As Christians, we confess that there is one God who eternally exists in three distinct persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
The three persons of the Trinity are equal in power and glory, are co-eternal, and are of the same essence (Ousia in Greek).
The Father is God, the Son is God, the Spirit is God, but the Father is not the Son, the Son is not the Father, nor is the Spirit the Father or the Son.
The three persons of the Trinity also have unique functions, and relate to each other in unique ways. As a result, we can speak about the Trinity in two ways: the “Ontological Trinity” and the “Economic Trinity.”
“Ontological” has to doing with “being.” So, to speak of the Ontological Trinity is to explain who God is, and who the three persons of the Godhead are.
The major ecumenical councils of the church, such as Nicaea and Chalcedon, focused on the ontological nature of the persons of the Trinity, and affirmed that Jesus, the Son, is very God of very God, and that the Holy Spirit is not an impersonal force, but is, indeed, God.
So, to speak about the Trinity ontologically, is to affirm both the divine nature and the unique personhood of the three persons of the Trinity.
“Economic” has to do with action, roles, and function: what God (and each person of the Godhead) does.
So, when we take an economic view of the Trinity, we are talking about the things which the Father does, or which the Spirit does, which are unique to that person of the Godhead.
For example, it is the role and function of the Holy Spirit to perform the sealing and sanctifying functions of God in the life of a believer.
Jesus, the divine Son, uniquely took on human flesh, came to Earth, lived a sinless life, and died on a cross for our redemption.
The Father sent the Son, the Son submitted to the Father and obeyed the Father, the Father and the Son sent the Spirit. The Spirit glorifies and points to the Son. The Son glorifies the Father. The Father exalts the Son. The Son ever lives to make intercession for us. The Spirit indwells believers, reminding them of what the Son said, and bringing about conviction of sin, righteousness, and judgment.
One important application of these principles, is the understanding that economic actions, such as submission, leadership, and difference of roles, does not diminish or take away from a person’s ontological identity, value, dignity, or identity.
This is communicated explicitly in Philippians 2, where we are told that Jesus, although he was equal with the Father, as God (ontologically), did not regard equality with [the Father] (economically) something to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men, and humbled himself in obedience, even to the point of death on a cross.
The point here is that Jesus’ economic activity did not detract from his ontological nature.
A point of application is made in the New Testament, in the complementary roles of men and women in the church. Though men are called to teach and exercise authority in the “household of God” (1 Timothy 3:15), this does not diminish or take away from the ontological equality of men and women as human beings, and as children of God, but is rather a matter of economic function. If this is true of the Trinity (and clearly it is), then it should not surprise us that it is true in the “household of God,” acted out by those who reflect His image to the world.
For more on this, check out this discussion of 1 Timothy 2:8-15, which I had with my wife, Rosemary, for our church’s weekly Sermon Extra video:
Both God the Father and the Son have distinct and obvious eternal roles that we see played out in the Bible, with Jesus being more obvious, but as I was thinking through the role of the Holy Spirit in eternity, I couldn’t come up with anything concrete. Could you give a brief overview of the roles of the triune persons of God as it pertains to eternity? I’m mostly interested in the Holy Spirit, but would love a pastor’s perspective on the other two also.
The “Ontological Trinity” and the “Economic Trinity”
There are two fields of discussion when it comes to the Trinity. The “ontological” and the “economic.” “Ontological” refers to who God is, i.e. that which pertains to being, whereas “economic” refers to what God does.
Specifically applied to the Trinity, study of the “ontological Trinity” is focused on those parts of the Bible which communicate that the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God, and yet these three, while distinct persons, are one God. Study of the “economic Trinity” is focused on the passages in the Bible which tell us what each of these three persons does as their role in “the Godhead.”
So, ontologically, it is important to point out that eternality is part of God’s nature. God is eternal, and each person of the godhead is eternal. So, the role of God in eternity is merely a continuation of who God has been until now, and who God will forever be.
