The Prominence of the Holy Spirit in the Acts (1)

The following three articles explain the prominent place which the Spirit of God is given in the book of the Acts.

Luke’s Gospel is summarized in the author’s own words in Acts 1:1 – “The former treatise have I made, O Theophilus, of all that Jesus began both to do and teach. “That divine record from the hand of Luke closes with the Lord’s combined assurance and command: “And, behold, I send the promise of my Father upon you: but tarry ye in the city of Jerusalem, until ye be en- dued with power from on high” (Luke 24:49). Thus, the risen Lord indicated that he would use human agents to continue His work, but these would, of necessity, have to be empowered by the Holy Spirit. Some expositors have called this second book of Luke, “The Acts of the Holy Spirit,” and there is some justification for the title when the prominence of the Holy Spirit is observed in the establishment and edification of the early church in these first thirty years of its history as the message of the gospel moved from its birth-place at Jerusalem to the center of Empire in Rome. It is significant that out of the 91 times the Holy Spirit is mentioned by name in the NT, 42 of those occasions are in this book; of these, 32 are in the first fourteen chapters. The Lord continues His work through the Spirit’s activity on earth.

1. The Formation of the church – a dispensational action – unity

Four times in the gospels through the ministry of John the Baptist, the Lord Jesus is identified as the One who “will baptize you with the Holy Spirit” (Matt 3:11; Mk 1:8; Lu 3:16; Jn 1:33). The preposition in each case should be translated “in” (the exact phrase is “baptisei ev pneumati hagio”), for it is clear that since the Lord Jesus is the baptizer, the element, which parallels the water in water baptism, must be the Holy Spirit. This is the historic event awaited by the disciples in keeping with His final promise, “For John truly baptized with water: but ye shall be baptized with (ev) the Holy Spirit not many days hence” (Acts 1:5). This unique and never-to-be repeated event taking place at a particular geographic location (Jerusalem) and on a particular date (the day of Pentecost), ten days after the Lord’s ascension to glory, is referred to again in its historic perspective in Acts 11:16; and with its doctrinal explanation in I Cor 12:13 (RV), “For in one Spirit were we all baptized into one body.” The other verbs used of this event emphasize the completeness of the action as well as the personality of the Holy Spirit. The verb in Acts 1:8 (come upon) indicates the collective effect of the action, when as a company, they were baptized with the Holy Spirit. The verb in Acts 2:4 (filled) stresses the personal experience of the individuals. The verb in Acts 2:33 (shed forth) suggests the prophetic aspect (see quotation from Joel (Acts 2:17) of this divine action). Thus on the day of Pentecost the Lord, baptizing the disciples in the Holy Spirit, incorporated the church, of which He has spoken prophetically in Matt 16:18, “I will build my church.”

It should be made clear that no NT command or encouragement is ever given to believers to seek baptism in the Spirit. This was the Lord’s act at Pentecost, unique and final. At conversion, the believer personally finds sins taken away, and each knows that this is a result of the cross (Jn 1:29); similarly, at conversion the same believer is indwelt by the Holy Spirit, and this is the result of Pentecost (Jn 1:33).

2. The Preaching of the church – a historical record – vitality

As Peter challenged his audience in Jerusalem to repentance and faith in Christ he showed that the result of this would be “the gift of the Holy Spirit.” Thus each individual believer would know that a divine person had taken up residence within the physical body as the Lord promised in Jn 14:17. “For He dwelleth with you and shall be in you.” Later ministry will identify this action as the “indwelling” of the Holy Spirit (Rom 8:9-11), the “sealing” of the Holy Spirit (Eph 1:13), the “earnest of the inheritance” (Eph 1:14), and the “anointing” from God (2 Cor 1:21; Jn 2:20), ministries that the presence of the Holy Spirit within makes good to each believer.

The tangible and visible evidences of the baptism in the Spirit on the day of Pentecost were the “wind” and the “fire,” but when these had gone (not to be repeated) the result was that all the disciples were “filled with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:4). The immediate outcome was the witness given to the audience gathered by the supernatural happenings in the temple area. The public preaching of Peter on that day was divinely used in the conversion of three thousand souls. This number saved when the Holy Spirit was given might be compared with the three thousand who died on the day that the law was given (Ex 32:28). This power to testify is seen again when Peter, “filled with the Holy Spirit,” faced the whole of the Sanhedrin (Acts 4:8). A fearlessness marked him then that was reproduced in the whole company when, after prayer, they “were all filled with the Holy Spirit and they spake the word of God with boldness” (Acts 4:31). On a similar occasion Stephen, “full of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 7:55), added faithfulness to his fearlessness until the stones silenced his voice. Barnabas was “a good man and full of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 11:24), a divine control that enabled him to avert a serious rift between assemblies of different social and racial composition, and opened the way for fruitfulness in the work. Paul, in the first encounter with the forces of the adversary on the first missionary enterprise, was “filled with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 13:19). There is no doubt that in the “fullness of the Holy Spirit” lies the secret of vitality in divine testimony.

