The Holy Spirit: Then and Now

A few important questions: If the Holy Spirit only operates today through the written word, then …

What scripture says so?

Doesn’t it stand to reason that He only operated that way in the first century too?

What scripture makes it clear that His operation changed from active to passive; from literal to figurative?

If His dwelling within the believer is figurative now but used to be literal, when did it change? What scripture makes this clear?

Are the promises regarding the Holy Spirit really different for people now than they were then? Does He no longer distribute any kind of spiritual gifts? Or any of the other aids mentioned in this previous post? If He does provide some but not all, which ones? How can one tell from scripture; which passage differentiates them?

If His dwelling within is figurative and always has been, how does He help believers through the written word only but in ways that only a living, present Person could (such as intercession in prayer)?

How much other scripture is figurative and not literal? How can we as readers know when God does not really mean what He says?

These are questions that beg an answer if the Spirit-in-the-written-word-only-today doctrine is to be taken seriously.

Does the Holy Spirit Work Miraculously Today?

Here’s a refreshing way to answer that question:

I don’t know.

I have my suspicions, and my suspicions are that He does … just as He did. I don’t believe – as I have already posted several times – that there is a time, date, or event prophesied or spoken of as having passed in scripture which indicates that the work of the Holy Spirit among people is over, or that it has been limited only to the written word.

I also do not believe that scripture makes a distinction between what we would call miraculous gifts and less-than-miraculous gifts. Both kinds, to our reckoning, disappear when “that which is perfect is come”: knowledge as well as prophecies and tongues (1 Corinthians 13).

Plus, while some may perceive anything unusual or anything accomplished through the Spirit as miraculous, others like me will more narrowly define miraculous as “visible, audible, tangible manifestations of supernatural power” (per my previous post Does the Holy Spirit Only Work Miraculously? ).

So if you disagree with my perception of those items, you are not likely to agree with my suspicions about the Spirit’s work today.

Confession: I have never witnessed anything that I would describe as a miracle. Ever.

But as Jay Guin observed in a recent post on this subject, “… absence of proof isn’t proof of absence.” (I’ve never seen anyone who collects kewpie dolls, but that doesn’t prove that none of them exists.)

I’ve had unusual experiences, and I can’t explain them, and I have benefited from them – and have seen others benefit from them. I know Whom I feel compelled to credit them to. But I have no proof.

And that’s fine.

As always, what I believe is rooted in scripture:

I will remember the deeds of the LORD;
yes, I will remember your miracles of long ago.
I will consider all your works
and meditate on all your mighty deeds.
Your ways, God, are holy.
What god is as great as our God?
You are the God who performs miracles;
you display your power among the peoples. ~ Psalm 77:11-14

This psalmist was apparently Asaph, and he remembered “miracles of long ago.”

He was a musician; a contemporary of David, and very few miraculous events were recorded in that era. A sound in the tops of poplar trees cued David to victory over the Philistines (2 Samuel 5). Uzzah was struck dead for touching the ark of the covenant (2 Samuel 6). That’s about it.

Yet Asaph still praised the Lord as “the God who performs (present tense) miracles.”

Do we seem to be living in a similar era when the tap of miracles-poured-out has run dry? Are we in a drought of divine intervention?

I think that it’s worth noting that there were spans of biblical history – usually about four hundred years at a time – when God did not speak to His people – likely because they had not been speaking to Him. Then He would show His providence and glory in memorable ways. Like deliverance from Egypt by Moses. Or deliverance from sin by Jesus.

It isn’t like He owes us any more miracles.

But it also isn’t like God doesn’t love us enough to confirm His word or manifest His compassion through miracles today.

I hope to share some further thoughts on this as I have opportunity to organize them, but for right now I just want to share this one:

Now Thomas (also known as Didymus), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!”But he said to them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”

A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!”  Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.”

Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!”

Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” ~ John 20:24-29

You may have heard a sermon that took the notion that Jesus was scolding Thomas for doubting what the other apostles told him they had seen and heard. Maybe you heard it developed to the point that people who have not seen yet have believed are somehow more blessed than actual witnesses.

Let me propose an equal possibility, because the text doesn’t say either of those things.

Thomas was blessed to see, hear and touch the evidence of Jesus’ resurrection in His very own body. Maybe Jesus was trying to impress on Thomas how very blessed he was to have been a witness, and what a responsibility that was to bless others with his testimony. Maybe Jesus said those words to Thomas how important it was to be more persuasive than his fellow apostles had been with him.

You see, I’m afraid the two other teachings can be knotted up in an arrogance that teaches the Spirit as active only in the written word today, and that those of us who believe without confirmation beyond reading or hearing it are somehow better, more righteous, more blessed than those who see and hear and touch.


Don’t you think there will be millions of us come-latelies in heaven who would queue up for eternity between velvet-chained stanchions just to have the opportunity Thomas had?

