The Christian Broadcasting Network

Spiritual Life

Right Now: Easter Devotions | Steps to Peace with God

Dr. J. Rodman Williams
More from Dr. J. Rodman Williams on the Spiritual Life Channel

A Theological Pilgrimage: Chapter 5

By Dr. J. Rodman Williams

Chapters: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11 | 12 | 13 | 14 | 15 | 16 | Conclusion
Preface | Abbreviations | Bibliography

Chapter Five


This article will be limited to a study of New Testament passages relating to "baptism1 in the Holy Spirit." I will note where such passages occur, and attempt to observe their meaning and usage. The paper is written under the growing conviction that fresh study in this area is of importance for the Church in our time.


As a biblical expression "baptism in2 the Holy Spirit" occurs in each of the four Gospels, twice in the Book of Acts, and possibly in 1 Corinthians 12:13. According to Mark 1:8 John the Baptist said, "I have baptized you in water; but he will baptize you in the Holy Spirit." In Matthew 3:11 and Luke 3:16 the words are added: "and fire." According to the Fourth Gospel the words of John the Baptist are: "He who sent me to baptize in water said to me, 'He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is he who baptizes in the Holy Spirit'" (John 1:33). According to Acts 1:4-5 Jesus tells the disciples to "wait for the promise of the Father, which, he said, 'you heard from me, for John baptized in water, but before many days you shall be baptized in the Holy Spirit.'" In Acts 11:15-16 Peter, describing the event at Caesarea, says, "The Holy Spirit fell on them just as on us at the beginning. And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he said, 'John baptized in water, but you shall be baptized in the Holy Spirit.'" The other possible text, 1 Corinthians 12:13, reads: "For by3 one Spirit we were all baptized into one body-Jews or Greeks, slaves or free-and all were made to drink of one Spirit." Whether Paul is here dealing with the same concept as the Gospels and Acts is not clear.4 We shall therefore focus on the six specific references to "baptism in the Holy Spirit," and seek to elaborate various aspects.


The first matter to be observed is that the references in the Gospels and Acts distinguish clearly between baptism in water and baptism in the Holy Spirit. John baptized in water, but there is another baptism which Christ performs, namely, in the Holy Spirit. There is no suggestion that John's baptism in water is the medium for baptism in the Holy Spirit, or any statement that one must precede the other. The promise in Acts 1:5 does mention John's baptism first, but no connection is drawn between it and baptism in the Holy Spirit. It may be presumed that those who first received the fulfillment of this promise (see Acts 2:1-4) had been baptized by John, but nothing is directly made of it.5 Obviously the Gentiles at Caesarea received baptism in the Holy Spirit (Acts 11:15-16) without regard to any baptism by John, and also without having received water baptism in the name of Jesus Christ (see Acts 10:44-48).

The latter point should be noted: there is also no necessity for water baptism in the name of Christ to precede baptism in the Spirit. For it is only after the Gentiles at Caesarea are baptized in the Holy Spirit that they are baptized in water in the name of Jesus Christ. The Holy Spirit "fell"6 (10:44), was "poured out" (10:45); and following this, Peter asks, "'Can any one forbid water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?' And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ" (10:47-48). In this case baptism in water, and in the name of Jesus Christ, is unmistakably neither precondition nor medium for baptism in the Holy Spirit. Baptism in water is not unimportant (Peter "commanded" it to be done), even if, in this case, the function is not that of preparing the way for, or being the instrument of, baptism in the Holy Spirit.

We may now raise the question: Is there any further delineation in Acts of the connection between baptism in water and baptism in the Holy Spirit? As has been mentioned, the expression, "baptism in the Holy Spirit," occurs only twice in Acts, and the events describing its occurrence are found in 2:1-4 and 10:44-48 (compared with 11:15-17). However, since it has already become evident that such expressions in Acts as the Spirit's "falling," being "poured out," refer likewise to Spirit baptism, we may turn to the account of the Samaritans in Acts 8. According to this narrative the Samaritans, through the witness of Philip, "believed" and were "baptized" (8:12), for the Holy Spirit "had not yet fallen on any of them, but they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus" (8:16). Here is a clear case of water baptism in Jesus' name prior to the "falling" of the Holy Spirit. Some days after their baptism Peter and John came down from Jerusalem, and "they laid their hands on them and they received the Holy Spirit" (8:17). Thus again baptism in water is not depicted as a vehicle for the "falling"-or "baptizing"-of the Holy Spirit, since the Spirit is "received" some time thereafter. Nor is there any stress on baptism with water as a precondition, although in this instance it undoubtedly preceded Spirit baptism.

Since from the above account it is evident that to "receive" the Holy Spirit refers to the Spirit's "falling" and therefore to Spirit baptism, we may now look at a further passage on receiving the Holy Spirit and observe its connection with water baptism. I make reference to Acts 19:1-7. Here Paul inquires of some twelve Ephesians, "Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?" It turns out that these people have no knowledge of the Holy Spirit and, further, have only been baptized "into John's baptism." Consequently, after hearing that John had proclaimed the need for believing in Jesus, "they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus." Following this water baptism "Paul laid his hands upon them," and "the Holy Spirit came on them." The picture is indeed an interesting one: two different water baptisms-into John and Jesus-but in neither is the Holy Spirit received. Only as Paul lays his hands upon them does "baptism in the Holy Spirit" occur.