However, the question above is about the economics of the Triune God after this present age is over, and we have transitioned into what the Bible calls “the new heavens and new Earth.” What will the functions of the three persons of the Triune God be in “the age to come”?
The Role of the Son in the Age to Come
The Son, we are told, is currently seated at the right hand of the Father, and for eternity he will reign and rule as king over all of redeemed creation. (See Revelation 22:3)
Currently, Jesus is making intercession for believers, advocating for us, and is seated on a throne, but for eternity, all we really know is that he will be an eternal sovereign, ruling over a kingdom of righteousness and peace which will never end.
The Role of the Father in the Age to Come
Along with ruling over the redeemed creation from a heavenly throne, revelation tells us that God (not necessarily just the Father) will be a source of light, which will preclude the need for the sun to illuminate, since God himself will be our light.
The Role of the Holy Spirit in the Age to Come
The one thing that sticks out about the Holy Spirit’s role in eternity, is that, whereas the Father and the Son have a throne in the New Heavens and New Earth, the Holy Spirit does not (Revelation 22:3).
Beyond this, I can’t think of any verses which speak specifically about a role of the Holy Spirit in the age to come – but that is not surprising, and here’s why:
What we read regarding the economic Trinity mostly has to do with the work of God to redeem human beings. Remember, the Bible is a book about Jesus: who he is, and how he saves us.
Since the Bible is focused on the story of the salvation and redemption of humankind, it does not tell us very much about what God did before creating the world, nor does it tell us much about what God will do after the redemption of the world is complete.
“The Great Story Which No One on Earth has Read”
This reminds me of the final paragraph of C.S. Lewis’ The Final Battle, which is the final book in the Chronicles of Narnia series, which is full of allegories about biblical passages and teachings.
C.S. Lewis poetically describes “the age to come” in this way:
“…but the things that began to happen after that were so great and beautiful that I cannot write them. And for us this is the end of all the stories, and we can most truly say that they all lived happily ever after. But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on for ever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.”
C.S. Lewis, The Last Battle
The Bible doesn’t tell us much about what the three persons of the Trinity will do in eternity, because that is not the story which the Bible exists to tell.
God Will Do What God Did Before
Prior to the creation of the world, it is important to remember that God existed from eternity past. Without human beings to rescue, sanctify, and redeem, what did God do?
What we can be sure of, is that God was neither bored nor lonely.
From eternity past, the one God, who exists as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit existed as a mutually edifying and glorifying community unto himself. Creation, was God inviting us to join in the “perichoresis,” the eternal relationship which exists between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, sometimes referred to as “the dance of God.”
In other words, in eternity, we can expect that God will do what God did before: delighting in himself, with each person fueling this mutually edifying and glorifying relationship.
One of the questions that is sometimes asked about the Holy Spirit, is whether God will ever remove the Holy Spirit from a person because of disobedience or sinful actions.
Certainly there are verses which talk about God removing the Holy Spirit from people, such as Psalm 51:11, where King David prays, “Cast me not away from your presence, and take not your Holy Spirit from me.” David prayed this in the wake of his sin with Bathsheba (2 Samuel 11), so that brings up the question: Are there times when God removes the Holy Spirit from someone if they do something really bad?
Furthermore, in 1 Samuel 16, is says that the Spirit of the Lord departed from King Saul, and in the Book of Judges, it says that the Spirit of the Lord departed from Samson.
So, does this mean that God will REMOVE his Spirit from YOU, if you live in a bad way? If so, that would be a pretty big problem, because Romans 8:9 says “Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him.”
Understanding the Three Relationships the Holy Spirit has with different groups of people
In order to answer this question and understand what it meant for David, Saul, and Samson – and what it means for us today, we have to first understand the 3 different relationships that the Bible tells us the Holy Spirit has with different groups of people.
Relationship 1: “WITH” All People
In John 14:17, Jesus told his disciples that the Holy Spirit had been with them up until that point.