I’d be one of them.

We are not more blessed – or less blessed – than those who saw Jesus, witnessed the miracles He did or that the apostles did or that others did by virtue of the living Holy Spirit’s gifts within them. All who believe and obey are blessed with resurrection and eternity with God.

Let me just ask this … and understand that I am shamefacedly asking myself this question, too:

Do we bless others by vigorously persuading them about the gospel of Jesus Christ; by witnessing what we have seen, heard and touched … lives irrevocably changed by the power of His grace; souls with the deposit of the Holy Spirit marking and sealing their resurrection to come? Do we remember and proclaim the miracles of the past and still praise the Lord as “the God who does miracles”?

If we don’t, then why should we expect to witness the glory Thomas witnessed?

Is the Holy Spirit Found Only in the Word Today?

I feel compelled to point out that the Spirit-in-the-word-only-today proponents’ case is almost totally dependent upon twisting together two or more basically-unrelated passages of New Testament scripture into a logical argument, which usually runs like this:

Ephesians 3:17 says “That Christ may dwell in your hearts by faith….” Scripture says Christ dwells in our hearts and then tells us HOW He dwells in our hearts, “by faith.” The Holy Spirit dwells in a Christian the same way as Christ dwells in a Christian – by faith. The Bible says that faith comes by hearing the Word of God in Romans 10:17.

This logical argument depends upon several assumptions: first, that Christ dwells in a believer’s heart ONLY by faith; that the Holy Spirit dwells in a Christian the same way as Christ dwells in a Christian (unsubstantiated with scripture); that faith ONLY comes by hearing the Word of God; that these two passages were written with textual, contextual or subtextual purpose of establishing that the Holy Spirit dwells in the believer only in the form of the word or bodily; that this logical argument outweighs any other clear scripture (usually ignored, but sometimes explained away) which implies otherwise.

That’s a lot of assumptions. If any fail, the logical argument falters as well.

Let’s just deal with them:

Ephesians 3:17 is immediately surrounded by this context: “I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.” So it is surrounded by a prayer for the Spirit’s power in your inner being with no mention whatsoever of written scripture, which establishes a bodily surround for the Spirit.

Romans 10:17 is surrounded by the context:

How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can anyone preach unless they are sent? As it is written: ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!’ But not all the Israelites accepted the good news. For Isaiah says, ‘Lord, who has believed our message?’ Consequently, faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word about Christ. But I ask: Did they not hear? Of course they did: ‘Their voice has gone out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world.’ “ So it is engulfed in a discussion about the importance of believing and the importance of hearing and preaching so that something crucial – the gospel – may be known and believed. There is no mention of the Spirit. (Though it is worth mentioning that the Spirit is deeply involved in the proclamation of the gospel … I was going to list scriptures here, but my previous posts establish that.)

  • Neither passage establishes that it is directly related to the other by any key word or phrase or concept.
  • Neither deals with the focus of the subject matter of the other.
  • Neither establishes, on its own or together, that Christ or the Holy Spirit exists in the believer ONLY by faith (one would have to consider Saul’s experiences in 1 Samuel 10 and 19, certainly, before concluding that – neither mentions a prerequisite of faith on his part).
  • Neither establishes, on its own or together, that faith comes only by hearing (and one would have to ponder about faith being given as a direct gift of the Holy Spirit per 1 Corinthians 12:7-11 before concluding that, especially verse 9).
  • The second passage has no reference to the Holy Spirit; the subject simply isn’t in view. How could a conclusion drawn from it specifically apply to Him, especially if the context of the other scripture contradicts the conclusion?
  • The other passages “explained away” by this logical argument speak clearly and explicitly to the Holy Spirit dwelling within the believer: John 14:16-17; Romans 8:11; 1 Corinthians 6:19; 1 John 3:24. That is their subject and and at least part of their purpose in being written: to describe the way the Holy Spirit – a Person – truly “lives,” not figuratively but literally – in the heart of the welcoming believer.

Most of the supporting assumptions in this logical argument fail. When you knock the supporting legs off of a milkstool, it don’t stand up no more – and this argument is no different.

Does the Holy Spirit Live Within the Believer?

“And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever— the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you.” ~ John 14:16-17

“We are witnesses of these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him.” ~ Acts 5:32

“And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies because of his Spirit who lives in you.” ~ Romans 8:11

“What we have received is not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, so that we may understand what God has freely given us.”  ~ 1 Corinthians 2:12

“But whoever is united with the Lord is one with him in spirit.” ~ 1 Corinthians 6:17

“Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God?” ~ 1 Corinthians 6:19

“The one who keeps God’s commands lives in him, and he in them. And this is how we know that he lives in us: We know it by the Spirit he gave us.” ~ 1 John 3:24

Is there anything particularly difficult to understand about these passages? Is there any language in them which would lead one to believe that they are only meant figuratively? Is there anything that says that the Spirit dwells in the believer through His word only?

