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The Holy Spirit in Acts 2

I believe that a correct understanding of the Holy Spirit’s work (specifically his baptism, filling, and gifting) is crucial to a correct understanding of worship and music. For this reason, I’d like to examine the Holy Spirit’s work in Acts 2.

In early May of 2006, my wife and I discovered that we were going to have a baby. That was an exciting moment. Those early days were filled with doctor’s appointments, reading up on pregnancy and birth, and the joy of getting to tell family and friends our exciting news.

It wasn’t too long, though, before the anticipation was just too much. I just could not wait to have a son. It got worse as we got into the month of January 2007, because we knew that at any moment Becky could go into labor, and not too much later our son would be born.

And then it happened. Early Monday morning, January 22 Becky’s water broke, we went to the hospital, and 13 hours later Caleb was born. We knew the birth was coming, but because we didn’t know exactly when it would happen and could really do nothing to bring it sooner, the anticipation was exhilarating!

The anticipation of a birth is something that is both thrilling and nerve-racking, and for the early Christians, anticipating the birth of the spiritual Body of Christ — the Church — was just as thrilling and nerve-racking.

Acts chapter 2 marks the first act of the ascended Christ. The theme of the book of Acts is: the ascended Christ acting through His spiritual body by the empowerment of the Holy Spirit in order to advance His Kingdom through the witness of that body. In this second chapter of Acts we will see this theme begin to be fully developed. Everything in chapter one was introductory material: Luke introduced His theme in the first half of chapter one, in the second half of chapter one he described qualities of the founders of the first church that will characterize them through the whole book, and now in chapter two He describes the event that we have been anticipating all along — the birth of the Church.

The Birth Anticipation

The first thing I want us to notice is the anticipation of this birth. Really, Becky and I had a whole lot more information about the timing of Caleb’s birth and what it would be like than these early believers had.

The Birth Promise

Paul called the Church a “mystery” in Ephesians 3. A “mystery” in the Bible is something that has not before been explained. The Church is a mystery because unlike other predictions and prophesies in the Old Testament, the birth of the Church is not clearly predicted until Christ does so. Neither is the baptism of the Holy Spirit clearly predicted or explained fully. There are promises of a special pouring out of the Spirit, which we will see, but no clear explanation of Spirit baptism.

It is not until Christ that we have promises of either of these things, and even His predictions are sparse and not very clear.

For instance, Christ predicts the birth of the Church only once, in Matthew 16.18. He says, “I will build my Church.” Well that’s not a very clear explanation. All the disciples knew was that there was going to be some sort of “called out” group, and that it was Christ who was going to build it. That’s it. No time table, no explanation about its nature.

Christ predicts the baptism of the Holy Spirit a few times during his ministry. One of them is in Acts 1: Christ said “in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” So here we at least have a time table — “a few days.” But still, no explanation of what Spirit baptism is or what it will be like.

Now notice that although both the birth of the Church and Spirit baptism were both promised by Christ, He never explained any kind of connection between the two. For all the apostles knew, Spirit Baptism and this new body of “called out ones” were not connected in any way.

This is where it is important for us to use later explanation in the New Testament to help us understand what is happening in this passage. 1 Corinthians 12.13 provides us with the link between Spirit baptism and the birth of the Church.

For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body — whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free — and we were all given the one Spirit to drink (1 Corinthians 12.13).

Notice a few important points from this verse. First, Spirit baptism is all-inclusive. Who is the “we all” in this verse? All believers. Second, notice the past tense: “were.” This is something that happened in the past. Third, notice that there is a clear connection between Spirit baptism and the Church — “one body” in this verse. According to this verse, being baptized with the Spirit is what puts us into the spiritual Body of Christ.

A body is a visible expression of a spirit. A body without a spirit is dead. If the apostles had attempted to do mighty acts without the power of the Spirit and without being united with Christ as His body, they would have failed. Church history is all about Christ working through His spiritual body, and He does so through the power of the Spirit.

Christ did the same thing when He acted through His physical body. The gospels reveal that Christ worked through the power of the Spirit. This is why when the leaders of the Jews ascribed Jesus’ works to Satan, Christ said that they had blasphemed the Holy Spirit.

So Christ’s acts through His physical body were done through the power of the Spirit, and Christ’s acts through His spiritual body are done through the power of His Spirit. And His disciples had to wait in Jerusalem for the promised Spirit to come and baptize them — to immerse them into the body of Christ — before He could work through them.

