Symbols of the Holy Spirit
Ken Totton, Cambridge, England
There can be no more fascinating and inexhaustible study than the study of God. We are familiar with the multiplicity of titles and offices of Christ which, together, highlight the greatness of His person and work. Similarly, scripture employs a rich variety of symbolism to convey the nature and operations of the Holy Spirit. Within this brief paper we consider only the following principal symbols: wind, fire, dove, water, and oil.1 The diversity of this list points to the Spirit’s limitless nature as one with God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
As we review these symbols may we appreciate afresh the majesty and glory of the Holy Spirit of God, and the amazing wonder that ‘because you are sons, God has sent forth the Spirit of His Son into your hearts, crying out, “Abba, Father!”’.2
Wind symbolizes the invisible yet irresistibly powerful work of the Holy Spirit. The Old Testament word for wind, ruach, can also mean ‘breath’ or ‘spirit’, and translators must render it according to context. Overwhelming power is an essential aspect of the word.3 Thus, the wind points to God’s vigorous action; nothing can withstand its force.4 On the Day of Pentecost, ‘there came a sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting’.5 The Spirit is invisible, and, therefore, at critical events it has pleased God to make His presence felt in an emphatic manner. The mighty Spirit of God baptized and transformed the disciples into a Spirit-animated body. The promised Holy Spirit had unmistakably arrived in sovereign power. Centuries earlier, Ezekiel’s invocation of the wind – the all-powerful Spirit of God – animated and transformed Israel’s slain into a mighty army.6
Our Lord in His interview with Nicodemus brought out a further aspect. Just as we feel the powerful effects of the wind, but we cannot pin down its origin or destination, so the Spirit is sovereign and inscrutable in His saving operations: ‘The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes’.7
A special instance of the Spirit’s operation relates to the inspiration of holy scripture. How good to know that when it came to this supremely important matter, prophets and apostles were not left to their own best endeavours, but ‘men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit’.8 We can, therefore, have absolute confidence in the written word of God.
It is easy to become familiar with the Spirit, and fail to appreciate the unspeakable holiness that characterizes Him. Fire frequently symbolizes God’s presence, as in the experience of Moses at the burning bush.9 This serves as a timely corrective, especially in a day of ungodliness and moral laxity. The power of fire is terrifying. It consumes all that stands in its way; it devastates, sifts, refines, and purifies. ‘Our God is a consuming fire’.10 The ungodly in Israel might well ask, ‘Who among us shall dwell with the devouring fire? Who among us shall dwell with everlasting burnings?’11 Praise God, it is possible for the justified, ‘He who walks righteously and speaks uprightly, he who despises the gain of oppressions, who gestures with his hands, refusing bribes, who stops his ears from hearing of bloodshed, and shuts his eyes from seeing evil: he will dwell on high’.12
Again we read, ‘Before the throne were burning seven torches of fire, which are the seven spirits of God’, Rev. 4. 5 ESV. John gets a glimpse of the Spirit in His seven-fold self-sustaining fullness, here seen as the executor of the purposes of God.
In the tabernacle, the fire of the brazen altar was the means by which God assimilated the excellence of Israel’s offerings. Likewise, in an assembly, practical holiness must be observed, lest the gracious Spirit be grieved, and the worship and service of God be impeded. Again, the Spirit’s ministry can be quenched, by despising the communications He inspires.13 Finally, we are warned, ‘Do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God’, where the solemnity of His full title is to be noted.14
Fire and water might be regarded as opposites, but this points to the remarkable variety of the Spirit’s operations. Water is essential to life and agriculture – a fact especially apparent in eastern lands. Just as water transforms arid conditions, bringing life and fruitfulness wherever it goes, so it symbolizes the Spirit’s boundless life-giving creativity in the spiritual realm.
Often the Old Testament speaks of the Spirit being ‘poured out’, reminding us that God does not give His Spirit ‘by measure’, sparingly, but abundantly.15 Speaking of Israel’s future cleansing, God promises, ‘Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean; I will cleanse you from all your filthiness and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will take the heart of stone out of your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes’.16 With clear echoes of this passage, Jesus warns Nicodemus, ‘Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God’.17
Later in John’s Gospel, the idea of the abundance of the Spirit’s refreshment is brought out: ‘On the last day, that great day of the feast, Jesus stood and cried out, saying, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to Me and drink. He who believes in Me, as the Scripture has said, out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.” But this He spoke concerning the Spirit’.18
The bride in the Song of Solomon is pictured as a well-watered garden, secured for her beloved, filled with exotic fragrant plants, and constantly supplied by refreshing fountains.19 How vital for the believer to be daily renewed in the enjoyment of the Spirit’s supply, like the blessed man of Psalm 1!
