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What is "baptism in" the Holy Spirit?

And why do we not want to think it is simply immersion in the Spirit, the plain meaning of the words used?

The New Testament speaks explicitly of people being "baptized in" (or "with") the Holy Spirit in only six places: Matthew 3:11, Mark 1:8, Luke 3:16, John 1:33, Acts 1:5 and Acts 11:16. In each of these scriptures, baptism in the Holy Spirit is compared and contrasted with the water baptism of John using nearly identical language. This language is very important to those who wish to understand what baptism in the Holy Spirit means. The baptism of John and that in the Spirit are alike in that both are accomplished by immersion. The verb used to describe both baptisms is baptizo, meaning to bathe or immerse.

The contrast between the two baptisms is the effect of the immersion. In five of these passages, John's baptism is described as a baptism "with" water as an instrumentality — indeed, the Greek contains no preposition at all, just a form of the verb baptizo followed by the dative case form of the noun for "water," a grammatical construction which indicates that the water is an instrumentality for accomplishing a purpose. The same construction could be used to say that the speaker ate "with" a fork. (In John 1:32, John said that he baptized people "in" water, but both John and the people baptized by him were physically "in" the water of the Jordan River when he did so). Thus, in John's baptism, the water is a means to an end, namely, the repentance and cleansing which were the object of that ritual (see Acts 19:4).

By contrast, in the three passages in the Gospels and in Acts 1:5, the promise is made that people will be immersed "in" the Holy Spirit, and in Acts 11:16-17, it is stated that the believers in the upper room on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2) and the Gentiles gathered in the household of Cornelius (Acts 10) had been immersed "in" the Holy Spirit. In all of these passages, the Greek text uses the preposition en with the verb baptizo to describe the relationship between the Spirit and the believer who has been so baptized. En, usually translated "in" or "within," is a relatively simple preposition which literally describes, for example, the relationship between a swimmer and the water of the swimming pool. Used with baptizo, it obviously means "completely immersed in," especially when it is contrasted with the instrumental role of water in John's baptism. Baptism in the Holy Spirit, then, is being completely immersed in the Spirit.

This is, of course, exactly what was seen in Acts 2 and in the early days of the Church. The believers, as a group, were so completely immersed in the Spirit that other things simply were not important to them anymore. This immersion was symbolized by the wind and the tongues of fire, but was really an event which occurred on the spiritual plane. Because the Holy Spirit is God, He is everywhere, and could not have made Himself any more present around the believers in a physical sense after Pentecost than He was before. But after Pentecost, great and powerful things started to happen through the hands of a Church which was united in obeying the Spirit. They were spiritually immersed in Him, as viewed from outside themselves.

Perhaps we refuse to give the word "baptism" its full meaning in this context because we prefer an in-church religious "experience" to an ongoing relationship which will seriously interfere with our lives if permitted full expression. We want far too much to obey a list of rules, have in-church "experiences"(1) to reassure us that God is on good terms with us, and otherwise live our lives our own way. Nevertheless, Spirit "baptism" is ongoing immersion in the Holy Spirit, not a religious "experience" which happens in a church service.

NEXT PAGE: Baptism With and Being Filled By the Holy Spirit

Ian Johnson & Jonathan Brickman
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For Jonathan: jeb@joshuacorps.org

© 2003, 2010 Ian Johnson & Jonathan Brickman

Further explanations

Baptism With and Being Filled By the Holy Spirit

Baptism in the Holy Spirit compared with sealing or indwelling by him

The promised gift of the Holy Spirit

Other pages on this site

Historical digression: Early Pentecostals, Spirit baptism and the Wesleyan second blessing

Was tongues in evidence in every instance of Spirit baptism in Acts?

Speaking in Unknown Tongues, and Other Issues

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