The reader of the books of Acts cannot help but notice the emphasis Luke placed upon the role of the Holy Spirit within the early church. Luke puts on display several features of the Holy Spirit’s involvement. He demonstrates the receiving of the Spirit as a sign of conversion and empowerment. This is seen most clearly in the events of Pentecost and the conversion of Cornelius. He portrays that church leaders are merely representatives of the Holy Spirit’s authority as in the cases of Ananias and Sapphira and the Apostle’s creed to Antioch. He peppers the Acts account with miraculous acts that can only be explained by the work of the Holy Spirit.

Luke’s emphasis on the work of the Holy Spirit has led some to look for dogmatic formulas for the reception of the Holy Spirit. Pentecostals, for example, see the speaking of tongues as the ultimate sign of conversion and empowerment. As Keener points out, “Pentecostals, in turn, rightly point to the centrality of Spirit baptism for the church’s empowerment as described in Acts, and that the tongues is the sign that invariably accompanies it where any sign is mentioned.”[1]Yet, Luke on a constant basis expresses the work of the Holy Spirit in a way that defies formula. As Harm notes, “The gift of tongues was not the usual accompaniment of conversion. Of the many conversions recorded in Acts, only two saw the gift of tongues in evidence.”[2] Not only is the gift tongues not present at every conversion, the Holy Spirit is received in an inconsistent pattern. For example, in one case the Spirit seems to have come before the baptism. In another instance, Peter and John are sent to lay hands upon those who were baptized but had not received the Spirit.

Clearly, Luke’s emphasis on the Holy Spirit was not to provide a dogmatic formula, but rather highlight the actual work of the Spirit within and through believers. In this sense, Luke provides three categories of Spirit empowerment. This can be identified as the indwelling of the Spirit; baptism of the Spirit; and the infilling of the Spirit. Each of these categories serve to empower the believer in specific areas of their Christian walk.

Although Luke does not present the categories of the work of the Holy Spirit in any discernable order, I have chosen to begin with the indwelling of the Spirit. Indwelling may be defined as the work of the Spirit which brings about those changes in character which produce Godly qualities. Paul referred to it as the “renewing of the mind” (Rom. 12:2). In other words, it is the indwelling of the Holy Spirit which defines the character and person of a believer. If such character transformation does not occur, then true conversion has not taken place. Paul would later simplify this stating, “When you believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit” (Eph. 1:13b).

Luke, clearly, grasped this part of Pauline theology[3]. His reference to the communal unity in the early chapters of Acts serve to highlight this exact point. Luke’s description of the church unity served to underscore his belief “that the living fellowship in the gospel of Christ is the result of the presence and power of the Holy Spirit in the lives of Christ’s people.”[4] The unforced sharing of property for those in need is mentioned as the ending point of Luke’s presentation of pouring out of the Spirit on Pentecost. His intention seems to be to point to this way of living as proof of the event itself. Luke wants his readers to understand that the pouring out of the Spirit was not just a display of power, but a life altering event. It was the moment in which God entered mankind. It is only with the indwelling of the Spirit such unity can be achieved. Again, Luke highlights Pauline theology. He emphasizes the Spirit’s unifying work.

True to form, Luke defies dogmatic formulation by offering a completely different example of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit: The conversion of the Ethiopian. Luke tells of a solitary conversion. There is no family; no group of people in which fellowship occurs. Indeed, under direction of the Holy Spirit, Phillip is guided to minister to an Ethiopian eunuch on his way back from Jerusalem. As a result of this encounter, the Ethiopian is baptized and Philip is whisked away by the Spirit. Yet Luke ends this account by reporting, “When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away; and the eunuch no longer saw him, but went on his way rejoicing” (Acts 8:39). Notice there was no speaking in tongues, no earthquake or visions, no healing, or large groups of people. None of these; merely a solitary man experiencing joy. “The gift was not necessarily anything miraculous in nature and must be an indwelling of the Spirit unaccompanied by miraculous evidence of His presence but evidenced by “the fruit of the Spirit” (Gal. 5:22).”[5] Luke does not want us to view the presence of miracles as proof of the Holy Spirit indwelling in a believer. No, he rather see the character changes that occur as result of indwelling.

