Acts of the Holy Spirit
Dn Jason Ketz
The Acts of the Apostles is a title which ostensibly describes the main feature of the evangelist Luke’s second volume in the Luke-Acts series:Acts describes the spread of Christianity through the work of the disciples of Christ, who have now been commissioned and empowered to preach the Gospel as Apostles. But for as much as the apostles – first Peter and then Paul – are the main active characters throughout the book, there is a continuity which bridges all of the Apostles’ works and words, and forms a parallel to Luke’s Gospel account. This continuity is the Holy Spirit. In the same way that The Gospel According to Luke is an account of the works of the Christ, Acts is an account of the works of the Holy Spirit. Through Acts, the evangelist depicts the Holy Spirit directing the formation of the Church and empowering the preaching of the Gospel as the message emerges from Jerusalem and spreads toward Rome.
The Holy Spirit’s presence in Acts is generally recognized and accepted by the readers with little extra attention. We read the expression “…filled with the Holy Spirit…” and then the ensuing action, but the act itself is more easily remembered than that which initiated it. The Holy Spirit then becomes an afterthought, or rather a forethought. Of course, neither the Holy Spirit nor the book of Acts is any worse for the wear because of our absentmindedness, but perhaps we are.
I have noticed a persistent discomfort among Christians (Orthodox and other Trinitarian denominations) in discussing the third person of the Holy Trinity. Everybody does well speaking of the Father and the Son, but the Holy Spirit is, again, an afterthought. Usually people have a few phrases, offered confidently, which sums up a doctrinal position on the Trinity. Often the phrases are derived from the statements added to the Creed by the Second Ecumenical Council, while Orthodox Christians are particularly likely to quote phrases from the prayer “O Heavenly King.” To be very clear, these answers are all correct. But they are impersonal in a way that descriptions of the Father and the Son are not, and rare indeed is the Christian who doesn’t stumble when answering a follow-up question.
Try it sometime. Ask somebody how they know what they do about the Holy Spirit. We talk about things like the filioque, but do we really understand the Holy Spirit’s origin or procession? We describe the Holy Spirit as the Giver of Life, but don’t the scriptures tell us that the Lord God kills and makes alive; brings down to the grave and raises up (Deut 32:39 and 1 Sam 2:6)? We describe the Holy Spirit as everywhere present, but is that a unique description of the third person of the Trinity? Even the phrase “comforter” (paraklete) is not unique to the Holy Spirit. Christ tells the disciples “I will pray the Father, and he will give you another comforter, to be with you forever” (John 14:16).
By asking these questions, I am not suggesting we need to beef up our doctrinal defense of the Trinity. Trinitarian doctrine took quite a lot of time and ink to articulate authentically, and not all of us have the gift of parsing out all of the nuances of our teachings. Furthermore, there is comparatively little written on the Holy Spirit. What I am suggesting, rather, is that we can and should become comfortable offering a personal answer to the question “who is the Holy Spirit?” As I mentioned earlier, people do well in talking about God the Father, or about Jesus Christ. And we do well because we draw not just from the Creed or from fourth century writings, but from the scriptures which inspire and undergird the doctrine. Why not turn to Scripture to develop our understanding of the Holy Spirit? And if we turn to Scripture, why not start with Acts? The book is our most extensive single work discussing the Holy Spirit, and while Luke may not explain who the Holy Spirit is, all readers will find themselves well-versed onwhat the Holy Spirit does.
