Jon Gary Williams
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Article 0113 - The Holy Spirit in Acts...

The Holy Spirit in Acts 2:38 and Acts 5:32

Jon Gary Williams

(Scriptures from NKJV)

It is well understood that in New Testament days the work of the Holy Spirit was manifested in two ways: through His miraculous works and through the influence of His inspired teachings. Also, it is understood that by the close of the first century the miraculous working of the Holy Spirit ceased, but that the influence of His inspired teachings continued even to this day.

Some, however, believe there is yet a third way the Holy Spirit works - - that is, by a personal, direct dwelling within all Christians. In support of this view several passages are offered. Those passages invariably referred to first are Acts 2:38 and Acts 5:32. However, a close look at the context in which these verses are found shows they are being lifted out of context. It is unfortunate that brethren have failed to consider what the contents of these chapters clearly reveal.

Acts 2:38

"Then Peter said to them, 'Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit."

The "gift of the Holy Spirit" is claimed to be a personal dwelling of the Spirit. However, this is a rendering the apostle Peter never intended. The people to whom the apostle was speaking knew little, if anything, about the Holy Spirit, much less about a personal dwelling of the Spirit. The only thing they were aware of about the Spirit centered on the miraculous. A careful look at the context of Acts chapter two will confirm this.

1) In verses 1-5 we read of the miraculous coming of the Spirit, the miracle of the apostles speaking in many different languages, and word of all this being rapidly spread among the people.

2) The people to whom Peter spoke had witnessed a miraculous manifestation of the Spirit. They were amazed at what they heard which caused them to ask the apostles what this meant (2:12).

3) In answering their request Peter referred to Joel's prophecy and applied it to the miracles seen that day and to miracles yet to follow (15-18).

4) In verses 32, 33 we read of Jesus giving the Spirit to the apostles, through whom the miracles seen that day had been manifested.

Peter's reference to the "gift of the Holy Spirit" should be viewed in light the context of this chapter. Such an idea that the Holy Spirit would personally indwell people would have had no meaning to the Jews; there is no way Peter's listeners would have understood him as speaking of anything like this. Their only perception of the Holy Spirit was the miraculous manifestation of the Holy Spirit they had witnessed that day.

Question: Why would Peter have suddenly introduced another concept of the Holy Spirit (a personal dwelling) which they would not have comprehended? The fact is, Peter was speaking of something else - - the miraculous working of the Spirit.

When Peter used the words, "and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit," he was telling the Jews that they, too, would possess the miraculous manifestation of the Holy Spirit they had witnessed. However, he was not meaning to say that they would all possess such power, only that, as God's people, such power would be made manifest among them. This, of course, was true in the early church - only some were given the power to perform miracles.

This same thought is found in Mark 16:17. Here, Jesus said that miracles would be performed by "those who believe," but he was not meaning that all believers would possess such power. Again, in Acts 15:8 we see the same exegetical principal of using the whole to represent the part. Peter said, "So God, who knows the heart, acknowledged them by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as He did to us." The word "them" referred to the "Gentiles" (v. 7). Though he said a miraculous measure of the Spirit had also been given to "them" (the Gentiles), he was not saying that all the Gentiles had received it.

A candid review of this chapter clearly establishes an obvious truth - that Peter was not speaking of an unusual, non miraculous dwelling of the Spirit. But, there are other clear reasons for disavowing this belief.

First, notice that in no other case of conversion in Acts is anything said about new Christians receiving a non-miraculous measure of the Spirit. If this was a regular occurrence, which surely it would have been, it is strange that nothing is said about it in any other conversion accounts.

Second, in all other instances when the word "gift" is used in relation to the Spirit, they are always addressing the miraculous (Acts 8:20; Acts 10:45; Acts 11:17; Eph. 3:7; Eph. 4:7,8). In view of this, a sensible and fair assessment would lead one to believe that the same thing is also true of Acts 2:38. The reasoning here is clear and flawless.

Third, in the six other instances where the word "receive" is used with reference to the Spirit, it is always speaking of the miraculous (Acts 8:15,17,19; Acts 10:47; Acts 19:2; Gal. 3:2, cf. 5). Since in these instances "receiving" the Spirit clearly refers to the miraculous, it is reasonable and consistent to conclude that it also refers to the miraculous in Acts 2:38.

Fourth, an important fact to remember is that the only other time the phrase "gift of the Holy Spirit" is found it is speaking of the miraculous (Acts 10:45).

Acts 5:32

"And we are his witnesses to these things, and so also is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey Him."

After citing Acts 2:38, to add support to the view of a personal dwelling of the Spirit, brethren will invariably turn to Acts 5:32. However, as with Acts 2:38, this passage has also been lifted out of context and given a meaning Peter did not intend. Was the apostle speaking about a personal dwelling of the Spirit or of something else? As with Acts chapter two, it is important to also look at the context of this chapter. Note carefully the setting in which this passage is found.

In Jerusalem the apostles were performing many signs and wonders, causing the conversion of multitudes of Jews. Being filled with anger the high priest and Sadducees had the apostles imprisoned. That night they were miraculously released by an angel and told to go to the temple and preach.

The next day it was learned that even though guards were stationed at the prison doors the apostles were gone. Knowledge of this caused the high priest to fear that word of this astonishing occurrence would spread. The captain of the temple again brought the apostles before the high priest and Jewish council. Being wrongfully accused, the apostles were commanded to no longer teach in the name of Jesus. Peter then responded by accusing them of murdering Jesus and explained that God had raised Him from the dead and had exalted Him to His right hand. At this, the council considered killing the apostles.

Questions are in order. In the midst of this confrontational council, and with the threat that the apostles could be killed, what would have been Peter's motive in turning aside to tell the high priest and council about a personal dwelling of the Holy Spirit? Would such an idea have had any meaning to them?

Without doubt Paul would have had no reason to abruptly introduce a different topic at this very moment. Furthermore, his listeners could in no way have related to such an idea. Peter must have been referring to something else pertaining to the work of the Spirit. What could it have been?

As mentioned earlier, it is understood that in New Testament days the Holy Spirit worked in two ways: through miracles and through the influence of His inspired teachings. Since it is obvious that Peter was not referring to the later, he must have been referring to the Spirit's miraculous working. After all, it was because of the miracles performed by the apostles, leading numerous Jews to be converted, that they were brought before the Jewish council. The high priest and council could relate to this - the miraculous, supernatural workings of the apostles. It was this to which Peter was referring and not to some kind of vague, personal dwelling of the Spirit.

Notice also that Peter had just said that both the apostles and the Holy Spirit were "witnesses" to two great spiritual truths: Jesus' resurrection and His ascension to heaven (vs. 30, 31). "And we are His witnesses to these things, and so also is the Holy Spirit..." So, the witnessing of the apostles was equivalent to the witnessing of the Holy Spirit. How was this done? The apostles actually saw these two great events and established their confirmation of them with miracles. In this, the Holy Spirit was also doing His work of witnessing, by enabling the apostles to perform these confirming miraclesSee also Acts 15:8 where the witnessing of the Holy Spirit interacts with the miraculous. 

While the contexts of Acts chapters two and five discredit the idea of a personal dwelling of the Spirit, they establish the fact that Peter was addressing the miraculous working of the Spirit. This alone ought to be enough to convince the sincere mind that no personal dwelling of the Spirit is found in either passage.