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The Coming of the Holy Spirit in the Light of the Old Testament Promises

General Audience — May 31, 1989

"Behold, I send the promise of my Father upon you" (Lk 24:49). After the announcements made by Jesus to the apostles on the day before his passion and death, we find recorded in Luke's Gospel the promise of their proximate fulfillment. Our previous reflections were based especially on the text of the farewell discourse in John's Gospel. We analyzed what Jesus said at the Last Supper about the Paraclete and his coming. This is a fundamental text inasmuch as it records the announcement and promise of Jesus who, on the eve of his death, linked the descent of the Holy Spirit to his own "departure." The former, he emphasizes, will take place "at the price" of his departure. Therefore, Jesus said: "It is to your advantage that I go away" (Jn 16:7).

The final part of Luke's Gospel also contains important statements of Jesus on this subject after the resurrection. He said: "Behold, I send the promise of my Father upon you; but stay in the city, until you are clothed with power from on high" (Lk 24:49). At the beginning of the Acts of the Apostles, Luke repeats this same admonition: "While staying with them he charged them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father" (Acts 1:4).

In speaking of the promise of the Father, Jesus indicates the coming of the Holy Spirit, already foretold in the Old Testament. We read in the book of the prophet Joel: "And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy; your old men shall dream dreams and your young men shall see visions. Even upon the menservants and maidservants in those days, I will pour out my spirit" (Joel 3:1-2). St. Peter will refer to this text in his first discourse of Pentecost, as we shall see later. In speaking of the "promise of the Father," Jesus also referred to the announcement of the prophets, significant even though generic. Jesus' announcements at the Last Supper are explicit and direct. If after the resurrection he refers to the Old Testament, it is a sign that he wishes to emphasize the continuity of pneumatological truth in the whole of revelation. It means that Christ brings to fulfillment the promises already made by God in the old covenant.

The prophet Ezekiel (36:22-28) gives particular expression to these promises. Through the prophet God announced the revelation of his own holiness, which had been profaned by the sins of the Chosen People, especially by the sin of idolatry. He also announced that he will again assemble Israel, purifying her from all stain. And then he promises: "A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you. I will take out of your flesh the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. I will put my spirit with you, and cause you to walk in my statutes.... You shall be my people, and I will be your God" (Ez 36:26-28).

Ezekiel's prophecy, with the promise of the gift of the Spirit, makes more precise Jeremiah's famous prophecy on the new covenant: "Behold the days are coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah.... I will put my law within them, and I will write it upon their hearts. I will be their God, and they shall be my people" (Jer 31:31, 33). In this text the prophet emphasizes that this new covenant will be different from the previous one—from that which was linked to the liberation of Israel from the bondage of Egypt.

Before going to the Father shortly before the day of Pentecost, Jesus recalled the promises of the prophets. He had particularly in mind the eloquent texts of Ezekiel and Jeremiah which explicitly refer to the new covenant. That prophetic announcement and promise of "putting a new spirit within them" is addressed to the heart, to man's interior, spiritual essence. The result of this insertion of a new spirit will be the placing of God's law within man ("within them") and therefore a profound bond of a spiritual and moral nature. This will be the essence of the new law infused into the human heart (indita), as St. Thomas says (cf. Summa Theol., I-II, q. 106, a. 1), in reference to the prophet Jeremiah and to St. Paul, following in the steps of St. Augustine (cf. De Spiritu et littera, cc. 17, 21, 24: PL 44, 218, 224, 225).

According to Ezekiel's prophecy, it is not merely a case of the law of God infused into the human soul, but rather of the gift of the Spirit of God. Jesus announced the proximate fulfillment of this stupendous prophecy: the Holy Spirit, author of the new law, and himself the new law, will be present and active in human hearts. "You know him, for he dwells with you, and will be in you" (Jn 14:17). On the evening after his resurrection, in presenting himself to the apostles assembled in the upper room, Christ said to them, "Receive the Holy Spirit" (Jn 20:22).

The "outpouring of the Spirit," therefore, does not merely imply the "placing," the writing of the divine law in the depths of man's spiritual essence. By virtue of Christ's redemptive Pasch it also effects the gift of a divine Person: the Holy Spirit is "given" to the apostles (cf. Jn 14:16) that he may "dwell" in them (cf. Jn 14:17). It is a gift in which God communicates himself to man in the intimate mystery of divinity, so that the latter, sharing in the divine nature, in the trinitarian life, may bear spiritual fruit. This gift is therefore the basis of all the supernatural gifts, as St. Thomas explains (cf. Summa Theol., I, q. 38, a. 2). It is the root of sanctifying grace which sanctifies precisely through "participation in the divine nature" (cf. 2 Pet 1:4). It is clear that this sanctification implies a moral transformation of the human spirit. Thus what was expressed by the prophets as "putting God's law in the heart" is confirmed, clarified and enriched in meaning in the new dimension of the "outpouring of the Spirit." On the lips of Jesus and in the gospel texts the promise acquires the fullness of meaning: the gift of the Person of the Paraclete.

This outpouring, this gift of the Spirit, also has as its purpose the consolidation of the apostles' mission when the Church makes her first appearance in history, and later throughout the whole development of the apostolic mission. Indeed, when taking leave of the apostles Jesus told them, "You will be 'clothed with power from on high'" (Lk 24:49). "You shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth" (Acts 1:8).

"You shall be witnesses": the apostles had already heard this during the farewell discourse (cf. Jn 15:27). In that same discourse Jesus had linked their human, firsthand and historical witness to him with the witness of the Holy Spirit: "He will bear witness to me" (Jn 15:26). Therefore, "in the witness of the Spirit of truth, the human testimony of the apostles will find its strongest support. And subsequently it will also find therein the hidden foundation of its continuation among the generations of Christ's disciples and believers who succeed one another down the ages" (DV 5).

Then and later, it was a question of bringing into being the kingdom of God as understood by Jesus. Indeed, in the same conversation prior to the ascension into heaven, he again insisted with the apostles that this kingdom (Acts 1:3) is to be understood in its universal and eschatological sense. It should not be understood as a merely temporal "kingdom of Israel" (Acts 1:6), which they still had in mind.

At the same time Jesus charged the apostles to remain in Jerusalem after the ascension. It is there that "they will receive power from on high"; and there the Holy Spirit will descend on them. Once again the bond and continuity between the old and new covenants is emphasized. Jerusalem, the point of arrival of the history of the People of God in the old covenant, must now become the departure point of the history of the People of God of the new covenant, that is, the Church.

Jerusalem was chosen by Christ himself (cf. Lk 9:51; 13:33) as the place of the fulfillment of his messianic mission. It was the place of his death and resurrection ("Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up": Jn 2:19), and the place of the redemption. With the Pasch of Jerusalem the "time of Christ" is prolonged in the "time of the Church": the decisive moment will be the day of Pentecost. "Thus it is written that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be preached in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem" (Lk 24:46-47). This beginning will take place under the action of the Holy Spirit who, at the beginning of the Church, as the Creator Spirit (Veni, Creator Spiritus) prolongs the work of the first creation when the Spirit of God "hovered over the waters" (Gen 1:2).