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What Difference Did Pentecost Make?

Cues from Christ About the Work of the Spirit

ABSTRACT: The Holy Spirit, according to Jesus, is the best of gifts from the best of Fathers. But how can Christians begin to understand the person and work of the Spirit, including before and after Pentecost? Perhaps the best starting point is the life of Christ both before and after his resurrection. During his earthly ministry, Jesus lived as the perfect Spirit-filled man, the paragon of humanity as God created it to be. Even still, after his resurrection, Jesus received the Spirit in a new way: as the royal inheritance of the ascended King. And in the new covenant, the King has begun to share his spoils with his people.

If you, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him! (Luke 11:13)

“Teach us to pray,” the disciples ask Jesus (Luke 11:1). It is a terrific request. And Jesus is happy to oblige. First, he tells them what they are to pray (verses 2–4). But Jesus would have his disciples be much more than informed about right content in well-ordered prayer; Jesus would also have his disciples be eager and expectant in prayer. So to instruction on the content of prayer, he adds two encouragements meant to sustain fervent prayer: (1) persistence pays off (verses 5–10), and (2) our heavenly Father gives good gifts (verses 11–13). Jesus’s aim is to inspire committed, fervent prayer, so in the latter instance he speaks of the best “good gift” he can think of to showcase the Father’s astounding kindness and generosity — namely, the Holy Spirit.

Appreciating this best of gifts from the best of fathers is, to say the least, no trivial matter. Faith in the God who lays hold of us in Christ through the power of the Spirit should zealously seek to grow in understanding of this same Spirit. Unfortunately, the task is fraught with difficulty, the way is paved with distractions, and the questions needing to be answered are copious and complicated.

Challenging, Complex Questions

The Spirit is, arguably, the most nebulous member of the Trinity: a Father I have categories for, a Son I can easily envision, but where do I begin to make sense of a Spirit?1 The Spirit is, arguably, the most avoided member of the Trinity, at least at a popular level: I would wager that, outside of Pentecostal traditions, most churchgoers have never sat under a sermon series or Sunday school series exploring the person and work of the Holy Spirit.2 And when Christian reflection on the Holy Spirit’s ministry is pursued, it often happens in the context of controversy (e.g., disagreements about the so-called “charismatic spiritual gifts”), and finds itself, arguably, too ready to allow controversy to dictate the shape and focus of the treatment.

In addition to these realities, complicated biblical-theological questions arise concerning the nature of the Spirit’s work. We speak of the Spirit being “poured out” at Pentecost: does this mean he was somehow absent and inactive beforehand? After all, John 7:39 says that the Spirit was not given until Jesus was “glorified.” What do we make of such a statement? How shall we truthfully articulate the difference that Christ’s work and the event of Pentecost make? What does it mean for Christians to have and enjoy the gift of the Holy Spirit, the very treasure of the kingdom given from the ascended King’s throne? These are challenging questions, but they must be attended to if we would know aright the gift of the Father won for us by Christ.

“Jesus’s life is from beginning to end (to new beginning) saturated with the Spirit.”

Given the challenge and complexity of the matter, it can be constructive to narrow our focus. Rather than trying to tackle all or even several areas of concern, in this essay we will zero in on just one limited but strategic starting point. Specifically, we will consider the Holy Spirit in the life of Christ. We will, in other words, seek out some Christological bearings for pneumatology. This is a strategic point of departure not only because, as we shall see, Jesus’s life is from beginning to end (to new beginning) saturated with the Spirit to the point that the Spirit can be called the very Spirit of Christ (Romans 8:9). To know Christ aright is necessarily to know something of the Spirit (and vice versa). But more pointedly, Christological cues in understanding the Spirit’s work in the new age are especially helpful since Christ’s own life and labor exhibits both continuity and discontinuity in the experience of the Spirit, which serves as a paradigm for proper biblical-theological understanding of the work of the Spirit through the ages.

Perfect Spirit-Filled Man

We regularly affirm (in the Western church) that the Spirit proceeds from the Son,3 but we must also say that the Son came into the world in the incarnation by the power of the Spirit. In Luke 1:35, the angel Gabriel tells Mary that the Holy Spirit will “come upon her,” and the power of the Most High will “overshadow” her. The result? She will bear one who will be called “the Son of God.” But in Scripture, many figures are called “son of God” (e.g., Israel in Exodus 4:22–23, Israel’s king in Psalm 2:7, angels in Job 1:6, peacemakers in Matthew 5:9). In what sense would Luke have us understand Jesus to be “the Son of God”?4

The meaning is clarified a couple of chapters later at Jesus’s baptism. In Luke 3:21–22, the Spirit is again present and active in Jesus’s life, coming down in the form of a dove upon him, anointing him for his God-given task. The Spirit’s anointing is coupled with a verbal declaration of Jesus’s identity: he is God’s “beloved son” (verse 22). Immediately after this, seemingly out of nowhere, Luke shifts genres from narrative to genealogy (verses 23–38). But the train of thought is clarified when we come to the end of the genealogy: “. . . Seth, the son of Adam, the son of God” (verse 38). Adam was the first son of God in the biblical story line. Jesus is the second; which is to say, he is a second Adam.