Jesus then he told them that the work of the Spirit in the world is that He brings about conviction in people’s hearts and minds about 3 things: Sin, Righteousness, and Judgment (John 16:8)
In other words, the Holy Spirit is at work in the world in every country, with all people, and he is whispering in their ears and speaking to their hearts about the fact that 1)They are sinners (they have fallen short of God’s perfect standard), and 2) God is righteous, so therefore 3) There is coming a day of judgment when they will have to stand before that righteous God and give account for their lives.
The purpose of this conviction is not to just make people feel bad about themselves; the purpose is to draw them to Jesus by bringing them to a realization of why they need a savior, so they will embrace Jesus and what He has done in order to save them.
Relationship 2: “IN” those who have been redeemed by Jesus
Jesus told his disciples in John 14:17: The Holy Spirit has been WITH YOU up until this point — but soon, the Holy Spirit will also be IN YOU.
This indwelling of the Holy Spirit is something that was prophesied by the Old Testament prophets Ezekiel and Jeremiah, that one day God was going to put His Spirit within His people (Ezekiel 36:27), in order to transform them from the inside out.
For people in the Old Testament, the indwelling of the Holy Spirit was always a future event, but after Jesus had died and resurrected, we read in John 20:22 that Jesus met with his disciples and he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” It was at this moment, that the disciples received the Holy Spirit within them, and it was at this moment that they were “born again.” (See also: “What does it mean to be “Born Again”?)
What it comes down to is this: Only those who have put their faith in Jesus have the Holy Spirit within them, and every person who has put their faith in Jesus has the Holy Spirit dwelling with them.
The Bible tells us that when you put your faith in Jesus, God puts his seal on you and gives you His Spirit in as a guarantee(2 Corinthians 1:23). Furthermore, the regenerating and indwelling Spirit is called “the Spirit of Adoption” (Romans 8:15) It’s His guarantee that you belong to Him, and you are His.
The indwelling Spirit sanctifies, leads, guides, strengthens, and transforms from within.
Relationship 3: “UPON” Some people at different times, to empower them to do what God has called them to do
Remember how in John 20 Jesus breathed on his disciples and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit”? Well, right after that, Jesus told his disciples to stay in Jerusalem and wait until the Holy Spirit came upon them. (Luke 24 & Acts 1:4)
But… if they just RECEIVED the Holy Spirit, then why did Jesus tell them to wait for the Holy Spirit?
Because: this is speaking about two different relationships with the Holy Spirit!
When Jesus breathed upon them, they received the Spirit IN them (and they were born again) — but then they were to wait in Jerusalem for the Holy Spirit to come UPON them: to EMPOWER THEM to carry out the mission Jesus had given them.
That’s why Jesus His disciples in Acts 1:8, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come UPON you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”
Throughout the Old Testament, before people could have the Holy Spirit WITHIN them — we read that the Holy Spirit would come UPON people, to empower them to do things God had called them to do. For example, it says that the Spirit of the Lord came upon Gideon! (Judges 6:34 NKJV) We’re also told that the Holy Spirit came UPON Samson, and UPON David, and UPON Elisha, and others — to EMPOWER them to do what God had called them to do.
So, Jesus was promising his disciples (and us) — that the Holy Spirit will also come upon us, to empower us to carry out the callings He has placed upon our lives.
Remember: in the Old Testament, the Spirit was WITH people (to bring conviction) and the Holy Spirit was UPON people (to empower them), but at that point that Spirit was not yet WITHIN people. So when we read in the Old Testament about God “removing” his Spirit, it’s not in the sense of a person who had the Holy Spirit dwelling within them, rather it’s in the sense of God removing the empowering work of the Holy Spirit from those people.
But for a person who has been sealed by the Holy Spirit indwelling them, we never read of God removing His Spirit from someone in that sense. The indwelling Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Adoption. God does not un-adopt us when we make mistakes and mess up, rather: he disciplines us like a loving Father (see Hebrews 12).
