A key reference to the Spirit in Luke-Acts is the quotation of Isa 61:1-2 by Jesus in the Nazareth episode (Lk 4:16-30, vv. 17-19). This episode is part of the Synoptic tradition (Mk 6:1-6a par), but the Lukan version is quite distinctive, drawing upon an entirely separate line of tradition. I have discussed the various critical issues related to this passage in earlier notes and articles (cf. especially the study in the series “Jesus and the Gospel Tradition”).
Luke has located the Nazareth episode at the very start of Jesus’ public ministry, but there are details in the text that suggest that the location of the episode in Mark and Matthew reflects the more accurate historical chronology. For a discussion regarding the reasons why the Gospel writer would have included the episode at the beginning of the Galilean ministry, cf. the notes and articles mentioned above.
Here in this study our focus is on the way that the Lukan Spirit-theme is developed in the narrative. In this regard, it is necessary to consider carefully the context of chapters 3-4. The thematic development follows the progress of the narrative; we may summarize this as follows:
- The Spirit comes upon Jesus at the Baptism (3:22)
- Jesus is filled and guided by the Spirit as he is led into the desert (4:1)
- The presence of the Spirit enables Jesus to overcome the Devil and come through the period of testing (implicit in the narrative)
- Jesus returns “in the power of the Spirit” (4:14) to begin his ministry.
In the Synoptic Tradition, Jesus’ public ministry opens with the narration in Mk 1:14-15 (par Matt 4:17), which describes the preaching of Jesus, encapsulated by the declaration regarding the Kingdom (v. 15). This Kingdom-preaching is referred to as “the good message [eu)agge/lion, i.e. the Gospel] of God” (v. 14). Luke delays inclusion of this tradition (along with the call of the first disciples) until a slightly later point in the narrative (4:43ff). For the Lukan Gospel, the quotation of Isa 61:1-2 effectively takes the place of the Kingdom declaration (Mk 1:15), marking the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. The author only alludes, in passing, to the Kingdom declaration in 4:43.
Interestingly, the author of Luke-Acts is very cautious in his use of the term eu)agge/lion (“good message, good news”); it occurs only twice (Acts 15:7; 20:24), and not at all in the Gospel. By contrast, he much prefers the related verb eu)aggeli/zw (“give the good message, bring good news”), emphasizing the act of proclaiming the Gospel. It occurs twice in the Infancy narratives, in relation to the Angelic announcement of the ‘good news’ (1:19; 2:10), and also is used to characterize the preaching of John the Baptist (3:18). It is used again here, embedded in the (LXX) quotation of Isa 61:1 (4:18), to characterize the ministry of Jesus.
In terms of the development of the Spirit-theme, this citation of Isa 61:1-2 relates to three key aspects:
- The Messianic Identity of Jesus
- The New Age of Prophecy
- A Prefiguring of the Gospel
1. The Messianic Identity of Jesus. During the time of his public ministry, the Messianic identity of Jesus was defined (and expressed) in terms of the Messianic Prophet figure-types. This is rooted in the early Gospel Tradition, and dominates the Galilean period of Jesus’ ministry in the Synoptic narrative. It differs markedly from the Lukan Infancy narratives, where the figure-type of the royal/Davidic Messiah is in view.
Here in the Nazareth episode, Jesus specifically identifies himself with the anointed herald of Isa 61:1-2ff (v. 21); cf. also 7:22 par. The inspired character of this herald certainly involves the prophetic spirit—that is, the Spirit of God which comes upon the chosen individual and enables him/her to function as a ayb!n` (spokesperson for YHWH), communicating His word. In the context of the Trito-Isaian poems, the key reference in this regard is the statement (and promise) in 59:21. It also draws upon the ‘Servant Songs’ of chapters 40-55; the Deutero-Isaian “Servant” is both an individual and collective figure—representing both a prophetic leader and the people of God as a whole, during the New Age of Israel’s restoration.
