. 8:34; Heb. 7:25). So Jesus is also on our side.
So we have the best defence team, Jesus and the Holy Spirit. They can also defend us against accusations by Satan. Paul says, “If God is for us, who can stand against us?” (Rom. 8:31). The answer is, no-one.
If the Holy Spirit is like our lawyer, then we have the best possible helper. This image reminds us of how the Holy Spirit helps us get through the trials and troubles of life and supports our witnessing.
The Holy Spirit is also like a dove. A dove is a symbol of peace, love and innocence. When Jesus was baptized, “the Holy Spirit descended on Him in bodily form like a dove” (Mt. 3:16; Mk. 1:10; Lk. 3:22; Jn. 1:32).
After the flood, Noah sent out a dove that returned with an olive leaf (Gen. 8:11), which symbolized peace with God. The dove announced deliverance from the flood, and at Christ’s baptism, the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove announced deliverance from sins.
Because of their courtship, their joint care of young, and the tender loving care between the parents, doves were symbols of romantic love in the ancient Near East. For example, “my dove” was used as a term of endearment between lovers (Song. 2:14; 5:2; 6:9).
When Jesus sent His disciples to preach to the Jews, He told them to be “as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves” (Mt. 10:16).
If the Holy Spirit is like a dove, then He is associated with peace, love and innocence. This image reminds us of the love, peace and goodness in the fruit of the Spirit which the Holy Spirit produces in the life of the believer (Gal. 5:22-23).
Next, the Holy Spirit is like certain inanimate objects.
The Holy Spirit is like wind, which is the movement of air from a region of high pressure to one of lower pressure. The wind moves and is invisible but we can see its effect on clouds, flags and leaves. And we can feel wind, particularly when it’s very hot or very cold.
Jesus told Nicodemus that “no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again” spiritually (Jn. 3:3). He is saying that just as the first (physical) birth is necessary for physical life, so a second (spiritual) birth is necessary for spiritual life. Christ’s kingdom can only be entered by those whose lives have been changed. Since His reign will be a righteous one, His subjects must be righteous also. He couldn’t reign over people who were going on in their sins. This spiritual birth is produced by the Holy Spirit when a person believes in the Lord Jesus Christ (Jn. 3:6, 8). When a person is born again through the Spirit, they receive a new nature, and so are fit for the kingdom of God. Then Jesus gave an illustration, “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” (Jn. 3:8). The Greek noun for “Spirit” is the same as for “wind” (Strongs #4151). The word can mean spirit, Spirit, wind or breath, depending on the context. The same applies to the Hebrew word for these nouns in the Old Testament (Strongs #7307). Jesus is saying that the Holy Spirit and spiritual birth are like the wind. He’s using the physical to illustrate the spiritual. We can’t control or fully understand the invisible origin and movement of the wind or the Holy Spirit. Both the wind and spiritual birth are unpredictable. We don’t know just when and where it will take place.
On the day of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit came to live in the disciples, “a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven” (Acts 2:2). So there was an audible sign of this event.
If the Holy Spirit is like wind, then although He’s invisible, He’s life-giving (we need air) and powerful. This image reminds us of the Holy Spirit’s role in giving us spiritual life.
The Holy Spirit is also like running water, which like air is a dynamic fluid that’s essential for physical life. In ancient times settlements were near wells and waterways. Water also washes, purifies and refreshes (Ps.51:7).
When Jesus preached to the Jews during the Festival of Tabernacles He said, ‘“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”. By this He meant the Spirit, whom those who believed in Him were later to receive. Up to that time the Spirit had not been given, since Jesus had not yet been glorified’ (Jn. 7:37-39). He is quoting from Isaiah where there is a gospel invitation to those who are thirsty (who sense their need) to “come to the waters” (Isa. 55:1). If they do this and live godly lives, they are promised “The Lord will guide you always; He will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land and will strengthen your frame. You will be like a well-watered garden; like a spring whose waters never fail” (Isa. 58:11). John explains that the “rivers of living water” was a metaphor for the Holy Spirit “whom those who believed in Him were later to receive” at Pentecost. A river channels water. This water can be used to irrigate crops, which bring a harvest. So if you are spiritually thirsty, accept Jesus as your Savior and the Holy Spirit will immediately come and empower your life and produce the fruit of the Spirit.
