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We use metaphors all the time for a reason. They help us understand better.

The Bible uses several metaphors for the Holy Spirit so we can better understand who he is and what he does.

We will look at three of these metaphors for the Holy Spirit, but before we do, let’s make sure we understand what a metaphor is.

What is a metaphor?

One source defines a metaphor as “a figure of speech that is used to make a comparison between two things that aren’t alike but do have something in common.”    

A simile is almost the same, using the words “like” or “as.”

For example, “He is a rock” is a metaphor. “He is like a rock” is a simile.

A rock conjures up the image of something solid and immovable but does not mean that person is an actual rock.

I think you get the idea.

Why does the Bible use metaphors for the Holy Spirit?

In The Suffering of God, Terence E. Fretheim points out that “virtually all of the language used in the Bible to refer to God is metaphorical.” Of course, this includes the Holy Spirit.

The metaphor will “generate insight into the divine reality at the basic thrust of the analogy,” teaching us something about who the Spirit is and what he does.

What are some of the metaphors used for the Holy Spirit?

Some metaphors for the Spirit

Here are seven metaphors or symbols of the Holy Spirit:

  • Wind
  • Dove
  • Oil
  • Fire
  • Living waters
  • Seal
  • Guarantee

Each of these metaphors uses something we are familiar with to teach us about the Spirit. Keep in mind that the Holy Spirit is not the object of comparison. For instance, the Holy Spirit is not an actual dove, but there are qualities of a dove that provide insight into who the Spirit is and what he does.

Now, let’s examine briefly a few of these to see what insights they generate into the divine reality of the Holy Spirit.

1.         Wind

I open with this metaphor for a reason. Both the Hebrew word ruach and the Greek pneuma are translated as “wind,” “breath,” or “spirit,” depending on the context. 

The imagery of wind in the Bible can be negative as in a “scorching wind,” referring to God’s judgment against Jerusalem (Jeremiah 4:11-12), but that is not our focus here.

Jesus used the metaphor of wind for the Holy Spirit in a positive sense during his conversation with Nicodemus (John 3:7-8):

The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.

What do we learn from the wind that teaches us about the Holy Spirit?

Jesus is pointing out that we do not control the wind—“it blows wherever it pleases.” In addition, although we might discern the presence of wind, we don’t know “where it comes from or where it is going.” The Holy Spirit is like that: we don’t control him, and even though we might discern his presence, knowing his source and destination are beyond us, unless (of course) he chooses to let us in on that.

What other biblical texts employ this metaphor of the wind for the Spirit? What more do you learn from this metaphor?

2.         Dove

The first mention of a dove is in Genesis 8, in contrast to the raven Noah sent out from the ark. One comparison is that a crow happily scavenges off the carrion floating in the water, whereas a dove, by nature, will not do that. This instructs us that the Spirit is clean, pure, holy.

Another example is the account of the baptism of the Lord Jesus, which we find near the beginning of each Gospel. We read that John the Baptist “saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and lighting on [Jesus].” (Matthew 3:16)

This evokes several images, including the “Spirit of God” moving or hovering (Hebrew, rachaph) “over the waters” (Genesis 1:2). The word rachaph only occurs one other time in the same Hebrew form (piel), where it refers to an eagle that “hovers over its young” (Deuteronomy 32:11). So, together, the Spirit is like a hovering bird and is linked with creation.

Both the baptism of Jesus and Genesis 1:2 link the Spirit of God, water, and the image of a bird, evoking the symbol of God’s power in creation—in the first creation, and in Jesus bringing a new creation. 

Again, what other texts use the dove as a metaphor for the Spirit, and what are your additional insights?

3.         Oil

Although animals and vegetables were sources of oils, the olive is the most significant source of oil in the Bible.

Oil was a sign of God’s blessing and favor (Deuteronomy 11:13-15).

The Hebrew word Messiah and the Greek Christ both mean the Anointed One—as in being anointed with oil. In Luke 4:18, Jesus attributes to Himself the word of Isaiah 61:1-2:

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me …”

Anointing with oil was a necessary mark for service by God’s prophets, priests, and kings, thus denoting the necessity of the Spirit for serving God and serving people for God. Jesus makes this clear when he instructs his disciples (Acts 1:8):

“You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

Oil was also used for healing and lighting (Exodus 27:20-21; Matthew 25:4). What else can you learn of the Spirit from this metaphor?

Summing up

We have only scratched the surface. Metaphors have so much to teach us about who the Holy Spirit is and what He does.

So far, a few insights we have gathered include:

  • God’s life-giving power moves where He directs. Like the wind, it is not subject to human expectations or control.
  • The imagery of a dove indicates that the Spirit is pure and powerfully engaged in creation.
  • The physical properties and uses of olive oil teach us the Spirit heals, gives light, and empowers those who serve God.

There is much more to learn from other metaphors of the Spirit. I will continue this subject in the next post.

Do you have anything to add? Can you identify other metaphors for the Holy Spirit and suggest their significance? I want to hear from you. You can reach me by clicking here.

FORWARD TO "4 More Metaphors for Knowing the Holy Spirit Better"

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Photo credit: Fred Moore 1947 on VisualHunt

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