2.The Ministry Of The Spirit In The Ministry Of Jesus Christ

For John Owen, it was axiomatic that Jesus Christ ‘acted grace as a man’. He did this (as men must) through the energy of the Spirit. That was evident in two ways:

(i) In his personal progress in grace. The work of the Spirit in the Messiah was prophesied in Isaiah 11:1-3 and also in 63:lff. Owen saw great significance in the prophecy that it was by the Spirit that the Messiah would be filled with wisdom, and that this characteristic was singled out for reference in Luke’s account of Jesus’ growth [Lk. 2:52]. In this sense, the coming of the Spirit on Jesus involved a continuous presence. In keeping with the development of his natural faculties as man, and his unique responsibilities as Messiah, he was sustained by the Spirit. The Spirit enabled Jesus to do natural things perfectly and spiritually, not to do them unnaturally. He was taught the wisdom of God from the Word of God by the Spirit of God! This is precisely the picture we are given in the third Servant Song:

The Sovereign Lord has given me the instructed tongue to know the word that sustains the weary. He wakens me morning by morning, wakens my ear to listen like one being taught. The Sovereign Lord has opened my ears and I have not been rebellious; I have not drawn back [Isa. 50:4-9].

Each step of his way, it was through the word of the Father in Scripture, illuminated by his constant companion, the Spirit, that Jesus grew in the knowledge of the Lord.

So, writes Owen:

In the representation then, of things anew to the human nature of Christ, the wisdom and knowledge of [his human nature] was objectively increased and in new trials and temptations he experimentally learned the new exercise of grace. And this was the constant work of the Holy Spirit on the human nature of Christ. He dwelt in him in fullness, for he received not him by measure. And continually, upon all occasions he gave out of his unsearchable treasures grace for exercise in all duties and instances of it. From hence was he habitually holy, and from hence did he exercise holiness entirely and universally in all things. [Works, III, pp. 170-171]

But besides this personal progress, there is another aspect of Christ’s life in which the presence of the Spirit is manifested:

(ii) In Jesus’ exercise of the gifts of the Spirit. In the hidden years of his life, Jesus ‘grew… strong’ in the power of the Spirit [Lk. 2:40]. What was distinctive for Owen about his later baptism was that there, in the fulness of his years, he received the fulness of the Spirit’s anointing for public Messianic ministry.

Owen, however, notes that the significance of Jesus’ baptism and anointing with the Spirit cannot be separated from his experience of temptation or from the ‘driving’ of the Spirit, by which he was thrust into the wilderness [Mk. 1:12]. The same expression [ekballein] is used of both the Saviour being driven into the wilderness by the Spirit, and the disciples being driven out into the harvest by the Lord of the Harvest [Lk. 10:2]. In both cases the function of the Spirit’s ministry is the advance of the kingdom of God and the defeat of the powers of darkness. The sword of the Spirit is a weapon tested and tried by our Lord so that his disciples may use it with confidence; the armour the disciple is to take is the armour which the Spirit forged for Christ in his ministry. The controlling thought here, for Owen, is that the ministry of the Spirit in the ministry of Christ is the paradigm for the ministry of the Spirit in the ministry of his disciples.

Owen further underlines a point he has already made: when Jesus returned in triumph from his testing and preached in the synagogue in Luke 4, he did not speak as a retired military colonel, barking out orders to subordinates (if the analogy may be used). What shone through the Spirit’s presence in our Lord’s exercise of spiritual gifts, as Luke notes, was his gracious humanity, and especially his gracious words [Lk. 4:22] . Here, again, Owen sees Scripture emphasising that the chief evidence of the power of the Spirit in ministry is true and holy humanity.

This brings us to the third aspect which Owen underlines:

3. The Ministry Of The Spirit In The Atonement Of Christ

Here the key text is Hebrews 9:13-14. Christ, by contrast with the Old Testament ritual sacrifices of dumb beasts, offered himself as a sacrifice to cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death. This he did ‘through the eternal Spirit’.

Owen saw two possible ways of understanding these words: (a) the reference might be to the personal spirit of Jesus; (b) alternatively, it could refer to the Holy Spirit. In that case, the text expresses two things:

(i) An implicit contrast between the sacrifice of Christ and those of the Old Testament. The sacrifice of Christ was made not on the altar of the temple, but on the altar of the Spirit. Whereas an earthly altar could bear the weight of animal sacrifices, only an eternal altar could support the weight of Christ’s sacrifice. Again, while fire consumed the whole burnt offering in the Old Testament, it was zeal for the glory of God, kindled by the Spirit, which consumed Christ [cf. Jn. 2:17].

(ii) But secondly, these words imply the nature of the Spirit’s ministry in the sacrifice of Christ.

(a) The Spirit supported him in his decision to give himself without reserve to the Father’s will. Our Lord thus devoted himself to his Father throughout the whole course of his life, in order to offer himself consummately on the Cross. He did this by his constant dependence on the Spirit.

(b) The Spirit supported Jesus as he came to the door of the temple, in the Garden of Gethsemane and there caught a glimpse of the bloody altar that awaited him.

(c) The Spirit also sustained him in the breaking of his heart and the engulfing of his soul with sorrow as he contemplated his coming sense of dereliction at Calvary, and then experienced what he had contemplated.

But Owen adds a final, moving touch. On the Cross, Jesus committed his spirit into the hands of his God and Father [Lk. 23:46]. But, what of his body? Externally, it was guarded by the angels who mounted watch over the tomb. Internally, it was preserved from corruption by the Holy Spirit [Acts 2:27]. And so, from first to last, the Spirit is the companion of Jesus’ life and the support of his ministry. By his agency, the Holy One was conceived in the darkness of the Virgin’s womb. By his presence, the Holy One was preserved in the darkness of Joseph’s tomb.

From womb to tomb, the devotion of the eternal Spirit to the eternal Son in the flesh was abundantly evident.

– to be continued

– Sinclair Ferguson

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