June 5: Luke 1:15-17

This is the first in a series of daily notes in celebration of Pentecost. I will be examining the references to the Spirit in Luke-Acts. These passages have been studied in prior series, but here the focus will specifically be on the place of the Spirit in the message and theology of Luke-Acts. Particular attention will be paid to the thematic structure of the 2-volume work (Luke-Acts), centered as it is upon the Pentecost narrative of the coming of the Spirit (in Acts 2).

Of the Synoptic Gospels, the Spirit features most prominently in the Gospel of Luke. It is significant that most of the references occur in distinctively Lukan portions. More than half of the references, for example, occur in the Infancy narratives (chaps. 1-2), which are thoroughly Lukan compositions in language and style. Also we may note the Lukan version of the Gospel tradition surrounding the Baptism and the beginning of Jesus’ ministry (in chaps. 3-4), as well as key references in chaps. 10-12 (passages near the beginning of the travel account [journey to Jerusalem], cf. Fitzmyer, p. 227). There is a surprising lack of any mention of the Spirit in the main narrative, though this generally reflects the relatively few references in the Synoptic Tradition as a whole (just six in the Gospel of Mark, and only three [Mk 3:29; 12:36; 13:11] outside of the Baptism scene). The Lukan references in chaps. 3-4 generally correspond to the Synoptic tradition in Mk 1:8-12 par. Curiously, in the Lukan parallel to the three Markan verses cited above (Lk 11:23; 20:42; 21:14), the Spirit is not mentioned.

Our study begins with the Infancy narratives, which contain 7 (or 8) references to the Spirit (Pneu=ma). It is generally recognized that the Infancy narratives represent a later stage of the overall Gospel narrative. There is a strong likelihood that Luke’s Gospel originally began with 3:1, and that it was then expanded to include chaps. 1-2. Both the internal evidence and the evidence from the Gospel of Mark and John tend to confirm that the core Gospel narrative began with the Baptism. However, there is no indication that Luke’s Gospel ever circulated without the Infancy narratives.

In any case, the Infancy narratives are integral to both the Gospel and the work of Luke-Acts as a whole. Many of the principal themes are established in these narratives, with an eye on how they will be developed throughout the remainder of the work. This can complicate an historical-critical analysis of the material; one must always keep in mind that the author is intentionally shaping the traditional material to bring out themes that find their full development in the missionary narratives of Acts.

Luke 1:15-17

“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.

In the next note, we will turn to the announcement of Jesus‘ birth, and examine the reference to the Spirit in 1:35.

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