A Progressive Christian Primer: Spirit, Anointing, and Christ

Joel Michael Herbert
9 min readJan 21, 2024
Photo by NEOM on Unsplash

Let’s start at the very beginning. It’s a very good place to start, I’ve heard.

In the beginning, Elohim — the ancient Hebrew word for God or gods — created the heavens and the earth, the sky and the land.

And the land was a barren wasteland — your typical Sunday School reading says something like “the earth was without form and void” — and darkness covered the entire surface of the waters. And the Spirit of Elohim hovered, fluttered, or moved over the surface of the waters.

And Elohim said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. And Elohim saw the light, that it was good… and the evening and the morning were the first day.

So begins the prologue of the bestselling book of all time.

Jesus would have been deeply familiar with this passage, as well as the entire Creation story that followed. He would have had the entire thing committed to memory before he was a teenager.

We learn a lot from these opening chapters of the Bible. Genesis 1–3 tells the well-known story of God creating the world in 7 installments of evening-morning, God setting aside the seventh day as a day of rest, the Sabbath, and then moves into narrating the creation of human beings, their appointment as stewards of God’s good earth, exemplified by the immaculate Garden of Eden, their unfortunate and infamous temptation by the Serpent, a test that the humans failed, after which they are subsequently expelled from Eden to toil in sweat and pain, the reality of the world that we all find our ourselves living in on a daily basis.

I’m not here to rehash the entire Eden story and give my take on it. But there is a snapshot or two I want to lift out that I believe would have informed Jesus’ own thinking about God and the world, and that if we miss, we risk missing the message of Jesus entirely.

First, the word Spirit. Put a pin in that.

In Hebrew, the word used is ruach; in Greek, it’s pneuma. The Scriptures of Jesus’ day, which Christians call the Old Testament, were translated into Greek centuries before Jesus was born, after Alexander the Great conquered most of the known world and Greek became the first universal language, the lingua franca that remained the dominant language of the western world for centuries even after Rome conquered Alexander’s old haunts.

Jesus would have spoken Greek as well as Aramaic, a dialect of Hebrew that was the local language of Palestine by Jesus’ day. He would have been familiar with the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures known as the Septuagint.

Western theological tradition has given us the idea of Original Sin — that every human being born into the world carries an indelible stain of sin inherited from our first parents, Adam and Eve, that we can’t help but be bad because that’s who we are at our core — fundamentally flawed and separated from God by nature.

We don’t find this thinking explicitly taught in the gospels, however. It’s a later theological development of the 3rd and 4th centuries extrapolated from a single passage in the writings of Paul that, from my view, owes more to Platonic thought than it does to Jewish thought of the Second Temple era that Jesus lived in.

Instead, especially in the synoptic Gospels of Mark, Matthew, and Luke, we find a deeply Jewish Jesus, a Jesus whose following at the time of their writing still consisted of at least a sizeable minority of Jews, if not an outright majority. The early Jesus movement — the first 40–50 years or so after Jesus’ death — was a distinctly Jewish movement. It was founded by a Jew (Jesus), led by Jews (James, Peter, and Paul), and most new congregations in cities across the Roman Empire began in the local synagogue, as an outgrowth of a Judaism that, to varying degrees, was expectant of a coming Messiah.

This Jewish Jesus was a mystic and a revolutionary in his own right, no doubt about it, but he was, more than anything, a Jewish rabbi. No heretic, he was deeply committed to the faith of his fathers, to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and to the flourishing of the Jewish people. He lived and worked and traveled and taught primarily in the blue-collar and largely rural area of Galilee, where he was wildly popular, only at the very end of his life taking the movement to the cosmopolitan south and the temple, to Jerusalem, where he was executed.

This Jesus says things like, “unless you become like little children, you shall in no wise enter the kingdom of heaven,” and “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven,” and “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you cannot enter the kingdom of heaven.”

In other words, Jesus’ central themes were that humility and innocence are the core virtues of the kingdom of God. Children had no need to repent, because they had not yet been corrupted by money, power, lust, pride, and vengeance. God was close to the poor, the disinherited, and the simple, precisely because they had no airs, because they recognized their need of salvation — which in the time of Jesus, was less of the metaphysical conversion we think of today, and meant something more like “healing” or “rescue,” and included the idea of physical, economic, and political freedom from an oppressive force — be that a physical sickness, a mental illness, the shame and guilt of sin, the fear of death, or the ever-present Roman Empire and its proxies in the local government and religious establishment.

Jesus taught that “the kingdom of God is within you,” a passage that after 35 years in church, I’ve rarely heard a sermon on, probably because it makes Jesus sound a little too Buddhist for the likings of most good Protestants.

