The figures are hardly inspiring, but they are indicative. A .350 batting average is far more impressive than a .225 batting average. A basketball shooting percentage of 50%, instead of 30%, can be the difference between qualifying for the championship game and making a long comeback home. And most readers know the difference between 95% and 65% on an exam. By numbers, pneumatic figures much more prominently in Paul’s letters than in the Gospels.
However, the numbers don’t tell the whole story. The Holy Spirit, grasped from the point of view of the Gospels, is rare, astonishing, unconventional same, because the Spirit becomes entangled in the tortured – literally, torture — Life of Jesus of Nazareth. The Spirit is part of a lifelong drama, made up of conflicts whose flames Jesus fanned.
In remembering his story, the authors of the four gospels remember that the uncommon presence of the Holy Spirit passed through the life of Jesus. Spirit is, in a real sense, the tensive presence that holds their stories together. Even before Jesus took a step, some remember that the Holy Spirit inspired Elizabeth, Mary, Zechariah and John the Baptist (still in Elizabeth’s womb) to pray or praise or meet – Mary, at minus – pregnant. They remember the descent of the Holy Spirit at the baptism of Jesus, the power of the Holy Spirit in the desert, the terrible warning of Jesus concerning blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, his assurance of the Holy Spirit for the martyrs and even of the promise of the Holy Spirit after his death.
The four gospels, of course, are not homogeneous. No one has smoothed out the folds of history so that the four gospels speak with one voice, but the presence of the Spirit with Jesus is decisive in the four gospels. It is almost inconceivable, for example, to imagine the life of Jesus without the descent of the Holy Spirit at his baptism. This moment was so crucial, so critical to what was to unfold that the descent of the dove is one of those rare scenes that appear in all four gospels.
The impact of the Holy Spirit on Jesus is essential for all four gospels, and recognizing that the life of Jesus gives the Holy Spirit a unique tenor that appears nowhere else in the annals of early Christian literature is equally essential. .
The impact of the story of Jesus on the representation of the Holy Spirit in the Gospels is dramatic: there is only one moment in the whole life of Jesus when he rejoices in the Holy Spirit, and that in only one of the Gospels (Luke 10, 21). A moment of joy. A glimpse of joy.
“Jesus understands the Holy Spirit in terms other than joy and gladness.”
When the Holy Spirit is carried away in the currents that would lead to the death of Jesus, a certain sadness, a presentiment emerges. Jesus never engenders a naive hope of tranquility. Determined instead to ensure the faithfulness of his disciples after his death, Jesus understands the Holy Spirit in terms other than joy and gladness. Loyalty unto death, yes. Reliability, sure. A demanding imitation of Jesus, absolutely. These are some of the unmistakable marks of the Holy Spirit in the Gospels.
The Gospels offer what is not presented elsewhere in the New Testament, where the fruits of the Holy Spirit are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, meekness and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23) and where the gifts of the Spirit are a word of wisdom, a word of knowledge, of faith, of healing, of miracles, of prophecy, of discerning of spirits, of different kinds of tongues, and of the interpretation of tongues (1 Corinthians 12:8-10).
There is, of course, some overlap between the letters of Paul and the stories of Jesus. For example, there is the inspiration of a message centered on the cross (1 Corinthians 2:1-5). There is the association of joy with the Holy Spirit in the Pauline letters (Romans 14:17; 15:13; Galatians 5:22; 1 Thessalonians 1:6) and the words that express joy at the beginning of the Gospel of Luke (Luke 1:41, 67), as well as Jesus’ unique example of rejoicing in the Spirit (Luke 10:21). There is also a connection between the Holy Spirit and healing (1 Corinthians 12:9), as in the Gospels and Acts (Matthew 12:9-21; Acts 10:37-38).
“The Holy Spirit shows up in the strangest situations and the most confusing teachings of Jesus.”
Yet those who remembered the impact of the Holy Spirit on Jesus did not transform the Spirit into a source of joy, peace, patience and kindness or anything like speaking in tongues. Neither could they, bound as they were by the memory of Jesus – a memory that gave the Holy Spirit a darker tenor, a darker hue, eclipsed as it was by Jesus’ long obedience .
Refracted through the prism of the life and death of Jesus, the Holy Spirit thus appears in the strangest situations and the most disconcerting teachings of Jesus – in the stays in the desert, in a strange saying about scorpions and snakes, in confusing adages about being born from above and springing from below. The Gospels reveal an alien world of the Spirit, a world that mystifies, challenges and invigorates. It is the unconventional but ultimately inspiring world of the Holy Spirit – the Spirit of the Gospels.
Extract of An Unconventional God by Jack Levison, ©2020. Used with permission from Baker Publishing www.bakerpublishinggroup.com. Jack Levison holds the WJA Power Professorship in Old Testament Interpretation and Biblical Hebrew at the Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University. He is known for his groundbreaking work on the Holy Spirit and on both biblical and theological subjects.
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