Continuing my reflections on the Gospel passage set for this coming Sunday (Luke 4:14–21). See also https://johntsquires.com/2022/01/20/jesus-and-conventional-jewish-piety-luke-416-epiphany-3c and https://johntsquires.com/2022/01/21/jesus-scripture-and-experience-luke-417-21-epiphany-3c/
In this story, when Jesus reads in the synagogue in Nazareth, he quotes a scripture passage which begins with a reference to the holy spirit. The understanding of the spirit as an agent for divine guidance of human beings, as found in this passage early in the orderly account of Luke’s Gospel, is the same understanding which is found right throughout the books of the Hebrew Scriptures. The follow list summarises the key points concerning the spirit in these writings.
First, the spirit is active in the creation of the world (Gen 1:1–2; Job 33:4; Ps 104:30; Isa 42:5). Then, the spirit guides selected leaders within Israel, such as Moses (Num 11:16–17); Joshua (Deut 34:9); Othniel (Judg 3:10); Gideon (Judg 6:34); and David (1 Sam 16:17).
Further, it is the spirit which inspires prophecy (1 Sam 10:6, 19:23–24; Ezek 37:1; Joel 2:28–29; Mic 3:8), enables the interpretation of dreams by Joseph (Gen 41:38) and Daniel (Dan 4:8,18, 5:1), and gives other specific gifts to Israel (Num 11:25; Deut 34:9; Dan 4:8–18; Prov 1:23).
The qualities of the spirit will characterise the coming Messianic figure envisaged by the prophet Isaiah (Isa 11:2–5). This idea is taken up later in Isaiah in descriptions of the Servant (Isa 42:1–4; 61:1–7). In second Isaiah the spirit is promised as a gift to the people who are led by the Servant (Isa 42:5; 44:3; 48:16; 59:21). Third Isaiah recalls the time of Moses as a period when the spirit was given to Israel (Isa 63:11–14).
Jesus appropriates the passage from Isaiah 61 for himself in the claim “today this scripture has been fulfilled” (Luke 4:21). In so doing, he asserts that this spirit has now rested upon him, as the one anointed by the Lord. The previous chapters of Luke’s narrative have already established this point; the spirit has rested upon the adult Jesus at his baptism (3:21) and led him into the wilderness to be tempted (4:1).
Jesus returns to Galilee to begin his preaching “filled with the power of the spirit” (4:14). Indeed, even as an infant, the spirit is seen to be at work in Jesus (1:35, in his conception; 2:25– 34, in Simeon’s prophecy about the future role of Jesus). Thus, the reading of this scripture citation in the synagogue in Nazareth—“the Spirit of the Lord is upon me”—and the claim that it is now fulfilled in him, together confirm the Lukan claims about Jesus by undergirding them with scriptural validation.
Further references to the spirit in the life of Jesus are few (as he prays, 10:21; in his sayings, 11:13; 12:10–12; at his death, 23:46). Yet the principle that the spirit guides Jesus has been established beyond doubt in Luke 1–4 and stands as the keynote for understanding the activities of Jesus which will follow, and indeed for understanding the activities of the early church also.
In the second volume of this orderly account, the Acts of the Apostles, the presence of the spirit is widespread and consistent throughout the early church. The church is motivated for mission by the outpouring of the spirit (Acts 2:4, 17–18, 33). Specific leaders within the early church are said to be “filled with the spirit”: Peter (4:8), Stephen (6:3, 5; 7:55), Paul (9:17; 13:9), Barnabas (11:24). The spirit inspires Agabus to prophesy (11:28) and probably also guides the preaching of Apollos (18:25).
Indeed, in the early period, the whole community in Jerusalem is filled with the spirit (4:31); subsequently, the spirit falls on the Gentile believers in Caesarea (10:44–45; 11:15–16). The spirit guides Philip to travel with the Ethiopian eunuch (8:29, 39). The Spirit guides Peter to meet the men sent by Cornelius and travel with them to Caesarea (10:19; 11:12).
The Spirit guides Barnabas and Paul to Seleucia and onwards (13:2) and later guides Paul away from Asia Minor, towards Macedonia (16:6–7). Paul’s final visit to Jerusalem and his subsequent arrest there are also guided by the spirit (20:22–23; 21:11).
What does the spirit equip Jesus to do? The citation from Isaiah 61 identifies four activities: “good news to the poor…release to the captives…recovery of sight to the blind…freedom for the oppressed”, all summarised in the phrase “to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour” (Luke 4:18–19). The holistic nature of these deeds characterises the activities of Jesus in subsequent chapters of the Gospel.
Jesus proclaims the good news (4:43; 8:1; 16:16; 20:1) and releases people bound in the captivity of demon possession (4:31–37; 8:2, 26–39; 9:37–43; 11:14–26; 13:32). He heals not only those unable to see (18:35–43) but also those with physical disabilities (5:17–26; 6:6–10; 14:1– 4), lepers (5:12–12; 17:11–19) and a number of women with specific ailments (4:38–39; 8:43–48; 13:11–13). He even raises one person from the dead (7:11–17).
When John the baptiser sends messengers to ask of Jesus, “are you the one who is to come?” (7:19), in his reply Jesus refers to precisely these kinds of deeds: “the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them” (7:22). This answer draws on Isaianic descriptions of the restorative deeds of the Lord (Isa 29:18–19; 35:5–6; 61:1).
In Luke’s second volume, the Acts of the Apostles, the early church is characterised by the ability to perform similar signs and wonders (Acts 2:43) alongside of their public proclamation of the good news (5:42). The apostles perform healings in Jerusalem (3:1–10; 4:22, 30; 5:12) and interpret these as being God’s actions.
Through the spirit, Stephen is able to perform signs and wonders (6:3, 8). Philip both heals and exorcises (8:6) and preaches the good news (8:4, 12, 25, 40). Peter heals in Lydda (9:32–25) and raises the dead Joppa (9:26–43). Barnabas and Paul perform signs and wonders as they travel throughout Asia Minor (14:3, 8–10; 15:12) and proclaim the good news (14:7, 15, 21; 15:35).
Alongside his public speaking, Paul continues his miraculous activity in Ephesus (19:11–12), Troas (20:7–12) and Malta (28:6–10). The spirit enables Paul to oppose the magician Elymas on Cyprus (13:4–12) and to cast out demons in Ephesus (19:13–20).
So we see that the presence of the spirit within the early church continues the holistic ministry which was seen in the life of Jesus, through proclamation, healings, and exorcisms. The scriptural citation in Luke 4:18–19 thus provides a declaration of a major theme running throughout both of Luke’s volumes.
This post draws on my work published as AT TABLE WITH LUKE (UTC Publications; UTC Bible Studies 2, 2000) ©John T. Squires 2000