The Work of the Holy Spirit in the Ministry of Jesus

The work of the Holy Spirit in the life and ministry of Jesus is best articulated in terms of the key “Christological” moments of Jesus’ life, moments that reveal his person and the significance of his work.

With regard to the Incarnation, the Spirit prepared the way by moving the prophets to utter prophetic statements about his life and work.  This he did not only by moving the OT prophets such as Zechariah, Micah, and Isaiah to utter phrases later to be fulfilled by Jesus, but also NT prophetic utterances such as those by the angel announcing the conception of John the Baptist and Zechariah, Elizabeth, and Simeon.  The Spirit also played a role in the Incarnation by moving upon Mary to conceive the child Jesus in fulfillment of the prophecies.

At Jesus’ baptism, one of the few places where all three members of the Godhead are revealed as present at the same time, the Spirit descends upon Jesus marking the beginning of his public ministry.  It is here also that John the Baptist also indicates that Jesus’ ministry would involve baptizing his people with the Holy Spirit and with fire” (Mark 1:8; Luke 3:16).  The Spirit comes upon Jesus and then rests upon him (Matt. 3:16, ἐρχόμενον ἐπʼ αὐτόν).  John later testifies that Jesus has the Spirit of God “without measure” (John 3:34) which signifies Jesus’ uniqueness and superiority in fulfillment of OT covenant expectation.

Jesus resisted the temptations he faced through the power of the Spirit.  The Spirit drove him into the wilderness (Mark 1:12) and Luke indicates (4:1) that he was not only “led by the Spirit” but was “full of the Spirit” and leaves the temptation “in the power of the Spirit” (Luke 4:14).  I the power of the Spirit, Jesus is what Israel should have been in the wilderness and all that Adam should have been in the garden (the reference to the wild beasts in Mark 1:13 is informative here).

Jesus performed his mighty works through the power of the Spirit.  Immediately after returning to Nazareth in the power of the Spirit (Luke 4:14), Jesus reads from the scroll of Isaiah about the eschatological proclaimer and miracle-worker who would do mighty works because the Spirit of God was upon him (Luke 4:18-19; cf. Isa. 61:1-2).  Matthew uses a different but similar passage to demonstrate the same point but adds to it by describing the Pharisees’ dispute with Jesus about the casting out of a demon in which Jesus describes his work as being done “by the Spirit of God” (Matt. 12:28) and then goes on to explain the Pharisees’ attitude as one of “blasphemy against the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 12:31-32).

While the Orthodox tradition sees the Spirit present in the cloud of light surrounding the Transfiguration, conservative exegesis finds no evidence for the Spirit’s presence at the Transfiguration.

Some see the Spirit present in the reference to Jesus’ giving up the pneuma at his death (Matt. 27:5; Luke 23:46; John 19:30) in which either the Spirit departed from him (see ESV and NET Bible, which both supply a personal pronoun for the article) or he “handed over” (paredoken) the Spirit to his disciples.  While these conclusions are weak simply because they lack an exegetical basis, the writer of Hebrews does make what appears to be an explicit connection between the Spirit and the crucifixion.  The writer of Hebrews points out that Jesus offered himself for our sins and purification “through the eternal Spirit” (Hebrews 9:14-16).  Since the writer of Hebrews usually refers to the Spirit as “the Holy Spirit,” this interpretation is questionable.  One may understand the cross event as a Trinitarian event, however, since it is not difficult to conceive of the roles for each member of the Trinity at crucial events in redemptive history.

Though there is no statement in the Gospels to the work or presence of the Spirit at the Resurrection, Paul refers to the Spirit in this context in Rom. 1:4 and 8:11, though it is possible that these are not references to the Holy Spirit.  (This writer concludes, however, that the 8:11 passage is a reference to the Holy Spirit.  Even if the reference is to the Father working through the Spirit, this still maintains that God gives life to mortal bodies through the working of the Spirit).

1 Peter 3:18 is another unclear reference to the Holy Spirit at the Resurrection, disputed because the reference to “spirit” may be a contrast between flesh and spirit rather than a reference to the Holy Spirit.  1 Timothy 3:16 seems to be a clear reference to the work of the Spirit in the resurrection by saying Jesus was “justified (vindicated, endikaiothe) by the Spirit,” what N. T. Wright describes as “an oblique way of referring to the Resurrection.”

What is regarded as the final Christological moment is the Ascension, but beyond mere speculation, there is no Scriptural reference to the Spirit’s work in the Ascension.


About Michael R. Jones

Pastor and PhD candidate writing on Paul's theology of suffering.
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