A Biblical Theology of the Holy Spirit

Note: I presented this paper at the annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society on Tuesday, November 13, 2018, in Denver, Colorado.

Thank you for joining me as I present a Biblical Theology of the Holy Spirit. But before I do, let’s pray. “Wonderful triune God, we adore you and worship you this morning. You are so gracious, so kind, so good. Thank you for bringing us all here safely. We pray that you be honored in our midst this morning, and at this conference. May we not reduce you merely to an academic subject but approach you in reverence and awe as we explore the depths of your divine revelation in your Word. In Jesus’ name, Amen.”

What Is Biblical Theology?

Well, as I’m sure you realize, not everyone defines Biblical Theology the same way, or uses the same method, so before I sketch the contours of a Biblical Theology of the Holy Spirit, let me briefly tell you what I mean by “Biblical Theology.” (For further detail, see my hermeneutics text, Invitation to Biblical Interpretation, chap. 15.) In essence, Biblical Theology is the theology of the Bible, that is, the theology of the biblical writers themselves, rather than our own theology informed by our own questions or concerns. I realize this may seem to beg the question, as our study of Scripture will inevitably be subjective. I also realize that none of us can claim to present “the” Biblical Theology of any topic with 100% confidence, but I nonetheless believe that discerning the theology of the biblical writers themselves remains the goal for which we should aim, the ideal for which we should strive, in an aspirational sense. In our present case, therefore, what I’m after is what the biblical writers themselves believed and taught regarding the Holy Spirit.

How Is Biblical Theology Done?

In terms of method, therefore, I believe this means at least three things.

  • Biblical Theology must be historical, that is, aim to understand a given passage of Scripture in its original historical setting. Biblical Theology is a historical discipline.
  • Biblical Theology examines the Scriptures inductively, on its own terms, in a way that pays special attention not merely to the concepts addressed in Scripture but to the very words, vocabulary, and terminology used by the biblical writers themselves.
  • Biblical Theology is primarily descriptive. That is, the overriding goal in Biblical Theology is to listen to Scripture and to accurately describe the convictions and beliefs the biblical writers themselves held about a given topic.

That said, let me now trace the contours of a Biblical Theology of the Holy Spirit, and then in the next session Gregg Allison will present the Holy Spirit from a Systematic Theology perspective. This will be a sneak preview of our joint work which will appear as the inaugural volume of a 15-volume series published by B&H Academic called “Theology for the Community of God,” edited by David Dockery, Christopher Morgan, and Nathan Finn. (I’ve presented an earlier version of this paper as a case study in a lecture I gave earlier this year at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.)


In studying the Bible’s teaching on the Spirit historically, inductively, and descriptively, it will be appropriate to start with individual references to the Spirit in both Testaments. In the Old Testament, there are about 400 references to “spirit,” ruach, but only about 100 relate to God’s Spirit; the rest refer to the human spirit or breath or to the wind (which at times serves as an emblem for God’s judgment).

Remarkably, the expression “Holy Spirit” occurs only twice in the Old Testament, in Ps 51:11 and Isa 63:10–11, though I should note that the reference in Ps 51:11 is disputed. Most frequently, the reference is to the “Spirit of Yahweh” or simply “the Spirit.” In our book, we include an appendix in which we list every reference to God’s Spirit in both Testaments, though, as you can imagine, there are quite a few judgment calls that need to be made.

Similarly, in the New Testament not every reference to pneuma, “spirit,” refers to the person of the Holy Spirit. Many references are to the human spirit or to the wind. A well-known example is Jesus’ wordplay in John 3:6–8, where Jesus uses pneuma to refer both to the Spirit and to the wind. What’s more, occasionally the Holy Spirit is mentioned apart from the word pneuma, such as the reference to “the promise from the Father” in Luke 24:49 (cf. Acts 1:4) or the reference to the Holy Spirit as God’s “seed” in 1 John 3:9.