Or do these verses simply mean what they say?

When Jesus spoke figuratively about going away (dying) and seeing Him again (being resurrected), John quoted Him as saying so:

“Though I have been speaking figuratively, a time is coming when I will no longer use this kind of language but will tell you plainly about my Father.” ~ John 16:25

When Paul spoke figuratively and slavery to law and freedom from it, he said so:

“These things are being taken figuratively: The women represent two covenants. One covenant is from Mount Sinai and bears children who are to be slaves: This is Hagar.” ~ Galatians 4:24

If they meant to speak in parables or metaphors, the New Testament writers generally clued their readers in by saying so, as Jesus did in His kingdom parables (“the kingdom of heaven is like …”) – or they would use the highly apocalyptic language of the prophets before them (“I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s day ….”) They did neither when speaking about the Spirit dwelling within the believer.

Nothing in scripture indicates that when one reads or memorizes the word of God, it is like the Spirit is living in him/her. Nothing scripture says reveals that reading or memorizing it alone IS the Spirit living in her/him.

This promise is stated literally in Joel (2:28-32), is literally fulfilled beginning in Acts 2, and continues being fulfilled throughout New Testament writings – with no record that it stopped or changed in nature or would stop or change in nature (to refer to the Spirit dwelling in someone only through the Word).

If you want to contend that Jesus promises the Holy Spirit to be only in the apostles (John 14:16-17), you still have to explain away Romans 8:11, 1 Corinthians 6:19 and 1 John 3:24.

The burden of proof is clearly on those who wish to propagate and live by a Spirit-in-the-word-only-today doctrine, and their proof continues to be assertion and adding words and/or meaning to scripture that it does not explicitly express. That’s called interpretation, and while we all do it, interpretation has rules: one begins with what scripture says and stops with what scripture actually says.

As most of the proponents of the Spirit-in-the-word-only-today doctrine would agree, “going beyond the word” (Numbers 22:18; 2 John 1:9; and some would add Revelation 22:18) is dangerous business.

They just can’t see or hear themselves doing it.

That’s why it’s so important to let the Holy Spirit lead us into all truth, and if He lives within the believer who listens for the truth, yearns for the truth, and asks for the truth … the source of truth within the written word of God is right there within from the One who inspired its writing.

Does the Holy Spirit Only Work Miraculously?

Short answer: No.

If we define “miraculously” as visible, audible, tangible manifestations of supernatural power, no.

Of the list of ways in scripture that the Spirit aids compiled in the previous post, these are the ways that I see that are, in some measure, miraculous:

  • Tongues / comprehensible foreign languages
  • Interpretation of tongues
  • Prophecy / revelation (especially of the foretelling kind)
  • “Signs, wonders and miracles” (I would include exorcism, specifically; and spiriting people away to other locations)
  • Healing (of illness, deformities, crippling inabilities)
  • Instructs through visions and dreams (not new doctrine, but specific instructions to individual people, such as “Don’t go to Bithynia; go to Macedonia and preach.”)

There were forty-eight ways listed in that post, and even if half of them duplicated the other half in ways that we might or might not perceive, that would be twenty-four. So let’s say at minimum there are at least four times as many ways that the the Holy Spirit works subtly – sometimes imperceptibly – to help believers witness the power of Jesus Christ to those who haven’t heard of Him or need to know more of Him.

His presence is to give life through the gospel, richer and selfless life here that leads to eternal life. (See How Does God Resurrect the Dead?)

I emphasize that because I find it characteristic of the Holy Spirit’s aid in scripture. The connection may not always be obvious, but I believe it is always there. I am open to being proven wrong about that, but even half-a-dozen exceptions would not disprove the support of the gospel as widely characteristic of the Spirit’s assistance.

Just take a look through the Acts of the Apostles as an example. First, the opening eight-and-a-half chapters. Then the last half. Go ahead; really. I’ll wait for you right here.

Finished? Did you find any exceptions? What were they? And is there a possibility, however remote, that the Spirit’s aid is still intended to help in the progress of the gospel, even if it’s not immediately apparent?

While He serves in the role as Counselor/Advocate in a primary way, He also serves in the role of Comforter. (It’s my understanding that paraclete can be interpreted accurately in both those ways.) Early believers knew that hard times were ahead; that their faith would be tested even to the point of death. The Spirit within them, as a seal and comfort of their resurrection to come, was meant to sustain them through the worst of human indignities, tortures, and death.

What Other Ways Does the Holy Spirit Work Through Believers?

Though I linked in my previous post to a much earlier one which explored the Holy Spirit in the Old Testament, I didn’t repeat any of its Biblical references. Which I possibly should have, because there are several ways that the Holy Spirit worked through believers in God in those days – some of which are not repeated in the New Testament.

