At two particular points in the New Testament narrative the Holy Spirit breaks through the heavenly seal and escapes into the earthly realm. In the first case, the spirit descends upon Jesus at his baptism in the Jordan. In the second case, the spirit is poured out upon believers as they celebrate the feast of Pentecost 50 days after the death of their lord. According to convention these two points constitute the initial reception of the spirit by Christ and the church, respectively. At these two climactic moments God’s spirit decisively entered into the life of Christ and the church for the first time.
This well-ordered timeline, however, is subverted by the New Testament writings themselves. In truth, neither Christ’s baptism by water in the river nor the church’s baptism by fire in the upper room represent the first time or the last time the spirit moved upon Christ or the church. The early Christian writings offer a much more multifaceted answer to our original question: When did Jesus and his disciples first receive the spirit? I’d like to explore their answers here.
Jesus and the spirit
Despite the centrality of the spiritual encounter in the Jordan that inaugurated Jesus’ ministry, Jesus is also filled with the spirit both after death and before birth.
Luke, for instance, records that Jesus received the spirit upon his exaltation to heaven (Acts 2:33).
Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you both see and hear.
Paul alludes to Christ’s postmortem spiritual conferral as well. He states that Christ was appointed son of God by the spirit of holiness at his resurrection (Romans 1:4). Paul contrasts this designation as God’s son according to the spirit at the resurrection with Christ’s designation as David’s son according to the flesh at birth (1:3). In both events, birth and resurrection, Christ’s identity is damarcated, once by flesh and once by spirit.
Complicating matters further, Matthew and Luke imply that Jesus, like John the Baptist, was also conferred the spirit before his birth (cf. Luke 1:15). The Holy Spirit “came upon” Mary and “overshadowed” her (Luke 1:35) and the resulting child was therefore “from Holy Spirit” (Matthew 1:18).
Taken together then, Jesus received God’s spirit in some fashion at baptism, at exaltation, and perhaps at conception. One way to understand the multiplicity of these spirit-events is by examining the function of the spirit in each case. In my view the spirit is given to Christ (and later to believers) for the sake of two broad purposes.
- Christ’s baptismal indwelling designated Jesus as Isaiah’s spirit-anointed servant/son (Greek: παῗς) in whom YHWH was pleased (Isaiah 42:1, cf. Mark 1:11, Luke 4:18-19, Acts 10:37-38). This servant would perform prophetic signs through the spirit in order to proclaim a “day of God’s favor” and “a day of God’s vengeance” (Isaiah 42, 61).
- Christ’s postmortem indwelling equipped him not for a prophetic mission but for a royal one (cf. Acts 13:34). This spirit was one of “wisdom and might;” a spirit by which Jesus might judge the earth as the Davidic king (Isaiah 11). Within this second category we can include the spirit given at Jesus’ conception. As is made clear throughout the Lukan nativity account, this prenatal spiritual encounter foreshadowed the boy’s royal future as God’s appointed judge and monarch (Luke 1:31-33).
There are thus two primary outpourings of spirit upon Jesus in the New Testament narrative; one for prophetic work and one for royal rule. The former came at his baptism while the latter, although prefigured at conception, came at his resurrection.
We turn next to the reception of the spirit by Christ’s first followers.
Believers and the spirit
As alluded to above, the descent of the spirit during the feast of Pentecost is popularly regarded as the definitive moment when believers first received the spirit. According to Luke, Pentecost was the true starting point of the church’s prophetic mission. From then on the church would perform Christ’s prophetic work as God’s servant/son by preaching the coming kingdom and attesting to it by signs (1).
And yet despite our familiarity with this uniquely Lukan rendering, the Johannine churches appear to have identified the coming of the spirit upon believers with a different moment and to have ascribed to it a different meaning. According to John, the disciples first received the Holy Spirit not at Pentecost but during a resurrection appearance. The exalted Jesus came to his followers in the upper room and breathed the spirit into them saying “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained” (John 20:22-23). This spirit was thus not the prophetic spirit given on Pentecost (1), but the royal spirit given to the exalted Jesus (2). Led by this spirit the leaders of the Johannine churches would proleptically participate in Jesus’ eschatological kingly judgement. They would determine what and who would stand on the day of their lord’s coming.
These two more or less official reports notwithstanding, the one Lukan and the other Johannine, there are hints in our texts that the spirit also moved among the disciples during Jesus’ earthly ministry. When Jesus first commissioned the Twelve to work alongside him, for instance, he gave them authority to cast out demons, heal sicknesses, and preach the gospel of the kingdom (Mark 3:15, Luke 9:1/Matthew 10:1). Although the evangelists conspicuously avoid mentioning a bestowal of spirit upon the apostles at this point, there is little doubt that these powers and authorities were spiritual in nature. Undoubtedly Jesus was allowing his disciples to drink from the same spirit he once drank from; the same spirit by which he was casting out demons, healing diseases, and preaching powerfully. After all, if Jesus worked and preached in the spirit, why would his disciples who worked and preached alongside him have does so without that spirit?
The report in John 4:1 that there was a popular rumor that “Jesus was making and baptizing more disciples than John” gives further credence to this theory. Although the Fourth Evangelist carefully assures his readers that only Jesus’ disciples were baptizing and not Jesus himself (4:2), it is still difficult to explain why the disciples were baptizing. What kind of baptism was this? And for what purpose?
One plausible answer is that Jesus’ disciples (and perhaps Jesus himself) were baptizing initiates into the spirit. For what other reason would the imitators of a spirit-baptized spirit-teacher and spirit-worker baptize? If Jesus’ prophetic mission required an anointing in the spirit, so too would such an anointing be required for that mission as carried out by Jesus’ agents.
More likely than not then, Jesus’ immediate followers first received the spirit early on in Jesus’ ministry. Like their master, they considered themselves possessed by God’s spirit, and as such, recruited for a prophetic mission which involved preaching and signaling the coming kingdom through works of the spirit.
For reasons that are not immediately apparent, however, the evangelists were hesitant to characterize these early apostle-led evangelistic efforts to Israel as driven by the spirit (Matthew 10/Luke 9). Perhaps the general failure of these missions was something of an embarrassment in comparison to the successes found among the gentiles after Christ’s resurrection.