The Ephesian situation, in respect to baptism with water, is a kind of composite of Acts 1 and Acts 8. Those baptized in the Holy Spirit in Acts 2:1-4 had at most received only the baptism of John; those upon whom the Holy Spirit fell in Acts 8 had only been baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. The Ephesians in Acts 19 had received both water baptisms. Further, in all three of these cases baptism in the Holy Spirit follows upon the various water baptisms-either years thereafter (in the case of the Acts 1 disciples), days after (in the case of the Samaritans), or immediately following (in the case of the Ephesians). It is obvious that there is no identification of water baptism with Spirit baptism, nor is there any evidence that baptism in the name of Jesus, any more than John's baptism, confers the Holy Spirit. This is all the more emphasized in the account of Acts 10 where the Spirit is given prior to any water baptism at all.

To summarize the relationship in Acts between water baptism and baptism in the Holy Spirit: water baptism may precede (Acts 8 and 19) or may come thereafter (Acts 10). It is even possible that water baptism may not have occurred at all (some instances in Acts 1). We might add, however, that the usual order would seem to be that of Acts 2:38 where Peter declares to the assembled crowd: "Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit." But the usual order-if one bears in mind Acts 10-is not rigid; and there is no sense of water baptism as conveying the Holy Spirit. However, after Acts 1 it is clear that whatever the sequence, all who are baptized in the Spirit are baptized in water.

It is important further to recognize that water baptism has but one distinctive purpose: it is "for"7 the forgiveness of sins.8 Since baptism means immersion,9 hence, being literally submerged in, surrounded by, and covered with water, it points to the spiritual reality of total forgiveness in union with Christ. This is the distinctive feature of water baptism: its relation to forgiveness of sins. However-to repeat what was earlier said-there is no immediate connection of water baptism with baptism in the Holy Spirit (which may even have preceded water baptism). Water baptism is not also "for" the Holy Spirit: this is the purpose of another action-to which we now turn.


Next let us consider the connection in Acts between the laying on of hands and baptism in the Holy Spirit. In contrast to water baptism, the laying on of hands-wherever such is done-is closely connected with Spirit baptism.

In the Samaritan account several days following their expression of faith and water baptism, the people are visited by Peter and John. The two apostles pray for the Samaritans (8:15), and "then they laid their hands on them and they received the Holy Spirit" (8:17). Laying on of hands, so to speak, was "for" the reception of the Holy Spirit.

The picture is quite similar in the Ephesian narrative. We have already noted that after the two water baptisms the Holy Spirit is received: "And when Paul had laid his hands upon them, the Holy Spirit came on them" (Acts 19:6). The laying on of Paul's hands would seem to be the outward symbol of the coming on of the Holy Spirit. Thus again-as in the case of the Samaritans-a close connection is shown between the imposition of hands and receiving the Holy Spirit.

However, we need immediately to add: first, there is no suggestion in Acts that laying on of hands is essential for the Holy Spirit to be received. The disciples at Jerusalem receive baptism in the Holy Spirit without laying on of hands (Acts 2:1-4). Further, when Peter thereafter proclaims the Christian message, and directs the people concerning what to do, he says simply (as we have noted): "Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit" (2:38). No mention is made of the need for imposition of hands to receive this gift, nor in the narrative following is there any suggestion of such an act occurring. The record only says, "So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls" (2:41). In the case of the Gentiles at Caesarea the message of forgiveness of sins is preached by Peter; and "while Peter was still saying this, the Holy Spirit fell on all who heard the word" (10:44). There is no laying on of hands.
Second, it would be unwarranted to conclude that where hands are laid that they must be those of apostles. It is true that in both the Samaritan and Ephesian accounts hands of apostles (Peter and John in Samaria and Paul at Ephesus) are laid for the reception of the Holy Spirit. In the former instance Philip the "deacon" (not the apostle) baptizes with water but does not lay hands; further the text says that "the Spirit was given through the laying on of the apostles' hands." But there is no statement in these narratives that only apostles could have done this. It may be that in the Samaritan situation the laying on of hands by leaders from Jerusalem was important to assure the long despised Samaritans of their inclusion in the new Christian community; thus it was fitting that apostles-and not elders for example-come down for this occasion. In the case of the Ephesians while hands are laid by Paul an apostle, there is no mention of his exercising a peculiarly apostolic function. The whole emphasis is the Ephesian need, and Paul as missionary rises to meet it both through water baptism and the laying on of hands.

