Sunday, March 19, 2017

A Unitarian View of the Holy Spirit


Trying to pin down a biblical definition for the word “spirit” is like trying to give a cat a shower—it can be done, but only with great difficulty, and one is never sure if he has thoroughly completed the task. It is my intention to put forth a scriptural definition of the holy spirit. I will build a cumulative understanding beginning with the Old Testament (OT). Then, I will add to that provisional definition the new insights presented in the New Testament (NT). In order to keep organized, I will divide up the NT into the synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), the Gospel of John, and the rest of the NT (mostly Paul’s epistles). Lastly, I will explain the biblical reasons why I do not believe the spirit is a person in a Trinitarian sense. Before beginning this survey, I will say a word or two about the unique opportunity biblical unitarians have to investigate the doctrine of the holy spirit (pneumatology).

Pneumatology is a frontier of inquiry for the unitarian community. There is much work to be done in defining the holy spirit apart from the historical straight jacket imposed upon it by the fourth century Cappadocian theologians [2] who declared that the spirit was “the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father.” They went on to declare, “With the Father and the Son, he is worshiped and glorified. He has spoken through the prophets….” [3] Remarkably, nearly three hundred years passed before the personality of the spirit was dogmatized in an official creed. The second century Apostles’ Creed did not mention the spirit, and the early fourth century Nicene Creed mentioned it almost as an afterthought in the phrase, “and in the holy spirit.” It follows then that the holy spirit’s personhood was not original to the apostles but was worked out later by zealous though errant post-biblical Christians. For the purposes of this survey, I will not engage with the rather sophisticated philosophical and theological constructs of later Christian tradition but instead will limit this study to the biblical documents themselves.

The Spirit in the Old Testament

To start this survey, we will begin by focusing on the Hebrew Scriptures (the OT). The Hebrew word most commonly translated “spirit” is ruach. Below is a table enumerating the different English words ruach is translated along with their number of occurrences in the New American Standard Bible (NASB).

air                        -     2
anger                   -     1
blast                     -     2
breath                  -    31
breathless           -     1
cool                      -     1
courage               -     1
despondency      -     1
exposed               -     1
grief                      -     1
heart                     -     1
inspired                -     1
mind                     -     3
motives                -     1
points                   -     1
side                      -     4
sides                    -     2
Spirit                    -   76
spirit                    -  127
spirits                  -     3
strength               -     1
temper                  -     2
thoughts               -     1
trustworthy           -     1
wind                       -   98
winds                     -     7
windy                     -     2
wrath                      -     1

Ruach is a fairly flexible word encompassing the meanings: spirit, wind, breath, and even matters of the mind and emotions. All of these words denote something unseen and unexplained. Here is how the holy spirit is defined in two standard Bible dictionaries and by one prominent biblical scholar:

Dictionary of Judaism in the Biblical Period

When used of living beings, ruach refers to the essence of the life and vitality in both human beings and animals that is manifested through movement and breathing (Genesis 2:7; 6:17; 7:15; Numbers 16:22; Ezekiel 10:17). Just as “spirit” was considered the essence of human life, so analogously the term “spirit” was used of the presence, activity, and power of God, that is, characteristics that demonstrate that God is truly a “living God” (Deuteronomy 5:26; Joshua 3:10; 1 Samuel 7:26; Isaiah 37:4; Daniel 6:20; Matthew 16:16; Revelation 7:2). [4]

New Bible Dictionary:

At its heart is the experience of a mysterious, awesome power—the mighty invisible force of the wind, the mystery of vitality, the otherly power that transforms—all ruach, all manifestations of divine energy.

James Dunn on the Holy Spirit

There can be little doubt that from the earliest stages of pre-Christian Judaism, ‘spirit’ (ruach) denoted power—the aweful, mysterious force of the wind (ruach), of the breath (ruach) of life, of ecstatic inspiration (induced by divine ruach)…In other words, on this understanding, Spirit of God is in no sense distinct from God, but is simply the power of God, God himself acting powerfully in nature and upon men. [6]

Consider the following usages of ruach found in the Hebrew Bible: The spirit of God may be taken from one and distributed to others (Numbers 11:17), inspire prophecy (Numbers 11:25, 29; 24:2-3; 1 Samuel 10:6, 10; 1 Chronicles 12:18; 2 Chronicles 15:1; 20:14; 24:20; Nehemiah 9:30; Zechariah 7:12), be a way God speaks to people (2 Samuel 23:2), lead someone to a different location (1 Kings 18:12), transport someone from one location to another (2 Kings 2:16), be defined parallel with the anointing of Yahweh (Isaiah 61:1 cp. Acts 10:38), empower leaders to judge/rule the people (Judges 3:10), impart warlike energy/confidence (Judges 6:34; 11:29; 14:6, 19), supply supernatural strength (Judges 15:14), cause righteous anger (1 Samuel 11:6-7), impart regeneration/peace (Isaiah 32:15), give the Messiah wisdom, understanding, counsel, strength, knowledge, the fear of Yahweh, and the ability to judge justly (Isaiah 11:2; 41:2), endow artisans with skill (Exodus 31:3; 35:31); and be defined parallel to the presence of God (Psalm 139:7). [7]

Each of these listed functions of the spirit refers to the one God, Yahweh, in action. The spirit of God is one of the primary ways of talking about God’s involvement in His creation. Most scholars agree, as James Dunn has already noted, the OT does not teach a literal distinction between God and His spirit. Oftentimes the writers of the Hebrew Bible employed literary metaphors when speaking of Yahweh’s deeds. For example, one may say “the word of Yahweh came to me” or “the spirit of God came upon him” or “the world was established by His wisdom.” These are ways of referring to the almighty, transcendent God in His mode of acting within creation. In actuality, it was God who spoke to the prophets, God who empowered the heroes of old, and God who created the world. However, these literary devices were used to preserve the “otherness” or transcendence of the greatest conceivable being and yet make plenty of room for His immanence and interaction within our world without raising any complicated questions. Anthony Buzzard is helpful when he writes:

Anthony Buzzard on the Holy Spirit

If one combs through standard Bible dictionaries, it is obvious that ninety-eight percent of the biblical data is satisfied if we define the Spirit as God in effective action, God in communication, His power and personality extending their influence to touch the creation in a variety of ways…Is the Spirit really anything other than God’s energy, inspiring human beings to perform extraordinary feats of valor, endowing them with special artistic skill or miraculous powers, and especially communicating divine truth? [8]

Can we conclude the spirit is merely an impersonal power, a kind of empowerment given to the creatures He favors like a battery pack? Certainly not. Is it merely a communication device, like a radio transceiver which can send and receive messages from God? Certainly not. The spirit of God is a way of referring to Yahweh in action. Consequently, criticizing His spirit is the same as criticizing God Himself. To say God’s spirit is impersonal is like calling someone’s written communication impersonal. A letter carries an author’s message, including his or her intentions and emotions. Of course, a piece of mail is not a person, but it is the very expression of a person. One experiences the distant person as near through the letter. God is so holy that even the holiest among us cannot see His face and live (Exodus 33:20). Until the resurrection, we are simply incapable of enjoying His immediate presence. Even so, He longs to communicate with us and have a relationship with us. He interacts with us through His spirit, His word, His empowerment, His wisdom, etc. Although God’s spirit is intensely personal, Dunn is right to state, “But of the Spirit as an entity in any sense independent of God, of Spirit as a divine hypostasis, there is nothing.” [9] Thus, we conclude (regarding OT pneumatology) that God’s spirit is not a person, though it is very personal—it is the very self-expression of Yahweh, the one God (Deuteronomy 4:35, 39; 6:4).

The Spirit in the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke)

When one flips the page entitled “The New Testament” and enters the territory of Matthew chapter one, the definitions gained from the OT do not suddenly disappear. In fact, in the first three Gospels, references to the spirit of God are very much in tune with what we have already discovered. The holy spirit caused the generation of life in the virgin Mary (Matthew 1:18, 20; Luke 1:35); Jesus baptizes with it (Matthew 3:11; Mark 1:8; Luke 3:16); it descended upon Christ at his baptism (Matthew 3:16; Mark 1:10; Luke 3:22); it drove Jesus to go into the wilderness (Matthew 4:1; Mark 1:12; Luke 4:1); it gave the disciples words to speak when on trial (Matthew 10:20; Mark 13:11; Luke 12:12); it enabled Christ to proclaim justice (Matthew 12:18); it empowered the Messiah to cast out demons (Matthew 12:28); it inspired David to write psalms (Matthew 22:43; Mark 12:36); it caused prophetic utterances (Luke 1:41, 67), it was upon Simeon (Luke 2:25), it reveals truth about the future (Luke 2:26), it empowered Jesus (Luke 4:14), and it is given by the Father to those who ask (Luke 11:13).

God’s spirit is His influence, presence, and power at work accomplishing His will in the universe in general and in among His people in particular. This empowerment made possible the miracles recorded throughout the Hebrew Scriptures as well as in the Gospels. For example, Jesus himself plainly stated God’s spirit empowered him to drive out demons:

Matthew 12:28 But if I cast out demons by the spirit of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.

Luke 11:20 But if I cast out demons by the finger of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.

