The Curious Delay of the Holy Spirit
Text: Acts 8:4–17
Main Idea: There are no second-class citizens or unwanted stepchildren in the family of God.
I. Three Ways Theologians Have Understood The Spirit’s “Delay” (Acts 8:14–17)
A. The Samaritans’ Experience Demonstrates They Were Not True Christians. Yet.
B. The Samaritans’ Experience Demonstrates that the Christian Life Entails Two Different Stages of the Holy Spirit’s Work.
C. The Samaritans’ Experience is not an Indication they did not have the Spirit; but that they had not Received the Overt Manifestations of the Spirit.
II. The Gospel-Purpose in the Spirit’s “Delay”
Good morning church. As we return to Acts chapter 8 this morning, we are running head-long into a significant question about the normal operation of the Holy Spirit in the life of the Christian. To put it succinctly, does the Holy Spirit normally work in one OR two distinct stages?
Does he actively baptize and empower us when he raises us from spiritual death to spiritual life in his once-and-for-all work of regeneration (in one stage); granting us everything we need for life and godliness through the active presence and power of the Holy Spirit in our lives? Or does he work in two stages: one in which he grants us the grace and power to come to saving faith in Jesus Christ, and then a second (later) act, through which he dynamically fills us; actively empowering us to conquer our sin and become effective servants for Jesus Christ? This is not a question we can ignore because it defines our fundamental understanding and pursuit of the Christian life.
Yet, as we press into this question today, we are going to see something more. We are going to see that the Spirit’s delay among these Samaritan Christians is so much more than a matter of theological investigation; it’ an unmistakable display of God’s sovereign goal in the gospel of Jesus Christ. To put it plainly, the Spirit’s delay in Samaria points us to the glorious truth that (Main Idea) there are no second-class citizens in the kingdom of God OR unwanted stepchildren in the family of God. Every Christian has an equal standing before God and in the church of our Lord Jesus Christ. And that is because the baptism of the Holy Spirit destroys every barrier that separates sinful humans by fully incorporating every believer into the body of Christ (Cf. Ephesians 2:11–22).
So, as we turn to our passage this morning, we are going to begin by surveying three ways that theologians have understood the spirit’s delay so that we can come to grips with the nature of the Spirit’s work in salvation. After this we will transition to the question of God’s purpose in the Spirit’s delay. And finally, we will conclude with some practical application as we transition to communion.
Three Ways Theologians Have Understood the Spirit’s Delay (Acts 8:14–17)
Notice, how is the Holy Spirit working in this passage? He appears to be working in two different stages. One when the Samaritans came to faith through Philipp’s preaching and another when Peter and John lay their hands on them… So the question before us is this, what does Luke want us to learn OR understand about this delay? Well, the primary answers fall into three categories.
The Samaritans’ Experience (in this passage) Demonstrates They Were Not True Christians. Yet.
Simply put, the Samaritan’s really did not come to saving faith in verse 12. Rather, they got carried along “by the herd-instinct of a popular mass-movement.” They support their conclusion with two primary arguments:
First, they point out that verse 12 says they believed Phillip; not that they believed the gospel. Second, they point to the broader witness of Acts and the entire NT which demonstrates that the fundamental trademark of true, saving faith is the baptism / filling of the Holy Spirit. And since the Samaritans do not have the Spirit before the apostle’s arrival, they conclude that the Samaritans were not true Christian’s after Phillip’s preaching.
Yet, the problem with this interpretation is that Luke does not offer us a single indication that the Samaritans have a defective faith or that Phillip is preaching a deficient gospel. Rather, the people of Samaria are portrayed as true believers in contrast to the false believer Simon the magician.
The second way that theologians have understood the Spirit’s delay is to conclude that the Samaritan’s experience in these verses is a clear, Biblical example of normal Christianity. By this I specifically mean that:
The Samaritans’ Experience Demonstrates that the (normal) Christian Life Entails Two Distinct Stages of the Holy Spirit’s Work.
It might surprise you, but this second position is held (in very different ways) by both Roman Catholics and Pentecostals, which includes most Charismatics. Yet, for the sake of time this morning, I’m going to limit my focus to the beliefs of our Protestant brethren in the Pentecostal and Charismatic movement… Who would tell us that:
The first stage of the Christian life consists of what we typically refer to as conversion. On the outside we see an individual respond to the gospel in repentance and faith. And on these grounds and the witness of the NT we conclude that the Holy Spirit has accomplished his work of regeneration or new-birth in their life.
