Throughout the book of Acts we encounter the growing forces which we know today as the church and the kingdom of God. From cover to cover of this book we see the systematic expansion of the gospel from Jerusalem to the majority of the Roman world in only a few decades. This level of achievement is frankly not possible through human might and wisdom alone, there must have been another factor driving this growth. That factor is the Holy Spirit, but exactly what role did the Holy Spirit play in the birth and expansion of the church?
The Holy Spirit Makes Everything Possible
“Throughout Luke’s narrative there are references to the promise, gift, outpouring, baptism, fullness, power, witness and guidance of the Holy Spirit. It would be impossible to explain the progression of the gospel apart from the work of the Spirit.” For it was the Spirit which made it possible for the believers to perform the ministry they did, have the protection necessary to not be immediately wiped out and provided the miraculous confirmations to the words of the gospel. We can look at the role of the Spirit in Acts and in the early church in many ways, he is the both the wind and the fire, he is the ship and the sea and he is the road and the horse. All of these examples demonstrate to us that the Holy Spirit is both the agent of movement and the producer of the means required to be moved. A fire left calm will burn out, a ship outside of water does not move and a horse travels much farther on a road then on muddy fields.
On the theological level we understand that “he Spirit is God’s control, authority, and presence in the world. That is to say, he is the Lord. As Jesus is Prophet, Priest, and King, the Spirit is God’s authoritative word, his abiding and mediating presence, and his powerful control over all things.” The Holy Spirit is the power of God upon the earth, for by the Spirit Jesus performed many miracles, had prophetic insight into people and experienced resurrection from the dead. For it was by the Holy Spirit in which Jesus was able to move in his divine nature upon the earth, and now that same spirit rests upon Jesus’ followers.
Everything Begins at Pentecost
In the first two chapters of Acts we are presented with the Holy Spirit which will come in power and immerse Christ’s followers into himself. Not only will Christ’s followers be covered externally with the Spirit like the prophets of old, but the Spirit will come to live within them just as it did with Jesus. This is why the feast of Pentecost in 30AD is such a monumental day for the church, it was the day it tapped into the power of God and to its full potential. From this point on the Holy Spirit plays leading role.
At Pentecost the apostles experience something entirely different from when they were sent out to the villages two by two in the gospels. Now they were filled with the Spirit who carried the authority of the risen Christ. Immediately they were endued with the ability to speak in tongues and were filled to the point of appearing drunk. It is then that Peter stood up and gave the first sermon of the church, one which was guided by the Holy Spirit. The Spirit spoke through Peter and confirmed his presence among the 120 and at least 3,000 people came into the kingdom. This confirms Jesus’ words in Matthew 10:20, “for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.”
In many other instances with the likes of Peter, Paul, Stephen, Philip we see the Holy Spirit being upon them and speaking through them in order for the gospel to be spread. “This implies that the Spirit inspires the preaching itself. This does not mean that the Spirit is only the force behind the proclamation (subjective genitive) as he also proves the validity of the words themselves (objective genitive), illuminating the preaching to the hearers, resulting in faith.” The Holy Spirit does not only provide the words but also the faith and boldness to proclaim them, as we witnessed with Stephen. He must have been aware that his closing remarks would enrage the Sanhedrin since he was accusing the of many things, but at the same time he saw the Spirit and was given a vision to prepare him for his end.
The Holy Spirit Moving in Power
While many stop at the works of illumination and inspiration by the Spirit the book of Acts demonstrates another level of His involvement, acts of power. We consistently see in the development of the early church a pattern of the Spirit sending people to specific places, the word being preached and miracles manifesting to confirm the words. Stott proclaims that, “Moreover, the word and the signs would goo together, the signs and wonders confirming the word proclaimed with boldness.” This was not limited to only the apostles as we see the likes of Philip witnessing the same pattern by the Holy Spirit.
In Samaria, Macedonia, Asia and all other places where the kingdom expanded into the Spirit moved through healings and other miracles. Paul gained the attention of Sergius Paullus by the blinding of the sorcerer. Peter saw the region of Joppa open up from because of the resurrection of Tabitha, days after Pentecost Peter and John saw the crippled healed. Philip performed wonders in Samaria beyond the ability of the famous Elymas. In each instance, the Holy Spirit was proclaiming that Jesus is the Messiah and that these men were not just speaking empty words.
We also witness to the fact that the Godhead is unified in the expansion of the kingdom as “we also might view this unity of activity with an eye toward the special function of each member of the Trinity: the executive is the Father, the architect is the Son, and the contractor is the Holy Spirit.” Paul himself commented on this synthesis of the Holy Spirit moving in words (inspiration) and power in 1 Corinthians 2:4-5, “4 My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, 5 so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power.”
