A discourse on the work of the Holy Spirit

1. Who is the Holy Spirit?

I think many Christians do not know who the Holy Spirit is. Often He is described as the unknown God. But the Bible’s view of the Holy Spirit is that He is the unseen but real person, presence, power and activity of God.

In the Synoptic Gospels the Holy Spirit was active at the birth of Jesus and his anointment by God during his baptism (Mt 3:16, Mk 1:8, Lk 3:16). The Synoptics also articulate that Jesus is the source of the work of the Holy Spirit for he …baptises in the Holy Spirit and with fire… (Mt 3:11; Mk 1:8; Lk 3:16). In the Gospel of John the Holy Spirit is called the Paraclete (or Comforter, Counsellor, Helper, the Spirit of truth; Jh 15:26). In Acts (2:4, 38) the baptism with the Spirit was an act of God who empowered the disciples and early Church and was accompanied by both unusual visible and audible phenomena. Paul articulates the Holy Spirit as the divine energy or dynamic of the new life whose Head is the living Christ (1 Rm 15:13; Eph 5:18; 1 Th 1:5).  Paul helped to personalise men’s thinking about the conception of the Spirit. In Revelation the Holy Spirit is called Seven Spirits or the Seven Eyes of God  (Rv 1:4, 3:1, 4:5, 5:6). The number seven is a symbolic indication of the plenitude of the Holy Spirit.  The Seven Eyes of God are symbolic of the Spirit as the eyes of God. He sees the entire cosmos. Nothing escapes him. He is the Spirit of perception (the Deus praesens). He is also identified with the eyes of every individual believer (5:6). Through the Spirit, John is able to perceive the need in the seven congregations.

“A man with an experience is not at the mercy of an argument.”

The term Holy Spirit  speaks of his divine nature, for God is both holy and Spirit. The Holy Spirit is distinct from both the Father and Son. As part of the Godhead, Trinity, the Holy Spirit is divine (fully God). Paul does not identify Christ with the Spirit. The truth is rather that it is through the Spirit that Christ comes to Christians. Christ and the Spirit are distinguishable, but experientially they are one (2 Cor 13:14).

Yet the Holy Spirit is a personal being with such personal qualities as self-consciousness, the ability to speak, go and come, be grieved, and more. Just as God sent Jesus to this world, so he sent the Holy Spirit as a dōrea, gift for his Church. The Bible depicts the Holy Spirit as present and active in the world from creation onward (Gen 1:2). He is also active in the life of Christians and the Church.

2. Limited vocabulary in the New Testament

Although the actual vocabulary involving the work, baptism or filling with the Holy Spirit is limited in the New Testament, the scanty vocabulary indicates the importance of the role of the Spirit.

In the Synoptic Gospels and John the source for the baptism with the Holy Spirit is Jesus. He is the one who gives the Spirit in his fullness (Mt 3:1; Mk 1:8; Lk 3:16; Jh 1:33).

In Acts 1:5 there are four outpourings of the Holy Spirit. Jesus tells his disciples: …before many days you shall be baptised by with the Holy Spirit. This promise was fulfilled at Pentecost (Ac 2)  when …they were all filled with the Holy Spirit (Ac 2:4). This filling was accompanied by both unusual visible and audible phenomena. This had made the Christian community signally aware of a strange new vitality of life in their midst. They identified it with the Spirit of God prophetically promised for the Messianic Age in Joel 2. At the conclusion of his sermon at Pentecost Peter urges his hearers: Repent … be baptised… and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit (Ac 2:38). The coming of the Spirit is described as the gift (dōrea). Here receiving the Holy Spirit is assumed to be a part of the hearer’s conversion to Christianity.

After Peter and John had been released from imprisonment their friends prayed and the …place in which they were gathered together was shaken and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God with boldness (Ac 4:31). Some of those who had been previously filled with the Holy Spirit (at Pentecost) were again filled.

In Samaria new converts believed and were baptised. Philip’s preaching was accompanied by signs and great miracles (Ac 8:7-13). Then Luke tells us that the Holy Spirit later came upon the Samaritan believers. After Peter and John had come from Jerusalem, prayed that the new converts would receive the Spirit, and laid hands on them, they received the Holy Spirit (Ac 8:14-17). The laying on of hands was, in the early church sometimes associated with the coming of the Holy Spirit (Ac 6:17-19; 19:6).

Three days after Saul-Paul’s Damascus experience and his confrontation with the resurrected Jesus, Ananias laid hands on him that he might regain his sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit. Although the text does not explicitly say so, he was filled by the Spirit, and was baptised (Ac 9:17-18).

Peter’s preaching of Jesus in the house of Cornelius was interrupted when the Holy Spirit fell on all who heard his word. They then spoke in tongues and praised God (Ac 10:46). They were then baptised in the name of Jesus Christ because, as Peter said, they had received the Holy Spirit just as we have (Ac 10:47-48). Again the Holy Spirit is called the gift (dōrea). Later, in Jerusalem, Peter defended his association with uncircumcised Gentiles on the grounds of both the Spirit’s directing him to do so and that the Holy Spirit fell on them just as on us at the beginning – referring to the Pentecost experience in Jerusalem (Ac 11:4-12; 15:7-9).  Peter associated the coming of the Holy Spirit upon these Gentiles with Jesus’ promise of the baptism with the Holy Spirit. Again, the coming of the Holy Spirit is described as the gift (Ac 11:16-17).

