Why did Jesus need to be filled with the Spirit?
Luke 4 records the temptation of Christ and the beginning of his ministry here on earth. In verses 1-2 we are told, “Then Jesus left the Jordan, full of the Holy Spirit, and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness for forty days to be tempted by the devil.” Then, when the forty days were over, verse 14 tells us how Jesus began his ministry. “Then Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit, and news about him spread throughout the entire vicinity.” Jesus was led by the Spirit and empowered by the Spirit from the beginning of his earthly ministry to the end.
That seems odd, doesn’t it? I understand why I need the Holy Spirit. I have a sin nature that pulls me down and I am not able in my own strength to fight it. I am called to perform tasks that are far beyond my fleshly abilities. I do not understand the things of God without the illumination and guidance of the Spirit. I need the fullness of the Holy Spirit to understand the things of God, to control my sinfulness and to empower me to do what God has assigned to me. I am helpless with him.
But Jesus? He was sinless and perfect – the Divine Son. He had no sin nature to fight against and being in his very nature God it would seem he might already possess the power to do what he was supposed to do. And of course, since he was part of the Godhead from eternity past he was privy to the decrees and purposes of God. Why did he need to walk daily in the fullness of the Spirit as he carried out his ministry?
Perhaps when he emptied himself of heavenly glory when he took on the nature of a servant (Philippians 2:6-8) a need was created? Speculation about the inner workings of the Godhead tends to be, well, speculative! It is possible that the veiling of his Divine nature necessitated the empowerment of the Spirit. I will leave that to the theologically astute to hash out.
But there is a bigger point that should be made here. Jesus was not only our Savior and Lord, but he was also our example. Our model. As the Sovereign Lord of Glory clothed in humanity faced Satan’s temptations and as he walked the earth carrying out the father’s will, he did so in the fullness of the Spirit and power. If Jesus relied on the Spirit to accomplish his ministry how would I consider attempting anything by fleshly means? It is also a great comfort to me to know that the One who empowered the Savior dwells in me and will guide, strengthen, and empower me as I serve God.
If Jesus needed the Spirit, I need the Spirit. And if the Spirit that empowered Jesus lives in me, I can do all things through Christ!
The Promised Spirit
The best word to describe the role of the Spirit in the Gospels is “promise.” While Jesus walked in the power of the Spirit he repeatedly promised his disciples that they would receive that power themselves after he was gone. The Spirit in the Gospels is the same one in the Old Testament, but the people of God are on the cusp of a great transition, a new way that the Holy Spirit would work. As we see the Spirit working in Jesus’ life, and as we see the promises Jesus makes to the disciples about what is to come, we see that the work of the Spirit is going to remain the same in character but is about to be expanded dramatically in scope and intensity.
Jesus made a remarkable claim to the disciples in the Upper Room the night before he died. He was leaving them, he said, and he would send the Spirit. They had trouble getting past the idea that Jesus was leaving them. But he told them that it was actually going to be better for them when he left and the Spirit indwelled them. An astounding assertion – that the Spirit of God in them was better than Jesus with them. It was not something they believed at the time but was something they would experience in a couple of months.
The Gospels’ teachings about the Holy Spirit can generally be categorized two ways. First, the Spirit is active in the life and ministry of Jesus even at his birth, but especially from the moment he comes up out of the water and sees a dove to the end of his time on earth. Jesus relied on the power of the Spirit as we must. The second and more important theme is the promise of the Spirit that is given in many places, but most forcefully and completely in the Farewell Discourse of John 14-16.
The Spirit in the Life of Jesus.
After the long years of silence after the prophecies of Malachi, the Spirit became intensely active again when the Nativity approached. We are told that John was filled with the Spirit from birth (Luke 1:25), that the Spirit filled Elizabeth at the moment she saw Mary (Luke 1:41), and then that Zechariah was filled with the Spirit to prophesy (Luke 1:67) at the birth of his son. We are all familiar with Matthew’s assertion that Mary was “with child through the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 1:18) and the Angel’s confirming message to Joseph that the baby was “conceived from the Holy Spirit.” (Matthew 1:20) In Luke 1:35 Gabriel tells Mary that “the Holy Spirit will come upon you,” calling to mind the language of the Old Testament from the indwelling of the Spirit to accomplish an impossible task. Later, in Luke 2, Simeon is in the Temple courts, having received a promise of God by the Spirit that he would not die until he sees the Messiah. Directed by the Spirit he found Jesus and prophesied.
