The Baptism of the Holy Spirit: A New Era

Inside the dome of the Pantheon in Rome (Author photo)

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.

Welcome back to this series of essays on baptism. I am currently focusing on the baptism of the Holy Spirit. Thanks for hanging around. I know it’s not as much fun as Wonder Woman.

In the last essay, we saw that the Old Testament prophets predicted two things: 1) a righteous ruler on whom the Spirit of God would rest, and 2) a general outpouring of the Spirit upon all God’s people. Both of these predictions went against the grain of the Old Testament experience. First, while plenty of rulers had God’s Spirit placed upon them, none of them exhibited the kind of righteousness and saving perfection predicted for the Messiah. Second, the idea that all of God’s people would receive the Spirit individually, regardless of status, was a development without precedent.

We must now take a look at how these two things came to pass, and how they reveal to us the meaning of the baptism of the Holy Spirit.

Signs of Things to Come

You may have heard the period between the writing of the last Old Testament book and the first New Testament book described as “400 years of silence”. I assure you, there was plenty going on during that time, and the Lord was actively at work fulfilling His promise to restore a remnant of Israel to the Promised Land. However, there was a definite drop-off in genuinely prophetic activity, as evidenced by the fact that there were no new books added to the Holy Scriptures. (Our Catholic friends may disagree with this, as they accept certain intertestamental works in their Canon, but it must be noted that the Jews themselves did not regard these writings in the same manner as the rest of Scripture.)

Where was the promised outpouring of the Spirit? God had sworn and He does not change His mind. To a person living in the last few years before the calendar changed from B.C. to A.D., this may well have been regarded as a broken promise, or at least one that was sorely delayed. Yet you may have been hard pressed to find people in Jerusalem who were truly concerned about this. The Gospel accounts do not record any instances where people complained about not receiving the Spirit. What they were very concerned about was the coming of the Messiah. Having been conquered by the Greeks and then by the Romans, they longed for the return of a political kingdom similar to that of David and Solomon. As it turned out, they had misunderstood the Scriptures.

In those last few years B.C., the so-called silence was broken. The Lord once again spoke directly into history through prophecy. The father of John the Baptist, Zacharias, was the first to receive a message from the angel Gabriel that the Messiah would soon arrive. Then came a most unusual event. A young woman named Mary was visited by this same angel. It was shocking enough when the angel appeared to a priest. That the angel should come to a female below society’s notice, who despite her godly life held no position of leadership within the Jewish community, was supremely odd. We have noted that only a few women ever received special prophetic revelation in the Old Testament. The fact that the angel came to Mary was a signal that something different was about to happen.

Fresco of the Annunciation by Fra Angelico, circa 1450

We all know the story. Gabriel commanded Mary not to be afraid, informed her that she had the favor of the Almighty, then told her that she would soon be with child. “Mary said to the angel, ‘How can this be, since I am a virgin?’ The angel answered and said to her, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; and for that reason the holy Child shall be called the Son of God.’” (Luke 1:34-35) Yes, you read that correctly. The Holy Spirit would come upon an ordinary woman and perform a miraculous action: she would become pregnant despite being a virgin.

We often focus on how the Holy Spirit would perform the miraculous action in Mary’s body rather than the simple fact that she herself would receive the Spirit. Certainly, the Virgin Birth was a unique event in history, and for that reason alone it is notable in the salvation narrative. However, we should also see this as the first fruits of the prophecy made by Joel: “Even on the male and female servants I will pour out My Spirit in those days.” (2:29)

Mary was not alone in this regard. When she went to visit her relative Elizabeth and tell her the message that the angel had given, the Spirit made another appearance. “When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb; and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. And she cried out with a loud voice and said, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!’” (Luke 1:41-42) With Mary, we saw the standard combination: she received the Holy Spirit and then there was a miraculous action that demonstrated this fact. The same thing happened with Elizabeth. She was filled with the Holy Spirit and then was able to prophesy that Mary was pregnant with a special child. (Note also the response of John the Baptist, whom we were told in Luke 1:15 would be filled with the Spirit in utero.)

Even before Christ was born, two women received the Spirit. I would be remiss if I did not mention another woman in whom the work of the Spirit was clearly evident around this time. When Jesus’ parents brought him to the Temple to offer the sacrifice of two birds as prescribed in the Mosaic Law, they met a man named Simeon. He was “righteous and devout, looking for the consolation of Israel; and the Holy Spirit was upon him” (Luke 2:25b). It had been revealed to Simeon that he would not die before he saw the Christ (v. 26). When he came into contact with the young Jesus, he took Him in his arms and proclaimed that he had seen the Lord’s salvation (v. 30). Within this context, we are also told the following.