Probably the first man in the Bible to be identified with the Holy Spirit was Joseph (Genesis 41:38), and the one who recognized Him in Joseph was – of all people – Pharaoh. The reason Pharaoh credited Joseph with the Spirit’s guidance was undoubtedly that Joseph accurately interpreted his strange dreams – and predicted the famine which was to engulf Egypt and her neighbor nations. So I believe it’s justifiable to conclude that at least Pharaoh linked a gift of interpretation of dreams and prophecy as a gift of the Holy Spirit. (Suffice it to say that Joseph also displayed gifts of leadership and administration, at the very least.)

I missed that one in my post of five years ago, and it’s an unintentional omission. I won’t repeat the others; you can read them yourself there. But you will find many other gifts, talents and abilities linked to the Holy Spirit in the eras of the Old Testament: leadership, great physical strength, even success in battle.

I cannot defend an opinion one way or another about whether those old covenant gifts are still given through the Spirit of God today. Some of them – such as dreaming dreams and seeing visions (which I’ve already discussed as promised in Joel 2:28 and as fulfilled in Acts 2:17) are actually exemplified in passages like Acts 10:1-23Acts 11:1-18 and Acts 16:6-10. So it’s foolish to conclude that all gifts or abilities associated with the Spirit in the Old Testament belong only to its eras.

And I think it’s fair to ask questions like:

  • Are we living under the same covenant as those in the New Testament?
  • Are the same promises which were made to those believers also made to believers now, under that same New Covenant?
  • Did the Spirit inspire scripture writers only for Old Testament works, or also for the New?
  • Is there anything in scripture which says only they – or only the apostles and/or only those on whom the apostles placed their hands – would receive the Spirit Himself and the gifts God chooses to distribute through Him?
  • Does scripture make a distinction between certain gifts that would persist and others that would perish?
  • Does scripture say that some already have been withdrawn?

The only Biblical response I can find to give to these questions is:

  • First of all, the gifts of the Holy Spirit are distinct from the Holy Spirit Himself. The gift of the Holy Spirit himself is given to all believers and forever.
  • Secondly, any need for gifts to be given or withdrawn is sufficiently described by the summation of the listing of gifts in 1 Corinthians 12:11 … “All these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he distributes them to each one, just as he determines.” The phrasing seems to be independent of era; the Spirit gives as He determines.

Some people simply cannot be trusted with certain gifts of the Holy Spirit, no matter how much they ask or desire – see Acts 8:9-25. It is quite possible that Ananias and his wife Sapphira were given the gift of generosity (Romans 12:8), yet silently lied to the Holy Spirit about the size of their gift (Acts 5:1-11). It would not have mattered what era they lived in; their hearts were corrupted by self-interest.

Those incidents – and the miracle Paul spoke against Elymas Bar-Jesus at Paphos (Acts 13:4-12) indicate a darker side to the miraculous gifts apportioned by the Spirit – not unlike the Spirit-given ability (Judges 14-15) that Samson had to vanquish enemies or bring down the temple of Dagon around himself (Judges 16:23-31), or – less violently – to change Saul into a different person (1 Samuel 10), perhaps to prepare him spiritually to become the kind of king he ought to have been over a people who ought to have accepted God as their King.

On the other hand, the more constructive gifts given to those under the old covenant would likely have been just as useful under the new. (I won’t quibble about Bezalel, whose gift of designing for the tabernacle might well have been less useful in an era in which the temple was to fall forever. Or just as useful. Who knows?)

Perhaps the more important question is whether God could put to use such a gift in proclaiming His gospel today, in this graphic-art-saturated society.

What seems – to me, at least – the determining factor in whether the Spirit gives a gift to one who asks or needs or through whom it might even be used unawares is whether that gift will help those who have never encountered God’s grace SEE and HEAR it proclaimed and lived out in the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Whether God still gives gifts to those whom He chooses through His Spirit, I leave to your discretion. Whether He gives it only to those who ask, who are baptized, who realize that they have it … I will let you work out on your own. I know what I believe.

And I submit as evidence to support it this video, recorded December 26, 2010 at my home church, of nine-year-old Davis, who read his passages in The Daily Bible along with the rest of his church family last year, and shared with us (from memory) his summation of it:

Most of us will agree that this young man is extraordinarily gifted.

I believe I know by Whom.

How Does the Holy Spirit Work Through Believers?

I believe that the Holy Spirit is – and has been since creation – one of the most powerful ways that God chooses to work in this world. He was instrumental in creation, and through Him life is given (Job 33:4; John 6:63; Romans 8:2-10; 2 Corinthians 3:6). He inspires – breathes life into – scripture (2 Samuel 23; 2 Timothy 3:16; Isaiah 59:21; 1 Corinthians 2:13; Ephesians 6:17; Hebrews 3:7-11; 10:15-17; 1 Peter 1:11).

