(Updated on 9/19/2010 since first publication!)
Please have your study Bible open to the second chapter of Acts. Read each verse or block of verses before reading my explanation. That is the Berean way — to read God’s word first, so that you can test what I say against the greater authority! It will also be good to have whatever study helps you may have concerning the Greek language of the New Testament at hand, whether it is only Strong’s concordance, or an actual Greek New Testament and a lexicon or two. If you have a copy of Vine’s Dictionary, keep that nearby as well. Remember, our approach is to do our best to cast off what men may have taught us about this passage before, and try to see it with fresh eyes and without presumptions. May the Holy Spirit who lives in you be the only one to whose wisdom you submit!
2:1 (read it in your Bible first)
The first phrase in this verse clearly states the singular date on the Jewish calendar on which the events Luke is about to describe took place. It was fifty days following the event we call the “Upper Room,” and these two events fell precisely on two of the three highest Jewish holy days. The second phrase describes who was involved. Note that the participants are not named or even numbered, but are simply referred to as “they.” Just as was the case when we studied Luke’s use of this pronoun throughout the first chapter, his narrative is a continuum, and the occurence of “they” in this verse points immediately back to “they” in 1:26, 24, 23, 14, 13, 12, et. al., and we have seen this collective term grow in number from the eleven to about 120. This verse describes them as being together and in one place. It does not tell us where that place was, but we can surmise that it was probably a house with a large upper room (cf 1:13) somewhere near the Temple.
2:2 (read it in your Bible first)
This verse is full of important descriptive words, and we must come to understand their meanings carefully. If I strip away the “incidental words” (little words like if, to, and, from), the verse uses these words, in order: suddenly, heaven, noise, violent, rushing, wind, filled, whole, house, sitting (as stated in the NASB version). I mention these here only to give an example of our study method, not because we will actually study each of these words in Greek. Suffice it to say that while the order of the words in the Greek text varies slightly from the NASB, their presence is actually in the Greek text word for word.
We must also take Luke’s words (and the Bible’s) at face value. If we were to rephrase this verse in our own words, it would come out the same way. There’s very little “wiggle room” for interpretation of Luke’s observations and recording of the facts. (Sargent “just the facts, ma’am” Friday would be proud.) Still, there is one important word here that we must come to understand — the word “filled.” We will encounter this same English word in many passages, but the Greeks had several different words that have been translated as “filled” in English. “Filled” in this verse is eplayrowsen, a grammatical derivative of playrow. There is another word for “fill” used in Greek — gemidzow, that is used by John to describe what was done with the water and the pots at the wedding at Cana. Playrow (and another derivative we will see again, pimplaymi) conveys a sense of being completely under the influence of something, while gemidzow conveys a sense of the complete occupancy of the three-dimensional space inside a container, often through an act of pouring. The word “filled” in this passage is playrow, and it means “completely under the influence of.”
Be careful not to jump the interpretive gun here. We are not talking about how the Holy Spirit affected the disciples. This verse describes how the violent wind affected the house! Notice how much farther this word goes than as if the wind merely occupied the house as a container! It didn’t just occupy, it took over!
2:3 (read it in your Bible first)
Be careful! Did the Holy Spirit set their hair on fire? No, for Luke carefully tells us that there “appeared” to them tongues “as of” fire. Luke is describing something for which he has no accurate words! Whatever this was, it looked (appeared) something like (as of) fire and it broke apart so that some of it rested on each one of them. Note that this passage does not describe, as is often portrayed in artist’s depictions, a single candle-flame sitting on each person’s head. There is no mention of their heads at all! While it was no doubt tongue-shaped, it doesn’t say each person had only one, either. How do we describe the flames of a campfire? They “lick” the night sky! It’s entirely possible that it looked like a campfire surrounding the head and shoulders of each one. We cannot help but wonder if it wasn’t the same glory that shone on Moses face after he had communed in person with God. What an arresting and terrifying sight! But there is no mention of terror here, for there was no time to become terrified. Simultaneously with this appearance of fire came the presence of the Holy Spirit…
2:4 (read it in your Bible first)
The first word “and” indicates that this is continuous, simultaneous action with the previous verse. Remember, the verse numbers and breaks were only added centuries later. “They” (the same 120 as before) were “filled with the Holy Spirit”. Which “filled”? Eplaysthaysan, a grammatical derivative of playrow! This means that they were fully under the influence of the Holy Spirit, just like the house was fully under the influence of the wind. Luke has created a clever parallel here to describe an outward sign (the wind and its influence) of an inward occurrence (the Holy Spirit and His influence).