This simple equation, “the spirit of God = the finger of God,” marvelously supports what we have already found—the spirit is the means by which God acts, much like a body. I interact with the world through my body. God interacts with the world through His spirit—like a finger. All of what Christ was able to do was a result of the anointing of God’s spirit. Peter put it this way, “You know of Jesus of Nazareth, how God anointed him with the holy spirit and with power, and how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by devil, for God was with him” (Acts 10:38). Jesus’ ability to heal was made possible by the empowering spirit of God—God with him.

In conclusion, the synoptic Gospels do not contain significant changes from what we have already seen in the OT. [10] Jesus saw himself as a man inspired and empowered by the God’s spirit. This enabled him to speak on God’s behalf and perform miracles just like some of the prophets of old.

The Spirit in John

In the first portion of the Gospel of John, the holy spirit is spoken of as something descending from heaven to remain upon Jesus (John 1:32-33), as the means by which one is born again (John 3:5), as an enablement for Christ to speak the words of God (John 3:34), as a way in which one worships the Father (John 4:23), as the essential nature of God (John 4:24), as a life giver (John 6:63), and as something to be received by the disciples (John 7:39).

It is clear from these examples that the essential character and functionality of God’s spirit has not changed. However, the claim that is made by John 7:39 seems to contradict everything we have discovered. “But this he spoke of the spirit, which those who believed in him were to receive; for the spirit was not yet given, because Jesus was not yet glorified” (John 7:39). Obviously, the spirit had been given in OT times as well as in Jesus’ own ministry as evidenced by his miracles and healings. Nonetheless, there must be some significant difference between the spirit hitherto available and what Jesus said in John 7:39.

The answers are found in the chapters of John that make up the last supper discourse (John 13-17). During this dinner conversation, our Lord explains the coming presence of the parakletos (translated paraklete, comforter, helper, or advocate). [11] Jesus outlines the following chain of events: (1) the disciple demonstrates love for Jesus by keeping his commandments (John 14:15); (2) Jesus asks the Father to send the paraklete (John 14:16; 15:26; 16:7); and (3) he sends it in Jesus’ name to abide in the believer forever (John 14:16, 26).

The paraklete is “the spirit of truth” (John 14:17), which will teach the disciples all things and bring to their remembrance all that Jesus had said (John 14:26), testify about Jesus (John 15:26), be more advantageous to the saint than the presence of Christ on earth (John 16:7), convict the world concerning sin, righteousness, and judgment (John 16:8-11), guide them into all truth by speaking only what “he” hears (John 16:13), and disclose Christ to the disciple (John 16:14-15). Jesus revealed to his disciples that these new functions of the spirit would become available after he ascended to the Father. Some interesting language switches occur in this section of John’s Gospel that deserve our attention. In some instances, Jesus tells them he will send the paraklete; in others, he says, “I will come to you.” Note below:

The Helper (Paraklete) Will Come

He will give you another helper, that he may be with you forever: 14:16
the helper, the holy spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you: 14:26 when the helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father…: 15:26
if I do not go away the helper will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you: 16:7 when he, the spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth: 16:13

Jesus Will Come

I will come again and receive you to myself: 14:3
I will come to you: 14:18
you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you: 14:17
he who loves me…I will love him and will disclose myself to him: 14:21
if anyone loves me, he will keep my word… and we will come to him and make our abode with him: 14:23
I go away, and I will come to you: 14:28
‘a little while, and you will see me;’ and, ‘because I go to the Father’: 16:17

The holy spirit is coming, and Christ is coming. How can this confusion be resolved?

John 16:12-14: I have many more things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. But when he, the spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own initiative, but whatever he hears, he will speak; and he will disclose to you what is to come. He will glorify me, for he will take of mine and will disclose it to you.

Jesus would come to his disciples through the paraklete. Alva Huffer notes, “The work of Christ’s Spirit as Comforter, Advocate, and Helper was nothing other than the work of Christ Himself as Comforter, Advocate, and Helper through that divine power.” [12] It was through the paraklete that Christ and the Father would come and dwell within the saint (even while they remained in heaven). Jesus is not literally in each member of the family of God, but through the spirit his mind is “projected” enabling him to comfort, reveal truth, aid in times of temptation, and offer guidance. F.F. Bruce put it this way, “He had been with them for a short time, but the ‘other paraclete,’ his alter ego, would be with them permanently, and not only with them but in them.” [13] The spirit which inspired Jesus during his ministry on earth would now enable him to be present within his disciples in a new advantageous way.

The Spirit in the Rest of the NT

Is it only in John that the spirit is defined as Christ indwelling the believers? How does the rest of the NT speak about the spirit? Before going any further and investigating Paul’s epistles, which have much to say on the subject, it is necessary to recall the chief prediction of John the Baptist: “I baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the holy spirit” (Mark 1:8; Matthew 3:11; Luke 3:16; John 1:33). This prediction was reinforced by Jesus after he had spent forty days with his disciples in his resurrected body.

Acts 1:4-5: Gathering them together, he commanded them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait for what the Father had promised, “Which,” he said, “you heard of from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the holy spirit not many days from now.

Then, after a few days of anticipation, the disciples were praying when the sky suddenly started making strange noises. Into the building rushed a violent wind accompanied by tongues of fire. Suddenly they found themselves in a state of such inspiration that they spoke foreign languages they had never before known. The “new” spirit Jesus had promised descended and provided them with the words they were speaking. Peter explained this event with the words, “having been exalted to the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the holy spirit, he [Jesus] has poured forth this which you both see and hear” (Acts 2:32-33). Jesus is the dispenser of the spirit. Not only was he the greatest prophet whose very words were inspired by the spirit, not only was he anointed by the spirit, but he is also the Lord of the spirit who baptizes his followers.

Paul’s epistles further develop the connection between the ascended Jesus and the holy spirit. Consider the chart below which lists some of the places that Paul speaks of the spirit and Christ interchangeably.

The spirit dwells in the believer: 1 Corinthians 3:16; 6:19; 2 Corinthians 1:22; Ephesians 2:22 Christ dwells in the believer: 2 Corinthians 13:5; Galatians 2:20; Colossians 1:27
The spirit of Christ dwells in the believer: Galatians 4:6; Philippians 1:19

Paul freely switches between these phrases as if they were synonymous. The interchangeable nature of these terms is readily apparent in the following texts.

Ephesians 3:14-17: For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name, that He would grant you, according to the riches of His glory, to be strengthened with power through His Spirit in the inner man, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith…”

Romans 8:9-11: However, you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you. But if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Him. If Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, yet the spirit is alive because of righteousness. But if the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, He who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through His Spirit who dwells in you.

The spirit of God, the spirit of Christ, and Christ himself are all equivalent ways of communicating the same essential truth. Paul does not focus on ontological and metaphysical distinctions; rather, he sees the spirit primarily in functional terms within the experience of the Christian. From this perspective the spirit is Jesus. One Bible dictionary helpfully summarizes this as follows:

The New Bible Dictionary

The Spirit is now definitely the Spirit of Christ, the other Counselor who has taken over Jesus’ role on earth. This means that Jesus is now present to the believer only in and through the Spirit, and that the mark of the Spirit is both the recognition of Jesus’ present status and the reproduction of the character of his sonship and resurrection life in the believer. [14]

Again, the spirit is not a person but the projection of a person—the risen Christ—within the heart of the believer. Christ is the one “who searches the minds and hearts” (Revelation 2:23). He is the head of the body (Colossians 1:18) who causes “the growth of the body for the building up of itself in love” (Ephesians 4:16).[15] The risen Christ is with us always (Matthew 28:20) and in the midst of two or three gathered in his name (Matthew 18:20). Yet, at the same time, he is not here; he is seated at the right hand of God (Mark 16:19; Hebrews 12:2; etc.) in heavenly places (Ephesians 1:20; 1 Peter 3:22; etc.). So how can Christ enjoy intimacy with his church even while he is in heaven? Or to put the question differently, how could he disclose himself to his disciples without the world seeing him (John 14:22)? Christ is present through the spirit. The spirit which proceeds from the Father connects Christ to his body like a nervous system—making him aware of what is going on and allowing him to coordinate his body. I experience Christ via the spirit, so to me, the spirit is Christ.

Before delving into the reasons why the holy spirit is not a distinct “person,” I will conclude our biblical survey by offering a definition. The holy spirit is God in action (as we have seen from the OT and the Synoptic Gospels) as well as the abiding helper (presented in John’s last supper discourse) distributed under the auspices of the Father by the ascended Messiah in order to benefit the Church—his body—by connecting him to every believer. Thus one could say, “the holy spirit is God,” as well as, “the holy spirit is Christ,” even though it is technically neither, since they are in heaven, whereas the holy spirit is in God’s people. The spirit is simply the way God and Christ are able to indwell and influence the church.