If He has SEALED you, as a guarantee of your salvation, that’s exactly what it is: He has placed his Spirit within you as a guarantee that He will see you through and bring to completion the good work that He has begun in you.
If you are His child, He won’t give up on you – and that’s really good news!
This past Sunday we concluded our Eastertide (the 50 days following Easter) series called The Risen Life, in which we studied the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus from the perspective of what His risen life shows us about what it means for us to live as people who have died with Christ and been risen to new life.
A question I am frequently asked is if there is a difference between the “baptism” of the Holy Spirit, and being “filled” with the Holy Spirit. Are they two different words which describe the same thing? The answer is: in some cases ‘Yes,’ and in other cases ‘No.’
Let me explain:
Understanding the Three Relationships the Holy Spirit Has with People
Throughout the Bible, we can see three distinct relationships which the Holy Spirit has with people. I would say that there are no less than these three, and no more than these three.
However, there are various terms and phrases which are used by the biblical authors to describe these relationships, and here’s what leads to confusion: some of the biblical authors use the same words to describe different relationships!
And yet, by looking at the context and the meaning of what the authors are describing (by the inspiration of the Spirit), we can see that three distinct relationships with the Holy Spirit are described in the Bible.
These three relationships can be easily remembered by connecting them to three simple prepositions: With, Upon, and In.
With – Conviction. (All People)
The Holy Spirit is WITH all people, bringing conviction about 3 things: sin, righteousness, and judgment.
In the Gospel of John chapters 14 &16, Jesus tells his disciples (at the Last Supper) that he is going away, but he will send the Spirit. Then he tells them about the person and work of the Holy Spirit.
And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth… You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you.
Jesus then tells them that the work of the Spirit with people is that he brings conviction about sin, righteousness, and judgment. The Spirit speaks to people, to bring conviction that they have sinned, that God is righteous (and they have fallen short of his righteousness), and that a day is coming when God will judge the world, i.e. they will have to stand before him in judgment because they have fallen short.
In other words: the work of the Holy Spirit in the world with all people, is that he is bringing conviction of sin and the need for a Savior.
In Genesis 6, God says that his Spirit will not always strive with humankind. In other words, the Spirit is striving with people, to bring about conviction of sin which will lead to repentance in some cases, or a hardening of hearts in other cases.
What this means is that God’s Spirit is speaking to people’s hearts in the deepest jungles, in closed countries, as well as to the hearts of your loved ones. It is possible to harden your heart to the voice of the Spirit, as we are told in Hebrews 4:7, among other places.
The ultimate rejection of the work of the Spirit in this way is what constitutes the blasphemy of the Holy Spirit: rejecting the work of the Spirit to bring conviction leading to repentance and embracing the Savior.
Upon – Empowerment. (Some People)
Throughout the Old Testament and the New Testament, we see a second relationship with the Holy Spirit, in which the Holy Spirit empowers people to fulfill particular callings that God has put on their lives.
Sometimes this empowerment manifests itself in supernatural gifts, such as with Saul in 1 Samuel 10, or with the charismatic gifts in 1 Corinthians 12 & 14.
This empowerment is often described by the term “upon” in the Old Testament, and in some places in the New Testament:
“And the Spirit of the LORD rushed upon [Samson]” (Judges 14:9)
And behold, I am sending the promise of my Father upon you. But stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.” (Luke 24:49)
But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” (Acts 1:8)
This empowering relationship was described by the anointing with oil of priests, kings, and prophets in the Old Testament. The oil symbolized the empowering of God to fulfill a calling he has put upon our lives.
