THE ACTS OF THE SPIRIT, PART 2 THE BIRTH OF THE NEW TESTAMENT CHURCH
Joseph D. McPherson
Date Posted Dec. 22, 2008

By the wise and sovereign plan of God the new dispensation of the Holy Spirit was inaugurated on an annual celebration of the giving of the law. Fifty days had passed since Passover and the sacrifice of the true Pascal Lamb. Vast numbers of devout Jews were present in Jerusalem on that great day when the Holy Spirit was poured out. Some had come from far away places with the intention of sacredly commemorating the first Pentecost; an historic day that had ushered in the Mosaic dispensation of the law centuries before. Following the Spirit’s outpouring upon the one hundred and twenty, Peter is found preaching with unusual courage and inspiration.

At the climax of his sermon, he cried to his many listeners with powerful application: “Therefore let all the house of Israel know assuredly, that God hath made that same Jesus, whom ye have crucified, both Lord and Christ” (Acts 2:36).

“In the preceding discourse,” writes Adam Clarke, “Peter assumes a fact which none would attempt to deny, viz. that Jesus had been lately crucified by them.” He then gives proof of the resurrection of Jesus, His ascension and His exaltation to the right hand of God. He shows that the effusion of the Holy Spirit was the fruit of His glorification which had been promised and foretold by their own prophets. Peter further showed that in consequence of this there was indisputable proof that “this same Jesus, whom they had crucified, was not only the promised Messiah” but the “Governor of the universe, from whose power and justice they had every thing to dread, as they refused to receive his proffered mercy and kindness.”

Now when they heard this, they were pricked in their heart, and said to Peter and to the rest of the apostles, Men and brethren, what shall we do? Then Peter said unto them, Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost” (Acts 2:37-38). Peter thus provides a true prescription for the receiving of initial salvation. Repentance required of these Jews a decided change of mind concerning Jesus, a humbling of themselves before God with a detestation of their former sins and an earnest cry for mercy. By being baptized in the name of Jesus Christ, they would be making a public profession of their becoming His disciples and servants. Peter also makes it clear, however, that the purpose of being baptized in the name of Jesus Christ was “for the remission [or removal] of sins.” According to Clarke, “baptism [points] out the purifying influences of the Holy Spirit; and it is in reference to that purification that it is administered, and should in consideration never be separated from it. For baptism purifies not the conscience; it only points out the grace by which this is done.” By repenting as well as placing a true and vital faith in Jesus Christ and faithfully submitting to water baptism, they would, according to the promise, receive the Holy Ghost.

Water, however applied in the baptismal ceremony, cannot alone take away sins nor bring the seeker an experience of regeneration. Nevertheless, it is the scriptural way for believers to take upon themselves the profession of Christianity. F. F. Bruce once declared that “the idea of an unbaptized Christian is simply not entertained in the New Testament.” From both Scripture and the earliest history of the Church we find water baptism to be symbolic of Spirit baptism.

Ambrose of Milan, an early Church Father once wrote, “For who is he that is baptized with the Holy Spirit but he who is born again through water and the Holy Spirit?” This was the universal view of ancient Church Fathers together with the Reformers and early Methodists. In a Journal entry Mr. Wesley writes, “I baptized a gentlewoman at the Foundery; and the peace she immediately found was a fresh proof, that the outward sign, duly received, is always accompanied with the inward grace” [5 Feb 1760]. Both water baptism and Spirit baptism were always considered initiatory events, nor was the latter looked upon as a second work of grace. Baptism was considered a means of entrance into the Church and kingdom of heaven upon earth. “For by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body,” writes the apostle Paul, “and have been all made to drink into one Spirit” (1 Cor 12:13-14). Once the believer was baptized by water and the Spirit, he or she would be expected to “go on to perfection” by the inward and powerful working of the Holy Spirit.

Luke continues the narrative of that great day by informing his readers that “they that gladly received his word were baptized.” The Greek word translated gladly signifies “joyfully,” “readily,” “willingly.” They showed their approval of the doctrine delivered that day and were glad to hear of such a way of salvation. They began immediately to act according to the instructions given, being baptized in the name of Jesus (Acts 2:38).

It is significant to realize that “when a Jew had received baptism in this name he was” according to Clarke, “excluded from all communication with his countrymen; and no man would have forfeited such privileges but on the fullest and clearest conviction. This baptism,” we are assured, “was a very powerful means to prevent apostasy; they had, by receiving baptism in the name of Jesus, renounced Judaism, and all the political advantages connected with it; and they found it indispensably necessary to make the best use of that holy religion which they had received in its stead.”

