The “First Times” of the Holy Spirit
It has been my experience that studying the work of the Holy Spirit is a highly frustrating effort for many Bible students. It is my belief this struggle exists because of the “secret decoder ring” style of exposition used in so many approaches to the topic. The understanding of words and phrase is unreliable. For many students, they feel that they are on the outside and need assistance of those “in the know” to help explain the complexities of the Spirit.
As the doctrine is currently taught, the Bible’s usage of terms regarding the Spirit cannot be depended on verse to verse. Consider just a few examples:
- The Gift of the Holy Spirit – Most take the first occurrence of this phrase to mean the Holy Spirit is given to us as a gift at our baptism (Acts 2:38). This gift we are told is non-miraculous. Yet, the second time it appears in the biblical text (Acts 10:45), we are told it must be miraculous since the gift is given before the baptism of Cornelius. The first time it is found it is blessing received only at/after baptism. The second time it is a unique blessing received before baptism.
- Receiving the Spirit – In Acts 2, we “receive” the Spirit at baptism and that reception is both universal and non-miraculous. The very next time the phrase is found (Acts 8:15), there are a group of baptized believers (i. e. Christians) who had not yet “received” the Spirit. So, we are informed that this a second, distinct manner of “receiving.”
- Full of the Spirit – Also in Acts 2, the apostles are “full of the Spirit” and begin to speak in tongues. We are told this is the product of the spiritual gifts of the Holy Spirit. In Acts 6:3, Stephen and the other six chosen men are “full of the Spirit.” Yet, this phrase is now positively devoid of any connection to the spiritual gifts. But in Acts 6:8, 10, Stephen’s being full of power, grace, wisdom, and Spirit is now evidence of the gifts again. In Acts 7:55, he is once again “full of the Spirit” and empowered to see visions into heaven.
These examples are perfect illustrations of the “secret decoder ring” style of exposition regarding the Holy Spirit. All the references above are in the same book – Acts. They appear in within a few verses or chapters of each other. I know of no other topic on which reliable expositors within churches of Christ would tolerate such inconsistency on the meaning of words and phrases. Yet, on the Holy Spirit, the ambiguity created by such variability of interpretations is not only required for the viability of the doctrine, but also one’s ability to accept these variances is seen as a sign of heightened spirituality.
Our collective approach to this topic is at odds with our long-standing practice regarding other central teachings of the gospel. I understand completely the frustration of so many in the church who have no real desire to study the topic.
It is my conviction that the study of the Holy Spirit is no different than any other Bible doctrine. There is no ambiguity in God’s words. There is little variability in the usage of words. And, importantly, the work of the Spirit is introduced early in the biblical text. Before Peter’s initial gospel sermon, around 100 verses have already spoken directly about the Spirit’s work with/in man. By the time one reaches the Day of Pentecost in Acts 2, there already existed an established language and framework of the work of the Spirit. It is our lack of understanding and acceptance of that structure that leads us down an unreliable path of study in the New Testament.
With only a couple of exceptions, the descriptive words and phrases of the Spirit’s work in the New Testament have already occurred in verses spanning the Old Testament. In those passages, the work of the Spirit is simple and straight-forward. What follows is a list of some of those initial appearances of words describing the Spirit’s work:
- The First Time the Spirit is “IN” man (Genesis 41:38-39): “And Pharaoh said to his servants, “Can we find a man like this, in whom is the Spirit of God?” Then Pharaoh said to Joseph, “Since God has shown you all this, there is none so discerning and wise as you are.”
- The First Time the Spirit “FILLS” man (Exodus 31:2-5): “See, I have called by name Bezalel the son of Uri, son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah, and I have filled him with the Spirit of God, with ability and intelligence, with knowledge and all craftsmanship, to devise artistic designs, to work in gold, silver, and bronze, in cutting stones for setting, and in carving wood, to work in every craft.”
- The First Time the Spirit “RESTS ON” man (Numbers 11:25): “Then the LORD came down in the cloud and spoke to him, and took some of the Spirit that was on him and put it on the seventy elders. And as soon as the Spirit rested on them, they prophesied. But they did not continue doing it.”
