Text: Acts 2:1-21
When the Day of Pentecost had fully come, they were all with one accord in one place. And suddenly there came a sound from heaven, as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting. Then there appeared to them divided tongues, as of fire, and one sat upon each of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.
What does it mean to be baptized in the Holy Spirit?
This is an expression that is often used by charismatic and Pentecostal Christians today, and so many of us probably don’t use it. We don’t understand what our brothers in other denominations mean, and we don’t share their experiences, and so we just keep to ourselves and try not to talk about what we don’t know.
But this is a mistake. You see, the baptism of the Holy Spirit is an important event in the New Testament. It marks the point in which the Christian Church is endued with power from God to fulfill its mission. It also marks the point in which the Christian Church begins participating in the New Covenant and the new life in the Holy Spirit. Without this event, the Church wouldn’t be the Church.
This event continues to have meaning today, as the Holy Spirit continues to live in the Church, which is to say, as the Holy Spirit continues to live in believers. We will see how He brings God’s presence into the world, how He testifies for and against certain people, and how He vindicates believers and shows them to be God’s true people. All this is what we mean when we say that Pentecost was the baptism of the Holy Spirit.
Pentecost Was the Baptism of the Holy Spirit
This is our big idea, and while it might sound strange today, it’s really the most obvious meaning of the Bible. Just look at what Jesus said in Acts 1:4-5, “wait for the Promise of the Father, “which,” He said, “you have heard from Me; for John truly baptized with water, but you shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”
Just before He ascends to heaven, Jesus tells his disciples to “wait for the Promise of the Father” which will be the baptism with the Holy Spirit. This will occur, Jesus says, “not many days from now.”
This baptism had been predicted by John the Baptist at the very beginning of the gospels. As he was preparing the way for the messiah, John said:
I indeed baptize you with water; but One mightier than I is coming, whose sandal strap I am not worthy to loose. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fan is in His hand, and He will thoroughly clean out His threshing floor, and gather the wheat into His barn; but the chaff He will burn with unquenchable fire. (Luke 3:16-17)
This was a prophecy of judgment, where the messiah would separate the wheat from the chaff. The messiah would judge a faithless Israel and identify the true Israel. This is what John calls “the baptism with the Holy Spirit and fire,” and this is what Jesus says will happen “not many days” after His ascension. It happened on the day of Pentecost.
Acts 2 explains what happened on that day:
When the Day of Pentecost had fully come, they were all with one accord in one place. And suddenly there came a sound from heaven, as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting. Then there appeared to them divided tongues, as of fire, and one sat upon each of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance. (Acts 2:1-4)
Consider the imagery there. The Holy Spirit came down from heaven and sat atop the disciples. It did this under the form of fire. When this happened, the disciples were given power to work wonders and prophesy the Word of God. This was the baptism of the Holy Spirit.
What This Means
Making this connection, which is textually very direct, changes how we understand the expression “baptism of the Holy Spirit.” Understood this way, it was a historic event that happened to the church collectively. We may have parallel experiences in our life, but those might also be quite different too. Either way, the main meaning is the one we see in Acts. The baptism of the Holy Spirit has occurred.
1) God Is Locally Present In and Through The Holy Spirit
This means a number of important things. First, it means that there a permanent local presence of the Holy Spirit with God’s people. This is what Jesus predicted throughout John’s gospel. “If anyone thirsts, let him come to Me and drink. He who believes in Me, as the Scripture has said, out of his heart will flow rivers of living water” (John 7:37-38). The next verse explains what this means, “ But this He spoke concerning the Spirit, whom those believing in Him would receive; for the Holy Spirit was not yet given, because Jesus was not yet glorified.”
After Jesus’ glorification, the Holy Spirit would personally inhabit all believers. Was this not always the case? No. In the Old Testament, the Spirit came upon people for a time. This usually happened to the prophets, but sometimes we see it with the judges (like Samson) and others. But the only abiding presence of God on earth was in the tabernacle and the temple.
This was the case until the presence moved to Jesus’ incarnate body in the gospels. There the Word made His tabernacle in a body of flesh, and the center of divine worship was in the man Jesus Christ. But then Jesus left. And so a new “central location” had to be established. This central location would be the Holy Spirit, and He would dwell in the heart of all believers.
Jesus spoke of this again in John 14-15. I will give you just two quotes from that section. John 15:26-27 says, “But when the Helper comes, whom I shall send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who proceeds from the Father, He will testify of Me. And you also will bear witness, because you have been with Me from the beginning.” We hear something very similar in John 16:7-11:
Nevertheless I tell you the truth. It is to your advantage that I go away; for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you; but if I depart, I will send Him to you. And when He has come, He will convict the world of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment: of sin, because they do not believe in Me; of righteousness, because I go to My Father and you see Me no more; of judgment, because the ruler of this world is judged.
So again, we see that the Holy Spirit would indwell Christ’s disciples only after He left.
