Pentecost: Baptism with the Holy Spirit
It is very distressing to note that whereas the Holy Spirit Himself works towards bringing about unity among the people of God (Ephesians 4:3), the discussions about Him and His work over the centuries have been such that a great deal of disunity is the result. Today, there are not only radical divisions between churches which are of Pentecostal persuasion and others but even within the Pentecostal movement there has been excessive division and separation as different stands have been taken with respect to the Spirit and His gifts. A countless number of Christians have lost the real "peace of Christ" as they take up this endless pursuit for such gifts as tongues and healing as the be-all and end-all. And many others are felt to be second-rank Christians, or even told that they are not Christians at all because they do not have the so-called "second blessing" wherein these gifts become evident.
And so it makes it all the more urgent that the question be examined: do we, as Reformed people, really have the right understanding of the working of the Spirit in this Pentecost age? For surely, the Reformed Church misses out on the blessing that it may receive from this great event if it looks only at the excesses of others without considering its own deficiencies. One might ask, for instance, how much attention has been paid within Reformed circles to the very Scriptural teaching about the "baptism with the Holy Spirit"? Do we understand what that really is, or do we immediately wrongly equate it with the baptism with water that we are all so familiar with? And moreover, why is it that also within Reformed churches there is often a great deal of worldliness and weakness? Why is it that as individuals and as a community, we do not display more power in terms of living a Christian life and drawing others to join us? No doubt, here lies the answer, at least in part: it is because we are not dependent enough on the Spirit of God, and fail to live sufficiently out of the reality of Pentecost. It will be good to reflect on this.
A Baptism Administered by Christ
The fact that in the above, the event of Pentecost has been referred to as a "baptism" may strike one as somewhat odd because whenever baptism is mentioned today, one immediately thinks of the water-baptism which is so common among us. In this baptism however one does not even come into contact with water; instead, it is a baptism with the Holy Spirit. That Pentecost can be referred to in this way, is obvious from Acts 1:5, which reads "John baptized with water, but before many days you shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit.”
"Baptism" really is an appropriate word in this connection because "to baptize" simply means "to dip, immerse, or submerge", and this is really what happened to the apostles on Pentecost. They were truly immersed, submerged into the Holy Spirit; they were completely filled and possessed by Him.
To appreciate the work of the Spirit here however, one needs to focus first of all on Christ, for He is the One who is central also here at Pentecost. The baptism, the signs, and all the activity here is all the work of the Lord Jesus Christ. To be convinced of that, one needs to look at something that Luke wrote in his first book, something that is so significant that if one does not see that, he will not understand what is written in the second chapter of Luke's second book, the Acts of the Apostles. In Luke 3:16,17, when Jesus is about to be baptized by John the Baptist, John speaks some interesting words about this Jesus. He says:
I baptize you with water; but he who is mightier than I is coming, the thong of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie, He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.
John the Baptist says, in other words, that the One who comes after him, is also a Baptist. Besides John the Baptist, there is also Jesus the Baptist, and just as Jesus is greater than John, so the baptism that Jesus comes with is a baptism greater than John's, for it is a baptism with the Holy Spirit and with fire.
But now, if one searches the Gospels in order to find passages wherein Jesus is busy baptizing with the Spirit and this fire, then one soon discovers that there are no such references. It does not happen before He dies on the cross, nor before He ascends into heaven; He departs from this world without ever administering His Spirit and fire baptism! So when does Jesus do so? Not until fifty days after His resurrection! Pentecost is the act wherein Jesus is the Baptist, administering His Spirit and fire baptism! He is the One who sends the Spirit of God down into that room (cf. Acts 2:33).
One might then ask: why is it that Jesus does not administer this Spirit-and-fire baptism sooner? It is a question which seems to have puzzled even John the Baptist and to have led to his question: "Are you He who is to come or shall we look for another?" (Matthew 11:3). But the point is that before Jesus can administer this baptism with the Spirit and with fire, He must first Himself undergo Spirit-and-fire baptism! And this is what does take place in the Gospels. Shortly after John the Baptist says these words Jesus goes into the Jordan, and as John baptizes Him with water, He at the same time is baptized with the Holy Spirit, who descends upon Him "in bodily form, as a dove" (3:22). Jesus' baptism was unique in all the world; it was essentially a baptism whereby He became equipped for that most difficult task of His, for His ministry and work by receiving the Holy Spirit of God. Moreover, John said that Jesus would baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire! To John, "fire" is often a symbol of destruction, judgement and cleansing, as is seen in verse 17 of chapter 3, where He said of the Christ: "His winnowing fork is in His hand, to clear His threshing floor, and to gather the wheat into His granary, but the chaff He will bum with unquenchable fire.”
