The Gospels give us very little information on how Jesus lived and spoke within his hometown of Nazareth. His upbringing there is mentioned but never described (Luke 4:16). He scarcely performs any miracles when he returns there (Mark 6:5); he is, in fact, spurned and rejected in Nazareth (Matt 13:53–58). And yet, Jesus chose to make Nazareth the site of one of the most significant and enigmatic declarations of his early ministry. As the community was gathered in the synagogue for Sabbath, he said: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me” (Luke 4:18).
What did Jesus mean?
Why did Jesus, the Son of God, need the Spirit of the Lord to be upon him? Is it even possible to imagine that the Spirit might not accompany Jesus? How do these words from an Old Testament prophecy relate to the life and ministry of Christ?
Context in Luke
Context always helps, so first we’ll look at the surrounding passage, and then we’ll see the way in which Jesus uses an Old Testament phrase to signal both what he was doing as Messiah and how he was going to do it.
Here is the passage in the CSB in Logos:
Before we can move to the Old Testament background of this saying and Jesus’s use of it, three details relevant to the portrayal of Jesus in the Gospel of Luke stand out.
1. Notice the “anointed” language
The first readers of Luke would not have missed that Jesus’s regular title, Christ (χριστός, christos) is here explained. The Lord has anointed (ἔχρισέν, echrisen) Jesus. While various branches of Judaism in the first century would have expected a Messiah, an Anointed One, the term would not have had a clear meaning to Luke’s gentile audience. Here it would begin to make some sense. Whatever it means to say that Jesus is Anointed, or χριστός (christos), it at least means that he was set apart by God with specific power for a specific purpose.
2. Notice what that purpose is
Jesus is anointed and sent “to proclaim the good news,” the gospel. This good news is particularly for the poor. It is also liberty for captives and the oppressed, and new sight for the blind. Of all the Gospels, Luke’s is most concerned with the poor and the oppressed. All those who are pushed to the margins of society by their status and suffering are lifted up in the Gospel of Luke; Jesus extends a particular care to them. Even in Luke’s version of the Beatitudes, we find not the familiar phrase from Matthew, “Blessed are the poor in spirit” (Matt 5:3), but rather the more this-worldly, “Blessed are you who are poor” (Luke 6:20).
3. Notice Jesus’s proclamation
As the congregation eagerly looked to Jesus for some comment on the Scripture reading, he proclaimed, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:21). Unlike in Matthew, the explicit fulfillment of Scripture is rarely mentioned in Luke (Luke 21:22; 22:37; 24:44), and this is the only time it’s commented on before Jesus is in Jerusalem for the final week of his earthly ministry. This passage, then, provides the scriptural background for all that Jesus does and fulfills in this portion of the Gospel. Jesus’s ministry in Galilee is an outworking of what a particular passage from Isaiah says about him.
Old Testament context
So what does Isaiah, the prophet Jesus quotes, actually say?
Here’s the passage Jesus quotes:
In terms of the things that Jesus does in his earthly ministry, the prophecy is a clear fit: Jesus does go on to give sight back to the blind. He does preach the good news of the kingdom to the poor. He does heal and restore and proclaim as he travels around Galilee and towards Jerusalem.
But what about that first line of the prophecy, the part Jesus highlights?
Isaiah’s prophecy speaks of a coming Anointed One upon whom the Spirit of the Lord rests. While we may be used to Holy Spirit language in the New Testament, particularly in the letters of Paul, referring to the Holy Spirit working within a person, that is not what we have here. Instead, a distinct Old Testament theme is developed, one which long preceded Isaiah.
The phrase “The Spirit of the Lord” appears only twenty-three times in the Old Testament, and as it does, three particular contexts keep popping up: power to judge, power to rule, and power to prophesy.
Unsurprisingly, in the book of Judges, the Spirit of the Lord is associated with individuals fulfilling their ministry as judge (Judg 3:10; 6:34; 11:29; 13:25; 14:6, 19; 15:14). That is, the Spirit of the Lord is described as being “upon” someone, as “clothing” someone, or as “rushing upon” them—and subsequently, they are enabled to do something they otherwise would not be able to do. This phrase occurs most in the story of Samson, who repeatedly receives supernatural strength to defeat the enemies of God’s people and deliver them from oppression. But the phrase also occurs before the unlikely victories of Gideon (Judg 6:34) and Jephthah (Judg 11:29).
