I've always assumed that the Holy Spirit did not make his presence known amongst men until Pentecost. Famously, in Acts 2, the Spirit descends upon the first believers, gives them power of speech, and adds tremendously to their power.

Jesus clearly foretells the coming of the Holy Spirit in Acts 1 - just before he ascends into heaven - saying:

But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight.

That Jesus must go away before the Holy Spirit comes is attested to in John 16:7

But very truly I tell you, it is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you.

All of this fit my narrative neatly, thinking, okay - Jesus takes center stage until He returns to the Father, at which point the Holy Spirit comes onto the scene with tongues of fire and such. Sure, he may have "descended on Jesus like a dove" at Jesus' baptism, but he was pretty much quiet in the affairs of men. And indeed, as an eternal pre-existent being much like Jesus, I assume he was around, just not so much involved in the day to day affairs of men.

But then, I listened closely to the lectionary this week. I heard something in John 20:22 that I was not expecting. After Jesus appeared to his disciples, after the resurrection, he said:

And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit."

This seemingly contrasts with a non-involved Holy Spirit. I thought that Pentecost was the "firstfruits of the spirit," the first time the Holy Spirit deigned to dwell amongst men. Am I off my rocker, or am I missing something?

In others - was

  • a. Pentecost supposed to be the first appearance of the Holy Spirit, or

  • b. am I just making up the idea that Pentecost was supposed to be the first outpouring of the Spirit?

If (a), how is John 20:22 reconciled? If (b) how could the Holy Spirit come in light of John 16:7?

In other words, when did Jesus send the Spirit, and how does it fit with the external witness?

  • 4
    Please be clear - I believe in the perfection of the texts here, and I am not just some baiter. I'm looking for an answer from any biblically grounded perspective that harmonizes this apparent contradiction. Commented Apr 8, 2013 at 12:17
  • 1
    I don't see a contradiction at all - there were merely multiple phases of the arrival
    – warren
    Commented Apr 8, 2013 at 16:55
  • 1
    Related: Is Jesus giving the Spirit in John 20:22?
    – Jas 3.1
    Commented Apr 9, 2013 at 18:27
  • Indeed, it is :) Knew I should have checked BH as well... Oh well. Thanks! Commented Apr 9, 2013 at 18:29
  • 1
    I'm conflicted about this question. It's one where I think there is clearly a 'right' answer, but nevertheless there does seem to be genuinely held differing opinions that would necessitate it being closed as either primarily-opinion based or a truth question. Commented Sep 23, 2015 at 16:52

3 Answers 3


The meaning of John 20:22 is clear in its context:

19 On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jewish leaders, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord.

21 Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” 22 And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.” John 20:19-23 (Bold added)

The disciples were alone with each other. Not only that they were hiding from the public and those that would kill them. Jesus appears before them then address them, specifically. Jesus sent the holy spirit on them only.

Again in John 16:7 Jesus is addressing the disciples only. He goes on further to say that the disciples will not be able to be effective without the Spirit because the disciples alone do not know the Truth of which Jesus was speaking.

13 But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come. John 16:13

The disciples were incapable of building up the church without the Holy Spirit. Peter was incapable of delivering likely the most convincing testimony ever in Acts two without the Holy Spirit. They were "pierced to the heart." The exact dwelling of the Holy Spirit. It was at that moment that the Holy Spirit was "outpoured" on the people. It was freely given from that moment forward. The times before this moment it was necessary to be given to some so that hearts may be pierced and the whole world might believe.

So in specific answer to your questions:

A: No, Pentecost was not the first "appearance" of the Holy Spirit. That is clearly shown in the Scripture. It was, however, the first outpouring. Pentecost marks the day that the Holy Spirit was freely given to any who might believe.

B: It seems so. There is much evidence that the Holy Spirit was quite active and always has been, but only for certain persons. As Luke Ritchie has already said, this study shows that well, from the Spirit giving life in Genesis to It guiding the prophets. One thing to note is that The Spirit only does what is commanded by the Father and subsequently Jesus, too.

14 [The Holy Spirit] will glorify me because it is from me that he will receive what he will make known to you. 15 All that belongs to the Father is mine. That is why I said the Spirit will receive from me what he will make known to you. John 16:14-15

With this, one might interpret that God and Jesus almost always act through the Holy Spirit. A notable exception would be Moses.

