The topic of the “Holy Ghost” in the Bible can feel confusing and mysterious. This need not be!
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“The Holy Ghost said, Separate me Barnabas and Saul for the work whereunto I have called them.”
If you are reading through the books of the New Testament in order, this statement in Acts 13:2 can seem to come out of left field. By this point, you would have read plenty about Jesus Christ, and He taught about God the Father. Yet there was nothing about a speaking Holy Ghost until now. What does this mean?
The roles of God and Jesus are relatively easy to grasp. One is the Parent, the other the Son. The “Holy Ghost”—more correctly translated Holy Spirit—is different. The Spirit is written about in a way that can feel mysterious.
What is the Holy Spirit? Is it a person? Many think it is the third member of the Trinity. This belief is common in the Christian world.
Indeed, some verses appear to speak of the Spirit as its own entity. Acts 13:2 is one such place. Other verses seem to describe it as simply a power or force.
All of this can be confusing! As a student of the Bible, your goal is to “prove all things” as God commands (I Thes. 5:21). Yet all the competing interpretations and theological ideas make obeying this verse challenging. But you will be surprised by just how simple the subject becomes after we examine the truth.
Understanding what the Bible really says about the Holy Spirit is critically important. It is much more than just an academic exercise. It involves the nature of God, and this knowledge will have a real impact on your life! As with any difficult Bible subject, the place to begin is with the clearest and easiest-to-understand verses.
Just before the resurrected Jesus Christ ascended to heaven, He told His disciples, “You shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth’” (Acts 1:8; New King James Version).
We can learn a lot from what this verse is and is not saying. Christ did not describe the Holy Spirit as a person with whom the disciples would develop a relationship. Jesus spoke of “power” that would enable them to fulfill the work He had for them to do. Think of the Holy Spirit as spiritual power.
The Greek word translated power is dynamis—from which comes the modern words dynamic and dynamite. This word can mean force, miraculous power, ability, strength, mighty, wonderful work.
Jesus’ promise was fulfilled in Acts 2 on Pentecost when “there appeared unto them [His disciples] cloven tongues like as of fire, and it sat upon each of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost” (vs. 3-4). The rest of Acts shows how the disciples harnessed this power to do mighty works, including dramatic healings.
Many verses speak of this spiritual force and what it can do for those who have it. The apostle Paul wrote in Ephesians 3:16 that God “would grant you, according to the riches of His glory, to be strengthened with might by His Spirit in the inner man.”
The Greek word for might in this verse is the same as power in Acts. In verse 20, Paul added that God “is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that works in us.”
Christ Himself was imbued with this power during His earthly ministry. His miracles are legendary. On one occasion, a woman with a severe health issue for at least 12 years was instantly healed upon touching His garment. When this happened, Jesus knew immediately that “virtue” (dynamis) had left Him. Take time to read the full account in Mark 5:24-30.
Galatians 5 begins to show what this power can do within individuals: “Walk in the Spirit, and you shall not fulfill the lust of the flesh” (vs. 16). Romans 8 adds, “If you live after the flesh, you shall die: but if you through the Spirit do mortify the deeds of the body, you shall live” (vs. 13).
The Holy Spirit empowers people to grow spiritually and overcome sin. Human effort is not enough to resist the temptations that plague a Christian. Put simply, this spiritual power is a game-changer.
The Spirit also enables a person to truly understand the Bible. God uses it to impart spiritual knowledge: “Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God has prepared for them that love Him. But God has revealed them unto us by His Spirit: for the Spirit searches all things, yes, the deep things of God” (I Cor. 2:9-10).
What about the term “Holy Ghost”? This antiquated phrase in the King James Version brings to mind Casper the Friendly Ghost or the Ghost of Christmas Past. But the Greek word for Ghost is the same as for Spirit—pneuma. At the time of the first printing of the King James Version of the Bible in 1611, the English words spirit and ghost were understood to have the same meaning.
