WHAT IS THE GIFT OF THE HOLY SPIRIT?
Or, Why I Believe The "Gift of the Holy Spirit" in Acts  2:38 Is A Miraculous Gift
Written by Ron Hutchison
Revised June 20, 2006

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. (Acts 2:38).

There has been controversy for many years concerning what the gift of the Holy Spirit is in Acts 2:38. I don't suppose that what I write in this article will cause everyone to agree about what it is.  However, I do hope each one will read this article with a desire to know the truth and be encouraged to honestly study this passage in light of it's context.

First, let me point out that I do not believe the gift of the Holy Spirit is a "non-miraculous personal indwelling" that people receive when they are immersed. There is absolutely nothing in the context that I can see that would indicate that any such thing as a non-miraculous personal indwelling of the Holy Spirit exists. While I do not believe that there is such a thing as a non-miraculous personal indwelling of the Holy Spirit, there are some (perhaps many) of my brethren who do. Those who hold this view generally believe that the Holy Spirit directs and leads ONLY through the written word. I would not make what I believe the Bible teaches about Acts 2:38 to be a test of fellowship with those who hold the "non-miraculous personal indwelling" view if they believe that the Holy Spirit works only through the written word. 

However, one can only go so far with a "non-miraculous personal indwelling" theory before it becomes a "miraculous personal indwelling." This is what I mean: When people believe in a  "non-miraculous personal indwelling" they often begin to ask "what does this non-miraculous personal indwelling of the Holy Spirit do for me?" This sometimes results in affirming something apart from or in addition to the written word, and that means a direct operation of the Holy Spirit. When one takes the view that there is a personal indwelling of the Holy Spirit and that it is direct and for us today, and that it does something for us in addition to the written word,  then he has gone beyond what the Bible teaches. This position can only lead to a person following his subjective feelings as the standard, rather than the Bible. This position must be rejected by all who believe the Bible to be our only rule of faith and practice because it contradicts such passages as 2 Timothy 3:16-17 and 2 Peter 1:3. I only ask that those who read this article will consider the evidence presented and draw their own conclusions as to whether the Bible teaches that the gift of the Holy Spirit in Acts 2:38 was miraculous. (For further study concerning the all sufficiency of the Bible see, The All-Sufficiency of the Bible).

Here is what I am setting forth in this article. The Scriptures teach that the "gift of the Holy Spirit" in Acts 2:38 refers in particular to the gift of speaking in languages (NKJV "tongues" - Greek "glossa", the ability to speak in human languages without previous study and that one would not be able to speak without the Holy Spirit's direct operation) and alludes to the other gifts promised in the prophecy of Joel. In the first century, there were spiritual gifts (see Mark 16:17 ff; 2 Corinthians 12-14 etc). In Acts 2 there was a particular spiritual gift that the apostles exercised after they were immersed in the Holy Spirit, and this was the gift of speaking in human languages they had never studied before and should not have been able to speak. In the first century the apostles had the power, by laying their hands on people, to impart spiritual gifts to Christians. One of those gifts was the gift of languages. I know this may not be what most people believe about the gift of the Holy Spirit, but let me appeal to you not to allow the questions that may be on your mind to keep you from examining the evidence carefully.

SOME IMPORTANT CONSIDERATIONS

The Bible teaches that miraculous gifts were bestowed upon first century Christians (cf. Mark 16:17-20; 1 Corinthians 12-14). From the day of the first Pentecost after the resurrection of Christ when the apostles received the Holy Spirit, through the continued revealing of God's word in the first century, miraculous gifts were given and exercised. As one studies the New Testament he cannot help but notice that the work of the Holy Spirit was to bestow miraculous (spiritual) gifts on first century Christians. This was done through the laying on of the apostles hands (Acts 8:14 ff). The entire revelation of the gospel was given by the Holy Spirit and this involved the miraculous operation of the Spirit (cf. 1 Corinthians 2). The gospel was not only revealed by the miraculous operation of the Spirit, but it was also confirmed by miraculous operation (Mark 16:19-20; Hebrews 2:3-4. (Note: in Hebrews 2:4 the phrase "gifts of the Holy Spirit" is used and there can be no doubt this is referring to miraculous spiritual gifts. The gift of languages is a gift of the Holy Spirit which is one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit which was given to Christians by the laying on of the apostles hands). Indeed, the first century Christians would have had nothing to direct them in the absence of the inspired apostles without the miraculous (spiritual) gifts. Since miraculous gifts of the Holy Spirit were necessary for the revelation of the gospel and its confirmation, what would be the most likely meaning of "the gift of the Holy Spirit" in Acts 2:38?

