How Jesus became God’s holy spirit

In accordance with their Jewish scriptures, Jesus and his first followers usually identified the spirit that moved among them as the holy spirit of the Lord God, the spirit of Israel’s Father. Although Christians came to understand this spirit as mediated through Jesus in some sense (cf. Mark 1:8, Acts 2:33, John 14:26, 20:22, 1 Cor 10:4), its source was in the God and Father who “is spirit” (John 4:24).

As is often the case, however, this was not the only perspective available to the early Christians. Paul in particular presses for a closer association between Christ and God’s holy spirit, sometimes using “spirit of Christ” and “spirit of God” interchangeably (Romans 8:9-10, Galatians 4:6, cf. 1 Peter 1:11, Acts 16:7). And so, for all intents and purposes, Paul viewed God’s spirit and Christ’s spirit as one in the same.

Paul regards Jesus as now in some sense the definition of the Spirit; it is the Jesus-character of his converts’ experience of the Spirit which marks them out as authentic… For Paul, no distinction can be detected in the believer’s experience between exalted Christ and Spirit of God. (James Dunn, Christology in the Making, 145-146) 

This blurring of God’s holy spirit with Christ’s spirit likely served rhetorical purposes for Paul: now, at the close of the age, everything Israel’s God was doing would be defined by and filtered through the life and work of Jesus. In effect, God’s spirit had abandoned a Christ-denying second temple Judaism (cf. 2 Cor 3:12-18). By rejecting Christ and his spirit, unbelieving Jews had rejected God and his spirit.

The Lord is the spirit

Upon closer examination Paul and John press the point further than even Dunn suggests. These two writers attest to a kind of spirit-Christology—one in which Jesus became God’s holy spirit through the resurrection.

e7002c682ed2a160bdd1debf2f25bf0dPaul, for his part, equates the spirit with Christ himself on a number of occasions.

Do you not realize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you? (2 Cor 13:5, cf. 11:10)

I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. (Galatians 2:20)

But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the spirit is life because of righteousness. (Romans 8:10)

I ask that out of the riches of [the Father’s] glory he may strengthen you with power through his spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith (Ephesians 3:16-17, cf. Colossians 1:27)

While this could be taken as metaphorical speech (i.e. Christ’s person and presence is conveyed to the believer through the spirit), Paul explicitly identifies Christ as God’s holy spirit elsewhere.

  • In 1 Corinthians 15:45, the Apostle explains that the eschatological last man “became a life-giving spirit” (Ἐγένετο… εἰς πνεῦμα ζῳοποιοῦν) after death (cf. Hebrews 5:9). The designation “life-giving” all but demands an identification with God’s “life-giving” holy spirit (cf. 2 Cor 3:6, John 6:63). The transformed Christ was not merely a man “from heaven” having a spirit-body (σῶμα πνευματικόν) then, but was himself God’s spirit (1 Cor 15:44-47). 
  • Paul twice identifies the Lord Jesus as “the spirit” in 2 Corinthians 3:14-18.

When [Jews] hear the reading of the old covenant, [Moses’] veil is still there, since only in Christ is it set aside. Indeed, to this very day whenever Moses is read, a veil lies over their minds; but when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed. Now the Lord is the spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the spirit.

The parallelism between “only in Christ is [the veil] set aside” and “when one turns to the Lord the veil is removed” has led most commentators to conclude that Jesus is the “Lord” Paul has in mind. Paul and the early Christians almost as a rule referred to Christ and not God as “Lord” (κύριος). And besides this, Paul attributes a believer’s freedom specifically to Christ (Galatians 2:4, 5:1, Romans 8:15, cf. John 8:36).

 

As was indicated by 1 Corinthians 15:45 then, Paul’s Jesus was “the spirit” (τὸ πνεῦμα), that is, God’s spirit—at least since his resurrection. 

I will come to you

John’s Gospel also alludes to this radical spirit-Christology. According to John 7:39 the spirit’s very existence was dependent upon Christ’s metamorphosis in death.

[Jesus] said this about the spirit, which those who believed in him were about to receive, for the spirit was not yet (οὔπω γὰρ ἦν πνεῦμα), because Jesus was not yet glorified.

Although not unaware of the existence of God’s holy spirit prior to the resurrection of Jesus (cf. John 1:32), the Fourth Evangelist implies that the spirit Christians were to receive had not yet been generated before the death of Christ (cf. John 12:24, 1 Cor 15:36). Only then, when Christ had become God’s holy spirit, would there be spirit to give.

Such a reading is corroborated by John 14:18 and 16:16 where Jesus claims that he will come back to believers as the Advocate, God’s holy spirit.

I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate… I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me… the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. (14:16-26)

John’s Jesus, like Paul’s, I would argue, had become something fundamentally different from a human being after death. While he could still appear in human form (cf. 1 Cor 15:5-8, John 20:22), Jesus was now essentially a spirit, God’s holy spirit.

Redefining God

To conclude, none of this is not to say Paul or John applied this spirit-Christology consistently. Both could probably imagine the exalted Jesus as distinct from God’s spirit (cf. Cor 13:14).

Yet Paul and John have preserved here the memories of an early Christian experience, one now buried under layers of later theological sediment: Jesus had come back to his disciples as a spirit, a spirit that distributed gifts which only God could supply. In this ecstasy, weighed down by the personal presence of Jesus, Christians began to ponder not only the nature of Christ’s exalted existence, but also his identity in relation to God. For, so it seemed, Christ was now the holy spirit, God’s very spirit. In this the seeds of a divine Christology were sown.

