Did Jesus Need the Spirit?

Pondering the Power of the God-Man

How did Jesus walk on water? How did he feed five thousand with five loaves and two fish? How did he raise Lazarus from the dead?

Unless we have been carefully taught, many Christians would be quick to say simply, Because he is God! And he truly is. But is that how the New Testament answers these questions? If we follow the emphasis of the Gospels, we might say that what Jesus’s miracles show is that he is God, but how he, as man, performs these wonders, is not quite as simple as we may assume.

In particular, what are we to say about the many texts that testify to the Holy Spirit’s presence in the human life of Christ? Did Christ, in his humanity, actually need the Holy Spirit if he performed such signs simply by virtue of his divinity?

When we recognize the surprisingly recurrent theme of the divine Spirit’s relationship to the divine Son in his humanity, we might understand Jesus (and the Gospels) better, and freshly marvel at what grace Christ offers us in the gift of his Spirit.

Jesus and the Spirit

First, let’s rehearse the string of biblical texts that lead us to what is often called a “Spirit Christology” — which is simply a term for recognizing the critical part played by the person and work of the Spirit in the person and work of Christ.

Sinclair Ferguson observes three distinct “stages” in the life of Christ, through which we might acknowledge the Spirit’s relationship to the Son (The Holy Spirit, 38–56). Those stages are as follows, with key texts.

1. Conception, Birth, and Growth

As we know from some of our favorite Advent readings, the Holy Spirit is present and pronounced in the angelic announcements to both Mary and Joseph. How will it be, asks Mary, that I, a virgin, will conceive and bear a son? “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you” (Luke 1:35). So too in Matthew’s account about Joseph, the Spirit both frames the report and is explicit in the angelic announcement (Matthew 1:18, 20).

Yet the Spirit is not only present, and explicit, at the conception and birth of Christ, but also specifically prophesied by Isaiah, seven centuries prior, as “resting upon” the coming Anointed One: “The Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and might, the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord” (Isaiah 11:2).

“God’s word notes again and again the power of the Spirit as Christ’s inseparable companion.”

Now in Jesus of Nazareth, the long-promised shoot from the stump of Jesse has come (Isaiah 11:1), and “the Spirit of wisdom and understanding” upon him is seen even as early as age 12 as Jesus listens in the temple to the teachers and asks them questions. “All who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. And when his parents saw him, they were astonished” (Luke 2:47–48).

Even in childhood, as Jesus “increased in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and man” (Luke 2:52), he was not on his own but had the Spirit as his “inseparable companion,” as the great Cappadocian theologian Basil of Caesarea (c. 330–379) captured it so memorably.

2. Baptism, Temptations, and Ministry

Isaiah’s prophesied anointing with the Spirit comes to the fore again at the outset of Jesus’s public ministry, beginning with his baptism. The forerunner, John the Baptist, tells of a coming Spirit-baptism that John’s water-baptism anticipated (Luke 3:16). But first, before baptizing others in the Spirit, Jesus himself will be the preeminent Man of the Spirit. When Jesus “had been baptized and was praying, the heavens were opened, and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form, like a dove; and a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased’” (Luke 3:21–22; also Matthew 3:16).

Here at the outset of his public ministry, the Spirit descends on him with new fullness for his unique calling, and the voice from heaven first connects the Anointed of Psalm 2 with the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 42. The Servant — and Son — not only enjoys God’s full favor, but he is also the one of whom it is said, “I have put my Spirit upon him” (Isaiah 42:1).

Freshly endowed with (“full of”) the Spirit, Jesus then goes to the wilderness. Not only is he “led by the Spirit” (Luke 4:1; Matthew 4:1) into the wilderness, but as Mark reports, “The Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness” (Mark 1:12), not as a retreat but as an advance in war, to encounter the enemy and beginning taking back territory.

Once Christ has returned, victorious in his wilderness test — in the power of the Spirit (Luke 4:14) — he comes to Galilee and to his hometown of Nazareth. In the synagogue, they hand him in the scroll of Isaiah, and what does he read, as the first public act after his baptism? He begins with Isaiah 61:1: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me . . .” (Luke 4:18).

Jesus’s ministry then unfolds in the subsequent pages as by the Spirit he proclaims good news to the poor, liberty to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, freedom to the oppressed, and the year of the Lord’s favor (Luke 4:18–19; Isaiah 61:1–2). Jesus will testify that it is “by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons” (Matthew 12:28). By the Spirit, he teaches with unusual authority. Fully man, he is fully dependent on his Father — having come not to do his own will but the will of him who sent him (John 6:38). And as Peter one day will summarize his life, in telling his story to Gentiles, “God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power” (Acts 10:38).

In the words of John 3:34, and Isaac Ambrose (1604–1664), Jesus “received the Spirit out of measure; there was in him as much as possibly could be in a creature, and more than in all other creatures whatsoever” (Looking unto Jesus, 280).

