The Holy Spirit and Acts 8

QUESTION: As Philip evangelized the Samaritans, many believed and were baptized (Acts 8:12). But verses 15-17 seem to say that the converts did not receive the Holy Spirit at their baptism, but rather when apostles from Jerusalem came and laid hands on them. Other texts also separate the receiving of the Spirit from baptism (e.g., Acts 10:44-48). How can we explain this, especially in light of Acts 2:38?

ANSWER: All Zwinglians—those who separate baptism from salvation—love to call attention to such data from the book of Acts. They believe that the data show that there is no appointed connection between baptism and the gift of the Holy Spirit. The fallacy in this interpretation is the assumption that every “receiving” of the Holy Spirit (e.g., 8:15-17) is in some sense for the purpose of salvation. This assumption is false, and it usually contributes to a false doctrine of baptism and salvation.

The fact is that in the book of Acts we can identify at least THREE different ways in which the Holy Spirit is given and received, each for a distinctly different purpose, and each to bestow a different kind of gift. All three of these ways, purposes, and gifts are found in the second chapter of Acts. I sometimes call them (1) SIGN gifts, (2) TRUTH gifts, and (3) SALVATION gifts.

In Acts two (2:1-13) the first way the Holy Spirit came upon individuals was to bestow SIGN gifts, specifically “speaking in tongues,” or the ability to speak fluently in a language one has never studied. Many have wrongly been taught and have wrongly assumed that the purpose of the tongue-speaking was to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ to all the nationalities present. There is nothing in the text to support this idea. The only reference to the content of the tongue-speaking is in verse 11, which says they proclaimed “the mighty works of God.” The best inference is that these “mighty works” were the great events of deliverance and redemption recorded in the Old Testament.

This is not a problem, since the purpose for the tongue-speaking was not its content, but its form. It was a MIRACLE, the main purpose of which is always to provide divinely-given proof (evidence, confirmation) of accompanying REVELATION. In this case the tongue-speaking was proof of the truth of Peter’s sermon, which immediately follows (2:14ff.). As such, this kind of outpouring of the Spirit was nothing new; the Spirit had been coming upon individuals to provide them with miracle-working power at least since the time of Moses. Jesus himself had the Spirit upon him for this purpose (see Luke 4:14; Acts 10:38), and the apostles had already experienced it during Jesus’ ministry (Matt. 10:1ff.).

We should emphasize that there is no connection between receiving a sign gift and receiving salvation. Most of the time those who received such gifts were already saved. Events in the life of Balaam (Num. 22-24) show that the Spirit could miraculously speak through an unsaved person (24:2; cf. 22:28-30). The fact that Jesus received the Spirit for this purpose definitely shows it was not a salvation thing. The filling of the Holy Spirit for tongue-speaking on Pentecost (Acts 2:4) did not involve salvation.

The second way the Spirit came on individuals in Acts two (2:14ff.) was to bestow TRUTH gifts, specifically upon the Apostle Peter. Sometimes we forget that Jesus had promised the apostles that after he was gone he would send the Holy Spirit to them for the purpose of enabling them to speak inspired messages from God (John 14:26; 16:12-15). In this case the Spirit would come upon the apostles with the gifts of revelation and inspiration. This is totally distinct from salvation as such.

Acts 2:14 does not specifically say that Peter was inspired by the Holy Spirit as he preached his Pentecost sermon, but we can reasonably infer that this was when Jesus kept his promises as recorded in John 14 and 16. The content of Peter’s sermon was not something Peter would already know; it was probably not something that Jesus had already taught the apostles (see John 16:12). Other Spirit-inspired apostolic teaching is recorded throughout the book of Acts.

The third way the Spirit came on individuals in Acts two (2:37-41) was to bestow SALVATION gifts. This was indeed the main point of the Pentecostal work of the Spirit. The sign-gift (tongues) and the inspiration-gift (Peter’s sermon) were just laying the foundation and paving the way for the SAVING outpouring of the Spirit. This kind of Spirit presence was not given to OT saints, but was prophesied by the OT, by John the Baptist, and by Jesus himself as a new work that would be the hallmark of the New Covenant era (Isaiah 43:19-20; 44:3-4; Ezek. 36:27; Joel 2:28-32; Matt. 3:11; John 7:37-39). Those who received the Holy Spirit in the manner described in Acts 2:38 received the salvation gifts of regeneration and sanctification.

Acts 2:38 makes it clear that this third way of receiving the Holy Spirit was a salvation event, being accompanied by the forgiveness of sins. Acts 5:32 refers to “the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him.” This must be a reference to this third way of receiving the Spirit, because this is the only one for which obedience to conditions is specified. Obedience for this purpose is called “obeying the faith” (Acts 6:7) and “obedience to the gospel” (Rom. 10:16; 2 Thess. 1:8). Peter’s statement in 5:32 shows that in the post-Pentecost church it was simply assumed that baptism was the time when the Spirit was given for salvation purposes; this did not have to be stated again every time a conversion and baptism were recorded.

