The Prior Work of the Spirit in Luke’s Portrayal

William P. Atkinson, , Regent's Theological College

The Prior Work of the Spirit in Luke’s Portrayal

William P. Atkinson*



Pentecostals tend to speak of two distinct receptions of the Spirit: a possibly silent one at the inception of Christian faith, and an evidenced one (a ‘Spirit-baptism’) as a potentially subsequent empowering for mission. For this they are frequently criticised by those, such as Max Turner,1 who point out, accurately, that neither Luke nor Paul, the NT’s two most prolific pneumatologists, writes of two distinct Spirit-receptions for Christians.2 However, although Luke reserves Spirit-reception language3 for what he describes primarily as a permanent4 empowering for prophetic and missionary proclamation (e.g. Lk.2:25-32; 3:22 with 4:18; Ac.2:4 with 1:8; 9:17-20; 10:44-46; 19:6), which can occur subsequent to repentance, faith, forgiveness, baptism and/or obedience (as at Ac.2:38; 5:32; 8:12,16; 19:2), he does sometimes implicitly indicate that the Spirit is directly5 at work in someone prior to what Luke calls that person’s reception of the Spirit.6


The Spirit at Work in Jesus

Such implications can be seen first in the life of Jesus. Luke records no reception of the Spirit by Christ until after the latter was baptised by John (Lk.3:22). It is of course true that Luke presents him as conceived by the Spirit, but it must be borne in mind that Luke declares this to be the result of an action of the Holy Spirit upon Mary, not upon Jesus himself (Lk.1:35). Also, although Jesus was already called ‘Christ’ before the Jordan anointing (Lk.2:11,26), this must be understood as a proleptic title rather than as a statement of action already achieved (on the same basis, ‘Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you: he is Christ the Lord’ [Lk.2:11] is not to be understood as conveying the idea that Jesus had already worked salvation). It is thus not true to Luke’s narration to say, as Turner does,7 that Jesus first ‘received’ the Holy Spirit from His mother’s womb. However, was the Spirit at work in Jesus’ life prior to his Jordan experience?

            The first two chapters of Luke’s gospel are crafted to indicate that Jesus was greater than John.8 Given the deliberate portrayal of Jesus’ superiority, it is perhaps surprising that, while John ‘grew and became strong pneumati’ (Lk.1:80), Jesus only ‘grew and became strong, being filled with wisdom’ (Lk.2:40). We might at least expect Luke here to tell us that Jesus, too, was growing in the Spirit. Luke is avoiding pneuma terminology in the case of Jesus, but not in the case of John. This might be because John had already received the Spirit (Lk.1:15), and Jesus had not. However, Luke is not avoiding mention of a divine activity (filling with wisdom) which he is happy on other occasions to attribute to the Spirit (e.g. Ac.6:3;9 15:28). The same terminological caution but conceptual freedom is seen at Luke 2:52, where Jesus is said to grow ‘in wisdom’.10

            In one other case prior to his reception of the Spirit was Jesus the object of divine activity which elsewhere Luke probably attributes to the Spirit. At the age of twelve, Jesus entered into debate with the teachers in the temple. Two points are relevant. Everyone was ‘amazed at his understanding and his answers’ (Lk.2:47). This was further evidence of the wisdom which we might elsewhere expect Luke to associate explicitly with the work of the Spirit. And when challenged by his mother, who called Joseph his father (Lk.2:48), Jesus was aware that God was his father (Lk.2:49). It is not so clear that Luke openly relates knowledge of God’s fatherhood to the work of the Spirit,11 but if the dove from heaven was the herald of the voice from above which said ‘You are my son’ (Lk.3:22), then he does.

            In conclusion to this section, Luke does not present Jesus as receiving the Spirit until after His baptism. Nevertheless, before this event, Jesus is shown to be the object of divine activities which Luke elsewhere attributes to the Spirit. Luke avoids the term pneuma in these descriptions,12 but is not unwilling to present, by way of other terms, the concept of pneumatic activity. Luke seems to be hinting, with careful caution, that the Spirit was active in Jesus’ life before the arrival of that outstanding nexus of activities which Luke will label as Jesus’ reception of the Spirit.


