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The Acts Passages: Barnett & Jensen


© Anzea Publishers 1973
This article is an excerpt that was first published in The Quest for Power | Neo-Pentecostalism and the New Testament by Paul Barnett and Peter Jensen (Sydney: Anzea Publishes, 1973, p. 29-41). It is reproduced here with permission.

There is no doubt that five passages in the Acts of the Apostles (2:1-42; 8:4-24; 9:1-19; 10:1-48; 19:1-7) are the most important source of neo-pentecostal doctrine. It is on the basis of these five occasions that the neo-pentecostal lays on the conscience of his fellow believer, with the awful solemnity of a word of God, the command to be baptized in the Holy Spirit. Can the book of Acts support such a position?

In order to support his thesis the neo-pentecostal must prove all the following points (not some):

1. A narrative in the Bible contains a command from God.
2. His understanding of the passages is the only reasonable one.
3. The reception of the Holy Spirit in fact resulted in 'power for witness'.
4. Certain conditions had to be fulfilled beyond becoming a Christian.
5. The Holy Spirit's coming for power was subsequent to his first coming in our conversion. There is a second and different experience of him ('subsequence').

We will examine each passage in turn, then discuss the question of whether the five 'pillars' above have been established in fact.

The Day of Pentecost

Undoubtedly this was a subsequent experience of the Holy Spirit for the disciples of Jesus. They were converted men, they had been ministered to by the Holy Spirit already. They were, in fact, in the same position as Abraham or Moses or David: born again by the Holy Spirit. But the delay experienced by these men was caused by their unique position in God's timetable. They were both believers under the old covenant, and as such had the Holy Spirit in some measure, and believers under the new covenant, when by an act of Jesus the Holy Spirit was poured out so that God's people had a new and deeper experience of him. This was connected with belief in Christ's Lordship (Acts 11:17).

An illustration may clarify the point. If one went to Bondi on the last tram before buses took over the rout, one would have to travel back by bus. But that is not to say that any other traveller to Bondi would from now on travel by tram there and bus back. On the contrary, only the bus is now available both ways, and the trip was virtually unique, because of the date.

So with the disciples. A type of subsequent experience is true for them, but their situation is unique, not the norm for Christians who now live after Pentecost. Certainly there is no breath of a command from God that we are to have two experiences.

In fact, as can be seen from Peter's speech, since the dawning of the last days, the era of the Spirit, it is expected that Christian conversion will include the baptism of the Holy Spirit. This is the plain meaning of 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 shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.

In other words, take the ordinary steps to become a Christian and you will be baptized in the Holy Spirit. At this point the neo-pentecostal will want to say that further faith and further repentance may be required. Such attempts to read further conditions into and out of this text seem hopeless in the face of the unambiguous nature of what is said. No one doubts that the tree thousand saved that day received the baptism of the Holy Spirit, and the only condition mentioned is that they become Christians.

The same may be seen in Acts 5:32 where Peter says, 'And we are witnesses to these things, and so it the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those to obey him.' This is often used to prove that 'obedience' is a condition for receiving the baptism over and above the conditions of Acts 2:38. However this is not the case. The meaning of the text is: '…the Holy Spirit whom God has given [one decisive past action] to those who obey [present continuous] him.' The past coming of the Holy Spirit has produced the present obedience of the Christians, not vice versa.

Another suggestion is that the disciples were praying for the Holy Spirit at the moment when he came, an idea without any support in the text, and most unlikely, since they were seated, a posture for prayer not adopted by the Jews (Acts 2:2). As one would have expected they did pray during the period of waiting (Acts 1:14), but no one knows the content of their prayer.

Samaria

On this occasion we are certainly confronted with a case of delay. We find Philip preaching and being believed. We find him baptising the Samaritans. But we find the apostles Paul and John in Samaria praying for the Samaritans to receive the Holy Spirit 'for he had not yet fallen on any of them, but they had only been baptised in the name of the Lord Jesus. Then they laid their hands on them and they received the Holy Spirit' (Acts 8:14ff.).

At first glance this passage seems to validate the neo-pentecostal position, but we ought to note the following features of it.

First, as far as the Samaritans were concerned we read of no conditions to be fulfilled. The delay is not their fault. The apostles prayed, and laid hands, but we are given no indication that the Samaritans did any more than they had done already in order to be baptized.

Second, there is no command here for us to follow, not even that of laying on hands. The passage is not being put forward by Luke as an encouragement to neo-pentecostal type practices. Luke's understanding seems to be that something abnormal is happening. The Samaritans had believed and had been baptized but the Spirit had not yet fallen. The norm of Acts 2:38 was for some unexplained reason not fulfilled. This abnormal incident (as suggested by Luke's words 'not yet fallen') cannot be made the basis for imitation.

