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One popular interpretation of the story of John the Baptist is that he was filled with the Holy Spirit while in his mother’s womb and that part of the proof of this phenomenal state is his jumping for joy while in the womb of his mother. This generally stands alone but sometimes a third consideration is added in the narrative and that is the possible implication of John being saved, either while in the womb or in the least, at birth.
1. The nature of the presence and filling the Holy Spirit in John the Baptist.
NT indwelling and filling of the Spirit
Because we believers are, as prescribed by God, the Holy Temples of God, God’s Holy Spirit indwells our bodies in order to make them sanctified for the residence of the Shekinah Glory (God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit). This is a NT function of God the Holy Spirit which is a result of our being born again through faith in Christ. And this is but one of many NT functions of the Holy Spirit. But this particular function, along with the constant “filling” (our yielding to His control via the passive voice in “be ye filled”) of the Holy Spirit, are manifestations or identifications of our salvation. That is to say, God’s Spirit indwells us and then fills us directly as a result of our being saved.
Therefore, when one comes upon the expression about John the Baptist that he will be “filled with the Holy Spirit” it is understandable that they may association with John the Baptist, a salvational (some like the word salvific instead of salvational, either will do) context. They will, that is, if they either are unaware or refuse the acknowledgment and application of the different contexts of John the Baptist’s filling and the NT believer’s.
OT Filling of the Spirit
John the Baptist was an OT Prophet. He was still under the protocol of National Israel or the Theocracy of Israel. God was not dwelling in people as a Holy Temple as of yet so the human body was not the Temple of God and the presence of the Holy Spirit filling someone was not meant as an indicator of such. Rather it meant the Holy Spirit had come upon them and enabled them for specific tasks. It, indeed, was a sign of God’s presence but it was not proof of one’s salvation. Here are some passages noting the filling of the Holy Spirit for specific tasks in which one’s salvation is neither directly or implicit:
Judges 6:34 (Gideon)
2 Chron 24:20 (Zechariah the Priest)
Exodus 31:1-11 (the building tasks via the filling of the Holy Spirit)
Therefore, we must understand that while God does reveal to us in the text that John will be great in the sight of the Lord and we do learn of John’s later faith, his being filling with the Holy Spirit is not to imply any salvational element, rather specifically for the task at hand, as the Prophet announcing the Messiah.
Now it stands to reason some might wonder if God would choose someone to proclaim prophecies, particularly this very proprietary kind, and not make sure the person was a believer. But God worked with both believers and non-believers (such as Judas who as an Apostle of God yet not a believer) involving the filling of the Holy Spirit under the OT protocol which did not insure personal faith was present. It clearly seems that the experience of the Holy Spirit filling someone for a tasks is quite influential and very rare that one so gifted by God and the recipient of so great a privilege would not come to faith, but again Judas did not. Some even suggest Saul falls into this classification as well.
Nevertheless, none of those exceptions are the force of the argument here rather that the context of a NT indwelling and filling (because we are the Holy Temple of God due to our salvation) and the OT filling and gifting for tasks are not the same context. Therefore one may not impose on John’s being filled with the Holy Spirit the same context of the believer and insist it demonstrates a salvational context.
2. When was John filled with the Holy Spirit (the preposition ek)?
The truth is, here, that whether in the womb or at birth, it does not as significantly impact the issue of whether or not John’s filling was a matter of salvation because, as the first point demonstrated, they are not same contexts. But it does impact the integrity of interpretation and there is never room for slackness, even with a jot or tittle.
The narrative of the prophecy that John would be filled with the Holy Spirit uses the following Greek expression:
πλησθήσεται (he will be filled ) ἔτι (yet, while, still) ἐκ (out, while in, coming from, out of) κοιλίας (womb) μητρὸς (of mother) αὐτοῦ (of him)
The NASV (1995) translates it this way:
“he will be filled with the Holy Spirit while yet in his mother's womb.”
Yet the NIV (1984) translates it this way:
“and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even from birth.”
The problem is with the preposition “ek”. Ek generally refers exiting or “out from”. If I made a circle and placed the locality of the preposition “ek” it would not be inside and remaining inside of the circle but it would be exiting or coming out of the circle.