The Spirit at Work in the Disciples

Can we detect a similar cautious hint of the Spirit’s work in the lives of the disciples prior to their Pentecostal reception? We can. When sending the Twelve out to preach the kingdom and heal the sick, Jesus gave them ‘power and authority to drive out all demons and to cure diseases’ (Lk.9:1). This may seem unrelated to the work of the Spirit in two ways: it is Jesus, not the Spirit, who gives the power, and what is given is power for the miraculous, which R. Menzies, following E. Schweizer, sees as distanced by Luke from the work of the Spirit.13

            The latter consideration, that Luke here mentions power as the gift rather than the Spirit, must not lead us to consider that he writes of a significantly different concept. Luke is not unwilling to link pneuma with dunamiV in a variety of ways (from Lk.1:17 onwards). Even before the Twelve were sent out, Jesus’ power to cast out demons (Lk.4:36) had been presented by Luke as the work of the Spirit: the Spirit granted Jesus power, and that power, among other things, enabled him to ‘release the oppressed’ (Lk.4:14,18). Also, his power to raise the dead was interpreted by the Lukan crowds as evidence that a prophet was among them (Lk.7:14-1614), and prophecy, of all activities, lay at the heart of the Lukan teaching on the functions of the outpoured Spirit.15 Later, Jesus offered a promise of further power to the disciples (Lk.24:49), which was likely to remind them of the power they received for their earlier ventures.16 Yet this promise of power was clearly interpreted in terms of the Spirit’s future arrival (Ac.1:4-8).17

            It is now necessary to tackle the question as to whether Luke 9:1 has any relevance to the work of the Spirit, when it is explicitly Jesus who grants the power and authority to the disciples on this occasion. It is important to consider how Luke might conceive of Jesus giving this power, especially as it was a power which the disciples were to operate at a geographical distance from Jesus himself, once on the village-to-village mission. It was not a quasi-physical commodity that he could leave in their laps. Luke might mean simply that Jesus prayed authoritatively for them to receive power, but his language does not seem to convey such an idea clearly. It appears more likely that Luke thought of Jesus giving this power by means of the very Spirit with whom he was himself filled.18 Jesus was passing on something of the power and authority which he, by the Spirit, had up to then been exercising. If this is the case, Luke is hinting at an operation of the Spirit in the lives of the disciples prior to their actual reception of the Spirit.19

            At Luke 24:45 a similar impression is formed. The text again declares that it is Jesus who opened the disciples’ minds, rather than the Spirit. A physical act, though, is clearly not in view(!). Luke is later to suggest that Jesus was instructing his disciples through the Spirit (Ac.1:2). It is reasonable to suppose, therefore, that  this opening of their minds - a direct influence in them - also occurred by agency of the Spirit. Elsewhere, Luke presents the opening of the mind to understand the word and will of God wisely as an unequivocal work of the Spirit (Ac.6:3; 15:28; 20:23; 21:11).

            As with Jesus, then, so with the disciples: Luke carefully avoids the term pneuma in describing these divine activities in the lives of Christ’s pre-Pentecost followers. But he does not avoid the concept of the Spirit’s typical operations. Rather, he offers broad hints that the Spirit can be at work in a life prior to the promised reception of the Spirit in that heart.


