What does it mean to “receive the Spirit”?

The last time I preached at my church I concluded the message with a call to be saved and, since I am now preaching through Acts I had fresh in my mind Peter’s call in Acts 2:38: “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.” Since my message was on Jesus’ ascension into heaven (Acts 1) more than on the Spirit coming at Pentecost (Acts 2) this call led one person, in a follow up conversation, to ask, “What does it mean to receive the Spirit?”

This is a great question. When Peter said this in Acts 2 he was speaking before a crowd that had just witnessed the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. The crowd had just heard Peter and the disciples speaking in a multitude of languages/dialects (2:4) and they were amazed because they could each hear the disciples in their own language (2:6). Some in the crowd, reaching for a naturalist interpretation, thought that perhaps the disciples were drunk. Many, however, were drawn in to hear what the disciples had to say. This gave Peter the opportunity to give his first sermon and led to the sudden expansion of the church in Jerusalem.

The important thing to note here is that what the Holy Spirit enabled was clear and understandable communication of the good news of Jesus. While the miracle of Pentecost was attested to with physical manifestations (sound of a violent wind, appearance of tongues of fire) what amazed the crowds and led to their ultimate conversion was that the disciples were miraculously speaking and miraculously being understood.

There are, of course, many “signs” of the power of the Holy Spirit throughout the book of Acts but underlying all these signs is what these signs point to – the authority of the person of Jesus over both physical reality (healing, raising the dead) and spiritual reality (forgiveness of sins). Throughout Acts the Spirit consistently clearly communicates the truth of the gospel to both believers and unbelievers.

What about today? What does it mean to “receive the gift of the Holy Spirit?” Or, perhaps, “What is the role of the Holy Spirit?” I would submit that underlying role of the Spirit is the same as it was in Acts. The Holy Spirit enables clear and understandable communication of the good news of Jesus. I see this communication attested to in four ways in Scripture.

Clear communication to our consciences

First, it is the role of the Spirit to speak to our consciences. The Spirit can either speak a word of judgment or comfort, depending on our spiritual condition. It is the Holy Spirit that can use the Word to cut to our hearts. It is the Spirit that convicts the world of sin, righteousness, and judgment (John 16:8). It is also the Holy Spirit that is our Advocate (John 16:7) and can speak a word of assurance, reminding us of our new holy standing before God, as those sealed for the day of redemption.

Clear communication in our speech

Second, the Holy Spirit enables clear communication in our speech. This is seen in Acts as already stated but is also evident in 1 Corinthians 14. In this passage Paul is instructing the Corinthians not to get caught up in desiring the “flashy” gift of speaking in tongues. Instead he instructs them to seek the spiritual gifts which build up the church. These “edifying” gifts are marked out by their intelligibility, both to believers and unbelievers.

Paul states:

Follow the way of love and eagerly desire gifts of the Spirit, especially prophecy. For anyone who speaks in a tongue does not speak to people but to God. Indeed, no one understands them; they utter mysteries by the Spirit. But the one who prophesies speaks to people for their strengthening, encouraging and comfort. Anyone who speaks in a tongue edifies themselves, but the one who prophesies edifies the church. I would like every one of you to speak in tongues, but I would rather have you prophesy. The one who prophesies is greater than the one who speaks in tongues, unless someone interprets, so that the church may be edified.

Prophecy is given a more prominent place for Paul because it is understandable and “speaks to people for their strengthening, encouragement, and comfort.” Tongues are valuable within the church context only when they are interpreted. A cacophony of unintelligible tongues in worship, then, seems to be antithetical to the primary mode of operation for the Spirit.

Clear communication in our conduct

Third, the Spirit enables clear communication of our conduct. The Spirit enables our “walk” to match our “talk.” The “fruit” of the Spirit are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. When we are walk by the Spirit we demonstrate that we have been truly set free to obey the command to love our neighbors as ourselves, and that reality is a testament to the free justification that we have in Jesus (for more on this study the role of the Spirit in Galatians).

Clear communication in our community

Fourth, the Spirit enables clear communication in our community. This is perhaps nothing more than a natural result of the first three “empowering” aspects of the Spirit already stated, but it also goes one step further. It is the role of the Spirit to form and empower the church which confesses the name of Jesus. That church is given gifts which form not only Spirit-filled individuals but a Spirit-filled community which “grows and builds itself up in love as each part does its work.”

And this, I believe, is the mark of the Spirit in a church: clear gospel proclamation with palpable love to match. A man walked into our church recently and struck up a conversation with me. He stated that for him it was obvious which churches had the Spirit and which did not. From the context of the rest of the conversation I got the impression that he was talking about things like speaking in tongues, prophetic speech, and words of knowledge. In this regard I am cautiously open. I do not want to either put God in a box nor do I want to discount other people’s experiences. However, while the Spirit may manifest himself in those ways I think that the true marks of the Holy Spirit in a church are the clear and understandable communication of the gospel and the palpable love for neighbor present. How do you know if a church has the Spirit? Does it proclaim Jesus clearly in its speech? Do its actions and attitude within the body demonstrate a spirit of love and unity? Do its people love their neighbors? It is the role of the Spirit to form such a community.