WHAT TO LOOK FOR
For this week’s reading guide, we’re going to answer a question the pastors got recently about the work of the Holy Spirit in the book of Acts, especially chapter 8. It has important implications for how we read the entire book of Acts!
Acts 8—When we baptize, why don’t we pray for the Spirit to come upon the person? Could only apostles administer the power of the Spirit? How did the apostles know that the Samaritans had not received the Spirit yet?
Good (and challenging) questions! I took some time to do some further reading, studying, and praying before getting back to you. Sorry for the delay. I think it will work best to answer your questions in reverse order.
How did the apostles know that the Samaritans had not received the Spirit yet?
Acts 8:16 says the Holy Spirit “had not yet fallen upon” those in Samaria who had believed. Wherever Acts talks about the Holy Spirit “falling upon” someone (8:16; 10:44; 11:15), it seems to refer to a special outpouring of the Spirit where the recipients do things like speak in tongues and prophesy, making the Spirit’s powerful presence plainly evident to all. Apparently this special outpouring had not occurred among the Samaritans who had believed, and yet the apostles, for some reason, expected it to. (These demonstrations of tongues and prophesying are not explicitly mentioned in Acts 8 after the apostles come, but I think they are implied.)
I think the apostles were expecting this special outpouring of the Holy Spirit because of something Jesus had explicitly told them, which we read back in Acts 1:8: “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be My witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth.” Jesus here indicates a three-stage plan for the spread of the Gospel, a plan we can see coming to fruition if we pay attention as we read the book of Acts. The Gospel goes forth with power through the ministry of the apostles (1) in Jerusalem (Acts 2); (2) in all Judea and Samaria (Acts 8), i.e., all Israel; and (3) to all the nations, meaning, to non-Israelite Gentiles (Acts 10).
The breaking forth of the Gospel into each of these places is accompanied by very visible and miraculous manifestations of the power of the Holy Spirit in the recipients themselves (i.e., not just through those preaching). These supernatural signs attested the truthfulness and power of the new message of salvation in the name of Jesus Christ delivered by His chosen apostles. These apostles had seen the undeniable demonstration of the Spirit’s power in Jerusalem at Pentecost, and I think they rightly expected the Holy Spirit to similarly confirm their work as the Gospel spread to Samaria as well.
Could only apostles administer the power of the Spirit?
I’ll assume you’re referring to the work of the Spirit as manifested in these signs (tongues, prophesying) among the hearers. It does seem that these special outpourings of the Spirit were particularly connected to the apostles’ ministry. Remember, Jesus had told the apostles in particular that they would be His appointed witnesses, and that they would receive power when the Holy Spirit came upon them. So yes, these signs attended the preaching of the apostles’ and the laying-on of their hands, thereby attesting the truth and power of the message of salvation which Jesus had entrusted to these particular men. For this reason, I think it makes sense that the special outpouring of the Spirit in Acts 8 was withheld until the apostles themselves came and prayed for the new believers there.
However, it’s not as though the apostles themselves controlled the Holy Spirit, nor that the Spirit was in some way limited by them. Acts 10 helps us understand the Spirit’s sovereignty. When Peter preached in the house of Cornelius, the Holy Spirit fell on the Gentile hearers while Peter was still preaching. In this instance, the Holy Spirit was pleased to preempt any apostolic laying-on of hands, perhaps because Peter himself and the Jews with him needed further convincing of God’s intent to include the Gentiles in this new way of salvation! “All the circumcised believers who came with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out on the Gentiles also” (10:45). In any case (including this one), the extraordinary outpouring of the Holy Spirit attends the apostolic preaching of the Gospel.
When we baptize, why don’t we pray for the Spirit to come upon the person?
My first answer to this is that, actually, we do! When we baptize, we pray for the presence and blessing of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit to descend upon this new member of the covenant. This is a request that God would continue and bring to completion the work He has already begun in someone’s life whom we believe has already been under the influence of the Holy Spirit. I say that because Scripture teaches that if anyone comes to understand and believe the truth of the Gospel, that itself is a working of the Holy Spirit.
If by your question you mean, Why don’t we pray for a special visible outpouring of the Spirit like we see in Acts?, I would answer that I believe (and most Christians throughout history have believed) the instances of Pentecost in Jerusalem (Acts 2), the believers in Samaria (Acts 8), and the Gentiles in Caesarea (Acts 10) are presented to us as extraordinary demonstrations of the Spirit’s power and grace, and are not to be understood as normative for all Christians in all ages. The book of Acts records for us a special transition from an old age to a new one in the history of redemption. Christ’s coming was the most important event in all of history, and it forever changed the world. It makes perfect sense that such a transition would be marked with unique outpourings of the Holy Spirit, and we should not be discouraged to live after these events, especially since we have them so graciously recorded for us in God’s Word! We have no reason to doubt the Spirit’s power.
And actually, we should see as we read the whole book of Acts that these outpourings were even extraordinary in that time. We have plenty of instances of “normal” conversions and baptisms which do not appear to have been attended by any such signs: the conversions and baptisms of the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8), Lydia (Acts 16), and the Philippian jailer (Acts 16) are all rather “mundane” (compared to Pentecost).
And yet, we should not think of the so-called ordinary work of the Holy Spirit (i.e., without speaking in tongues) as mundane. I love Acts 16:14: “A woman named Lydia, from the city of Thyatira, a seller of purple fabrics, a worshiper of God, was listening; and the Lord opened her heart to respond to the things spoken by Paul.”
Who opened Lydia’s heart? The Lord did. That God opens anyone’s heart is a gracious and powerful work of the Holy Spirit. Any sinner being turned from the path of destruction and finding a new and living hope in Jesus is a wonder, and we should not despise the work of the Holy Spirit in converting any one of us, even if we don’t experience the same personal outward demonstration that some (not all) in apostolic times did.
Romans 5 reminds us of the “ordinary” (if I can use that word) work that the Holy Spirit does in every Christian’s life: “Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom also we have obtained our introduction by faith into this grace in which we stand; and we exult in hope of the glory of God. … and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us” (Romans 5:1–2, 5).
If you’re interested in further reading, here’s a helpful list of good resources. I was most recently helped in my understanding of these things by Sinclair Ferguson’s book The Holy Spirit, especially chapter 4, “Pentecost Today?” (Contours of Christian Theology, ed. Gerald Bray [InterVarsity, 1996]).
VERSE TO MEDITATE ON
You must help the weak and remember the words of the Lord Jesus, that He Himself said, “It is more blessed to give than to receive.”
HOW TO PRAY
- Adoration – Praise the Holy Spirit for His powerful work of giving sinners to new life in Christ.
- Confession – Confess times you have turned away from opportunities to help the weak.
- Thanksgiving – Thank God for revealing Himself to us in His word.
- Supplication – Pray that God would fill you with the love of Christ!