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The Holy Spirit in the Early Church
There is a story in the book of Acts which records Paul's coming to the city of Ephesus, and there finding some disciples. Whereupon Paul inquired, "Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?" They replied, "No, we have never even heard that there is a Holy Spirit" (Acts 19:1-2).
This incident seems quite relevant to our situation today. The typical church member may be heard to say, "I can understand the reason for God and Christ, but the Holy Spirit-I don't quite see what it's all about." It is not that he has never heard that there is a Holy Spirit but that there is little understanding and experience.
Let us then think upon the meaning and the place of the Holy Spirit, considering this doctrine under three heads: the nature of the Holy Spirit, the operation of the Holy Spirit, and finally the reception of the Holy Spirit. Or it could be put in question form: Who is the Holy Spirit? What does the Holy Spirit do? How is the Holy Spirit received?
I. Who Is the Holy Spirit?
The Holy Spirit is God. Christian faith speaks of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. In the Great Commission (Matthew 28:19, 20), Jesus sends His disciples forth to proclaim His message, "Baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit." God is spoken of as one "who gives his Holy Spirit" (1 Thessalonians 4:8). The Holy Spirit is God.
The Holy Spirit, being God, is therefore personal. It is improper, indeed incorrect, to refer to the Holy Spirit as "it." "He", "Me", etc.-personal pronouns-more adequately convey the personal nature of the Holy Spirit. For example, we read in Acts 13:2, "The Holy Spirit said, 'Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.'"
The Holy Spirit is frequently throughout the Bible referred to simply as "the Spirit." Note, as an illustration, how the terms are interchangeable in Acts 8:17, 18: "Then they laid their hands on them and they received the Holy Spirit. Now when Simon saw that the Spirit was given.." Instances such as this could be multiplied.
Again the Holy Spirit may be referred to as "the Spirit of God," "the Spirit of the Lord," or "the Spirit of (Jesus) Christ." In the Old Testament almost all mention of the Holy Spirit is of Him as "the Spirit of God," "the Spirit of the Lord," or merely "the Spirit." This begins with Genesis 1:2, "The Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters," and abundant references may be found throughout to "the Spirit of the Lord" and "the Spirit." As a pertinent New Testament illustration of the interchangeableness of terms, observe Romans 8:9-"You are in the Spirit, if the Spirit of God really dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him."
The Holy Spirit is the third person of the Trinity. Such biblical quotations as already given show that however much the Holy Spirit is distinct (as in the Great Commission), He is also the Spirit of God and the Spirit of Christ. One God in three persons is the mystery of the Trinity, and the Holy Spirit is always referred to as the third. He proceeds from the Father through the Son-"The Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name" (John 14:26). Therefore, the order is invariable: "Father, Son, and Holy Spirit."
God as Holy Spirit points also to a twofold fact about the divine nature. First, God as spirit is noncorporeal: He has neither body nor form as does man. All references in the Bible to God's face or hand or eyes, and so on, are anthropomorphisms. They are human ways of speaking of Him who is spirit and yet also personal. As spirit, God is not limited in space or time; He is everywhere and always present. As said the Psalmist, "Whither shall I go from thy Spirit? Or whither shall I flee from thy presence? If I ascend to heaven, thou art there!" (Psalm 139:7-8).
Second, God as holy means that He by nature is pure, undefiled, without evil. In Him is all moral perfection. God is holy spirit.
One further word about the nature of the Holy Spirit. The name is of course interchangeable with Holy Ghost. Due to the present connotation of the word ghost as some kind of an apparition or phantom that belongs to the realm of the weird and occult, the more meaningful term is now Spirit. This accords also with the words of Jesus about God in John 4:24-"God is spirit." In worship we often, however, hold on to the older name, as in the Doxology and the Gloria Patri.
II. What Does the Holy Spirit Do?
The Holy Spirit is depicted in Genesis 1:2 as "moving over the face of the waters." The earth was yet unshaped; all was darkness; there was neither light nor life. Then followed the various moments of creation. The Spirit was instrumental in creation, especially in bringing order out of chaos, cosmos out of emptiness, light out of darkness. "Brooding upon the waters," intimately in contact with the stuff of creation, by the Spirit's ordering and vivifying power a universe comes to be.
The Holy Spirit in relation to creation therefore represents God at work "down among" the materials, bringing forth by His power the heavens and the earth. God's word may be spoken from afar-"Let there be light," etc.-but it is against the background of, or coincidental with, the brooding, energizing Spirit.
An understanding of God as Holy Spirit makes us aware that God is not only transcendent, far beyond all things, but also immanent, close to all things. His vast power streams from infinity "beyond," but His Spirit is also constantly moving over, brooding upon, working within all that He does and makes. So it is that "He is not far from each one of us, for 'in him we live and move and have our being'"(Acts 17:27-28).
