Essays written by Julie Johnson as part of her training to become a Reader

Compare and Contrast the Concepts of Ruach and Pneuma, and Illustrate from your Own Experience

The concepts behind both Ruach and Pneuma are similar and are used to denote the Spirit of God. Ruach is a Hebrew word found in the Old Testament, whereas Pneuma is a Greek word used in the Septuagint and New Testament. Both are difficult words to interpret and can only really be deduced from the usage. They are both invisible forces but seem to be used with three main meanings of “wind”, “breath” and “spirit”. According to John Witcombe[1], the word Ruach appears 377 times in the Old Testament and the word Pneuma appears 264 times in the New Testament, the idea of the Spirit of God is an important concept but scripture does not offer us a well worked out theology of the Spirit. However, it is clear that the Spirit is the energy behind the experience of the invisible force, rather than the force itself.[2]

To start with Ruach and Pneuma are described as wind in both Testaments, but in both cases as a mysterious and powerful wind. Nicodemus is told by Jesus that “the wind (Pneuma) blows where it will and you hear its sound but you do not know where it comes from or where it is going. So, it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” (John 3: 8.) As well as being mysterious it is also powerful. In Genesis (8:1) God “sent a wind over the earth and the waters receded.” Another example is in the wind sent by God to let the Israelites escape from the Egyptians, “The Lord drove the sea back with a strong east wind and turned it into dry land”. (Exodus 14:21).  Earlier in Exodus (10:13) God uses the east wind to bring a plague of locusts. The many characteristics of the wind, its power, its unpredictability and its mystery shows an attempt to communicate the ways in which the people of God experience their creator.[3] The Holy Spirit as a mysterious and powerful force is seen clearly at Pentecost when “a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house” and “All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:1-4). Not only was there wind in this case but also fire.

As well as being seen as wind, another way in which Ruach and Pneuma are used is as breath, which is seen as the principle of life, for example in Ezekiel 37: 5, “I will cause breath (Ruach) to enter you and you shall live”. But this does not mean just the fact of being alive, of breathing. Ruach here seems to mean something that belongs to God and can even be taken away by God. “This suggests that what may be called a man’s spirit is not necessarily his own, or inherently his: it may be God’s spirit within him.”[4] This can be also shown in Job (33:4), “The Spirit of God has made me; the breath of the Almighty gives me life”, where it becomes clear that the meaning of life for Job is in his relationship with God. It is Job’s experience of the Spirit which is important. The concept of breath as a manifestation of the Spirit is also seen in Ezekiel’s vision of the valley full of dry bones into which Ezekiel is told to breathe life. (Eze. 37 1-14). Anyone who has seen someone die has experienced the last breath a person takes in this world, but this is not what is meant by explaining either Ruach or Pneuma as breath. It marks more that fact that the person “gives up” their physical bodies to enter into a spiritual dimension.

In the Old and New Testaments, the Spirit of God is seen as a violent, invading force which comes from outside our experience, disturbing and mysterious like the wind, something which we cannot control. This is reflected in the stories about some of the individuals in the Old Testament, perhaps most notably in the case of the strong man, Samson. It was when the “Spirit of the Lord came mightily upon him” that “he tore a lion asunder as one tears a kind” (Judges 14:16). This strength, which enabled him to do so much for his country against the Philistine overlords, was not his own. He was sharply reminded of that when he disobeyed God at Delilah’s instigation and woke up to find that “the Lord had left him”. (Judges 16:20). Sometimes the violent power of the Spirit is seen in almost physical terms as when the Spirit of the Lord entered into Ezekiel and set him on his feet or lifted him up or brought him out of the valley (Ezek. 2:2, 3:12, 37:1). In the New Testament, too, the Spirit of the Lord can be seen as something unexpected, alien, even violent. It is this same Spirit which drove Jesus off into the desert to be tempted to be tempted. Philip was gripped by the Holy Spirit “the Spirit of the Lord (Pneuma) caught up Philip” and made him move from a flourishing evangelistic campaign in Samaria to the desert, to help the Ethiopian eunuch. (Acts 8:26-36).

