One of the lessons God has been teaching me lately is to learn to ask primary and secondary questions and not to confuse which is which. Primary questions tries to dig for the why and purpose, whereas secondary questions tends to find root on the fringe details.
Take for example this passage in my morning reading today:
Acts 10:44–48 (ESV) — 44 While Peter was still saying these things, the Holy Spirit fell on all who heard the word. 45 And the believers from among the circumcised who had come with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit was poured out even on the Gentiles. 46 For they were hearing them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter declared, 47 “Can anyone withhold water for baptizing these people, who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” 48 And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they asked him to remain for some days.
The primary questions to this passage are ones like:
- Why did the Holy Spirit fall on these Gentiles?
- Why did God bring Peter and a consituents of Jewish believers down to Caesara to meet Cornelius to see this?
- What does this have to do with the meta-narrative of the book of Acts and the living out of the great commission – to take the gospel from Jerusalem to Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.
The secondary questions are ones like:
- What exact manifestations happened when the Holy Spirit fell
- Where in the exact timeline of faith, regeneration, salvation does the falling of the Spirit happen
- Does the Spirit fall “on” or “in” these Gentiles?
When the secondary questions become the primary focus of this passage, then it’s easy to make this text a proof for certain ecstatic experiences – i.e. God intends the Spirit to “fell on” all believers, and when this happens, speaking in tongues will be the result. Focusing on secondary questions can lead one to take this description of events to be prescription for discipleship – and I’m not sure that’s the point.
These events take place within a broader story line within the chapter, one that focuses on the built-in prejudice of early Jewish believers towards the Gentiles. The broader story line is the opening of Peter’s eyes (and the early jewish church) to the reality that the gospel and redemptive work of Jesus was to spread far beyond the borders of Israel. This whole chapter is lived out and recorded to validate the lesson God “primarily” wanted to get across to the church, and that was that the gospel is not only for Jews.
Peter’s observation drives this home:
Acts 10:34–37 (ESV) — 34 So Peter opened his mouth and said: “Truly I understand that God shows no partiality, 35 but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. 36 As for the word that he sent to Israel, preaching good news of peace through Jesus Christ (he is Lord of all), 37 you yourselves know what happened throughout all Judea, beginning from Galilee after the baptism that John proclaimed:
As does Luke’s commentary:
Acts 10:45 (ESV) — 45 And the believers from among the circumcised who had come with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit was poured out even on the Gentiles.
In our 21st century melting pot society, the issue of salvation to the gentiles doesn’t seem like a big deal, but to the early church, made up of Jewish believers living in a closed ethnic mindset, this was massive. In fact, this ethnic prejudice that was ingrained in the Jews was a major threat to the spread and work of the gospel. This is why the book of Acts repeats Pentecost and the outpouring of the Spirit (Acts 2) so many times – God was reaffirming that the work of His saving Spirit was at play in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and even to the uttermost parts of the earth.
So I’m learning to ask primary questions and not focus so much on secondary questions. Questions of “why” and “for what purpose” in this passage leads me to these conclusions:
Taking this passage as a lesson to pursue an experience of the Holy Spirit falling on people misses the point of the text. That may or may not be the point elsewhere, but it is not likely here. The great concern of Acts 11 is not “have disciples been baptized in the Spirit and experienced a second blessing”, but do we believe in the ability of God to make sinners his children, even when those sinners are of certain ethnic makeup. The greater concern is to believe that every created life on earth is just as redeemable as the next.