Mis-Readings Acts: Did the Apostles Distribute the Holy Spirit?

I learned a way of reading Acts that went something like this: The Holy Spirit came upon the Apostles, who were then able to pass the Holy Spirit on to others, but these others could not pass the Spirit beyond themselves. I later learned that this understanding was a major plank in Cessationism, once common among the Churches of Christ and a number of other protestant groups. Cessationism is the belief that the spiritual gifts were limited to the first century and after the New Testament was in place, the spiritual gifts were no longer necessary.

Those who espouse this view distinguish between the empowering of the Holy Spirit (sometimes called the “miraculous measure” of the Spirit) and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit (or the “ordinary measure” of the Spirit), which all believers receive. Thus, in this way of thinking, the apostles received the empowering of the Holy Spirit in Acts 2:1–4 but believers received the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in Acts 2:38–39. What a surprise it was to find out that Luke does not seem to know these distinctions. In fact, Luke doesn’t deal much with any experience of the Spirit that might be called “indwelling,” instead he focused consistently on how the Spirit empowered the early church to do extraordinary things. The indwelling motif belongs to Paul and John but is not at home in Luke’s writings.

This article contends that only one person ever had the privilege of distributing the Holy Spirit and is so named by John the Baptist as the one who will baptize in the Holy Spirit (Luke 3:15–17; Acts 1:5; 11:16). Certainly the apostles experienced the Holy Spirit in powerful ways, but they do not actually “give” the Holy Spirit to others.

In the cessationist model, only those whom the apostles laid hands on could work miracles but they could not pass on the Holy Spirit in the way they had received it. A much more biblical understanding is possible.

An ambiguity on this topic reaches back to the tension found in the Pentateuch regarding Moses’s laying hands on Joshua. In Numbers 27:18, the Lord commands Moses to lay hands on Joshua who already has the spirit (over-translated as “spirit of leadership” in the NIV 2011) within him. Yet in Deuteronomy 34:9, Joshua is said to have the spirit of wisdom because Moses had laid hands on him:

Now Joshua son of Nun was filled with the spirit of wisdom because (כִּי) Moses had laid his hands on him. So the Israelites listened to him and did what the LORD had commanded Moses.

For sure, the “spirit” texts in the Hebrew Bible can be hard to interpret since the word “spirit” does not always refer to the Holy Spirit. In the case the Deut 34:9, for example, the text could read that Joshua was filled with the “influence of wisdom,” or simply “wisdom.” Nonetheless, in this blog, I’m assuming the early church would have heard “Holy Spirit” in Deut 34:9.

More importantly for our purposes here is that “because” (כִּי) can be translated as “when” and a number of other coordinating words. In short, this word is not necessarily causal. I suggest that this ambiguity between these two texts in the Pentateuch support the understanding that Moses participated with God in the giving of the Spirit to Joshua but he was never source, cause, or conduit for the Holy Spirit. Thus, the ambiguity results from the coming of the Spirit on others at the occasion of hands being laid on an individual. 

Now let’s look at several proof texts in Acts used by cessationists to support the notion that the apostles could give pass on the Holy Spirit.

The first involves the commissioning of the seven servants to serve the Hellenistic Jewish widows in Acts 6:1–6. When these Greek-named servants were presented to the apostles, Luke tells us, the apostles prayed for them and laid their hands on them. Shortly thereafter, Stephen, one of the seven, is said to have performed great wonders and signs among the people” (Acts 6:8), language previously used of the apostles (Acts 2:43; 5:12; cf. 14:3). The assumption that Stephen is able to do miracles because the apostles laid hands on him can only be maintained if one ignores what Luke has already made clear: all seven of those chosen to serve the widows were “full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom” (Acts 6:3; note the echo of Deut 34:9). 

Next, let’s notice the delayed coming of the Holy Spirit on the Samaritans in Acts 8.