Therefore, what is being pictured, rather specifically, is the birth process or at the moment of birth. In fact it is this popular idiom, “out of the womb” which is in view, not anything occurring while in the womb, rather simply at that moment or “from birth”.
Why, then do others translate it “while in the womb”?
The reason for this is a contextual assumption. What do I mean? It means that while the preposition is very specific, “exiting the womb” or “out from the womb” (which means “at birth”), translators have assumed that if John was born this way then this property must have come with him out of the womb. It is a contextual assumption.
The problem is two-fold. First, a baby out of the womb does not have the same properties as a baby in the womb so this universal assumption fails. Babies are quite alive in the womb and do share most properties of their existence outside the womb but not all. So while they are quite alive in the womb and share many or most properties they possess outside of the womb one in particular they do not share is that they do not breath oxygen through their lungs by inhaling air until they are “out from the womb”. So one simply cannot assume that John possessed this property (being filled with the Holy Spirit) in the womb simply because, at birth, he suddenly possessed it. And certainly because a baby is starts breathing outside of the womb by inhaling oxygen through the lungs does not gives us cause to assume the baby breathed in this manner while in the womb. So this assumption is based on a view that is not prescriptively sound.
Secondly (and maybe more critically) the Greek needs to be left without assumptions. If it means “out from the womb” or “coming out of the womb” (ek) then this is the soonest the grammatical construction permits the filling of the Spirit to occur. However, my next point will refer back to this issue and reveal why this assumption was made.
The Greek preposition, “en”.
Prepositions are both instrumental and local. Ek is a preposition primarily of locality which refers to “out from”. However, there is another preposition of locality which tells us “in” and it is “en”. That is, if we wish to point to something’s locality as being “within” or “inside” something we would use the preposition “en” which means to be inside or within something.
If the writer of Luke wanted us to understand John was filled with the Holy Spirit while in the womb, he would have used the preposition “en”, especially because he precedes it with the adverb “ἔτι” meaning “while” or “yet”. In other words it would have been:
ἔτι ἐν (while or yet “in” the womb)
But this construct is avoided and the “out from the womb” is used to denote, at birth.
3. John jumped for joy in the womb?
Finally, in the narrative we come to a popular portion where it is attributed to John the Baptist that he jumped for joy while still in the womb. Commonly this interpretation is rendered because it is strongly associated to the portion of the text referring to his being filled with the Holy Spirit. And as you will see, the two parts depend on one another for a rather erroneous interpretation. No, John the Baptist did not jump for joy in the womb and you are about to learn in a rather startling obvious fashion, without much Greek (a bit but not much), from something that has been right in front of many this whole time but did not consider it.
Let’s first look at the narrative as the NIV translates it (a fair translation btw):
39 At that time Mary got ready and hurried to a town in the hill country of Judea, 40 where she entered Zechariah’s home and greeted Elizabeth. 41 When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. 42 In a loud voice she exclaimed: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! 43 But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? 44 As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. 45 Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfill his promises to her!”
The first reference of leaping John, who heard what?
In verse 41 we have the first occasion of the leaping John. And the first thing you must notice is who heard what? It was not John in the womb; rather it was Elizabeth who heard Mary. And if you look at the context Mary arrives, quite excitedly after having her own visit from God’s angel, Gabriel, who gave Mary both the prophecy of Christ for Mary and the revelation of Elizabeth’s pregnancy and its nature. So in her arrival one certainly can assume certain intensity in Mary’s call to Elizabeth. But even in the case of the most subdued greeting, still it is Elizabeth hearing Mary, not John.
Why did the baby leap?
So with it being established that it was Elizabeth who is the object that hears and not John we are instructed that John, in the womb, leaped as a result of Elizabeth’s hearing Mary. And why are the two connected? Because, as we observed, Mary came in a rather excited state and her greeting, no doubt, carried with it the intensity of excitement from her angelic revelation. In other words, Elizabeth was startled.
And it is quite normal for babies in the womb to react to their mother’s adrenaline. Almost any woman will tell you that at times, if she is startled, it will produce a fetal reflex. Again, notice the emphasis, it was Elizabeth that heard and from the context we can know this is a very excited setting where she hears an intense greeting and from this startled stated the baby jumps or moves. It is a rather common occurrence.
