The Spirit in the Lukan Infancy Narrative
The Holy Spirit features more prominently in the Lukan Infancy narrative, which, in large part, reflects the greater role of the Spirit in Luke-Acts as a whole. The lines of tradition, regarding the Spirit, discussed in Part 1 are also reflected in the Lukan narrative. Special importance is placed on the identification of Jesus as the Messiah, and his role in ushering in the New Age, in which the Spirit will be manifest in a new way among God’s people. This Messianic identity is primarily expressed according to two distinct thematic structures in the Lukan Infancy narrative:
- The superiority of Jesus in comparison with John the Baptist (John being viewed as a Messianic prophet-figure)
- Jesus as the Royal Messiah from the line of David
As an organizing device within the narrative, the Jesus-John comparison is more significant. The birth narratives of John and Jesus are essentially presented side-by-side, following a similar pattern, being intercut (and interrelated). In terms of the Messianic identity of the two children, there are two main points of comparison: (1) the parallel Angelic announcements, and (2) the two inspired oracles by John’s parents (Elizabeth / Zechariah). In each of these literary structures, the Holy Spirit plays a significant role and must be examined in some detail. Let us begin with the first of these.
The Angelic Announcements
The parallelism of the John and Jesus narratives, establishing the John-Jesus comparison, begins with the annunciation scenes, which follow one after the other, from John (1:5-25) to Jesus (1:26-38). For a discussion of the literary and thematic aspects of the John annunciation scene, see the earlier article in the series “The Old Testament and the Birth of Jesus” (cf. also the entry in last year’s Saturday Series Christmas studies).
“For he will be great in the sight of [the] Lord, and wine and liquor he shall (surely) not drink,
and he will be filled (with the) holy Spirit, even (coming) out of (the) belly of his mother.” (v. 15)
This contains the first two declarations made by the heavenly Messenger (Gabriel) to Zechariah, announcing the conception (and coming birth) of John. The statements are made with verbs in the future tense: (i) “he will be…” (e&stai), (ii) “he will be filled…” (plhsqh/setai). They announce both John’s birth and his future destiny. He will be a chosen servant of God, a role that has genuine Messianic significance, within the context of the Gospel Tradition. This is the primary meaning of the statement “he will be great in the sight of the Lord”. It is also said of Jesus that he will be “great” (me/ga$, v. 32), but in a way that surpasses the greatness of John the Baptist, an absolute attribution that would normally be predicated of God (YHWH).
The second declaration involves the Holy Spirit:
“and he will be filled (with the) holy Spirit, even (coming) out of (the) belly of his mother”
Before examining the significance of John being “filled” by the Spirit, let us consider the final two declarations (in vv. 16-17):
“and he will turn many of the sons of Yisrael (back) upon the Lord their God,
and he will go before in the sight of Him, in (the) spirit and power of ‘Eliyyahu, to turn (the) hearts of fathers (back) upon (their) offspring, and (the) unpersuaded (one)s in the mind-set of (the) righteous, to make ready for (the) Lord a people having been fully prepared.”
These statements describe (and define) the Messianic role of John the Baptist—certainly as it was understood in the early Gospel Tradition. It can be summarized by the expression “in the spirit and power of Elijah”. In order to gain a proper understanding of the place of the Spirit in this passage, we must join together these two aspects of the annunciation, where the noun pneu=ma is used:
- “(filled) by the holy Spirit”
- “in the spirit…of Elijah”
The principal association is between the Spirit and prophecy. John will be among the greatest of prophets (7:26-28 par), fulfilling the role of the end-time (Messianic) Prophet, according to the figure-type of Elijah (for more on this, cf. Part 3 of the series “Yeshua the Anointed”). More than this, he may be regarded as the last of the prophets of the old covenant (16:16 par), standing on the threshold of the new covenant. This sense of continuity between the old and new covenants is especially important in terms of how this passage fits in with the Lukan view of the Spirit.
This is the first occurrence of two distinct modes, in the Lukan narratives, whereby the Spirit is present and active. The first mode involves the idea of filling—i.e., being filled by the Spirit. Here the verb plh/qw is used. The idiom occurs numerous times in the book of Acts, but in the Gospel only within the Infancy narratives (1:41, 67) and the Lukan description of the beginning of Jesus’ ministry (4:1).
The second mode involves being (and walking) in the Spirit. Here it is said that John will go about in the spirit of Elijah, which is a very specific way of referring to the spirit of prophecy—which, in turn, is brought about by the presence of God’s own Spirit. The expression “the spirit of Elijah” can be understood two ways, as it relates to the person of John the Baptist: (1) the same Spirit (of God) that inspired Elijah also is present in John; or (2) that John is essentially a new manifestation of Elijah himself, inspired by the distinctive prophetic spirit that Elijah possessed (and which he gave to Elisha, 2 Kings 2:9-12).
Either way, the “spirit of Elijah” involves the presence of the Spirit, so we may fairly claim that the wording here in v. 17 is an example of the Lukan motif of persons going about “in (or by) the Spirit” (2:27; 4:1, 14; 10:21).
If we are to isolate the main Lukan themes that are introduced here, they would be as follows:
- The association of the Spirit with prophecy—John is the last of the prophets of the Old Covenant; with Jesus and his disciples (believers), the time of the New Covenant begins, and, with it, a new understanding of the nature of prophecy.
- The Messianic role of John as “Elijah”, who will appear prior to the end-time Judgment (Mal 3:1ff; 4:5-6)—this reflects the fundamental eschatological understanding of early Christians, which Luke develops powerfully in his 2-volume work, emphasizing the eschatological dimension of the early Christian mission.
- The person of John as a transitional figure, emphasizing the continuity between the Old and New Covenant—he embodies the prophetic Spirit of the Old and, at the same time, points toward the manifestation of the Spirit in the New.
Another minor theme could also be mentioned, which is as much traditional as anything distinctly Lukan. In v. 15 the Spirit is associated with John the Baptist’s ascetic behavior (cf. Mk 1:6 par; Lk 7:33 par), but reflecting specifically the religious vow of the Nazirite (cf. Num 6:3). This detail may have been influenced by the Samuel and Samson narratives (Judg 13:4; 1 Sam 1:11, 22 [v.l.]), but there is no reason that it could not also be an authentic historical detail in the case of John. The principal idea here is twofold: (a) purity/holiness, and (b) consecration to God. Both of these motifs are central to the idea of the presence and activity of God’s Spirit (the holy Spirit, Spirit of holiness), are emphasized, to varying degrees, in the Lukan narratives. On the Nazirite motif, in association with the birth of Jesus himself, cf. my earlier note on Matthew 2:23 (in the series “The Old Testament and the Birth of Jesus”).