It seems that this empowering is sometimes given by God to people who are not believers, and who do not have saving faith. Example of this might be King Saul in 1 Samuel 10, or the high priest Caiaphas in John 11:49-52, who prophesied that Jesus would be killed in order to die for the nation. Furthermore, talking about the supernatural gifts of the Spirit, Paul seems to imply in 1 Corinthians 13 that it is possible to exercise spiritual gifts and not be a Christian! Jesus himself says that some people who cast out demons will not go to heaven (Matthew 7:22-23)
Furthermore, the word Messiah (anointed one) carries with it the connotation that the Spirit is upon this one, to empower him to carry out a unique mission from God: to atone for sin and bring salvation to the world. This is why Isaiah 61, which Jesus quoted in Luke 4 in Nazareth when he announced that he was Messiah, says:
The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound
Isaiah 61:1-2, quoted in Luke 4 by Jesus and applied to himself
This is an important distinction from the next relationship with the Holy Spirit, and I will explain why it is so important as we go on.
In – Indwelling. (Those who have been born again through faith in Jesus)
Jesus told his disciples at the Last Supper that the Holy Spirit had been with them, but would soon be in them (John 14:16-17).
This indwelling of the Holy Spirit was something which was prophesied and predicted, but which never happened until after Jesus had died and risen from the grave.
In Ezekiel 37, God spoke through the prophet Ezekiel, telling the people about a future day when he would place his Spirit inside of his people.
Paul tells us in Ephesians 1:13-14 & 4:30, and 2 Corinthians 1:22 & 5:5 that when we put our faith in Jesus, and believe the gospel, we are sealed with the Holy Spirit as a guarantee that we have been redeemed by God, and he see us through until our redemption is complete.
The Spirit within us sanctifies us, guides us, teaches us, reminds us of the words of Jesus (John 16:13-15).
It is incorrect to say, as some do, that “God is within all of us.” What the Bible teaches is that God’s Spirit is only within those who have placed their faith in Jesus and been redeemed by Him.
Where these distinctions bring clarity
These distinctions bring clarity to some things, for example: in Psalm 51, David, having sinned with Bathsheeba, prays: “Do not take your Holy Spirit from me.”
Without making these clear distinctions in relationship, we might draw the conclusion that if we sin, we are in danger of God removing his Holy Spirit from us who are believers. And since Romans 8:9 says:
You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him.
We might then conclude that we are in danger of losing our salvation if we sin, since God might remove his Spirit from us. However, it is important to remember that David had the Spirit with him (bringing conviction), and he had the Spirit upon him (as King to fulfill his calling).
David was not, therefore, worried about losing the indwelling of God’s Spirit, but rather the convicting and comforting presence of the Spirit, and/or the empowering power of the Spirit in his life.
Furthermore, it helps us understand how people like Saul, in the Old Testament, were able to do things by the Spirit of God upon them, and yet it seems that they were not amongst those Old Testament saints who died in saving faith (cf. Hebrews 11).
Where it gets confusing: Luke and Paul use the same words to mean different things
Here’s where it gets interesting and here is the source of some of the confusion on this topic: Luke and Paul use the same terms to mean different things in their respective writings!
Luke, in his writings (Gospel of Luke & Acts of the Apostles), talks a lot about the Spirit, but he does so exclusively in regard to the empowering of the Holy Spirit. Seriously, look into it: there is no direct reference to the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in Luke or Acts.
Paul, on the other hand, focuses mostly on the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.
So, when Luke talks about the disciples being filled with the Spirit of God in Acts, he is talking about empowerment, not indwelling. This is clear from the context, but it is also clear from other clues. A great example of this is how it says in Luke 1 that John the Baptist would be “filled with the Spirit” from birth. This filling cannot be understood as the indwelling of the Spirit, since: 1) John could not have trusted in the gospel before hearing it and understanding it (see Ephesians 1:13), and 2) since Jesus had not yet accomplished his saving work through his life, death, and resurrection.
Furthermore, it is important to note that in John 20, after his resurrection but prior to his ascension, Jesus imparted the Holy Spirit to his disciples:
And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”
And yet (and this is important!), prior to his ascension, he told those same disciples to wait in Jerusalem until the Holy Spirit had come upon them to cloth them with power from on high, to empower them to carry out the mission he had given them (Luke 24:49, Acts 1:8).
The Holy Spirit then came upon them on the day of Pentecost, 10 days after Jesus’ ascension.
