How about the Holy Spirit in Acts?
This is Part 3 of our exploration of the Holy Spirit’s activity as described in the New Testament. You can find the whole series (starting in Genesis) here.
We move now from the Synoptic Gospels to the Book of the Acts of the Apostles. Acts is essentially Part Two of the Book of Luke. Some writers have suggested that “Acts of the Holy Spirit” is a better name for this book because the Spirit drives and orchestrates much of the action.
The point of this post is not to conduct any deep exegesis, but to provide a quick overview of the significant things the author Luke (and the characters in his story) tell us about the Spirit.
First, Luke (who was a Gentile God-fearer or perhaps a proselyte to Judaism) and the Apostles (who were Jews) associate the Holy Spirit with prophecies in the Hebrew Bible.
One example is Acts 1:16. In the context of selecting a new apostle to replace the deceased traitor Judas, Peter declares that the Holy Spirit uttered a prophecy about Judas through “through the mouth of David.” (Some versions omit the literal word “mouth,” but I find it evocative and interesting). Peter was referring to Psalms 69:25 and 109:8. (Notice how Peter applies these Psalms passages allegorically without reference to their historical setting and literal meaning).
Another example is Acts 4:25. Peter and John are praying to God. In their prayer they quote Psalm 2 and state that God spoke those words by the Holy Spirit through the mouth of David. (Again, many Bibles will skip the word “mouth”). The point of the quotation is that earthly authorities are opposed to Jesus and his message.
A third example is Acts 28:25, where Paul states that the Holy Spirit spoke to the ancestors of his Jewish opponents “through the prophet Isaiah.” The passage is a prediction that the Jews will reject God’s message. The book of Acts ends on this note, with an expectancy that Gentiles will embrace the Gospel.
Just as the Spirit spoke through the ancient prophets, Luke tells us that Jesus gave instructions to his disciples through the Holy Spirit. (1:2). This passage from chapter 1 previews the rest of the book’s story. Notice the terms I’ve highlighted below. Through the Spirit the Lord tells his disciples:
Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit. . . But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. (1:4-5, 8).
This prophecy of Jesus is fulfilled in chapter 2. On the day of the Jewish Pentecost festival, the 120 disciples are gathered when the sound of a violent wind rattles the room and tongues of fire appear on their heads. The disciples are all “filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in tongues as the Spirit enabled them.” (2:4). Peter says this event is something the prophet Joel foretold:
In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and your daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy. (2:17-18).
Peter then preaches the good news to the crowd. Jesus rose from the dead, Peter says, and having been “exalted to the right hand of God, he has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit and has poured out what you now see and hear.” (2:33).
When the crowd is moved to respond, Peter tells them to
Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off – for all whom the Lord our God will call. (2:38-39).
The pattern for the story (and, I believe, the history of the church) is laid out in this text. Already, in just the first two chapters of Acts, we see that the Spirit spoke through the ancient prophets, through Jesus, and now through his disciples. The arrival of a new, universal outpouring of the Spirit is the fulfillment of ancient prophecy. After his resurrection and ascension, Jesus received the Spirit from the Father (as Jesus will explain further in the Gospel of John). In the story Jesus has now poured the Spirit, like water, onto the disciples. From this point forward, everyone who is baptized (symbolically buried and resurrected in water) in the name of Jesus receives the Spirit as a gift. And the Spirit brings signs. In this case, the first sign is speaking in tongues. In this context, “tongues” means people are able to hear the disciples’ preaching in their native languages. (The gift of “tongues” (simply a metaphorical term for languages) carries a different meaning in Paul’s letters). The indwelling Spirit prods the disciples into being “witnesses” for Christ. The pattern of Acts 2 recapitulates itself throughout the narrative.
What does the Spirit do next?
In Acts 4:8, Peter is “filled with the Holy Spirit” before the rulers, elders, and teachers of the law, and speaks to them. I think Luke wrote this scenario in a way that fulfills Christ’s words in Luke 12:11-12. When Peter later returns to the rest of the believers, the whole group prays, and then “the place where they were meeting was shaken. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly.” (4:31). Notice the connection between being filled with the Spirit and bold speech.
In Acts 5, Ananias lies to the Holy Spirit, and his wife tests the Spirit of the Lord (5:3, 9). It does not work out well for them. Later in that chapter Peter and the other apostles are summoned to appear before the Sanhedrin and the high priest. “We are witnesses of these things,” the apostles say, speaking of Christ’s resurrection and ascension, “and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him.” (5:32). Incidentally, if there was any question whether the “gift of the Holy Spirit” in Acts 2:38 was the Spirit as a gift or a gift from the Spirit, this passage makes doubly clear that the Spirit himself is the gift given to “those who obey” Jesus.
In the next chapter, the believers choose seven men to fulfill the administrative needs of the infant church, particularly the need to ensure the widows are cared for. They choose Stephen, a man “full of faith and the Holy Spirit,” along with six other men “known to be full of the Spirit.” (6:3, 5). Interestingly here, being full of the Spirit is seen as a prerequisite for being an effective administrator of the church’s charity work.
