"Now when the apostles at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the word of God, they sent to them Peter and John, who came down and prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit, for he had not yet fallen on any of them, but they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. Then they laid their hands on them and they received the Holy Spirit." - Acts 8:14-17
How and when do believers receive the Holy Spirit today? There is a big debate about this question. Do we need an apostle or someone similar to lay his hands on us (v. 17)? Or do we receive the Holy Spirit at the moment we believe in Jesus, as other passages suggest?
Acts is descriptive, not prescriptive. It is narrative, not necessarily normative.
I believe today every believer receives the Holy Spirit in full at the moment he or she believes.
Acts describes four occasions when believers receive the Holy Spirit: (1) the apostles and other Jews in Acts 2; (2) Samaritans (half-Jews) in Acts 8; (3) Gentiles in Acts 10; and (4) disciples of John in Acts 19. Peter was present on the first three occasions. Paul was present on the last occasion.
These four occasions seem to be special, one-time events. It was necessary for Peter to be present on the first three occasions so that he could verify that what happened to the Samaritans in Acts 8 and the Gentiles in Acts 10 was the same thing that happened to the apostles and Jews in Acts 2. They all received the same Holy Spirit and are equal in Messiah Jesus! This was a crucial realisation in the early church. If Peter wasn't there on all three occasions, it would be impossible to know for sure whether the Samaritans and Gentiles really had received the same Spirit. Peter is the great verifier.
Here's the clincher: "And the Spirit told me [Peter] to go with [the Gentiles], making no distinction. These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered the man’s house. And [Cornelius] told us how he had seen the angel stand in his house and say, 'Send to Joppa and bring Simon who is called Peter. He will declare to you a message by which you will be saved, you and all your household.' 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.' If then God gave the same gift to them as he gave to us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Messiah, who was I that I could stand in God’s way?' 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.'" - Acts 11:12-18
The four occasions prominent in Acts are special one-time events that prove whole new groups are included in the new church.
The bottom line is today we do not need a church leader to lay hands on us in order to receive the Spirit. We receive the Spirit at the moment we believe the gospel message of Jesus. No intermediary is necessary.
Father, thank you for the blessing of receiving the third person of the Trinity when we believe in Jesus. Receiving the Holy Spirit is one of your greatest gifts to us, and we thank you for it. May the Spirit now fill us and empower us to live for you today. In Jesus' name, amen.
- Jeff Coleman