If, however, the idea persists that apostolic hands alone suffice, one further narrative in Acts shows this to be mistaken. I refer to the account of Paul's own receiving the Holy Spirit (Acts 9:17). The language is that of Paul's being "filled with the Holy Spirit," an expression earlier used to describe the Spirit baptism of the disciples in Jerusalem. Acts 2:1-4, the record of the fulfillment of the promise that "before many days you shall be baptized in the Holy Spirit," does not use the language of "baptism" but "filling," so that when the event occurred, the text says, "they were all filled with the Holy Spirit." So it is with Paul (at that time still called Saul): he too was said to be "filled." However, unlike the disciples at Jerusalem, there was one to help him, a Christian at Damascus named Ananias. Ananias is no apostle: he is simply described as "a disciple at Damascus" (9:10). Ananias comes to Paul, "And laying his hands on him he said, 'Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus who appeared to you on the road by which you came, has sent me that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit'" (9:17). Thus were hands laid not by an apostle but by a Christian brother. The important matter is not that Ananias was executing an apostolic office but that he was fulfilling a specific command of the Lord Jesus. Ananias is later described by Paul as "a devout man according to the law, well spoken of by all the Jews who lived there [in Damascus]" (Acts 22:12); thus he was a man of strong faith and perhaps peculiarly prepared through his devotion to the law to minister to Saul the Pharisee. It may be suggested that a combination of factors, the most fundamental being his devoutness,10 made him suited to exercise the role of ministering to Paul's need. Hence, to repeat, the basic qualification for the imposition of hands was not that of apostolic office or function.


To summarize: the laying on of hands is frequently in Acts closely associated with the reception of the Holy Spirit. It is in connection with the imposition of hands, not water baptism, that the Spirit on different occasions is given. However, the Spirit is also received without the laying on of hands: thus there is no suggestion of hands as being essential. Further, where hands are laid the emphasis does not rest on office. Apostles may serve, but also a relatively unknown Christian disciple may fulfill the role. Thus the sovereignty of God's Holy Spirit to use or not use human means, to use or not use ecclesiastical position, is shown in the Book of Acts.


It is now important to consider the relationship in Acts between baptism in the Holy Spirit and Christian faith or belief. For it is readily apparent in all the cases of Spirit baptism (whatever the language: "outpouring," "falling," "filling," etc.) that the essential background is faith. There may or may not be water baptism, hands may or may not be laid, but without faith the Holy Spirit is not given and received.

A brief review of salient passages will show the prior emphasis on faith or belief. The Samaritans "believed Philip as he preached good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ" (8:12); days later they receive the Holy Spirit (8:17). Peter preaches the word to the Gentiles at Caesarea that "every one who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name," and at that very moment the Spirit "fell on all who heard the word" (10:43-44). Before the Ephesians receive the Holy Spirit Paul speaks of Jesus Christ by reminding them that, "John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, Jesus" (19:4). Saul of Tarsus does not have the Gospel preached to him by man, but has a direct revelation of Jesus Christ-"I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting" (9:5); thereafter he is "filled with the Holy Spirit" (9:17). The disciples at Jerusalem were already believing witnesses to Jesus' resurrection (1:22)-and upon them the Holy Spirit came in baptizing power (2:1-4).

The faith visited by the Holy Spirit is unmistakably faith centered in Jesus Christ. Believing in Him-not in an idea, a doctrine, but a person-serves as background for the reception of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit in Acts is invariably the Spirit given by Jesus Christ,11 and comes only to those who believe in Him. This belief involves a turning from the former way, thus repentance, and brings with it the forgiveness of sins, which is the way to life. But the one essential requirement is faith in Jesus Christ, and to such faith the Holy Spirit is promised. So says Peter on the Day of Pentecost: "For the promise [of the gift of the Holy Spirit] is to you and to your children and to all that are far off, every one whom the Lord our God calls to him" (2:39).12

We pass on to observe that in the Book of Acts faith, while the background, may not be immediately accompanied by the gift of the Holy Spirit. Though this has not been directly commented on before, some of the passages cited in connection with such matters as baptism and the laying on of hands have already illustrated or suggested this point. Perhaps the clearest example is that of the Samaritans who "believed"; but it is several days before they receive the Holy Spirit. The Ephesians, when they are first accosted by Paul, are asked, "Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?" (Acts 19:2).13 The question is important because it suggests the possibility of believing without receiving the Holy Spirit. This is the case even though it turns out that these "disciples" (so 19:1), who know only John's baptism and are ignorant about the Holy Spirit, need to be reminded of John's word about Christ, and have not received baptism in Jesus' name. They do come to a positive faith in Christ, but it is only after their new baptism when Paul lays hands on them that they receive the Holy Spirit. So whether one understands Christian faith as already in some sense present when Paul first encounters the Ephesian disciples,14 or as only eventuating through Paul's word, it is evident that this gift of the Holy Spirit is subsequent to their initial faith. We may next recall the case of Paul himself. Paul is encountered on the Damascus road by the risen Lord (9:5), and for three days thereafter he is without sight, and neither eats nor drinks (9:9). At the conclusion of those days Ananias comes to Paul, and Paul receives the Holy Spirit. Thus, though nothing is said directly about Paul's believing, the narrative shows him acting under Jesus' lordship (at the command of Jesus to "rise and enter the city" Paul goes [9:6]), and thus in some sense faith in Christ is present. Now looking back at the first disciples in Jerusalem, it is evident that they had for some time been believers before baptism in the Holy Spirit occurred. They had confessed Jesus as Lord, had received His forgiveness, and had known Him in His resurrection appearances; but it was not until some weeks later that the Holy Spirit was given. Thus faith in Jesus Christ was present before the gift of the Holy Spirit.15 What seems to be the case, over all, is that to everyone who believes the Spirit is promised (recall Acts 2:38 and 39), but the promise may well be fulfilled at a later time.16

The one instance where faith and baptism in the Holy Spirit are depicted as simultaneous is that of the Gentiles at Caesarea. The text reads: "While Peter was still saying this, the Holy Spirit fell" (10:44). The word "this" refers to the message of the Gospel. When that message was heard and believed, simultaneously the Holy Spirit was given. There are a number of other incidents in Acts where people come to faith in Jesus Christ, but nothing is said about a reception of the Holy Spirit.17 However, in this paper I am only commenting on those passages where some reference to the Holy Spirit is made.

