As background for this passage, let us observe Luke’s approach to the subject of the Holy Spirit in his writings. Luke’s emphasis is on the Spirit who empowers us be witnesses rather than on the work of the Spirit in salvation. He clearly acknowledges that Spirit-empowered messages (e.g. Acts 2:17-21) bring men to salvation. However, he does not deal with the Spirit in salvation in a Pauline way. He does not connect the Spirit, as Paul does, with the terms justification, washing, regeneration, sanctification, adoption, and sealing. Nor does he connect the Spirit, as John does, with the giving of new life. Major emphases in Luke are the Spirit’s role in empowerment and approval.
The apostles in Jerusalem (v. 14) heard “that Samaria had received the word of God.” In Acts 11:1 Luke writes: “Now the apostles and the brethren who were throughout Judea heard that the Gentiles also had received the word of God.” Here, there can be no doubt that the Gentiles had genuinely embraced the Word of God. As in Acts 11:1, our view is that the Samaritans had actually accepted the Word of God. Given the facts that the Samaritans believed Philip’s message and received the Word of God, we know that they were true believers.
Having heard this, the apostles sent Peter and John to Samaria. Peter and John prayed for the Samaritans to receive the Holy Spirit. This action suggests a couple of reasons as to why the apostles were sent. The Samaritans were both empowered and approved. Beyond these reasons, the apostles may have just wanted to establish a good relationship with between the church in Samaria and the church in Jerusalem.
Peter and John came to Samaria from Jerusalem. They “prayed for them, that they might receive the Holy Spirit. For He had not yet fallen upon any of them; they had simply been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.” Several points will help us in interpreting this passage.
First, the disciples needed the Spirit, and Peter and John prayed for them that they might receive Him. We do not normally pray for an individual to receive the Spirit when they come to Christ. The initial reception comes as a response to faith. However, it is in order to pray for the Spirit to be received beyond this initial moment.
At this point, we recall Luke 11:13. Jesus said, “If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him?” NASU
Some scholars explain Luke 11:13 in dispensational terms. They argue that it was appropriate to pray for the reception of the Spirit in the Old Testament era, but we do not need to in New Testament times. However, the need for empowerment still exists among New Testament believers, and it is appropriate to pray for the outpouring of the Spirit. The concept of empowerment was not antiquated with the ascension of Christ. Rather, the empowerment was made available to all believers. Thus, the apostles prayed for the Spirit to fall upon the Samaritans in this dimension.
Second, the term “Holy Spirit” can be used of the person of the Holy Spirit, but it can also be used of a dimension of the Spirit. Lenski’s (pp. 1373) comments on John 20:22 are helpful. He writes: “Let us understand once for all that any and every reception of the Spirit means that the Spirit himself, the entire and undivided Third Person of the Trinity is received.” Even when a particular gift of the Spirit is received, the entire Spirit is received.” When we receive a particular manifestation of the Spirit, we are receiving the Spirit Himself.
Third, many commentators hold that there is only one reception of the Spirit and this takes place when one comes to faith. Although Luke does not speak about this initial reception of the Spirit, he does not deny it. Given his long association with Paul, he obviously knew about it. However, he chose to emphasize the Spirit’s role in empowerment. He wrote about receiving the Spirit with this purpose in mind.
Thus, the term “receive” may be used of multiple experiences. We can experience the Spirit in varying degrees of influence and with different gifts. Adding to his comments above, Lenski (p. 1374) continues, “Nor need the fact disturb us that those who already have the Spirit are said to receive him anew. Once he comes with one gift and one purpose, then he comes with other gifts and a greater purpose.”
Fourth, with regard to the phrase “not yet . . . only,” Bruner (p. 178) argues as follows: “When it is said that ‘x happened buy y did not happen,’ a definite set of meanings is conveyed: not only are the two events not connected, they are to a certain degree contrasted. However, when the word ‘yet’ is added to ‘not’ we are given a picture of the components of one entire event.” Given this argument, he holds that baptism and reception should take place together.