The single positive and personal command given to the believer with respect to the Holy Spirit (there are two negative commands given in Eph. 4:30 and 1 Thess. 5:19) is, “be filled with the Spirit” (Eph 5:18). Since it is a command, the responsibility lies with the individual believer to obey and thus experience and enjoy the control of the Holy Spirit in the life; the outcome will be seen in the witness borne. These examples in the Acts show that this is not a once-for-all experience, but something to be enjoyed constantly and repeated continually as the divine enablement to any service for the Lord.

It is a mistake to link the fullness of the Spirit with speaking in tongues. Out of ten references in this book to the filling of the Spirit, only one is linked with speaking in tongues: that on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:4). Speaking in tongues is the ability to address God in worship in languages recognized by others, yet never learned by the speaker. This was a divine sign given in the early days of church testimony, particularly to show to the unbelieving Jew that their day of testimony for God as a nation was over. The only other occasions in the Acts where tongues are mentioned, in the house of Cornelius (Acts 10:46) and in the case of certain disciples at Ephesus (Acts 19:1-7), confirm this interpretation. Later scriptures will show that this gift “ceased,” the word used in I Cor 13:8, locally when the need for its testimony to Israel had gone and finally, when the canon of Scripture was complete (1 Cor 13:8-13).

3. The administration of the church – a scriptural method – reality

The baptism in the Holy Spirit brought a unity to the disciples (for which the Lord had prayed in Jn 17:11), a unity that had both a horizontal component (amongst believers themselves) and a vertical component (with divine persons). It is also clear from this early record that the fullness of the Holy Spirit was the secret of their vitality as they faced a hostile world (about which the Lord had warned in Jn 15:26-27) in their witness for Him. A third matter to be noted is the reality of the Holy Spirit within the gathered company of believers.

This reality of the presence of the Holy Spirit amongst the gathered company is seen dramatically in Acts 5:1-11 (see the doctrinal statement in 1 Cor 3:16-18) in the divine government upon Ananias and Sapphira. The deception by which they sought to win spiritual status amongst the believers was exposed by the question Peter asked, “Why hath Satan filled thine heart to lie to the Holy Spirit?” (Acts 5:3). Incidentally, the deity of the Holy Spirit is underlined by the further identification of the sin in V4, “Thou hast not lied unto men but unto God.” It is thus made clear that the local assembly was not a fortuitous gathering of believers but the residence of the Holy Spirit and thus of God Himself.

The reality of this divine Resident is further seen in the references to His activities within such companies. The key reference is Acts 9:31, “Then had all the churches rest throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria, and were edified; and walking in the fear of the Lord, and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit were edified.” The word translated “coinfort”(parakaleo) is a word of wide scope and includes not only cheer but challenge, not only encouragement but exhortation. The reality of His Presence brought comfort to the saints.

When the moment was ripe for the further advance of the gospel it was not the believers who took action but the Holy Spirit in the church at Antioch as seen in Acts 13:2, “And as they ministered to the Lord, and fasted, the Holy Spirit said, ‘Separate me Barnabas and Paul for the work whereunto I have called them’.” Thus not only does the Holy Spirit equip men for filling the place of deacons (Acts 6:1-6), of prophets (Acts 11:27-28), and of elders (Acts 20:28), but here the Holy Spirit directs the sending out of missionaries in the extension of the work. In Acts 13:4, the statement is explicit, “So they, being sent forth by the Holy Spirit, departed unto Selucia.” It was not a committee nor even a church that sent these servants, it was the Holy Spirit. It is clear that the Holy Spirit is seen in control of the servants. This will be made absolutely clear in more detail as the very field of service of the servants is dictated by that same Holy Spirit, “Were forbidden of the Holy Spirit to preach the word in Asia… they assayed to go into Bithynia; but the Spirit suffered them not.” How vital it was, and still is, that the Holy Spirit be in control both of the servant and of the sphere of his service. This is divine work.

The reality of the administration of the Holy Spirit is again evident, when the doctrinal problem over circumcision arose that was likely to divide the believers in Acts 15. The consciousness of His presiding in the gathering at Jerusalem was such that the apostles could send forth the decree with the words, “For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us.” That these were not formal words but a reality is clear from the peace that resulted and the progress that followed. Perhaps today we have lost the consciousness of the Spirit within the assembly that would lend divine authority to decisions taken under His control.

The key verse in this subject of the administration of the Holy Spirit within the assembly is the reference of Paul to the elders from Ephesus, “Take heed, therefore unto yourselves and to all the flock over which the Holy Spirit hath made you overseers” (Acts 20:28). The divine equipment and enablement of men of character to be the agents of His care and control calls for deep exercise from the whole assembly. The presence of the Holy Spirit as divine administrator within a scriptural gathering is still very much a reality.