The Holy Spirit’s Ministry and Jesus’ Humanity


Jesus If you share a similar Christian tradition to me then I am sure you that have heard comments akin to these about the Holy Spirit, “He is the shy member of the Trinity. He points away from himself and to Jesus. Spirit-filled ministry is Jesus-focused ministry,” and so on. But, developing a point made by Colin Gunton, this narrow, “under-determination of the person of the Holy Spirit,” does not only fail to appreciate Scripture’s presentation of the Spirit but also makes it difficult to give proper dogmatic weighting to Jesus’ humanity. Thus Gunton called the doctrine of the Holy Spirit “the Achilles’ heel of Western theology.” In this post my aim is to convince you that greater significance must be laid on the work of the Spirit if we are to appreciate the life and work of Jesus Christ.

Last year I posted on Christ’s temptation in Matthew 4 and suggested that the Spirit sent Jesus into the wilderness and partnered him as he faced Satan (Matthew 4:1). This close tie between the Spirit and Jesus is apparent throughout Matthew’s narrative: as the earliest creeds state, Jesus was conceived by the Spirit (1:18); John the Baptist foretold that Jesus’ ministry would be inseparable from the Spirit’s (3:11); when Jesus is baptised we are told that the Spirit rests on him (3:16). So when Isaiah 42 is quoted, in Matthew 12:17-18, “Behold my servant, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my Spirit upon him,” we ought to understand the Spirit to be, borrowing a phrase from Gordon Fee, “God’s empowering presence.” Immediately following that quotation we read Jesus’ stern rebuke of the Pharisees, who were blaspheming the “Spirit of God” (12:28, 31) by attributing the Spirit’s work through Jesus to Satan (12:26-27). Jesus’ ministry, his miracles and his mission, was inseparable from the Holy Spirit’s ministry.

Dove of the Holy SpiritThere are, in my opinion, at least three reasons we often fail to clearly articulate this biblical truth. Firstly, Driscoll, in Doctrine, writes, “All of the major creeds compiled during the early church…overlook the example of Jesus’ life, in general, and his exemplary relationship with God the Holy Spirit, in particular.” Jesus’ life was not merely ‘God striding across the earth’ (Käsemann), but a window into the remarkable potential for Spirit-empowered humanity. The second reason, linked to the previous point, is most preachers’ penchant to view every miracle Jesus does as evidence of his divinity. When we do this we overlook Jesus’ dependence on the Spirit (as well as the Father) throughout his life. Thirdly, in discussions about Jesus’ temptation our default position is: because Jesus was God he could not possibly have yielded to Satan’s seductive promises. However, that position, in my opinion, makes the temptation no more than a stage drama. Instead, we should recognise that Jesus was truly tempted but also empowered to stay his course by the Holy Spirit.

Returning to our starting point, one can now hopefully see how underappreciating the Holy Spirit’s role throughout Jesus’ life can result in an overemphasis of Jesus’ divinity, at the expense of his humanity. On the other hand, when we fully appreciate God’s empowering presence then, as Gerald Hawthorne writes, in The Presence and the Power, we rightly see Jesus as the archetype of what is possible in a human life, characterised by total dependence on the Spirit of God. In an old post I compared Jesus’ temptation with our own and concluded that when the Christian is tempted they are empowered by the same Spirit who bolstered Jesus’ resolve. By way of conclusion, a proper appraisal of Jesus’ humanity does at least two things: it (1) affirms the biblical emphasis on and importance of the Spirit in all of God’s work, and (2) reassures us in our struggle with sin and temptation of the Spirit’s presence and power.

Graham Heslop
I have an insatiable appetite for books, occasionaly dip into theology and am presently serving full time at Christ Church Umhlanga in Durban. Most often found on the beach, a soccer field, or my couch
  • Brenda Daniels

    Hi Graham – really interesting, especially when you say that Jesus was truly tempted by the devil and only with the Spirit’s help overcame.

    • Thanks for your readership and the comment Brenda. That does seem to be implicit from the passage, as I argued in the linked post (on Jesus’ temptation more specifically).

  • Stephen Braimah

    Interesting.. isn’t there a danger of also over emphasizing his humanity.
    I have heard it preached in some places that since Jesus Christ was human we can do ALL he did on this earth if have the Holy Spirit. It was the Holy Spirit that enabled him to do all he did so if we have the Holy Spirit we should do the same. What will you say about that view?

    • Hey Stephen. As I wrote the post I considered that conclusion, and I’m not surprised that it’s been preached; after all, didn’t Jesus promise we’d go “greater things”?

      Two short answers: (1) to think of Jesus merely as a man who was empowered by the Spirit is a gross under realisation of his identity (Messiah, without sin, and God the Son who enjoys unmitigated fellowship with God the Father). Jesus was unique, even though he shared our humanity.

      (2) In my opinion, the question is less about Jesus’ nature and more about the purpose of the signs, both Jesus’ and those recorded in the apostolic church. There isn’t a doubt in my mind that the weakest of humans empowered by the Holy Spirit could accomplish great things. In fact, I would add that we do: overcoming sin and the devil, abandoning idols, and selflessly serving others. But when you read the New Testament I think you will struggle to (a) argue for the lasting place of signs in the local church and (b) it is to miss the point of Jesus’ work to try and imitate it

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