Holy Spirit: Transforming the ordinary

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Many of us have questions about the Holy Spirit. We’ve heard things and assume others, but we’re unsure if any of them are true.

Jack Levison, Professor of Old Testament Interpretation at Perkins School of Theology and the author of several books, addresses many of these issues and helps us to understand how the Holy Spirit infuses our ordinary days with the extraordinary presence of God.

Jack talks specifically about Pentecost, Jesus’s baptism, and the way the Spirit works in our lives today.

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Get Your Spirit in Shape features conversations to help us keep our souls as healthy as our bodies. Logo by Sara Schork, United Methodist Communications.

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This episode posted on January 29, 2021.

Transcript

Prologue

Joe Iovino, host: Welcome to Get Your Spirit in Shape, United Methodist Communications and UMC.org’s podcast to help us keep our souls as healthy as our bodies. I’m Joe Iovino.

My guest today is Jack Levison, professor of Old Testament Interpretation and Biblical Hebrew at the Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University. He’s written a new book called An Unconventional God: The Spirit According to Jesus.

In this conversation, Jack helps me better understand the person of the Holy Spirit, and how the Spirit’s presence in the Hebrew Scriptures helps us better understand Jesus’s work in the Gospels.

Conversation

Joe: Jack Levison, welcome to Get Your Spirit in Shape.

Jack Levison: Thank you, Joe. Good to be here.

Joe: I’m really excited to talk to you today about your new book, An Unconventional God: The Spirit According to Jesus because I want to begin by confessing the Holy Spirit has always been difficult for me to wrap my brain around. Right? Jesus is easier. He’s a human being. God we talk about as the heavenly parent. So I can relate to that. But the Holy Spirit? I feel like I have no point of reference. So, what are we talking about when we talk about the Holy Spirit? Can you help me with that?

Jack Levison: Oh boy. Yes, I don’t know if I can help you with that. I should be able to, right? That doesn’t mean I can. Let’s start with basics.

So, like, in the 17th word of the Old Testament in Hebrew. It’s sort of a the 17th …it refers to the Ruach Elohim, and already it’s…. How do you translate that? New Revised Standard Version: a wind from God swept…. Others says ‘the Spirit of God.’ And so already, right up front, Joe, it’s like, whoa, what…exactly your question, what is the Holy Spirit? What is the Spirit? And the 17th word we don’t even know how to translate it. Was it a Spirit that was over the abyss? Was it a wind that flew over the abyss, or was it the breath of God that would then soon speak creation into being.

So, in a way, the Holy Spirit is that rare and wonderful and mystical combination of our breath, God’s cosmic presence in the wind, and then God’s personal presence in this Spirit. So, I would say, those 3 come together in what we call the Spirit. as I think about it—cosmic, our breath and God’s presence.

In a way, think about Jesus. It’s very similar. The Christ through whom everything was created became flesh, one of us, and was God. And what is the incarnation? It’s when those 3 things meet—the cosmic, the personal, the human presence come together. So it’s not so different, I suppose, from Christ

Joe: That’s an interesting way to kind of get at it. It’s not the easiest concept. I like that you bring this Old Testament perspective to all of it because oftentimes we think of the Holy Spirit as this New Testament phenomenon. But you’re a professor of Old Testament who’s written a book about the Holy Spirit. So that’s interesting. Where do you see the Holy Spirit at work? You’ve talked about now in Genesis. What are some other places you see the Holy Spirit in the Old Testament?

Jack Levison: I’m gonna give you a little nerd lesson. Okay. Okay. So the Hebrew word ruach that gets translated wind, breath or Spirit occurs 378 times in the Old Testament and then 11 times in the Aramaic portion of the Old Testament in Daniel. So about 389 times.

I think in the New Testament the word pneuma that gets translated as pneumatology or pneumonia or a pneumatic drill…that word that gets translated as Spirit occurs almost exactly 378 times in the New. So you have 800 references in the Bible to this ruach in the Old and pneuma in the New. That’s a lot of references.

