Should We Call It “Acts of the Holy Spirit”? (Dan Liu)

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“Pentecost,” oil painting (1732) by Jean II Restout, Louvre Museum, from Wikimedia Commons.

此文章原版為英語。中文譯本在此

I was introduced to the Romance of the Three Kingdoms (三國演義) by my father. He gave me a thick, two-volume English translation to read. I finished the first but, wearied by all the names and details, never read much of the second. Nonetheless, the brotherhood and heroism of Liu Pei, Kuan Yu, and Zhang Fei, equipped by Zhuge Liang’s artful ruses to battle Tsao Tsao,[1]The translation I read followed an earlier (probably Wade-Giles) romanization system for Chinese characters.have animated my imagination for a long time.

Years later, I encountered the Bible with all its characters, intrigued by the notion that God might exist and could impact my life. Over time I have come to embrace that God not only exists and impacts my life but actually I owe my all to Him. I worship in a community that holds that Jesus is Lord and God is sovereign over all our lives. We draw inspiration from the accounts of the faithful witnesses found in Scripture. Even so, with my upbringing, education, and natural bent, I can easily follow a human, individualistic, even self-centered view of life and community—it’s all about what we do, right? I can control my part, anyway.

With this preamble in mind, I have recently turned to reading the Bible with (I hope) renewed eyes. Guided by many others,[2] In December 2021 I graduated from Rochester University (Rochester Hills, Michigan) with a master of religious education in missional leadership, a program directed by Dr. Mark Love.I have re-read the narrative of the early church in Acts with fresh curiosity. It’s easy to note key figures, especially leaders such as Peter, the apostle to the Jews and beneficiary of astounding miracles, and Paul, witness of the gospel to the Gentiles, missionary from Asia all the way to Rome. Their heroic stories, in fact, frame the entire account, with mention of Peter ending in Acts 15 as he speaks at the Council of Jerusalem, while Paul’s tales of faith and perseverance take us all the way to Acts’ end. No wonder bishop Irenaeus of Lyon first coined the title of the book as “Acts of the Apostles” in the late second century.[3]New World Encyclopedia contributors, “Book of Acts,” New World Encyclopedia, , https://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/p/index.php?title=Book_of_Acts&oldid=1064547  (accessed August 4, 2022).

However, even at the outset of Acts Luke reminds us that it is not just human characters that deserve our attention. Luke writes: “In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach until the day he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles he had chosen” (Acts 1:1, NIV). Within the next seven verses, Luke quotes Jesus calling on the apostles to await the coming of the Holy Spirit, not once but two times. As we begin reading Acts, we wait expectantly for this promised Holy Spirit, just as the apostles are called to do.  Let’s follow Luke’s clue and appreciate this powerful character that intermittently breaks into the story, the Holy Spirit.

Mentioned at least fifty-five times[4] Barry L. Blackburn, (1997) “The Holy Spirit in Luke-Acts: A Survey,” Leaven: Vol. 5: Issue. 2, Article 4. Available at: https://digitalcommons.pepperdine.edu/leaven/vol5/iss2/4in the Book of Acts, the Holy Spirit guides the direction and life of the early church. Luke focuses his readers’ attention on the Holy Spirit. One scholar has noted the following:

The Spirit appears considerably more often in Luke than in Matthew or Mark. A characteristic expression of Luke’s in both of his volumes is that someone is ‘filled with the Spirit,’ a recurring phenomenon that always leads to bold proclamation and service of the Gospel (e.g., Luke 1:15, 41; Acts 2:4, 4:32).[5]Craig L. Blomberg, Jesus and the Gospels (Nashville, Tennessee: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1997), 149.

Another scholar takes the prominence of the Spirit in Acts even further. Claiming that “among the evangelists he Luke may be singled out as the ‘theologian of the Holy Spirit’ (G. Montague, quoted in Senior and Stuhlmueller 1983:277),”[6]David J. Bosch, Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission, 20th Anniversary Edition (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 2011), 115. David Bosch claims that “the ministry of the earthly Jesus is already portrayed in terms of the initiative and guidance of the Spirit,”[7]Bosch, Transforming Mission, 115. and in Acts “the Spirit becomes the catalyst, the guiding and driving force of mission.”[8]Bosch, Transforming Mission, 115.

As we reflect on the account in Acts it’s easy to see why academics have come to this conclusion. If we temporarily imagine that the Book of Acts be renamed as “Acts of the Holy Spirit,”[9] J. A. Bengel, Gnomon Novi Testamenti (Tuebingen, 1742; reprint, London, 1862), 389, as noted in Barry L. Blackburn, (1997) “The Holy Spirit in Luke-Acts: A Survey,” Leaven: Vol. 5: Issue. 2, Article 4. Available at: https://digitalcommons.pepperdine.edu/leaven/vol5/iss2/4what actions or events could we list?

