Jesus Christ Is Lord

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Seeking An Interpretation of Acts 8:12-17 That Answers The Pentecostal Challenge

Posted by Job on February 16, 2009

A little while ago, I happened to be watching an old Lester Sumrall sermon on Christian television. In it, he used the text Acts 8:12-17 to support the classic and core Pentecostal doctrine of being filled with the Holy Spirit. According to Pentecostalism, this is something distinct from the Holy Spirit’s indwelling born again Christians. 

There is actually an Old Testament basis for the Pentecostal “filling of the Holy Spirit” doctrine. Consider most prominently the book of Judges where such figures as Othniel, Gideon, Jephthah and Samson were empowered by the Holy Spirit to lead Israel. Also, the Holy Spirit was required for Old Testament prophecy. Claiming that such figures had the indwelling Holy Spirit available to them in that dispensation is very problematic theologically, and becomes even more so when one considers that such extremely problematic figures as Balaam and Saul prophesied. 

So, the text of Acts 8:12-17 is as follows:

But when they believed Philip preaching the things concerning the kingdom of God, and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women. 

Then Simon himself believed also: and when he was baptized, he continued with Philip, and wondered, beholding the miracles and signs which were done.

Now when the apostles which were at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the word of God, they sent unto them Peter and John:

Who, when they were come down, prayed for them, that they might receive the Holy Ghost:

(For as yet he was fallen upon none of them: only they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.)

Then laid they their hands on them, and they received the Holy Ghost.

Rather compelling I must say. At this point, the Samaritans in question were already baptized believers upon the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Yet, they did not receive the Holy Ghost until 1) Christians prayed that they would receive it and 2) hands were laid upon them. 

Now, it was Sumrall’s position that the Samaritans, having already believed and been baptized, already had the indwelling Holy Spirit, and that what the Samaritans received as a result of the prayer intercession and having laid hands on them was the empowering, the filling of the Holy Spirit. I find Sumrall’s position to be compelling, because rejecting it would have real implications for the Christian doctrine of the Holy Spirit’s indwelling the believer, because – and Sumrall made this a point of emphasis – the Samaritans were already baptized believers, that is born again Christians, before the incident of their receiving prayer and the laying on of hands.  

So, if Sumrall’s explanation – reasonably if not perfectly supportable by the plain reading of the text and the context of scripture – that this text refers to the filling  or empowering of the Holy Spirit and not the indwelling Holy Spirit is not correct, then does a better one exist?

Now I have seen a treatment of Acts 8:12-17 in the New American Commentary which asserted that the Samaritans received the indwelling Holy Spirit and the completion of their salvation process. Its justification of their position was plausible: that the salvation accounts in Acts never conformed to any rigid formula or pattern but instead depicted a diversity of salvation experiences, so in this case the receipt of the indwelling Holy Spirit by the Samaritans was delayed in order for the apostles to witness it, and thus see evidence that the gospel of Jesus Christ was not meant for Jews alone; a sign of divine approval for the Samaritan mission. 

The New American Commentary’s treatment of the issue was plausible. But was it superior to Sumrall’s? Now I have conceded that Sumrall’s assertion was imperfect. It is not based on anything that the Bible comes right out and says at any point, but instead uses some assumptions. (For instance, Sumrall did not even mention the incidents of individuals being empowered by the Holy Spirit in the Old Testament; that was something that I supplied to lend weight to Sumrall’s thesis.) But the New American Commentary’s explanation is guilty of the same. If anything, it is even less perfect than Sumrall’s, because it relies on speculation to supply a reason for why things transpired the way that they did.  

As a matter of fact, the New American Commentary attempts to draw a parallel between the Samaritans in this instance and those of the Ephesians in Acts 19 to support their position. However, this is a false parallel and a completely inappropriate comparison, based solely on the fact that both the Samaritans and Ephesians had been baptized. However, the Samaritans of Acts 8 had heard and believed the gospel of Jesus Christ and been baptized. Meanwhile, the Ephesians of Acts 19 had received their baptism from John the Baptist, and had not heard the gospel. The only parallel is that the Ephesians received the Holy Spirit after Paul laid hands on them, but it was that same Paul who baptized them in the Name of Jesus Christ. So even without including the Acts 19 example, the New American Commentary’s explanation is weaker than Sumrall’s, and so their seeing fit to include this incident as an attempt to strengthen their explanation makes it weaker still.

However, Sumrall’s main flaw is that Acts 8:12-17 does explicitly state that the Samaritans received the Holy Spirit upon being laid hands upon. As much as Sumrall would like for the text to say “the Samaritans were empowered by the Holy Spirit” or “the Samaritans received a second blessing”, it simply does not say it. So, the fact that Sumrall’s thesis – driven interpretation is superior to the thesis – driven interpretation of the New American Commentary does not change the fact that it is thesis – driven. Sumrall, being Pentecostal, has an agenda to use this text to support a second blessing. The New American Commentary, being written from the Baptist perspective, has the opposite agenda. (The commentary’s invocation of John 8:3 to state that the Holy Spirit comes when He chooses appears to be extremely helpful, but not only is it citing John 8:3 out of context, but as mentioned earlier, wielding John 8:3 in that fashion has real implications for the doctrine that the Holy Spirit indwells all believers, and the “indwells” in that doctrine is commonly understood to be a present tense and never a future tense.) 

So, a straight interpretation of Acts 8:12-17, void of any agendas, would be useful in meeting the challenge posed by Sumrall. Otherwise, Acts 8:12-17 may well stand as a text that supports of Pentecostal doctrines. However, one should always recall that Pentecostalism was a direct outgrowth and logical extension of the doctrines of one John Wesley, who among other things taught that it was possible for a born – again Christian to lose his salvation, and furthermore was an apologist for the Roman Catholic Church (a fact for which Roman Catholics are both grateful to and proud of Wesley … see this link where the Vatican officially celebrated the 300th anniversary of Wesley’s birth; Wesley was to Protestants of his time what Billy Graham is today regarding the cult of Mary).

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