Poured Out On All Flesh – The Last Half of ‘Acts’
The Holy Spirit continues as a major character affecting the events in ‘The Acts of the Apostles.’ We pick up the thread with Philip, whose journey is Spirit-directed in detail:
Acts 8:26, 29; 39 | Now an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Go south to the road – the desert road – that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” … The Spirit told Philip, “Go to that chariot and stay near it.” … When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord suddenly took Philip away, and the eunuch did not see him again, but went on his way rejoicing.
When an angel or the Spirit speaks verbally to someone, how does he/she perceive it, I wonder? Did an angel appear to him privately at first, but then the Spirit spoke to Philip invisibly so as not to be seen by the charioteer? What does it mean that the Spirit “suddently took Philip away and the eunuch did not see him again”? Was Philip transported supernaturally? Whisked away? Caught up as some folks describe “rapture”?
9:17 | Then Ananias went to the house and entered it. Placing his hands on Saul, he said, “Brother Saul, the Lord – Jesus, who appeared to you on the road as you were coming here – has sent me so that you may see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit.”
I don’t often think about Paul as being “filled” with the Holy Spirit, but that’s the intention Ananias communicates here.
9:31 | Then the church throughout Judea, Galilee and Samaria enjoyed a time of peace. It was strengthened; and encouraged by the Holy Spirit, it grew in numbers, living in the fear of the Lord.
One of the Spirit’s works mentioned here is encouragement. Was it encouragement that came from enjoying a time of peace – presumably a respite from persecution? Was the Spirit involved in taking some of the spite out of it through Saul’s conversion?
10:38 | [Peter:] “…how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, and how he went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with him.” | 44 | While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter where astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles. For they heard them speaking in tongues and praising God. Then Peter said, “Can anyone keep these people from being baptized with water? They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have.”
Peter again links the Spirit with power, and uses the word “anointed” in connection with Jesus; yet another term for that relationship. While he speaks, the Spirit comes upon Gentile listeners – before they are baptized! (see v. 44). The giving of the Spirit almost always seems to be close in proximity to baptism in water … perhaps this was a sign to overcome Peter’s persistent racial uneasiness that they should be permitted the blessing of baptism.
Acts 11:12 | The Spirit told me [Peter] to have no hesitation about going with them. | 11:15 | [Peter] : “As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit came on them as he had come on us at the beginning. Then I remembered what the Lord had said: ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ So if God gave them the same gift as he gave us, who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to think that I could oppose God?” When they heard this, they had no further objections and praised God, saying, “So then, God has granted even the Gentiles repentance unto life.”
As Peter explains to the other eleven what he has done with the new Gentile Christians, he credits the Spirit – quoting what the resurrected Jesus had told them in the early verses of Acts. Their objections are overwhelmed with evidence. It’s a whole new ministry. It had to come sometime; Jesus had commissioned them to go to every nation. The Spirit seems to have a vital role in getting the Gentile outreach started.
11:27-29 | During this time some prophets came down from Jerusalem to Antioch. One of them, named Agabus, stood up and through the Spirit predicted that a severe famine would spread over the entire Roman world. (This happened during the reign of Claudius) The disciples, each according to his ability, decided to provide help for the brothers living in Judea.
The kind of prophecy inspired by the Spirit through Agabus is very specific about what would happen in the near future. In faith, the believers decide to help their brothers – probably by laying in store what they had just as Egypt and the Israelites had done in the time of Joseph and the famine predicted by Pharaoh’s dreams.
13:2-4 | While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” So after they had fasted and prayed, they placed their hands on them and sent them off. The two of them, sent on their way by the Holy Spirit, went down to Seleucia and sailed from there to Cyprus.
Two special missionaries are commissioned – after worship and fasting – by the Holy Spirit’s (seemingly) verbal instruction and calling. They are “sent on their way” by Him … how or why is not detailed.
13:9-11 | Then Saul, who was also called Paul, filled with the Holy Spirit, looked straight at Elymas and said, “You are a child of the devil and an enemy of everything that is right! You are full of all kinds of deceit ad trickery. Will you never stop perverting the right ways of the Lord? Now the hand of the Lord is against you. You are going to be blind, and for a time you will be unable to see the light of the sun.”
Paul has a change of name as well as a change of heart – but Elymas (unlike Simon, another sorcerer who had a run-in with Peter) was not at all penitent about opposing. Paul, “filled with the Holy Spirit,” denounces him and pronounces a curse on him of physical blindness to match his spiritual blindness. – Not unlike what had happened to Saul/Paul himself! Is it frightening to read about a Spirit who might have been involved in the deaths of two lying donors to the church and the blindness of a self-important charlatan? Are the penalties for opposing the Spirit too steep?
15:6 | The apostles and elders met to consider this question. After much discussion, Peter got up and addressed them: “Brothers, you know that some time ago God made a choice among you that the Gentiles might hear from my lips the message of the gospel and believe. God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us.”
