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Have You Seen God Lately?

Two big Sundays in the Church Year have just come and gone. Pentecost is the commemoration of the coming of the Holy Spirit in power on the first disciples. (The British charmingly call it “Whitsunday” for the white robes worn by catechumens or, in another etymology, the “wit” (wisdom) of the Holy Spirit descending upon the Church.)

The second, which follows Pentecost, is Trinity Sunday, when the doctrine of the Trinity is celebrated as crucial to Christian understanding and piety.


Why, however, does the Church believe in the Holy Spirit?


It’s one thing to believe in a Supreme Being, God. Most people in the world do, in one form or another.


It’s another thing to trust in Jesus Christ as the Son of God. But we have lots of description of Jesus in the New Testament such that we, like the first converts, can have good grounds to conclude that he is Something More than a prophet, or angel, or even a theophany. (The lifework of my friend the late Larry Hurtado set out that process by which the disciples came to worship and affirm Jesus as divine.)


It is quite another thing, however, to believe that God is three, and that the Third is the ghostly wind of God, the Holy Spirit.


The “holy” part is obvious enough. “Holy” most basically means “set apart as special,” and in Biblical terminology “holy” comes to refer to the province of God, the “most special.” So the most special parts of the tabernacle and temple in the old covenant were designated “the holy place” and “the holiest of holies.” Likewise, our most special book is the Holy Bible.


What about this “Spirit,” though? In older Bibles, he is referred to as the Holy Ghost. This word connects back to a root shared with Germanic languages: Geist means “ghost,” “spirit,” and “mind.” Nowadays, to avoid the meaning of “spooky apparition,” we use Spirit.


The Bible words for “spirit,” in both Hebrew (Old Testament) and Greek (New Testament), also mean “breath” and “wind.” So it is symbolically apt that when the early Christians were awaiting the promised Spirit in an upstairs room in Jerusalem on that Pentecost Sunday, there came the sound as of a violent wind.


That sound was accompanied by a visual symbol. Over each person’s head, a flame or “tongue” as of fire came to rest, also symbolic of the presence of God—as in the Old Testament fire of Mount Sinai and the pillar of fire that led ancient Israel toward the Promised Land. (The text of Acts makes clear that the wind and the fire are “as if,” not literally a blast of air or an eruption of little flames.)


On the night he was betrayed and arrested, Jesus had promised the Twelve (detailed in the Upper Room Discourse of John 13-17) that he would go away. And, in the face of the dismayed disciples, Jesus asserted that it was better that he went away. Why?


Jesus said that he would ask the Father for Another One to come. And this One would do even better than what Jesus did. Jesus came to dwell among us (John 1 has the idea of the Word of God tabernacling among us, tenting among our tents) in order to perform signs for us and preach to us, as well as to model right living before us.


The Holy Spirit would come to dwell within us in order that we would perform miracles, proclaim the gospel, and live as examples to the world.


I hope to write a Mini-Course on the Holy Spirit before long, so I’ll rein myself in here before detailing too much more about who the Spirit is and what he does. For now, let’s resume our focus on why we believe there is such a person as to make the Godhead three.


Canadian schoolkids in my day were often assigned a little Bildungsroman by W. O. Mitchell called Who Has Seen the Wind? (1947). (I went to an advanced school in the bush of northern Ontario, so we used technical terms such as “Bildungsroman” all the time. No, we did not.)


The title comes from a little rhyme the boys at the centre of the story have themselves learned in school:


Who has seen the wind?

Neither you nor I.

But when the trees bow down their heads,

The wind is passing by.


In the same way, the earliest believers came to expand their belief in God to include a third Person by experiencing the Spirit and by rightly attributing what they saw and heard to his divine work.


In his Pentecost sermon (Acts 2), Peter chides those who have mocked the work of the Spirit as signs merely of drunkenness with a light observation: “They’re not drunk: It’s only nine in the morning!” But by the end of his fiery oration, he is calling everyone to account before Almighty God. And some continue to write off what they have seen as not from God, while others believed and were added to the Church.


The Spirit continues to this day to manifest himself—in spectacular gifts, such as speaking in tongues, prophecy, and healing, yes, and more commonly in other gifts, such as (effective) teaching, evangelism, leadership, service, and hospitality.


The Holy Spirit continues to give people the New Birth. God animates us by his Spirit: anima in Latin means “the breath of life,” hence animal. And then God “holifies” us by the Holy Spirit, in the process of sanctification (sanctus being Latin for “holy”) to make us mature children of God.


If you attend a church and if you attend to what is happening in that church, you will see lives transformed. You will see addictions and ailments healed. You will see marriages saved. You will see relationships restored.


You will hear and see things that are best accounted for by the work of an unseen Agent. This Agent breathes life into us and among us, making us alive in God and growing us up into the image of God’s Son.


But you have to look for that evidence of the Spirit. And you have to know what you are looking for—and at.


As Jonathan Edwards wisely advised centuries ago in his Treatise concerning the Religious Affections (1746), the unusual behaviour that sometimes shows up in charismatic- and Pentecostal-type meetings may be prompted by the Spirit. But it may arise instead out of mental illness, a need for attention, or even an evil spirit. What counts as genuine evidence of the Spirit is a life increasingly conformed to the image of Christ, in loving worship of Christ, according to God’s Word about Christ in Scripture.


(I daresay that this evidence will not be as evident in a Sunday morning public worship service as it will be in a weekday evening small group. In that latter, homey context, people speak more freely about their ongoing life with God. Be advised: the Spirit more often shows up clearly at the retail level rather than the wholesale.)


Mitchell’s schoolboys quickly get tired of their little rhyme. Eventually one of them cracks up the others as they trudge home again from school by an inventive bit of naughtiness:


Who has seen the wind?

Neither you nor I.

But when the trees bow down their heads,

Nobody gives a damn.


I remember snorting with delight when reading this line in a book I otherwise didn’t much enjoy. But I’ve come to see a solemn, even menacing, shadow to the joke.


The trees are bowing down their heads in any healthy congregation. And all around the world, the Spirit is blowing new life into individuals, families, congregations—even nations. Trees are bowing down their heads there, too.


It is because Jesus promised the Spirit and then the disciples experienced the Spirit that the Church came to affirm the presence and power of the Spirit on two successive Sundays: Pentecost and Trinity. It is because Christians experience Spiritual gifts and Spiritual growth and Spiritual miracles that we believe in that Spirit.


Yes, one can write it all off as merely psychological and sociological wish-fulfilment, or “groupthink,” or hysteria. Dismissing the work of God by attributing it to the work of something else has a long history. And sometimes what purports to be the work of the Spirit is, indeed, the work of charlatans or fools.


Still, the Wind of God somehow blew up that little coterie of Jews in a Jerusalem upper room into the world’s largest and most influential religion. And that religion makes remarkable differences in human lives globally to this day.


Searching for the Cause of Christianity might well be worthwhile for the serious inquirer. Seeking the full influence of that Holy Spirit on one’s life and the life of one’s congregation is well worth the earnest effort of any serious Christian.


The trees are bowing down their heads all around us, all over the world. Who will give a damn?


 Mini Courses 


Understand key ideas in important Christian theology, ethics, and history in 30 minutes (or less!) in ThinkBetter Media's mini-courses, created by award-winning theologian and historian Dr. John G. Stackhouse, Jr. 

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