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Part Five: The Holy Spirit as an Active Character in the Book of Acts

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Part Five: The Holy Spirit as an Active Character in the Book of Acts

Robert M. Bowman Jr.

(Click here to see the overview of this six-part article.)

If Jesus’ farewell discourse was the first direct revelation of the distinct person of the Holy Spirit, one would expect to see the Holy Spirit become far more prominent in the Bible after Jesus’ death and resurrection. The lexical statistics confirm this expectation. There are less than a hundred references to the Spirit in the whole Old Testament, about 58 references to the Spirit (by whatever precise name, including Paraclete) in all four Gospels combined, 57 in just the one Book of Acts, and about 154 in the rest of the New Testament.

Furthermore, one may expect that the Holy Spirit will appear as a named actor or participant in the biblical narrative for the first time following the death and resurrection of Jesus. Specifically, one may expect to see this in the Book of Acts, our only New Testament writing of a narrative (historical) genre dealing with events following Jesus’ death and resurrection. This expectation is fully met in Acts. In fact, as W. F. Lofthouse argued some seventy years ago, what Jesus said in John 14-16 about the Spirit is precisely what one finds in the Book of Acts. “The Spirit is sent by Jesus and by the Father in Jesus’ name; He is given to the disciples as their special possession; He reminds them of Jesus; witnesses of Jesus, as they do themselves; guides them, glorifies Him.”1

The activity of the Holy Spirit begins in the very first sentence of the book: “In the first book, O Theophilus, I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach, until the day when he was taken up, after he had given commands through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen” (1:1-2).2 The words that Jesus spoke were also in some way the words of the Holy Spirit (cf. 1:16; 11:28; 21:4). This statement also establishes from the outset of the narrative that the Holy Spirit, though associated with Jesus, is not Jesus himself. Acts reflects the same narrative perspective as Jesus’ farewell discourse in John: Jesus, who was on earth, has risen from the dead and gone to heaven, from where he sent the Holy Spirit from the Father as promised (2:33). Thus, Acts agrees that the Holy Spirit is neither Jesus nor the Father, although he is closely associated with both of them.

Luke reports that Jesus told the apostles that they would be “baptized in the Holy Spirit” (1:5), which meant that “you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you” (1:8). In the Old Testament, whenever a spirit—either the Spirit of the LORD or an evil spirit—would come “upon” a person, that spirit would make him act or speak (for good or ill) with bold abandon (e.g., Judg. 3:10; 11:29; 15:14; 1 Sam. 10:6; 11:6; 16:16, 23; 19:9; Joel 2:28-29). The symptoms of this experience in the period of the judges and kings resembled what we would call possession. This Old Testament, Semitic background assumed that the “spirit” was a supernatural entity of some kind, not merely a force or energy.

Jesus tells the apostles that when the Holy Spirit comes upon them, they will have the power specifically to be his “witnesses” throughout the world. That is, the coming of the Holy Spirit upon them would give them a holy boldness to testify fearlessly to Jesus (4:31; 9:27, 28; 13:46; 14:3; 18:26; 19:8). Again, this is just what the Gospel of John reports that Jesus promised his disciples the night before he died (John 15:26-27).

After Jesus reiterates the promise of the Holy Spirit’s coming, Jesus departs in the ascension (Acts 1:9-11). Craig Keener suggests that this passage may echo the Old Testament account of Elijah going up into heaven and then being succeeded by Elisha.3 The implication is that the Holy Spirit is someone like Christ who continues his work after his departure to heaven.

In a meeting after Jesus’ ascension, Peter began his remarks as follows: “Brethren, the Scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit foretold through the mouth of David concerning Judas” (1:16). This is the first of several explicit references in Acts to the Holy Spirit speaking. Other books of the NT also refer to the Holy Spirit speaking (1 Tim. 4:1; Heb. 3:7-11; 10:15-17; 1 Pet. 1:11; Rev. 2:7, 11, 17, 29; 3:6, 13, 22), but the evidence in the Book of Acts is especially difficult to explain away.