Theologically, as we trace the development of the biblical teaching on the Holy Spirit throughout Scripture, we find a remarkable trajectory reaching from the Old to the New Testament. In the Old Testament, as we’ll see, the Spirit is shown to be active in creation and later is said to come upon leaders or prophets at God’s appointed times but most likely does not indwell ordinary believers. In the New Testament, as is well known, the Spirit is shown to have come to indwell every believer at Pentecost (with the minor complication of later “mini-Pentecosts” such as the “Samaritan Pentecost” in chap. 8).

The Old Testament

One fascinating challenge when studying God’s Spirit throughout Scripture is that there is only a limited amount of material on the Spirit in the Old Testament.

The Pentateuch

To begin with, there are three references to the Spirit in Genesis and seven more in the remainder of the Pentateuch. The Spirit is first mentioned in the Bible as hovering over the waters at creation in Gen 1:2. The closest Old Testament parallel speaks of an eagle hovering over her young (Deut 32:11), so the word picture is likely that of the Spirit as a mother bird (see also Isa 31:5). A possible reference is Gen 2:7, where God is said to breathe his Spirit into Adam. In Gen 6:3, just prior to the universal flood, it is said that God’s Spirit won’t remain with humanity forever. And in Gen 41:38, none other than Pharaoh recognizes the Spirit’s presence with Joseph.

In the rest of the Pentateuch, the Spirit is depicted as coming on, or being with, several individuals: craftsmen building the sanctuary (Bezalel and Oholiab; Exod 31:2; 35:34–35), the seventy elders (Num 11:17, 25), Balaam the prophet (Num 24:2), and Joshua, Moses’ successor (Num 27:18; Deut 34:9). In the Pentateuch, then, the Spirit is shown to have three primary functions: (1) as an agent of creation; (2) an agent of judgment; and (3) as an agent of empowerment for God’s service.

The Historical Books

Moving on to the historical books, the Spirit is said to have come upon national deliverers such as Othniel, Gideon, Jephthah, and Samson (Judg 3:10; 6:34; 11:29; 13:25; etc.). During the early days of the monarchy, the Spirit came first upon Saul (1 Sam 10:6) and subsequently upon David (1 Sam 16:13). In both time periods (the time of the judges and the Israelite monarchy), the Spirit is shown to mediate God’s presence and to empower deliverers and rulers of God’s people.

In addition, the references to the Spirit in the books of Kings, Chronicles, and Nehemiah all involve his activity in conveying Yahweh’s words to his people through prophets such as Elijah, Elisha, or Zechariah (1 Kgs 18:12; 2 Kgs 2:16; 2 Chr 24:20). Thus, in the historical books the Spirit’s work is essentially twofold: (1) raising up and empowering national deliverers and rulers; and (2) enabling God’s spokespersons to prophesy.

Wisdom Literature

There are few overt references to the Spirit in the wisdom literature (though see, e.g., Ps 33:6; 104:30; 139:7; Job 33:4). On the whole, wisdom theology is grounded in creation theology where God’s powerful, effective word, through the agency of his Spirit, is shown to constitute the grounds of everything that exists. Thus, the Spirit takes on foundational importance for how God’s creation works and is to be inhabited, utilized, and enjoyed. The Spirit is also shown to teach God’s will and to examine a person’s inner being in passages such as Ps 143:10 or Prov 20:27.

Prophetic Literature

Moving on to the prophetic literature, the Spirit is mentioned repeatedly in the prophetic books, especially Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Zechariah (while being remarkably absent from other books such as Jeremiah except possibly as an emblem of divine judgment).

In Isaiah, the operation of the Spirit is linked with the coming of the Messiah in passages such as Isa 11:1–5, 42:1–4, and 61:1–2 (cf. Luke 4:18-19). In 11:2, the prophet says that “the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him [the Messiah], the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and might, the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.” In 42:1, Isaiah prophesies, “Behold my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my Spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations.”

Finally, in a passage cited by Jesus in his hometown synagogue in Nazareth, Isaiah writes of the Messiah, “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn” (Isa 61:1–2). Notice that while the Spirit is mentioned in three of the four “Servant Songs” in Isaiah, only the last passage is in the first person, and so fittingly Jesus uses this passage in the synagogue at Nazareth as recorded in Luke 4:18–19.

