Dig Deeper — Conversion, the Spirit, Laying on of Hands, and Tongues

Our approach to worship on Sundays is primarily “inspirational” and “devotional” instead of “instructional.”  Our music, testimonies, prayers, and my preaching focus on providing worshippers an inspirational challenge that encourages participants to experience and live the “disciple-life.”

Though my “inspirational” preaching — at least I hope so — is “textual” and “instructional,” I often skip over textual content that leads those of you interested in “deeper” study to ask questions.  As a result, I want to start addressing at least one “deeper”study instruction in a weekly blog intended to give my perspective on a textual issue from Sunday’s sermon.

My recent sermon on Acts 8:1-25  on Philip’s ministry in Samaria skipped over vss. 15-17 and the issue of conversion, the Spirit, the laying on of hand,  and tongues:

Acts 8:15-17 (ANIV)
15  When they arrived, they prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit,  16  because the Holy Spirit had not yet come upon any of them; they had simply been baptised into the name of the Lord Jesus.  17  Then Peter and John placed their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit.

In this account, conversion is separated from receiving the Holy Spirit which is received only after Peter and John lay their hands on these Samaritan converts.  Some see this as a biblical warrant for the separation between baptism and confirmation; others see in this a justification for a “second grace” experience of being “baptized by the Holy Spirit.”  I, too, see in this an important theological truth, but one that has nothing to do with conversion and the Holy Spirit.  The textual evidence doesn’t support these claims.

Though there are two exceptions in Acts — Ch 8 & 19 — the usual pattern is receiving the Holy Spirit at conversion (see Ch 10).  On these same two occasions, receiving the Spirit is mediated by the laying on of hands.  On only four occasions in Acts is receiving the Spirit accompanied by speaking in tongues — Ch 2, 8 (implied), 10, 19.  No clear pattern emerges from these four passages relating conversion, receiving the Spirit, laying on of hands, and speaking in tongues.  Therefore, no doctrine/teaching relating these can be concluded.  A chart might help illustrate the point:

Passage Spirit Separate from Conversion Laying on Hands Tongues

Acts 2

? No Yes

Acts 8

Yes Yes

? (implied)

Acts 10

No No


Acts 19 ? Yes


In my opinion, the passage is NOT about the Holy Spirit, the laying on of hands, or tongues.  Instead, this story emphasizes the truth that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is for everyone.  No one is outside the reach of the Gospel; every believer — of every tribe, tongue, and nation — belongs in the Church!  Acts is an historical book about a unique time of transition in God’s global salvation plan — life/death/resurrection of Jesus, the sending of the Spirit, and the empowering of the church — a plan that was never intended just for the Jews but for the whole world.  The book is of “the Gospel going global” beginning in Jerusalem (Acts 1:8) in an “unhindered” manner  — the last Greek word in the book.

So, on these unique occassions receiving the Spirit accompanied by speaking in tongues was God’s means of saying:  “The Gospel is for everyone…not just Jews!” and “No one is excluded from the church!”  So…

  • At conversion one receives and is “baptized by the Spirit.”
  • The laying on of hands is NOT necessary for receiving the Spirit.
  • Speaking in tongues in NOT a universal sign of being baptized by … or filled with … the Spirit.
Passage Occasion Persons Purpose
Acts 2 Pentecost – Sending of the Holy Spirit Apostles and Disciples (Jews)
  • Power for witnessing to Jews in Jerusalem
Acts 8 Philip’s Samaritan Ministry ½ Jews
  • Gospel for Judea and Samaria
  • Included in the church
Acts 10 Peter and Cornelius God-fearing Gentiles
  • Gospel for Gentiles
  • Included in the church
Acts 19 Paul in Ephesus Disciples of John the Baptist
  • Gospel for Whole World
  • Included in the church




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