Without going into all the details here, if one asks when Jesus Himself was baptized with fire, then it seems one must think primarily of Christ's suffering. From the beginning of His ministry to the end thereof, Jesus was going through a baptism ordeal, which was not completed until He had drained the entire cup of the wrath of God. The fact that baptism with fire must be viewed in this way is obvious from Luke 12:49 where Jesus cries out "I came to cast fire upon the earth; and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism to be baptized with; and how I am constrained until it is accomplished", or, "how distressed I am until it is accomplished."
The picture that Luke seems to be sketching then is that when Jesus comes into the world, He cannot immediately begin baptizing the people of God with His Spirit and fire baptism because this baptism contains a destructive, judgmental element. The people of God are so sinful and corrupt that if they were to be baptized immediately with this kind of baptism, they would be consumed by the Spirit and the fire! Then they would be destroyed by it, and destroyed completely! Therefore, before the people of God can receive that kind of baptism, the Jesus who is neither sinful nor corrupt, as their sin-bearer and their Mediator, must undergo that Spirit and fire baptism! In order that the Spirit and fire baptism might be beneficial to the people of God rather than destructive, the Messiah Himself as their sin-bearer must go through it! He must remove the curse in this baptism by taking all those destructive and judgmental elements upon Himself, and so turn it into a blessing! He must drink the cup of the wrath of God, drink it completely, and so bear their condemnation. Before He can become the Baptist who baptizes with the Holy Spirit and with fire, He must first become "the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world"! (John 1:29, 33).1
When Pentecost is seen in that light, then it really comes into its own - as the crowning point on all the work of Jesus Christ. There is a tendency to think that at Easter all is really over and that with Ascension and Pentecost things begin to taper off even more. It is very far from true; seen rightly, Pentecost is really the climax and the fulfillment of them all. For notice: at Easter, that which John said would be the very purpose of Christ's work - baptizing with the Spirit and fire - has still not yet taken place! Even at Christ's ascension, at the end of His earthly ministry, that which was said was His goal at the beginning of His earthly ministry, still has not yet happened. If His ascension is really the end, then the course charted out for the Christ has not been completed, and the Bible an unfinished book, a story that is left suspended in the air. Instead, at Pentecost it all comes to its climax and fulfillment. There, that which was said about Him at the beginning of His ministry, is finally a reality. There you have the baptism with the Spirit and fire. A sound like the rush of a mighty wind - it is a sign of the Spirit descending. And suddenly, tongues as of fire, resting on each one of them. What is it? It is all the benefits and blessings won by Jesus Christ in His life, death, and resurrection being applied to the disciples. It is Christ pouring out His Spirit, causing His church to become a dwelling place of God in the Spirit (Ephesians 2:22). It is Christ building a temple of God in which the Spirit of God dwells (1 Corinthians 3:16). It is Christ causing His church to become a Spirit-baptized body. You could say, therefore, that which John's baptism was to Jesus, that Pentecost was to the church. What the Jordan was to Jesus, Pentecost was to the apostles. For at the Jordan, when Jesus was baptized by John, the Father gave Jesus the Spirit so that He might be able to accomplish the messianic task before Him. Likewise, at Pentecost, the Jesus who received the Spirit from the Father now gives the Spirit to His Church. The Spirit who has equipped Christ for His task is now poured out on the church so that she might be equipped for hers.
So it is. Also in the books of Acts Luke shows in more ways than one that Pentecost is the work of the ascended Christ in heaven. In Acts 1:1, for instance, Luke says: In the first book, "0 Theophilus, I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach.” In other words, now I am going to tell you about what Jesus continued to do. Now I'm going to tell you part two of the work of Christ! All the action in the Book of Acts - the result of the work of Christ! Not really: the acts of the apostles, but the acts of Christ through His apostles! So too with Acts 2:33. That whole Pentecost sermon of Peter's is very interesting because notice that on the day when the Spirit is poured out and when Peter is full of the Spirit, whom does he preach about? About the Spirit? Does He say: "look at the Spirit! See what He does!" No, from beginning to end, it is a sermon about Christ! Peter says: Pentecost is the work of Jesus Christ! The Spirit in Peter is causing Peter to show that Pentecost is all about Christ, Christ, and Christ again, that it is entirely the fulfillment and the climax of Christ's work! For Peter says in verse 33, about the wind, the fire, the tongues of Pentecost - that that is all Christ's work. He says: "this Jesus… 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 that which you see and hear!"