How does all this apply to Acts 8:4-25? First, based on the last two paragraphs above, it is a more than reasonable inference that the Samaritans who were baptized (vv. 12-13) received the saving presence of the Spirit in that moment. That this is not specifically stated does not mean it did not happen. There is no reference to their sins being forgiven, either; but we rightly assume that it happened, based on the promise in Acts 2:38.

So why does 8:14-18 say they had not yet received the Holy Spirit, and that the visitation by the apostles, Peter and John, actually brought this about? Because what Peter and John accomplished by laying hands on the Samaritans was NOT the SALVATION gift of the Spirit, but SIGN and TRUTH gifts. The latter are totally different from the saving indwelling of the Spirit. The point was that the Samaritan Christians, though they had received full salvation (including the Spirit’s saving indwelling) at their baptism, had not received any sign or truth gifts that could be used in connection with evangelism and edification after Philip left.

What was accomplished by the laying on the apostles’ hands was the transfer of miracle-working power (such as tongues and healing) and the ability to prophesy (speak inspired messages from God). Though the Spirit was given for a similar purpose to the apostles in Acts 2, because that was a special event no “laying on of hands” was used. This happened one other time, as Peter preached to Cornelius and his household, Acts 10:44-48; 11:15. Other than Pentecost and Cornelius—two special and unique events, the Spirit gave sign and truth gifts only through the laying on of apostles’ hands. See Acts 6:6; 8:17; 19:6.

How do we know that the result of the laying on of apostles’ hands was the reception of sign and/or truth gifts, rather than the saving gift of the Spirit? Because of Simon the Sorcerer’s reaction to the result of this laying on of hands. The result was something he could SEE (v. 18), and something spectacular enough to tempt him to fall back into his witchcraft mentality (v. 18-19).

Thus the key to harmonizing the references to the Holy Spirit in the book of Acts is to see that he comes upon people for different purposes.

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The Holy Spirit and Acts 8 — 16 Comments

  1. You stated that-

    (“Acts 2:38 makes it clear that this third way of receiving the Holy Spirit was a salvation event, being accompanied by the forgiveness of sins”)

    but doesn’t Acts 2:38 only says that repentance and baptism was unto the remission of sins, and that receiving the Holy Spirit would follow rather than co-occurring with salvation?

    • Actually there is no time reference in the text; there is nothing there that suggest a temporal sequence is intended, i.e., that the giving of the Holy Spirit would FOLLOW the repentance and baptism. If such were the intention we would expect a word similar to “then” or “after that” (which is not in the text). The fact that the Spirit is given in baptism (for regeneration and sanctification) is affirmed by the fact that regeneration itself is in other places connected with baptism (e.g., *John 3:5; Rom. 6:3-4; Col. 2:12; Titus 3:5). This is WHY we are given the gift of the Spirit in baptism: so that he can work this saving work upon our hearts. It seems illogical to me that the Spirit would work this salvation upon our hearts in baptism, and then at some later time begin to dwell within us. This would be putting the effect before the cause. [*Please — I hope that no one tries to argue that these passages do not refer to water baptism. Eph. 4:5 says clearly there is only ONE baptism. I have discussed them all at length in my book, Baptism: A Biblical Study.]

      • Greetings;
        Your statement

        “If such were the intention we would expect a word similar to “then” or “after that” (which is not in the text”

        really does not play out in the Greek.

        Mar 16:16 He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned.
        Mar 16:17 And these signs shall follow them that believe; In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues;

        • Here is a good use of and / καὶ without “then or after that”.

          Luk 6:4 ὡς εἰσῆλθεν εἰς τὸν οἶκον τοῦ Θεοῦ καὶ τοὺς ἄρτους τῆς προθέσεως ἔλαβε καὶ ἔφαγε, καὶ ἔδωκε καὶ τοῖς μετ᾿ αὐτοῦ, οὓς οὐκ ἔξεστι φαγεῖν εἰ μὴ μόνους τοὺς ἱερεῖς;

          Luk 6:4 How he went into the house of God, and did take and eat the shewbread, and gave also to them that were with him; which it is not lawful to eat but for the priests alone?

          • There is no parallel here with Acts 2:38. Luke 6:4 is an example of straightforward narrative, which certainly records successive events. But the sequence in Acts 2:38 is that of an imperative (a command), followed by an affirmation. I.e., if you do these things (repent, be baptized), then this will happen to you. The connection is more like cause-and-effect.

