A General Survey
Arguably the most profound discovery in our years of working on the word “spirit” can be summed up very simply: “There is no easy, succinct summary!”
The classical uses of pneuma are varied. Its earliest appearance in literature, according to Liddell/Scott, is in the ancient tragic dramas, where it referred to a blast of wind. Later, Thucydides used it of both a breeze, and an influence. Hippocrates and other physicians used it for the “breath of life” (at either the beginning or the end), for ordinary respiration, and even for flatulence! Others referred to any odor, to the “breath” (grammatically) with which a Greek vowel is pronounced, an immaterial being (including people who had died), or the rhetorician’s declamation of a sentence in a single breath.
The LXX used it of both the “spirit of God” and the “spirit of a man”, and Plato of divine inspiration.
Bauer adds that in non-Biblical literature the reference was to “what lives after death in the underworld,” or what one “gives up” at death. It was considered the source of insight, feelings, and will – a part of the human personality separate from either sarx (flesh) or soma (body). Both Bauer and Thayer then launch into lengthy descriptions of theological disputes, but these have nothing to do with the etymology of the word, or its usage in the New Testament. They are later interpretations.
The New Testament uses pneuma in three primary ways: the Holy Spirit, the human spirit, and evil or unclean spirits. There are also a few references (Lk.24:37, 39; Heb.12:23, I Pet.3:19) that could be interpreted in a more “ghostly” fashion.
Most of the references to evil or unclean spirits are in gospel accounts of Jesus banishing them (at least 29 times), or entrusting his disciples with the authority to do so, and similar situations in Acts (at least 7), although several epistles also warn against “seducing spirits” (I Tim.4:1), “deceptive spirits” (II Thes.2:2), “another spirit” (II Cor.11:4), and a “spirit of bondage” (Rom.8:15). John (I Jn.4:1-6) gives careful instructions for determining the validity of “spiritual” claims, which folks today would still be wise to heed, with regard to all the “spirituality” talk going around: “Any spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus, is not from God”! In the Revelation, reference is also made to spirits connected with the “animal/beast” that opposes God. The most important thing to derive from all of these is the proclamation – and demonstration – that none of them is capable of standing against the Lord Jesus or his representatives!!!
All too often, people want to sort everything into an influence or activity of either the Holy Spirit or evil spirits, forgetting that it is often necessary to deal simply with the human spirit (about 40 times in the NT), which may, but need not, be influenced by either one. It is simply a part of human individuality, and people must choose, many times throughout life, to what sort of spirit they will subject their own! Paul speaks of “serving God with my spirit” (Rom.1:9), of being “present with you in spirit” (I Cor.5:3), of having his “spirit refreshed” (II Cor.7:13) by the faithfulness of brethren. He admonishes his readers to be “fervent in spirit” (Rom.12:11). In I Cor.2:11, he refers specifically to the “spirit of man”, and there are many more such instances. Many refer to people’s attitudes, inclinations, or dispositions (I Cor.4:21, I Pet.3:4, Gal.6:1), or simply to the end of their lives (Mt.27:50, Jn.19:30, Lk.8:55, Ac.7:59).
The KJV translators tried to solve the ambiguity problem by (usually, not always) changing the word to “Ghost” when it appeared with hagios (holy). In the instances where pneuma appears with only the definite article (“the”), the context usually makes the reference fairly obvious. These provide descriptions, definitions, and demonstrations of the Holy Spirit.
Descriptive designations usually include a genitive case which denotes the source or possession of the spirit. They include: “The Spirit of God” (at least 19 times, including Mt.3:16, Rom.8:9,14; I Cor.3:16, 6:11, 7:40, and references to “the seven spirits of God” in Rev.1:4, 3:1, and 4:5); “the Spirit of Jesus” (Phil.1:19); “the Spirit of Christ” (Rom.8:9); the Spirit of the Father (Mt.10:20); “the Spirit of the Lord” (Lk.4:18); and “the spirit of the living God” (II Cor.3:3). Others reflecting his activity include “the spirit of life” (Rom.8:2), “the spirit of adoption” (Rom.8:15), “the spirit of truth” (Jn.14 and 16); “the spirit of wisdom” (Eph.1:17), and “the spirit of promise” (Eph.1:13).
Jesus provided several definitions, including Jn.4:24 “God is spirit”, Jn.6:63 “The spirit makes alive”, “the words that I am speaking are spirit and life”, and “the Spirit of truth” in Jn.14 and 16. Paul echoes a similar understanding in Rom.8:10, “the Spirit is life”. In II Cor.1:22 he explains that the Spirit is a down-payment, or guarantee, of the believer’s inheritance, and states plainly in II Cor.3:7, “the Lord is the spirit.” These together give clear indications of the intimate connection of the Father, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit, as Peter explained in his Pentecost sermon (Ac.2:33). This is not to provoke trinitarian arguments – for one perspective on that subject, please see chapter 2 of Citizens of the Kingdom. I am not sure that most such arguments contribute much to faithful living.
We glean the best idea of the Spirit’s nature and intentions by observing demonstrations of his activity. Although the Holy Spirit was active in the ancient prophets (see Stephen’s sermon in Ac.7),the agent of Jesus’ birth (Mt.1 and Lk.1), the sign to John the Baptist of Jesus’ identity (Mt.3:16, Mk.1:10), and Jesus referred to his “anointing” in his “inaugural address”(Lk.4:18), he was not readily available to most people while Jesus was on earth (Jn.7:39). Jesus promised his coming, and explained the purpose as (Mt.13:11, Lk.12:12) to provide necessary words of testimony when on trial, and (Jn.14:26) to teach and remind disciples of all that Jesus had said. The over-riding purpose (Jn.16:14) is the glory of Jesus!
After Pentecost, the Holy Spirit really got busy! He (Ac.2:4)– “gave the disciples things to say”, (2:17-18) — enables all God’s people to prophesy, (9:2 )– gave specific instructions to Philip (and even carried him off once – 8:35!), (10:11) — coached Peter’s encounter with Cornelius, (11:28 and 21:11) – sent messages through Agabus, (16:6,7) – changed Paul’s travel plans, (4:8) – empowered Peter’s speech before the council, and much more.
The epistles explain some of the activity in greater detail. In Rom.8, we learn that in addition to providing evidence that we belong to Jesus (also II Cor.3:6 and Eph.1:3), he is available to (Rom.8:4-13) empower and regulate the Christian life (v.4 – enabling behavior far beyond mere human capability). This is also documented in I Cor.6:11, II Cor.6:6, and Eph.3:16. He creates unity in the brotherhood (Eph.4:3 and Phil.2:1) – even uniting Jew and Gentile, which “everybody knew” was impossible (Eph.2:18) – and provides “gifts” (see W.S.#25) for its maintenance and growth. He expects us to work at that job as well, exercising those gifts (I Cor.12:4-13) for the benefit of all, and teaching one another (Eph.5:18).
It is only by his power that a believer can stand before Caesar – or any other gods of nationalism – and declare his superior allegiance to Jesus and his Kingdom (see W.S. #4), even when it may cost him his life (I Cor.12:3).
He fills the hearts of his people with the love of God (Rom.5:5), and reassures us that we belong to him (Rom.9:1), creating “joy in the Holy Spirit” (Rom.14:17).
His presence transforms life, gradually removing all traces of the old ways (I Cor.6:11), and recreating it in the image of Jesus (Gal.5:15-25).
He enables continual prayer (Jude 20), and when we are at a loss to know how to pray, steps in and does it for us (Rom.8:26)!
He creates, enables, and sustains our life in Christ!
Thanks be to God!