But, the second stage of the Christian life does not occur until a believer is finally “baptized OR filled with the Spirit” (which might be moments, months, or decades after their conversion). To quote from The Foundations of Pentecostal Theology:
“The baptism of the Holy Spirit is not the New Birth. Rather, the Baptism of the Holy Spirit is [an experience] subsequent to, AND distinct from, His Regenerative Work [at conversion]… [In that, in this second work] the Third Person of the Godhead comes upon the believer to anoint and energize him for special service… A full Christian experience should always contain both; BUT this distinction [between the two] must be made, because there are genuinely saved people who have never been filled with the Spirit.”
And how can we know that someone has experienced this second stage? The typical answer is that it is revealed one primary way— sudden supernatural utterance (aka. Speaking in tongues). Notice the key distinction in this view is not simply that Pentecostal Christians believe in the “charismatic gifts”; it’s that they believe that a person can be truly saved BUT be utterly devoid of the Spirit’s power to conquer their sin or serve Jesus Christ…
Now, I realize that, at least, some of you might be skeptically thinking, “Isn’t that a rather big jump for a single passage?” Well, the truth of the matter is that this two-fold view of the Spirit is built on a larger pattern of the Spirit’s work in the book of Acts. Let me quickly walk you through the key events.
One, even though the disciples were converted under the ministry of Jesus —I think we would all agree on this— they were not baptized with the Holy Spirit until almost 2-years later on the day of Pentecost.
Two, in our current text the Samaritans are saved under the ministry of Phillip but were not baptized with the Holy Spirit until some days later by the hands of the apostles. (Acts 8)
Three, Paul was converted on the road to Damascus by Christ himself, but he was not baptized by the Holy Spirit until three days later by the hands of Ananias. (Acts 9:3–9; 17–19)
Finally, when Paul runs into 12 men in Ephesus who believed in Jesus but only knew the baptism of John and did not know that baptism of the Holy Spirit; they receive the Holy Spirit by Paul’s hands after he baptizes them in the name of Jesus Christ. (Acts 19:2–7).
What I want you to see is that this pattern (at least on the surface) seems to demonstrate a two-stage pattern in Acts. And it helps us see “how” our Pentecostal brothers and sisters come to some of their conclusions.
But the problem with this solution, is that it deviates from the normal teaching and practice of the Apostles in the book of Acts AND the general teaching of the NT. (Please note, I am critiquing their understanding of the Spirit’s work; I am not questioning their salvation.)
To begin with, Luke’s account in chapter 8 conveys a curious note of surprise NOT normalcy. As John Stott observes in his commentary on Acts: the word “‘Only [in verse 16] implies that the two things (conversion and the filling of the Holy Spirit) were expected happen together.’ But, contrary to this normal expectation, the Samaritans water-baptism was not accompanied by the Spirit’s baptism. They received the sign BUT without the very thing it signified.”
In addition to this, if we turn back to Peter’s very first sermon in Acts 2. What is the promise for everyone who repents and believes and is baptized? It is that they will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38–39).
And if we transition from the teaching of Acts to the epistles, we discover the very same (single-stage) pattern. In Romans 8:9, Paul not only agrees with Peter but categorically declares
Romans 8:9 You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him.
And if we turn to 2 Peter 1:3–4, Peter himself exhorts his readers to a life of holiness with the single-stage truth that:
2 Peter 1:3–4 His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, 4 by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire.
An Important Qualification: Now, are there times when the Spirit pours out a special filling in the lives of certain believers? Yes! In fact, we have already seen it happen when the church prayed for boldness in Acts 4:31… Believers who had already been filled/baptized the Spirit at their conversion were “filled with the Holy Spirit and continued to speak the word of God with boldness.”
So, how —how— are we supposed to interpret these “two-stage” accounts in the book of Acts? Well, I believe the answer is that we are supposed to see them as redemptive-historical milestones in the apostles’ disciple-making mission from Jerusalem to Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8)… which leads me to the third way that scholars have understood the “Spirit’s delay.”
The Samaritans’ Experience is not an Indication they did not have the Spirit; but that they had not Received the overtly Charismatic Manifestations of the Spirit.
