Holy Spirit Baptism: The Apostles' experience

Pentecostals believe that the Apostles had a two-stage experience of the Spirit involving firstly the reception of the Spirit after Jesus’ resurrection and secondly the baptism in the Spirit after Jesus’ ascension into heaven. John 20:22 is used to support this position, where Jesus, after his resurrection, breathes on his disciples and says to them "receive the Holy Spirit”. If the disciples received the Spirit at this moment, Pentecostals reason that on the day of Pentecost their experience must have been a second work of the Spirit. But is this seemingly straight-forward logic reasonable? Is it possible? Did the disciples receive the Spirit from Jesus before his ascension? What actually was the experience of the Apostles?

“The Spirit had not been given”

The Apostle John, speaking about the Spirit “whom those who believed in him were to receive,” in John 7:39 explains that “as yet the Spirit had not been given, because Jesus was not yet glorified.” This brief note of explanation in John’s Gospel is enough to show that the classic teaching of Pentecostalism is inconsistent with Scripture and the true experience of the Apostles. For John says that although the disciples were to later receive the Spirit, this could not happen until Jesus had been glorified; that is, until he had returned to his Father in the glory of heaven (John 17:5).

“I will send him to you”

Jesus himself made it clear that the Spirit would not be given to his disciples before his ascension into heaven when he said, “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 go, I will send him to you” (John 16:7 ESV). It was only after Jesus ‘went away’ that he sent the Holy Spirit into his disciples. It says Jesus ‘sent’ the Spirit from heaven; he did not ‘bring him’ or ‘leave him’ with them while he was on earth. According to Jesus’ own word the Holy Spirit would ‘not come’ before this point; for “the Spirit had not been given.”

“He dwells with you and will be in you”

In teaching that the disciples did not yet ‘have the Spirit,’ Jesus was not suggesting that the Apostles were ‘unbelievers’ before the day of Pentecost; nor were they ‘without the Spirit.’ Speaking to his disciples about the Holy Spirit in John 14:17 Jesus said: “You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you.” Jesus here explained that although the disciples knew the Spirit, indeed he already dwelt ‘with’ them, yet they did not still experience the ‘indwelling’ of the Holy Spirit; that is, he was not ‘in’ them. Jesus promised himself to give them God’s Spirit to live in them after his glorification to God’s right hand.

“The gift my Father promised”

On one occasion before Jesus’ ascension into heaven, he said to his disciples: “"Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit."” ­­(Acts 1:4-5 NIV) Jesus here again showed that the Pentecostal event was the moment when his discipes received for the first time the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. For he spoke to the disciples about "what the Father promised" as something also that his disciples had ‘heard him speak about.’ (Acts 1:4) He refers to this gift here also as the ‘baptism with the Holy Spirit,’ using the language of John the baptist (Acts 1:5). This is the first (and only) recorded time when Jesus spoke with the phraseology of ‘baptism with the Spirit.’ The point is that the disciples had already heard Jesus speak again and again about his baptism with the Spirit when he’d taught them about his gift of the Spirit (E.g. John 3:24; 4:14; 7:37-39; 14:16-21; 16:5-7; 20:22). Therefore, John's words about Jesus’ baptism with the Spirit spoke of the same thing as Jesus’ words about his gift and the disciples reception of the Spirit; that is, the disciples were baptised with the Spirit the moment that Jesus gave God’s Spirit to indwell them.

“He has poured out this”

On the day of Pentecost, after Jesus’ ascension into heaven (Acts 1:11) and after the disciples were all ‘filled with the Holy Spirit’ (Acts 2:4), Peter proclaimed the meaning of their experience to the crowd: “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 this that you yourselves are seeing and hearing.” (Acts 2:33 ESV) Again, this point of explanation in Peter’s sermon is enough to show that the classic teaching of Pentecostalism is counter-Scripture. It says that what they saw and heard on the day of Pentecost, after Jesus’ exaltation, was the sign that Jesus himself had just given the Father’s gift of the Spirit to these disciples. Jesus gave what the Father promised to give; he gave what was (only) God’s to give: God’s own Spirit. John (the baptist with water) had said, “"I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” (Matthew 3:11 ESV) The Pentecostal event was the ultimate display of Jesus’ might and his worth, for it shows him to be God over all. It was not a secondary experience, it was the primary experience of Jesus’ lordship and divinity.