On Pentecost, the disciples “were filled with the Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit was giving them utterance” (2:4). Here again, the Spirit is a communicator; he knows all human languages and is able to speak through the apostles intelligently in the many languages of the Jewish visitors who had converged on Jerusalem from throughout the Mediterranean world. Later Peter quotes the words of Joel 2:28, “I will pour out from my Spirit upon all flesh” (2:17, 18, cf. 2:33). The language of being “poured out” is an idiom that meant to give of oneself completely, and so even human beings can be said to be “poured out” (Ps. 22:14; Isa. 53:12; Phil. 2:17; 2 Tim. 4:6). This sort of language, then, does not prove that the Spirit is a force or energy.

The personal nature of the Spirit who fills the disciples receives some interesting confirmation in the confrontation between Peter and Ananias, when Peter asked, “Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit…?” (5:3). The word “filled” here is the same word (plēroō) that Acts uses to express being “filled” with the Spirit. Luke presents Peter—a man who represents the church “filled with the Spirit” to speak the truth boldly (4:8, 31)—confronting a man whom Satan had “filled” to speak a lie brazenly (5:3). (The close proximity of 4:31 to 5:3 makes this connection quite solid.) Satan, of course, is a spirit, but an evil spirit—the evil spirit—and he stands in perfect contrast here to the Holy Spirit. Thus, the Holy Spirit, like Satan, is an unseen figure who participates in the narrative; both are personal spirits that seek to “fill” people to some end, either for truth or for lies. Reading Peter’s statement about Ananias “lying” to the Spirit in this narrative context raises it above the level of a proof-text and shows that it is part of an ongoing narrative in which the Spirit is represented as an actual participant in its events, a character in the story.

In defending the apostolic preaching of Jesus, Peter stated, “And we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit that God has given to those who obey him” (5:32). Note the coherence between what Jesus told the apostles in the Johannine farewell discourse (John 15:26-27) and what Peter, the leader of the apostles, says here. The Holy Spirit is a divine witness confirming the testimony of the human witnesses.

In more than one place in the narrative in Acts, Luke attributes specific statements that he quotes to the Holy Spirit:

  • “Then the Spirit said to Philip, ‘Go over to this chariot and join it’” (8:29).

  • “While Peter was still thinking about the vision, the Spirit said to him, ‘Look, three men are searching for you. Now get up, go down, and go with them without hesitation; for I have sent them’” (10:19-20; cf. 11:12).

  • “While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, ‘Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.’ …So, being sent out by the Holy Spirit…” (13:2, 4).

  • “And coming to us, he took Paul’s belt and bound his own feet and hands, and said, ‘This is what the Holy Spirit says: “In this way the Jews at Jerusalem will bind the man who owns this belt and deliver him into the hands of the Gentiles”’” (21:11).

These statements by the Holy Spirit are statements that an important figure in the narrative makes that leads to others taking specific actions, such as going places and talking to other people. In some of these statements the Holy Spirit refers to himself in the first-person singular as “I” and “me” (10:20; 13:2). The Holy Spirit sends people and calls people to specific missions. In his narrative comments, Luke confirms that the Holy Spirit performs these actions, as when he says that Barnabas and Saul were “sent out by the Holy Spirit.” Interpreting these statements as personification simply does not work because they are part of a narrative in which the Spirit plays an active, purposive role.

In another passage, Luke reports:

They went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia. When they had come opposite Mysia, they attempted to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them (16:6-7).

Here again, the Spirit is active in the narrative, preventing the disciples from going in the wrong direction so they will go the right way (see 16:8-10). Luke refers to the Spirit in 16:7 as “the Spirit of Jesus,” an unusual variation that makes it clear that the Holy Spirit faithfully represents Jesus’ intention or will in directing the disciples’ mission.

In the aftermath of the Jerusalem Council, the apostles and elders sent a letter to Antioch in which they wrote, “For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and us to lay upon you no greater burden than these essentials” (15:28). Here the apostles and elders credit the Holy Spirit with being involved in their council deliberations.

