The Baptism of the Holy Spirit– from another Angle

Sometimes your angle of incidence, the position from which you view things, makes all the difference in the world (see the picture above). Take for instance the popular phrase ‘the baptism of the Holy Spirit’. Now as a noun phrase, it does not occur at all, in the New Testament. It is a later label used to refer to some things which are mentioned or discussed in the New Testament, but the question is whether the label actually fits the package, and whether the assumption of what is said in the label actually suits what is being described in the New Testament.

First of all, the closest we actually come in the Greek New Testament to this sort of language is in 1 Corinthians 12 where Paul says ‘by one Spirit we have all been baptized into the one body, and from that same Spirit we all drink’. Part of the issue here with the Greek is how to interpret the preposition ‘en’ which occurs twice in 1 Cor. 12.13– I suppose you could render the Greek more literally as ‘in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body….and all given to drink in the Spirit’, but in fact the first part of this verse is about agency (hence by one and the same Spirit) and the latter has to do with the Spirit being the source or resource of ongoing spiritual nourishment in the life of the believer. Several points about this crucial verse: 1) Paul is NOT describing something that happens for just some Christians (the uber-Christians), and furthermore 2) Paul is NOT describing some experience that happens subsequent to conversion that somehow boosts you up to a higher spiritual plain, gives you new spiritual gifts, and so on. No…. notice the emphasis on the word ‘ALL’ twice in this verse (it is something all Christians experience), and notice the tense of the first verse (‘were baptized’). Further notice that the point at which this happens is when one is spiritually joined to the body of Christ by the Holy Spirit. Not by water baptism (which is a separate matter Paul addresses in 1 Cor.1 where he even says— ‘I thank God I didn’t water baptize more of you’ (considering what a mess you’ve made of that matter). Paul is referring to the action of God the Spirit who joins people to Christ’s body. Nothing here said about either one of the sacraments. And if we look for a moment at Acts we will discover a variety of patterns emerge when it comes to water baptism vs. the reception of the Spirit— water then Spirit (Acts 8– Samaritans), Spirit then water (Acts 10 Cornelius). Water and Spirit closely together (the latter half of Acts 8– the eunuch), and so on. For Luke, as for Paul, the having of the Holy Spirit in a person’s life is the sine qua non of Christian existence— without it, you are not a Christian. And Paul says in 1 Cor. 12.13 that the point at which one receives the Spirit is at conversion, at the point when one is baptized into the body of Christ— not later. So already we have a problem. If you use the phrase ‘the baptism of/by the Spirit’ to refer to some subsequent to conversion experience—-you are misusing the phrase. There is also a major theological issue involved. This is not just a matter of semantics.

The issue is— the Holy Spirit is a person, not a power, not a force, not a liquid, a person. And as a person the Spirit enters a person’s life much like a baby entering a mother’s womb. Either the Spirit is in your life…. or not. You can no more have a little bit of the Spirit in your life than you can be a little bit pregnant (See my book THE SHADOW OF THE ALMIGHTY on the personhood of the Spirit). You do not get the Holy Spirit on the installment plan—- some now at conversion, and more later. It is of course true that the Spirit can get hold of more of you as time goes on. It’s called progressive sanctification. But that is a different matter. It is also true that the Spirit can give you further experiences or gifts or more fruit subsequent to conversion. That also is a different matter than what is generally meant by the phrase ‘the baptism of the H.S.’ when people ask you today ‘have you been baptized in the Holy Spirit’.

Now let me be clear. I am fine with dramatic post-conversion spiritual experiences. No problem there when they are genuine and from God the Spirit. There is however a fair bit of counterfeiting when it comes to these sort of dramatic and often extremely emotional experiences. It becomes difficult to distinguish between a merely emotive response to something, and the actual work of the Holy Spirit in doing something new in a life.

What I do have a problem with is using the phrase ‘the baptism of the H.S.’ to describe post-conversion spiritual experiences of whatever sort, and I object even more strongly to the notion that there is some one sort of post-conversion experience everyone must have to be: 1) a Spirit filled Christian (remember, the language of filling is metaphorical when applied to a person like the Spirit, and in the Bible in any case often just means ‘inspired by the Spirit’ or ‘empowered by the Spirit’ not— ‘I just got a larger dose of the Spirit’); or to be 2) a genuine Christian, or 3) to be a mature Christian, and so on.