The question naturally follows: Why is there this disparity in Acts? Why do some who believe receive the Holy Spirit immediately whereas the Holy Spirit comes to others only at a later time? One answer, sometimes offered, especially in the case of the Samaritans, lies in their peculiar situation vis-à-vis Jerusalem. The Samaritans, while believing and baptized, needed the assurance of the Jerusalem church that they were fully incorporated (recall the long history of Jewish-Samaritan antagonism) in the new people of God. Also, it is suggested, this signifies that the Samaritans are likewise included in the missionary enterprise-the Spirit being the "missionary Spirit" (see below), so that Luke is saying that their baptism with the Spirit signifies that the Gospel now also radiates outward from Samaria. Though there is surely some truth in this analysis, one wonders, for example, why further on in the same chapter the Ethiopian is likewise baptized by Philip but nothing is done from Jerusalem or elsewhere to see that he also has this symbol of inclusion in the larger church community. Also, when the gospel is later preached in Antioch-a city at least as important as Samaria, and indeed destined to become the radiating center of missionary enterprise-"a great number that believed turned to the Lord" (Acts 11:21). When the apostles at Jerusalem hear this, they send down Barnabas, but not to perform some act such as laying on of hands for the reception of the Holy Spirit. All that Acts says is that "When he [Barnabas] came and saw the grace of God, he was glad; and he exhorted them all to remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast purpose" (11:23). Thus some better answer is needed to explain the Samaritan delay in receiving the Holy Spirit.18

Though there can be no certainty of a final answer concerning the reason for separation between initial faith and the reception of the Holy Spirit, I would suggest that what is several times described in Acts is a kind of faith in movement or in process. In thinking back again to the original disciples gathered in Jerusalem (Acts 1) who receive the baptism in the Holy Spirit (Acts 2), it is clear that what I have called their faith or belief was much a matter of growth. It was not a static, once for all thing; rather their minds and hearts were increasingly being laid claim to by Jesus Christ. At a certain moment in this process of faith, the Holy Spirit breaks through and they are baptized.19 Thus in one sense they had been believers for a long time; in another sense this was the climactic moment within faith. We do not therefore have to decide: Were they believers before, or did they only become believers at the time of the gift of the Spirit. Rather it is better to say that on the way of faith the Holy Spirit was poured out. This same situation, I believe, obtains, for example, in the account of the Ephesians. As we have noted, these people are called "disciples" even though it becomes evident that they are not very far along the Christian way. Further, the question of Paul, "Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?"20 points, as we have observed, to the possibility of a faith that has not yet received the Holy Spirit. Hence, one may see in this narrative a movement from a kind of incipient faith, signified by John's baptism, to a focused faith in Christ, attended by baptism in His name, even to the openness of faith in which the Holy Spirit is given and received. The account of Paul's experience is apropos of the same. It would, I think, be a mistake to say either that Paul believed, and three days later was filled with the Holy Spirit, or to say that Paul did not truly believe until the Spirit came upon him. Paul was undergoing a process of inward change, and faith was in movement. At a certain moment in faith Paul was able to receive the fullness of God's Spirit. Finally, the same situation, in general, would seem to have occurred among the Samaritans. At the outset they "gave heed to what was said by Philip, when they heard him and saw the signs which he did" (8:6). Thus some faith is evident, even if perhaps superficial and miracle-impressed. Later they "believed Philip as he preached good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ" and were baptized (8:12). This would seem to signify a movement in their faith to a much deeper grounding in Jesus Christ. Climactically, several days later-and after further inward growth-they receive the Holy Spirit through the ministry of Peter and John (8:17).21

It is not without significance that, in the cases just described of the Ephesians, Paul himself, and the Samaritans, various sets of circumstances affected their coming to baptism in the Holy Spirit. The Ephesians, though "disciples" and thus in some sense believers, obviously had been inadequately instructed, for though they knew John's baptism they had not heard of the Holy Spirit; indeed, they were not even clearly directed to Jesus Christ. The Ephesians had much to unlearn as well as to learn, and much to experience more profoundly. Thus Paul led them step by step into a deeper reality of faith. They could scarcely have come to baptism in the Holy Spirit any sooner. Paul himself earlier, as we have observed, was struck down on the road to Damascus by the glory of the risen Lord-an experience hard to imagine in its inward effects upon the previously vehement and hostile Saul. It is scarcely to be wondered that there was much inward turmoil, revolution, and change before he was at the place of receiving the Holy Spirit. The Samaritans had been long wrapped in superstition-they were laden with "unclean spirits" (8:7) and had prostrated themselves before Simon the magician (8:9-11). Once again, it is not really surprising that they, despite their faith and baptism, did not for a time receive the Holy Spirit.

