In the first chapter of Acts we read that just before Jesus ascended to heaven, He told His disciples that they should remain in Jerusalem and wait for the promised gift of the Holy Ghost. In the second chapter we further read about a group of Christians who were gathered together in a room on the day of Pentecost when all of a sudden "there came a sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind...and there appeared unto them cloven tongues like as fire, and it sat upon each of them and they were all filled with the Holy Ghost and began to speak with other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance" (Acts 2:2-4).
To many who read the Bible, this is the explanation of how the Holy Ghost comes upon someone once they accept Christ.
To further bolster this idea, we read in the tenth chapter of Acts, the story of a Gentile named Cornelius who had sent for Peter to teach him and others about the gospel. While Peter was speaking to them "the Holy Ghost fell on all of them that heard the word" (Acts 10:44-46), and the Gentiles suddenly began to speak in tongues, just like the disciples of Christ did on the day of Pentecost.
Then Peter said to the Christian Jews that were with him, "Can any man forbid water that these [Gentiles] should not be baptized which have received the Holy Ghost as well as we?" Since these Gentiles had received the Holy Ghost apparently the same way and to the same extent that the apostles had on the day of Pentecost, it is reasoned by many that this is the way the Holy Ghost comes to us.
On the other hand, as Latter-day Saints, we believe that the Holy Ghost is given by the laying on of hands by someone who has the authority to confer this gift upon others. But the scripture just quoted clearly show that at least some of the early Gentile Christians received the Holy Ghost, not by the laying on of hands or even after they had been baptized, but had it come upon them from heaven simply because they expressed their faith in Christ.
If this is true, then why did the apostles go about, laying their hands on other believers, to give them this gift? (Acts 8:17-19) Can the Holy Ghost be bestowed in many different ways or is there just one way it can be received?
To confuse this issue even more, in the 20th chapter of the gospel of John we read that on the evening of the day that Jesus rose from the grave, He appeared to His disciples in a locked room where He showed them His hands and side to prove that He was really alive. "And when he had said this he breathed on them and saith unto them, Receive ye the Holy Ghost" (John 20:22).
If they received this gift at that time, what was it that happened on the day of Pentecost?
Although the early Christians clearly understood this principle, the Bible does not clearly explain the doctrine of how we receive the Holy Ghost, therefore we must search the scriptures to find clues that will help us solve this perplexing question.
To clarify what happened on the day of Pentecost and beyond we must first begin our search in an upper room during the feast of the Passover. Jesus had just eaten His last supper while in mortality and Judas Iscariot had already left the building, leaving only eleven apostles in the room with the Savior. Jesus knew that in a matter of a few hours He would be taken from His disciples by force and that in less than twenty-four hours He would be dead.
At this moment in the life of Christ He had tremendous compassion for His beloved apostles whom He knew didn't fully realize what was about to happen to both Him and them. Therefore, in what little time He had left He sought to give His faithful followers some degree of comfort to help them endure what they were about to experience. It was during this time that Jesus told them, "But the Comforter, which is the Holy Ghost, whom the Father will send in my name, he shall teach you all things and bring all things to your remembrance" (John 14:26). "But when the Comforter is come, whom I will send unto you from the Father...he shall testify of me" (John 15:26).
It is said that we remember only ten percent of what we hear and, since Jesus had much to say in a short period of time, how could these eleven men be expected to remember everything He was about to tell them? Worse yet. they understood so little of what He was trying to tell them. In fact, the scriptures indicate they didn't believe He would actually be killed. But Jesus knew that when it happened they would be fearful for their own lives and become confused and demoralized.
Realizing this, Jesus tried to assure them by saying that after He had left, He would send someone to comfort them, someone to help them remember everything He had told them, someone who would help them remain strong in the faith and show them what to do. That someone was the Holy Ghost.
But when would Jesus send them the Holy Ghost? He explained, "It is expedient for you that I go away: for if I go not away, the comforter will not come unto you; but if I depart, I will send him unto you" (John 16:7). Jesus would send them the Holy Ghost only after He had departed from them. Where was He going? He told them, "I go unto the Father" (John 14:28).
What Jesus told them was that the Holy Ghost would be sent to them only after He had returned to His Father in heaven.