Luke 3:22 and 38 (see also 4:3, 9)5 are the most contextually important indicators of what the word to Mary in 1:35 means. To be “son of God” is to be a new Adam. Indeed, the first Adam is the only other human in history who was without a human father, but who instead was breathed into human existence directly by the breath (Spirit) of God (Genesis 2:7). The virgin conception by the power of the Holy Spirit is, therefore, not just a guarantee of Jesus’s divinity. It is also and especially in the biblical narrative a way of underlining Jesus’s true and full humanity as the new Adam who brings with him the beginnings of the new creation.6

Jesus is the quintessential Spirit-filled man, who does everything he does by the power of the Spirit. He was anointed as the new Adam and the Davidic King by the Holy Spirit (Luke 3:21–22; Matthew 3:13–17) and then driven into his holy war with the devil by the Spirit (Mark 1:12–13). Jesus’s public ministry begins by the Spirit’s empowerment (Luke 4:14, 18). He goes about “doing good and healing” in the power of the Spirit (Acts 10:38; also Matthew 12:28). His prayers and affections are drenched with the Spirit (Luke 3:21–22; 10:21–22). He suffered righteously unto death through God’s eternal Spirit (Hebrews 9:14).7 It was through the power of the Spirit of holiness that Jesus was raised from the dead (Romans 1:4)8 and thus vindicated from the world’s verdict of guilty (1 Timothy 3:16).9 And when the vindicated Son of Man ascends to the right hand of God to take up his rightful throne, he comes “on the clouds,” enwrapped or borne, we might say, by the glory-cloud which is the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:9; cf. Daniel 7:13–14).10 Everything Jesus did, he did in submission to his Father’s will by the power of the Holy Spirit, not so much proving that he is God (which, of course, he is) but demonstrating his true humanity. Jesus is the perfect Spirit-filled man, the fullness of what humans were intended by the Creator to be.

“Everything Jesus did, he did in glad submission to his Father’s will by the power of the Holy Spirit.”

So the one who ascends to his rightful throne in Acts 1 is a human king, the new Adam who has ruled and subdued the way God intended from the beginning, the new and true Davidic king promised to Israel, the ruler and pioneer of a recreated humanity. He has won the great and final victory over his foes. And he has received his prize, the spoils of his victory as conquering and enthroned king.

His Royal Inheritance

What is the prize? The answer is suggested in an astounding, yet easy to miss, statement from the apostle Peter at Pentecost:

Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you yourselves are seeing and hearing. (Acts 2:33)

The brevity and syntactical subordination of the participial clause can obscure its glory: Peter leads us, in Sinclair Ferguson’s words, “momentarily behind the events of history to give us a glimpse of a transaction between the Father and the Son-Mediator.”11 Specifically, Peter highlights that the ascended Christ himself first receives the gift of the promised Spirit from the Father, before he pours it out on the church at Pentecost. But we have seen scriptural testimony in abundance that Christ’s life was shot through with the Spirit from the very beginning. So what could it mean that the ascended Christ now “received” the Spirit?

I propose that Christ did not, until after his resurrection (kingly victory) and ascension (kingly enthronement), have the Spirit as the officially bestowed royal inheritance.12 There’s a difference between an anointed king who has not yet been crowned, and a crowned king who has full authority to rule the kingdom. There is a difference between, on the one hand, young David, already anointed by Samuel, who exercises king-like character and duties (e.g., in 1 Samuel 17) but who will not cut down Saul because Saul is the rightfully enthroned king, and on the other hand, mature David, who rules the kingdom as its publicly installed king. To change analogies, there’s a difference between a son who has the rights to the inheritance and who may even benefit from the inheritance ahead of time (e.g., live on the land, receive an allowance), and a son upon whom has finally been bestowed the full inheritance to do with as he pleases.

This is to suggest that the difference of Jesus’s experience of the Spirit pre-resurrection and ascension and post-resurrection and ascension is less spatial (absence vs. presence) and more legal (kingly prize, covenantal inheritance), less quantitative (less vs. more) and more theo-dramatic (the beginning of a new act in the salvation-historical drama, with the launching of new covenantal callings).13 A change in status, and with it a change of epochs, has occurred, which is evidenced by Christ’s ascended reception of the promised Spirit. In this way, Christ’s reception of the Spirit as ascended Lord on the throne is qualitatively different from even what he enjoyed of the Spirit in his Spirit-drenched life before his resurrection and ascension.