But what about the Gentiles at Caesarea? Why did they receive such an outpouring of the Holy Spirit at the moment of their believing in Jesus Christ? Again, no certain answer is given in the text. The Spirit was poured out at the moment of Peter's proclaiming the good news of forgiveness; and perhaps this signifies the sovereign unpredictability of the Holy Spirit. Nor should this be discounted, for God surely moves in His Spirit freely and not according to any preconceived pattern. However, while recognizing this, the question is whether the text of Scripture affords any answer in terms of the human condition. I think the Scripture does-when read in the broader context of the Caesarean situation. The centurion Cornelius is depicted from the outset as a God-fearing man, and therefore in some sense also a man of faith. Throughout the whole narrative of Acts 10 one sees in the centurion a righteous man, and open to whatever God would have him do. Later when the gospel is proclaimed to him and his household, Peter begins by declaring that "any one who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him" (8:35). Thus, to this kind of man and household-far different from the Samaritans in their pagan idolatry, quite other than Paul in his violence and vehemence, and having far fewer problems than the Ephesians in their John the Baptist background-the gospel is preached. Immediately, the ground being ready, the Spirit is poured out upon the people in Caesarea.


All of this leads to a further consideration, namely, the relation of prayer to the gift of the Holy Spirit. Several times prayer is mentioned as the context wherein the Holy Spirit is received.

We may begin with Acts 1. It is apparent that the chief activity of the disciples in Jerusalem during the ten days before Pentecost was prayer. According to 1:4 the risen Lord "charged them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father." Following His ascension, the apostles went to the Upper Room, and "All these with one accord devoted themselves to prayer, together with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers" (1:14). Though the disciples did other things, such as the selection of a successor to Judas (1:15-26), the overall situation is one of continuing prayer: this was their devotion. We may assume that this was not just prayer in general, but for the fulfillment of the promise of the Father. One should not fail to underscore also the note of unity: "All these with one accord." Persistent prayer in unity of spirit: such was the context for the gift of the Holy Spirit.

At Samaria prayer is again mentioned as preparatory to the coming of the Holy Spirit. As earlier observed, the Samaritans believe, are baptized, and some time thereafter Peter and John come down to minister to them the gift of the Holy Spirit. Reference has been made to the laying on of the apostles' hands. But now we should note that prior to the imposition of hands, Peter and John engage in prayer: they "came down and prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit" (8:15).22 The situation is somewhat different from Acts 1, for there those who are to receive (the apostles and company) do their own praying-who else could pray for them? In Samaria the recipients-to-be are prayed for by others. But prayer unmistakably in each case is background and preparation for the Holy Spirit to be received.

In the case of Paul, the atmosphere surrounding his reception of the Holy Spirit is also that of prayer. Ananias, commissioned to go to Paul, is addressed by the Lord in a vision, hence likely at a time of prayer (9:10). We are told that in the vision the Lord says, "Rise and go to the street called Straight, and inquire in the house of Judas for a man of Tarsus named Saul; for behold, he is praying" (9:11). Attention has already been called to Paul's fasting-neither eating nor drinking-for three days. Thus prayer and fasting make up the context for Paul's being filled with the Holy Spirit.

Now we come again to the centurion at Caesarea and his household. We have made reference to his being a God-fearing man. It is apparent from the beginning of the account that the situation is also one of prevailing prayer: the centurion was a "devout man who feared God with all his household, gave alms liberally to the people, and prayed constantly to God" (10:2). To this man of constant prayer a vision is also given; and acting on that vision, the centurion summons Peter to come to him with a message from God. Thus the "Gentile Pentecost" of Acts 10 is shrouded with a similar atmosphere of prayer and devotion to that of the "Jewish Pentecost" in Acts 1 and 2.

The only account (among those we have been considering) not specifying prayer is that concerning the Ephesians. All that is said is that Paul laid his hands upon the people, and they received the Holy Spirit. However, if one reads this story against the background of the other occasions where hands are imposed for the gift of the Spirit (the two accounts of Saul of Tarsus and the Samaritans: both prayer and the laying on of hands in each instance), it would seem proper to conclude that Paul's act here is likewise done in prayer. Indeed, the very laying on of hands may itself be understood as an act of prayer, invoking the coming of the Holy Spirit upon those who believe.

It is significant that the Gospel according to Luke likewise depicts prayer as context for the coming of the Holy Spirit. This may be noted, first, in the account of Jesus' own baptism: "Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him" (Luke 3:21-22). Thus Jesus praying and thereupon receiving the Holy Spirit is the primary example of later persons in Acts who likewise in prayer receive the gift of the Spirit.23 Second, on another occasion where Jesus is asked by his disciples, "Lord, teach us to pray," He proceeds not only to give the "Lord's Prayer" but also to stress the need for importunate prayer-"ask," "seek," and "knock"-and concludes saying, "If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!" (Luke 11:1-13).24


To conclude: not only is faith viewed as essential for the gift of the Spirit to be received (as we have earlier observed), but also the Spirit is given within the situation, the atmosphere, the context of earnest prayer. Further, this prayer is evidently of an expectant nature, believing that God will give what He has promised. It is the prayer of openness for all that God has to offer, and one that awaits in humble submission His full impartation.