So the birth of the Church was promised by Christ, and Spirit baptism was promised by Christ, and we know that the two promises are linked in a very important way: Spirit baptism brings about the birth of the Church.

The Birth Preparation

Now I want you to notice the preparation for this birth.

First, some context. Christ told his disciples in Acts 1.4 to wait for the baptism of the Holy Spirit. Now why did they have to wait? They didn’t know the answer to that, but we do.

John 7.39 tells us that they had not yet been given the Spirit because Jesus had not yet been glorified. In other words, Christ had to ascend into heaven before He could send the Holy Spirit. Why? Because of the function of Spirit baptism. If Spirit baptism makes us members of the spiritual Body of Christ through which he acts while he is in heaven, then obviously while he was on earth in a physical body there was no need for Him to act through a spiritual body. It is not until he ascends into heaven that He has need of another body on earth to do His acting. And so once He ascends into heaven, the stage is set for Him to send the Holy Spirit and thereby build His spiritual Body.

I want you to notice one more thing about the preparations for this birth, and for this we will finally get into Acts 2. Look at verse 1:

When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. (Acts 1.1-2).

I want you to notice just two words in those verses: First “suddenly.” This baptism of the Holy Spirit happened without any warning. It was not dependent upon any activity on the part of the apostles. They were not commanded to seek for it, they were not commanded to pray for it. They were not commanded to do anything that would bring about Spirit baptism. It just came “suddenly.” In fact, the other word that I want you to notice clarifies this further: “sitting.” Now that word may not seem to have any importance, but it is important for this reason: If the apostles had been praying for the baptism of the Holy Spirit like many charismatics and pentecostals argue, then in this culture they would have been kneeling. But they were not kneeling, they were sitting. They were just doing what Jesus had told them to do — they were patiently waiting for Him to send the Spirit. And He did, “suddenly” and without warning.

The point for us is this: whatever Spirit baptism is (and we’ll continue to explore what it is in a moment), it is not something that we seek or pray for or pursue. It is something that God Himself does. And all we know at this point is that Spirit baptism makes us members of the spiritual body of Christ.

And so in anticipation of this birth, it was promised by Christ along with a promise of Spirit baptism, yet these believers do not yet understand the connection. And it was prepared for by the ascension of Christ and by the apostles being commanded to simply wait and nothing else.

Now let’s look at the actual birth arrival.

The Birth Arrival

When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them (Acts 2.1-4).

What a spectacular event! Whatever this baptism with the Spirit is, it must be something wonderful, because God used some amazing supernatural phenomenon to illustrate what was happening.

And that is just what these phenomenon are — they are illustrations. The first two never occur again, and the third one does only a few other times, which we will see in a moment. God chose to use these phenomenon to accompany the first-ever Spirit baptism in order to help illustrate and explain exactly what was happening at this event.

Let’s look at each of these three supernatural phenomenon.

The Birth Illustrated by Sound

The first sign that the apostles witnessed was “a sound like the blowing of a violent wind.” Now wind and the Spirit are naturally connected, especially in the mind of someone who speaks Greek, like these apostles. In Greek, the word for “wind” and the word for “spirit” are the same word. And so wind is often used to illustrate the Spirit. For instance, Jesus Himself used wind as an illustration of the work of the Spirit in John 3 when he was talking with Nicodemus. He says, “the wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”

So this first sign left no question in the minds of the apostles that what was happening was a work of the Spirit. And what work of the Spirit would have immediately come to their minds? The work that Christ had promised would come just a few days earlier — baptism with the Spirit.

The Birth Illustrated by Sight

The second sign accompanying this first occurrence of Spirit baptism was one of sight — “tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them.” This sign had two purposes. First, it further emphasized that this was a work of God. Fire is often used as a symbol of the presence of God, such as with the burning bush of Exodus 3.

Second, when the fire separated and rested on each one of them, it illustrated that what was happening with Spirit baptism was happening to each of the believers in a unified fashion. Now they did not understand this exactly at that time, but we know now that Spirit baptism unites believers into one body as we saw in 1 Corinthians 12. This sign illustrated that fact.

The Birth Illustrated by Speech

The final sign was one of speech. They “began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.” Now I want you to note a few things that will help us interpret this sign.

First, notice that Luke says that they spoke in tongues when they were filled with the Holy Spirit. I think it is important here that we distinguish between Spirit baptism and Spirit filling.