Notice that no mention of such influence was present in the story of replacing Judas Iscariot with Matthias. The Holy Spirit had not yet come, and they had to rely on God’s direct intervention through the casting of lots. Also please notice that Acts 4:31 (look ahead in your Bible, please) describes a separate, later occasion when “they” (a group now grown to about 5,000 men — see 4:4) were “all filled with the Holy Spirit”. New believers are not distinguished from the original 120. It’s possible that the word “all” really means all of them, including the original 120. Nor is there any indication that the “tongues of flame” persisted through the intervening days to the fourth chapter. (4:31 says nothing about tongues of flame, nor do any of the following instances of bestowing the Holy Spirit by the laying on of the Apostles’ hands.) If so, this is a repeat filling, at least for some of them. Why? Did the Holy Spirit somehow leak out?
To ask such a question puts us back in the mindset of the lesser Greek word for “fill”, gemidzow, a container occupied by something that has exited through a flaw. Remember, the word in use here (in both passages) is playrow, to be completely under the influence of something. The implication is that the Holy Spirit’s influence may have waned and then been restrengthened. Does the Holy Spirit “come and go?”
Let’s consider an Old Testament example. Turn to I Samuel 10:5-10 (read it now, please). This passage describes the action of the Holy Spirit in empowering men to do His work, from the Judges (including Samson), to Saul and the prophets in this passage, to David’s mighty men, and more. In the story of Saul’s life it’s patently obvious that when the Holy Spirit came upon him (the Hebrew word means to be fully influenced by), He did not stay nor have any “sealing” effect on Saul. The Holy Spirit came upon Saul to do His work, and left him when His work for the moment was done. IMHO, the Holy Spirit was still acting in this manner at Pentecost. It was, in fact, how any Jew would have expected Him to work.
There were many miracles performed by the Apostles over the course of chapters two through four, and they could not have been performed without the influence of the Holy Spirit. But that does not mean that they had to be completely under His influence the entire time. It is equally possible that He, in the language of the Old Testament, “came upon” them for the moment of the miracle, and was always with them.
Before we leave this discussion of playrow for better things, take a look at two other verses that use the same word, Acts 5:17 and Acts 5:28. In the first case, the high priest and his associates were “filled” with jealousy. Surely this means that they were completely under the influence of their own jealousy. If Luke used the same word in this instance that he did to describe how the Holy Spirit worked at Pentecost, then we could say that they were completely under the influence of their own jealousy in the same way that the Apostles were completely under the influence of the Holy Spirit. In the second case, the city of Jerusalem was “filled” with their teaching. Does this mean that the streets and buildings were neck-deep in little paper pamphlets, a physical substance occuping a container completely? I doubt it! Clearly it means that all of Jerusalem’s people were being influenced by what the Apostles were teaching. We could say that the people of Jerusalem were completely under the influence of the Apostles’ teaching in the same way that the Apostles were under the influence of the Holy Spirit. All three cases required Luke, under the direction of the Holy Spirit, to use the same word, meaning the same thing. In all three cases, the action described falls short of something greater…
The Apostle Paul, many years later, describes the relationship between the believer in the Age of Grace and the Holy Spirit in Romans 8:9,11. (Please look these verses up and read them now.) He never uses playrow or gemidzow to describe it, but instead uses the word oikeow. These verses teach us that the Holy Spirit does more than influence us or be with us to empower us for the occasion. Luke does not use this word in describing the events of Pentecost. Oikeow means to dwell or take up residence. Paul says that the Holy Spirit dwells in us! We are His house. He upbraids the Corinthians for their behavior toward each other, saying, “Do you not know that you are a temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwells in you?” (I Cor. 3:1).