When Jesus told His disciples these things it was Thursday evening. Shortly thereafter, He was taken captive by the Roman soldiers, and by Friday evening He was dead. By then the apostles were in a state of shock and they began to question among themselves how this could be if He was truly the Son of God. When Sunday morning came, Mary Magdalene went to the sepulchre where Jesus was buried, and, after seeing the empty tomb, ran to the apostles and told them what she had seen. At first none of them believed her but then two of the apostles raced to the gravesite and found that it was indeed empty. That night, when the apostles were assembled together behind locked doors, Jesus suddenly appeared before them. At first they were frightened, thinking they had seen a ghost, but Jesus comforted them and invited them to touch and feel him. Now they knew He wasn't dead but very much alive!
It was during that visit when Jesus breathed on them and said, "Receive ye the Holy Ghost." But why did He do that? The Holy Ghost was to be a comforter only when Jesus wasn't there, but He was there and was comforting them. Then why did He tell them to receive the Holy Ghost at that time?
Before we can answer that question we first have to understand where the Holy Ghost comes from. In Acts 10:38 we read that "God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Ghost." What that tells us is that the Father gave the Holy Ghost to His Son Jesus who then was able to give it to His apostles, which He did after His resurrection.
But, even though Jesus had given it to them then they didn't actually receive it at that time. The reason we know this is because Jesus had not gone to His Father in heaven yet. Furthermore, as long as He was still personally with them, they had no need for the Holy Ghost. Then why did Jesus tell them to receive the Holy Ghost? Because it was necessary for Him to be there in their presence to transfer it from Himself to them.
To better understand what happened at this time we can look back into the Old Testament for similar examples. Moses was the supreme leader of the Israelite nation, yet eventually he would pass away and someone would be needed to take his place. The person chosen for this position was Joshua. However, long before his death, the Lord commanded Moses to set Joshua apart as the next leader of Israel (Numbers 27:18). "And Moses did as the Lord commanded and he took Joshua and set him before Eleazar the priest and before the congregation and he laid his hands upon him and gave him a charge as the Lord commanded by the hand of Moses" (Numbers 27:22,23).
Joshua was given the authority to rule over Israel but he couldn't exercise that authority while Moses was still alive. When the Israelites came to the promised land, Moses was not permitted to go with them, so he stayed behind. It was at that point that Joshua could exercise the charge the Lord had given him "by the hand of Moses". It was only then that he could assume full command of his people.
Another example is how David was chosen to be the King of Israel. A prophet named Samuel went to the house of Jesse to find the person God had chosen to be made king, and although David was but a young boy, "Samuel took the horn of oil and anointed him in the midst of his brethren and the Spirit of the Lord came upon David from that time forward" (1 Samuel 16:13).
David was anointed to be the king of Israel when he was but a teenager, even though Saul was already the ruler over Israel. Does that mean Israel now had two kings? Not at all. Although David was anointed to be a king, he couldn't exercise that authority while Saul held the position. Although years passed between the time David was anointed and the time he finally became king, Samuel's ceremony was valid and necessary at the time he performed it.
So it was with the apostles. The ceremony of giving them the Holy Ghost could only be performed by Jesus while He was in their presence but they didn't actually receive it until the day of Pentecost. The feast of Pentecost comes fifty days after the Passover. That's how long the apostles had to wait for it.
But the account in Acts also tells us that on the day of Pentecost there were more than just eleven apostles who suddenly received the Holy Ghost. In fact, the number was a hundred and twenty people. What about them? Had Jesus given them the Holy Ghost prior to Pentecost as well? The Bible doesn't say, but it's possible that apostles had performed a ceremony giving all these people, who were already baptized believers, the Holy Ghost by the laying on of hands before they actually received it.
What we do know is that once the apostles were in possession of this gift they ceremoniously gave it to others by the laying on of hands. As we have already seen, God, the Father gave the Holy Ghost to His Son, and Jesus gave it to His apostles who then gave it to those who believed on Jesus.
This was the pattern for everything that was done in the church. God the Father ordained His Son (Hebrews 5:4,5), the Son ordained twelve apostles (Mark 3:14,15), and the apostles ordained other apostles (Acts 1:22), deacons (Acts 6:6), elders (Acts 14:23) and bishops.
The Bible doesn't clearly explain how these ordinations were always performed, however, from the few places we have recorded, the indications are that it was always done by the laying on of hands. This is the way Paul and Barnabas were set apart to be missionaries (Acts 13:3), and people were healed (Acts 9:12, 28:8). We saw that Joshua was set apart by the laying on of hands and we know that the apostles gave the Holy Ghost by the laying on of their hands.
