The Baptism of the Holy Spirit: Beginnings

Depiction of Pentecost in Siena Cathedral by Duccio di Buoninsegna, circa 1308-11

This is the latest in a series of essays on the topic of baptism. You can find links to the previous articles at the bottom of this page.

I began this series by discussing the baptism of John. We must now consider something that John himself said. He proclaimed that while he baptized with water for repentance, a greater one was coming who “will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” (Matthew 3:11b)

What did John mean when he spoke those words? What is the baptism of the Holy Spirit? Who receives it? Is it a new thing or an old thing? Is it one and the same with water baptism? These are the types of questions I hope to answer in the next few essays, but it is going to be difficult. This is a complicated theological topic.

The first time we find an explicit mention of the baptism of the Holy Spirit is in that quote from John the Baptist. If we want to discover exactly what it means, we need to follow the trail of scriptural evidence. First, we should note that John associates this baptism with the work of Christ.

John testified saying, ‘I have seen the Spirit descending as a dove out of heaven, and He remained upon Him. I did not recognize Him, but He who sent me to baptize in water said to me, “He upon whom you see the Spirit descending and remaining upon Him, this is the One who baptizes in the Holy Spirit.” I myself have seen, and have testified that this is the Son of God.’

John 1:32-34

Therefore, John prophesied that Jesus Christ was the one who would baptize with the Holy Spirit.   There are a few other things to note at this point: 1) John clearly felt that there was something about this baptism that was different from his own, 2) he seemed to believe it represented something new in redemptive history, and 3) he associated it with fire. Let’s move on to see the next place where this specific phrase appears. It is used by Christ in His final words to the disciples just before His Ascension.

Gathering them together, He commanded them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait for what the Father had promised, ‘Which,’ He said, ‘you heard of from Me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.’ So when they had come together, they were asking Him, saying, ‘Lord, is it at this time You are restoring the kingdom to Israel?’ He said to them, ‘It is not for you to know times or epochs which the Father has fixed by His own authority; but you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be My witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth.’

Acts 1:4-8

Jesus gives us our best clue yet as to what is meant by the baptism of the Holy Spirit. He says it will occur at a point in time, “not many days from now”. He says that the disciples are the ones who will be baptized, or at least that they are among the ones who will be baptized. He tells what will happen after this baptism occurs: “…you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be my witnesses…” He explains that the Holy Spirit was promised by the Father. There is also an implication that the baptism of the Holy Spirit is somehow related to the kingdom of God, as Jesus pivots from the disciples’ question about a physical kingdom to speaking about the work that will be performed through the Spirit. Now let’s fast forward to “not many days from now”.

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly there came from heaven a noise like a violent rushing wind, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting. And there appeared to them tongues as of fire distributing themselves, and they rested on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit was giving them utterance. Now there were Jews living in Jerusalem, devout men from every nation under heaven. And when this sound occurred, the crowd came together, and were bewildered because each one of them was hearing them speak in his own language.

Acts 2:1-6

There’s a lot to unpack here. We see first that “they were all together in one place”. Who is “they”? Based on the previous chapter, we know that it probably included the eleven remaining disciples (1:13), “the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and his brothers” (1:14), a group of about 120 people (1:15), and the newly chosen apostle Matthias (1:26). Therefore, depending on how you count, this was a group of between 120-150 people, some male and some female, all of them believing in the Christ who rose from the dead. They were gathered together in a house, perhaps the one that contained the “upper room” (1:13).

We are told that “a noise like a violent rushing wind” filled the house. The language makes it sound rather unexpected and impossible to ignore. Next we hear that “tongues of fire” were moving around, resting upon each one of the believers. Finally, we are told that these disciples “were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit was giving them utterance”. Therefore, the coming of the Holy Spirit upon these believers was accompanied by three noticeable signs: the sound of wind, the sight of fire, and the speaking of foreign languages. It is also important to note that this event was observable by the surrounding population. The language is a bit unclear as to what is meant by “when this sound occurred”. Obviously, they heard the languages, but did they hear the wind? In any case, we can conclude that the “other tongues” were identifiable languages understood by other people in town.

