Blog Banner

Where was the Holy Spirit Before Jesus?

Where was the Holy Spirit Before Jesus?
This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 6/4/17, at the Washington City Church of the Brethren. The scripture readings for this sermon were: Numbers 11:24-30, Acts 2:1-21, & 1 Corinthians 12:3b-13. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (FYI, the spoken sermon differs from the written text.)

Listen to the Sermon Now

“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.”

The Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. Before the light. Before the day and the night. Before the teeming life in the sea and on the dry land. Before anything we could see or imagine, the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.

There’s a long tradition of Christian thought that imagines that the Holy Spirit was somehow not present, not a tangible reality in the world, until after the resurrection of Jesus. To be fair to all those Christian thinkers, there are some passages in Scripture that point to this idea. In chapter seven of John’s gospel account, he writes that Jesus taught his followers “about the Spirit, which believers in him were to receive; for as yet there was no Spirit, because Jesus was not yet glorified.”

I’m not quite sure what John meant when he said that at that time there “was no Spirit.” But I have to be sure he didn’t mean that the Spirit didn’t yet exist. Because we know that the Spirit of God has existed since before time began. This Spirit, this breath, was what hovered over the waters at creation. It’s this breath that God breathed into Adam when he gave life to our species. This breath was present with Moses in the wilderness and with Elijah up on the high mountain when he heard the still, small voice of God.

We know from our readings this morning that the Spirit of God did not somehow come into being after the resurrection of Jesus. She’s been with us all along. But scripture does teach us that our relationship with the Spirit of God has changed over time. It hasn’t always been the same.

In the beginning, at the time of our creation, we were children of God in the garden. We stood innocent and simple-minded before God. We didn’t have the knowledge of good and evil. The presence and breath of God was always with us, walking in the garden in the cool of the day.

Back in those first days, the spirit, breath, and presence of God wasn’t something we even thought about consciously. It was just reality. To live as a human being was to be immersed in God’s presence, awake to his life.

But as we all know, things changed. We got into deep conversation with that very reasonable, very convincing snake. He told us that we could be like God.

We could be like God. It was such a perfect lie – such a characteristic lie of the Devil, wasn’t it? Because of course, we were already like God. That’s how God made us. We were created in the image of God. We were filled with every good thing. We lived in unity with our creator. We reflected his beauty and love. The only thing denied to us was separation from God.

And that’s the great irony. The serpent sold us the thing we already had: The life of the Spirit. The living presence of God, hovering over the waters of our lives. We grabbed that fruit with both hands, only to realize too late that to grasp at God – to try to control God – is an act of separation from God.

So from that time onward, our relationship with God changed. We experienced separation for the first time. Our breaths were no longer his breath. The Spirit of God became something distinct, apart, distant from us. In our shame we turned away. We made clothes to hide our nakedness, to hide ourselves from the radiance that we had once experienced as totally normal.

Many years passed. Thousands of years. So long that human beings had almost completely forgotten our original connection and unity with the Creator. We forgot that our breath used to share the same character as God’s breath. That he breathed in us and gave us life as children of God.

By the time Moses came around, the Hebrew people had been enslaved in Egypt for 400 years. The Hebrews had forgotten everything. Like the rest of humanity, they were spiritual amnesiacs. And this is what I think that John must have meant when he said that in the days before Jesus’ resurrection “as yet there was no Spirit.” For all practical purposes, that was true. The Hebrews, the Egyptians, all the people of the world had so thoroughly forgotten who God was, forgotten what it felt like to live in unity with the Creator, that it was as if the Spirit did not even exist.

Moses had forgotten, too. It took a dramatic intervention in the form of a burning bush to get Moses to wake up to who and whose he really was.

For a while, this kind of revelation was just limited to Moses. The Spirit of God hovered over Moses. Moses spoke to Aaron, and Aaron spoke to the people. It was always three degrees of separation. When Moses went up on the mountain to talk to God, he didn’t have to convince anyone to let him go up there alone. The people begged him to leave them behind. “Hey, Moses, why don’t you go up there and talk with God in the storm cloud? We’re just gonna stay down here and try not to get struck by lightening!”

For years, Moses was the only one to talk to God. Moses was the only one experiencing the presence of God’s Spirit.

But the Spirit wouldn’t stay constrained to being in relationship with just one man. As cool as Moses was – as stylish as his wild-man beard might have been – the Spirit was gonna hover. She was gonna keep hovering wherever she wanted to hover.

And so, as we read in our Scripture this morning from the Book of Numbers, it’s not too long before the Spirit starts to break out from her relationship with Moses and starts involving more people. Moses is tired, and God knows that no one person is meant to carry the burden of God’s message all alone. And so Moses called together seventy elders of the people and laid hands on them, so that they would receive a share of the Spirit, too. And it says the Spirit rested on them, and they prophesied.

