How do we explain the obvious differences in the 'manifestations' of receiving the Holy Spirit then (Acts era) and now?
I do think that there was something unique taking place in the Book of Acts, but it was something prophesied and foreshadowed in the Old Testament, and introduced in the gospels, namely that Acts describes the transition from God working primarily through Israel and the Jews to God working primarily through the church and Gentiles. Acts ends with Paul citing Isaiah 6, and stating that he will now turn (permanently, it would seem) to the Gentiles.
At least a part of what Luke is doing is to demonstrate that Gentiles are accepted as believers, on the same basis as Jewish believers, and that they have full equality in Christ. We see this clearly declared by the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15. We therefore find Gentile converts experiencing the same “baptism” of the Spirit as the Jews did at Pentecost (Acts 10; see also 11:15-18).
I think we can summarize the most spectacular manifestations of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit in Acts as follows:
There are only four such outpourings (Acts 2, 8, 10, 19), and one of these (Acts 8:14-17) the phenomenon of Acts 2 is implied, rather than clearly stated.
Such manifestations occurred to a group of believers, and not just to an individual. One might argue that this was not the case in Acts 8, but the point there is that Samaritans received the Holy Spirit just as the Jewish believers in Jerusalem did, but this time at the hands of the apostles, Peter and John. (This, I believe, was for the sake of the Jewish apostles and believers in Jerusalem.) Thus, the experience of Samaritans in Acts 8 was linked to the experience of the Jewish believers at Pentecost.
In none of these cases was the experience/phenomena sought as such; it was sovereignly bestowed by God (though sometimes at the hands of apostles – Acts 8 and 19).
The primary emphasis and focus is not on these phenomena, but on the integration of Gentiles into the church, the body of Christ.
In my opinion it is not said in Acts, nor are we given the impression, that the phenomena described four times happened everywhere in every church. The baptism of the Spirit in Acts 10 is described by Peter as unusual, and is linked to Pentecost. These events were viewed both as significant and as unusual.
What happened in Acts was meant to be unusual and the manifestations were meant to be obvious and undeniable. On the one hand, it signaled the birth of the church and the equality of Gentile saints with Jewish saints. Another function of these manifestations of the Holy Spirit was to certify the apostles and their message:
1 Therefore we must pay closer attention to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away. 2 For if the message spoken through angels proved to be so firm that every violation or disobedience received its just penalty, 3 how will we escape if we neglect such a great salvation? It was first communicated through the Lord and was confirmed to us by those who heard him, 4 while God confirmed their witness with signs and wonders and various miracles and gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will (Hebrews 2:1-4, NET Bible).
Having said this, I think we need to give some additional thought to Acts as a “transitional” book. I fear that some (perhaps even myself) have labeled Acts this way in order to avoid facing up to the fact that our experience today doesn’t square with what we read in Acts. Have we come to the place where we don’t expect God to miraculously intervene in the history of the church? Have we come to expect that God will not save people in unusual ways (such as dreams and visions) when, in fact, many Muslims are saved this way today? Have we come to expect God only to heal through doctors and hospitals, and not miraculously?
Not too long ago I listened to some old tapes of A. W. Tozer on the subject of the attributes of God. He was talking about the immutability of God, and then he took a small rabbit trail. He said something like this: “If God is immutable, then why do we say that the God of the Book of Acts is somehow different today than He was then?” And next he said, “Eschatology … it’s just another name for unbelief!” By this I take it that Tozer was criticizing dispensationalism for its view of Acts as a transitional, rather than a normative, book. I think his criticism has some merit, and we should give thought to what he has said.
I fear that some of the emphasis on the “transitional” nature of Acts has been motivated by fears related to the Pentecostal and charismatic movements. Writing Acts off as merely “transitional” may appear to solve our problems, but I doubt that it does. Perhaps we should say that Acts is a transitional book, transitioning from the old covenant to the new, and from the gospels to the epistles. The real question then becomes, what do we find in the Book of Acts that we don’t find in the Epistles? If our experience today differs from what we find in the epistles, we are in trouble.
I know of one writer who had difficulty dealing with the matter of spiritual gifts. He finally resorted to the conclusion that spiritual gifts were only for the apostolic period. If this is so, then why do we find spiritual gifts discussed four times in the epistles (Romans 12, 1 Corinthians 12-14; Ephesians 4; 1 Peter 4)? In doing away with tongues and prophesy this writer also cast aside the gifts of teaching, evangelism, giving, helps, and so on.
It may be apparent by now that I am not a cessationist. For example, I don’t believe that we can say with confidence that God cannot or does not ever give anyone the gift of tongues today. Neither do I suppose that all who claim to possess this gift actually have it. Do I think that everyone should expect to be given the gift? No, because Paul makes it clear that certain gifts are given to some, not all (1 Corinthians 12:29-30).
I think the bottom line is found in 1 Corinthians 12:
4 Now there are different gifts, but the same Spirit. 5 And there are different ministries, but the same Lord. 6 And there are different results, but the same God who produces all of them in everyone. 7 To each person the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the benefit of all. 8 For one person is given through the Spirit the message of wisdom, and another the message of knowledge according to the same Spirit, 9 to another faith by the same Spirit, and to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, 10 to another performance of miracles, to another prophecy, and to another discernment of spirits, to another different kinds of tongues, and to another the interpretation of tongues. 11 It is one and the same Spirit, distributing as he decides to each person, who produces all these things (1 Corinthians 12:4-11).
God is sovereign in the giving of gifts. It is He who “distributes as He decides to each person” (verse 11). It is He who determines how successful we will be in the exercise of our gift(s) (verse 6). Thus, we should expect God to manifest His presence and power in different ways. Acts is therefore suggestive as to how God works, but it is not a boiler plate, so that we expect Him to work only in the ways we see in Acts.
I would also add a note from my own experience. I have spent some time in ministry in Asia. In speaking with those who seek to evangelize unreached people groups, I am told that they do experience God’s presence and power in ways that are similar to what we read in the Book of Acts. (They also experience Satanic opposition.)
It may be due to the rich heritage of teaching and ministry we have in the West that we don’t experience what those in Acts and in the 3rd world experience. Or, it may be that we are not as spiritual as we think. When I read the Book of Acts I think I should ask why I don’t experience God’s presence and power as those early saints did. I should believe that He is able (and sometimes willing) to intervene in human history in a miraculous way. And I should pray that God would accomplish His will and His work, in whatever way He chooses.
Back to 1 Corinthians 12, and verse 7. Paul says that different manifestations of the Spirit are given to each one of the saints. I think we need to be careful that we do no prescribe what these manifestations might be. That means, in my opinion, that we must not insist that God manifest His Spirit just like we see at some place in Scripture, and it means that we not forbid that He do so.