Baptism in the Holy Spirit Explored

At the birth of the Early Church a miraculous phenomenon repeatedly took place, in which ordinary men and women were baptised in the Holy Spirit and spoke in languages they never learned.

This occurred on the Day of Pentecost in Jerusalem to 120 people who spoke a wide range of recognised languages in a glorious experience of receiving the Holy Spirit.

It occurred in Samaria when Peter and John laid hands on the converts who had already been baptised so the Holy Spirit would be given to them.

It also occurred privately for the Apostle Paul when he received his sight.

It occurred at the home of a Roman Centurion named Cornelius where a large group of gentiles were baptised in the Holy Spirit and spoke languages they never learned.

It occurred in Ephesus when the Apostle Paul laid his hands on a group of new believers.

Modern Christian thought is divided about this phenomenon.

Some churches teach that the baptism in the Holy Spirit with speaking in tongues is an historic experience which died out after the days of the original Apostles.

Other churches teach that the Baptism in the Holy Spirit is a present day element of the Christian life and is available to all believers throughout the church age.

I believe the Baptism in the Holy Spirit is a present day experience for all believers.

Allow me to explore several New Testament statements about Baptism in the Holy Spirit to show how I see those texts supporting what I believe.

John the Baptist Prophesied the Spirit

The first mention of any significant experience of the Holy Spirit in the New Testament traces to the last prophet of the Old Testament era, John the Baptist, who came as a forerunner to prepare the people to receive Jesus as the Christ.

It is to John that we owe the phrase “Baptism in the Holy Spirit”.

“I indeed baptized you with water: but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” Mark 1:8

Note that John prophesies an experience of the Holy Spirit different to anything identified in the Bible to that time.  And the promise of this “baptism” is to “you”.  It is made to the people in general, not to a specific leader, a king, or a priestly class.

I understand John to be prophesying an experience of the Holy Spirit to all who accept Jesus Christ as saviour.

Jesus Prophesies the Spirit

After His resurrection Jesus prophesied that the Holy Spirit would be poured out.  In doing so He confirmed the prophecy of John the Baptist.

“And, behold, I send the promise of my Father upon you: but tarry in the city of Jerusalem, until you be endued with power from on high.” Luke 24:49

“And, being assembled together with them, commanded them that they should not depart from Jerusalem, but wait for the promise of the Father, which, said he, you have heard of me. For John truly baptized with water; but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days hence.” Acts 1:4,5

Just ten days later the baptism in the Holy Spirit, which is the promise of the Father, occurred for the first time.

Pentecost Outpouring

The outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost is a significant landmark in the history of the church.  It is the birth of the church.

120 believers praying in an upper room heard a sound of rushing wind and saw tongues of fire on each head. They then spontaneously spoke in languages they did not know.

From Dr Luke’s record in Acts 2 we find a number of significant elements.

“And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.” Acts 2:4

People from many lands were in Jerusalem at that time and they reported “we do hear them speak in our tongues the wonderful works of God”, Acts 2:11.

Those 120 believers who received the Holy Spirit spontaneously spoke out sounds they could not intelligently control, since they did not know what they were saying.  Yet their words were descriptions of the “wonderful works of God”.  They glorified God in languages they did not know.

Prophecy of Joel

Some in Jerusalem accused the disciples of being drunk.  But Peter stood and declared that what was taking place fulfilled a prophecy by Joel.

“But this is that which was spoken by the prophet Joel; And it will come to pass in the last days, says God, I will pour out of my Spirit on all flesh: and your sons and your daughters will prophesy, and your young men will see visions, and your old men will dream dreams: And on my servants and on my handmaidens I will pour out in those days of my Spirit; and they will prophesy” Acts 2:16-18

Peter Explains the Promise of the Spirit

After pointing to Joel’s prophecy Peter continued with his explanation about the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, including explaining that it is Jesus who gave the Spirit and that the Holy Spirit is the Father’s “promise”.

“This Jesus has God raised up, whereof we all are witnesses. Therefore being by the right hand of God exalted, and having received of the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has shed forth this, which you now see and hear.” Acts 2:32,33

“Then Peter said to them, Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is to you, and to your children, and to all that are afar off, even as many as the Lord our God will call.” Acts 2:38,39

Cornelius Outpouring

The next most significant outpouring of the Holy Spirit in historic terms is that of the gentiles at the home of Cornelius. This outpouring is specifically linked by Peter to the Pentecost events.

Peter was called to preach to these gentiles, as a first in church history.  Before he even finished his message or fully explained the intricacies of the gospel the Holy Spirit fell on the whole group.