As the Old Testament unfolds, God as Spirit is seen again and again as the power of God working with, "coming upon," and sometimes entering into man. This is invariably for a special task or calling. For example, Bezalel, master craftsman for the Tabernacle, was "filled...with the Spirit of God...to devise artistic designs" (Exodus 35:31, 32). Of such men as Gideon, Samson, and David, it is written that "the Spirit of the Lord took possession" or "came mightily upon" them (Judges 6:34; 14:6; 1 Samuel 16:13). Ezekiel speaks in various ways of how "the Spirit entered into me," "the Spirit lifted me up...and brought me," the Spirit of the Lord fell upon me" (Ezekiel 3:24; 8:3; 11:5). Many other like references could be cited.
Also, and quite significantly in the Old Testament, there is prophecy of the Messiah to come-"A shoot from the stump of Jesse.... And the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him" (Isaiah 11: 1, 2). Again, not only shall the Spirit rest upon Him but, says the Lord, "I will pour my Spirit upon your descendants" (Isaiah 44:3). Ezekiel looks forward to the day when for Israel and Judah, "I will put my Spirit within you, and you shall live" (37:14). Climactically, in Joel are the words, "I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh" (2:28). Hence, the Old Testament with its occasional manifestations of the Spirit looks forward to a great day when the Spirit shall be poured out upon all people.
Let us now turn to the New Testament and note the operation of the Holy Spirit in the life of the Messiah, Jesus Christ. First, He is conceived by the Holy Spirit. The angel says to Joseph about Mary, "That which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit" (Matthew 1:20). Jesus is unique in that in Him a new creation, a union of God and man, is for the first time existent. He is "the spiritual man" by birthright. Second, at baptism "the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him" (Luke 3:21, 22). Third, as He began His ministry, "Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan, and was led by the Spirit for forty days in the wilderness, tempted by the devil" (Luke 4:1, 2). Following this testing period "Jesus returned in the power of the Spirit into Galilee," and at Nazareth He read from the Old Testament the words "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because He has anointed me to preach good news" (Luke 4:14, 18). Jesus therefore to the fullest possible degree represents the Holy Spirit in power and immediacy. Conceived of the Spirit, anointed by the Spirit, filled with the Spirit, empowered through the Spirit: such is His life from beginning to end. It is a life of power, of purpose, of abundance-God-inspired, God-filled, God-directed.
We come next to the operation of the Spirit in the life of the disciples and the early Church. From Jesus' earliest ministry He was proclaimed as one "who will baptize you with the Holy Spirit" (Mark 1:8). In John's Gospel Jesus says, "Unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God" (3:5). Jesus promises that the Spirit will come after He goes away bodily, and "He will bear witness to me...he will convince the world of sin and of righteousness and of judgment...he will guide you into all truth" (John 15:26; 16:8, 13). After Jesus' resurrection, that same evening "He breathed on them and said, 'Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained'" (John 20:22-23). Then there follows an instruction period of forty days during which time Jesus tells them "not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father, which.'you heard from me, for John baptized with water, but before many days you shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit'" (Acts 1:4, 5). Then He adds, "You shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth" (Acts 1:8).
Ten days later, on the Day of Pentecost, "Suddenly a sound came from heaven like the rush of a mighty wind...and there appeared unto them tongues as of fire...and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit" (Acts 2:24).
Not only are the disciples filled with the Holy Spirit, but they assure their listeners that the prophecy of Joel is now being fulfilled for all others-"this is that which was spoken by the prophet Joel...that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh" (Acts 2:16, 17). The result: "the gift of the Holy Spirit" (Acts 2:38) that day to many others. They are baptized with power, the power of the Holy Spirit. The story continues in Acts of the Holy Spirit being given to many people in the early Church.
Let us seek to summarize thus far the operation of the Holy Spirit in the life of the disciples and Church. "Baptism with the Holy Spirit" is a tremendous promise of Jesus, for it means not only forgiveness and cleansing symbolized by baptism in water but also a new life filled with a new kind of power and wisdom. The wind at Pentecost represents this power; the tongues of fire this witness. Now the disciples can witness for Christ "to the end of the earth"-as they could not before-because they are filled with divine power and truth. Filled with the Holy Spirit, they may bear true witness to Jesus Christ, bring others to conviction of sin, and help them receive the same wonderful gift they have known. Lives take on new order, new purpose, new meaning.
Hence, the operation of the Holy Spirit in relation to human lives is similar to that of His role in the creation of the physical universe. Even as the Holy Spirit in creation moved "over the face of the waters," down among the darkness and void, and brought order, cosmos, light, meaning, so the Holy Spirit may "move over" an individual's life and bring new life, new purpose. There is a new witness: the witness to Christ with convincing power that brings others to salvation; there are charismatic manifestations (tongues, prophecy, gifts of healing, etc.); and there is guidance and grace for living lives of "love, joy, peace" (Galatians 5:22), which are fruits of that same Spirit.