Throughout our study so far, we have focused on what the holy spirit is, rather than what it is not. However, considering the fact that so much of Christendom holds to the doctrine of the Trinity—including the idea that the holy spirit is a distinct individual from the Father and Son—I thought it would be appropriate to discuss why the spirit is not a “person.” The pressure to conform to the “orthodox” doctrine of the spirit’s personality comes from multiple sources. From internet websites zealously anathematizing anyone who dares to deny the spirit its co-equal, coeternal, and co-essential status with the Father and the Son to most modern Bible translations that constantly translate neuter pronouns like “which” and “it” as “who” and “he” to my very own word processor that angrily underlines the capitalized “holy spirit” with jagged red electronic ink. Yet, regardless of the pressure to conform to a Trinitarian understanding of the holy spirit, there are several rather devastating reasons why the spirit is not a distinct “person.” [16]

The Holy Spirit Does Not Have a Name

In the Bible, one’s name meant more than what people said to get someone’s attention. Rather, one’s name encapsulated all that a person stood for. The meaning of one’s name reflected his or her nature. For example, God’s proper name, Yahweh, is derived from the Hebrew verb “to be.” The statements, “I am who I am” and “[He] who was and who is and who is to come” reflect the meaning of His name (Exodus 3:14; Revelation 4:8). To be Yahweh is to be the existent one—the one who is always there. Jesus’ name means “Yahweh is salvation,” which makes sense when one stops to consider that Jesus was the means of Yahweh’s salvation for all mankind. Consider the statement about Jesus, “For there is no other name under heaven…by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). Yet, the holy spirit is given no proper name. This is astounding if the holy spirit were truly a “person” equal with, yet distinct from the Father and Son. In fact, in biblical culture having one’s name stricken from the record was one of the severest punishments. It is hard to imagine why “God the Holy Spirit” neglected to reveal “his” name when the Father and Son certainly have.

The Holy Spirit Never Sends Greetings

At the beginning of each of the thirteen letters written by Paul, the first few verses include some variation of the following benediction: “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” [17] This consistency is remarkable. Paul delivers grace and peace from God and Jesus to his readers but never from the holy spirit. If the spirit were a person, distinct from the Father and Son, then why does “he” never send grace and peace? In addition, the letter of James opens with “James, a bond-servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ….” Apparently, James considers himself a lifetime slave to the Father and the Son, but no mention is made concerning the holy spirit. Furthermore, the first letter of John begins with the following statement of fellowship: “…indeed our fellowship is with the Father, and with his Son Jesus Christ” (1 John 1:3). Again, it would not make sense to leave out the holy spirit from fellowship with the believers if it were an independent person from the Father and Son.

The Holy Spirit Is Owned by God

The phrase “spirit of God” appears twelve times in the NT, not counting variations. [18] In Greek, the phrase “of God” is one word, theou, which is in the genitive case. This is the possessive case and can be translated into either English using the preposition “of” or the apostrophe and “s” designation. For example, if Spot is the dog of Grace, then Spot is Grace’s dog—Grace is Spot’s owner. Thus it is with the spirit. It is God’s spirit—Yahweh is the source and possessor of the spirit. It goes where He sends it and does what He wants it to do. The spirit is not independent of God, but it is His influence and presence. For example, Paul asks, “For who among men knows the thoughts of a man except the spirit of the man which is in him? Even so the thoughts of God no one knows except the Spirit of God” (1Corinthians 2:11).

The Holy Spirit Is Never Prayed To

Jesus gave explicit instructions for prayer in the Sermon on the Mount and then again at the last supper. He always instructed his disciples to pray to the Father. Then, at the last supper, he told them to pray to the Father in the name of Jesus Christ. This is especially noteworthy since the coming of the holy spirit was one of the topics he discussed at length in John 13-17. Why not ask the spirit directly to come into the new believer? Instead, Jesus says, “…if you ask the Father for anything in my name, he will give it to you” (John 16:23) and “…but if I go, I will send him [the helper] to you” (John 16:7). Furthermore, John the Baptist prophesied that one would come after him who would baptize in holy spirit (Matthew 3:11; Mark 1:8; Luke 3:16; John 1:33). This was fulfilled on the day of Pentecost when Jesus poured forth what the people saw and heard—the holy spirit (Acts 2:33). If the spirit were a person, then why does it not have a say about its own sending? The chain of events is clear, the convert or evangelist prays to God in the name of Jesus to receive spirit, and then Jesus baptizes the new believer in the spirit which proceeds from God.

The Holy Spirit Is Left Out of Key Passages

Jesus confirmed the time-honored creed of the Jewish people when he declared, “…Hear, O Israel! The Lord our God is one Lord; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength” (Mark 12:28-29). Where is the holy spirit in this creedal statement? Why didn’t Jesus add the holy spirit in when he quoted it? When Jesus walked on this earth, he had an incredible oneness with his Father (John 10:30). He lived in a state of perpetual communion, always doing the works, [19] obeying the will, [20] and speaking the words [21] of his Father. In fact, several times, God spoke to Jesus audibly, and others heard what He said (Luke 3:22; Mark 9:7; John 12:28). Jesus expressed the oneness he enjoyed with the Father in the following words, “All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father; nor does anyone know the Father except the Son, and anyone to whom the Son wills to reveal him” (Matthew 11:27). No one really knows the Son except the Father. No one really knows the Father except the Son. No one can know the Father unless the Son reveals Him. These words express a great deal of exclusivity. Why is the holy spirit left out? Why doesn’t Jesus also enjoy oneness with the third person of the Trinity like he does with the Father?

In the Olivet Discourse, Jesus explained what would happen just before the Kingdom comes (Matthew 24; Mark 13; Luke 21). After expressing to his disciples that they should be able to tell when the end is near, he clarifies by saying, “But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father alone” (Matthew 24:36). It is evident that in Jesus’ mind, the potential beings who may have end-times knowledge include humans, the angels, himself, and the Father. Why is it that only the Father knows when the end will come? If the holy spirit were also God, why is it left out twice (once from those who potentially could know, but don’t; and once from those who do know)?

Several of the prophets had visions of Yahweh on His throne (1 Kings 22:19; Isaiah 6:1; Ezekiel 1:26; Daniel 7:9; Revelation 4:2). Jesus has been promised the throne of David (Luke 1:32). Until then, he is seated with the Father on His throne (Revelation 3:21). What about the holy spirit’s throne? Why is the holy spirit left out if it were also God? Of course, there are other reasons why the Trinitarian understanding of the holy spirit does not make sense, but these are, in my view, the five strongest. Before concluding our study, we should first work through the most common reasons given for believing in the spirit’s personality.

What about All Those Personal Pronouns in John 14-16?

Nearly all modern translations have adopted the standard of using personal pronouns (like “he” and “him”) in reference to the holy spirit. This is unusual because the word “spirit” or pneuma is neuter in Greek, and the pronouns the Bible uses are likewise neuter (like it and which). Although it is often the case that masculine and feminine Greek pronouns are translated in English as “it” or “which,” neuter words in Greek are virtually never translated into English using personal pronouns except when referring to the spirit. Immediately, this double standard should grab our attention as a potential area of bias in translation. Jason BeDuhn insightfully explains the matter as follows:

Jason BeDuhn on Translating Greek Gender into English

Now it turns out that both “masculine” and “feminine” Greek nouns can be used for impersonal things as well as persons. But “neuter” nouns are used only for impersonal things, such as objects, animals, forces, abstract principles, and so on. The same holds true for “masculine,” “feminine,” and “neuter” pronouns…But even though the “personal” category is larger in Greek than in English, the “Holy Spirit” is referred to by a “neuter” noun in Greek. Consequently, it is never spoken of with personal pronouns in Greek. It is a “which,” not a “who.” It is an “it,” not a “he.” This is the case, then, where the importance of the principle of following primary, ordinary, generally recognized meaning of the Greek when translating becomes clear. To take a word that everywhere else would be translated “which” or “that,” and arbitrarily change it to “who” or “whom” when it happens to be used of “the holy spirit,” is a kind of special pleading. In other words, it is a biased way to translate. And because this arbitrary change cannot be justified linguistically, it is also inaccurate. [22]

However, the word parakletos (comforter, helper, etc.) in Jesus’ last supper discourse is masculine in Greek. Still, grammatical gender is entirely different from sexual gender. For example, in Greek, the word “city” is feminine and the word “treasure” is masculine. As a result, when the NT refers to a city, feminine pronouns are used and when treasure is represented by pronouns, masculine ones are used. How does this translate into English?

A Feminine Pronoun Translated as Neuter

“When he approached, he saw the city [feminine] and wept over it [feminine]” (Luke 19:41).

The word translated into English “it” is literally the Greek word for “her.” Yet, the translators still used an impersonal pronoun because that is how English works.

A Masculine Pronoun Translated as Neuter

“The kingdom of heaven is a like a treasure [masculine] hidden in the field, which [masculine] a man found…” (Matthew 13:44).

Why isn’t the word “which” translated “who” if it is masculine? This is because in English we never designate nonpersons with masculine and feminine pronouns unless a figure of speech called personification is taking place. For example, ships and cars are sometimes represented in English with feminine pronouns, but everyone recognizes that they are impersonal objects.

