Baptism of the Holy Spirit and Acts 19

The Holy Spirit is God; this is important to keep in mind because it means that, as God, the Holy Spirit is sovereign and free to act in whatever ways he chooses to act. We see his sovereign freedom in passages like John 3:8: “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Here, John uses a pun with the word “wind” which in Greek is the same word for “Spirit.” Likewise, with regard to Spiritual gifts, Paul says in 1 Cor. 12:11, “All these [gifts] are empowered by one and the same Spirit, who apportions to each one individually as he wills.” The Holy Spirit decides how he will act, where he will go, whom he will bring to life, and to whom he will give certain gifts. This is important to emphasize at the outset because I think this explains the variety of “conversion stories” in the book of Acts. Thus, it is relevant to the issue of the so-called “baptism of the Holy Spirit.”

Technically, the phrase “baptism of the Holy Spirit” is never used in the New Testament. Rather, John the Baptist predicts that one will come after him who will baptize “with” or “in” (I list “with” or “in” because the Greek preposition can mean either one, and I’m not sure which is the better way to understand it in these contexts) the Holy Spirit (Matt. 3:11; Mark 1:8; Luke 3:16; John 1:33; as a side note, this is one of the rare truths about Jesus taught in all 4 Gospels!). To what does this refer? The book of Acts mentions this language specifically only twice. In Acts 1:5, as he ascends to heaven, Jesus tells his disciples that they will be baptized “with” or “in” the Holy Spirit “not many days from now.” It seems clear enough that he is referring to what will take place on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:1-4). The second reference to this event is in Acts 11:16, where Peter remembers this promise of Jesus (recorded in Acts 1:5) as he reflects on and reports about the salvation of (Gentiles) Cornelius and his family. He says in Acts 11:15, “As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell on them just as on us at the beginning,” which I think is a reference back to Pentecost.

But, how are we to understand what happened at Pentecost? When Jesus was preparing his disciples for his imminent departure, he promised them that he would send the Holy Spirit to be in them (John 14:16-17). He seems to indicate here that this would be a new experience for them, that the Holy Spirit was not “in” them, but that he will be in them later. I think this is what happens in Acts 2; the Holy Spirit came to them, “and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance” (Acts 2:4). I think we can understand the language of “filling” here as a reference to the Holy Spirit taking up permanent residence within the disciples. The Spirit chooses to manifest his presence in them by empowering them to speak in tongues (which, by the way, is surely a different experience than is being discussed in 1 Cor. 12-14). Now, notice, after Peter’s speech, when 3000 people “received his word and were baptized,” the text doesn’t mention that these 3000 began speaking in tongues. That could be significant. The next time in Acts we read of people receiving the Holy Spirit is speaking of the Samaritans in Acts 8:14-17. Philip had preached the gospel to these Samaritans, and many believed and were baptized, but the Holy Spirit “had not yet fallen on any of them, but they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus” (Acts 8:16). So, apparently, the apostles expected there to be some evidence that these believing Samaritans had received the Holy Spirit, but there was nothing. Perhaps they expected speaking in tongues; it’s hard to say. Peter and John come over to Samaria, prayed for these new believers to receive the Holy Spirit, and laid their hands on them. While they were laying their hands on these believers, “they received the Holy Spirit” (Acts 8:17). So, in Acts 2, the Spirit explodes on the scene, you might say as an uninvited, though welcome, guest. In Acts 8, with the Samaritans, Peter and John lay their hands on believers, and then the Holy Spirit comes, and apparently manifests his presence in some way. Moreover, in Acts 8, Philip apparently only baptized these Samaritans in the name of Jesus. I suppose this is to be contrasted with the “formula” given in Matt. 28:19: “in the [one] name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” Now, I think Peter here gives us a reminder of the Spirit’s freedom and sovereignty in this passage. When Simon the magician begged to purchase the power seemingly exhibited by the apostles, Peter chastises him, saying, “May your silver perish with you, because you thought you could obtain the gift of God with money!” (Acts 8:20). Not only does this remind us that the Holy Spirit’s presence in a believer’s life is a gift, it reminds us that Peter and John’s hand-laying did not cause the Holy Spirit to come. For whatever reason, the Holy Spirit chose to come (and apparently make his presence known to them in some way Luke chose not to tell us) after they prayed and when they laid hands on these believers. In Acts 11:44, Peter doesn’t even finish his sermon when the Spirit decides to enter Cornelius and his household and again manifested himself in some way that Peter knew it had happened. It could go on with examples of how this plays out, but I’d better move on to Acts 19!

