By Weylan Deaver
Start with John 3:34, which teaches that God “gives the Spirit without measure” (ESV, cf. ASV, NASB, NKJV, etc.). Here is one verse where the venerable King James Version disappoints by adding the words “unto him” in italics at the end (italics, because “unto him” is not in the Greek, and so does not belong in the text). An accurate translation makes the simple point that the Holy Spirit is given “without measure.” That is significant.
The church of Christ in America in the twentieth century largely accepted, and even insisted, that the Holy Spirit is given “by measure” (not “without measure”). In other words, we taught ourselves to believe the very thing John 3:34 denies. We taught ourselves that there are measures of the Spirit, including a “baptismal measure,” a “laying on of hands measure,” and an “ordinary measure.” We thought this helped fend off claims of modern day miracles because we insisted that miracles were always connected with the first two measures, and that those measures are not available today. But, our artificial construct was fatally flawed because it denies what John 3:34 says. Our humanly devised “measures” gave us peace of mind and we thought we were being true to Scripture. All the while, the doctrine of measures of the Spirit ensured we were enveloped in a theologic fog which could never lift, so long as the artificial categories we created remained entrenched.
To some degree, immeasurable by us, the church was crippled. Two camps opposed each other (based on their views of whether the Spirit’s indwelling was literal or figurative), but both managed to get along—more or less—because both groups bought into the doctrine that there are measures of the Spirit. Not surprisingly, the issue of the Holy Spirit’s presence and role in the church never got conclusively settled in the brotherhood. How could it, when the opposing sides both began from the same flawed premise? In fact, it got so bad that the flawed premise, itself, became vaunted to such status that anyone veering from it risked losing fellowship with those clinging tenaciously to it.
Yet, we could see that the New Testament described the Lord’s church from various angles. We knew it was called the church, but also referred to as a kingdom. Nobody insisted that the church and kingdom must be separate entities. We knew that the church was called the body of Christ, but also his bride, and even God’s house. And no one claimed that the body must be something other than the bride, or that the body cannot be the church, or that God’s house cannot be his kingdom, etc. We all understood these various terms were descriptive of the same institution. The church was the kingdom and also the body and also the bride and also the house of God. They were all the same thing, despite different terminology. We welcomed the assortment of descriptions as giving us insights on the nature of the church.
However, when we found different words used about the Holy Spirit’s connection to saved people, we completely missed the point we were so clear on regarding different portrayals of the church. We somehow concluded that, if the Holy Spirit “fell on,” or was “poured out,” that must be something different from being a “gift” to be “received” by all. We knew the Bible said we are “in” the Spirit, and we are to be “filled” with the Spirit, but we vehemently denied that we could be “baptized” with the Holy Spirit. Our coherent approach to passages on the church became a muddled effort on passages about the Spirit. It needlessly complicated the simple gospel. It made key passages harder to explain, rather than easier. John said the Holy Spirit is given “without measure,” and we said the Holy Spirit is given “by measure,” but never perceived the discrepancy. Without any Scriptures using the terminology, we went ahead and crafted what we called a “baptismal measure of the Spirit,” and a “laying on of hands measure of the Spirit,” and a so-called “ordinary measure of the Spirit.”
Such a mistake could not but hurt. We labored under weight of a blunder which kept facts hidden, given our presupposition. Of course, it never prevented our being dogmatic about our position. In fact, for many, our insistence that we were right was exceeded only by our ignorance which made us wrong. We forfeited “the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” and opted for disunity on the Spirit and an uneasy peace (if not outright conflict). God’s Spirit was supposed to give life, foster love, unite the church and prevent its fervor chilling to lukewarmness. Instead, we turned him into a battleground for an ill-advised doctrinal Cold War which flared up now and again, but never seemed to bring more than a tension-filled “unity.”
The Holy Spirit is “the gift of God” (John 4:10 cf. 7:38-39; Acts 2:38; 5:32; 8:20; Luke 11:13; etc.). When God gives a gift, we ought to pay attention. Our appreciation of the gift is connected to our comprehension of the gift. If we do not understand it, we will not value it, and will be unable to exploit it for our good. Imagine you are given a short stack of papers as a gift. You do not recognize their nature. They are covered with tiny print expressing what appears to be much technical, financial, and legal jargon which you are not interested in trying to decipher. A friend sees them and, not knowing what they are, suggests to you that they look important. But neither of you is motivated to do the research required to precisely identify the gift. Ignorant of their worth, you stick the papers in a desk drawer and move on to other matters. Someone finds them years later, after your demise, and cashes in. What you failed to recognize was that the papers were bearer bonds with coupons attached which, if redeemed, would pay $2,000,000 to the bearer. Whereas perception would have led to profit, instead blindness leads to blight.
