Holy Spirit in the Ministry of Jesus

The Holy Spirit in the Life and Ministry of Jesus I

The Holy Spirit participated with the Father and the Son in the work of creation. Throughout the Old Testament we see the Spirit of God empowering and inspiring deliverers, craftsmen, kings and prophets, men and women. Then in the fulness of God’s timing, the Spirit was the agent of creation in the incarnation of God in human flesh. Just as the history of the Old Testament began with the creative work of the Holy Spirit, so does the history of the New Testament.

“Now the birth of Jesus Christ was as follows: when His mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child by the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 1:18).

Joseph did not understand how Mary could be pregnant, since he had not had relations with her. Then the angel Gabriel appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife; for the Child who has been conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 1:20). The angel does not explain this. He merely states as a matter of fact that the Holy Spirit has conceived life in the womb of Mary.

When the angel informed Mary that she would give birth to the long awaited Messiah, she also did not understand and she asked the angel, “‘How can this be, since I am a virgin?’ The angel answered and said to her, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; and for that reason the holy Child shall be called the Son of God’” (Luke 1:31,34,35).

God conceived His Son, the Second Person of the Trinity, in the womb of Mary by the agency of the Holy Spirit. While we cannot understand the mystery of the Incarnation, we can see its necessity. It was necessary that the Redeemer be born of a woman so that He could share the same human nature as those whom He came to save. However, it was equally necessary that He be perfectly God, for only God in His perfect holiness can take upon Himself the sin of the world and make an atoning sacrifice for sin. Thus Jesus, eternal pre-existent Second Person of the Trinity, was conceived by the Holy Spirit in the womb of a virgin — Son of Man and Son of God, perfectly human and perfectly divine, two natures, one Person. 

The Holy Spirit was also involved in the preparation of John the Baptist for his ministry as forerunner of the Messiah. An angel appeared to John’s father informing him of the future birth of a son and the angel said, “For he will be great in the sight of the Lord; and he will drink no wine or liquor, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit while yet in his mother's womb” (Luke 1:15).

Whereas in the Old Testament, the Holy Spirit anointed and empowered judges and prophets for particular works and for seasons of service, He did not permanently abide in them. But Ezekiel had prophesied that a day was coming when the Spirit would fill, indwell God’s people, contingent on a work of inner cleansing (Ezkl. 36:25-27). This work of inner cleansing required the atoning sacrifice of Jesus, the holy Lamb of God.

Jesus promised this when He said, “He who believes in Me, as the Scripture said, ‘From his innermost being will flow rivers of living water’” (John 7:38). The Gospel writer then interprets this, “But this He spoke of the Spirit, whom those who believed in Him were to receive; for the Spirit was not yet given, because Jesus was not yet glorified” (John 7:39). The glorification of Jesus is His atoning death, resurrection and ascension to the majesty of heaven.

However, in the Luke 1:15 passage which we cited a moment ago, John the Baptist is said to be filled with the Spirit prior to the glorification of Jesus. This may be a way of speaking of the work of the Holy Spirit in separating or consecrating John for holy service — he was the prophet who proclaimed the presence of the Messiah and Savior. John was led by the Spirit, anointed, inspired, illumined and empowered by the Spirit of God to proclaim a message of repentance and holy preparation for the ministry of Jesus Messiah. The Scripture does not necessarily mean that John was continuously indwelt by the presence of the Holy Spirit in the same sense as the followers of Jesus after His glorification. But all of his life was lived in submission to the Holy Spirit. 

We assume that John’s consecration occurred when the Holy Spirit came upon his mother, described in Luke 1:41, “When Elizabeth heard Mary's greeting, the baby leaped in her womb; and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit.” As with John, we do not need to suppose that Elizabeth experienced the continual indwelling presence of the Spirit of God prior to the atoning work of Jesus. But in the same way that the prophets of the Old Testament were anointed and inspired to speak a word from God, Elizabeth was anointed and inspired by the Spirit to proclaim blessing over Mary (which follows in Luke 1:42-45).

Another interesting pre-Pentecost example of the Holy Spirit interacting with people is found in the life of a man named Simeon, who met Joseph and Mary as they were bringing the baby Jesus into the temple to present Him to the Lord: “And behold, there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; and this man was righteous and devout, looking for the consolation of Israel; and the Holy Spirit was upon him. And it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. And he came in the Spirit into the temple” (Luke 2:25-27). 