And there was a prophetess, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was advanced in years and had lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, and then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple, serving night and day with fastings and prayers. At that very moment she came up and began giving thanks to God, and continued to speak of Him to all those who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.

Luke 2:36-38

Anna too had the Holy Spirit. This is demonstrated by the fact that she is described as a prophetess and was able to proclaim that the Christ child would bring about redemption, even as Simeon did. That makes three women in a short span of time, none of whom were leaders of the nation. Something new was happening. The promises God had made were being fulfilled.

Rebirth through the Spirit

The Gospel of Luke gives us a beautiful picture of how the Spirit began to be poured out on people who would never have received it in the Old Testament. However, this was still not the day that the prophets had envisioned, when every child of God would be filled with the Spirit. That hour was yet to come. In the Gospel of John, Christ Himself spoke on several occasions about the Holy Spirit. As these sayings are sprinkled in among the broader story of His earthly ministry, the connections can get lost. I hope that examining them in this manner will help to make things clear.

Let us first consider the conversation that Christ had with Nicodemus. We often focus on this dialogue due to the mention of the phrase “born again” and the declaration that “God so loved the world…” However, there is a great depth of theology in Christ’s words that we must not miss, and it has to do with the Holy Spirit.

Jesus answered, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be amazed that I said to you, “You must be born again.” The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is everyone who is born of the Spirit.’

John 3:5-8

Detail from “Jesus and Nicodemus” by Crijn Hendricksz, circa 1616-1645

When Jesus told Nicodemus that he needed to be born again, He was talking about being born of the Spirit. He makes a clear distinction between flesh and spirit that we can view in two different ways. First, Christ is saying that a soul that is dead in sin is entirely subject to fleshly lusts and incapable of performing righteous deeds, while a soul that has been made alive by the Spirit is capable of doing the things of God by His power, even if it is still subject to the temptations of the flesh. (see Ephesians 2:1-10) Second, Christ is stating that only those who are born again have the Spirit, and only those people will enter the kingdom of God.

What is meant by the statement that one must be “born of water and the Spirit”? There are two possible explanations. The first plays upon Christ’s talk of being born again. Natural birth would in this case be birth by water (think of a mother’s water breaking), while the birth of the Spirit would be spiritual rebirth. That is simple enough. The second possibility is more intriguing but also presents a potential theological difficulty: the birth by water is water baptism, which must be combined with the baptism of the Spirit. The reason that interpretation could be problematic is that it can be taken to mean that the physical act of being baptized contributes to salvation rather than what the baptism signifies or what happens spiritually before/after baptism. I plan to return to this question later, but for now let us note that there are two possible interpretations of Christ’s words.

We should also pay attention to the analogy that Jesus makes with the wind. I mentioned in an earlier essay that the Greek and Hebrew terms that we translate as “spirit” both have an association with breath or wind. When the Spirit descended on the believers at Pentecost, they heard the sound of a rushing wind (Acts 2:2). What is interesting is that Jesus makes the analogy between wind and those who have the Spirit, rather than connecting it to the Spirit Himself. This makes the phrase a bit more difficult to decipher. It could be a reference to the fact that while physical characteristics are inherently obvious to anyone with functioning eyes, a person’s spiritual condition can be difficult to discern, i.e. you may not know who has the Spirit. This is certainly possible, but viewed within the context of the passage I feel there must be something more intended here.

Consider some other things that Jesus said in this same conversation. “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” (v. 3b) “Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know and testify of what we have seen, and you do not accept our testimony. If I told you earthly things and you do not believe, how will you believe if I tell you heavenly things?” (v. 11-12) “For everyone who does evil hates the Light, and does not come to the Light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. But he who practices the truth comes to the Light, so that his deeds may be manifested as having been wrought in God.” (v. 20-21) The pattern is clear: those who have the Spirit understand and accept the things of God. Those who do not have the Spirit may understand things on a simple level (even as the demons do – James 2:19), but the deeper things of God will never be known to them, and they will never fully acknowledge Christ as Lord.

Living Water, Living Bread

Let us move on to Jesus’ discussion with the Samaritan woman at the well. He asked her for a drink of water. She remarked that this was odd, as a Jewish man would not normally converse with a Samaritan woman. Jesus took the conversation in a completely different direction.