Just as the Spirit confirmed Jesus’ words so now he does the same through his followers. By this manifestation of the Spirit combined with the words the people who heard the preaching were not just left to judge the words alone but witnessed the accompanying confirmations of the Spirit. Yet one is not exclusive without the other as miracles do not preclude preaching, and preaching does not render unnecessary miracles. For it is the same Spirit which empowers believers to do both and without the Holy Spirit neither can be accomplished.
The Holy Spirit Guided the Early Church
Beyond the Holy Spirit’s guidance in what to preach, He also directed the apostles and evangelists of the early church where to preach. At the beginning the twelve received the words of Jesus that the Gospel would spread from Jerusalem, to Judea, to Samaria and then to the ends of the earth. Yet they did not receive a timeline or a step by step check list of when to visit a town, when to visit it and who in the town they were to preach to. That responsibility fell upon the Holy Spirit who guided people to the right town, at the right time to speak to the right person. Philip for example was divinely lead to go into the wilderness along to road, where he found the Ethiopian official who believed and carried the gospel home with him. An entire region outside of Judea would not receive the gospel because Philip went where the Spirit told him to go.
We see a similar example with Peter when he was sent for by Cornelius, if it hadn’t of been for the vision he may have refused the offer and the doctrinally critical conversion of Cornelius wouldn’t of happened and the gospel would not have gone to the Gentiles. Again, with Paul who through the Spirit was (for a time) forbidden from going to Asia. “Luke does not give the precise way in which the Holy Spirit imparts his will to the apostles, but the most likely means was through the gift of prophecy possessed by Silas (15:32). What is important here is that God sometimes intervenes in man’s best intentions.” It was not that the Spirit didn’t want the gospel to be preached in Asia but that His timetable knew it was better for Paul to go to Macedonia first.
It becomes clear then that through the persecutions and the leading of the Spirit the church expanded according to the planning of the Holy Spirit and not man. If not for the spirit the kingdom could have remained confined in Jerusalem or Judea for centuries, and the divide between Jewish believers and Gentile believers could of taken even longer to mend.
Not only would regions and peoples have been excluded from the kingdom but key people as well. For it was by the Spirit that Saul was converted, commissioned and sent out to preach the gospel. We see the Holy Spirit as the light which encountered him on the road to Damascus, then we see the Spirit speaking to Ananias to heal Saul and to give him his commission to preach. This call to preach to the Gentiles came again to Paul by Jesus (through the Spirit) who numerous times offered encouragement, warning and direction. It can be argued that without the movement of the Spirit Saul would have remained the persecutor of the church and the Greco-Roman world would have looked much different in terms of the kingdom of God.
The Holy Spirit Confirms the Gospel
Aside from these three outward activities of speaking, working of miracles, and given direction there is another way in which the Spirit moved in the book of Acts, by acting as the confirmation of one’s repentance. Peter spoke bluntly about this on the day of Pentecost in Acts 2:38;
38 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. 39 The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call.”
Jesus spoke in Gethsemane of the Holy Spirit coming as the confirming sign of his presence and as our comforter to lead us into truth. The presence of the Holy Spirit alone in a person contributed greatly to the maintaining of the expanded kingdom of God. This is because “the Holy Spirit bears witness to the believer’s sonship… This is not just an inner feeling. It is a Divine witness of a new relationship brought about by the Holy Spirit; and when it is accomplished, He is the One Who testifies to its reality.” Beyond the compelling words heard and miraculous seen the new believers were rooted and grounded in their belief by this abiding presence, which lasts much longer than words or sights.
Understanding all which has been spoken we clearly see the role that the Holy Spirit played in the birth and expansion of the church. First the Holy Spirit provided inspiration, illumination, recollection and revelation to the believers so they could preach the gospel and argue from the scriptures that Jesus was the Messiah. Secondly the Holy Spirit would then confirm these words through healings, miracles and prophetic insights. Third the Spirit acted as the confirmation sign that a person was a believer in Christ. Lastly the Holy Spirit acted as a living blueprint for how the Kingdom of God was to expand, providing the time, place, opportunities and people who would best respond to the gospel so the local church could be established.