On each occasion, the same pattern holds. God’s people are oppressed and need deliverance. The deliverance that they need goes beyond the scope of merely human resources: they cannot accomplish it on their own. God then raises up a judge whose main job (contrary to what the English title might imply) is not to decide between claims in cases but to set God’s people free, and to ensure that God’s people can live in freedom as long as the judge lives. This judge, when faced with insuperable odds, is then cloaked with the Spirit of the Lord. This is a sign of God’s special provision to enable the judge to accomplish the otherwise impossible task set out for that judge. This enabling also, unlike the action of the Holy Spirit described in the epistles, doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with the righteousness of the judge. Samson, Jephthah, and Gideon are all deeply flawed individuals God used to deliver his people. God chooses an individual to be the savior of his people, and in the face of impossible odds, the Spirit of the Lord rests upon that savior and enables him to set the people of God free.
It should be easy to see how this language of the Spirit “coming upon” various individuals ties in to Isaiah’s prophecy and Jesus’s claim to fulfill it. Jesus was sent by God to save his people, to deliver them from oppression, to set them free from their bondage. No mere human strength could accomplish these salvations, so the Spirit of the Lord clothed Jesus to enable him to carry out his delivering ministry, to rescue his people. (You may at this point still wonder why Jesus, the Son of God, needs the clothing of the Spirit. We will discuss this question when we return to Luke.)
Yet this judge-like deliverance is not all the phrase we’re examining implies.
The book of Samuel begins with the last judge, and in this book, the phrase “the Spirit of the Lord is upon” gains a new meaning. It is, surprisingly, not Samuel who is said to receive power from the Spirit of the Lord; it’s Saul and David. The syntax often stays the same—the Spirit of the Lord “rushes upon” Saul and upon David—but the purpose is different in each case. In these instances, the rushing of the Spirit of the Lord has two effects: it makes Saul or David the right person to rule God’s people as king (1 Sam 10:6; 16:3) and it gives the ability to prophesy (1 Sam 10:6; 2 Sam 23:2). The author of Samuel is also careful to show that this is always a good thing. When Saul falls out of God’s favor through his disobedience, the Spirit of the Lord leaves him and an explicitly harmful spirit comes instead (1 Sam 16:14). Perhaps along the same lines, when Saul and those whom he sends are placed into a prophetic frenzy to prevent them from doing harm to David, the author uses slightly different wording, recording that it was the “Spirit of God” that came upon them (1 Sam 19:18–24).1
Significantly for the passages in Isaiah and Luke, it is only after Saul and David are anointed as king (1 Sam 10:1; 16:3)2 that the Spirit of the Lord rushes upon them. God’s king over God’s people must have the Spirit of the Lord upon him, enabling him to rule as God decrees. Beyond that, the additional gift of prophecy given to both Saul and David further tells us that God’s king must be able to speak God’s words.
Again, all this has relevance to Luke’s Gospel. Jesus is the “horn of salvation for us in the house of [God’s] servant David” (Luke 1:69), who will receive “the throne of his father David, and [who] will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of [whose] kingdom there will be no end” (Luke 1:32–33). He also comes speaking God’s words. From his childhood, he has amazing perception into the things of God (1:46–47), and early in his ministry he calls himself a prophet (Luke 4:24). The Spirit of the Lord, then, is upon Jesus, the rightful king who will bring righteousness and proclaim the Word of God.
Other Old Testament books
In the rest of the Old Testament, when the Spirit of the Lord “comes upon” someone, the Spirit empowers and validates particular words and actions of prophets. It can be used to describe sources of authentic and authoritative prophecy (1 Kgs 22:24; 2 Chron 18:23), or just that which enables prophetic speech (2 Chron 20:14; Ezek 11:15; Mic 3:8). Somewhat strangely, three times it refers to God’s power by which he teleports a prophet from one place to another (1 Kgs 18:12; 2 Kgs 2:16; Ezek 37:1).3 To summarize these passages, we can say that when the Spirit of the Lord empowers a prophet, that prophet is either given words to speak or supernatural powers to receive visions or to support certain words.
Here too, we see echoes of Jesus’s role as a prophet. Jesus not only spoke true words from God, but he was given supernatural power to authenticate those words. The miracles that Jesus performed had at least a twofold purpose: they did good to the people who were their immediate recipients, and they gave weight to the words he spoke. If the one who claims to forgive sins can also raise the paralytic from his bed, people should be inclined to listen more to his claims.
