The Spirit of God - Salient Impartations in Acts

F. Cundick, Luton

Part 2 of 6 of the series The Spirit of God

Category: Exposition

‘The Acts of the Apostles’ is an appropriate continuation of the four Gospels. It opens with a reference to the Risen Lord’s commandments given to the apostles, ‘through the Holy Ghost’, 1. 1, and continues to reveal the acts of the Spirit throughout its pages. Following the Gospel of John, wherein we have the discourse in ‘the circle of light’ (see John 13. 30), it aptly illustrates all the ministries that the Spirit came to fulfil. Throughout its chapters we find the Spirit as the Abider, Teacher, Witness, Convincer, Guide, Revealer and Magnifier of Christ, exactly as had been foretold in the discourse. Some of these ministries were specially for the apostles in order that the spiritual responsibilities committed to them might be fulfilled for the establishment, edification and progress of the Church. Yet, covering as the book does a period of about thirty to thirty-three years, there is something to be said in favour of the suggestion that this is intended to show us Tor all generations to come, what a power the Spirit would be to the believer and the Church, if allowed to work unhindered by disobedience, unbelief, worldliness and carnality’. The whole of the book is a revelation of the Holy Spirit in His relation to believers as Christ’s witnesses in the world. The operations are mainly outward, and this is not surprising in view of the historical character of the book. Doctrine concerning the Spirit follows in the Epistles. There are about fifty-four references to the Spirit in the Acts, and in these references the Spirit is spoken of in four ways.

  1. ‘The Spirit.’ This directs attention to His Personality; e.g., ‘the Spirit gave them utterance’, 2. 4.
  2. ‘Holy Spirit’. The absence of the article draws attention to the power in action; e.g., ‘And they were all filled with [the] Holy Spirit’, 2. 4 J.N.D.
  3. ‘The Holy Spirit.’ This gives emphasis to His character as the Holy One; e.g., ‘ye will receive power, the Holy Spirit having come upon you’, 1. 8 J.N.D.
  4. ‘The Spirit, the Holy’. This literal rendering expresses His Personality and His character; e.g., 1. 16; 5. 3 (see A. Marshall N.T.).

There are certain operations of the Spirit that are common to all ages of time, such as striving, Gen. 6. 3, and filling, Exod. 31. 3. However, since the notable day of Pentecost, there have been great changes in the Spirit’s relation with believers. The Acts reveals how the Lord imparts to His people the Holy Spirit in a new way, in order that they may be brought into the enjoyment of the spiritual blessings and privileges that are theirs through the rich grace of God. There are four passages in the book in which the reception of the Spirit is distinctly detailed, and therefore attract our special attention.

  1. The Repentant Jews. ‘And Peter said to them, Repent, and be baptized, each one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ, for remission of sins, and ye will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit’, 2. 38 J.N.D.
  2. The Believing Outcast Samaritans. ‘Now when the apostles which were at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the word of God, they sent unto them Peter and John: who, when they were come down, prayed for them, that they might receive the Holy Ghost’, 8. 14, 15.
  3. The Company Assembled in the House of Cornelius. ‘Then Peter answered, Can anyone forbid water that these should not be baptized, who have received the Holy Spirit as we also [did]?’, 10. 46, 47 J.N.D.
  4. The Disciples of John the Baptist at Ephesus. ‘. . . Paul, having passed through the upper districts, came to Ephesus, and finding certain disciples, he said to them, Did ye receive [the] Holy Spirit when ye had believed?’, 19. 1, 2 J.N.D.

The full reading of these passages leads one to see that two of them deal with major events, chapters 2 and 10, and two with comparatively minor events, chapters 8 and 19. Chapters 2 and 10 are epoch making, revealing the opening of the door of faith to both Jews and Gentiles. The events of chapters 8 and 19 are more auxiliary in character. These four passages are used by believers of different parties with divergent views and interests, and consequently, are made to support their various practices. To many saints, the difference in manner in which the Holy Spirit was received is still a perplexity. Let us examine these portions of Scripture to ascertain, by the help of the Lord, the special reasons for the diverse conditions in each case.

