Oddly enough, a study of the Holy Spirit in the Gospels introduces us to both the first and the last word of the New Testament concerning this doctrine. In the first three Gospels (called the Synoptic Gospels since their contents for the most part are held in common and can therefore be arranged in parallel columns on a page and “viewed together,” i.e., synoptically) the emphasis is primarily on the pre-pentecostal aspects of the Holy Spirit’s work in Jesus’ own life and mission. In the Fourth Gospel, on the other hand, the teaching, though drawn against the background of the earthly ministry, is anticipatory of the future pentecostal work of the Holy Spirit in believers. In the Synoptics the Old Testament idea of the Spirit is in process of fuller definition in the life of Jesus himself. In the Gospel of John the function of the Holy Spirit after Pentecost receives its definitive treatment in the New Testament.
The Synoptics And The Fourth Gospel
No serious study of the Holy Spirit in the Gospels can overlook this basic difference between the Synoptics and John. In the Synoptics it is the earthly Jesus who lives and fulfills his ministry in the power of the Holy Spirit; little is said of either the present or the future relation of the Holy Spirit to Jesus’ disciples. In John the situation is just the reverse; little is said of the Holy Spirit’s relation to the incarnate Jesus, while much is made of what the Holy Spirit’s coming will mean in the experience of Jesus’ disciples and the church.
This is not to say that these emphases are in any sense contradictory. Yet the witness of the Synoptics and that of the Fourth Gospel have often been set over against one another in contrast. Interpreters have spoken of the silence of the Synoptics regarding the Holy Spirit and then have questioned whether the ample references of John have any basis in historical fact. E. F. Scott, for example, bluntly concluded that since the Synoptics have little to say of the pentecostal work of the Holy Spirit in believers, Jesus could not have said what John attributes to him. E. K. Barrett’s scholarly work, The Holy Spirit in the Gospel Tradition, is written with this same general assumption.
This raises the problem of the relation of the Synoptics to John. The history of this problem in modern criticism reflects a wide variety of opinion and a great deal of inconclusiveness. Even evangelical thinking on the issue has been unstable. F. L. Godet, the nineteenth-century evangelical, convinced of the superior historical worth of John, spoke of the Fourth Gospel as supplementing and correcting the history of the Synoptics. The more common idea in the past, however, has been that the Synoptics are more historical, while John is more interpretative.
Current studies recognize that the interpretative element is not peculiar to John. Stress falls on the fact that none of the Gospels are mere biographies, but that the Synoptics as well as John were written as witnesses intending to elicit faith in Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God.
Current study also stresses that the Fourth Gospel is of more historical value than once was supposed. Writers of no less prominence than Vincent Taylor, E. C. Hoskyns and W. F. Howard argue for the historicity of the Johannine teaching concerning the Holy Spirit. They show that the Synoptics leave room for and even prepare the way for the Johannine emphasis (e.g., Matt. 10:20; Mark 13:11; Luke 12:12; 24:49). Thus the essential unity of the different emphases of these two sections of the New Testament writings increasingly is being recognized.)
The Teaching Of The Synoptics
The Earthly Jesus as the Bearer of the Holy Spirit. Critical scholarship, preoccupied with the problem of the alleged silence of the Synoptics regarding the Holy Spirit, tends to obscure the real contribution they make to the doctrine. The burden of the Synoptic teaching is that Jesus fulfills his earthly ministry in the possession and power of the Holy Spirit.
In making this emphasis the Synoptics draw heavily on the Old Testament, where a central place is given to the Spirit in Israel’s eschatological hope. Israel longs for the day when the Spirit will be permanently and universally outpoured. In contrast to Old Testament leaders, who experienced the Spirit only provisionally, there is the promise of the shoot of the stem of Jesse on whom the Spirit will remain (Isa. 11:2). This permanent endowment of the Messiah with the Spirit is particularly prominent in the Servant prophecies: “Behold my servant whom I uphold; … I have put my Spirit upon him; … He shall not fail nor be discouraged” (Isa. 42:1–4; cf. 62:1, 2). The Synoptics interpret this hope as fulfilled in Jesus (Luke 4:18; Matt. 12:18).
Conservatives have neglected the Synoptic emphasis, possibly because it appears to detract from Christ’s essential deity. If his power is mediated by the Spirit, then is he really the Son of God? That this is not a real problem is evident from the fact that the earliest of the Synoptics, Mark, makes a special point at the outset of his Gospel of the close connection between Jesus’ unique Sonship and his special anointing with the Holy Spirit.
Mark commences, “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (1:1). First he takes up the ministry of the Baptist, stressing particularly that he fulfills the Old Testament prophecy of a way preparer. Once introduced, the Baptist predicts concerning the coming Messiah, “He shall baptize you with the Holy Spirit” (1:8). Thus the Son of God as Messiah is linked with the age of the Spirit which he inaugurates.
In the account of Jesus’ baptism (1:10, 11), this connection between Sonship and the Spirit is even more explicit. Here, as G. S. Hendry suggests in The Holy Spirit in Christian Theology, the stress is not on the descent of the Holy Spirit, but on the manifestation of Jesus both as anointed by the Spirit and as Son. It is not that Jesus had previously been without the Spirit, nor that he was not the Son until the baptism. But now, as he inaugurates his public ministry, these facts are revealed.
Mark says that after the baptism the Holy Spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted by Satan (1:11; in Luke 4:1, 14, the Spirit’s role is more fully described). There is nothing here of a docetic Christ who had no real moral victories to win. Instead, the ethical reality of Jesus’ special sonship is seen precisely at this point: Jesus is the unique possessor of the Holy Spirit.