Then what about Cornelius and his friends? How did these people get the Holy Ghost to the same degree as the apostles without receiving it by the laying on of hands?
To find the answer to this question we need to put this incident in its proper setting. Peter was a Jew, and as such, Jewish law forbid him to associate with the Gentiles who were considered unclean (Acts 10:28). One day, while Peter was praying, he fell into a trance and saw a vision of unclean meat, and heard the voice of the Lord telling him to eat, but Peter refused saying, he intended to be faithful to the Jewish law forbidding him to eat such things. Three time the Lord said to Peter, "What God hath cleansed call not thou unclean" (Acts 10:15), and almost immediately afterwards, a group of Gentiles came to his house and the Spirit told Peter that God wanted him to go with them.
Peter took six Christian Jews with him when he went to see Cornelius (Acts 11:12). When they arrived, Cornelius then told the apostle how an angel had appeared unto him and instructed him to send for Peter. Peter then began teaching Cornelius and his household about Jesus Christ, and "While Peter yet spake these words, the Holy Ghost fell on all of them which heard the word" and they began speaking in tongues.
We're also told in this account that when this happened, the Christian Jews that were with Peter were astonished. We have to remember that the Jews felt they alone were the chosen people of God, and that salvation was only for their race. To them it was unthinkable that a Gentile would find favor in God's eyes, yet now they were witnessing for themselves a very convincing sign that God had indeed accepted these men.
Peter then asked, "Can any man forbid water that these should not be baptized which have received the Holy Ghost as well as we?" Apparently none of the Jews present objected to this, but how could they? It was crystal clear to them that God was extending salvation unto these Gentiles.
Why did these Gentiles seem to have the Holy Ghost without receiving it through the laying on of the apostles hands? Because it was a sign to those who were with Peter that what God was calling clean they shouldn't call unclean and it was a sign these Christian Jews could understand and accept. Without this sign it is extremely doubtful they would have allowed Peter to baptize Cornelius and his Gentile household.
Consider what happened after this incident. Here was Peter, one of the chief spokesmen for the apostles, a man who had been very close to Jesus, a man who was held in very high esteem by the early Christians, but when he got back to Jerusalem and word got out that he had baptized some Gentiles, he was in instant hot water. The Christian Jews in Jerusalem contended with him (Acts 11:1-3). That's a nice way of saying they argued with Peter. Imagine contending with Peter about a point of Christian doctrine! Yet that's exactly what happened. It was only after Peter explained everything and how the Gentiles received the Holy Ghost in such a miraculous manner that the Jews finally "held their peace" (Acts 11:18).
Consider the case of Paul when he baptized some Gentiles while on his first missionary journey with Barnabas. When he came home, the Christian Jews in his home town were quite upset when they learned about this, and it was the cause of a tremendous amount of arguing among the believers in Christ. Feelings ran deep on this subject, and I'm sure tempers waxed hot, and eventually, the matter was taken before the apostles and elders in Jerusalem to be resolved.
Once there, from the account in Acts, we learn that the Christian Jews immediately started condemning this practice. After awhile of debate, Peter stood up and retold the story of how he had baptized Cornelius and how God had made it clear through a sign that this should be so. "Then all the multitude kept silence and gave audience to Barnabas and Paul declaring what miracles and wonders God had wrought among the Gentiles by them" (Acts 15:12, italics added). After that, everyone held their peace and agreed that Barnabas and Paul had done no wrong. However, notice that there were "miracles and wonders", not only of what Paul and Barnabas experienced, but also that of Peter. Without these miracles it is extremely doubtful the Jews would have accepted this doctrine.
Apparently, in the case of Cornelius, instead of this being the common way of receiving the Holy Ghost, it seems this was a special occurrence designed to convince the Christian Jews that salvation was also for the Gentiles. It should be noticed that after this incident, the apostles continued to give the gift of the Holy ghost by the laying on of hands (Acts 19:6).
Rather than receiving the Holy Ghost automatically by simply believing in Jesus, this gift was routinely given by the laying on of the apostle's hands, and only under special and unusual circumstances did this event happen differently. In fact, the clear implication throughout Biblical history is that all Godly gifts, blessings and authority were imparted to others by the laying on of hands of someone authorized by God to perform such acts of service. It is therefore inconsistent with the way God has always behaved to think that the Holy Ghost should be given in any other manner.