Nowhere is this clearer than in the account of Paul’s conversion. In this account, Luke emphasizes the miraculous things done to Paul to bring about his conversion, i.e. the blindness. Yet, after Paul’s conversion, Luke does not mention a single miracle performed by Paul in his witnessing. It is not until after Paul’s acceptance by the Apostles is there any mentioning of healing or miracles performed. What Luke does emphasize is Paul’s change towards Christians. He highlights Paul’s new worldview. Luke’s intention in emphasizing the change over the actions would seem to be to have his readers infer that Paul had the indwelling of the Spirit. In order to do that, Luke had to demonstrate that Paul had gained Godly character traits.

The next category which will be discussed is the baptism of the Holy Spirit. If indwelling is the internal demonstration of the presence of the Spirit, then the baptism is the external. Luke seems to use this category as way to show God’s acceptance of believer’s, most notably the Pentecost and the Cornelius accounts and to a lesser extent the believers in Samaria. As Polhill observes, “Each of these events marked a new breakthrough, a new level of outreach in the Christian mission; and each was accompanied by a special, outwardly demonstrable evidence that the Spirit had come upon them and God had accepted them.”[6] In other words, whenever God deems it necessary to support the indwelling of the Spirit through outwardly visible evidence, the Spirit subsequently baptizes believers.

Although many believe that the indwelling and the baptism of the Holy Spirit occurred simultaneously in Luke’s Pentecost account, this simply does not seem to be the case. In reality, the indwelling occurred earlier when Jesus breathed upon them and said “Receive the Holy Spirit” (Jn. 20:22). However, just a character change would not have been enough to demonstrate the presence of God. Most of the onlookers at Pentecost who would eventually convert, probably had no idea who the disciples were. And those that did, probably knew them from second hand reports and gossip. There would not have been enough personal knowledge there for them to recognize the indwelling of the Spirit. God therefore opted to baptize them in the Spirit. This baptism would produce “tongues of flames,” “miracle of hearing,” and “speaking in tongues” (Acts 2). This display was so out of the ordinary, the disciples were accused of being intoxicated (v.13).  The baptism of the Holy Spirit provided the catalyst for Peter’s sermon, which would not have occurred otherwise.

The Cornelius conversion is a similar event in the sense of the necessity for an outward display of God’s acceptance. In this instance, it was not necessary to show non-believers the presence of God, but rather to show Peter, God’s chosen leader. God was about to open the door of salvation to the gentiles. Throughout his ministry, Jesus was constantly having to deal with his disciples Jewish biases.[7] Peter certainly was not exempt from these. Cornelius and Peter would not have associated with each other. Peter would have refused to even be seen together with a gentile. This bias ran so deep, God prepared Peter by sending him a vision first.  So when God brought Peter to Cornelius, in order to set the precedent for gentile conversion it was necessary for an external display of the Spirit’s presence. For just as the onlookers would not have been able to discern the indwelling of the Spirit, it would have been impossible for Peter to do as well.

While both the Cornelius conversion and Pentecost are both dramatic examples of baptism of the Spirit, Luke provides a more subtle example with the believers in Samaria. In this case the necessity of the baptism did not occur to show acceptance for conversion. Rather, this incident served as correction. The believer’s in Samaria had already participated in a water baptism but had not yet received the Holy Spirit (8:15). Peter and John go to Samaria to lay hands on them, so they might receive it. Watching this incident was a man Luke identifies as Simon. Luke writes:

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.” Peter answered: “May your money perish with you, because you thought you could buy the gift of God with money! You have no part or share in this ministry, because your heart is not right before God. Repent of this wickedness and pray to the Lord in the hope that he may forgive you for having such a thought in your heart. For I see that you are full of bitterness and captive to sin.” (Vs. 18-23)

Observe, that Simon SAW that the Spirit was given. Luke does not record the exact display that Simon saw. It was not necessary, and more likely would have again tempted formulization which Luke desperately tries to avoid. The indisputable connotation here is that there was an external display of the Spirit. The Samarian believers were baptized in the Spirit to highlight God’s acceptance of them versus Simon’s rejection.

The final category that Luke presents the work of the Holy Spirit is the infilling of the Spirit. This may be described as the equipping of believers for service in ministry. This role is paramount in Acts. It is the driving force, behind the narrative. It includes many different aspects such as courage in the face of danger, wisdom to carry out administrative work, guidance on where to carry the gospel, and so forth. It is perhaps most often displayed as inspiration for speeches and sermons.

