The Gift(s) of the Spirit

We have noted previously that some NT terminology adds to the confusion of the present day Christian’s relationship with the Holy Spirit.  It is admittedly not easy to differentiate the meaning of these terms from one passage to another.  Note, for example, the words gift or gifts as they pertain to the Spirit.

The Same Gift.  First, when Jesus was eating the Passover with the disciples, He spoke at length concerning His departure and His promise to send the Holy Spirit to them to help them (Jn 14-16).  He said, “I will pray the Father, and He will give you another Helper, that He may abide with you forever, even the Spirit of truth” (Jn 14:16-17).  Nearing His ascension He reaffirmed this:  “I send the Promise of My Father upon you; but tarry in the city of Jerusalem until you are endued with power from on high” (Lk 24:49).  One last time, in His final words to the apostles, He promised “You shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you” (Ac 1:8).  These promises came to pass on Pentecost in Acts 2.

But some years later, when Peter was directed to go to the house of Cornelius, during the midst of his sermon “the Holy Spirit fell upon all those who heard the word” (Ac 10:44).  This astonished the Jews who had accompanied Peter “because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out on the Gentiles also” (10:45).  When Peter was later upbraided for eating with Gentiles in Cornelius’ home, he defended himself in these words:  “If therefore God gave them the same gift as He gave us when we believed on the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could withstand God?” (11:17).  So, the baptism of the Spirit upon the apostles on Pentecost is called a “gift” because it was freely bestowed by God.

Related to this apostolic gift of the Spirit is an accompanying prerogative also called a gift.  When the apostles laid hands on some of the Samaritans and conferred upon them spiritual gifts, Simon wanted to purchase this power presumably to profit from it.  But Peter rebuked him, “Your money perish with you, because you thought that the gift of God could be purchased with money!” (Ac 8:20).  So, “gift” refers in these instances to the baptism of the Spirit upon both the apostles and Cornelius’ household.

The Gift of the Holy Spirit.  The term “gift” is also used in connection with what happens to new converts relative to the Spirit:  “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 (Ac 2:38).  There are two possibilities here: 

1) The Holy Spirit is the gift.  Commentators usually advocate this idea, but it should be noted that the grammar is ambiguous.  Certainly the NT upholds the idea of the believer’s relationship with the Spirit, which is spoken of in such terms as being led by the Spirit, the Spirit dwelling in them, being strengthened by the Spirit, etc.  The problem is that Peter does not spell out what he means; that has to come from other passages.

2) The gift the Holy Spirit provides.  If we take this phrase in the context of the sermon, Peter began by explaining that the behavior of the apostles was not as drunkenness but fulfillment of Joel’s prophecy of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit (2:15-18).  As a result of this coming of the Spirit, first in a “baptismal measure” upon the apostles, and then by lesser degree upon sons/daughters/old and young/men- and maidservants, “it shall come to pass that whoever calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved” (2:20).  Salvation, and all it encompasses, is the result of the Spirit’s manifestation being witnessed by the crowds on Pentecost. 

The rest of Peter’s sermon drives home the guilt of the Lord’s persecutors; explains the fulfilled prophecies of Jesus’ resurrection; declares Jesus’ enthronement at God’s right hand; and affirms Him as the source of “this which you now see and hear” (2:33).  He has circled back to the explanation of the signs they had seen which evidenced the Spirit’s presence. Whatever else Peter might have planned to say is interrupted by the cry of stricken consciences:  “Men and brethren, what shall we do?” (2:37).  “Are we doomed?” they are desperate to know.  “No,” says Peter, “if you obey God’s conditions for the remission of sins, salvation – not condemnation – will be yours.”

Is this redundant?  No, because forgiveness is merely the beginning of the manifold blessings of salvation in Christ.  Salvation includes mediation with God, access in prayer, help in ongoing sanctification, fellowship of saints, acceptable worship, working in God’s service, etc. 

One thing is clear from further Bible teaching:  the “gift of the Holy Spirit” is neither the baptism promised to the apostles (and later bestowed upon Cornelius) nor miraculous spiritual gifts (1 Cor 12:7-11), for these are not the results of initial obedience to the Lord.  Each student will have to decide which is meant in Ac 2:38.

The gifts of the Spirit.  Though Peter alludes to these from Joel’s prophecy, he speaks of them prospectively, for they are not in evidence until Stephen and Philip display them (Ac 6:8; 8:6-7, 13).  We only learn later that this extension of miracle-working beyond the apostles is by laying their hands on select believers (Ac 8:14-20; cf. 19:6).  

Further textual evidence suggests that these miracles were not permanent features of the kingdom but initial aids in spreading the gospel and supplying knowledge in the absence of a written covenant.  In spite of the claims of today’s charismatics, the miraculous signs were not to affirm one’s personal faith or provide random, occasional healings.  Rather, they were intended as heavenly credentials and divine guidance for those who were laboring in the first and second generations of the spiritual kingdom.

Paul makes it clear in 1 Cor 12 that “one and the same Spirit works in all these things, distributing to each one individually as He wills” (12:11).  Note that while the Holy Spirit distributes the gifts, He does so through the apostles.  The idea of instrumentality must be accounted for when studying how the Spirit operates (cf. the Spirit’s explanation of the messengers at Peter’s door, “I have sent them,” yet it was an angel who instructed Cornelius to send for Peter [10:20; 3-8]). 

The Holy Spirit is the source of many blessings and gifts, but we must take care when we consider His role among God’s people.