In this session of Theology on Tap we engaged the movement of God’s Spirit in the books of Luke and Acts, with a focus on the Pentecost event as a catalyst for the community of faith.
We did not engage the Holy Spirit in a doctrinal way. The doctrine of the Holy Spirit, specifically in its relationship with the Holy Trinity, did not develop until after the time of the writing of Luke and Acts.
This discussion was grounded in the movement of the Spirit of God that is presented in Luke and Acts.
For this discussion I worked with the book Prophetic Jesus, Prophetic Church, by Luke Timothy Johnson.
“The dominant characteristic of pneuma (Spirit) in the New Testament is its association with power (see Romans 1:4; 8:2-26; 15:19; 1 Corinthians 2:4; 12:3-13; 2 Corinthians 3:17-18; Galatians 3:5; 5:25), a power that elevates human capacities for knowing and speaking, touches humans in the capabilities of thinking and willing, and transforms humans into the image of Christ (2 Corinthians 3:17-18).” (Johnson, 52)
2 Corinthians 3:17-18
“Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. 18 And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.”
We encounter this characteristic of the Spirit beginning with Jesus in the Gospel of Luke, moving into the community that Jesus starts in the Gospel and in Acts, continuing through the work of Paul and his associates in Acts, and still at work in our midst today.
Jesus promises his disciples that they will be “clothed with power from on high” in both Luke 24:49 and "But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth" in Acts 1:8.
Movement of the Spirit in Luke/Acts
The narrative arc of Luke/Acts is important to understanding the movement of the Spirit. The author makes important statements using setting as a guide. From the perspective of the ruling powers at the time of Jesus, and Luke, the center of the world is Rome. Rome is the light. Galilee and the locations of the ministry of Jesus are on the margins of the world. To the Jewish people, the center of the world is Jerusalem - the center of political, economic, and religious life of the people.
Luke begins the Gospel on the margins of both - in Judea - on the margins. The ministry of Jesus will move him to the center of the Jewish world, but still at the margins of the Roman understanding.
The book of Acts begins in Jerusalem, still on the margins according to those in power. But Jesus promises his disciples, “…you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8).” The movement of the Spirit will take the community of faith from the center of the world, according to the Jews, and move them into the margins. It’s a radical reversal for the status quo.
The light is not in fact Rome. The ultimate power is not in Rome. The power is at the margins, in the movement of God’s Spirit through Jesus and through the community of faith.
The Spirit’s Movement through Jesus
From the beginning, the Spirit is a major character in the Gospel of Luke.
The Spirit is present with Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist, who was thought to be barren. John is the forerunner of Jesus - the one who prepares the way.
The Spirit is present with Mary, the mother of Jesus - “The angel said to her, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. 36 And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. 37 For nothing will be impossible with God.’ (Luke 1:35-37)”
The movement of the Spirit is present from the beginning of Jesus’ earthly ministry - the catalyst of his work in this world. We encounter this in his baptism.
Luke 3:21-22 - "Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, 22 and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.'"
“The reader is to understand from this point forward that the power at work in Jesus as God’s son is the power of God’s Spirit (Johnson, 57).”
This sets the tone for the entire Gospel. Jesus’ ministry unfolds through the power of the Spirit.
The movement of the Spirit, and it’s power in the life of Jesus, is articulated four times by Luke in chapter four.
Luke 4:1-2 - "Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, 2 where for forty days he was tempted by the devil."
Luke 4:14-15 - "Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. 15 He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone."
Luke 4:16-21 - "When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17 and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:
18 'The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.'"
The life and ministry of Jesus is driven and empowered by the Spirit. This carries throughout the Gospel, all the way to the cross and the empty tomb of Easter. God’s power is at work in Jesus.
The movement of the Spirit in the followers of Jesus.
It is this same spirit that is promised to the disciples in Luke 24:49 and Acts 1:8. This power is poured out upon the disciples in the event of Pentecost. The world has never been the same.
The Spirit moves at Pentecost and the disciples proclaim the story of God’s life-giving work through Jesus to all those who are present. Those of various languages are able to hear the Gospel proclaimed. That’s the power of the Spirit.
The Spirit drives the actions of the community of faith. It moves through Peter in his public witness of Jesus Christ - “Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them, “Rulers of the people and elders…” Acts 4:8
The Spirit moved through new members of the community as the Word of God spreads - “What they said pleased the whole community, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit, together with Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch.” Acts 6:5
The Spirit met Philip in the wilderness, in his encounter with the Ethiopian eunuch - “Then the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over to this chariot and join it.” 30 So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” 31 He replied, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him.” Acts 8:29-31 The eunuch is baptized because of this encounter.
Saul, renamed Paul, receives the Spirit in his call from Jesus to proclaim the Gospel - “So Ananias went and entered the house. He laid his hands on Saul and said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” 18 And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored. Then he got up and was baptized, 19 and after taking some food, he regained his strength.” Acts 9:17-19
The movement of the Spirit, the power of the living God, is present throughout the spreading of the early church. This movement has not stopped. The story is still being written. We are continuing to experience the writing of this story with our own lives.
The movement of the Spirit is still at work today. We have been empowered by this same Spirit. The Spirit moves through us to write new chapters to God’s story.
We are a part of this movement!
A few parting thoughts from Luke Timothy Johnson.
“God as Holy Spirit moves ahead of human action and calculation and is capable of doing new things that are beyond human capacity or understanding (Johnson, 65).”
“At the most basic level, this perception (Holy Spirit as the symbol for the living God) leads the church - and every individual within the assembly - to grasp that the church is not answerable to itself or to its traditions, but to the presence and power that presses upon it at every moment (Johnson, 66).”
“If paying attention to the Holy Spirit’s work in the world is risk-filled, the failure to recognize the work of God in the world is more dangerous by far (Johnson, 67).”
“Luke’s point, however, is that God works through human agents, discloses his (sic) will through human spokespersons, finds expression for God’s spirit through human bodies (Johnson, 67).”