Jesus rose from the dead—an amazing feat in its own right—and then did something really weird. The resurrected King walked right up to His frightened disciples and “breathed on them” (John 20:22). What is going on in this moment? If I walked up to you and breathed in your face, you’d be like, Dude, what are you doing?! But actually, something powerful is happening here. When Jesus breathes on them, He says, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”
Breath is a significant image for God’s Spirit in the Bible. In both Hebrew (ruach) and Greek (pneuma), the word for Spirit can also be translated as “breath” or “wind.” Let’s take a closer look at where God’s breath and wind show up in the Bible and how they can help us gain a greater understanding of God’s Spirit.
The Spirit is the life-giver. When creating man in Genesis 2, God first formed Adam’s body from earth, sculpting our ancestor like a Rodin masterpiece. The human physique was majestic, but lifeless and limp. So God knelt down and administered divine CPR, filling his lungs with “the breath of life” (Gen. 2:7). Adam’s eyes blinked open, and he beheld the face of his Maker.
So, did God breathe His breath, His very Spirit, into Adam? Yes. It’s the same image as the one used in John 20. As was true of the first man, our existence is upheld by the very presence of God. Through His Spirit, we have not only form but fullness, not only limbs but life. Our breath hangs on God’s.
Through His Spirit, we have not only form but fullness, not only limbs but life. Our breath hangs on God’s.
When my 5-year-old son gets agitated, he does a breathing exercise to calm down. We call it “smell the flower, blow out the candle”—in other words, “breathe in through your nose, out through your mouth.” I think we should do something similar as adults. When life gets overwhelming, let’s take a deep breath and remind ourselves of God’s sovereign presence upholding our existence, His breath sustaining ours.
The Wind of God
Now let’s look at wind. In Genesis 1, Ruach Elohim—the Spirit of God—was “hovering over” the deep, dark waters, preparing to bring forth creation. We should picture a powerful wind here, blowing over the raging waves of a mighty ocean, as the waters were for ancient Israel a picture of primordial chaos and disorder.
The Spirit was waiting, hovering, and ready to receive the incoming Word of God (“Let there be …”). When God spoke, the Spirit parted the waters, carving air and dry land from chaos. The Wind of God rushed in like a hurricane, pushing back tidal waves to make space for heaven and earth.
That phrase “hover over” is interesting. It can also be used to describe a bird, as it did when God was compared to an eagle “that hovers over its young” (Deut. 32:11). The image shows up in Genesis as well, during the flood when Noah sent out a dove—fluttering above the deep—until the waters parted and new creation emerged (Deut. 8:6-12). The same picture was used again at Jesus’ baptism, when He emerged from the Jordan to see “the Spirit of God descending as a dove and lighting on Him” (Matt. 3:16). In every instance, the wind of God’s Spirit hovered over the waters like a bird to identify and bring forth new creation.
At a crucial moment in Exodus, God’s wind pushed back the waters once more. His people were stuck at the edge of the Red Sea in the darkness of night, about to be crushed by Pharaoh’s army. But God “swept the sea back by a strong east wind [ruach]” (Ex. 14:21). Just as in Genesis 1, God divided the waters with a mighty wind, “dry land” emerged to walk on, and light broke forth. God delivered His people from the forces of chaos, and they made their way toward the Promised Land.
This is our story, too; God’s wind is for us today. He parts the waters of sin and death and raises us to new life in His Spirit (Rom. 6:4)—the same Spirit Jesus compared to a wind that brings life and direction to His people (John 3:8). At Pentecost, when the Lord sent His Holy Spirit upon the church, the scene is described like this: “And suddenly there came from heaven a noise like a violent rushing wind, and it filled the whole house where [the apostles] were sitting” (Acts 2:2). The wind of God still comes upon His people, and we are filled with His very Spirit.
We are, quite literally, in-spired. The word inspiration comes from the Latin terms in and spirare (combining the roots for “in” and “spirit”), meaning “to be breathed into” or “filled with.” Humans are “en-spirited” beings, animated by the breath of God.
The challenge, of course, is that humanity in essence expired—or breathed out—that life-giving force God breathed into Adam. Our rejection of and rebellion against our Creator alienated us from the One for whom we were made—the very source of our being. And so, apart from Jesus and the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit, we live a deflated existence, like a punctured tire bumping along the road or a leaky balloon gradually descending to the ground.
God in His grace continues to uphold all of humanity, though in choosing to live separate from Him, we set ourselves on a trajectory toward death. This is why the image of the resurrected Jesus breathing His life upon the disciples is so powerful. The risen King breathes into His people and pours His Spirit into all those who become citizens of His kingdom. He allowed Himself to be “deflated,” punctured by the nails of our sin, to exhale His final breath from the cross and descend lifeless and limp into the grave. He bore our death in order to rise again in victory and breathe the powerful, live-giving, rushing wind of God back into our lungs.
Illustrations by Adam Cruft