Actually a degree of differentiation may remain. All that the “yet” demands is the expectation that something else should happen. When x has happened but y has not yet happened, we expect that y should happen. The word “only” implies a certain incompleteness. But “not yet . . . only” does not completely unite x and y. Our view is that “not yet . . . only” suggests that when one comes to faith, he should have an expectation that the Spirit will fall upon him in power. This may not happen at the initial moment of faith.
Fifth, Luke writes that the Holy Spirit “had not yet fallen upon any of them.” Some writers hold that he means the Samaritans had not yet received the Spirit in any way. However, the graphic phrase “fallen upon” says nothing about their initial reception of the Spirit, but rather it suggests that they had not received the Spirit in an observable way as the disciples did at Pentecost. This leaves open the possibility that they received the Spirit upon coming to faith. Luke is silent about this reception, but this does not mean he denies it. As Bruce (p. 181) states, “The prior operation of the Spirit in regeneration and faith is not in view here.”
What is in view is the outpouring of the Spirit in a special dimension. Just what dimension does Luke have in mind. Writers such as Carter (p. 176) emphasize the ethical dimension and sanctification. Others, such as Beasley-Murray (p. 119) stress the gifts of the Spirit. It was Torrey (p. 117) who began to highlight the work of the Spirit in empowering people for testimony and service.
Some scholarship today holds that the Old Testament emphasis was on the “Spirit of prophecy” and that, in Luke and Acts, this emphasis is carried forward. Although it is debated as to how broad this term is, all would agree that the Spirit’s empowerment for witness is included. My own view, without denying other emphases, is that this is Luke’s primary concern. After all, he was writing the history of the expansion of the church.
The Spirit in this dimension had not fallen upon “any of them.” No doubt the apostles and Luke expected that the Spirit would have fallen upon at least some of them. All believers, in the New Testament era, are eligible for the empowerment of the Spirit, but none had received Him in this way at Samaria.
Sixth, Luke says, “they had simply been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.” As background for this statement, we turn to Acts 2:38-39. Here, Peter declares:
38 Peter said to them, “Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.
39 “For the promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off, as many as the Lord our God will call to Himself.” NASU
The Samaritans had repented, believed, and been baptized. They were eligible for the gift of the Holy Ghost in the Pentecostal sense, but the Spirit had not yet fallen upon them. Now, with the prayers of Peter and John, the Spirit would fall upon them.
In verse 17, Luke writes: “Then they began laying their hands on them, and they were receiving the Holy Spirit.” We will discuss both the laying on of hands and the receiving of the Spirit.
First, we will note “they began laying their hands on them.” The spiritual benefit of laying on of hands is generally recognized, but there is some debate as to whether or not this was necessary to receive the Spirit. Ananias (Acts 9:17) laid his hands on Saul (Paul) and prayed for him to be filled with the Spirit. When Paul (Acts 19:6) laid his hands on the disciples at Ephesus, the Holy Spirit came on them. In other cases, however, the Spirit was received without laying on of hands. Therefore, we regard laying on of hands as a helpful but not necessary step.
There are several spiritual benefits to laying on of hands. These include the thought that the one who lays hands on someone identifies with the one in need, that he has empathy for him, and that he accepts him. Given all this, the laying on of hands is helpful to the person who needs prayer. Therefore, we should be encouraged to lay hands on people and pray for the Spirit to fall upon them.
Second, the verb, “were receiving (elambanon),” is interesting. Just what does this mean? Luke uses the imperfect tense. The imperfect tense is flexible and can be used on continuous or repeated past action. It could mean that the Samaritans were receiving the Spirit one-by-one. Or it could mean that they, individually or collectively, continued to receive the Spirit or kept on receiving the Spirit in a repetitive way.
At a minimum the disciples received the Spirit one-by-one. The same tense is used with “began laying (epetithesan) their hands on them.” Obviously, Peter and John laid hands on them one-by-one. We can assume that the Spirit fell upon them when the apostles prayed. According to Swete (p. 91) “one after another they received the Holy Spirit.” However, they also may have continuously or repeatedly received the Spirit. Compare Ephesians 5:18.
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