When Was the Holy Spirit First Poured Out?

Jason Dulle


When was the Spirit Jesus promised to send first poured out?  In John 20:22 we read that Jesus breathed on the disciples and told them to receive the Spirit the day He rose from the dead.  And yet in the book of Acts Luke portrays the disciples as receiving the Spirit after Jesus had already ascended to heaven.  Is this a contradiction?  When was the Spirit first given? 



John 20:22 poses an interesting problem to all interpreters – Pentecostal and non-Pentecostal alike – because John 20:22 and Acts 2:4 both seem to be accounts of the initial giving of the Spirit, and yet the accounts are separated by more than 40 days. 

Some, wanting to affirm that the Spirit was received in both instances, suggest that there are two different infillings of the Spirit: one for salvation (John 20:22, “receive the Spirit”), and one for power (Acts 1:8; 2:4, “baptized in the Spirit”).  There are a couple of problems with this suggestion, however.  First, not all 120 disciples present on the Day of Pentecost were present in the house on the day of Jesus’ resurrection when He breathed on the disciples.  Surely those present in the upper room that were not present for the earlier event needed salvation as well.  Secondly, there is no exegetical basis for the claim that there are two different infillings of the Spirit.  The Bible uses a host of different expressions to describe the same kind of event.  See my article titled Is There a Difference Between Receiving the Spirit and Being Baptized in the Spirit? for further details.

If the Spirit could not have received at both events, could it be that the first outpouring of the Spirit occurred in John 20 rather than Acts 2:4?  No, because this would contradict Acts 1:3-6 which claims the promised Spirit was not given to the disciples until after Jesus’ ascension.  Given the clarity of Acts 1 and 2 regarding the timing of the Spirit, it stands to reason that the disciples did not receive the Spirit in John 20.  Let’s take a closer look at John’s account, then, to see if it can be harmonized with Luke’s.

It is important to note that unlike Luke’s account, John never says anything to the effect of “and they received the Spirit.”  He only records Jesus as breathing on them and saying, “Receive the Spirit.”  One could argue that while there is no explicit statement to that effect, it is implied.  If we only had the Gospel of John one might be justified in this drawing this conclusion, but given the fact that we have another account which is more specific, coupled with the fact that John’s account does not demand such an interpretation, I am lead to conclude that John did not intend for his readers to think the Spirit was actually poured out at that precise moment. 

The best reason for thinking John did not intend for his readers to think the Spirit was received the day of Jesus’ resurrection comes from John’s gospel itself.  In 16:7 John records Jesus as saying, “It is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you.” (ESV) If Jesus said the Helper (i.e. the Holy Spirit) will not come until after Jesus goes away (ascension), and John included this statement in his gospel, then surely John did not think the pre-ascension event recorded in 20:22 was the fulfillment of Jesus’ promise. 

What was the purpose of Jesus’ act, then?  Jesus had often spoken about the coming of the Spirit (3:3,5; 7:38-39; 14:16-20,26; 15:26-27; 16:13-16).  On the day of His resurrection, He took the opportunity to do so again, only this time He added the gesture of blowing on them, and instructing them to receive the Spirit (remember, the Hebrew/Greek words for "spirit" and "breath" are the same).  I am persuaded that the act of blowing on them had symbolic significance only, not spiritual significance.  Just as the breath of God (the Spirit) was responsible for bringing humans to life in the beginning (Gen 2:7), the breath of God (the Spirit) was about to bring humans to spiritual life on the Day of Pentecost.  Jesus’ act of blowing on them was a physical illustration of a spiritual reality that was soon to transpire in their lives.  They were about to experience a second creation; a second birth via the breath/Spirit of God.  The receiving of the Spirit did not come through Jesus’ blowing on them, however.  It was a proleptic act, intended to foreshadow what was about to come.

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