The Holy Spirit Upon the Messiah: The Gospels’ Use of Isaiah

This post examines how the New Testament (NT) Gospel writers explicitly appropriated the Old Testament (OT) book of Isaiah’s pneumatology in their presentation of Jesus as the Messiah. A working assumption of this examination is that explicit quotations are the most prominent and clear markers of OT borrowing. By the time of Jesus, there was a widespread belief that the Messiah would be empowered by the Holy Spirit. The Gospel writers especially used Isaiah’s prophecies about the Spirit to show that Jesus was the expected Spirit-filled Messiah.

Because the Gospels are concerned with presenting Jesus as the Messiah, it is not surprising that the Gospel writers include OT quotes that predict the Spirit upon the Messiah. Less explicitly but just as significant, all four Gospels give an account of the Spirit descending upon Jesus at the commencement of his ministry. In the Spirit’s descent in the synoptics, most see an allusion to the Isaianic servant of 42:1 (with perhaps a shading of 61:1 in Luke).[1] Each Gospel has its own nuance with the common theme being the Holy Spirit rests on Jesus, fulfilling messianic expectations.

Photo credit to from Pixabay (208356 on Pexels)

In Matthew (3:16-17) and Luke (3:21-22), the Spirit’s descent upon Jesus (and the OT allusions) at the beginning of his ministry is given further treatment using explicit OT quotations. In Matthew, that quotation does not appear for some time and yet Matthew connects and builds on his earlier allusion. Matthew, more than any other Gospel, depicts Jesus’ baptism and receiving the Spirit in the midst of conflict with the Pharisees. When Isa 42:1-4 is explicitly quoted later in Matt 12:18-21 the Pharisees are not only opposing Jesus’ ministry they “conspired against him, as how to destroy him” (12:14). Matthew 12:15-21 reads:

But Jesus, aware of this, withdrew from there. Many followed Him, and He healed them all, and warned them not to tell who He was. This was to fulfill what was spoken through Isaiah the prophet: “BEHOLD, MY SERVANT WHOM I HAVE CHOSEN; MY BELOVED IN WHOM MY SOUL is WELL-PLEASED; I WILL PUT MY SPIRIT UPON HIM, AND HE SHALL PROCLAIM JUSTICE TO THE GENTILES. HE WILL NOT QUARREL, NOR CRY OUT; NOR WILL ANYONE HEAR HIS VOICE IN THE STREETS. A BATTERED REED HE WILL NOT BREAK OFF, AND A SMOLDERING WICK HE WILL NOT PUT OUT, UNTIL HE LEADS JUSTICE TO VICTORY AND IN HIS NAME THE GENTILES WILL HOPE.”  

Matthew 12:15-21 (NASB)

This quotation reminds the readers that Jesus is the Spirit-endowed servant Messiah. However, this OT concept is not reintroduced to make a pneumatological point but to explain the events at this juncture of Jesus’ ministry. David Turner posits three purposes for quoting Isa 42:1-4: 1) It explains why Jesus withdraws from conflict, not proclaiming his identity but quietly ministering to the weak. 2) As Jewish opposition increases, Matthew is gradually introducing the divine necessity (and receptivity) of the gentiles. 3) This quote sets up Jesus’ response to the Pharisees’ accusation (Matt 12:24) that Jesus performs miracles by the power of Beelzebub.[2]  If Turner is correct then the purposes for using Isa 42 are not primarily about pneumatology. Instead, Matthew shows how the Spirit enables Jesus’ messianic ministry to gently proceed towards the divine end despite loud opposition.

In contrast to the religious leaders’ false judgments about Jesus and his works, the use of Isa 42:1-4 highlights the just dealings of the Messiah. In its original context, Isa 42:1-4 emphasized the just decision that the servant will render on Yahweh’s behalf, more than the identity of the servant.[3] If Matthew is maintaining this emphasis then the public, false judgments of the Pharisees are self-condemning and contrast with the Spirit-filled Messiah quietly advancing God’s restorative plan (the subject of chs 40-55 in Isaiah) to the oppressed.[4]  

The surrounding material of Isa 42:1-4 describes God’s plan for restoration from exile; a restoration that will be greater than the exodus from Egypt.[5] This plan will be accomplished through Yahweh’s servant on behalf of Israel and this restoration will take on a world-wide scope to the nations (Isa 42:6; 49:6; 56:6-8; 66:18-23).

With this OT quotation Matthew reinforces the portrait of Jesus and his ministry as empowered by the Spirit and as a fulfillment of Isaiah’s new exodus theme. Such a portrait is based on understanding the servant of Isa 42 as the Messiah who would usher in justice (the other side of salvation) in the new age of restoration. Matthew’s appropriation of Isa 42 demonstrates that his understanding of the Messiah fits in the broad expectations for the Messiah in the second temple period.  

