Promise and Fulfillment.
Do you serve God “in the new way of the Spirit” or “in the old way of the written code” (Romans 7:6)? Paul says that in Christ we have died to the law so that we serve by the Spirit, a new and different way. What does it mean to serve in the new way of the Spirit?
Long ago, God promised better days were coming (see post on this). One primary characteristic in the descriptions of those better days is that God would pour out his Spirit on all his people (Isaiah 32:14-20; Ezekiel 36:27; Joel 2:28-32). The Ezekiel passage tells us one of the purposes of the Spirit, namely, to move us to keep God’s decrees.
When John baptized Jesus, the Lord received and was anointed with the Spirit and power. This enabled him to go around doing good and healing all who were afflicted by the Devil. John also taught that Jesus would baptize with Holy Spirit (Matthew 3:16-17; Mark 1:9-11; Luke 3:21-22; John 1:32-34), but this did not take place until after Jesus had been glorified (John 7:39).
During the forty days between his suffering and ascension, Jesus instructed his followers to stay in Jerusalem and wait for the gift God promised (Acts 1:4-5, 8; cf. Luke 24:49). Then, on the day of Pentecost, the Spirit was poured out on the twelve (some say a larger group)(Acts 2:1-4). Peter explained that this was the fulfillment of the prophecies (Acts 2:14-21), that Jesus had now been exalted to the right hand of God, and that he is the one who poured out the Spirit (2:33). Those who grasped the message Peter preached, that Jesus is the Christ (2:36), and who repented and were baptized in his name, would likewise receive that same Spirit (2:38). The promise (cf. 1:4) was for people of all time everywhere (2:39).
Some people understand John the Baptist’s words (2 paragraphs above) to mean that he baptized with water only and that Jesus would baptize with the Spirit only. But Acts shows that baptism with water continued to be a part of people’s response to God (2:38, 41; 8:16, 36, 38; 10:47-48). Instead of being a replacement for baptism in water, receiving the Spirit is an additional blessing of being baptized in the name of Christ (Acts 2:38; 9:17-18; 19:2-3; 1 Corinthians 12:13; Titus 3:5).
On two occasions in Acts, however, the Spirit is not given at baptism, although he is still given in proximity to it (Acts 8:14-17; 10:44-48). The very mention of the Spirit being received at a time other than at baptism may indicate that it was a notable difference from the norm. It is significant that, on both of these occasions, the word was spreading to new ethnicities (Samaritans, Gentiles). Ethnicity was a significant issue for first century Jews, and this is clearer when we put ourselves back into the time and culture of the first century Jews and remember what an enormous divide there was between them and both Samaritans and Gentiles. This explains the considerable effort God went to in Acts 10 to bring Peter and Cornelius together. Some even say that Peter is being converted in Acts 10 as much as Cornelius is, that is, converted to the truth that everyone is welcomed by God (Acts 10:34-35).
In light of the enormous barrier between Jews and others in the first century, I believe God gave the Spirit in a different way from usual on these two occasions to affirm that people of all nations can be accepted by him. Having apostles go to the Samaria and lay hands on the new believers there so they would receive the Spirit would have shown Jewish believers that these often despised “half-breeds” were indeed acceptable to God, and it would also have been very affirming to the Samaritans. A divine commentary a few chapters after the Spirit was given to Cornelius’ Gentile household even states that on that occasion God “showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us” (Acts 15:8).
Regardless of whether we can understand everything about exactly when and how the Spirit has been given, it is clear that every Christian has the Holy Spirit in them. Or, as Paul puts it, “if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, they do not belong to Christ” (Romans 8:9). My belief is that everyone who grasps the good news that Jesus is the Christ, sincerely repents of their neglect of God, genuinely believes in Jesus, and humbly submits to baptism in his name does indeed receive the Spirit (Acts 2:36-38; 5:31-32; 19:1-7; Galatians 3:1-5, 14; Ephesians 1:13-14).
This may or may not be obvious. Sometimes there was evidence that people had received the Spirit, in the form of speaking in tongues and prophecy (Acts 2:1-11; 10:46; 19:6), but Scripture is clear that not everyone receives such gifts (1 Corinthians 12:27-31). Joy is a fruit of the Spirit, and it was also sometimes said to be present when people came to Christ and received the Spirit (Acts 13:52; 16:34; Galatians 5:22). But even if we do not detect tangible evidence of a person receiving the Spirit, I believe that all who truly come to Christ do in fact receive the Spirit and that the fruit of his work in our lives will increase and become more obvious as we “live by the Spirit.”
This brings us back to where we started. What does it mean to live by the Spirit? I have reservations about the popular understandings of this. I won’t go into them, but since many feel inferior if they do not experience the Spirit in the same way as others, I will just mention one thing. Though I do sometimes get a subjective sense of what God wants me to do in a specific situation, I am not aware of Him or the Spirit ever speaking to me directly. Rather, I have come to focus on two aspects of what it means to be led by the Spirit that I have seen in Scripture and also experienced in my life. I will describe these two aspects for your consideration in the next two posts. I believe they can help us set aside the old way of the written code and live in the new way of the Spirit.