Notice that “the Holy Spirit was upon” Simeon. Notice that the Holy Spirit gave him revelation and led him into the temple at just the right moment to meet and bless the Lord. Notice also Simeon’s qualifications for this interaction — he was righteous and devout. But notice also that although “the Holy Spirit was upon” Simeon, He did not yet indwell the man. Why? Jesus was not yet glorified. Following His atoning death, resurrection and ascension to heaven, Jesus would then pour out the Spirit on the church and into the hearts of believers — on the day of Pentecost.

As we have said, Ezekiel had prophesied a coming day when the Spirit of God would dwell in all people cleansed of sin, enabling the Lord to place His Spirit in these holy vessels: “Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your filthiness and from all your idols. Moreover, I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will be careful to observe My ordinances” (Ezekiel 36:25-27).

Hundreds of years after Ezekiel prophesied, John the Baptist was given spiritual discernment to recognize Jesus as the long awaited holy Lamb who would perform that work of cleansing: “The next day he saw Jesus coming to him and said, ‘Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!’” (John 1:29).

John also understood and proclaimed Jesus as the One who “will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire” (Matt. 3:11). Jesus, the long expected Messiah, fulfilled the Old Testament promise of Holy Spirit cleansing and filling (Ezekiel 36:25-27   Joel 2:28).

Baptism “with the Holy Spirit and fire” does not necessarily refer to final judgment but to present cleansing. When we surrender our lives to the Lordship of Jesus, the Holy Spirit comes to dwell within us for the purpose of guiding us into truth, glorifying Jesus, progressively transforming and sanctifying us as people holy unto the Lord and empowering us for service.

John also said of Jesus, “His winnowing fork is in His hand, and He will thoroughly clear His threshing floor; and He will gather His wheat into the barn, but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire” (Matthew 3:12).

Again, the image of the winnowing fork and the chaff burned in the fire do not only refer to final judgment.  The winnowing fork also speaks of the present ministry of the Holy Spirit, separating out of our lives those sins, habits and characteristics which are as useless as chaff, while confirming the wheat, which speaks of the life of Christ in us. The fire refers not merely to final fire of destruction of the ungodly / unredeemed but of the purifying fire of the Divine Refiner — the present work of the Holy Spirit cleansing us of sinful habits and attitudes which work death and destruction in us. 

This is not to deny an end time meaning to these words.  When Jesus returns to earth, it will not be to offer salvation but to gather His people and pour out judgment on those who have rejected the only Sacrifice that results in salvation. The fire of that final judgment will be all encompassing and everlasting. But we must not allow the end time content of these words to rob us of an appreciation for the present ministry of the Holy Spirit — consecrating, separating a people holy unto the Lord.

Just as the incarnation of Jesus occurred through the miraculous work of the Holy Spirit in the womb of Mary, so the ministry of Jesus began with His baptism by John and the Holy Spirit at the Jordan River (Matthew 3:13-27, Mark 1:9-11, Luke 3:21-23). As Jesus came up out of the water, He saw the Spirit of God descending on Him as a dove. Neither Matthew, Mark or Luke say that anyone else saw this though it may have been visible to all. This was surely a fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy, “The Spirit of the Lord will rest on Him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and strength, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord” (Isa. 11:2). 

The Holy Spirit may have taken physical form to provide visual confirmation to Jesus of the anointing of God that came upon Him at His baptism. That anointing represented empowerment for service, as we read in Isaiah’s prophecy of the Messiah, “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the afflicted (humble); He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to captives and freedom to prisoners, to proclaim the favorable year of the Lord” (Isa. 61:1,2a). Jesus quoted that passage at the beginning of His ministry and applied the text to Himself (see Luke 4:18,19).

In addition to the visible anointing of Jesus as the Messiah, it is noteworthy that doves were used in sacrificial rituals in the temple, especially by the poor who could not afford a lamb. It may be that the Holy Spirit was depicting the someday sacrifice of Jesus.

It is interesting to note that just as the ministry of the Church did not begin until Pentecost, neither did the ministry of Jesus begin until His own personal Pentecost. Even though Jesus was “the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14); and though He is the “radiance of (God’s) glory and the exact representation of His nature,” (Hebr 1:3); and though even in His incarnation, He existed in perfect union with the Father and the Holy Spirit, yet He needed and submitted to the empowerment of the Holy Spirit.  