IS IT IMPOSSIBLE?

Consider this question: Would it be impossible for the gift of the Holy Spirit to refer to miraculous gifts? The answer to that question is no. Acts 2 is the beginning of the Christian age which was accomplished by the miraculous operation of the Spirit. The book of Acts shows that there were miraculous gifts beginning at Pentecost and continuing while revelation was being given and confirmed. The book of Acts is proof that it is possible for the gift of the Holy Spirit to be referring to miraculous gifts given through the laying on of the apostles hands. The view I am taking in this article cannot be rejected because it would be impossible. 

Someone has suggested that it would be impossible for the gift of the Holy Spirit to be a miraculous gift because miraculous gifts were only given through the laying on of the apostles' hands.  I would simply ask, were the apostles not present on the day of Pentecost?  What would have prevented them from laying their hands on those who obeyed the gospel and imparting to them a spiritual gift? The gift of the Holy Spirit was promised to them. The apostles had the ability to impart the gift.  Why would they not do so?  We have to remember that the Jews who obeyed the gospel on Pentecost day were from "every nation under heaven" (Acts 2:5).  When they returned home, they would need spiritual gifts to direct them and to confirm the word they were directed to teach in the absence of the apostles.  Why would the apostles not lay their hands on these people and give them what they needed to teach and confirm God's word and to direct them in their service to Christ in the absence of written revelation (the completed New Testament) when they went back home? 

Others suggest that there is no supporting evidence that others besides the apostles were exercising spiritual gifts in Jerusalem and thus the impartation of spiritual gifts to others did not take place until later when the apostles first laid their hands on people as recorded in Acts 6:6ff.  But this view does not take into account that most of these people would have had no need to exercise these gifts until they returned home. The apostles were the source of revelation and instruction while they were in Jerusalem (Acts 2:42). However, when they returned home, they would have to rely upon spiritual gifts to provide revelation and instruction.  There is no reason to assume that the reception of spiritual gifts by those who obeyed the gospel on Pentecost day would result in  "hundreds of disciples . . . performing miracles subsequently in the city of Jerusalem"  as one good brother put it.  The need for those people to exercise spiritual gifts would not be required until they returned home after celebrating the Passover in Jerusalem.  

