The Spirit of God in the Mission of God: Acts

Here’s today’s Installment of “The Power and Presence of the Holy Spirit“:

The Spirit in Acts. Before looking at the Spirit in Acts, because this is a treatment of the Spirit in mission, some comments on the mission would seem to be in order. The church is referred to twice by Jesus in the gospels (Matt 16:18; 18:17), with Matthew 16:18 containing the announcement of Jesus’ intention to build the church on the rock, Peter. In view of Paul’s reference to the church being built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets (Eph 2:20), it seems that Paul understood Peter to represent the apostles, who were the foundation, with Christ as the cornerstone (Eph 2:20). This is significant because when we compare what Jesus said he was going to do—build his church (Matt 16:18), with the way that we see the apostles doing ministry in the book of Acts, we find what amounts to an unbroken apostolic pattern. That pattern consists of the proclamation of the way that Jesus came in fulfillment of Old Testament expectation, was crucified and raised, and is now calling all men everywhere to repent, believe, and be baptized. Those who obey the gospel by believing and being baptized are then organized into churches. Never in the book of Acts, nor in the rest of the New Testament, do we see the apostles try some other program for making disciples than the church. It would appear that they understood the commission to go and make disciples (Matt 28:18–20) such that it was to be carried out by Jesus building his church (Matt 16:18) through their labors. Thus, as they take the gospel to Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, and the end of the earth (Acts 1:8), those who believe the gospel are baptized into union with Christ. Baptism identifies believers with Jesus, making them members of his body, which is to say, members of the church. This is always realized through participation in a local outpost of Christ’s body: a local church.[1]

In the book of Acts we see the church baptized in the Spirit, filled with power by the Spirit (usually resulting in proclamation), and we see hints of the church enjoying the indwelling of the Spirit. One of the perennial questions facing interpreters is the relationship between the events narrated in John 20 and Acts 2. In John 20, Jesus breathes on his disciples and tells them to receive the Holy Spirit. In Acts 2 the Spirit comes on the disciples dramatically in power. In my view, these are two different accounts of the Spirit coming at different times and in different ways. In John 20 the disciples receive the indwelling Spirit. In Acts 2 they are baptized in the Spirit. There is no more conflict between John 20 and Acts 2 than there is between the baptism in the Spirit in Acts 2 and the church being filled with the Spirit in Acts 4:31.

There are four accounts in Acts that can be considered baptisms in the Holy Spirit. Acts 1:5 refers to the incident on the day of Pentecost recounted in Acts 2 as a baptism in the Spirit (baptism language is not used in Acts 2). Similarly, baptism language is used in Acts 8:16, but it is used to say that while those who had believed in Samaria had been baptized in the name of Jesus, the Holy Spirit had not yet “fallen on” them. This helps us make a connection, though, because Luke says the Spirit “fell on” those hearing Peter’s preaching at Cornelius’ house (10:44; 11:15), and then Peter likens this falling of the Spirit on the Gentiles at Cornelius’ house to what happened on the day of Pentecost. Luke records him saying, “the Holy Spirit fell on them just as on us at the beginning. And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he said, John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit” (11:15–16). This statement would seem to connect the events in Acts 2, 8, and 10 as baptisms in the Holy Spirit. The fourth baptism in the Spirit comes in Acts 19:1–7, when Paul points the disciples of John the Baptist to the one he prophesied, they are baptized in Jesus’ name, and “the Holy Spirit came on them” (19:6).

