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Biblical Imagery: The Metaphorical Symbols of the Holy Spirit

Christian theology should always be concerned to speak about God on the basis of God’s self-communication in Christ Jesus and the Holy Spirit. God comes to us in Christ Jesus through the power and personal presence of the Holy Spirit. God exists in differentiated personhood. Thus relationality is an essential attribute of God’s very being—a loving relational community. God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Thus, God is Spirit and has a Spirit.

This essay will examine some of the more prominent biblical imagery associated with the incorporeal and invisible Holy Spirit. The biblical imagery employed is to be understood from a metaphorical symbolic perspective. These metaphorical symbols are not simple flat literal empirical descriptions of the Spirit but are powerful metaphorical symbols, which open up the mysterious and hidden work of the Spirit to us. From this perspective, these symbols help us apprehend and experience the invisible and ontological otherness of God

The biblical images of the Holy Spirit are tangible means that convey the character and activity of the Holy Spirit to us. These images enable us to experientially know the personal presence and power of the invisible and incorporeal Living God. These scriptural symbols testify to the ways in which the people of God have experienced the Holy Spirit throughout history. The invisible Spirit communicates to us by means of our human senses. We hear and feel the Spirit of God, just as they did! God then condescends to us through human avenues so that we can experience God. The symbols provide us with analogies so that we can understand the working of God. This is a redemptive knowledge of God. It is God who reveals Himself to us.

God comes to us in Christ Jesus through the power and personal presence of the Holy Spirit.

We know that the Holy Spirit is not literally a dove, or fire, or wind, or water or a cloud but these biblical symbols do signify real aspects of the Spirit’s presence and work. These are symbols, which we experience: the force of an unexpected wind, breathing, the instincts of a gentle dove, the purging energy of fire, the comfort and pleasant fragrance of oil. It is important for me to state again that these symbols do signify the real presence of the Spirit, thus they are not simply similes such as The Spirit is like a fire, nor are they empirical literal descriptions the Spirit is the fire, but they are symbolic metaphors which convey the presence and power of the Spirit.

The biblical symbols enable us to relationally and experientially understand the mysterious work of the Spirit. The metaphorical symbols convey the presence of the Spirit in such a way as those who encounter the symbol experience the reality of the Spirit. The Lord has chosen these particular symbols as a way for us to experientially recognize the presence of God in our lives.

Scripture, then, provides us with an authoritative narrative to validate our experiences. If our experience does not line up with Scripture then we need to prayerfully reconsider the authenticity of our experience. The Spirit who breathed upon the writers of the Bible is still breathing upon the people of God. We should expect God to encounter us and even more so as we the people of God long for God’s Spirit to be poured out afresh upon us!

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Category: Spirit, Summer 2011

About the Author: Kenneth J. Archer, Ph.D. (University of St. Andrews), M.Div. (Ashland Theological Seminary), is Professor of Pentecostal Theology and Christian Studies and Director of the Master of Arts in Theological Studies at Southeastern University in Lakeland, Florida. He is an Ordained Bishop with The Church of God (Cleveland Tennessee), and has served in pastoral ministry for many years. LinkedIn. Facebook.

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