John Newton (1725-1807), who is famous for penning the words to the beloved hymn “Amazing Grace,” was the captain of a slave trading ship early in his life. Later in life he became a pastor, hymn writer, and a leading voice in the abolition of the slave trade in 18th century England. What would cause such a man to change? What was going on inside Newton that led him to renounce his former way of life and run hard after Christ?
As mentioned earlier, the four Gospels focus on the person and work of Jesus Christ. The main emphasis in each Gospel is what is sometimes called the passion narrative, that is, a record of Jesus’ arrest, trial, crucifixion, death, burial, and resurrection. In fact, some have called the Gospels passion narratives with long introductions.[i] Luke’s Gospel, the third of the four canonical Gospels, closes with Jesus appearing to his disciples. He explains that everything that took place, his life, death, burial, and resurrection, fulfilled Old Testament Scripture about himself (Luke 24:44). Luke explains to us that Jesus then “opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures” (24:45). Jesus showed his disciples that he had to suffer, die, and rise from the dead on the third day (24:46). He then commissioned his followers to preach this message, which included “repentance for the forgiveness of sins,” first in Jerusalem and then to the all peoples (24:47). Jesus concluded with a promise to his disciples “to send you what my Father has promised” (24:48). What his Father had promised was that Jesus would send the Holy Spirit to enable and empower the disciples to preach the gospel to all nations. So the disciples waited in Jerusalem for the Spirit to arrive as Jesus instructed (24:49). Before the Spirit could come, though, Jesus had to leave so that he could send him to dwell within the disciples and everyone who would believe the gospel. Jesus then ascended into heaven, to return to his rightful place at his Father’s side (Acts 1:4-9).
This, then, brings us to Acts 2. For those of you who don’t realize it, this essay in the history of redemption concerns the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost (fifty days after the Jewish festival of Passover, when Jesus was crucified) to dwell within those who trusted Christ for salvation. I understand that Acts 2 and other chapters (8, 10 , 19) are a point of debate and division among some Christians. The discussion surrounds the question: “What in Acts is normative for Christians to follow and what is descriptive of the early church?” My aim is not so much to side with a particular position, but rather to emphasize what Christians for centuries have agreed upon concerning the coming of the Holy Spirit and what this means for the church.
The Holy Spirit Indwells Christians (Acts 2:1-4).
We read earlier in the book that those present on the day of Pentecost numbered about 120 “believers,” both men and women (Acts 1:15). This doesn’t mean there were not more believers (Christians) at this point. We know from 1 Corinthians 15:6 that following his resurrection, Jesus appeared to as many as five hundred believers at one time. Where this meeting took place the text does not say. Some venture it happened in Galilee (see Matt 28:16), while others propose it happened in Jerusalem.
Why were only 120 believers present instead of the 500? I don’t know. And it doesn’t seem to be a concern of Luke, who certainly would have known about Jesus’ appearance before the 500. This doesn’t really matter for our purposes. What is important for us is that those who were present on the day of Pentecost were “believers.”[ii]
Luke notes that all present on the day of Pentecost “were filled with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:4). This may seem trivial, but I think it’s an important point to make: the Holy Spirit dwells only within believers, Christians.
One example will suffice to confirm this point. Acts 19:1-7 is an often-debated passage, particularly when it comes to Luke’s use of the term “disciple.” Paul, having arrived in Ephesus, encounters a group of “disciples” (19:1). When Luke normally uses this term, he means disciples of Jesus Christ. But as one continues to read the passage, one finds these “disciples” have not received the “Holy Spirit when [they] believed” (19:2). Some determine that Luke must be diverging from his typical usage of the term and conclude that what Luke means is that these Ephesians are “disciples” of John the Baptist (cf. 19:3). That is certainly the case, but I don’t think Luke is diverging from his normal usage of the term. It would appear, what Luke is trying to convey, is that when Paul met these men, he thought they were disciples, that is, Christians.[iii] Now upon further investigation, Paul concludes that they were not in fact believers, that is, followers of Christ. And what does he first ask to determine this? “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” (19:2) Paul knows that there is no such thing as a Christian without the Spirit. The rest of the New Testament corroborates this (cf. John 3:5; Acts 11:17; Rom 8:9; 1 Cor 12:3; Gal 3:2; 1 Thess 1:5f; Titus 3:5; Heb 6:4; 1 Pet 1:2; 1 John 3:24; 4:13). Gordon D. Fee drives home this truth: “The Spirit is no mere addendum. Indeed, he is the sine qua non, the essential ingredient, of Christian life.”[iv] Christians are those who are marked by the Spirit of God.
The Presence of the Spirit Manifests Itself in Visible Ways (Acts 2:2-13).
Even a cursory glance of Acts 2 reveals several visible manifestations of the Spirit’s presence. These are hard to miss: (1) those filled speak with “other tongues,” later identified as particular known languages; (2) the content of these “other tongues” is “the wonders of God;” and (3) Peter boldly proclaims the gospel (see John 20:19, 26 for comparison). While some tend to focus on one or two particular Spirit-enabled displays, the whole thrust of the passage emphasizes the outward visibility of the internal change the Spirit enabled in the 120 disciples. So whether one tends to focus more on “spiritual gifts” (see 1 Cor 12–14) or the “fruit of the Spirit” (see Gal 5:13-26; cf. John 15:1-17), the point is those who are filled with the Spirit will act differently. The way one conducts oneself should reveal to others if one is truly a Christian.
The Spirit Accompanies the Proclamation of the Gospel (Acts 2:14-41).