So, in Acts 19, Paul encounters some “disciples” who seem a little confused or misinformed. Notice he doesn’t identify whose disciples they are. Back in Acts 18, we meet Apollos preaching in Ephesus, and we find out that “he knew only the baptism of John” (Acts 18:25). Then, Priscilla and Aquila “took him and explained to him the way of God more accurately” (Acts 18:26). We’re not told exactly what they taught him, but we can probably safely infer that they explained to him that John’s baptism was no longer significant (more on that momentarily). So, perhaps these “disciples” Paul encounters in Ephesus were actually disciples of Apollos (or perhaps, less likely, they were actually disciples of John the Baptist himself, still lingering around several years after John was executed). Thus, Apollos had only taught them about the significance of John’s baptism, not knowing any more than that himself. We’re not given the entirety of the conversation, but apparently in speaking with them something cued Paul to the fact that they had not yet received the Holy Spirit. Notice also that he obviously thinks this is not right and that he expected that they should have received the Holy Spirit “when they believed” (Acts 19:2) this is one of the many occasions where the KJV has mistranslated a very important participle!). When they tell him that they’ve never heard “that there is a Holy Spirit,” I think they probably mean that they hadn’t heard that the Holy Spirit had been given (they wouldn’t be very good Jews even if they didn’t know the Holy Spirit existed!). It’s interesting that his immediate question (apparently) in response to this is to ask about their baptism. Then, Paul “explains the way of God more accurately” (to borrow the phrase from Acts 18) by explaining the significance of John’s baptism in light of Jesus’ death and resurrection and the coming of the Holy Spirit. “John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, Jesus” (Acts 19:4). So, John’s baptism, as I understand it, functioned as a symbolic act showing that a Jewish person was repenting of their sins and looking forward to the coming of the Messiah. Baptism is always a symbolic act, but it can symbolize different things. John’s baptism was to signify repentance and a purification from sin and, more importantly, to point forward to the actual availability of repentance and cleansing from sin that Jesus would provide. These disciples (apparently) got the point, and then “were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus” (Acts 19:5). Recall back in Acts 8, merely being baptized in the name of Jesus seemed to be presented as a deficiency or a problem, but here it’s exactly what needed to be done. And the Holy Spirit chooses to come on them and manifest himself by the believers’ speaking in tongues and prophesying (Acts 19:6). Now, were these “disciples” Christians when Paul meets them? I (somewhat more tentatively) say that they were not believers or saved at that point. I think it’s best to understand the book of Acts as a whole indicating that a person is not a Christian or a genuine believer if the Holy Spirit does not dwell in that person. Likewise, Paul’s letters I think are fairly clear that the Holy Spirit brings a person to life, transferring him or her from the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of Jesus, graciously empowers belief in the individual, and immediately takes up residence in the believer and begins his transformation of the believer into the image of Jesus.

To sum up, then, what does it mean to be baptized “in” or “with” the Holy Spirit? It seems to refer to the Holy Spirit’s entering and settling into a believer. I don’t think we can perceive a pattern that the Holy Spirit must fit into for when or how he enters the believer, and I don’t think we can perceive a pattern that the Holy Spirit must fit into for the way he might manifest his presence in a believer’s life. Also, it’s important to highlight that baptism, with regard to the Holy Spirit, is being used as a metaphor, and since actual baptism with water was associated with cleansing or purification, I wonder if we ought to understand cleansing as a part of this issue. In other words, when the Holy Spirit “baptizes” a person (or when Jesus baptizes a person with the Holy Spirit), fundamentally it means that the Holy Spirit cleanses that person by moving in and cleaning house, we might say.

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Why Pray?

The question is, simply put, “Why pray?” Particularly, the question is raised because of a seeming inconsistency in our theology at this point. Specifically, if God knows everything that is going to happen, what good does it do for us to pray? Even more to the heart of the matter, if God is truly sovereign and in control of the events that take place in the world, and he has already decided how he is going to act in a particular situation, why should we pray? Do we expect that our prayers will change God’s mind? This is a very good question, and it’s a question we all need to wrestle with and come to conclusions about in our own minds.

As I look at the stories told in the Bible, it seems to be a common theme that God works through means to accomplish his purposes. This is not always the case, but it seems to be regular. Rather than God just saying, “Shazzam!” and then his will coming to pass in the world, he instead seems to delight in working in and through his creatures. Take Moses as an example. We could look at all the plagues God sent down upon Egypt, and I think we will find that, in each one, Moses (and/or Aaron) was told to hold out his staff or perform some other action through which God did his mighty works. However, for an even grander example, we can look specifically at the parting of the Red Sea. In Ex. 14:15, God commands Moses to “lift up your staff and stretch out your hand over the sea and divide it.” Then, we see that Moses does this and then “the LORD drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night and made the sea dry land, and the waters were divided” (Ex. 14:21). God used the means of Moses holding up his staff and stretching out his hand and the means of a strong east wind. We know that God is powerful enough that he needed neither of these elements to do what he wanted to do, but he chose to use Moses in this way. So, what does this have to do with prayer? Nothing, really, but it begins to establish the point that God uses means to accomplish his purposes in the world. Not necessarily always, but I would say most of the time.

