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The Holy Spirit’s work in creation


The first instance of the Spirit’s work appears in the opening verses of Scripture.

“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters” (Gn 1:1–2).

On day one of creation, God created all matter, time, and space. Think about it — before the first day of creation, all that existed was the triune God. There was not matter, time, or space. God created all of that on the first day.

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But as Genesis 1:2 tells us, that space and matter — Heaven and earth — was “without form and void.” Simply creating matter and space did not mean they were yet arranged in such a way so as to be inhabitable by human beings.

And so, it was the Spirit of God who hovered over the face of the waters as the person of the triune God who brought order to creation. The Hebrew term rûach can mean “breath,” “wind,” or “spirit,” depending on the context. The same is true in the New Testament of the term pneuma. We can have confidence that the term in Genesis 1:2 refers to the Holy Spirit because of the verb “hovering,” which would not fit “wind” or “breath.” Moses uses the same verb to describe God “hovering” over His people at the end of the Pentateuch as well, which appears to be a deliberate parallel with the opening verses of the Pentateuch (Dt 32:11).

Additionally, as we will soon note, Moses portrays deliberate parallels between the Spirit’s work in creating the world and his work in the creation of the tabernacle, further evidence that he intended rûach to refer to the Holy Spirit in Genesis 1:2. Similarly, Job states, “By his wind [rûach] the heavens were made fair” (26:13), and Job 33:4 clearly refers to the divine Spirit when it states, “The Spirit [rûach] of God has made me, and the breath of the Almighty gives me life.”

In other words, in the opening words of Scripture we find the Spirit of God actively involved in the work of creation. Indeed, in the opening chapter of Genesis we find all three persons of the triune God active in creation: God [the Father] created the heavens and the earth, He did so through his Word [the Son], and the work was brought to completion by his Spirit — these appropriations of the work of creation to persons of the godhead reflect their eternal relations of origin. Psalms 33:6 portrays this trinitarian act of creation: “By the word of the Lord the heavens were made, and by the breath [rûach] of his mouth all their host.” So all three persons of the godhead were involved in creation, and as is true with all of God’s works, God performed the work through the Son, and that work was brought to perfection by the Spirit.

Thus, in the six days of creation, the Holy Spirit of God brought order to the cosmos — he brought to completion and perfection the creative activity of God. This orderliness is reflected in the Greek term cosmos, which the Greek translation of the Old Testament uses to characterize the finished work of creation: “Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all the host [cosmos] of them” (Gn 2:1).

Paul uses this same term to describe creation in his sermon on Mars Hill: “The God who made the world [cosmos] and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man.”

The Holy Spirit of God formed the cosmos, an ordered arrangement of heaven and earth such that creation displayed his own orderliness. This is why God declares his creation “good” (Gn 1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25). The Hebrew word implies more than just moral goodness; the term embodies the idea of aesthetic beauty and harmony. Creation is beautiful because it reflects the order and harmony of God himself.

Psalm 104 poetically embodies this idea of creation manifesting the beauty and order of God, identifying the person of the Trinity who brings about such wondrous creation:

“When you send forth your Spirit [rûach], they are created, and you renew the face of the ground.” 

The Holy Spirit of God, in His active work of creation, brought wondrous order to the world that God made.

Wisdom and beauty

Notice also the particular quality that characterizes the Spirit’s work of creation in Psalm 104:24:

“O Lord, how manifold are your works! In wisdom have you made them all; the earth is full of your creatures.”

Wisdom is the quality the psalmist ties to the Spirit’s creative work, and this helps us to further confirm the nature of this first work of the Spirit. Wisdom is the capacity to fit things together as they ought to be, the skill to create harmony and order. Thus we should not be surprised when Proverbs 3:19 states that the Lord founded the earth by wisdom — by the skill to fit things together in a harmonious fashion.