So, in the Old Testament—we’re not talking specifically about that book, but I wrote a book earlier this year—I actually have several verbs that I do from the chapters. I’ll just read these to you. So, these are the verbs that are associated with the Spirit in the Old Testament: blowing and breathing, coming upon, resting upon, passed on from one person to another, poured out, filling, cleansing, standing and guiding. So the Spirit is very active throughout the Old Testament.

You have it already, as I said, in the 17th word was that Ruach Elohim—Spirit of God, wind of God, hovers over the creation. But then you have it in Genesis 6 where God’s Spirit is in us only for a limited time. You have it in the story of Joseph where, ‘is there anyone in whom there is such a Spirit who can do these things, asks Pharaoh?’ And then you have it in Exodus…

You know it’s so funny, Joe. It’s in all these surprising places where people say, I’ve read my Bible my whole life and I never saw that, because we don’t expect to find it in the Old Testament.

You know where my favorite passage is, probably of all, is in Exodus, chapter 28, verse 3. And in the English it’s not even translated Spirit. It says, ‘God filled the artisans who would make the outfit for the high priest.’ God filled them. And it’s usually translated with skill. But the word is ruach chokmah—a Spirit of wisdom. A Spirit of skill. And God… They are filled with the Spirit of skill and they are able to build this beautiful tabernacle in the wilderness. And their 2 leaders, Bezalel and Oholiab, a couple of other unknowns, you should hear the description of them. They are filled with wisdom and knowledge and every skill and the Spirit of God.

So the Spirit is extremely active in the Old Testament. We’re just kind of trained not to see it there because we think it came first at Pentecost.

Joe: But that’s not the case, correct?

Jack Levison: Let me put my scholar hat on. As a scholar, most scholarship for centuries has operated with this notion that God was especially active in the prophets, like, Amos and Hosea and Isaiah and Jeremiah.

Then, after the exile, in the 500s BCE, [whistle] Israel took a theological nosedive and became a religion of The Book. It became the religion of Law. It became, you know, a dry and arid religion. And during that time scholars have found a few texts, and they put them together in such a way that they can say during that time even the Jews believed the Spirit had withdrawn from Israel. When did it return? With Jesus and then and at Pentecost.

That was a really errant way to understand Israelite history. And of course it played into German anti-Semitism and into the holocaust. The view that you have the high point with the prophets and then in the post-exilic era the so-called quiet years, the intertestamental years, the Holy Spirit withdrew in those 400 years. And that’s just not right.

If you read the book of Chronicles, which is post-exilic…. And I’ve done a lot of work on many Jewish authors in this period. The Spirit was very much alive in their claims.

So, as a scholar, I can understand why people in the church think that there was no Spirit before this time because scholarship has fed that notion. So it’s really our fault as scholars for saying that the Spirit had withdrawn from Israel and it was only to return with Jesus. So, it’s not right, but it’s based on what scholars have really promulgated for centuries. And some of us have been chipping away at it now for a couple of decades.

Joe: My reaction immediately when I heard that—the things you think but don’t say—was exactly that Genesis 1 verse that the Spirit of God is present at Creation. It’s not like it suddenly appears in Acts chapter 2. It’s interesting the way we make that split in our minds.

Jack Levison: We do, and in fact, Acts chapter 2 doesn’t even say that the Spirit came for the first time. It says the Spirit comes to them in full and gives them the ability to be people of witness. It doesn’t presuppose that there was no Spirit. 

Joe: Let me quote you to you, which is always a fun thing to do when I talk to authors. This is from An Unconventional God, and I really like this. You write this: “Israel’s story fills Jesus’s story with meaning. To know one is to know more about the other; to appreciate one is to gain greater appreciation for the other. And at the juncture of both is the Spirit.”

And then a couple of sentences later, “At the heart of the relationship between Old Testament and New, Israel and Jesus is the Spirit.”

Can you talk a little bit more about that relationship between the Old Testament and the New Testament and how the Spirit kind of works in between them?