Unfortunately, the Jewish pilgrims who had come to Jerusalem for the feast and heard this speaking in tongues assumed that the disciples were drunk. They jumped to a natural explanation rather than a supernatural one. The Apostle Peter stood up at that moment and gave what might be called the first thoroughly Christian sermon.

“St Peter Preaching” by Masolino da Panicale, circa 1426-7

But Peter, taking his stand with the eleven, raised his voice and declared to them: ‘Men of Judea and all you who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you and give heed to my words. For these men are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only the third hour of the day; but this is what was spoken of through the prophet Joel:

“And it shall be in the last days,” God says,

“That I will pour forth of My Spirit on all mankind;

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 bondslaves, both men and women,

I will in those days pour forth of My Spirit

And they shall prophesy.

And I will grant wonders in the sky above

And signs on the earth below,

Blood, and fire, and vapor of smoke.

The sun will be turned into darkness

And the moon into blood,

Before the great and glorious day of the Lord shall come.

And it shall be that everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”’

Acts 2:14-21

One interesting aspect of this first section of Peter’s sermon is that he connects what has just happened with a specific prophecy in the Old Testament – one made by the prophet Joel. In order to truly understand the implications of what Peter is saying, and by extension what is meant by the baptism of the Holy Spirit, we need to go back in time…back to the very beginning.


When is the Holy Spirit first mentioned in Scripture? Perhaps your mind has jumped to Genesis 1:2, which tells us that “the Spirit of God was moving over the surface of the waters”. That is the first time that the word spirit is used, yes. It is the first clue that God exists in Trinity. However, it must be said that the first time that the Holy Spirit shows up in Scripture is Genesis 1:1. “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” That is the totality of God, and it includes the Holy Spirit.

Why am I going on about all of this? Because there are two incorrect opinions we can have about the Holy Spirit. For one, we can believe that nothing about how the Holy Spirit works has changed at all since the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This is a mistaken assumption. However, it is equally injurious to suppose that the Holy Spirit first appeared in human history on Pentecost. That is a profoundly unbiblical viewpoint as well. In fact, the Holy Spirit was just as active before the ministry of Christ as He was after the Christ’s Ascension: the action has not so much increased as changed. As we continue, I think you’ll see what I mean.

So what was the Holy Spirit doing in the Old Testament? We have already seen that He was a participant in the Triune act of Creation, but that was just the beginning. The Nicene Creed provides one classic summary of the Holy Spirit’s character.

And we believe in the Holy Spirit,

the Lord, the giver of life.

He proceeds from the Father and the Son,

and with the Father and the Son is worshiped and glorified.

He spoke through the prophets.

This statement, which is built upon Scripture, teaches us that the Holy Spirit is equal in deity with the Father and the Son, from whom He proceeds. He is to be worshiped and glorified along with the other Persons of the Godhead. He is rightly called “Lord”, being fully divine. We also see two aspects of the Holy Spirit’s operation: He gives life and He speaks through the prophets.

Hey, I’m a dove too. Why don’t people use me to represent the Spirit? (Photo by Jon Ascton)

Both of those actions appear in the Old Testament. In the Creation account, the Holy Spirit is first seen moving over the waters. The Hebrew word is for spirit is ruwach, which literally means wind or breath. It is the same word that is used in Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dry bones. “Thus says the Lord God to these bones, ‘Behold, I will cause breath to enter you that you may come to life.’” (Ezekiel 37:5 – emphasis added) Remember also the description of man’s creation: how God breathed life into dust. (Genesis 2:7) The Hebrew word in that latter case is different, but it is clear that the Holy Spirit – the very breath of God – literally brings life to all of creation. The Greek word for the Spirit, pneuma, has the same implication of wind or breath. We will see how that becomes significant later.