Mark 3:7–30, one of the central passages of the Gospel, stresses this still further. Here Jesus’ power over the unclean spirits wrings from them the confession that he is the Son of God. Then Jesus withdraws from the multitudes for the ordaining of the twelve, that he might send them out to preach and to cast out devils. Later, scribes from Jerusalem charge that Jesus casts out demons because he is demon-possessed. Jesus responds by asking, “How can Satan cast out Satan?” and asserts that he has already bound Satan (in the wilderness temptation experience?) and is now spoiling his house. But, most significant, verses 29, 30 teach that to attribute to Satan Jesus’ power over demons is unforgivable blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. Why is this so? Obviously because Jesus casts out demons in the power of the Spirit (Matt. 12:28; cf. also Luke 4:18; Matt. 12:18). Jesus reveals not only the hidden depths of the more-than-human struggle in which he is engaged, but also the fact that his power as the Messiah is the power of the Holy Spirit.
Matthew and Luke trace the relation between the Spirit and Jesus’ special sonship back further than Mark, by recounting Jesus’ miraculous conception by the Holy Spirit and his virgin birth. It is not necessary to set Mark over against Matthew and Luke in a contradictory manner, as criticism does when it suggests that the story of the miraculous conception is suspect since Mark does not mention it. The argument from silence must always be the weakest sort of argument. Suffice it to say that one whose public life is as unique as is the life of the Son of God portrayed by Mark must have been miraculously conceived, as recorded by Matthew and Luke. Conception by the Holy Spirit fits a life uniquely endued with the Holy Spirit.
These references do not exhaust the Synoptic teaching, but they do mark out its main emphasis, which is also supported by the rest of the New Testament (Acts 10:38; Rom. 8:11; Heb. 9:14). Jesus, the anointed of God, is the unique possessor of the Holy Spirit. Before the Holy Spirit is poured out at Pentecost, he is first defined by the life and mission of the incarnate Jesus. Hereafter the Holy Spirit is known as the Spirit of Christ. For believers Christ-likeness and the power of the Spirit have now become synonymous.
The Teaching Of The Fourth Gospel
The Glorified Christ as the Bestower of the Holy Spirit. In the Fourth Gospel, although there are suggestive references to the earthly Jesus as the bearer of the Holy Spirit (1:32, 33; 3:34; 6:63), the emphasis falls on the glorified Christ as the one who bestows the Holy Spirit on his followers. Two passages are of special importance.
In John 7:37–39 Jesus stands on the last day of the Feast of the Tabernacles to offer living water to those who believe. John then explains editorially that Jesus is referring to the Holy Spirit whom believers were yet to receive as the gift of the glorified Christ. The association of ideas here is important; the living water, the Holy Spirit and Pentecost are explicitly connected. This throws light on Jesus’ interview with Nicodemus in John 3, where Jesus speaks of being born of the Spirit and of water; on the interview with the Samaritan woman in John 4, where he speaks of the living water and of worship in spirit and in truth; and on the discourse on Jesus as the living bread in John 6. In each of these instances Jesus’ teaching is projected forward to experiences that were realized by believers only after Pentecost.
John’s climactic teaching is in the great Farewell Discourse, chapters 14–16. In this discourse, delivered in the upper room on the eve of the crucifixion, and recorded only by John, there are five sayings relating to the work of the Holy Spirit: 14:16, 17; 14:25, 26; 15:26, 27; 16:5–11; and 16:12–15. Two distinctively Johannine terms for the Holy Spirit are used in these passages: the Paraclete (or Helper) and the Spirit of truth. These terms, taken in context, constitute the clearest teaching in the New Testament of the personality of the Holy Spirit as the third person of the Trinity.
In these Paraclete sayings, it is the glorified Christ who sends the Spirit, and the mission of the Holy Spirit when he comes is to guide believers into the truth as it is in Christ. Jesus speaks of the “yet many things” that he would say to the disciples, but explains that he cannot say them at the time because they are not yet able to receive them (16:13). He promises that the Holy Spirit will speak these things when he comes.
G. S. Hendry describes the work of the Paraclete in declaring the things of Christ as “unoriginal” and as “reproductive” only. But the best commentary on what Jesus did mean is the New Testament itself, for the New Testament is the record of the Paraclete’s work in leading the disciples into the truth of Christ. Even a cursory comparison of the parabolic and incomplete teaching of Jesus before his death with the clear, ample and discursive witness of the New Testament writings indicates that the work of the Spirit of truth is inadequately described as a reproduction, which is too suggestive of a mere remembrance of a departed Christ.
Jesus’ promise of the Paraclete has a further application which pertains to all believers. It suggests that the truth as it is in Christ, and as witnessed in the New Testament, has the dimension of the Spirit, i.e., that it remains ever new and that we never exhaust it by our interpretations. The living Christ continues to speak to believers and to his churches through the Scriptures by the Holy Spirit.
If the neglect of the Synoptic emphasis on the earthly Jesus as the unique possessor of the Spirit has been costly in inadequate Christological formulations, and in the failure, as in Pentecostal sects, to define the Holy Spirit in terms of his relation to Jesus Christ, how tragic has been the neglect of the Johannine stress on the Spirit of truth as the gift of the glorified Christ. Our present ignorance and impotence are no proof that Jesus has not sent the Holy Spirit as he promised, but they are proof of our neglect of the Spirit. How much there is yet that the living Christ would speak through the Word by the Paraclete!
W. Boyd Hunt has been Professor of Theology at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Fort Worth, since 1953. After teaching on the Seminary faculty from 1944–46, he became pastor of the large First Baptist Church of Houston from 1946–53, and then he returned to the campus. He holds the A.B. degree from Wheaton College and the Th.D. degree from Southwestern. He is author of Sixteen to One, a missions study book.
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