This speaks of Christ’s Self-emptying, “Who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men” (Phlpns. 2:6,7). Jesus did not empty Himself of His Deity but voluntarily surrendered the independent exercise of the attributes of Deity, humbling Himself to depend on the Father and the Holy Spirit for the exercise of ministry.

According to Jesus, He cast out demons by the power of the Holy Spirit, “But if I cast out demons by the Spirit of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon you” (Matt. 12:28). We read in Luke 5:17 of an occasion in which, “The power of the Lord was present for Him to perform healing.”  That power was mediated through the Holy Spirit, as Peter said, “You know of Jesus of Nazareth, how God anointed Him with the Holy Spirit and with power, and how He went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with Him” (Acts 10:38). We would assume that all He did was in the power of the Holy Spirit and in this Jesus set a pattern for us, for if His empowerment for ministry was through the agency of the Holy Spirit, how much more do we need to continually seek the fulness of the Spirit? 

However, we must be careful in comparing Jesus’ experience with that of the church. Jesus received the Spirit without measure (John 3:34), a perfect fulness which could only be ascribed to the Son of God: “For it was the Father’s good pleasure for all the fullness to dwell in Him” (Col. 1:19).  “All the fulness” refers to the fulness of Deity, “For in Him all the fullness of Deity dwells in bodily form” (Col. 2:9). We are not able to contain “the fulness of Deity” but when we surrender our lives to the Lordship of Jesus, we receive an expression of His fulness, “For of His fullness we have all received, and grace upon grace” (John 1:16).

Immediately after His baptism, Jesus was “led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil” (Matthew 4:1). Luke adds that Jesus went into the wilderness full of the Holy Spirit (4:1).  Mark adds, “And immediately the Spirit impelled (drove) Him to go out into the wilderness” (Mark 1:12). Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, was led by the Spirit, driven by the Spirit, into the wilderness for a time of testing and confrontation. For what purpose?

Notice the word tempted in Matthew 4:1. In the Greek language of the text this verb is peirazo, meaning to tempt, test, examine or prove. The related noun, peirasmos, is a temptation, trial or testing, a proving of something or someone. The word is neutral in meaning. It can be used of something evil, a temptation designed by Satan to corrupt or destroy. Or it can refer to something good and valuable, a test through which we learn something about ourselves and are strengthened. Satan designs temptation for the purpose of destroying us. God allows temptation for the purpose of proving us. We sometimes assume that when we go through times of temptation or testing, we must be out of the will of God.  But Jesus was led by the Spirit specifically for the purpose of being tested, immediately following His baptism. 

When Jesus came up out of the water of baptism, the Holy Spirit had descended upon Him and  He had heard the voice of His Heavenly Father affirming His Sonship (Matt. 3:13-17).  He was fully conscious of His divine mission, His sacred humanity was filled through and through with the abiding presence and power of God.  It was in this context of strength and confirmation that Jesus was led by the Spirit into a confrontation with Satan. 

It was a satanically initiated and God-approved confrontation.  Satan desired to tempt Jesus in this moment of victory and God appointed this test for His Son. The devil wanted to tempt Jesus into unworthy actions. God wanted to demonstrate the worthiness of His Son. Satan wanted to demonstrate his victorious power over the King. God wanted to demonstrate the victorious power of Jesus, the true King, over Satan.

Jesus was led by the Spirit / tempted by the devil and successfully overcame every test. Notice that Jesus was “full of the Holy Spirit” (Luke 4:1) when He went into the wilderness. Following His victory over the devil, Luke tells us that “Jesus returned in the power of the Spirit” (Luke 4:14). 

He then read Isaiah’s prophecy of the Holy Spirit anointing the Messiah for a ministry of mercy and power and He claimed this Scripture to be fulfilled in Himself (Luke 4:18). This set a pattern for His ministry — Jesus, led by the Spirit, ministering in the power of the Spirit.

We see this Spirit-anointing in the authority with which Jesus taught and in the healings and miracles which marked His ministry. Matthew interprets the works of power to be the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy of God’s servant who would be anointed with the Holy Spirit (Matt. 12:15-21; Isaiah 42:1-4). As we have said, Jesus also identified Himself with Isaiah’s Spirit-anointed prophet (Luke 4:18-19; Isaiah 6l:1,2a). Further, there was in the character of Jesus a joy, a peace and a resiliency which, especially as we read of the hostility and opposition which He faced, gives evidence of His Spirit-led life.