The Spirit at Work in Later Lives

Luke provides similar hints in his narration of the mission of the church after Pentecost. A strong hint to the Spirit’s prior work comes at Acts 9:10ff. Ananias, a disciple and therefore presumably in receipt of the Spirit, had a vision in which he heard the Lord calling. That Ananias should have a vision was in perfect line with the explanation, given by Peter on the day of Pentecost with reference to Joel 2:28-32,20 that the arrival of the Spirit ushered in a plethora of prophetic activity including seeing visions (Ac.2:17). It is perhaps, then, a little more surprising to find Saul, at Acts 9:12, also having a vision. Saul was only to receive the Spirit once Ananias had reached him (Ac.9:17). Yet prior to his Spirit-reception Saul was already the object of divine activity for which Luke elsewhere offers only one explanation: visions come by the Holy Spirit. Acts 26:16-18 is consistent with this, for here Luke presents the voice of Jesus giving many clear directive words to Saul while the latter was still lying on the Damascus road. Elsewhere in Luke’s works, this prophetic infusion is characteristically given by agency of the Spirit (Ac.20:23; 21:11, etc.).

            Cornelius too had a vision before he received the Spirit. When Luke presents Cornelius’ narration of this apparition, the words used are ‘a man in shining clothes’ (Ac.10:30). Angelic visitations, according to Luke, can occur quite apart from the agency of the Spirit (Lk.1:11,26-27; Ac.1:10). However, when Luke himself acts as narrator of Cornelius’ experience, he chooses to write of a ‘vision’ of an angel (Ac.10:3), a term which, as shown above, the reader, prompted by Luke, associates naturally with the work of the Spirit.

            There are one or two references in Acts to the conversion of people whose reception of the Spirit is not narrated, but in whose lives a work of the Spirit may be glimpsed before their presumed reception. Lydia is a prime example: ‘Lydia ... was a worshipper of God. The Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul’s message. When she and the members of her household were baptised, she invited us to her home. ‘If you consider me to be a believer in the Lord,’ she said, ‘come and stay at my house’’ (Ac.16:14-15). This divine opening of Lydia’s heart cannot refer to her actual reception of the Spirit, as this opening was the cause of her belief rather than a consequence and evidence of it, as Spirit-reception would be (compare Ac.15:8, as ably exegeted by Menzies21). But is it a work of the Spirit? It is narrated as a work of Jesus. The verbal coincidence between ‘The Lord opened her heart’ (Ac.16:14) and ‘He opened their minds’ (Lk.24:45) is noteworthy. Beyond the verbal coincidence, the immediate cotext indicates that ‘the Lord’ refers to Jesus, not the Father or undifferentiated God.22 This is evident from verse 14, which does not read, ‘... a worshipper of God, who opened her heart’. It also emerges from the words, ‘If you consider me to be a believer in the Lord’ in verse 15. Here, ‘Lord’ is to be taken as referring to Jesus, for Lydia was already a worshipper of God, and so Paul’s verdict was demanded of her attitude specifically to Jesus.

            That this opening of Lydia’s heart can be viewed as a work of the Spirit may be argued both from its similarity to the wisdom granting work of the Spirit already noted in connection with Christ’s opening of the disciples’ minds after the resurrection, and also from the realisation that the only way Jesus is explicitly presented in Acts as working on earth after his exaltation is by his Spirit.23 As noted, Luke does not report Lydia’s reception of the Spirit, but as Lydia was baptised (Ac.16:15), the reader is led to assume that she did indeed receive the gift, not least on the basis of the programmatic promise at Acts 2:38-39.

            A further example where the Spirit’s work may be discernible prior to his reception is at Acts 2:37. The people who heard Peter preach on the day of Pentecost are here presented as having been ‘cut to the heart’. Here too one might be justified in seeing the work of the Spirit in taking the message and using it to cut to the heart. A similar hint is to be found in the traditional view of the role of the Spirit of prophecy, on which, indirectly, Luke probably built: ‘There is no moment in which man’s works can be concealed, because they are written on the heart in the Lord’s sight. And the spirit of truth testifies to all things and brings all accusations. He who has sinned is consumed in his heart and cannot raise his head to face the judge’ (Test. Judah 20:4-5).24

            This section, then, shows the same trait in Acts as found in the gospel. In subtle ways, which avoid reference by name to the Holy Spirit, Luke nevertheless recognises the Spirit’s work in someone even before that person has received the Pentecostal gift.