In Ephesus Paul found some disciples whom, for some reason, he asked: Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed? (Ac 19:2). They said that they had received only John’s baptism of repentance (Ac 19:4). Paul gave them additional instruction. When he laid hands on them …the Holy Spirit came on them, and they spoke with tongues and prophesied (Ac 19:6).

In 1 Cor 12:13, speaking of the common heritage and unity of the church, Paul says: For by one Spirit we were all baptised into one body (Jews, Greeks, slaves or free)…and all were made to drink of one Spirit. In Ephesians 4:4-6 he writes: There is one body and one Spirit…one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all…The one baptism in 1 Cor 12:13 is probably that of the Holy Spirit. In Ephesians it may refer to both the baptism by water or with the Spirit or both.

Paul suggests the fullness of the Holy Spirit as a corrective for improper behavior when he says: Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit (Eph 5:18). It means to come under control of the Spirit. Here Paul again personalises men’s thinking about the mystery of the work of the Spirit.

It seems apparent that in some sense the Holy Spirit is present in the life of all Christians. Paul says: Any one who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him (Rm 8:9). It is impossible to be a Christian without the person and work of the Holy Spirit in the individual. The New Testament teaches that it is the Holy Spirit who applies the work of Christ to the believer.

It is also important to comment on the tenet where Jh 3:34 states: …for it is not by measure that he gives the Spirit. This means that God does not give the Holy Spirit quantitatively. The term baptism and filling cannot refer to the amount of the Spirit one receives. With respect the Holy Spirit as Person does not come and live in you with a leg or an arm. He comes as the third Person in the Trinity, as a Person in fullness, a gift (dōrea) of God. What happens when you are baptised with the Holy Spirit? Actually this mystery is too big to translate into words. It is the Holy Spirit who already lives in you who baptises you in God’s love. He renovates, motivates and empowers you again in God’s love.

The cases of Jesus and of the 120 disciples at Pentecost may indicate that the baptism  and filling of the Holy Spirit are synonymous. It indicates the identification of the individual or group with God through Christ.

3. The work of God through the Holy Spirit is a mystery

The interpretation of the evidence of the baptism with the Holy Spirit in the Book of Acts is important. The Holy Spirit is mentioned over fifty times in Acts, more that any other book in the New Testament. As seen above, four distinct outpourings of the Holy Spirit are recounted in Acts: (a) upon the Jewish believers at Pentecost in Jerusalem (2;4), (b) the Samaritans (8:17), (c) the Gentiles in the house of Cornelius (10:44), and (d) the disciples of John the Baptist at Ephesus (19:2-7).

It is interesting that the New Testament never describes how a person or a group really experience the baptism with the Spirit. His entry into the lives of believers are only described in Acts as, (a) coming upon (1:8), (b) poured out (2:17), (c) promised (2:33), (d) a gift (10:45), and (e) being received (10:47). Paul saw the acts of the Holy Spirit as the source of all our religious experience (1 Cor 14).

In these texts God reveals him as a God of diversity. The Holy Spirit, according to Acts,  can come upon people in different ways. It may be before or after baptism. It may be with or without the laying on of hands. It may be with or without the speaking of tongues. It may be with or without preaching and teaching about the subject. The main point is: we can’t be dogmatic about such things. Just when we think we understand God, God does something that violates our understanding of him or contradicts our theology.

Human persons have intellectual, volitional (the element of will), and emotional facilities. Some persons emphasise one or two of these more than the others. Some focus only on the experience, emotion, and feelings and neglect the intellect or the will. Then we miss the goal of the work of the Spirit.

To summarise, the Holy Spirit is active in (a) the application of salvation, (b) the empowering of Christians, and (c) in the life of the Church.

4. The Spirit is God in Christ at work in men

The Spirit was active throughout the ministry of Jesus (Mt 1:20; Lk 1:35; Mk 1:10; Mt 3:16). It is evident from the New Testament that the Holy Spirit has a major role in salvation and He is the most important resource for Christian growth. He is the seal and guarantee (down payment) of the believer’s future inheritance in the Kingdom of God (or God’s new world; Eph 1:14). As Jesus’ ministry drew to a close, Jesus promised that he and the Father would send the Spirit (Paraclete) upon his disciples after his departure to guide them in all truth (Jh 1:26; 15:26; 16:7 etc).

In summary the work of the Spirit in salvation may be articulated under a number of headings;

  • Conviction and calling (Jh 16:14; 2 Th 2:13-14)…. for this purpose he (the Holy Spirit) called you….
  • Application of salvation. Jesus’ words are: …He will take what is mine and declare it to you (Jh 15:26).
  • Rebirth and renewal. Paul says in 1 Cor 6:11: You were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God. (cf Titus 3:4-7).
  • The Holy Spirit makes Christians. Without the presence and work of the Holy Spirit it is impossible for anyone to be saved. Jesus made this clear to Nicodemus (Jh 3:8). Paul says in Rm 8:9: Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him.
  • Adoption is also connected to the work of the Holy Spirit (Rm 5:15; Gl 4:6). Assurance of salvation comes through the….Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God (Rm 8:16). Scott said it is no more possible to be a Christian without the person and work of the Holy Spirit than to be a human being without birth parents.

