The Holy Spirit in Luke-Acts

Luke, who allegedly wrote a gospel and the Acts of the Apostles, has more to say about the Spirit than any other biblical writer does. He portrays the Spirit as the activity and presence of God (Luke 4:18) but also as an impersonal force or power (Luke 5:17, Luke 8:46), and, for example, as “the Spirit of Jesus” (Acts 16:7). In turn, for Luke, Jesus was a man primarily of the Spirit. And in becoming and being guided as followers of Jesus, experience of the Spirit was more important than texts, traditions, or the community.

Not surprisingly, then, the key turning points in Luke’s two-volume story are initiated by the Spirit, particularly Jesus’ birth (Luke 1:35), baptism (Luke 3:21-22), temptation (Luke 4:1-2), and the start of his ministry of speaking and healing (Luke 4:18). The beginning of Acts (Acts 2:4) and the story of the beginning of the mission to the Gentiles (Acts 10:44-48) are also marked by experience of the Spirit.

Luke implies (Acts 9:1-25) and tells a number of stories of the coming of the Spirit (just one example, Acts 4:23-31). However, it is the story of Pentecost in Jerusalem that signals God’s eschatological (or final) salvation has arrived (Acts 1:4-8, Acts 2:16-36). The Spirit was in a sense as important for the new age as the Law of Moses had been, because Luke describes the coming of the Spirit in a way that Philo describes the coming of the Law (see Philo, The Decalogue 32-33 and 46). Yet Luke sees the birth of the church taking place not when the Spirit appeared at Pentecost but when Jesus called his first disciples (Luke 6:13).

The Pentecost story, the high point of what Luke says about the Spirit, is the fulfillment of the promise of “the Father” for the followers of Jesus (Luke 24:49). Until this point, apart from Jesus (see Luke 3:22, Luke 4:1), very few people are filled with the Spirit. However, Luke emphasizes that the Spirit appeared to all the disciples (Acts 2:1-4) and that the story was a model for later Christians (Acts 2:38). Contemporary Pentecostals see the coming of the Spirit as a donum superadditum (“an additional gift”). However—though there are exceptions, especially through his models of Pentecost (Acts 2:38) and the Gentiles (Acts 10:43-48)—Luke portrays the coming of the Spirit not as subsequent to but part of the conversion-initiation experience. All his stories of the overpowering coming or filling of the Spirit involve some tangible expression, sometimes (but not always) including glossolalia, or speaking in tongues.

Phenomena credited to the Spirit (or to Spirit-inspired individuals) involve not only proclamation (Luke 4:14-15, Acts 2:14) but also, for example, joy (Luke 10:21), visions (Acts 2:17, Acts 7:55-56), guidance (Acts 8:29, Acts 11:12), and miracles (Luke 7:21-22, Acts 3:1-10, Acts 10:38). Luke makes the point that the Spirit’s empowerment is for mission, not political ends (Acts 1:6-8). He also shows that the ideal Christian community arises out of the common experience of the Spirit (Acts 2). Thus, for Luke, while the resurrection may be the key event in the life of Jesus, the coming and experience of the Spirit is fundamental for the new people of God.


  • Graham H. Twelftree

    Professor, Regent University

    Graham H. Twelftree is distinguished professor of New Testament, School of Divinity, Regent University, Virginia Beach. Among other books, he has written People of the Spirit: Exploring Luke’s View of the Church (SPCK and Baker Academic, 2009). He is a member of Studiorum Novi Testamenti Societas and the editorial board of the Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus.