The Acts of the Apostles: A Guide to the Holy Spirit

Fr Michael Hall shows us how the dynamic work of the Holy Spirit in Acts gives us the motivation, inspiration and guidance that we need in our faith today.

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The “Acts of the Apostles”, which follows after John’s Gospel in our New Testament, is actually the sequel to the third Gospel – the one associated with St Luke.

Luke begins both of them with a dedication to a patron – “dear Theophilus”.  Theophilus might have been a sympathetic Roman official, interested in the new phenomenon of the Christian church.  Some have argued that he was actually an interested Jewish priest.  There is always the possibility (given that Theophilus means “lover of God”) that he stands for the general interested reader.

Whatever the case may be, Luke aims to give us the “so what?” of the Gospel story of Jesus Christ. Matthew and Mark, like Luke, close with Jesus’ ascension into heaven.  But their final message is that Jesus told his disciples to take the Gospel to the ends of the earth.  Luke, in Acts, tells us just how that began to happen.

Each of the Gospel writers have their own particular “flavour” and special concern in telling the story of Jesus. Luke seems to be particularly concerned with how Jesus related not only to his own people, but also to the non-Jewish “nations” – the Gentiles.  He is keen to teach us about the Holy Spirit – mentioning the Spirit at least three times more often than the other three Gospels. 

But it is when Luke turns to tell us about how the first Christians put Jesus’ commands into practice that the Holy Spirit takes centre stage.

Before we turn to look at that, it may well be a while since some of us read through the Acts of the Apostles. So here’s a whistle-stop tour.

A whistle-stop tour through the Book of Acts

  • Obedient to Jesus’ command, the disciples remain in prayer with Mary his mother until, on the Day of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit descends
  • Filled with the Spirit, Peter and the other disciples not only speak about Jesus, but perform the same sort of miracles that Jesus did.  This draws many people to be baptised, but it also arouses the opposition of the leading figures in Jerusalem.
  • Persecuted by these leaders, many of the disciples leave Jerusalem for other parts of the Holy Land and its neighbouring territories.  Churches are founded there, mainly composed of Jews who realised that Jesus was the promised Messiah.  However, the Holy Spirit seems to be drawing Gentiles to believe as well – not least through the ministry of St Peter.
  • One particularly vigorous persecutor of the Christians was a Jewish man called Saul.  Heading into Syria to hunt down escaped Christians, he has a powerful encounter with the Risen Jesus, and becomes an equally ardent preacher of the Gospel.  Initially viewed with suspicion, Saul (later to call himself “Paul”) is mentored by Barnabas, and with him is chosen to go on a long missionary journey into what is now called eastern Turkey.
  • The second half of the Acts of the Apostles is largely structured around the three missionary journeys of St Paul (and his occasional creative conflict with the Church Headquarters in Jerusalem).  It deals with Paul’s persecution, and his appeal (as a Roman citizen) for his case to be heard by the emperor.
  • Acts ends with Paul – and hence the Gospel – arriving in Rome.

So the Book of Acts is invaluable for taking us through the first few decades of the Church’s life.  But it’s a lot more than a history book.

The chief character in the Book of Acts is not Peter or Paul, but Jesus working through the Holy Spirit. The letter to the Hebrews tells us that “Jesus is the same today, yesterday and tomorrow” – and so is the Holy Spirit.  Many of us are discovering how the Holy Spirit can work in and through the Church today, not just through the sacraments and the ecclesiastical hierarchy, but in the lives of members of the Body of Christ.

How can we know what to expect?  The Book of Acts tells us.

The Promise of the Holy Spirit 

It tells us, first of all, that the coming of the Spirit is promised.  It is promised in the Old Testament, where we not only find references to the work of the Spirit (such as moving over the face of the waters at creation), but also prophecies which say that the Spirit will one day be poured out.

In the second chapter of the Acts, Peter refers to one of the most famous of these prophecies.  Joel says, “In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams.” (Acts 2:17, quoting Joel 2:28).