We have now to consider the significance of baptism in the Holy Spirit. Primarily it is a matter of being immersed in the presence and power of God. Even as baptism in water means immersion in water-the whole person being submerged in and surrounded by water-so does baptism in the Holy Spirit mean immersion in the reality of God's dynamic presence. The language of the Spirit's being "poured out," "falling upon," "coming upon" are various descriptions of the Spirit's external coming; "filled" points to the internal dimension-a being filled within; "baptism in the Holy Spirit" highlights the central fact of being enveloped by, surrounded with, immersed in the presence and power of God.


The immediate consequence of this spiritual baptism in several biblical instances was speaking in tongues. In three accounts of the receiving of the Holy Spirit, the response of glossolalia was prior to all else: Acts 2:4-"they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance"; 10:45-46-"the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles. For they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God"; 19:6-"the Holy Spirit came on them; and they spoke with tongues and prophesied."25 In two of the three instances (thus also likely in the third) it is evident that speaking in tongues was an address to God of transcendent praise-"telling...the mighty works of God" (2:11), "speaking in tongues and extolling God" (10:46). These were "other tongues" uttered by the Holy Spirit's enabling, thus transcending the capacities of those who spoke them. All of this was the primary response of those baptized, that is, immersed, in the presence and reality of the living God.


Baptism in the Holy Spirit primarily intends the endowment of power for witness and ministry. According to Acts 1, at some time after Jesus had spoken the words, "before many days you shall be baptized in the Holy Spirit," He also said, "you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth" (v. 8). So it was that on the Day of Pentecost, just following the filling with the Holy Spirit and the immediate response of tongues of praise, that "Peter, standing with the eleven, lifted up his voice and addressed them" (2:14), namely, the multitude of devout Jews who had assembled. Thus did the apostles, Peter as spokesman, bear witness-and with great power and effectiveness so that thousands came to salvation. There is likewise power for ministry, indeed miraculous ministry. Following the influx of three thousand souls, according to Acts 2:43, "many wonders and signs were done through the apostles"; also in the next account in Acts 3 Peter and John are channels for the miraculous healing of a man lame from birth.

In the case of Paul it is also clear that the purpose of the gift of the Spirit is power for witness and ministry. Before Ananias lays hands on Paul for him to be "filled" with the Spirit, the Lord had spoken: "Go, for he [Paul] is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the sons of Israel" (9:15). Hence, it would seem proper to understand the gift of the Spirit elsewhere mentioned-at Samaria, Caesarea, and Ephesus-as having to do with the endowment of power for witness and ministry. This is to say that as the gospel is proclaimed in an ever-widening circle, those who receive it not only come to salvation but also are endowed with the Holy Spirit for witness and ministry to others.


It is apparent that baptism in the Spirit is both a matter of the presence of God and the power of God. It was said of Jesus Himself that He was "anointed...with the Holy Spirit and with power," and that as a result, "He went about doing good and healing all that were oppressed by the devil" (Acts 10:38). So, when Jesus told His disciples to "wait for the promise of the Father," it was the promise of being immersed in the presence of God and an endowment of power for the ministry in Jesus' name. Such is the full meaning of baptism in the Holy Spirit.


In the Gospels and Acts two major events are attested: first, Christ's life, death, and resurrection; second, the effusion of the Holy Spirit. Through the first there is forgiveness and cleansing of sins-pointed to by water baptism; through the second, there is baptism in the Holy Spirit26-pointed to by the laying on of hands. While closely related, they are clearly not the same.

It is also apparent that both forgiveness of sins and Spirit baptism come from Jesus Christ. Forgiveness is through Jesus Christ, and it is also He who immerses in the Holy Spirit. They are gifts from Christ, and it is by faith in Him that both gifts are received.
While these gifts come from Christ, they are quite different from each other. The first-forgiveness of sins-has to do with conversion, a radical turning to Christ from sin; the second-baptism in the Holy Spirit-relates to immersion in the reality of God's presence and the ensuing power for witness and ministry. The former has to do with becoming a Christian, the latter with Christian ministry. Together the two make up the fullness of Christian discipleship.

Not only are these two gifts quite different in nature, but they may also be separated in time from each other. Such separation, however, does not mean a going beyond Christ or outside Christ, since He is the source of both; nor does it mean a going beyond faith into a work whereby the Holy Spirit is received. Temporal separation is a possibility; separation from Christ and faith in Him is an impossibility.

It is also clear in Acts that those who believe may not yet have received the Holy Spirit. Wherever that is the case, it is not viewed as satisfactory, and steps are taken to see that the reception of the Spirit occurs. This does not mean that such persons are not true believers, or that they lack forgiveness of their sins, or that somehow their salvation is incomplete. It rather means that they have not yet received that endowment of the Spirit wherein the presence and power of the Holy Spirit becomes fully effective in their lives. Particularly does this affect their witness to the world. Thus believers who have not received the Holy Spirit are ministered to for this presence and power.

Baptism in the Holy Spirit, accordingly, belongs not to some presumably higher level of Christian attainment but to the foundations of Christian faith and practice. For the true follower of Jesus Christ is not only one who has received His forgiveness and entered into life, but also has received His Spirit and entered into His ministry.