I think what we’ll find as we look at the prayers of the Bible, the actual prayers of people recorded in the Old Testament and the New Testament, is that one of the primary means God uses to accomplish his will in the world is the prayers of his people. For example, I think this is why Luke wrote the story in Acts 12 the way he did. After Peter was thrown in prison, Acts 12:5 says, “Earnest prayer for him was made to God by the church.” Immediately, Luke then tells us about Peter’s release from the prison by an angel! Just by the way Luke has shaped the story, readers ought to conclude that God did this in response to the church’s prayers. This seems to be the case over and over again in the Gospels and Acts when we read stories about people praying to God.

Now, this of course brings up the issue of “unanswered prayer,” and I think the key to understanding “unanswered prayers” and the key to understanding how God works through our prayers or by answering our prayers is found in understanding what Jesus means when he teaches that we must pray in his name (John 14:13-14; 15:16; 16:23-26). I take this to mean what we often talk about as praying “according to God’s will,” a phrase taken from Romans 8:27 and 1 John 5:14. Jesus’ words in the Gospel of John consistently indicate if we pray “in his name” we will receive whatever we have requested. It has become traditional that we end our prayers with the phrase “in Jesus’ name,” and the intentions in this are surely excellent, but I’m not sure that this tradition hasn’t done more harm than good for our thinking about prayer. By saying these words, do we think we have guaranteed that God will answer our prayers in a certain way? Perhaps we are making a declaration (to God? to others hearing our prayer? both?) that we are striving to pray for things that God is pleased to give us. I don’t know sometimes. If praying in Jesus’ name=praying according to God’s will, then we have further teaching on what prayer is in Romans 8. Paul acknowledges that we often don’t know what we ought to pray for (Rom. 8:26), and I take this to mean that we often don’t know what the Lord’s will is for a given circumstance. Isn’t that our common experience? I know as I’m going about my day, I am often uncertain as to what specific actions God might want me to take. Even Paul the apostle shares this uncertainty with us! How comforting and sobering! But he doesn’t leave us to despair in our ignorance. Rather, Paul assures us that the Holy Spirit prays for us, and he always prays according to God’s will. This is the meaning of Rom. 8:26-27, as I understand it. We are constantly striving to know what God’s will is, and we  are constantly praying that God would work his will in our lives (at least that’s how the Model Prayer in Matt. 6 instructs us), and we can be confident that the Holy Spirit is praying for the things that we don’t know to pray for and don’t know how to pray for. This is also the meaning of the phrase “praying in the Spirit” in Eph. 6:18; this is not a special kind of prayer. Rather it’s an acknowledgment by Paul that we always pray “in the Spirit” or as we are empowered by the Spirit; we can do no other because the Holy Spirit is always interceding for us, just as he is always living in us empowering us to live godly lives. Ah, I’ve gone a bit far afield from my topic!

So, why must we pray? God has ordained that he will work in the world (and in our lives) by responding to the prayers of his people. Can he or does he work directly in the world, without some means? Probably, but I think not usually. Even our salvation comes about through means. God has chosen to use the preaching of the gospel message to bring people from being dead in sins to being alive in Christ. God unites people to Jesus by their believing/accepting response to the gospel message, either preached or written (but usually preached; see Rom. 1:16; 10:9-17; 1 Cor. 1:18-2:2ish). And we see time and time again that God acted in response to the prayers of believers in Acts.

So, does prayer change God’s mind? I don’t think so. There’s one place in the Bible where it looks like prayer may in fact change God’s mind: Exodus 32. Israel has just begun to worship the golden calf at the foot of Mt. Sinai, and God declares that he will destroy them for their insolent idolatry. He even says that he will make a great nation of Moses instead. Moses talks with God, seems to calm him down a bit, and “The LORD relented of the disaster that he had spoken of bringing on his people” (Ex. 32:14). So, did God change his mind? He said he was going to destroy them, and then he doesn’t, seemingly in response to Moses’ prayer. It seems to me that there is a better way to understand this passage. It’s interesting that, as God begins to declare what he is about to do to the people, he tells Moses, “Let me alone” (Ex. 32:10). Even more significant, he says, “Let me alone so that my wrath may burn hot against them. “So, it seems to me, that he is (in a roundabout way) inviting Moses to step in and intercede for the people. It seems that God is saying, “If you don’t intercede, I will wipe them out.” So, perhaps God’s will is to preserve rebellious Israel through Moses’ prayer. Perhaps God also desired for Moses to relate more closely to the people, to care for them. So, I don’t think we have any evidence that prayer changes God’s mind. Rather, God has planned to act in certain ways throughout history and in our lives. He has also planned that he would act in these ways in response to the prayers of his people. God is pleased to work through his people to accomplish his purposes.

Published in: on November 2, 2009 at 12:04 pm  Leave a Comment  
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