In this Holy Week, we take time to rivet our gaze on the cross of Christ. And we have several questions about the crucifixion, two of which we will address this week. On Friday we will look more closely at why Simon of Cyrene carried Christ’s cross, a curious little story we’ve all read, but have likely not spent much time thinking about its many interesting implications for us. Don’t miss that episode, next time.
But today we address the Holy Spirit. On the cross, the triune God is at work — Father, Son, and Spirit. But how is the Spirit at work? It’s a question today from a podcast listener named James. “Dear Pastor John, you have had a profound impact on my life and understanding of Jesus and his cross. I have a question regarding the crucifixion. Romans 8:11 says that it was the role of the Spirit to raise Jesus from the dead. But what role did the Holy Spirit play specifically in the crucifixion?”
As far as I can see, the biblical writers did not describe the activity of the Holy Spirit directly in relationship to the crucifixion in the hour of Jesus’s death. If there’s a text that does that, it has slipped my attention. I’d be happy for someone to correct me.
If I’m right that, then in answering this question, we are coming at it in an indirect way from things that he said about the Holy Spirit in general — things that God in his word said about the Holy Spirit in relationship to Jesus and in relationship to his Father, but in other connections besides the cross.
Very God of Very God
Let me begin by making explicit an assumption that I bring. It is maybe different from what some people have said, especially what I’m hearing recently. Some people are saying that since Jesus was authentically human, his deity was not the means by which he did any of his miracles, but only by the Holy Spirit as a man like us — a real man, a man of faith.
“Jesus could not have died for sinners unless he was sinless.”
Now, I think this is a partial truth but taken to an unbiblical extreme. The New Testament makes it plain that the works of Jesus were not only done through the Holy Spirit, but were done as evidence of his deity.
Just to take one example, in John 13:19, Jesus says, “I am telling you this now, before it takes place, that when it does take place you may believe that I am he.” I think that I am is an illusion to his deity, and so his foreknowledge is given here as something from which we should infer, “Oh my goodness, this man is claiming to be very God of very God and proving it with his works.”
That’s what I am means. Jesus expected those who watched him — including us, when we watch him in the Gospels — to be able to discern divine glory: “We have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father” (John 1:14).
They saw something in Jesus — in the combination of his works and words and ways, in his whole demeanor. These acts were communicating that this man is more than just an ordinary man, even though it’s true that he did trust in God’s help and the Holy Spirit as he did his works. For example, he says statements like, “By the Holy Spirit I’m casting out demons” (see Matthew 12:28).
Now, having said that, it’s not wrong to emphasize that he was a perfect model of what a human should be like, including his reliance on the Spirit.
He says explicitly that he casts out demons by the power of the Holy Spirit (Matthew 12:28). He was led into the wilderness by the Spirit (Matthew 4:1). He was full of the Holy Spirit (Luke 4:1). He was anointed by the Spirit (Acts 10:38). He was commissioned by the Spirit (Luke 4:18). He was vindicated by the Spirit at his baptism (1 Timothy 3:16).
He did all of this by the Spirit. He was the perfect, model man for us in that regard. We are to live by the Spirit also. With that assumption behind me, let me try to say maybe three things with regard to James’s question about how the Spirit relates specifically to the crucifixion of Jesus.
First, Jesus could not have died for sinners unless he was sinless. In view of what we just saw about how he lived by the Spirit, I assume that the Holy Spirit was at work in the life of Jesus, enabling him to walk in holiness and preserving him in purity and holiness as the Lamb of God, without which there could be no substitutionary atonement.
“Our very salvation hangs on the involvement of the Holy Spirit in the moment of the crucifixion.”
I assume that some of the greatest temptations for Jesus to be disobedient to the mission happened in the hours just before he breathed his last. Those were the worst moments of suffering. And if there were any time when he was going to make shipwreck of his faith and fail in his mission, it would be then. If there were any time when the Holy Spirit was active, surely he was active in strengthening and helping Jesus persevere to the end in holiness and faith. So I would say our very salvation hangs on the involvement of the Holy Spirit in the moment of the crucifixion.
Conceived by the Spirit
Second, the Holy Spirit’s reality in the life of the God-man, Jesus Christ, was essential to his very identity as God on the cross. It was essential to his deity. He was conceived in Mary’s womb by the Holy Spirit so that he could be called the Son of God (Luke 1:35). The virgin birth, the conception by the Spirit, is the key to his deity in his God-man existence.
As he hung on the cross, he was hanging there — owing to the Spirit having caused him to be conceived in the womb — as the God-man. He could not have done his work on the cross in any other way than as very God of very God in union with the Father by the Spirit. His very existence as the God-man who died in our place was owing to the Holy Spirit.
The Father’s Own Delight
Third and last — I admit that this one is more speculative than the other two, but let me go ahead and venture it anyway — there’s a profound sense in which the delight that the Father had in the obedience of his Son as he was being crucified was a delight or a love that consisted in the Holy Spirit himself.
“Jesus could not have done his work on the cross in any other way than as very God of very God.”
Now, your first reaction to that statement might be, “Whoa, whoa, whoa — wait a minute. The Father was pouring out wrath on his Son on the cross so that it wouldn’t have to be poured out on us. What’s this talk about delighting in the Son as he hung there?”
Well, it’s just not that simple. He definitely was under the curse of God as he died (Galatians 3:13; Romans 8:3). He was under that curse. He was being condemned. He bore our condemnation. He bore our curse.
But he was also, from another angle, approved by God and pleasing to God. Ephesians 5:2 says, “Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” In the moment of his greatest suffering and his perfect obedience, he was a fragrance to God. God smelled the obedience of his Son and delighted in it.
God the Father was experiencing the death of Christ in more ways than one. He was experiencing the obedience of his Son as a fragrant offering, and I’m suggesting that the Holy Spirit was the mediator of that delight in the Father. I’m suggesting this in the sense that the Holy Spirit, in union with the Son and the Father, was experienced by the Father as the union of delight.
I know that’s heavy. If you wonder, “Where are you getting that idea that that’s the way to understand the Holy Spirit?” I would send you to Jonathan Edwards’s essay on the Trinity. You can find it free online. If you want to see the biblical foundations for that way of thinking, you can read that essay.
Sinless and Divine
But let this much be said for our worship of Christ in this precious season. One, our sins would not be forgiven if the Son of God were not sinless, and it was the Holy Spirit who sustained his faith and preserved him in his sinless perfection.
Two, our sins would not be forgiven if the Son of God were not very God of very God as he hung on the cross, and that deity depended on his being conceived 33 years earlier by the Holy Spirit.