The mistake, I believe, made by those who put their faith in a Spirit-in-the-written-word-only-today doctrine is in confusing the Author with the work; the Warrior with the sword. It is the difference between purchasing a book to place it on your coffee table at home and inviting the writer of the book to come and live with you.

(If you insist on a Spirit-in-the-written-word-only-today doctrine, suppose you memorized passages from books of several different authors … wouldn’t it be equally valid to say that you were indwelled by the spirit of Mark Twain, James Joyce, William Shakespeare? If someone handed you a copy of The Book of Mormon or The Qu’ran or Dianetics, wouldn’t it be equally valid to say that the words they believed from Joseph Smith or Mohammed or L. Ron Hubbard were sufficiently confirmed by the publication of those books? No need of external evidence to affirm their correctness?)

Scripture itself testifies that scripture alone is not enough (John 5:39); we needed a Savior. We needed a Savior who could be seen doing the work of God in this world (John 10:38; John 14:11). When He sent out the twelve (Luke 9) and the seventy(-two … Luke 10), He prepared them to minister in His absence by giving them authority to preach a gospel of repentance and to help others through healing and exorcism. He knew that the tangible, perceptible authority of God was needed to confirm His word (Mark 16:20) even after He ascended – so He breathed His Spirit upon them (John 20:22) just as He had said He would (Acts 1:8). And the Spirit empowered them.

So I believe that another way that the Holy Spirit works through believers is by empowerment to proclaim boldly and confirm tangibly the power of the gospel of Jesus Christ. It is a hollow claim to say that the written word is sufficient and no other confirmation is “needed” today. There was scripture that spoke of the Messiah before He came; and some did not believe when He came. There were miracles present before and during His mortal life; and some did not believe. What is sufficient for some is insufficient for others, and the needs of some do not set the standard for all. Thomas believed when he saw; he was not pronounced less-blessed because of his need to see. Nor are any of the 3,000 of Pentecost who saw and heard the power of the gospel (Acts 2:33).

Witness the Acts of the Apostles. Read the whole book. There is a good reason why it is called “The Acts of the Apostles” rather than “The Word of the Apostles.” Four gospels record “the word of the apostles,” and one of them is the prequel to Acts itself. They acted and they did so in the power of the Spirit.

Scripture testifies to the persuasive power of seeing and hearing the word confirmed; there is no point in arguing it. If the need of at least some to hear and see the word confirm persists to this day, is it any business of ours to contradict the promise of “all” (Joel 2:28; Acts 2:17) and “forever” (John 14:16; Matthew 28:20) by asserting that God no longer cares about their needs; they are simply not blessed? Scripture describes amply the ways that the Holy Spirit works through believers:

(The last ones – listed in Romans – are the ones my blogging brother Jay Guin labels “those boring old gifts” … with tongue sequestered in cheek, of course. And if you’ve read previous posts and followed the scripture links, you’ve already read most of these – some of them in the comments, kindly provided by Lacey Mauk.)

Obviously, some of these gifts/abilities are more suited than others – in certain circumstances, to certain audiences and being used by certain gifted individuals – in testifying to the power of the gospel (1 Corinthians 14:22). That is why these gifts are apportioned by God, not by our desire (Hebrews 2:4).

It’s amazing how we read these in context, and skip over the words “Holy Spirit” as if they were not there. Yet there are almost half again as many references to Him in the New Testament as there are references to baptism or being baptized. That’s not to say that one is more important than the other, but simply that there is more reference material to consider.

And, with that much to consider, it’s quite possible that I have missed some. But I don’t believe I’ve missed anything that says the Holy Spirit’s power would be restricted to the written word from a certain date, time, era or event forward (certainly not one which has already passed) … or that God would no longer demonstrate the power of the gospel in visible, audible, tangible ways … or that the Holy Spirit would ever work apart from the Word or (God forbid) in contradiction to the Word … or that believers should ever stop asking for the Holy Spirit (Luke 11:13) or stop earnestly desiring His greater gifts (1 Corinthians 12:31).

Who would stand to gain more from those restrictions and doctrines? God?

Or Satan?

Is the Holy Spirit Given to Believers at Baptism Today?

We’re in the season of giving gifts, and while the traditional Advent study focuses on God’s gift of His Son and our anticipation of His return, I wanted to look more closely at the gift He has given believers in the interim: His Holy Spirit.

It’s a little hard for me to believe that there believers in Christ who would actually answer that question with a strident “No.” Some are actually offended that the question is being asked.

In Acts 2, Peter (filled with the Holy Spirit himself), quotes a long passage from the prophet Joel and proclaims it as fulfilled on the spot at that time:

In the last days, God says,
I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
your young men will see visions,
your old men will dream dreams.
Even on my servants, both men and women,
I will pour out my Spirit in those days,
and they will prophesy.

Are we still living in the last days, or have the last days spoken of in scripture somehow passed without Jesus returning?

Is anyone left out of that prophecy? Young people? Old people? Men? Women?