  2. I will allow you to debate yourself on your last comment, for you said in your article

    “That this is not specifically stated does not mean it did not happen.”

    To say that no one had received the Spirit by the laying on of hands by the time of Acts 5:32 is a mere speculation on your part according to your own words and logic which you just used regarding Acts 8:12-13.

    “That this is not specifically stated does not mean it did not happen.”

    • I would say, though, that there would still have to be some sort of REASON to affirm that it happened–which there is not. I also would say that in the texts I cited it is specifically stated that the wonders and signs were being done “through the apostles,” and “by the hands of the apostles.” To me this means it is more reasonable to think that they were the only ones doing such things.

      • There is no reason for you to assume that the Samaritans of Acts 8 received some MYSTICAL INDWELLING of the Spirit at baptism, when the text clearly says they had not received the Spirit prior to the laying on of hands. Your assumption of Act of 8 is based solely on your false assumption of Acts 2:38.

        When we obey the Gospel God changes His mind about us resulting in our salvation, and when we obediently read / hear the scriptures given by the Spirit our minds can be transformed into the likeness of Christ.

        There is not a MYSTICAL transformation that takes place at baptism as you suggest.

        • You are misusing the word “mystical.” You mean “spiritual.” Otherwise, you are simply ignoring the main point of my essay, which is that the Holy Spirit is “received” in more ways than one. On the subject of the Holy Spirit’s literal indwelling within the body/heart/life of the Christian, see my book, Power from on High: What the Bible Says About the Holy Spirit, pp. 335-344. I do not intend to say more about it here.

  3. ” The only reference to the content of the tongue-speaking is in verse 11, which says they proclaimed “the mighty works of God.” The best inference is that these “mighty works” were the great events of deliverance and redemption recorded in the Old Testament.”

    I thought this was the disciples preaching Jesus but based on your comment would this be because Peter has not yet started preaching Jesus and when he does start his sermon he starts in the Old Testament?

    Peter seems to explain what they are doing based on the Old Testament Prophet but does that necessarily mean they were not preaching about Jesus before Peter stood?

    One commentary puts it this way:
    The wonderful works of God – Probably those which related to the miracles, death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ, together with the effusion of his Spirit, as a fulfilment of his promises, and the glorious dispensations of Gospel grace. (John Wesley Commentary)

    Not to say they are always right but it does seem to fit with the beginning of the New Testament church.

    • My conclusion (that the content of the Pentecostal speaking in tongues was not about Jesus) is based not just on the statement in v. 11, but on three other points. One, there was no need to speak in the people’s native languages in order to communicate with them. All knew Greek; they conversed among themselves; Peter spoke to all in a single language when he preached his sermon. Two, consider the response of the audience when they heard the disciples speaking in the peoples’ own languages. There is nothing that suggests they were responding to facts about Jesus. Their only response is bewilderment (v. 6), amazement and astonishment (vv. 7, 12) — not at the content of the speaking, but simply at the FACT that these unlearned men knew their languages. Three, this shows that the principal function of the tongue-speaking was that of a miracle (a sign), not that of communicating a message. The parallel is the tongue-speaking of Cornelius and his household in Acts 10:44-48. They were “speaking in tongues and extolling God” (v. 46). The content was not directly relevant; the point was the sign value of the miracle — exactly as it was “at the beginning” (11:15), i.e., at Pentecost. In Acts 2, the tongue-speaking was intended simply to set the stage for what followed.

  4. You stated that (“Acts 2:38 makes it clear that this third way of receiving the Holy Spirit was a salvation event, being accompanied by the forgiveness of sins”) but doesn’t Acts 2:38 only says that repentance and baptism was unto the remission of sins, and that receiving the Holy Spirit would follow rather than being co-occurring?

    You further stated (“Acts 5:32 refers to “the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him.” This must be a reference to this third way of receiving the Spirit, because this is the only one for which obedience to conditions is specified”) however wasn’t the giving of the Spirit by the laying on of hands only to those who had obeyed as recorded in Acts 8:14-15, 19:5-6, Mark 16:16-18?

    Act Act 8:14-15 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:

    Act 19:5-6 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.

    Mar 16:16-18 He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned. And these signs shall follow them that believe; In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues; They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover.

    • In reference to my citation of Acts 5:32 as stating that a kind of obedience was the condition for receiving the Holy Spirit for salvation purposes, Mr. Pope suggests that here Peter may be talking about conditions for receiving the Spirit for the first or second purpose, via the laying on of apostles’ hands. I propose that this is not a reasonable understanding, because at the time Peter made that statement, no one except apostles is identified as a miracle-worker (Acts 2:43; 5:12). There is no reference to the laying on of apostles’ hands and anyone besides apostles receiving sign gifts until Acts 6 and following. But Acts 5:32 refers to something that has already been happening.

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