Before he left Ephesus, Paul told the elders there that “the Holy Spirit solemnly testifies to me in every city, saying that bonds and afflictions await me” (20:23). Once again, the Holy Spirit testifies and speaks. In the same speech, Paul reminded the elders that “the Holy Spirit has made you overseers” of the flock (20:28). Paul thus credits the Holy Spirit with appointing people in their church ministries.

Finally, the references to the Holy Spirit at the very beginning and end of Acts (1:2; 28:25-26) have a special significance with regard to the role that the Holy Spirit plays in the book. Richard Bauckham has shown that three of the Gospels employ a literary device of mentioning toward the beginning and the end of each book the primary witness whose testimony stands prominently behind that Gospel’s narrative. Mark mentions Simon (Peter) toward the beginning and end of his Gospel (Mark 1:16; 16:7), a fact that correlates nicely with the strong tradition that Mark’s Gospel was based on Peter’s testimony. In John, the anonymous disciple “whom Jesus loved” is one of the first two disciples mentioned and the last disciple mentioned (John 1:35; 21:24). Luke also makes Simon Peter the first and last named disciple of Jesus in his Gospel (Luke 4:38; 24:34). Thus, these three Gospels, including Luke, use this literary device of an inclusio to identify the primary witness who observed the events and whose testimony is the basis for the historical narrative.4

It would appear that Luke continues the use of this device in Acts, where the Holy Spirit appears in the narrative at the very beginning and end of the book (1:2; 28:25-26). Consistent with Luke’s use of this device in his Gospel, here the device identifies the Holy Spirit as the primary “witness” whose testimony lies behind the whole book. The Holy Spirit is able to perform this function as witness because he is a major participant in key events narrated throughout the book. The Holy Spirit came upon the disciples at Pentecost to launch the Christian movement (2:4, 17-18, 33, 38). He emboldened the apostles to maintain their witness in the face of opposition (4:8, 25, 31; 5:32). His presence emboldened Stephen as he became the first Christian witness to be martyred for his faith (7:51, 55). He directed the taking of the gospel outside the Jewish people for the first time to the Samaritans (8:15, 17) and the Ethiopian (8:29, 39). He filled the church’s archenemy Saul as part of the process of turning him into the church’s greatest missionary (9:17). He directed Peter to preach to pagan Gentiles for the first time and supernaturally validated their faith (10:19, 44-47; 11:12, 15-16; 15:8). He sent Barnabas and Saul (Paul) on the first evangelistic mission outside the region of the Promised Land (13:2, 4). He participated in the decision of the Jerusalem Council to admit Gentiles into Christian fellowship without requiring their submission to the Mosaic Law (15:28). He directed Paul’s missionary travels, preventing him from staying in Eastern Europe in order to move him in the more strategic direction of Western Europe (16:6-10). He warned Paul that he was going to be imprisoned and persecuted for his efforts (20:22-23; 21:4, 11).

Thus, from beginning to end, Luke is letting the reader know that the Holy Spirit was there, was involved as an active participant, and was a witness to the events that Luke narrates in his book. The Holy Spirit is the primary “witness” who was present during the events and whose testimony is the basis for the book’s historical narrative.


Click here for Part Six: The Holy Spirit in John and Acts—Person or Personification?


1. W. F. Lofthouse, “The Holy Spirit in the Acts of the Apostles and in the Fourth Gospel,” ExpTim 52 (1940-41): 336 (334-36). See also C. K. Barrett, “The Parallels between Acts and John,” in Exploring the Gospel of John: In Honor of D. Moody Smith, ed. R. Alan Culpepper and C. Clifton Black (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996), 163-78.

2. Richard Pervo thinks the phrase “through the Holy Spirit” may be a textual corruption, though he admits it would have been “quite early” because all of the extant readings either agree with it or are attempts to improve on it; see Richard I. Pervo, Acts: A Commentary, ed. Harold W. Attridge, Hermeneia (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2009), 36-37.

3. Craig S. Keener, The Gospel of John: A Commentary (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2003), 967.

4. Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008), 124-27.