There are certain “hot topics” tied to passages in Scripture. We often then read these passages with the expectation that our questions would be answered instead of listening to the questions being raised. This might cause us to completely miss the point because our eyes are intently scanning for something, or it might cause us to reverse the priority by muting an author’s emphasis in an attempt to hear about a secondary issue. For example, think of how we so often read Genesis 1 through lens of our “science debates.” We might be so focused on figuring out if these are literal days or if its proposing an “old earth” or a “new earth” theory that we fail to lean into the main point: God alone is the Sovereign Creator of all things. We could learn much more about the power, the care, the authority, or the creativity of God but we’re blinded by our interests and modern debates. Or, to go from the opening to the ending of the Bible, think of how hesitant many of us are to read Revelation because we think the aim is to figure out the secret meaning behind every verse. We’re so focused on our theories, views, and interpretations related to eschatology that we might fail to feel the force of the book’s call to endure as we wait for the return of the King who will make all things right.
The book of Acts can fall prey to similar problems. Too often we’re trying to figure out (or more likely just find some proof-texts for our already held views) how much of the seemingly abnormal stuff going on should we expect today. Wherever one lands on the charismatic or cessationist spectrum, we must be careful to see the main points and emphases in Luke’s narrative of Acts rather than get stuck on individual events. As we do this, it becomes more clear that in Acts the things repeated aren’t the ecstatic or supernatural occurrences but the basic elements consistently emphasized in other books. Or, when we think about the role of the Holy Spirit in Acts, we can (and should) ask questions related to issues like “the gifts” but we shouldn’t miss other things spoken about more often and more consistently.
What The Holy Spirit Does In Believers In Acts
One example of that would be the relationship between the Spirit of God and the Word of God. One might ask, what the filling of the Spirit in Acts leads to or what the Spirit regularly does in individuals throughout Acts. If you’ve seen the movie i, Robot then you might remember what the dead Dr. Alfred Lanning says to Will Smith’s character via the hologram: “now that is the right question.” If only we had such a hologram confirming for us the right or wrong questions when we read the Bible! In Acts, the right question might be what do we most often see the Holy Spirit causing the believers He indwells to do?
As I read Acts recently I tried to go through and note when the Holy Spirit is mentioned in conjunction to a specific effect or result in a person. What becomes clear is that the overwhelming prerogative of the Spirit is to lead people to boldly speak the Word of God. The Spirit is always tied to the Word. Surely He does many things in the believers in Acts but what we cannot miss is that usually it’s leading them to speak the Word of God. First, he leads them to speak truth, not just do something (although that happens too). Second, He leads them to speak the Word of God and not other things. The Spirit’s revelation to His people and message to unbelievers isn’t something new but is tied to the Word. Let me provide the examples and hopefully this will be more clear. Not every mention of the Spirit relates to speaking the Word but you’ll see just how pervasive it is. To repeat, the point of this isn’t to argue one way or another on questions related to gifts, tongues, etc., but to really see a theme of Luke in Acts.
Spirit and Word in Acts
Acts 1:1-3 “In the first book, O Theophilus, I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach, 2 until the day when he was taken up, after he had given commands through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. 3 He presented himself alive to them after his suffering by many proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God.” Verse 3 repeats 1-2 so we see the commands given through the Holy Spirit parallels the speaking about the kingdom of God over the 40 days between the resurrection and ascension.
Acts 1:8 “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” Notice in the following verses that being a witness is a primary task of the apostles and early Christians, and their witness is the bold (receiving power) proclamation of Jesus as the crucified but risen Messiah…according to the Scriptures.
Acts 2:4 “And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance.” This is the first of four mentions of a group speaking in tongues. Each time tongues are mentioned in Acts it pictures the gospel spreading to a new group of people (the focus in Acts isn’t individuals speaking in tongues) to demonstrate the Spirit has come upon them, in a Pentecost-like manner. In Acts 2 the Spirit comes upon the Jews gathered as Jesus told them, in Acts 8 the Spirit comes upon the Samaritans, in Acts 10-11 the Spirit comes upon Gentiles, and in Acts 19 the Spirit comes upon the disciples of John the Baptist. We might also note here in Acts 2:4 that the speaking of tongues is speaking coherent truths but in other languages, not speaking babble or a private prayer language like in 1 Corinthians.
Acts 4:8 “Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them, ‘Rulers of the people and elders'”
Acts 4:31 “and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and continued to speak the word of God with boldness.”
Acts 5:32 “And we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him.” The Holy Spirit and the first followers of Jesus are the witnesses of these things (Christ’s death, burial, resurrection, and ascension). Again, the witness is primarily a verbal testimony to others of what they have seen and heard.