However, when one reads Acts 6 carefully, he will see that before it is recorded that the apostles "laid hands on them" in verse 6, that those who were chosen to see to the needs of the widows were already "full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom" (verse 2).  Notice verse 2:  Then the twelve summoned the multitude of the disciples and said, "it is not desirable that we should leave the word of God and serve tables. Therefore, brethren, seek out from among you seven men of good reputation, full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business..."   Verse 5 says,  And the saying pleased the whole multitude.  And they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit, and Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas, a proselyte from Antioch, whom they set before the apostles; and when they had prayed, they laid their hands on them.  These seven men were "full of the Holy Spirit" before the apostles laid their hands on them as recorded in verse 6.  But what does the phrase "full of the Holy Spirit" mean?  When one compares verse 8 with verse 5 he has an inspired commentary on the phrase.  Verse 8 says, "And Stephen, full of faith and power, did great wonders and signs among the people."  What does verse 5 say Philip was full of?  "Faith and the Holy Spirit?"  What does verse 8 say Philip was full of? "Faith and power."  The "faith and the Holy Spirit" of verse 5 becomes "faith and power" in verse 8.  What did being "full of faith and the Holy Spirit" or "full of faith and power" do for Stephen?  It allowed him to do "great wonders and signs among the people."  Being full of faith and the Holy Spirit or faith and power allowed Stephen to perform signs and wonders.  Look at verse 10, "And they were not able to resist the wisdom and the Spirit by which he spoke."  I know the word "Spirit" is translated with a little "s" in some translations.  But I believe the capital "S" is right.  Philip was speaking by inspiration of the Holy Spirit.  Being filled with the Spirit resulted in both the ability to perform great wonders and signs and to speak by inspiration, the miraculous. (cf. Luke 1:15, 41, 67 where "filled with the Spirit" indicates inspired speaking).  Thus, since the apostles were the only ones who had the ability to impart spiritual gifts to others, they must have already laid their hands on Philip and the other six men before they were chosen to serve in the work they were chosen to do.  Then why lay hands on them again in verse 6?  Possibly to impart further spiritual gifts to qualify them to do the particular work they were assigned to do. Thus, these 7 men who were chosen from among the people to do this special work, were already "full of the Holy Spirit" and thus using the gifts they had been endowed with by the laying on of the apostles hands before the event recorded in Acts 6:6.  How do we know they were using these gifts?  We know because it would have been impossible for the people to have chosen them if there was not some evidence that they were full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom.  What evidence could there be but the spiritual gifts that they were already exercising?

Notice:

  • The people were told to chose men to do this work who were "full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom."

  • The people choose 7 men who were "full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom."

  • Thus, the people must have known these 7 men were "full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom."

But how did they know?  There had to be some kind of evidence.  What was that evidence?  It was the spiritual gifts they had received as a result of the apostles previously laying their hands on them. 

To say that no one but the apostles were exercising spiritual gifts in Jerusalem before Acts 6:6ff is to say that Stephen and the other six men here were not "full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom" before verse 6.  To make the argument that because the signs the apostles did, produced so much awe among the multitudes that the apostles must be the only ones exercising the miraculous, fails to take into account the possibility that those who possessed spiritual gifts among the Christians at Jerusalem may have been exercising their gifts only among the saints.        

Again, the view I am taking in this article cannot be rejected because it would be impossible.

WOULD IT CONTRADICT ANYTHING THE BIBLE TEACHES?

Further, would the view that the gift of the Holy Spirit was miraculous contradict anything the Bible teaches? Again, the answer is no. Some may think they see a problem in Acts 2:39, but as will be pointed out later in this article, there is no problem there if we understand the passage in its context. Rather than contradicting any passage of Scripture, the view that the gift of the Holy Spirit in Acts 2:38 is miraculous is in complete harmony with the rest of the Bible as we shall now set forth.

WE MUST LET THE BIBLE INTERPRET ITSELF

The only other time the phrase "the gift of the Holy Spirit" is used in the Bible is in Acts 10:45. Notice what this passage says: "And those of the circumcision who believed were astonished, as many as came with Peter, because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out on the Gentiles also." This phrase is used by Peter, the same Peter who used it in Acts 2:38. The phrase is identical to the phrase in Acts 2:38. Here the reference is to Cornelius and his household receiving "the gift of the Holy Spirit." The "gift of the Holy Spirit" in this passage refers to the miraculous outpouring of the Holy Spirit on Cornelius and his household. The result of this gift is found in verse 46, "For they heard them speak with tongues and magnify God." The gift of the Holy Spirit in this passage was the same gift that Peter and the apostles manifested on the day of Pentecost (see Acts 2:1-4). The gift of speaking in languages (NKJV-tongues; Greek-glossa, i.e. human languages they could not speak before the Holy Spirit came upon them) was a miraculous gift. I don't think anyone would deny that the "gift of the Holy Spirit" in Acts 10:45 was the miraculous gift of speaking in languages. However, it is the exact same phrase used by Peter in Acts 2:38. If we let the Bible interpret itself, we will conclude that the gift of the Holy Spirit in Acts 2:38 is the same gift that is set forth in Acts 10:45. (For further study concerning Cornelius and his household receiving the Holy Spirit see, Was Cornelius Saved Before He Was Baptized?

