Word and Spirit in the Early Church

A couple of months ago, I shared a brief critique on church planting movements while advocating a “word-driven movemental Christianity“.  Because of our church’s new church planting initiative, I have been living in the book of Acts quite a bit, which has been rather rewarding.  The “word-driven” post speaks to the nature of the Word of God in church planting, but I want to go a different angle and consider the relationship of the Word of God and Spirit of God in the early church.

The emphasis on the relationship of Word and Spirit was really brought out during the Reformation, especially in the writings of John Calvin and later in the Puritans.  The agency of the Spirit and the instrumentality of the Word are, in my mind, key to understanding how God worked among His people then and now.  The paradigm of Word and Spirit together helps to prevent theological error and recognize the source (or foundation) of our work.  I hope to elaborate this paradigm more in the future, but for the time being, allow me to list seven places in the book of Acts where the Word and Spirit paradigm can be seen.

Word and Spirit in the Early Church

Acts 1:1-2

In the first book, O Theophilus, I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach, until the day when he was taken up, after he had given commands through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen.

Jesus, through the Holy Spirit gave the commands to his apostles.  The commands (word) were communicated in the power of the Holy Spirit (spirit).  The Word and Spirit paradigm was first seen in Jesus and then emulated by the apostles.

Acts 4:8-12

Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them, “Rulers of the people and elders,  if we are being examined today concerning a good deed done to a crippled man, by what means this man has been healed,  let it be known to all of you and to all the people of Israel that by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead—by him this man is standing before you well.  This Jesus is the stone that was rejected by you, the builders, which has become the cornerstone. And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.”

Peter declared the gospel (word) to the rulers and elders having been “filled with the Holy Spirit” (spirit).  Proclamation of the gospel, as seen in the post-Pentecost Peter, is done in the controlling influence of the Spirit of God.

Acts 4:31

And when they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and continued to speak the word of God with boldness.

In the same chapter that Peter spoke the word after having been filled with the Spirit, the believers who had just prayed did exactly the same thing.  It is not coincidence that we see these new believers operating with the same word and Spirit paradigm.  The Spirit will direct you to the word; and the word, spoken by the power of the Spirit, will grant courage and boldness to speak much of Christ.

Acts 10:44

While Peter was still saying these things, the Holy Spirit fell on all who heard the word.

This account of when the gospel advances to the Gentiles, we see that the Spirit of God (spirit) came upon all those who heard the word (word).  The movement of the gospel as outlined in Acts 1:8 stretches to the uttermost by the agency of the Spirit and instrumentality of the Word.  Whether it was before the rulers in Jerusalem or before Cornelius and all in Caesarea, Peter preached the word of the cross which was accompanied by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Acts 11:15-16

As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell on them just as on us at the beginning. And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’

Peter, reporting to the Jerusalem church, testifies of how the Spirit of God has come upon the Gentiles.  The Spirit’s work is confirmed by “the word of the Lord”.  One of the things Jesus told his disciples about the Spirit was, “But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you” (John 14:26).  Here is evidence of that happening.

Acts 16:6-10

And they went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia. And when they had come up to Mysia, they attempted to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them. So, passing by Mysia, they went down to Troas.  And a vision appeared to Paul in the night: a man of Macedonia was standing there, urging him and saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.”  And when Paul had seen the vision, immediately we sought to go on into Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them.

This familiar passage of the Macedonian call reveals how the Spirit restrained the missionaries from certain regions to “speak the word.”  So what we see in Acts is the Spirit leading them to preach the Word at certain times (from Jerusalem to Caesarea), and other times the Spirit keeping them from preaching the Word in other places (“the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them”).  Regardless of the direction of the movement, it was directed by the agency of the Spirit and instrumentality of the Word.

Acts 18:24-25

Now a Jew named Apollos, a native of Alexandria, came to Ephesus. He was an eloquent man, competent in the Scriptures. He had been instructed in the way of the Lord. And being fervent in spirit, he spoke and taught accurately the things concerning Jesus, though he knew only the baptism of John.

The last example is seen in Apollos, who at the time, had only known the baptism of John.  Luke describes him as one who was “competent in the Scriptures” (word) as well as “fervent in spirit” (spirit).  Manuscripts vary on the word “spirit” as it could be understood as “fervent in the Spirit” (as in Holy Spirit).  In any case, the relationship of Word and Spirit is seen that he “accurately taught the things concerning Jesus.”

Conclusion

When it comes to understanding what God did in the early church after Pentecost, the relationship of Word and Spirit lies at the heart of God’s mission being accomplished through His church.  Therefore, church planting efforts today would do well to consider what role or to what degree the Word of God and the Spirit of God govern and guide their efforts.  We live in a day where man can mimic and manufacture church by engineering, marketing, and selling the goods and services that people need, want, or desire.  However, the evidence of a true work of God will be seen and confirmed by the witness of the Spirit and centrality of the Word of God.  It is preeminently a spiritual and supernatural work, and only the tools and operations supplied by God can truly build His church.

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3 Comments on “Word and Spirit in the Early Church”


  1. […] Brister writes on the interplay of these in the Book of Acts at Provocations and Pantings: “The paradigm of Word and Spirit together […]

  2. Dennis Muse Says:

    I love what you said, the Word of God and the Holy Spirit must be central in the foundation of a church, and you are right anyone can start an institution and call it a church, and make it successfully and even have 10’s of thousand attendees, but that does no make it a real church. Great entertainment, kick butt rock bands singing the latest POP songs, video clips, great great feel good sermons that tickles your ears. All of that and a Starbuck’s in the lobby do not make church, it might draw big crowds of unbelievers and lukewarm believers, makes for great entertainment centers but not for real church. The Word and the Spirit make for real church, for me they are a must, without them, why would I even go there!

  3. D.L. Kane Says:

    Timmy – This is a very important message for the Church-especially in “Reformed” circles. I have noticed such a fear of “Charismatic Chaos” that churches and pastors rarely even mention the Spirit of God from the pulpit. Few even pray that God’s Holy Spirit would open the eyes and hearts of the people in the pews. (Heaven forbid if God should visit his people in a powerful way).

    I attended one church for a year and a half and only heard the Holy Spirit being mentioned from the pulpit on 7 occassions. Grace was always talked about–to the point where one might come away thinking that perhaps “Grace” had replaced the Holy Spirit as the third person of the Trinity.

    Thanks for this post. I am encouraged.

    D.L. Kane


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