hands outstretched to receive

What is the baptism of the Holy Spirit? How does Holy Spirit baptism apply to us today? Does Holy Spirit baptism still matter today? What is different between Holy Spirit baptism and water baptism?

Welcome to part 6 of my series on biblical baptism.

In this post, we'll tackle these questions.

But first, the articles in this series build on one another. If you need to catch up, here are links to the previous posts.

  1. Introduction
  2. Is Scripture Descriptive or Prescriptive?
  3. Defining 'baptism'
  4. The Baptism of John
  5. Why Was Jesus Baptized?

...

In the previous two posts in this series on baptism, we looked at the baptism of John and why Jesus was baptized by John.

Now let's examine what the Bible says about the baptism of the Holy Spirit.

(Remember: the definition of baptism is "immersion." We're studying about the immersion of the Holy Spirit. Keeping this in mind is important for accurate understanding.)

The New Testament introduces us to the baptism of the Holy Spirit as John the Baptist was speaking to the Jews about the coming Messiah:

15 The people were waiting expectantly and were all wondering in their hearts if John might possibly be the Messiah. 16 John answered them all, “I baptize you with water. But one who is more powerful than I will come, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17 His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” 18 And with many other words John exhorted the people and proclaimed the good news to them.
(Luke 3:15-18 NIV)

In its context, John's statement about the coming baptism of the Holy Spirit and fire is a distinction between the Jews who would:

  • Be saved (the wheat Jesus would gather into the barn), and ...
  • Be condemned (the chaff burned with unquenchable fire).

Note the urgency in John's message: the Messiah was already carrying the winnowing fork.

Matthew's account includes these statements of John in the context of his verbal tongue lashing of the Pharisees and Sadducees who had come out to see John's baptizing:

7 But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he was baptizing, he said to them: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? 8 Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. 9 And do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. 10 The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.

11 “I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12 His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”
(Matt. 3:7-12 NIV)

Again we see the urgency in John's message, as he stated that the ax was already at the root of the trees. John was emphasizing things that were imminent.

Mark's account gives us a few additional details about John's message and baptism:

4 And so John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5 The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River. 6 John wore clothing made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7 And this was his message: “After me comes the one more powerful than I, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. 8 I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
(Mark 1:4-8 NIV)

  • Lots of Jews were coming to see John in the wilderness.
  • John baptized these Jews upon confession of their sins.

Besides the above accounts of John the Baptist's baptism, the baptism of the Holy Spirit is only mentioned in 3 New Testament passages, discussing two separate events:

  1. the miraculous descent of the Holy Spirit upon the apostles on Pentecost after Jesus' ascension, and ...
  2. the miraculous descent of the Holy Spirit upon Cornelius and his family (the first Gentile Christians).

Interestingly (and thankfully), we are told on both occasions that these happenings were a fulfillment of Jesus' promise to baptize them with the Holy Spirit.

Pentecost: the apostles are baptized by the Holy Spirit

Regarding the first occasion, when the Holy Spirit was poured out upon the apostles (and perhaps the entire group of assembled disciples), Luke wrote:

4 On one occasion, while [Jesus] was eating with [the apostles], he gave them this command: “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. 5 For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.”
(Acts 1:4-5 NIV)

About ten days passed, and then...

1 When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. 2 Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. 3 They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. 4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.
(Acts 2:1-4 NIV)

These events were a fulfillment of the promise Jesus spoke to them before His death, saying:

26When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father—the Spirit of truth who goes out from the Father—he will testify about me. 27 And you also must testify, for you have been with me from the beginning. ... 

7 But very truly I tell you, it is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. 8 When he comes, he will prove the world to be in the wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment: 9 about sin, because people do not believe in me; 10 about righteousness, because I am going to the Father, where you can see me no longer; 11 and about judgment, because the prince of this world now stands condemned.

12 “I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear. 13 But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come. 14 He will glorify me because it is from me that he will receive what he will make known to you. 15 All that belongs to the Father is mine. That is why I said the Spirit will receive from me what he will make known to you.”
(John 15:26-27; 16:7-15 NIV)

Peter stood and addressed the crowd—who were quite surprised by the miracle they'd just witnessed:

“Fellow Jews and all of you who live in Jerusalem, let me explain this to you; listen carefully to what I say. 15 These people are not drunk, as you suppose. It’s only nine in the morning! 16 No, this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel:

17 “‘In the last days, God says,
I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
your young men will see visions,
your old men will dream dreams.
18 Even on my servants, both men and women,
I will pour out my Spirit in those days,
and they will prophesy.
19 I will show wonders in the heavens above
and signs on the earth below,
blood and fire and billows of smoke.
20 The sun will be turned to darkness
and the moon to blood
before the coming of the great and glorious day of the Lord.
21 And everyone who calls
on the name of the Lord will be saved.’