Notice, the key element in this proposition (first put forward by John Calvin) is that it provides us with an important biblical distinction. Had the Samaritans received both the regenerating and life-long indwelling baptism of the Holy Spirit? Yes! But what is missing according to the storyline of Acts? What’s missing is, the extraordinary gifts of the Holy Spirit that accompanied the disciples experienced at Pentecost.
But if this is the answer (which I believe it is), it quickly presses us into the question “why”? “Why does it matter if the Samaritans haven’t spoken in tongues or manifest any of the other charismatic gifts if they are truly saved?” Well, I believe this delay was God’s way of revealing his ultimate goal in the gospel of Jesus Christ.
The Gospel-Purpose in the Spirit’s Delay
What was the last thing that Jesus said to his disciples before he ascended into heaven?
Acts 1:8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.
What is Jesus doing? He is calling his disciples to follow what we might call a three-step approach to their disciple-making mission. An approach that expands in three concentric rings:
- First, “Jerusalem and all Judea,” the world of Judaism.
- Second, “Samaria,” the region populated by Israel’s half-breed cousins who had utterly abandoned Jewish faith for an apostate religion of their own making.
- And finally, “the ends of the earth,” the overtly idol worshiping Gentile world.
Now let’s align the overtly charismatic manifestations of the Holy Spirit in the book of Acts keeping this three-step disciple-making mission in mind.
First, when the Holy Spirit falls in the most obvious way on Jesus’ Jewish disciples on the day of Pentecost; what is he doing? He is revealing (to devout Jews in Jerusalem) that the promised restoration to God and outpouring of the Holy Spirit had arrived.
Second, if we jump past the Samaritans for a moment to Peter’s encounter with the Gentile Cornelius, what happens when Peter preaches the gospel? The Holy Spirit falls on the listening Gentiles and they instantly begin to speak in tongues. And when Peter returns to Jerusalem, what does he report?
Acts 11:15–16 As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell on them just as on us at the beginning. 16 And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’
Notice Peter is making it clear that these Gentiles have experienced the very same thing that the apostles did on the day of Pentecost. But what does this mean?
Acts 11:17–18 If then God gave the same gift to them as he gave to us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could stand in God’s way?” 18 When they heard these things they fell silent. And they glorified God, saying, “Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life.”
Don’t miss this, how did the apostles interpret the baptism of the Spirit on theses Gentiles? The interpreted it as a direct endorsement of their faith and undeniable evidence that they should be welcomed into the church as brothers and sisters in Christ!
Finally, if we apply this response to the curious delay of the Spirit in Samaria, what do we see? We see that God ordained the Spirit’s delay in Samaria so that Peter and John could physically witness God’s stamp of approval on a half-breed, apostate people; publicly verifying that they had been born-again and were full-fledged members of the one family of God. In fact, the Spirit’s delay in Paul’s conversion, is very similar. Yet, instead of it being God’s stamp of approval on a formerly excluded people group; he is placing his stamp of approval on a former persecutor through the hands of Ananias.
Note, the critical factor in each of these cases (whether the overt manifestation of Spirit was “delayed” or not) is the overwhelming, evident, awesome, self-disclosure of the Living God through which he undeniably declared, “these are my people.”
The lesson here is that as the church moved ever outward in obedience to Christ, we witness the most stunning result. The Jewish church didn’t not follow the pattern of its former Judaism which maintained the strictest differentiation between true ethnic Jews and non-Jews who converted to Judaism. Rather, what do we see? We Jesus himself breaking down the barriers that used to divide the Jews from the people around them through the dynamic work of the Holy Spirit. We see one people of God, one body of Christ, one community of the Holy Spirit, which was the fruit of one indescribable act of divine self-sacrifice by the one Lord Jesus Christ which resulted in the one and only glorious gospel of grace. We see that there are no second-class citizens in kingdom of God and there are no unwanted step-children in the family of God!
Application (Ephesians 4:1–6)
How can we apply this truth to our everyday lives given that we live in a completely different day and age? Sure, we could talk about the inclusion of out-siders and minority groups. But, I’m not sure that is the most poignant application. Because shortly after Paul described the manner in which Jesus destroyed the division between Jews and Gentiles by his blood and made the two into one new man (in chapter 2); he goes on to apply this truth in the most intimate way.