“While Peter yet spoke these words, the Holy Spirit fell on all them which heard the word. And they of the circumcision which believed were astonished, as many as came with Peter, because that on the Gentiles also was poured out the gift of the Holy Spirit. For they heard them speak with tongues, and magnify God. Then answered Peter, Can any man forbid water, that these should not be baptized, which have received the Holy Spirit as well as we?” Acts 10:44-47

Peter Called to Account

Following this amazing event of Peter preaching to gentiles and them being baptised in the Holy Spirit, Peter was interrogated by the Jews in Jerusalem.

Dr Luke records Peter’s explanation.

“And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell on them, as on us at the beginning. Then remembered I the word of the Lord, how that he said, John indeed baptized with water; but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit. Forasmuch then as God gave them the like gift as he did to us, who believed on the Lord Jesus Christ; what was I, that I could withstand God? When they heard these things, they held their peace, and glorified God, saying, Then has God also to the Gentiles granted repentance unto life.” Acts 11:5-18

Interpreting the Accounts

Some churches teach that these events were rare and for that time only.  Do these texts support such belief?  I do not find it so.

So let me tackle a couple of key questions about the Baptism in the Holy Spirit.  Firstly, was this promise from the Father to give the Holy Spirit made only to the early church believers, or to all Christians?

It is clearly made to all believers throughout the church age.

Universal Gift of the Spirit

John the Baptist spoke of the baptism in the Holy Spirit being for “you”, which denotes all his hearers.

“I indeed baptized you with water: but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” Mark 1:8

The Prophet Joel had already given the promise of the Father, of the Holy Spirit poured out on all flesh, including the sons and daughters, servants and handmaids.

“But this is that which was spoken by the prophet Joel; And it will come to pass in the last days, says God, I will pour out of my Spirit on all flesh: and your sons and your daughters will prophesy, and your young men will see visions, and your old men will dream dreams: And on my servants and on my handmaidens I will pour out in those days of my Spirit; and they will prophesy” Acts 2:16-18

The Apostle Peter, at the birth of the church, declared that what the people saw happen to the 120 was for all believers.

“Then Peter said to them, Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is to you, and to your children, and to all that are afar off, even as many as the Lord our God will call.” Acts 2:38,39

At the home of Cornelius Peter saw Baptism in the Holy Spirit and faith in Jesus Christ as intrinsically linked.

“And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell on them, as on us at the beginning. Then remembered I the word of the Lord, how that he said, John indeed baptized with water; but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit. Forasmuch then as God gave them the like gift as he did to us, who believed on the Lord Jesus Christ; what was I, that I could withstand God? When they heard these things, they held their peace, and glorified God, saying, Then has God also to the Gentiles granted repentance unto life.” Acts 11:5-18

Repentance and Baptisms

From the Apostle Peter’s perspective salvation through Christ involved repentance, water baptism and being baptised in the Holy Spirit, not necessarily in that order.

Peter had no hesitation promising the same experience of the Holy Spirit to his entire audience on the Day of Pentecost.  And he saw the Baptism in the Holy Spirit at the home of Cornelius as proof of salvation, so he gladly baptised the believers in water.

The Apostle Paul also saw Baptism in the Spirit going along with the salvation experience.  When Paul met believers at Ephesus, he asked if they had received the Holy Spirit since they believed.  Paul clearly expected new believers to have a sovereign experience of the Holy Spirit that could be proven to have taken place.

“He said to them, Have you received the Holy Spirit since you believed? And they said to him, We have not so much as heard whether there be any Holy Spirit.” Acts 19:2

“Then said Paul, John verily baptized with the baptism of repentance, saying to the people, that they should believe on him which should come after him, that is, on Christ Jesus. When they heard this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. And when Paul had laid his hands upon them, the Holy Spirit came on them; and they spoke with tongues, and prophesied.” Acts 19:4-6

Two Baptisms

While we see two baptisms in the practical examples, we also have a plural reference to baptisms in the letter to the Hebrews.

“Therefore leaving the principles of the doctrine of Christ, let us go on to perfection; not laying again the foundation of repentance from dead works, and of faith toward God, Of the doctrine of baptisms, and of laying on of hands, and of resurrection of the dead, and of eternal judgment.” Hebrews 6:1,2

The writer did not say “the doctrine of baptism”, but of “baptisms.  This is consistent with the New Testament examples where believers were both baptised in water and baptised in the Holy Spirit.