Beyond this life giving operation, the Spirit was also active in the Old Testament through the prophets. Note how the Apostle Paul tells us, “All Scripture is breathed out by God…” (2 Timothy 3:16a ESV – emphasis added) The Apostle Peter also said that “no prophecy was ever made by an act of human will, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God” (2 Peter 1:21) There is a strong link in Scripture between the Holy Spirit and prophecy. Indeed, the inspiration of the Spirit is necessary for a prophecy to be authentic, and the ability to prophesy truthfully serves as proof that a person has the Spirit.

In the New Testament, we see the Holy Spirit being given to thousands of people. In the Old Testament, there is a much more select group that is said to have the Spirit placed upon them, filling them, etc. Here is what I believe to be a complete list of all the people who are specifically mentioned by name receiving the Spirit in the Old Testament.

  • Bezalel, a craftsman (Exodus 31:3)
  • Seventy elders of Israel, as Moses had already received it (Numbers 11:25)
  • Balaam, who prophesied (Numbers 24:2)
  • Joshua, leader of Israel (Numbers 27:18)
  • Othniel, judge of Israel (Judges 3:10)
  • Gideon, judge of Israel (Judges 6:34)
  • Jephthah, judge of Israel (Judges 11:29)
  • Samson, judge of Israel (Judges 14:6)
  • Saul, king of Israel (1 Samuel 10:10)
  • David, king of Israel (1 Samuel 16:13)
  • Messengers of Saul (1 Samuel 19:20)
  • Elijah the prophet – implied (1 Kings 18:12)
  • Micaiah the prophet – implied (1 Kings 22)
  • Amasai, a military captain (1 Chronicles 12:18)
  • Azariah the prophet (2 Chronicles 15:1)
  • Jahaziel the prophet (2 Chronicles 20:14)
  • Zechariah the prophet (2 Chronicles 24:20)
  • Ezekiel the prophet (Ezekiel 2:2)
  • Micah the prophet (Micah 3:8)

You will notice that all of these people have some things in common. 1) They are all Jewish. 2) They are all male. 3) They all served in some kind of leadership position. However, it is also important to note that there were people prior to Christ who did receive the Holy Spirit but are not mentioned on this list. For example, every true prophet or prophetess worked by the power of the Holy Spirit. I would first like to examine a few Old Testament passages that shed some light on who received the Spirit, why they were chosen, how long it lasted, and the signs of the Spirit’s presence. The first such instance came when Moses commissioned the seventy elders of Israel.

The Lord therefore said to Moses, ‘Gather for Me seventy men from the elders of Israel, whom you know to be the elders of the people and their officers and bring them to the tent of meeting, and let them take their stand there with you. Then I will come down and speak with you there, and I will take of the Spirit who is upon you, and will put Him upon them; and they shall bear the burden of the people with you, so that you will not bear it all alone.’… So Moses went out and told the people the words of the Lord. Also, he gathered seventy men of the elders of the people, and stationed them around the tent. Then the Lord came down in the cloud and spoke to him; and He took of the Spirit who was upon him and placed Him upon the seventy elders. And when the Spirit rested upon them, they prophesied. But they did not do it again. But two men had remained in the camp; the name of one was Eldad and the name of the other Medad. And the Spirit rested upon them (now they were among those who had been registered, but had not gone out to the tent), and they prophesied in the camp. So a young man ran and told Moses and said, ‘Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp.’ Then Joshua the son of Nun, the attendant of Moses from his youth, said, ‘Moses, my lord, restrain them.’ But Moses said to him, ‘Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, that the Lord would put His Spirit upon them!’

