Without the Holy Spirit’s help we can’t understand God any more than a chicken can understand a human being. We need the Holy Spirit’s help to both illuminate our minds and calibrate our hearts to understand him, to relate to him, and to know him. That God is so big that he can’t fit in our heads is a part of the wonder and mystery of God. This is why doing theology properly must be done with a posture of worship. Theology is, as Anselm put it, faith seeking understanding. And, it is on the basis of that faith that the Holy Spirit helps us know God.

That God cannot be contained by the limitations of human logic is why there is mystery, or paradox at the heart of so many of the essential Christian teachings. At the heart of the cross itself is paradox. The death of Jesus was the greatest injustice known to history, and yet through it, God justified the world. Likewise, it is in the death of Jesus that a world that is dead to sin finds life (Matt 10:39; Eph 2:1–10). It was also through submission, obedience, and utter weakness that the matchless, saving power of God invaded the world. 

Strength in weakness, life in death, and justice through injustice? How can this be? These ideas are contradictory. They don’t compute. They don’t compute because, as the prophet Isaiah says, God’s thoughts are not our thoughts, nor are our ways God’s ways (Is 55:8–9).

These are not the only examples of paradox at the heart of the Christian message. Jesus himself is a paradox. He is simultaneously fully man, and fully God.[1] By definition this cannot be. Humanity, by definition, is not divine; and deity, by definition is not human.

Further still, the Trinity is a paradox. For the Trinity, one, plus one, plus one, equals one. “One,” by definition, is the absence of plurality, yet the Trinity is One God, Three Persons.[2]

Paradox underscores the point that because all truth is from an eternal God, there is always a point in which we reach the limits of human reason when doing Christian theology. To the point, Job 11:7 says, “Can you find out the deep things of God? Can you find out the limit of the Almighty?” Once again, God is simply too big to fit into our heads. Chesterton wrote, “The poet only asks to get his head into the heavens. It is the logician who seeks to get the heavens into his head. And it is his head that splits.” 

Transcendence and Immanence

The paradoxical doctrines of transcendence and immanence are of particular interest in studying the Holy Spirit. The doctrine of transcendence, on the one hand, teaches that God is not restricted by time and space.[3] Because God created time and space, He must be outside of both. The doctrine of the immanence of God, on the other hand, teaches that God is ever present in both time and space (Ps 139:7; Matt 28:20).[4] The paradox is that God is both outside of time and spaceyet simultaneously everywhere and always in time and space. C. S. Lewis summed it up by saying, “God is both further from us, and nearer to us, then any other being.”[5] God is both far off and intimately close all at once. 

Even though God is immanent, the Scriptures and the testimony of the church tell us that there are also special ways in which God makes his presence known in the world. There are times when the sacred and secular meet—when the curtain that separates heaven and earth is lifted so that we can get a glimpse of the invisible God. As Tozer puts it, “The presence and the manifestation of the Presence are not the same. There can be the one without the other. God is here when we are wholly unaware of it. He manifests only when and a we are aware of his presence.”[6] 

Divine Revelation

These unique ways in which God reveals are known as revelation. The idea behind revelation is that even though God is invisible, he can uncover, or unveil himself so that we can see him. Theologians normally distinguish between two kinds of revelation: (1) general revelation, and (2) special revelation.[7]

General revelation is “[t]he knowledge of God’s existence, character, and moral law, which comes through creation to all humanity…”[8] General revelation is both internal and external. Internally, God reveals his existence, character, and moral law in the human conscious. Most people, for example, intuitively know that torturing babies for fun is evil. This intuition, or basic knowledge of right and wrong, is a form of general revelation that is built into humanity. There is a natural calibration towards good and evil in all people precisely because God exists.[9]

Externally, God reveals himself through the creation. Psalm 19:1–2 says, “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours out speech, and night to night reveals knowledge.” Adding to this is Romans 1:19–20, which says, 

They know the truth about God because he has made it obvious to them. For ever since the world was created, people have seen the earth and sky. Through everything God made, they can clearly see his invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature. So they have no excuse for not knowing God. 

This means that by simply observing the creation, we should be able to draw the conclusion that there is an intelligent Creator behind it all.

Special revelation is different than general revelation. Special revelation is the precise, or specific way in which God reveals himself so that he can be known personally and intimately. General revelation helps to us know about God and that he exists, while special revelation allows us to know God personally—to have a relationship with him. Knowing about God (general revelation) doesn’t provide what’s necessary for reconciling our broken relationship with him. It is only by knowing God personally that the power of the Holy Spirit can manifest in the human heart to regenerate the moral character of individuals and communities for the glory of God. 