Luke informs us that “the same day there were added unto them about three thousand souls.” These had now purposed to discontinue their following of the scribes and Pharisees, putting themselves under the leadership and teachings of the apostles. They had taken upon themselves the profession of the Christian doctrine which included an acknowledgment that Christ had indeed come, had lately been crucified; was now risen and was truly the promised Messiah. Such was the faith in which they were baptized.

Can we now assume that these three thousand converts were enjoying the inward presence of the Holy Spirit? Did they receive the gift of the Holy Spirit that day? “Now this narrative only fits together,” writes Dr. Robert Lyon, “if we recognize that these 3,000 in number did in fact realize in their lives what Peter had promised: they received the gift of the Holy Spirit. To include the promise in the narrative and not assume fulfillment would not make sense of the account. But,” continues Dr. Lyon, “one further point needs to be made, and that is, Peter promised to his hearers the very same experience which they had seen occur in the original outpouring. It would be unreasonable and unwarranted,” says he, “not to expect this as though Peter were saying, ‘We have received this experience; you are not ready for it yet, but this is what is available to you.’ No. These people saw something take place and were offered the same experience for themselves. Taking the context as a whole,” writes this scholar, “this is the only way we can understand it. Peter by his message and invitation has set before them the very same opportunity which was fulfilled in the lives of the 120.” We are assured by Dr. Lyon that Luke, the writer of Acts, makes “no distinction…between receiving the Spirit and being filled or baptized with the Spirit. All the terms — baptizing, coming upon, filling or pouring out, receiving — are equivalent expressions.”

Interestingly, Dr. Laurence Wood, in his book The Meaning of Pentecost in Early Methodism, finds himself in a dilemma. While expressing no doubt that the three thousand converts on the day of Pentecost were recipients of the Spirit’s baptism, he nevertheless believes it to have been “an extraordinary occurrence and not the usual pattern because,” as he puts it, “believers normally are justified believers first and later receive baptism with the Holy Spirit.” No, no, not so! Peter provides us in Acts 2:38 the New Testament formula and pattern for conversioninitiation in this dispensation which most surely includes an outpouring of the Holy Spirit. By equating the baptism of the Holy Spirit only with a second work of grace in entire sanctification or Christian perfection, Dr. Wood reflects a theological innovation of relatively recent times and is found flying in the face of both New Testament precedent and a long train of historical teaching. As Dr. Kenneth Collins, a noted Wesley scholar, once said, “Pentecost was the birth of the Church, not its perfection.”

From the writings of the earliest Church Fathers all the way to the Reformers and early Methodists, it is clearly evident that spirit baptism was consistently viewed as an initiatory experience. It was the means by which the new birth or regeneration was wrought and entrance into the Church of Christ assured. We thus find Dr. Wood representing a modern view, which in essence, deprecates the great work of regeneration. It denies the need for that mighty effusion of the Spirit so necessary in bringing penitents from the state of spiritual death to resurrection of spiritual life in the new birth.

“The popular idea,” writes James Dunn, “that conversion precedes baptism, and that [water baptism’ is a confession of a commitment made some time previously is not to be found in the [New Testament].” He enlarges upon this truth by assuring the reader that “Any attempt to separate Spirit-baptism from the event of conversion-initiation, as represented in water-baptism, so as to make the gift of the Spirit an experience following conversion is contrary to New Testament teaching. The writings of Luke and Paul do not teach us that baptism in the Spirit was something that follows nor was distinct from becoming a Christian.”

As we further consider this account of the three thousand converts, we are offered substantial evidence of their being filled with the Spirit from the time of their conversion. We are informed that they “continued steadfastly in the apostles doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers” (Acts 2:42). Later passages give us glimpses of the life style of these new converts. The power of the Holy Spirit now residing within their hearts was constraining them to live together in a bond of Christian charity. In fact they were exemplifying that “faith that worketh by love.” There was even the selling of possessions and goods for the relief of the needy. There was no positive command to do this. The love shed abroad in their hearts by the Holy Ghost given them truly constrained them to act in this charitable manner. It was a natural fruit of love whereby each member of the community loved every other as his own soul. Divine love, after all, is the essence of true Christianity.

And the Lord,” we are told, “added to the church daily such as were saved” (Acts 2:47). Yes, saved were they from the guilt and power of sin. Having been raised from spiritual death to spiritual life they were made new creatures in Christ Jesus so that “old things [had] passed away; behold all things [had] become new” (2 Cor 5:17). Such was the glory and power of Pentecost, made possible by the exaltation of Christ Jesus “to the right hand of God,” where He “received of the Father the promise of the Holy Ghost,” then gloriously shedding forth the same upon all who by faith were obeying the Gospel. Such was the entrance of a better Covenant and the dispensation of the Holy Spirit that proved to be the watershed of salvation history and the birth of the New Testament Church.



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