“Did you receive the Holy Spirit?” Part 1 – Acts 8: Receiving the Word, Receiving the Spirit

Why being born again and believing are experiences distinct from and different to receiving the Spirit/baptism in the Spirit/being filled with the Spirit, and why it is important

“But there was a man named Simon, who had previously practised magic in the city and amazed the people of Samaria, saying that he himself was somebody great. They all paid attention to him, from the least to the greatest, saying, ‘This man is the power of God that is called Great.’ And they paid attention to him because for a long time he had amazed them with his magic. But when they believed Philip as he preached good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptised, both men and women. Even Simon himself believed, and after being baptised he continued with Philip. And seeing signs and great miracles performed, he was amazed. Now when the apostles at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the word of God, they sent to them Peter and John, who came down and prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit, for he had not yet fallen on any of them, but they had only been baptised in the name of the Lord Jesus. Then they laid their hands on them and they received the Holy Spirit. Now when Simon saw that the Spirit was given through the laying on of the apostles’ hands, he offered them money, saying, ‘Give me this power also, so that anyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit'” (Acts 8:9-19).

Something that I like to go on about is how far the church (by which I mean hereafter, unless otherwise indicated, the modern Western church, for those who want a precise definition) has gone from the New Testament pattern and standard of what the church is meant to be. To quote Martyn Lloyd-Jones:

“Anybody who can be satisfied with the Christian church as she is today seems to me to be blind to the teaching of the New Testament. We are in an evil age, and the church is weak and ineffective – she needs to be revived.”

He said that about 50 years ago, but he would say it much louder if he were still alive today. It rings true. The church is impotent, powerless, filled with methods and programs and the hoops and hurdles of institution. Our churches are run (and perceived?) more like businesses than communities of people following Jesus. We are more internally focussed than externally focussed, trying to bring people to our church services and our events rather than doing what Jesus said and going into the world (for more on these issues, see “Don’t forget to invite your friends to church” and Cathedrals, Chandeliers and Christendom). Not to mention the fact that many of our churches misuse and abuse the Bible, neglecting to even preach the gospel.

So why is this issue of the baptism in the Holy Spirit important? Among many of the places the church has departed from the New Testament is in our pneumatology – our theology of the Spirit. This is well expressed by Gordon Fee in his book, “Paul, the Spirit, and the People of God”:

“The general ineffective witness and perceived irrelevancy of the church in Western culture… is where the real difference between Paul and us emerges, where in a culture similar to ours the early believers seem to have been more effective than we are. I am convinced this is due in large part to their experience of the reality of the Spirit’s presence.”

In short, we quite lack this “experience of the reality of the Spirit’s presence,” at least in part. Sure, people are regenerated, brought from death to life, indwelt with the Spirit as believers, but we lack something that the early Christians had. Something that set them ablaze, made them powerful in their cultures to the salvation of many, many people, to the glory of God. This thing we lack, which is why I think it is so important, is the baptism in the Holy Spirit.

This post will be, if the Lord wills, the first in a series of posts on the Holy Spirit called “Did you receive the Holy Spirit?” This initial post is written as a bit of teaser, to get you thinking, to whet your appetite about the issue. First, a [brief] history of my journey for those who don’t know it.

If you want to skip this and go straight to having a look at Acts 8, scroll down to the heading, “ACTS 8:9-19”

I was raised a Pentecostal from the age of 5. I’m not talking the good kind of Pentecostal, all up in the Bible and with good theology. I’m talking abuse of the Bible, lack of focus on the gospel, typical charismatic excesses (such as uncontrolled use of tongues and the teaching that all “baptised in the Spirit” must speak in tongues), etc. I remember that the Bible was taught to me, as far as I could see, as a rule book. It had nice advise to tell me how to live well, some nice stories with good lessons, but there was no coherency to it all, no connectedness.

Around about the age of 15, things started happening. A friend from church and I, upon the recommendation of his small group leader, started listening to the sermons of a fella named Mark Driscoll, who brought to the front of our minds the gospel, a thing very foreign to the two of us at the time. I was also talking to my then girlfriend’s dad about certain issues, he challenging me to think beyond where I was (in unhelpful issues mainly, such as KJV-onlyism, which by the grace of God I have matured out of, but the idea of thinking with the Bible was an important and new thing which I retained). At some point along the line, as I began reading the Bible with a Jesus lens, Christianity became, not a ideology for me in which I could improve myself, but God’s, through the death and resurrection of Jesus, incorporating man into his cosmic plan of redemption.

