1 The Spirit at the start of the story of Jesus
As we read the whole story that has been compiled by Luke, in his orderly account, we note that the Spirit plays a key role from the very beginning. The first person we meet in Luke’s narrative is Zechariah the priest, a man devoted to the service of God in the Temple (1:8–9). Zechariah himself will later be filled with the Spirit (1:67) and sing of what God will do through his son, John (1:68–79)—although first he will be struck dumb (1:20, 22), because he did not believe the words of the angel, that his son would be “filled with the Holy Spirit” (1:15) and go before God “with the spirit and power of Elijah” (1:17). Zechariah’s spirit-filled song is possible after he is miraculously able to speak once more (1:64).
His wife, Elizabeth, expresses an attitude of deep faith in God, accepting her surprise pregnancy as “what the Lord has done for me” (1:25). They are both described as “righteous before God” (1:6). Elizabeth maintains her faith throughout her pregnancy; she herself is “filled with the Spirit” (1:41) as she sings a blessing over her relative Mary (1:42–45).
Mary, demonstrates a similar faith as she submits to a similar fate, bearing a child, with the words, “here am I, the servant of the Lord” (1:38). She articulates the traditional hopes and expectations of the people in a spirit-inspired song known as the Magnificat (1:46–55; compare 1 Sam 2:1–10). Mary is “overshadowed” by the Spirit (1:35), just as Zechariah and Elizabeth had both been “filled” with the Spirit (1:41, 1:67).
After Mary’s child is born, he is taken to the Temple where Simeon sings another song (2:29–32, known as the Nunc dimittis, or the Song of Simeon). His song continues the strongly Jewish tone of the earlier songs of Zechariah, Mary, and Elizabeth. Simeon is “righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel” (2:25); the Spirit “rested on him” (2:25), then “revealed to him” the words he then speaks (2:26) before “guiding him … into the temple” (2:27).
Alongside Simeon in the Temple, Mary and her husband Joseph encounter the prophet Anna (2:38). As she is a prophet, her words (although not reported directly by Luke) are likewise spirit-inspired (as are all prophetic utterances), as she “began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem” (2:38). The hopes of the Jewish tradition are strong and clear.
The sense of deeply devoted and strongly conventional Jewish piety continues in the reports of the early years of Jesus. It is only in Luke’s Gospel that we find the information that Jesus was circumcised after eight days (2:21), that his mother was subsequently purified and brought offerings to the Temple (2:22–24), that the family made Passover pilgrimage to Jerusalem (2:41) and that Jesus showed an early interest in discussing matters of the Law (2:42-51). The child, Luke reports, grew in wisdom and divine favour (2:40, 52)—surely indications that the Spirit has been active in these scenes which provide an entry into the story that Luke tells in the following chapters.
This is the same Spirit that has been active since the moment of creation (Gen 1:2), that was breathed into human beings (Gen 2:7), and that infuses every one of the creatures brought into being in God’s wonderful creation (Ps 104:24–30). It is this Spirit that has endowed individuals with leadership (Exod 31:2–3; Num 11:25–26; Deut 34:9; and a number of judges) and which has inspired prophets to proclaim the word of the Lord (Isa 61:1; Ezek 2:2; Joel 2:28–29).
And it is this Spirit which impels the adult Jesus into action. John the baptiser declares that the one coming after him will baptise ”with the Holy Spirit and with fire” (3:16); soon after, Luke reports that “when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove” (3:21–22).
Almost immediately, “Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tested by the devil” (4:1–2). After those forty days, “Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee” (4:14), where he taught in synagogues. In the synagogue in Nazareth, Jesus read from the prophet Isaiah, claiming that the prophetic words applied directly to him: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor … today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (4:18, 21).
The opening chapters of Luke’s long narrative clearly put the Spirit on centre stage. The Spirit has not been quenched, as Josephus appears to indicate. The Spirit is still active!
2 The Spirit throughout the story of Jesus
We have noted the concentration of references to the spirit in the opening chapters of Luke’s orderly account. The guiding presence of the spirit in Luke 3:16–4:21 indicates that the public activities of the adult Jesus that follow are all to be understood as being guided, impelled, and shaped by the activity of the Spirit.
References to the Holy Spirit in the body of the Lukan story of Jesus (from 4:31 to 24:53) are, by comparison, relatively sparse. More frequent are the references to the evil spirits with whom Jesus engages, at least in the earlier stages of the story that Luke tells: the spirits in a man in the synagogue in Capernaum (4:33), in a demon-possessed man the country of the Gerasenes (8:29), in the daughter of Jairus, a leader of the synagogue (8:55), in the boy convulsing because of an unclean spirit (8:39, 42), and in the woman crippled for eighteen years (13:11).
Jesus understands that what he hears about from the seventy that he sent out to “cure the sick who are there, and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you’” (10:9) is, in fact, the cosmic conflict of which these individual exorcisms are an integral part: “I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning. See, I have given you authority to tread on snakes and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy; and nothing will hurt you” (10:18–19).
Luke reports that Jesus “rejoiced in the Holy Spirit” on hearing reports from the seventy (10:21). He understands that “if it is by the finger of God that I cast out the demons, then the kingdom of God has come to you” (11:20). The conflict with spirits and demons is integral to the Spirit-inspired mission that he had announced in his programmatic sermon in Nazareth (4:18–21). That conflict continues throughout the ensuing chapters, as the spirit-filled Jesus grapples with the unclean spirits possessing human beings.
The gift of the Spirit which Jesus knew is, he says, available to those who ask in faith: “if you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (11:13). It is not just Jesus who is endowed by the Spirit; those who follow Jesus and ask in faith will also be spirit-gifted. So Jesus assures his followers that, “when they bring you before the synagogues, the rulers, and the authorities … the Holy Spirit will teach you at that very hour what you ought to say” (12:11–12).
There is just one further reference to spirit in Luke’s Gospel, at the very end of Jesus’ life, when his final words from the cross (quoting a psalm) are, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” (23:46, quoting Ps 31:5). Jesus goes to his death with certainty, knowing his fate, assured that he will be received by God as he seemingly chooses his time of death at the climactic moment in the story.
Complementing that handing over of the spirit is the promise by the risen Jesus, speaking to his disciples just before he ascends into heaven, declaring to them that “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you” (Acts 1:8). The Spirit then returns to the forefront of the narrative concerning the early movement of followers of Jesus and the communities of messianic believers that they establish around the eastern Mediterranean world. We will trace that in a subsequent blog post.