It is interesting to realize that sometimes the spiritual gifts which were imparted either directly to Cornelius and his household or to others by the apostles laying their hands on them are spoken of as the Holy Spirit Himself being imparted.  Look at the context of Acts 10.  In verse 45 that which came upon Cornelius and his household is described as "the gift of the Holy Spirit."  However, in verse 47 it says, "Can anyone forbid water, that these should not be baptized who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?" Notice that the "gift of the Holy Spirit" in verse 45 becomes "the Holy Spirit" in verse 47.  This, in my opinion, is the significance of such expressions as "filled with the Holy Spirit",  "receive the Holy Spirit", "the promise of the Holy Spirit", "full of the Holy Spirit", "the Holy Spirit who was given to us", "temple of the Holy Spirit", "sealed with the Holy Spirit", "who has given us his Holy Spirit", "The Holy Spirit who dwells in us", "partakers of the Holy Spirit", (Luke 1:15, 41, 67; 2:25-26; 11:13; 12:12; John 7:39; 20:22-23; Acts 2:4, 33; 6:3; 8:15-19; 9:17; 15:8; 19:2, 6; Romans 5:5; 1 Corinthians 6:19; Ephesians 1:13; I Thessalonians 4:8; 2 Timothy 1:15; Hebrews 6:4).  When these kinds of expressions are used, they are not indicating that the Holy Spirit Himself was given, but that the "gifts of the Holy Spirit" were given.  That is, the miraculous spiritual gifts that were given directly to the apostles and Cornelius and his household and those given to all others through the apostles laying their hands on them during the first century and in the infancy of the church in the absence of written revelation.

If we would but let the Bible interpret itself and explain the expression "the gift of the Holy Spirit" (as well as all of the other expressions listed above) we will come to the correct conclusion as to what the phrase means in Acts 2:38 as well as the other phrases in the previous paragraph.  

THE CONTEXT OF ACTS CHAPTER TWO
THE FULFILLMENT OF JOEL'S PROPHECY

As one studies Acts 2:38 he must keep it in context. In Acts 2, after Peter and the other apostles began to speak in human languages which they had never spoken before and which they did not know before (and under normal circumstances would not have been able to speak), the people accused them of being filled with new wine (verse 13). Peter began to explain what was occurring by quoting from the Old Testament prophet Joel. He says,  "But this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel: 'And it shall come to pass in the last days, says God, that I will pour out of My Spirit on all flesh; Your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your young men shall see visions, your old men shall dream dreams. And on My menservants and on My maidservants I will pour out My Spirit in those days; And they shall prophesy. I will show wonders in heaven above and signs in the earth beneath: Blood and fire and vapor of smoke. The sun shall be turned into darkness, and the moon into blood, before the coming of the great and awesome day of the LORD. And it shall come to pass that whoever calls on the name of the LORD shall be saved.'" (Acts 2:16-21). If you will examine this prophecy you will have to admit that it deals with the miraculous. God promised through the prophet Joel that He would pour from His Spirit on all flesh. This would refer to both the Jews and Gentiles. He speaks of prophecy, visions, and dreams -- all miraculous. He makes clear that what the people were witnessing on that Pentecost day was the beginning of the fulfillment of the promise of miraculous gifts being given to "all flesh" (Jew and Gentile). The people had just witnessed the exercise of one of those miraculous gifts. They heard the apostles speaking in their own languages. Peter told them that what they were witnessing was the fulfillment of prophecy. The prophecy dealt with the miraculous. Now put yourself back with those people. You had just witnessed the exercise of a miraculous gift through the apostles. That gift was speaking in your language which they did not know or speak before. You have just been told this is a fulfillment of Joel's prophecy which dealt with the miraculous. These miraculous gifts would be the result of God pouring from His Spirit on all flesh. You are now promised the "gift of the Holy Spirit." What would you be expecting? A non-miraculous indwelling or a miraculous gift?