How did I miss this?! How had I been reading the Bible as a self-help guide for all those years? God’s grace has since devastated and thrilled me, and I’m stoked that God has taken me in as his own, as his ambassador for his glory on this earth – what an adventure!

While there are a bagillion things shifted and changed, as you might expect, there began from that point a huge overthrowing of my previously assumed theology, in pretty much all areas. To summarise, so as not to bore you with details, here is where my thinking regarding the Holy Spirit has gone since that time:

IGNORANT CHRISTIAN, to

RAGE AGAINST THE CHARISMATIC, to

GIVING THE SPIRIT LIP-SERVICE, to

ON THE JOURNEY TO BIBLICAL CHARISMATICISM

I began to make the transition from the “Giving the Spirit lip-service” stage about half way through 2012, something reflected in this post from the time.

I am now on the journey to biblical charismaticism (very different from the popular stereotype of Pentecostals and charismatics, I assure you). I’m learning what that looks like, and there are many things I don’t know, but God has been doing and showing me great things, for which I thank him.

So here begins the communal thinking process. In amongst the controversy surrounding some of my recent Facebook posts (caused mainly because of people over-reacting, jumping to conclusions and reading things into what I have said), there has been some good, constructive and level-headed discussion, as was my aim. This post and this series will have that same affect, I pray.

ACTS 8:9-19:

Most Christian people I know believe that a Christian is baptised in the Holy Spirit at regeneration. This means that all Christians are baptised in the Spirit. Now this seems reasonable. But I think that this is to fly in the face of what Scripture, I see now, plainly teaches. It is to quench the Spirit, to limit him, to teach that baptism in the Holy Spirit is the same thing as regeneration. Acts 8 is a good starting point to illustrate this.

Quick synopsis of the events of the passage: Philip has preached the gospel and performed signs and wonders in the city of Samaria, people have believed the gospel and been baptised but not yet “received the Spirit”, so the Apostles send Peter and John to check it out, who then lay hands on the new believers who hadn’t received the Spirit, and they obviously and evidently received it. I believe this to be the most plain reading of the text in view. If this synopsis is accurate, then this means that it is possible to be a Christian and to not have received the Holy Spirit/been baptised in the Spirit/been filled with the Spirit, with the meaning the phrases are used in Luke at least. It means that you, Christian, may not be baptised in the Holy Spirit.

So where these Samaritans actually Christians? The answer is quite clearly, “yes.” Verse 12:

“When they believed Philip as he preached good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptised…”

Pretty clear, I think. They believed and they were baptised. Just to seal the deal, verses 14-16:

“Now when the apostles at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the word of God, they sent to them Peter and John, 15 who came down and prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit, 16 for he had not yet fallen on any of them, but they had only been baptised in the name of the Lord Jesus.”

They had received the word of God and been baptised. Okay, it’s pretty clear these Samaritans had become genuine Christians. So had they received the Spirit?

IMPORTANT NOTE: All Christians have “received the Spirit” in a way, but not necessarily in the way the term is used in the Bible. This is plain from passages such as John 3 and Ezekiel 36:26, 27. Every genuine Christian is indwelt by the Spirit from the point of being born again, from regeneration. The inner work of the Holy Spirit is the only way anyone can have repentance and faith. This is the work of the Spirit. However, and this is something plain that people don’t notice either, regeneration is the work of the Spirit – baptism in the Holy Spirit is the work of Jesus (more on that to come).

Had they received the Holy Spirit? This is again, quite clear, but I want to point out something here. Read verses 14-17 again:

“Now when the apostles at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the word of God, they sent to them Peter and John, 15 who came down and prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit, 16 for he had not yet fallen on any of them, but they had only been baptised in the name of the Lord Jesus. 17 Then they laid their hands on them and they received the Holy Spirit.”

There is an important (from a prophetic fulfilment point of view) contrast here between baptism in the name of the Lord Jesus, that being water baptism, and receiving the Holy Spirit, that being baptism in the Holy Spirit. The same contrast is made by John the Baptist in Luke 3:16:

“John answered them all, saying ‘I baptise you with water, but he who is mightier than I is coming, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.'”

In places such as Acts 8 (and a plethora of other places, including church history, to be looked at soon) we see the fulfilment of John’s prophecy. But that’s a little beside the present point, and will be talked about in more detail later.