This harmony and order of creation that was brought about by the Spirit of God is what we call beauty. Beauty is fittingness, order, and harmony. This is ultimately the Holy Spirit’s work in creation. As Ambrose of Milan noted, “After this world being created underwent the operation of the Spirit, it gained all the beauty of that grace, wherewith the world is illuminated.”

The Holy Spirit is the beautifier.

Sinclair Ferguson notes that this very first action of the Holy Spirit in Scripture is “that of extending God’s presence into creation in such a way as to order and complete what has been planned in the mind of God.”[1] Jonathan Edwards developed this theme in his discussion of the Holy Spirit’s work in creation:

“It was more especially the Holy Spirit’s work to bring the world to its beauty and perfection out of the chaos, for the beauty of the world is a communication of God’s beauty. The Holy Spirit is the harmony and excellency and beauty of the Deity ... therefore it was His work to communicate beauty and harmony to the world, and so we read that it was He who moved upon the face of the waters.”[2]

“This,” Ferguson continues, “is exactly the role the Spirit characteristically fulfills elsewhere in Scripture.”

In other words, the Spirit’s first act reveals his characteristic role within the godhead: the Holy Spirit is the divine person who orders and completes the divine plan in the created order. As we have noted, creation is one undivided act of the undivided God; all three person of the godhead were active in creation. However, the Spirit in particular completes creation. As Gregory of Nyssa notes, “Every operation which extends from God to the Creation ... has its origin from the Father, and proceeds through the Son, and is perfected in the Holy Spirit.”[3] Or as Basil of Caesarea says, the Father is the “original cause,” the Son is the “creative cause,” and the Spirit is the “perfecting cause” of creation.[4]

Perfecting, completing, beautifying — these are the nature of the Holy Spirit’s work.

Creation of the tabernacle

In fact, the Spirit of God’s creative work in Genesis 1 parallels another work of creation and beautification in Scripture — the creation of the tabernacle. Note what God says concerning the tabernacle artisans:

“And you shall make holy garments for Aaron your brother, for glory and for beauty. You shall speak to all the skillful, whom I have filled with a spirit [rûach] of skill, that they make Aaron’s garments to consecrate him for my priesthood” (Ex 28:2–3).

Interestingly, the term translated “skill” is Hebrew word for wisdom, the same virtue that characterizes God’s work of creation attributed to the Spirit. In order that the artisans might be able to design beautiful garments for Aaron, God filled them with a spirit [rûach] — same Hebrew word that refers to the Holy Spirit — of wisdom — the capacity to create beauty and order.

Later, the connection between beauty, wisdom, and the Spirit of God is made even more explicit when God describes those who would build the tabernacle itself:

The Lord said to Moses, 'See, I have called by name Bezalel the son of Uri, son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah, and I have filled him with the Spirit [rûach] of God, with ability and intelligence, with knowledge and all craftsmanship, to devise artistic designs, to work in gold, silver, and bronze, in cutting stones for setting, and in carving wood, to work in every craft. And behold, I have appointed with him Oholiab, the son of Ahisamach, of the tribe of Dan. And I have given to all able men ability, that they may make all that I have commanded you (Ex 31:1–6).

The Hebrew word translated “ability” in this passage is the same term translated “skill” in Exodus 28 and translated “wisdom” in Psalm 104:24 and Proverbs 3:19. Notice its close association with “craftsmanship to devise artistic designs.” And most significantly for our discussion, notice how God endowed Bezalel (and Oholiab) with such ability to make the beautiful tabernacle with all of its elements: “I have filled him with the Spirit of God.”

As the divine person who characteristically brings beauty and order to God’s creation, the Spirit also enables humans to do the same. The Holy Spirit’s work of beautifying could be considered a subset of the broader category of ordering.

One other biblical example drives home this characteristic work of the Holy Spirit to bring order out of chaos. Isaiah 32 comes in the midst of a series of “woe” oracles that pronounce judgment upon the people of Israel. Yet chapter 32 promises a day when such judgment will be reversed at the coming of Messiah’s Kingdom. One way the prophet describes such a day is with a contrast between judgment and blessing. He states that Jerusalem “will be deserted ... until the Spirit [rûach] is poured upon us from on high, and the wilderness becomes a fruitful field, and the fruitful field is counted as a forest” (Is 32:14–15, NKJV).

