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.


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  
Tags: , , , , ,


In our church plant meetings, we are often praying for boldness, and our pastor consistently exhorts us to continue to pray for boldness, motivated by the description in Acts 4 of the believers praying for boldness and then immediately after being recognized by others because of their boldness. But I wonder how well we really understand just what boldness is. What exactly were the apostles praying for? And what are we praying for?

In thinking about this, I decided to check out what the book of Acts has to say about boldness, and I was actually surprised to find how frequently the word is actually used throughout the book. The Greek noun parresia is used 5 times and the verb parresiazomai 7 times. What struck me, at first, was that the word is already used of the apostles before Acts 4:29, where the believers pray together for boldness. It’s used again of Peter and John in Acts 4:13, as the Jewish council recognizes their boldness because “they had been with Jesus.” In Acts 4:29, the believers are all together praying to continue speaking with boldness, and we see in Acts 4:31 that God grants their request. Through the rest of the book, Paul’s boldness is focused on. He was not among the believers in Acts 4, but his conversion is narrated in Acts 9. And, soon after his conversion, Barnabas testifies about him that he has been preaching boldly in the name of Jesus (Acts 9:27). And Paul continued to preach boldly as Acts 9:28 records. Paul and Barnabas together are characterized as speaking boldly in Acts 13:46 and 14:3. In Acts 18:26, we meet Apollos who spoke boldly in the synagogue in Ephesus, but, apparently, even in his boldness, he did not have the message quite right, for Priscilla and Aquila had to take him aside and explain to him “the way of God more accurately.” Apollos was then sent on his way over to Achaia, which is the region where Corinth is. Paul follows shortly behind and enters Ephesus apparently soon after Apollos has departed, and he spoke boldly in the synagogue of Ephesus for three months (Acts 19:8). In Paul’s defense before Festus, he is characterized as speaking boldly to try to persuade Festus of the significance of the events of Jesus’ death and resurrection which Festus already knew about (Acts 26:26). Finally, it is very interesting to note that the final verse of the book highlights Paul’s boldness in preaching, as he is settled into house arrest in Rome, having freedom to receive guests and preach the gospel unhindered (Acts 28:31). So, clearly, boldness could be identified as a unifying thread that runs throughout the book of Acts.

Now, typically, I think, when we think of “boldness,” we think simply of confidence to stand up for the truth in the face of opposition. But, while this is truly one aspect of parresia, boldness, as it is used in the Bible, I think we are actually missing the primary meaning of the word, the meaning which supports or grounds or undergirds our ability to stand up to opposition and to proclaim the truth unashamedly. This aspect is revealed more clearly in the first occurrence of the word parresia in the book of Acts, found in Peter’s first sermon at Pentecost in Acts 2:29. Peter says, “Brothers, I may say to you with confidence (parresia) about the patriarch David that he both died and was buried, and his tomb is with us to this day.” Our English translations, even the most consistently literal translations such as ESV or NASB, translate parresia here as “confidence” or “confidently” rather than with “boldness,” as in every other occurrence of the word in the book of Acts. It would be more helpful, perhaps, if the translators would be a little more consistent, but I can see why they feel that “confidence” is more appropriate in this context, and, in fact, it helps us see more clearly the fullness of the meaning of parresia. Peter claims to have confidence/boldness about the historical fact that David has died and is in his grave. Of course, as he develops this, he is making a contrast with the Son of David, Jesus, who has not remained in his grave! But, Peter is claiming confidence/boldness here because he is absolutely certain of the truthfulness of what he is preaching. This, I think, is the aspect of boldness that we are not thinking enough about. In order for us to have the kind of boldness that enables us to speak clearly and unashamedly in the face of skeptics or unbelievers, we must have a settled certainty about the events that comprise the gospel message.

Therefore, not only ought we be praying for boldness, but we must also be working to increase our confidence, our certainty about the events narrated for us in the Bible and about the significance of those events as fleshed out by the apostles in the rest of the New Testament, including and especially how those events fulfilled every hope and promise which are set forth in the Old Testament. Simply put, we must learn how to understand and proclaim “the whole counsel of God” as Paul indicates he did to the elders of Ephesus (Acts 20:27). In other words, we must be working diligently to increase our knowledge of the Scriptures. Peter’s certainty concerning the truth about Jesus’ resurrection in contrast with the great David’s death and how those two facts relate in the scope of redemptive history is why he was able to preach with boldness. So, we should not necessarily expect that God will grant our request for increased boldness if we are not actively pursuing an increased knowledge of God through studying his revelation to us. This is not to say that God’s granting our requests is dependent on our behavior or our preparedness; rather, it is to acknowledge that God often (if not always) uses means to answer our prayers. In fact, the fact that God uses means in this world to accomplish his purposes is one of the primary reasons we pray in the first place. Scripture bears out time and time again (even and especially in the book of Acts) that God uses the prayers of his people as the means by which he brings things to pass in our world. Thus, we ought to expect that God would give us boldness through or in response to our prayers for boldness. However, by virtue of the very nature of boldness, which, I think, includes and is founded on a growing confidence in the truth of the gospel in accordance with our increased understanding of the gospel, we must realize that God will probably grant our prayer through the means of increased study and discussion and thinking about the Scriptures.