The question of acceptable Gentile practices could not be put off forever. Jewish and Gentile culture were as different as their religions. It seemed natural for Jews to insist on proselytizing new Gentile converts to Judaism; it would sort-of “perfect” their faith. But Peter takes a stand. God has accepted Gentiles just as He did Jews.
15:28 | [The apostles and elders:] “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements: …”
James, after hearing what Paul and Barnabas witness of their ministry among the Gentiles, quotes scripture about how the Lord intends to rebuild David’s tent and include Gentiles who bear His name. The leaders quickly agree on forbidding practices among the Gentiles that would have been revolting and disgusting to their Jewish brothers because they would smack of pagan idol worship – though the phrasing does not seem gavel-bangingly decisive: “it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us.” Was there “wiggle room” here? Was there space and time given for Gentiles to adjust to this cultural “sacrifice” (pardon the pun) on their part to accommodate Jewish comfort – even when (perhaps like Christmas or Easter for some of us) there was no longer any religious significance to their practices?
16:6-10 | Paul and his companions traveled throughout the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been kept by the Holy Spirit from preaching the word in the province of Asia. When they came to the border of Mysia, they tried to enter Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus would not allow them to. So they passed by Mysia and went down to Troas. During the night Paul had a vision of a man of Macedonia standing and begging him, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” After Paul had seen the vision, we got ready at once to leave for Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them.
How does the Holy Spirit keep Paul and company from Asia and Bithynia, and why? Is He trying to adjust their course until Paul’s vision calls them to Macedonia in the opposite direction? Might there have been a trap waiting in the other direction? Or another missionary team already working there? A greater need in Macedonia; the perfect timing for a better opportunity? We may not know in this life … but there certainly are possibilities. Maybe we don’t always need to know the reasons why.
19:1-3, 5-6 | While Apollos was at Corinth, Paul took the road through the interior and arrived at Ephesus. There he found some disciples and asked them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” They answered, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.” So Paul asked, “Then what baptism did you received?” “John’s baptism,” they replied. … On hearing this, they were baptized into the name of the Lord Jesus. When Paul placed his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied. There were about twelve men in all.
The followers who had not received the Spirit knew only John’s baptism – had they been taught by Apollos, whose knowledge also ended there? – but upon being baptized in the name of Jesus and having Paul’s hands placed on them the Spirit came on them – and they spoke in tongues and prophesied. Those two gifts were powerful in helping communicate good news then, even as they had been on Pentecost. Would they help today? Are they necessary? Still available and given?
20:22 | [Paul]: “And now, compelled by the Spirit, I am going to Jerusalem, not knowing what will happen to me there. I only know that in every city the Holy Spirit warns me that prison and hardships are facing me.”
Paul had a realistic view of his ministry and the threats ahead. Before his conversion, Ananias had been told that the Lord would tell Paul what things he would have to suffer in Jesus’ name. Apparently dates, descriptions and details were left sketchy. Now the Spirit compels and warns him – a powerful incentive to persist in faith.
21:10-11 | [Luke]: After we had been there a number of days, a prophet named Agabus came down from Judea. Coming over to us, he took Paul’s belt, tied his own hands and feet with it and said, “The Holy Spirit says, ‘In this way the Jews of Jerusalem will bind the owner of this belt and will hand him over to the Gentiles.’ “
Agabus reappears with a warning again – not about famine, this time – rather, about Paul being taken prisoner and being turned over to Gentiles. Now Paul knew what was ahead. He would be treated, in some ways, just like his Lord.
28:25-27 | They disagreed among themselves and began to leave after Paul had made this final statement: “The Holy Spirit spoke the truth to your forefathers when he said through Isaiah the prophet. ‘Go to this people and say, “You will be ever hearing but never understanding; you will be ever seeing but never perceiving.” For this people’s heart has become calloused; they hardly hear with their ears, and they have closed their eyes. otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts and turn, and I would heal them.’ ”
When in Rome under house arrest, Paul is once again opposed by Jews who had been curious about his teaching – just as he had been in Corinth and elsewhere. He confirms that the Holy Spirit has a hand in the inspiration of scripture and especially prophecy when he quotes Isaiah. It is not a curse; merely an observation of the depth to which Jewish tradition had closed their minds to God’s will. It didn’t change God’s will or ability to heal them. It only changed theirs.
So, once again, Paul takes his message to the Gentiles, who will listen.
It would have been a sad way for the book of Acts to close – though it could have been much more depressing if Luke had detailed the martyrdoms of Peter and Paul and many others. Instead, he leaves Paul in chains, bound to the boldness so often given by the Spirit:
28:30-31 | For two whole years Paul stayed there in his own rented house and welcomed all who came to see him. Boldly and without hindrance he preached the kingdom of God and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ.
In spite of persecution from non-believers and the beginnings of questions and dissension and doctrinal issues among the believers, it is still a time of growth and triumph for the gospel. The opposition will grow from without and within, as the letters written to counter them clearly reveal … along with the Spirit’s agency in every call for unity and courage and faith.
We’ll pick up this thread where we left it – in Rome – with more questions and observations in Part V.