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Receiving the Holy Spirit

How do we receive the Holy Spirit today? Some believe the Holy Spirit can only be received through prayer. Others say you must be water baptized first in order to have Him. Some believe the Spirit is only obtained through the laying on of hands: only through men. Some believe in a combination of these. There are religious organizations that claim a monopoly on the Holy Spirit, asserting He is only given through their institution. What does the Bible say?

To start, the Holy Spirit is a gift from God to Christ’s Church (John 14:16). After Jesus died, rose, and then ascended to heaven, He sent the Holy Spirit to His followers as promised (John 16:7; Acts 1:5; Acts 2:4). This promised outpouring of the Holy Spirit as prophesied by Joel was fulfilled on the Day of Pentecost, described in the second chapter of Acts.

Let’s take a closer look.

“When the day of Pentecost arrived, they were all together in one place. And suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance.” (Acts 2:1-3).

Who is filled with the Holy Spirit and speaking in other tongues? This initial outpouring in verses one through three seems to focus on a specific group of believers gathered in a house. Taking the context of the previous verses from chapter one into account (which speak of the Apostles) and the flow of the storytelling, it appears to have been the Apostles—and perhaps some other disciples—who were gathered together under one roof on Pentecost that were initially filled with the Holy Spirit. At any rate, I presume it was a group of believers in Jesus, as we will see later those who believe in Jesus are the ones who receive the Holy Spirit.

It wasn’t until after this group of disciples had received the Holy Spirit and started speaking in other tongues that the larger crowd of thousands throughout the city assembled. “Now there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men from every nation under heaven” (verse 5). Jews from the dispersion among the nations had gathered into the city for Pentecost. At the sound, these men of Israel gathered to see what this was all about:

“And at the sound the multitude came together, and they were bewildered, because each one was hearing them speak in his own language. And they were amazed and astonished, saying, ‘Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us in his own native language?’” (Acts 2:6-8).

Here we see that the people who had received the Holy Spirit and spoke in tongues were Galileans: again likely a reference to the Apostles and their close associates, who were Galileans.

So what does it mean that they spoke in other tongues? They were communicating known foreign languages to the crowd that had assembled from all nations so that each could hear and understand in his own tongue. There was purpose in the Apostles/disciples speaking in other tongues. It was so they could communicate “the might works of God” to the assembly who had yet to hear the Gospel (verse 11).

The disciples in the house, who already believed in Jesus, received the Holy Spirit in verse one immediately upon the Spirit’s release from heaven: as Jesus promised would happen. Jesus first had to go to the Father before the Holy Spirit would be sent to them (John 7:39; John 16:7; Acts 1:8-11). But the greater majority of the crowd, who had yet to believe in Jesus in the earlier half of chapter two, wouldn’t receive the Holy Spirit until they first heard the Word and believed. Rather, they observed the outpouring given to the disciples (Acts 2:12-13, 15, 33). They didn’t receive the Spirit until verse 41, after Peter had preached to them. They had repented by believing (verse 41), and responded in this instance through water baptism. Peter commands:

“Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”

It is clear that on the Day of Pentecost, salvation and the outpouring of Holy Spirit was upon the House of Israel (Acts 2). While it seems clear to me that the crowd of 3,000 who were added to the Church that day were given the Holy Spirit because they “received his word,” (verse 41)—meaning they believed—some might confusingly attribute their reception of the Holy Spirit to having been water baptized. During the earlier part of the Book of Acts, the Holy Spirit appears to have been received in a variety of ways. The truth is, I intend to show that the reception of the Holy Spirit is based solely on the recipient’s faith in the Gospel. However, some people have put a lot of stock into the means by which it is seemingly obtained as described through various accounts in Acts: whether it be water baptism, the laying on of hands, or prayer. Faith is necessary; the others are not.

To the Jews, Peter said in Acts 2:38: “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” Does water baptism always need to precede the forgiveness of sins and reception of the Holy Spirit? The Jews were a nation accustomed to physical ordinances and ceremonial law. After all, John the Baptist—who prepared the way for the Messiah—baptized with water for repentance (Matthew 3:11). Perhaps it was only natural for the Jews to have a tendency to combine ordinance and ceremony from the old with the spiritual reality of the new: the foreshadowing and picturing of water baptism from John’s ministry with the spiritual baptism of Christ’s ministry. Whatever one may speculate, it seems clear that in this instance Jews received the Holy Spirit after they were baptized in water; and it appears the two (water baptism and receiving the Holy Spirit) are connected as one event. Standing on this verse alone, one might very well conclude that water baptism brings the forgiveness of sins and gift of the Holy Spirit.