This movement of the Holy Spirt was not a one-generation event. As even today “We need to receive the supernatural power of the Holy Spirit in our lives and our ministries, to the greatest extent possible, in order to serve God well in our world.” Both then and now the Holy Spirit is recognized as the living presence of God which is active in the earth to bring about the expansion of the kingdom and the spread of the gospel into the hearts of all people.
|Occurrences of the Holy Spirit in Acts||The Holy Spirit’s activity or role described|
|1:5||The one who will baptize(fill) the believers|
|1:8||Bringer of power|
|1:16||Inspirer of David’s words|
|1:26||The one who chose Judas’ replacement|
|2:4||The one the 120 were filled with|
|2:5||The giver of new languages|
|2:14-38||The inspirer of Peter’s sermon|
|2:17||The part of God poured out on the people|
|2:18||The enabler of prophecy|
|2:33||Given to Christ to give to us|
|2:38||The gift given in exchange for repentance|
|3:6-8||The healer of the cripple|
|4:8||Gives power and inspiration to Peter’s words|
|4:25||Inspirer of David’s words|
|4:31||The living presence of God in the believers|
|5:3||Representation of God among the people|
|5:9||Representation of God among the people|
|5:12||Performer of signs and wonders|
|5:32||A witness to what was done to Christ|
|6:3||Giver of wisdom|
|6:5||Evidence of God in Stephen|
|6:10||Defender of Christ|
|7:51||The one resisted by the unrepentant|
|7:56||Giver of Stephen’s heavenly vision|
|8:6||Performer of signs and wonders|
|8:15-17||The one who will baptize(fill) the believers|
|8:19-20||Transferred between believer’ hands|
|8:26-29||Giver of direction to Philip|
|8:39||Performer of a miracle|
|9:3||The light on the road to Damascus|
|9:10-15||The one who spoke to Ananias and commissioned Saul|
|9:17||The one who will baptize(fill) the believers|
|9:18||Healer of Paul’s blindness|
|9:40||The power greater than death|
|10:19||Interpreter and giver of Peter’ vision|
|10:38||The anointing on Jesus|
|10:44-47||The one who will baptize(fill) the believers|
|11:12||Interpreter and giver of Peter’ vision|
|11:15-16||The one who will baptize(fill) the believers|
|11:21||Enabler of the church’s success in Antioch|
|11:24||Confirmation of God’s presence in someone|
|11:28||Giver of prophecy|
|12:10-11||Peter’s deliverer from prison (along with an angel)|
|12:23||Killed Herod for his self-idolatry|
|13:2, 4||Giver of instruction and ministry commissioning|
|13:11||Made the sorcerer blind|
|13:52||Confirmation of God’s presence in someone|
|14:9-10||Performed a healing|
|15:8||Gift from God|
|15:28||Gives confirmation to the decision of the council|
|16:6-7||Giver of direction and ministry plans|
|16:9||Giver of dreams and visions|
|16:26||Sent an earthquake to Paul’s prison|
|17:23||The unknown God?|
|18:9||Giver of dreams and visions|
|19:2, 6||The one who will baptize(fill) the believers|
|19:11-12||Performer of miracles|
|19:21||Giver of direction and ministry plans|
|20:10||The power greater than death|
|20:22-23||Foreteller of Paul’s upcoming troubles|
|20:28||The appointer of overseers|
|21:4, 11||Foreteller of Paul’s upcoming troubles|
|22:6||The light on the road to Damascus|
|22:13||Healed Paul’s blindness|
|22:14||The giver of Paul’s commission|
|23:11||(through Jesus) Giver of dreams and visions|
|26:12||The light on the road to Damascus|
|26:16-18||The giver of Paul’s commission|
|28:3||Protected Paul from the viper (and shipwreck)|
|28:8||Performer of healing|
|28:25-27||Inspirer of Isaiah’s words|
 John Stott, The Message of Acts (Downers Grove IL: InterVarsity Press, 1990), 33.
 John M. Frame, Salvation Belongs to the Lord: An Introduction to Systematic Theology (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2006), 162.
 Simo Frestadius, “The Spirit and Wisdom in 1 Corinthians 2:1–13,” ed. Paul Elbert, Journal of Biblical and Pneumatological Research 3 (2011): 68–69.
 John Stott, The Message of Acts (Downers Grove IL: InterVarsity Press, 1990), 100.
 Jack W. Hayford. Hayford’s Bible Handbook (Nashville, TN; Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1995).
 William H. Baker, “Acts,” in Evangelical Commentary on the Bible, vol. 3, Baker Reference Library (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1995), 909.
 Guy P. Duffield and Nathaniel M. Van Cleave, Foundations of Pentecostal Theology (Los Angeles, CA: L.I.F.E. Bible College, 1983), 277.
The Role of the Holy Spirit in the Book of Acts Cameron Conway is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.
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