This article has sought to deal as objectively as possible with the Scriptures specifically relating to "baptism in the Holy Spirit." I have in no way sought to relate these Scriptures to the New Testament epistles. It is surely a proper question to ask: What does the rest of the New Testament have to say in this regard? Can we really apply the biblical testimony in Acts to our contemporary situation without further study? My brief answer here is twofold: first, of course we must attend to the whole biblical witness, and not be guided only by the record in Acts; second, we must, however, not fail to hear what Acts has to say because it is the only canonical record to show what the church was like in its origination. The Epistles were written to churches that have had their foundations secured by apostolic work and witness. Hence, we can believe that they all have already, for example, received the Holy Spirit (e.g., see Gal. 3:2; Eph. 1:13); thus the Epistles are dealing with matters that presuppose this. Hebrews 6:1-2 (NIV) speaks of various "baptisms"27 and "laying on of hands" as being "elementary teachings"-but also belonging to "the foundation"-that should be left behind as we "go on to maturity." But what if something as "elementary" as "baptisms" is not well understood today; what if something so foundational as "laying on of hands" is no longer truly practiced? Do we not need a thorough reexamination?

I firmly believe that this calls us back to the record in Acts. It can be the instrument of a new Reformation in our own time.


1 The noun "baptism" is actually not used in the New Testament in the passages under consideration. It is the verbal form, baptizein-"baptize," "baptizes," or "baptized" that is to be found. This will be apparent in the study that follows. I will, however, make use of the expression "baptism in the Holy Spirit" as an inclusive term for the various verbal forms.

2The Greek word en is translated as "with" in the RSV and in most other New Testament versions. However "in" (ASV) may be the more likely translation, especially as used in connection with "baptism." Hence I will be substituting "in" for "with" in my use of the RSV throughout this article.

3The word here translated as "by" is also the Greek en.

4Hence we shall not in this paper enter upon discussion of the Pauline text.

5The Scriptures nowhere specifically say that the disciples in Acts 1 had received John's baptism. Perhaps all the apostles had, but what of the women, Mary the mother of Jesus, and Jesus' own brothers? They are all depicted in Acts 1:12-14 as awaiting the fulfillment of the promise.

6The language of "baptism in the Holy Spirit," while not occurring in Acts 10, is used (as we have noted) in Acts 11 in regard to the same event viewed retrospectively. The Spirit's "falling" (used in 10 and 11) is verbally identified (in 11) with baptism in the Holy Spirit.

7The word ei, "for," could suggest "for the purpose of," "in order to obtain," thus requirement for forgiveness to be received. However, ei may also be translated "concerning," "with respect to," "with reference to," "with regard to." For example, note the earlier use of ei in the same chapter (v. 25), where Peter prefaces a quotation from a psalm thus: "For David says concerning him [the Christ]...." The word translated "concerning" (RSV and KJV) is ei. Here ei clearly means "regarding," "in reference to." etc. (Cf. Rom. 4:20, ei translated as "concerning" [RSV], "with respect to" [NASB]); Eph. 5:32, "concerning" [KJV], "with reference to" NASB); 1 Thess. 5:18, "concerning" [KJV]).

8This was also true of John's baptism-he came "preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins" (Mark 1:4). However, this was only preparatory to the baptism in Jesus' name, the name which brought total forgiveness and salvation. 9baptiz = to "dip, immerse" (BAGD); to "immerse, submerge" (Thayer); to "dip in or under" (TDNT).

10This may be seen also in the fact that Jesus spoke to him in a vision while Ananias was doubtless at prayer (Acts 9:10).

11Also note, for example, Peter's words about Jesus on the Day of Pentecost to the assembled multitude: "Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this which you see and hear" (2:33).

12The preceding words of Acts 2:38 might suggest baptism in water as a prerequisite: "Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit." Two comments: that baptism in Jesus' name before receiving the gift of the Spirit is the usual pattern has been shown from a study of Acts 8 (the Samaritans) and Acts 19 (the Ephesians), but that the Spirit was also given without such baptism (Acts 10-the Caesareans) shows that this is no binding rule. Further, even in Acts 2:38 the focus is "the name of Jesus Christ" upon which or in which (the Greek preposition is either epi or en, depending on the texts used) baptism occurs. This is not to deny the importance of baptism, since it is regularly administered (also in Acts 10-even if afterwards); it is only to insist that the one binding requirement is faith in Jesus Christ for the gift of the Holy Spirit to be received.

13The Greek word for "believed" is the aorist participle pisteusantes. The aorist participle may express action antecedent to or simultaneous with the action of the main verb (see, e.g., A. T. Robertson, A Grammar of the Greek Testament, 860-61). If antecedent, then a proper translation could be, "Have ye received the Holy Ghost since ye believed?" (KJV). If simultaneous, or coincident, then the RSV, "Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?" is correct. Only the context can show which is better; though usually the aorist participle expresses antecedent action (see James D. G. Dunn's Baptism in the Holy Spirit, 159). Whichever is the more appropriate translation for Acts 19:2, the text suggests the possibility of belief not accompanied at the outset by the reception of the Holy Spirit.

14Eduard Schweizer holds that "In 19:1-7 Luke is telling about Christians who have not yet experienced the outpouring of the Holy Spirit" (see article on pneuma in TDNT, 6:413). This may be saying too much, but at least they were disciples no longer of John but of Jesus.