Peter clearly understood two baptisms at Pentecost and at the home of Cornelius.  Paul clearly understood the same two baptisms when he spoke to the believers at Ephesus.  Paul himself experienced two baptisms, by receiving the Holy Spirit and then being water baptised, Acts 9:17,18.

The early church gospel message called for faith and repentance and was followed by two baptisms, one in water by immersion and the other in the Holy Spirit.  If the Holy Spirit did not fall on the new believers, then others would lay hands on them to receive the Spirit.

Died Out With the Apostles

We have seen that the early church saw the Holy Spirit outpouring as a universal experience for all believers.  It not only happened at Pentecost and the home of Cornelius, but was expected to happen in all believers.

But some churches teach that the outpouring of the Holy Spirit and the attendant miracles died out with the Apostles.  Is there reason to believe that from the teaching of the Bible?

The Prophet Joel, who gave the “promise of the Father” centuries before Christ, clearly shows that the outpouring of the Holy Spirit was not just to get the church kick-started, or as a special blessing on the early church.  It was to be part of what Joel called the “last days”.

“But this is that which was spoken by the prophet Joel; And it will come to pass in the last days, says God, I will pour out of my Spirit on all flesh: and your sons and your daughters will prophesy, and your young men will see visions, and your old men will dream dreams: And on my servants and on my handmaidens I will pour out in those days of my Spirit; and they will prophesy” Acts 2:16-18

What comes after the “last days”?  All that can possibly come after the Last Days is the End!  Yet Joel prophesied that “in the last days” God will pour out His Spirit on all flesh.  The “last days” is a descriptor of the entire church age.  You and I are still in the last days.  If we are not in the last days, then the end must have already come.

And it is in these days that God is pouring out His Spirit on all flesh.

An Unfair God

Before I realised that the outpouring of the Holy Spirit is as real and available today as it was in New Testament times, I thought of God as incredibly cruel to today’s believers.

Back in those days my church taught me that the Holy Spirit, gifts of the Spirit and miracles were not available today.  As I saw it back then, based on what I was taught, God gave amazing grace to the early church leaders, but is denying us that same grace.  Rather than giving the same salvation and blessing to all God must have created different salvation experiences for different times.

And this made life particularly unfair to us today.  Peter, Paul and James, seeing the miracles, speaking in tongues, using the gifts of the Spirit, healing the sick and raising the dead, were pretty excited about their salvation.  In the glory of all that good stuff they lived at a spiritual level that I saw as unattainable today.

And in their euphoria and wonderful blessing those men wrote the prescription for Christian living.  They invoked such instructions as, “pray without ceasing”, “rejoice evermore”, “in everything give thanks”, “cast your cares on him”, “resist the devil”, and so on.

I complained to God that He had no right to expect me to live to Paul’s standards if He would not give me the same power and blessing He gave to Paul.  And I think that is a very reasonable complaint.

So, has God shown partiality?  Has God created one level of Christian experience for the early church and denied it to you?  Should you be expected to live by the standards set by men who enjoyed graces that are now denied you?

However, because the Holy Spirit is as available to believers today as in the early church, all of that thought of unfairness is resolved.  I can live like James, Peter and Paul, because I have access to the same Holy Spirit that empowered and sustained them.

A Second Experience

Another case against the present day baptism in the Holy Spirit is the argument that all Christians receive the Holy Spirit at their new birth, which is then claimed to be one and the same as the Baptism in the Holy Spirit.

It is true that all believers receive the Holy Spirit at their conversion.  And it is equally true that a subsequent experience of the Holy Spirit is also available to them, apart from their conversion.

The 120 disciples who received the Holy Spirit were already New Testament believers.  They believed that Jesus is the Christ and that God raised him from the dead (Romans 10:9) and so they were saved.  Jesus had already breathed on the disciples and said “Receive the Holy Spirit”

“And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and said to them, Receive the Holy Spirit” John 20:22

So the day of Pentecost was a second Holy Spirit experience.  This time they were Baptised in the Holy Spirit.  They were immersed in the Spirit.  Rather than receiving the Spirit in an unseen internal experience, as all believers experience, this was a publicly verifiable and visible experience of the Spirit.

Paul and the Second Experience

Paul both experienced and expected others to experience a baptism in the Holy Spirit separate to receiving the Holy Spirit at conversion.

It is to Paul that we owe our understanding that every believer has the Holy Spirit, from Paul’s letter to the Christians in Rome.