So we see that the imparting of the Holy Spirit by Jesus in John 20 prior to his ascension was for them to receive the Spirit indwelling them, but the coming upon of the Spirit in Acts 2 was a separate event for the purpose of empowering them.
For these empowering events, Luke uses the terms “filled with the Holy Spirit” and “baptized with the Holy Spirit” interchangeably. Paul, on the other hand, uses the term “filled” with the Holy Spirit to speak of the indwelling work of the Spirit. The meanings of the two uses of the word “filled” are clear from their contexts and what they describe the Spirit doing in each case.
It is in this way, therefore, that Luke can describe believers being filled with, or baptized with, the Holy Spirit multiple times, such as in Acts 4, where people who are already believers receive a fresh filling of the Spirit, leading to even more boldness. The key here is that while they already have the Holy Spirit indwelling them, there is apparently need for fresh fillings of the Spirit for empowerment. Thus, to sing songs in which we ask for the Holy Spirit to fill us is acceptable and right, as long as we understand that we are asking for empowerment from God’s Spirit, not sealing by God’s Spirit.
Hopefully this explanation helps you as you read the Bible, seek the Lord, pray, worship, and serve!
This past Sunday I was out of town, officiating the wedding of some friends in Minnesota. It was my first time in Minnesota, and it was really nice! I can see the appeal of the lakes.
So this past Sunday I was out of town, but the week before that I preached a message titled “Baptism by Fire” in which I taught about the events of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit came upon the church in fulfillment of the promises of not only Jesus, but also of God from even the Old Testament. I made reference to the words of John the Baptist, who said that he baptized with water unto repentance, but that one (Jesus) was coming after him who would baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire, and I talked about how the fulfillment of that is found in Pentecost, when the believers were baptized with the Holy Spirit, and as a sign of them each individually receiving this baptism, tongues of fire rested on each of their heads.
Afterwards, someone asked me a great question: Whether the baptism with fire that John the Baptist was talking about was a description of the baptism with the Holy Spirit (like I had taught), or if John was speaking of the fire of judgment – because in the very next verse, John the Baptist says: “His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” (Matthew 3:12)
Here was my response:
I am familiar with that interpretation you mention, and I think it’s entirely possible given the context of what John was talking about — which is promise of the Messiah and a warning of judgement. In this interpretation, the assumption is that Jesus is saying: he will baptize some people with the Holy Spirit and other people he will baptize with fire — i.e. the same fire of judgment that he refers to in the following verse (vs 12).
Is that what John meant by those words? I agree with you (and many Bible interpreters) that it is quite possible that this is what he meant.
The other main interpretation about this, is that the “fire” is a reference to the Holy Spirit and the purpose of the tongues of fire on Pentecost was that they were a sign that these words of John were now being fulfilled. This is the line of thinking that I took in my sermon. Here’s more on that from the Holman Bible Dictionary:
Fire was used symbolically in Israel’s worship to represent God’s constant presence with Israel (Leviticus 6:12-13 ). God’s presence as fire represented both judgment and purification (the words purify and purge come from the Greek word for fire). To be in God’s presence is to be in the presence of absolute holiness where no sin or unrighteousness can stand. To be in the presence of God is to have the overwhelming sense of one’s uncleanness and the overwhelming desire to be clean (see Isaiah 6:1-6 ). God is able to judge and destroy the sin and purify the repentant sinner.
To be baptized with the Holy Spirit has a wider application than this; but when the Holy Spirit is coupled with fire, the particular aspect of the Holy Spirit’s work as described here is in view.
One thing I would add to this excerpt is that fire is a cleansing agent, and one of the roles of the Holy Spirit as he indwells us is sanctification, e.g. Rom 8:13.
This is one of the difficulties of Bible interpretation — to figure out what exactly was meant by a particular word or phrase in its context. In this case, both options are theologically sound and contextually possible, so it’s kind of a win-win. I’m glad to have the chance to explain a little more about the fire aspect and what the significance of it might be.