Recovering the Biblical Ministry of the Baptism in the Holy Spirit, Part 1: PRIORITY
Updated: Dec 11, 2019
There I was—just a young pastor starting to work at a large church, eager to do well. The church practiced only adult baptism and I was a covenant theology/infant baptism kind of guy. Even so, they asked me to be in charge of all the baptisms.
One day as I was discussing baptism with the lead pastor, he kept repeating the phrase water baptism. I thought that was odd since I didn’t know of any other baptisms. He repeated it so many times that I finally asked, “Why do you keep saying water baptism? Why don’t you just say baptism?” Somewhat surprised by my question, he answered, “Because we distinguish it from Spirit baptism.”
Bam! In a flash, it struck me (along with the lead pastor) that my church and seminary experience had taught a lot about adult verses infant baptism, but not about Spirit baptism (or as some say, baptism in the Spirit). I couldn’t remember a single sermon or seminary class devoted to this. Of course, my interest was piqued, so I asked him to share further. The pastor asked if I spoke in tongues. I told him that I had pursued the things of the Spirit for several years, even the gift of tongues, but the Lord had never granted it to me. But baptism in the Spirit? I had never even heard of that as something to be pursued.
Right there in his office, the pastor prayed over me. He asked me to try to speak out in tongues. For me, it wasn’t uncomfortable or pressure-filled, even though I’d heard that had been the experience of others. He prayed and I tried, but nothing happened. I was disappointed. The pastor was gracious and simply encouraged me to keep praying for the gift of tongues.
Can you imagine my confusion? I was just a young pastor; I believed that I was living and ministering as a Spirit-filled Christian— but I didn’t speak in tongues. I decided to make baptism in the Spirit part of my ongoing quest. Over a series of five articles, I invite you to explore with me a biblical understanding and experience of Spirit baptism.
Spirit Baptism as Essential to the Ministry of Jesus and the Early Church
The first surprising discovery in my quest was how central Spirit baptism was to the life and ministry of Jesus and the early church. It didn’t seem like a side matter, but a priority.
In his dramatic introduction to Jesus, the eccentric John the Baptist chose to highlight this aspect of the Messiah’s ministry. He proclaimed,
“I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” Matthew 3:11
Of all the things John could have highlighted, why did he choose Spirit baptism?
Jesus also placed an emphasis on the experience of Spirit baptism. He didn’t want the disciples to begin their broader ministry until they had experienced the Spirit’s power.
“I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.” Luke 24:49
I would’ve thought that Jesus would sense an urgency for his disciples to “get to it.” They had a whole world to save after all. Yet Jesus insisted that they not move forward until they had received this vital ministry.
“Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” Acts 1:4b-5
At Pentecost, when Peter with the others received the baptism in the Spirit, he took the opportunity to proclaim the gospel and made Spirit baptism a central part of his initial invitation.
“Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off – for all whom the Lord our God will call.” Acts 2:38-39
Did Peter see Spirit baptism as crucial as water baptism? Did he see them both as vital parts of the gospel invitation? Why did he focus on this promise in his first presentation of the good news? Why doesn’t much of the church today emphasize Spirit baptism as part of our presentation of the gospel?
Apparently, Peter maintained the necessity of Spirit baptism into his later years. When he and John went to see the gospel work in Samaria, they noted its absence. Evidently, the Samaritan Christians had not yet been baptized in the Spirit.
When they [Peter and John] arrived, they prayed for the new believers there that they might receive the Holy Spirit, because the Holy Spirit had not yet come on any of them; they had simply been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. Then Peter and John placed their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit. Acts 8:15-17
What lack did the Apostles observe that led them to this assessment? If Peter and John came to our churches, would they make a similar observation?
Surprisingly, the ministry of Spirit baptism remained a priority for the resurrected and ascended Christ. In Acts 9 when he sent Ananias to Saul (soon to be Paul), it was a part of the whole experience.
Placing his hands on Saul, he said, “Brother Saul, the Lord – Jesus, who appeared to you on the road as you were coming here – has sent me so that you may see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” Acts 9:17b
Saul/Paul obviously learned his lesson well. When he came across some disciples in Ephesus, this was the question he put to them:
“Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” They answered, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.”… When Paul placed his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied. Acts 19:2, 6
When we notice the emphasis these key leaders (especially the risen Christ) put on Spirit baptism, it prompts us to ask some critical questions. Why do so many churches lack this emphasis today? Why is there a fundamental deficiency in teaching and experience regarding baptism in the Spirit? Why do so few churches have any regular practice of this ministry?
Two Inaccurate Teachings
Why is the biblical practice of baptism in the Spirit largely absent in much of the Christian Church? I propose that it is because of two inaccurate teachings. One teaching comes from our Evangelical brothers and sisters. It is the insistence that the baptism in the Spirit is only experienced at conversion. They associate Spirit baptism with conversion and argue it is not something to be pursued further. There is no possible “second experience.”
The other inaccurate teaching primarily comes from many Pentecostal and some Charismatic brothers and sisters. It is the insistence that the initial sign of baptism in the Spirit is speaking in tongues. They associate Spirit baptism with the gift of speaking in tongues. Therefore when they pray for people to receive Spirit baptism, they try to get them to speak in tongues. This is like my experience with my lead pastor (as recounted above).
In this series of articles, I will argue against both of these teachings. As well-meaning and sincere as these folks may be, I think the scriptural testimony clearly leads us to different conclusions. But before we unpack any arguments, I want to approach the Scriptures with a clean slate. As much as possible, I want to consider this subject without trying to prove a particular theological position. It is challenging, of course, but can we approach the biblical texts with an openness to let them speak afresh?
Please join me in exploring this vital biblical ministry. The Church is in desperate need of renewal and revitalization. The rediscovery of Spirit baptism as normative for our churches today is crucial to the restoration of the Bride of Christ, the Church.
The series of articles to follow will cover some critical aspects of restoring this ministry: Priority (see above)—Precedent—Pattern—Polemics—Practice.