One of the unique features of the Pentecostal experience as it developed was its understanding of the baptism of the Spirit. The idea that something could happen beyond conversion that would be called “baptism” has been cause for controversy, division, and a lot of conversation both within and outside of the Pentecostal and charismatic movements.It’s not for lack of Biblical support…just a lot of discussion about what the Scriptures mean when they talk about baptism in the Spirit. Frequently, we’ve set on trying to define baptism of the Spirit as a standalone idea, but when the Scriptures talk about it, it’s almost always in connection with water baptism. They are both critical to our identity with Christ (Ephesians 4), our commission (Matthew 28), and, apparently, to one another. For now, we’ll assume that water baptism and baptism in the Spirit are separate works and see what kind of story the book of Acts tells us about them, and what that story means for us as believers.
And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.”
In response to the Jews’ question about how salvation/healing/restoration can occur for them after killing Jesus, Peter gives two commands and one promise. The commands (“Repent and be baptized”) are clearly recognizable as the pattern for the change we can see in a person’s life as they are transferred from the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of God. The very nature of this Kingdom is for those who have the forgiveness of their sins through the name of Jesus the Messiah. The promises addressed to all in this Kingdom is that they will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. So, in Peter’s presentation, the reception of the Spirit follows being called by God into the Kingdom of God, as testified by repentance and water baptism.
Acts 8:12, 14-17
But when they believed Philip as he preached good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women. […] Now when the apostles at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the word of God, they sent to them Peter and John,who came down and prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit, for he had not yet fallen on any of them, but they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. Then they laid their hands on them and they received the Holy Spirit.
In what is known as the “Samaritan Pentecost”, the emphasis is not repentance, but belief in what had been accomplished for the kingdom of God in the name of Jesus the Messiah. Immediately following, they were baptized in water in the name of the Lord Jesus. In recognition of the Holy Spirit’s work in bringing the Samaritans into the Kingdom of God, the apostles come to these new believers and lay hands on them and pray that they would receive the Holy Spirit. Clearly, the apostles did not think it sufficient that believers were baptized in water, but that they should be baptized by the Holy Spirit as well.
So Ananias departed and entered the house. And laying his hands on him he said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus who appeared to you on the road by which you came has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and he regained his sight. Then he rose and was baptized;
In Saul’s conversion story, we never get excited about anything except what happens on the Damascus road or when Saul begins teaching in synagogues. We miss the events on Straight Street. Saul was struck blind, fasted and prayed for three days, and then Jesus sent Ananias (not an apostle) to go lay hands on Saul and pray for him. Ananias does this, and Saul is baptized in the Holy Spirit. Immediately following, he is baptized in water. This is a reversal from the previous two texts, where water baptism precedes Spirit baptism. In this case, Saul receives the Spirit, and then is baptized in water, all in obedience to the Lord Jesus.
While Peter was still saying these things, the Holy Spirit fell on all who heard the word. And the believers from among the circumcised who had come with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit was poured out even on the Gentiles. For they were hearing them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter declared, “Can anyone withhold water for baptizing these people, who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.
In the “Gentile Pentecost”, again unlike those in Acts 2 and 8, the Spirit baptism comes before water baptism. And the logic in Peter’s preaching (Repent, be baptized, and you will receive the Holy Spirit) is reversed yet again, “Can anyone withhold water for baptizing these people?” is Peter’s question when the Holy Spirit baptizes them. In this case, the command follows on the promise.
And it happened that while Apollos was at Corinth, Paul passed through the inland country and came to Ephesus. There he found some disciples. And he said to them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” And they said, “No,we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.” And he said, “Into what then were you baptized?” They said, “Into John’s baptism.” And Paul said, “John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, Jesus.” On hearing this,they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. And when Paul had laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they began speaking in tongues and prophesying.
In this unusual story, we find disciples of John who have never heard of the Spirit and what they are told about the water baptism that they received (the same baptism Jesus Himself was with) was not sufficient. They needed to be baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. Only with that are they able and ready to receive the Holy Spirit. The original pattern of Pentecost is restored with this event in Ephesus.
The implications here are not easy to draw out. The text doesn’t give us an application spelled out clearly like the epistles usually do. But one of the great things about our Pentecostal heritage is that we get to put ourselves into the story of Scripture in every part and let the Holy Spirit teach us. So here’s a few points that come out of these texts:
- Water baptism and Spirit baptism have a relationship: they are both about being in submission to the Lord Jesus as members of the Kingdom of God. For me and you they testify to the world, to Caesar, to Satan, and to the Church that we belong to Jesus.
- Spirit baptism is a promise for all of Jesus’ people. It’s not contingent on our own actions, but is an expression of God’s love for all who are brought in the name of Jesus through His Holy Spirit. If you’re a Christian believer, you’ve received the baptism of the Spirit.
- In our Christian lives, we should expect that sometimes, we will see the water baptism before the Spirit baptism (Acts 2, 8, 19) and sometimes we will see Spirit baptism before water baptism (Acts 9, 10). In both cases, we should be proclaiming the good news about the Kingdom of God and the name of the Lord Jesus, pray with people that God would baptize them – both with water and with His Spirit – and declare that they are His children.