Right in the middle of the book of Acts, and at a critical point in the narrative, Luke mentions a strange and striking thing—the Spirit of Jesus.
When they had come to Mysia, they tried to go into Bithynia, yet the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them. –Acts 16:7
At this moment in the story, Paul and his traveling companions are under the Spirit’s specific geographical guidance. But what is even more fascinating than the Spirit’s persistence and assertiveness in where they go, is the title of the Spirit leading them.
What is the Spirit of Jesus?
This title should catch our attention. This is the only time this exact phrase is used in the NT, but it’s part of a constellation of verses that gives us a breathtaking view of the Spirit in God’s economy. A few of the commentators I looked at note that the expression is “unusual” and “extraordinary.”
However, there doesn’t seem to be much clarity about WHAT this phrase means:
Ben Witherington sees it as “simply another way of referring to the Holy Spirit which Jesus sent” at Pentecost.
F. F. Bruce takes it to mean that Paul’s “guidance was now given through a prophecy uttered expressly in the name of Jesus.”
Howard Marshall says it “emphasizes how Jesus Himself through the Spirit was guiding the progress of the gospel.”
Craig Keener takes it to mean that the “Spirit represents him” and that “the presence of the exalted Lord is mediated through His Spirit.”
Witness Lee offers this explanation:
“The Spirit of Jesus is the totality and ultimate consummation of Christ’s incarnation, humanity, human living, death, resurrection, and ascension” and “the full realization of the all-inclusive Jesus.”
The term “the Spirit of Jesus” points to the relationship between the incarnated Son and the Spirit in resurrection. This relationship is one of inseparable operation and identification in our experience. The Spirit of Jesus IS the Spirit of God; there are obviously not two Spirits. But what this title indicates is that Jesus’ human living and all His historical experiences and accomplishments have been “added” to the Spirit of God. Now, Jesus’ divinely enriched humanity and His God-expressing virtues—with His obedience, capacity for suffering, and absoluteness to God’s will—are available to us. This is why the Spirit in other places is called the Spirit of reality. The Spirit of Jesus, as the Spirit of reality, makes the reality which was in Jesus real to us in our experience (Eph. 4:21).
Incorporation in the Divine Trinity
Kerry Robichaux unpacks the loaded implications of this phrase like this:
The Spirit’s unique function is to make Christ real to the believers. When the Spirit moves within the believers, we should not expect that He does so separably from Christ and the Father; rather, we should expect that He… incorporates the operations of Christ and the Father, and for that reason He is rightly and variously called the Spirit of Jesus Christ, the Spirit of Christ, the Spirit of Jesus, or the Spirit of God, depending on whose operation is the focus of His incorporation in a given context
Here’s another take on it:
The notion of incorporation based on the coinherence of the three of the Trinity provides a deep and sophisticated view that both respects the distinctions among and admits the identification of the three. In incarnation, before His death and resurrection, Christ was “of the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 1:20) and worked “by the Spirit” (Matt. 12:28). When He went to the cross, He offered Himself as our sacrifice “through the eternal Spirit” (Heb. 9:14). Thus, in life and death Christ incorporated the operations of the Spirit; although the Spirit was and always is distinct from Christ the Son, the Spirit was not separate from the Son in the Gospels, and the operation of the Spirit was manifested in the actions of the Son. In resurrection, a change of manifest action occurs, so that now the life-giving Spirit, who acts in the believers in the church, incorporates the operations of Christ, the last Adam.
The Spirit of Jesus makes all that Jesus is real to us, because Jesus became the life-giving Spirit in resurrection, enriching the Spirit with the full gamut of His earthly, historical, human experiences.
Why the Spirit of Jesus in Acts 16?
If this is what the term “the Spirit of Jesus” indicates, we still need to discover why that term is used here in Acts 16.
The Recovery Version Bible gives the subject of the book of Acts as, “The propagation of the resurrected Christ in His ascension, by the Spirit, through the disciples, for the producing of the churches—the kingdom of God.” This is a dense but illuminating sentence. The early apostles and believers were not just propagating a message, they were propagating a Person—Christ Himself. Every time someone believed in the gospel, the resurrected Christ as the life-giving Spirit was born into them. That one Person was now in other persons. Christ’s Body is His increase, continuation, reproduction, and fulness. That’s why the resurrected Christ asked Paul, “Why are you persecuting Me?” Paul was shook because he thought Jesus was gone. He was confronted with what Augustine called the “whole Christ,” that is, the corporate Christ.
A Pattern for Today
Acts 16 gives us a basic principle for propagation. Acts 16 is more than just an isolated story of what happened once-upon-a-time to Paul. It is prototypical of God’s move in His New Testament economy. This requires a high view of Scripture’s inspiration that encompasses the descriptive language of narrative, not just the prescriptive language of doctrine; one that also views the implications of revelation as intended and inspired.
On descriptive patterns:
We believe that the descriptive patterns of the church consistently revealed from Acts through Revelation are instructive as to the proper basis for the establishment of churches. Rather than dismissing such patterns as accidental or historical happen-stance, we highly regard such biblically revealed patterns as scriptural blueprints for us to follow even in the modern era.
On implied revelation, Louis Berkhof says this:
Not only the express statements of Scripture, but its implications as well, must be regarded as the Word of God.
Constitution Produces Expression
So what is the pattern implied here that holds true even today? Witness Lee gleans this principle: “The kind of work we do for the Lord depends on the kind of Spirit by whom we are guided, directed, instructed, and constituted.” When the Spirit of Jesus becomes our constitution, then our work will be the expression of all that is true of Jesus.
