Experiencing God By His Spirit
J. Dan Gill
The earth was formless and empty, and darkness covered the face of the deep, and the spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters. — Genesis 1:2
The mightiest power in the universe comes upon an earth that is empty and without form. That power is the “spirit of God.” It hovers over the surface of the waters and brings the energy of creation to bear on the globe. Yet, look at another scene:
Then Samuel took the horn of oil and anointed him in the presence of his brothers; and the spirit of the LORD came mightily upon David from that day forward (1 Sam. 16:13, NRSV).
Amazing! The same power that gave form to our planet now comes upon a lad in Judea. It is so mighty that it effected creation — yet, so gentle that it can affect an individual human life.
The Spirit of the Father
He who sits on the throne of the universe is present to work with his creation — he causes life to teem forth on the earth, and gives Israel’s future king extraordinary knowledge, understanding and wisdom. These things happen because the spirit of the LORD is at work. God, who is the Father of us all, is able to be on his throne in the heavens and yet at the same time create life on earth or touch his servant David.
It is the presence of the LORD himself that comes upon David. Such coming of God’s presence was something his people coveted and depended on. Notice this exchange between God and Moses about going into the land of Canaan:
“My presence shall go with you, and I will give you rest.” And Moses said to him, “If your presence will not go, do not send us on from here” (Ex. 33:14, 15).
Who would not love to experience the tangible presence of God? David and Moses did. By that presence amazing things happened. If we today experience God directly, it will be by that same presence or spirit.
Two Ways the Father Works
Because of God’s love, he works for the good of people. There are two ways in which he accomplishes his purposes in the world:
(1) Personal Action — He works directly. Here he extends himself personally. He moves by his “hand” (Ex. 7:5); his “outstretched arm” (Deut. 11:2); his “power” (Ex. 32:11); his “wind,” “spirit” or “breath” ( Job 26:13; 37:10). He speaks, and at his “word” light springs forth out of darkness (Gen. 1:3). These are not persons or emissaries. These attributes do not have their own unique personalities separate from the Father. Rather, they are God: aspects of the Father himself. What is accomplished by the spirit of God is rightly said to have been done by God. It is the Father in motion, God himself in action. How extraordinarily blessed is the person who experiences God in this way. This present chapter of our book and chapter 7 which follows take up the matter of God’s direct work by his spirit and his word.
(2) Through His Agents — He works through others. In chapters 8 and 9 of this book, we will explore another way in which God works: He equips and authorizes intermediaries. They are his angels, prophets, rulers and deliverers. These are separate entities from him. They have their own unique personalities. As his agents, he gives them authority to speak and act on his behalf. They themselves are directly affected by the presence of God. The work of God is then extended to others through them.
While these agents are not God, he does identify himself with those he commissions. To reject someone God sends is effectively to reject God. To receive one God sends is by extension to receive him. What is accomplished by his intermediaries is often said to have been done by God. It is he who authorized and empowered their work. Happy are those whom God blesses through his envoys. In chapter 11 we will come to his Messiah — his true human son. He is God’s ultimate representative.
His Spirit is Him
O LORD of hosts, God of Israel, you are enthroned between the cherubim; you alone are God of all the kingdoms of the earth. You have made heaven and earth (Isa. 37:16).
Hezekiah’s words above bring us to the God of the universe. There is only one who is “enthroned between the cherubim.” He is the LORD. He “alone” is “God of all the kingdoms of the earth.” It is he who “made heaven and earth.” Just as when Isaiah saw God (Isa. 6:1), Hezekiah also speaks of one throne and only one individual who sits on the throne. There is no throne for the “hand of God” or the “power of God.” Neither is there a throne for the “spirit of God.” These are not separate individuals from the Father. By his own hand, power, spirit and presence he extends himself to his creation. The spirit of God is the Father himself at work. New Testament theologian James D. G. Dunn in his important book, Christology in the Making, writes concerning the spirit of God:
On this understanding, Spirit of God is in no sense distinct from God, but is simply the power of God, God himself acting powerfully in nature and upon men. … Not merely of a power from God, but the power of God, of God himself putting forth efficacious energy.
The idea that God’s spirit is a separate person from the Father developed among Gentile Christians in post-biblical times. It became an essential element of the doctrine of the Trinity. Here again, the word “person” is used not in the sense of a human being, but rather of any individual with a unique personality. Complicated and confusing, the idea of God’s spirit as a person in addition to the Father is unknown to people in the Bible. To them, the spirit of God is not a separate agent or person of co-Deity. Rather, it is the Father in action. What has been done by the hand or spirit of God has literally been done by the Father himself.
[1.] The Hebrew word for “spirit” here is ruach. It is used variously to indicate “breath” or “spirit” of man and other living beings (Gen. 6:17; 7:15, 22). It is also used to indicate the spirit of God (Gen. 6:3). In Genesis 1:2, the New Revised Standard Version and the Tanakh ( Jewish Publication Society) both translate ruach with one of its most essential meanings, “wind.”
[2.] The New Living Translation captures the sense, “I will personally go.”
[3.] We do not have space in this writing to provide an exhaustive study of the word “spirit.” For a range of uses of the word ruach, and further insights regarding pneumatology in the Hebrew Bible, see The Brown- Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2000), 924-6. For a good overview regarding the spirit of God in the Old and New Testaments see Sean Finnegan’s article, “An Unitarian View of the Holy Spirit,” 21st Century Reformation, http:https://www.21stcr.org/holy-spirit/a-biblical-unitarian-view-of-the-holy-spirit/.
[4.] Exodus 33 provides an example of the difference between God’s own presence and that of his agents. God had told Moses he would send an emissary (his angel) to go before him (Ex. 33:1–3). Moses, however, desired that God would personally go with him in his presence (Ex. 33:14, 15).
[5.] This has led to people sometimes confusing God’s agents with God himself. E.g. God speaking through an angel has led some to suppose that the angel himself is God. See chapter 8 of this book for more on this matter.
[6.] James D. G. Dunn, Christology in the Making, 2nd Edition (London: SCM Press, 2003), 133, emphasis his.
[7.] Or in the New Testament also the risen/glorified Jesus (Acts 16:7).