Weirdly enough, the Holy Spirit is often a divisive topic among Christians. It is sad that I can categorize your entire theological “bent” by how much you emphasize the Holy Spirit. If you rarely mention the Holy Spirit, you’re probably a “thinking” type that is into doctrine and deep study, doesn’t pray enough, and feels more comfortable with order and even practical standards. If you talk about him all the time, you’re probably a “feeling” type that leans charismatic, loves to pray, is more suspicious of intellectuals, and places a higher value on freedom and spontaneity. We need to take this discussion out of its usual “ruts” and gain a fresh perspective on the awe-inspiring sweep of the Holy Spirit’s role through redemptive history.
I’ll be writing three posts about the Holy Spirit this year. This first post focuses on the Holy Spirit’s role in creation and new creation. Just as the Spirit hovered over the waters in Genesis 1, so the Spirit was rested upon the disciples at the launch of new creation. And as Jesus’ new creation people, the Spirit’s work in renewing each of us is central.
Those of us who love to “think truth” must never minimize the centrality of God’s Spirit. After all, he hovers over the pages of Scripture from beginning to end and “carried along” (2 Pet 1:21) Scripture’s authors. The Spirit is in fact the defining mark of the new covenant people.
The Spirit Hovering Over the Waters
The Spirit of God is introduced in the second verse of the Bible. It is a mysterious reference: The “wind” or “Spirit” of God (the Hebrew word means both) “hovering” or even “fluttering” (like a bird, see Deut 32:11) over the watery unformed earth. In a much later reflection on this passage, the Psalmist saw the Spirit of God bringing life and renewal to the world (Ps 104:30). This is indeed what the Genesis narrative hints at as day after day through creation week, God’s voice and his Spirit cause this new cosmos to explode with beauty and order and vitality.
The flood is an account of re-creation, with many similarities to Genesis 1–3. There Noah sends out a dove which flies over the waters and eventually returns with a sign of new life (Gen 8:8–12). While the Spirit is not explicitly mentioned in this account, this imagery later becomes identified with God’s Spirit, no doubt in part because of its likeness to the creation narrative.
There is a similar scene at the creation of God’s new nation, Israel. A wind (same word) from God blew over the waters of the Red Sea, leading Israel out of the old world of bondage and into their new blessed life (Exod 14:21).
Finally, to announce the dawn of the new creation, the Spirit hovers over Jesus in the waters of the Jordan River (Mat 3:16, Mark 1:10, Luke 3:22, John 1:32). This scene is reminiscent of all three previous snapshots: As in Genesis 1, the Spirit is explicitly named, and hovers over the waters. As in the flood narrative, the Spirit takes the form of a dove. As in the Red Sea, the Spirit and Jesus’ baptism represents the “renewed Israel” that the Messiah both represents and inaugurates.
The Holy Spirit is God’s agent of creation and new creation. He brings life, beauty, and vitality out of voids, floods, bondages, and centuries of waiting.
The Spirit Hovering Over Us
The day of Pentecost is rightly called the “birthday” of the Church. It is the day when God’s new covenant people explode onto the scene; their collective heart begins to beat, they begin to grow, and they realize what great things Jesus has done for them. And what marks the creation of this new people? The hovering of the Spirit.
Ezekiel had foretold that in the age to come, the Holy Spirit would be poured out on all of God’s people. This would happen when God finally cleansed them and made an everlasting covenant with them (Ezek 36:26–27, 37:14, 39:29). Isaiah spoke of the day when the great Son of David would arise, who would be filled with the Spirit. By the Spirit he would rule justly, the earth would be renewed, and he would give of his Spirit to his people (Isa 11:1–10, 32:15).
That day dawned at Pentecost, when tongue-shaped fires hovered over the heads of a people being created (Acts 2). God’s new age had truly begun.
What the New Testament insists, however, is that this dramatic arrival of the Spirit marked the beginning of a reality that would be true of all Jesus’ followers. “All who are led by the Spirit of God are sons and daughters of God,” Paul would write (Rom 8:14). And, “Anyone who does not have the Spirit of the Messiah does not belong to him” (Rom 8:9).
The Spirit “hovering” over (or rather, within) believers is the “down payment” of our final “inheritance.” For Paul, this refers to our resurrection and the world’s re-creation (Rom 8:9–11, 18–25; Eph 1:13–14). The Spirit is at work in us, here and now. Out of the formlessness, bondage, and judgment of our sinful state he is creating life and beauty again. We have not yet reached the seventh day of this new creation. But when we do, we will know that God’s Spirit has seen it through to the end.
So when you see those seemingly small evidences of the Spirit’s “hovering” in your life or in the life of even the least appreciated member of your church, marvel that you are witnessing God’s new creation work. And “do not grieve the Holy Spirit” (Eph 4:30) by fighting against his work in your life. Ask God daily to enable you to walk by the Spirit, to be renewed by him to a life characterized no longer by sin but by the beauty of holiness. Don’t forget what awaits.