  1. Fills the apostles to speak to the Jews gathered in Jerusalem (Acts 2:3-4)
  2. Fills Peter to preach to the rulers and elders (Acts 4:8)
  3. Fills all those gathered “to speak the word of God with boldness’ (Acts 4:31)
  4. Judges Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:3) 
  5. Fills Stephen as he steps in as one of the seven chosen to meet the needs of the Hebraic Jews and empowers him to speak (Acts 6:5, 10, 7:51)
  6. Leads Philip to engage the eunuch and share the good news with him (Acts 8:29)
  7. Fills Paul as he begins to preach Christ (Acts 9:17)
  8. Falls upon Cornelius and Peter’s other listeners at the centurion’s home (Acts 10:44)
  9. Sets apart and sends out Paul and Barnabas on their missionary work (Acts 13:2, 4)
  10. Fills the disciples, who are also filled with joy, in Pisidian Antioch (Acts 13:52)
  11. With the apostles and elders commends the decision made in Jerusalem (Acts 15:28)
  12. Stops Paul from entering Asia to preach (Acts 16:6-7)
  13. Empowers Ephesians to speak in tongues and prophesy (Acts 19:6)
  14. Testifies to Paul that “bonds and afflictions” await him in every city (Acts 20:23)
  15. Warns Paul through others concerned for his welfare (Acts 21:4, 11)

If we needed more evidence of the Holy Spirit’s importance in the life and mission of the early church, consider where we find Paul at the end of Acts. Still on task to preach to the Jews and then to the Gentiles, Paul invokes the Holy Spirit when he challenges his hearers:

The Holy Spirit spoke the truth to your ancestors when he said through Isaiah the prophet: ‘Go to this people and say, “You will be ever hearing but never understanding; You will be ever seeing but never perceiving. For this people’s heart has become calloused; They hardly hear with their ears, and they have closed their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts and turn, and I would heal them.  (Acts 28: 25b-27)

From its beginning to its end, the narrative in Acts places a high priority on the Holy Spirit’s presence, power, and inspiration for everyone who proclaims that Jesus is Lord.

Reflecting on this list of the Holy Spirit’s actions in Acts, I take great heart in how Luke repeatedly reminds us of how the Spirit guided the mission of proclaiming Jesus in the early church. Moreover, the Holy Spirit undoubtedly worked with and through humans like those we read of in Acts, but it is hard to argue with Bosch’s claim that the Spirit was the “catalyst, the guiding and driving force of mission.” So today, when I focus too much on who we are or what we are doing, I find great peace knowing that the Spirit is guiding and refining each one of us. The Spirit guides and empowers God’s mission in our city and community. We would be very remiss if we were to diminish the importance of godly human leadership, but wouldn’t we be even more at fault if we were to take for granted or overlook the Holy Spirit’s presence and guidance for us all today? We can often be quick to credit or blame ourselves for what happens, but how quickly do we acknowledge the Holy Spirit’s leadership in what we do? Have we underestimated the Holy Spirit’s impact in our lives, our interactions with others, and even in the world today? The Book of Acts reminds me that the same Holy Spirit that directed the steps of the early church can certainly direct us in God’s mission today as we share and embody Jesus as the way, the truth, and the life.


Some questions or practical suggestions to encourage an attentiveness to the Holy Spirit:

  1. Re-read Acts, paying careful attention to how the Holy Spirit guides the early church. As the disciples followed the Holy Spirit, how would you describe their lives?
  2. Reflect on your life this year. Was there a time when you felt “filled with” the Holy Spirit? Write down instances of when you felt the Spirit directed you or your group.
  3. The early Christians arrived at a decision that “…seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us [the Jerusalem church] …” about their Gentile brothers (Acts 15:28). The process by which they arrived at it was Spirit-filled. Re-read Acts 15. What did they do together to discern God’s will? What was their attitude? Discuss their actions and attitude with your small group, applying lessons to help your group stay in step with the Holy Spirit.
  4. In the preamble I identified my bias or inclination to seek inspiration from heroic tales found in Chinese historical fiction. I grew up with a sense of great ambition. Can you identify what biases you as you read Scripture? Examples of a bias could be one’s temperament, personality, upbringing (a formative or traumatic experience), culture, gender, current role in the family or in church, even one’s age. Find a friend and discuss together your biases in order to grow in personal awareness. 

註腳

註腳
1 The translation I read followed an earlier (probably Wade-Giles) romanization system for Chinese characters.
2 In December 2021 I graduated from Rochester University (Rochester Hills, Michigan) with a master of religious education in missional leadership, a program directed by Dr. Mark Love.
3 New World Encyclopedia contributors, “Book of Acts,” New World Encyclopedia, , https://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/p/index.php?title=Book_of_Acts&oldid=1064547  (accessed August 4, 2022).
4 Barry L. Blackburn, (1997) “The Holy Spirit in Luke-Acts: A Survey,” Leaven: Vol. 5: Issue. 2, Article 4. Available at: https://digitalcommons.pepperdine.edu/leaven/vol5/iss2/4
5 Craig L. Blomberg, Jesus and the Gospels (Nashville, Tennessee: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1997), 149.
6 David J. Bosch, Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission, 20th Anniversary Edition (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 2011), 115.
7, 8 Bosch, Transforming Mission, 115.
9 J. A. Bengel, Gnomon Novi Testamenti (Tuebingen, 1742; reprint, London, 1862), 389, as noted in Barry L. Blackburn, (1997) “The Holy Spirit in Luke-Acts: A Survey,” Leaven: Vol. 5: Issue. 2, Article 4. Available at: https://digitalcommons.pepperdine.edu/leaven/vol5/iss2/4

Author: Dan Liu

Dan has degrees from Yale (American Studies), Harvard (public policy), and Rochester University (religious education). He serves as an elder in the Hong Kong Church of Christ. Married for 32 years, he has two sons, one daughter-in-law, and one grandchild. Email: danliu1961@gmail.com. Dan 擁有耶魯(美國研究)、哈佛 (公共政策)、Rochester University (宗教教育) 等院校學位。現時是香港基督教會長老。結婚32年,育有兩子及一兒媳、一孫兒。電郵:danliu1961@gmail.com

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