The Spirit is also frequently mentioned in Ezekiel while, as mentioned, being virtually absent from parallel passages in Jeremiah. Ezekiel prophesies that God will provide his people with a new heart and a new spirit (Ezek 36:25–27; cf. 39:29) and links the Spirit with Israel’s restoration from the exile (Ezek 37:12–14).

Doubtless the most important passage on the Spirit in the 12 so-called Minor Prophets is Joel 2:28–29, the well-known passage cited by Peter at Pentecost. This is the perfect passage for Peter to invoke, as it like no other in the Old Testament speaks of a universal outpouring of God’s Spirit on “all flesh” regardless of ethnicity, gender, or social status.

Summary of Old Testament

By way of quick summary, we’ve seen that the Holy Spirit is presented in the Pentateuch as an agent of creation, judgment, and empowerment for service.

In the historical books, the Spirit is shown to mediate God’s presence and to empower deliverers and rulers and to enable God’s prophets to convey his Word to his people.

The Old Testament wisdom literature grounds its theology of the Spirit in creation theology: the Spirit equips God’s people to live in keeping with how creation works, which is God-fearing wisdom as we relate to God and our fellow human beings. This includes areas of life such as marriage, parenting, and work.

The prophetic books link the operation of the Spirit crucially to the coming of the Messiah on whom the Spirit will rest in an unprecedented manner. This Spirit-anointed Messiah, in turn, will proclaim the good news of salvation to God’s people, including the nations.

The New Testament

The Gospels

Moving on to the New Testament, the Gospels, especially Luke, portray the Spirit as actively at work in key salvation-historical figures such as John the Baptist, Jesus’ mother Mary, John’s parents Elizabeth and Zechariah, and Simeon (Luke 1–2), in anticipation of the coming Messiah. In this Messiah, Jesus, God would be present with his people in fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy and as a sign of the coming of God’s kingdom inaugurating the age to come. During his earthly ministry, Jesus is shown to possess the Spirit to an unlimited degree (John 3:32), and the Spirit is depicted at Jesus’s baptism as descending and resting on him (Matt 3:16/Mark 1:10/Luke 3:22/John 1:32–33).

The future would hold the promise of even more significant pneumatological developments. John the Baptist, and later Jesus himself, indicates that the Messiah would baptize not merely with water but with the Holy Spirit (Matt 3:11/Mark 1:8/Luke 3:16/John 1:33; Acts 1:5). At this future giving of the Spirit (John 7:38), both Jesus and his Father would make their home with believers by the Spirit who would be with them forever (John 14:16–17, 21; cf. John 20:22; Luke 24:49).


Statistically, the book of Acts contains three times as many references to the Holy Spirit as the Gospel of Luke. Jesus’ promise is realized following his ascension at Pentecost, when believers are filled with the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:4) in fulfillment of the promise of Joel 2 that in the last days God would pour out his Spirit “on all flesh” (Acts 2:16–21). Now it was not only the leaders of God’s people who experienced the presence of the Spirit but everyone who called on the name of the Lord. Soon it became clear that the same presence of the Spirit was available to Gentile believers in Jesus as well (Acts 10:44–47), in keeping with John the Baptist’s prophecy (Acts 11:15–17).

Throughout the book of Acts, the Spirit is shown to empower and direct the early church’s mission to the ends of the earth (he is a missionary Spirit). He sends Philip to go to the Ethiopian eunuch (8:29, 39); he directs Peter to go to Cornelius (10:19; cf. 11:12); he tells the church at Antioch to commission Barnabas and Paul on their first missionary journey (13:2, 4); and he redirects Paul’s steps at the outset of his second missionary journey (16:6, 7); and crucially directs the church’s mission at many other junctures. It can truly be said, therefore, that Acts narrates not so much the Acts of the apostles as it does the Acts of the Holy Spirit through the apostles. In this way, Acts serves as a sort of biography of the Holy Spirit.

