What do the Gospels say about the Holy Spirit?
How is the Holy Spirit revealed in the New Testament? I have the suspicion most of us tend to jump to Acts or to the epistles of Paul to examine the work and role of the Holy Spirit. But recently a new Christian in our church asked me, “So who is the Holy Spirit, and what does He do?” He said he started reading the New Testament to see what he could discover. For him, this meant starting with the first books of the New Testament: the Gospels.
Time and space do not allow for a full study of the Holy Spirit in the Gospels. But since many people view the New Testament as a single book to be read from first to last, it would be informative to briefly review how the Gospels reveal the Holy Spirit to their readers.
The Gospel According to Matthew
Matthew mentions the Holy Spirit 12 times. The first reference to the Spirit explains how Mary conceived her Son: not through Joseph, but “through the Holy Spirit” (1:18). Although Jesus is never described in the New Testament as the “Son of the Holy Spirit,” Matthew uses Jesus’ conception through the Spirit (or the “Virgin Birth”) to emphasize the inherent relationship of Jesus to God through the Holy Spirit.
In chapter 3, Matthew introduces the theme of baptism to his Gospel. John the Baptist calls people to repentance and baptizes them (3:6). He proclaims that, while he baptizes with water, the Coming One “will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire” (3:11). Then, when Jesus Himself undergoes baptism despite John’s objection, Matthew writes that the Spirit of God descends on Jesus like a dove as the voice of heaven declares that Jesus is God’s Son (3:14-17).
The work of Jesus as Messiah is initiated and empowered by the Spirit, whom Jesus will use as the agent (along with fire) to judge, cleanse, and empower His followers.
Matthew ends his Gospel with Jesus’ great commission to His followers to “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:19-20).
Thus, in Matthew’s gospel, the Spirit is used to describe the inborn relationship between Jesus, the Father, and the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is also noted in the baptism theme to emphasize Jesus’ own divine Sonship and His Messianic mission to baptize His followers with the Holy Spirit. By contrasting baptism with the Spirit and baptism with water, Matthew insinuates that Jesus will initiate a deeper level of cleansing and empowerment for His followers through the Spirit.
The Gospel According to Mark
Mark has the least to say about the Holy Spirit, mentioning Him only six times. Omitting any reference to the birth of Jesus, Mark connects the Spirit to Jesus’ baptism in chapter 1. Mark emphasizes the superiority of Jesus’ work over that of John the Baptist because Jesus will baptize with the Holy Spirit instead of only with water. Thus, Mark briefly foreshadows the greater work of Jesus in the lives of His followers through the Holy Spirit, but he offers little detail.
The Gospel According to Luke
Of the three “look alike” (Synoptic) Gospels, Luke writes the most about the Holy Spirit, mentioning Him 17 times. Prior to Jesus’ baptism in chapter 3, Luke notes the Spirit’s activity among Zechariah, Elizabeth, Mary, and Simeon in a distinctly Old Testament fashion, whereby the Spirit conveys a divine announcement along with prophetic power. With this flurry of Spirit-inspired prophetic activity, Luke signals that a new age is dawning.
Luke also records John the Baptist’s declaration that someone “more powerful than I will come” who “will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire” (3:16). At Jesus’ baptism, the Holy Spirit descends on Jesus, and the voice of heaven identifies Jesus as God’s beloved Son (3:22).
Like the other Synoptics, Luke portrays Jesus as the recipient of the Spirit, whom Jesus will use to powerfully baptize His followers. Just as the Spirit connects Jesus with the Father and empowers Him throughout His earthly ministry (see 4:14, 18; 5:17; 10:21), so also the Spirit will initiate and empower Jesus’ followers.
In Acts, Luke will recount the incredible outpouring and empowering work of the Spirit in the lives of believers. But in the gospel, Luke foreshadows the kind of Spirit-filled work Jesus’ followers will perform by emphasizing the Spirit’s enabling presence and power in the life of Jesus Himself. Luke ends his Gospel with Jesus’ promise, “I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high” (24:49).
As the Book of Acts will demonstrate, this promised “power from on high” is the same Spirit of power that Jesus Himself possessed.
The Gospel According to John
Whereas the work of the Spirit is somewhat subtle and veiled in the Synoptic Gospels, the Spirit’s work is explicit in John’s Gospel, both in the life of Jesus and as a promise to Jesus’ followers. John mentions the Spirit 13 times, but he also introduces the Spirit as the Counselor in four other verses (14:16, 26; 15:26; 16:7). In the earlier chapters of John, Jesus is portrayed as the recipient of the Spirit as in the Synoptics (1:32-34).
This underscores the relationship of Jesus to the Father as His Son, as well as the indwelling and empowering work of the Spirit in Jesus’ life. In later chapters, Jesus is portrayed as the giver of the Spirit. Jesus will give His Spirit to His followers as “another Counselor” (14:16).
Described as parakletos (in Greek, “one who is called alongside”), the Spirit is described as Jesus’ gift to His followers to empower and enable them to live in obedience after Jesus has returned to the Father (14:12, 26). The power and presence of the Spirit in Jesus’ followers is emphasized by the depiction of the Spirit as intimately connected to Jesus as the Spirit of Truth (16:15). The Spirit will convict the world of guilt in regard to sin, righteousness, and judgment (16:8).
By insinuation, the followers of Jesus (who are identified with Him instead of with the world) will not be guilty of sin, unrighteousness, or judgment. Instead, the Spirit of Truth will give them victory, peace, and joy (14:27; 16:22).
The revelation of the Holy Spirit in the Gospels is uniformly described as Christ-centered. The Spirit’s work and role are intimately connected to Jesus Himself. Just as the Spirit empowered and enabled Christ to fulfill His mission, so also Christ baptizes His followers with the presence and power of the Spirit to transform and empower them for victory.
The Gospels promise this life-transforming presence and power in the lives of Jesus’ faithful followers.
As such, the result of the Spirit’s presence and work in the lives of believers enables them to live like Jesus, which is the very definition of Christlikeness.
Daniel G. Powers is a professor of New Testament and Bible and Theology program director at Nazarene Bible College in Colorado Springs, Colorado, USA.
Holiness Today, May/Jun 2019