On the Jewish Calendar, Pentecost was 50 days after Passover. According to Leviticus 23, Pentecost was a Feast Day—the Feast of Weeks to be exact. It was a day when Israel worshiped God by bringing a new grain offering to the temple. But today, this Jewish Feast is best known for what happened fifty days after Christ’s resurrection.
In Acts 2, Jews from all over the world were celebrating Pentecost. And it was on this day that God poured out his Spirit. Why some confusion, and accusations of drunkenness, occurred on that day, more confusion has come since. Therefore, we need to see what Pentecost is and how Luke presents its centrifugal effect throughout the book of Acts.
Importantly, Pentecost was the day Jesus began to build his new covenant temple. This was the day when the church was born. And this was the day when the apostles were filled with the Spirit, empowering them to go into the world and proclaim the gospel—the means by which the church would be founded.
In Acts, Pentecost is accompanied by powerful signs and wonders. Fire from heaven touches earth; tongues of fire are located above the heads of the people. Just like the pillar of fire stood above the tabernacle, and just like Solomon’s temple was filled with the Holy Spirit, so now Christ’s Spiritual temple (i.e., his covenant people) is indwelt with the Holy Spirit. And as the book of Acts displays, the Spirit they received is also shared with Gentiles as the Gospel goes forward.
At Pentecost, we also hear reports of tongues being spoken. Most wonderfully, these tongues are not inarticulate utterances, or some heavenly prayer language. They are real languages, proclaiming the wondrous works of God. Acts 2:9–-10 list more than a dozen nations from around the Mediterranean. And v. 11 says: “Both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabians—we hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God.”
On Pentecost, therefore, the Gospel is proclaimed in other languages. Just as at Babel (in Genesis 11) God gave the people new languages to divide the nations. Now God is giving new languages to preach the gospel to the nations. Whereas the first ‘gift’ of tongues was a curse, now this gift of tongues is a true nation-uniting blessing. Pentecost, therefore, is the foundation of the universal church and the beginning of the Spirit-empowered mission to unite all nations through the preaching of the gospel.
Still, we might ask the question: What about the baptism promised by Christ, what we might call Spirit baptism? Does it always look like Pentecost, or might Pentecost be a one-time event?
The Baptism in the Spirit
When Paul speaks of the church body in 1 Corinthians 12, he says all members possess the same Spirit because all have been baptized with or in the same Spirit. He writes, “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit” (vv. 12—13)
In verse 12 Paul begins with an illustration about the body. Then in verse 13, he explains the way one enters this universal body of Christ is thru Spirit-baptism. But what is that?
To answer that question brings us back to Acts, Pentecost, and the concentric impact of the Spirit’s outpouring. On Pentecost, the Holy Spirit came in power, just like John the Baptist (Luke 3:16; John 1:33) and Jesus promised (Luke 24:48–49; Acts 1:5). The Baptist said in Luke 3:16, “John answered them all, saying, “I baptize you with water, but he who is mightier than I is coming, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” Likewise, Jesus spoke of the kingdom when he said, “And while staying with them he ordered them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father, which, he said, “you heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now” (Acts 1:4–5).
The “not many days from now” was Pentecost. On that day, Luke records how the Spirit rushed upon the church. This was the Spirit baptism of which Jesus spoke. And as Paul defines it in 1 Corinthians 12:12–13, it was a baptism in not by the Holy Spirit. (Some English versions translate the Greek preposition en as instrumental, but this confuses the roles of the Spirit and the Son.)
In every reference in the New Testament, it is the Son who baptizes his people with / in the Spirit. The Son is the Lord who grants salvation, and he is the one who sends his Spirit to baptize his people. As the rest of the verse explains, those who are baptized are given the Spirit to drink.
But what does this mean? We should see in verse 13 a parallel idea to baptism—one that may best be explained by John 7:37–39. Letting Scripture interpret Scripture, Jesus anticipates a day when his Spirit will be poured out and people will be refreshed by it. He says,
On the last day of the feast, the great day, Jesus stood up and cried out, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. 38 Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’ ” 39 Now this he said about the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were to receive, for as yet the Spirit had not been given, because Jesus was not yet glorified.
What was promised of old, that God’s people would find life-giving water from the temple of God has taken place in the outpouring of the Spirit (see Ezekiel 47). Jesus speaks of this during his earthly life, when he promises the coming of the Spirit. And now Paul looking back at Pentecost, says the same thing – when Jesus baptizes his people with the Spirit, we are made to drink of his life-giving water. The gift of living water and Spirit baptism are all speaking of the same saving event
Which then leads to the question: when does this happen?
The Three Rings of Pentecost
Answering the question about Spirit baptism requires a redemptive-historical approach. Because Acts is a transitional book—moving from old covenant to new—it recounts the way the Holy Spirit comes for the first time to dwell with Christ’s people. In this context, it is not surprising that some of the circumstances are not repeatable. At no other time in history do we find born-again believers receiving the Spirit post-conversion. This was a necessary step in redemptive-history, as the new covenant replaced the old. It is not a step that functions as a paradigm for all people in all ages.