This ought then to be borne in mind when people nowadays tell us that Pentecost needs to be repeated in the life of every individual Christian. We should not believe it, for Pentecost is very much like Christmas, Good Friday, Easter and Ascension. It too is a unique event in the whole history of redemption, and just as the birth, death, and resurrection of Christ are unrepeatable events, so Pentecost is unrepeatable. Just as Christ died for His Church once-for-all, so He poured out His Spirit once-for-all on that Church of His! Pentecost is the event whereby the new age, the age of the Spirit, the new dispensation is ushered in. And since that age is already here, it surely cannot be ushered in again.
A Baptism with the Holy Spirit
On the day of Pentecost itself several mysterious things take place, such as a sound like the rush of a mighty wind, the tongues of fire, and the tongues which are spoken (Acts 2:1-4). When one explores their cause, it is no doubt found in the fact that this baptism administered by Christ is at the same time a baptism with the Holy Spirit. For since the Spirit is an invisible Person, one who cannot be perceived with the human eye or the human ear, He must manifest Himself in other ways, by means of signs. So it is. The wind points to the presence of the Holy Spirit in the room, for "wind" often symbolizes the "Spirit", being the same words in both Hebrew and in Greek. Think in this connection of John 3:8, where you see the parallel as well; for Jesus says there: "the wind blows where it wills, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know when it comes or whether it goes; so it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit."
The same you see in John 20:22, where the risen Jesus breathes on the disciples, causing a wind to come upon them and says to them; "Receive the Holy Spirit.” So it is too with the tongues which look like fire and descend upon their heads; that too is a symbol of the presence of the Spirit and of the fact that these persons are being baptized with the Spirit. Likewise, the fact that suddenly these men speak in strange languages not only symbolizes the fact that from this point on the Gospel is to go out to many nations and to be heard in many tongues; it also serves to prove that the Spirit of God not only filled the room, but He also filled the apostles. He had them under His complete control. They spoke as He gave them utterance. Truly then, they were baptized with the Holy Spirit!
Now it might be asked: what does this imply for us today? Again, the Pentecostal movement is telling us that once we have been converted to Christ, and if we have truly been converted, then at some later point we must receive as well the "second blessing" of an experience such as this. Then we too must have our own mini-pentecost in which tongues and the like are a reality. Granted, it should not be denied for a moment that at the first Pentecost and thereafter, people spoke in tongues. Undoubtedly, for a time, tongues played quite an important role in the life of the church. In Corinth, people did speak in tongues; when the letter to the Corinthians was written, the Gospels had not yet been written, Acts had not been written, neither had the book of Revelation, nor most of the others. All the Corinthians apparently had in their possession was a handful of New Testament letters. And indeed, in this void, God did cause one person to speak in tongues, and another to interpret them, and so He would pass on His Word. Tongues, when they were properly used, and properly interpreted, constituted prophecy. As long as the Scriptures were incomplete, God chose to speak to His people in that way. That cannot be denied. It is interesting to compare all this with the last book that Paul wrote, 2 Timothy. There, in Paul's last will and testament, one reads nothing about tongues or such special gifts of the Spirit. Why? Because the Word is now complete! So instead, one now reads about officebearers whose task it is to maintain that Word and to preach it. And this Word is sufficient, for "all Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work" (3:16,17).
But whereas the use of tongues in the early church cannot be denied, what ought to be denied most vehemently is the suggestion that all true Christians must be able to do likewise today. That is a result of misreading Holy Scripture, which is merciless and cruel, for it causes many Christians to be tossed into doubt about the truthfulness of their faith.
That those who teach this misread the Scriptures is evident already from Acts 2. For we may ask: who is it precisely that speaks in tongues here? Do all believers do so? Does everyone who is baptized with the Holy Spirit begin to speak in other tongues? Certainly not. In reality, it is only the twelve apostles who do so. For Acts 1:26 mentions Matthias, the newly appointed apostle, as well as the other eleven; and then Acts 2:1 says: "When the day of Pentecost had come, they (that is, the twelve apostles!) were all together in one place. And suddenly a sound came from heaven … and filled the house where they were sitting…"
In this passage, the pronouns "them" and "they" refer back to those apostles, so that also verse 4 reads: "and, they (the apostles) were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance."