Thus, a word’s grammatical gender does not automatically imply sexual gender. [23] If it did, then one would be quite confused about the gender of the holy spirit. In Hebrew ruach is feminine, in Greek pneuma is neuter, and parakletos is masculine. If grammatical gender did imply sexual gender, what pronouns would we use: “she,” “it,” or “he?” The only way to determine how to translate the pronouns is based on the belief of the translator concerning whether or not the word in question is a person. This process works fine in most cases except when the theological bias of translators dictates personhood. In these cases (“word” in John 1:1-3 and “holy spirit” throughout the NT), the translators break their own consistency and impose their theological bias without leaving so much as a footnote.

John 14:16-17 …He will give you another helper, that he may be with you forever; that is the spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive…

John 14:25-26 These things I have spoken to you while abiding with you. But the helper, the holy spirit, whom the Father will send in my name…

John 15:26 When the helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father , that is the spirit of truth who proceeds from the Father, he will testify about me

John 16:13 I have more things to say to you but you cannot bear them now. But when he, the spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth…

The helper is the holy spirit (or spirit of truth). Since pneuma, the word translated “spirit,” is neuter, it is clear grammatically that the spirit is not a person. Furthermore, if in the other sixty-five books of the Bible the spirit is not a person (and the helper is equated to the spirit), then we must conclude that the helper (although represented by a masculine noun and masculine pronouns) should also be translated as neuter. The only reasonable exception would be if personification is in use. [24]

What about the Phrase “The Holy Spirit Says?”

Several texts have been used to support the belief the holy spirit is a person because the holy spirit speaks (2 Samuel 23:2; Matthew 22:43; Mark 12:36; Acts 1:16; 28:25; Hebrews 3:7; 9:8). Although communicating (i.e. speaking one’s mind) is certainly an indication of personhood, this is not necessarily the case for these texts because the spirit is a way of talking about God in action. Peter put it this way, “for no prophecy was ever made by an act of human will, but men moved by the holy spirit spoke from God” (2 Peter 1:21). God speaks through the holy spirit; it is not only His finger but also His mouth. This is how we came to have the Scriptures. They were a result of God’s inspiration of the writer through the medium of His spirit, word, and wisdom.

It is a well-known fact that the Jews have regularly used other words in an effort not to pronounce God’s name. For example, “heaven,” [25] “blessed,” [26] “holy One,” [27] “Lord,” [28] etc. are ways of referring to Yahweh without uttering His name. In like manner, the phrases “word of God,” “spirit of God,” “breath of God,” “wisdom of God,” “glory of God,” and “power of God,” are circumlocutions for God’s activity in the world. Dunn is once again helpful here:

James Dunn on “The Holy Spirit Says”

As for the rabbinic formula (‘The Holy Spirit says’), is this any more than what we might call a literary hypostatization? —that is, a habit of language which by use and wont develops what is only an apparent distinction between Yahweh and one of these words and phrases used earlier to describe his activity towards men (here particularly in inspiring scripture). Have we in all these cases any more than a personification, a literary (or verbal) device to speak of God’s action without becoming involved every time in a more complicated description of how the transcendent God can intervene on earth? —in other words, simply a useful shorthand device (‘Spirit of God,’ ‘glory of God,’ etc.) which can both express the character of God’s immanence in a particular instance and safeguard his transcendence at the same time without more ado. [29]

What about the Intercession of the Holy Spirit?

The following text is quoted in an attempt to prove that the holy spirit is a person:

Romans 8:26-27: In the same way the spirit also helps our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we should, but the spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words; and he who searches the hearts knows what the mind of the spirit is, because he intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.

Joseph Thayer reads this text as follows:

Joseph Thayer on Romans 8:26 Romans 8:26 means, as the whole context shows, nothing other than this: ‘although we have no very definite conception of what we desire, and cannot state it in fit language in our prayer but only disclose it by inarticulate groanings, yet God receives these groanings as acceptable prayers inasmuch as they come from a soul full of the Holy Spirit.’ [30]

Another possible way to understand this text is to remember that the spirit is used interchangeably with Christ (cf. Romans 8:9-11). If this is the case here, then Christ is the one who intercedes on our behalf. This interpretation gains traction once we realize that a few verses later Christ is called the one “who also intercedes for us” (Romans 8:34). It is not at all unexpected to see a blurring of categories here; this is common in Paul’s letters.

What about Blasphemy against the Holy Spirit?

Occasionally, people claim that denying the personality of the holy spirit is the unforgivable sin of blaspheming the spirit. In order to get to the bottom of the matter, we must remember the context of Jesus’ remarks about blaspheming the holy spirit. A demonized man was healed by Christ, and the Pharisees accused Jesus of casting out demons by Beelzebul, the ruler of demons. Christ pointed out the absurdity of “Satan casting out Satan” and then confessed that it was by God’s spirit that he cast out demons. Then he made the statement, “Whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man, it shall be forgiven him; but whoever speaks against the holy spirit, it shall not be forgiven him, either in this age or in the age to come” (Matthew 12:32). Blasphemy against the holy spirit is observing God in action through His human Messiah and declaring that the source of his power was demonic rather than divine. In essence, they were calling God the prince of demons. This sort of unrepentant, hardhearted, intentional blasphemy against God at work in His Messiah is unforgivable.


I have endeavored to accomplish two tasks: to define the holy spirit from the Scriptures and to explain why the traditional doctrine does not hold up to scrutiny. After consulting both Old and New Testaments, we discovered the holy spirit is a way of talking about God and Jesus in action, especially within the church. Although the spirit is not a person distinct from the Father and Son, it is certainly very personal. If the biblical evidence for the spirit’s personality is so lacking, why do so many believe in it today? BeDuhn explains what happened:

Jason BeDuhn on Theology Influencing Translation Later Christian theology also applied the technical status of a ‘person’ on the Holy Spirit, which has led modern translators and readers to think of the Holy Spirit in human terms as a “who,” even a “he,” rather than as an “it” that transcends human measures of personhood. [31]

As we have seen, nearly all modern translations carry forward the tradition of theological bias on this issue. Ironically, translators were actually trying to honor the spirit as God and help people “rightly” understand the Scriptures. Yet, is it more honoring to change the meaning of someone/something or to represent it as it truly is? Certainly if the Bible teaches unequivocally the spirit is a person, then God doesn’t need the translators’ help to teach this doctrine by tweaking pronouns in favor of orthodoxy. The time is ripe for a fresh reconsideration of this matter. People deserve to know in actuality who God, His Son, and the holy spirit truly are.

[1] To download the audio version of this paper or access other One God Seminar presentations visit

[2] Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nyssa, and Gregory of Nazianzus

[3] The Constantinopolitan Creed

[4] Jacob Neusner, William Scott Green editors, Dictionary of Judaism in the Biblical Period ©1996, Hendrickson Publishers, page 298

[5] JDG Douglas, New Bible Dictionary (second edition) ©1962, ed. By JD Douglas, FF Bruce, JI Packer, N Hillyer, D Guthrie, AR Millard, DJ Wiseman, Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., pages 1137

[6] James DG Dunn, Christology in the Making (second edition) ©1989, Eerdmans Publishing Co., page 133.

[7] For a more exhaustive list see The Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon pages 924-6.

[8] Anthony Buzzard, The Doctrine of the Trinity ©1998, International Scholars Publications, page 226.

[9] James DG Dunn, Christology in the Making (second edition) ©1989, Eerdmans Publishing Co., page 136 (emphasis mine).

[10] A possible exception could be the foreshadowing demonstrated by interchanging the spirit (Mark 13:11) for Jesus himself (Luke 21:14-15).

[11] Parakletos occurs 5 times in the NT (John 14:16, 26; 15:26; 16:7; 1 John 2:1). The word literally means someone or something called alongside, i.e. a helper, advocate, etc.

[12] Alva Huffer, Systematic Theology ©1960, The Restitution Herald, page 92.

[13] F.F. Bruce, The Gospel & Epistles of John ©1983, Eerdmans Publishing Company, page 302 13/14

[14] JDG Douglas, New Bible Dictionary (second edition) ©1962, ed. By JD Douglas, FF Bruce, JI Packer, N Hillyer, D Guthrie, AR Millard, DJ Wiseman, Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., pages 1140-1

[15] To say that Christ the head does not communicate with and control his body implies he is paralyzed.

[16] According to the Trinity, person means an individual or a mind (emotions, intellect, and will). Person does not mean a human being. God the Father is a person. Jesus is a person. 