Spirit baptism is non-experiential. In other words, we don’t feel anything or see anything or do anything when it happens. Now here at the first-ever Spirit baptism God sends supernatural phenomenon to help explain what is happening, but these things never happen again, except perhaps the third, which we will examine in a moment. The point is that Spirit baptism is simply a legal declaration that we are now members of Christ’s spiritual body.

Spirit filling, on the other hand, is experiential. When someone is filled by the Spirit, he is controlled by the Word of God and will act accordingly.

Spirit baptism is never commanded. We’ve already seen that it happens when God wants it to happen. Now in the normal course of things, it happens at the moment of our salvation. But especially in these first few occurrences, it happens when God wants it to happen, not dependent upon human action.

Spirit filling, on the other hand, is commanded in Scripture. Paul says in Ephesians 5, “Be filled by the Spirit.”

Spirit baptism is a once-for-all occurrence. Once you have been made a member of the spiritual body of Christ, you will always be a member of the spiritual body of Christ.

Spirit filling, on the other hand, is like a dimmer-switch for a light. There are times when you are more or less filled by the Spirit.

With Spirit baptism, Christ is the one doing the baptizing, and the Spirit is the “water.”

With Spirit filling, the Spirit is the one doing the filling, and the Word of Christ is the “water.”

You see, it is very important that we distinguish between Spirit baptism and Spirit filling. Spirit baptism happens once at the moment of your salvation. It places you into the body of Christ, and it is non-experiential. Spirit filling happens over and over throughout the Christian life as you submit yourself to the Word of God.

Now, I must make one more point about Spirit filling that is necessary for us to understand tongues in this passage. In the New Testament there are two kinds of Spirit filling. There is the kind that I just described. When the believer submits himself to the Word of Christ, he is filled by the Spirit with the Word. This is the kind of Spirit-filling we hear most about in preaching, because it is the kind of filling that we must continually pursue. This kind of filling is mentioned only once in the New Testament: Ephesians 5: “Be filled by the Spirit.”

However, there is another kind of Spirit filling. It is not filling by the Spirit as we see in Ephesians 5, but it is filling with the Spirit like we see here in this passage. This kind of filling is a special filling that God uses to especially equip certain believers to accomplish special tasks, such as here in our passage. It occurs four other times in the book of Acts where God’s servants are accomplishing special tasks. Yet this kind of filling is more similar to Spirit baptism than it is to the kind of filling commanded in Ephesians 5 because this kind of filling here in Acts is not commanded, and the Holy Spirit is what these believers are being filled with instead of being the one doing the filling.

The important point is this: both events that happen here in Acts 2 — Spirit baptism and Spirit filling — are not things that we should seek or pray for or pursue. They happen when God wants them to happen. There is a kind of Spirit filling that we are to pursue — being filled with the Word by the Spirit — but that’s not what is being addressed here. And so the supernatural phenomenon that accompany both Spirit baptism and Spirit filling in this passage are also things that we should not seek or pray for or pursue. They were sent by God for very specific purposes.

The second thing I want you to note is the audience of this sign. Who was it that witnessed the speaking in tongues? Luke tells us in verse 5.

Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven (Acts 2.5).

Converts to Judaism from all over the world were present in Jerusalem to celebrate Pentecost. Pentecost was one of three annual pilgrim feasts for the Jews, and it was no accident that God chose this festival time to send the Holy Spirit because Jews from all around the world would be there to witness the event.

But what is important for us is that they were all Jews. This was a sign to the Jews. And what a sign it was! Here are people from all sorts of different nationalities from all over the world and each of them hears the apostles speaking in their own native language. Their response was one of bewilderment and amazement. “How can these simple Galileans be speaking in all those different languages?”

Now what is this gift of tongues that was a sign to the Jews? In answer to that question, I want to point out something to you in the text that is perfectly highlighted in our translation. In verse 4 Luke says that they spoke in other “tongues.” This is the Greek word glossais, which is the word used to describe the literal tongue organ in the mouth. So our translation here reflects that. And at this point we don’t necessarily know what “speaking in tongues” means. Charismatics, of course, teach that speaking in tongues is some sort of ecstatic speaking, and they even use the term “glossololia” to describe it.

But now look down in verse 8. The Jews say, “Then how is it that each of us hears them in his own native language.” The word “language” here is the word dialecto, from which we get our English word “dialect.” Here there is no question that they are talking about distinct, known languages, and our translation perfectly reflects this.