A fairly consistent picture has emerged. Luke is unwilling to state by name that the Holy Spirit is at work in the lives of those who have not yet, by his own description, received the Spirit. However, he is not unwilling to describe divine activities, which he generally attributes to the Holy Spirit elsewhere in his works, occurring in the lives of people at this stage. Two conclusions may be drawn from this observation.

            First, Pentecostals who say that the Spirit is received ‘at conversion’ even if there is a delay before a subsequent empowering for mission occurs (a ‘baptism in the Spirit’), or indeed that the Spirit may be in a new convert before he descends upon that person in power, are not employing strict Lukan terminology. However, they cannot be criticised for departing significantly from a Lukan conceptual framework.

            Secondly, this observation serves to undermine somewhat the conclusion of Turner that the reception of the Spirit (which Turner often calls the ‘gift of the Spirit’, no doubt following Acts 2:38) is, in Luke’s conception, soteriologically necessary.25 Though throughout Power from on High Turner notes situations where the Spirit works prior to Spirit-reception, his focus seems to be on cases where the Spirit’s work in an individual or group is indirect.26 He admits the possibility of the direct work of the Spirit in the pre-Pentecost disciples, but speculates that this activity is not worthy of the term ‘Spirit of Prophecy’, but must be limited to ‘God’s liberating power at work through the disciples’.27 He overlooks the implied direct work of the Spirit of Prophecy at, for example, Acts 9:12, even while attributing Ananias’ vision at Acts 9:10 to the Spirit,28 and so in his penultimate chapter (13: ‘The Effects of the Pentecostal Gift in the Life of the Church and ‘Salvation’ in Acts’), in which he discusses the soteriological necessity of the Spirit, he merely discusses the soteriological necessity of receiving the Spirit, without due recognition of any prior work.

            Turner accuses his interlocutors at this point of over-simplifying Luke,29 but himself over-simplifies Luke, failing to note prior works which distance the reception of the Spirit, as conceptualised by Luke, from soteriological necessity. Turner implicitly sees the direct work of the Spirit of Prophecy as absent prior to reception of the Pentecostal gift. Luke’s frequent hints indicate otherwise.  Turner is right to declare that Luke ‘thought the Spirit performed soteriological functions in the believer’,30 but is wrong to tie these functions, in Luke’s mind, to the moment of reception and beyond.



1.                  Rev. Dr William P. Atkinson is the Principal of Regents Theological College, London Road, Nantwich, Cheshire, CW5 6LW.

2.                  The Holy Spirit and Spiritual Gifts: Then and Now (Carlisle: Paternoster, 1996),  152-157, 161-162; cf. David Pawson, The Normal Christian Birth (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1989),  4-5; cf. idem, ‘Believing in Christ and Receiving the Spirit’, Journal of Pentecostal Theology 15 (Oct. 1999),  34.

3.                  Luke refers to only one individual receiving the Spirit in two distinct ways. This was Jesus, who received the Spirit as a preparation for His public ministry (Lk.3:22; 4:18), and, after his exaltation, received the Spirit to pour him out on others (Ac.2:33). This is of course a unique case, as presented by Luke, for Jesus had thus become Lord of the Spirit, and the Spirit could now be termed the ‘Spirit of Jesus’ (Ac.16:7). Luke does write of Christians receiving the Spirit more than once (e.g. Peter three times - Ac.2:4; 4:8,31 - Paul twice - Ac.9:17; 13:9), but these are not in distinctly different ways, as is clear from each context. Neither does Luke imply that, for instance in the case of Peter, the Spirit departed after Ac.2:4 and then reappeared at Ac.4:8. Peter was clearly characteristically full of the Spirit (viz the activities at Ac.2:14; 3:6,12ff), and 4:8 simply indicates a particular invasive intensification of the Spirit’s activity in Peter’s life.