Jack Levison: Yeah, whoever wrote that…very bright. That was a brilliant quote. I don’t know who… Who’d you say wrote that again?

Well, the place to go…. I mean, the virgin birth, let’s say…. You know, the birth of Jesus is surrounded by the Spirit. What makes Mary pregnant is the Spirit will overshadow her. The power of the Lord will come upon her. That’s the language.

Of course overshadowing is the language of the tabernacle in the wilderness. So as the Spirit hovered over the tabernacle so now the Spirit is over Mary’s womb. You know, over Mary.

So there would be no Jesus without the work of the Holy Spirit surrounding the pregnancy of Mary. But also the first two chapters of Luke are full of canticles—these beautiful songs in praise of God which are attributed to the Holy Spirit.

So not only the actual birth of Jesus…. And you know, if you’ve read Unconventional God you know that the word ‘birth of Jesus’ is actually the word genesis. So there’s a whole theology surrounding the birth. It’s not just the mechanics of the womb, though it is that.

Joe: That’s a fantastic little nuance you threw in there. I love that little piece.

Jack Levison: You know, when you write books you don’t remember them and then you have to read them for something, you think oh, oh, that’s good. I like that. It’s not a birth.

So you would not have a Jesus, both in terms of his birth, but in terms of the people around him like Zechariah and Elizabeth and Simeon. In Luke 1 and 2, all these people who gather around Jesus, these older people—older, disciplined, faithful Jewish people receiving the Holy Spirit, praising God all around Jesus.

So the very nexus of the testaments comes with the birth of Jesus and the Spirit’s kind of cappuccino-like [whirring sound] activity. So I think the Spirit is that nexus between the two.

Joe: And the next episode that happens is part of the kind of season we’re in right now with the baptism of Jesus. It’s one of those places where the Holy Spirit shows up in a super big way. So let’s talk a little bit about that story with Jesus’ baptism and the Spirit descending like a dove. What do we learn about the Holy Spirit as we read that story?

Jack Levison: Well, of course the background…. And I do talk about in Unconventional God I give the various possible…hopefully it’s not dry…but the various possible backgrounds to the dove. So, you know, the dove of the flood. And so here you have the possibility of re-creation.

But the powerful element for me in the baptism of Jesus is the connection between the words that Jesus hears and the conviction that the Spirit seems to fire within him. So, you know, he hears these words ‘You are my son, my beloved, with you I am well-pleased.’ That’s a combination of Isaiah 42 and Psalm 2. Psalm 2 is about the king. The king is going to be anointed. So Jesus is learning that he will be the Messiah. But also, Isaiah 42 is about the servant who goes on then to become the suffering servant.

So Jesus learns at his baptism that he’s going to be the Messiah by suffering. And so what will be his whole life is there in a nutshell at the baptism. And sealing the deal, if you will, is the Holy Spirit that comes either upon him or into him, according to Mark’s gospel. But somehow it’s a deep experience of the Spirit.

We hear words. We go to church and we hear a sermon, and we say, That was a good sermon. That was a good insight. Or, you…someone says something, you say, That was good. But that doesn’t seal the deal. I mean, you can go to church all your life, you can be the world’s best United Methodist, but something needs to seal the deal. There needs to be something more visceral than just hearing the words.

So Jesus hears the words, but the Spirit comes into him, comes upon him, kind of sealing those words as his vocation. And we know this because in the very next line it’s the Spirit that, depending upon the gospel you read, pushes him out into the wilderness.

So the Spirit on the one hand fires the words into him, sort of welds the words ‘you are my son; in you I am well-pleased; you are the suffering servant and the Messiah all in one.’ Welds those into his psyche. And then as soon as he understands those words sends him out into the wilderness.

So we know the Spirit is very active in his life at this point. Sorry, I went on a little long with that. But, very active Spirit at that point.

