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Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The Reception of the Holy Spirit: Flexible Terms and Blended Situations

Now that we've looked closely at the New Testament's teaching and verbiage related to the Spirit within and the Spirit upon, it's valuable to look at instances in which the line between these two modes is blurred.  First we'll take a look at vocabulary that New Testament authors employ to describe both the Spirit within and the Spirit upon, and then we'll look at situations in which the Holy Spirit's activity cannot be easily separated into the two modes because he is being received in both ways at roughly the same time.

In my previous post I noted that a metaphor for the Spirit within is water while a metaphor for the Spirit upon is fire.  Another metaphor for the Holy Spirit is wind—fitting since the Greek pneuma can be translated either "spirit" or "wind" (or also "breath") according to context.  In John 3:5-8, Jesus speaks of those who are "born of the wind [Spirit]," which we know from earlier in the chapter (and saw previously) refers to the Spirit indwelling the believer and bringing him or her to new life.  (Indeed, such persons are born of water as well as wind.)  However, Luke records that when the Holy Spirit came upon the believers on Pentecost, the tongues of fire upon them were also accompanied by the sound of a rushing wind (Acts 2:1-4).  It seems that "wind" is a flexible metaphor for the Holy Spirit that can apply to him either within or upon the believer.  We see the same flexibility in the metaphor of oil by which the believer is anointed by God.  Paul and John use the term "God anointing with the Holy Spirit" with respect to the Spirit's indwelling work to establish, give hope to, and instruct the believer (2 Cor. 1:21-22; 1 John 2:27).  By contrast, Luke uses the same term to refer to the descending Spirit's work to empower God's servant (Acts 10:38).

You may have noticed by now an interesting diversity among New Testament writers.  The three writers who talk the most about the Holy Spirit are John, Paul, and Luke.  (Peter does as well, but we don't have nearly as much of writing from him to go on.)  Most of the time, though by no means always, when John and Paul write about the Holy Spirit they talk about the Spirit dwelling within all believers to attach them to God in Christ.  Luke, on the other hand, exclusively talks about the Spirit coming on believers to embolden and empower their confession of Christ.  So for example, some of the most common terms for the reception of the Holy Spirit in Scripture are "God giving the Holy Spirit" (and the less common "God sending the Holy Spirit") and the believers "receiving the Holy Spirit."  Paul and John usually use these terms to refer to the Spirit within.  Luke always uses them to refer to the Spirit upon.

Before moving ahead there are a couple of rare terms that appear in Jesus' Upper Room Discourse in the Gospel of John that require discussion.  Three times in John 16:7-15 Jesus refers to "the Holy Spirit coming to" his disciples.  Jesus says that the paráklētos would come after he ascended into heaven and that the result would be powerful conviction, which are things we expect of the Spirit upon.  But the result of the Spirit coming to the disciples was also that he would guide them into all truth, which we expect from the Spirit within.  This is another flexible term.  The other odd term is "the Holy Spirit being/remaining with" Jesus' disciples, which appears twice in John 14:16-17.  The Holy Spirit had already been with them, but Jesus wanted them to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit so that he would be with them forever.  The explanation that makes the most sense is that the Holy Spirit was with them in and on the person of Jesus himself.  When Jesus returned to the Father, the Spirit would go too unless and until he was sent to the disciples themselves.  But this term has no bearing on how the Spirit would be received, whether within or upon or both.

Interestingly, just as some terms mix the two modes of the reception of the Spirit within and upon, the practical situations of some believers in the New Testament (and hopefully today as well) show a similar mixture.  The most obvious example is the household of Cornelius, which I talked about last time.  For these Gentiles, their belief in the gospel and regeneration seem to have come simultaneously with their baptism in the Holy Spirit and speaking in other languages, even before water-baptism (Acts 10:44-48)!  The two modes of receiving the Holy Spirit blended into a single experience.  Another noteworthy example is "the gospel coming by the Holy Spirit" to the Thessalonian believers (1 Thess. 1:5-6).  The evidence that they really believed the word—that is, were really converted through the Spirit's indwelling, regenerating work—consisted of the powerful miracles, rock-solid confidence, and joy amid suffering that the Holy Spirit upon them had given them just as he had to the apostles themselves.  (The obvious authenticity of the Thessalonians' faith is probably akin to "being a letter written with the Holy Spirit [like ink]" as Paul describes the Corinthian believers in 2 Cor. 3:2-3.)  In the same way, in Galatians 3:2-5 Paul describes the Galatian believers as "beginning by the Holy Spirit," which suggests conversion (through the Spirit within), asserting that they would be foolish to finish by the flesh.  (Indeed, the approach they should have been taking in their Christian lives is outlined in 2 Cor. 3:17-18: "the Holy Spirit transforming" them into the glory of the Lord visible in the clear preaching of Christ.)  But in the same section Paul also describes "God providing the Spirit" to them in terms of the supernatural miracles God was working among them (through the Spirit upon).  With the Thessalonians, the Galatians, and presumably the Corinthians, when they received the Holy Spirit, the one mode of reception naturally led to or involved the other.

There is an intriguing biblical example of this process breaking down in the case of the recipients of the letter to the Hebrews "being partners in [God's grant of] the Holy Spirit."  Hebrews 6:4-6 states that anyone who has become partners in the grant of the Holy Spirit—which the author equates with being enlightened and tasting the heavenly gift, the good word of God, and the power of the coming age—can't be renewed to repentance if they fall away.  The way I look at this is that if the readers had experienced the power and conviction by the Holy Spirit that the Thessalonians had experienced, but unlike them (1 Thess. 3:5-8) they later demonstrate that their faith had not been genuine because they turn away from the gospel, they won't be brought back to repent again as they had done ingenuinely the first time.  Despite their initial seeming acceptance of the message, they really had been "resisting the Holy Spirit" just as the Jewish Council had (Acts 7:51-53).  The Spirit was upon those who spoke to them as he had been on Stephen and perhaps on genuine believers among them as well.  They all could see, hear, and feel the power of God and were impacted by it whenever they got together.  It led them to make a confession.  But the Spirit had never actually entered into them and brought them to life.  So their reception was really a nonreception, merely a temporary place in the community in which the Spirit had truly been received by some.

So what do we learn from all this?  First, even though the Spirit comes to the believer in two ways, within and upon, sometimes New Testament authors could be messy about how they described it, according to their interests, using certain terms in a generic, nonspecific way.  Second, life itself could be messy, with people being converted through the Spirit within and being empowered by the Spirit upon more or less simultaneously—or at least, even if this did not happen often to many individual believers, it was how the church as a collective unit experienced it.  In fact, this seems to have been a pretty common experience in the missionary situation of the first century.

In the next post I'll present some thoughts on the "so what" of this whole investigation.

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