Treasure of the Kingdom

One of the first royal acts of this ascended King from his throne is, according to Ephesians 4:7 (quoting Psalm 68:18), to give gifts to his kingdom: “When he ascended on high he led a host of captives, and he gave gifts to men.” The King shares the spoils of his kingly victory with the people he rules; he gives generously to his redeemed. The gifts that Paul has in view are what we call spiritual gifts (Ephesians 4:11), gifts wrought by the “one Spirit” (verse 4) given to Christ’s kingdom. The Holy Spirit, the prize or the inheritance given to the victorious King, is what the King upon his enthronement shares with all his subjects. We might even say that to have the Spirit is to have the kingdom won by the King. For example, Luke’s language in Luke 11:13 and 12:32 veritably equates the Father’s giving of the Holy Spirit with his giving of the kingdom:

If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit [ho patēr . . . dōsei pneuma hagion] to those who ask him! (Luke 11:13)

Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom [ho patēr . . . dounai . . . tēn basileian]. (Luke 12:32)

It is sometimes insinuated, or outright asserted, that for new-covenant believers to have the Spirit is to be privy to a power or access to some substance that was, for all practical purposes, unavailable in prior ages. On this line of thinking, because early Christians had access to a power previously unavailable, they were able, for example, to be much bolder and more confident than old-covenant believers, with boldness such as that displayed in the book of Acts. “Peter used to be cowardly, as when he thrice denied the Lord,” so the thinking goes, “but because he got the Spirit at Pentecost, he could courageously take his stand against rulers and authorities.” To simply leave matters there obscures and distorts at least as much as it expresses a slice of truthfulness.

We may suggest a better way forward, taking Christ’s experience of the Spirit before and after his resurrection and ascension as paradigmatic of the continuity and discontinuity of the Spirit’s work in believers before and after Pentecost. Jesus did not get “more” of the Spirit after the ascension, and neither, I argue, do Christians now enjoy “more” of the Spirit than old-covenant believers. But Christ did receive the Spirit in a new way — or better, in a new act of the drama. Again, we must think in legal-covenantal and theo-dramatic terms.

Christians in the Final Act

Kevin Vanhoozer argues that emotions (like courage) should be understood as “covenantal concern-based theodramatic construals.”14 In simplified terms, emotions are a matter of narrative construal (i.e., how we narrate the reality of which we are a part) and of convictions about our covenantal place in that narrative (i.e., our judgments about our location, standing, and role in the drama). On this line of thinking, the emotions surrounding courageous boldness are not owing to bare substances or powers and chemical reactions inside us. Rather, courageously bold Christians are those who construe situations in which they find themselves as fearful yet hopeful for the sons and daughters of the kingdom.

The Christians in Acts could narrate their stories, and the story of reality, in a way no one before them could: theirs was the story in which sin and wrath had finally and decisively been dealt with; the story in which even death had been defeated; the story in which the idols of the world were finally being shown to be the wind and emptiness that they are; the story whose end is a victorious King, glorious in grace, seated on the throne, bestowing the spoils of his kingdom on his people. And because they could narrate the story in a different way, because they were assured of their standing in the kingdom secured in the final act of the drama, they could have a new kind of boldness. It is no accident that in Acts 4:31, the boldness of the early church is precisely a matter of boldness in speaking the word of God, a boldness arising from a biblical narration of the meaning of the events of Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection (see Acts 4:24–28).

But at the same time, it was a boldness wrought by the Holy Spirit given in answer to prayer (see again v. 31 as the divine response to vv. 29–30). The heavenly Father gives good gifts to his adopted and supplicating children in Christ. He gives the Spirit who illuminates the meaning of the redemptive work of God in history for them, so that they might narrate the drama afresh. He gives them the Spirit who assures them of their new covenantal status as kingdom citizens. He gives them the Spirit who, in these ways at least, empowers them to live with a boldness in accord with the eschatological act of the drama that Christ’s death, resurrection, and ascension inaugurated.

So to have the Holy Spirit indwelling us at “the end of the ages” is not best articulated as a matter of having access to a powerful substance unavailable to prior generations. Far less is the Pentecostal presence of the Holy Spirit a mere inner, ahistorical sensation or feeling. To have the Spirit from the ascended Lord Jesus, to know his indwelling presence and power and fellowship, is to be rooted in a particular chapter in the story. It is to know oneself the covenantal subject of the crucified, risen, and ascended King by virtue of that King’s work on our behalf. It is to rest secure in that King’s victory over all our foes and in the inauguration of his kingdom of justice and peace. To have the Spirit is to have the treasure of the kingdom.

