How did the early Christians receive the Holy Spirit?

The Reading from the Holy Gospel according to St. John 7:37-52; 8:12

Today we celebrate the feast of Pentecost.  One of the most amazing feasts in the life of the Church.  On this day we celebrate the descent of the Holy Spirit on the disciples and Apostles of Our Lord Jesus Christ.  We notice that the Holy Spirit did not come to the disciples at the moment that they believed in Christ.  It did not even come to them during the time that they spoke with Our Lord face to face, after the resurrection.  But the full gift of the Holy Spirit was given to them 50 days after the resurrection as we see today in Acts chapter 2.

One of the interesting points that we find throughout the book of Acts is that belief and baptism alone do not allow someone to receive the Holy Spirit.  As our Lord Jesus tells Nicodemus, one must be born of water and spirit.  In Acts chapter 8 we see that the people of Samaria had received the word of God and had been baptized in the name of Our Lord Jesus but they had not yet received the Holy Spirit.  They were born or water, but the Spirit was not given yet.  How is it that they received the spirit?  Did they receive the sacrament of Chrismation?  No.  They reason why the people of Samaria did not receive the sacrament of Chrismation is that they received the laying on of hands directly from the Apostles.

Now we see this again in Acts 19.  Paul arrived in Ephesus and found some men who believed in the Lord Jesus.  He asked them “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?”  He finds out that not only did they lack the Holy Spirit, but they also lacked baptism in the name of the Lord.  So after the Apostle Paul baptizes them, we would expect that they would be complete.  After all, they had been baptized by the great and holy Apostle.  But we see that after their belief and their proper baptism, St. Paul still has to do one more thing.  He lays his hands on them, so that they may receive the Holy Spirit.

Throughout the book of Acts we see the work of the Holy Spirit who descended on the Apostles and gave them power to continue the work of Our Lord Jesus Christ.  They received the Spirit directly from God.  But it is important to note that it is ONLY through their hands that all the other believers received the Holy Spirit. Why is this important?  Because it points to the order and structure of the Holy Church.  When someone comes to us from an outside church, they must receive the fullness of the gift of the Holy Spirit, just as all those ancient believers did.

Now the problem is that the Apostles were too few in number to go all over the world and personally lay hands on each of the believers.  In addition there would come a time when the Apostles would no longer be with us physically.  How would future Christians receive the Holy Spirit through the laying on of hands, when the Apostles were no longer with us?  Well, in their wisdom, the Apostles handed on the sacrament of Chrism to the bishops and presbyters of the Church.  This holiest of oils is symbolic of the Apostolic laying on of hands.  It is not spoken of in any great detail in the New Testament and I think the reason is that it was likely a closely held secret passed directly from the mouths of the Apostles to the bishops and presbyters.  This happened quite often with the practices of the Church as we read in 2 Thessalonians 2 where St. Paul writes “So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter.”  This is clear evidence that not everything is written down in the New Testament regarding the practices and teachings passed on by the Apostles.  Some of those teachings were oral traditions, such as the sacrament of Chrism. This sacrament imparts the full gift of the Holy Spirit to the believer, and allows the believer to become an adopted family member in the great family of God.  That being said we do have at least one passage which may in fact point to this sacrament.  In 1 John 2, the Apostle John writes “But ye have an unction (anointing) from the Holy One, and ye know all things.”

It is in this way, and no other, that each believer experiences a personal Pentecost.  Before receiving the sacrament of Chrismation we can feel the Holy Spirit.  We can be guided by this Spirit.  The Holy Spirit can even impart certain gifts unto us.  But after we receive the sacrament we become one with the Holy Spirit.  He is fully with us and never departs from us.  We are forever the children of God, fully partaking of the fullness of the Holy Spirit as the Apostles did on that very day of Pentecost 2000 years ago in Jerusalem.  The message of the New Testament is clear: God sent the Holy Spirit upon the leaders of the Church.  The message of the New Testament is also clear: God uses the leaders of the Church to send the Holy Spirit to the believers.

What does that mean practically for our lives?  It means that we should never trust outsiders who claim to speak in Pentecostal tongues or ministers who lay their hands on people as we see them doing on TV.  These are usually charlatans and scam artists and not the humble servants of the most high God.  They may know of the Holy Spirit, but they don’t know the Holy Spirit intimately because they don’t know the Church.  The may know of Christ but they don’t know Christ intimately because the Church IS the body of Christ.

Most importantly, this means that we don’t lack anything at all from God.  He has given us everything we need.  Of all the people in the whole world, we are the most blessed, because of our relationship with the Holy Spirit and His Church.  We should be so full of gratitude for all that God has given us!  In addition to gratitude we should be vigilant to guard this gift given to us, so that the Holy Spirit will be energized in our lives.  For the Orthodox Christian each day is PENTECOST.  The Holy Spirit, the Lord and giver of life loves us and He dwells in us.  He is ready to work in us in amazing ways.  That is our reality.  We thank God for His Holy Spirit who has been generously poured out on to each of us.  We thank God for the Church that has bestowed this gift on us and allows us to fulfill our calling as Christians.  May we live each day as a sign of His powerful presence in our lives.   And Glory be to God forever AMEN.

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