Finally we return to Isaiah, our last stop before getting back to Luke. In Isaiah, the Spirit of the Lord works upon an individual in two passages: Isaiah 61:1 (the passage read by Jesus in Luke 4) and Isaiah 11:2. The latter passage is a prophecy of the coming branch of Jesse, the Davidic Messiah who will establish a righteous kingdom over all the earth, who will have all right understanding and wisdom, who will judge rightly and deliver the poor, who will rule by the rod which proceeds from his mouth. We should see in Isaiah 11 not only close overlaps with the declaration of Isiah 61, but also the culmination of all the other figures upon whom the Spirit of the Lord rushed in the Old Testament. This figure will judge and deliver. He will rule forever in righteousness. The rod of his mouth and the breath of his lips—that is, his prophetic and powerful words—will go forth and strike the earth. Isaiah 11 tells us that there will come a man on whom the Spirit of the Lord rests, who will be a perfect judge and king and prophet. Isaiah 61 looks forward to that man declaring his arrival and purpose.
Luke shows us when he has arrived.
Jesus’s usage in Luke
When Jesus opens the scroll of Isaiah and declares that he is the one on whom the Spirit of the Lord rests, he is telling his hearers—and Luke’s readers—that the foretold deliverer of Isaiah, the perfect judge and king and prophet, has come.
But why does Jesus need the Spirit in the first place?
While the Gospels are clear that Jesus is the Son of God, and thus God (Luke in particular most associates Jesus with the name/title of the God of Israel, “the Lord”), they are equally clear that Jesus is truly human. Much of what Jesus did, he did as a man. The incarnation, an event which Luke spends more time on than any other evangelist, is not incidental. Luke makes it clear that Jesus was truly human: he grew and learned like any other human (Luke 2:40), he slept (Luke 8:23), he got hungry (4:2). While in the life of Jesus we see the life of the Son of God, what we see is the life of the Son of God made human for us. And just as God sent humans to judge, to rule, and to prophesy throughout the Old Testament, so too did he send a human to be the ultimate deliverer.
As a perfect man who perfectly relied on God, many of the things Jesus did during his ministry were not by his own strength, but in the strength that God supplied through the Spirit. It is by the Spirit that Jesus faced and returned from temptation (Luke 4:1,14); by the Spirit he conducted his ministry in Galilee (Luke 4:14); by the Spirit he rejoiced and uttered speech to God (Luke 10:21). Power from the Lord comes to Jesus to heal (Luke 5:17), and it is by the “finger of God” that he cast out demons (Luke 11:20). While Jesus did have power in himself, in his humanity he relied on his Father through the Spirit.
When Jesus said that this Scripture was fulfilled, that the Spirit of the Lord was upon him and that he was anointed to proclaim the good news to the poor, he declared who he was, what he came to do, and how he would do it.
Who was Jesus? God’s chosen savior, judge, king, and prophet all in one.
What did he come to do? He was sent to redeem God’s people and establish God’s good kingdom.
How would he do it? With the supernatural power that God provided through his Spirit.
- What Did Mary Know? Quite a Bit, It Turns Out
- What Is the Septuagint and Is It Valuable for Bible Study?
- The Ascension of Jesus: What It Is, Why It’s Often Overlooked & More
- This is in line with the previous depiction of when Saul was caught up in another seemingly ecstatic prophetic experience in 1 Samuel 10:10. This doesn’t suggest that the rushing in of “the Spirit of the Lord” is good and that of “the Spirit of God” is bad, or even an intrinsically different experience. Rather the alteration of terms, not the terms themselves, is significant. The Spirit of the Lord coming upon someone seems to be reserved for different, and unambiguously positive, spiritual empowerment in Samuel.
- The Old Greek translation of these passages; https://www.logos.com/grow/use-septuagint-bible-study/ ) uses the same verbal-root related to Christ: kechriken in 1 Sam 10:1 and chriseis in 1 Sam 16:3. The difference in prefixes and suffixes is due to the different verb tenses.
- This use of “the Spirit of the Lord” pops up again in Acts 8:39, in which Philip suddenly finds himself with the Ethiopian eunuch. Obviously, this is not the main use of the concept in Luke; but, interestingly, Jesus does seem to have the ability to disappear and appear wherever he wills after the resurrection (Luke 24:31, 36).