Some observations on these accounts will highlight their unique, non-repeatable nature. First, in every case those who were baptized in the Holy Spirit were already believers when they were baptized. Jesus’ disciples in Acts 2 have already confessed him as Lord, so the day of Pentecost does not mark their conversion. There is a time lag in Acts 8 between the Samaritans believing Philip’s preaching, being baptized in water (8:12), and the apostles arriving from Jerusalem (8:14). Once the apostles arrive from Jerusalem, they pray for the Samaritans, and the Spirit falls on them (8:15). The conversion of the Gentiles in Acts 10 might break this pattern, but it seems to me that Peter’s reference to the gift of the Spirit being given “after believing” (11:17, NAS, this captures the nuance of the aorist participle) indicates that here, too, the Gentiles believed, and then they were baptized in the Spirit. Admittedly, these two events were very close to one another. In Acts 19:1 the followers of the Baptist that Paul encounters in Ephesus are referred to as “disciples,” and elsewhere in Acts this is a term that Luke reserves for believers. Then Paul assumes these people are believers (19:2), so it would appear that when they believe what Paul says and are baptized in the name of Jesus we do not have an account of people coming to faith as new believers. Rather, we have members of the old covenant remnant having their existing faith updated so that by means of Paul’s proclamation they now know all that God has done in Jesus.

In addition to the separation in time between conversion and baptism in the Spirit in Acts 2, 8, 10, and 19, we can also observe that these baptisms in the Spirit always result in dramatic, visible, audible manifestations of the Spirit. In Acts 2, a rushing wind is heard, tongues of fire are seen, and those who are baptized begin speaking in other languages (2:1–4). In Acts 8 the description is not as graphic, but somehow “Simon saw that the Spirit was given through the laying on of the apostles’ hands” (8:18). He must have seen or heard evidence, for he is so certain that this has happened that he offers money for the power to do what the apostles did (8:19). When the Spirit was poured out on the Gentiles at Cornelius’ house, “they were hearing them speaking in tongues and extolling God” (10:46). And as for the disciples of the Baptist in Acts 19, “when Paul had laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they began speaking in tongues and prophesying” (19:6). These are the only occasions of visible, audible, dramatic manifestations of the Spirit in Acts. Indeed, only in Acts 2, 10, and 19 does anyone speak in tongues.

We have, then, in Acts 2, 8, 10, and 19 four accounts where conversion is separated from baptism in the Spirit and where there are these dramatic, visible and audible manifestations of the Spirit once the baptism in the Spirit has happened. We can also observe that Luke records numerous conversion accounts in Acts, none of which is accompanied by anything like what we find in these accounts of baptisms in the Spirit (cf. 2:41, 47; 4:3; 5:14; 6:1, 7; 8:36–39; 9:31, 35, 42; 11:21; 13:48–49; 14:1, 9–10; 16:5, 14, 34; 17:4, 11–12, 34; 18:8; 28:24). On the basis of these many conversion accounts where nothing is noted regarding the Spirit, we can conclude that Luke does not mean to indicate that his descriptions of what happens in Acts 2, 8, 10, and 19 are paradigmatic experiences for either conversion or Christian life. It seems more likely that Luke means to indicate that what happens in Acts 2, 8, 10, and 19 is distinct, non-repeatable, and representative for the whole church. This view is confirmed by the similarities between Acts 8:14–18 and 11:21–24. In both texts word reaches Jerusalem that people have come to faith, and in both texts apostolic representatives are sent. Only in Acts 8, however, is anything dramatic about the Spirit noted.

On the basis of these observations on the baptisms in the Spirit in Acts 2, 8, 10, and 19, we can also note that each of these four incidents make a significant statement about the progress of redemptive history and how different groups relate to that progress. Acts 2 demonstrates that these Jewish followers of Jesus are the group in Judaism on whom God’s favor rests. No longer is God’s covenant with Israel as a nation. The new covenant has dawned, the beginning of “the last days” (2:17), and God has poured out his Spirit on the followers of Jesus, designating them as his people, empowering them to draw others into the church. Acts 8 shows the Samaritans that they will not have a Samaritan version of Christianity as they have had their Samaritan Judaism (for the tensions between Samaritans and Jews, see John 4:9). The Samaritans only receive the Spirit once the Jerusalem apostles arrive and pray for them. The whole church is to be under the authority of the apostolic foundation on which Jesus is building his church. Acts 10 demonstrates that Gentiles do not need to be circumcised to be incorporated into the church, for they were baptized in the Spirit apart from circumcision. This point was so significant in the early church that Luke told the story three times in Acts—see chapters 10, 11, and 15. And in Acts 19 those who believe an old covenant prophet, John the Baptist, are shown that they must believe in the one to whom John pointed if they are to taste the fruits of the new age that has dawned. Only by believing in Jesus, in whom God’s Old Testament promises are yes and amen, are these followers of the Baptist baptized in the Spirit. The whole church, then, has been representatively baptized in the Spirit in the four baptisms recorded in Acts 2, 8, 10, and 19.