Among these seven, Stephen is said to be “full of God’s grace and power.” Acts doesn’t tell us much about how he administered the money for widows. Instead, the story zooms in on the “great wonders and miraculous signs” he does “among the people.” (6:8). Not only does Stephen work signs, he also speaks a mighty message. Stephen’s religious opponents “could not stand up against his wisdom or the Spirit by which he spoke.” (6:10). So they put him on trial. Stephen tells the Jewish council of leaders, “You are just like your fathers. . . . You always resist the Holy Spirit.” (7:51). As he is stoned to death, Stephen is again described as “full of the Holy Spirit” as he sees a vision of Jesus standing at the right hand of God. (7:55).
Acts 8:14-25 contains an interesting story:
When the apostles in Jerusalem heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God [through the preaching of Philip], they sent Peter and John to them. When they arrived, they prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit, because the Holy Spirit had not yet come upon any of them; they had simply been baptized into the name of the Lord Jesus. Then Peter and John placed their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit. When Simon [the former sorcerer] saw that the Spirit was given at the laying on of the apostles’ hands, he offered them money and said, “Give me also this ability so that everyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit.”
Peter, of course, rejects Simon’s offer. Perhaps the message here is that the gift of the Holy Spirit typically flows through and from God’s people. Although the Spirit can fall upon people out of the blue (as with Cornelius, who we’ll talk about shortly), the situation here called for physical contact from Spirit-empowered people to fully realize the reception of the Spirit.
In the story of Philip and the Ethiopian, the Spirit tells Philip, “Go to that chariot and stay near it” (8:29). Philip teaches the African man (who is probably a Jewish proselyte), and he becomes a disciple. After the Ethiopian is baptized, “the Spirit of the Lord suddenly took Philip away,” and his convert “did not see him again.” (8:39). This event echoes the occurrences in the Hebrew Bible (Part IV of my earlier series) where the Spirit was a mode of transportation.
In Acts 9, Saul/Paul, before his conversion, is traveling to Damascus to arrest Christians. Christ appears to him on the road, and he’s struck blind. After this life-changing vision, Saul takes refuge in the house of Ananias. The Lord had previously instructed Ananias to go find Paul. Ananias places his hands on Saul and tells him that Jesus sent him “so that you may see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” (9:17). Then Saul regains his sight and is baptized. When Paul recounts this story later, he mentions that Ananias told him to “Get up, be baptized, and have your sins washed away, calling on his name.” (22:16). Here, we have the convergence of baptism, forgiveness of sins, hand-laying, and reception (filling) of the Holy Spirit.
After Saul’s conversion, the church throughout Judea, Galilee and Samaria enjoyed a time of peace. The group of believers “was strengthened; and encouraged by the Holy Spirit, it grew in numbers, living in the fear of the Lord.” (9:31).
The Spirit is also involved in the conversion of Cornelius, the first Gentile disciple. The Spirit instructs Peter to go with Cornelius’ messengers to the Centurion’s house. (10:19-20; 11:12). Then the following happens:
While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles. For they heard them speaking in tongues and praising God. Then Peter said, “Can anyone keep these people from being baptized with water? They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have.” So he ordered that they be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. (10:44-48).
This is the second instance of the phenomenon known as the baptism of the Holy Spirit. As Peter later explains the incident with Cornelius,
As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit came on them as he had come on us at the beginning. Then I remembered what the Lord had said: John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit. So if God gave them the same gift as he gave us. . . who was I to think that I could oppose God? (11:15-17; cf. 15:8-11).
Here are some more references to the Spirit in Acts. Barnabas is another man who is said to be “full of the Holy Spirit and faith.” (11:24). The prophet Agabus predicts a famine “through the Spirit.” (11:28). In chapter 13, the Holy Spirit tells the Antioch church to commission Paul and Barnabas for foreign mission work. (13:2). They are “sent on their way by the Holy Spirit.” (13:4). Paul is “filled with the Holy Spirit” when he speaks to his opponent Elymas, cursing him with blindness. (13:9-11). The Holy Spirit restrains Paul and Silas from preaching in Asia. (16:6, 7).
Acts 19 has an interesting account of some disciples in Ephesus:
[Paul] asked them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” They answered, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.” So Paul asked, “Then what baptism did you receive?” “John’s baptism,” they replied. Paul said, “John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance. He told the people to believe in the one coming after him, that is, in Jesus.” On hearing this, they were baptized into the name of the Lord Jesus. When Paul placed his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied. There were about twelve men in all. (19:2-7).
The Spirit is the driving force behind Paul’s movements in the final part of Acts. He is “compelled by the Spirit” to go to Jerusalem, although “in every city the Holy Spirit warns me that prison and hardships are facing me.” (20:22-23). The disciples at Tyre urge Paul “through the Spirit” not to go to Jerusalem (21:4), as does the prophet Agabus (21:11). But Paul goes anyway, and spends the rest of the book living in custody as a Roman prisoner.
In summary, throughout the Book of Acts, the Spirit fills people and gives them power so they can speak and act as witnesses for Jesus. The promised Spirit is a gift for all disciples, but some are also given the ability to speak in tongues or perform other miraculous signs through the baptism of the Holy Spirit or the laying on of the apostles’ hands. The Spirit speaks to and through certain people, and orchestrates Paul’s (and Philip’s) missionary activities. Each of these activities of the Spirit is present in the Hebrew Bible. The difference is, after Pentecost, the experience of the indwelling Spirit goes from being a rare gift to a universal Christian experience.
Like this post? Share it! And read about what God’s indwelling Spirit does for you in my book, Heaven’s Muscle.
Bren Hughes (M.A., M.Div., J.D.) is a lawyer and former minister who lives in the hills of Kentucky.