Baptism and the Timing of the Holy Spirit in Acts

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We like to try to pin things down and know exactly when God is doing things. That has often been true in studying baptism. Reading through Acts, I have been humbled by the chronology of the timing of people being baptized and the same people receiving the Holy Spirit. The reason I have felt humbled is that I have grown up hearing that it is just one way and always one way. The example given is Acts 2:38. I don’t remember hearing anyone teach from the other examples that are given in Acts and what we can learn about God through those examples.

Here are some examples:

Acts 2:38 – Receiving the Spirit when you are baptized

“Peter replied, “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.”

That seems to say that you receive the Holy Spirit at the time of baptism.

Acts 10:44-48 -God gives the Spirit before baptism

44 While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message. 45 The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles. 46 For they heard them speaking in tongues and praising God.    Then Peter said, 47 “Can anyone keep these people from being baptized with water? They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have.” 48 So he ordered that they be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.”

Peter later explains his actions and says in Acts 11:17, “So if God gave them the same gift as he gave us, who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to think that I could oppose God?” In this case, God brought the Spirit first so that Peter would see they should be baptized and fellowshipped with. This was a break of Jewish custom. God prepared Peter for this earlier in Acts 10 when God told him to kill and eat unclean animals. God was trying to get Peter to see He was up to something and that he better not stand in God’s way.

Acts 19:1-6 – God gives the Spirit after baptism

1 While Apollos was at Corinth, Paul took the road through the interior and arrived at Ephesus. There he found some disciples 2 and asked them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit whenyou believed?”

They answered, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.”

3 So Paul asked, “Then what baptism did you receive?”

“John’s baptism,” they replied.

4 Paul said, “John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance. He told the people to believe in the one coming after him, that is, in Jesus.” 5 On hearing this, they were baptized into the name of the Lord Jesus. 6 When Paul placed his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied.”

This one falls more in line with traditional thinking on baptism and the Holy Spirit.

Acts 8:14-17 -God gives the Spirit quite some time after baptism

14 When the apostles in Jerusalem heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God, they sent Peter and John to them. 15 When they arrived, they prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit, 16 because the Holy Spirit had not yet come upon any of them; they had simply been baptized into the name of the Lord Jesus. 17 Then Peter and John placed their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit.”

These people had not been baptized by John’s baptism and so needed a new baptism and the Spirit. They had been baptized into the name of the Lord Jesus (sounds legitimate to me, right?) but had not received the Holy Spirit. Here is an example of a baptism without the receiving of the Spirit. In times like this I like to try to figure out why the difference. Maybe there was a lesson for the Samaritans or maybe for the apostles that God wanted them to see Samaritans receive the Spirit, much like with Cornelius so they would know God approved of them.

Could it be that God has different purposes at different times for different people? Is God more bound by Acts 2:38 than he is the other examples in Acts? Or is God free to do as He wishes, which to me better explains the differences in Acts. Additionally, how do we/can we determine what is normative today? If so, are we to define what is normative based on these diverse examples in Acts? What do you think?

0 Responses

  1. God is free to do as he wills. Any attempts to lock God into one way or the other or say that one examples stands over the others as normative seems not only to misunderstand Luke’s purpose for writing Acts but also seems to be the usurping of the authority that rightfully only belongs to God.

  2. Hi Matt –
    I just started following you on Twitter last night. Saw this post of yours and wanted to comment. I think you are onto an important topic. This is an area where the church has had many views and where I think people are less informed than they’ve ever been. Right now, I’m seeing people go in all directions. You’re right about the different timings. And I was taught the same as you were: that everything happened in the order shown in Acts 2. Not so, as we see.
    The thinking used to be that there was indwelling of the Spirit and there was empowerment of the Spirit. Two different things. The first is presumably what all believers got at baptism. The second was a special gifting that the apostles imparted by the laying on of their hands. We know that the second went away. Did the first go? Or was there no first – that is, were all references to the second? After all, first century Christians were different than Christians today. Jim Jackson, now deceased, of Scurry, Texas, used to ask of Acts 2:38: Did they receive the gift of (from?) the Holy Spirit, or did they receive the Holy Spirit as a gift? He points up the ambiguity.
    Now there are fresh movements. Ron McRay wrote a book on “Righteousness Apart From Salvation” that deals with the Cornelius episode. The Preterists in the church of Christ – at least some of them – are even going so far as to suggest that baptism was a first century “transition period” (A.D. 30-70) practice and that it wasn’t meant to go past then. I don’t agree with that. But as for the business of the Holy Spirit, I have studied that a long time and I am of the conclusion that Alexander Campbell was right. And yet Campbell is out of step there with almost everyone today, on this topic. See what Campbell thought here:
    Scroll down to p. 261. It’s not far down… this is an incomplete post of a book.
    Anyway, good post. My best to you.
    Jesse Mullins
    Abilene, Texas