The apostles are the ones who receive these signs, and begin to speak in tongues, because they are the officebearers of the church, the representatives of the New Testament church. The Spirit comes upon the church, not when everyone or even a select group begins to speak in tongues, but when the apostles, the representatives of the church, receive this gift. And notice too, that later, in the same chapter, when we hear about three thousand other people coming to faith, then we do not hear anything about the sound of a mighty wind, or tongues of flame, or of speaking in tongues! Yet were these people not also Christians? Were they not also "baptized with the Holy Spirit"? Does Peter not baptize them with water, telling them that the promises apply also to them, and that they too receive the gifts of the Holy Spirit? Therefore, it should be realized again: the beginning of Acts 2 is unique, and unrepeatable. So if believers today are looking for a model or a pattern of how it must go today, they must look at the end and not at the beginning of Acts 2, reflecting primarily on the three thousand rather than the twelve.
The same can be seen in 1 Corinthians 12:10,30 where Paul makes it clear that whereas only some people speak in tongues, yet "by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body - Jews or Greeks, slaves or free - and all were made to drink of one Spirit" (vs.13). Again, this is no privilege of the select few, of a certain elite, "all were made to drink of one Spirit.”
So it might be asked: who is it that can lay claim to the title of Christian? Is it only those who have received special gifts such as speaking in tongues? The clear teaching of Scripture is: if you believe, really believe, in Jesus Christ, then you too were baptized with the Holy Spirit. Baptism with the Holy Spirit is a universal Christian experience. It is not so that there are "have-not Christians" and there are "Spirit-baptized Christians.” Rather, it is so that there are Christians who are Spirit-baptized Christians and there are persons who are not Christians at all.
A Baptism which Calls for the Filling of the Holy Spirit
All this might, however, cause one to wonder: if all those who really believe in Christ were actually baptized with the Spirit of Christ, why is it that sometimes there is so little evidence of the work of the Spirit in these Christians? Why is it that there is often a lack in zeal, in enthusiasm, in dedication? The life of the Church is often such that one might draw the conclusion that the Spirit of God is very far from this place and these people.
Yet it must be realized that the lack of a thorough Christian lifestyle and outlook does not necessarily mean that a person or a body of people have not been baptized with the Spirit. To be sure, it can mean that; perhaps the profession of belief is only a matter of the lips rather than the heart. Hypocrisy is there in the true church too (article 29, Belgic Confession). However, the question is: does this necessarily mean that the Pentecostals are right - that only those who have some of these higher gifts have really "got" it, and that they are the only real Christians? Instead, what it means is that what those who have been baptized with the Holy Spirit as a one-time reality need to realize is that they need to be filled with the Holy Spirit of God again and again! Their supply needs to be replenished; the fullness of the Holy Spirit of God needs to be recovered, for whereas the baptism with the Holy Spirit only happens once in the life of every believer and is unrepeatable, the filling with the Holy Spirit needs to be repeated and also can be. Luke teaches us that in the book of Acts. Acts 2:4 says: "they were all filled with the Holy Spirit", but later some of the same people are being filled again; in 4:8 we hear of Peter being filled with the Spirit again, and in 4:31 the whole company is once again being filled with the Spirit of God (cf. Acts 9:17; 13:9, Eph. 5:18). Paul says it all when he urges the Ephesians: "be filled (that is, KEEP ON BEING FILLED) with the Holy Spirit.”
Thus, it is clear that the picture of the Christian life as a life in which everything is joy and peace and the like is little more than a caricature. It is not so that once a supposed second blessing has been received, the life of the Christian is nothing but bliss. Rather, moments of temptation are sure to come. Sin continues to be a reality. Times of discouragement will be there. Satan yet blows with much of his force. But what will we do when such moments come upon us? Follow the Pentecostal myth which would say that the presence of such points to the absence of Christ and His Spirit? Instead, we need to hear the Spirit who encourages us: "Keep on being filled with Me.” For the fullness of the Spirit is far from permanent; one needs to think Just of the beautiful words of the Catechism: "God will give His grace and the Holy Spirit only to those who constantly and with heartfelt longing ask Him for these gifts and thank Him for them" (L.D.45).
So then Pentecost is a time also for Reformed people to search their hearts. Has our Christian life degenerated to nothing but a hollow ritual, an empty routine? Has our Christianity gone flabby and become weak? Are we knowingly indulging in things which our God has forbidden? Do we find it difficult to say "no" to our flesh and "yes" to our God? Then is it not time for repentance? Is it not time to be filled again with that life-giving, sin-destroying Spirit of God? In the words of Paul to the Galatians: "if we live by the Spirit, let us also KEEP IN STEP with the Spirit.” It means: not twenty, ten, or one step behind the Spirit… but beside Him, keeping up on that forward, progressive path on which He wants to take us. In the thought pattern of Luke, if we have been baptized with the Spirit once, then let us be:
Filled with the Holy Spirit Again and Again and Again!!