Third, there is no mention of 'power for witness' attendant on the reception of the Spirit.

Fourth, although it is true that no explanation is given as to why this situation is abnormal, yet at least two other explanations are possible besides the neo-pentecostal one. One is that although the Samaritans had believed and been baptized, the object of their belief was inadequate (as was the case with the Ephesian disciples in Acts 19:2), and hence the Holy Spirit had not come. The other, which is more likely in our opinion, was that Philip's evangelistic activity with the outcast Samaritans was so contrary to what many in Jerusalem believed ought to be done (as was Peter's with Cornelius) that an extraordinary sign was given, witnessed by apostles, to prove the authenticity of the conversion. It is interesting to see that the apostles evangelised in Samaria on their way home (Acts 8:25). Here is the breakthrough described by Jesus (Acts 1:8)—a notable moment in the book of Acts, and surrounded by an extraordinary event: the leading of the Holy Spirit indeed! But hardly a normative pattern for today's believers.

Different people make this passage prove different things. From this passage Catholics prove confirmation and neo-pentecostals prove 'subsequence'. But can anyone prove more than one explicit coming of the Holy Spirit? Any such attempt would be in contradiction to what Luke himself says: 'he had not yet fallen on any of them, but they had only been baptized…' (Acts 8:16).

Saul

Here the position is made quite clear. The neo-pentecostal claim is that Saul's conversion was completed on the road to Damascus. Then it is said that at a later date Ananias was ordered to lay hands on Saul in order that he might receive his sign, and be filled with the Holy Spirit ('subsequence'). After this was done he was baptized, as the formal mark of his conversion.

As can be seen, all depends on the fact that Saul was actually converted on the road. We may confidently assert that he was not.

The substantial reasons put forward to support the neo-pentecostal position are that Saul called Jesus 'Lord' (Acts 9:5; 22:8, 10; 26:15), that Ananias addressed him as 'brother' (Acts 9:17), and that Ananias laid hands on him (Acts 9:17). However, we note that Saul was so impressed by the light that he called Jesus 'Lord' even before he know who was there, so this cannot be the 'calling on the name of the Lord' for salvation mentioned in Romans 10:13. Nor can his request that Jesus tell him what to do be construed in the same way. (Note that Cornelius called an angel 'Lord' and obeyed him, Acts 10:1-8).

Furthermore, 'brother' was a common designation for a fellow Jew, and did not necessarily imply 'Christian brother' (see Acts 2:29, 37; 13:26 etc.).

Also, contrary to what some say, Ananias was told to lay hands on Saul in order that he might receive his sight (Acts 9:12). It is true that Ananias told Saul about receiving the Holy Spirit while laying hands on him (9:17), but this is quite a different matter from saying that the Holy Spirit came through the laying on of hands.

In fact we know that the Holy Spirit did not come then. In Acts 22:16 we find out that Ananias commanded Saul, after his sigh had returned (and so after the laying on of hands):

Rise and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on his name (22:13).

Thus Saul was not even saved at that stage; he had still to wash away his sins and call on the name of the Lord. It is safe to assume in the absence of contrary evidence that his experience was quite normal, as set out in Acts 2:38.

This passage teaches a valuable lesson. One might be led to believe the neo-pentecostal claim but for the second account in Acts 22 which disproves it. Here is a basic problem with narratives like that about the Samaritans as opposed to statements as in the epistles and Acts 2:38. If we knew more, we might understand better. In the meantime we need to be very careful before we find commands from God in narrative passages.

Cornelius

This account, which is included in the list on which neo-pentecostal claims are based, is actually in direct opposition to these claims.

We have already noted in chapter one how the neo-pentecostal position is that we believe in the Lord Jesus Christ for salvation, but then must further believe in the Lord's promise for the Spirit in order to be baptized.

This condition is not in any text. But more, in this case it could not even possibly be in the text. Cornelius and his friends hear the gospel message, which may be read in Acts 10:34-43. In it there is no mention at all about receiving the Holy Spirit by any means. But they do hear about believing in Jesus for forgiveness.

At precisely this point they believe in Jesus. Peter says in Acts 15:7-9 while speaking about this incident:

Brethren, you know that in the early days God made choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe. And God who knows the heart bore witness to them, giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us; and he made no distinction between us and them, but cleansed their hearts by faith (authors' italics).

