Skip to main content

Breathing the Spirit

A week after his resurrection, Jesus appeared to his disciples, commissioned them to go as God the Father had sent him, and then "breathed on them and said, 'Receive the Holy Spirit.'" John 20:20-22 NIV As I looked at that passage yesterday, I wondered: What happened when he did that? So today I went hunting.

The word "breathed" in Greek is emfusao, which means "to blow or breathe upon." It is used only here in the New Testament and, according to "The NAS New Testament Greek Lexicon," is used only once in the Septuagint (Greek translation of the Old Testament used in Jesus' day) and that in Genesis 2:7 where God "breathed into [Adam's] nostrils the breath of life."
God emfusao into Adam's nostrils the breath of life.
Jesus emfusao on his disciples and said, "Receive the Holy Spirit."
John would have known the use of emfusao to describe that first breath from God into man and intentionally chose it instead of a more common word to describe what Jesus did in that locked room. Why? Did the disciples feel something new and different happening to them? Did it feel like they had suddenly been filled with life?

"Spirit" in Greek is pneuma, which has several meanings and is used 380 times in the New Testament. It is the word used for the Spirit--he who is God--but note that the word "holy," hagios is used to describe the kind of pneuma: that which is most holy (which is a whole other study for this word hagios is also used to mean "saints," something we, as believers, are said to be). Pneuma is also the word for that spirit in us that is life ("i.e. the vital principal by which the body is animated."), for angels and demons and for wind and the movement of air including the act of breathing.

Jesus breathed breath, life, spirit into his disciples but not just any breath, life or spirit, but that most holy of spirits, God. In essence, he, being God, breathed part of himself, God, into them.

Augustine in On the Trinity and in reference to this passage writes:
For that bodily breathing, proceeding from the body with the feeling of bodily touching, was not the substance of the Holy Spirit, but a declaration by a fitting sign, that the Holy Spirit proceeds not only from the Father, but also from the Son. For the veriest of madmen would not say, that it was one Spirit which He gave when he breathed on them, and another which He sent after his ascension (Acts ii.1-4). For the Spirit of God is one, the Spirit of the Father and of the Son, the Holy Spirit, who worketh all in all.
I have no problem with the second half of this quote but I wonder: Was Jesus' breathing on his disciples just a sign or promise of what was to come at Pentecost as Augustine suggests (and with whom most commentators agree) or did something substantial occur? If so, why did John compare it to God's first breath into Adam? And if something substantial did occur, what was it and how did it differ from the outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost? Any thoughts?


Popular posts from this blog

About the Author


I'm married (35 years in December 2008) with four grown sons. I love my city (Winnipeg) and my country (Canada) and promote them both to whoever will listen. God (through Jesus Christ) is the biggest part of my life. I am learning to let him take control of all areas--though I do better at this some times more than others.

I have written a book that's recently been published about part of my journey with God. In it I tell how God confronted me with the same-sex attraction issues I've struggled with all my adult life and how he led me through them to a deeper and more meaningful relationship with him. God is amazing—his forgiveness, his love, his movement in our lives when we allow him and so much more. I suspect God will never run out of things to teach me or ways to make me grow and that’s a good thing (though often very painful).

I suppose I can say that what gives me the greatest pleasure in life is telling others about…

Memories of Mikael Vincent Tien Doe Chan

Reviews of Searching for Love

If you have read the book, I would love to hear your thoughts on it. You may e-mail me at or post them in the comments section below.

A Real Testimony
I finished your book. A real testimony to what God does for us.
Leona March 3, 2009
I Had Tears Coming

I sat down to read it about a week later and ended up finishing it the same night. At first I admit I was a little bored and thought that the whole book was about a battle all in your mind, but as I continued reading this creeping thought came over me of a different...struggle in my own life, that I would never in my right mind have shared with anyone accept maybe God. I've mentioned your book to a few people because it stirs up age-old controversies that I have myself argued and wondered about, namely about whether or not homosexuality can be cured or just managed like alcoholism--you just have to stay away from temptation. I noticed at the end of your book that your struggle story …