This ‘Servant’ follows the pattern of Moses as a prophetic figure-type. The Messianic and eschatological dimension of this figure is rooted in the promise of a “Prophet like Moses” who is to come (Deut 18:15-19). Jesus is identified with this Moses-figure in a number of ways in early Christian tradition (including a direct identification in Acts 3:22; 7:37). However, here in the Lukan narrative, as well as in the Qumran text 4Q521, the herald of Isa 61:1ff is associated with the prophetic figure of Elijah. Jesus clearly connects the text with his own identity as a prophet (the saying in v. 24), and the Scriptural illustrations he gives in vv. 25-27 all come from the Elijah/Elisha narratives. The wording of the LXX in Isa 61:2, referencing the blind recovering their sight, gives to the passage a healing-miracle aspect that is lacking in the original Hebrew, but which is quite appropriate for the ministry of Jesus, where such miracles feature prominently. Elijah (along with his disciple Elisha) was the pre-eminent miracle-working Prophet in Old Testament tradition. Cf. again the association of this aspect with the herald of Isa 61:1ff in Lk 7:18-23 par, and also the Qumran text 4Q521.
For more on Jesus as a Messianic Prophet, cf. Parts 2 & 3 of the series “Yeshua the Anointed”.
2. The New Age of Prophecy. Isa 61:1-2ff is one of a number of passages in Isa 40-66 (the so-called Deutero- and Trito-Isaiah) which express the presence and work of the Spirit in the ‘New Age’ of Israel’s restoration. For more on the original context of 61:1-2ff, cf. the earlier article in the series “The Old Testament in the Gospel Tradition”. The Deutero-Isaian ‘Servant’ is both an individual and collective figure, as noted above. The references to the Spirit, in this regard, indicate that, in the New Age, the Spirit of God will come in new way upon both the prophetic leaders and the people as a whole (cf. 42:1; 44:3; 48:16).
This prophetic ideal reflects the New Age (and the New Covenant) for God’s people (cp. Ezek 11:19; 36:26-27; 37:14; 39:29; Joel 2:28-29), but one which clearly was not realized for Israel in the post-exilic period. Here in the Lukan Gospel, Jesus declares that now is the time when the prophecy will be fulfilled, and that he is the Anointed One who will bring the ‘good news’ : that the time has come for the prophetic ideal to be realized. The New Age of justice and righteousness, of blessing and deliverance for God’s people—i.e., the Kingdom of God—is now at hand.
3. Prefiguring the Gospel. In the Lukan Infancy narratives, the last prophets of the Old Covenant (Zechariah, Elizabeth, [Mary], Simeon, and John the Baptist), under the direct influence of the Spirit, all prophesy. The inspired message they communicate involves the Messianic identity of Jesus (cf. above), and the end-time work God is doing (and is about to do) through him. In this regard, their prophetic oracles prefigure the Gospel (on the use of the verb eu)aggeli/zw in the Infancy narratives, cf. above). Also noteworthy, from the Lukan standpoint, is how the aforementioned prophetic figures also function as transitional figures, representing a point of contact (and continuity) with the New Covenant. They stand at the threshold of the New Age—the new revelation by God in the person of Jesus.
Jesus himself uses the verb eu)aggeli/zw in 4:18, at least as the quotation of Isa 61:1 is preserved in the Greek (LXX) translation; in the original Hebrew, the verb is rc^B* (in the Piel stem), which has a comparable meaning (“give the [good] news”). At the beginning of his ministry, Jesus thus proclaims the Gospel (cf. Mk 1:14-15 par); he does this under the unique inspiration of the Spirit. This relates to his Messianic identity (cf. above). The anointing of the herald with the Spirit was clearly understood as having been fulfilled at the Baptism; the descent of the Spirit upon Jesus follows the image of oil (of anointing) being poured out (like the water of the Baptism) upon him.
It should be remembered that the Deutero-Isaian ‘Servant’ is both an individual and a collective figure. He represents both the inspired prophetic leader, as well as the people as a whole. Here, the Spirit has come upon Jesus (the Messianic leader) and he prophesies, proclaiming the Gospel; in the book of Acts (2:1-4ff), it is all the people (believers) who do so.