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Although quoting from the King James Version of the Bible, this essay will follow more modern translations of the Bible by using the term ‘holy spirit’ rather than ‘Holy Ghost’.
In Luke 1:35 , it can seem that the second phrase containing the words power of the Highest, is a further description of the Holy Spirit in the preceding phrase. Thus, the Holy Spirit is the power of God. Similarly, in Luke 5:17 , as the Lord Jesus healed people, it is recorded that the power of the Lord was with him to heal.
The word spirit is a translation of the Greek word pneuma which is not masculine in gender, but neuter, although translators often treat the word as masculine.
Whilst the words 'the holy spirit' are mostly a New Testament term, they correlate to Old Testament usage of the Spirit of the LORD [Yahweh)’ or sometimes just ‘the Spirit’ , , . All these terms describe God’s energy or power. Psalm 104:4 says, ‘Who (God) maketh His angels spirits’, - so the angels are embodiments of God’s Spirit. At the start of Creation, ‘the earth was without form, and void….And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters’ which originally covered the planet . By the end of the sixth day the earth was transformed into a paradise, in which a physically perfect man and woman dwelt and worked . God had made the earth by His power . Previously, by His Spirit, He had garnished or adorned the heavens .
Throughout the Old Testament, Yahweh’s prophets spake as they were moved by the Holy Spirit . Often their words were written down deliberately for the benefit of successive generations , , , .
Occasionally, those prophets performed miracles – for example, both Elijah the prophet and Elisha who followed him miraculously fed the hungry and raised the dead , .
One of the most notable actions of the Spirit of God was the conception of Jesus in the womb of Mary without the aid of a human father . After his baptism, Jesus was given the power of the Holy Spirit , , by which he spoke the word of God and performed so many miracles such as feeding the 5,000, healing the sick and raising the dead , , .
In the New Testament context, the term ‘the holy spirit’ is the power or energy of God when it is ‘set apart’ (the meaning of the word ‘holy’) for miraculous works of a redemptive nature. When given to a person, it was never given for that person’s own benefit, but for the benefit of those to whom the recipient was ministering. Indeed, a careful reading of both Old and New Testaments shows that the Spirit was never given for the recipient’s personal benefit. So, the gifts of the Holy Spirit in the first century were miraculous powers to confirm the preaching of the Gospel and to edify the early ecclesias (congregations). Hebrew 2:4 reads, ‘God also bearing them witness, both with signs and wonders, and with divers miracles, and gifts of the Holy Spirit….’ Similarly, in a cosmopolitan world, it was necessary, for example, that some members of the ecclesia could immediately speak foreign languages for preaching the Gospel, without the normal process of learning a language , .
When the Lord Jesus Christ promised the Comforter, the Holy Spirit, in John’s Gospel chapters 14 to 16, as is evident from the above-mentioned quotations, he promised miraculous support to the apostles. For example, in John 14:26 , Jesus declared, ‘But the Comforter, which is the holy spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he shall teach you all things, and bring all things to your remembrance, whatsoever I have said unto you’. Thus, to facilitate their preaching work and especially also for the completion of the Bible, the apostles were promised an infallible recall of his words. For us today, as we turn the pages of the Bible, that particular promise is invaluable as we are assured that we have the true words of Jesus therein!
The purpose of the gifts of the Holy Spirit was to act as a witness to, and support the words of the prophets and apostles – not to replace their teaching. Additionally, it can be seen the miracles performed were prophetic of the Kingdom of God to be established when Christ returns. For example, in Acts 3:2-10, there is a healing of a man lame from birth. Amongst other things, this was prophetic of the time when Christ returns to set up a kingdom and ‘the lame man (shall) leap as an hart’ .
For the first century believers, they had the Old Testament Bible and whilst the New Testament was being compiled, they also had the gifts of the Holy Spirit to compensate for not having a complete Bible. After the New Testament was completed, then the gifts were no longer available or needed. Today we have the complete Bible available to us – both Old and New Testaments - so we are in a no better or worse position that first century believers.
Finally, it is appropriate to ask how long were the gifts of the Holy Spirit available after the first outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost ?
- It can be noted that Israel in the wilderness were greatly helped by miraculous support in the form of the manna, water from the rock, the pillar of fire and cloud together with clothes and shoes that did not wear out . These gifts ceased after they entered the land under the leadership of Joshua . This was for a period of 40 years. As shown below, the gifts of the Holy Spirit in the first century were available over a similar period of 40 years from Pentecost.
- Acts 8:17-18 and 19:6 reveal that these gifts were transmitted by the laying on of the apostles’ hands. Hence when the apostles were dead (by the latter part of the first century), the Holy Spirit could no longer be given to ordinary brothers and sisters.
- 1 Cor.13:8-11 teaches that the gifts of prophecy, tongues, and knowledge would come to an end ‘when that which is perfect is come.' Paul was inspired to compare the period during which those gifts were available to a childhood, after which childish things were put away (v.11). The ‘perfect’ refers to the completion of the Bible c.f. James 1:23-25)
- In Acts 2:17, the apostle Peter, citing the prophet Joel, revealed that the pouring out of the Spirit would be upon three generations. The verse reads, ‘And it shall come to pass in the last days, saith God, I will pour out of my Spirit upon all flesh: and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams…’
- In John 9:4 Jesus said that the miraculous works of the Holy Spirit would cease ‘when night cometh,…’ This is a reference to Micah 3:6 (with a similar context of the elders of Israel refusing the testimony of the Spirit - vs.1 & 8) ‘Therefore night shall be unto you, that ye shall not have a vision;….and the sun shall go down over the prophets, and the day shall be dark over them’. Mic.3:12 places a precise dating as to when that would happen – ‘Therefore shall Zion ….be plowed as a field, and Jerusalem shall become heaps,…”, which took place in AD70 with a final demolition in AD135. Thus the witnessing gifts of the Spirit were no longer passed on after AD70 and weere extinguished from the earth by AD135.
To sum up: the Holy Spirit is the power or energy of God, and the term equates to the Spirit of Yahweh in the Old Testament. By that power, the heavens and earth were formed. By the Spirit of Yahweh, God’s prophets spoke and wrote down the words of God in the Old Testament and sometimes they performed miracles.
In the New Testament, Jesus himself was inspired by the Holy Spirit to speak the words of His Father, and perform miracles which demonstrated that he was sent by God. Jesus’ resurrection from the dead was achieved by the power of the Spirit. Likewise, spirit-inspired apostles such as Peter and Paul preached and wrote the word of God in the New Testament. The miraculous gifts of the Holy Spirit were a prophetic witness that their preaching was of God. The apostles had the particular ability to lay their hands on believers that they also might share in some of the miraculous gifts of the Spirit. Transmission of the spirit by laying on of hands passed away as the apostles died.
So today, believers do not have the gifts of the Holy Spirit, but what they do have is the whole Bible – Old and New Testaments, that those believers might be ‘sanctified’ (John 17:17), that they might be wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus’ (2Tim.3:15).