The Holy Spirit in Acts

The Holy Spirit in Acts

This painting by El Greco in the El Prado Museum depicts the outpouring of the Spirit on the Day of Pentecost
This painting by El Greco in the El Prado Museum depicts the outpouring of the Spirit on the Day of Pentecost

How does Luke portray the gift and outpouring of the Holy Spirit in Acts? The gift of the Holy Spirit excites Christians in certain church traditions. Unfortunately, in some of these traditions, an understanding of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit in Acts is often limited to discussions about speaking in tongues, or miraculous manifestations. On the other hand, certain church traditions seem rather frightened about discussing the outpouring of the Holy Spirit in Acts. They want to confine it to a first century phenomenon and teach that this outpouring is no longer available today. In both of these instances an understanding of the Holy Spirit seems to be based more on a particular church tradition, and/or, reaction to the tradition of another church, rather than an investigation of the biblical text itself.

The Holy Spirit as the Origin of the Eschatological Community

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Available at Amazon USA / UK

In A Biblical Theology of the Holy Spirit, Matthias Wenk explores Luke’s theology of the Holy Spirit in Acts, as well as the Gospel of Luke. He is convinced, and persuasively argues, that there are two main truths that Luke seeks to communicate about the outpouring of the Spirit. First, the renewal of God’s people envisioned by the prophets, finds its origin in, and is fulfilled by, the giving of the Holy Spirit. It is the gift of the Spirit that makes this renewed community of God’s people possible. Wenk asserts that in order to grasp Luke’s understanding of the Holy Spirit in Acts, one must connect it with Luke’s understanding of the Spirit in the life and ministry of Jesus (p. 117). For example, he states, “The Spirit-inspired words and deeds of Jesus (Luke 24:19; cf. Acts 2:22; 7:22), carried forward by the Church, accomplish God’s saving and restoring work and thereby transform the (social) reality of those who believe by forming a new people of women, men, old, young, male and female slaves and … Gentiles” (p. 117).

The Gift of the Spirit Breaks Down Social and Ethnic Barriers

Luke’s other emphasis on the Holy Spirit in Acts involves the Spirit’s power in breaking down social and ethnic barriers. For example, Wenk notes that the purpose of the narratives which speak of the gift of the Spirit being given is to demonstrate how the Spirit accomplishes reconciliation. In other words, a proper theology of the Holy Spirit in Acts should focus, not so much on an individual’s experience with the Spirit, but on how the Spirit is reconciling communities and people groups to God and each other. For example, Wenk notes that the first non-Jewish group reached with the gospel is the Samaritans (Acts 8). It is the preaching of the gospel followed by the gift of the Holy Spirit that ends centuries of hatred and hostitlity according to Acts. Wenk insightfully points out that the episode in Acts 8 is a purposeful contrast to Luke 9:51-56. In Luke 9 the apostle John is wanting to call fire down from heaven to destroy the Samaritans, while in Acts 8 it is a transformed apostle John (by the Spirit) who brings the gift of the Spirit to these same Samaritans! Peter’s visit to Cornelius’s house and the subsequent outpouring of the Spirit on Gentiles, is also clearly understood as the breaking down of the ethnic barrier between Jews and Gentiles.

According to Wenk's understanding, the Holy Spirit in Acts breaks down ethnic and social barriers as in the case of the Ethiopian Eunuch.
According to Wenk’s understanding, the Holy Spirit in Acts breaks down ethnic and social barriers as in the case of the Ethiopian Eunuch.

The Holy Spirit in Acts, not only breaks down ethnic barriers, He also breaks down social barriers. Wenk argues that the point of the story about Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch is to demonstrate how the cultically unclean (cf. Deut. 23:1-9) are accepted into the new community led and empowered by the Spirit. Wenk notes that the eunuch’s conversion is the only place in Acts where someone has to asked to be baptized. “This is unique in Acts, for normally the recipients of the good news are summoned to turn to God and to be baptized (cf. Acts 2:38; 8:12; 9:18; 10:48)” (p. 125). This potential hesitation on Philip’s part may hint at some uncertainty as to how the gospel applied to some social classes. Thus, according to Wenk’s understanding, “…the role of the Spirit is less to inspire prophetic speech than to initiate a communication process, which leads to the overcoming of prejudices and the inclusion of people into the community who would otherwise not have been included” (p. 124).

What Does a Person Full of the Spirit Look Like?

Although Wenk is persuasive in demonstrating that the focus on the Holy Spirit in Acts is not on individuals but on a renewed community, he does note that Acts puts forward two individuals “who personify the qualities of the renewed community” (p. 127). In other words, they demonstrate what the rest of the community of believers who are full of the Spirit should look like. These two individuals are Barnabas and Stephen who are both described as “full of faith and of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 6:5; 11:24).  The qualities that exemplify Barnabas as a man “full of faith and the Holy Spirit” include, the selling of his property, “introducing the person whom everybody else mistrusted into the people of God [Paul], mediating between churches in conflict [Acts 11:22, 30], being involved in missions and giving a failure [Mark] a second chance” (p. 127). Stephen, on the other hand, demonstrates faithfulness, courage, power (both in words and deeds) and the willingness to forgive his persecutors (p. 127).

Reflections on the Holy Spirit in Acts

Wenk’s study of the Holy Spirit in Acts is very challenging to the modern church which either seeks to avoid the Spirit, or, at times, places the emphasis on the wrong aspects of the outpouring of the Spirit. If the Spirit is the one through whom the new community is constituted, and if it is the Spirit that breaks down barriers that divide people, then we dare not relegate Him to only the first century era. Likewise, to emphasize individual experience with the Spirit while neglecting the importance of the Spirit’s communal value, is to miss an extremely important function and role that the Spirit plays within the Church. Wenk believes that the message conveyed about the Holy Spirit in Acts is essential for the Church today. His chapter concludes with this poignant observation: “It seems that a world threatened by ethnic conflicts, a Church suffering from schism and individualism, and a society divided into numerous subcultures, interest groups and even generations who can hardly communicate any more with each other at all, is in desperate need of a renewed outpouring of the Spirit as at the day of Pentecost. Luke’s vision of the work of the Spirit is, in our days, as astounding and needed as it was in his days” (p. 128).

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