  1. In this respect, we should take into account the sensible cautions of Fred Sanders: among the Persons of the Godhead, “we have the least to say about the eternal divine person who is the Holy Spirit, not because he is any less God, or any less a person, or any less related to the other persons of the Trinity. He is all those things, just as fully as the Father and the Son are. But his self-revelation is less direct than the Son’s, and his relationship to the other persons is not as immediately evident as the Son’s and the Father’s whose mutual relationship is built into their very names. We should avoid the urge to fabricate more concrete things than have actually been revealed about the Spirit or to pretend that our knowledge of the Spirit’s corner of the Trinitarian triangle is as intricately detailed and elaborate as the Son’s.” Fred Sanders, The Deep Things of God: How the Trinity Changes Everything (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2010), 89. 

  2. Substantive treatments of the Spirit almost always begin with a token statement about how he is the neglected member of the Trinity in Christian reflection, though the existence of such treatments should, perhaps, encourage us that the complaint may be more rhetorical than substantive in at least some sectors. 

  3. The concise and thoughtful treatment of the so-called Filioque clause in Sinclair B. Ferguson, The Holy Spirit, Contours of Christian Theology (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1996), 72–78, is as good an introduction to the matter from an Augustinian perspective as we can find. 

  4. As Joel Green notes, the identification of Mary’s child as “Son of God” is tied directly in verse 35 not to his prerogative as king but to his conception by the Holy Spirit (note “for that reason”), a connection to be “further developed” in the ensuing narrative. See Joel B. Green, The Gospel of Luke, NICNT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), 91. 

  5. The point is carried into Luke 4 as the sequel to the baptism and genealogy in Luke 3: as Adam the son of God went to battle with the tempter in the garden long ago, being tempted with regard to food (Genesis 3:3), power (verse 4), and the specifics of God’s word (verse 3), so now Jesus the son of God goes out into a wilderness, for a greatly escalated battle with the tempter, being tempted with regard to food (Luke 4:3), power (verses 5–6), and what God’s word says (verses 9–11). But unlike the first Adam, the second Adam is victorious. 

  6. Cf. Ferguson, The Holy Spirit, 42. 

  7. For defense of taking the challenging phrase dia pneumatos aiōniou in Hebrews 9:14 as a reference to the agency of the divine Spirit in Christ’s atoning suffering, see Martin Emmrich, “‘Amtscharisma’: Through the Eternal Spirit (Hebrews 9:14),” BBR 12 (2002), 17–32, esp. 17–25. Much more speculative is Emmrich’s proposal that the author of Hebrews, adopting but adapting lines of early Jewish reflection, appeals to the divine Spirit’s work in empowering Jesus specifically for his high-priestly duties. 

  8. For a defense of taking horisthentos huiou theou en dynamei kata pneuma hagiōsynēs in this hotly disputed verse as a reference to the Spirit’s active work upon/for Jesus in the resurrection, see Wesley Hill, Paul and the Trinity: Persons, Relations, and the Pauline Letters (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2015), 154–59. 

  9. If en pneumati in 1 Timothy 3:16 is not a reference to the agency of the Holy Spirit in raising Christ from the dead (but I do not entirely dismiss the possibility), it still seems most likely that Christ’s resurrection (vindication) is linked directly to the Spirit as at least the (eschatological) realm, which Christ by his resurrection entered. See Gordon D. Fee, God’s Empowering Presence: The Holy Spirit in the Letters of Paul (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1994), 761–68. 

  10. I am here assuming the identification or otherwise inseparable association of the theophanic glory-cloud of the Old Testament with the Spirit of God, as implied, for example, in Isaiah 63:11–14; Haggai 2:5; and Nehemiah 9:19–20, and as argued by Meredith G. Kline, Images of the Spirit (1980; repr., Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 1999), 13–20. In the Gospels, we can note that in the two obviously parallel events of the baptism and the transfiguration, when the voice from heaven declares Jesus to be the “beloved Son” in whom the Father is “well pleased,” what accompanies the voice in the former is the Spirit-dove (Matthew 3:16) alighting on Jesus and in the latter the bright cloud (Matthew 17:5) enwrapping him. Cf. Raymond E. Brown, The Birth of the Messiah: A Commentary on the Infancy Narratives in Matthew and Luke (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1977), 315. 

  11. Ferguson, The Holy Spirit, 59. 

  12. Cf. John Calvin, Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles, 2 vols., trans. C. Fetherston, ed. H. Beveridge (Edinburgh: Calvin Translation Society, 1844), 1:109–10. 

  13. Cf. Michael Horton, Rediscovering the Holy Spirit: God’s Perfecting Presence in Creation, Redemption, and Everyday Life (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2017), 146, who argues that “the two main coordinates . . . for discerning the newness of the Spirit’s work since Pentecost are covenant and eschatology” (emphasis original). 

  14. Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Remythologizing Theology: Divine Action, Passion, and Authorship, CSCD 18 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 398–416. Vanhoozer transposes into a theological key the proposal of ethicist and philosopher Robert Roberts, Emotions: An Essay in Aid of Moral Psychology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003).