“But you are not in the flesh, but in the Spirit, if so be that the Spirit of God dwell in you. Now if any man have not the Spirit of Christ, he is none of his.” Romans 8:9

Yet Paul came to faith on the road to Damascus, three days before he received the Baptism in the Holy Spirit through the laying on of hands of Ananias.  Paul called Christ “Lord” on that first day, Acts 9:5,6.  Ananias called him “Brother Saul” when they met, Acts 9:17.  Ananias also advised him that he was yet to be “filled with the Holy Spirit”, Acts 9:17.

It was Paul who expected the believers at Ephesus to have “received the Holy Spirit” since they “believed”, Acts 19:2.  He later reminded the church at Ephesus that they had an experience of the Holy Spirit after they believed.

“In whom you also trusted, after you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation: in whom also after you believed, you were sealed with that holy Spirit of promise” Ephesians 1:13

Peter and the Second Experience

Peter and John also displayed the reality of a second experience of the Holy Spirit for all believers when they travelled to Samaria.  Receiving the Spirit was not something they left up to God, but saw as the birthright of all new sons and daughters of God.

“Now when the apostles at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the word of God, they sent to them Peter and John: Who, when they were come down, prayed for them, that they might receive the Holy Spirit: (For as yet he was fallen upon none of them: only they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.) Then they laid their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit.” Acts 8:14-17

Baptism in the Spirit Experience

Some churches teach that receiving the Holy Spirit is a secret, internal experience, unlike the New Testament examples.  It is true that all believers receive the Holy Spirit at salvation, internally and unseen.  But this is not the Baptism in the Holy Spirit which is promised by God the Father to all believers.

So what does the Baptism in the Holy Spirit look like?

The New Testament reveals that Baptism in the Spirit is always publicly attestable.  It is never secret.  It can be verified by the recipient and any witnesses to the event as well.

On the Day of Pentecost there was no doubt about this experience.  All the people heard the disciples speaking in tongues.

At Samaria there was no doubt about this experience.  Firstly it was obvious to Peter and John that the Holy Spirit had not yet fallen on them, because the obvious evidence was not there.  Secondly, after Peter and John prayed for the people, the evidence was so compelling that Simon the former sorcerer wanted to buy the ability to give the Spirit to people, Acts 8:18,19.

At the home of Cornelius there was no doubt about the Holy Spirit being given, because the witnesses heard them speak in tongues.

When Paul met the converts at Ephesus he fully expected them to be able to attest that they had received the Holy Spirit.  After Paul laid his hands on them there was no doubt they had received the Spirit because they spoke in tongues.

Paul speaks on several occasions about being “sealed” with the Holy Spirit, as if something quite discernible has taken place, 2Corinthians 1:22, Ephesians 1:13,14, Ephesians 4:30.

A Miracle of Hearing

Another idea I have heard promoted is that the speaking in tongues was a miracle of “hearing” by the audience.  Rather than the disciples speaking in a new language, they were being understood in the language of their hearers.

This suggestion contradicts the passage from Joel which Peter directly connects with the occasion.  Joel said the people would speak, not that the hearers would hear.

“But this is that which was spoken by the prophet Joel; And it will come to pass in the last days, says God, I will pour out of my Spirit on all flesh: and your sons and your daughters will prophesy, and your young men will see visions, and your old men will dream dreams: And on my servants and on my handmaidens I will pour out in those days of my Spirit; and they will prophesy” Acts 2:16-18

The miracle of the outpouring is in the “speaking”, not in the “hearing” of an unconverted audience.  The Spirit is poured on God’s servants, not on the heathen who happen to be watching.

The New Testament record shows that the people “spoke with new tongues”.  They had utterance.  It had nothing to do with the hearers, but all to do with the speaking.

“And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.” Acts 2:4

And at the home of Cornelius there were only the Jews and the local Gentiles present.  The diverse crowd with different language backgrounds was not there.  Yet Peter said what happened there was the same as what happened on the Day of Pentecost.  They spoke out in languages they and even their hearers did not understand.

Tongues to Preach to the Crowd

Another belief is that the miracle of tongues on the Day of Pentecost was to preach to the crowd.  This suggests that the languages spoken by the disciples were chosen specifically for that audience.  And it suggests that the experience is not so important today.

However Paul, teaching specifically about speaking in tongues as one of the Gifts of the Holy Spirit, in 1Corinthians 12-14, refers to speaking in the tongues of men and angels.

“Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.” 1Corinthians 13:1

The Holy Spirit empowers us to speak all manner of languages, including all the languages spoken on earth and the variety of languages spoken by angels.  So the fact that men recognised their own language among the 120 voices speaking is not a matter of preaching in those languages, but simply overhearing people speaking supernaturally in the “tongues of men”.