So did they obviously and evidently received the Holy Spirit? This is important as far as defining the biblical phrases “received the Spirit/baptised in the Spirit/filled with the Spirit” goes (which will be done more fully later). If we say baptism in the Spirit is regeneration, we confuse the two things by definition. An important part of the definition of baptism in the Holy Spirit is that it is objectively an obvious thing. By this I mean that it is apparent, obvious and evident to others that one is baptised in the Spirit. It is more than a confession, “I believe in the Lord Jesus.” It is obvious to people who meet the person baptised in the Spirit that he is really filled with the Spirit. This is quite unlike regeneration. In John 3:8 Jesus says that “the wind blows where it wishes.” This is not the obvious and evident baptism of the Holy Spirit that we see in Acts. Verses 17 and 18:

“Then they laid their hands on them and they received the Holy Spirit. 18 Now when Simon saw that the Spirit was given through the laying on of the apostles’ hands…”

The important thing to note here is that Simon “saw” that these Samaritan believers had been baptised. It was obvious and plain to him that something had happened to them, much like it was obvious to the crowd of thousands of Jews who were drawn to the building where the Apostles and the 120 disciples were first baptised in the Spirit. It was that obvious, that apparent, that evident.

So from Acts 8:9-19 (and also the rest of the Bible), I therefore conclude that it is possible, and perhaps even the normal course of things, that not all Christians have received the Spirit/are baptised in the Spirit/are filled with the Spirit (strictly in the biblical meanings of the phrases, I will add). There is, in fact, more to biblical Christianity than conversion and sanctification. God has more for you than mundanity. There is power, robust and supernatural joy, joy unspeakable. There is baptism in the Holy Spirit.

And just to be clear on this, I’m not proposing the traditional Pentecostal view that baptism in the Holy Spirit is a once off experience subsequent to salvation of which tongues are a necessary evidence. I rather propose that baptism in/being filled with the Spirit is something that can happen many times after conversion, and is a phenomenon which is evident in various ways. More on that to come.

A final note on the interpretation of Acts. Quite a number of people ask me, “Do you think the book of Acts is prescriptive (practical teachings and rules) or descriptive (stories and telling of events)?” Most are surprised when I say, “Both.” People want to say that Acts is merely descriptive to avoid things like the supernatural power of God in Acts with signs and wonders and baptism in the Spirit. But how much more of the Bible are you going to discount by calling it descriptive? It is horribly inconsistent to say, “Oh, yes, we’ll take this bit about preaching the word, but not this bit about baptism/fullness in/of the Spirit,” or to encourage people from Acts 4:29-31 to “pray for boldness,” but to leave out, “pray for God to stretch out his hand with signs and wonders to attest to the truth of the gospel.” If you are one of these people who do this, I call you to consistency.

So there it is. That is where I am at. This is an invitation to think with me. To be semper reformanda, always reforming. Won’t you think with me? Won’t you read with me, pray with me? Please don’t get angry and indignant that I would dare propose that not all Christians are baptised/filled with the Spirit. “Examine the Scriptures” (Acts 17:11) to see if what I say is so. Hell, examine the Scriptures to see if what you think is so. Do what Paul commands and “test all things” (1 Thessalonians 5:21). That includes what I’ve said here, as well as what you may have heard from your pastor or whatever. Don’t just assume what you believe or what you have been told is right or biblically faithful or most effective for the mission of the church or most gospel centred or however else you may want to spin it. Journey with me. Search the Scriptures with me.

I am well aware of the failings and the shortcomings of this post. There is so much that I want to have covered but didn’t. So if you have any questions about what I have said, any comments you’d like to make or what not, feel free to drop a comment below or send me a message on Facebook.

As said above, this is the first part of my blogging series about the baptism in the Holy Spirit. I’ll be following it up with posts looking at questions like, “what is the baptism in the Holy Spirit?”, “doesn’t 1 Corinthians 12:13 say we’re all baptised in the Spirit?”, “how do I seek the baptism in the Holy Spirit?”, etc. Look out for them, I’ll be aiming for fortnightly releases.

Just incase you’ve forgotten, I’ll answer the question, “why is this important?” again. It is important because in the New Testament, the church was propelled forward in mission and evangelism in power and effectiveness by the pouring out of the Holy Spirit on them. We lack this. We quench the Spirit in his work greatly. I want to see us put aside our rationalism, our enlightenment attitudes of anti-supernaturalism, and make a way for the Spirit to move. We need to stop committing the sin of quenching the Holy Spirit, lest we continue to be impotent and ineffective.

So, again, I invite you to think with me, to pray with me, to examine the Scriptures with me. To carry on the work of the Protestant Reformers and be:

“Ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda secundum verbum Dei – the church reformed, always being reformed according to the word of God.”

And may the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, be with you always, and as you consider these things.

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