Rather, rightly understanding Acts and the coming of the Spirit requires (at least) three historical steps—the Spirit’s arrival at Pentecost (Acts 2), the Spirit’s ongoing gift to the Samaritans and Gentiles (Acts 8, 10, 19), and the Spirit’s normative work in the lives of believers today. Let’s consider each phase in the outpouring of the Spirit.
1.Pentecost Proper (Acts 2)
For every believer at Pentecost—i.e., those in Jerusalem in Acts 2—the outpouring of the Holy Spirit was their Spirit baptism. Though they had faith, the Spirit did not yet dwell in them (cf. John 14:17). But after Pentecost it did. While these believers were already made alive by the Spirit, and surely many others were born again on this day—compare the 12o in the upper room with the 3,000 baptized—from Pentecost forward the Spirit dwelt within them as the new covenant temple of God.
This was the first historical phase of the Spirit’s outpouring. The second moves through the book of Acts in centrifugal fashion (cf. Acts 1:8).
2. The Concentric Circles of Pentecost (Acts 8, 10, 19)
Throughout the book of Acts, the Spirit continues to flow downhill from Jerusalem. In Acts 8 Phillip goes to Samaria, where he preaches the gospel and baptizes believers. When this happens, the church with the Holy Spirit, the church in Jerusalem, sends Peter and John to them. They lay hands on the brothers and the Spirit is poured out. Significantly, the gift of tongues is missing. To these (despised) half-brothers of the Jews, there is not a language barrier. Thus the gift of tongues is not given.
Two chapters later in Acts 10, the Spirit comes to the Gentiles at Cornelius house. Led by the Lord, Peter preaches the gospel to these Gentiles. When he does the Spirit is poured out and tongues are again spoken. Why? Probably because the gospel has crossed another national boundary, going from Jew to Gentile.
Further evidence of this international growth of the church is seen thru the rest of Acts. But only one more time do we find the Spirit being poured out and tongues being given. This happens in Ephesus.
In Acts 19 Paul finds disciples of John the Baptist who know truth about the Messiah, but have not received the Spirit yet. They are still living under the old covenant and have not been baptized in Jesus’ name. Paul baptizes them and they too receive the Spirit and speak in tongues in that moment.
In these four chapters—2, 8, 10, 19—the foundation of the church is being laid. Pentecost proper takes place in Jerusalem as the Spirit is initially poured out. But Pentecost has an ongoing effect throughout Acts as the Spirit comes with visible signs and wonders in Acts 8, 10, and 19.
By the end of Acts the gospel has reached the end of the earth, and local churches with their own elders are beginning to thrive. The transition period for the church is over. And now Spirit baptism occurs at the moment of salvation. Thus, the signs and wonders of Pentecost are unnecessary, as the church enters into its permanent phase, which we might call Acts 29 and beyond.
3. Acts 29 and Beyond
Today, when someone is born again, they receive the Spirit at once. There is no two-stage experience of salvation. Rather, because the new covenant includes in its very nature the gift of the Holy Spirit, each member of Jesus covenant of peace enjoys the gift of the Spirit from the moment they are brought into covenant relationship with Christ.
Scripture doesn’t teach a two-part salvation. Yes, there is a brief moment in redemptive-history where regenerate men and women received the Spirit post-conversion. But this is a reality of history, not ongoing doctrine. As Acts 1:8 indicates, the book transitions the people of God from flesh to Spirit, from Jerusalem to Rome, from one tongue to a myriad. Accordingly, it cannot be used as a counter-example against Spirit-baptism, a reality testified by John the Baptist, Jesus, and Paul.
Living Out Our Spirit Baptism
Most clearly, 1 Corinthians 12:12–13 teach that the church of Jesus Christ is united in one baptism. This does not take place at Pentecost, but instead it is the common experience of every regenerate believer. Not only has the Spirit granted faith and repentance; he has also been given to Christ’s people to seal them in Christ’s new covenant. We are now in communion with Christ and with all those who share the same Spirit.
Accordingly, we must maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace (Ephesians 4:3). Unity is not something we create; it is given by Christ when he baptized us in the Spirit. That is to say, Holy Spirit-unity is a positional truth for Christians, and one that should inform every aspect of life.
We do not experience unity because we have had the same experience of Pentecost—tongues and miraculous signs. Rather, because we have been given the Spirit, we share the greater bond of life and love in Christ. And it is this Spiritual life Paul calls to the forefront in 1 Corinthians 12, as he challenges the contentious Corinthians to live in harmony with one another.
As we worship Christ today, may we do the same. May we marvel at the work of God in the early church, and stand on its foundation. Instead of trying to relive its transitional glory, may we instead seek to use our gifts to build up the bodies of Christ which are securely affixed atop its Spirit-given foundation. To this end, may all Christ’s churches be unified in one gospel, one Lord, one baptism, and one Spirit.
Soli Deo Gloria, ds