This is probably one of the reasons that Paul prayed so frequently, as recorded in his letters even, that believers would grow in their knowledge of God (read: in their theology!).

Peter’s Denial in Light of His Knowledge

On occasion, someone has warned me about having too much knowledge. Usually, the one who warns me is a well-meaning person who, in my mind, holds to some kind of incorrect/unbiblical dichotomy between the heart and the mind, concerned that my rigorous studies cannot lead me to a genuine experience with Jesus–or, worse, will lead me to reject the faith altogether (a la Bart Ehrman). Thus, for a person who thinks this way, emotional response or experience is often (unintentionally, I think) elevated above critical thinking and evaluation.

Today, I see the warning in a different light…from the Scriptures.

Consider Peter, the great apostle. At one point in his ministry, Jesus asked the disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” (Mark 8:29) Probably representing the Twelve, Peter steps up to the microphone (I wonder if he was trembling as he spoke, or if he spoke with all the boldness he could muster?), “You are the Christ.” Reading through the Gospel of Mark, other than the demons, this is the first time anyone has correctly identified Jesus (except for the Father when Jesus was baptized). Matthew tells us more about this conversation; Jesus pronounces a blessing on Peter on the spot: “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven” (Matt 16:17). So, Peter is portrayed as one who has been given special revelation about Jesus’ identity that no one else has been given! Remarkable!

Peter, who had this great revelation from the Father about Jesus’ true identity, of whom it could probably be said, “He has more knowledge than everybody else,” assures Jesus, “Even though they all fall away, I will not….If I must die with you, I will not deny you” (Mark 14:29, 31). Mark indicates that everyone else said the same thing, but he wants to highlight Peter in the story. Of course, we learn very soon that Peter does, in fact, deny Jesus. Three times within a very short span of time, Peter denies his Lord. (What Peter was doing publicly the rest of the disciples were doing secretly.)

Indeed, the last time before the rooster finished crowing, Peter even swore emphatically, “I do not know this man of whom you speak” (Mark 14:71). So, the one who had the great revelation, the one who had the most knowledge, perhaps the one who knew Jesus best, suddenly claims not to know this man.

He who had the most revelation about Jesus’ identity sinned the most flagrantly.

So, is more knowledge a bad thing?

The apostle Paul was also a man of great knowledge, even about Jesus, though he probably never met him before the resurrection. In fact, he even prayed for believers to increase their knowledge (e.g., Col 1:9-10; Eph 1:16-21; Phil 1:9-11). What happened to Peter? Luke gives us a behind-the-scenes look at what happened to Peter, as Jesus tells him, “Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat” (Lk 22:31). Now, it appears that Satan actually demanded to have each of the disciples, since the “you” in Greek here is plural. But, Jesus singles out Peter and encourages him personally by giving him the responsibility of strengthening the rest of the disciples once he has repented. These eleven men knew Jesus better than anyone else on earth. Satan demanded to have them, to sift them like wheat. In other words, Satan desired to tear them to shreds, to break them into pieces, to devastate them utterly.

So, perhaps it’s not an inherent hindrance to one’s spiritual growth to eagerly seek more knowledge, particularly knowledge about God (i.e., theology). However, it may incur the wrath of the devil himself.

Better the wrath of the devil than the wrath of God!

Likewise, notice that Jesus assures Peter that he has prayed for him, that, in the midst of Satan’s sifting project, Peter’s faith would not fail. Jesus prayed for Peter! Likewise, we know that Jesus now sits at the right hand of the Father, interceding for us (Rom 8:34, Heb 7:25). As if that weren’t enough, the Holy Spirit also intercedes for us, praying for the things we don’t even know to pray for (Rom 8:26-27)!

So, I suppose the end of the matter is this: those who pursue greater knowledge of God can expect Satan to desire to sift them like wheat; those who pursue greater knowledge of God can also expect that the King of the Universe, who graciously grants us any true knowledge that we acquire, and who has already defeated Satan in the death and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah (Rom 8:31-39, 1 Cor 15:54-57, 1 Jn 3:8, Rev 12:10-11), will protect them (1 Jn 5:18). “He who is in you is greater than he who is in the world” (1 Jn 4:4).

So may all of us be more diligent about pursuing the knowledge of God in Jesus Christ! And let us press on with complete confidence in our Savior’s willingness and ability to protect us from the evil one, to sanctify us wholly, and to keep us to the end of our sojourn in this world.

Published in: on August 29, 2009 at 5:30 pm  Leave a Comment  
Tags: , , , ,