In Luke 24:49 Jesus describes how the Holy Spirit will come to His disciples in a few days. “And behold, I am sending forth the promise of My Father upon you; but you are to stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.” In Acts 1:8 they are told again to remain in the city where they “shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you.” Note Luke’s use of the words upon and clothed in these verses. (John also uses the word with in John 14:16.) Why didn’t Luke write, “And behold, I am sending forth the promise of My Father into you, but you are to stay in the city until you are indwelt by power from on high… receive power when the Holy Spirit has indwelt you?” Jesus was not at a loss for ways to describe the Holy Spirit’s relationship to the disciples — He also used the word “clothed,” which in the Greek is endusaysthee, a form of enduow, to “put on as a cloak”. Interestingly, we use the prefix “endo” in medicine and science to indicate something on the inside, as in “endoskeleton” (as opposed to an insect’s exoskeleton), which would seem to indicate that the Holy Spirit will be inside the disciples. However, the other half of this Greek word, duow, means “to enter”. The Greek inference for the whole word is that putting on a cloak is to ”enter into” it. Note that the person is on the inside and the cloak is on the outside. Thus, Jesus’ use of this word places the believer on the inside, wrapped on the outside by the Holy Spirit. The disciples would literally be “dressed in the Holy Spirit.” Again, there is NO sense in this passage of the Holy Spirit indwelling them. I believe the differences in these words were deliberate choices of the Holy Spirit as Luke and Paul wrote them, and clearly differentiate two different modes of the Holy Spirit’s relationship to believers in different dispensations.
Here again is an opportunity to sharpen our scholarship about God’s Word and clear away confusion. We have often been trained to understand the Holy Spirit as “The Comforter.” What is the origin of this concept, and what is the Greek word? Jesus used this word to describe the Holy Spirit during His teaching of the disciples at the Last Supper. The things He was telling them were troubling (things about the coming Tribulation), and he wanted to encourage and strengthen them for what lay ahead. The Greek word used by Luke was parakalayton. In personal reference to the Holy Spirit it occurs only four times, all in the Gospel of John and all in the Upper Room discourse (John 14:16,26; 15:26; 16:7). From these four occurrences we have been trained to call the Holy Spirit by the English corruption The Paraclete. What does this Greek word mean? Para is a Greek prefix denoting position, usually “beside.” We use the same prefix in English to identify lines that run in the same direction and never cross each other — parallel lines. Kaleo is “to call” (think of call-ay-oh). So think of parakaleo literally as beside-call. The picture is precisely that of the person who comes as soon as they hear the news and sits beside you in the hospital waiting room and puts their arm around you. That is exactly why this name for the Holy Spirit is translated as “comforter”. Do you remember Paul’s companion Barnabas, and the nickname he was known by? “Son of Encouragement” — literally Son of Parakaleo.
Please notice that Jesus teaches His disciples that the Holy Spirit will accompany them (He will be called alongside), giving them power and confidence. Throughout the Upper Room discourse the Holy Spirit is spoken of as a separate Person (as well He is), but at no point does Jesus describe the Spirit’s relationship to the disciples as indwelling them. What’s more, the events of Pentecost fit perfectly with the nature of the Holy Spirit’s relationship to the disciples as described in the Upper Room discourse, but do not fit with Paul’s unique description of indwelling.
Why am I making such a big deal out of this? Two reasons. First, Bible teachers who reject this idea of the Holy Spirit working differently during the time of the revealed mystery than He did in the Old Testament do so to protect their fundamental premise that the church of the Age of Grace began at Pentecost. To accept this would require changing their understanding of the beginning of the church, not just the methods chosen by the Holy Spirit. Both are huge sacred cows, and this idea threatens their understanding of the church. They would have to throw away too much of their orthodox training to allow it. So they stumble over the truth but go on as if nothing happened. (That’s putting it mildly. We could go so far as to say that some run as fast in the opposite direction as they can, or, worse, try to silence those who understand what the Bible says plainly.)
Second, this is a perfect example of how the mystery has much greater blessing and power in every regard than what the Apostles experienced at Pentecost before the mystery was revealed. Which would you prefer? A refillable mug (that has to be returned to the source to be refilled from the outside), or one that has within itself the source of refreshment? It is so much more blessed to be indwelt by the Holy Spirit than it is to merely be accompanied by or influenced (even if completely) by Him intermittenly. Remember my “heresies” back in previous blog posts? In every case, the pattern of all of them is like this one. What Christ revealed to Paul for the Age of Grace trumps anything the Apostles in the early chapters of Acts had.
If Paul’s writings were missing from the Bible, we would know nothing of a Holy Spirit who actually has taken up permanent residence in us. We would only know of His full influence as the moment required, just like the Judges, Saul, David, and and the Prophets. The Bible never describes them as being “sealed” by the Holy Spirit as a downpayment and assurance of their future home in Heaven with Christ. These concepts are unique to Paul’s writings. Why? Because they are part of the mystery hidden in other ages that God chose to reveal through Paul, and Paul has not yet arrived on the scene at this point in Luke’s narrative! Once again, the events being described at this point in Acts, including the actions of the Holy Spirit, are fully in keeping with Old Testament principles, prophecies and promises to the nation of Israel.