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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The Gospel according to “These Stones”

John the Baptist’s preaching/ministry is somewhat difficult to characterize. This, I suppose, is due mostly to the brevity of the narrative account of his ministry. This brevity is surely due to the Gospel writers’ desire to focus on Jesus. In reading through Matthew over the past couple of days, I think I have noticed an interesting association with the Old Testament that I haven’t seen before. The story of John the Baptist recorded in Matthew 3 has several affinities with the story of Joshua and the crossing of the Jordan River into the Promised Land in Joshua 1-4. The Gospel of Matthew as a whole is permeated with Old Testament quotations and allusions, but there also seems to be a significant number of more subtle associations with some Old Testament narratives that underlie Matthew’s thinking at a number of points.

Matthew starts out his narrative about John the Baptist by saying that he “came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand'” (Matt. 3:1-2). Then, Matthew says that Isaiah spoke of him when Isaiah said, “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight'” (Matt. 3:3, quoting Isa. 40:3). So, should we equate “preaching in the wilderness of Judea” with “crying in the wilderness”? I ask because, if we should, then we should also equate the message. Thus, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” is essentially the same message as “Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight.” I don’t think this is a necessary conclusion to draw, but it may be what Matthew intends.

Now, the narrative begins to focus on what John the Baptist was up to. He was baptizing people in the Jordan River. Why the Jordan River as opposed to any other body of water in Israel? Perhaps it was to reflect something of what God did at the Jordan River in the Old Testament, particularly as narrated in the book of Joshua. Matthew says that the people were “going out to him, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins” (Matt. 3:5-6). I find the fact that they were confessing their sins as they were being baptized very interesting. Baptism was a practice of many cultures of the ancient world, most regularly, it seems, for the purpose of purification. Jews, however, almost exclusively baptized only proselytes, Gentiles who wanted to participate in the worship of Yahweh and take part in the Jewish way of life. (This is often cited as a primary reason for the Pharisees’ and Sadducees’ aversion to John’s baptism; they understood themselves to be the people of God who had no need of ritual purification by baptism.) So, what of the confession of sins here? It is certainly related to the idea of ritual purification. But, could it also be reflecting Josh. 3:5, where Joshua is said to command the people to consecrate/sanctify/set apart themselves? There is no explicit mention of confessing sins here, and the Hebrew term is usually used to indicate ritual/ceremonial purification, which involved various washings with water and sometimes was closely related to offering sacrifices. There is one place in the New Testament, that I can recall, that explicitly links confession of sin and cleansing: 1 Jn. 1:9. Nonetheless, I think John’s baptism, a cleansing ritual, is linked to the confession of sins, and perhaps this would have been understood by Matthew’s original readers as related to consecrating oneself in the Old Testament, particularly in Josh. 3:5. (This might be too subtle, but with the context of the Jordan River and the affiliation of baptism with cleansing, perhaps not.)

But there’s more. John then apparently perceives some enemies in the midst of the crowds (though, Luke’s account has him castigating the whole crowd, but this may simply reflect the fact that John announced his condemnation generally to the people, but he was directing his words at a particular group in the crowd, without identifying them by name). He chastises the Pharisees and the Sadducees in the crowd by calling them children of vipers! Matthew tells his readers that these Pharisees and Sadducees came out to “his baptism,” not to be baptized by John, as the general populace was characterized earlier. He asks them an apparently pertinent question: “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” This question leads me to ask what association does the coming wrath have with the imminent kingdom of heaven? Matthew tells us that John was preaching, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand,” but John here asks them how they know that they need to be fleeing the coming wrath. Thus, should we conclude that repentance=fleeing the wrath to come? Whatever this means exactly, apparently it leads them to mutter amongst themselves that they are Abraham’s descendants, which I suppose meant to them that they had no wrath to fear. John pounces on this wrong-headed thinking and reminds them of the true nature of salvation as a gift from God that does not come by bloodline or by nationality. “Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham” (Matt. 3:9). Now, I want to ask, “To what stones is John referring?” I have always thought reading this passage and have heard it taught that John just looked around and saw some rocks on the ground and found a point worth making about God’s power. Thus, John’s point would be that God has the power to make rocks into the people of God. I’m not sure how well that would have answered their objection, and, at this point, I’m not sure they would have even thought in those kinds of categories, whereby God makes inanimate objects into believing human beings. So, is it possible that John was actually referring to some particular stones?

