HOW DOES THE HOLY SPIRIT WORK?
by Jack Cottrell (Notes) on Tuesday, October 30, 2012 at 3:14pm
QUESTION: I am confused about the various references to the working of the Holy Spirit [HS] in the Book of Acts. E.g., do Acts 1:5 and 1:8 refer to the same work of the Spirit? Is the promise in 1:5 fulfilled in 2:4? Does 11:15-16 tie 1:5 and 2:4 together?
ANSWER: Once source of such confusion is the assumption that all works of the HS are basically the same. Some add to this the assumption that all works of the Spirit involve salvation. I will try to clear up such confusion by first distinguishing four kinds of gifts bestowed upon individuals by the Spirit.
The first kind of gifts given by the Spirit can be called TRUTH gifts. These involve the Spirit’s work of revelation and inspiration, by which the Spirit reveals truth to chosen individuals (usually prophets and apostles), and by which he protects the spoken and written communication of such revelation (and of other truths) from errors and omissions. Such gifts were given in OT times to the prophets of Israel, such as Moses, Elijah, David, Isaiah, and Malachi. Jesus’ promise that he would give the HS to the apostles for this same purpose is recorded in John 14:26 and 16:12-15. Jesus renews this promise in Acts 1:8, and it began to be fulfilled in Acts 2:14ff. in Peter’s Pentecost sermon. The HS also later bestowed truth gifts on other Christians, in gifts such as prophecy, knowledge, distinguishing of Spirits, and interpretation of tongues (see 1 Cor. 12:8-11).
The second kind of gifts given by the Spirit are SIGN gifts. These are supernatural powers that enable a recipient to perform miracles, which function as signs (evidence, proof, confirmation) of the divine source and validity of the content given through the truth gifts. Sign gifts were also given in OT times to men such as Moses, Moses’ 70 elders (Num. 11:25), Elijah, and the apostles (Matt. 10:1). Truth gifts and sign gifts almost always go together, since the purpose of the latter us to verify the divine source of the former. Thus it is likely that Jesus is including the promise of sign gifts in Acts 1:8, especially the gift of tongues that was directly given to the apostles beginning in Acts 2:4. The purpose of the miraculous ability to speak in unlearned languages was not to communicate some new data, but to provide a divinely-given sign for the truth of Peter’s subsequent sermon. The same is true for the divinely-given tongue-speaking ability of Cornelius and his household; it was a divine sign giving proof to the Jews that God desired to save the Gentiles The Spirit also gave sign gifts to other Christian individuals via the laying on of apostles’ hands as the church grew and spread.
The third kind of gifts given by the Spirit are SERVICE gifts, which are abilities and tasks given to individuals to enable them to meet the general needs of God’s people as a whole. This is what we usually call “spiritual gifts,” but I am including here only those gifts that do not involve prophecy and miracles. The Spirit was giving this kind of gift in OT times (e.g., Exodus 31:1-11), and he still gives them today. These service gifts, as defined here, do not appear in Acts 2.
The fourth kind of gift bestowed by the Spirit is SALVATION gifts, received through the indwelling Holy Spirit as given for the first time on Pentecost in Christian baptism (Acts 2:38). This was a new thing (Isa. 43:19), not given to OT saints. But now, since Pentecost, every sinner who believes and obeys the gospel receives from the indwelling Spirit the saving gifts of regeneration (new birth) and sanctification. The beginning of this saving work of the Spirit was one of the main purposes of Pentecost. The miracle of tongues (a sign gift) was given solely as divine proof that this was the day when the Spirit was beginning to give salvation gifts.
Thus we see that on the day of Pentecost as described in Acts 2, three different kinds of the Spirit’s work were present: sign gifts (vv. 1-13), truth gifts (vv. 14-36), and salvation gifts (vv. 37-42).
Now I will tie all of this back into Acts 1. I have said that Acts 1:8 probably refers to the truth gifts and sign gifts, in that it promises the apostles that the HS will give them power to witness for Jesus. This power is seen especially in the tongues, and the witness is seen mainly in Peter’s sermon.
But what about Acts 1:5, where Jesus says John the Baptist’s promise that “you will be baptized in the Holy Spirit” was going to occur “not many days from now”? Here is a point many have misunderstood: baptism in the HS is not a sign gift, and it does not produce miraculous powers such as speaking in tongues. I.e., baptism in the Spirit is not what occurred in Acts 2:1-13. Rather, baptism in the HS is another way of describing the SALVATION work of the Spirit which happens to all sinners in the moment of water baptism (see 1 Cor. 6:11; 12:13). When Jesus made this promise in 1:5 he was not referring to the events of 2:1-13 but to the new thing in 2:38-39. This is the Father’s promise of the Holy Spirit (2:33, 39); this is what the Day of Pentecost was all about.
How does this relate, then, to the experience of Cornelius and his household (Acts 10:44-48), especially as explained by Peter in 11:15-16? First, in verse 15 Peter reports that “the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as He did upon us at the beginning.” Here, “at the beginning” obviously refers to Pentecost (2:1-13). Also, “upon us” refers to the apostles. The phrase “just as” means that the Spirit came upon them in the very same way he came upon the apostles on Pentecost, namely, by a direct outpouring, rather than through any human mediator (such as through the laying on of hands). That puts these two events in a category by themselves. The whole point of Cornelius’ display of tongue-speaking was that the Spirit was giving a SIGN gift in order to divinely demonstrate that God did indeed want the Gentiles to be saved, i.e., to receive the SALVATION gifts included in HS baptism.
This leads Peter to say what he did in 11:16, “And I remembered the word of the Lord, how He used to say, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’” Most have assumed that Peter is here identifying baptism in the HS with the tongue-speaking he had witnessed in Cornelius’ house. I disagree. In 10:47 we see that the first thing Peter concluded upon hearing the tongues was this: “Surely no one can refuse the water for these to be baptized who have received the Holy Spirit just as we did, can he?” (10:47). Acts 11:16 is Peter’s own commentary on this, and as I see it, this is what he is saying in 11:16: “As soon as I saw and heard what was happening, I was absolutely convinced that God wants these Gentiles to be saved, i.e., that he wants them to receive the baptism in the Spirit also. Thus I immediately said, ‘Surely no one can refuse the water for these to be baptized, can they?’ After all, they received the miraculous outpouring of the HS just as we did on Pentecost. God is surely trying to tell us something, and it is that he wants these and other Gentiles to be saved. So let’s get them to the water so they can be baptized in the Holy Spirit! We cannot stand in the way of God and refuse them this gift!”
In other words, Peter’s statement in 11:16 is not backward looking, referring to the tongue-speaking that had just happened; it is forward looking, referring to what must happen next. The sign gift was proof that the Gentiles were supposed to receive the salvation gift of the Spirit.