THE EXPERIENCE OF JESUS
Kevin O’Shea April 2004
John Ashton, The religious experience of Jesus, HDB 2003 James lecture.
The majority of modern commentators are not very interested in the properly religious side of Jesus’ life and
teaching, or in his religious experiences. They focus on his message.
Jesus was, and was perceived to be, a prophet. He received a call. He experienced the call both as something
heard and something seen: it came from a vision and a voice. This was a subjective experience.
The voice. It is not much value investigating exact nuances of the words used by the gospel writers in telling us
of this voice. The point is that he heard God addressing him as a son. The prophetic essence of what he heard
can be summed up as the fatherhood of God.
The vision. He saw the Spirit. Spirit is like wind: you don’t ‘see’ it. But he saw the Spirit descending on him, as
a dove descends. He was caressed by the Spirit, feeling it brush against him. He felt the descent. [In Numbers.
11,17, God took some of the spirit that was upon Moses and put it upon the seventy elders, and when the spirit
resented on them, they prophesied; in Numbers 24, 2-4, Balaam is said to hear the words of God, and see the
vision of the almighty, and so give his oracle.]
The prophetic call, by itself, was incomplete. It was completed in the temptations in the desert, that is, in the
struggles that happened in the rest of his life. Jesus had a long and hard struggle – over which he had no control –
still ahead of him. He was not just touched, but seized and flung by the Spirit. It is a case of Spirit possession.
He was taken over by a benign spirit (as some are said to be possessed by an alien spirit). Something or someone
other than himself assumed control of him.
Jesus was pushed into a struggle against the forces of evil: it put a characteristic stamp on his whole subsequent
life and mission. His career was a strenuous and continual conflict with evil. It was a long battle with all
personifications of evil. He was tested, subjected to terrible ordeals, with evil spirits involved. This bears strong
resemblance to the typical development not only of a prophet, but of a shaman. He is in the presence of a divine
being who appears to him as it were in a dream, and tells him he has been ‘chosen’, and incites him thenceforth to
follow a new way of life. Jesus was a shaman.
Publicly, we know that Jesus was both a prophet-teacher and an exorcist-healer. Both these activities spring
from his initial visionary experience and the ongoing ordeal in the desert that followed it. In this way, he
resembled many prophets of Israel and Judah. Perhaps the most salient example is Hosea ( a husband confronted
by the infidelities of his wife): he is more attuned than any other prophet to the tenderness of God and his
readiness to forgive. Similarly, Jesus believed that his combat with evil through the Spirit of God that had taken
him over, helped bring about the reign of God in the world. By healings-exorcisms-miracles he was ridding his
world of illnesses of all kinds that came from the dominion of Satan. In doing so, he was helping to bring about
the Kingdom of God.
He was, in this, regarded as possessed. RSV says people at large thought he was ‘beside himself’. It would be
more accurate to say ‘out of his mind’. This means he was in an altered state of consciousness. This was evident
even to outsiders. There was a widespread feeling that he was in a peculiar way someone other than he appeared
to be. Implicitly, he admitted he felt possessed. He lived in a world where different kinds of spirit were thought
to be at large, and to possess people.
The spirit in Paul’s writings is a kind of electricity, deployable in various ways (he called these ways charisms).
Paul was a kind of dynamo, charged up with the Spirit. Jesus, another dynamic individual, was possessed by the
Spirit. The gospel writers call his deeds dynameis – power-expressions of Spirit. He cast out evil spirits (devils)
by the Spirit, or Finger of God. He literally mastered them (epitimao – Mt 1,21-27 = God’s total domination over
the demonic world). It is a practical exercise of spiritual authority that is the same as the way God exercises His
On one occasion, and no one doubts the authenticity of the vision, Jesus ‘saw Satan fall like lightning from the
heavens’. It was when those empowered by him healed others.
K O’Shea: The experience (Ashton) 2
Through this, he had an increasing and unusually deep conviction of the Fatherhood of God.
In all this, Jesus was permeated throughout by a sense of the Fatherhood of God. He was occupied by another
person’s Spirit, and he was pre-occupied by what it might mean. He knew spoke on behalf of God who owned
that Spirit. He did think of himself in a special way. His self-awareness was not of the usual type. Some say,
that in an unforced way, he must have thought of himself as God’s Son (without being technical about it in the
sense of, say, Nicea and the Greek councils). It is not quite clear as that. I don’t think he knew how to make
comfortable use of the words ‘Father’ or ‘Son’ to translate his experience…even if, in a very large sense, they
were in the Jewish vocabulary.
It was always coming through to him, if not fully arriving. The Transfiguration seems to be a visionary
experience like those that Ezechiel had: it can be taken to be an account of something that really happened to him.
There are similar experiences narrated in merkabah mysticism (and in Qumran). It is not so different from the
vision of the Great Glory in 1 Enoch 14. On the mountain Jesus is clothed with divine radiance and told ‘This is
my Son’. The disciples had thought he might be Elijah the Prophet: here he is in the presence of that prophet, and
of Moses, and is different from both of them….and so close to God that they could not express it.