When Peter’s message convicts the crowd of Pentecost feast-goers, they begged to know what they could/should do:

Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call.”

Was the promise just for them and their children and for all who lived far away then? Or for ALL who lived far away in distance and generation?

Among those who believe that the Holy Spirit is no longer given to dwell in the hearts of believers, many will maintain that He has been replaced by or is present only as the word of God which a believer will have memorized.

The usual defense for this position is three-fold. First, proponents of Spirit-in-written-word-only-today are likely to quote any number of passages about the hearing, reading, believing and especially obeying the word, including (but not restricted to):

There is nothing to argue with about the importance of hearing/reading, believing and obeying the written word, but it is worth pointing out that scripture …

  • Does not say that the word itself IS the Spirit. Scripture is inspired by God’s breath (2 Timothy 3:16; Acts 28:25), but inspiration is different from being. Jesus IS the Word (John 1); the Spirit is His (Luke 23:46; Acts 16:7, etc.) … but the Word is distinct from the written word. Jesus the Word fulfills the word that is written.
  • Does not not say that hearing/reading the word is the only way God makes His will known to those who would believe (faith may also begin in deducing God from Creation – Romans 1:19-20)
  • Does not say that the only way faith comes is by hearing (it is also the gift of God – 1 Corinthians 12:9; Ephesians 2:8). The Lord sent blindness to Saul of Tarsus, but He also sent him Ananias. He sent an angel to Cornelius, but He also sent him Peter. God can give faith in unusually-wrapped packages.

Part two of the defense of the Spirit-in-written-word-only-today proposition is that the summation of 1 Corinthians 13 declares that the gifts of the Spirit will be done away with when “that which is perfect is come,” and “that which is perfect” means the Bible, the written word. (That is why some will put so much emphasis on the belief that the Bible is the inerrant or perfect word of God – it is a cornerstone of the proposition.)

Scripture describes no such transformation – reduction, I’d say – of the Spirit’s role in our lives from Counselor and Comforter and Dweller-Within and Reminder-of-Christ and Convicter-of-Heart to a simple collection of memory verses.

Scripture also does not speak of itself as perfect. The will of God is perfect, to be sure, but it’s a stretch to say that all of God’s will is completely revealed within scripture – and that is also a meaning of the word translated “perfect” – “complete” and/or “mature.” Indeed, scripture is complete with regard to what man generally must do in response to God’s grace – but as far as direction signs for individual journeys go, scripture is largely silent.

The third tenet of the Spirit-in-written-word-only-today belief is that the promises made by Jesus in John 14-17 (that the Advocate would teach, remind them, guide them into all truth, and show them things to come) were made only to the twelve apostles. That would mean that there is no promise of indwelling Advocate, Comforter, Counselor to any beyond those few that the apostles laid their hands upon.

But those promises include Jesus preparing a place for and coming back for the one whom He is addressing (John 14:1-3). And there are commands like, “Love one another as I have loved you.” Are those only for the twelve also?

Jude’s question dispels any notion that knowing Jesus was just for them; Jesus answer is “Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.” (John 14:22-23).

I think a lot of the motivation behind the Spirit-in-the-written-word-only-today view is a fear that things would get out of control among believers if everyone acted on newly-revealed instructions from the Holy Spirit – and I concur that there has been much abuse of this human tendency to describe self-desires as God’s desires, from the lie of Ananias and Sapphira and the confusion of the church at Corinth to the ill-fated followers of the likes of Jim Jones of Jonestown and David Koresh of the Branch Davidians.

There is a test for the “prophecy” of such individuals, and though it is found in the Old Testament, it remains useful:

If what a prophet proclaims in the name of the LORD does not take place or come true, that is a message the LORD has not spoken. That prophet has spoken presumptuously, so do not be alarmed. ~ Deuteronomy 18:22

Also, there is no need to fear that the Spirit would further reveal something of the will of God that would contradict what has already been revealed in scripture through the inspiration of the very same Spirit.

But when we ask in prayer for individual direction beyond the encouragement given generally to all in the written word, how else should one expect an answer if not through His Spirit? No scripture revealed to Paul that he should not go to Bithynia; what prevented him from going was the Spirit of Jesus.

Jesus is spoken of in scripture as perfect (Hebrews 5:9) as well as the perfecter of our faith (Hebrews 12:2). Surely we are not meant to do without what God has promised and given as living Comforter and Counselor in His absence until He comes! For He had already come once when Paul wrote to Corinth:

For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears. When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. ~ 1 Corinthians 13:9-11

While this passage speaks to both the completeness and maturity that is to come, the sense of perfect can only be attributed to God, especially as revealed through Jesus. When He returns, the gifts given through His Spirit will no longer be needed.

