How Did You Receive the Spirit?

A vivid religious experience lies underneath one of Paul’s strong debate points

Scripture text: Galatians 3:1-5
O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified? Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law, or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun with the Spirit, are you now ending with the flesh? Did you experience so many things in vain? — if it really is in vain. Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith? (RSV)

In his letter to the Galatian churches, we find Paul employing a number of rhetorical tools to support his argument that Gentile Christians do not need to adopt Jewish practices to establish their Christian identity. Those tools include personal invective as well as rabbinic and Hellenistic approaches to interpreting the Old Testament.

But I find the most curious argument he makes in Chapter 3, verses 1-5 (see quotation above). In this argument, he appeals to the Galatians’ religious experience. How did they receive the Holy Spirit? By practicing the Jewish law or by hearing the gospel with faith?

What is curious about this argument is his assumption that his hearers will know exactly what he is talking about. His argument would carry no water if his hearers had scratched their heads at this point and asked: What do you mean about receiving the Spirit?

Apparently these Galatian Christians had had some powerful religious experience that they knew without question was an experience of the Holy Spirit. What we modern readers would like to know is just exactly how had they experienced the Spirit.

Did they experience the Spirit in the kind of emotional phenomena that today we associate with the Pentecostal tradition? Did they experience the Spirit in terms of dramatically changed lives, maybe in terms of dramatically changed consciousness or dramatically changed behavior?

Or did they experience the Spirit in terms of witnessing miracles in their midst, possibly dramatic healings? In verse five, Paul makes a reference to miracles. Is that how they had experienced the Spirit?

I don’t think the text makes at all clear just how the Galatians had experienced the Spirit. But that they had had some kind of vivid experience of the Spirit is certain. Otherwise Paul could never have used this argument in his debate with them.

I’m fascinated by Paul’s rhetorical turn in these verses because I question that this kind of argument would work with most Christians in churches today. I suspect that most Christians today (unless they came out of a Pentecostal environment) would have no idea what Paul was talking about. The Holy Spirit is simply not a vivid experience for many believers today.

Is that because our churches have done a very effective job at quenching the Holy Spirit? Or is it that we have so identified the Spirit’s presence with highly emotional phenomena like speaking in tongues that we completely miss the Spirit’s presence in other ways? Or is it that we have done such a poor job of teaching about the Spirit that we cannot recognize the Spirit’s presence in our midst?

I ask these questions during this week that follows Pentecost Sunday. I ask them because I wonder what it would be like in our churches if we had such a vivid experience of the Spirit in our individual lives and in our congregational life that we could respond with clarity, conviction, and enthusiasm if Paul stood in our midst and asked: How did you receive the Spirit?

4 thoughts on “How Did You Receive the Spirit?

  1. May Lythgoe

    I felt Jesus sit down beside me and hold my hand as I was praying during an especially anxious time. Jesus is real, risen and with us.


  2. I think these are very good, truth seeking questions. And I agree with your statement, “I suspect that most Christians today (unless they came out of a Pentecostal environment) would have no idea what Paul was talking about. The Holy Spirit is simply not a vivid experience for many believers today.” I also agree many churches do an excellent job at quenching the Spirit, more so out of ignorance than agenda though. I find it interesting that speaking in tongues is frequently mislabeled as “an emotional experience”. I used to not believe in “speaking in tongues” at all as I was taught it doesn’t apply to today. Then, I believed it only applies to some, who have that divine gift. As of July 19, 2009, I most definitely believe in speaking in tongues as the physical, emotional, and spiritual event happened to unsuspecting and unbelieving me! What an amazing, life changing, distinct event in my journey with Jesus. I now think receiving the Holy Spirit is a vivid memorable event as Paul assumes the Galatians know. There are many recorded events of early Christians receiving the Holy Spirit. Besides Acts 2, check out Acts 8:14 & 15. Peter & John specifically prayed that they would receive the Holy Spirit as they had not yet received it. They had only been baptized at that point. In verse 17, they received the Holy Spirit (a separate event – unlike what many denominations teach that we automatically receive the Holy Spirit when we believe Christ died for our sins). Also check out Cornelius’ experience in Acts 10. Cornelius believed in Jesus, he was a smart, well established guy, but he too had a distinct experience in receiving the Holy Spirit in Acts 10:44-46. He was a Gentile and when the Holy Spirit came upon him, he spoke in tongues just like those did at the Day of Pentecost in Acts 2. Also, be sure to look up Acts 19:1-2, Paul asked some disciples, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” (implying a distinct event). In verse 6, their distinct event happened- again, speaking in tongues. So yes, in subsequent churches (epistles), it’s clear Paul is referring to a distinct empowering event of receiving the Holy Spirit, which is not taught in many churches today. I did not even notice such verses until after it happened to me and I went seeking. I always assumed I received the Holy Spirit upon believing in Christ Jesus. It’s been my experience, there is a definite change within me. Praise be to God, I “happen” to attend a church that was open to the Spirit and wasn’t afraid to go where the Spirit leads, within God’s design as described in I Corinthians 12-14. I don’t think everyone receives the Holy Spirit the moment they believe in Jesus as their Savior and Lord, as clearly described in Acts, but I do think it is possible for all those who believe if they are open to it and seeking Him (Acts 2:38). Something to ponder. Great blog!


    1. Carrie: Thank you for taking the time to write such a thoughtful account of your own spiritual experience. For you, I can see, the apostle Paul’s words ring true. The coming of the Holy Spirit into your life has brought a truly transforming experience. And the Holy Spirit is one who is vividly alive for you. I wish more Christians might claim such a reality.


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