But there were a couple of guys who missed the meeting. I guess they missed the memo or something, because they didn’t know up for the ceremony. But the Spirit didn’t seem to care at all. After all, the Spirit hovers wherever she wants to hover. So while the other sixty-eight elders were up at the tent revival, getting their Holy Spirit on, Eldad and Medad started hollering and breaking out in prophecy in the middle of the camp!

Now Joshua, Moses’ right-hand man, saw that Eldad and Medad were speaking out of turn. They were running around, exciting everyone, and drawing a lot of attention to themselves as they praised God in the Spirit. So Joshua ran back to the Tent of Meeting and told Moses: “Eldad and Medad are running around prophesying. You’ve gotta stop them!”

Moses couldn’t believe what Joshua was saying. How could it possibly be a bad thing for more people to receive the Spirit of God? “Are you jealous for my sake?” he asked Joshua. “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them!”

So throughout the Old Testament we see this pattern. Human beings try to corral God into specific times and places and rituals. We try to confine him to a tent, a temple, a holy-of-holies. We say that he can only show up in certain ways and to certain people. Can the high priest talk to God? Maybe. Can an ordinary person? No way. God is too holy to touch the sinfulness of ordinary human life. Let’s leave this one to the professionals.

But the Spirit isn’t afraid to touch the creation. Throughout the Old Testament, God chooses all sorts of people to breathe his Spirit onto. Some of them are the people you’d expect – kings and priests. Others – like Amos, Micah, and Elijah – not so much. God shows up in ways and people that are unexpected.

The prophet Joel foretold something even more spectacular. For so long, the Spirit of God had only appeared to some people, some of the time. But there was a day coming, said Joel, when God would pour out his presence on everyone. Just like in the old days, the Spirit of God would hover over the whole of the creation, leaving nobody beyond the reach of God’s love.

Today, we celebrate the day of Pentecost. As Christians, we remember one specific Pentecost more than 2,000 years ago. It was a day when the Holy Spirit came with such power and universality that the early followers of Jesus said: “This is the fulfillment of Joel’s promise. God has poured out his Spirit on everyone!”

On that day of Pentecost, after Jesus had been raised from the dead and ascended into the sky, all of the disciples were gathered together in one place. And the breath of God started to hover like she hadn’t hovered in a very, very long time.

It says, “And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.”

The prophecy of Joel began to be fulfilled that day, as God created the church of Jesus Christ. Through his breath of life, thousands of people were knit together into a new creation, a new community, a people who walked together with God in the garden. In the midst of this fallen world, the New Jerusalem had appeared.

As followers of Jesus today, this is a reality that we are invited into. When we gather in Jesus’ name, the Holy Spirit hovers over us. The breath of God covers us, comforts us, and leads us with boldness and power. The same Spirit that created the cosmos is at work in us, revealing a new creation that heals the ancient separation.

It’s significant that the apostle Paul speaks about the life of our community in terms of the movement of the Spirit. Our faith in Jesus is made possible by the Holy Spirit. And it’s through the Spirit, dwelling within and among us, that we are able to manifest God’s love to those around us.

This happens in many ways. There are many manifestations of the Spirit’s presence, and none of us has all of them. But each manifestation – whether it be wisdom or knowledge or faith or healing or prophecy or miracles or discernment or tongues or interpretation of tongues – all manifestations of the Spirit are given to us for the common good. The Spirit is still creating – guiding and empowering us to heal the world.

We are so blessed. We live in the age of the Spirit, in a time where the Spirit of God is once again hovering over the waters. She’s hovering over our lives as we seek to follow Jesus together. She’s present in our midst as we gather here, in our homes, or in any other moment when we need to be knit together in God’s love.

It’s easy to miss it. It’s tempting to think that the Holy Spirit is only showing up in the most spectacular, high-energy moments. I’ve often doubted the Spirit’s presence when there weren’t tongues of fire and obvious miracles. But I’m reminded that throughout Scripture and throughout history that the breath of God shows up in many different ways. As a whisper, as a rushing wind, as encouragement, as sudden revelation. The breath of God blows where she will.

Let’s welcome her this morning. Holy Spirit, come.

Related Posts:

Is Jesus the Only Way to God?

There Will Be No Tomahawk Missiles in the Kingdom of God

  • Whenever theologians try to organize God into neat, separate categories, things get all muddled up. Trinitarian theology absolutely does not fit with John 6:63. Yet it was/is the opening of this verse which gave me understanding into much that had been mysterious before. “The flesh profits nothing, the words I have spoken/am speaking to you, these are breath, these are life.” (My rendition.) The verb John uses is both past and present tense even though it is usually rendered as past tense in our translations. Couple that thought with the Joel passage and you arrive at something like, “In those days I will pour out my speaking on all people” Sons, daughters, old men, handmaids servants etc. will give evidence of receiving the new covenant wherein they shall no longer teach every man his brother saying “Know the Lord” for they shall all have this speaking within them. They shall all know the Word in whom is the life that is the light of mankind. So now, here is our choice as humans. Will we listen? In the Hebrew scriptures to hear or to listen is much more than to acknowledge that something made our ear drums vibrate. It involves the action of living according to what we hear. This is how we come into the life that was in the beginning.