The word pneuma bears further examination. It means a current of air, breath (blast) or a breeze; by analogy or figuratively, a spirit. The Hebrew word used for Spirit in the Old Testament, ruach, has a similar meaning: wind; by resemblance breath, that is, exhalation.
Other passages emphasize certain qualities of the Holy Spirit. All four gospel accounts describe it as descending like a “dove” upon Jesus (Matt. 3:16; Mark 1:10; Luke 3:22; John 1:32). John 3:8 likens it to the wind. John 4:14 and 7:38-39 call it living water, with I Thessalonians 5:19 warning that it can be “quenched.” Exodus 31:3 and Ephesians 5:18 speak of being “filled with the Spirit.” A person cannot logically be poured out or quenched. Neither can you be filled with a person. But these characteristics perfectly fit the Spirit as a supernatural power.
The Holy Spirit is not an inert tool or substance for a Christian to use, like flipping a light switch when entering a room. It is an active, living Spirit that links the Christian to God in a unique way.
You may be familiar with John 4:24, which says “God is a Spirit.” God is not a flesh-and-blood being like we are. He is omnipotent and omnipresent and composed of Spirit. Is the Spirit of which God is composed the same as the Holy Spirit? Or different? What about Christ and His Spirit?
Romans 8 begins to clarify this: “They that are in the flesh cannot please God. But you are not in the flesh, but in the Spirit, if so be that the Spirit of God dwell in you. Now if any man have not the Spirit of Christ, he is none of His” (vs. 8-9).
This passage goes a long way in answering the questions we just asked. The phrase “Spirit of God” and “Spirit of Christ” are used. The context shows these terms are interchangeable with “Holy Spirit.” Take time to read the entire chapter. There are not three distinct Spirits for a Christian to attain—just one.
Ephesians 4:4 says, “There is one body, and one Spirit, even as you are called in one hope of your calling.” The Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Christ and the Spirit of God are all the same “one Spirit.” Put another way, the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of God and Christ!
Romans 8:9 underscores just how vital this is. Lacking the Spirit means a person is “none of His”—in other words, not even a Christian! God would never allow such a pivotal subject to remain murky or unclear to someone who truly wants to serve Him.
God is active in the lives of His people. II Chronicles 16:9 says that He shows “Himself strong in the behalf of them whose heart is perfect toward Him.” But you may have never asked exactly how He involves Himself in human affairs.
It is simple: He uses His Spirit—the Holy Spirit. When the Spirit of God is at work in a Christian’s life, God Himself is at work! He is transforming the converted believer’s sinful, carnal, selfish impulses and desires to align with His own perfect, righteous, loving ways. Read Galatians 5:22-23. Throughout the Bible, examples abound of God using His Spirit to guide, inspire and motivate believers.
In some places, God’s Word speaks of the Holy Spirit as a power or force, as we have seen. Other verses refer to it with humanlike characteristics that point back to God.
For instance, we often see references to the Holy Spirit in the New Testament using personal pronouns such as He or Him. Using these words is not wrong—they refer to God. Keep in mind that the He or Him in these verses is the Being from whom this power originates.
Remember: God influences people through the Spirit. Being led by this Spirit (Rom. 8:14) means being led by God Himself.
Understanding Acts 13:2
Back to Acts 13:2: “As they ministered to the Lord, and fasted, the Holy Ghost said, Separate me Barnabas and Saul for the work whereunto I have called them.”
Notice the phrase “for the work whereunto I have called them.” While you may not be familiar with every verse on the subject, most Bible students know God’s Word says that Christians are called.
However, while it is true that Barnabas and Saul were called to become Christians, the context shows that this statement primarily refers to the ministerial calling for these two men—the “work” they would be sent to do. Verse 3 shows that the other leaders laid hands on them, which always occurs in ordinations. Verses 4 and 5 show that these men were then “sent forth” to “preach the Word of God.”
Scripture reveals precisely who is responsible for a Christian’s calling—both into God’s way of life in general and into leadership positions within His Church.