When it comes to the “gift of the Holy Spirit,” we have too often undervalued the gift while overestimating our knowledge of it. And, when our flawed approach to the topic blinds us to Bible facts, it robs us of the full blessing God intended. Many brethren think the subject is murky, at best. Some think it is to be mostly avoided. It is as though they stick it in an envelope labeled “controversial,” put the envelope in a dark drawer and move on to other matters.
The church does not grow when we shrink from Bible subjects. And, if the Holy Spirit is “controversial,” maybe it is because we have made it so. All that can be known about the Spirit is what the Bible teaches, and God did not write it to confuse us (cf. 1 Cor. 14:33). He wrote it to help us by producing understanding in us, which leads to our appreciation of what he is giving to us.
So, start with John 3:34. There is no “baptismal measure.” There is no “laying on of hands measure.” There is no “ordinary measure.” There are no measures. When we see that truth, new vistas of understanding open and the fog can begin to evaporate. As long as we insist there are measures of the Spirit, we will never be able to fit the relevant passages together. Our manmade theology of different Holy Spirit measures is a ponderous chain, to the detriment of all who choose to carry it.
Jesus talked to the Samaritan woman about “the gift of God,” which he referred to as “living water” (John 4:10). Nearby context is clear that “living water” describes “the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were to receive.” And, “the Spirit had not been given, because Jesus was not yet glorified” (John 7:38-39). So, the gift is the Spirit, who could not arrive till Jesus had ascended.
After his resurrection, Jesus told the apostles to “wait for the promise,” which was granted when they were “baptized with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 1:4-5). John the Baptizer could immerse people in water, but only Jesus could baptize with the Holy Spirit (Matt. 3:11). Thus, in his inaugural sermon, Peter states that Jesus had been “exalted at the right hand of God,” after which he “received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit,” which “he poured out” on Pentecost (Acts 2:33). So, we learn that the Holy Spirit is “the promise” and the promise was “poured out” by an exalted Jesus. This is the same promise in Acts 1:4-5, which was identified by Jesus as baptism with the Holy Spirit. This baptism took place when the Spirit was poured out by Jesus in fulfillment of God’s promise.
Furthermore, the promise was a matter of prophecy, which is why Peter quotes from Joel 2, claiming that “in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh” (Acts 2:17). Traditionally, we claimed that “all flesh” meant only a handful of Jewish men (i.e. the apostles) and a handful of Gentile folk (i.e. Cornelius’ household). We were satisfied with such anemic analysis because it fit the paradigm created by our presupposition (that there are measures of the Spirit). Our simplistic interpretation never did justice to the language used by God, Joel and Peter. Think of it. There is no way that “all flesh” can be accurately taken to apply exclusively to a tiny group of first-century people who would all fit in a single room. The Spirit was poured out by Jesus in Acts 2 as a promise from God which had been prophesied in Joel 2. The promise was for “all flesh,” and it began to be fulfilled when people began to be baptized with the Holy Spirit.
In fact, in the same sermon, Peter calls on hearers to repent and be baptized so they can receive “the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38). There is absolutely no reason to conclude that this gift is other than the promise being poured out in Acts 2. Moreover, in the very next verse Peter is emphatic that “the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself” (Acts 2:39). This promise (Acts 2:39) is the gift of the Spirit (Acts 2:38), which was poured out by Jesus (Acts 2:33), which Jesus equated with the baptism in the Spirit (Acts 1:4-5), which stems from a prophecy in Joel 2 that applies to all flesh (Acts 2:17).
This fits perfectly the fact that the Holy Spirit is “given to those who obey him” (Acts 5:32). Paul writes of “the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior” (Titus 3:5-6). The “us” refers to all Christians. It cannot be limited to apostles, just as the “all flesh” of Acts 2:17 cannot be limited to apostles (or, apostles plus a few Gentiles). Remember, when God gives the Spirit, it is “without measure” (John 3:34).
When Peter preached to Cornelius, “the Holy Spirit fell on all who heard the word” (Acts 10:44). The same phenomenon is then called “the gift of the Holy Spirit,” which was “poured out” (Acts 10:45). Thus, they could be said to “have received the Holy Spirit” (Acts 10:47). Later, retelling the events, Peter says that when the Spirit “fell on them just as on us” (Acts 11:15), he remembered that Jesus had promised Holy Spirit baptism (Acts 11:16). Then, Peter calls the Holy Spirit baptism of Cornelius “the same gift…he gave to us when we believed” (Acts 11:17). There are no measures of the Spirit, and the Spirit is “given to those who obey him” (Acts 5:32).