The Holy Spirit essentially means a new life, no longer a natural man but a spiritual one; God is at the center, not man. Man is a new creation, with God the directive power-and day by day there may be continuous growth into the likeness of Jesus Christ as the Holy Spirit directs.
Such is the magnificent, wonderful operation of the Holy Spirit who is now "poured out upon all flesh."
III. How Is the Holy Spirit Received?
We come finally to the critical question: How is the Holy Spirit received? For surely the Holy Spirit is not poured out willy-nilly on all flesh. Nor is He obtainable by human ingenuity or plan. Recall the story in Acts of Simon the magician who offered money to get the power of the Spirit and was severely reprimanded, "Your silver perish with you, because you thought you could obtain the gift of God with money!" (Acts 8:20).
Perhaps the most direct answer to the question of how the Holy Spirit is received is to say that He comes through believing in Jesus Christ and is received as a gift.
On the Day of Pentecost Simon Peter declared, "Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit" (Acts 2:38). Believing in Jesus Christ is basic (and baptism in His name is the outward sign of commitment), for he who believes in Him receives forgiveness and is promised the gift of the Holy Spirit.
A thrilling account of the gift of the Holy Spirit is found in Acts 10. Peter was saying in his first sermon to a Gentile audience, "To him all the prophets bear witness that every one who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name" (Acts 10:43). He has not mentioned the promise of the Holy Spirit, but "while Peter was still saying this, the Holy Spirit fell on all who heard the word." There had not been any water baptism yet either; it follows (note verse 47). Genuine belief in Jesus Christ brought forgiveness and at the same time ("while Peter was still saying this") the gift of the Holy Spirit.
It is also apparent, from the witness in Acts, that not everyone who believed in Jesus Christ received at the moment of initial faith the promised gift of the Holy Spirit. The question of Paul, "Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?" (19:2) suggests the possibility of a reception of the Spirit not concurrent with belief. And a prior account, in Acts 8, specifically demonstrates a later gift of the Holy Spirit. Philip had preached the word in Samaria, so that the Samaritans "believed" and "were baptized" (verse 12), but it was only at a later time when Peter and John came down from Jerusalem that the Samaritans received the gift. The apostles first prayed for them (verse 15), and then "they laid their hands upon them and they received the Holy Spirit" (verse 17).
The Holy Spirit is promised to all who believe. As Paul puts it elsewhere, "Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law...that we might receive the promise of the Holy Spirit through faith" (Galatians 3:14). The question accordingly is this: Has the promise been fulfilled in our own lives? Unlike the Ephesians of Acts 19, we have doubtless heard that there is a Holy Spirit, and if we have known Christ's redemption we have received the promise of the Spirit. Has that promise been fulfilled on our behalf?
Here it is essential to keep one's eyes focused on Jesus Christ. For it is He through whom the Holy Spirit is given. Even as by Him redemption is wrought, so through Him the Holy Spirit is poured out. Not only is He Savior, He is also the risen and exalted Lord who gives the Holy Spirit. Thus the words of Peter on the Day of Pentecost: "This Jesus God raised up....Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, He has poured out this" (Acts 2:32, 33). Hence, even as we have looked to Jesus Christ for forgiveness, believing that His death on the cross is our only hope, so we look to Him as Lord, the one who pours out His Spirit for a new life of power and witness in His name.
Thus are we called to believe in the promise of the Spirit and to receive Him in faith. This means to be expectant and open, for God delights to give His Spirit to those who are eager to receive. Recall the words of our Lord: "If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him?" (Luke 11:13). Jesus, in this same context, teaches the importance of asking, seeking, and knocking (Luke 11:9, 10). Thus not only an attitude of openness and expectancy, but also a willingness to persist in prayer is important. This is particularly shown in the account of the disciples who, awaiting the promise of the Spirit, "devoted themselves to prayer" (Acts 1:14). So did they pray persistently, expectantly, and in this atmosphere of faith the Holy Spirit was poured out.
One only need add that on the human side there is nothing one can do to receive the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is a gift, and thus cannot be earned, worked for, or achieved. Rather there is the forswearing of all effort in the realization of complete need. This signifies total surrender, yielding of oneself wholly in body, mind, and spirit so that the Holy Spirit may have full possession. Those who are hungry and thirsty, empty before the Lord, He satisfies with all good things: He grants His power and presence; He gives His Holy Spirit.
Is it possible that we have found forgiveness in Christ's death but have failed to receive from the exalted Lord the Holy Spirit which He pours forth beyond measure? Do we really look to Him not only as Savior but also as Lord? These are questions of urgent importance today. For it may well be that the lack of vitality and power, of joy and radiant witness, in the lives of many people is due to failure to receive the promised gift of God's Holy Spirit.
Let us conclude by offering the simple prayer, "O Lord, send your Spirit upon your people, fill us to overflowing with your presence and power, and send us forth with fresh joy to be your witnesses to the ends of the earth. In your blessed name we pray. Amen."