1. The Repentant Jews

The extraordinary events that occurred on the day of Pentecost, accompanied by miraculous interposition, resulted in the conversion of many thousand souls. The three stages leading to the conversion of these people are clear. First, they witnessed the miraculous gift of tongues, ‘. . . the multitude came together, and were confounded, because that every man heard them speak in his own language’, 2. 6. The event that took place at the tower of Babel was reversed through the grace of God. The tongues were a symbol of the universality of the Gospel message in contrast with the exclusivism and limitation of Judaism. Secondly, they were deeply convicted of their guilt, v. 37. This was the issue of Peter’s powerful preaching which confirmed, by Spirit-prompted exposition of prophecy, the great fact that Jesus the Nazarene was the Christ. The same Jesus, who had been born at Bethlehem, brought up in Nazareth and crucified at Calvary, was the Messiah who had been promised to the fathers. The Pentecostal crowd was composed of at least two classes. There were ‘devout men’ who had come up to Jerusalem to keep the ordinances of God, v. 5, and with them ‘men of Judaea’ and those who dwelt at Jerusalem, v. 14. Only seven weeks before had they rejected the Saviour; they were responsible for the cruel crucifixion He endured. As Peter charged home this horrible crime they became convicted and burdened with the sense of guilt, and cried out in anxious inquiry, ‘Men and brethren, what shall we do?’. This led to the third step, their repentance. ‘Repent’, said Peter, ‘and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost’, v. 38. Then some of those very men, who had only recently cried ‘Crucify him, crucify him’, underwent a complete change of mind and heart, and mourned their guilt. It was imperative for Peter to put the message as he did for these haughty, stubborn Jews who had refused the Messiah. Their baptism in water (not John’s baptism) signified their faith in Jesus the Messiah. Now they perceived the meaning of His death and its expiatory merits. Their baptism signified also their readiness to be associated with the new society that was being formed, and furthermore it signified the acceptance of the authority of Jesus as Lord, for they were baptized in His name. Then they received the gift of the Holy Spirit, as had the company in the upper room. How wonderful is the grace that bestows upon such blood-guilty people the promise of the prophets of the Messiah, the gift of the Holy Spirit! The procedure of reception applied to these people was, virtually, an insistence on the genuineness of the claims of Jesus the Messiah. The gift of the Spirit must be recognized as a proof of the glorification of the Man whom they had so wrongfully rejected.