4.                  Luke uses such terms as being ‘filled with the Spirit’, ‘receiving the Spirit’, being ‘baptised with the Spirit’, the Spirit ‘coming upon’, ‘falling upon’, being ‘poured out’ upon, and God ‘giving’ the Spirit. He uses these, generally, to refer to the same experience and effect in a person’s life.

5.                  Luke implies that, excepting Elizabeth (Lk.1:41) and Zechariah (Lk.1:67), both Christ’s predecessors (John - Lk.1:15; Simeon - Lk.2:25), Jesus himself (Lk.3:22; 4:1,14,18) and all of Jesus’ followers received the Spirit permanently. Only one of Jesus’ disciples has his infilling of the Spirit traced right through to his death: Stephen (Ac.6:5,10; 7:55). Nevertheless, the permanent indwelling of the Spirit in Christians may be inferred from the text of Acts, in which activities characteristic of the Spirit and his presence occurred amongst the Christians in the long term.

6.                  Of course, any person who heard the preaching of a Spirit-filled believer was thus being influenced by the Spirit indirectly. See M. M. B. Turner, Power from on High (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1996),  333ff. Turner claims that such a mediated influence of the Spirit might be as powerful as the immediate.

7.                  The argument that, if the Spirit is directly active in someone, that person must have thereby or already received the Spirit fails to recognise the sense with which Luke employs the metaphor. Spirit-reception is ‘the inception of a ... coherent set of activities of the Spirit’ (Turner, Power,  47. Italics his). It does not thereby imply the complete absence of any one of those activities beforehand.

8.                  ‘Jesus had already received the Spirit in some fundamental way in Lk.1.35’ (Power,  434; cf. idem, Holy Spirit,  154).

9.                  Elizabeth was barren (Lk.1:7); Mary was a virgin (Lk.1:34). John was ‘great in the sight of the Lord’ (Lk.1:15); Jesus was ‘great and ... called the Son’ (1:32). John was filled with the Spirit from his mother’s womb (Lk.1:15); Jesus was conceived by the Spirit (Lk.1:35). John was a ‘prophet of the Most High’ (Lk.1:32); Jesus was ‘the Son of the Most High’ (Lk.1:76). John was to be a granter of the knowledge of salvation (Lk.1:77); Jesus was to be God’s salvation (Lk.2:30). Cf. J. A. Fitzmyer, The Gospel According to Luke I-IX (New York: Doubleday, 1981),  313ff.

10.              ‘Full of the Spirit and wisdom’ could be taken to mean that these were two independent commodities granted separately and merely coincidentally to Stephen by God. However, the phrase ‘Spirit and wisdom’ can more reasonably be understood as a hendiadys, giving the overall sense of ‘full of wisdom by the Spirit’ (cf. Turner, Power,  408, n. 21). This is in keeping with the traditional Jewish concept of the Spirit of prophecy, which, once further hellenised and christianised,  most probably formed the basis on which Luke’s pneumatology rested (see Turner, Power, ch. 3).

11.              It is tempting to speculate about Luke’s reasons for avoiding such language at these points. Turner, noting the presumed work of the Spirit in Christ’s giving his disciples power and authority (Lk.9:1), offers the straightforward suggestion that Luke was avoiding confusion with his narration of the later gift at Pentecost (Power,  336). By analogy, Luke might here be avoiding confusion with his account of the Jordan anointing.

12.              That such a work of the Spirit might be part of the traditional understanding of the Spirit of prophecy is hinted in Test. Levi 18:6-7 (‘The heavens will be opened, and from the temple of glory sanctification will come upon him, with a fatherly voice, as from Abraham to Isaac. And the glory of the Most High shall burst forth upon him. And the spirit of understanding and sanctification shall rest upon him.’); Test. Judah 24:2 (‘And the heavens will be opened upon him to pour out the spirit as a blessing of the Holy Father’). (Translations from The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, ed. J. H. Charlesworth [London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1983],  795, 801).