But the coming of the Holy Spirit is also foretold by Jesus. “John baptised with water, but you will be baptised with the Holy Spirit”, he says to his disciples (Acts 1:5).  He also says why this is going to happen: “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:8)

The Spirit who fills

These prophecies are fulfilled – literally “filled full” – when the Holy Spirit descends at Pentecost. (Acts 2).  Following this, the most common verb associated with the Spirit in Acts is “fill”, closely followed by “fall” and “poured out”.  The grace of God showers down upon his infant Church.  But more than that, we see the Spirit pouring out of the hearts and lives of the disciples.  This, of course, is what Jesus had taught:  ” ‘Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.’ Now he said this about the Spirit, which believers in him were to receive; for as yet there was no Spirit, because Jesus was not yet glorified.” (John 7:38-39)

In this way the falling, filling Spirit marks people’s characters. A number of times during the Acts, people are described as “full of the Holy Spirit” (such as Stephen in Acts 6:3, and Barnabas in Acts 11:24)

The Spirit who gives gifts

The Spirit not only fills people, however.  It also gives them “gifts” – the ability to do things which, in their own strength and power, they could not do. Whether this is speaking in foreign languages which they had not learned (Acts 2), preaching in a way which one would not expect from a poorly-educated fisherman (Peter, from Acts 2 onwards; cf. 4:13) or healing in the same way that Jesus did (Peter and John in Acts 3, Peter in Acts 9, Paul in Acts 14).

The Spirit who directs

As well as giving the first disciples extraordinary power and ability, the Holy Spirit also guides and directs them in the way in which they are to serve God.

Philip, chosen as one of the first deacons, is guided by the Spirit to an encounter with a minister of the Queen of Ethiopia.  Peter is impelled by the Spirit to go to the house of Cornelius, a Roman centurion, and thus baptise the first Gentiles (non-Jews) into the Church (Acts 10).  Paul is prevented from journeying to several districts “because the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them”. (Acts 16)

The Spirit and the Sacrament

Jesus compares the Holy Spirit with the wind, which “blows where it wants” (John 3:8, my paraphrase). But it is also clear from the Acts of the Apostles that the Spirit can be formally “given” by the action of the leaders of the Church.  Peter and John go to the new Christians in Samaria and lay their hands on them, for them to receive the Holy Spirit (Acts 8:15-17).  Paul does a similar thing for the Christians in Ephesus (Acts 19:1-6).  This is testimony to the origin of the sacrament of Confirmation.

The Spirit and vocation

One of the most intriguing verses in the Acts is when Paul describes himself as “a captive to the Spirit” (Acts 20:22).  He has been warned that to go to Jerusalem will mean almost certain arrest and death, but he cannot do otherwise.  It’s an interesting exercise to take one of the recurring personalities in the Acts – Peter, Paul, Stephen, Barnabas, and to follow their journey of personal vocation – their journey in the Spirit

The Spirit and us

The work of the Holy Spirit described in the Acts of the Apostles is not just a historical reality.  It is a present one as well.  The Church teaches us that the Spirit still comes through the sacraments, and also “blows where it will”.  (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 798 – 801).  

St John Paul II, Pope Benedict and Pope Francis all refer extensively to the ongoing work of the Spirit in their writings and teachings.  In a large part – though not exclusively – this has been in response to the “Charismatic Renewal”, which has played a big role in the Catholic Church and many other Christian groups in the last 60 years.

In addition, many people up and down our land are coming to a deeper understanding of their gifting and vocation by the Holy Spirit through engaging with the Catherine of Siena Institute’s “Called and Gifted” process.

Whether it is the work of filling, engifting, directing or calling, the Spirit is doing in our time what it did two thousand years ago.  May the Acts of the Apostles give us the motivation, inspiration and guidance that we need to walk in the Holy Spirit’s ways.

Fr Michael Hall is a parish priest in the Leeds Diocese.  For over 20 years he was also a teacher and school leader in secondary education.  He is Lead Associate of Barnabas Education Services.