Is “the baptism in the Holy Spirit” something that happens to the believer upon conversion, or is it a subsequent experience in the life of a Christian? In examining the teachings of Martyn Lloyd-Jones and John R. W. Stott, two British evangelical heavyweights of 20th century preaching, I have since found Stott’s arguments, in favor of identifying Spirit baptism to be synonymous with becoming a believer, to be more persuasive.1
Here is what tipped me in favor of John R. W. Stott’s view, and it is something that Martyn Lloyd-Jones did not address, as I read them both in college: What is the importance of biblical prophecy regarding the empowering work of the Holy Spirit? Discerning the role of biblical prophecy helps to cut through the confusion surrounding “the baptism in the Holy Spirit.”
The Baptism in the Holy Spirit in the Book of Acts as a Fulfillment of Old Testament Prophecy
A foundational principle for interpreting the Bible is to read each passage in its historical context. Some feel uneasy about studying historical context, as contextual matters are not always explicit in the text of Scripture being studied. But a failure to properly understand historical context can often lead to misunderstandings when faced with troubling passages or teachings in the Bible, such as the nature and timing of “the baptism in the Holy Spirit,” for the believer.
When we read the Book of Acts, we must remember that a fundamental part of the drama comes from the expansion of the ministry of the church, starting with a focus on the Jews-only, to eventually include the proclamation of the Gospel to the Gentiles as well. Jesus teaches his disciples, soon after the Resurrection, prior to Pentecost:
- “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth“(Acts 1:8 ESV).
The ministry of the Holy Spirit, for Jesus, is about two things: (1) power for ministry, and (2) and the expansion of ministry from the Jews, to ultimately include the entire earth, including Gentiles. Focusing on the second part, in this blog post first, we must recall that while there were Jewish believers in the God of Abraham, in Old Testament Israel, very few experienced the powerful presence of the Holy Spirit.
In Numbers 11:16-30, when Moses was leading the people of Israel through wilderness, he was pretty overwhelmed with the job. God spoke to Moses, commanding him to delegate some of his responsibilities to a team of elders, to help shoulder the burden. But God promised to take some of the Spirit on Moses and place that Spirit upon those elders, to equip them (v. 17). As the story continues, Moses’ young apprentice, Joshua, noticed that two of the elders had the Spirit upon them, prophesying in the camp. Joshua asked Moses to intervene and stop this activity. But Moses’ response is profound:
- “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord‘s people were prophets, that the Lord would put his Spirit on them!“(Numbers 11:29 ESV).
It remained a hope of Israel’s prophets that the Spirit of God would fall upon all the people, with the Spirit being poured out on them (Ezekiel 36:22-27; 39:25-29 ESV). During the crisis of the Babylonian Exile, the prophet Ezekiel teaches that God will give the people new hearts, by putting his Spirit within them. This is a promise from God:
- “I will take you from the nations and gather you from all the countries and bring you into your own land. I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules“(Ezekiel 36:24-29 ESV).
Though the Spirit is not explicitly mentioned here by Jeremiah, the idea is the same:
- “Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the Lord. For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more“(Jeremiah 31:31-34 ESV).
Yet throughout the Old Testament, we never see a fulfillment of this prophetic expectation. The outpouring of the Spirit on the Jews only happened on rare occasions, and only on certain Jews. Something more needed to happen.2
The coming of the Messiah, particularly after the Resurrection, changed the whole ball game. When we get to the extraordinary events in Acts 2, regarding “the baptism in the Holy Spirit,” Peter sees this as fulfilling a similar prophecy made by the prophet Joel, from Joel 2:28-32:
- But this is what was uttered through the prophet Joel:
“And in the last days it shall be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh,
and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
and your old men shall dream dreams;
even on my male servants and female servants
in those days I will pour out my Spirit, and they shall prophesy.”(Acts 2:16-18 ESV).
It should be evident that the experience of “the baptism in the Holy Spirit,” on that day of Pentecost, was a type of fulfillment of the prophetic expectations, made by centuries of Old Testament prophets. This would have made sense to Peter’s Jewish audience, who were more familiar with the prophetic expectations of the Old Testament, than are many Christians today. No longer would the presence of the Holy Spirit be poured out on a limited set of particular persons, among the people of God. Instead, the Holy Spirit would dwell in the hearts of all of God’s people.3
Furthermore, baptism was the unique identifying marker, not just for Christians, in the first century. When pagans converted to Judaism, they also went through water baptism, as a ritual for purification. Neither John the Baptist, nor Jesus, invented water baptism. But what the New Testament did do was to associate water baptism with the inward “Spirit baptism” of the new covenant, for those believers in Christ Jesus. Therefore, the emphasis on the “baptism in the Holy Spirit” in the early church was to link it inseparably with conversion to Christ, not to set baptism and conversion apart from one another.
