The Holy Spirit, as one of the three persons of the Trinity, has been working alongside the Father and the Son since the world began (Genesis 1:2). He was involved in the life of God’s people, Israel, from the days of Moses onward (Numbers 11:17, 25; Isaiah 63:10-12).
When the church took the place of Israel as the people of God, the Spirit continued his work and indeed added a new blessing, as indicated in Acts 2. He will continue to work among God’s people throughout this age and in the age everlasting.
This essay focuses upon the Holy Spirit’s activity within the first-century church. I will explain especially how his work from the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2) onward was in continuity with his work in the Old Testament era, and I will give special emphasis to the new work that began on that day.
I will present the Spirit’s work in terms of the kinds of gifts that he bestows upon the Lord’s people. These gifts may be understood as various kinds of abilities he bestows upon us. We may distinguish four kinds of such abilities or gifts.
We know God created human beings in his own image, partly for the very purpose of enabling us to communicate with him (i.e., to relate to him through the means of human language). In Bible days, God at times spoke directly to chosen individuals and groups; such communication would naturally be received as absolutely truthful and authoritative.
In most cases, though, God chose to use human instruments as an indirect means of communicating his truth to others. These chosen ones functioned as prophets, speaking messages from God that were supernaturally given, through revelation; and if not supernaturally given, at least supernaturally approved, through inspiration.
The Holy Spirit was directly involved in the minds and bodies of those chosen to receive and communicate truth from God to others. The Spirit gave them the ability to speak or write this truth as the very Word of God and without error (2 Peter 1:19-21). In Old Testament times God spoke thus through his prophets (cf. 2 Samuel 23:2; Acts 1:16; 1 Peter 1:10-12). In the first-century church some were chosen to receive the Spirit’s gift of prophecy (1 Corinthians 12:10, 28; Ephesians 4:11), but the main ones who received these “truth gifts” were the apostles.
Jesus gave the apostles his special promise to send them the Holy Spirit for the very purpose of enabling them to speak the truth that he himself wanted to communicate to his people through them (John 14:26; 15:26; 16:12-14; Acts 1:8). The first exercise of this truth gift was Peter’s sermon on Pentecost (Acts 2:14-40). The apostles (and New Testament prophets, Ephesians 2:20; 3:5) continued to speak and write God’s inerrant Word throughout their lives in the first-century church.
Many of us, including myself, believe the truth gifts from the Spirit ceased after the apostolic age, since the need for new truth ceased once God’s new redemptive work through Christ had been fully explained (1 Corinthians 13:8-13).
The second type of gift bestowed on selected individuals is the ability to work miracles. A miracle is an event that is contrary to the laws of nature, in the sense that it cannot be the result of natural causes. God can perform miraculous deeds directly (e.g., the burning bush, Exodus 3:2; the resurrection of Jesus), but he can also empower human individuals to invoke miraculous powers and perform miracles. Such miraculous powers are a gift of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:9, 10). We call them “sign gifts” because the purpose of miracles is to be a sign (confirmation, evidence, proof) of the truth given through the truth gifts discussed above.
The Spirit was giving such powers in Old Testament times; we know especially of Moses and Elijah as miracle-workers. The apostles were given these gifts even before Pentecost (Matthew 10:1); and they continued to exercise them in the first-century church (Acts 2:43; 5:12; 2 Corinthians 12:12), as did many others upon whom the apostles laid their hands (Acts 6:6, 8; 8:14-19; 19:6).
It is extremely important to understand that such sign gifts, like the truth gifts above, were not something new that began on the Day of Pentecost. This is especially important for understanding the gift of speaking in tongues, both on Pentecost and at other times in the early church. The miraculous ability to speak in unlearned languages or to speak in a miraculous manner was not a new thing and was not the main point of Pentecost. The Holy Spirit had already given this ability at least once in Old Testament times (Numbers 11:24-30).
The main purpose of this miraculous speaking, both in Numbers 11 and in Acts 2, was to be a sign of the truth of the revelation it accompanied. In Numbers 11 it confirmed God’s promise that the Holy Spirit was now present in the 70 assistants of Moses; in Acts 2 the gift of speaking in tongues was for the sole purpose of proving the truth of Peter’s Pentecost sermon beginning in verse 14. There was nothing new or special about it.