But now I want you to notice the end of verse 11. These same Jews, talking about the same event, say “We hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!” The word “tongues” here is the same word as in verse 4 — glossais, yet it is clear that they are using it interchangeably with dialecto in verse 8. In other words, in the mind of these Jews who were the ones actually observing this miraculous event, “tongues” and “languages” are exactly the same thing. They are interchangeable.

With a very simple reading of this text, it should be clearly evident that the gift of tongues is the ability to speak in known languages that the speaker himself does not know. Yet irresponsible reading of this text has led many in recent years to develop a whole new explanation of what tongues really is. Don’t be swayed by their teaching. Let the clear explanation of the text determine your understanding of the gift of tongues.

So what have we learned thus far? This third sign given to the apostles to illustrate the baptism of the Holy Spirit and subsequent birth of the Church is the ability to speak in known languages that the speaker did not before know. And this sign was given specifically to a Jewish audience composed of nationalities from all over the world.

So how was this a sign to them, and what does it teach about Spirit baptism or the nature of the Church?

We have to remember that up to this time, God’s focus has been exclusively upon the people of Israel. At the Tower of Babel God confused the languages, and from that point on the focus of His love and work was upon the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Salvation was of the Jews.

But now Spirit Baptism is not limited to one nationality. Christ will baptize without national distinction! Now, membership in the spiritual body of Christ is not limited to one nationality. Spirit baptism will place people into the Church without national distinction! This is a concept completely foreign to a Jew, and this gift of tongues is a poignant sign to the Jews that they are no longer the exclusive focus of God’s attention and love and plan — now there is no difference between Jew and Gentile — the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him!

This is a truth amazingly foreign to the Jews, but it is a truth amazingly wonderful for those of us who are not Jewish! God has not limited Spirit baptism or membership in Christ’s body to one nationality — all nationalities are welcome! In a very real way, Pentecost reversed Babel!

Now as I mentioned earlier, the apostles themselves didn’t even recognize this at first. Peter himself needed a good scolding from Paul in Acts 11 to convince him that there is no distinction between Jew and Gentile. But we should have no such confusion. This event and subsequent explanation make very clear that this new spiritual body of Christ called the church is made up of Jews and Gentiles alike.

This sign is given to the Jews here, but it is also given to the Samaritans later in chapter 8, it is given to other Gentiles living in Israel later in chapter 10, and it is given to Gentiles outside Israel in chapter 19. This is why we see a sort of staggered baptism of the Holy Spirit. It is given to each different group at separate times to further emphasize that all nationalities are welcome in the Body of Christ. This miraculous event at Pentecost is a one-time event, but it is like an earthquake with several aftershocks.

I want to note one more thing about this gift of tongues. Just like the sound of wind was temporary and the tongues of fire were temporary, so this supernatural phenomenon of tongues was temporary. Like I said, it occurs three more times in the book of Acts in order to solidify the national inclusiveness of the Church, but it is never mentioned as happening again. The only other time tongues is mentioned is in 1 Corinthians where the Corinthians were attempting something that Paul was correcting. We have no conclusive evidence that tongues ever again occurred outside these four events.

And so this birth of the spiritual body of Christ rivaled the birth of his physical body in its spectacular arrival. And why shouldn’t it? If the birth of Christ’s physical body was accompanied by brightly singing Angels, why should we expect any less from the birth of His spiritual body? The only difference between the two is that this second incarnation was more public. But it was no less spectacular. And each of these supernatural phenomenon that accompanied the birth were given to teach specific truths about the nature of the Church. (1) The sound of wind — it is the Spirit who is forming this body. (2) Flames of fire — Spirit baptism is an act of God unifying believers into one body. (3) Speaking languages they didn’t even know — members of the Church are without national distinction. And although the apostles themselves don’t even completely understand these truths, we will see them come to a more full understanding as our study in the book of Acts progresses.

Now these phenomenon certainly created quite a stir. The people were bewildered. They were amazed. They demanded an explanation. Some of them even scoffed and blamed the confusion on drunkenness. But then Peter stands up tells these people what their correct response should be to this amazing event in his great birth announcement.

The Birth Announcement

Peter first answers the scoffers with an obvious answer: “It is too early to be drunk.” The alcohol that they used in that day to purify their drinking water was so diluted that it would have been impossible to get intoxicated by such an early hour in the morning.

But then he once again evidences his proper respect for Scripture in explaining what was really happening.