The story in Genesis 2 that Jesus memorized as a young boy would have been central to Jesus’ own self-understanding as the “Son of Man,” a deeply meaningful phrase that, at its core, connects Jesus back to Adam, to humanity at the very beginning. In the opening lines of the Creation poem (Genesis 1), we have the Spirit or Ruach/Pneuma of Elohim hovering over the dark waters of an uncreated world. For the remainder of Genesis 1, the Deity is referred to as Elohim. There is a shift in Genesis 2, when the Deity is called Adonai Elohim (in English, this is rendered “the LORD God”). Everywhere else throughout the Torah, God is referred to as either “the LORD” (Adonai) or as “God” (Elohim), only in Genesis 2–3 being referred to by the dual name. In Genesis 2, Adonai Elohim forms a man from the dust of the ground (the name Adam is not a proper name, and simply means “of the earth”), and — crucially — God “breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.”

That word for breath? You’ve probably guessed it by now- it’s the same word used in the Prologue for Spirit- Ruach. In the opening salvo of Luke 4, which introduces Jesus’ adult ministry after an extended birth narrative and backstory, declares “Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, left the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness” (Luke 4:1) After an extended period of time doing battle with Satan in the wilderness, Jesus “returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit” (4:14).

Jesus emphasizes this same theme in his breakout moment later in Luke 4, where he is the liturgical reader of the week for his local synagogue. The passage is from Isaiah, and Jesus takes it and infuses it with all the prophetic ethos he can muster, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor” (Luke 4:18–19).

Then, like an epic ancient mic drop without the mic, he says to his astonished listeners, “today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing,” and walks out. Luke 4, where this story is found, pulls no punches connecting Jesus to the Spirit. Over and over again, Jesus is connected to Spirit and to the idea of being “anointed.”

The word “anointed” is a rich word as well, connected as well to the concept of Spirit. Going back to ancient times long before the time of Jesus, to be anointed meant to be set apart by the Spirit of God for a special leadership role. Figures like Aaron, the first priest; Saul, David, and Solomon, the first kings of Israel; and the prophets Samson, Elijah, Elisha, Isaiah, and Jesus’ contemporary John the Baptist, were all thought to be anointed, or filled with the Spirit.

John’s gospel has Jesus saying this, “whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them” (John 7:38). The gospel writer clarifies that Jesus is using water as a metaphor for the Spirit, the same Spirit that in the beginning, you’ll remember, is hovering over the face of the dark, deep waters of the primordial sea.

So Jesus considers himself filled with the Spirit, anointed by God for a special purpose, and declares that those who follow him and join him in this endeavor will also overflow with the Spirit, that the kingdom of God is not “out there” or “over here,” but “within you” (Luke 17:21). Jesus uses all of these terms more or less interchangeably, with the Spirit, in Jesus’ thinking, acting as the agent of “the kingdom of God” or “the kingdom of heaven.”

Once you see it, it’s impossible to unsee it. The language of the Spirit and anointing is all over the Gospels, the words Messiah (Hebrew) and Christ (Greek) meaning, literally, “anointed one.” To be the Christ is to be anointed by the Spirit. That’s what the word means — it’s a title, not a last name. To be a Christ-ian is to be anointed by the Spirit — similar, perhaps, to the difference between bodhisattvas and the Buddha. Buddha, like Christ, retains a special place of primacy as the OG leader of the movement, but ultimately, the goal of both the Buddha and the Christ is to invite the rest of us into this higher God-consciousness, whether you want to call it anointing or the kingdom of God (Jesus’ phrases), enlightenment (Buddha/Paul’s word), or “perfect love” (John’s preferred phrase).

Jesus also uses plenty of words around enlightenment. John’s gospel, the last of the four to be written, has Jesus declaring, “I am the light of the world,” but decades before John was written, Matthew’s gospel records what was likely the original saying: “You are the light of the world.” Neither reading is better than the other, per se, but if we emphasize John’s version, we easily create simply another Messiah, another demigod, another champion, another legend, an enlightened superhuman that ultimately stays out of reach of the rest of us, as gods and heroes throughout history are wont to do. I think Jesus knows this, and works hard in his teachings to push us away from idolizing him and invite us into imitation of his own Spirit-filled-ness, which is really the core idea of what it means to be a disciple.

If Jesus is the Light of the World, it is so that you and I can be the light of the world. It does us little good to have a Messiah or Anointed One, a King, Master, or Rabbi, whose Light does not extend to the rest of us. Otherwise, like every other Anointed One in Israel’s history, eventually that Anointed One dies and their movement falls apart, until the next Anointed One comes along. I believe Jesus saw this clearly, and knew that the pattern of Oppression-Anointed Leader-Deliverance-Death of Leader-Oppression could only be remediated by an entire movement of Anointed Ones, a kingdom “not of this world,” an army of enlightened but ordinary people who refused to live by the same old rules, the same lower consciousness that denied the Spirit within each of us, the Divinity that resides as close as the very breath of every human being ever born.

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Joel Michael Herbert

Husband. Father. Artist. Storyteller. Armchair Theologian. Advocate, activist and politician. Gryffindor. [neuro]Divergent.