5. The work of the Holy Spirit is unique

Jesus likens the Spirit to the metaphor of wind which, although invisible, can be heard and felt (Jh 3:8), whose power and results are readily evident. He is the wind from God. It blows where it chooses.  You hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. The presence and work of the Spirit are beyond human control and often may go undetected. You can’t confuse it with any other sound, for example the sound of a horse’s hoofs. The sound of the Holy Spirit can never be counterfeited. The work of the Holy Spirit is unique. His sound is evident.

The work of the Holy Spirit can not be manipulated by human actions or set procedures. Emotional states and feelings may (or may not) be legitimate evidence of the Spirit at a particular time or place. All evidence of the Spirit is divine and comes at God’s initiative and discretion. Those which are self- or group-induced do not necessarily bring nor guarantee his presence.  The sound of the work of the Holy Spirit is unique.

6. The baptism with the Holy Spirit

As has been stated, the New Testament never describes how a person or a group really experience the baptism with the Spirit. As stated Paul saw the work of the Spirit as the source of all our religious experiences. And there are so many different views on this tenet. The presence and fruit of the Spirit include emotional responses such as love, joy, and peace (Gal 5;22). But baptism?

My experience is that the baptism with the Holy Spirit is to experience God’s new world through His intimate presence and holy romances. It is to experience a new love for his Word, for his Church, being purified, helped, inspired, quickened, sanctified and to gain knowledge (Ac 19:2-7), being illuminated (Jh 16:13-14) and empowered (Ac 1:8) in a very special way. Actually, my mother tongue, my English or German are too scanty to describe this divine experience.

Recently I had an experience when I was on a plane from San Diego to Heathrow. Suddenly, after dinner was served and the lights dimmed, I felt the presence and anointing of the Lord in a very special way. I softly worshiped Him and spoke in tongues for an hour or more. Not even my wife next to me noticed it. It was like a flooding stream flowing through me. Every time I called the name of the Lord or prayed for people or his church, it was like a big wave in me. It was so wonderful to experience that the airplane, flying at a speed of a 1000 kilometers per hour, could not escape the presence of the Holy Spirit. In all, I experienced a deep love for God the Father, Jesus and the Holy Spirit. It gave me a complete trust and confidence in the unseen (and the unknown future) because of one’s assurance of the reliability of God. And how does the slogan go: A man with an experience is not at the mercy of an argument. However, I can’t make this experience a pattern for what each or all Christians should expect. But my prayer is that all Christians can experience the love of the Spirit in such a way, for the Holy Spirit fosters Jesus’ indwelling in us.

I place considerable weight on the words yield (Eph 5:18), do not resist (Ac 7:51), nor quench (1 Th 4:30) the Spirit. It may refer to receiving the Spirit in the sense of becoming consciously aware of his presence and activity. For example, we may know of the presence of a guest in our home, but not until we walk into the same room with him or her and receive our guest. Then we do begin to reap the full benefit of his or her presence. So too awareness of the presence of the Spirit is necessary for him to have full control.


From the birth of Christ we saw the working of the Holy Spirit as the Almighty God in action. The angel said to Mary: The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you (Lk 1:35).  The Holy Spirit is the power of the Most High that still overshadows us.

The significance of the construction of the verb in Eph 5:18: Be filled (plērousthe) with the Spirit, is in the imperative mood, thereby expressing a command or strong admonition. The passive voice denotes something that is done to rather than by the subject and the present tense denotes a continuing action. The call is for a constant, continuing yielding, letting God, through his Spirit.  You (plural) must be continually filled with the Spirit.

The church needs to become more aware of and yield to the person and work of the Holy Spirit. The power of the church is not her methods and techniques, music, the efficiency of her advertising, or the oratorical skill of her preachers. The power of the church is the presence and activity of the Holy Spirit working in both individuals and the body in order that the …power of the Most High will overshadow you. Scott states that without the Spirit a so-called church is merely a group of human beings – a social club.

Throughout her history the church has struggled to find proper ways to test the spirits (cf 1 Jh 4:1) and to discern the true Holy Spirit from counterfeits and false spirits.

            The prayer of the early Church was: Veni Creator Spiritus. Come Creator Spirit.


Read a related post on The baptism in the Holy Spirit in perspective



Sources consulted:

McCain D, 2000. “New Testament Introduction”. Nigeria: African Christian Textbooks.

Scott, JJ 2008. “New Testament Theology”. Scotland: Christian Focus Publishers.

1 Comment

  1. Esteé

    Baie Dankie vir hierdie broodnodige insig in die karakter en werking vd Heilige Gees. Hy is die persoon wat ons die nodigste het vir n tyd soos hierdie. Hierdie info is ook ‘n inspirasie vir my eie werk en lewe.
    Esteé Hanekom

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