No, this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel: ‘In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy. I will show wonders in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood and fire and billows of smoke. The sun will be turned to darkness and the moon to blood before the coming of the great and glorious day of the Lord. And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved (Acts 2.16-21).

Now remember, Peter doesn’t necessarily understand everything that is going on here. He only knows what he has already been told and what he has learned from the signs. He knows that this is a work of the Holy Spirit. And because of Christ’s promise just a few days prior, he probably knows that this is Spirit baptism. But he doesn’t necessarily know what Spirit baptism is nor that it has anything to do with the Church that Christ promised He would build. All he knows is that this is the Holy Spirit, and because of His study of Old Testament prophesy and his conviction that “Scripture must be fulfilled,” he recognizes that this event is what was spoken by the prophet Joel.

Proof of the Last Days

Now how is what happened at Pentecost the same as what was prophesied by Joel? Well, let’s first note some very important things about Joel’s prophesy.

First, not one of Joel’s prophesied supernatural phenomenon occurred on that day, or, for that matter, has ever occurred. The Holy Spirit was poured out, but not in the full sense of Joel’s prophesy; Joel knew nothing of Spirit baptism or the formation of the church. Furthermore, the Holy Spirit was not poured out “on all people” like Joel prophesied. We do not see on this day the kind of widespread prophesy that Joel predicted, nor do we see the miraculous heavenly wonders of blood and fire and billows of smoke. The sun didn’t turn to darkness or the moon to blood. None of these supernatural phenomenon has ever occurred. This must lead us to conclude that what Joel prophesied has not yet fully been fulfilled.

Second, I want you to notice the time period that Peter links with Joel’s prophesy. In verse 17 he says, “In the last days.” When are the last days? The last days began with the first coming of Jesus Christ. Hebrews 1.2 says, “In these last days.” We are in the last days. Now, the Jews certainly did not believe that they were in the last days, nor would they have wanted to. Prophetically, the last days were bad news for the nation of Israel. According to prophesy, the last days meant judgement was coming for the Jews.

This leads us to Peter’s main point: According to Joel’s prophesy, the last days would be characterized by the working of the Holy Spirit, and so this event of evident Holy Spirit activity should have been proof to the Jews that they were indeed in the last days. The first coming of Christ began the last days, and the beginning of this unique work of the Holy Spirit proves that. The second coming of Christ will end the last days, and the supernatural phenomenon of Joel’s prophesy will mark that time.

Response to the Last Days

Peter’s main thrust at this point is one of warning and plea. Judgement is coming to the nation of Israel. This miraculous work of the Holy Spirit proves that they were in the last days. So the only proper response is what Joel said at the end of his prophesy:

And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved (Acts 2.21).

Peter is in essence saying, “Repent! Turn from your unbelief! Call on the name of the Lord and you will be saved from the promised judgment!”


So Peter’s point is to plead with the Jews to call on the name of the Lord for salvation because judgement is coming. And this kind of plea applies to all mankind because everyone is a sinner and judgement is coming!

So what should our response as believers be to this event? First, we should marvel and praise the Lord for His perfect plan in sending His holy Spirit to baptize us into His spiritual Body — the Church. What a wonderful privilege it is to be a member of the Body through whom Christ is acting even today. We should also be thankful that membership in this body is not limited to one nation, but all who believe in Christ are baptized into this body.

Second, we should make sure our thinking is correct concerning Spirit baptism, Spirit filling, and the gift of tongues. So much confusion exists today concerning these things, and if we would just carefully read the Scriptures and be honest with the text, all the confusion would be clearer.

Pentecost is not repeatable as some would have us believe. We have seen that it was a one-time event because of its purpose — to birth the church. In Luke 2 Luke records the birth of Christ’s physical body, a birth that was made possible through a supernatural work of the Holy Spirit. In Acts 2 Luke records the birth of Christ’s spiritual body, a birth that was made possible also through a supernatural work of the Holy Spirit. To seek for a second Pentecost is just as absurd as seeking for a second Incarnation.

About Scott Aniol

Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is director of doctoral worship studies at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he teaches courses in ministry, worship, hymnology, aesthetics, culture, and philosophy. He is the author of Worship in Song: A Biblical Approach to Music and Worship, Sound Worship: A Guide to Making Musical Choices in a Noisy World, and By the Waters of Babylon: Worship in a Post-Christian Culture, and speaks around the country in churches and conferences. He is an elder in his church in Fort Worth, TX where he resides with his wife and four children. Views posted here are his own and not necessarily those of his employer.