Jesus answered and said to her, ‘If you knew the gift of God, and who it is who says to you, “Give Me a drink,” you would have asked Him, and He would have given you living water.’ She said to Him, ‘Sir, You have nothing to draw with and the well is deep; where then do You get that living water? You are not greater than our father Jacob, are You, who gave us the well, and drank of it himself and his sons and his cattle?’ Jesus answered and said to her, ‘Everyone who drinks of this water will thirst again; but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him shall never thirst; but the water that I will give him will become in him a well of water springing up to eternal life.’

John 4:10-14

Jesus had spoken to Nicodemus about eternal life. Now he returns to the same theme in his discussion with the Samaritan woman. He tells her that there is such a thing as “living water”, and that it is the source of eternal life. He also says that He is the one who can provide this living water, and he clarifies that unlike physical water, the effects of which wear off over time, living water will never leave a person thirsty. It is a gift with eternal implications. Fast forward a bit more in the book of John. In a discussion with a Jewish audience, Christ used another drink analogy and added a food analogy.

Jesus said to them, ‘I am the bread of life; he who comes to Me will not hunger, and he who believes in Me will never thirst’…Truly, truly, I say to you, he who believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life. Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread which comes down out of heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down out of heaven; if anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread also which I will give for the life of the world is My flesh’.…‘It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing; the words that I have spoken to you are spirit and are life.’

John 6:35, 47-51, 63

Christ now speaks of “living bread”. He also makes a reference to what I think we can safely assume is the same living water mentioned in the previous conversation, which if drunk will ensure that a person never thirsts. I believe that the living bread and living water are really meant to point to the same thing: eternal life. The different terms are simply due to the different contexts. The conversation with the Samaritan woman took place at a well. This conversation took place after Christ had miraculously multiplied bread (6:1-14). It is safe to assume that the living bread and living water are identical.

“Peasants Breaking Bread”, detail from the 14th century Book of King Modus and Queen Ratio

What are the characteristics of this miraculous food and/or drink? 1) It is the source of eternal life. 2) It provides for the spiritual needs of the recipient. 3) It is identified with the flesh of Jesus Christ. 4) It has a heavenly source.

It’s safe to conclude here that the atonement of Christ is our source of eternal life. However, we must be careful not to miss two other aspects of this passage. First, Jesus makes a reference to the manna that the Israelites were given in the wilderness. That too had a divine origin and came down from heaven. However, it was only physical and external. Jesus contrasts this with the bread of life, which is an eternal, spiritual gift. There is something about this bread, Jesus says, that is better than anything your forefathers ate. It is superior in every way, for it is spiritual rather than physical.

Notice also that Jesus tells them, “It is the Spirit who gives life…” (v. 63) Didn’t he just say that it was His own flesh that was the source of life? Yes, and that was correct. However, Christ is making a Trinitarian point here. The Son comes down from heaven, and so does the Spirit. They are both fully God, equal Persons in the Trinity. They are both involved in the redemptive process. We hold according to the Nicene Creed that the Spirit proceeds from both the Father and the Son. I will state now that the gifting of the Spirit is an inseparable part of union with Christ. The Spirit communicates to us the things of Christ. He joins us with Christ, and by extension gives us communion with the Father. The living water/bread is Christ, but we only have Christ through the Spirit. Consider what else Jesus said in the Gospel of John.

Now on the last day, the great day of the feast, Jesus stood and cried out, saying, ‘If anyone is thirsty, let him come to Me and drink. He who believes in Me, as the Scripture said, “From his innermost being will flow rivers of living water.”’ But this He spoke of the Spirit, whom those who believed in Him were to receive; for the Spirit was not yet given, because Jesus was not yet glorified.

John 7:37-39

In case we had any doubts, the Apostle John make the interpretation clear for us. The Spirit is the living water. You cannot receive Christ without receiving the Spirit.

How Today’s State of Affairs is Different

Now, you may be wondering, if you cannot receive Christ without receiving the Spirit, and you cannot have eternal life without receiving Christ, then did anyone prior to Pentecost receive eternal life? Yes, of course they did. The Spirit was at work in their lives. All those who were called of God and placed their faith in the promises were made regenerate by the Spirit.

What I am going to argue is not that the people of Israel in the Old Testament did not receive the Spirit in any way, but that 1) they did not all receive the Spirit and 2) the work of the Spirit was primarily external rather than internal. This means that there were some gifts of God and some aspects of the Spirit’s work that the Old Testament saints did not experience. These were the things welcomed “from a distance” (Hebrews 11:13). They received all that was necessary for salvation. They did not receive everything that we enjoy. We have the full revelation of God’s Scripture, whereas they had only part. We can look back on the Atonement of Christ and understand what it involved, whereas they saw only types and shadows. We can experience the Spirit more internally, whereas they experienced Him mostly externally.