- The First Time the Spirit “COMES ON” man (Numbers 24:2-4): “And Balaam lifted up his eyes and saw Israel camping tribe by tribe. And the Spirit of God came upon him, and he took up his discourse and said, “The oracle of Balaam the son of Beor, the oracle of the man whose eye is opened, the oracle of him who hears the words of God, who sees the vision of the Almighty, falling down with his eyes uncovered.”
- The First Time the Spirit is “UPON” man (Judges 3:10): “The Spirit of the LORD was upon him, and he judged Israel. He went out to war, and the LORD gave Cushan-rishathaim king of Mesopotamia into his hand. And his hand prevailed over Cushan-rishathaim.”
- The First Time the Spirit “CLOTHES” man (Judges 6:34): “But the Spirit of the LORD clothed Gideon, and he sounded the trumpet, and the Abiezrites were called out to follow him.”
- The First Time the Spirit “RUSHES UPON” man (Judges 14:6): “Then the Spirit of the LORD rushed upon him, and although he had nothing in his hand, he tore the lion in pieces as one tears a young goat. But he did not tell his father or his mother what he had done.”
- The First Time the Spirit is “GIVEN” to man (Nehemiah 9:20): “You gave your good Spirit to instruct them and did not withhold your manna from their mouth and gave them water for their thirst.”
- The First Time the Spirit is “POURED OUT” to man (Isaiah 29:10): “For the LORD has poured out upon you a spirit of deep sleep, and has closed your eyes (the prophets), and covered your heads (the seers). And the vision of all this has become to you like the words of a book that is sealed. When men give it to one who can read, saying, “Read this,” he says, “I cannot, for it is sealed.””
- The First Time the Spirit “ANOINTS” man (Isaiah 61:1): “The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound.”
- The First Time the Spirit “ENTERS” man (Ezekiel 2:1-2): “And he said to me, “Son of man, stand on your feet, and I will speak with you.” And as he spoke to me, the Spirit entered into me and set me on my feet, and I heard him speaking to me.”
- The First Time the Spirit “FALLS ON” man (Ezekiel 11:3-4): “Therefore prophesy against them, prophesy, O son of man.” And the Spirit of the LORD fell upon me, and he said to me, “Say, Thus says the LORD: So you think, O house of Israel. For I know the things that come into your mind.”
No decoder ring is needed to understand the work of the Spirit in those 12 references. He empowers people to interpret dreams, craft works of art, lead people into battle, see visions, and speak the inspired word of God. His work is singular and consistent. He provides men/women with divine ability beyond human means. His work is prophetic and/or miraculous.
Instead of redefining these phrases (and related ones in New Testament), why not leave them alone?The Old Testament should be used to provide us a road-map for our journey to understand the Holy Spirit in the New Testament. Yet, do you ever hear a preacher use any portion of the Old Testament to explain the work of the Spirit? My guess is you have heard it rarely, if ever.
Most of the teaching I heard in the subject starts in Acts 2 and turns quickly to Romans 8. Those two passages, almost exclusively, create the framework for our current understanding of the Spirit’s work. The approach is flawed. Because the expositors never stop to consider the impact of the Old Testament’s teaching about the Spirit, their approach to Acts 2 and Romans 8 is itself incorrect. This misuse of those two important texts leads them down a path that requires the variability and ambiguity that we hear on the topic.
Just imagine how much simpler it would be; how much more easily understood the teaching would be; how much more in line with God’s desire for people to have certainty in their knowledge, it would be if we simply applied what He taught us about His Spirit in the Old Testament to the identical phrases appearing in the New Testament.
Brothers and sisters, you can read the entire Old Testament and never even begin to be confused about the work of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit’s work in the New Testament is not a new work. The “indwelling” of the Spirit did begin in Acts 2. He was “indwelling” Joseph in Genesis 41. When Peter speaks to the Jews present on Pentecost, his audience already knew what the Holy Spirit did. His presence permeated their scriptures. They knew enough to understand what Peter was promising about the Spirit. You can to.
Before you allow modern preachers to cloud the issue with varying of meanings and ambiguity, please allow the inspired teachers of the Old Testament to provide you with a sure foundation upon which you can build your understanding of the Spirit’s work in the church.