One thing we need to point out is that Joel's prophecy extended further than just the apostles. It cannot be made to extend only to the apostles and the household of Cornelius. Notice that it includes sons, daughters, young and old, male servants and female servants. This includes not only the apostles but the people who the apostles laid their hands on who received miraculous gifts. The pouring out of the Holy Spirit on the apostles qualified them for their work. The pouring out of the Holy Spirit on Cornelius and his household established that the gospel was for the Gentiles as well as the Jews. The spiritual gifts that came through the laying on of the apostles hands sum up the work of the Spirit from Pentecost until the revelation of God's word in the New Testament was completed and confirmed. All of this is summed up in the prophecy of Joel. Peter quoted the prophecy to show that what the apostles received was the fulfillment of Joel 2, but Joel's prophecy included the gifts that came through the laying on of the apostles' hands. This being true, why be surprised that Peter extended the prophecy of Joel to immersed believers?

Someone might ask: "if the gift of the Holy Spirit is miraculous does that not mean that the miraculous would be for us today since the Bible says in verse 39 that this gift would be for ". . . as many as the Lord our God shall call"? Actually, verse 39 is a summary of the prophecy of Joel. Franklin Camp, in his book "The Work of the Holy Spirit in Redemption," compares the two verses like this:

ACTS 2:39 ACTS 2:17-18
To you and all that are far off All flesh - Jew and Gentile
Your children sons and daughters
As many as the Lord our God shall call male servants - female servants

Brother Camp further says,

"A careful study of this passage, with this analysis, shows two things: 1) that the gospel was to be without distinction; 2) to establish that the gospel was to be without distinction, the gifts were given without distinction. A passage should always be studied in its context. Peter began his sermon with the prophecy of Joel and, as recorded by Luke, closed it with a summary of the prophecy. This is the thought through the chapter and with this in mind there will be no difficulty in seeing that verse 39 is a summary of Joel's prophecy. The question was about the miraculous (Acts 2:12 points back to Acts 2:1-4). Peter's reply was a prophecy that contained a promise of the miraculous. Peter referred to the promise of the Father in Acts 2:33 which can only be traced back to Joel's prophecy. (See Luke 24:49). Since Peter had used the word "promise" in Acts 2:33, which was based on Joel's prophecy, and Joel's prophecy included miraculous gifts given without distinction to believers, why should the promise of Acts 2:39 refer to anything else? To insist that if the gift in Acts 2:38 is miraculous, (then Acts 2:39 will prove the miraculous continues today), is to ignore the context of Acts 2:39. But someone is ready to say that if the gift in Acts 2:38 is miraculous, then either the miraculous must continue today, or else repentance and baptism for remission of sins cannot be preached today. But this does not follow. For example, Mark 16:16 teaches faith and baptism in order to be saved. But verses 17 and 18 speak of signs that followed believers. Does anyone have any problem with teaching Mark 16:16 today while leaving the signs of Mark 16:17-18 where they belong?" (The Work of the Holy Spirit in Redemption, page 151).

Brother Camp further comments,

"Does it not seem unusual that every reference to the Spirit from the first verse to verse 33 speaks of the miraculous, and then Peter, without any explanation, passes to the non-miraculous in verse 38? Place yourself in the audience on that Pentecost day. You have seen the miraculous manifestation of the Spirit. You ask for an explanation of the miraculous. The preacher quotes a passage that mentions only the miraculous and then you are promised the Spirit as a non-miraculous indwelling. What would be your reaction? In the days of miraculous manifestations, for an apostle to promise the Spirit and one receive no spiritual gift would have made that person question the credibility of the apostle. Surely, Peter would not, in his first sermon, make a promise that would have completely denied his credibility as an apostle.

Since the people had heard and seen the miraculous manifestations of the Spirit (Acts 2:33), just suppose that Peter baptized one for the remission of sins, and following his baptism, the person inquired of Peter, 'What about the promise of the gift of the Holy Spirit that you made?' Peter replies, 'You received the Spirit when you were baptized, but it is non-miraculous.' Can you not visualize the reaction? Since the apostles had the Spirit miraculously, would not the ones that were promised the Spirit expect to receive miraculous manifestation? What would have happened in the period of the miraculous for one to have claimed to have the Spirit, but no manifestation?" (Ibid, page 153).