It is simply not the case that any one sort of post-conversion experience, or any one particular spiritual gift (other than the Spirit himself) is required to be a genuine or mature or true Christian. In fact Paul quite specifically makes clear at the end of 1 Corinthians 12.29-31 that not all genuine Christians speak in tongues, nor should they all expect to do so— the Spirit parcels out different gifts to different persons, and speaking in tongues is just one of these gifts, not always ‘the initial evidence’ one has the Spirit, nor even a necessary gift to be a mature sanctified believer. It’s a good gift, but not a sine qua non.

So back to our starting point. Why does all this matter? It matters because our Christian experiences are often profound and more complex than mere human words can describe. And if we use limiting words, or even the wrong words to describe our experience, we stand in danger of badly misunderstanding: 1) the meaning and purpose of the experience; 2) whether or not the particular experience we’ve had is essential or just beneficial to a Christian; and 3) whether or not we are properly representing the person who is the third person of the Trinity. Enough said.

  • Ivan Kaligis

    Dr Ben.
    How about verse in Act 1:5 “……baptized with the Holly Spirit ” (NIV) it is refer to the experience in Act 2. Can I conclude this as “the baptism of the Holly Spirit”?.
    Ivan-Jakarta

  • Ed Beedle

    Dr. Ben, you state this so well. I wish I had been able to say this as well when I had a conversation with a parishioner just a few weeks ago. I shared the same information/feelings just not as well as you have just done. Thanks.

  • BenW3

    Acts 1.5 is referring to the becoming Christian of the earliest disciples. Without the Holy Spirit they were not yet Christians. It has nothing to do with an experience subsequent to conversion. BW3

  • Chaprich

    Ben, I couldn’t agree with you more…and I’m from the Reformed side of the coin.

  • Brian Fulthorp

    Dr Witherington, have you seen or read Roger Stronstad’s The Charismatic Theology of St Luke? the phrase baptism of or with the Holy Spirit is derived from the account of John the Baptist in Luke “he will baptize you with the Holy Sprit and with fire” and Peter’s Acts 2 “this is that” sermon is not just in reference to Joel but also the statements made by John. Surely the largest corpus in the NT, Luke-Acts should be taken into consideration in talking about this?

  • BenW3

    Brian those passages do not have to do with some subsequent to conversion spiritual experience. In no case do they have to do with that subject for which the phrase today ‘the baptism of the Holy Spirit’ is used. Both in Luke and in Acts the reference is to the point in time when:1) the church actually began at Pentecost, because 2) the church could not be Christian, much less fulfill its mandate of the Great Commission before the Spirit fell on them. So let’s be clear. Luke is not talking about some spiritual gifting or experience that happens subsequent to conversion. He is talking about exactly the same thing as Paul is in 1 Cor. 12 when he says ‘by one Spirit we have all been baptized into the one body….’. As a further footnote the Greek of Acts 2 absolutely does not favor the notion that the gift of glossolalia is referred to there. No indeed… it is a miraculous speaking in known human foreign languages that is spoken of— the Greek is clear ‘we heard them SPEAKING IN OUR NATIVE LANGUAGES’.

    BW3

  • Lewis

    Hi Ben,

    I appreciate the article. How do we talk about being “filled with the Holy Spirit”? Is this interchangeable with the baptism of, with or in the Spirit? It seems like it could be if one accepted your statement that having the Spirit and being baptized in the Spirit are one and the same and being filled. What would being “filled with the Spirit mean” to you. I’m not being contentious, I really struggle with the wide variety of experience of God that I see pastorally and even in Acts where the order of Spirit reception in terms of water baptism, proclamation etc are in just about every order and even time frames that differ.

  • Marco

    Hi Dr. Witherington,

    According to John 20:22 the disciples received the Holy Spirit before Pentecost.
    So were they no Christians at that point ?!

    Kind Regards from Germany
    Marco

  • BenW3

    Actually no, they didn’t. All it says is that Jesus performed a prophetic sign act, like the one he did in the Temple. He breathed on them foreshadowing that they would receive the Spirit. If you look at the rest of the narrative in John 20 what do you find? You find the disciples still locked behind close doors for fear of the authorities and you do not find them out proclaiming anything! Indeed, John 21 says they went fishing!! So no, they did not receive the Holy Spirit on the occasion recorded in John 20. BW3

  • Gabe

    Do you think Paul and the other apostles expected converts to have an experience of receiving the Holy Spirit (or whatever phrase you feel comfortable with) that they could identify as part of their conversion process? If not, how do we make sense of Acts 19:2? Is it legitimate to pose the question asked in Acts 19:2 to people today? Is it not possible to have genuine converts that are in exactly the same state as the converts in Samaria before Peter and John arrived? Do we have to consider all of the examples in Acts of new converts receiving the laying of hands specifically for Spirit-reception irrelevant in our context? Did Peter, John, and Paul not consider the laying of hands for Spirit-reception a very important part of conversion? Further, how did Peter and John know that the believers in Samaria had not yet received the Holy Spirit? Is it possible for someone to know that today? Is it just a given for believers today because 1 Corinthians has been written?