In the home of Cornelius there was no need for those filled with the Spirit to preach to Peter and the other Christians that came with him.  Yet Peter said what happened there was the same as what happened on the Day of Pentecost.

On the Day of Pentecost those speaking in an unknown tongue were unknowingly speaking “the wonderful works of God”, Acts 2:11.  Cornelius and his friends spoke in tongues and unknowingly magnified God, Acts 10:46.

Rather than tongues being a miracle of preaching it is the Holy Spirit glorifying God through the believer.  All believers can have that experience, even today.  It is not a tool for birthing the church, but a promise by God to His children, for their blessing.

Just Like Us

Peter described the filling with the Spirit of Cornelius and his friends as being just like what happened on the Day of Pentecost.  Yet there were several differences.

“And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell on them, as on us at the beginning. Then remembered I the word of the Lord, how that he said, John indeed baptized with water; but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit. Forasmuch then as God gave them the like gift as he did to us, who believed on the Lord Jesus Christ; what was I, that I could withstand God?” Acts 11:5-17

Cornelius did not have any experience of the sound of a wind or the sight of fire on their heads, as occurred at Pentecost.  So those manifestations are not an integral part of receiving the Holy Spirit.

What was similar includes that they spoke with tongues and glorified God.  They did this by the influence of the Holy Spirit, not by human cause.  They did this as a consequence of their desire to know God.

Holy Spirit for Today

Not only does the New Testament text attest to an on-going second experience of the Holy Spirit available to all believers throughout the church age, but church history attests to the same thing.

The Holy Spirit is for today.  Theologies that come to a different conclusion do not stack up with scripture.

Yet, the Baptism in the Holy Spirit is not essential for salvation.  It is an element of our eternal inheritance, but rejecting the inheritance does not void sonship.

Absalom Backus Earle Preaches With Power From High

Absalom Backus Earle was “endued with power from on high” on November 2, in the year 1863.

Born in Charlton, New York, in 1812, converted at the age of 16, Absalom Earle began preaching two years later. And seemingly he never stopped. For the next 58 years “he preached more frequently than any other man living at the same time” (Deeper Experiences, by J.G. Lawson, page 214). It has been estimated that he held 39,330 services and led 160,000 souls to Christ. He influenced 400 men to enter the ministry.

“I have reason to believe,” he is quoted as saying, “that a single sermon I have preached on ‘The sin that hath never forgiveness’ has been the means of more than 20,000 conversions” (Hall of Fame, by E. Towns, page 111).

It was “on the second day of November, 1863”, he tells us, that a new dimension was added to his spiritual life. “For the first time in my life I had the rest which is more than peace … Jesus has been my all since then. There has not been one hour of conscious doubt or darkness since that time. A heaven of peace and rest fills my soul… My success in leading souls to Jesus has been much greater than before…”

Theologians have called this experience by various names – but the history of the Christian church has shown that many saints have experienced this “second blessing” or whatever name they called it.

A.B. Earle also authored many hymns, the most well known being that which expresses the passion of his heart:
Rescue the perishing, care for the dying,
Snatch them in pity from sin and the grave.

Earle’s evangelistic success is not due to special human skills. That power from on high made all the difference.

A British religious paper said of Mr. Earle: “His preaching was not eloquent. His delivery was not beyond the average. His voice had no special power. His large angular frame and passionless mouth were decidedly against him. His sermons seemed sometimes as though composed thirty years ago, before we so often heard, as now, the more clear and ringing utterances of free grace, and the name of Jesus in almost every sentence. He expressed his own emotions very simply, and did not often refer to them. His rhetoric was often at fault, and sometimes his grammar. Truly the enticing words of man’s wisdom were wanting in his case.”

Earle died at his home in Newton, Massachusetts, March 30, 1895, at the age of eighty-three.

This post is based on the work of my late friend Donald Prout whose love for books and Christian history led him to collate a daily Christian calendar. I continue to work with Don’s wife, Barbara, to share his life work with the world. I have updated some of these historical posts and will hopefully draw from Don’s huge files of clippings to continue this series beyond Don’s original work. More of Don’s work can be found at www.donaldprout.com. I am indebted to Don for awakening in me an interest in Church History, which I previously considered to be a little stuffy and of little practical value. I find in the process of updating Don’s Christian Diary that I am being constantly refreshed, illuminated or challenged by the lives of those who have gone before.