As a side point, Acts 2:33 also shows why the image of ‘baptism’ is appropriate for this experience, for this verse uses the metaphorical language of baptism also: It says that Jesus ‘poured out’ the Spirit onto them as one pours out water in baptism. But unlike baptism that poured water onto one merely to symbolise the removal of uncleanliness before God, Jesus baptised with the Spirit because by pouring him onto people they actually would be free from the power of sin that makes one unacceptable to God. (Ez 26:27; Rom 8:2).

“I will put my Spirit in you”

The statements about the Spirit here in the Gospels and Acts highlight the changing time in salvation history that the disciples experienced: “the Spirit was not yet given, because Jesus was not yet glorified;” “he dwells with you and will be in you;” “if I go, I will send him to you;” “exalted to the right hand of God... [he] has poured out what you now see and hear.” The only reason that the disciples, as believers already in Christ, were not baptised in the Spirit before the day of Pentecost was because it wasn’t until that very moment in history that Jesus’ new covenant ministry of giving the Spirit began. Before the day of Pentecost the disciples were still under the covenant that did not give the Spirit. Though they had eternal life through faith in his name – as John the Baptist also did – before the day of Pentecost they were not indwelt by the Spirit. (John 14:17).

The Old Testament indicated that the coming of the new covenant was to be inaugurated by the coming of the Spirit. Jeremiah wrote: "The time is coming," declares the LORD , "when I will make a new covenant…"I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts.” (Jeremiah 31:31, 33 NIV) Ezekiel adds: “And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.” (Ezekiel 36:27 NIV) And so Jesus promised, “"If you love me, you will obey what I command. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Counselor to be with you forever--the Spirit of truth”” (John 14:15-17 NIV)

What to Pentecostals seems as a two-stage experience of salvation for the disciples, in that they ‘believed’ first and were ‘baptised in the Spirit’ second, relates only to their unique time in salvation history: they lived half of their lives under the ‘old’ covenant, and half of their lives under the ‘new’. Their conversion into the new covenant was a movement from life in the ‘old’ to life in the ‘new.’ Our conversion into the new covenant is a move from ‘death’ to ‘life;’ it is a movement from ‘no’ covenant into the new covenant through Christ.

“Receive the Holy Spirit”

What then is the meaning of John 20:22? Before Jesus’ return into heaven he said to his disciples: “"As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you." And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, "Receive the Holy Spirit…”” (John 20:21-23 ESV) If the surrounding context of Jesus’ teaching about the Spirit (Jn 7:39; 14:17; 16: 7; Ac 2:33) makes it impossible to read this statement as an indication that his disciples did at that moment receive the Holy Spirit, what then did Jesus mean?

In John 20:22, Jesus addresses his disciples about their future, telling them to ‘receive the Holy Spirit’. This is a command, analagous to Luke's account of the same conversation on the same evening: "I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high." (Luke 24:29). Jesus’ instruction to ‘receive the Spirit’ comes in the context of his departing and his promise to send the Spirit after his leaving. An everyday modern situation might employ similar language: “I’m returning to Sydney. When I get there I’ll send you my replacement, James. When he comes, receive him.”

Jesus demonstrated the meaning of his words in this narrative by the type of actions that bring to rememberance the way in which he taught his disciples about his love for them in John 13: there he rose from supper, laid aside his garments and began washing his disciples feet. In so doing he played out in metephorical actions the way in which he would wash his disciples by way of his humiliation on the cross. Here Jesus again plays out what he will do for his disciples in the not to distant future: He breathes on them, and in so doing pointed to the day of Pentecost when he would send God’s Spirit of life to be in them – the very Breath of God that would give them resurrection life.

“I am in you”

The disciples may have had two stages in their experience, in that they believed in Christ first before the Spirit was given, and then secondly received the indwelling of his Spirit after this on the day of Pentecost. However they had only one work of the Spirit in the new covenant. For they received for the first time the promised new covenant gift of the Spirit on the day of Pentecost. This was their conversion experience; the moment when their spirits were regenerated, when Christ put his own Spirit to live in them. As Jesus had said, “On that day you will realise that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you.” (John 14:20 NIV).

More on this topic

Baptism in the Spirit: The examples in Acts – Part I

Baptism in the Spirit: What the Scriptures say

Baptism in the Spirit: The examples in Acts - Part II | joe towns: christian discussion on pentecost, charisma, pentecostal and charismatic beliefs, the Bible and Jesus; including the origin and history of pentecostalism, baptism in the Holy Spirit, speaking in tongues, gifts and miracles, divine healing and word of faith, prosperity and wealth, praise and worship, guidance and hearing the voice of the Holy Spirit.