Acts 16 shows what our greatest need is if we want to propagate Christ—not the Spirit of power, but the Spirit of Jesus. The Spirit of Jesus is the greatest supply to and the most convincing factor in our propagation.
The Bountiful Supply of the Spirit
Here’s what happens in the story: Paul and Silas follow the leading of the Spirit into Philippi. After casting out a spirit of Python from a prophetic slave girl, they are dragged before the magistrates, severely beaten with rods, and unlawfully imprisoned in the stocks.
What happens next in the story is humanly impossible and it serves to show what “the bountiful supply of the Spirit of Jesus Christ” can do (Phil. 1:19). In Philippians 1, Paul uses a theater term for the Spirit, epichoragus. In Ancient Greek theater, the choragus was a wealthy patron of the arts who funded and provided for all the needs of the actors in the chorus so that they could put on a high quality performance. Whatever they needed, he supplied.
William Barcaly says,
The word has a certain lavishness in it. It never means to equip in any cheese-paring and miserly way; it means lavishly to pour out everything that is necessary for a noble performance.
The real miracle here isn’t the earthquake that magically unfastens everyone’s chains; it is Paul and Silas’ human living in this adverse situation. Paul and Silas are able to magnify Christ in the divine drama ONLY by the bountiful supply of the Spirit of Jesus Christ. This all-inclusive Spirit supplies and makes real to us everything that Christ experienced, accomplished, attained, and obtained.
So the Spirit of Jesus in Acts 16 is the secret to living Christ. And living Christ is the secret to propagating Christ.
Jesus Living Again
Paul and Silas express Jesus in three striking ways in prison.
1. Joy in Unjust Suffering
At midnight, in the stocks, still bleeding and in pain, Paul and Silas are “singing hymns of praise to God” (Acts 16:25). They’re not cursing God, plotting revenge, or bemoaning their situation, they are singing! Only the Spirit of Jesus actualizing the human living of Jesus in them can produce that kind of joy. This is the expression of the Jesus who exults and extols the Father right in the midst of rejection (Luke 10:21).
2. Radical Trust in the Nexus of Contradiction
In the middle of the night, a massive earthquake magically causes all the prison doors to open and everyone’s bonds to unfasten (v. 26). If I was there, I probably would have interpreted that as God’s sovereign deliverance and escaped into the night. Paul and Silas don’t leave! What kind of radical trust in God did they have to stay put? God calls them to preach the gospel and everything blows up in their face. Their environment seems to totally contradict and cut across God’s calling—this is the nexus of contradiction. And when it seems like, maybe, God is acting on their behalf to get them out of there, they trust God’s sovereignty in putting them into that situation in the first place. They don’t presume to interpret their situation according to the needs of self.
Again, this is the expression of the Jesus who submits to the Father’s will and trusts in God, even when it leads to the greatest contradiction of all, the death of the Messiah. Jesus didn’t do what He could have done: “do you think that I can’t beseech My Father, and He will provide Me at once with more than twelve legions of angels?” (Matt. 26:53). Instead, to put a stop to Peter’s foolish sword swinging, He asks him, “The cup which the Father has given Me, shall I not drink it?” (John 18:11).
3. Forgiveness of Persecutors
Once the jailor wakes up, he assumes everyone has escaped and is about to kill himself (v. 27). Again, if it were me, I would be tempted to just let him go through with it, interpreting it in a twisted way as some sort of divine payback. Paul stops him from committing suicide and shares with him the gift of eternal life. This kind of action can only spring from true forgiveness. The jailer and his house are saved and the first church in Europe is born. This is the expression of the Jesus who, on the cross, prays for the forgiveness of his murderers, and forms a church out the very ones who caused His death, me and you (Luke 23:34).
The prophesying slave girl had called Paul and Silas, slaves of the Most High God (v. 17). But their living unmasks them as more than slaves; they were sons of the Most High (Luke 6:35).
The jailor is convinced not by miraculous works of power, but by the “miraculous normality” of two brothers expressing the joy, trust, and forgiveness of Jesus. Acts 16 shows what the Spirit of Jesus will produce—Jesus living again. It turns out, to propagate Jesus, you must be Jesus. Human beings living Christ through the bountiful supply of the Spirit of Jesus is the greatest convincing factor for others to receive the gospel.
1. Darrell Bock, Acts (Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament), p. 527
2. Craig Keener, Acts: An Exegetical Commentary: Volume 3, online
3. Ben Witherington, The Acts of the Apostles : A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary, p. 478
4. F. F. Bruce, The Book of Acts (NICNT), p. 307
5. Howard Marshall, Acts (Tyndale New Testament Commentaries), p. 261
6. Keener, online
7. Witness Lee, Life-Study of Acts, pp. 380-381
8. Kerry Robichaux, “The New Testament Believers’ Incorporation of the Triune God in Their Full Salvation,” Affirmation and Critique, 14.2 (Fall 2009): 59
9. DCP, A Defense of the Gospel: Responses to an Open Letter from “Christian Scholars and Ministry Leaders” (1), p. 30
10. DCP, p. 48
11. Louis Berkhof, Principles of Biblical Interpretation, p. 159
12. Lee, p. 382
13. William Barclay, The Letters of James and Peter, pp. 298-299
14. Lee, The Scriptural Way to Meet and to Serve for the Building Up of the Body of Christ, p. 141