Gordon D. Fee on the Spirit in the New Testament  

by Nov 3, 2023Uncategorized0 comments

In his book ‘Gospel and Spirit’, Gordon D. Fee strings together a “Drop the Mic” level diatribe on the New Testament believers’ experience of the Holy Spirit in comparison to Today. 

“I think it is fair to note that if there is one thing that differentiates the early church from its twentieth-century counterpart it is in the level of awareness and experience of the presence and power of the Holy Spirit. Ask any number of people today from all sectors of Christendom to define or describe Christian conversion or Christian life, and the most noticeable feature of that definition would be its general lack of emphasis on the active, dynamic role of the Spirit. 

It is precisely the opposite in the New Testament. The Spirit is no mere addendum. Indeed, he is the sine qua non, the essential ingredient, of Christian life. Nor is he a mere datum of theology; rather, he is experienced as a powerful presence in their lives. Whatever else may be said of the early church, it was first and foremost comprised of people of the Spirit. 

In order for us to understand early Christians on this matter, we must appreciate the essentially eschatological nature of their existence and their understanding of the Spirit. For them, in a way that very few of us can fully appreciate, the Spirit was an eschatological reality – the clear evidence, the sure sign, that the coming age had dawned, that God had set the future inexorably in motion, to be consummated by a second coming of the Messiah. Thus for Paul the Spirit was the arrabon, the down payment, on the future reality that was itself guaranteed by the down payment (2 Cor 1:21-22; 5:5; Eph 1:13-14). And for Luke the outpouring of the Spirit on the day of Pentecost was the eschatological fulfillment of the prophecy of Joel. So much is this so that in the Joel quotation in the Peter speech he alters the words “after these things” to “in the last days.” 

Such an understanding, of course, is a reflection of contemporary expectations, which were based on a twofold understanding of messianic hopes: (l) that in the coming age the Messiah would be the unique bearer of the Spirit, as expressed in the prophecies of Isaiah 11:1-2; 42:1; and 61:1-3 (thus reflecting one of the Old Testament motifs of the Spirit, that he was necessary for leadership in Israel); and (2) that a part of the new covenant that would be ratified in the coming age would be the outpouring of the Spirit on all of God’s people (e.g., Ezek 36:26-27; Joel 2:28-30, thus reflecting the other Old Testament motif that the Spirit was responsible for all genuine prophecy). 

These eschatological expectations had been intensified during the inter-testamental period by a theology of the “quenched Spirit,” in which the present was seen as a time in which there was no Spirit in the land-hence the failure of the succession of the prophets – and in which the Spirit was thus pushed into the future as the ultimate expression of the coming age. 

It is precisely within this context that we are to understand the ministry of John the Baptist. According to Luke, he was filled with the Spirit from birth (1:15), and he grew and became strong in the Spirit (1 :80)’ thus indicating a renewal of the prophetic tradition. In his own announcement of the coming Messiah the two great prophetic themes combine: “I saw the Spirit come down from heaven as a dove and remain on him. I would not have known him, except that the one who sent me to baptize with water told me ‘The Man on whom you see the Spirit come down and remain is he who will baptize with the Holy Spirit ” (John 1 :32-33). Thus in Luke 3: 16, when asked whether he himself was the promised Messiah, John emphatically denied it in terms of the Spirit which the Messiah would pour out on all people: “I baptize with water. But one more powerful than I will come . . . . He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” John thus coined the term, “baptism in the Holy Spirit,” as a metaphor taken from his own sphere of activity; and he did so in order to contrast his own ministry with that of the Messiah who would usher in the coming age, the age of the Spirit. Although the prophetic hope, of course, had in it the promise of the Spirit for all people individually, that is not the emphasis in the metaphor itself. Rather, it is John’s way of speaking of the Messiah’s most essential quality, namely, that he would usher in the messianic age as the age of the Spirit. 

Thus the Spirit in the New Testament is an eschatological reality. The Spirit belongs to the future, to the Age to Come. This is the key to everything in the New Testament. What is essential to understanding the ministry of Jesus is that he announced that with his own coming the kingdom of God, the coming age of righteousness and justice, had already begun. In the synagogue at Nazareth, the messianic prophecy of Isaiah 61:1, that the Spirit would rest upon the Messiah to bring justice and the time of God’s favor, is announced to be fulfilled “in your hearing” (Luke 4:16-21). When accused of casting out demons by the power of Beelzebul, he announces, “If I by the Spirit of God cast out demons, then the kingdom (the Rule) of God has come present upon you” (Matt 12:28). The Spirit is crucial to all of this. For Jesus himself, divine though he is, the key to his truly human life was the presence and fullness of the Spirit (Luke 4: 14, 16; 5: 17; Acts 2:22; 10:38). With him, the Messiah-the one uniquely anointed with the Spirit and power-had come. But it was only the dawning of the coming age, the beginning of the End, the inauguration of the Rule. Therefore, the power is there, but it is held in tension as veiled power-there for others, while he himself experienced weakness, servanthood, deprivation, and finally crucifixion. This is followed by resurrection. Surely now comes the End: “Will you now restore the kingdom to Israel?” That’s the wrong question, Jesus implies. It is for you to receive power, when the Spirit comes, so that you may be witnesses to me. 

It is in the context of all this that we are to understand the outpouring on the day of Pentecost. Above all else, the coming of the Spirit meant that God’s people also had been ushered into the coming age. “This is that,” shouts Peter. “The Spirit is here; the Age to Come has begun.” 

What we must understand is that the Spirit was the chief element, the primary ingredient, of this new existence. For early believers, it was not merely a matter of getting saved, forgiven, prepared for heaven. It was above all else to receive the Spirit, to walk into the coming age with power. They scarcely would have understood our Pentecostal terminology -“Spirit-filled Christian.” That would be like saying “Scandinavian Swede.” They simply did not think of Christian initiation as a two-stage process. For them, to be Christian meant to have the Spirit, to be a “Spirit person.” To be “spiritual,” therefore, did not mean to be some kind of special Christian, a Christian elitist (except perhaps at Corinth, where that was their failure). For them, to be spiritual meant to be a Christian-not over against a nominal (or carnal, etc.) Christian, but over against a non-Christian, one who does not have the Spirit. 

The evidence for this is thoroughgoing in the New Testament. Everywhere in Luke-Acts it is the presence of the Spirit that marks off the people of the Age to Come. That is exactly the point of Paul’s question in Acts 19:2. There were obviously not Christians because the one essential ingredient was missing. So also in John. It is the Spirit that will mark the people who believe and who are thus destined for eternal life (John 7:37-39; etc.).“

Gordon D. Fee, Gospel and Spirit: issues in new testament hermeneutics, (Peabody, Hendrickson Pub. 1991) 111-114