Jesus Himself pointed out differences between what had taken place in the past and what was soon to come. By no means did He ever suggest that salvation had not been available to the patriarchs of old or that they were saved by anything but grace through faith. However, He did indicate that the way believers related to God would be somewhat different in the future. Let’s return to His conversation with the Samaritan woman.

The woman said to Him, ‘Sir, I perceive that You are a prophet. Our fathers worshiped in this mountain, and you people say that in Jerusalem is the place where men ought to worship.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, believe Me, an hour is coming when neither in this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But an hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for such people the Father seeks to be His worshipers. God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth.’

John 4:19-24

Perhaps I am going out on an exegetical limb, and may God forgive me if that is the case, but I think the word spirit should probably be capitalized in this passage. There are some places in Scripture where the Hebrew/Greek word for spirit means the Holy Spirit and others where it just means the human spirit or any spirit in general. The decision to capitalize or not is up to the translator. I believe that it is likely that when Jesus speaks of worshiping the Father “in spirit and truth”, He means worshiping by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Consider the Apostle Paul’s words to the church in Rome. “In the same way the Spirit also helps our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we should, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words; and He who searches the hearts knows what the mind of the Spirit is, because He intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.” (Romans 8:26-27) Some people think this refers to some kind of secret “prayer language” or is otherwise related to the gift of speaking in tongues. I think not. Paul speaks of something that is beyond words: something that only the Spirit of God can do. Our prayers and our worship proceed by the Spirit, through the intercession of the Son, and finally to the Father. It has nothing to do with speaking in tongues. It has everything to do with being made regenerate by the Spirit, being united with Christ, and being indwelt by that same Spirit.

Detail from “Jesus and the Samaritan Woman at the Well” by Guercino, circa 1640-41

Jesus seems to suggest that worship up to the time of His ministry was determined more by externals. There was a physical temple in Jerusalem that was the only correct location in which certain forms of worship could take place. The Samaritans had a special mountain on which they attempted to perform the same worship, and thus they went against the dictates of God’s Law. However, Jesus does not focus on condemning the Samaritans for their incorrect practice. He says a day is coming when something about worship will change for everyone. “But an hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for such people the Father seeks to be His worshipers.” (v. 23) Again, I believe that what is different is the more internal working of the Spirit. Not only the religious leaders, but all of God’s children would receive the Spirit directly and internally.

There is one more passage in John where Christ makes clear that things will change when He ascends to Heaven. During the Last Supper, He told the disciples that there was a gift that they could not have unless He left them.

But I tell you the truth, it is to your advantage that I go away; for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you; but if I go, I will send Him to you. And He, when He comes, will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment…But when He, the Spirit of truth, comes, He will guide you into all the truth…

John 16:7-8, 13a

This is a prophecy of the coming of the Holy Spirit. Yes, the Spirit had always been there, but there was in a sense in which He was yet to come. The men at that table had never had God’s Spirit placed within them permanently. They had experienced some of the acts of the Spirit externally. Certainly, if they were regenerate believers, the Spirit had worked in their lives. We know that they had also performed some miracles by the power of the Spirit as an extension of Christ’s authority (Luke 9:1). Yet there is no denying upon examining Scripture that the men who were to be called the Apostles did not behave in the same manner or show the same signs of being indwelt by the Spirit prior to Pentecost as they did after Pentecost. In His final hours before He was crucified, Christ’s primary concern was what would happen to His disciples after He left, and the most important thing that would happen is that they would be indwelt by the Holy Spirit.

The Apostle John records something Jesus told His disciples after He had risen again from the dead. “So Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you; as the Father has sent Me, I also send you.’ And when He had said this, He breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’” (John 20:21-22) Again we see how concerned He was that His disciples should receive the Spirit. This was because He knew that there were certain things they could only do under the power of the Spirit. It was the thing that would allow them to have communion with God in a way that was never possible before, and even though He was standing next to them at the time, they would be more united to Him through the indwelling Spirit than they ever were during the years that He was physically on planet earth. Why should He breathe on them? You need only remember what we said the Spirit is: the very breath of God.