[17] Romans 1:7; 1 Corinthians 1:3; 2 Corinthians 1:2; Galatians 1:3; Ephesians 1:2; Philippians 1:2; Colossians 1:2; 1 Thessalonians 1:1; 2 Thessalonians 1:2; 1 Timothy 1:2; 2 Timothy 1:2; Titus 1:4; Philemon 1:3

[18] Matthew 3:16; 12:28; Romans 8:9, 14; 1 Corinthians 2:11, 14; 3:16; 7:40; 12:3; Ephesians 4:30; Philippians 3:3; 1 John 4:2

[19] John 8:29; 10:25, 32, 37; 14:10; 17:4

[20] John 3:34; 5:30; 6:38; 14:31; 15:10

[21] John 7:16; 8:26, 28, 38; 12:49-50; 14:24; 17:8, 14

Written by Sean Finnegan

Friday, March 17, 2017

The Gospel of the Kingdom as Motivation for Repentance

by Sean Finnegan

“For Yahweh of hosts will have a day of reckoning against everyone who is proud and lofty and against everyone who is lifted up, that he may be abased.” Isaiah 2.12

This paper was inspired by the phrase “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 3.2; 4.17; Mark 1.15). There are perhaps more questions generated in the mind of the modern reader than there are words in this simple gospel catchphrase. “What is the kingdom of heaven?” “What does it mean that this kingdom is near?” “Has the kingdom already come?” “Did Jesus get it wrong?” “Why should the nearness of the kingdom be a reason for repentance?” “What about the death, burial, and resurrection?” “What does it mean to repent?” “What happens if one does not repent?” It is beyond the scope of this paper to answer all of these questions; however, I would like to focus on two of them: “What is the kingdom?” and “Why does its nearness inspire repentance?”
The curious issue with the phrase “kingdom of God”[1] is that it is never found in the Hebrew Bible.[2] Thus, we are faced with two distinct possibilities: (1) Jesus is introducing a new concept, (2) Jesus is using his own phraseology to refer to something his hearers would easily recognize from the Hebrew Scriptures. Since Jesus never took the time to define “the kingdom of God” as he used the term, we are left to assume that his hearers would have already been familiar with the notion.

Fortunately, it is not difficult to arrive at the meaning from a study of the Old Testament. Five elements that roughly encompass the concept as defined in the Hebrew Bible are: (1) the rule of God on earth through his agent—the Messiah (Psalm 2.6-8; Isaiah 11.1-5; Daniel 7.13-14), (2) the inheriting of the land by Abraham and his descendants forever (Genesis 17.8; 26.3; 28.13)[3], (3) the reestablishment of the throne of David in Jerusalem (1 Chronicles 17.11-14; Psalm 89.35-37; Ezekiel 37.24), (4) the restoration of the planet (reversing the effects of the fall and the flood) (Isaiah 11.6-9; 35.1-10), and (5) the restoration of morality in humankind (no more war, violence, stealing, or other forms of wickedness) (Jeremiah 31.33-34; Micah 4.1-3). However, as I have contemplated Jesus’ gospel language, “Repent, for the kingdom of God is near,” I have been left at a loss to understand why the arrival of paradise would cause men to repent.

It is my hypothesis that these five elements of the kingdom of God are lacking something significant.[4] As I have searched through the Scriptures to find this missing ingredient (that makes the gospel a matter of repentance not simply acceptance), I came across a plethora of “Day of the Lord” texts. It is the intention of this paper to discuss the dark side of the kingdom—the coming judgment of the wicked—in order to fill in the definition of the kingdom of God a bit more as well as answer the question, “Why is the nearness of the kingdom a cause for repenting?” First, I would like to talk about the problem with the world, then look at the passages that speak about the Day of the Lord in the Old Testament, see what changes have been made by Jesus and the apostles, and finally focus on how all this relates to the proclamation of the gospel then and now.

The problem with the world today

The world is sick. Corruption in government, natural disasters, wars, violence, child abuse, rape, murder, thievery, dishonesty, poverty, prostitution, greed, and disease are commonplace. Many take one look at the world and conclude that there is no God. This position is certainly understandable; yet, the Bible gives insight into why the world is so desperately wicked. God is not now ruling the world.[5] Satan has been given the domain of all the kingdoms of the world (Luke 4.6). He is called “the god of this age” because he is ruling now (2 Cor 4.4). This is not limited to one region or country, but the whole world lies in his power (1 John 5.19). Worst of all, he has deceived the whole world (Rev 12.9) to such an extent that most do not even think there is a devil or demons.

Once one comes to understand that Satan is ruling the kingdoms of this world, then the evil in the world starts to make sense. If God were in charge, then crimes would be punished swiftly, and righteousness would be rewarded. However, this is not what is happening today. The world is so afflicted because it is dominated by one who actively prowls around seeking someone to devour (1 Pet 5.8). He has worked for millennia to contrive social and political systems by which people may be deceived into thinking that what God says is wrong.
All humans are born dead in trespasses and sins, and all are by nature children of wrath. Everyone lives according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit now working in the sons of disobedience. Naturally, one follows after the lusts of his or her flesh and indulges in those desires both in thought and action (Ephesians 2.1-3). Like choking smog, the thoughts of Satan imbibe everyone who has not been supernaturally cleansed. The educational, cultural, political, and economic systems of the kingdoms of this world serve to conspire against one coming to know the truth which would set them free from the bondage of sin. Satan has worked and continues to work through the spirits allied with him to deceive.
One of the most important tenets of the worldview of Jesus is cosmic dualism. This concept of dualism contrasts the forces of good against those of evil. There are two ages: the present evil age and the age to come. There are two ways to follow: the narrow way which ends in life and the broad way which leads to destruction. There are two Lords one can follow: Jesus the anointed of God and Satan the cursed of God. There are two kinds of people: the children of the kingdom and the children of the evil one. There are two sets of helpers: angels used by God to liberate and aid and demons used by Satan to incarcerate and harm. According to this belief, one is never in both categories, and there is no gray area.
Freedom comes through the gospel, which functions as an oxygen mask to save us while we still live in this toxic environment.[6] In this age the evil prosper, and the righteous suffer. Those who are God’s have crucified their desires and have adopted God’s desires. In fact, as imitators of God (Ephesians 5.1), we love what he loves and hate what he hates. So, as it pains God to see evil, it should pain us. In this case, we are in a state of perpetual suffering until things are made right. Thus, a major part of the hope for the people of God is the judgment of the wicked and their ruler, Satan.

Even though some may be rescued from the gripping influence of Satan, most will remain in his firm grasp, all the while convinced that they are thinking independently. As these two groups collide with each other violent reactions occur like two volatile chemicals. The holiness of the children of God offends the children of Satan like a bright light shining into their half closed eyes (John 3.19-20). The unrighteous malign Christians calling them “narrow-minded” or “bigots” or “intolerant.” As the kingdom worldview has collided with the world’s paradigm, persecution and martyrdom have been the result. Jesus wisely warned all who would be his disciples that they would suffer and be hated because God has called them out of the world. Untold thousands of saints have been murdered throughout the centuries for their uncompromising faith. Christianity today rests upon a legacy of sacrificial bloodshed in keeping with the spirit of the founder’s supreme example on the cross.[7]

As this present age spirals towards its culmination, persecution will increase exponentially. The suffering of the saints will not be haphazard but organized under the auspices of the Antichrist and his supporters. This violent storm will make the persecution under Diocletian or the drowning of the Anabaptists look like a sun shower. Indeed, the world will unite in its hatred for what God loves. As war is waged against the disciples of Christ, most who confess Christianity in name alone will fall away and join those who would rather enjoy the pleasures of sin for a season than suffer. Then, just when all hope looks lost and the immense forces of evil are going to overcome the flickering specks of light, suddenly and dramatically God will act. Jesus taught that in the end “the history of the world would come to a screeching halt, that God would intervene in the affairs of this planet, overthrow the forces of evil in a cosmic act of judgment, and establish his utopian Kingdom here on earth.”[8] Since this final act of God will occur in real space and time, it begins on a real day, and that day in the Scriptures is called “the Day of Yahweh” or “the Day of the Lord.”

The Day of the Lord defined from the Hebrew prophets

The prophets of ancient Israel spoke vociferously of the coming destruction of the wicked. Sometimes this proclamation was focused on the enemies of Israel and other times it was focused on Israel herself. The prophets painted the dismal picture of the Day of the Lord using many hues of gray. As we will see, this Day was proclaimed as a grotesque and grisly nightmare from which there was seemingly no escape. We shall turn now to the prophets themselves and allow them to speak.
The Day of Yahweh will come with clouds and thick darkness (Joel 2.1-2). It will be a Day of wrath, trouble, distress, destruction, desolation, and gloom (Zephaniah 1.15). God will arise in the splendor of his majesty to make heaven and earth tremble in the fury of his burning anger (Isaiah 2.19; 13.9, 13). There will be famine (Joel 1.16). Cosmic signs accompany this judgment to the degree that neither sun nor moon nor stars will shed light (Isaiah 13.10; 34.4; Joel 2.10; 3.15).
Men will be so frightened that they will scurry into caves and dive into holes in the ground to escape (Isaiah 2.21). They will say to the mountains, “Cover us!” and to the hills, “Fall on us!” (Hosea 10.8). Even hardened warriors will cry out bitterly (Zephaniah 1.14). Pains and anguish will take hold of pale faced men causing them to writhe like a woman in labor (Isaiah 13.8; Joel 2.6). The whole world will be punished for its evil, for its disregard for what God has said is right, for its arrogance and ruthlessness (Isaiah 13.11).
The coming cataclysm is not limited to one or two countries, for Yahweh’s wrath is against all nations and their armies (Isaiah 34.2; Ezekiel 30.3; Joel 3.12; Obadiah 1.15). He will command an army of mighty warriors to execute his anger (Isaiah 13.3-4; Joel 2.11). This army will be unlike anything that has ever come before it, and never again will there be anything like it (Joel 2.2). The earth quakes as fire consumes before them, and behind then a flame burns (Joel 2.3, 10). The army is God’s instrument of indignation which he will use to decimate the land and exterminate the sinners from it (Isaiah 13.5, 9). God will utterly destroy the armies of the earth, and their corpses will be strewn about drenching the mountains with their blood (Isaiah 34.3). Because they have sinned against Yahweh, their blood will be poured out like dirt and their flesh scattered like manure (Zephaniah 1.17). So thorough will this judgment be that the earth will be depopulated to a point that mankind is scarcer than gold (Isaiah 13.12). Yet, there are some who will survive (Isaiah 14.2; Joel 2.32; Obadiah 1.17).
The proud will be humbled, and Yahweh alone will be exalted (Isaiah 2.12). Not even the riches of the wealthy will help them in escaping the destruction (Zephaniah 1.18). The Day of Yahweh will be especially dark for those who think that they are innocent by association (Amos 5.18). For them, the judgment of God will be like one who escapes a lion and a bear catches him; or perhaps he finds his way home unmolested and leans his hand on the wall to catch his breath, and a snake bites him (Amos 5.19). All will be beckoned to come to the valley of decision where judgment will be passed (Joel 3.14). Even those who are stagnant, neither violent nor righteous, will be sought out and punished (Zephaniah 1.12). Those who are in power, who wear the garments of royalty, will be punished (Zephaniah 1.8). The wealthy will have their money stripped away from them, and their houses will become desolate (Zephaniah 1.13).
The Day of Vengeance will be to those who are afflicted, brokenhearted, and imprisoned a favorable year, a time of comfort and joy (Isaiah 34.8; 61.1-3). Those who call on the name of Yahweh in this time of distress will escape this wrath (Joel 2.32).
The purpose of proclaiming the Day of Yahweh is that men would repent