However, In Acts Chapter eight, the Samaritans had been baptized in name of Jesus (presumably a water baptism) but did not receive the Holy Spirit as a result. Perhaps water baptism wasn’t as directly correlated to receiving the Holy Spirit as one may have presumed earlier, based on Acts 2:38. The Samaritans received the Holy Spirit by the hands of the apostles after prayer:

“Now when the apostles at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the word of God, they sent to them Peter and John, who came down and prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit, for he had not yet fallen on any of them, but they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. Then they laid their hands on them and they received the Holy Spirit” (Acts 8:14-17).

If the key to obtaining the Holy Spirit isn’t in water baptism, perhaps it is in prayer, or in the laying on of hands as seems to be the case in Acts chapter eight. But does prayer always need to precede the reception of the Holy Spirit? Is it always required for men to lay hands on another in order for that person to receive the Holy Spirit? The Samaritans, a half-breed of Jew and Gentile, were hated by the Jews. Perhaps an apostolic acceptance and validation for their inclusion into Israel’s Household of God was needed. The dawn of a new Age, it was a tumultuous and transitional time in which devout Jews were learning how to be Christians, and who could be Christians. To the Jews, who demanded signs, marvelous and leading acts from the Apostles seemed required in order to evidence God’s direction among the early Church. The clear message: Samaritans could be included in the Church.

By the eleventh chapter of Acts, it became clear that not only the Samaritans, but the Gentiles were included in these blessings and promises (Acts 11:17-18). Peter and the rest were learning as they went—one step at a time. In Acts chapter ten, Peter learned that all unclean foods once forbidden in the Mosaic Law were now considered clean and could be eaten: he could eat with Gentiles. More importantly, it was revealed to Peter that the Gentiles could be saved and receive the Holy Spirit: that God doesn’t makes distinctions among men but freely offers His salvation to all.

Peter was also uncovering the means by which the Holy Spirit could be received among the Gentiles. When the Gentiles first received the Holy Spirit in the tenth chapter of Acts, it was received through hearing with faith. Peter was preaching the Gospel to Cornelius’ household, and “while [he] was still saying these things, the Holy Spirit fell on all who heard the word” (Acts 10:44). One might postulate that perhaps Peter would have said something similar to what he preached in Acts 2:38 in regards to how they were to receive the Holy Spirit. Perhaps he expected that they would need to be baptized in water first before they could receive the Gift. Or maybe, like the Samaritans, it would also require Peter to pray for them and lay his hands on them.

But before Peter could even get that far, the Gentile household had already received the gift of the Holy Spirit. Peter recounts this incident to the Church in Jerusalem:

“As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell on them just as on us at the beginning. And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ If then God gave the same gift to them as he gave to us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could stand in God’s way?” (Acts 11:15-17).

These Gentiles received the Holy Spirit immediately upon belief—at their moment of salvation. There was no water used, no prayers prayed, and no hands laid. Nothing in between them and their reception of the Holy Spirit: just hearing the Gospel and believing it. Peter also reveals in this accounting that to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit is to be baptized with the Holy Spirit by Christ (Acts 11:15-17). And the Church’s response to Peter reveals their acknowledgement that these Gentiles were now saved like them: “When they heard these things they fell silent. And they glorified God, saying, ‘then to the Gentiles also God’s has granted repentance that leads to life’” (Acts 11:18).

God’s working among the early Church for an understanding of salvation was a mystery being unfolded throughout the book of Acts. Now that it was clear the Gentiles could be saved and receive the Holy Spirit (Acts 11), apparently it still wasn’t clear whether belief in what Peter had preached in Acts chapter ten to Cornelius’ Gentile household (the Gospel) was enough to keep Gentiles saved. Some were saying concerning the Gentiles who believed in Jesus, “unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved” (Acts 15:1). So this matter was brought before the elders and Apostles in Jerusalem. There was much debate among them concerning this (Acts 15:7).

Why would a debate like that have even needed to take place among the elders and Apostles of the early Church? Today, that would have seemed so obvious. Of course through the preaching of Paul to the Gentiles we now have no doubt that physical circumcision has nothing to do with our spiritual salvation. But Acts chapter fifteen was a different era for the Church: one of transition and progress in grasping foundational elements of Christianity. Peter asserts after much debate in verse eleven: “we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they (the Gentiles) will.” As far as I am aware, this is the first direct statement in Acts about being saved through the grace of Jesus. This new and revelatory statement essentially ended the debate among the Church leaders. This doesn’t occur until the fifteenth Chapter of Acts. Let’s keep this in mind while reading and studying the previous fourteen Chapters.