It is therefore while Peter is talking, in fact before he has finished (11:15), that they believe in Jesus. And at once the Spirit falls. There is no separate step mentioned or possible. There is no fatih in the promise of the Holy Spirit released, for there has been no promise. Furtheermore all the terminology of the alleged experience is used: 'received the Holy Spirit' (10:47); 'the Holy Spirit fell' (10:44); 'the gift of the Holy Spirit' (10:45); 'baptized with the Holy Spirit' (11:16). Receiving the word (11:1) and the baptism of the Spirit are part of one and the same work in this passage.

Notice in particular the teaching (as opposed to narrative) of Peter in Acts 15:7-9 above. The Holy Spirit is given as a witness of God's acceptance of them, that is of his forgiveness. His coming testifies also to the breach of that barrier between Jew and Gentile. There is not talk of coming to give power for witness in this or any part of the account. Rather, Peter remembers:

As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell on them just as on us at the beginning… 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 withstand God? (Acts 11:15-18; authors' italics).

One of the effects of this passage is to make it impossible for neo-pentecostals to reserve a special vocabulary for the 'subsequent' experience. Here is an experience of the Holy Spirit occurring precisely when men believed in Jesus (not the promise of the Spirit) which is called the baptism in the Holy Spirit.

Further note
It may be urged by some that this was a subsequent baptism of the Holy Spirit for power since Cornelius was a regenerate man before he heard Peter (see Acts 10:2). But even if we assume this, it would not validate the neo-pentecostal claims, for the following reasons: (a) Cornelius would then be part of that strange never-to-be-repeated group who were converted under the old covenant and then called into the new. This cannot be a pattern for Gentiles today. (b) The text itself makes it clear that Cornelius was believing in the Lord Jesus Christ for salvation when the Holy Spirit fell (see, e.g., Acts 15:7-9). (c) The text also makes it clear that the Holy Spirit fell while Peter was talking about Christ and forgiveness, not the baptism of the Holy Spirit (10:44). Thus faith could only have been exercised in Christ, a point substantiated in Acts 11:15-17 and Acts 15:7-9.

Ephesus (Acts 19:1-7)

There are two points at which neo-pentecostal teaching appears to receive strong support in this passage.

The first is Paul's question in verse 2: 'Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?' It is said that this question would be pointless, and even stupid, if men received the Spirit always when they believed in the Lord Jesus. If Paul know that a believer always received the Holy Spirit, why ask these men (designated 'disciples' and 'believers') whether the Spirit had come to them? Surely they would have received the Spirit automatically, if traditional Protestant teaching is correct.

Now this argument is most imposing if two conditions are reasonably proved: (a) that 'disciples' means 'Christian disciples'; (b) that Paul thought they were Christians.

But consider the actual case. We know for a fact that they were not true believers in the Lord Jesus Christ, for otherwise they would not have been later re-baptized. Therefore Luke could not mean 'Christian disciples' in verse 1. Yet we also know that they had some belief in the coming of Jesus since they had received John's baptism (Mark 1:8-9). In this sense Luke calls them 'disciples'; and they claimed to be believers, as appears in Paul's question.

Thus Paul's question is easily understood. Here he is confronted with a group claiming to be believers (else his question would really have no point!), but who were not. A simple test is applied.

'Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?' If the answer is positive their claim is true and all they needed is more instruction, like Apollos (see Acts 18:24-28). If the answer is negative then these men are not genuine believers and need to give their submission to the Lord Jesus Christ.

Paul's question is neither pointless nor stupid. It is based not on his own estimate of their situation, but the claims of the twelve to be believers. He tests them, they fail the test, and he baptizes them. In fact, when the import of his question is understood it provides more evidence that the teaching of Acts 2:38 is to be taken as the norm, for their variance from that necessitated their rebaptism. Certainly it warns us about the difficulty of assessing narratives.

The second point at which neo-pentecostal teaching appears to receive strong support in this passage is in verse 5 and 6. This is because when Paul laid his hands on the Ephesians, as distinct from baptism, the Holy Spirit came upon them. Thus there reappears the neo-pentecostal claim to subsequence, since it is assumed that the Holy Spirit came when they were baptized, and for a second time a few moments later.

It is certainly impossible to say exactly what happened. It may be that the laying on of hands was part of baptism; our knowledge of how this was conducted is very slight. It may be that the laying on of hands was subsequent in the same sense (though without the same long delay) as occurred in Samaria. This possible lack of conformity to the norm of Acts 2:28 is not altogether surprising in view of the uncertain beginning that these twelve had experienced.