We see the same type of prophetic pattern being fulfilled in other places in Acts, including the Samaritans in Acts 8:14-17 and the disciples of John the Baptist in Acts 19:1-16. As the witness of the Gospel spreads, as prophesied by Jesus Himself in Acts 1:8 (see above), the promise of the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit is confirmed over and over again, beginning in Jerusalem (Acts 2), but going beyond to Samaria (Acts 8), and indeed, to the ends of the earth, including places like Ephesus (Acts 19). The Book of Acts demonstrates that God’s Spirit is for everyone who believes in and follows Jesus Christ. It is as though the fulfillment of the universal promise of the Holy Spirit gets hammered in (Acts 2:38-39), through repetition, by the writer of Acts, Luke, just to make sure we get the point!
It was God’s plan all along that the truth of reconciliation would be made known to the entire world, not just to the Jewish nation. As Paul teaches in Ephesians 2:11-22, the Holy Spirit is the one who unites Jew and Gentile together, in Christ:
- For through [Christ] we both [Jew and Gentile] have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens,but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God,“(Ephesian 2:18-19 ESV).
This ties back into John R. W. Stott’s argument, from the previous blog post, that the events associated with “the baptism in the Holy Spirit” in the Book of Acts, were “one-off,” special circumstances. The apparent relationship then, in Acts, between conversion and the subsequent “baptism in the Holy Spirit,” is not a prescriptive pattern to be followed by every Christian in every age. Rather, the “baptism in the Holy Spirit,” as recorded in the Book of Acts, is meant to be a fulfillment of biblical prophecy, reminding the Jews of God’s original purposes, for the redemption of all of humanity.
Before the coming of Christ, a Jewish believer in God could be a believer, but still not have the Holy Spirit dwelling in them. But in the era of the new covenant established by Jesus Christ, the story changes dramatically. Not only does the Christian believe and have faith, the Spirit of God comes to dwell in that person, in a way very different from what most Jews prior to Christ experienced in the Old Testament period.
Therefore, it makes sense that “the baptism in the Holy Spirit” requires special focused treatment in the New Testament, in order to show to the Jews, that they will receive the Holy Spirit, too, when they have faith in Jesus. Paul himself experienced “the baptism in the Holy Spirit,” following his conversion, to reinforce this same truth (Acts 9:1-18). Furthermore, the first Gentile convert to faith in Christ, Cornelius the Centurion, has the same type of experience, demonstrating that what would be true of Jewish Christians, would be true of Gentile Christians as well (Acts 10:44-48).
To emphasize “Spirit baptism” as subsequent to conversion misses the point in the Book of Acts. Conversion to Christ and “the baptism in the Holy Spirit” are distinguished in Acts, not to give a us cookie-cutter model for how we are to experience the Christian journey today. Rather, the distinction is made to highlight the fact that what was promised in the Old Testament, namely, the inward presence of the Spirit, is realized in every truly converted believer.
Defenders of the view that sees “the baptism in the Holy Spirit” as a subsequent experience beyond conversion, for all Christians at all times and places, may still disagree, not being persuaded by the argumentation here presented. But the unique events in the Book of Acts places “the baptism in the Holy Spirit” within the context of the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy, evidence that must be considered.
However, this is not all that “Spirit baptism” teaches us. The Spirit also empowers the believer for witness. We will explore this biblical truth in the next blog post.
1. Please note, that it is important to honor and respect what was behind Martyn-Lloyd Jones’ preaching on this matter. The sub-theme to Martyn Lloyd-Jones Joy Unspeakable is “Revival: The church’s greatest need.” I could not agree any more with the good Doctor, and this will be the subject of the following blog post.↩
2. John Stott, to his credit , does bring these points to bear on the subject (Baptism and Fullness, pp. 26ff). On the other hand, some commentators, from a classic dispensationalist perspective, make the observation that Jeremiah’s new covenant, to be established in the hearts of the people, is addressed specifically to the Jews, in Jeremiah’s day. It is a future hope given to the Jews only. These same commentators then conclude that the fulfillment of this new covenant is not related to the period of the church in the New Testament, a people made up of Jews and Gentiles. This conclusion forces this interpretation to say that the new covenant in the hearts of the Jews will only be fulfilled during the millennial reign of Christ, after his Second Coming. But as I hope to demonstrate in this blog post, this view contradicts the teaching of Peter in Acts 2. Peter sees that “the baptism in the Holy Spirit,” as evidenced in the events of that Pentecost, is the beginning of the fulfillment of the prophecy in the Book of Joel, that runs parallel to the prophecy of Jeremiah. This does not necessarily rule out a future promise to the Jews, beyond the age of the church. But to suggest that Jeremiah’s new covenant is only part of a Jewish-specific future, obfuscates the role of that this prophecy plays in the Book of Acts. In fairness, the more recent theology of progressive dispensationalism has softened dispensationalism in its rigidity, appearing to be more open to the view being expressed in this series of blog posts.↩
3. Scholars continue to debate this point, but the Pentecost of Acts 2 might be better regarded as the beginning of the fulfillment of Joel’s vision. The whole history of the church going forward demonstrates that the Holy Spirit is present to all believers, in every age, looking forward to the time of Jesus’ eventual return, to bring about a restoration to His purposes.↩