The bulk of the chapter is taken up with Peter’s sermon. As Peter (who has just been filled, cf. Acts 2:4) declares the gospel the Spirit moves upon some in the crowd. We read that when Peter preached that the crucified Christ is both Lord and Messiah some were “cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, ‘Brothers, what shall we do?’” (Acts 2:37). We go on to read that those who repented of their sins and believed the gospel were “about three thousand” (2:38-41). As we make our way through the rest of Acts, a pattern emerges. The Spirit is at work in those who proclaim the gospel and among those who hear it (4:1-22 [esp. v. 8]; 4:31; 9:1-20 [esp. vv. 17, 20]; 13:4-12 [esp. v. 9]).[v]
The preaching of the gospel is not enough. Nor is the Spirit at work in hearts enough. Both are necessary for people to be empowered to declare the gospel, and for persons to be cut to the heart when hearing the good news and believe.
Maybe an illustration will help. My job requires me to fly occasionally. I don’t particularly look forward to the experience, but all in all, I don’t mind flying. Because of my apprehension I find myself looking over the plane as closely as I can prior to boarding. One of the first things I look for are the wings. Does the plane have two of them, and do they look like they can keep this thing up in the air? You see, a plane has no chance of getting off the runway if it doesn’t have two good wings. Both are necessary to get the lift needed to fly. This is somewhat the way the Spirit and the word of God work together. Both are necessary if people are to declare the word effectively and if people are to be moved by it.
This might lead some to ask, ‘Why is it that even though the Spirit seems to be at work in the one proclaiming the word, some of the people who hear it don’t change?’ Jesus tells Nicodemus, “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit” (John 3:8). The fact remains when a person hears the gospel, I mean really hears it so that they can respond in repentance of sin and faith in Jesus, it is something that the Spirit must do, and he does so when he’s ready. We cannot force him to act.
The point remains, though, if he is not present, then no one will be drawn to Christ. If the word is not preached, then no one will know that they need to come to Christ. Both are necessary.
The Spirit’s Indwelling Marks a New Age (Acts 2:16-21).
Peter clearly ties the events that have just transpired (Acts 2:1-4) to the fulfillment of prophecy (2:16-21). He quotes those now famous words from Joel 2:28-32. A key phrase is “In the last days” (Acts 2:17). Peter realizes that they are at the precipice of a new day, one that the old covenant prophets looked forward to. While the Spirit was active among old covenant believers and those who believed in Jesus as God’s promised Messiah prior to his ascension and sending of the Spirit, Acts records something new, something different—the indwelling of the Spirit in the new covenant people of God.
Remember that in the old covenant God primarily dwelt among his covenant people in the tabernacle, Temple, or a particular location. God’s presence among certain persons was rare in the old covenant (think prophets). Further, the old covenant prophets actually speak of a day that is yet to come, one in which all God’s people will be filled with God’s Spirit (see Joel 2:28-32; Acts 2:17-21).[vi] All Christians this side of Pentecost are “in the last days” and as such now experience the Spirit through his indwelling presence.
Theological Reflection & Application
- If we are Christians, we must not be afraid of the Spirit’s work in our lives and in the life of the local church. His presence is necessary if people are to be changed and transformed into the image of Christ.
- We actively need the Spirit present with us when we preach, teach, or share the gospel. If we do it in our own strength, our best efforts will amount to nothing.
- As Christians we should be free to proclaim the gospel to anyone and everyone. The freedom we have is that we are not responsible for someone believing in Jesus as one’s Savior. That is the work of the sovereign Spirit. We are only responsible to articulate the good news.
- We must not assume that if someone is in church or a “good” person, they are saved by the grace of God. Had Paul assumed the Ephesian disciples were, they would have remained lost.
- We must take the time to probe into the lives of those we aim to share the gospel with. If they profess to be Christians or “good” with God, how do they know? We need to know these things so that we can determine if a person needs the gospel for salvation.
[ii] The Greek text actually has the term adelphoi, which is often translated “brothers.” The problem is how to reconcile verse 15 with verse 14 where women are included among those who joined together in prayer. Some translations simply leave it “brothers” allowing the interpreter to figure out what Luke’s intention is. Others go for the more inclusive “brothers and sisters” as the NIV11 does in verse 16 (see also footnote in ESV). But for some reason the translation committee for the NIV11 (Committee on Bible Translation; CBT) chose to go with “believers” for adelphoi in verse 15. I tend to agree that the 120 were all “believers.” The context seems to make that quiet clear. The change in translating adelphoi seems to be that in verse 15 Luke is describing who make up the body of believers gathered at that point in Jerusalem, while in verse 16 Peter addresses those present with the typical way believers are addressed/greeted in the NT, “brothers [and sisters].” Some churches still continue the practice (i.e. Brother Mark or Sister Gertie, not Believer Mark or Gertie).
[iii] I. Howard Marshall, The Acts of the Apostles, TNTC (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1980), 305-306.
[iv] Gordon D. Fee, Gospel and Spirit: Issues in New Testament Hermeneutics (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1991), 111.
[v] These references only include those that use the verb “to fill.” There are other similar references, but these will suffice. For more on this point see Thomas R. Schreiner, New Testament Theology: Magnifying God in Christ (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008), 442-448.
[vi] For more on the distinction between the Spirit working among old covenant believers and in new covenant believers see James Hamilton, “Were Old Covenant Believers Indwelt by the Holy Spirit?” Themelios 30 (2004): 12-22.