Baptism and the Holy Spirit
As discussed in the previous note, there were two key aspects of early Christian baptism which marked a significant development over the earlier ritual dunkings performed by John the Baptist. The first of these was that baptism took place “in the name of Jesus” (cf. the previous note), meaning primarily that the believer “called upon Jesus”, confessing faith in him, while being dunked. The second aspect was an association with the Holy Spirit. There were three factors which brought about this close connection between baptism and the Spirit:
- The motif of cleansing—in Old Testament tradition, the Spirit of God, being associated with images of both water and fire, as well as the idea of God’s holiness, was naturally related to the cleansing of people from sin and impurity.
- The saying of John the Baptist (Mk 1:8 par): “I dunked you in water, but he will dunk you in (the) holy Spirit”.
- The descent of the Spirit on Jesus’ at his Baptism (Mk 1:10 par; John 1:32-33)
Of these three, the second is the one that is emphasized in the book of Acts. Let us briefly consider four key references:
“(for it is) that Yohanan dunked [e)ba/ptisen] in water, but you will be dunked [baptisqh/sesqe] in (the) holy Spirit after not many (of) these days.”
This statement (by Jesus), which concludes the introduction/prologue of Acts (vv. 1-5), appears to be an adaptation of the original saying by the Baptist (Mk 1:4 par), interpreted by Jesus (and the author of Acts) so that it refers to something that will soon happen to the disciples. It is fulfilled when the Spirit comes upon them as they gather together on the day of Pentecost (2:1-4ff, cf. also 1:8; Luke 24:49). This same event is essentially repeated for other believers and groups who come to faith thereafter, throughout the narrative. The coming of the Spirit, where it is noted in the different missionary episodes, is typically connected with the ritual dunking (baptism) that takes place upon confession of trust in Jesus as the Messiah. There are four such notices—2:38; 8:15-16; 10:44-47 (par 11:5-16); 19:5-6.
At the conclusion of Peter’s Pentecost speech, the command to repent and be dunked (baptized) is connected directly with the promise of the coming of the Spirit, repeating the earlier phenomenon experienced by Peter and the other disciples (vv. 1-4ff):
“…You must change your mind(set) [i.e. repent] and must be dunked [baptisqh/tw], each (one) of you, upon the name of Yeshua (the) Anointed, unto (the) release of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the holy Spirit.”
In verse 41, it is said that around three thousand people there in Jerusalem came to faith in Jesus, and were dunked (baptized); there is no mention of the coming of the Spirit, though, in light of Peter’s statement, we may assume that it took place. The Spirit was specifically referred to as something promised (by a message from God, e)paggeli/a) to the people of Israel, through the Prophets, etc, and as a fulfillment of the very covenant(s) made with their ancestors. The use of the noun e)paggeli/a was especially frequent by Paul in his letters, sometimes specified in a similar way as referring to the Spirit (Gal 3:14ff); on this usage elsewhere in Luke-Acts, cf. Lk 24:49; Acts 1:4; 2:33; 13:32.
Interestingly, in the episode at Samaria, people were baptized “in the name of Jesus”, but did not receive the gift of the Spirit until subsequently, when apostles (Peter and John) prayed and layed hands upon them (vv. 14-17). This curious separation of baptism and receiving the Spirit has been variously explained. It could conceivably be intended to emphasize the specific authority 0f the apostles; but, if so, the scene with Simon that follows (vv. 18ff) warns against a superstitious view regarding such personal authority. From a literary standpoint, the purpose could be seen as connecting (and legitimizing) the new mission (outside of Judea) with the earlier Jerusalem Community that had been the focus of the narrative in chapters 1-7. Paul similarly receives the Spirit after hands are laid on him (by Ananias, 9:17, prior to baptism), but otherwise there is little in the New Testament that would make the coming of the Spirit dependent upon the laying on of hands (cf. also on 19:5-6, below).
In the Cornelius episode, the people also receive the Spirit prior to being baptized, but not through the laying on of hands—the Spirit “falls” on them as Peter was speaking (v. 44). This is the first time in the book of Acts that Gentiles come to trust in Jesus, and Peter’s Jewish-Christian companions are amazed that “the gift of the holy Spirit has also been poured out upon (those of) the nations” (v. 45). Here, the presence of the Spirit takes priority over the ritual dunking (baptism); note how Peter states this in verse 47:
“It is not (possible, is it, for) anyone to cut off these (people) (so that they are) not to be dunked, th(ese) who received the holy Spirit even as we did?”
Clearly, they are to be regarded as part of the Christian Community because they received the Spirit, not because they were baptized. To be sure, baptism follows naturally, but the essential identity of the believer is not dependent on the ritual.
The final passage to be considered is the episode at Ephesus involving an encounter between Paul and Jewish Christians(?) who had been followers of John the Baptist (19:1-7). A distinction is made between John’s ministry and belonging to the Christian Community as a believer in Jesus (as the Messiah), and this involves a similar contrast between Christian baptism and the earlier dunkings performed by John (and his disciples). It necessitates that a believer who had received a Johannine baptism be baptized again (i.e. rebaptism), this time in the name of Jesus (v. 5, cf. the previous note). Once this happens, the Spirit comes upon them:
“and (with) Paul’s setting his hands upon them, the holy Spirit came upon them, and they spoke with (other) tongues and foretold [i.e. prophesied].” (v. 6)
This is one of the last references to baptism in the book of Acts (the only other being in 22:16), and it effectively brings together all of the key motifs and associations:
- The development of the early Christian ritual from the dunkings performed by John, with a corresponding contrast between the Johannine and Christian forms
- Baptism taking place “in the name of Jesus”
- The role of laying on of hands, especially when done by a leading or designated apostle
- The connection with the coming of the Spirit, and the various (miraculous) phenomena that result from it
Having now surveyed the main evidence in the Gospels and Acts, we now turn to the letters of Paul, to see how certain theological and Christological aspects of early Christian baptism were to develop. The next note will explore the distinctive Pauline emphasis on baptism as representing the believer’s participation in the death of Christ (Rom 6:3-4; Col 2:12).