I say all this to merely point out that when there seem to be inconsistencies in Acts about how one is to receive the Holy Spirit, we can understand why this may be. Luke, through the Holy Spirit, does a great job recording the acts of the early Church—which includes the progress of the initial groundwork laid for the Church during the early apostolic generation of the Church Age. We must therefore be discerning in reading Acts that it is describing events and actions taken in that time, not necessarily prescribing all of these accounts for our day. We must be aware of the social, cultural, and religious backgrounds and contexts in light of the overall prophetic overview provided in scripture. Some events in Acts like at Pentecost (when the Spirit first came like a mighty wind from Heaven) ought to be understood as one-time events recorded as specific fulfillment of prophecy. Luke presents many particular events to display the fulfillment of prophesy from Christ and the Prophets concerning the Church, and to validate the calling and authority of the Apostles to lay the foundation for the Church. When people don’t understand some of these contexts, they can wrongly build entire doctrines and religious practices off of questionable foundations and faulty presumptions.

In regards to how one receives the Holy Spirit, why stop reading at Acts two, or Acts eight to jump to conclusions? Let’s read the entire book of Acts so we can understand it in its full context. In fact, let’s not stop at Acts, or even the four Gospels. If you want to understand Christianity in its full context and teaching, read the entire New Testament, and after that—through the lens of the New Covenant—read the entire Bible. Descriptive events in Acts or even the Gospels must be understood within the context of their time and Age—compared with all of the apostolic prescriptive teaching of the New Covenant epistles. We should try and take in the larger picture before dogmatically laying claims to particular passages for doctrines and practices. We must try our best to rightly divide God’s Word concerning how the Holy Spirit is received today in the Church.

Paul, the Apostle to the Gentiles (Romans 11:13), affirms in his epistle to the Ephesians that the Holy Spirit is received at the moment of salvation (Eph. 1:13). You receive the Holy Spirit through hearing with faith:

“In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory” (Ephesians 1:13).

When you hear the Gospel and believe in Jesus, you receive the Holy Spirit and are guaranteed eternal life.

Obtaining the gift of the Holy Spirit will always accompany salvation. This is because spiritual rebirth is required in order to enter the kingdom of God (John 3:5). Jesus baptizes people with the Holy Spirit into His Body, the Church (1 Cor. 12:13; Matthew 3:11). Once the Holy Spirit is given to a person—making that person a member of Christ’s Body—He will be with that person forever (John 14:16; Ephesians 4:30; 1 Cor. 12:27). The Spirit also affirms our adoption as sons of God (Romans 8:15-16). Having the Holy Spirit is therefore evidence of salvation. To not have the Spirit is to not belong to Christ: “You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him” (Romans 8:9). But those who do have the Spirit have Christ and are guaranteed eternal life (Eph. 1:13)

Like salvation, the Holy Spirit is a gift from God. Scripture refers to the Holy Spirit as a gift (Acts 10:45; 11:17) just as it refers to salvation as a gift (Romans 6:23). You can’t receive the Holy Spirit on the basis of works, just as you can’t be saved on the basis of works. Paul rhetorically asks the Galatians: “Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? (Gal. 3:2). The Holy Spirit is a gift from God predicated upon the faith of the recipient (Gal. 3:2-3).

Though prayer may certainly be included in receiving the Holy Spirit, it doesn’t have to be: as was the case with Cornelius and his household, who did not pray to receive the Holy Spirit. (Luke 11:13; Acts 10:44). Certainly a request for the Holy Spirit without an understanding and belief in the Gospel would seem useless, since receiving the Holy Spirit accompanies salvation and is proof of it; and belief in the Gospel is the power of God for salvation (Romans 1:16), not the act of praying. Prayer may be included in receiving salvation: “whoever calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” (Romans 10:13). Again, the prayer for salvation and/or the Holy Spirit must be grounded upon belief in the Gospel.

Jesus, like Paul, also connects believing in Christ with receiving the Holy Spirit: “Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water (John 7:38)’” The Apostle John then explains: “Now this he said about the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were to receive, for as yet the Spirit had not been given, because Jesus was not yet glorified.” (John 7:39) When Jesus spoke of the Holy Spirit to come, it was during his earthly ministry. Jesus would not send the Holy Spirit until he first ascended to his Father (John 7:39; John 16:7; Acts 1:8-11). Now that He has sat down at the right hand of the Father, all who believe in Him receive the Holy Spirit. Since Pentecost, all who believe have access in one Spirit to the Father (Eph. 2:18).

In conclusion, we see that during the early days of the Church—in the transitionary and descriptive (not necessarily prescriptive) book of Acts—some people received the Holy Spirit through seemingly various means (though all actually by faith). Prayer, water baptism, or the laying on of hands were connected with receiving the Holy Spirit at times among the Jews in Acts. The Gentiles, however, received the Holy Spirit in Acts chapter ten when they heard the Gospel and believed it. Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles, reaffirms later on in his epistles to the Church that the Spirit is received by hearing with faith (Eph. 1:13; Gal. 3:2).



This is well-reasoned and beneficial. Understanding how Acts unfolds should help prevent grabbing a verse here or there and making very erroneous and tragic theological conclusions. Thanks for writing these thoughts with great clarity!

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