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The Delayed Gift of the Spirit in Acts 8

Acts 8 raises a significant theological question, one requiring a bit more attention than time will allow in this morning's sermon.

To understand the issue on the table, the first passage to note is Romans 8:9:

You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him.

Similarly, consider 1 Corinthians 12:13:

For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body--Jews or Greeks, slaves or free--and all were made to drink of one Spirit.

This gift of the Spirit was anticipated in the Old Testament. One element of the Messianic Age was to be that, as compared to OT saints, after the coming of the Messiah, God's people would have a new power for obedience through the inner transformation accomplished by the Holy Spirit (see for example Deut 30:6; Jer 31:31; Ezek 36-37). This promise was fulfilled beginning at Pentecost as recounted in Acts 2.

The point is that if you are a Christian, at conversion you were baptized in the Holy Spirit. God's very presence is with all Christians in a close and intimate fashion. It is important in this context to remember that the Holy Spirit is not a force or energy, but rather, a person, the third person of the Trinity. The Holy Spirit is not a power that we manipulate; instead, Christ's Spirit has his way with us as we yield to him.

What then is the question raised by Acts 8? It turns out that in this case there was an unusual gap between when the Samaritans (a) trusted in Christ and (b) received the gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 8:12-17). In other words, there was a brief period of time when certain Samaritans were Christians but they did not have the Spirit. Given the passages in Romans and 1 Corinthians, we wouldn't expect this.

Further contemplation, however, helps us understand why this abnormal gap appeared. First of all, it has to do with the animosity of that day between Jews and Samaritans. Second, it has to do with the early Jewish Christians' need to come to terms with the changes brought about by Christ's death and resurrection.

Jewish Christians would be tempted to doubt the conversion of the hated Samaritans. New Samaritan believers would be tempted to doubt the authority of the Apostles based in Jerusalem. In order to overcome these temptations, the Lord orchestrated the arrangement by which apostles from Jerusalem came to administer and witness the gift of the Spirit coming on the Samaritans.

The key passage that leads to this conclusion is found in Acts 11. There, a parallel case of mistrust appears. There the question is whether Gentiles can become true followers of Christ. To us today the answer to that question is obvious. For the earliest Jewish Christians, however, this was a matter of significant debate. At Acts 11:2-3, some Jews criticize Peter for eating with Gentiles. But then Peter recounts how the Holy Spirit fell on the Gentiles whom he met in Caesarea (Acts 11:15-17). To the skeptical Jewish Christians the gift of the Spirit is the clinching proof, as we see in verse 18:

When they hear these things they fell silent. And they glorified God, saying, "Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life."

In similar fashion, in Acts 8 the external manifestation of the gift of the Spirit was a needed proof for both Jewish and Samaritan Christians. It functioned as evidence of a new ground of unity that spanned their longstanding animosity toward each other.

One might ask why I spend time on a seemingly minor theological question. As many of you will know, however, during the twentieth century a Pentecostal theological perspective was popularized and became widespread, namely, that the Acts 8 pattern was the normative pattern for all Christians. According to this view, we should all expect, some time after conversion, a second experience of rich spiritual blessing falling upon us. Pentecostal theology typically requires that this baptism of the Spirit occur with the external evidence of speaking in tongues.

Another passage that is used to defend this view is Acts 19:1-6. Here too there seems to be a slight gap between faith in Christ and receiving the Holy Spirit. This passage also has an anomalous character, which is best explained on different grounds than Acts 8. To make the point concisely here, Acts 19 cannot be a pattern for us today because it describes a unique group of believers who had been disciples of John the Baptist, but then missed out on the original Pentecost. The people in question bridged the Old and New Testament eras in a way that could never be repeated once a few more decades passed by.

Now on many issues, Trinity Fellowship takes an approach that "majors on the majors" and allows space for differing views on minor issues. We love to emphasize the unity of the body of Christ, for in doing so we believe we live out an emphasis given to us in the Scriptures. On this issue, however, Trinity Fellowship is not open to the view that says that new believers should pray to be baptized with the Holy Spirit as an experience subsequent to conversion. For one thing, the Romans and 1 Corinthians texts cited above are quite clear. Furthermore, the "second blessing" teaching fosters a temptation for those who hold to it to look down upon non-Pentecostals. It can create the notion of two tiers of Christians in the church, an unhelpful way of thinking about brothers and sisters.

At the same time, nothing said here denies the fact that some Christians, subsequent to conversion, do experience uniquely deepened experiences of surrender to the Spirit. But the better biblical terminology for these and similar experiences will be the filling of the Spirit (see for example, Ephesians 5:18), not the baptism of the Spirit.

At times in the twentieth century, the question addressed here was hotly contested, to the point where animosity arose between Pentecostals and non-Pentecostals. A better approach would be to suggest that what is in play may simply be differing uses of terminology. One error we want to avoid is that we might be so opposed to any notion of a a second baptism of the Spirit, that we would also become closed to subsequent fillings with the Spirit. I close then by citing Don Carson on that very point:

Although I think it very dangerous to pursue a second blessing attested by tongues, I think it no less dangerous not to pant after God at all, and to be satisfied with a merely creedal Christianity that is kosher but complacent, orthodox but ossified, sound but soundly asleep.

Quotation: Showing the Spirit: A Theological Exposition of 1 Corinthians 12-14 (Baker, 1987), p. 160.

Photo credit: Khamkéo Vilaysing on Unsplash



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