Why did these prophets speak in such a terrifying manner? The purpose of preaching the imminent destruction of the wicked was to splash cold water onto the faces of lethargic sinners. The message shocked men into responding. On the heels of a “Day of the Lord” section, one will typically find a call for repentance.
The prophets urged the people to respond with wailing to their message (Isaiah 13.6; Jeremiah 25.34; Ezekiel 30.2; Joel 1.5, 8, 10, 13). Joel said, “Alas for the day! For the day of Yahweh is near, and it will come as destruction from the Almighty” (Joel 1.15). He requests that the warning be sounded so that all will know that the day of Yahweh is coming (Joel 2.1). Joel appeals to the people to repent:
“Yet even now,” declares Yahweh, ”
Return to Me with all your heart,
And with fasting, weeping and mourning;
And rend your heart and not your garments.”
Now return to Yahweh your God,
For He is gracious and compassionate,
Slow to anger, abounding in lovingkindness
And relenting of evil.
Who knows whether He will not turn and relent
And leave a blessing behind Him,
Even a grain offering and a drink offering
For Yahweh your God? (Joel 2:12-14)
Now is the time to blow the trumpet, fast, gather the people, and come before the altar to weep and ask God to spare his people (Joel 2.15-17). Then, Yahweh will forgive and have compassion on his people and pardon them (Joel 2.18-19). This sentiment is shared by Zephaniah:
Gather yourselves together, yes, gather,
O nation without shame,
Before the decree takes effect—
The day passes like the chaff—
Before the burning anger of Yahweh comes upon you,
Before the day of Yahweh’s anger comes upon you.
Seek Yahweh,
All you humble of the earth
Who have carried out His ordinances;
Seek righteousness, seek humility.
Perhaps you will be hidden
In the day of Yahweh’s anger. (Zephaniah 2.1-3)
Following these pleas for repentance are wonderful passages promising restoration (the restoration is sometimes conditional on the people’s repentance). A prophetic template emerges from our study so far: (1) conviction of sin[9] (2) preaching about the coming Day of the Lord (3) urging the people to repent, and (4) sharing a vision of restoration. This procedure is not exactly followed by each book of prophecy, but the ingredients reappear frequently. Usually, the restoration texts with which Kingdom believers are so familiar begin right after the wrath of God has been proclaimed. Thus, repentance is often squished between these two contrasting themes. The indignation of Yahweh approaches, everyone must repent in order to survive, and then the remnant will enjoy restoration. “The establishment of a remnant of a pious Israel was the germ of the hope of the Messianic kingdom; and the Day of Jehovah itself became the Day of Judgment, which figures so largely in both Jewish and Christian Messianism. In fact, it is not too much to say that the eschatology of Judaism is really a development of the implications of the prophetic teaching as to the Day of Jehovah.”[10] Before we will turn to the Greek Scriptures to see if this theme has been dropped, changed, or expanded upon, we need first to consider how this concept appears in the book of Daniel.

From the Day of the Lord to the kingdom of God via Daniel

Daniel provides the necessary glue between “the Day of Yahweh” terminology and “the kingdom of God” phrase which is found so often in the New Testament (especially on the lips of Jesus). Although the phrase “Day of the Lord” does not appear in the book of Daniel, the concept is undeniably present. For example, the kingdom of God obliterates the kingdoms of the world like a huge rock smashing into a statue (Daniel 2.34-35; 44). Even so, Daniel does not focus on the wrath of God coming on the wicked; rather, his perspective is almost exclusively focused on the righteous. For example, in chapter seven, he sees a series of kingdoms in a vision. The last kingdom before the Son of Man comes is worldwide in scope and influenced heavily by “the little horn.” This person not only speaks out boastfully against the Highest One, but he also actively persecutes, wages war against, and overpowers the saints (Daniel 7.20-21, 25). However, this last kingdom will be crushed by the Son of Man when he comes in glory and power:
“And to Him was given dominion,
Glory and a kingdom,
That all the peoples, nations and men of every language Might serve Him.
His dominion is an everlasting dominion
Which will not pass away;
And His kingdom is one
Which will not be destroyed.” (Daniel 7.14)
Then the kingdom will be given to the saints of the Most High to possess it forever (Daniel 7.18, 22, 27). So we conclude that although Daniel primarily focuses on the destiny of the righteous (including tribulation and vindication at the coming of the Son of Man), he nevertheless understands that in order for the kingdom of God to have dominion, all other kingdoms must be crushed.
Day of the Lord with John the Baptist and Jesus

Unlike Daniel, John the Baptist focused on the unrepentant and what they needed to do in light of the coming kingdom. He does not warn the righteous to endure through the messianic woes (the tribulation) but instead cries out for all to get right with God before the Day comes. He spoke of “fleeing from the wrath to come” (Luke 3.7) and preached about the precarious thread by which God’s wrath hung over everyone’s heads.
“Indeed the axe is already laid at the root of the trees;                   so every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (Luke 3.9).
Even being a descendant of Abraham will not save one from this coming Day. “John the Baptist appears to have preached a message of coming destruction and salvation. Mark portrays him as a prophet in the wilderness, proclaiming the fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah that God would again bring his people from the wilderness into the Promised Land (Mark 1.2-8). When this happened the first time, according to the Hebrew Scriptures, it meant destruction for the nations already inhabiting the land.”[11]

This all sounds just like the prophets mentioned earlier. However, John expanded on the traditional “the end of the world is at hand” message by speaking about “the one to come.” As a standard ingredient to his message, John would give prophecy about the coming judge.
John answered and said to them all, “As for me, I baptize you with water; but one is coming who is mightier than I, and I am not fit to untie the thong of his sandals; he will baptize you with the holy spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand to thoroughly clear his threshing floor, and to gather the wheat into his barn; but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire” (Luke 3.16-17)
The one who is coming will divide all into one of two categories: the wheat or the chaff. Those deemed wheat will be properly cared for (i.e. enter the kingdom), but the chaff will be burned with “unquenchable fire.” Apparently this coming one, for whom John the Baptist is merely a forerunner, would be the agent of God’s judgment to be carried out on the last Day.[12]

