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.
Paul, 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.
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.