  • Wolf Boyle

    Hi Micah! Just to comment on the idea that there was ‘no spirit’ before the resurrection: at Jesus’ Baptism we are told that the Holy Spirit rested on Jesus like a dove. So she must have been around well before the resurrection and even before the start of Jesus’ ministry.

    • Not to mention in Genesis, right? 😀

      • Wolf Boyle

        Umm..yes (sounds of quick flicking of Bible pages).

  • Paul J Ricketts

    ”We experienced separation for the first time. Our breaths were no longer his breath. The Spirit of God became something distinct, apart, distant from us. In our shame we turned away. We made clothes to hide our nakedness, to hide ourselves from the radiance that we had once experienced as totally normal.”

    We???? Was this a universal separation or a couple making a bad decision? In which couples do everyday.

    ”Many years passed. Thousands of years. So long that human beings had almost
    completely forgotten our original connection and unity with the Creator.We forgot that our breath used to share the same character as God’s breath. That he breathed in us and gave us life as children of God.”

    Micah this is not true for many indigenous(people of color) societies worldwide. They experience God as a power deep within themselves, and creation.

    I feel women,people with disabilities, GLBT folks and people of color we constantly get messages everyday that we are less than human.The Adam and Eve narrative only rub salt in/into the wound of our oppression. When I read the Hebrew Scriptures its the first creation story in Genesis Chapter1 that resonate deeply in my heart. ”God created humankind in God’s image”Fr. Ted Bobosh a priest in the Orthodox Church in America so very true,so beautifully stated in his blog “Humanity in itself, in the fact that we exist at all, is a revelation of God.We reveal God in our very being, not only in what we do.”

    Fr. Ted Bobosh is not saying that we are God or are equal to the divinity, but that through faith and in grace we become who we fully are–people made in the image
    of God.All people are bound up in God’s life, and there are awesome blessings and responsibilities that come with that sharing in God.

  • Paul Ricketts

    ”We experienced separation for the first time. Our breaths were no longer
    his breath. The Spirit of God became something distinct, apart, distant
    from us. In our shame we turned away. We made clothes to hide our
    nakedness, to hide ourselves from the radiance that we had once
    experienced as totally normal.”

    We???? Was this a universal separation or a couple making a bad decision? In which couples do everyday.

    ”Many years passed. Thousands of years. So long that human beings had almost
    completely forgotten our original connection and unity with the Creator.We forgot
    that our breath used to share the same character as God’s breath. That
    he breathed in us and gave us life as children of God.”

    Micah this is not true for many indigenous(people of color) societies
    worldwide. They experience God as a power deep within themselves, and
    creation.

    I feel women,people with disabilities, GLBT folks and people of col
    or we constantly get messages everyday that we are less than human.The
    Adam and Eve narrative only rub salt in/into the wound of our
    oppression. When I read the Hebrew Scriptures its the first creation
    story in Genesis Chapter1 that resonate deeply in my heart. ”God
    created humankind in God’s image”Fr. Ted Bobosh a priest in the
    Orthodox Church in America so very true,so beautifully stated in his
    blog “Humanity in itself, in the fact that we exist at all, is a
    revelation of God.We reveal God in our very being, not only in what we
    do.”

    Fr. Ted Bobosh is not saying that we are God or are equal to the
    divinity, but that through faith and in grace we become who we fully
    are–people made in the image of God. All people are bound up in God’s life, and there are awes come blessings and responsibilities that come with that sharing in God

  • Paul Ricketts

    I reread Micah blog post last night. And I came across this sentence He wrote, ”And that’s the great irony. The serpent sold us the thing we already had: The life of the Spirit.”

    Again I personally do not believe humanity experienced a universal ”separation” from God. Reading this story of adam and eve in book of genesis. What kind of God would separate herself from billions of people because a couple, bite apple. Separation is not a condition, but a choice we make each day.

    Serpent aka the Empire offers us apples everyday. Apples that are antithetical to everything Jesus lived and taught. Love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Extra biblical Quaker gifts simplicity, peace,integrity, equality, care for the earth.

    But the Empire again and again tries to sell us something that as Micah has written, we already have. Life of the Spirit. A life that seeks not to be co-opted by the Empire. But to be in resistance to the Empire. Choosing each day to work against warmaking, white supremacy, heterosexism, cissexism, and classism.

    The taste of the apples offer by the serpent-empire, for many are so hard to resist. We need healthy,vibrant and relevant Quaker Meetings today.