But it is not always the case that God communicates through a violent invading force. Elijah, exhausted was led to the mountain of Horeb “as the presence of the Lord is about to pass by”. “Then the Lord sent a mighty wind which broke the rocks in pieces; then He sent an earthquake and a fire, but His voice was in none of them. After all that, the Lord spoke to Elijah in the still small voice.” (1 Kings 8-13). In my personal experience, I have not heard God speak to me through dramatic revelations or events but more in the “still small voice”, which can be little more than a whisper. But which are nevertheless life-changing. So, the Spirit of God who is beyond us and who invades our world does not do so in order to terrify but in order to communicate and so empowers individuals in the Old Testament and the New Testament to prophesy where it is developed. David claims that “the Spirit of the Lord speaks,” (2 Sam 23:2). In the Old Testament, it is seen in individuals like Joseph who was able to interpret Pharaoh’s dreams “through the Spirit of God within him”[5](Gen 41:38). People like Jacob (Gen.46:1), Ezekiel (1:1) and Daniel (1:17, 4:5) grasped something of the purposes of the Spirit through visions. In the eighth century B.C. Hosea describes a prophet as “a man of the Spirit”. Zechariah, after the return from Babylon has no doubt that it is through the Spirit of the Lord that God has sent the “law and the words” through the prophets. (Zech. 7:12); but not just through the prophets. God gave his Spirit to his anointed king in order to equip him for leadership of his people. Saul is the classic example who receives the power of the Spirit of God upon him. (1 Sam 10:6). After Saul disobeys God disastrously, David is anointed and “the Spirit of the Lord came mightily on David from that day forward” (1 Sam 16:13), the Ruach had passed to David and the Spirit of the Lord left Saul. So, in the Old Testament the Spirit is given to individuals to illuminate and lead God’s people.

“The Spirit of Prophesy as shown by the prophets in the Old Testament allows the people of God to fulfil God’s purpose, both as individuals and as a whole. This way of understanding the Spirit’s work in the Old Testament paves out way for our understanding of His work in the New- especially through the Messiah, the one anointed by the Spirit to fulfil God’s purpose, with and on behalf of the people.”[6]

 The idea of Ruach as being a means by which God communicates to individuals is developed much further in the New Testament and shows clearly the relationship between God, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Jesus is not just a “rod out of the stem of Jesse”, (Isaiah 11:1), a new messianic king but a child conceived by the action of the Holy Spirit, and is directly related to God. “The Holy Spirit (Pneuma) will come upon you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you” (Luke 1:35). John the Baptist preaches that Jesus “will baptise with the Holy Spirit and fire” (Luke 3:16) seems to echo the concept of the Spirit being seen as fire from the Old Testament and the reference to the winnowing fork gives the idea of wind. At the baptism of Jesus, the Holy Spirit is in the form of a dove and the voice of God is heard, “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased”, (Mark 3:11) which echoes Isaiah’s prophecy of the suffering servant. Jesus in all the synoptic Gospels in the bearer of the Spirit. It is in the power of the Spirit that Jesus resists the temptations in the wilderness and in the power of the Spirit Jesus begins his ministry. However, it is Jesus alone on whom the Spirit rests fully. The prophecy of Isaiah (61:1) “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, for he has anointed me to preach the good news to the poor ….” is the passage which Jesus reads out in the Synagogue of Nazareth and he calmly tells the people, “Today the Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:18). In this passage, Jesus saw himself as the unique bearer of the Spirit and it is in the Spirit that Jesus carries out his healing and his teaching ministry.

