During the earlier parts of this thread on the Trinity, I kept thinking that by the time I got to the Holy Spirit there wouldn’t be much to say: it’s all about the Father and Son. And even as I started planning this final part on the Spirit, I thought I would do it in a post, maybe two. But now that I’m digging into it, I’m realizing that the one-or-two post thing doesn’t make sense without a lot of background. Now I’ve decided I need to take the long path to get there. Consider it the scenic route.
I’ve been talking so far about the Spirit in the Hebrew Bible – from Genesis 1 up through the prophets. The Spirit is far more important for early Christianity, and hence for the New Testament, than for ancient Israelite religion (and hence the Old Testament), but I don’t believe I’ve ever articulated the reasons fully, either in writing or speaking. For a long time, I’ve thought it works like this, in a nutshell. (This may seem a bit circuitous until I tie it together at the end of the post!)
The very earliest Christians we know about believed that they were living at the end of time, as predicted in the prophets. They thought the messiah had come in fulfilment of Scripture. He had died as predicted (remember: non-Christian Jews did not agree that the “predictions” were actually about this; but the followers of Jesus came to be convinced that they were). And he had been raised from the dead – again according to how Jesus’ followers came to read Scripture. For the concise summary of this statement, remember how Paul recalls the message he proclaimed to the Corinthian community when they had been pagans and he was working to convert them (this is my somewhat idiomatic translation):
For I delivered over to you the message that was most important, that I myself had also received, that Christ died for our sins in accordance with what is taught in Scripture, and he was buried; and that he was raised up on the third day in accordance with what is taught in Scripture, and he appeared to Cephas and then to the twelve….
To make sense of this message, it is important to remember that even before Paul was a follower of Jesus, he was an apocalyptic Jew who believed that God was soon to intervene in worldly affairs to reassert his power over this wretched world. Everything and everyone who opposed God would be wiped off the map; only those on his side would survive and be rewarded with Paradise on earth, the Paradise God had originally intended for humans before they made a mess of things. God’s people would return to paradise.
In the view of Jewish apocalypticists like Paul, this climax to human history would come not just to people who happened to be alive at the time, but to all people who had ever lived. There would be a resurrection of the dead. Dead bodies – all of them – would have the breath of live breathed back into them and they would be restored to the land of the living for a time of final judgment. Most would be punished for opposing God. These would be shown the error of their ways and be cast out of his presence, subjected to a horrible destruction (they would live again only to die again; thus Daniel 12:1-3 e.g.). The righteous would be raised and brought into the utopian kingdom.
The resurrection, in other words, was the final thing to happen in the history of this world. After that, all would be radically different forever more. New life would begin for the righteous and it would never end. The resurrection was to happen at the very end of time.
When Paul came to believe he saw Jesus alive again after having been dead, he explained his vision in light of his own (and only) understanding of how someone could be alive if they had died. We ourselves, today, if or when we should have such a vision, would interpret it to mean that Jesus’ spirit must have lived on and appeared to Paul, even though his body had decayed and ceased to exist. That is to say, today, when someone sees their grandmother three weeks after she died, they don’t think she’s been raised from the dead bodily; they think they’re seeing a spirit/soul.
Not ancient Jews. They didn’t have the *idea* that the spirit/soul would survive the death of the body. The spirit was not some kind of entity hidden away or trapped in the material prison of the flesh. The spirit was the “breath” that made/kept the body animate. When the spirit/breath left the body, it didn’t “go” anywhere – just as for you, when you die, you don’t think your “breath” goes anywhere. It disappears and your body eventually will as well.
For apocalyptic Jews, the only way for a person to come back to life was to have the breath return to the body. That would happen at the end of time, at the resurrection.
Paul firmly believed that. And then he came to think that Jesus had come back to life. That meant, necessarily, that Jesus had experienced a resurrection. And that meant the resurrection of the final time had come. Paul came to think, then, that the resurrection of the dead … of *all* the dead … had started. First was the messiah. Then would come everyone else.
That’s why Paul calls Jesus the “first fruits of the resurrection” (1 Cor. 15:20). When the farmer begins to gather his harvest, at the end of the first day he and his family, friends, and neighbors celebrate the in-bringing of the first fruits. And when do they gather the rest of the harvest? Starting the next morning. If Jesus is the “first fruits” of the resurrection for Paul, then he thinks that everyone else is coming next, very, very soon. That’s why Paul and other Christians talked about living at the end of time. They thought everything else was soon to follow. Right away.
And what does this have to do with the Spirit?
The end didn’t come right away. And yet for Paul and other Christians, history had changed with the death and resurrection of the messiah. The followers of the Messiah were living in some kind of new age. But it wasn’t the final age because sin, pain, misery, suffering, and death continued in full force. What is this period – however short it is – between the beginning of the end and the culmination of the end?
It is the age of the Spirit. It is a short period where God is present here on earth in a way like never before, living among his people in and through his Spirit, guiding them, encouraging them, protecting them, helping them in this short interim before the day of judgment.
For Paul and his communities, the Spirit was all-important. This heightened emphasis on the Spirit will eventually lead to the third member of the Trinity. I’ll explain more about that in posts to come.