All of this is brought to a climax in John’s ministry when Jesus came to be baptized by him. Jesus did not choose to focus on the traditional interpretation of the law with the Pharisees, he did not emphasize the role of the temple like the Sadducees, he did not take off to the monastic lifestyle of the Essenes, nor did he take up the sword like the Zealots; instead, Jesus associated with John the Baptist, an apocalyptic preacher who called the people to repentance through baptism. The only reasonable explanation for this association (Jesus went to John for baptism) was that Jesus agreed with the message of John.
If this is the case, then one would expect to find “Day of the Lord” material on the lips of Jesus in his preaching ministry. I propose that this is exactly what the phrase that started us on our journey, “repent for the kingdom of God is at hand,” implies. Jesus did not change or marginalize the message of the prophets concerning judgment and restoration; instead, he amplified it and enriched it with full color. Everything Jesus did was an outgrowth of his faith in this coming kingdom of God both the judgment and the restoration.
Jesus sent his disciples out preaching and told them that anyone who rejects this message will be punished more severely than Sodom and Gomorrah on the Day of Judgment (Matthew 10.15). He proclaimed imprecations on the unbelieving cities of Chorazin and Bethsaida saying that they will be punished more severely than Tyre and Sidon on the Day of Judgment (Matthew 11.21-22). Furthermore, Capernaum will be punished on the Day of Judgment for disbelief despite the miracles done in her (Matthew 11.24). Not only does Jesus invoke “Day of the Lord” pronouncements on cities, but each individual will be judged by the every careless word spoken as well (Matthew 12.36-37). In fact, the door to the kingdom is narrow, and most who try to enter will not be able; once it is closed, there is no admittance (Luke 13.24-25). Those who fail to enter will be outside weeping and gnashing their teeth because they will see Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, but they will be thrown out (Luke 24.28-29).
In the parables of both the tares and wheat and also the dragnet, the climax occurs at the end of the age when the Son of Man commands his angels to separate the wicked from the righteous and burn them in the furnace of fire (Matthew 13.40-43, 49-50). It is apparent also in Jesus’ view of the end that the saints will be persecuted first and that after this tribulation, the darkening of the sky will occur, and then the Son of Man comes (Matthew 24.29). Of note is the predicted response to the coming of the Son of Man: “all the tribes of the earth will mourn and they will see the son of man coming on the clouds of the sky with power and great glory” (Matthew 24.30, cp. Rev 1.7). Although the elect will be gathered together at the coming of the Son of Man, the wicked will be punished. His coming puts an end to their rebellion, and that is why they are so upset to see him “with power and great glory.”
To the weeping women who followed Jesus as he marched to the place of The Skull Jesus said:
“Daughters of Jerusalem, stop weeping for Me, but weep for yourselves and for your children. For behold, the days are coming when they will say, ‘Blessed are the barren, and the wombs that never bore, and the breasts that never nursed.’ Then they will begin TO SAY TO THE MOUNTAINS, ‘FALL ON US,’ AND TO THE HILLS, ‘COVER US.’ For if they do these things when the tree is green, what will happen when it is dry?” (Luke 23.28-31)
Jesus was completely in agreement with the historic prophetic belief that the Day of Yahweh would be a time of tremendous duress. He alludes to several Hebrew texts when he speaks of the desire people will have to find a cave to hide (cf. Isaiah 2.19; Hosea 10.8; Revelation 6.16). Jesus was just as apocalyptic, just as emphatic about the coming Day of Judgment as was John the Baptist, Isaiah, Joel, and the others who spoke concerning these things. The only difference is that he understood that it was through the Son of Man and his words that Yahweh would bring about the last Day (John 5.26-29; 12.48). Furthermore, he, like Daniel, also spoke about the righteous enduring a time of great persecution prior to their vindication and possession of the kingdom. In this sense, Jesus shared not only the bad news (Judgment Day is coming for the wicked), but also the good news (that the righteous will enjoy the messianic age with the patriarchs). Now, we shall turn to how the term “Day of Yahweh” or “Day of the Lord” is used in the rest of the New Testament.
Day of the Lord in the rest of the New Testament

“The expectation of the day of the Lord plays a key role in the eschatological [end times] teaching of the New Testament (1 Corinthians 5.5; Acts 2.20; 2 Peter 3.10), where it is usually identified with the expectation of the Parousia, or second coming of Jesus. This identification is possible because the Greek word for ‘Lord’ (kyrios) can refer either to YHWH (as in the Septuagint) or to Jesus.”[13] Furthermore, since the Lord Jesus is the primary agent through which Yahweh acts, the Day of Yahweh can rightfully be called the Day of the Lord Jesus Christ without any contradiction or redefinition of who Yahweh is. It is still the Day of Yahweh, but now since the Messiah has been openly identified as Jesus of Nazareth (i.e. through resurrection cf. Acts 17.31; Romans 1.3), it makes sense to incorporate him in the proclamation of the coming judgment. The incorporation of the Messiah’s role in speaking about the Day of the Lord finds precedent in the Old Testament[14] and can also be seen at Qumran.[15] Here are the different ways that the writers of the Greek Scriptures referred to the Day of Yahweh

Terminology Used for the Day of the Lord in the New Testament

Day of Judgement: Matthew 10.15; 11.22, 24; 12.36;
2 Peter 2.9; 3.7; 1 John 4.17

Day of Wrath: Romans 2.5; Revelation 6.17
Day of Christ: Philippians 1.6, 10; 2.16
Day of our lord Jesus: 1 Corinthians 1.8; 2 Corinthians 1.14
The last day: John 6.39-40, 44, 54; 11.24; 12.48
The day of God: 2 Peter 3.12; Revelation 16.14
The day: Romans 2.16; 1 Corinthians 3.13
That day: 2 Thessalonians 1.10; 2 Timothy 1.12, 18; 4.8
“The day is pictured primarily as the last judgment, when all people will be tested (1 Corinthians 3.13) and either rewarded (1 Corinthians 1.8) or punished (Romans 2.16).”[16] The destruction in the time of Noah as well as the annihilation of Sodom and Gomorrah are examples of the future coming judgment (2 Peter 2.5-9). Although men may scoff at the notion, the world as we know it will be scorched with fire (2 Peter 3.7). When the Day of the Lord comes, it will be sudden (like a thief); all the works of the earth will be burned up (2 Peter 3.10-12). In fact, as time goes on, the stubborn and unrepentant are storing up for themselves wrath in the Day of the righteous judgment when God renders to each according to his deeds (Romans 2.5-6). The judgment of the last Day falls not only on humans but also on Satan and his demons (2 Peter 2.4; Jude 6; Revelation 20.10). God executes his final wrath through the Son of Man who commands myriads of angels to come in flaming fire to deal out retribution to those who do not obey the gospel (Matthew 13.41-43; 2 Thessalonians 1.7-10; Jude 1.14-15). Though the ungodly should fear, the ones who are like Jesus can have confidence in the Day of Judgment (1 John 4.17). Those in whom God has begun a good work will be able to stand blameless and in glory on the Day of Christ if they continue in the faith (Philippians 1.6-10; 2.16). So the Day of the Lord Jesus has essentially replaced the Day of Yahweh, and it is both a bad day to the unrighteous and a good day to the saints.
Analysis of the gospel proclamation in the New Testament

By now, it should be well established that (1) the prophets of the OT proclaimed the Day of Yahweh—a time of horrendous judgment of the wicked followed by fantastic restoration for the righteous. (2) John the Baptist and Jesus both firmly believed in the coming Day of the Lord and had not in any way watered it down, rather they (with OT precedent) focused on the role that the Son of Man or Messiah would play on that Day. (3) The rest of the New Testament writers believed in this coming Day, and it had already taken on a distinctly Jesuanic character—it became the Day of the Lord Jesus—because Jesus is understood to be the agent though whom Yahweh will execute his Day. Now, I would like to turn to discuss the gospel message proclaimed by John, Jesus, and his disciples to see what role, if any, the Day of the Lord material plays in their evangelism.
As we have already seen, John the Baptist is undoubtedly a proclaimer of the coming judgment of God and in particular of the coming one who will separate the wheat from the chaff (Luke 3.7-17). However, is John’s proclamation of coming judgment the same as the preaching of the gospel? This question is answered by Luke at the conclusion of John’s message when he says, “and with many other exhortations he preached the gospel to the people” (Luke 3.18). Furthermore, Matthew abbreviates what Luke records by saying, “Now in those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea, saying, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand’” (Matthew 3.1-2). Thus, we conclude that the apocalyptic message concerning the Day of the Lord and in particular the role that “the coming one” plays is indeed the gospel (or at least a very significant part of it) and can be summarized by the phrase “the kingdom of God is at hand.”

This is the very same terminology that Matthew used to describe the gospel proclamation of Jesus the Christ. The continuity between these two men is unmistakable. John is arrested in Matthew 4.12, and as Jesus arrives in Capernaum, Matthew says in verse 17, “From that time Jesus began to preach and say, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.’” Matthew wants us to connect these two men together not by relation per se but by message. John’s message continued in the preaching of Jesus. Then, just a few verses later (Matthew 4.23), another summary statement appears, “Jesus was going throughout all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom….” Therefore, whatever is concluded regarding John’s usage of the Day of the Lord material, in his gospel proclamation, should likewise be applied to Jesus. Thinking along these lines yields a remarkable consistency between the prophets of old, John, and Jesus. However, did Jesus change the message during his ministry? In fact, he did not (Matthew 9.23; 24.14). He sent out his disciples bequeathing to them his apocalyptic kingdom message, “And as you go, preach, saying, ‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand’” (Matthew 10.7). Mark insightfully sums up the message preached by the twelve as, “they went out and preached that men should repent” (Mark 6.6).

Peter the Apostle firms up our suspicion that Jesus commissioned the disciples to warn of the coming judgment when he said to Cornelius, “And he [Jesus] ordered us to preach to the people, and solemnly to testify that this is the one who has been appointed by God as judge of the living and the dead” (Acts 10.42). Peter faithfully carried out the ministry of Jesus by challenging men to repent in light of the coming Day of the Lord in order that the righteous may be able to partake in the period of “restoration of all things about which God spoke by the mouth of His holy prophets from ancient time” (Acts 3.21).

Even so, it is often alleged (at least since Luther) that Paul the Apostle preached a different gospel than what Jesus preached—the gospel of grace. However, this claim is erroneous since Luke equates Paul’s preaching of the kingdom with the gospel of grace (Acts 20.24-25). Nevertheless, we have even more evidence than this to conclude that Paul preached as gospel the imminent destruction of the wicked on the last Day.