22 “Fellow Israelites, listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know. 23 This man was handed over to you by God’s deliberate plan and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross. 24 But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him.
(Acts 2:14b-24 NIV)

Here, we learn that Holy Spirit baptism was the fulfillment of a prophecy by Joel. (See my detailed discussion of Joel's prophecy here.)

Let's look at a slightly broader context of Joel's prophecy than what Peter quoted here:

1 “ After this it shall come to pass that I will pour out My Spirit upon all flesh; your sons and daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. 2 And in those days I shall pour out My Spirit on My servants and on My handmaids. 3 And I shall give wonders in the heavens and upon the earth, blood and fire and vapor of smoke. 4 The sun shall be turned into darkness and the moon into blood before the great and glorious day of the Lord comes to pass. 5 And it shall be that whoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved, for in Mount Zion and in Jerusalem shall be deliverance, as the Lord Himself said, and there shall be proclamation of the good news to those whom the Lord Himself called.
(Joel 3:1-5 OSB - note: this Septuagint [LXX] text corresponds to Joel 2:28-32 in the Masoretic Text [MT] used by most English translations)

What had just occurred on Pentecost was exactly what John the Baptist had prophesied regarding. In other words, Joel, John and Peter were speaking of the same events.

What this means, according to Joel's prophecy, was that the apostles' baptism of the Holy Spirit was a sign from GOD that the "great and glorious day of the Lord" was near.

Cornelius' family (the first Gentile Christians) baptized with the Holy Spirit

In Acts 10, we read the fulfillment of GOD's long-foretold acceptance of people from all nations, beginning with Cornelius and his family.

Cornelius was a just, well-respected Roman centurion who prayed, gave generously and feared GOD.

At the proper time, GOD sent an angel to Cornelius instructing him to send men to Joppa where Peter was staying.

Cornelius obeyed and, while these men were en route, Peter is given a special vision where he is repeatedly shown not to call anything unclean which GOD has cleansed.

As Peter contemplated the vision's meaning, Cornelius' men arrived and the Holy Spirit told Peter to go with them, which he did.

When Peter and company arrived at Cornelius' home in Caesarea, he saw that Cornelius had gathered his entire family and close friends to hear what Peter would say. Peter explained that GOD had shown him he shouldn't consider any man impure or unclean and, after inquiring why Cornelius had sent for him, Cornelius explained his encounter with the angel four days earlier.

Peter proceeded to share the gospel of Jesus—regarding much of which Cornelius had some awareness.

It is here that Luke records:

44 While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message. 45 The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on Gentiles. 46 For they heard them speaking in tongues and praising God.

Then Peter said, 47 “Surely no one can stand in the way of their being baptized with water. They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have.” 48 So he ordered that they be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they asked Peter to stay with them for a few days.
(Acts 10:44-48 NIV)

Afterward, when Peter went back to Jerusalem, fellow Jewish Christians were criticizing Peter for associating with Gentiles.

Peter explained what happened:

15 “As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit came on them as he had come on us at the beginning. 16 Then I remembered what the Lord had said: ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ 17 So if God gave them the same gift he gave us who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to think that I could stand in God’s way?”

18 When they heard this, they had no further objections and praised God, saying, “So then, even to Gentiles God has granted repentance that leads to life.”
(Acts 11:15-18 NIV)

This is the full extent of the New Testament's references to the baptism of the Holy Spirit.

Conclusion

From our study of what Scripture says regarding the baptism of the Holy Spirit, we can definitively conclude the following:

  1. The baptism of the Holy Spirit was prophesied by John the Baptist in conjunction with a coming baptism of fire upon the wicked unrepentant Jews.

  2. The baptism of the Holy Spirit was promised, provided and initiated by Jesus.

    This is very important to our understanding of biblical baptism. Nowhere in Scripture do we see a would-be disciple initiating their own baptism of the Holy Spirit. In other words, being baptized with the Holy Spirit is not something we see a person choosing to do.

    Rather, it was something chosen by GOD on a couple of occasions for very specific purposes—to kick start the spread of the gospel on Pentecost, and to show His approval and acceptance of Gentiles in the case of Cornelius.

  3. The Bible does not specifically instruct believers to be baptized with the Holy Spirit. It does, by contrast, frequently show and instruct baptism by water.

  4. As a result of the previous conclusions, when the Scriptures use the word "baptize" (in its various forms) without explicitly stating the type of immersion involved, we should not assume Holy Spirit baptism is intended.

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Read Part 7 here:

Continue to part 7 entitled "The Baptism Jesus Commanded."

Tim Harris
Author: Tim Harris

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