When they arrived, they prayed for the new believers there that they might receive the Holy Spirit, because the Holy Spirit had not yet come on any of them; they had simply been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.Then Peter and John placed their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit. (Acts 8:15–17)

A couple of notes make this text clearer. First when Peter and John came to Samaria, it was because something was off with the way the earliest Christians experienced the Spirit: the Holy Spirit has not “yet” (οὐδέπω), they had simply (μόνον) been baptized. This is Luke’s contrast. From his point of view, some deficiency existed that needed a remedy. In response to this deficiency, the apostles came to pray that the Samaritans “might receive” (λάβωσιν; a subjunctive that expresses potentiality) the Holy Spirit. Therefore, even the apostles Peter and John came with the hope, but not the certainty, that the believers would receive the Holy Spirit. Finally God honoured their prayer for the believers by granting the Spirit when they laid hands on them. Luke keeps the relationship between the the Holy Spirit and the apostles’ hands loose by using “and” (καὶ) between the clauses in v. 17.

Surprisingly, it is Simon who makes the causal connection—and he was wrong:

When Simon saw that the Spirit was given at the laying on of the apostles’ hands, he offered them money and said, “Give me also this ability so that everyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit. (Acts 8:18–19)

Clearly Simon wanted the ability to pass on the Holy Spirit, even offering money to gain this privilege. He, with modern cessationists, confused correlation with causation. The apostles certainly participated with God who gave the Holy Spirit to the Samaritans but Luke has already made it clear that even the apostles prayed that the believers might receive the Spirit. They are not Spirit-Pez dispensers.

The connection between hands and Spirit also occurs in the story of Saul’s call:

Then Ananias went to the house and entered it. Placing his hands on Saul, he said, “Brother Saul, the Lord—Jesus, who appeared to you on the road as you were coming here—has sent me so that you may see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit. (Acts 9:17)

This text is the closest we have in Acts that might point to a causal relationship between laying on of hands and the reception of the Spirit. Ananias was sent so that (ὅπως) Saul might see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit. For those maintaining a cessationist viewpoint, this is an unfortunate text because Ananias is not an apostle. That is, the case of Ananias is the exception that breaks the cessationist contention that the only the apostles passed on the Spirit. And since those who received the Spirit could not pass it on to a third generation of believers, Saul breaks the other side of the case. Rather Ananias was the one who laid hands on Paul; Paul, in turn, laid hands on Timothy (2 Tim 1:6; cf 1 Tim 4:14). However, as I have argued here, this whole line of reasoning is faulty.

Simply the notion of human distribution of the Holy Spirit is not consistent with the whole biblical witness. Rather, and more properly, God sometimes allows humans to participate in sharing of God’s presence but humans should never be confused for the source, cause, or conduit of the presence of the Spirit. The presence of God always transcends human capacity to handle or control God’s power.

Finally, one last account in Acts involves hands and the Spirit. Paul has a rather unexpected encounter with some followers of John the Baptist in Ephesus (Acts 19: 1–6). In vv. 5–7, the NIV translates,

On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. When Paul placed his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied. There were about twelve men in all.

While the occasion of receiving the Holy Spirit is when Paul laid hands on them, the text does not say that Paul is some sort of conduit for the Holy Spirit. The relationship of the grammar of this sentence is that we have a circumstantial participle (“placed”) in relationship to the finite verb (“came”). In short, on the occasion of Paul placing his hands on them, the Spirit came upon them.

I believed that Luke picked up the ambiguity one finds in the Pentateuch between the Spirit and the laying of hands and he feels no need to alleviated that tension for us. Furthermore, this ambiguity plays into Luke’s understanding of the sovereignty of God and human participation in the presence of God. As far as spiritual gifts are concerned, Paul and Luke agree. Luke in Acts 2:4 wrote, All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability; Paul said in 1 Cor 12:11, ” the same Spirit… allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses.


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Filed under Early Church, Judaism, New Testament

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