This happened on the last day of the Festival. So they had been celebrating for 7 days before Jesus said “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink”. Obviously, their religious observance hadn’t met their spiritual needs. So He invited them to come to Him for spiritual satisfaction by trusting Him as Savior. The same principle applies today. If you have a spiritual need because the gods of this world don’t satisfy or because you are aware of our sinfulness, then learn about what Jesus has done for us.
If the Holy Spirit is like a running water, then He is life-giving (we need water) and He satisfies our spiritual needs. This image reminds us that the impact of the Holy Spirit leads to spiritual growth and the fruit of the Spirit.
The Holy Spirit is also like olive oil, which was used in Old Testament times to anoint prophets, priests and kings for ministry to their offices (Ex. 29:7; 30:30; 1 Sam. 16:13; 2 Sam. 5:3; 1 Ki. 19:16; Isa. 61:1). In this case anointing with olive oil symbolized the coming of the Holy Spirit. The words “Messiah” and “Christ” mean “anointed one”. Also, it was courtesy, honoring and respectful to anoint the head of a guest with oil (Ps. 23:5; Lk. 7:46). And in those days the oil lamp was their only source of light at night (Mt. 25:3-4).
Jesus quoted from Isaiah when He said “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because He has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor” (Isa. 61:1; Lk. 4:18). The phrase “He has anointed me” refers back to Jesus’ baptism (Lk. 3:21-22). So He was anointed with the Holy Spirit, not with oil.
Peter told Cornelius that “God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power” (Acts 10:38). Paul wrote, “God has anointed us” and then mentions the Holy Spirit (2 Cor. 1:21). So Christians are also anointed with the Holy Spirit.
In the context of discerning truth from the error of false teachers, John wrote “you have an anointing from the Holy One (Jesus), and all of you know the truth” (1 Jn. 2:20). The anointing refers to the Holy Spirit. So the Holy Spirit helps believers to discern between truth and error. The Holy Spirit exposes false teachers when we test them against Scripture (1 Jn. 2:26-27). In His warning against false teachers, John says that because we received the Holy Spirit, we don’t need any spiritual teaching apart from what is found in the Bible. The Holy Spirit will help us understand what we need to know about salvation and Christian living.
If the Holy Spirit is like olive oil, then He empowers us for ministry and service. This image reminds us that the Holy Spirit will help us understand the Bible and apply it to our daily lives.
The Holy Spirit is also like fire. In ancient times, fires satisfied many human needs by producing heat and light. It was also used to purify precious metals (Mal. 3:2-3) and was a symbol for God. God is like “a consuming fire” (Dt. 4:24; Heb. 12:29) towards those who reject Him for idolatry. He made the covenant with Abraham as a burning torch (Gen. 15:17), spoke to Moses from the burning bush (Ex. 3:2), and guided the Israelites at night with a column of fire (Ex. 13:21; Num. 9:15-16).
On the day of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit came to live in the disciples, “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 …” (Acts 2:3-4). So there was a visual sign of this event. It doesn’t say they were tongues of fire, but that’s what they seemed to be. The tongues may refer to the miraculous gift of speaking in other languages. The fire may refer to the Holy Spirit as the source of this gift and may also describe the bold enthusiastic preaching that followed (Acts 4:31).
Paul said “Do not quench the Spirit” (1 Th. 5:19). He was warning against hindering the work of the Holy Spirit in the local church. The Greek word translated “quench” (Strongs #4570) occurs 8 times in the New Testament. In 6 of these it means extinguishing a flame or fire. Another one is metaphorically extinguishing “flaming arrows” (Eph. 6:16). Therefore, it’s reasonable to infer that this verse is also a metaphor where the Holy Spirit is taken to be like a fire.