Are they still needed? I would daresay that no one can prove than the need for the gifts given through the Spirit has dissipated at all, let alone disappeared. The gifts given through the Spirit and the Spirit’s presence Himself are different – but that’s the subject for another post. So, even if the gifts given through the Holy Spirit can be said to have ceased, it does not necessarily mean that His presence in our hearts has also been withdrawn.

To believe that is to believe that Jesus’ promise was not to all, or to all who are afar off, but only to a few in the first century (or so).

That would mean:

Is that what we believe scripture says?

I have most often found it to be the case that people believe what they want to believe. I freely admit that I want to believe that God would deliver what is promised in scripture – not more Spirit for one generation, and less Spirit for those to follow. It would be the first time I’m aware of that God has backed off of a promise made to all, and I do not want to believe that.

So I think it is fair to ask those who advocate a Spirit-in-the-word-only-today view: Why would anyone want to believe that?

Can the written word be grieved, as a Person can be grieved (Ephesians 4:30)? Can the written word be lied to, as a Person can be lied to (Acts 5:3)? Can the written word intercede for us with groans as a Person can (Romans 8:26)? Can the written word testify with our spirits that we are God’s children (Romans 8:16)?

One can believe that the written word provides the armament of God described in Ephesians 6, but surely not the full armament; too many of those weapons are so deeply associated with the Spirit Himself for them to accompany one but not Him. And every so-called religion has its own holy book; to the soul unfamiliar with the Bible, how does one convince him that this book holds the unique power of resurrected self unless it is demonstrated by the power of an humble, obedient life itself (1 Corinthians 2:3-5; 2 Corinthians 4:7)? Will that soul be convinced to read or hear without seeing that power in the inner being (Ephesians 3:16; 1 Thessalonians 1:5) of believers?

One can perhaps picture the written word offering comfort and counsel in much the same way as a stack of letters from a departed love one … but I cannot see how that compares to the promise made of a Spirit of unity within us, offering relationship with the divine as intimate as the loving oneness in marriage; a Spirit breathing life to the metaphor of Christ and His bride, the church.

I cannot help but conclude that the Spirit given to believers now as then is the living Holy Spirit, welcome and dwelling within the soul who opens the door to Jesus’ knocking.

If we ask for and accept and attempt to legislate anything less than God’s full promise, we are in a world of hurt and all but helpless to help save it.

Is the Holy Spirit Given to Believers at Baptism?

We’re in the season of giving gifts, and while the traditional Advent study focuses on God’s gift of His Son and our anticipation of His return, I wanted to look more closely at the gift He has given believers in the interim: His Holy Spirit.

My previous post, What is “the Gift of the Holy Spirit”?, describes many instances in scripture when the Holy Spirit was given to believers. Most of those instances occurred immediately after or very near the moment of water baptism, or baptism was at least an integral part of the story.

I don’t think this should be surprising. Luke is thought to be the author of both the gospel bearing his name and the one titled “The Acts of the Apostles.” The second one mirrors the first in many, many ways. That’s because the behavior of the believers intentionally mirrored the behavior of the Savior.

Luke records:

When all the people were being baptized, Jesus was baptized too. And as he was praying, heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” ~ Luke 3:21-22 (See also Matthew 3:16, Mark 1:10, and the account of the Baptist’s prophecy surrounding the event in John 1:26-32.)

I’ve heard it argued that Acts 2:38-39 can’t mean that the Holy Spirit is given to believers at baptism because Paul put his hands on some to receive the Spirit in Acts 19:1-7. (This takes place immediately after they are baptized.) I suppose that a similar case could be made regarding Peter seeing the Holy Spirit’s gifts displayed by the household of Cornelius before they were baptized in Acts 10:44-48. In response, I’d propose that Acts 2 expresses a general principle; the other accounts express extraordinary circumstances.

  • The twelve in Acts 19 had received only John’s baptism. They heard about Jesus, the Christ, and were baptized in His name.
  • The gentile (non-Jewish) household of Cornelius received the Spirit before being baptized, perhaps because Peter needed further convincing that they should be baptized. That’s a guess; but the fact that the story is repeated twice more indicates that Jewish believers may have needed some convincing, too.

But I think most folks would have to agree that when there’s an account of someone receiving the Spirit in the book of Acts, it is almost always in close proximity to their baptism in water. The outstanding exception:

When they arrived, they prayed for the new believers there that they might receive the Holy Spirit, because the Holy Spirit had not yet come on any of them; they had simply been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. Then Peter and John placed their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit. ~ Acts 8:15-17

(This was the setting for the misunderstanding of Simon-Magus the sorcerer thinking that he could purchase that laying-on of hands.) It says “they had simply (or only) been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.” The phrasing of that verse sounds like the situation was exceptional; they had “simply” been baptized into Jesus’ name (as if they had not also been immersed in the Holy Spirit? – John 1:33; Matthew 3:11; Mark 1:8Acts 1:5, 11:16; 1 Corinthians 12:13.)