13.              Discussion about whether Luke is faithfully reproducing wording from his source(s) or is creating his own wording at this point is not particularly useful, because a) the sources Luke used in compiling the infancy narratives are not available for study, and b) redaction criticism indicates, where Luke’s sources are available for comparison, that Luke is very ready to alter wording to suit his own purposes if he so wishes, so where he has left traditional wording alone, that in itself is a deliberate choice that must be taken seriously as an indicator of Luke’s own preferred way of presenting his material.

14.              Menzies appeals, e.g., to Luke’s apparent redaction of Q at 11:20 (cf. Mt.12:28 - Empowered for Witness [Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1994],  163). Turner refutes Schweizer’s and Menzies’ view of this ‘test case’ on the grounds that a) while Luke has changed the term, he has not changed the referent; b) we would expect Luke, if motivated as they suggest, to write ‘power’; and c) ‘finger’ is used to remind readers of Moses and point to a New Exodus motif, rather than to dissociate the work of the Spirit from exorcism.

15.              Cf. Lk.24:19, and the title of J. B. Shelton’s book, Mighty in Word and Deed (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1991).

16.              Cf. the title of R. Stronstad’s recent book, The Prophethood of all Believers: A Study in Luke’s Charismatic Theology (Irving, TX: ICI University Press, 1998).

17.              Stronstad also points out that this promised power would reflect the power which Jesus himself ministered in, a power which itself had been conveyed to him by the Spirit (Prophethood,  37-38).

18.              Menzies is well aware of these links between Spirit and power. He reviews a number of episodes, and concludes that such ‘passages indicate that for Luke the Holy Spirit is the source of ‘power’.’ (Empowered,  114). This weakens his case that Lk.9:1 suggests a strong conceptual distinction, for Luke, between dunamiV and pneuma ( 113).

19.              So also Turner, Power,  338, with appeal, concerning Luke 10, to Numbers 11:16-30. In contrast, Fitzmyer (Luke I-IX,  752) suggests that ‘his commission gives them a share in his ‘power’ and ‘authority’’. It is difficult to see, though, how the commission per se could convey the power.

20.              J. Jeremias (New Testament Theology vol.1 [London: SCM Press, 1971]) sees sayings in the gospels which ‘presuppose that the possession of the spirit has been communicated to the disciples’ ( 79). Amongst these he includes Lk.6:23,26, ‘which put the disciples in the ranks of the prophets.’ Jeremias sees ‘the bestowing of the spirit on the disciples during the lifetime of Jesus’ as an early tradition, in conflict with the tradition that the Spirit was given at Pentecost ( 80). Whatever the provenance of the tradition, Luke has retained it, though of course redacted to avoid pneuma terminology, as noted.

21.              English versification.

22.              Arguing against the position of J. D. G. Dunn (Baptism in the Holy Spirit [London: SCM Press, 1970]) et al that ‘God’s giving of the Holy Spirit is equivalent to his cleansing of their hearts’ (Dunn,  81-82), Menzies makes the point that, ‘Verse 8 is the premise from which the deduction of v.9 is drawn’ (Empowered,  217).

23.              Of the 108 times ‘Lord’ is used in Acts, it is clear from the context that it refers to God the Father 8 times (2:25 etc.), four of them in OT contexts, and that it refers to Jesus 43 times (1:6 etc.), 17 times in the term ‘Lord Jesus’. On 55 occasions, its use is of God, but it is debatable whether the context allows us to be firm about whether the referent is the Father or the Son. Once, the term is used of an angel (10:4).

24.              Especially at Ac.16:7. That Jesus spoke to Saul on the Damascus road by his Spirit has been argued above.

25.              Charlesworth, Pseudepigrapha,  800.

26.              E.g. Power,  435: ‘[for Luke] beyond the ascension of Jesus the gift of the Spirit becomes soteriologically necessary - even for Jesus’ band of disciples.’ (italics his) cf.  401, 427.

27.              see n. 5 of this article, and Power,  417, 435, though cf.  423 and n. 56.

28.              Power,  341.

29.              Power,  423, n. 56.

30.              Power,  433, 435.

31.              Power,  438.