If the Holy Spirit is like a fire, then He is divine and can enable us to be filled with His Spirit. This image reminds us that the Holy Spirit enables the local church to function harmoniously using the gifts of the Spirit.
The Holy Spirit is also like a seal, which is evidence of ownership and security. In ancient times official documents were sealed with hot wax and an imprint was made on the wax with the official seal of the person sending the document (Neh. 9:38 – 10:1; Est. 8:8). Last year I obtained an apostille for my son so a document would be accepted in France. The certificate is attached to the document being verified and they are then embossed with an official government seal so it is evident if any of the pages have been removed.
Paul said, “He (God) anointed us, set His seal of ownership on us, and put His Spirit in our hearts” (2 Cor. 1:21-22). And, “When you believed, you were marked in Him (Christ) with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit” (Eph. 1:13). The Spirit indwelling the believer is the mark that they belong to God and are eternally secure. The only visible evidence of this is a spirit-filled life. We are now God’s property. Our body is the temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 3:16; 6:19). In this sense, it’s a sacred place because it’s inhabited by a sacred person.
Paul said, “And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption” (Eph. 4:30). We are sealed until the Rapture when our salvation is complete and our bodies are resurrected and changed. Here our ownership and security is said to be a reason why we should not sin.
If the Holy Spirit is like a seal, then we are owned by God and spiritually safe and protected. This image encourages us to care for our bodies and gives us reasons not to sin.
Deposit and first-fruits
The Holy Spirit is also like a deposit and first-fruits. A deposit is the first payment for something, with the balance being payable later. Because all of creation belongs to God, the Israelites were commanded to offer the first and best of their animals and produce to God (Lev. 23:9-14). These first-fruits were considered a promise of the coming harvest.
Paul says that God “put His Spirit in our hearts as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come” (2 Cor. 1:22; 5:5) and the Holy Spirit is “a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession” (Eph. 1:14). So this deposit is like the first instalment of a sum of money that has been inherited and it comes with a guarantee that the balance will be paid later. As we receive the Holy Spirit, we will also receive the full inheritance of God. This inheritance includes our bodies being transformed to be like Christ at the Rapture and reigning with Him at the second coming (Rom. 8:17; Phil 3:21).
Paul says that believers “have the first-fruits of the Spirit” as they wait eagerly for the redemption of their bodies (Rom. 8:23). Just as the first handful of grain is a pledge of the entire harvest to follow, so the Holy Spirit is a guarantee of the full salvation that is yet to come, including the redemption of our bodies. Our spirits and souls have already been redeemed, and our bodies will be redeemed at the Rapture (1 Th. 4:13-18). By the way, Jesus is also a first-fruit of the coming resurrection (1 Cor. 15:20).
If the Holy Spirit is like a deposit and first-fruits, then our inheritance is guaranteed and protected. This image gives us assurance and confidence in the inheritance that God has promised for His people.
The Holy Spirit is also like a power supply. A power supply like power stations and batteries enables work to be done. Our phones and tablets are useless unless their batteries are charged. And there has been a power crisis in Tasmania since the power cable from Victoria was cut in December 2015.
Jesus told His disciples to wait in Jerusalem until they were “clothed with power from on high” because when the Holy Spirit came on the Day of Pentecost, they would receive power to witness throughout their known world (Lk. 24:49; Acts 1:8). The apostles preached the gospel in the power of the Holy Spirit. And Christians today have spiritual power which enables them to obey the great commission (Mt. 28:19-20). This power comes from the Holy Spirit (Eph. 3:16, 20).
If the Holy Spirit is like a power supply, then Christians have more power to live for God than we realize. This image encourages us to be ready to share our Christian faith.
Next, the Holy Spirit is likened to an attribute.
