This post is part of a series that explores the activity of the Holy Spirit through the Bible from beginning to end. You can read the whole shebang here.
The Holy Spirit is a major player in the biblical narrative of Christ and his people. When I first decided to study the Holy Spirit from Genesis to Revelation, I assumed, as I had been told, that the Spirit was “largely absent” from the Hebrew scriptures. Quite the contrary. I found instead that the Spirit played a key role in God’s story from the very beginning. As this series has discovered, the Old Testament’s teachings on the Spirit and the Spirit’s gifts lay the foundation for what we find in the New Testament.
This post surveys the activity of God’s Holy Spirit in the “Synoptic Gospels”—Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Subsequent posts will examine what Jesus and his disciples teach about the Spirit. My aim in this series is to introduce all the key concepts and passages without getting bogged down in deep exegetical issues.
Jesus’s biographers assume the reader already has some grasp of the Hebrew Bible’s teachings on the identity and activity of the Spirit. They see no need to introduce or explain the Spirit. As we explored in previous posts, in the Hebrew Bible, the Spirit is associated with creation. The Spirit mediates God’s presence on earth. The Spirit—a word that means wind or breath—is also associated with water, and hence with cleansing. The Spirit is the instigator of prophecy and a giver of spiritual gifts, including such useful spiritual qualities as fearlessness, strength, cleverness, and creativity. The Jewish prophets foretold a time when the Spirit’s empowerment would transition from being rare to being ubiquitous: In the future kingdom of peace, the Spirit would be available to all. In fact, the Spirit would accompany the Messiah.
The first place we find the Holy Spirit in the New Testament is in an old woman’s uterus. The Spirit’s work in ushering in God’s new kingdom does not begin with a warrior or nobleman, but with Elizabeth, the childless wife of an obscure priest. This is an amusing surprise. Jesus and the Gospel writers were interested in elevating and empowering women (and the downcast in general), and this theme permeates the Gospels. Especially at the opening of the Gospel of Luke, where the first thing the Spirit does is cause two pregnancies.
Zechariah and Elizabeth were aging and barren, but in the Gospel the Lord appears to Old Zech and tells him his wife will conceive. Not only that, but the child—who will be John the prophet, a.k.a. the baptizer—will be “great before the Lord” and will be “filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb.” (Luke 1:15). The Holy Spirit also comes upon Mary (Elizabeth’s teenage relative) and causes the virgin conception of Jesus. (Matt. 1:18, 20; Luke 1:35; Gal. 4:29). When the two women get together, Elizabeth becomes filled with the Holy Spirit and blesses Mary as baby John leaps in her womb (Luke 1:41-45). John’s father Zechariah also becomes filled with the Holy Spirit and prophecies (1:67).
After Jesus is born, Luke introduces an old prophet named Simeon. The Holy Spirit is on Simeon, and the Spirit has revealed to him that he would not die before seeing the Messiah. Simeon is “moved” or “guided by the Spirit” into the temple court, where he meets the Lord’s family and sings a prophecy. He prophecies that Jesus embodies God’s salvation and delivers glory to Israel and the light of truth to the Gentiles (Luke 2:25-32).
Meanwhile, John grows up into a preacher in the wilderness who proclaims that the Messiah will baptize the people “with the Holy Spirit and with fire” (3:16).
And that brings us to Jesus. To summarize what the Gospels reveal, the Holy Spirit is an entity that is conceptually separate from Jesus, but which acts upon him and through him. The Spirit is on Jesus. It fills him and leads him. And through the Spirit Christ speaks. He has the Spirit in power and without limit (John 3:34). This spiritual indwelling and empowerment appears to begin immediately following Christ’s baptism. And finally it will be the Spirit that raises him from the dead.
Right after his baptism, the Holy Spirit of God descends upon Jesus “in bodily form like a dove,” as a voice speaks from the sky (Luke 3:22; Mark 1:10; Matt. 3:16; cf. John 1:32-33). Jesus is then said to be “full of the Holy Spirit” (Luke 4:1). After his baptism, the Spirit “leads” or “sends” Jesus into the wilderness, where he fasts and faces temptation. He then returns to Galilee “in the power of the Spirit” and begins his ministry (Luke 4:14).
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,” he announces in Nazareth (Luke 4:18; Isaiah 61:1; cf. Matt.12:18; Acts 10:37; Isaiah 42:1). The Spirit has “anointed” Jesus “to bring good news to the poor,” to proclaim liberty, recovery of sight, and freedom from oppression. “The Lord’s favor” has arrived in Israel through the Spirit-filled Jesus (Luke 4:18-19). This “power of the Spirit” compellingly manifests itself in the next passage, where Jesus exorcises an “unclean spirit” (Luke 4:31-37).
Thus, the Spirit empowers Jesus’s ministry of miracles. For example, Jesus drives out demons “by the Spirit of God,” which is a sign that “the kingdom of God has come upon you” (Matt. 12:28).
And the Spirit’s anointing enables him to teach with an astounding degree of “authority” (Luke 4:32). One shining passage reports that Jesus says a prayer of thanksgiving while “full of joy through the Holy Spirit” (Luke 10:21).
What we have just done is survey all the significant passages in Matthew, Mark, and Luke where the Spirit is mentioned explicitly and is described as doing something. Please notice that when it comes to Jesus’s amazing miracles and authoritative teachings, the Gospels specify that they come not from Jesus himself, but from the Spriit that fills and empowers him. This is important because the New Testament writers will explain that the same Spirit that inspired and empowered Jesus indwells in all believers.
The next post will examine the things Jesus is recorded saying about the Spirit in the first three Gospels.
Like this post? Share it! And read about how God’s Spirit converted me from Religion to Jesus in my book, Heaven’s Muscle.
Bren Hughes (M.A., M.Div., J.D.) is a lawyer and former minister who lives in the hills of Kentucky.