  • BenW3

    Hi Gabe: First of all Acts 192ff. is about disciples of John the Baptizer, not Christian disciples. This is why they go through the whole deal of baptism and receiving of the Spirit. They had had neither Christian baptism nor Christian experience. Acts 8 is a different matter. In that world there was huge ethnical prejudice against Samaritans by Jews, and vice versa. The text does not say what exactly the persons baptized believed, but obviously it was enough for Philip to act. In the case of the coming of Peter and John the issue is that the Jerusalem church will not believe that even Samaritans have been converted unless confirmed by the leaders of the Jerusalem Church. It is understandable then that the conversion process was a bit more elongated in their case. But for Luke they are absolutely not full fledged Christians until they receive the Spirit. Before that they were just on the way to being full-fledged disciples. And this brings up an important point— conversion is not just an event. It may begin with an event but it leads to a process. Even in the case of Paul, the reception of the Spirit did not come until after Paul was in Damascus. Only then was he baptized and recognized as a Christian. We would do better to talk about a conversion process and not just an instantaneous event, as most persons are not converted in the blink of an eye. BW3

  • hilbert ong

    I disagree what Ben opinion on John 20:22-23. John described Jesus breathed upon the disciple is similar to the action of God breathed into the Adam’s nostrils, and Adam became a living being. The action and command of Jesus in John 20:22-23 is not a symbol or refer to Acts 2:4 experience. We have the whole Bible, so we naturally thought John refer to Acts 2. But the people who read Gospel of John may not have book of Acts in their hand.
    Instead, this action of Jesus actually fulfill his command in John 3:5,6,8 that a man should be born of the spirit; and fulfill of his promise of the Spirit in John 4:14,23-24; 7:37-39.
    Further more, the concept of the Holy Spirit in John has nothing to do with power, it is about the indwelling of the Spirit that gives life.

  • hilbert ong

    1) The church did not begin in Pentecost, but it begin with Jesus, especially with Jesus resurrection and ascension to heaven, seated at the right hand of the Father (ref. Luke 24:44-49; Eph. 1:20-23). Jesus did all these for his church, and He became head of all things for his church. All these things fulfilled even before the day of Pentecost.

    2) The baptism of the Holy Spirit is actually derive from the description of Luke: “…he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire”(Lk. 3:16); “…for you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.” (Acts 1:5). To understand the subject “the baptism of the Holy Spirit” from 1 Cor. 12:13 is not adequate and may have to read into the text our own understanding of the subject. We could actually understand what John the baptise declared and what Jesus promised about this baptism of the Holy Spirit through Luke’s writing and description, then from Luke’s explanation of the subject to understand what Paul may said in 1 Cor. 12:13.

    3) Luke emhazised the Filling (pimplemi) of the Holy Spirit in Gospel of Luke and Acts. But in Luke’s Gospel, he mention of the Holy Spirit only until Lk.12:12. He could have mention about the Holy Spirit agian in Luke 24:49, but instead he chosed to use “power”, and in Acts 1:8, Jesus said when the Spirit come upon the disciples, they will receive “power”, and this experience is the baptism of the Holy Spirit. It is now about conversion, but about empowered with spiritual strength to be witness for Christ.

    4) Acts 8:12-17, clearly indicate the Samaritan believed in the Gospel and the name of Jesus, and received the water baptism. We have no strong evidence to proof that they were still not converted Christian.

    5) The filling (pimplemi) of the Holy Spirit is the “present” (gift, Gk. dorea) of the Father promised to his children (Lk. 11:13; 24:49; Acts 2:38-39; 8:20; 10:45; 11:17). Therefore, the early church leaders emphasized about this “present”, also to indicate that the Father accepted the gentiles to be his holy people.

    6) Therefore, the baptism of the Holy Spirit is the present of the Father to his children that they may recieve power to be witness for Christ. So, it is the experience subsequent to conversion, eventhough it may happen at the same time of one’s conversion (Like Cornelius and the household, and my personal experience), but it is not as the conversion experience.