Numbers 11:16-17, 24-29

Statue of Moses by Michelangelo at the Basilica of St Peter in Vincoli in Rome (Author photo)

In this passage, we see that the Spirit of the Lord was “placed” upon the seventy elders of the people that they might assist in leadership. This is the same Spirit that was already “upon” Moses. Once the Spirit rests on the elders, they immediately speak words of prophecy. Interestingly, two of the elders were not there at the gathering, but nevertheless received the Spirit “in the camp” and began prophesying as well. This was reported to Moses as if it were a malicious activity – an undermining of authority. Moses disagrees with this assessment. “Are you jealous for my sake?” he asks, then concludes, “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, that the Lord would put His Spirit upon them!”

Once again, let’s ask what conclusions can be drawn from this passage. First, it is the Lord who gives the Spirit, not a person. Moses may have helped to arrange this ceremony in which the Spirit was placed upon the elders, but he did not give it to them. God made the decision to grant the Spirit. It was announced to Moses. To further prove the point, there were two elders not in attendance who nevertheless received the Spirit. They began prophesying without any authorization from Moses, but he essentially says, “Why are you trying to stop them?” This means that God Himself is the sole source of this power. No human being has the power to give or take the Spirit from another human being. It depends entirely on God’s choice.

We must also note that this was a gift given to specific people at a specific point in time. Most of the people of Israel did not have the Spirit placed upon them directly, even if they benefitted from the work of the Spirit. That is why Moses said, “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets…” It was the ability to prophesy that marked these elders as recipients of the Spirit. They were among the rare few. It would be wonderful, Moses argues, if all the people of God could receive the Spirit, but it was not the will of God at that time.


The next passage we need to examine is the account of Samuel’s anointing of the first king of Israel, Saul. After pouring the oil on Saul’s head and announcing that the Lord would make him “ruler over His inheritance” (1 Samuel 1:10), Samuel went on to give some odd instructions about what Saul should do next involving donkeys, goats, bread, wine, and a variety of musical instruments being played by prophets. After all of this, he tells Saul, “Then the Spirit of the Lord will come upon you mightily, and you shall prophesy with them and be changed into another man.” (v. 6) Sure enough, that is exactly what happened.

Then it happened when he turned his back to leave Samuel, God changed his heart; and all those signs came about on that day. When they came to the hill there, behold, a group of prophets met him; and the Spirit of God came upon him mightily, so that he prophesied among them. It came about, when all who knew him previously saw that he prophesied now with the prophets, that the people said to one another, ‘What has happened to the son of Kish? Is Saul also among the prophets?’

1 Samuel 10:9-11

This was an important event in Saul’s life. Samuel had just anointed him and declared that he would be king of Israel. This is the reason that God gives Saul the Holy Spirit, which was already resting upon the prophets. When he comes up and prophesies along with those prophets, Saul is indeed a new man, and they recognize it. “Is Saul also among the prophets?” they ask. The ability to prophesy truthfully only comes from the Spirit. In this case, it was given to Saul because he was chosen by God to be king.

On that list of people who received the Holy Spirit in the Old Testament, some were simply prophets, but others were judges or kings, and in one case it was given to a chief craftsman working on the Tabernacle. Not all of these leadership roles were exactly the same, but they were all leadership roles, and they all required the assistance of the Spirit. There is a certain degree of overlap between the duties. For example, the judge Deborah is described as a prophetess (Judges 4:4) and King David was inspired by the Holy Spirit to write Psalms. These are just two examples of how even apparently secular leaders were also spiritual leaders, yet we do not consider David a prophet in quite the same way as we do Isaiah. He had a different type of ministry from the Lord, but the same Spirit.

3rd century depiction of Samuel anointing David in Dura Europos, Syria

The granting of the Holy Spirit to kings tells us something else about how things worked in the Old Testament: the Spirit could be given, but it could also be taken away. This point is established later in the book of 1 Samuel, when Saul fell into disobedience and David was chosen to take his place. “Then Samuel took the horn of oil and anointed him in the midst of his brothers; and the Spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David from that day forward…Now the Spirit of the Lord departed from Saul, and an evil spirit from the Lord terrorized him.” (1 Samuel 16:13a, 14)

In this case, the Spirit departed from Saul when his authority was removed. (See 1 Samuel chapter 15 for more context.) The giving or taking of the Spirit is an act of the divine will, even as God gets to choose who sits on the throne. It was because of disobedience that Saul’s authority was taken away and given to another, and as time went by, it became even clearer that God had abandoned Saul.