15 thoughts on “How Jesus became God’s holy spirit

  1. I wonder, though. In the parallelism with Adam, Paul says that Adam became a living soul (psychen zosan). I’m not sure he would have thought of Adam as a soul who could take on human form. He would certainly have thought of the soul as part of Adam and perhaps even definitive of Adam’s identity.

    If Jesus is a spirit in the same way that Adam is a soul, I’m not sure how far to push that into Jesus being identical with the Holy Spirit or being a spiritual being who can appear as a human.

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    1. I believe ψυχή here refers to the living, breathing human being, not to that human being’s immaterial essence/person. From what I gather “soul” is a very misleading translation since we imagine the ghost inside the shell.

      The dust became a ψυχή when life
      was breathed into it and Jesus became something beyond a ψυχή when he was raised from the dead. He became a “spiritual body.”

      Strong’s lists this as one of the definitions:

      c. that in which there is life; a living being: ψυχή ζῶσα, a living soul, 1 Corinthians 15:45; (Revelation 16:3 R Tr marginal reading) (Genesis 2:7; plural ); πᾶσα ψυχή ζωῆς, Revelation 16:3 (G L T Tr text WH) (Leviticus 11:10); πᾶσα ψυχή, every soul, i. e. everyone, Acts 2:43; Acts 3:23; Romans 13:1 (so כָּל־נֶפֶשׁ, Leviticus 7:17 (27); ); with ἀνθρώπου added, every soul of man (אָדָם נֶפֶשׁ, Numbers 31:40, 46 (cf. 1 Macc. 2:38)), Romans 2:9. ψυχαί, souls (like the Latincapita) i. e. persons (in enumerations; cf. German Seelenzahl): Acts 2:41; Acts 7:14; Acts 27:37; 1 Peter 3:20 (Genesis 46:15, 18, 22, 26, 27; Exodus 1:5; Exodus 12:4; Leviticus 2:1; Numbers 19:11, 13, 18; (Deuteronomy 10:22); the examples from Greek authors (cf. Passow, under the word, 2, vol. ii, p. 2590b) are of a different sort (yet cf. Liddell and Scott, under the word, II. 2)); ψυχαί ἀνθρώπων of slaves (A. V. souls of men (R. V. with marginal reading ‘Or lives’)), Revelation 18:13 (so (Numbers 31:35); Ezekiel 27:13; see σῶμα, 1 c. (cf. Winer’s Grammar, § 22, 7 N. 3)).

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      1. Oh, absolutely. The Hebrew concept of psyche and body is much more enmeshed than, say, a Platonic concept that we tend to have today.

        But that’s my point. In Paul’s analogy, Adam does not become an ontologically different being. He didn’t become something intrinsically other than what he was, originally. He took on new characteristics, certainly, and these characteristics are significant enough to justify the language. A corpse and a living person are certainly very different, but they are also very much the same in many ways.

        When this is used as a parallel to what Jesus became, I guess I’m more tempted to see a fundamental ontological continuity. Jesus is a human being who takes on important new characteristics as opposed to, he used to be a human being but now he’s a spirit who can look like a human being. Could be wrong of course; here and elsewhere the language is very strong about Jesus’ spiritual nature.

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        1. I see. Adam was still made of dust after he became a living being. His dustiness was not physically altered and therefore we can infer that Jesus was made of the same human stuff after his metamorphosis.

          That sounds right but I’m torn.

          The dust, or Adam, became a recipient of God’s life while Jesus became a source of that life. In that sense Jesus can be equated with God’s spirit/breath.

          So perhaps the point has more to do with Jesus’ role as life-giving source than it does with what Jesus is now made of. Paul only wants to say that Jesus is now the mediator of God’s spirit. That’s a bit hard for me since Paul’s concern in this passage is to explain the (material?) difference between our bodies and resurrected bodies.

          Maybe the idea that God is both a person (Genesis 3:8?), the Father, and a spirit (John 4:24), can be of use here. The idea that God is both distinct from his spirit and is in fact his spirit.

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  2. I don’t think either Paul or the author of the 4th Gospel would have seen the risen Christ in any literal sense as God’s Spirit. Paul blurred the lines at times by using this analogy to express how God now acts through Christ; in the 4th gospel; however, I don’t really see this. There I think the writer maintains separation between the two (although I used to argue otherwise), and I suspect that passages which seem to suggest otherwise were not intended to be taken that way.

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    1. Thanks Peter. Maybe so.

      John is an interesting case as he uses the traditional eschatological language of Christ’s parousia to describe the coming of the Holy Spirit prior to the end of the age. So I would say Christ is “the one coming into the world” (John 11:27) not in the sense that he is about to return as the son of man, but because he is the spirit who has come and is coming to those who believe. Eschatology is swallowed up by pneumatology.

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      1. I tend to think John 11:27 and 14:3 refer to the return of Christ when all the dead will be resurrected. The unrighteous will be judged and destroyed, and the righteous will be taken by Jesus to heaven. (I don’t think the author of the 4th Gospel believes in an earthly messianic kingdom.)

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        1. If those texts are talking about Christ’s return as son of man, they would harmonize well with the intense hope for the Parousia found in the Johannine epistles. That’s always been a riddle to me—why the gospel apparently has a realized eschatology but the epistles are eagerly awaiting Christ’s return.

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