How does the Spirit indwell?
A reader wonders in what way the Spirit indwells Christians. The scriptures explicitly say that the Spirit of God indwells Christians. Paul says we are the temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 6) and he insists that if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in us we can be sure we will be resurrected (Romans 8). Ephesians 2 tells us that God indwells us via the Spirit. That should settle the truth of the Spirit’s indwelling but it leaves other questions to be worked out.
In saying the Spirit is "in" us I don’t think we’re supposed to think he takes up (as it were) "bodily residence" in us. People live "in" houses. In saying this we mean that they take up room within the confines of the walls, as opposed to being outside. Is this how we’re supposed to think of the Spirit’s indwelling? Is the Spirit inside our bodies in the same way our heart and liver and brain are? That is, is he spatially located there? I don’t think so. I think the idea of his indwelling us is a relational notion rather than a spatial one. Christians are said to dwell in God and in Christ but I’m fairly sure that such texts aren’t talking about a spatial indwelling.
So what do phrases like "the Spirit dwells in you" mean? It’s clear that such phrases offer a network of truths and that no one proposal covers it all. His dwelling in the Tabernacle and the temple was no spatial reality—it was God making his fellowship and communion with Israel known. However we explain God’s presence in those sanctuaries we’d do well to remember that even the temple-builder Solomon acknowledged that God didn’t dwell in such buildings (1 Kings 8). Heaven couldn’t hold him, he confessed, so how could a puny little building. No, the Tabernacle and temple were houses God was prepared to "live in" to confirm his identification with Israel but not "bodily" or personally in a spatial sense in the way, someone like priests or Anna, for example, would do—see Luke 2:36,37). God would live among them, assuring them of his commitment, claiming the centre of their life and worship and being their guide to Canaan and their sustainer in Canaan. These and other truths would be the sort of thing that God’s "indwelling" would mean. If Israel gladly acknowledged that indwelling, it would shape them and draw them close to God and one another; thus there would be much wonderful "fruit" borne from it.
I would suppose the same is true of the NT temple (the church). I don’t think any member of the blessed Godhead takes up spatial residence in the bodies of Christians. I think we’re supposed to believe that God has entered into a peculiar relationship with Christians and that some of the proofs that that is true are the existence of our faith in Christ, the hunger for holiness, the glad hope for the future, the strength and comfort under present trouble, the assurance of sins forgiven and many other such realities.
Christ’s prays in John 17:21, "That all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me." 1 John 2:5 says that if we’re obedient to God we can be sure we are "in him". He goes on to say that anyone that says he or she lives "in him" must walk as Christ walked. 1 John 2:24 says that if the truth his readers have embraced remains in them that they will remain "in the Son and in the Father." There’s nothing spatial about any of these uses of "in". Often we hear that those who became saved were "baptized into Christ" (or his death, compare Romans 6:3-6, Galatians 3:27 and elsewhere). This isn’t the transfer of a body or a person into a new spatial location. It has all to do with a new relationship, a new devotion and commitment, a new centre of consciousness and trust. It isn’t as amazing that we would be glad to be part of that, it’s amazing that God would want to be part of such a transaction.
We often say to someone very dear to us (things like), "I can’t tell you how wonderful it is to have you in my life. You will be forever in my heart." None of this is spatial—it’s all profoundly relational. I judge that we should think in this direction when we think of the truth that the Spirit is "in" us and that the Father and the Son dwell "in" us through the Spirit (see John 14:23 and Ephesians 2:22).
So in what way does the Spirit dwell in us? I don’t think we should be thinking in literal terms of embodiment but in relational terms of dynamic and mutual reception, welcome, life-imparting and (in our case) of glad obedience. We "live in the Spirit" and we "walk in the Spirit" (Galatians 5:25). The reality expressed in terms of the Spirit’s "indwelling" is—as you would well know—so rich and multi-faceted that we simply keep uncovering more and more about it.
I’d like to return to the topic at another time and say something about the Spirit indwelling the individual and the church, the body of Christ. Click here.
©2004 Jim McGuiggan. All materials are free to be copied and used as long as money is not being made.
Many thanks to brother Ed Healy, for allowing me to post from his website, theabidingword.com.