The next reference to the Spirit in Luke-Acts is in the Angelic announcement to Mary of Jesus’ conception and birth (vv. 26-38). This episode follows, and is parallel to, the announcement to Zechariah regarding John the Baptist (cf. the previous note on vv. 15-17).
In this case, however, the reference to the Spirit is clearly part of an historical tradition inherited by the Gospel writer. We know this because of the similar reference in Matt 1:18, 20 (also involving an Angelic announcement). The supernatural (virginal) conception of Jesus is explained by the presence and work of the Holy Spirit. Luke follows this same basic line of tradition, as the reference to the Spirit (v. 35) comes in Gabriel’s answer to Mary’s question in verse 34—viz., how a pregnancy is possible, since she is a virgin (“I do not know a man”). The answer is that the miraculous character of this pregnancy is due to the Holy Spirit.
Even though the association of the Spirit with Jesus’ conception (and birth) is part of an inherited tradition, the statement in v. 35, within the Lukan context, also reflects the author’s thematic development regarding the Spirit. Before exploring this development further, let us briefly examine v. 35:
“And, giving forth (an answer), the Messenger said to her:
‘(The) holy Spirit will come upon you,
and (the) Power of (the) Highest will cast shade upon you;
therefore, even the (one) coming to be (born) will be called Holy, (the) Son of God.'”
There is a poetic (or at least prosodic) quality to the Angel’s response, the first two lines (above) reflecting the synonymous parallelism typical of Hebrew poetry:
- The Holy Spirit | will come upon you
- The Power of the Highest | will cast shade upon you
The “holy Spirit” (pneu=ma a%gion) is thus synonymous with “power of the Highest” (du/nami$ u(yi/stou). That is to say, the reference is to the Spirit of God (YHWH), His active, creative power—the same life-giving power that was present and at work in the Creation (Gen 1:2). The verb e)piskia/zw (“cast shade upon, overshadow”) is rare, in both the New Testament and the LXX, but there is a notable occurrence at Exod 40:35, where it refers to the presence of YHWH, in the form of the theophanous cloud, filling the Israelite tent-shrine (tabernacle); cf. also Psalm 90:4; 139:8. The main NT occurrence is similar: the cloud-presence of God manifest in the Transfiguration scene (Lk 9:34 par); Luke also uses it in Acts 5:15.
In fact, the wording here in v. 35, while traditional, also reflects Lukan style and vocabulary. The verb e)pe/rxomai (“come upon”), in particular, is distinctly Lukan; 7 of the 9 NT occurrences are found in Luke-Acts. Most notably, it is used in the context of the coming of the Spirit on believers in Acts 1:8. There the Spirit is also referred to as the “power” (du/nami$) of God, coming down from heaven (cp. Lk 24:49, “…power out of [the] height[s]”, du/nami$ e)c u(pi/stou).
With this in mind, let us explore further the Lukan development of the Spirit-theme, as it occurs here in Lk 1:35. I would make four points, each of which will be expounded briefly below.
1. The relationship between John the Baptist and Jesus. The two annunciation scenes are reflective of a broader parallel treatment of the births of John and Jesus, respectively, in the Lukan Infancy narrative. The two narrative strands run parallel, alternating back and forth, intersecting only in the Visitation episode (1:39-45ff). While there are clear similarities in thematic detail and form, between the John and Jesus strands, there can be no doubt regarding the superiority of Jesus. If John is destined to be a great prophet and Messianic figure (cf. verses 15-17 and the previous note), Jesus will be that much greater. John will be “great” before God, and will also be pure and holy as His chosen one (i.e., consecrated Nazirite status), but Jesus will be so in a more transcendent and absolute sense. The substantive adjectives me/ga$ (“great”, v. 32) and a%gio$ (“holy”, v. 35) are comparable to the Divine attributes predicated of YHWH (i.e., the Great and Holy One).
John is to be a Prophet, the last great Prophet of the Old Covenant; he will also fulfill a Messianic role as the “Elijah” of the end-time. Jesus, too, will be a uniquely inspired and Spirit-empowered Prophet—an identification that particularly applies to the period of his Galilean ministry, where he is also associated with the (Messianic) figure of Elijah (cf. the discussion in Part 3 of the series “Yeshua the Anointed”). However, here, in the Annunciation scene—and throughout the Infancy narratives—Jesus is identified specifically with the royal/Davidic figure-type. The title “Son of God” here must be understood, primarily, in this Messianic sense (cf. Parts 6, 7, 8 of “Yeshua the Anointed”).
2. Prophetic Inspiration. The motif of the Spirit coming upon (e)pi/) a person goes back to ancient Near Eastern (and Israelite) tradition regarding the nature of prophecy. The Spirit comes upon the chosen individual, enabling him (or her) to function as a prophet (Heb. ayb!n`)—an inspired spokesperson for YHWH, who communicates His word and will to the people. If John is filled with this prophetic Spirit of God, even while he is still in the womb, it can be implied that the same is true of Jesus, even to a greater degree. This aspect is expressed more directly in the traditional Baptism scene (Lk 3:21-22 par), but the Gospel writer would almost certainly extend this relationship to the Spirit to the very conception and birth of Jesus.
More than this, it is possible that here the idea of Mary as a prophet may also be in view. The Magnificat in vv. 46-55 is attributed to Mary (though in a few manuscripts Elizabeth is the speaker), and must be regarded, in the context of the narrative, as an inspired (prophetic) utterance. In the case of the inspired utterances by Elizabeth and Zechariah, it is specifically said that they were “filled by the Spirit” (vv. 41, 67). While this is not stated directly of Mary, it seems probable that prophetic inspiration is foreshadowed by the coming of the Spirit “upon” her in v. 35.
3. Prefiguring the Coming of the Spirit on Believers. As noted above, the verb e)pe/rxomai (“come upon”) is also used in Acts 1:8, where Jesus promises the coming of the Spirit upon his disciples (fulfilled in 2:1-4ff). Indeed, this is one of three primary modes whereby the relationship between believers and the Spirit is expressed in Luke-Acts. The other two—being filled with the Spirit and walking in (or being led by) the Spirit—were introduced in Lk 1:15-17 (cf. the discussion in the previous note). This coming of the Spirit upon believers represents a uniquely Christian form of the traditional association between the Spirit and prophecy (cf. above).
4. The continuity of the Old and New Covenants. Like John the Baptist, Mary represents a transitional figure between the Old and New Covenant. Mary, along with her husband Joseph, is depicted as being faithful to the Old Covenant, dutifully observing the regulations and requirements of the Torah (2:21-24, 39, 41ff). At the same time, she is the first person who grapples with the meaning and significance of the new revelation of God in the person of Jesus. A measure of trust and belief is attributed to Mary (cf. 1:38, 45; 2:19, 33-35, 51), making her, in a sense, the first believer and a type-pattern looking forward to the Christians of the New Covenant. She stands together with the first believers in Acts 1:14 (cp. Lk 8:19-21 par).