Making Sense of the Baptism of the Holy Spirit

A highly controversial subject in the Christian community today is something called the baptism of the Holy Spirit. We are first introduced to the phenomenon in the second chapter of Acts. Here Peter, who was doing the preaching that day, refers to a prophecy made by Joel, some 800 years previous to this event.

“‘In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy.

I will show wonders in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood and fire and billows of smoke. The sun will be turned to darkness and the moon to blood before the coming of the great and glorious day of the Lord.

And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” Acts 2:17-21

What does this promise mean that His Spirit be poured out upon all people? Who are the all people? Some would say, “Every single person can have the baptism of the Holy Spirit and should seek it.” In fact, there are those who teach openly and sometimes very loudly, that the baptism of the Holy Spirit, that specifically manifests itself in speaking in tongues, is THE sign that you have been saved and if you haven’t done it (spoken in “tongues”) they you don’t really have it, that is salvation.

However, if you take the time to examine the Baptism of the Holy Spirit in scripture you come up with a far different understanding. What is the best way to understand this prophecy of Joel’s? What is the best way to understand any prophecy? And this is a key principle when it comes to understanding prophecy. The best way to understand a prophecy is by its fulfillment. So, the question then becomes, “How was this prophecy fulfilled?”

Here on Pentecost the Baptism of the Holy Spirit came upon the Apostles giving them the ability to speak in all the languages of the people gathered there with the purpose of getting the message out that the kingdom of God is open to all people. The kingdom is for EVERYONE. In fact, the prophecy ends with the words, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” Jesus wants to save all people and all people are welcome in his new kingdom.

The core message Joel was declaring in his prophecy and Peter was reaffirming, is found in the word “everyone” Everyone can come to Jesus for salvation. The kingdom of God is open to everyone.

Now, even though the kingdom was open to everyone, the truth didn’t catch on quickly, not even with the Apostles. This can be seen in the fact that most, if not all their evangelism outreach in the months following Pentecost, centered around the Jewish people, trying to get them to accept Jesus as the chosen one of God. The Apostles just weren’t getting it. This was new to them, that there were other people, besides the Jews, who were welcome into the Kingdom.

So to drive this message home again of everyone, God sends a second occurrence of the baptism of the Holy Spirit and, as with the first time, it involved Peter.

You can read this in detail in chapters 10 and 11 of Acts. Here’s the condensed version. In Caesarea was a God fearing and devout man with his family, named Cornelius. An angel appeared to Cornelius and told him to send some messengers to Joppa where Peter was and have him come to his house.

Meanwhile in Joppa Peter is up on His roof top porch taking a nap when he has a dream about a sheet that comes down from heaven and on it are all kinds of animals. A voice tells him to get up, kill something and eat it. Peter objects because there are certain animals that his Jewish background has taught him are unclean. But the voice says, “Do not call anything impure that God has called clean.”

About that time these guys from Cornelius arrive and invite Peter to come with them to the house of a Gentile. When they arrive the house is filled with people. Peter by this time was getting the message. The first thing he says to them is (Acts 10:28-29)”You are well aware that it is against our law for a Jew to associate with a Gentile or visit him. But God has shown me that I should not call any man impure or unclean. So when I was sent for, I came without raising any objection.” 

He begins to share a message just like he did on the day of Pentecost. And what happened? Look for yourself. “While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message. 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. For they heard them speaking in tongues and praising God.

Then Peter said, “Can anyone keep these people from being baptized with water? They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have.” In other words, God has sent this miraculous baptism again to show that gentiles also are welcome in the kingdom. “So he ordered that they be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.” (Acts 10: 44-48)

The same thing happened here as in Acts chapter 2, to show that the Gentiles also were welcomed into the Kingdom. And once that was made clear by the miracle of the baptism of the Holy Spirit those who were willing to accept Christ were baptized by water into His family, just like at the beginning.

Question? How do we know this is the same baptism of the Holy Spirit that took place at the beginning of the church, in Acts 2? Because, after this incident Peter goes to Jerusalem and reports to the church what had happened. Pick up with his report in Acts 11:15-18 “As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit came on them as he had come on us at the beginning. Then I remembered what the Lord had said: ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.So if God gave them the same gift as he gave us, who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to think that I could oppose God?” When they heard this, they had no further objections and praised God, saying, “So then, God has granted even the Gentiles repentance unto life.”

Both events, what took place on Pentecost and at the household of Cornelius, are connected with Jesus promise of the coming baptism of the Holy Spirit. The purpose was to declare the kingdom of God as open to everyone, both Jews and gentiles. The day of Pentecost was primarily to the Jews. At Cornelius’ household it was declared to be open to the Gentiles as well.

In Jewish thinking of that day there were only two kinds of people, Jews and everyone else was Gentile. God welcomes everyone who will come to Jesus, from both Jews and Gentiles.

Back to Joel’s prophecy. The “I will pour out my spirit on all people” doesn’t refer to every single person but to all people groups. How do we know that? Because we have a clear record of its fulfillment. That’s how it played out. That’s how it was fulfilled. And the best way to understand the meaning of prophecy is in its fulfillment.

So, based on what the Bible says, the baptism of the Holy Spirit had a specific and temporary usage, and when it had fulfilled its purpose it faded from the scene

In fact, the events that we have just examined are the only references to the baptism of the Holy Spirit in the Bible. There are no others, even though from the occurrence at Cornelius’ household, to the end of the Bible, there were another 60 – 80 years of Bible writings, during which there is no other reference to the baptism of the Holy Spirit ever again. Why? I believe, from what we have revealed in scripture, that it is because it had fulfilled its purpose and then disappeared from the Christian scene.

For a full discussion of the practice of “speaking in tongues” that accompanied the baptism of the Holy Spirit, click on this link.



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