    1. I don’t know of any preterists that believe as you indicate. Baptism into Christ is the way into Gods Kingdom or family as I prefer. It is part of the everlasting Kingdom and will never be done away. It will always be the way to die with Christ and be washed in his blood. Remember the Apostles were bringing the Jews out of the old covenant into the new covenant by baptism.Gentiles were also being baptised into Gods family. Previously there was racism between the two, (Jew and Gentile), but when they were baptised into Christ they became neither Jew nor Gentile, but were a new creation. The transition was from the old covenant(world), to the new covenant,(world). The Church was born in the last days of the old world, but was itself in it’s infancy. Bothh claimed legitimacy, but when the old was completely removed in 70 it left no doubt as to who the true sons of God were. The Church of Christ The everlasting Kingdom the Family of God according to Isaiah 9:7 and eph. 3:21 God’s family will increase through the Church for ever and ever world without end. And baptism is the way into Gods’ family

  3. Matt,

    You could add to your list of when we receive the Spirit Ephesians 5:18 where it seems we are to be continually filled with the Spirit.

    A part of the confusion, it seems to me, is that there are multiple ways in which we actually receive the Holy Spirit. We can receive the Holy Spirit Himself as a gift (Acts 2:38; Acts 5:32). We can receive varied gifts from the Holy Spirit as a giver of gifts. Though the terminology is similar, the results can be quite different.

    The thing that disturbs me more than the question of exactly when one receives the Spirit is that too many today would answer Paul’s question to the Ephesians in Acts 19:2 exactly the same way those 12 disciples answered: “We have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.”

  4. Very good food for thought, Matt. As is the case with all of scripture, all the mentions and types of baptism are accurate and true. Important. God is complex. Christianity is complex. It is all too big for me to fully know. But God gives me what I need…what I can use…as I continue to grow in Grace and knowledge.

    Again, very good perspective relating to baptism.


  5. Personally, I believe that most of the confusion comes from a misunderstanding of what Peter meant by the phrase “gift of the Holy Spirit”. Whatever THAT meant, it was clearly something promised to any unforgiven sinners who would sincerely repent and be baptized. I believe that most people fail to see the distinction that Peter made between the “gift of” the HS and the other times where he said others “received the Spirit”, or “the Spirit fell on” or they were “filled with the Spirit”, etc. I believe it is a mistake to just assume that in each and every case God means that the actual 3rd person of the Godhead is being referred to “personally” and bodily. Remember that in Acts 11, Peter said that the HS “fell on them” (Cornelius) “as on us at the beginning”. Here, he is referring to the day of Pentecost wherein the HS had fallen on the apostles (even 120 others, if you believe). Either way, the HS falling on them had nothing to do with their salvation, nor was it promised to every believer. Yet, when Peter spoke of “the gift” in Acts 11, he claims that God had given them (the Gentiles) the same gift as he had given “them” (the apostles/Jews) “WHEN we believed”. Therefore, “the gift” and “the HS filling them” are (at least can be) two distinct things. For, the time “when (they) believed’ was surely prior to the day of Pentecost and the HS falling. I would write more but I’m on my cell at work. However, I still don’t understand why we must interpret the verses that talk about the HS in a more literal way than the ones that speak of Jesus and/or the Father? I mean, Jesus plainly said that he was
    IN his disciples (and that they were in him) long before the day of Pentecost and the time
    when the HS was said to be IN those same
    disciples. Why can’t the HS be in us in the same manner (and by the same means) that Jesus claimed to be in the disciples prior to Pentecost? Why the need to make the indwelling of Christ figurative and not a literal and personal indwelling. But the HS must be literal and pers

    1. So if I accept the indwelling of Christ it’s all good? 😉

      Let me chew on this a bit. I think there are some distinctions here and you have laid several of them out as well or better than I could.