2. The Believing Outcast Samaritans

The account of the work of grace at Samaria follows the record of the defence of Stephen. At this point in the book it becomes clear that the Jewish representatives had refused the Messiah in glory, as formerly they had rejected Him on earth. Consequently, the extension of the preaching of the Gospel to the Gentiles begins to come into the narrative. The reader should note the references and various words used in chapter 8 regarding the announcement of the message of salvation (see vv. 4, 5, 12, 25, 35, 40). Philip, the God-chosen and God-gifted man, a companion of Stephen, was in great danger after the martyrdom of that faithful witness. Philip moves on account of this into Samaria and preaches Christ there. He is the only man in the New Testament who is positively called ‘the evangelist’, Acts 21. 8, and this is due probably to his being the first preacher of the Gospel beyond the limits of Judaism. Being a Hellenist - a Greek-speaking Jew - he was more fitted to preach the Christ to the Samaritans than a native of Judaea would have been. Philip’s preaching brought signal results from the prior preparations by the Lord Himself (see John 4). We read ‘. . . multitudes with one accord gave heed unto those things which Philip spake, . . . and there was great joy in that city’, vv. 6-8 Newberry. Yet these believing people did not receive the Holy Spirit, v. 16. We must bear in mind that the ‘gifts’ of the Holy Spirit are not meant, but rather the new and distinctive endowment of the Spirit to the believer of this age as announced by our Lord to His disciples before His departure. The Samaritans had become children of God as had believers of the days prior to the inauguration of the Church, but as yet did not possess the gift of the Spirit. Why the delay in their case? The reasons are not difficult to perceive. First, the apostolic appointment and authority had to be recognized. The question as to why Philip did not lay hands on them himself has been the subject of much discussion, but need not detain us at this point. The tenor of the narrative draws attention to the necessity of acknowledging the apostolic authority of the chosen twelve. This was done in Samaria, and reminds believers of the present day that, whilst it is right to refuse so-called ‘apostolic succession’, we must not minimise the great importance, final authority and spiritual benefit for the Church contained in the apostles’ ministry. Secondly, we see in the delay of the Spirit’s impartation the preclusion of the spirit of rivalry between the Jews and the Samaritans. The well-known conversation at the well-side (see John 4), is a reminder of the long-standing antagonism between these two peoples. The Samaritans had their own range of Scripture, holy mountain, and temple, and thus maintained independence of the Jews and Jerusalem. The wisdom of God in withholding the gift of the Spirit until the apostles Peter and John came from Jerusalem makes one rejoice. Both peoples are taught by the order of events that the work was one. What a great pity the Church as a whole has not learned the lesson yet! The setting up of ‘National Churches’, or ‘Independent’ bodies, is a contradiction of the oneness of the body of Christ. May the Gracious Spirit who was ‘equally ready to pour out His fulness at Ahab’s capital as in David’s Metropolis’ teach us to throw off the sectarian strifes and practices which have rent the Church!

3. The Company Assembled in the House of Cornelius

Attention is now drawn to another important stage in evangelism. It follows the narrative of the conversion of Saul, of whom it is said, ‘he is a chosen vessel unto me, to bear my name before the Gentiles, and kings, and the children of Israel’, 9. 15. Then, prior to the outpouring of the Spirit on Cornelius’ household, we read of Peter’s vision of a ‘certain vessel’ descending to him out of the opened heaven, ‘wherein were all manner of fourfooted beasts of the earth, and wild beasts, and creeping things, and fowls of the air’, vv. 10, 11, 12. These are further steps towards the establishment of the great truth that, in the present age of the Spirit, national prerogative and superiority of the Jewish people are no longer to be recognized in the Church. Now, outside of Jerusalem and Samaria, we meet with a representative Roman gathering in the house of Cornelius listening to Peter preaching the Gospel. The preaching leads to the outpouring of the Spirit, an event which has been called ‘The Gentile Pentecost’. When Peter returned to Jerusalem, certain Jewish believers contended with him concerning his conduct with the Gentiles. Peter gave to these men a full report of his exceptional experience from which the following points emerge.

  1. The Holy Spirit fell on Gentile hearers of the Word of God; ‘And as I began to speak, the Holy Ghost fell on them, as on us at the beginning’, 11. 15.
  2. The Holy Spirit acted directly. There is no question of prior administrative action, as in the former instances of both Jews and Samaritans. The Spirit ‘as with divine impatience’ descended while Peter was speaking, 11. 15; cf. 10. 44.
  3. The Holy Spirit fell on all that heard the word. According to the information available this was the first time that this happened. ‘God is no respecter of persons’, 11. 14, 15; cf. 10. 44.
  4. The Holy Spirit fell on these believers prior to water baptism, 10. 47.

There was, therefore, no national distinction of persons, no administrative procedure, no limitation of scope, no period of waiting. These are lessons in advance of any hitherto learned. Another has said, ‘The scene sparkles with the brilliancy of the grace of God. The rebellious Jew must repent and be publicly baptized; the pseudo-religious Samaritan hears the Gospel, believes it, and is baptized in the name of Jesus, but he must wait till the apostles come down, pray for, and lay their hands upon him, ere the Holy Ghost come. The Gentile, who was afar off, having nationally no link with God . . . hears the truth, believes the Gospel, and receives the Holy Ghost on the spot without any preliminaries’. In this procedure, as will be seen eventually from other Scriptures, are found principles of the Spirit’s activity which remain throughout the Church age.