  • hilbert ong

    1) The church did not begin in Pentecost, but it begin with Jesus, especially with Jesus resurrection and ascension to heaven, seated at the right hand of the Father (ref. Luke 24:44-49; Eph. 1:20-23). Jesus did all these for his church, and He became head of all things for his church. All these things fulfilled even before the day of Pentecost.

    2) The baptism of the Holy Spirit is actually derive from the description of Luke: “…he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire”(Lk. 3:16); “…for you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.” (Acts 1:5). To understand the subject “the baptism of the Holy Spirit” from 1 Cor. 12:13 is not adequate and may have to read into the text our own understanding of the subject. We could actually understand what John the baptise declared and what Jesus promised about this baptism of the Holy Spirit through Luke’s writing and description, then from Luke’s explanation of the subject to understand what Paul may said in 1 Cor. 12:13.

    3) Luke emhazised the Filling (pimplemi) of the Holy Spirit in Gospel of Luke and Acts. But in Luke’s Gospel, he mention of the Holy Spirit only until Lk.12:12. He could have mention about the Holy Spirit agian in Luke 24:49, but instead he chosed to use “power”, and in Acts 1:8, Jesus said when the Spirit come upon the disciples, they will receive “power”, and this experience is the baptism of the Holy Spirit. It is now about conversion, but about empowered with spiritual strength to be witness for Christ.

    4) Acts 8:12-17, clearly indicate the Samaritan believed in the Gospel and the name of Jesus, and received the water baptism. We have no strong evidence to proof that they were still not converted Christian.

    5) The filling (pimplemi) of the Holy Spirit is the “present” (gift, Gk. dorea) of the Father promised to his children (Lk. 11:13; 24:49; Acts 2:38-39; 8:20; 10:45; 11:17). Therefore, the early church leaders emphasized about this “present”, also to indicate that the Father accepted the gentiles to be his holy people.

    6) Therefore, the baptism of the Holy Spirit is the present of the Father to his children that they may recieve power to be witness for Christ. So, it is the experience subsequent to conversion, eventhough it may happen at the same time of one’s conversion (Like Cornelius and the household, and my personal experience), but it is not as the conversion experience.

  • Linda

    You cite, as evidence that the disciples did not receive the Holy Spirit when Jesus breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”, their failure to proclaim the gospel and their return to normal life (fishing). If failure to be effective witnesses and to follow wholeheartedly after the way of Christ is evidence of not having the Holy Spirit, I think you have just made the opposite point you wish to make.

    Most of the American church is failing to be effective witnesses and to follow the way of Christ. They, therefore, according to your criteria, lack the Holy Spirit. In your thinking you must have to say they are not Christians at all.

  • BenW3

    Sorry Hilbert but this won’t do. John 14-17 is perfectly clear that Jesus must ‘go away’ before the Spirit will be sent. Jesus was definitely still around in the upper room when he breathed on the disciples and in Galilee after that. And furthermore, the Gospel of Luke is equally clear as is Acts. The disciples were to await the falling of the Spirit on them, which did not happen at all before Pentecost…. which is why they were still waiting in the upper room in Acts 2. So no, there is no evidence of two dispensings of the Spirit in either John or Luke-Acts. To the contrary, Jesus himself says that he has to return to the Father before the Spirit can be sent. Jesus dying does not constitute returning to the Father. He was in the land of the dead during that time. BW3

  • wasco55

    Just wondering where in the Bible it says that the Holy Spirit is a “person”?

  • BenW3

    Its clear enough from the Greek of John 14-17— A Parkletos has to be a person. Indeed, Jesus calls the Holy Spirit another Parakletos because he is the first one. It is equally clear from Paul’s letters where the Spirit is credited with: 1) intentions, 2) actions, 3) feelings etc. See my book The Shadow of the Almighty, the chapter on the Holy Spirit. BW3

  • wasco55

    Thanks for the clarification. I just never thought of the Holy Spirit as being a person

  • BrendtWayneWaters

    Isn’t it also true that there are a few Biblical pronoun references to the Holy Spirit? You don’t have to know *any* Greek to know that “he” doesn’t refer to a thing. :)

  • BrendtWayneWaters

    While I know the problem to which you refer, I think that you are skating very close to a false dichotomy. One can believe that the baptism of the Holy Spirit is a post-conversion experience WITHOUT thinking that this makes someone an “uber-Christian” (either compared to others or even to his/her earlier self) or genuine, mature, etc.

  • caseyt2003

    Dr. W,

    What do you make of the imperative in Ephesians 5:8 to “be filled with the Spirit” instead of with wine?

    Casey


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