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This title conjures up many things in the minds of religious people, depending upon their backgrounds and present persuasion on the subject.  At one end of the spectrum are those who believe that all followers of Christ today should be baptized with the Holy Spirit in a miraculous way, inducing them to speak in tongues and perform miracles of one sort or another (healings in particular).  At the other end of the spectrum are those who are uncomfortable with the charismatic claims and practices, but aren’t sure just how to refute them biblically.  Hopefully we are somewhere in between, rejecting the miraculous manifestations of the Holy Spirit, which were intended for the early age of the church prior to the completion of the New Testament.  Now that we have a completed New Testament, the miracles it contains do the same thing for us that the original miracles did in the first century – namely lead us to faith in Christ and salvation as a result (John 20:30-31).

However, we still need to have a biblical understanding of just what the baptism with the Holy Spirit was in its original context and be able to explain both what it was and what it was not.  A great beginning place is to read what John the Baptist said about the subject.

7 But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he was baptizing, he said to them: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?  8Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. 9 And do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. 10 The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire. 11“I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me will come one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not fit to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. 12 His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” (Matthew 3:7-12)

What Was the Baptism With Fire? 

The most logical way to view this text is to assume that everyone in the audience was going to be baptized either with the Holy Spirit or with fire.  The baptism with fire seemed to be fairly close at hand, since John said that the ax was already at the root of the trees that were not producing good fruit.  I think this baptism refers to the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70, although others think it refers to hell itself.  Malachi 4 provides a good commentary on the work of John the Baptist, and I think addresses both the baptism with the Holy Spirit and the baptism of fire.  Take a few minutes to study out this prediction of John’s work as the “new” Elijah.  At any rate, the NT has much more about the destruction of Jerusalem in it than most people realize, but we will save this subject for another column in the near future.

Regarding the baptism of the Holy Spirit, two passages in Acts are essential to our comprehension of the subject:  Acts 2 and Acts 10.  In Luke 24:49, Jesus had promised the coming of the Spirit and the disciples’ reception of power from that event.  Acts 2 records what Peter said was the pouring out of the Holy Spirit in fulfillment of the prophecy of Joel 2.  Although the term “baptism” means a covering, an immersion or an overwhelming, it is described here as a pouring out.  From heaven’s vantage point, the coming of the Spirit in a unique way was a pouring; from earth’s vantage point, it was a baptism – an overwhelming measure of the Spirit such as had never been seen before.

Acts 10 and 11 contain the account of what most assume is a second baptism of the Holy Spirit.  Let’s read these passages together.

44While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message.  45The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles. 46For 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.” (Acts 10:44-47)

15“As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit came on them as he had come on us at the beginning. 16Then I remembered what the Lord had said: ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ 17So 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?” (Acts 11:15-17)

Two Baptisms With the Spirit — Or Just One?

The question is whether this falling of the Spirit on Cornelius constituted a second example of Holy Spirit baptism or not. As we have already stated, most assume that it is a second example, the first accompanying the induction of the Jews into the Kingdom and the second accompanying the induction of the Gentiles into the Kingdom.  Certainly a number of things in the text may support that understanding. Acts 11:15 is a key consideration:  “…the Holy Spirit came on them as he had come on us at the beginning.” Whatever else may be said, Holy Spirit baptism was not a regular occurrence, because this situation reminded Peter of the beginning, a reference to the Day of Pentecost back in Acts 2. This present account took place years later. The Pentecostal view that baptism with the Holy Spirit was (or is) an everyday occurrence does not agree at all with what Peter said.

Since Peter used the “keys” of the kingdom (means of entrance—Matthew 16:19; Acts 2:38) to usher in the Jews at the time of that first outpouring, he now used the same “keys” for the Gentiles at a similar outpouring (Acts 10:44-48). If this view is correct, baptism with the Holy Spirit was a two-time-only event in connection with ushering in the kingdom of God to both Jews and Gentiles. However, another view has much to commend it, as seen in the following explanation.

The account in Acts 10 and 11 is not necessarily a second example of Holy Spirit baptism. As we have seen, that view does make sense, but another similar view takes some other aspects into consideration. In Acts 2:17 (quoting Joel 2:28), Holy Spirit baptism was in the future tense, for it had not occurred before the Day of Pentecost. Then, in Acts 2:33, the pouring out of the Spirit was in aorist tense, which corresponds closely to our past tense, for it had just occurred. But in Acts 10:45, the Spirit having been poured out on the Gentiles was in perfect tense. Perfect tense denotes a past action with continuing results, like Jesus’ statement “it is written,” which means that the Scriptures are written and stand written, that they remain in force.

With this definition in mind, consider the wording of the passage:  “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.” The perfect tense could well be pointing back all the way to Pentecost in Acts 2, as a past action with continuing results. Thus, the miraculous demonstration of the Spirit with Cornelius showed that Spirit baptism back at Pentecost was indeed for all men and not just for Jews. This similar direct falling of the Spirit on Cornelius, without human hands being laid on him, caused Peter to remember back to Christ’s promise (Acts 11:16).

Another evidence of support for this one time outpouring on Pentecost is that “poured out” in Acts 2:33 means literally “to be drained.” The word is often translated “spilled,” meaning emptied instead of having something partially poured out, leaving some of the contents in the container for later pourings. In my view, the evidence strongly suggests that the outpouring of the Holy Spirit was a one-time event, making him forever available for those who become Christians. As Jesus died “once for all” for all men, so the Spirit was poured out “once for all” for all men. Of course, we must keep in mind that he does not do exactly the same things for us today as he did for those in the miraculous age of the church. But he does seal, strengthen, lead and love us, to mention but a few of the ways he works in our lives as Christians today. Praise God for all of his work in us through the Holy Spirit!

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