Although similar to both indwelling and baptism of the Spirit, infilling differs in one crucial aspect: it is continuous in nature. Indwelling is a one-time event that occurs when a person becomes a converted believer. Baptism, on the other hand, is a reoccurring event that occurs only as deemed necessary by God to demonstrate his acceptance of new believers. In contrast to both of these, infilling is a process that occurs on a continuous basis. Arrington asserts, “[O]ne who enjoys constantly the fullness of the Spirit is controlled by the Spirit of God. So, in a sense the filling with the Spirit is not only an initial experience but should be a perpetual operation and the normal spiritual condition of the believer.”[8] Luke understands this. He weaves this principle throughout the entire book, pausing a particular points for emphasis. One such place of emphasis is the choosing of the seven elders for the distribution of food. In dealing with the Church’s first major administrative issue Peter tells the congregation to “choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit…” (6:3, emphasis mine). They are to be known to be full of the Spirit. This does imply a rare occurrence. In fact, it assumes the opposite, this is a common state of being for these people being chosen. Their reputation is one of being filled with the Spirit. It is this filling which qualifies them as being able to serve.

Another point of emphasis is the man known as Stephen. Luke makes sure his readers understand the spiritual state of Stephen. In fact he mentions three times that Stephen is full of the Holy Spirit. The final reference being just before his martyrdom in which he receives one of the most powerful visions of Jesus recorded in the Bible. Luke records the account this way:

“But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. “Look,” he said, “I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God” (7:55-56, emphasis mine).

“It is significant to note Jesus is standing here, as opposed to the more common description of Him sitting in heaven (Matthew 26:64, Colossians 3:1), at the right hand of God the Father.”[9] The standing posture indicates an active involvement rather than a passive onlooker. Jesus was in the process of “filling” Stephen with the Holy Spirit. This vision probably comforted Stephen as he died as a result of stoning. Luke’s highlight of Stephen underscored his literary purpose of expounding the work of the Holy Spirit without formulation, while at the same time introducing us to the man called Saul, who would later be known as the Apostle Paul.

Interestingly, Luke defies dogmatic formula of the Holy Spirit by not only highlighting Paul’s greatest success, but rather by highlighting his greatest failure.  Though the experience is a negative one, it is a story of empowerment through perseverance. The narrative Luke records in the seventeenth chapter of Acts can be divided into three parts: “Before Athens;” “At Athens;” “After Athens.” In the first part, Luke records Paul’s typical missionary strategy pattern. Paul preaches at the synagogue to the Jews and Greek proselytes. Paul performs miracles as signs and evidence of the Spirit. Jewish opposition to Paul rises up. Many people convert to Christianity. The same pattern is found in the last part. However, located in striking contrast between these two narratives is Paul “at Athens.” In this narrative, Paul begins with his usual preaching at the synagogue. There is no mention of any Jewish opposition. There is no mention of any miracles performed. In fact, there is few people convert and those that do are mentioned as an afterthought. From the evidence of silence, it is inferred that the Spirit was not working as it had been or would later despite Paul consistent missionary approach. In other words, there is no formula to guarantee success through Spirit; it is completely determined by the power of its own will.

Despite human attempts to formulize the work of the Spirit, Luke offers compelling evidence that this is an impossibility. He argues through the narratives that he chose to include in the book of Acts. It is this message of non-dogmatic formulization which led Thomas Constable to note, “The same Spirit of God that indwelt Him (Jesus) now indwells us. The unity of the church is not external: what we believe (creeds), how we organize ourselves (polity), or where and how we meet (culture). It is internal: through Him who indwells us.”[10]


[1] Craig S. Keener, “Why Does Luke Use Tongues as a Sign of the Spirit’s Empowerment?,” Journal of Pentecostal Theology 15, no. 2 (2007).

[2] Frederick R. Harm, “Structural Elements Related to the Gift of the Holy Spirit in Acts,” Concordia Journal 14, no. 1 (1988).

[3] The traditional view of Acts puts Luke as a traveling companion. It is not unreasonable to assume that Paul had huge influence on Luke’s own theology.

[4] Drumwright, “Holy Spirit in the Book of Acts.”

[5] R. L. Roberts, “‘The Gift of the Holy Spirit’–Acts 2:38,” Restoration Quarterly 4, no. 4 (1960).

[6] John B. Polhill, Acts, ed. David S. Dockery, 41 vols., Niv the New American Commentary, vol. 26 (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group, 1992).

[7] See Luke 8:43-48 and John 4 for examples.

[8] Arrington, “The Indwelling, Baptism, and Infilling with the Holy Spirit: A Differentiation of Terms.”

[9] David Guzik, Commentary on Acts (Santa Barbara: Enduring World Media, 2012).

[10] Constable, Thomas L. “Notes on Acts.” Dr. Constable’s Expository Notes. (2014).