Acts 7:55 “But he [Stephen], full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God.” Here the Holy Spirit opens the eyes of Stephen to see the glory of Jesus before entering into that glory. We might also note in Acts 6:5 that Stephen is characterized as a man full of the Spirit, and then Acts 7 consists of his sermon to the Jews. So in Acts 6-7 one might argue for an indirect relationship between Stephen’s filling of the Spirit and his being led to boldly preach about the person and work of Jesus.
Acts 8:29 “And the Spirit said to Philip, ‘Go over and join this chariot.'” The passage continues: “So Philip ran to him and heard him reading Isaiah the prophet and asked, ‘Do you understand what you are reading?’ 31 And he said, ‘How can I, unless someone guides me?’ And he invited Philip to come up and sit with him….35 Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning with this Scripture he told him the good news about Jesus.” The Spirit leads Philip in a supernatural way to go to a specific place, and once he’s there he has the chance to explain the Word of God.
Acts 9:31 “So the church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria had peace and was being built up. And walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it multiplied.” The Spirit comforts his people, just as Jesus had promised (John 14:16, 26).
Acts 11:12-14 “And the Spirit told me to go with them, making no distinction.These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered the man’s house. 13 And he told us how he had seen the angel stand in his house and say, ‘Send to Joppa and bring Simon who is called Peter; 14 he will declare to you a message by which you will be saved, you and all your household.’” Here again the Spirit leads Peter to go somewhere, Joppa, and to speak the message of salvation in Christ to others.
Acts 13:4, 9 “[Paul] being sent out by the Holy Spirit…” “But Saul, who was also called Paul, filled with the Holy Spirit, looked intently at him 10 and said, ‘You son of the devil, you enemy of all righteousness, full of all deceit and villainy, will you not stop making crooked the straight paths of the Lord?'” Shortly before Paul preaches one of my favorite sermons in Acts (13:16-41), he speaks in a powerful to this person in a way that exposes their core.
Acts 13:52 “And the disciples were filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit.” Paul and Barnabas are persecuted by the Jews after his sermon, but we see here that joy is dependent on the Holy Spirit and not our circumstances.
Acts 16:6-7 “And they went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia. 7 And when they had come up to Mysia, they attempted to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them.” The Spirit restrains them from going to Bithynia and even restrains them from speaking the word at this time in Asia. The implicit conclusion is the Spirit also led them to going somewhere else and leads them to speaking the Word in that somewhere else.
Acts 19:21 “Now after these events Paul resolved in the Spirit to pass through Macedonia and Achaia and go to Jerusalem,” Paul is again led by the Spirit (another repeated theme in Acts), and the reason the Spirit leads him to a specific place is for a divine appointment to boldly speak the Word as he testifies (witnesses) to Jesus as crucified and resurrected.
Acts 20:22-23 “And now, behold, I am going to Jerusalem, constrained by[c] the Spirit, not knowing what will happen to me there, 23 except that the Holy Spirit testifies to me in every city that imprisonment and afflictions await me.”
Acts 21:5 “And through the Spirit they were telling Paul not to go on to Jerusalem.”
There certainly are other themes in Acts (kingdom of God, the Word spoken and spreading, importance of persecution, the gospel going to all nations, formation of the church, prayer, etc.) but it’s clear from these few verses that the Spirit more than any other thing leads his people to testify through bold proclamation/speaking about who Jesus is as the crucified, risen, and ascended Messiah. Here are a few very quick things for me to take from this.
- The Spirit is tied to the Word. It should not read or speak the Word apart from the Spirit’s help and power and I should expect the Spirit’s normative mode of operation to take place through the Word.
- To speak the Word boldly and witness to who Jesus is I need to both rely on the Spirit’s help as well as regularly be in the Word of God so I really do know the story and message of Christ.
- Deeds are important in Acts as evidence of how changed people love others, and the Spirit does lead the people of God into deeds. But, the emphasis is on verbally telling others about Jesus. In a culture of evangelicalism becoming excited about deeds (which we should be) but hesitant about boldly speaking words of truth we must see that the Spirit convicts and reveals through the spoken Word of the gospel.
- The filling of the Spirit leads to boldness and power. In ourselves we fear and shrink back from others and so we need the Spirit to give us the strength we lack.
- The Church grows and spreads first and foremost through the regular and right preaching of the gospel of Jesus Christ and the Word of God given to His people. Other things are important, but it is the preached Word that builds and spreads the Church of Jesus. Let’s make sure we and our churches have our priorities straight.
- The Holy Spirit in Acts definitely leads his people, often in pretty dramatic and clear ways. However, the leading of the Spirit isn’t simply to direct our normal course of events but the leading in Acts is tied to appointments where the Word can be spoken and the gospel can be proclaimed. It’s tough to tell if this powerful leading of the Spirit is descriptive and/or prescriptive, but in either case the leading is always tied to speaking the gospel and not necessarily simply an answer to our circumstantial life questions.