Joe: Yeah. And two themes that you mention there that I want to spend a little bit of time with. One is in the baptism, the idea of it being visceral, and also this sense of…you talk about it being…you know, the Spirit’s kind of this intangible…but at baptism there’s water and there’s done, there’s an embodiment thing that’s going on of these real tangible things. And I love that you say it was an ordinary day. It’s this…. There’s extraordinary within the ordinary. Can you tell me more about that?

Jack Levison: You talk about scholarship…that came from that song. Who’s the one that sang it? ‘Just a day, just a day, just an ordinary day?’

And I thought, you know, that’s exactly like the baptism—just a day, just a day, just an ordinary day. Ta da da dum. And I think it was just an ordinary day. And we’re not even sure what the people around Jesus experienced, and that’s what makes it so amazing.

You know, about baptism, I have a confession to make. I grew up in the Restoration Movement, the Christian Church, ChuAnrch of Christ Movement on Long Island. A little church of mostly Methodist, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Catholic, Episcopal transplants in a very small, little church, screeching our music out on a Sunday to a very slow, not pipe organ. It was a very basic church.

But one thing we did was, we baptized. And baptism was by immersion. And so when you got baptized, you walked into the baptistery and the little choir robe they put on you, floated up and you pushed it down. And then they put their hands over your nose and they dunked you back and they pulled you up. By golly, you knew you were baptized. And one of the things that’s difficult in Methodism, and it’s not inappropriate or theologically unsound, it’s just difficult is that people tend to be baptized before they’re aware of it.

And so I can look back to my baptism at 12 years old. When my mother was still living, she would write me every year to remind me that that day I was baptized. And I can remember it. It was …. We were very non-liturgical. And I even baptized a woman in a creek up in the Catskill Mountains in upstate New York at church camp.

You felt baptism. I suspect Jesus really felt viscerally what was happening. Now what I would say to my Methodist friends who are listening, that doesn’t mean that your baptism is at all inauthentic. And it doesn’t mean that God doesn’t come later and do exactly this visceral work out of your baptism. I think God does. But I think we need the visceral work.

Joe: One of the things that it did for me is that a lot of times we tend to equate the Holy Spirit with these…at least today and maybe it’s just me…but we equate the Holy Spirit with these exceptional experiential moments. Right? And I love how you kind of talk about…. You talk about the Spirit differently in this book. Not to the exclusion of that, but you also talk about the Spirit as teacher and you talk about the Spirit having so much more to do than just those moments. Tell me a little bit about the role of the Spirit as the teacher.

Jack Levison: Oh man, this is… Joe, these are really good. You’ve asked like 10 questions in that one question. And let me go back to what I would have answered the quarter of the way through.

I have a deep appreciation for Pentecostalism and the charismatic movement. I’ve probably even spoken in tongues once or twice in my life, not very often. But a few times. And I certainly had Spiritual experiences that would be considered part, very mute, but part of the more charismatic movement. I mean, very mute. But definitely revelations and epiphanies that have come at given times that. Not many, but some. And not super spectacular, fairly mute, but clear. And I can appreciate the Pentecostal Movement.

But one of the things I don’t appreciate is the sense the Spirit comes in the spectacular, or the Spirit comes in the spontaneous. So this has been one of my main themes in even the scholarship I write. There’s the sense that we say to people, Well, I’m gonna leave that to the Spirit. How many times have you said that or heard that? I’m gonna leave that to the Spirit. Theologically what does that communicate?

That communicates that the Spirit comes when my brain clicks off. There is nothing less biblical than that. In fact, probably in the Greek and Roman world of the New Testament there was a very high value placed on ecstasy. You see only the tamping down of that in the New Testament. Right? Paul is tamping down speaking in tongues and saying, I’d rather you speak five words intelligible than a thousand words unintelligible. Or don’t pursue speaking in tongues; pursue prophecy because that is something the church understands.

Throughout the New Testament they’re tamping down the ecstatic impulse that was there in the Roman world. So in Pentecost, right? on the day of Pentecost they do not speak in tongues, they speak in OTHER tongues. And the people around them say, Whoa, how is it that we understand them all in our own dialects? The miracle of Pentecost is not that they speak in tongues; it’s that people can understand their languages. So the whole New Testament is always about tamping down the ecstatic in favor of the edifying.