The Arrival of the Holy Spirit

I believe that the baptism of the Holy Spirit first mentioned by John the Baptist is nothing more or less than the permanent indwelling of the Spirit of God in the regenerate believer. Some people may disagree with me, but I would say that Old Testament saints did not experience this baptism of the Holy Spirit in the same way that we do now. That is why John spoke of it as a new thing predicated upon Christ’s earthly ministry and atoning sacrifice. Was the Holy Spirit just as active in the Old Testament? Yes. Did He work in the hearts of believers? Yes. Did a select number of people have the Spirit placed upon them directly for a time? Yes. Even so, I maintain that there is something different about how the Spirit works following Pentecost. There are simply too many Scripture verses speaking about the newness of this phenomenon for me to believe that there is nothing new taking place. Remember the prophecy of Joel:

It will come about after this

That I will pour out My Spirit on all mankind;

And your sons and daughters will prophesy,

Your old men will dream dreams,

Your young men will see visions.

Even on the male and female servants

I will pour out My Spirit in those days.

Joel 2:28-29

This prophecy pointed forward to the day when all believers would receive the baptism of the Holy Spirit. Apart from expanding the number of people who received the Spirit, I believe there was also a switch from a largely external working of the Spirit to a largely internal working of the Spirit. The Holy Spirit is sometimes referred to as the “Spirit of truth”. This is appropriate, as it is the Spirit who regenerates our hearts, allows us to see Christ for who He truly is, and empowers us to follow the commands of God. Here it is worth mentioning some words of God that were relayed by the prophet Zechariah.

I will pour out on the house of David and on the inhabitants of Jerusalem, the Spirit of grace and of supplication, so that they will look on Me whom they have pierced; and they will mourn for Him, as one mourns for an only son, and they will weep bitterly over Him like the bitter weeping over a firstborn.

Zechariah 12:10

Even as the Spirit allows us to understand the things of God in this day and age, it was the Spirit that allowed the Jews of Jesus’ day to recognize Him as the true Messiah. We have seen in previous essays how those who were among the righteous remnant and had been made regenerate by the Spirit were able to comprehend and accept the things of Christ, while those whose hearts were hard denied that He was the Anointed One of God. When the Apostle Peter rose to give that sermon on Pentecost, he repeated Joel’s prophecy and attributed the miraculous acts of speaking in tongues to the work of the Spirit. He then told the crowd that they had killed the one anointed by the Spirit: the Messiah, Jesus Christ. What happened next?

Now when they heard this, they were pierced to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, ‘Brethren, what shall we do?’ Peter said to them, ‘Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off, as many as the Lord our God will call to Himself.’ And with many other words he solemnly testified and kept on exhorting them, saying, ‘Be saved from this perverse generation!’

Acts 2:37-40

Stained glass window at the Santa Maria di Fiore cathedral in Florence, Italy (Author photo)

Did you catch it? Zechariah’s prophecy was fulfilled that day, at least in part. When confronted with the truth of the gospel and the fact that they had put the Christ to death, this group of Jews was “pierced to the heart”. They recognized the gravity of their guilt. Zechariah had prophesied that the working of the “Spirit of grace and of supplication” would allow the people to “look on Me whom they have pierced; and they will mourn for Him, as one mourns for an only son…” That certainly sounds like what happened following Peter’s sermon. The Spirit was calling to these people and allowing them to see clearly for the first time. This all led to the crucial question: “Brethren, what shall we do?” (v. 37b)

Peter tells them to repent and be baptized in the name of Christ, which amounted to accepting His status as the Anointed One, in addition to the fact that He was the Son of God. They would then receive forgiveness of sins, yes, but they would also receive the Holy Spirit. Peter ends his sermon with the very thing that started if off: the falling of the Spirit upon believers. He tells them that “the promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off, as many as the Lord our God will call to Himself” (v. 39).

I have noted elsewhere that I believe this is a statement that the people Peter was speaking to would not reap the covenant curses, but rather covenant blessings. However, this is also pointing back to Joel’s prophecy, the very thing Peter quoted at the start. The Spirit would be granted not only to a few select male leaders, but to believers of both genders, of various ages, of various socioeconomic classes, and of various nationalities. The Spirit and salvation would not be held back, Peter said, from either them or their children or even those who were not part of the Jewish community at all. The only qualification He makes to determine who will receive the Spirit is “as many as the Lord our God will call to Himself”. Therefore, this is a declaration that anyone who is called of God, who is made regenerate by the Spirit, and who places their faith in the saving work of Christ will receive the baptism of the Holy Spirit: the indwelling of the third Person of the Trinity.

In this essay, we have examined what Christ had to say about the indwelling of the Spirit and how it came to rest upon all those who believed. In my final article on the baptism of the Holy Spirit, I hope to examine other mentions of this topic in the New Testament, particularly focusing on how this baptism is related to the water baptism of the New Covenant.