The Holy Spirit in the Gospels

The Holy Spirit in the Gospels

Available at Amazon USA / UK
Available at Amazon USA / UK

Understanding the work of the Holy Spirit, as well as the biblical usage of the word “spirit,” is an important aspect of both Old and New Testament theology and teaching. Desiring to gain a better knowledge and understanding of the S/spirit, I have been working my way through 3 books on this subject. To this point my posts about the S/spirit have focused on chapters found in A Biblical Theology of the Holy Spirit. Having reviewed the chapters on the S/spirit in the Old Testament (click here to read any or all of these posts), I now turn to the New Testament. In this installment I will summarize and evaluate two chapters on the Holy Spirit in the Gospels. The first chapter by Keith Warrington looks at the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), while the second chapter concerns the Holy Spirit in the Gospel of John. A strong case could be made for treating the Holy Spirit in Luke/Acts in one chapter, but Warrington argues that, “the authors, to one degree or another, rely on one another for the presentation of similar information” (p. 84). However, Warrington notes special features about Luke’s Gospel, which in my opinion, would have justified it being treated with Acts rather than the other Synoptics. For example, he states that while all of the references to the Spirit in Matthew and Mark are found in Luke, Luke has ten other references (p. 96). Furthermore, Warrington notes that, “…Luke, almost uniquely in the Bible, offers the description of being filled with the Holy Spirit…” (p. 93). These observations demonstrate that Luke’s focus on the role of the Holy Spirit is more significant to his work, than it is to the Gospels of Matthew and Mark.

The Holy Spirit in the Synoptic Gospels

This chart illustrates the relationship between the Synoptic Gospels. Chart is courtesy of wikimedia. org:
This chart illustrates the relationship between the Synoptic Gospels. Chart is courtesy of wikimedia. org:

Warrington proceeds to examine the role of the Spirit in the Synoptics in a topical way. The first section asserts, “The Spirit is divine.” Warrington addresses the uncertainty in some evangelical circles about the divinity of the Spirit and cautions that, “…there is a danger that he [the Spirit] may be viewed merely as an empowering force… (p. 85). Warrington notes important passages in Matthew (e.g., Matt. 28:19; 10:20; 12:18) which point to the divinity of the Spirit. His interpretation of the blasphemy of the Holy Spirit (in Matthew and Mark) being, “…the danger of an unbeliever rejecting the work of God, as initiated by the Spirit, and ascribing it to an evil source,” is a standard understanding of these passages. One of the core understandings of the Spirit in the Synoptics, according to Warrington, is that “The Spirit affirms and empowers Jesus” (pp. 88-93). For Warrington, this is the significance behind the baptism of Jesus. The dove has echoes of creation (Gen. 1:2) and Noah (return of the dove indicates a new world in Genesis 8). One interesting observation regarding empowerment is that, “…the Synoptics do not often explicitly relate the Spirit to miracles” (p. 90). Instead, the empowerment is along Old Testament lines of marking leaders and authenticating divinely appointed roles (pp. 90-91). Warrington notes that all of the Synoptics affirm that the Spirit was promised to believers (pp. 93-96). This comes through most clearly in John the Baptist’s statement that there was one coming who would baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire (Matt. 3:11; Mark 1:8; Luke 3:16). Warrington notes that some believe this statement refers to a group of people who will be baptized with the Spirit, while another group will receive judgement. However, he argues that the Old Testament concept of judgement relates to refining (Zech. 13:9; Mal. 3:2-3) and the cleansing of sin (Isa. 4:4). Therefore, he contends that, “The Spirit brings the eschatological judgement forward, where repentance occurs…” (p. 95). After noting the connection of the Spirit with prayer, Warrington concludes by looking at the Spirit as creative and notes qualities such as life, joy, speech, preaching, prophecy, suffering, leading people to Jesus, and exorcism (pp. 97-102). In terms of the Spirit’s connection with empowering, Warrington argues that this empowering most often is related to speech including preaching and prophecy (p. 103).