The Epistles

Pauline Epistles

The New Testament epistles, especially the writings of Paul, reinforce the notion that every believer now enjoys the Spirit’s indwelling presence. In our book, I study the Pauline references to the Spirit in chronological rather than canonical order (i.e., Galatians, 1-2 Thessalonians, 1-2 Corinthians, Romans, the Prison Epistles, letters to Timothy and Titus). Statistically, the highest percentage of references to the Spirit in Paul’s letters per word total is found in Galatians, then Ephesians, then Romans, and next 1 Corinthians.; and the two New Testament chapters with the highest density of references to the Holy Spirit are Galatians 5 and Romans 8.

While there are no references to the Spirit in Galatians 1-2, chapter 3 opens with Paul’s remark that the Galatians had “received the Spirit” and “began by the Spirit” (vv. 2, 3). As James Dunn points out, the “experiential character of the Spirit’s presence and activity in a life is one which Paul assumes in his further Spirit-talk in Galatians” (“Galatians,” 179). Galatians 5, of course, esp. vv. 16–26, features a veritable outburst of Spirit references (seven, to be exact), with a wide variety of terms, such as “walking” by, being “led” by, “living” by, and “keeping in step with,” the Spirit, as well as referring to “fruit” of the Spirit. Paul’s Thessalonians letters present the Spirit as active at conversion (1 Thess 1:5, 6) and in sanctification (2 Thess 2:13).

The word pneumatikos, “spiritual,” is used esp. in 1 Corinthians, a letter that is particularly rich in its teaching on the Holy Spirit. Similar to Ephesians, the main emphasis with regard to Paul’s teaching on the Spirit in 1 Corinthians is that of congregational unity. This is seen most clearly in chapter 12, where Paul repeatedly uses phrases such as “the same Spirit,” “one Spirit,” or “one and the same Spirit.” Ironically, Paul’s teaching on spiritual gifts in 1 Corinthians has often proven to be divisive; I think we would do well to remember that Paul’s purpose was the exact opposite: to summon and exhort the church to unity in the Spirit. Paul’s teaching on the Spirit in 2 Corinthians is found mostly in chapter 3, where Paul features the Spirit’s work in the human heart, his impartation of life, his conveyance of glory, his procurement of freedom, and his agency of transformation.

With this, I turn to Romans. There are only four references to the Spirit in the first seven chapters, none at all between 9:1 and 14:17, and four more references in chapter 15. The center of gravity is clearly chapter 8 with eighteen references to the Spirit. It is impossible to do justice to Romans 8 here. In short, Paul speaks of the Spirit as enabling a new way of life. He sets free from bondage to sin; is the same Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead; conveys to believers their spiritual adoption and sonship; and enables believers to meet the righteous requirements of the law.

In the Prison Epistles, it is only Ephesians that features a robust theology of the Spirit, with references in every chapter, including the sole Pauline instance of being filled with the Spirit in 5:18. Paul features the Spirit in his eschatological, salvation-historical, ecclesiological, and spiritual warfare dimensions. As in 1 Corinthians, he stresses the unity of the Spirit which is a reality to be lived out in the church. The main “Spirit” passage in the letters to Timothy and Titus is found in Titus 3:4–7, a “trustworthy saying” that refers to God’s salvation by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit.

General Epistles

Moving on to the General Epistles, the Holy Spirit is featured in three warning passages in Hebrews where the author issues warnings not to disregard the witness borne by God through the Spirit, nor to disregard the Spirit’s manifestations as Israel did in the wilderness during the exodus (2:4; 6:4). The third warning pertains to disregarding the Son of God and the blood of the covenant, which would enrage the Spirit of grace (the language is very striking; 10:29). The author of Hebrews also features the Spirit as author of the sacred Old Testament writings who through Scripture still speaks “today” (3:7; 9:8; 10:15).

Peter, in his first letter, highlights the Spirit’s role in sanctification (1:2). He reminds his readers that they are blessed if and when they are persecuted, because the Spirit of God rests on them (4:14). Peter also underscores the Spirit’s role in the ministry of Old Testament prophets and New Testament apostles (1 Pet 1:10–12; 2 Pet 1:21) and features the Spirit as an agent of Christ’s resurrection (1 Pet 3:19).

