Acts chapter 8 describes Philip being led by God to Samaria in order to preach the gospel to the Samaritans, the despised enemies of the Jews. Luke describes in the account how:
- The gospel was preached and many Samaritans believed;
- They were baptized by Philip;
- Peter and John were sent by the Apostles to investigate; through the laying on of hands the Samaritan believers receive the Holy Spirit;
- Peter ‘saw’ that they received the Holy Spirit, though we are not told what exactly he saw.
This raises the question whether this is a pattern for all believers for all time? If it is then it would suggest that there are in the Church those who have believed the gospel and are genuinely converted but have not received the Holy Spirit.
If it is not a pattern then why did it happen this way and what is its significance for believers today?
The expression ‘baptized in the Holy Spirit’ is used seven times in the New Testament. Four of these occurrences are where the four gospel writers describe the same incident involving John the Baptist. On each occasion the same expression is used. Whilst in English we could try to distinguish between being ‘baptized by the Holy Spirit’ and ‘baptized with the Holy Spirit’, the Bible speaks only of one idea. Therefore, whichever expression is used, it should be used consistently.
John the Baptist
The four gospel writers all record the words of John the Baptist that after him will come one who baptises with the Holy Spirit (‘and fire’ is also recorded in some). John does not explain, even if he knew, what this means.
Acts 1 & 2
Jesus ordered his disciples:
‘Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift I told you about, the gift my Father promised. John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.'
Clearly this promise refers to the event that took place a few days later at the Jewish feast of Pentecost. Again Luke relates what happened:
- The disciples were gathered together.
- The Holy Spirit fell on each one of them.
- There was a real sense of the Holy Spirit.
- There was a visible sign; tongues of fire.
- It is said that they were ‘filled with the Holy Spirit’.
- They began speaking in other languages (not ecstatic utterances, there were real, understandable languages).
- From this point on they were bold, having previously appeared quite timid.
Again, is this a pattern for all believers, or does it have a particular significance?
Some of the phenomena, namely the tongues of fire and the gift of speaking in foreign languages are rarely if ever repeated in Scripture or Christian history. What is often called ‘tongues’ today, is not the same, in that it is not this particular gift. Therefore, at least to some extent this was an unique event.
Peter quotes the words of John the Baptist noted above and he relates this to the giving of the Holy Spirit to Cornelius and his household which is described in chapter 11.
What are the features of this event?
- The Holy Spirit fell on all (though it is not clear if this includes Peter).
- They spoke in foreign languages (the same expression being used as in Acts 2).
- They praised God.
There are similarities and differences compared to Acts 2. However, both these dramatic events are called ‘baptism in the Holy Spirit’ and both include some form of outward sign.
The great significance of this event in terms of the history of God’s people is that those who received the Holy Spirit were Gentiles, that is non-Jews. As with the Samaritans the very fact of this event caused some concern amongst the existing believers, who were Jewish, and this was why Peter had to give an account of the event.
1 Corinthians 12
The Apostle Paul is speaking about Christian unity and he declares:
For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body — whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free — and we were all given the one Spirit to drink.
Paul clearly states that all Christian believers are baptized with the Holy Spirit, which is the whole point of his argument about unity.
If we were to insist that the ‘baptism with the Holy Spirit’ always means seeing the sort of phenomena seen in Acts chapters 2, 8 and 11 then we would have to say that almost no-one since in the history of the Church has been a Christian. The things seen in those instances are not repeated in history or today, or at least if they are they are extremely few and far between.
Therefore, whilst all believers are baptized with the Holy Spirit, in Acts we see in particular and important instances, regarding the spread of the gospel, spectacular manifestations to demonstrate visibly and publicly the progress of the gospel. Luke indeed often notes the numerical growth of the Church and in these other passages we see him noting key events in life of the growing people of God.
In Acts chapter 2 the first disciples are being authenticated, marked out as those to whom the gospel had been committed.
In Acts chapter 8 the Samaritans, who were not Jews and not quite Gentiles, are being authenticated by the Spirit - the gospel has spread to Samaria.
In Acts chapter 11 it is Gentiles who believe and again this step in the spread of the gospel is marked by the Holy Spirit.
These are not incidental, they are fundamental events in the purpose of God revealed in Scripture. The inclusion of the Samaritans can be seen against the backdrop of the division of Israel after the time of Solomon. Likewise the inclusion of the Gentiles is the beginning of the fulfilment of the promise to Abraham that in him all the nations would be blessed.
So these experiences, visible manifestations, foreign languages etc, are not required to evidence the baptism of the Holy Spirit.
Baptism with the Holy Spirit is the experience of all believers without exception, it is part of our grounds of unity in Christ. It describes the process by which the Holy Spirit brings about the spiritual changes which are part of God’s work of salvation - cleansing from sin, dying to sin and spiritual rebirth (regeneration).