The Holy Spirit in the Gospel of John

The gospel of JohnAnyone reading the Synoptic Gospels and then the Gospel of John recognizes the differences in presentation. According to  author, Gary M. Burge, John’s development of the Spirit is clearly one of the differences between his Gospel and the Synoptics. However, he believes that John’s most significant contribution relates to how “John integrates the Spirit into his ecclesiology and eschatology” (p. 104). Thus, Burge breaks his treatment of the Spirit in John into these three main categories. First, he looks at “Jesus and the Spirit,” moving chronologically through the Gospel of John. He argues that John the Baptist’s statement about the Spirit remaining on Jesus (John 1:32-33) demonstrates a permanent anointing and “stands apart from every other anointing,” since Old Testament leaders only had the Spirit for the duration of their work in office (p. 105). Burge examines two controversial passages (John 3:34; 7:37-38) which have been interpreted as referring to believers. However, he concludes that they both refer to Jesus’ relationship with the Spirit. In John 3:34, Burge believes the correct understanding is that God has not given the Spirit to Jesus by measure, and in John 7:37-38, the streams of living water do not flow from the believer, but from Jesus (pp. 106-107). Following this understanding of John 7:37-38, Burge suggests that the water that flows from Jesus’ side at his death (John 19:34) fulfills this passage. He also examines the difficult passage regarding Jesus breathing on the disciples in order to receive the Spirit. He does not think this is a pre-Pentecost anointing, or a partial giving of the Spirit as some have argued. Rather, he believes that this verse echoes the LXX (Septuagint) of Genesis 2:7 and speaks of Jesus as the author of a new creation. As God breathed into humankind in Genesis 2, so Jesus breathes the Spirit on his disciples which results in, “…the reconstituting of humanity; the unfolding of the new age, wherein new life is being given to the world” (p. 110).

Next Burge focuses on “Eschatology and the Spirit” (pp. 111-112), which is particularly evident in Jesus’ farewell discourse in John 14-16. “The promise of the Spirit is…a central theme in Jesus’ departing comfort for his followers” (p. 111). Jesus uses a new word, not found in the Synoptics–Paraclete. This Spirit-Paraclete is never an impersonal power, but is modelled after Jesus himself, though separate from him (note in John 16:7 Jesus sends the Paraclete). The Spirit is also characterized as “the Spirit of Truth” (e.g., John 15:26). For the Paraclete / Spirit of Truth to come, Jesus must first be glorified (i.e., must die). According to Burge, the Spirit and the cross are linked throughout the Gospel. The close identification between Jesus himself and the Spirit is why he can say to his disciples, that the Spirit of Truth now dwells with them, but in the near future he will be in them (John 14:17).

Burge’s examination of “Christian Life and the Spirit” (or ecclesiology as he refers to it earlier) contains, for me, one of the most important insights regarding the Spirit. We are accustomed to seeing parakletos translated as “Comforter,” “Helper,” or “Counsellor.” However, Burge contends, “This is not a word that refers to comfort (despite its use in the KJV), nor does it describe therapeutic ‘counsellor’. Rather, it is a word that originates in the judicial, forensic world of Hellenistic Judaism and refers to a legal defender or judicial advocate (hence a judicial ‘counsellor’). Here, we have a direct link to an important Synoptic theme–the power of the Spirit would appear most clearly in duress.” Burge ends his thought-provoking treatment of the Spirit in John with the statement, “John’s teaching about the Spirit is one of the great untapped themes of the NT.” If Burge’s treatment is any indication of the richness to be found, I would have to heartily agree.

Summary and Evaluation of the Holy Spirit in the Gospels

One of the important lessons to be learned from an investigation of the Holy Spirit in the Gospels includes a recognition that the Spirit is more frequently connected with empowering for speech, than with miracles. This is not to say that the miraculous element is absent, but only to affirm that some branches of the modern church tend to major on the miraculous aspects of the Spirit, while the Gospels give prominence to the empowering aspect of speech. Both Warrington and Burge link passages in the Gospels with Genesis 1-2 (and 8) which suggest the creative and restorative power of the Spirit. Both authors present arguments for understanding certain passages about the Spirit in a way that differs from popular perception. Warrington’s treatment of baptizing with “fire” and Burge’s interpretations of John 3:34; 7:37-38, have historical precedent, but are a bit “out of the box.” All three interpretations deserve further study and reflection. Both authors are also in agreement that the Holy Spirit was not the permanent possession of Old Testament saints (pp. 97, 105), although some scholars might disagree with this view. Another commonality is that both authors demonstrate that the Gospels continue to link the Holy Spirit with eschatology, something which is also familiar from such Old Testament passages as Isaiah 32:15-18; 44:3-5 (click here to read the article on The Holy Spirit in Isaiah); and Ezek. 36:27;  and 37:14  (click here to read about the Holy Spirit in Ezekiel), to name only a few. Of the two chapters which treat the Holy Spirit in the Gospels, I found Burge’s layout to be the easiest to follow. I also found his definition of Paraclete and his treatment of Jesus breathing on his disciples to receive the Spirit among the most enlightening aspects of these two chapters.

A Biblical Theology of the Holy Spirit is available at SPCK Publishers and also at Amazon USA / UK

2 thoughts on “The Holy Spirit in the Gospels”

  1. Thanks, Randy for this review. Helpful to see how Holy Spirit actively involved in Jesus ministry as I am thinking through Mathew’s missional insights

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