Acts 6:3-6 and the Gift of the Holy Spirit – Part 1
Acts 6 is another important passage in one’s understanding of the work of the Holy Spirit in the church. As noted in the comments of articles on Acts 5:12 and 5:32, the argument for the non-prophetic indwelling of the Holy Spirit in the church makes an important use of the events of Acts 6.
Most in the church agree that the Bible teaches it was only through the laying on of an apostle’s hands that the prophetic powers of the Holy Spirit were passed on to first-century Christians. That truth being established, it is in verse 3 that an apparent difficulty arises. Acts 6:3 lists being full of the Holy Spirit as one of the qualifications of the seven men that the Jerusalem church was to identify. However, those men are not said to have the apostles lay their hands on them until Acts 6:6: “These they set before the apostles, and they prayed and laid their hands on them.”
- If it is the case that only by the laying on of an apostle’s hands a man could receive the powers of the Holy Spirit (And we believe that to be the case).
- If it is also the case that being full of the Spirit implies prophetic abilities (And we have established in other articles that to be the case in every verse prior to Acts 6).
- How is it possible that these seven men were full of the Spirit before the apostles laid their hands on them?
The question is valid and at first glance makes a compelling case for re-evaluating our understanding of one’s being “full of the Holy Spirit.” If it is possible to be “full of the Spirit” with no connection to the apostolic ministry, then the Holy Spirit must have some work in the lives of the saints beyond the prophetic.
However, there are several points that must be considered before admitting to that conclusion. This article will examine the first of those points.
The Laying on of Hands has More Than One Purpose in the Bible
At the heart of the objection to a prophetically empowered gift of the Holy Spirit made from this passage is the belief that Acts 6:6 means that the apostles would grant prophetic powers to these seven men to fill the role of attending to the widows. As a part of their initiation as servants of the church, the seven men would become the first people beyond the apostles with prophetic abilities.
However, that argument is sound only if it can be established that there was only one reason that the apostles would lay hands on the seven. The truth of the matter is that the laying on of hands was a well-established practice among the ancients. Its presence is found several times in the Bible. Further, it had an established significance completely unrelated to the giving of the Holy Spirit.
Timothy provides an interesting case study. He was an inspired preacher of the early church. The Bible clearly states that he received that prophetic ability through the laying on of the apostle Paul’s hands:
“For this reason I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands, for God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control” (2 Timothy 1:6-7).
Yet, there is another statement of Timothy’s having hands laid on him:
“Do not neglect the gift you have, which was given you by prophecy when the council of elders laid their hands on you” (1 Timothy 4:14).
These verses describe both the manner (“through the laying on my hands”) and the time (“when the council of elders laid their hands on you”) of Timothy’s receiving the prophetic endowment of the Holy Spirit. While the specific details of the ceremony mentioned are not described we do know that two groups of people laid their hands upon Timothy. We know that Paul did so to empower him with the “gift of God.” The purpose of the elders’ touch on Timothy was for a purpose beyond that of granting the Spirit’s power to Timothy. It was likely as sign of commission or endorsement of his work (Compare also Genesis 48:14, 17; Numbers 27:23; Mark 10:16; Acts 13:3; 1 Timothy 5:22).
For what purpose then did the apostles lay hands on the men in Acts 6? Read their own words:
“Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty” (Acts 6:3).
Question: “When did the apostles appoint them to the duty and what was the indication that they had done so?”
The answer is clear. Verse 6 is the time and manner in which the apostles appointed those seven men to the duty.
This ceremony stands in sharp contrast to the two mentioned examples of the apostles’ laying on of hands to deliver the Spirit’s power to Christians. Notice all three passages in succession:
- These they set before the apostles, and they prayed and laid their hands on them. (Acts 6:6)
- Then they laid their hands on them and they received the Holy Spirit. (Acts 8:17)
- And when Paul had laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they began speaking in tongues and prophesying. (Acts 19:6)
Do you notice what is missing from Acts 6:6? Why is no statement found in Acts 6:6 that the seven received the Holy Spirit and began to speak in tongues or an indication that others could see the Spirit’s power in them as Simon could in Acts 8:18?
The answer is simple: Because verse 3 already told us those seven had the Holy Spirit.
What we have then is a phrase – “full of the Spirit”— which has but one meaning in the Bible and a phrase – “laying on of hands” – which has multiple meanings. We have evidence that the second phrase has a particular usage when connected to the Holy Spirit (cp. Acts 8:17; Acts 19:6) and the evidence indicating that usage is missing from Acts 6. Further we also have a statement of purpose – “whom we will appoint to this work”—which fits another established meaning of the phrase “laying on of hands.” Sound judgment, then, demands that we make use of the known, allowable usage of laying on of hands and steer clear of crafting a previously unknown meaning to the Bible phrase “full of the Holy Spirit.”
Discussion continued with part 2…