Samson is the most Spiritual man in the Old Testament, the most Pentecostal of Israel’s heroes. Given his reputation for lechery and bravado, my thesis seems counterintuitive to say the least. But it’s an easy case to make, provided we insist on the capital S in “Spirituality.”
Early in the Old Testament, the Holy Spirit is active as the wind of the Creator (Gen. 1:2) and as muse of the sacred craftsman Bezalel (Ex. 31:3). He comes into his own during the time of judges and early kings. He empowers Othniel (Judg. 3:10), Gideon (Judg. 6:34), and Jephthah (Judg. 11:29). Saul fights in the power of the Spirit (1 Sam. 11:16) until the Spirit abandons him to help David (1 Sam. 16:13).
No one in the Hebrew Bible, though, encounters the Spirit as often or as dramatically as Samson. The Spirit of Yahweh stirs (Judg. 13:25), sending Samson down to Timnah to court a Philistine woman who has caught his eye. When a lion attacks, the Spirit rushes on Samson and he kills the lion barehanded (Judg. 14:6). The Spirit comes again and Samson kills thirty Philistines in Ashkelon and plunders their clothes (Judg. 14:19). The Philistines try to bind him, but the Spirit melts the ropes like flax in a fire and drives Samson to kill another thousand Philistines with the jawbone of a donkey (Judg. 15:14). The Spirit leaves him when he breaks his Nazirite vow and allows his hair to be cut, but we can surmise that the Spirit is back when Samson breaks down the house of Dagon, killing more in his death than during his lifetime.
You can put money on it: When the Spirit comes, things get broken and people get hurt.
With pneumatology, the doctrine of the Holy Spirit, Christians have an unfortunate tendency to ignore the Old Testament, starting with Matthew rather than Genesis. Older theologians institutionalized this tendency by distinguishing between the Spirit’s “theocratic-official” work in Israel and his “ethical” or “soteriological” work in the church.
That contrast is semi-heretical or worse, and can’t be supported from the New Testament. Jesus is the Spiritual man from the moment of his conception by the Spirit (Lk. 1:35). The Spirit descends on him at his baptism (Lk. 3:22), then drives him out into the wilderness to battle the devil (Lk. 4:1). Anointed by the Spirit, Jesus announces release to captives and freedom to prisoners, opens blind eyes, and drives disease from human bodies (Lk. 4:18). The Spirit is the finger of God by whom Jesus casts out demons (Lk. 11:20).
Jesus receives the Spirit to finish what Samson started—to take out the enemies of God, which are the enemies of the human race. By the Spirit, he follows Samson’s path, defeating more enemies by his death than in his life.
The same Spirit who empowers Jesus to fight devils, battle disease, and break chains rushes onto the disciples at Pentecost so they can carry on his mission. Jesus tells his disciples that they will receive “power” when the Spirit comes (Acts 1:8). Filled with the Spirit, Peter preaches repentance to Israel and confronts Israel’s leaders (Acts 4:8). Powered by the Spirit, the apostles deliver the demon-oppressed and heal the sick (Acts 5:16). Stephen is so full of the Spirit that he is irrefutable in debate (Acts 6:10), and his success provokes murderous outrage.
When Ananaias baptizes Saul, he becomes Paul, an apostle who carries on his missionary work by the Spirit (Acts 13:2–4). Filled with the Spirit, Paul blinds the magician Elymas with a rebuke, an act of power that so impresses the Roman proconsul Sergius Paulus that he converts on the spot (Acts 13:4–12). Bound by the Spirit, Paul makes his final journey to Jerusalem (Acts 20:22), where he follows Jesus to arrest and trial and, so tradition has it, a martyr’s death.
There is a difference between the Spirit’s work in ancient Israel and in the church. The church is a company of new Samsons, armed not with jawbones but with weapons that destroy fortresses of speculation and take captives for Christ (2 Cor. 10:3–6). Samson killed in the power of the Spirit, but at Pentecost, the Spirit of Jesus equips the church with power to raise the dead.
This Sunday, praise the Creator Spiritus. Worship the Spirit as Paraklete, the Spirit of adoption, the Spirit of holiness, life, and peace. Revel in the Spirit who searches all things, gives gifts, and produces fruit in the soil of the church, the Spirit of Jesus and of the living God, the Love and Gift of Father and Son.
But on this Pentecost Sunday, remember that he’s also the Spirit of battle, the Passion by whom God is a Warrior.
Peter J. Leithart is President of Theopolis Institute.