The Holy Spirit is also like a voice which instructs and warns. His words to the prophets and apostles are preserved for us in the Bible. I imagine it was a bit like the voice of a GPS that instructs as we drive.
Isaiah told Judah that when they repented “Whether you turn to the right or to the left, your ears will hear a voice behind you, saying, “This is the way; walk in it” (Isa. 30:21). And they will obey the instruction. Jesus told His disciples “when He, the Spirit of truth, comes, He will guide you into all the truth. He will not speak on His own; He will speak only what He hears, and He will tell you what is yet to come” (Jn. 16:13). And they wrote this truth in the New Testament. For example, in Hebrews 3:7-11 the Holy Spirit gave a warning from Psalm 95 and gives the application in verses 12-15. This shows that God speaks in Scripture, even to generations subsequent to its time of writing (Hebrews was written about 770 years after Isaiah). And the apostles were told “When they arrest you, do not worry about what to say or how to say it. At that time, you will be given what to say, for it will not be you speaking, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you” (Mt. 10:19-20). So the Holy Spirit would give them the words to say in situations such as sudden arrest when there is no time to prepare what to say.
If the Holy Spirit is like a voice, then He can guide us today through the Bible. This image reminds us that God can use the Holy Spirit to speak to us through our conscience.
The Holy Spirit is also like a teacher, seven spirits, and seven lamps (Jn. 14:26; Rev. 1:4-6; 4:5).
We have looked at several images (metaphors) of the Holy Spirit from the Bible.
They show that He:
Defends and helps like a lawyer.
Brings love and peace like a dove.
Is powerful like wind.
Satisfies like running water.
Empowers like olive oil and a power supply.
Sustains the church like a fire.
Protects us like a seal.
Guarantees our inheritance like a deposit and first-fruits.
And, guides like a voice.
So the Holy Spirit operates behind the scenes and not in the limelight. He helps, empowers, sustains, and guides. And He implements all of God’s plans. The Spirit is mentioned throughout the Bible: He’s there in the background making it all happen.
Is our spirituality based on the Holy Spirit and what He’s revealed to us in the Bible?
Are we aware of the Holy Spirit’s help and support?
Are we experiencing love and peace?
Do we realize His power?
Are we spiritually satisfied?
Are we empowered for ministry and service?
Is our church life sustainable?
As we assured of our spiritual protection?
Are we assured of our inheritance?
And, are we following what we learn from Scripture?
It’s amazing! God created everything in the beginning. Later He (Jesus) died for us, so we can have spiritual life. Now He (the Holy Spirit) lives in in us and helps us. He is the “power that is at work within us” (Eph. 3:20).
We have looked at two words today, “holy” and “Spirit”. May we be more holy and more spiritual by living in the power of God’s Holy Spirit as He gives us spiritual life and enables us to live the Christian life.
Written, June 2016
Also see: What’s God like?
What’s Jesus like?
Why do some Bibles use the word “ditches” in 2 Kings 3:16 and others the word “pools”?
When the armies of three nations ran out of water they sought the help of Elisha the prophet (2 Ki. 3:9-27). Elisha received a message from God saying that He would use a miracle to provide water for themselves and their animals. This happened on the following morning and God also used the appearance of the water to defeat their enemy. So God did more than they requested (Eph. 3:20).
The first part of God’s message as given in verse 16 has been translated in two ways:
- “Make this valley full of ditches” (NKJV). This emphasises that the armies were to dig the ditches (or pits) and then the Lord would provide the water.
- “I will fill this valley with pools of water” (NIV). This emphasises that God would provide the water.
See link for a comparison between different translations and a translation note from the New English Translation (NET). Here we see that both alternatives occur in more than one translation. The difference depends on whether the command is assumed to be literal or hyperbolic (a figure of speech). It has also been said that in this context “ditches” (or pits) and “pools” are nearly synonymous.
Possible applications to the two alternative translations are:
- Pray, listen to God and do all you can to accomplish His purposes, while trusting God to act.
- Pray and then wait and trust God to act.
Written, February 2013