The Holy Spirit’s Role at the Cross

Atonement theology largely centers on God the Father and God the Son. When we talk about the cross we are most often discussing the roles of Father and Son in that great work. But what about the Holy Spirit? Where was he on that fateful day? Did he play a role in the sacrifice of Christ?

There is one explicit text in the New Testament that touches this question. It comes from Hebrews 9:14. I have quoted this verse in its larger context (Hebrews 9:11-14).

“But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and more perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation) he entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption. For if the blood of goats and bulls, and the sprinkling of defiled persons with the ashes of a heifer, sanctify for the purification of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit (δια πνεύματος αιωνίου) offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God.”

The Son offers himself as a sacrifice to the Father through the Spirit. In other words, the Spirit played a vital role in the cross-work of the Son. He empowered, enabled, and upheld the Son on the tree in order to accomplish redemption. The following quotations are taken from a number of commentaries on the this verse from Hebrews.

P.T. O’Brien

“The precise meaning of the unusual phrase through the eternal Spirit, by which Jesus offered himself to God, is difficult to determine. It has been taken to refer to: a) Jesus’ own spirit, as designating his inner disposition in offering himself for sinners, b) the divinity of Christ; and c) the Holy Spirit. On balance, we prefer (c), a reference to the Holy Spirit. Apart from 4:12, the preceding references in Hebrews to ‘spirit’ in the singular have been to the ‘Holy Spirit.’ The listeners, then, could be expected to identify the eternal Spirit with the Holy Spirit (3:7; 6:4; 9:8; see 10:15, 29). The adjective eternal suggests an eschatological dimension to the Spirit’s activity, linking the expression with the eternal redemption he has obtained for us (v.12)…The Holy Spirit anointed Jesus as high priest for every aspect of his ministry, including his sacrificial death.”

 John Johnson

“Here the Holy Spirit is seen as continuing His empowering work that had been carried out throughout Jesus‘ ministry, even up to Christ‘s death. This must be seen as a mission of the Holy Spirit, that is, to empower Christ, as He does all believers, yet on the scale of par excellence.”

“Jüngel sees the Holy Spirit at the Cross as the bond of love that holds the Trinity together. At such a crucial time, when the unity of the Godhead is most at jeopardy because of the necessary abandonment, the Spirit becomes the link, the glue that preserves the blessed unity of the Trinity. With Moltmann, one finds that the Spirit is the link, but he gives more focus to the communion of the wills as pointing to the Divine Unity at the Cross. Also, the Spirit for Moltmann plays a vital role in the action of bringing all Godforsakenness into the divine being and transforming it.”

“If Jesus was empowered throughout His ministry from baptism through the healings, teaching, andraising others from the dead, then surely the Holy Spirit contributed more in the ministry of the Cross than simply being glue. Rather, without the empowerment of the Holy Spirit living within Jesus, and in complete unity, perhaps Christ would have succumbed to pushing the cup aside. In all Three Persons, the total self-giving is so evident that, in this case, the Holy Spirit gives of himself fully to the Son in order to strengthen Him for what lays ahead—the Cross. Thus, while the Spirit may be the bond of love between the Father, Son, and Spirit at the Cross, He also became the empowering Presence within Jesus that enables His humanity to endure the cup of suffering and triumph faithfully.”

D.A. Carson

“How different the sacrifice of Jesus Christ! He ‘through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God’—that is, not ‘by the Holy Spirit,’ but “through [his own] eternal Spirit,’ an act of will, a supreme act of voluntary sacrifice, the Son acquiescing to the Father’s plan.

“More persuasive is the suggestion that πνεύματος αιωνίου reflects an allusion to the Isaianic servant; Christ, when empowered by the (eternal) spirit, is able to complete his work sacrificial work effectively…Likewise, the Spirit that made the Christ sacrifice efficacious once for all is the same spirit that makes the new covenant evidential and efficacious for its recipients.”

David Allen

“He now clearly shows how Christ’s death is to be estimated, not by the external act, but by the power of the Spirit. For Christ suffered as man; but that death becomes saving to us through the efficacious power of the Spirit; for a sacrifice, which was to be an eternal expiation, was a work more than human. And he calls the Spirit eternal for this reason, that we may know that the reconciliation, of which he is the worker or effecter, is eternal.”

“In any event, 9:14 is remarkable, because it is the only verse in the NT that affirms the Spirit’s involvement in the atonement. Some scholars who read δια πνεύματος αιωνίου as a reference to the Holy Spirit have seen an allusion to the Isaianic servant of Yahweh theme in the language of 9:14.”

“Bruce affords the most eloquent defense of this view: Behind our author’s thinking lies the portrayal of the Isaianic Servant of the Lord, who yields up his life to God as a guilt offering for many, bearing their sin and procuring their justification. When this Servant is introduced for the first time, God says: ‘I have put my Spirit upon him’ (Isa 42:1).29 It is in the power of the Divine Spirit, accordingly, that the Servant… accepts death for the transgression of his people, filling the twofold role of priest and victim, as Christ does in this epistle.”

“Once we acknowledge ‘through eternal Spirit’ to be a reference to the Spirit of God, it is difficult to deny our text’s conveying some no­tion of a divine empowerment for Christ’s critical self-sacrifice…the three passages that mention the Spirit in connection with the Servant (Isa 11:2; 42:1; 61:1) do in fact affirm that the Spirit functions as a source of empowerment for the Servant.”

“Both in Isa 11:1-5 and in 42:1-4 the prophet develops an imagery of a coming savior figure that will inaugurate an era of blessing. Again, both texts affirm that he will establish peace and justice in the land/earth, that he will (successfully) plead the case of the under­ privileged of the people and judge the ‘wicked’ (see 11:3-4; 42:3-4). In regard to the man’s equipment for this lofty task, both passages foretell his being aided by the Spirit (11:2; 42:1, 4).”

“Δια πνεύματος αιωνίου thus indicates the Holy Spirit sustained the high priest (here: Christ entering εις τα άγια, 9:12) in the execution of his most critical cultic appointment. The Spirit is called ‘eternal Spirit’ to bring out the (extraordinary) eschatological significance of the Spirit’s assis­tance in Christ’s once-for-all priestly action επί συντέλεια των αιώνων.”

John Piper

“Verse 14 says that the whole Trinity—Father, Son and Holy Spirit—were involved. ‘Through the eternal Spirit [the Holy Spirit] he offered himself [the Son] without blemish to God [the Father].’ The result is that all the sins of his people in the Old Covenant were covered by the blood of Jesus. The animal sacrifices foreshadowed the final sacrifice of God’s Son, and the death of the Son reaches back to cover all the sins of God’s people in the old time period, and forward to cover all the sins of God’s people in the new time period.”

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