Jesus is the perfect example of special revelation as Jesus embodiesor incarnates God. Through Jesus we can not only know about God, but we can actually know God personally. In Jesus, God made his personal residence with us (Jn 1:14). In Jesus, heaven and earth came together in a way unlike ever before in history. Without Jesus, no one would see the Father. 

The Holy Spirit’s primary ministry is to make Jesus visible to the world (Jn 16:14). Enabling spiritual gifts (e.g., teaching, preaching, Christian service, faith, charity, fortitude, knowledge, piety, etc.), illuminating the Scriptures, animating worship, inspiring spiritual disciplines (e.g., prayer, fasting, study, solitude, etc.), comforting, healing, and protecting believers—all the ministries of the Holy Spirit—ultimately serve the greater goal of testifying to the lordship of Jesus. All of this is to say, the Holy Spirit testifies to the life-changing truth that Christ reigns. 

Jesus says in John 16:13–15,

When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine; therefore, I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.

As will be discussed later in the detail, the Holy Spirit glorifies Jesus by applying the redemptive work of Jesus in the lives of believers. What Jesus has done for us the Holy Spirit does in us. Because the Holy Spirit’s primary ministry is to glorify Jesus, it is inevitable that the Holy Spirit is self-effacing. The Bible itself is evidence that the Holy Spirit much prefers to talk about Jesus than himself. The Bible doesn’t say nearly as much about the Holy Spirit as it does about Jesus. In fact, the entire Bible is all about Jesus. Jesus did not say to the men on the road to Damascus, “let me show you how the Bible testifies to the Holy Spirit” (Lk 24:27). To the contrary, “he [Jesus] explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.”

The fact that all of the Bible points to Jesus attests to the self-effacing, Jesus-glorifying nature of the Holy Spirit. In 2 Timothy 3:16 Paul says that all scripture is “God breathed.” In other words, the words of scripture are spoken by God, and the Holy Spirit is the breath of God that carries the divine Word into the world. If the Holy Spirit is a key player in the inspiration of the Bible, and the Holy Spirit is always talking about Jesus, then it follows that the Bible is always talking about Jesus. 

Acts 2 testifies to this very point. The highlight of this story of Pentecost for many Bible readers is that when the Holy Spirit comes, the disciples speak different languages.[10] This is an important part of the passage, but it is not the main point of the story. The main point of the story, rather, is that Peter boldly proclaims the gospel that Christ reigns. Speaking in different languages was merely the means to this greater end. When the Holy Spirit comes, He points to Jesus. 

Commenting on Pentecost, A. W. Tozer writes, “Contrary to what most people unintentionally assume, the important thing here was not that the Spirit had come—the important thing was that Jesus had been exalted.”[11] Tozer goes on to say,

It is plain that the glorification of Jesus brought the Holy Spirit, and we ought to be able to get hold of that thought instantly. So, we repeat: Where Jesus is glorified, the Holy Spirit comes. He does not have to be begged—the Holy Spirit comes when the Savior is glorified. When Christ is truly honored, the Spirit comes[12] (Tozer, 1993, p. 3).

The implication of this is that we have to be careful not to be overly preoccupied with the Holy Spirit. This frustrates the Holy Spirit. Many in history have fallen into this trap. We read about a case like this in Acts 8. This story recounts the first heresy to rise against the Holy Spirit.[13] As the story goes, Simon, a magician, wanted only the power that came with the Holy Spirit. Rather than being an instrument in the hands of the Holy Spirit, he wanted the Holy Spirit to serve as the means to his own ends. Sadly, he wasn’t interested in the redemptive work of Jesus as the fulfillment of the mission of God to the world. His motivations for knowing the Holy Spirit were selfish. 

The text says, “When Simon saw that the Spirit was given when the apostles laid their hands on people, he offered them money to buy this power. ‘Let me have this power, too,’ he exclaimed, ‘so that when I lay my hands on people, they will receive the Holy Spirit!’” (Acts 8:18­–19).

Peter rebukes Simon for this. Peter says, 

May your money be destroyed with you for thinking God’s gift can be bought! You can have no part in this, for your heart is not right with God. Repent of your wickedness and pray to the Lord. Perhaps he will forgive your evil thoughts, for I can see that you are full of bitter jealousy and are held captive by sin (Acts 8:20–23).

This story reveals the danger of pursuing the Holy Spirit with the wrong motivations. 

Jesus and the Bible both as the “Word of God”, then, are God’s unique way of revealing himself in the world. By virtue of being the “body of Christ,” the church is also a form of special revelation. The conformity of the church to the image of Christ makes Christ visible in the world. This means that the indwelling fire of the Holy Spirit in believers not only purifies, and illuminates, but also illuminates the church as testimony to the existence of God. Jesus says to the Church:

You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven (Matt 5:14–16).

Jesus is saying that the very faith, love, and obedience of the church are signposts to the existence of God. This is what the life of holiness is all about: testimony. Only God can recreate the human heart. Only God is capable of turning a Saul into Paul, and a Simon into a Peter. This radical transformation in the lives of people who are completely abandoned to God reveals the very real reign of Jesus over the creation. Holiness in the lives of people testify to the truth of the biblical message. 

Isaiah 2:2–5 paints this beautiful picture of end times:

In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it. Many peoples shall come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.” For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore. O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord!

Here we see that the nations are drawn to God because of the testimony of Israel’s holiness. Israel lives in such a way that the nations can’t help but take notice. 

Even before Jesus, however, God made himself known in special ways. This is what the Old Testament is largely about: Israel’s testimony to the special revelationof God. It’s Israel’s way of saying, “We have seen the living God and here’s our story about it!” In the Old Testament God spoke to Abraham, appeared to Moses in the burning bush, led Israel through the desert, and he spoke through his prophets. 

Even with examples of God’s special revelation in the Old Testament there was a normative means for God’s presence as well, and that was the temple. In the Old Testament the temple was the main place of God’s presence. The temple was the designated meeting place of heaven and earth. We will explore the temple in greater detail in the next chapter, as it is impossible to understand the Holy Spirit as well as the symbols of the Holy Spirit without first understanding the temple. 

Conclusion

Paradox pervades Christian theology because the Christian message is not human invention, but divine revelation. One of the many paradoxes in Christian theology are the doctrines of the transcendence and immanence of God. These two doctrines teach that even though God is not restricted by time and space, his presence is everywhere and always in the creation. Furthermore, while God is omnipresent, there are special ways in which God reveals himself in the creation. In the Old Testament, the normative, sacred dwelling place of God was the temple.


[1] The major leaders of the church in the fourth century AD together affirmed that the Bible clearly teaches that Jesus is divine at the ecumenical Council of Nicaea. For passages on the divinity of Christ see Lk. 22:69, 70; Jn. 1:1–2; 8:48–59; 10:30, 38; 12:45; 14:7–10; 16:15; 20:28; Matt. 2:11; 16:16; 28:9; Rom. 1:4; Col. 1:15; 2:9; 1 Tim. 3:16; Heb. 1:3; Rev. 19:9. For passages on the humanity of Christ, see Jn. 1:14; 4:6; 1 Tim. 2:5; Phil. 2:7; Heb. 2:9; 4:15; Gal. 4:4; Lk. 2:7.

[2] Nineteenth century writer G.K. Chesterton argued that the paradox of Christian theology attests to the truth of the Christian message. Chesterton contended that the fact that Christian teachings fall outside of the human reason reveals that, if anything, Christianity cannotbe human invention. And, if it is not human invention, then it must be divine revelation. 

[3] See 1 Kgs 8:27; 2 Chron 2:6; Job 26:7; Ps 95:3–5; 97:9; Is 40:22; Acts 17:24; 

[4] Also see Gen 3:8; Job 33:4; Ps 139; Jer. 23:23; Acts 17:27.

[5] C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain.

[6] A. W. Tozer, The Pursuit of God: Finding the Divine in the Everyday (Radford: Wilder Publications, 2008 reprint),  58.

[7] See Psalm 19.

[8] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Grand Rapids: Zondervan), 122.

[9] Sociopaths and others suffering from extreme psychological conditions would are obvious exceptions to this.

[10] Also see Acts 19:6.

[11] A.W. Tozer, The Counselor: Straight Talk about the Holy Spirit from a 20th Century Prophet, 1993, 2.

[12] Ibid., 3.

[13] This heresy is known as “simony.” See Thomas Oden, Life in the Spirit: Systematic Theology (Vol. III) (San Francisco: Harper, 1992), 29.


Matt Ayars

President of Wesley Biblical Seminary

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