“Therefore having overlooked the times of ignorance, God is now declaring to men that all people everywhere should repent, because He has fixed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness through a Man whom He has appointed, having furnished proof to all men by raising Him from the dead” (Acts 17.30-31).
It is my contention that this is the expanded version of “repent, the kingdom of God is at hand.” Paul calls for repentance but substitutes, “he has fixed a day in which he will judge the world…” for kingdom. This manifests a striking resemblance to the prophetic warnings discussed earlier. More evidence for our proposition can be located in the letter Paul wrote to the Romans. He speaks of the unrepentant “storing up wrath…in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God” (Romans 2.5). Those who have repented instead look forward to immortality, glory,[17] and honor (Romans 2.7, 10). Remarkably, this section of his letter concludes equating the coming judgment with his gospel, when Paul says, “On the day when, according to my gospel, God will judge the secrets of men through Messiah Jesus” (Romans 2.16).

We conclude that the primary information that the unrepentant were confronted with was their own impending ruin because of sin. If this is true, then preaching the gospel is a very dangerous endeavor, because most people will be offended immediately by the notion that their Day of demise draws near. In fact, it is likely that one would suffer persecution if they so preached in modern times.
The principle of godly sorrow leading to repentance in actual experience

The preaching of the gospel inspires repentance. However, why would one want to repent? In light of this question, consider the words of Paul to the Corinthians:
I now rejoice, not that you were made sorrowful, but that you were made sorrowful to the point of repentance; for you were made sorrowful according to the will of God, so that you might not suffer loss in anything through us. For the sorrow that is according to the will of God produces a repentance without regret, leading to salvation, but the sorrow of the world produces death. (2 Corinthians 7.9-10)
There is a simple chain of action put forth: godly sorrow leads to repentance leads to salvation. As I meditated on this principle, I remembered back to when I first repented. It was a very uncomfortable experience (i.e. I had godly sorrow). In fact, it was painful to come to the gut wrenching realization that my life was a not a fragrant aroma but a repugnant odor in the nostrils of God. When I changed, it was because I came to understand that I was wrong and that if I did not change, I would be miserable.[18] Yet, if I never experienced “godly sorrow,” I would never have repented. Before this time, I had believed that Jesus had died for my sins and rose from the dead. I also had confessed that Jesus was Lord. However, I still lived the same way; my Christianity did not seriously affect my lifestyle. However, once I had godly sorrow and cried out, “God be merciful to me a sinner,” things began to change. Everything was different because I had made a commitment to do what was pleasing in the eyes of God (i.e. I had repented).

Perhaps the difference between godly sorrow and worldly sorrow is that when one feels bad for what he has done in the sight of God, he is promised forgiveness (on the basis of the cross of Christ in order to enjoy the restored earth and ruling with Jesus); whereas the worldly sorrow ends in despair.
A prime example of this is found in the sermons Peter preached in the early chapters of Acts. In both of them (the day of Pentecost and the day the lame man was healed), the climax of his preaching was to convict his hearers of the sin they had committed in crucifying Christ (not literally, but perhaps they were in the crowd shouting “crucify him”). The people came to realize that they had done wrong and cried out “brethren, what shall we do?” Peter’s immediate response was to repent. This is a fine example of the “godly sorrow leading to repentance” principle at work.
Putting it all together

The gospel is not just that the Messiah is coming to establish the kingdom on earth. The gospel is not just that this utopia is nearly here. The gospel is not just that with the kingdom comes judgment for the wicked. Nor is it just that Jesus died for our sins to enter the kingdom. It is all of this plus that repentance is necessary. This is all included in the biblical gospel. One must understand the sickness before he desires the cure. But once a chronically ill man (sin is a chronic disease) finds the cure, unspeakable gratitude and joy result. So it is with the repentant sinner who is forgiven, who swings from the dominion of Satan to Christ, who no longer fears judgment because of the love he has experienced at the mercy of a gracious God and an obedient Son. Knowing and serving this perfect God and receiving his outrageous love (through repentance and holy living) put us in a whole new category of mind as John so aptly described:

We have come to know and have believed the love which God has for us. God is love, and the one who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him. By this, love is perfected with us, so that we may have confidence in the day of judgment; because as He is, so also are we in this world. There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves punishment, and the one who fears is not perfected in love. (1 John 4.16-18)
But even once we have understood the gospel as Jesus preached it, another major problem immediately presents itself. How does one cross the chasm between the thought world present at the time of Jesus and that of modernity? Jesus could declare “the kingdom of God is near,” and everyone would understand that he meant both that judgment was near for the wicked and national and individual rewards (inheriting the land etc.) were near for the righteous. However, today, we have so much more work to do. We cannot speak about the kingdom because no one knows what it is, other than that it is “within you” (apparently this is the only text modern Christians connect with the kingdom concept). Furthermore, even defining the kingdom is not sufficient; we must take a couple of steps back. We have to prove that there is a God, that he is one, that the Bible is true, and that there are moral absolutes, all before our preaching can be understood. Nevertheless, that will have to be the subject of another paper. For now, I hope we can be satisfied to know something more about the kingdom (both the judgment and restoration) and how this precious message motivates repentance and prepares the heart to receive forgiveness through the Cross. May we echo the sentiment of the Qumran community as we proclaim the gospel of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ:
“[Rise up, O Hero!
Lead off Thy captives, O Glorious One!
Gather up] Thy spoils, O Author of mighty deeds!
Lay Thy hand on the neck of Thine enemies
And Thy feet [on the pile of the slain!
Smite the nations, Thine adversaries],
And devour flesh with Thy sword!
Fill Thy land with glory
And Thine inheritance with blessing!
[Let there be a multitude of cattle in Thy fields,
And in] Thy palaces
[Silver and gold and precious stones]!
O Zion, rejoice greatly!
Rejoice all you cities of Judah!
[Keep your gates ever open
That the] hosts of the nations [may be brought in]!
Their kings shall serve you
And all your oppressors shall bow down before you;
[They shall lick the dust of your feet.
Shout for joy, O daughters of] my people!
Deck yourselves with glorious jewels
[And rule over the kingdom of the nations!
Sovereignty shall be to the Lord]
And everlasting dominion to Israel.” (1QM XIX, 2-8)

[1] Kingdom of God = Kingdom of Heaven (cp. Matthew 19.23 & 24).
[2] The closest one can find to “the kingdom of God” is in Daniel 2.44 where it says, “in the days of those kings the God of heaven will set up a kingdom which will never be destroyed…”
[3] Inheriting the land has been extended to the Gentiles because of what Jesus has done in breaking down the barrier between us (the law) and thereby making the Gentiles fellow heirs of the promises (Matthew 5.5; Romans 11.17-25; Galatians 3.29; Eph 2.11-20; 1 Peter 2.11).
[4] If you are not familiar with these elements
[5] Revelation 11.15-17 indicates that at the seventh trumpet when the kingdom of the world becomes the kingdom of God and his Christ, God will begin to reign.
[6] Yet, it is only freedom from Satan’s affect on us, and not until the end will true freedom be granted when Satan is imprisoned and then destroyed
[7] Jesus died for those who hated him while asking God to forgive them rather than punish them. Is this not the model we are to emulate in regards to our enemies? Does not the Cross teach us what is meant by the phrase “love your enemies” (Matthew 5.44).
[8] Jesus: The Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium, Bart Ehrman, page 3, 1999 Oxford University Press, Inc.
[9] Although we have not covered this element, it is clear that many of the prophets began with a laundry list of sins that the people were committing, followed by a denunciation of this behavior (cf. Isaiah 1).
[10] Shailer Mathews, “Day of the Lord,” Hastings Dictionary of the Bible, ed James Hastings, Hendrickson Publishers, 2001, pg. 179.
[11] Jesus: The Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium, Bart Ehrman, page 138, 1999 Oxford University Press, Inc.
[12] The role of the Messiah on the Day of the Lord is found in some places of the Hebrew Bible (Isaiah 11; Psalm 110; Daniel 7; et al.) although it was not nearly as emphasized as it came to be with John the Baptist, Jesus, and the apostles.
[13] “day of the Lord” page 151, Dictinoary of Judaism in the Biblical Period ed. Jacob Neusner & William Scott Green. Hendrickson Publishers, 2002.
[14] Daniel 7.13-14; Isaiah 11
[15] “[May you smite the peoples] with the might of your hand and ravage the earth with your scepter; may you bring death to the ungodly with the breath of your lips…For God has established you as the scepter. The rulers [and all the kings of the] nations shall serve you. He shall strengthen you with his holy Name and you shall be as a [lion; and you shall not lie down until you have devoured the] prey which naught shall deliver.” 1QSb V, 25
[16] “Day of the Lord” page 152, Dictinoary of Judaism in the Biblical Period ed. Jacob Neusner & William Scott Green. Hendrickson Publishers, 2002.
[17] Glory is used in Scripture to refer to the glorious coming kingdom (Daniel 7.13-14; Matthew 24.30).

[18] However, although I didn’t think I would perish, due to my belief that I could not lose my salvation after I had accepted Jesus as my savior.