  • Many times it is but natural for us to find such puzzling verses. Unfortunately some people come to conclusion that something is wrong with Word of God and take a different path. Sadly though, we fail to understand that Word of God is so meticulously given to us under the guidance of Holy Spirit, that if you contemplate on any such verses or get to know their meaning from others we find that everything in Word of God is like well oiled machine Commented Apr 9, 2013 at 5:49
  • A reason for the down vote is always a nice thing ...
    – user3961
    Commented Apr 9, 2013 at 20:56
  • Down vote was not from me. In fact I have upvoted it as it is a perfect explanation. Commented Apr 10, 2013 at 2:44

How a Christian chooses to reconcile these passages depends a lot on your view of the Holy Spirit and His role in our lives. With the reservation that different groups and denominations interpret this differently, these study notes make a good case for John 20:22 being symbolic - an "acted parable" that was fulfilled at Pentecost.

I would also add that the Spirit was very much active and involved in the world before Pentecost. This is a lengthy study of the Spirit's work before Christ's coming.

  • (+1) Great link. I answered this question on Hermeneutics.SE with the same conclusion, but I'm eager to dig into the additional arguments on the site you linked.
    – Jas 3.1
    Commented Apr 9, 2013 at 18:34

When did Jesus send the Holy Spirit?

We find various ministries of the Holy Spirit.

The Spirit was involved in creation.

Genesis 1:2 And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.

The Spirit would fill people to accomplish a task.

Exodus 31:3 And I have filled him with the spirit of God, in wisdom, and in understanding, and in knowledge, and in all manner of workmanship,

The Spirit would come upon someone to accomplish a great task.

Judges 6:34 But the Spirit of the LORD came upon Gideon, and he blew a trumpet; and Abiezer was gathered after him.

The Spirit can impart special abilities.

1 Samuel 10:6 And the Spirit of the LORD will come upon thee, and thou shalt prophesy with them, and shalt be turned into another man.

The people at the time of Jesus had a view of the work of the Spirit of God that was mostly task and ability oriented. Jesus introduced a new concept.

John 3:5 Jesus answered, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.

Jesus expressed surprise that Nicodemus did not understand this.

John 3:10 Jesus answered and said unto him, Art thou a master of Israel, and knowest not these things?

One might ask how Nicodemus could have known this.

Ezekiel 37:14 And shall put my spirit in you, and ye shall live, and I shall place you in your own land: then shall ye know that I the LORD have spoken it, and performed it, saith the LORD.

Job 33:4 The Spirit of God hath made me, and the breath of the Almighty hath given me life.

It is this idea of the Spirit giving new life that is expanded upon in the New Testament.

John 6:63 It is the spirit that quickeneth; the flesh profiteth nothing: the words that I speak unto you, they are spirit, and they are life.

Romans 8:10 And if Christ be in you, the body is dead because of sin; but the Spirit is life because of righteousness.

Galatians 6:8 For he that soweth to his flesh shall of the flesh reap corruption; but he that soweth to the Spirit shall of the Spirit reap life everlasting.

What Jesus gave his disciples was the new and eternal life he could impart after his resurrection.

John 20:22 And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and saith unto them, Receive ye the Holy Ghost:

The “pouring out” of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost was the more familiar task oriented work that was recorded in the Old Testament.

Acts 2:14-17 But Peter, standing up with the eleven, lifted up his voice, and said unto them, Ye men of Judaea, and all ye that dwell at Jerusalem, be this known unto you, and hearken to my words: For these are not drunken, as ye suppose, seeing it is but the third hour of the day. But this is that which was spoken by the prophet Joel; And it shall come to pass in the last days, saith God, I will pour out of my Spirit upon all flesh: and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams:

This distinction between “new life” and “task” Spirit work can be seen in the early church.

Acts 8:14-17 Now when the apostles which were at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the word of God, they sent unto them Peter and John: Who, when they were come down, prayed for them, that they might receive the Holy Ghost: (For as yet he was fallen upon none of them: only they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.) Then laid they their hands on them, and they received the Holy Ghost.

Here we have those who believe and are baptized yet have not yet had the Holy Spirit “fall upon” them.

The Holy Spirit is received for eternal life at the time a person believes.

1 John 4:13 Hereby know we that we dwell in him, and he in us, because he hath given us of his Spirit.

2 Thessalonians 2:13 But we are bound to give thanks alway to God for you, brethren beloved of the Lord, because God hath from the beginning chosen you to salvation through sanctification of the Spirit and belief of the truth:

Ephesians 1:13 In whom ye also trusted, after that ye heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation: in whom also after that ye believed, ye were sealed with that holy Spirit of promise,

The problem occurs when we consider the “pouring out of the Holy Spirit” to be coincident with being born again to new and eternal life by the Holy Spirit when we believe. If we see these as distinct functions, the "problem" of John 20 disappears.

  • @DJClayworth it does answer the question. He is saying the Holy Spirit was sent on both occasions (and many previously), but was sent in different ways. Commented Sep 23, 2015 at 16:48

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