Ephesians 4:1–6 I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, 2 with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, 3 eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. 4 [WHY?] There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call— 5 one Lord, one faith, one baptism, 6 one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.
The Imperative: “Walk in a manner (live in a way) that is worthy of your calling.”
Now let me be clear, when Paul commands us to “Walk in a manner (live in a way) that is worthy of your calling;” he s not saying that we should be trying to earn or deserve our place in God’s favor. Rather, he is telling us to recognize how much our place in God’s favor and our union with Christ deserves from us. The focus is not on our worth or worthiness but on the worth of our calling.
But, what does this worthy Christian lifestyle look like? Is it spiritual, private, and personal? No! It’s explicitly relational, in that, it is carried out within the everyday relationships of the local church in two key pursuits.
Two Key Pursuits
ONE: Bearing with one another in love.
Notice who is carrying the weight? Each and every one of us are carrying the weight; we are the ones who are bearing with one another. But what is fueling this forbearance? It’s love! But it’s not the kind of sentimental fleshly love that looks for loveliness and worth in the person or is trying to fill a personal deficiency. No. It’s first and foremost a love for God that overflows into and empowers our love for our brothers and sisters in Christ.
And what does this forbearing love look like? It looks like an underlying heart-disposition that is marked by the Spirit’s fruit of:
- humility (placing others desires and needs above our own,
- gentleness (not being abrasive and bullish),
- and patiently forbearing with the annoying idiosyncrasies of our fellow Christians.
TWO: Eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace
Notice the kind of unity that Paul is talking about here is not forced conformity nor does it place relational unity over biblical faithfulness. Rather, it’s the kind of unity and peace that flows (once again) from an underlying heart-disposition: a true eagerness to maintain peace in the body of Christ.
- A disposition that it not constantly attributing sinful motive to the actions of others.
- A disposition that is always ready to believe the best and not the worst.
- A disposition that refuses to live by the tyranny of “three-strikes, and you are out” relationships, but embraces the true cost and difficulty of cultivating long-term relationships.
Don’t miss this, where does love and unity in my local church begin? It begins with me. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer points out in his little book, Life Together: If the sins of my brothers and sisters in Christ are more glaring and detestable to me than my own, I am not recognizing my sinfulness for what it truly is. And if I do not see my sin for what it truly, how will I ever be able to bear with my brothers and sisters in unfeigned humility and love if I honestly believe their sinfulness is worse than my own?… it’s not going to happen!
But this presses us into the question, “How is this even possible?” Well, as we transition to the Lord’s Table this morning, I think it points toward the path— the gospel itself.
What do we commemorate every month as we celebrate the Lords’ Table?
- We commemorate our desperate need and Christ’s perfect sacrifice on our behalf.
- We commemorate our glorious new identity in Christ.
- We commemorate our unity as a church bound together by the Holy Spirit into the body of Christ.
- We commemorate God’s promise of forgiveness, restoration, and eternal joy through the blood and body of Jesus Christ.
1 John 4:9–10 In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. 10 In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.
 John R. W. Stott, The Message of Acts: The Spirit, the Church & the World, The Bible Speaks Today (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1994), 154–55.
 Joel R Beeke and Paul M. Smalley, Reformed Systematic Theology: Spirit and Salvation (Wheaton: Crossway, 2021), 3:658. We also see various forms of this teaching in the works of Charles Finney A.B. Simpson, R.A. Torrey, Dwight L. Moody, not to mention virtually everyone connected with the early Keswick movement.
 Guy P. Duffield and Nathaniel M. Van Cleave, Foundations of Pentecostal Theology (Los Angeles, CA: L.I.F.E. Bible College, 1983), 305–307.Emphasis added.
 Duffield and Van Cleave, Foundations of Pentecostal Theology, 305–6.
 Jn 1:35–50; Lk. 10:20; Jn. 13:10, 11: Jn. 15:3; Lk. 24:49; Acts 1:13, 14; 2:1–4.
 Stott, The Message of Acts, 156.
 For a more detailed response to the practical outflow if this theology see, Beeke and Smalley, Reformed Systematic Theology: Spirit and Salvation, 3:665–68.
 Bruce Milne, The Acts of the Apostles: Witnesses to Him… to the Ends of the Earth, Focus on the Bible Commentary (Ross-Shire, Great Britain: Christian Focus Publications, 2010), 190.