In addition to the occasions where we see the church baptized in the Spirit in Acts, we also see people “filled” with the Spirit. The incidents in view here are described with the verb pimplemi, “fill,” and these incidents are cases where people who have already been regenerated and indwelt by the Spirit experience a fresh burst of the Spirit’s power.[2] Acts 2:4 tells us that when the church was baptized in the Spirit on the day of Pentecost, “they were all filled with the Holy Spirit.” This shows some overlap between baptism and filling, but while a baptism can be a filling, there is no evidence that each new filling with the Spirit should also be thought of as another baptism in the Sprit. For instance, Peter, who was present at the events narrated in John 20 (indwelling of the Spirit) and Acts 2 (baptism in the Spirit) is also described in Acts 4:8 as “filled with the Holy Spirit.” Then the praying church was “filled with the Holy Spirit” (4:31), as was Paul (9:17; 13:9).[3] In each case people who are believers indwelt by the Spirit experience a sudden empowering by the Spirit resulting in authoritative proclamation (2:4, 11, 14–36; 4:8–12; 4:31b; 9:20; 13:9–12).

The Spirit is also described as “filling” some in Acts with a different verb, pleroo, as well as the related adjective, pleres. This sense of fullness is not the instantaneous empowering kind described with the verb pimplemi, even though these terms mean “fill/full.” The sense of fullness described with pleroo is more along the lines of what characterizes people. For instance, Tabitha/Dorcas “was full of good works and acts of charity” (Acts 8:37). Her life was characterized by these things. Elymas is “full of all deceit and villainy” (13:8, 10) in the sense that these things were characteristic of his dealings. Thus, when the twelve call for “seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit” using the adjective pleres (6:3, cf. 6:5), we understand that the call is not for men who have powerful experiences of the Spirit but for those whose lives reflect the ongoing presence and ministry of the Spirit. This seems to be in view in the description of Barnabas as a man “full (pleres) of the Holy Spirit and Faith” (11;24), as well as in the description of the disciples as “filled (pleroo) with joy and with the Holy Spirit” (13:52).[4]

[1] See Sam Waldron’s paper, “Why Baptism Must Be into the Membership of the Local Church,” available online at:, accessed 30 June 2008. For a broader treatment of the church, see John S. Hammett, Biblical Foundations for Baptist Churches: A Contemporary Ecclesiology (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2005) and Mark E. Dever, “The Church,” in Daniel L. Akin, A Theology for the Church (Nashville: Broadman and Holman, 2007), 766–856.

[2] Compare other places in Acts where people are described as being “filled” with other things using this same verb, pimplemi: “filled with wonder and amazement” (3:10); “filled with jealousy” (5:17; 13:45); “filled with confusion” (19:29). In each case we see a temporary “filling” with something that is strongly felt but which does not characterize the continual experience of these people.

[3] The expression in Acts 7:55 seems equivalent to these, though it appears to break the pattern by using pleres (see the next paragraph). When the adjective pleres is used in this construction with the participle huparchon (which seems to point to an ongoing state) nearby, we might have a description of Stephen’s characteristic way of speaking.

[4] Much more could be said about the Spirit in Acts, but space limitations require that we move on. For instance, I have not mentioned the reference in Acts 7:51 to resisting the Holy Spirit. For a helpful discussion with which I agree, see Graham Cole’s chapter, “How May We Resist the Holy Spirit?” in his Engaging the Holy Spirit, 35–49.


To see all the posts in this series, go to the category “The Power and Presence of the Holy Spirit.”

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