2) The Spirit Testifies For and Against People
These last quotes also bring out the fact that the Holy Spirit would enable the Church to testify, to bear witness. The Spirit, speaking through the words of the apostles, will “convict the world of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment.” And so Pentecost is where this witness-bearing and conviction begins. Pentecost empowers the early Christian Church to proclaim the gospel, first to the Jews, then into Samaria, and eventually to the ends of the world.
This also begins the separation of true Israel from false, and we can again see how this ties it back to the baptism of the Holy Spirit predicted by John the Baptist. Again, let’s remember back to the beginning of the gospels. Just before John spoke of the coming baptism of the Holy Spirit, he said that judgment was coming upon Israel:
Brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Therefore bear fruits worthy of repentance, and do not begin to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our father.’ For I say to you that God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones. And even now the ax is laid to the root of the trees. Therefore every tree which does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” (Luke 3:7-9)
This is why it is fearful to think that the messiah has a “winnowing fan” in His hand (Luke 3:17). The messiah is going to start reaping the fields, and He will pass judgment upon all that is not wheat. Jesus began this in His personal ministry, but the baptism of the Holy Spirit advanced this greatly and brought out the judgment even more.
3) The Presence of the Holy Spirit in Believers is Proof That They Are Israel
True Israel is those who are sons of Abraham, and the sons of Abraham are those who do the works of Abraham (John 8:39). The children of Abraham are those who have the faith of Abraham, faith in the messiah (Gal. 3:5-7). The visible sign of this, the proof of this, is the presence of the Holy Spirit. These true Israelites—and these alone—will possess the Holy Spirit. The baptism of the Holy Spirit marks the church out as the true Israel.
The fact that the Christians were working signs and wonders was proof that they were right in their dispute. All of them could “prophesy,” as Joel 2 predicted. Any and every believer could speak God’s Word, they did not have to “go through” the leadership of Judaism to get this. Thus the Spirit was their proof, and He was their power. He gave them the ability to carry out the mission Jesus had left.
This confirmed Jesus’ claims, proving that He was who He said He was. This vindicated His followers. And this proved that the “last days” were now here. Judgment was coming soon, and you had better take notice and join those who have God with them.
Application For Today
We have seen that the baptism of the Holy Spirit was an historic event that occurred at Pentecost. There the followers of Jesus were given God’s own presence through the Spirit, and this enabled them to bear witness and to show that they were the true Israel, the true members of the new heavenly age which was already dawning.
So what does this mean for us today? We are nearly 2000 years removed from that first Pentecost. How are we baptized with the Holy Spirit today, or are we? This event happens to us when the Holy Spirit enters into our hearts by faith and then transforms us inside and out. And it has those same three meanings as above but in a personal way.
First, the local presence of God on earth just is the Holy Spirit. We meet this presence by faith, and Jesus promises that the Spirit will dwell within us, individually, as we place our trust in Jesus. Ultimately then, God dwells in us immediately. He offers means and aids to assist our faith, but these are tools to get us to meet God directly. The Holy Spirit in our hearts by faith is God’s direct presence. No structure of institution can get in the way of that, and no structure or institution can replace that.
We must believe, and when we do, the Spirit enters into us. This is commonly called “being born again,” and it happens solely by faith and the mystery of God’s providence working in and through the Holy Spirit.
Secondly, the Spirit testifies for those with faith and against all imposters. Jesus said that you can tell a tree by its fruit (Matthew 7:16-20). The Apostle John, in his first epistle, says that we know we are children of God if we “practice righteousness” (1 John 3:7). He adds that true Christians do not continue in lives of sin because, “God’s seed remains in him” (1 John 3:9). Thus, the Spirit within us testifies to who we are by working good works of righteousness in and through our lives. Our sanctification is a sort of “proof” that we are born again, that we are baptized in the Spirit. We cannot judge this perfectly, and we must not be abusive or legalistic in this judgment, but there should be an eventual “match” between what we believe and how we live. If there is not, then you should be justly afraid, and you should examine your heart to see if true faith abides there.
Thirdly, the presence of the Spirit in us is proof that we are Israel, God’s special covenant people. If we have the Holy Spirit, then we are children of Abraham, and we continue in that same promise that has been here for all of these years. This also brings out the community aspect of this, as Israel was always a people—though it is a people made up of true believers. We now in the Church just are Israel, as we believe in Israel messiah and possess God’s Spirit. This gives us proof that the promises made to Israel are now ours, and we can trust that God never goes back on His word.
So, we see the baptism of the Holy Spirit. We see how it came upon the early church at Pentecost and empowered them to carry out the mission. And we see how it continues to guide and instruct us today.
We must be the true Israel. We must be personally born again. This happens by faith. Let us confirm our faith, and the validity of the Church itself, through our speech and works, by proclaiming and living the gospel. And we let us trust in Christ to carry this out through us, to redeem and perfect His church.
Let us pray.