There are some points in today’s Readings from Acts that may be confusing. Depending on how they are interpreted, they could rob us of much of the Gospel’s comfort.
In Acts chapter eight, we have a situation where it appears that some Samaritan believers did not receive the Holy Spirit at their Baptism. There are different theories about why this is, but we need to hold on to one fact: The Holy Spirit IS given at Holy Baptism. If not, then there is an opening of doubt. A person may be led to think, “If THEY did not receive the Spirit at Baptism, maybe I did not, either.”
But if you look closely at the text, it says, “the Holy Spirit . . . had not yet fallen on any of them.” This is an unusual phrase. To “fall upon them” must mean more than simply the Spirit coming to them.
How do I know this? For several reasons. First, Acts eight verse 12 says, “They believed Philip as he preached good news about the kingdom of God and the Name of Jesus Christ.” Now we know that no one believes except by the Holy Spirit’s work. As Romans eight, nine says, “Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to Him,” and “No one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except in the Holy Spirit,” First Corinthians twelve, three; and other passages like these. There cannot be a state where a person believes in Christ if the Spirit did not give them faith.
Secondly, the entire Holy Trinity showed us what happens in Holy Baptism at the Jordan River when John baptized Christ. There the Holy Ghost descended upon the Son of God. So we know also that the Spirit is given at Baptism to us. This is a great comfort, and should not be taken away or left open to doubt.
Thirdly, the Bible often speaks about the coming of the Spirit in different ways or modes. One way is that anyone who believed, Old Testament or New, received their faith from the Spirit. When Saint Peter gave his great confession, that knowledge was revealed to him by the Holy Spirit.
But also, the Baptism of John was described by Jesus as being born again of water and the Spirit, John three. So even if you already believed, Baptism bestowed the Spirit on you.
Yet again, after His resurrection, Christ breathed on His disciples and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” What was this? Did they have the Holy Spirit already, or not?
Then Christ said, Acts chapter one, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you.” He spoke here of Pentecost.
So which is it? Did they receive the Spirit when they first received faith? Or at Baptism? Or on Easter Day? Or on Pentecost? Which is it?
And the answer is, all of the above. The Holy Spirit does not come only once. He comes, and then He comes again. Sometimes He comes with different purposes. On Easter, Christ gave the Spirit with the authority of the Office of the Keys, to forgive and bind sins. On Pentecost, they received power and flaming tongues and the ability to speak other languages, to preach with boldness.
We also continue to receive the Spirit every time we hear the Gospel. He abides with us and never leaves us. Yet He continues coming to us.
This is confusing, but hold on to this one idea, if nothing else: The Spirit comes abundantly, repeatedly, so that God can overflow with grace for you and me. He fills us full of His eternal gifts. He strengthens and preserves and enlightens. That is why He keeps coming again to us.
Now, back to the Samaritan believers. Since they had faith, they most certainly had the Spirit. Yet the Spirit had not “fallen upon them.” That is, He did not come in power with visible signs. We know this also because it says in Acts eight, eighteen, that they saw that the Spirit was given. There was a visible sign, although we are not told what that is. Perhaps they had flames of fire, as on Pentecost. Perhaps they spoke in other languages. We do not know the particulars. But in some way, the Spirit fell on them with power.
Why? As a convincing sign to the disciples that Samaritans, also, can have the Holy Ghost. This sounds obvious to us, but apparently was news to the disciples. We can see their attitude toward Samaritans in Saint Luke chapter nine, when Saint John asked permission from Christ to rain down fire upon Samaritan villages. This would have been a sign of judgment from God, if Christ would have allowed it. That is how corrupt the disciples thought the Samaritans were.
The same John was here in Acts eight, laying hands on the Samaritans, seeing the signs of the Spirit’s power manifest in them. Perhaps some of these same people would have been killed by heavenly fire if John had earlier gotten his wish. But now he sees, as we have been shown, that all men can have the Holy Ghost. Even those whom we think are unclean and outside of His grace can receive forgiveness and life.
And thank heavens, because if certain people were too unclean to receive salvation, then we would most certainly have been left out. We too were awful and repugnant to God, and still are in our sinful flesh. Yet for us He shed His precious Blood, as He also shed it for the Samaritans. For us He sent forth His Spirit to bring us into the kingdom. Through the faith that He has implanted in our hearts, even we can be saved.
Now a bit on Acts chapter ten. Much the same thing is happening. Cornelius, a Gentile centurion, was told by God to seek out Simon Peter. Peter came to his house and spoke the Gospel of Christ to his household. Then the same phrase is used here as in chapter eight: “The Holy Spirit fell on all who heard the word.” Then they began to speak in tongues, which means miraculously speaking in other languages that they had never learned.
Here again, God shows Peter and the other Jews with him that even Gentiles can have faith and the Spirit of God. It is not only Jews.
Now if you are like me, you did not speak in tongues when you first came to faith. Should we expect that everyone would speak in tongues at their conversion? No, because there is no such promise in Scripture.
But here God uses the miraculous sign to point out the truth to Peter and the others. Here was evidence of the Spirit’s presence, which would otherwise be invisible. God emphasized this fact strongly so that others in the church could hear the message that Gentiles were also coming to faith. They did not need to convert to Judaism first. They did not need to obey the law of Moses. God was happy simply to pour out His Spirit through His Gospel.
This is because the Spirit is not the main point. The main point is Jesus Christ and Him crucified. The point is that He is appointed the Judge over the living and the dead, because He has become the One Gate through which man can pass into eternal life. Only through the Blood of the atonement shed on Calvary is man saved. Only by being plunged into His wounds through water and the Word can we receive the grace of God that rescues us from satan.
Shall we go chasing after gifts of the Spirit? By no means! If the Spirit wants to give them, He will give them. Do not worry about them. The Spirit is no weakling who needs our permission.
Let us instead go chasing after Christ, in every place that He has promised to be found. Let us return to the water of Baptism by confessing our sins and receiving Holy Absolution. Let us eat and drink His Body and Blood in the Holy Supper. Let us hear His preaching and Word that proclaim the wonders of His grace.
Ironically, by chasing after Christ, we will find the Spirit. He is in these places as well. Everywhere forgiveness is poured out, there the Spirit is poured out as well.
So do not stoop down to an obsession with lesser gifts. Go for the very best. Hunger for the Gospel, and everything else that you need will be added to you in good time.
In the Name of this only gracious God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
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