What happened to Cornelius is what happens to us today. He had to be “born of water and the Spirit” in order to “enter the kingdom of God” (John 3:5). In his case, the Spirit baptism preceded the water baptism because Cornelius was already “a devout man who feared God with all his household” (Acts 10:2), living faithfully under the divine law he had. His right religion was being replaced by its successor: Christianity. With the gospel spreading the message of accountability to Christ, Cornelius needed to enter the kingdom to be saved. Jesus poured out the Spirit on his household, resulting in their being baptized in Spirit. Miraculous tongue speaking followed as a sign to the Jewish witnesses that the Spirit had actually been given to the Gentiles exactly as it had been given to them. That sparked Peter’s question, “Can anyone withhold water for baptizing these people, who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” (Acts 10:47). Thus born of water and the Spirit, Cornelius and company entered the kingdom. They entered it the same way the apostles entered, the same way we enter, the same way everyone enters.
By this time, some will undoubtedly be claiming that we are opening the door (either directly or, at least, implicitly) to miracles today. That is not at all the case. But it brings us to another signal fact we have too long overlooked. The Holy Spirit was never given by measure, but miraculous abilities from the Spirit were always given by measure! Speaking of miraculous gifts, Paul said, “All these are empowered by one and the same Spirit, who apportions to each one individually as he wills” (1 Cor. 12:11). When miracles were extant, it was always God—not the apostles—who decided and distributed the miracle-performing abilities as he chose.
Miracles were never promised to every Christian, but the Holy Spirit was promised to every Christian (Acts 2:38-39; 5:32). Throughout history, most saints have lived and died without ever seeing—much less performing—a single miracle. Just as a book is not equivalent to its author, so miracles are not the Spirit. And, miracles need not accompany the Spirit in every case. Historically, in fact, in most cases miracles have not (and do not) accompany the presence of God’s Spirit. God said, “And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. Even on the male and female servants in those days I will pour out my Spirit. And I will show wonders in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and columns of smoke” (Joel 2:28-30). Notice that “all flesh” can easily be broader than the specified groups who would prophesy and see visions. We are part of “all flesh,” but we do not perform miracles. Notice verse 30 references “wonders in the heavens and on the earth.” Today, we inhabit the same earth, but we behold no wonders being performed. Just so, no one is prophesying, etc. today, even though the same Spirit is still being “poured out” on all who call on the Lord’s name (Titus 3:6).
The miraculous power was a temporary allowance from the Spirit, but it was never identical with the Spirit. Jesus told the apostles they would “receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you” (Acts 1:8). The power would be outward, observable evidence of the Spirit’s internal presence. Likewise, Jesus said the kingdom would “come with power” (Mark 9:1). The non-occurrence of miracles today has nothing to do with there being measures of the Spirit. There are no measures of the Spirit. But there are passages that teach the temporary nature and cessation of miracles. To say it again, miraculous gifts were always given by measure; the Holy Spirit is never given by measure. The measured out miraculous gifts are no longer with us, but the Holy Spirit is.
He has been poured out on us (Titus 3:6), just like he was poured out on Pentecost (Acts 2:33), just like he was poured out on Cornelius (Acts 10:45). He was a gift to Cornelius (Acts 11:17), just like he is a gift to us (Acts 2:38). The promise the apostles were told to wait for was the baptism with the Spirit (Acts 1:4-5), and “the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself” (Acts 2:39).
Long ago the Jews could not see what their Old Testament was teaching because they refused to see Christ in it, so a veil was over their hearts (2 Cor. 3:14ff.). Too long we have not seen what the New Testament teaches about the Spirit, at least in part because we clung to the artificial distinctions of manmade categories created by our wrong idea of measures of the Spirit. A fog descended which remains dense, though a ray of light is beginning to pierce it here and there. Eyes are starting to open. We owe it to God to know his “gift.” Surely, greater understanding will foster better days ahead for the kingdom, “that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord” (Acts 3:20).
The Holy Spirit’s presence in the church is both literary and literal; he informs us with his pen and he indwells us with his person. We do disservice to the word of God if we deny what it says about the Writer. And, the Writer says, “unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (John 3:5), that we are saved “by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly” (Titus 3:5-6), that this is “the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38), “given to those who obey” (Acts 5:32), that this “promise of the Father” was rehearsed to the apostles as the reason they must wait in Jerusalem since “John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now” (Acts 1:4-5), that this “promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off” (Acts 2:39), which had been prophesied when Joel recorded that “I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh” (Acts 2:17), that this had to come from Jesus, “exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this” (Acts 2:33) because, as John had always said, “I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit” (Mark 1:8), “for he gives the Spirit without measure” (John 3:34) in order that, “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you” (Rom. 8:11).