Our uncertainty stems from a lack of knowledge as to the precise significance of the laying on of hands. In general it does seem to express the subject's identification with the person prayed for. Sometimes it is for the recognition of gifts/commission (Acts 6:6; 13:3; 1 Tim. 4:14; 5:22; 2 Tim. 1:6); sometimes it is for healing (Acts 9:12); twice it occurs in abnormal pastoral situations—at Samaria and Ephesus. On the available evidence there can be no doctrine of the laying on of hands, as many neo-pentecostals admit when they say that it is not a necessary pre-condition for the baptism in the Spirit. What is certain is that no one can prove two comings of the Spirit, for Luke mentions only one. The neo-pentecostal must assume a subsequence not found in the text.

However, let us agree to assume that in this passage the case for 'subsequence' is proved beyond shadow of reasonable doubt (which is what the neo-pentecostal must do if he is to lay a command from God on the conscience of other Christians). There is still no command for us to do likewise in the text. There is still complete silence about the conditions for receiving this other blessing. There is no indication of power for witness being received. We are not told that God is going to work like this for others. If these details were supplied elsewhere, we may validly consider the Ephesian case of subsequence in line with the neo-pentecostal claims. But where is this information?

We began by setting out a list of the things to be established before the neo-pentecostal reading of Acts can be justified. Let us see how well the list has fared.


1. Have we discovered a narrative which is or contains a command by God for men to be baptized in the Spirit subsequent to their acknowledgement of Jesus as Lord?
Pentecost—no.
Samaria—no.
Saul—no.
Cornelius—no.
Ephesus—no.

2. Is the neo-pentecostal understanding of the passages the only reasonable one?
Pentecost—It is not reasonable at all.
Saul—It is not reasonable at all.
Cornelius—It is not reasonable at all.
Samaria—It is not the only reasonable one.
Ephesus—It is not the only reasonable one.

3. Do the texts prove that the reception of the Holy Spirit resulted in 'power for witness?'
Pentecost—yes! This was promised to the disciples by Jesus in Acts 1:8. But the promise cannot and does not apply to any Christian who has not seen the risen Christ, since he is not a 'witness' (see Appendix 4) in Luke's sense of that word.
Samaria—no.
Saul—yes; for he witnessed the risen Lord and was commissioned by him. Hence he began to preach (Acts 9:20-23; 22:25 etc.).
Cornelius—no.
Ephesus—no.

It is true, of course, that tongues speaking occurred with Cornelius, at Ephesus, and probably Samaria. But there is no suggestion that this represents power for witnessing, an activity which Luke restricts to a select group, or even power for evangelism. The same is true of the prophesying in Acts 19:6. Rather, the tongues and other signs seem to be an initial witness by God to the reality of the Spirit's coming (see Acts 15:8).


4. Do the texts show that certain conditions had to be fulfilled beyond becoming a Christian?
Pentecost—only that of remaining in Jerusalem for the risen Lord to inaugurate his new age; a position impossible to repeat.
Samaria—no conditions.
Saul—no conditions.
Cornelius—no conditions even possible.
Ephesus—no conditions.

Acts 2:28 is the only relevant teaching on this topic; the norm is that a man's conversion will be the time when God's Holy Spirit is poured out and no further step is required beyond that of becoming a Christian. This is confirmed by what is said of Cornelius (Acts 11:14-17).


5. Are these cases of 'subsequence'? (A second coming of the Holy Spirit.)
Pentecost—no.
Samaria—no.
Saul—no.
Cornelius—no.
Ephesus—no.

This is not to deny that there was a delay in some cases. At Pentecost this is not only explicable but necessary in that situation. In Samaria there is delay between repentance/baptism and the coming of the Holy Spirit, but the Holy Spirit comes only once. Luke himself hints at some oddity. The delay is explicable in terms of the breakthrough involved, and the ideas of condition and power are absent. This is not neo-pentecostal 'subsequence' which requires two comings of the Holy Spirit. In Ephesus it is impossible to prove beyond doubt that there was a delay, let along subsequence in the neo-pentecostal sense. But if there was delay it is explicable in the circumstances, not a blueprint for future generations. Luke's descriptions of delay is not the neo-pentecostal theology of subsequence.

When our examination of the Acts passages is complete, we have three incidents which comply with Acts 2:38—men were baptized with the Holy Spirit on becoming Christians; and we have two seemingly abnormal situations of delay about which we are not told enough to be able to do more than speculate. Such is not the stuff with which consciences may be bound.


Christian Discussion on the Spirit & Pentecostal, Charismatic, Evangelical & Reformed Belief, the day of Pentecost, the Bible and Jesus; including the origin and history of the Pentecostal movement, baptism in the Holy Spirit, speaking in tongues, gifts and miracles, divine healing and word of faith, prosperity and wealth, praise and worship, guidance, revelation and hearing the voice of the Holy Spirit - TALKING PENTECOSTALISM | By Joe Towns

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