We know little of the life of Jesus until he showed up at the river to be baptized by John. Luke 3:21-22 tells us that after Jesus was baptized the Spirit of God descended from heaven in bodily form like a dove and settled on Jesus. A voice came from heaven declaring the pleasure of God on his Son, Jesus Christ.
John, in John 1:33, includes another aspect of this story in his recounting of the baptism. John the Baptist claimed that God had told him that while he baptized them with water, Jesus would baptize them with the Holy Spirit. Matthew 3:11-16 records the most extensive details on the story, and John promises that Jesus will baptize them with the “Spirit and fire.” These seem to be direct prophecies of the activities of Pentecost.
When Jesus came up out of the water and was filled with the Spirit, Luke 4:1 says that the Spirit immediately led him into the desert for the initial 40-day battle of wills with the devil. We can assume that the fullness of the Spirit that we evident when he began the temptation and that was still present at the end when he began his earthly ministry carried him through those 40 days.
After the temptation, Jesus headed up to Galilee, full of the Spirit (Luke 4:14) to begin his ministry. While the Spirit is not mentioned often, there are several times when the acts of Jesus are attributed to the power of the Holy Spirit. In Luke 10:21, Jesus’ joy came from the Holy Spirit. He speaks in John 3:34 of how the Father gives the Spirit “without measure” – something he must have been experiencing himself. He drove out spirits by the power of the Spirit (Matthew 12:28) and there are other mentions of the Spirit’s involvement in Jesus’ life in the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies (Matthew 12:18, 22:43, Mark 12:36, Luke 4:18). It is the clear assumption that the fulness of the Spirit that descended on him at his baptism never left him throughout his ministry here on earth.
A Difficult Passage – The Unpardonable Sin
That may explain one of the more discussed, debated and confusing passages in the Gospels – Jesus’ warning to the religious leaders about blasphemy against the Spirit. Matthew 12:31-32 records this warning. (Mark 3:28-39 and Luke 12:10 give essentially similar teachings.)
Therefore, I tell you, people will be forgiven every sin and blasphemy, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. Whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man, it will be forgiven him; but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit, it will not be forgiven him, either in this age or in the one to come.
This is a passage that confounds us because we preach that there is no sin and no sinner beyond the reach of God’s forgiveness. Here, it says clearly that this sin, whatever it is, cannot be forgiven either in this age or the age to come. One who criticizes Jesus can be forgiven but one who blasphemes the Spirit cannot.
Many theories have been advanced as to what this means. I once made a light-hearted joke about tongues and a charismatic friend was horrified, warning me about blaspheming the Spirit. Those who believe in apostasy (losing salvation) say this is the ultimate and final renouncing of Jesus and his salvation. Those of us who hold to the biblical teaching of perseverance seek other explanations. The most common is probably that this refers to people who utterly and finally refuse Christ and reject him eternally. This is true, of course. To die rejecting Jesus is an unforgivable sin – there are no ethereal second chances. But is that what is being taught here? It seems unlikely. Jesus said the sin could not be forgiven “in this age or the next.” That seems to indicate it is an earthly sin – one committed in life.
The unpardonable sin is likely going to be a topic we will be discussing when Jesus returns to answer all questions – or to show they don’t matter. But I have a suggestion that I heard years ago, one that I don’t hear from many folks but that makes a lot of sense to me.
- Remember the context of this sin. Jesus was speaking to a group of Pharisees who had seen him working his miracles (by the Spirit’s power) and had heard the message he had preached (by the Spirit’s power) and had attributed that to the power of Beelzebub (Matthew 12:24).
- These men had hearts so hard and minds so corrupt that they saw the Spirit working through the Son of God and attributed that to the power of the Devil. When you have walked off that precipice there is likely no coming back.
- While Jesus warns that audience of the problem, there is no other admonition anywhere in the Epistles about an unpardonable sin (unless you believe that the “sin unto death” in 1 John 5:16-17 is the same thing – I don’t). If there were a sin we could commit that could never be forgiven, it would seem that might be something God might think important enough to spell out clearly. A sin with an eternal death penalty attached ought to be made very clear.
Could it be that the unpardonable sin was applicable specifically to the men Jesus warned about it? If you saw and heard Jesus and attributed that to demonic power, you were beyond the pale. Your heart was hardened to the point the Spirit would no longer draw you and your destiny was sealed. I suppose I am advocating for Unpardonable Sin Cessationism – something only for the people of that time and place. To die without Christ leaves one without hope, but that is not the point Jesus is making here.
In part 6 (Part 2 of “The Spirit in the Gospels”), we will look at the Promise of the Spirit that Jesus gave, focusing especially on John 14-16.