Many of us, including myself, believe that the sign gifts, like the truth gifts, ceased after the apostolic age, since miraculous signs would no longer be needed when the revelation of new truth ceased (1 Corinthians 13:8-13).
The third kind of gift bestowed by the Spirit can be called “service gifts,” since their purpose was to empower individuals to perform ordinary (not miraculous) tasks to serve the ongoing needs of the people of God. The Spirit was giving such gifts in Old Testament times, for example the ability to do the work of craftsmen for the building of the tabernacle (Exodus 31:1-5; 35:30-35; 36:1, 2), and the ability to serve as leaders (Numbers 11:17; Deuteronomy 34:9; Judges 6:34; 1 Samuel 16:13).
Most of the “spiritual gifts” mentioned in the New Testament lists of such gifts are of this nature; see Romans 12:8, Ephesians 4:11, and 1 Corinthians 12. These were nothing new, and they continue to be given to God’s people today according to the needs of the body of Christ as a whole.
The most important way the Holy Spirit worked in the first-century church is to provide “salvation gifts” to everyone who accepted Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. This was the new work of the Spirit that began on the Day of Pentecost. Whatever the reason, God was not bestowing these gifts upon Old Testament saints; they are part of the continuing blessings of the messianic age. These gifts were first given in Acts 2, and they have been given to new converts ever since.
Though begun at Pentecost, this saving work of the Spirit was promised long before. Isaiah 43:19, 20 promises a new thing which is explained in Isaiah 44:3: “For I will pour water on the thirsty land, and streams on the dry ground; I will pour out my Spirit on your offspring.” See also Ezekiel 36:25-27 and Joel 2:28-32 (the latter quoted by Peter in Acts 2:16ff.).
John the Baptist promised that Jesus would baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire (Matthew 3:11; Mark 1:8; Luke 3:16; John 1:32, 33). This promise does NOT refer to miraculous gifts, especially the gift of tongues; it refers to the new salvation gifts of which Peter speaks in Acts 2:38, 39 (see 1 Corinthians 12:13). Jesus promises the same thing in Luke 11:13; John 4:10, 13, 14; 7:37-39; Acts 1:4, 5.
Exactly what is this new work of the Spirit, this new gift of the Spirit, begun on Pentecost? The main gift, of course, is the Holy Spirit himself, promised by the Father and poured out with accompanying miraculous signs into the midst of the apostles (Acts 2:1-4, 33). From that point on this promised Divine Presence has been ready to enter into the hearts and bodies of anyone who will obey the gospel as Peter presented it in Acts 2:38, 39: “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you [the immediate Jewish audience] and for your children [your descendants from now on] and for all who are far off [the Gentiles, too!].”
Once we have obeyed the gospel and have received the indwelling presence of the Spirit (Romans 8:9-11; 1 Corinthians 6:19, 20), the Spirit immediately begins to bestow upon us the salvation gifts that are his main work in this new covenant age. These are the immediate gift of regeneration, Titus 3:5 (the new birth, John 3:5; the new creation, 2 Corinthians 5:17; resurrection from spiritual death, Colossians 2:12); and the ongoing gift of sanctification. Through the gift of sanctification, the indwelling Spirit empowers us to be holy as God is holy (1 Peter 1:15, 16), to put sin to death in our lives (Romans 8:13), to resist temptation (1 Corinthians 10:13), and to produce the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-24). See Ephesians 3:16; Philippians 2:12, 13; 1 John 4:4.
These salvation gifts of the Spirit are the essence of the Spirit’s ongoing work in the church. They were the climax of Pentecost and are the treasure of the church today. May we not eclipse them by overemphasizing the Spirit’s other gifts, however important they have been and may continue to be today.
Jack Cottrell, professor of theology at Cincinnati (Ohio) Christian University, is the author of two books on the Holy Spirit: The Holy Spirit: A Biblical Study (College Press, 2006) and Power from on High: What the Bible Says About the Holy Spirit (College Press, 2007).