15The one exception to this interpretation might seem to be that of Acts 11:17 where Peter, in reflecting upon the gift of the Holy Spirit to the Caesareans, says (according to the RSV): "If then God gave the same gift to them as he gave to us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could withstand God?" This suggests that Peter and the others did not believe until the time the Spirit was given. However, this is again an aorist participle, pisteusasin, which may also represent (as earlier noted) antecedent time. In that event the proper translation would be more like the KJV: "Forasmuch then as God gave them the like gift as he did unto us, who believed on the Lord Jesus Christ." Here, I submit, the antecedent aorist much better fits the context.

16Schweizer summarizes the evidence by saying: "Days, and in exceptional cases even weeks and years, may pass before endowment with the Spirit follows faith" (TDNT, 6:412).

17Attention might be called to the Scripture in Acts 8 about the Ethiopian eunuch. Philip "told him the good news of Jesus" (8:35), and this is followed by water baptism-"they both went down into the water, Philip and the eunuch, and he baptized him" (8:38). The received text follows: "And when they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord caught up Philip." The Western text, however, reads: "And when they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord fell upon the eunuch, and the angel of the Lord caught up Philip." This Western reading, probably an interpolation, does however express the sense of the Book of Acts, namely, that along with faith, and possibly baptism, the reception of the Spirit is involved-even if the original text does not specify it.

18Dunn is likewise unconvinced by the argument as generally outlined above (Baptism in the Holy Spirit, 62-63).

19I have already commented on the text in Acts 11:17 to the effect that the pisteusasin may represent either antecedent or concurrent time in relation to the main verb. I would now suggest that the participle may contain both ideas, and therefore the most adequate translation would be neither the RSV, "when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ," nor the KJV, "who believed on the Lord Jesus Christ," but simply "believing in the Lord Jesus Christ." Belief was neither a past occurrence, nor had it suddenly come to be; rather it was a process and within that process the Holy Spirit was poured out.

20Again, the best translation here for pisteusantes may be neither the RSV (as quoted) nor the KJV, "Have ye received the Holy Ghost since ye believed?" "Since" represents the antecedent aorist, "when" the concurrent (see earlier footnote). Neither translation satisfactorily embodies the idea of process. The simplest, and perhaps the most direct, translation would be: "Did you, believing, receive the Holy Spirit?"

21I have difficulties with Dunn's interpretation that the believing of the Samaritans in 8:12 was only "intellectual assent to a statement or proposition" (Baptism in the Holy Spirit, 65), so that only when the Samaritans received the Spirit did they "come to genuine faith" (p. 67). This means for Dunn that in Acts until a person receives the Holy Spirit he is not really a Christian. I submit that this interpretation both misunderstands the text (only "intellectual assent," for example?), and the dynamics of faith.

22Schweizer writes that "as a preparation for reception of the Spirit prayer is far more important than baptism in Luke's eyes" (TDNT, 6:413).

23According to G. W. H. Lampe (The Seal of the Spirit, 1951, 44), "thus Luke applies to Christ's reception of the Spirit his repeated doctrine that the grand object of prayer is the gift of the Spirit, and points to a similarity between this initial bestowal of the gift upon Jesus at prayer and the later outpourings upon the praying church."

24In Matthew the parallel account does not speak of the gift of the Holy Spirit but of "good things"-"how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him" (7:11). I am not concerned to debate which may be the original account (of course, Jesus could have said it both ways on different occasions), but to note that Luke in both Gospel and Acts stresses prayer-even persistent prayer-as the context for the coming of the Holy Spirit.

25It is also probable that the Samaritans in Acts 8 spoke in tongues. Nothing directly is stated about the immediate consequence of their reception of the Spirit; however, as F. F. Bruce says: "It is clearly implied that their reception of the Spirit was marked by external manifestations such as had marked his descent on the earliest disciples at Pentecost" (The Book of Acts, 169).

26The Holy Spirit is of course also active in the forgiveness of sins; indeed, without the Holy Spirit there could be no repentance and forgiveness; for it is He who convicts of sin, brings about forgiveness, and unites to Christ. However, the effusion of the Spirit is a further dimension of the Spirit's activity in which-the way prepared by forgiveness-He comes uniquely on the scene. It is the coming of His presence and power.

27The Greek word (baptisrwn, from baptizmos) translated in NIV (also KJV) as "baptisms" is rendered as "ablutions" in RSV and "washings" in NASB, and is viewed by some as Jewish ceremonial washings (see, e.g., F. F. Bruce, Hebrews, 115). However, it is hard to see how such could belong to "the foundation" and "elementary teachings [or 'doctrines' RSV] about Christ." "Baptisms" seems the more natural translation, and especially is this the case since just following the word "baptisms" the writer to the Hebrews adds "laying on of hands." (For a further discussion of Heb. 6:1-2, also Gal. 3:2 and Eph. 1:13, see chap. 14, "A Pentecostal Theology.")

Chapters: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11 | 12 | 13 | 14 | 15 | 16 | Conclusion
Preface | Abbreviations | Bibliography


Content Copyright 2003 by J. Rodman Williams, Ph.D.

Dr.Williams Home Theology Q's & A's Publications Ten Teachings

  • Translate
  • Print Page

Are you seeking answers in life? Are you hurting?
Are you facing a difficult situation?

A caring friend will be there to pray with you in your time of need.

Email iconSign up for E-mail Updates Full List

Visit CBN
Do You Know Jesus
Grow In Your Faith

Need Prayer?

Call 1-800-823-6053
Email your prayer request