“Repent , and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 2.38)
Religious people are fascinated by the Holy Spirit. The reasons for such are really not that hard to understand. Simply stated, God the Spirit is shrouded in mystery. The bible acknowledges His existence; His person as a part of the Godhead; His activity throughout history. His role in the revelation of God’s will to man is pretty clear (1Cor.2.7-12f). Apart from such, however, we only have glimpses and brief references to His particular part in redemption.
We know that He was working with Jesus in some way during Jesus’ public ministry (Mt.3.16; 12.28f; Jn.3.34). And the Lord promised the apostles that He would send the Spirit/Comforter/Helper to accompany them in their task of proclaiming the gospel (Jn.14.26; 20.21; Acts 1.4-8). He was communicating with them in their work (Acts 16.6-8) and empowering them with both the words to speak (Lk.12.12) and the signs to confirm such (Heb.2.4). In fact, He offered some measure of similar power to others in the first century, through the laying on of the hands of the apostles (Acts 8.14-20f; 1 Cor.12-14). And He is noted repeatedly as “dwelling” in believers (Rom.8.9f; 2 Tim.1.14; Jas.4.5; etc.).
Thus, we have One of the members of the Godhead directing, communicating, empowering, and indwelling the followers of Jesus. Yet, we nowhere have a divine explanation of His function for us nor of the means of or limitations upon such. And people love a mystery. Give us a little information about a power greater than ourselves, working behind the scenes, and we’ll fill in whatever blanks are left in our understanding.
I freely confess that I do not understand all that God the Spirit does, nor how He works in the present age. I believe He inspired the apostles and prophets to reveal God’s Word, at times verifying their testimony by supernatural activities. I also believe that He ceased that activity when the revelation was completed. I personally believe that such is the point of Paul’s reference in 1 Cor.13.8f. I believe that the ability to “pass on the power of the Holy Spirit” expired with the death of the last apostle. I have my opinions about the concept of the Spirit (or spirit) that dwells in us, but there is much I simply don’t understand. There are passages that refer (possibly) to His work that I accept as true merely as a matter of faith in God. There are other passages, however, that I believe can be understood – especially when considered in their context. One of those is Acts 2.38.
This verse is a lynchpin for those who believe that God the Spirit, in some miraculous way, becomes a part of us at the point of obedience. The question that arises here is this: Does the phrase “gift of the Holy Spirit” refer to the Holy Spirit as a gift, or to a gift brought by the Holy Spirit? Regardless of what other biblical references contribute to our understanding of the Holy Spirit, I do believe the context here can help us appreciate this particular reference.
In Acts 1.4-8, at His ascension, Jesus tells the apostles to wait in Jerusalem as they are to be baptized with the Holy Spirit and receive power to become His witnesses. The fulfillment of this promise takes place in Acts 2.1f as the house in which the apostles are meeting is filled with the sound of a “rushing mighty wind” and upon each apostle there appears cloven tongues of fire. Given that “spirit” literally means “wind or breath”, and that God the Spirit is associated with fire by John the Baptist in Mt.3.11 and Lk.3.16, the meaning of these signs should have been fairly obvious. In v.4-11, the sound draws a multitude (perhaps into a courtyard of the temple) and the apostles begin speaking to them in a variety of languages/tongues. Note that the crowd is impressed by two things. First, they are amazed that they are hearing these men speak in their native language, though they recognized the apostles as Galileans. Second, they note that the message involves “the wonderful works of God” (v.11).
As they wonder at the meaning, Peter stands and addresses them (v.14f). His first observation is an explanation of what was occurring. He refers to Joel 2.28-32, noting the prophecy offered long ago wherein God promised both judgment and restoration to His people. This promise revolves around the outpouring of God’s Spirit (v.17) and the manifestations of such in “all flesh”. All kinds of people – male and female, young and old – will prophesy, see visions, dream dreams. And that activity will culminate in a purpose: “they shall prophesy” (v.18) – speak by revelation the message of God. Moreover, this inspired teaching will usher in a day of judgment, signified by the images in v.19-20. Such images are consistent in Old Testament prophecies about “the day of the Lord” wherein God judges His people (Isa.2.13f; 13.6f; Jer.46.10; Lam.2.1f; Ezek.30.1f; Joel 2.1f; Amos 5.18f; etc.), offering both destruction and deliverance. And the culmination of this outpouring of God’s Spirit? “And it shall come to pass that whoever calls on the name of the LORD shall be saved” (v.21). This, Peter says, is that.
At this point Peter offers his testimony about the life, death, burial, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus, with accompanying prophetic testimony (v.22-36). It is significant, and in keeping with the promise of Jesus Himself in Jn.14:26f and Acts 1.4f, that Peter affirms Jesus, enthroned at the right hand of God in heaven, “poured out this which you now see and hear” (v.33). Jesus had sent the Spirit in order to begin the work the apostles were to do – to testify of Jesus and offer salvation to all mankind (v.21). Such was the purpose of the outpouring. Thus, when the people ask how they are to respond (v.37) and Peter replies with the instruction of v.38, the idea that the “gift of the Holy Spirit” is the gift of salvation which the Holy Spirit is bringing seems to best suit the context. I would propose that the next several verses merely confirm this idea. In v.39, “the promise” almost has to refer back to the prophecy in v.21, and Peter’s call to “be saved” in v.40 again uses the language of v.21, that “whoever calls on the name of the LORD shall be saved.”
It is easy to read something mysterious and miraculous into every reference to God the Spirit. I freely admit to my ignorance about the totality of His work, and while I personally do not believe in some kind of literal indwelling (even manifesting itself in the non-miraculous), I may be wrong. I’m trying to learn, and some references are simply difficult even when contextually considered. I would propose, however, that Acts 2.38 is a consideration that should be governed by the context. Moreover, what grander blessing could the Spirit supply to us than the knowledge of God’s plan and means for our salvation? Any effort to find in this passage some temporal empowerment or some “better felt than told” guidance is exchanging what is eternal and superior for what is temporal and inferior.