Ron Crosby makes the following statements:

"A closer look at the background of Peter's audience in Acts 2 also helps us. Who in Peter's audience would have thought that Peter's promise of the "gift of the Holy Spirit" was non-miraculous? No one. His audience consisted of Jews who had studied the Old Testament. They had read Old Testament passages on the Holy Spirit and His work with human agents. When details concerning the Spirit's relationship to the recipient of the Spirit are given, the recipient always worked miracles. Furthermore, Peter's audience also witnessed the miracles of Jesus, the miracles of the Twelve and the miraculous events on Pentecost. Therefore, when Peter mentioned the Holy Spirit, were they going to be thinking of the miracles? Of course! Look at the context of Acts 2. Every verse associated with the Spirit depicts a miraculous endowment (Acts 2:4, 11, 17-18, 33, 38, 43). Joel's prophecy, which Peter quoted, spoke only of the miraculous (Acts 2:17-18). Joel does not even hint of a non-miraculous out pouring. There is not one undisputed reference to the personal indwelling in the context of Acts 2. Actually, Luke makes over 130 allusions to the Holy Spirit or His work in the book of Acts. Of those, 118 are clear, unmistakable references to the supernatural. Only a few of the references are even considered (by some) to mean non-miraculous (Acts 2:38-39; 5:32; 6:3, 5; 9:31; 11:24; 13:52; 20:28). However, not one is a clear reference to the non-miraculous, personal indwelling being heralded today" (The Gift of the Holy Spirit, Internet article).
 

The fact is, that the apostles had the opportunity to fulfill this promise of miraculous gifts by laying their hands on those people on Pentecost day when they immersed them. If the apostles had that power why would they not generously impart spiritual gifts to those they immersed on that day so they would have both revelation and confirmation when they returned home to teach the gospel?

CONCLUSION

In this study we have set forth what we believe the Bible teaches the gift of the Holy Spirit in Acts 2:38 was. I would urge your further study. I would suggest a word study on the words "gift" (Acts 8:20; 10:45; 11:17; Ephesians 3:7; 4:7), "receive" (John 7:39; 20:21-23; Acts 2:38; 8:15-17; 10:47; 19:6; Galatians 3:2; 1 John 2:27), "manifestation" (1 Corinthians 12:7 in reference to the word "see" in Acts 2:33; 2 Corinthians 4:2 the background of which is 1 Corinthians 12:7), "demonstration" (1 Corinthians 2:1-5), and "anointed" (Luke 4:18-19; Acts 10:38; 2 Corinthians 1:21; 1 John 2:18-27), etc....

[Note: Franklin Camp does a word study of each of these words and others in his book, The Work of the Holy Spirit in Redemption. I would highly recommend you read and study what brother Camp sets forth concerning the work of the Holy Spirit. You may not agree with all of his conclusions, but it is well worth your time to read what he has to say.]

The gifts of the Holy Spirit were never intended for men today because they have ceased (1 Corinthians 13). They were given in the first century in the absence of written revelation to reveal and confirm the word of God (Mark 16:17-20; Hebrews 2:1-4). We now have the complete revelation (the New Testament) and thus those gifts are no longer needed. 

The gift of the Holy Spirit promised in Acts 2:38 is the beginning of the fulfillment of the promise made through the prophet Joel of the miraculous gifts given to first century Christians through the laying on of the apostles hands. These gifts would reveal and confirm the word of God and provide guidance to them until such time as the written revelation (the New Testament) was completed. 

Note: Ron Crosby wrote an article that deals very well with why the phrase "the gift of the Holy Spirit" cannot refer to the Holy Spirit Himself. You may view that article by clicking here.  Jerry Moffit wrote an article which shows how the indwelling of the Spirit may be a figure of speech.  Referring to the figure of speech called the "metonymy of the cause" where the "cause" is put for the "effect." You may read that article by clicking here.


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