So I think when we talk about the Holy Spirit as a teacher or the giver of wisdom, Paul connects the Spirit with wisdom. In the fourth gospel Spirit will teach by reminding. It’s a very biblical notion that the Holy Spirit works while our mind is alert.

And that’s why this whole division between thinking and feeling, between preparing and experience of the Spirit is one of the most damaging dichotomies of our age. The Spirit works WHILE we’re thinking. The Spirit works WHILE we’re serving. The Spirit works WHILE we are praying.

And we need to stop seeing the Spirit as, something we leave it to after we’ve done our work. It doesn’t work that way. That’s not biblical. That’s not a biblical conception of the Spirit. It’s not my experience. My experience is that the Spirit comes when I’m either working hard in prayer or working hard in something else. I sense the presence of the Spirit, not outside the work, but in it. Not outside the thinking, but in it. Not outside the study but in it.

Joe: I so deeply appreciate that. Thank you for that. And thank you for the passion with which you share that.

Jack: I believe in that. I believe we can think hard and in that be spirit-filled people. Like Bezalel and Oholiab who built the Tabernacle in Exodus, who were in charge of it—skilled to the nth degree and filled to the nth degree simultaneously.

Joe: That’s so helpful to me. When I opened this by saying I have trouble wrapping my brain around the concept of the Holy Spirit, that’s one of the issues that I’ve had for a time. I’m an introvert. I’m a thinking person. So to hear you talk about that way was really helpful for me.

The other piece that you mentioned…. Again, we’re now going back 10 minutes, I think. You mentioned back when we were talking about the baptism was the Spirit either leading Jesus into the desert in one gospel, or sending…casting him out into the desert, some of them use that Greek phrase, if I understand you correctly, and forgive me if I misunderstood this. But, one of my favorite images of the Holy Spirit in Scripture is often translated ‘comforter’ the ‘paraclete’ as the comforter. And I think I heard you say in the book that in the gospels the Spirit has a different role, at least a different role in Jesus’ life.

Jack Levison: Yeah. That’s exactly right.

I was thinking about this yesterday, I think. Jesus has to prepare his disciples for persecution. Now, one way to prepare your disciples for persecution is to say ‘everything will be all right.’ Sort of like, Let’s just say we’re a pandemic and no one wanted to give us the bad news that there’s a pandemic. It’s not a very good way to deal with it.

So Jesus isn’t offering them a comforter, which is just a King James translation of the Greek word ‘paracletas’ which…it works. Paracletes is someone called alongside. So if someone could be called alongside to comfort you, or in other translations it’s an advocate. Someone is called alongside like a lawyer or an advocate to advocate on your behalf.

But I think Jesus knew that he couldn’t give his disciples, his followers, false hope because of the kind of hardship and persecution they were going to face. So he gave them a more realistic view of the Spirit as that which would teach them and give them words when their backs were against the wall and they were about to be killed, that their witness would not end.

It’s a very hard thing in our era. So I work with some undergrads here at SMU and I absolutely love them. They’re in a “Faith and Learning” cohort, it’s called. And they’re honest. And this term… We bought them all big SMU blankets and we sit in a circle outside on the grass. Couple…once or twice they put a fire pit between us and we have a fire. And we talk, because we can’t really….. It’s much harder to meet inside the classrooms.

We’ve talked about how…what are our expectations for being Christians. And for many of us our expectations for being a Christian are to have a good life, to be taken care of. God is with us.

But in the first century Jesus couldn’t pretend that that’s what was going to happen to his disciples. And when I talk with these “Faith and Learning” students we talk a lot about…not in a very muted way…evangelism, about telling others, and how shy we are to tell others about the good news of Jesus Christ. And there’s really a shyness, even among these 19-20 year olds.

In the first century witness, testimony, evangelism in the best sense of the word, was extremely important. And it was more important that you be faithful to the end than that you be comfortable to the end. And so the Spirit comes helping them to be faithful to the end, not comfortable to the end.