4. The Disciples of John the Baptist at Ephesus

This final instance of the reception of the Spirit concerns the party of about twelve disciples of John which Paul found at Ephesus on his promised return-visit there. Discerning some spiritual defect in these men Paul asked, ‘Have ye received the Holy Ghost since ye believed?’, 19. 2. It must be noted that Paul was thinking of faith in the Lord Jesus, but the response revealed that they had not believed the Gospel message made known since Pentecost. Furthermore, the word ‘since’ in the question is not warranted. Correcting this defect, the Revised Version reads, ‘Did ye receive the Holy Ghost when ye believed?’. The word ‘since’ makes the question of Paul appear to mean, ‘Subsequently to believing, have ye received the Holy Spirit?’. Paul meant rather, ‘Coincidentally with believing, did ye receive the Holy Spirit?’. This rules out the thought of an interval of waiting for a believer of the present day, as some teach from the incident. We may add that the reply given to Paul, ‘We have not so much as heard whether there be any Holy Ghost’, v. 2, did not imply that they were ignorant of the existence of the Holy Spirit. The Baptist himself and his followers knew of the Holy Spirit (see John 1. 32-34). They were unaware of the event of Pentecost and the special bestowing of the Spirit consequent upon the rejected Messiah’s exaltation at the right hand of God. Although they were ‘born of the Spirit’, they had not received Him in the distinctive ‘Christian’ sense. Paul immediately explained that the baptism of John was unto repentance for man on earth anticipating the coming Messiah. That Messiah was Jesus. His coming, death, and exaltation had brought the Spirit for spiritual power, and enjoyment of the Messiah’s victory. ‘When they heard this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. And when Paul had laid his hands upon them, the Holy Ghost came on them; and they spake with tongues, and prophesied’, vv. 5, 6. This instance is the third in the Acts of the giving of the Spirit with the accompaniment of tongues. In chapter 2 known languages were spoken, but in chapters 10 and 19 it seems that ‘spiritual’ language was spoken which is discussed at length in 1 Corinthians 14. The interest in this last instance of the reception of the Spirit is quickened when compared with chapter 10. The distinctive ministries of the two apostles to the two great divisions of mankind are seen to overlap. Peter, the apostle of the circumcision, Gal. 2. 8, was used to preach the message of the Gospel to Gentiles. Paul, the apostle of the Gentiles, Rom. 11. 13, fulfilled the same ministry toward Grecian Jews. The unity of their work is thereby safeguarded.

The impartation of the Spirit by the laying on of Paul’s hands brings to view his apostolic power. At this time in his life he was dogged by Jewish teachers who imposed on Gentiles the Mosaic code and rites. Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians reveals that such men were disparaging his apostleship, and insinuating that his ministry was of a lower order because he had not accompanied the Lord ‘in the days of his flesh’. But by this incident God substantiated His servant’s calling.

In these four instances of the reception of the Spirit there are on the one hand conspicuous coincidences. For example., in all we find baptism ‘in the name of the Lord’. Both apostles, Peter and Paul, command believers to be baptized. In this we see that the practice extends beyond the early Jewish believers to the Gentile. Incidentally, the argument that baptism was only temporary is thereby disproved. On the other hand, there are conspicuous differences in the incidents. No exact repetition can be traced for the simple reason that this early period of Church history had characteristic conditions and needs which can never quite recur. The exceptional circumstances demanded the exceptional modes of the reception of the Spirit. No one instance ‘sets’ a given pattern. Must there be a period of waiting for the Spirit? Must there be baptism in water first? Must there be a laying on of hands? Must there follow the gift of tongues? The variations in the passages reveal the answer in each case to be in the negative. Precedent for present day experience is not given. The Gracious Spirit Himself would lead us on to divide rightly what is written, and teach us His permanent ministries in the expanded truth found in later writings.