Now David fled and escaped and came to Samuel at Ramah, and told him all that Saul had done to him. And he and Samuel went and stayed in Naioth. It was told Saul, saying, ‘Behold, David is at Naioth in Ramah.’ Then Saul sent messengers to take David, but when they saw the company of the prophets prophesying, with Samuel standing and presiding over them, the Spirit of God came upon the messengers of Saul; and they also prophesied. When it was told Saul, he sent other messengers, and they also prophesied. So Saul sent messengers again the third time, and they also prophesied. Then he himself went to Ramah and came as far as the large well that is in Secu; and he asked and said, ‘Where are Samuel and David?’ And someone said, ‘Behold, they are at Naioth in Ramah.’ He proceeded there to Naioth in Ramah; and the Spirit of God came upon him also, so that he went along prophesying continually until he came to Naioth in Ramah. He also stripped off his clothes, and he too prophesied before Samuel and lay down naked all that day and all that night. Therefore they say, ‘Is Saul also among the prophets?’

1 Samuel 19:18-24

Here we have Saul attempting to capture David, for he knows that the Lord has chosen the younger man to take his place. David has no intention of killing the Lord’s anointed, even if his authority is fading. Therefore, he flees from the forces of Saul without actively attempting to overthrow him. We are told that Saul sent messengers to David, who was staying with the prophet Samuel at the time. Remember that Samuel was the one who anointed David in place of Saul, though the decision was the Lord’s. Saul sent the messengers in an attempt to capture David, but something very surprising happened. When the messengers arrived in the company of Samuel and the other prophets, they immediately began prophesying as well. Despite the fact that they were rather ordinary people and had entirely bad motives, they were filled with the Spirit of God, and everyone knew it when they heard them prophesy.

In his frustration, Saul sent more messengers, but the exact same thing happened. At this point, he was really in a fight against God, who was intent to prove that His will was the one that would win the day. Finally, and perhaps most surprisingly, Saul himself went up to Naioth and was filled with the Spirit once again. We are told that he actually laid down naked and prophesied all day long, the implication being that Saul had no control over his own actions. Then we see that phrase again: “Is Saul also among the prophets?”

Those final words are our clue as to what is going on here. The first time Saul received the Spirit and this question was asked, it was because the Lord had given him authority to reign as king. This time, when the Spirit was given again, it was actually to demonstrate that Saul’s reign would end. It is not man who gives the Spirit, but the Lord. The Spirit was not going to remain with Saul. It came on him only for a moment to emphasize the fact that he had no control over events.

We can therefore say quite confidently that the Spirit was taken away from people in the Old Testament. When David was confronted with his sin by the prophet Nathan, he wrote Psalm 51 in which he pleaded, “Do not cast me away from Your presence / And do not take Your Holy Spirit from me.” (v. 11) I do not believe that this was mere hyperbole. David truly believed that if the divine favor was removed from him, the Spirit would be as well. That was the way things worked in the Old Testament.

In this essay, I have begun to examine the workings of the Holy Spirit throughout history and dropped a few hints as to what the baptism of the Spirit might mean. In the next article, I will talk about what happened when Israel reaped the curses of covenant disobedience and what remedy God promised to make things right again. (Hint: It involves the Spirit!)

Unless otherwise stated, all Scripture quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, copyright The Lockman Foundation.

Previous articles in this series:

#1 – New Series of Essays on Baptism

#2 – The Baptism of John: Purpose, Participants, and Differences from New Covenant Baptism

#3 – Why was Jesus Baptized?