I Thessalonians 5:23 describes God the Father as “the very God of peace.” Verse 24 says, “Faithful is He that calls you, who also will do it.” God is the Being who calls Christians. John 6:44 and 65 underscore this.
Now read I Corinthians 12:18: “God set the members every one of them in the Body, as it has pleased Him.” The term “Body” here is a reference to the Body of Christ, which is another term for God’s true Church (Col. 1:24). God not only calls people into His way of life, but He also determines the role they have in His Church and ministry—He “sets” people in positions “as it has pleased Him.”
Putting these verses together with Acts 13, the prophets and teachers did not hear an audible voice from the Holy Spirit. These men were being spiritually led by the Being who “called them”—God the Father!
Other Difficult Scriptures
John 14 is another passage that has confused some. Here, Jesus was instructing His disciples just before His betrayal and crucifixion: “I will pray the Father, and He shall give you another Comforter, that He may abide with you forever; even the Spirit of truth; whom the world cannot receive, because it sees Him not, neither knows Him: but you know Him; for He dwells with you, and shall be in you” (vs. 16-17).
Keep this simple. When Jesus spoke of the Comforter, He was not introducing a new person to the disciples. Instead, He was referring to the power of Acts 1 using a different term. Why? To emphasize another attribute. This Spirit’s power does not just involve miracles, shock and awe—it also comforts those who have it. Read Acts 9:31.
Jesus went on in verse 17 to describe the relationship the disciples would have with God the Father. The term “comforter” is not a proper name denoting personal agency. Just think of the comforter you have on your bed. You can view this spiritual comfort as coming either from the power of the Holy Spirit or from “the God of all comfort” Himself (II Cor. 1:3)—both are true!
You may have also found Acts 5:3 challenging: “Peter said, Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Ghost, and to keep back part of the price of the land?” This verse can be explained two ways. Ananias was lying to the Holy Spirit in the sense that the power of this Spirit was what enabled Peter to discern the untruth. Also, Ananias was actually lying to God the Father, who, again, is represented by the Holy Spirit.
Another example of this is when the Bible speaks of people who “grieve” (Eph. 4:30) or “[do] despite” (Heb. 10:29) to the Spirit. These actions are being taken toward the Being whose Spirit it is—God.
One last difficult scripture is worth examining. In Matthew 12, Jesus addresses the subject of the unpardonable sin. He said, “Whosoever speaks a word against the Son of man, it shall be forgiven him: but whosoever speaks against the Holy Spirit, it shall not be forgiven him, neither in this world, neither in the world to come” (vs. 32).
At first glance, this suggests that Christ and the Holy Spirit are separate beings, but that is not the point here. The emphasis of this verse is to contrast a single act of disobedience—speaking a word—against Jesus to the willful, deliberate pattern of fighting the Holy Spirit’s influence or attributing its power to the devil. The verse does not say that the Spirit of Christ and the Holy Spirit are different spirits.
God’s Spirit and You
A summary: The Holy Spirit is God’s power. It is not a person. It is the way God and Christ work in human beings. When the Spirit guides or inspires a Christian to do something, it is really God doing this work through them.
But simply knowing the truth about the Holy Spirit will only help you so much. Even more important is receiving its power—having the Holy Spirit at work in your own life! Remember Jesus’ statement that the disciples would “receive power.” That promise did not apply only to the original apostles, it is available to anyone called by God who pursues it!
The Holy Spirit is the ultimate source of power and inspiration. You must take advantage of it if you want to serve God.
Yet there are qualifiers for receiving it. Acts 5:32 speaks of “the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to them that obey Him.” While the Spirit will empower you to keep God’s commandments like never before, you must do your best to obey God even before receiving it.
Peter, in his Pentecost sermon, added more parameters for receiving this special gift: “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38). “Repent” simply means to change. Mark 1:15 shows that we must also “believe the gospel.”
Space does not allow us to go over everything involved with baptism, repentance and belief in the true gospel. To learn much more, read our free booklet What Is True Conversion?