The descending dove at Christ’s baptism at Jordan supplies one of the most striking symbols of the Holy Spirit. Human eyes witnessed the majestic descent of the Spirit to abide in all His plenitude on the Lord Jesus, and thus empower Him for His mighty public ministry. The Father’s acclamation from heaven completed the sublime Trinitarian scene. In Leviticus the dove was classified as ceremonially clean, and, therefore, suitable for sacrifice.20 How fitting that the Spirit should thus distinguish One who is ‘holy, harmless, undefiled, separate from sinners, and has become higher than the heavens’.21 The Spirit’s anointing inaugurated a gracious ministry of cleansing and healing.
The dove is known for several characteristics: loyalty to its mate, its homing instinct, and also notable for its mourning call,22 suggestive of the ways of the Spirit with God’s children. The Spirit pours out the love of God in our cold unworthy hearts, and serves as a proof and pledge that our hope will never disappoint us.23 The gracious Spirit is also the agent of holiness, striving energetically against our waywardness.24 May we ever be sensitive to His yearnings and promptings as enlightened by the scriptures He inspired.
Holy anointing oil was used on the tabernacle and the Aaronic priests.25 Likewise, Davidic kings and prophets were anointed with oil, consecrating them to sacred office. Corresponding to this, the Holy Spirit marks out the believer as separated to God, ‘in sanctification of the Spirit’, with a view to complete obedience.26
Oil also fuelled the lamps in ancient Israel. This is seen in highly developed form in the vision of the lampstand in Zechariah chapter 4. In the design of this elaborate lampstand the numeral seven is prominent, suggesting fullness and security of supply of the precious oil essential to the maintenance of the lamp of testimony. The vital lesson for the feeble but faithful remnant of God’s people is, ‘”Not by might nor by power, but by My Spirit”, says the Lord of hosts’.27 This should also encourage us that the burden of witness to the Lord Jesus will be borne by the mighty Spirit, as Christ assured His apostles, ‘the Spirit of truth who proceeds from the Father, He will testify of Me. And you also will bear witness, because you have been with Me from the beginning’.28 At the same time, the dual leadership of priest and prophet is symbolized by the two ‘sons of oil’ who stand by the Lord of the whole earth. The term ‘son of oil’ suggests a person characterized through and through by the Holy Spirit, and, thus, a ready channel of His blessings to others. May we, like Simeon, be so anointed, enlightened, and directed by the Spirit that we may speak well of the Christ whom the Spirit always delights to glorify.29
This brief survey has highlighted the Spirit’s divine nature, and the range and diversity of His powerful yet gracious operations. How thrilling and humbling to realize that each believer is the temple of the Holy Spirit in all His fullness!30 How carefully we should behave, both individually and collectively, lest we quench or grieve the Spirit of grace. Amidst spiritual drought, may we know His unfailing refreshment. Above all, may He magnify Christ in us, and through us, to the glory of God.
1 A more comprehensive treatment – including seal, earnest, dew, and clothing – may be found in: S. Jardine, The Person and Work of the Holy Spirit, Precious Seed Publications. Helpful general books on the Holy Spirit include: L. Morris, Spirit of the Living God, IVP; S. Ridout, The Person and Work of the Holy Spirit, Ritchie.
2 Gal. 4. 6.
3 Exod. 10. 19; 15. 8; Ps. 148. 8; Ezek. 1. 4.
4 Isa. 40. 7.
5 Acts 2. 2.
6 Ezek. 37. 9.
7 John 3. 8.
8 2 Pet. 1. 21 ESV. Contrast the totally different sentiment of the writer of the apocryphal 2 Maccabees: ‘So I will here end my story. If it is well told and to the point, that is what I myself desired; if it is poorly done and mediocre, that was the best I could do’, 2 Macc. 15. 37-38 NRSV.
9 Exod. 3. 1-5.
10 Heb. 12. 29.
11 Isa. 33. 14.
12 Isa. 33. 15-16.
13 1 Thess. 5. 19-21.
14 Eph. 4. 30.
15 John 3. 34; for pouring out the Spirit see: Num. 19. 17-19; Ps. 51. 9-10; Isa. 32. 15; 44. 3-5; 55. 1-3; Jer. 2. 13; 17. 13; Ezek. 47. 9; Joel 2. 28-29; Zech. 14. 8.
16 Ezek. 36. 25-27.
17 John 3. 5.
18 John 7. 37-39.
19 S. of S. 4. 12-16.
20 Lev. 1. 14.
21 Heb. 7. 26.
22 Isa. 60. 8; 38. 14; 59. 11.
23 Rom. 5. 5.
24 Rom. 1. 4; Gal. 5. 16-18.
25 Lev. 8. 10, 12.
26 1 Pet. 1. 2. See also 1 John 2. 20, 27.
27 Zech. 4. 6.
28 John 15. 26-27.
29 Luke 2. 25-35; John 16. 14.
30 1 Cor. 6. 19-20.