3. Death, Resurrection, and Ascension

Significant as the testimony is about the Spirit’s work in Jesus’s childhood and ministry, we might expect that when he comes to die, and rise, and ascend, we would hear about the Spirit here too. Indeed we do. According to Hebrews 9:14, Jesus offered himself for sins at the cross “through the eternal Spirit.” As he set his face like flint toward Jerusalem, mounted the donkey on Palm Sunday, confronted scribes and Pharisees, and prayed with “loud cries and tears” in Gethsemane (Hebrews 5:7), Jesus was anointed, sustained, and strengthened by the Spirit to the end. And beyond.

In his resurrection, Jesus was “vindicated by the Spirit” (1 Timothy 3:16). As Paul writes in Romans 1:4, Jesus “was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead.” And promising a coming of, and baptizing with, the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:5, 8), Jesus ascended to heaven (Acts 1:9), to be glorified at God’s right hand, where he then would pour out the Spirit on those who believe (John 7:37–39; Acts 2:2–4, 17, 33). Amazingly, then, Peter would preach, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38). Now, to receive Christ is to receive the Spirit, and vice versa.

In fact, the Holy Spirit has become such an “inseparable companion” for Christ that we find a striking identification of Jesus and the Spirit in the letters of Paul (1 Corinthians 15:45; 2 Corinthians 3:17–18). Not only is the Holy Spirit now “the Spirit of Jesus” (Philippians 1:19; also Acts 16:7), but the glorified Christ and the poured-out Spirit can be spoken of interchangeably, as in Romans 8:9–11: Christians “have the Spirit of Christ,” and in the Spirit, “Christ is in you.”

Jesus Did Not Cheat

Now back to our original question: How did Jesus walk on water, multiply loaves, and raise the dead? The New Testament witness to the Spirit as Christ’s “inseparable companion” and source of divine power is too pronounced to ignore. Jesus, the God-man, apparently needed the Spirit. The terms of the incarnation, in honoring the fullness of humanity, were that the second person of the Trinity did not immediately provide divine power and help to the human Christ. Rather, he did so mediately through the Spirit. It was the great Puritan theologian John Owen (1616–1683) who perhaps first ventured the formulation that now has stood for almost four centuries: “The only singular immediate act of the person of the Son on the human nature was the assumption of it into subsistence with himself” (The Works of John Owen, 3:160).

“Jesus, the God-man, apparently needed the Spirit.”

In other words, the eternal Son’s only direct act on his human nature was uniting that humanity to himself in the incarnation. “Every other act upon Christ’s human nature,” writes Mark Jones, “was from the Holy Spirit. Christ performed miracles through the power of the Holy Spirit, not immediately by his own divine power” (The Prayers of Jesus, 23). As Jones comments elsewhere, “Christ’s obedience in our place had to be real obedience. He did not cheat by relying on his own divine nature while he acted as the second Adam” (Puritan Theology, 343). The Holy Spirit has accompanied, supplied, and carried the Son in his human nature from conception to childhood to ministry, to the cross and resurrection, and now in his glory, fully endowed as the Man of the Spirit at God’s right hand.

Spirit of Christ in Us

Why make a point of what some might perceive as a technicality? Why note, as Kyle Claunch does, this “marked contrast” between the New Testament emphasis and “the tendency of post-biblical authors, who appeal to the deity of Jesus as the explanation for the extraordinary features of his life and ministry”?

For one, a Spirit Christology demonstrates the genuine humanness of Christ, which is vital not only for our imitation of his life, but even more for his perfect human life to count savingly and uniquely in the place of us sinners. Also, observing the critical place of the Holy Spirit with respect to the humanity of Christ helps us understand the Bible. From Isaiah, to the Gospels and Acts, and the Epistles, God’s word notes again and again, as we’ve seen, the power of the Spirit as Christ’s inseparable companion. If we want to know and understand God’s word, we will not want to read a phrase like “by the Spirit” as white noise but with meaning.

Finally, a Spirit Christology shows us, in a secondary sense, what is possible in us by the same Spirit who dwells in us — not mainly in terms of being the Spirit’s channel for displays of extraordinary power (though we might grow to be expectant of more than we have), but most significantly in terms of holiness and spiritual joy. Jesus was and is unique. The power of the Spirit in his human life pointed to his uniqueness as God. Still, the same Spirit who empowered Jesus’s earthly life, and sacrificial death, and triumphant resurrection, has been given to us today as “the Spirit of Jesus” (Acts 16:7). He not only works on us, and through us, but dwells in us (Romans 8:9, 11; 2 Timothy 1:14). He has been given to us (Luke 11:13; John 7:38–39; Acts 5:32; 15:8; 1 Thessalonians 4:8). We have received him (John 20:22; Acts 2:38; 8:15, 17, 19; 10:47; 19:2; Romans 5:5; 8:15; 1 Corinthians 2:12; 2 Corinthians 5:5; 1 John 3:24), to glorify the Son (John 16:14).

The very power of God himself, in his Spirit, has come to make himself at home in some real degree, and to increasing effect, in us. We are his temple, both individually and collectively (1 Corinthians 3:16; 6:19), and a day is coming when we, like Christ, will reign in glory, fully endowed with the Spirit, to enjoy life, and God in Christ, beyond what we’ve even imagined so far.