John, in his first letter, speaks of believers having an “anointing from the Holy One,” that is, the Holy Spirit (2:20, 27). John also names the Spirit as one of three witnesses to Jesus together with Jesus’s baptism and crucifixion (5:6–7) and as the one who bears internal witness to believers (5:10). There is also one intriguing possible reference to the Spirit at 3:9, where John writes that “no one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God’s seed abides in him, and he cannot keep on sinning, because he has been born of God.”


In the book of Revelation, the Spirit is associated with each of John’s four visions (the phrase “in the Spirit” is found at or near the beginning of each of the visions in Rev 1:10; 4:2; 17:3; and 21:10). The Spirit, in keeping with Isaiah’s portrayal, is also repeatedly featured in Revelation as the “seven spirits of God” (1:4; 3:1; 4:5; 5:6; cf. Isa 11:2–3), and the letters to the seven churches in chapters 2-3 contain the consistent refrain, “He who has ears, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.” Finally, the Spirit is shown to be actively involved in the church’s witness and mission amid persecution, and at the end of Revelation, the Spirit and the church both longingly plead with Jesus to return soon (22:17).

Summary and Conclusion

From Genesis to Revelation, from creation to new creation, the Spirit of God is an active participant in the story of Scripture. He is life-giving, life-empowering, and life-transforming. While closely aligned with God, the Spirit operates as a distinct person in salvation history. He is at God’s side at creation (Proverbs 8; cf. Gen 1:2). He empowers divinely appointed leaders, whether national deliverers, craftsmen constructing the Tabernacle, or royalty such as King David. In keeping with the prophetic vision, the Spirit anoints and rests on the Messiah (Luke 4:18–19; cf. Isa 61:1–2).

Not only is the Spirit integrally involved in God’s work throughout salvation history, he increasingly steps into the foreground. While his activity during Jesus’s earthly ministry is accomplished in and through the Messiah, particularly in Jesus’ healing and other miracles, he bursts onto the scene even more fully at Pentecost following Jesus’s exaltation, in fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy as well as in keeping with Jesus’ own teaching (Acts 2; cf. Joel 3; John 14–16; Acts 1:5, 8).

The church age may arguably be described as the age of the Holy Spirit, inaugurating the last days. Thus, the Holy Spirit serves as Jesus’ successor on earth, the “other helping Presence” sent jointly by God the Father and God the Son (John 14:26; 15:26). The Spirit empowers the church’s mission and witness and provides the energizing dynamic underlying the proclamation of Jesus’ resurrection and triumph over Satan, demons, sickness, and even death. The book of Revelation, in keeping with Isaiah’s portrayal, depicts the Spirit as the seven spirits of God before the throne of God (Rev 3:1; 4:5; 5:6). In all these ways, the Spirit is presented as intimately associated with God and his sovereign rule and yet distinct in personhood.

The Bible, in both Testaments, provides a fascinating and intriguing mosaic depicting the contours of a biblical theology of the Spirit. D. A. Carson has rightly said that the measure of any biblical-theological proposal is the way in which it deals with the question of the Bible’s unity and diversity. Regarding a biblical theology of the Spirit, one detects a measure of unity as well as diversity, continuity as well as discontinuity. On the one hand, the same Spirit is at work throughout the full orbit and canvass of Scripture. On the other hand, Pentecost marks a crucial watershed with the outpouring of the Spirit on all believers.

The New Testament writers thus provide a multi-faceted portrait of the roles and ministries of the Spirit. He regenerates, renews, transforms, guides, convicts, teaches, sovereignly distributes spiritual gifts, and fulfills many other functions in the corporate life of the church and in the lives of individual believers. He also sustains an intimate and integral relationship with God the Father and God the Son throughout salvation history past, present, and future.

In our churches and in our personal lives, we often struggle to strike a proper balance between an overemphasis and an under-appreciation of the Holy Spirit. While it is true that the Spirit is sent jointly by Father and Son, and while the Spirit’s role is to witness to Jesus, it is hard to overstate the importance of the Spirit in the life of individual believers and of the local and universal church.

Personally speaking, studying the Bible’s teaching on the Holy Spirit has given me an even greater appreciation for the person and work of the Spirit, and it is my prayer that the same will be true for you as well.

Discover more from Biblical Foundations

Subscribe to get the latest posts to your email.