What is the Gift of the Holy Spirit (Part 1)
The Gift of the Holy Spirit is . . .
Stated as simply as possible: “The gift of the Holy Spirit is the fulfillment of the promise of the Holy Spirit.”
That promise is said to have been responsible for the presence of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:33). The nature of that promise is explained in the quotation of Joel 2 in Peter’s defense of the apostles’ actions (Acts 2:16-21). The promise contained in Joel’s prophecy describes then the effect of the gift of the Holy Spirit in the church. His presence, just as it did on Pentecost, would provide the church with “prophecy, visions, and dreams.”
The gift of the Holy Spirit is the outpouring of the Spirit promised to “all flesh” in the church. When He was outpoured to them, they received Him, and He provided them with the prophetic revelation necessary for the growth and maturation of the church.
- What is the gift of the Holy Spirit? The gift of the Holy Spirit is the Holy Spirit.
- What does then the “gifted Spirit” do for the saint? He provides “prophecy, vision, and dreams.”
- That is the conclusion the argumentation presented in this series of articles will establish.
The Gift of the Holy Spirit – The Cart or the Horse?
The cart and the horse, the chicken or the egg or any other similar proverbial expression would work in this place to express the importance of understanding whether Peter, in using the phrase in question, is introducing a new biblical truth or emphasizing an old one. For many, Acts 2:38 marks a watershed moment when a new work of the Holy Spirit with man begins. Many views about the gift of the Holy Spirit are based on the necessary idea that the fulfillment of Acts 2:38 is a blessing reserved for only those living under the covenant of Jesus Christ. This view mandates that the given Spirit is the identifying blessing of the Christian. No person outside of Christ can have this blessing. It is then also true no man before the time of Christ could have had that blessing. Acts 2:38 is the dividing line in the Bible about the work of the Holy Spirit. If Acts 2:38 expresses a new blessing from the Holy Spirit of God, which was previously unknown to the people of God, one must look after Acts 2:38 for its explanation.
However, another possibility does exist. Peter’s words describe a work of the Holy Spirit already known to his audience. Peter does not explain the meaning of the gift of the Holy Spirit at the close of his sermon. If he did so, the great amount of controversy that surrounds this topic would disappear. If he had taken the time to state “You shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit and He will give you ____________,” the issue would be easily settled. Peter did not do that.
But why did he skip such a vital doctrine of Christianity? The gift of the Holy Spirit is the first blessing mentioned to the believers after the “remission of sins.” Why would the apostle not take the time to elaborate on such an important matter?
- He had already defended the identity of Jesus: “God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.”
- He told them the steps they needed to take: “Repent and be baptized every one of you.”
- He explained the reason for the steps: “for the forgiveness of your sins.”
Each of those concepts (the Messiah, repentance, baptism, and forgiveness of sin) was already a part of the Jewish understanding. If the gift of the Holy Spirit is a completely new concept to them, should we not expect it to be explained in some way – perhaps even more thoroughly?
Peter is trying to motivate his audience to turn to Jesus. If the gift of the Spirit is the first blessing promised to the new converts, its nature should be of such motivational power that explaining it to the audience would result in more converts than leaving its nature unexpressed. If before this time the nature of the gift was both unknown and never experienced, there is no reason not to explain the gift to an audience hearing the gospel for the first time.
However, if Peter’s audience already knew what that blessing was, much less explanation would be needed.
- Peter argues that Jesus is the Lord and Christ. He does not need to explain to a Jewish audience what those words mean. They knew their Messiah was Lord and Christ.
- He does not need to explain repentance to them. Their prophets had done so for 1,500 years.
- He does not need to explain baptism to them. John’s baptism had been taught among them for the four years leading up to this great day.
He argues the facts of the life of Jesus. He exhorts his audience to respond to those facts in the right way. Yet, he has no need to explain the concepts because they already knew them. The same is true about the gift of the Holy Spirit. He argued for the fact of the gift’s coming, yet had no need to explain the details of its nature.
The Jews had no confusion about the work of the Holy Spirit. They had no Arminian and Calvinistic concerns. They had no charismatic or non-charismatic controversies. There was no ambiguity between miraculous and ordinary works of the Spirit for them. They had the prophets and history of the Old Testament upon which to draw and understand the Holy Spirit. They had man’s first encounter with the Holy Spirit in the prophetic abilities of Joseph (Genesis 41:38) and the more than 100 verses describing the Spirit’s work with humanity leading up to Acts 2:38. They knew the Spirit gave man prophetic and divine abilities and that is all they knew He did for man.
Peter does nothing to correct that understanding. In fact, his only basis for the work of the Spirit on that day is found in the prophecy of Joel and its promise of “prophecy, visions, and dreams.” The simple reason Peter does not correct their understanding of the work of the Spirit is that they already knew what the prophets had promised about the Holy Spirit in the time of the Messiah.
Peter’s audience knew what to expect from the Messiah’s use of the Spirit. Once Peter had shown them that Jesus was the Messiah, they knew that the prophecies that had been given to them would be true.
- They knew that Joel’s prophecy would come to pass and that the outpoured Spirit would give prophetic gifts.
- They had read that the time of the Messiah would lead to the “pouring out” of the Spirit from on high and that Israel would become fruitful again. (Isaiah 32:14-16).
- They knew the Spirit would be “poured out on their offspring” (Isaiah 44:2-5) and that they would be able to speak the words of God (Isaiah 59:21).
- They knew the Messiah would bring this blessing on the house of Israel when God’s glory returned to His people (Ezekiel 39:28-29).
- They knew God’s gift to His people during the reign of the Messiah would be a great outpouring of His Spirit on all the flesh of the House of Israel that would provide them with prophecy, visions, and dreams so that they could speak the words of God among themselves and to the nations.
That is what the prophets had told them about the Messiah. There was no need for Peter to explain that to them, nor to correct their understanding of it.
Peter’s words were not new to them. They already expected the Messiah to usher in a time of a great outpouring of God’s Spirit. Peter is simply telling them that the time of that outpouring was upon them. The outpouring of the Spirit they were seeing that day was evidence that Jesus was the Messiah:
“This Jesus God raised up, and of that we all are witnesses. Being there exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you yourselves are seeing and hearing” (Acts 2:32-33).
But the promise of an outpoured Spirit from the Messiah was to more than just a small group of people as it had been in the Old Testament. The promise was to all flesh of His people and to their offspring (Joel 2; Isaiah 44). All that Peter is stating in verse 38 is that the time of that universal outpouring on the people of God from the Messiah is here. And if they would obey the teaching of the Messiah He would save them, and they would partake in the outpouring that the prophets had promised them must accompany His coming.
We must remember: “The Bible is meant to be read from front-to-back, not back-to-front.”
Peter’s audience had Isaiah, Joel, and Ezekiel. They had none of the writings of Paul, Luke, or John. Yet, Peter expected them to understand what the gift of the Holy Spirit was. That leads to a essential point in framing your understanding of the gift of the Holy Spirit:
If one’s understanding of the gift cannot be established by using the information available to Peter’s audience on that day, then it is most likely the case that his understanding of the gift needs some correction.
About 3,000 souls received the gift of the Spirit in response to the obedience of the gospel on the day of Pentecost. Each one of them would have understood what that gift was and that understanding would have been limited to the knowledge they could have drawn from the Old Testament prophets, Peter’s words, and their own experience with the gift. If our understanding of the gift needs more information than that, we should re-examine our conclusions. The solution to understanding the gift of the Holy Spirit is found in studying the Old Testament, not from material found after Acts 3.
(3 Articles to follow)