    2. Yeah, it would be all good :). I mean, we should seek to be consistent here, especially when there is no good reason not to be.

      Looking forward to reading your thoughts (once you get done chewing 🙂

  6. My $0.02…

    I see the “pouring out of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:2-4. 17,18; 10:44) as a sign just like the phrophesies and tongues were to confirm that God was working . John the baptist saw the spirit descend on Jesus and that was how he knew Jesus was the Savior of the world. (John 1:33)

    Three events of spirit descent that I know of… Jesus, Apostles, and Gentiles. All three were events that provided proof to man.

    The gifts given to men by the Holy Spirit were to provide proof that God was working. The passage referred to Acts 8:14-17 uses the word “simply.” when referring to baptism. I don’t think there is anything simple about the act of baptism! To me that translation makes light of the working power of God in baptism! (Col 2:11-12) I have done some reading in other translations and reviewed the Greek. I think that “only” is a better translation. “they had only been baptized in the name of Christ” Spiritual gifts were what men desired to see because they couldn’t see God working in baptism. It is a circumcision made without hands.

    The gift of the Holy Spirit is an entirely different matter than the spiritual gifts given for proof that God was working in them. There were three different types of giving of Holy Spirit discussed in the New Testament. Determining which is which is dependant on the context.
    1. Descending of the spirit on man.
    2. Spiritual gifts imparted by the laying on of hands. (My take: Only by laying on of hands restricted the gifts so that people wouldn’t desire to be baptized to recieve gifts of prophesy and what not, also showed that God designated certain people to decide who should have a spiritual gift.)
    3. Recieving the gift of the Holy Spirit in Baptism which is the same thing as the promise made to Abraham “gift of the promise” (Acts 2:38-39, Gal 3:14) This promised gift of the Holy Spirit seems to mean that God cleans us and allows His Spirit to dwell in our bodies (1 Cor 3:16, 6:19-20) providing assistance when we are willing to submit to God’s will. (Rom 8:25-28) Preserving us until we leave this earth. (Rom 8:31-39)

    Jesus called the H.S. a “helper” in John 16. This accurately sums up the work He does.

    Just thoughts. Feel free to disagree or add to or correct me.

  7. Got this from a friend of mine. Thought you might enjoy!…

    Acts 8:17 specifies the Spirit being given by the laying on of the “Apostles” hands. This refers to the miraculous gifts, not the gift of the Holy Spirit that they would have received when they were baptized. Context is always the determining factor with the use of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit “given” is a figure of speech called “metonymy” in which “the whole stands for the part.” It is like a reporter saying, “The White House said today….” So what is being given is not the “person” of the Holy Spirit but something connected to Him.

  8. The following terms synonymously describe what the Holy Spirit does only once to a person upon being saved/entering the NT Church (the filling of the Holy Spirit can occur again, Acts 9:17; Acts 13:9). Those in Acts 2:4 were already saved but it was this event that placed them into the NT Church.
    a. Fell (Acts 8:16; 10:44; 11:15)
    b. Poured (Acts 10:45; Titus 3:6)
    c. Received (Acts 2:38; 8:17; 10:47)
    d. Baptized (Acts 1:5; 11:16)
    e. Filled (11:17; 15:8 cf. Acts 2:4)
    f. Given (Acts 8:18; 11:17; 15:8)
    g. Came (Acts 19:6)
    h. Sealed (Ephesians 1:13)

    In Acts 2:38 the Spirit was received upon their water baptism. The Samaritans (Acts 8) as well as those in Acts 19 received the Spirit through the imposition of hands. The Gentiles (Acts 10) received the Spirit before their water baptism.

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