Although as we have said, Jesus' relationship with the Holy Spirit was unique, He desired that all of His followers enter into this relationship. He said that the Holy Spirit is a gift which the Father is only too glad to bestow upon His children, “If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him?” (Luke 11:13 ). And He promised that someday this gift of the Spirit would be poured out upon all of His disciples (Acts 1:4-8).

In the Gospel of John, Jesus teaches us that the beginning of the Christian life is a result of the work of the Spirit. In John 3:3 Jesus says, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again (or born from above) he cannot see the kingdom of God.” (In John 3:31, the word translated in 3:3 as “anew” or “again” is translated “from above” in reference to Jesus as the One coming from above). 1

In John 3:5 Jesus adds, “Truly, truly I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.” “By water and the Spirit” is a phrase which has generated much discussion over the years. Water has been interpreted as “water of the Word,” a New Testament phrase referring to the preaching of the Word which leads to repentance. Paul spoke of “the washing of water with the word” (Eph. 5:26). Jesus said, “You are already clean because of the word which I have spoken to you” (John 15:3).

The phrase, “Born of water and the Spirit” has also been interpreted as a reference to water baptism. And it has been interpreted as a reference to human birth (water, or natural birth, then Spirit-induced spiritual birth). 

However, the emphasis in John 3 does not seem to be primarily on water as a symbol of preaching or baptism or human birth. The emphasis is not primarily on water but on Spirit. In the verses following verse five, water is not mentioned again but Spirit is mentioned twice (verses 6,8). Jesus is teaching here that entrance into the Christian life, entrance into the kingdom of God, entrance into the active presence and reign of Almighty God, is a work of God — “from above” — through the agency of the Holy Spirit.

Possibly a new light is shed on this passage when we understand that John, the writer of the gospel bearing his name, often uses water as a symbol for the Holy Spirit. And when we consider that the word “and” can be translated “even”, then we can render the passage, “Truly, truly I say to you, unless one is born of water even of the Spirit.” 2

This interpretation is supported by the fact that John follows the chapter three discussion between Jesus and Nicodemus with the incident of the woman at the well (John 4:7-26) where water is unmistakably a symbol of eternal life (4:14), which life is made real to us by the presence of the Holy Spirit (as we see in 7:37-39). The lesson here is that we need not only the initial experience with the Holy Spirit which begins our new life but we need also a continual source of life and nourishment. The promise is not of a single drink or washing but of a river springing up from the inner being of the believer (John 4:14), the eternal life of the Holy Spirit.

In John 7:37-39 Jesus gives us an expansion on this theme: “Now on the last day, the great day of the feast, Jesus stood and cried out, saying, ‘If anyone is thirsty, let him come to Me and drink. He who believes in Me, as the Scripture said, from his innermost being will flow rivers of living water.’ But this He spoke of the Spirit, whom those who believed in Him were to receive; for the Spirit was not yet given, because Jesus was not yet glorified.”  

The occasion for this saying took place about 6 months before the death of Jesus.  It was the last day of the feast of Tabernacles, an annual event in Israel at that time, commemorating Israel’s journey through the wilderness.  The feast included the water pouring ceremony on the last day of the feast and was a reminder of the miracle of God’s provision of water for Israel all the way through their desert journey of 40 years.  

The priests had huge urns which they poured down the steps of the temple.  The water came cascading down the steps as the people shouted and sang praise to God for the supernatural miracle of streams of water in the desert.

In that setting, Jesus shouted, “He that believes in Me, from his innermost being will flow rivers of living water.” John interprets that as the gift of the Holy Spirit “whom those who believed in Him were to receive; for the Spirit was not yet given, because Jesus was not yet glorified” (John 7:38,39). 

The glorification of Jesus was His death, resurrection and ascension. The promise is that after Jesus is glorified, He would place a continuing presence of His Spirit in every believer. Jesus refers to Himself as the Giver of this Spirit-gift, the One from whom the water flows, “But whoever drinks of the water that I will give him shall never thirst; but the water that I will give him will become in him a well of water springing up to eternal life” (John 4:14).


1. Leon Morris, The Gospel According To John. The New International Commentary On The New Testament, F.F. Bruce, ed. (Grand Rapids, Michigan Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1971), p. 213.

2. Stanley M. Horton, What The Bible Says About The Holy Spirit (Springfield, Missouri: Gospel Publishing House, 1976), p, 114.

Study Questions

1. How was the Holy Spirit involved in the conception of Jesus?