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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