The Spirit in the Ministries of John the Baptist and Jesus

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The Gospels and Acts depict the work of God progressively and incrementally through the Spirit’s ministry to John the Baptist, to Jesus, and to the followers of Jesus, the church. John the Baptist is the promised prophetic voice who prepares the way. Jesus is the Son of God who through the Spirit embodies and enacts God’s reign and instructs Israel concerning it. . . .

The Spirit in the OT

The work of the Spirit in the Gospels and Acts did not occur in a vacuum. Although we should take care not to read the developed Christian doctrine of the Trinity back into the OT, the activity of the divine Spirit in the OT leads to the NT ministries. Only a very brief summary of the work of the Spirit in the OT is possible here.  In the OT, the Spirit is active in creating and sustaining the world (Gen. 1:2). The Spirit enables the interpretation of dreams (Gen. 41:38). The Spirit equips temple artisans for their work (Exod. 28:3; 31:3; 35:31). The Spirit enables the leaders of Israel, including Moses and the seventy elders of Israel (Num. 11:17, 25–26, 29), Caleb and Joshua (Num. 14:24; 27:18; Deut. 34:9), the judges (Judg. 3:10; 6:34; 11:29; 13:25; 14:6, 19; 15:14), the kings Saul and David (1 Sam. 10:6, 10; 11:6; 16:13–14; 2 Sam. 23:2; Ps. 51:10–12). The Spirit’s ministry upon Israel’s prophets is also clear in the OT (2 Chron. 24:20; Neh. 9:20, 30; Ezek. 2:2, 12; Mic. 3:8).

The Psalms speak of the Spirit in the context of sustaining the creation (104:30), repentance from sin (51:10–12), worship (139:7), and seeking guidance from God (143:10). Closer to the work of the Spirit in the Gospels, the prophets speak of the eschatological work of the Spirit on the stem of Jesse (Isa. 11:1–5; cf. Acts 13:22–23) and on the servant of the Lord (Isa. 42:1–4; cf. Matt. 12:18–21; cf. Isa. 61:1–3; Luke 4:18–19). There is also remembrance of the past work of the Spirit with Israel as a nation (Isa. 63:10–11, 14; Hag. 2:5; Zech. 4:6) and anticipation of a time when the Spirit is poured out again on the nation (Isa. 32:15; 34:16; 44:3; 59:21; Ezek. 11:19; 36:26–27; 37:14; 39:29; Joel 2:28–32; cf. Acts 2:16–21). These OT examples of the Spirit’s work indicate that NT references to God’s Spirit would not seem novel in the least.

Phase One: The Ministry of John

According to Luke, the Spirit was active in the life of John the Baptist before he was born (Luke 1:15, 41). The fourfold Gospel and Acts unite to stress the pivotal nature of the baptism of John, culminating in Jesus’s receiving the Spirit when John baptized him. This baptism prepared Israel for Jesus’s ministry and corresponding baptism with the Spirit, and it prepared Jesus for his own special anointing by the Spirit for ministry (Matt. 3:11/Mark 1:8/Luke 3:16/Acts 1:5; cf. John 1:31; Acts 1:8; 11:16; 19:4). When the imprisoned, discouraged John sent messengers to inquire about Jesus’s identity, Jesus emphasized the pivotal role of John the Baptist in redemptive history (Matt. 11:2–19/Luke 7:18–35). After answering John’s question with an appeal to biblical prophecy, Jesus said no prophet was greater than John. John’s prophetic ministry constituted the apex of biblical revelation leading up to Jesus and the kingdom.

 Phase Two: The Ministry of Jesus

 According to Matthew (1:18) as well as Luke (1:35), the Holy Spirit was active in Jesus’s miraculous conception. One should probably assume that the Spirit’s ongoing activity in Jesus’s human development led to Jesus’s early wisdom and realization of God’s plan (Luke 2:40, 46–49, 52). Jesus’s reception with the Spirit at his baptism equipped him for ministry to Israel. Matthew’s account indicates that John was reluctant to baptize Jesus, but he did so when Jesus insisted it was necessary “to fulfill all righteousness” (Matt. 3:15), evidently linking himself to the repentant remnant of Israel. In direct response to Jesus’s righteous obedience to the Father’s plan, the Spirit comes upon him as the visible demonstration of the Father’s approval. Only Luke describes Jesus as being full of the Spirit after his baptism by John (Luke 4:1); this description is similar to the statement in John 1:33 that John the Baptist would see the Spirit descending and remaining on Jesus. All three synoptics speak of the Spirit leading Jesus into the desert to be tempted by the devil (Matt. 4:1/Mark 1:12/Luke 4:1), but only Luke speaks of Jesus after the temptation as returning to Galilee in the power of the Spirit (Luke 4:14).

Luke is also alone in depicting Jesus as beginning his ministry at the synagogue in Nazareth by reading Isaiah 61:1–2 (“the Spirit of the Lord is upon me . . .”) and declaring himself to be its fulfillment (Luke 4:16–21; cf. Acts 10:38). Later in Luke, the Spirit brings joy to Jesus in the midst of heavy opposition (Luke 10:21). The citation of Isaiah 42:1–4 in Matthew 12:17–21—also coming as a response to opposition—has much the same effect as the citation of Isaiah 61 in Luke 4: God’s placing the Spirit upon Jesus is the impetus for his ministry to those who need justice. Jesus’s opponents slander the work of the Spirit (Matt. 12:31–32/Mark 3:29/Luke 12:10) in empowering Jesus to demonstrate the presence God’s kingdom (Matt. 12:28).


This post is adapted from Interpreting the Gospels and Acts: An Exegetical Handbook.  Learn more or request a faculty examination, media, or blog review copy.     

“Turner’s well-informed, up-to-date, and thorough introduction to the Gospels and Acts will be ideal for classes on the subject. Turner has digested a vast range of scholarship and careful study and here provides an accessible survey of the most useful material.  He also provides an abundance of new information and insights for both students and other readers of these biblical books.”

—Craig S. Keener, Asbury Theological Seminary

cover image of the book Interpreting the Gospels and Acts

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About Author

David L. Turner is professor of New Testament at Grand Rapids Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan. For more of his writing, go to drdavidlturner.com.

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