The Spirit of God is the one who comes to turn judgment and desolation into fruitfulness and beauty.[5] He turns what is disordered and ugly into order and beauty.

Creation of human life

The Spirit of God was instrumental in bringing harmony and beauty to all creation at the beginning of time, and he had a particularly significant part in the unique creation of human life. Genesis 2:7 states,

“Then the Lord God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature.”

“Breath” here is a different term than the one translated “Spirit” [rûach] in 1:2; however, the two terms are often used in parallel senses, indicating an intentional connection between “breath” and the Holy Spirit. For example, Job 27:3 employs both terms in a parallel fashion when it states, “as long as my breath is in me, and the spirit [rûach] of God is in my nostrils.” And even more significantly, Job 33:4 uses both terms with direct reference to the creation of man:

“The Spirit [rûach] of God has made me,
and the breath of the Almighty gives me life.”

The Spirit of God is the breath of the almighty that gives life to every man, that creates harmonious life in what would otherwise be lifeless clay. By the power of the Spirit, man was uniquely given a spirit, unlike anything else in God’s creation.

This, too, was a means by which the Spirit brought God’s eternal plan to create a people for his name’s sake. Isaiah 43:7 states that God made man for his own glory, and the Spirit brought that purpose to completion in creating life in Adam.

The virgin conception

The Spirit of God was also instrumental creating another human life — the Last Adam, Jesus Christ. The conception of the Messiah was accomplished not through the union of a man and a woman; rather, Mary “was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit” (Mt 1:18, 20). Gabriel had announced to Mary that “the Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy — the Son of God” (Lk 1:35). As he had done with the original creation, the Spirit took what had already been created by God (Mary’s body) “in order to produce the ‘second man’ and through him restore true order, just as he brought order and fullness into the formlessness and emptiness of the original creation.”[6]

Understand these two significant works of bringing life and order to creation in both the First Adam and the Last Adam helps us to recognize the Holy Spirit’s characteristic work: what the Spirit does is never for its own sake or performed independently of the purposes of God. Every work of the Spirit serves God’s eternal plan for his world and His people. In ordering God’s creation, beautifying Israel’s tabernacle, and bringing life to the First Adam and the Last Adam, the Spirit perfects and completes God’s eternal plan in history.


1 Ferguson, The Holy Spirit, 21. Emphasis original.

2Jonathan Edwards, “Miscellanies,” no. 293, in Works of Jonathan Edwards, 13, The “Miscellanies,” (Entry Nos. a–500), ed. Thomas A. Schafer (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1996), 384.

3 Gregory of Nyssa, “On ‘Not Three Gods,’” in Gregory of Nyssa: Dogmatic Treatises, Etc., ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, trans. Henry Austin Wilson, vol. 5, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Second Series (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1893), 334.

4 Basil of Caesarea, The Book of Saint Basil on the Spirit, NPNF 2, 8:23.

5 It is significant that Peter quotes similar language about the pouring out of the Spirit from Joel 2 when he describes what is happening on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:17–21). This should weigh heavily in any interpretation of the Holy Spirit’s unique work in this age.

6 Ferguson, The Holy Spirit, 39.

Originally published at G3 Ministries. 

Scott Aniol, PhD, is Executive Vice President and Editor-in-Chief of G3 Ministries. In addition to his role with G3, Scott is Professor of Pastoral Theology at Grace Bible Theological Seminary in Conway, Arkansas. He lectures around the world in churches, conferences, colleges, and seminaries, and he has authored several books and dozens of articles. You can find more, including publications and speaking itinerary, at Scott and his wife, Becky, have four children: Caleb, Kate, Christopher, and Caroline. You can listen to his podcast here.

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