John’s Gospel portrays the Spirit in a distinct and complementary way to the other Gospels and contains more of Jesus’ teaching about the Spirit than the others and his role in giving or sending the Spirit is much clearer. If Jesus is the unique bearer or dispenser of the Spirit, this is limited in space and time by his earthly life. His physical death would make possible the coming to every one of the Holy Spirit as Paraclete, a word with many different translations into English, but by which St John seems to mean the role of the Holy Spirit as counsellor. The role of the Spirit is both to recall teaching originally given but also to lead to new truth, “This implies that new revelation and original teaching are to be held in constant tension for John, so that the Spirit’s role is never simply that of repeating the original teaching as first given, nor that of revealing new truth wholly unrelated to the old to give it contemporary significance and that of revealing the new in a way consistent with the old.”[7] In my experience this idea is very important in understanding much of the teaching of the Bible, especially that of ethics in the Old Testament. [8]

The promise of the coming of the Holy Spirit is fulfilled on the day of Pentecost. “And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:4). Joel’s prophesy (Joel 2:28-32) has come to pass:” In the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy” (Acts 2:17). Luke sees the Apostles as representing the people of God of the last days and rightly emphasizes that this Spirit of prophesy involves the whole people of God. So, there is a clear relationship between the death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus and the gift of the Holy Spirit to all believers.

St Paul in turn highlights the aspect of renewal and the eschatological dimension of the Spirit’s work: the Spirit is seen as the source of the new and eternal life that Jesus communicates to his Church. In the first letter to the Corinthians we read that Christ, the new Adam, by virtue of the Resurrection, became a life-giving spirit (1 Cor 15:45). This is the way Christ communicates to the world. Believers no longer live as slaves under the law, but as sons, because in their hearts they have received the Spirit of the Son and can cry out “Abba, Father!” through the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. (cf. Gal 4:5-7; Rom 8: 14-16). Through the Spirit we all belong to the life in Christ “For by the Spirit we were all baptised into one body” (1 Cor 12:13). Personally, I believe the work of the Holy Spirit has been very active in our chaplaincy, its growth and the development of both individuals and all of us.

The Holy Spirit gives rise to faith (1 Co 12:13), pours love into our hearts (Rom 5:5) and guides the prayer of Christians (Rom 8:26). The experience of the love of Jesus which filled my whole being, was, I believe, a gift of the Holy Spirit and something which is difficult to explain in mere words. However, this inspiration has kept me going during times which have not been easy. I am aware of the physical side of human nature as opposed to the spiritual side. In my case this has been because of physical pain limiting my openness to the Spirit. However, I find it comforting that St Paul also felt a tension between what he called desires of the flesh and of the Spirit which he describes in Galatians 5:16-18. “Live by the Spirit, I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh”.

However weak, lacking in discipline, limited and insignificant we may feel, Christians know that the Spirit is around and working for us and a presence in our world and our lives. Perhaps that is why, in the New Testament, the Spirit is so linked to hope. St Paul tells us to “Abound in hope through the power of the Holy Spirit” (Rom 15:13). This is perhaps especially necessary for Christians at a time of political upheaval.

The revelation of the Holy Spirit as a person, distinct from the Father and the Son, which is foreshadowed in the Old Testament, with the concept of “Ruach”, becomes clear and explicit in the New, with the concept of “Pneuma” which all Christians are able to experience.


Church of England Report, Contemporary Doctrine Classics Church House Publishing 2005

Coulton Nicholas, Does it matter enough and to whom? in Nicholas Coulton (Ed) The Bible, The Church and Homosexuality, Darton Longman and Todd 2005

Dunn James, in C Brown (Ed) New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology Paternoster 1997

Green Michael, I Believe in the Holy Spirit, Revised Edition, Erdman’s Publishing Company 2004

McGrath Alister, Christian Theology: An introduction, Oxford, Blackwell 1997

Moule CFD, The Holy Spirit, Continuum 2000

Turner Max, The Holy Spirit and Spiritual Gifts, Carlisle: Paternoster 1996

Witcombe John, The Holy Spirit and the People of God, St John’s Extension Studies revised edition 2005


Websites consulted

“Holy Spirit in the New Testament”

“Holy Spirit in the Pauline Letters” by Paul W Meyer in

“Holy Spirit in Pauline Theology”


[1] John Witcombe, The Holy Spirit and the People of God

[2] ibid

[3] ibid

[4] CFD Moule The Holy Spirit

[5] Michael Green I Believe in the Holy Spirit

[6] John Witcombe, The Holy Spirit and the People of God

[7] James Dunn New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology

[8] Does it matter enough and to whom? Nicholas Coulton in The Bible, the Church and Homosexuality