The Outpouring of the Holy Spirit

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The interpretation of Acts chapter 2 has long been the dividing line between non-Pentecostal and Pentecostal branches of the Christian church. Typically the debate centers on whether or not the experience of those in this chapter is normative for all Christians in all ages. But it is not my intent to chime in on this longstanding debate. Instead, I would like to explore the broader phenomenon of the fact that the Holy Spirit was poured out in conjunction with the person and work of Christ according to various prophetic passages. The saints of old were not unfamiliar with the Holy Spirit. But as Peter acknowledges by explaining the phenomenon as a fulfillment of Joel’s prophecy (2:15–21), there was an anticipation of a new work of the Spirit. With that being the case, let us consider the outpouring of the Spirit in Acts 2 with the person and work of Christ.

The first thing we should notice is the occasion on which this phenomenon took place. Pentecost, or the Feast of Weeks, was celebrated fifty days after the Sabbath of the Passover week, and it commemorated the end of the grain harvest that began with the Feast of Firstfruits (Lev. 23:9–22). By the time of the New Testament this feast celebrated the giving of the Law at Sinai. That being the case, it seems appropriate that Pentecost would be the occasion for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon the church.

There are two reasons for this: First, the church is the recipient of a new covenant. All of the Jews gathered in Jerusalem in Acts 2 would have expected the usual commemoration of the Law when Israel pledged to do all that was commanded (Ex. 24). But instead of renewing covenant vows, they were recipients of the Holy Spirit. This is the contrast used by the writer of Hebrews in 12:18–24 and by Paul in Galatians 4:21–31. The other significance of the Spirit being poured out on the day of Pentecost is that Christians are, by virtue of our union with Christ, the firstfruits of the Holy Spirit (Rom. 8:23). The firstfruits were offered to God as the choicest of the harvest and as an assurance that the whole harvest would be a good one. Because of our union with Christ, we are joined to His death by faith and we therefore are also assured that we will share in His resurrection, with the Holy Spirit given as the guarantee of that fact (see Eph. 1:14; 1 Cor. 15:20–23). Seen from this perspective, the Holy Spirit poured out on Pentecost is a public display of the firstfruits of the gospel harvest. It is eschatological in that those upon whom He rests are the new humanity, the new community — the dwelling place of God.

The second perspective from which we can consider the outpouring of the Spirit is the promise of Christ. During His earthly ministry among His disciples, Jesus promised to send the Holy Spirit as the Comforter and Advocate. This is especially highlighted in John 14–16, but also in Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman in John 4. Jesus spoke of “living water,” which, He explained, would be the means by which acceptable worship would be offered to God (v. 24). Keeping John 7:37–39 in mind, on the day of Pentecost Jesus had been glorified, and the promise of the Spirit reiterated in Acts 1:8 was now fulfilled. Dennis Johnson, in his The Message of Acts in the History of Redemption, reminds us that the promise in 1:8 parallels prophecies concerning the Messiah in Isaiah 32:15; 43:10, 12; 44:8; 45:22; and 49:6. Why is this important? Because the outpouring of the Spirit on the church  confirms our union with Christ. And Christ empowers us (by the Spirit) to be witnesses to the fact that He is the Messiah and to proclaim the gospel of His grace. Peter’s reference to the prophecy of Joel centers on the Holy Spirit causing the people of God to prophesy or proclaim the work of God in Christ. In the Old Testament when the tabernacle and later the temple in Jerusalem were filled with the shekinah glory of the Lord, it was an indication that the Lord was consecrating physical structures as the designated place of worship. Thus, it is reasonable to conclude that the outpouring of the Spirit is a public confirmation of what Jesus told the Samaritan woman — that true worship of God ultimately is not about locations and structures; rather, it is about worshiping Him in Christ by the Spirit (see also Eph. 2:19–22).

Although we see tongues repeated in Acts chapters 10 and 19, I am convinced that Pentecost is a unique phenomenon in the history of the church and therefore not repeatable. The public outpouring of the Spirit on the day of Pentecost is the anointing of the church to be bold witnesses in this present world. It is the age to come thrust upon this present age. It is the words and work of the crucified, resurrected, and ascended Savior given to His people as their marching orders until He returns. We do not need the Spirit to be poured out again in the same ceremonial splendor as on that grand day of Pentecost. But we do need to take heed to His unction and leading in the proclamation of the gospel of Christ and trust His power to make Christ known through our faithful witnessing. 

First published in Tabletalk Magazine, an outreach of Ligonier. For permissions, view our Copyright Policy.