And what does the Holy Spirit do? In Acts, the Holy Spirit ‘fills’ a Christian, first as the gift promised to those who confess Christ, and again in preparation for an act which promotes the spread of the Gospel. This promise of the Spirit, first received by Christ in the resurrection (Acts 2:33), is then poured forth on all the faithful. It is easy to imagine the fervor associated with these occasions – perhaps as a scriptural precedent for the American revival experience of the 19th century. Many evangelical Christians speak of the Spirit in precisely this context – a personal, emotional and active internal experience. But Luke does not discuss the converts’ reception of the Holy Spirit in personal or emotive terms. And while fervor is probably an accurate inference for the dozen converts in Ephesus (Acts 19:2), the scene at Cornelius’ house (Acts 10) recounts the descent of the Holy Spirit, and with no account of the believers behavior except for Peter’s demand for their baptism. Nor does Paul have any response when receiving the Holy Spirit initially, except to regain his eyesight. So while it’s plausible to believe that receiving the Holy Spirit may be an emotional or perhaps even physiological experience for newly confessed Christians, there is no basis to believe that such an experience is required confirmation of one’s baptism “by water and the Spirit.” And as Christian baptism has largely been ritualized, it would seem far more in line with the text to believe and accept that Christians who have received the Gospel through the Apostolic tradition, and have been baptized in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, have received the gift of the Holy Spirit, however that may manifest in an individual’s experience. Meanwhile, our attention would be better spent not on recounting the experience of our first reception of the Spirit, which is undoubtedly in our past, but on the continued presence or renewal of the Spirit, which is depicted in Acts as a recurring experience for active Christians.
Enabling of the spread of the Gospel begins with the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, after which the Apostles preach Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection to the crowd of (largely diaspora) Jews gathered to celebrate the feast (Acts 2). The apostles were the first recipients of the Holy Spirit, but also the first who were motivated to preaching through the Spirit’s presence. And while one cannot overlook the miraculous occurrence in which all those assembled heard the Gospel in their native tongues, the action undertaken by the apostles was preaching. Peter is again filled with the Holy Spirit in preparation for preaching (Acts 4:8). Paul was filled with the spirit when confronting the magician Elymas (Acts 13:9). Phillip was encouraged by the Spirit to speak to the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8) using the Suffering Servant of Isaiah as a springboard for preaching the good news of Jesus Christ. Stephen was filled with the spirit during his final oration (Acts 7), and Paul’s mission to the Gentiles was explicitly commissioned by the Holy Spirit (Acts 13:2). To be sure, the Holy Spirit confirms Christians, as the gift promised to all the faithful. But the Holy Spirit also is repeatedly present in the faithful, in order to spread the Gospel.
It would be tempting to describe the Holy Spirit as ‘making apostles,’ but specifically, the Holy Spirit makes evangelists andwitnesses. The Holy Spirit fills people so that they can point others toward Christ. In Acts, this is generally a spoken process – preaching (the kerygma, as discussed by later generations of saints and theologians). But Luke has also provided a model for a later form of witness: the martyr. Not only are Peter, Paul, Phillip variously filled with the Holy Spirit before preaching to crowds, but Stephen is also filled with the Holy Spirit before his final preaching (Acts 6:5, 6:10) and again at the time of his death at the hands of his persecutors (Acts 7:55). Stephen is confirmed as a martyr already at the end of the book (Acts 22:20) In the two centuries following acts, a fusion of Acts with the Johannine writings, and continued reflection on Old and New Testament texts allows martyrdom to develop into a very specific type of witnessing to Christ. The martyr holds to faith in Christ, confronting the world and revealing Christ’s Lordship and power over life and death by accepting his or her own death for the sake of the Gospel; accepting death with a confident hope of the resurrection. In these various accounts of martyrdom, also referred to as acta – “acts” [of the Christian Martyrs], the Holy Spirit is again at work (sometimes tacitly, sometimes explicitly) preparing the martyrs – filling them with faith to stand as witnesses. Meanwhile, Acts has also provided the basis for our belief that the Holy Spirit inspires the preaching of the Gospel, and that the Holy Spirit comforts and advances the Church, through its presence in the assembly.
Of course The Acts of the Apostles is not a stand-alone treatise on the Holy Spirit, nor can a doctrinal understanding of the trinity be garnered from this work alone. Acts exists in harmony with the whole of Scripture, and is understood through the lens of faith, as we have received it from the Apostles. In other words (in Paul’s words – 1 Cor 12:3), the Holy Spirit’s first action in each of our lives is to open our hearts and minds to these texts and these teachings, so that we can confess Jesus as both Lord and Christ (cf Acts 11:16). We need not let the complexity of Trinitarian doctrine intimidate us, for it seems that the Holy Spirit is the person of the Trinity with whom we Christians are actually the most intimately familiar. May all of us continually be filled with the promise of the Holy Spirit!