Elizabeth filled with the Holy Spirit
Next is the observation that Elizabeth, upon hearing Mary’s intense greeting, was filled with the Holy Spirit. Many now connect this portion with the earlier passage about John being filled (ek) out of the womb or from the point of birth with the Holy Spirit which is incorrectly translated “while still in the womb”. Those that permit this much weaker grammatical allowance for the translation of “while still in the womb” then claim that it was via John the Baptist that the Holy Spirit was caused to fill Elizabeth and that one proves the other or vice versa.
Well, all of that is nice except that first, the grammar of “ek” has been established but more importantly, the text does not say why Elizabeth is filled, only that she is. There is no commentary that it was via John and to argue as such is to argue from silence. The most we can know is that at that time when the Holy Spirit filled them, it was the decision of the Triune God for a prophetic utterance and nothing about John being a means or medium is present anywhere. So this is an impotent argument.
The baby leaping “for joy”. What this means.
Probably forwarded more than most other parts as the cause for one arguing John’s leaping in the womb as distinct within himself and not initiated or forced by his mother, Elizabeth, is the expression in verse 44 “the baby in my womb leaped for joy”. One, immediately upon reading this translation, is impressed with the view that it was John’s joy from which he jumped. In other words, it was John, in the womb, who was experiencing joy and therefore distinct from any other source, jumped.
First, the Greek does not indicate this or force this at all. What you have is a simple construction ἐν (in) ἀγαλλιάσει (exultation/joy). But because “in joy” would be an unusual way to phrase this in the Greek and because “en”, though primarily meaning “within” (a preposition of locality), also carries with it force or cause at times so it is sometimes translated, with or by.
The issue here is not whether the Greek preposition permits something or does not because here it really is useless unless we can determine what the source of joy is if this is the force of John’s leaping. And here the context is quite clear, it is not John’s joy but Elizabeth’s joy from hearing Mary’s greeting.
In other words, “by joy” or “with joy” (Elizabeth’s joy) the baby jumped. It basically requires one to maintain the integrity of the context in which Elizabeth is in focus both in hearing Mary’s greeting and responding to it and being filled, herself, with the Holy Spirit.
The fact is that the Greek preposition, in its most basic construction “in joy” would mean “within joy”. But whose joy? Clearly Elizabeth’s joy.
1. John the Baptist, even if filled while in the womb, still was an OT Prophet and his filling was not that of a believer in the NT church wherein now, believers are indwelled and filled as a result of their salvation. This was not salvational in context, rather filling for fulfilling the office of OT Prophet and specific the Prophet announcing the Messiah. The two are not same contexts; hence one may not assume salvation either in the womb or at birth from the Holy Spirit filling John.
2. The text itself clearly has Elizabeth doing the hearing, not John. Not once but twice is there the recollection of Elizabeth doing the hearing, not John.
3. The case for John leaping in the womb because he heard Mary can only be predicated from silence and actually assaults the record itself which makes it clear that Elizabeth did the hearing. To argue this can only be done from silence which is no argument.
4. One must also wonder if we are to understand John does the hearing in the womb and then jumping for joy in the womb, why is a record of John hearing the voice absent while Elizabeth’s hearing emphasized?
5. Ultimately the “John jumping in the womb independently” view comes primarily from a single source which is the grammatically/contextually stumbling use of “for joy” (in joy) to claim it was John’s joy that is being referred to and not Elizabeth’s. Of course the text bears out otherwise, that it was Elizabeth doing the hearing, Elizabeth being excited and John reflexing from his mother’s excitement.
Some feel a certain removal of the magnificence of Elizabeth’s blessing in her pregnancy with John when the phenomenal narrative of John independently jumping in the womb, is challenged. It need not be viewed this way.
All that God does is magnificent and we need not arrest texts in fear we are lessening God’s splendor. What we must do, however, is see his splendor in as candid a light as Scripture permits. Here is not a wish to remove or detract from anything but maintain textual integrity.
I do realize that good and much better men both spiritually and academically may and do take issue. So this is, with all due respect, submitted in that light.