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Misplaced Expectations: The Ministry of the Holy Spirit as Presented in the Gospel of Luke

Sabbath School Commentary for discussion on May 16, 2015

Misplaced Expectations

“Have you received the Holy Spirit?” “Do you speak in tongues?” “How many persons have you healed?” “Do you perform miracles?” “Can you prophesy?” I have been asked questions like these repeatedly. To the first question I answer affirmatively, for as a Christian I can do nothing apart from Him. To the question on tongues I reply that I am fluent in Greek and English, have a fairly good grasp of biblical Greek, and a smattering of Spanish. This is not quite the answer they are expecting to hear, though in all honesty the Greek glossai, “tongues” simply means “languages” in both biblical and modern Greek (as also in KJV English). As for miracles, I haven’t done any, though the Lord has.

The questions noted above highlight a fundamental perception that permeates the worldview of millions of Christians. And it is a misplaced perception. It is a perception that assumes that the primary work of the Holy Spirit is to perform miracles and manifest other supernatural powers: Holy Spirit equals supernatural manifestations. Absence of such manifestations equals absence of the Holy Spirit in its fullness.

And it is also common in Adventist thinking. No, I am not thinking of Adventists with charismatic inclinations. I am talking about the average Adventist sitting on a church pew on a given Sabbath. There is this perception that when the latter rain comes, then we will witness miracles, and healings and other supernatural phenomena.

I believe in miracles. But I have a problem, a major one, when miracles are seen as the primary work of the Spirit. A short study of the Spirit in the gospel of Luke can be revealing in this respect.

The Holy Spirit in the Gospel of Luke

Luke mentions the word pneuma, “spirit”, 36 times. Of these, 12 are references to unclean, evil spirits. In 5 instances, pneuma refers to things other than the Holy Spirit. So we can remove both these groups of texts from our study. This leaves us with 19 references to the Holy Spirit.

 Six References to the Holy Spirit are Indeterminate

Of the 19 references, six do not tell us much about his work. For example, in Luke 3:16 John the Baptist announces that Jesus would baptize his followers with “the Holy Spirit and with fire.” But he does not spell out what this baptism entails.

Two Texts that Relate the Holy Spirit to Miracles

Of the 19 references to the Spirit, only two touch on the question of miracles.

The first is Luke 1:67: “And his father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied.” So, fullness of the Spirit leads to prophecy. But a brief read of his prophecy (Luke 1:68-79 indicates that it is not so much a “prophecy” about the future but more a retelling of what the angel had announced to him nine months earlier (Luke 1:13-17). So the “prophecy” in question is the Spirit bringing to Zechariah’s mind the angel’s words and prompting him to announce them.

The second is Luke 4:18-19: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor.” The context is Jesus’ first recorded sermon in the synagogue in Nazareth, where he announces his mission.

He announces that a part of his mission is to restore “sight to the blind.” It is debatable whether Jesus is talking here of physical sight to the physically blind, or spiritual sight to the spiritually blind (e.g. Luke 6:39). I am inclined to think of the latter. Jesus’ physical miracles touched much more than eyes, so in view, why limit this announcement to only the healing of the blind? Be that as it may, since Jesus healed both spiritual and physical blindness, it could be said that both are in view, and therefore here we have one reference that connects fullness of the Spirit with physical healings.

But even if we accept that physical healings are in view, we still need to note that the healing miracles in Luke 4:18-19 are placed alongside four references to other types of non-miraculous ministry: proclaim (a) good news to the poor, (b) liberty to the captives, (c) liberty to the oppressed, (d) the year of the Lord’s favor. So the physical miracles are only a small part of the ministry of the Spirit filled Jesus.

Twelve Texts Connect the Holy Spirit with Personal Spiritual Growth

In 12 texts the Holy Spirit is tied to personal spiritual growth and gospel ministry that involves the proclamation of the gospel.

In Luke 4:18-19, as already noted, the Holy Spirit is tied to the proclamation of good news to all classes of oppressed persons.

In Luke 1:15, 17 John the Baptist would be filled with the Spirit. While he was the greatest of the prophets (Matt 11:9, 11) to our knowledge he did no miracles.

In Luke 1:80 John the Baptist “became strong in spirit and he was in the wilderness until the day of his public appearance to Israel.” The phrase “in spirit” could also be translated “by the Spirit” meaning that it was the Holy Spirit that made John strong. John’s time in the wilderness perhaps anticipates Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness, a time of preparation for ministry in which he specifically refused to perform any miracles.

In Luke 2:25 a man by the name of Simeon is mentioned who “was righteous and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him.” Here, the presence of the Spirit is tied to being “righteous and devout.”

In Luke 3:22, the Holy Spirit descends upon Jesus at his baptism and Jesus is declared to be “beloved” to God the Father, and a person in whom the Father is “well pleased.”

In Luke 4:1 the Spirit is mentioned twice. First having just been baptized, Jesus is full of the Holy Spirit; second, it is the Spirit who leads him in the wilderness. Jesus performs no miracles in the wilderness; rather he battles and defeats Satan through the use of Scripture.

In Luke 4:14 Jesus still filled by the Holy Spirit returns from the wilderness into Galilee and begins to teach in the synagogues, “being glorified by all” (4:15). Fullness of the Spirit therefore leads to powerful and truth-filled teaching.

In Luke 10:21 Jesus “rejoiced in the Holy Spirit” because the Father had revealed the truths of heaven to the humble disciples rather than to the world’s wise and understanding.

In Luke 11:13, just like earthly parents give physical food to their children to nurture them, so also the heavenly Father will give the Holy Spirit to nurture his children.

Finally, in Luke 12:12 Jesus tells the disciples not to worry about what to say when they are dragged into synagogues and before rulers and authorities to be judged, because “the Holy Spirit will teach you in that very hour what you ought to say.” The fact that the Holy Spirit will “teach” could suggest that though the defense of the faith is given by the Spirit “in that very hour” the Spirit draws from knowledge accumulated in the mind of believers over time. The ministry of the Spirit therefore in this context is a teaching ministry.

Conclusion

I have no problem with miracles. Jesus did many and so did the disciples. The Holy Spirit can empower us in that direction as well. But to see the chief role of the Spirit as miracle-making, or indeed to assume that absence of miracles means absence of the Spirit means to grossly misunderstand his role. It means to build expectations which the Spirit is not obliged to fulfill.

The gospel of Luke, as this short study demonstrates, and Scripture in general, indicate that the main role of the Spirit is to prepare individuals for the kingdom, and to help such individuals prepare others for the kingdom. Where miracles come into play, they are a side-note to this key role. 

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