To revive the significance among us of baptism in the Holy Spirit is a primary objective of the project to refresh our Statement of Essential Truths (SOET). By drawing on emphases from the proposed SOET, this article will consider how we might prepare for a Spirit baptism service, doing so with water baptism in mind. Both events require planning, but of different types: water temperature, proper clothing, exit strategy, and other logistical details rise to the top of the list for a water baptism; for Spirit baptism, however, it is the orientation given to participants and congregants alike that is most critical. Here are five elements that describe the nature of a Spirit baptism event.
1. Jesus is the officiant; the Spirit is the element
We call what happened on the Day of Pentecost a baptism of the Holy Spirit because of John the Baptist. He announced to those gathered around the Jordan River that his water baptism was only a preparation for a Messianic baptism in the Spirit (Mark 1:7-8), with Jesus as the Baptizer and the Holy Spirit as the element. Those who conduct a water baptism service rightly say, “I baptize you.” With Spirit baptism it is different. While we may pray for and lay hands on those seeking Spirit baptism, Jesus is the One who baptizes in the Spirit because it is His power and authority being transferred, not ours.
During the time of His earthly ministry, in an event that previewed what occurred on the Day of Pentecost, Jesus sent the Twelve out with power and authority (Luke 9:1). He promised it would happen again after He was gone: “… you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses” (Acts 1:8). What He did for them He does for us: He authorizes us as His representatives, or witnesses, and gives us the power of the Spirit to act accordingly. As Jesus received the Spirit from the Father to carry out His mission, so Jesus baptizes us to continue it. The Day of Pentecost was the launch event for Spirit baptism, and every subsequent event is a re-enactment.
The “element” we are baptized in is the person of the Holy Spirit, making Spirit baptism a personal encounter where we experience wondrous and varied spiritual effects. To their credit, the first responders to the Spirit in the early 1900s testified enthusiastically in meetings and also in newsletters about various effects of their encounters with God, but they understood that the primary effect of the Spirit was intended to be missional; that is, more social than individual. Lest we forget, the SOET proposal focuses on the social aspect.
2. A future-oriented event
John the Baptist gave the event a name; Peter gave it a future-oriented interpretation. As one of the first Spirit-baptized believers, Peter stood up on the Day of Pentecost and spoke beyond his ability and understanding, declaring by the enabling of the Spirit that what had happened was a fulfilment of Joel 2. He began his quotation of it with these words, “In the last (eschatos) days” (Acts 2:17). With this eschatological declaration, Peter proclaimed that the promise of God given to Joel about a future day had been fulfilled. From a biblical perspective, then: 1) the start of the last days is not recent but began in the NT period; and, 2) the last days are not just days of peril, but also days of promise, because His Spirit has been poured out on us too.
This understanding of Spirit baptism’s location toward the end of the timeline of salvation history formed our self-perception as a last-days movement. It motivated us to unusual feats of courage and self-sacrifice. The urgency of the hour moved Pentecostals around the globe. To be baptized in the Spirit is, on the one hand, another indication that the kingdom of God is breaking in now; and on the other, further evidence that time is short and Jesus’ return is at hand. If water baptism casts us back to the moment we met Christ, Spirit baptism propels us toward a reunion.
3. An inclusive event
What Joel envisioned as the future composition of the people of God––a community where the Spirit was poured out on every type of person, not just the prophet or the priest or the king––the Pentecostals took to heart. To quote Joel, as Peter did: “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” (Acts 2:17-18; Joel 2:28-29). This biblical text, more than any other, imprinted an inclusive mindset upon the emergent Pentecostals of the 1900s.
Their experience was that Jesus was baptizing without discrimination—not just men, but women too. Even young people, not just the elders, were being baptized. Apparently one’s social standing in the world, or in the church, did not matter. Whether one stood on the platform or at the back of the sanctuary, the Spirit was falling. As with the prophets of old, the new Pentecostals were receiving revelation, some with dreams and visions, and expressing what God was doing with the type of Spirit-inspired speech that Joel called “prophecy” and which Jesus called “witness.”
4. The sign
Water baptism is a public event because it is a testimony to others of one’s repentance and turning to Christ. Dying and rising with Christ are visualized by lowering candidates into and out of the water. Spirit baptism is also a public event, for every recipient attests that Jesus is still empowering His followers. The event is marked by something that is heard rather than seen; speaking in tongues is the sign that baptism has occurred.
Although early Pentecostals used the expressions “sign” as well as “initial evidence” to characterize the nature of speaking in tongues, over time the latter term became the standard. From what I have heard in the classroom over the last 25 years, I am suggesting that the import of “initial evidence” has been lost, no longer distinguishing clearly between how we know we have received the gift and what is expected to follow. For too many, speaking in tongues has become the point of baptism and thus the mark of spiritual attainment. “I have the initial evidence; I have spoken in tongues; I have arrived. Now leave me alone.” Perhaps re-introducing “sign” language will help. The sign of reception is speaking in tongues; it marks the beginning point. What follows are manifestations or outworkings of the gift itself.
With COVID curtailing in-person shopping, many of us have become accustomed to the delivery of our purchases. Unfortunately, our two family dogs have not. When the bell rings, the dogs howl and howl and howl. When a delivery is made and the doorbell rings to signify it, our dogs reach a level of excitement that should be reserved for the Second Coming. Just outside the door there is a gift, and it is not the doorbell. When Jesus baptizes us, we know we have received when we speak in tongues, but tongues is not the gift. The sign indicates that the gift has been delivered. It does so in an explanatory way, for the sign is previewing the nature of the gift itself.
5. The gift
John names it a baptism in the Spirit, Peter explains it as prophecy fulfilled, but Jesus gives Spirit baptism its missional focus. His words from Acts 1:8 establish the gift as power to be His witnesses. Is it any wonder, then, that when we experience Spirit baptism we engage in a form of communication to signify it?
Depicting Spirit baptism as a communicative act is not a new idea, although the terminology may be unfamiliar. After all, we already think about tongues as a prayer language, a means of prayer or praise in communication with God. The emphasis of the SOET proposal is to remind us that this communication with God (super)naturally leads to communication with others. Since Acts 2 is the most detailed account we have in Scripture about the Spirit baptism event (whereas similar events in Acts only highlight certain aspects), it is not surprising that we find emphasized there the integral connection between speaking to God and speaking to others.
When the tongues of fire descended, the unlearned languages spoken by the 120 were recognized within the crowd. The crowd of witnesses to the event included diasporic Jews gathered in Jerusalem for the Jewish festival of Pentecost who heard their various dialects being spoken. They heard God being praised. To put it another way, as the 120 were praying in the Spirit and praising God, they were at the same time testifying that God was doing something right before their ears.
Acts 2 is not promoting evangelism by speaking in tongues. Three thousand were saved on Pentecost, not because they heard God being praised in tongues, though it got their attention. Rather, they were convinced by Peter’s sermon (Acts 2:41). Acts 2 does show us a pattern: we receive power, we speak in tongues, and then we witness in the language we know. This progression is beyond our natural abilities. The Spirit enables inspired speech, both to God and to others.
May the Lord be pleased to re-enact the Spirit baptism event among us as we gather in His presence together, and may we make room for the encounter by planning for it instead of just hoping it happens
Dr. Van Johnson is dean of Master’s Pentecostal Seminary. For Dr. Van’s video series on the Spirit, visit onechurch.to/holyspirit
This article appeared in the July/August/September 2021 issue of testimony/Enrich, a quarterly publication of The Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada. © 2021 The Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada. Photos by 卡晨 on Unsplash and Miguel Bautista on Unsplash.