Acts: The Pouring Out of the Spirit
Luke highlights the work of the Holy Spirit 57 times in his second letter to Theophilus. Even for a casual reader it is obvious that Luke wanted Theophilus to understand that this new movement was generated and sustained by the Holy Spirit. In the second verse of the letter, Jesus gave commands to the apostles “through the Holy Spirit.” At the end of his 40 days on earth, he reminded them that they would “receive power when the Spirit has come upon you.” When Peter preached his first sermon, he began with Joel’s promise that God would “pour out his Spirit on all flesh.” Later, Peter announced that Jesus had received from the Father “the promise of the Holy Spirit,” and was “pouring out this which you now see and hear.” At the end of the sermon, Peter promised that those who received the word would be given the gift of the Spirit, which was the promised blessing to all nations.
The Pouring Out of the Spirit and the Connection to the Prophets
Why the emphasis on the Holy Spirit? In the prophets, the work of the Spirit was an integral part of the beginning of the Messiah’s kingdom. When John burst on the scene, all four Gospel accounts quote him as promising that the one coming after him would immerse them in the Holy Spirit. The promise of the Spirit was the highlight of John’s preaching. In Acts 1:5, Jesus reminded the apostles of John’s prophecy, and immediately following Jesus‘ reminder, the apostles asked about the restoration of the kingdom. There was clearly a relationship between the Spirit poured out and the kingdom. Throughout Acts, everything the Spirit would do related to growing the kingdom by giving life to all flesh.
In Paul’s letter to Titus, we learn that in connection with baptism, the Spirit is poured out on us abundantly. Notice the words:
“But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior.” (Titus 3:4–6 ESV)
This phrase, “pouring out of the Spirit,” is a figure of speech, a metaphor that illustrates what the Spirit is doing. When we think of “poured,” we think of water, and water is a life-giver. In the prophets, water brings life to barren land. Further, “poured” indicates an abundance. It is not a trickle, it is poured out. We have already noticed the phrase used in Joel’s prophecy, but to more clearly understand the metaphor, Isaiah uses the phrase to describe God’s rejuvenation of Israel after the land had been destroyed. When the Lord would bring the nation back to life, he would do so by pouring out the Spirit from on high.
“For the palace is forsaken, the populous city deserted; the hill and the watchtower will become dens forever, a joy of wild donkeys, a pasture of flocks; until the Spirit is poured upon us from on high, and the wilderness becomes a fruitful field, and the fruitful field is deemed a forest.” (Isaiah 32:14–15 ESV)
Notice that Israel would be a wilderness until the Spirit was poured out, changing the wilderness into a fruitful field. Now we can see why the pouring out of the Spirit, (or as in the New Testament, immersion (baptism) with the Spirit) generates the restoration of the kingdom in the form of spiritual Israel. Consider also that in Isaiah 40, John the baptizer is prophesied as the “voice crying out in the wilderness.” Why is John literally in a wilderness when he preaches his baptism? Because the literal wilderness was symbolic of the desolate spiritual state of Israel. John’s baptism was illustrating that the time of cleansing had come and that the coming Messiah would do an even greater work by immersing believers with the Holy Spirit. This signified restoration to the dead nation and offering life to all nations, thus “all flesh.” When Peter promised the gift of the Holy Spirit in connection with baptism, he was offering the fulfillment of the “promise” made to all nations through the seed of Abraham (Cf. Acts 3:24-26).
To further confirm restoration of the kingdom through the pouring out of the Spirit, the words following Peter’s excerpt of Joel are: “For behold, in those days and at that time, when I restore the fortunes of Judah and Jerusalem, I will gather all the nations and bring them down to the Valley of Jehoshaphat” (Joel 3:1-2). The pouring out of the Spirit on all flesh was the key to giving life to Israel, and thus life to all believers. We make a mistake when we read this phrase and simply think of miracles. Joel’s prophecy spoke of “signs” and new prophecies, that is, a new revelation. The miracles are not specifically the pouring out of the Spirit, but signs to indicate the Spirit is being poured out, the King is on his throne, and salvation is being offered.
Ezekiel 37 offers a similar figure in the vision of the valley of dry bones. The “breath” that is breathed into the bones refers to the restoration of Israel when, “I will put my Spirit within you, and you shall live” (Ezek. 37:14). The dry bones vision was not a restoration of the physical nation, but the resurrection to life in the Messiah’s kingdom (Ezek. 37:24-28).
Ezekiel 47:1-12 offers another vision that relates to the pouring out of the Spirit. Ezekiel is taken to see a trickle of water coming from the future visionary temple of the Messiah. The water flows out and eventually becomes a mighty river which floods over the land. The result is that the land is given life with fruit trees and leaves for healing. Even the Dead Sea is filled with fresh water and abundant fish. Of course, the Messiah’s temple is God’s people. The living water flows out from us just as was foretold by Jesus:
“On the last day of the feast, the great day, Jesus stood up and cried out, ‘If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’ Now this he said about the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were to receive…” (John 7:37-39 ESV).
Therefore, the pouring out of the Spirit has not only given us life, but also made us wells by which living water will flow out to “all flesh.”
Now consider how the announcement of the pouring out of the Spirit would have affected first century hearers.
- Matthew 3:11-12 “He who comes after me will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
- Acts 1:5 “You will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”
- Acts 2:16-17 “This is what was uttered through the prophet Joel…I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh.”
- Acts 2:38-39 “…and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”
These Jewish hearers who were looking for the restoration of Israel would have been elated! They did not need to debate about what Peter meant, they knew that “the tabernacle of David which had been torn down was being rebuilt” (Acts 15:16). Life was being poured out to the world abundantly “through Jesus Christ our Savior” (Titus 3:6).