This passage has been controversial in the Churches of Christ for many years. One hundred years ago, the Churches split into two camps, called the Texas and the Tennessee camps by John Mark Hicks and Bobby Valentine.
The Texas camp was championed by Austin McGary, who took a nearly deistic view of God and denied a personal indwelling of the Spirit. He could take considerable comfort in a number of statements by Alexander Campbell that substantially agree.
However, Barton W. Stone and Robert Richardson, who followed Campbell as editor of the Millennial Harbinger, both accepted a personal indwelling, and so gave rise to the Tennessee camp.
By 1950, the Texas school of thought had come to dominate the Churches of Christ (with Foy Wallace Jr. having had a major role in the shift), and this remained true until the 1970s.
I believe the personal indwelling is the majority view today, but the near-deistic view that the Spirit works only through the word dwelling in the heart continues to have many adherents.
Both the grammar and historical context of Acts 2:38 strongly argue that “gift of the Holy Spirit” is in fact the Holy Spirit — as in “a gift of candy” — rather than a “gift given by the Holy Spirit.” Follow the text with me.
First, John the Baptist declares that Jesus will baptize with the Holy Spirit (Luke 3:16).
Second, Jesus reminds the apostles of this shortly before his Ascension (Acts 1:5).
Third, on Pentecost, the apostles were “filled with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:4).
Fourth, the crowd was “amazed and perplexed” (Acts 2:12).
Fifth, Peter explains what is happening by quoting Joel: ” I will pour out my Spirit, and they shall prophesy” (Act 2:18).
Sixth, Peter summarizes his lesson with —
(Act 2:33 ESV) 33 Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you yourselves are seeing and hearing.
Clearly, what the audience was seeing and hearing — “this” is the “promise of the Holy Spirit,” which was poured out. And because it is the Spirit who was being poured out (which we know from Joel and other prophets), we know “promise of the Spirit” is the Spirit.
Seventh, “gift of the Holy Spirit” therefore refers to its parallel, “promise of the Holy Spirit,” that is, the Spirit himself.
Some argue that the “gift of the Holy Spirit” is salvation, but forgiveness of sins is a separate promise promised earlier in Acts 2:38. Rather, grammatically, the gift of the Spirit follows forgiveness of sins.
Indeed, we must take Pentecost as the fulfillment of —
(Luk 11:11-13 ESV) 11 What father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will instead of a fish give him a serpent; 12 or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? 13 If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”
Here Jesus refers to the Spirit as a “gift” from God. Also parallel are —
(Act 8:20 ESV) But Peter said to him, “May your silver perish with you, because you thought you could obtain the gift of God with money!
Peter was rebuking Simon, who was asking for the indwelling Spirit.
(Act 10:45 ESV) And the believers from among the circumcised who had come with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit was poured out even on the Gentiles.
Luke again refers to the Spirit as being outpoured, referring back to such prophets as Joel, who promised that the Spirit would be outpoured.
(John 4:10 ESV) Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.”
“The gift of God” is Living Water, which is plainly a reference to the Spirit (John 7:37-39).
In fact, to anyone familiar with the prophecies regarding the Spirit, the meaning is obvious.
Was the gift miraculous?
So, to me, whether the “gift of the Spirit” is the Spirit himself is not even an interesting question. It’s obvious if you’ve studied the historical and literary context. No, to me, the harder question is whether Peter was promising the gift of prophecy as well.
You see, Peter had just quoted Joel, which explicitly promises the gift of prophecy. And he and the rest of the original 120 were prophesying! And so a natural reading of the promise would be that those receiving the Spirit would get to prophesy. But is that right?
It seems clearly not to be the case —
(Act 2:43 ESV) 43 And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles.
The “wonders” and “signs” were only through the apostles at this point, even though we certainly know that others were given miraculous abilities later. Therefore, I think it’s a mistake to imagine that it’s normal for converts to speak in tongues or prophesy immediately upon baptism, although we see examples of just that later in Acts.
I mean, if all 3,000 started to prophesy immediately upon baptism, that would have been a major event and surely would have been recorded.
- The idea of word-only indwelling will be foreign to many of our members but something others wrestle with nearly daily, as the doctrine was pounded hard by Church publications back in the 1970s. Do you find it hard to believe in a personal indwelling?
- Does anyone have a story or experience that demonstrates the reality of a personal indwelling?
- Why is the personal indwelling important? Why isn’t it good enough that we can read the Bible and obey?
- Several places we run into parallels between the Kingdom and Exodus. Can you think of other examples? (“Redeem” means to be freed from slavery. We often think of “Zion” as symbolizing heaven. The church and Israel are both called the ekklesia. The indwelling of the Spirit is taken from God’s dwelling within Israel via the tabernacle.)
- How does “Kingdom” means something different from “church”? What does “Kingdom” tell you about Christianity?