Recall Joshua 4. Joshua has just led the people of Israel across the Jordan River on dry ground, reminiscent of Moses leading the people of Israel across the Red Sea on dry ground. “When all the nation had finished passing over the Jordan, the LORD said to Joshua, ‘Take twelve men from the people, from each tribe a man, and command them, saying, “Take twelve stones from here out of the midst of the Jordan, from the very place where the priests’ feet stood firmly, and bring them over with you and lay them down in the place where you lodge tonight”‘” (Josh. 4:1-3). When Joshua commands the people to do this, he commands each man to pick up a stone “upon his shoulder.” I suspect these stones were not pebbles! Joshua explains to them that “these stones shall be to the people of Israel a memorial forever” (Josh. 3:7). This word for shoulder seems to require us to envision a man hoisting something up between his head and his shoulder, with the stone resting at his neck with his hand raised up to support it. These were large stones. These stones were then taken out of the Jordan River to Gilgal and set up as a monument. Now, there is a difficulty in the text of Joshua regarding these stones. Josh. 4:9 indicates that Joshua himself set up twelve stones as a monument, but it’s difficult to determine whether this is referring to Joshua’s setting up the monument at Gilgal or whether Joshua has taken up 12 more stones and set up an additional monument in the middle of the Jordan River. If you compare the ESV with the NIV at this point you can see the difference plainly, as the ESV translates verse 9 in such a way that makes it clear that Joshua has taken up 12 stones to set up a second monument, whereas the NIV translates verse 9 in such a way that makes it clear that the narrator is referring to when Joshua later sets up the monument at Gilgal. Both readings have difficulties and I’m not sure which one is best, though I think both are plausible for various reasons. But, at any rate, what needs to be highlighted here is the purpose of the monument (if there are two monuments, I think it is safe to say that both are built for the same purpose, though the purpose statement is only applied specifically to the monument at Gilgal). Joshua tells the people, “When your children ask their fathers in times to come, ‘What do these stones mean?’ then you shall let your children know, ‘Israel passed over this Jordan on dry ground.’ For the LORD your God dried up the waters of the Jordan for you until you passed over, as the LORD your God did to the Red Sea, which he dried up for us until we passed over, so that all the peoples of the earth may know that the hand of the LORD is mighty, that you may fear the LORD your God forever” (Josh. 4:21-24). It is important to note a couple of things about this. First, notice how they ought to relate this event back to the Exodus event, when God brought them out of Egypt in the first place. Second, notice how the monument is to function as a reminder to the people of how God has worked in their midst to bring them into the Promised Land, into their inheritance.

Now, what of John the Baptist and our text in Matthew 3? Could it be that John points these Pharisees and Sadducees to this monument, rather than just some rocks on the ground? (Of course, if there is substantial archaeological evidence that the pillar(s) from Joshua’s day had surely been destroyed by this time, this reference is then improbable.) If this is so, what is John actually affirming about God by saying that God can make from these stones children for Abraham? First, I’m sure that John is crushing the Pharisees’ and Sadducees’ feelings of superiority or entitlement by which they had concluded that they have no need for cleansing or confession of sin because of their bloodline going back to Abraham. Secondly, I think it may be possible that John is doing this by showing something wonderful about how God creates a people for himself in the first place. This monument was meant to serve as a reminder of how God brought his chosen people out of Egypt and into the Promised Land. So, how does God make children for Abraham from this monument? I think John might be pointing to the message of the stones rather than to the stones themselves. He’s saying to these Jewish people, “Remember the story! Remember what these stones are supposed to teach you, to remind you of! Have you forgotten to ask your fathers what these stones mean?? Remember how God brought you out of Egypt! Remember how he graciously chose you and rescued you from darkness and slavery! That’s how God makes children for Abraham!”

God works the same way he did thousands of years ago when he chose Abraham and brought him up out of Ur of the Chaldeans in order to create a people to be his special treasure, who were to expand God’s rule over the entire world, to all tribes, nations, and languages. Hear the gospel of these stones! Remember the passover lamb that was slain, so that the blood would protect them from God’s destroyer, and so that God would take them out of Egypt the very next day! John the Baptist came preaching repentance and came baptizing to prepare for Yahweh’s coming in the person of Jesus the Messiah, bringing in the kingdom of heaven, or the reign of God. Remember the Lamb that was slain before the foundation of the world. Remember that it is God who brings people out of the kingdom of darkness and slavery to sin and into the kingdom of his beloved Son. The one who rescues us from Egypt is faithful to bring us home to the Promised Land, to dwell eternally with him.

Published in: on October 14, 2009 at 10:05 am  Leave a Comment  
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