So comforter is really not a good translation. Jesus is preparing them to be faithful, not matter what it’s gonna cost them. And that’s something we need to hear because, I think, we’ve associated Christianity with well-being, Spiritual wellness, physical wellness, emotional wellness and economic wellness. And that was not what Jesus was preparing his disciples for.

Joe: He was preparing them to continue to share the message. And the Spirit was to empower them to do that. Right?

Jack Levison: That’s what the Book of Acts, which I’ve not written a book on. I’ve gotten it in some other books a little bit. But that’s what the Book of Acts is. That’s what Pentecost is. Pentecost is not ‘let’s go to church and wear red.’ Pentecost is, let’s be witnesses, let’s let the Spirit equip us to be really good witnesses to the word used, the mighty acts of God or the praiseworthy acts of God is the word that’s used.

How can we as people of faith be vibrant—give vibrant testimony to the praiseworthy acts of God? That’s really what Pentecost is for, and the Book of Acts works that out. And Jesus prepares them for that in the gospels.

Joe: This is amazing, and I think I could do this for a really long time.

But before we go there’s this one question that I ask every guest on Get Your Spirit in Shape? How do you keep your spirit in shape? What is one thing that you do to help keep your Spirit in shape?

Jack Levison: I do several things. Of course I worship on a regular basis, and I have daily devotions on a regular basis. For my devotions, I usually use an app called “Pray as You Go,” which is a wonderful app which comes from British Jesuits. So it’s a Roman Catholic thing. It’s about 13 minutes.

During COVID I’ve taken an awful lot of prayer walks, sometimes with Priscilla and sometimes we’ll pray together.

And that would be the third thing. Priscilla and I spend an awful lot of time talking about life and faith, and we pray together. So that would be the third thing I do.

I was just telling a friend, a former student from Duke Divinity School… I was just on the phone with him 3 hours ago. And I said, “What we haven’t discovered yet in Dallas is a place that we had in Seattle called St. Placid Priory where we could go for like a weekend silent retreat. I’d like to bring that into my life more.

So we worship. I have daily devotions, using Pray As You Go. I certainly have a strong Spiritual life with my partner, my wife of 38 years, Priscilla. And I would like to develop more of a Spiritual retreat possibility.

And to be honest, I’m active with students a lot. We go for a lot of walks with students, which is a part of my Spiritual discipline, to listen to them about their lives.

Nothing dramatic.

Joe: No, no, no. That community building or that interpersonal relationship as part of our Spiritual development, again, that’s another thing we don’t commonly associate with that, but, yeah, I totally enjoy hearing that.

I also am a fan of Pray As You Go which I have not talked about on the podcast yet. So that’s good that you brought that up. Because I too enjoy that.

Jack Levison: It is such a great resource. And for those who don’t know, it’s Lectio Divina or lexio divina, as people call it. It’s just a wonderful 13 minutes of music, bells and music and Scripture and guided meditation. I love it.

Joe: I often use it on walks too. I walk with my dog in the morning and this is often the soundtrack of the walk.

Jack: Pray as you go…  

Joe: Jack, I just want to thank you…first of all I want to thank you for this book. I really enjoyed this book. And also thank you for this time to just spend with me and to have this wonderful conversation. Thank you so much.

Jack Levison: Absolutely my pleasure. Thank you.

Epilogue

That was Jack Levison, WJA Power Professor of Old Testament Interpretation and Biblical Hebrew at the Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University, and the author of An Unconventional God. I hope that conversation was as enjoyable and helpful to you as it was to me.

To order An Unconventional God and learn more about Jack’s work, go to UMC.org/podcasts and look for this episode of Get Your Spirit in Shape. As usual, we’ve put some helpful links there, and a transcript of the conversation. My email address is also there so you can chat with me.

Thanks so much for listening. I’ll be back soon with another conversation to help us keep our souls as healthy as our bodies. I’m Joe Iovino. Peace.