In Luke’s Gospel, the descent of the Holy Spirit on Jesus at the beginning of his ministry (Luke 3:22) is soon followed by an OT quotation that emphasizes Jesus’ spiritual empowerment.  After Jesus’ baptism, he is “full of the Holy Spirit” and is lead around “by the Spirit” in the wilderness for forty days (Luke 4:1). Jesus returns to Galilee “in the power of the Spirit” and begins his public ministry. Luke chooses to focus on Jesus in Nazareth and particularly on his scripture reading in the synagogue.  Luke 4:17-21 states:

And the book of the prophet Isaiah was handed to Him. And He opened the book and found the place where it was written, “THE SPIRIT OF THE LORD IS UPON ME, BECAUSE HE ANOINTED ME TO PREACH THE GOSPEL TO THE POOR. HE HAS SENT ME TO PROCLAIM RELEASE TO THE CAPTIVES, AND RECOVERY OF SIGHT TO THE BLIND, TO SET FREE THOSE WHO ARE OPPRESSED, TO PROCLAIM THE FAVORABLE YEAR OF THE LORD.” And He closed the book, gave it back to the attendant and sat down; and the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on Him. And He began to say to them, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

Luke 4:17-21 (NASB)

With this quotation of Isa 61:1-2 (with Isa 58:6 sandwiched in the middle) Jesus announces that the commencing of his ministry fulfills OT prophecy. The previous context confirms that Luke is very interested in depicting Jesus as being led by the Spirit. Now, Luke brings in the scriptural authority to not only support his depiction, but to demonstrate how Jesus fulfills these scriptures from the very beginning of his ministry. Essential to that fulfillment (in Luke’s reckoning) is that Jesus is anointed with the Spirit of God as he proclaims the good news of God. The “good news” of Isa 61:1-2 in its original context probably picked up renewal themes from Isa 40-55 that looked forward to a new exodus and world-wide salvation. Those predictions of renewal are announced in Isa 61 (and now here by Jesus) as coming to pass. This Spirit endowed individual will take up the task to announce comfort to the downtrodden since that task was neglected by those (Israel in Isa 49:1-4) to whom it was originally given.[6]

 With this quotation, Luke presents Jesus as the one who is taking up Yahweh’s task in the power of Yahweh’s Spirit. Having established Jesus as the Spirit-filled prophet of the good news, references to the Spirit greatly subside (only three more in the whole Gospel of Luke: 10:21; 11:13; 12:10) until Jesus promises “power from on high” in 24:49 and then the Spirit bursts on the scene in Acts.  At that point, Jesus (as the risen Messiah and Lord) gives his followers the Spirit to continue the proclamation of the now-realized good news.

 The two aforementioned OT quotes (and their supporting material/allusions) do not exhaust the NT writers’ associations between the Messiah and the Spirit. They do explicitly show a common pneumatological tenet, drawn from the OT, and applied to Jesus. That tenet is the Spirit of Yahweh will be upon the Messiah. The book of Isaiah, with its eschatological expectations of a messianic figure empowered by God’s Spirit, provided the perfect source texts.[7]  Space does not permit a discussion about this tenet itself being a development within the OT. Suffice it to say here that God’s empowering Spirit would necessarily be upon (in an even greater degree) the Messiah just as that Spirit was upon the kings and prophets of Yahweh’s choosing. By the time of Jesus, the OT idea that the Messiah would be filled with the Spirit had solidified further. When the NT writers appropriated OT scripture with this pneumatological/Christological tenet they drew from an existing interpretive stream within second temple Judaism. 


[1] See Matthew  3:13-17, Mark 1:11, and Luke 3:21-22 in CNTUOT (ed. G.K. Beale and D.A. Carson; Grand Rapids: Baker, 2007), 14, 122-128, 279- 281, respectively.  

[2] David Turner, Matthew (BECNT; Grand Rapids: Baker, 2008), 316-317.

[3] John Goldingay and David Payne, Isaiah 40-55 (Vol 1; ICC; New York: T & T Clark, 2006), 208-222.

[4] For a strong argument that Matthew maintains Isaiah 42’s emphasis on justice see: Richard Beaton, “Messiah and Justice: A Key to Matthew’s Use of Isaiah 42:1-4?” JSNT 75 (1999): 5-23.

[5] Bruce Waltke, An Old Testament Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007), 844-845.

[6] John Watts, Isaiah 34-66 (WBC 25; Rev. ed.; Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2005), 872-874.

[7] Wonsuk Ma, Until the Spirit Comes: The Spirit of God in the Book of Isaiah (JSOTSup271; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic, 1999), 203-213. Although I do not agree with Ma’s assumptions on the various layers of composition, his separate treatment of the canonical layer is helpful.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s