You see, “baptism of the Holy Spirit” is a thoroughly scriptural concept; it’s the idea that it regularly occurs separately from water baptism among believers in Christ that isn’t found in scripture.

To be sure, the Holy Spirit was given at God’s discretion throughout Old Testament scripture – to the seventy elders (Numbers 11:25); to the prophet Balaam (Numbers 24:2); to tabernacle designer Bezalel (Exodus 31:3); to Othniel (Judges 3:10); to Gideon (Judges 6:34); to Jephthah (Judges 11:29); to Samson (Judges 14:6 and other passages); to King Saul (1 Samuel 19:23 and other passages); to King David (Psalm 51:11); to Azariah (2 Chronicles 15:1); to Jehaziel (2 Chronicles 20:14); to Zechariah son of Jehoida (2 Chronicles 24:20) … and this is not a comprehensive/complete list. (In many of these instances, one would have to conclude that the Spirit did not always come to stay, but came to pass. But that’s a subject for a whole different post.)

In the New Testament, Luke 11:13 notes that Jesus – after teaching on prayer and asking whether a father would give a son asking for bread a stone – says, “If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”  John 20:21-23 records that the resurrected Jesus breathed on the sequestered disciples and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” It would seem that the Holy Spirit is given, but on the condition of willingness to receive Him. With one exception of Saul being forcibly given a Spirit of prophecy which occupied him and spared David’s life from the king’s rage (1 Samuel 19:11-24), God does not generally seem to give the Holy Spirit to those who do not desire Him.

My conclusion is that the Holy Spirit is given at God’s discretion, and most often to believers in Christ at baptism – an act which demonstrates (along with many other rich, deep values) the believer’s desire to be like Jesus, fulfill all righteousness and receive His Holy Spirit.

What do you think?

What is “the Gift of the Holy Spirit”?

We’re in the season of giving gifts, and while the traditional Advent study focuses on God’s gift of His Son and our anticipation of His return, I wanted to look more closely at the gift He has given believers in the interim: His Holy Spirit.

In response to the the conscience-convicted crowd to whom Peter was preaching on Pentecost:

Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call.” ~ Acts 2:38-39

I have heard it argued that “the gift” is salvation, and that’s all. The crowd had asked, “What must we do (to be saved),” and this was Peter’s answer.

I disagree. They had also just heard the entire sermon, each in his own tongue, delivered by people who had doubtless had no language training beyond Aramaic and Greek. In the sermon, they heard Peter say that the day spoken of by Joel the prophet had come: “In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people.” (Joel 2:28-32). Now to be fair, Peter also quotes Joel saying, “And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” Then he adds, “God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of it. Exalted to the right hand of God, he has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit and has poured out what you now see and hear.” It was perfectly reasonable for the crowd to deduce that the gift of the Holy Spirit was producing what they were seeing and hearing.

Plus, you see, the words “to be saved” are not actually in the original text. A jailer in Philippi asked the question that includes that phrase (Acts 16:30) many years later. Salvation, however, is intertwined with the Holy Spirit (2 Thessalonians 2:13; Titus 3:5), but I don’t find any passage which describes salvation as the gift of the Holy Spirit.

I’ve also had it argued to me that Romans 1:16 says “For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes, for the Jew first and also for the Greek,” and since Peter was preaching the gospel, therefore the gift of the Holy Spirit is salvation to those who obey his gospel.

I don’t know how the crowd of Pentecost could have discerned that, since Romans had not yet been written.

And I’ve also read it argued that no one hears “receive the gift of Keith and thinks that Keith is the gift. It would be the gift Keith offers.” But the crowd at Pentecost didn’t speak English; they spoke as many languages as are represented by the 15 (or so) different regions described in Acts 2:8-11. Perhaps their languages were not as ambiguous as ours. Even then, we are talking about the Holy Spirit and not Keith; a person but not a human being. And we do not misunderstand the phrasing of John 3:16.

It would seem to me that after they were baptized, their actions in Acts 2:42-47 demonstrate the fruit of the Spirit that Paul would describe years later to the churches of Galatia:

“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.” ~ Galatians 5:22-23

In addition, there are many passages in which the Holy Spirit is given, from Jesus breathing on the disciples (John 20:22) to the wind and tongues of fire (Acts 2:1-4) to a time after powerful prayer (Acts 4:31) to the laying-on of Peter and John’s hands (Acts 8:17) to the receipt of it by the household of Cornelius while Peter was still preaching (Acts 10:44) … and on and on and on. Sometimes these were recorded as being accompanied by signs, like speaking in tongues; sometimes not. But that’s how it’s expressed in these verses; the Spirit Himself was given, and then the sign of it became apparent.

My conclusion is that “the gift of the Holy Spirit” spoken of by Peter at Pentecost was the Holy Spirit Himself, not just a sign of Him nor a gift that accompanies Him.

How do you see it?