There is remarkably little in the Gospels that directly links Jesus’ ministry to the activity of the Holy Spirit. He is driven into the wilderness by the Spirit (Matt. 4:1); he returns to Galilee “in the power of the Spirit” (Lk. 4:14); he rejoices in the Spirit when the seventy-two return from their mission trip (Lk. 10:21); the Son speaks the words of God because he has been given the Spirit (Jn. 3:34); and after his death he will send the Spirit to stand by his disciples (eg. Jn. 15:26). Apart from these brief references, the most important statements that we have about the role of the Spirit in the ministry of Jesus are quotations from Isaiah which speak of YHWH’s “servant” as one who has been given the Spirit in order to fulfil his vocation.
The relevance of Isaiah 42:1-4 in this regard was hinted at in the account of Jesus’ baptism, but it is explicitly quoted in Matthew 12:18-21. Jesus heals a man with a withered hand on the Sabbath. This angers the Pharisees, who “conspired against him, how to destroy him” (12:9-14). Aware of this, Jesus leaves that place, but many follow him; he heals them all and instructs them not to make him known—”in order that the word through Isaiah the prophet might be fulfilled” (12:17, my translation):
Behold, my servant whom I have chosen, my beloved with whom my soul is well pleased. I will put my Spirit upon him, and he will proclaim justice to the Gentiles. He will not quarrel or cry aloud, nor will anyone hear his voice in the streets; a bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not quench, until he brings justice to victory; and in his name the Gentiles will hope. (12:18-21)
The quotation is “fulfilled” at a number of points: the healing is to be understood as a work of the Spirit, as we shall see in a moment; Jesus’ departure from the town as a result of the Pharisees’ opposition means that his voice will not be heard in the streets; and perhaps most importantly, he orders the people not to make him known because he has been given the Spirit for a specific eschatological purpose—to ensure that justice or judgment is proclaimed to the Gentiles, that justice or judgment is brought to victory, and the Gentiles come to hope in his name. That is, Jesus does not want his eschatological mission to be cut short prematurely.
Jesus, of course, did not proclaim justice to the Gentiles; nor did he have any intention of doing so (cf. Matt. 15:24). But Isaiah’s “servant” is not simply an individual; he is in an important sense—arguably in a prior sense—Israel (cf. Is. 41:8-10); and as such he features in a narrative in which Israel is judged, refined, restored, and made a benchmark of righteous amongst the nations. The Spirit is given to Jesus, therefore, as the inaugurator and ideal embodiment of this process.
The reading of Isaiah 61:1-2 in the synagogue in Nazareth (Lk. 4:16-19) brings a similar, interlinked narrative into play: Jesus has been sent by God in the power of the Spirit to announce to those Jews who mourn over the wretched condition of Jerusalem that YHWH is about to restore his people, that cities devastated by war shall be rebuilt, that foreigners will serve Israel as shepherds, ploughmen and vinedressers, and that Israel “shall be called the priests of the Lord” (61:4-7).
This coming renewal of Israel and the transformation of its status amongst the nations is the coming of the “kingdom of God”. As in Isaiah 52:7-10, the good news is that Israel’s God is about to act sovereignly on behalf of his people in defiance of the strength and arrogance of the nations. So in the passage that follows the quotation of Isaiah 42:1-4, in response to the accusation that he casts out demons by the prince of demons, Jesus says:
But if it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you. (Matt. 12:28)
In other words, the healings and exorcisms by the power of the eschatological Spirit are a concrete sign to the Pharisees that the sequence of events mentioned above has been set in motion, is at hand: judgment on Israel in the form of war, the renewal of the people, and the transformation of their status vis-à-vis to the extent that they become a new benchmark of piety and righteousness amongst the nations.
The first part of this narrative is reinforced in Luke’s alternative phrasing: “if it is by the finger of God that I cast out demons” (Lk. 11:20). When Pharaoh’s magicians were unable to replicate the plague of gnats that Moses brought upon Egypt, they said to Pharaoh, “This is the finger of God,” but, like the Pharisees, his heart was hardened and he would not listen to them (Exod. 8:19).