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?

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