What is ‘Baptism in the Spirit’? Is it, as some say, a personal experience given by the Lord to a Christian, in which he/she receives the Holy Spirit in a fuller way and is thus empowered to: pray better, know more joy, be bolder in witnessing and receive special gifts? Well, whilst those traits are seen in believers in the book of Acts, a personal ‘Baptism in the Spirit’ is not presented as the mechanism by which they come. Rather the phrase describes something much, much bigger.
To see that we should begin with John the Baptist, as Peter and Jesus did (Ac 11:15,16). John preached that Israel had sinned against the Lord and urgently needed his forgiveness (Lk 3:3-6), because the Lord was coming to sort out the nation, including removing those who rejected him (Lk 3:17). So John called hearers to repent. And when they did, he put them through a ceremony: immersion (baptism) in the river Jordan (eg Jo 10:40). Why? Well it was through the Jordan that Israel first entered her promised land (Jos 3:14-17); it was the place, as it were, of her birth. So John’s baptism was a very dramatic symbol of his message, namely: ‘Israel has sinned. God is coming. You need a fresh start, a rebirth!’ (Lk 3:8) But even as he performed the soaking, John knew it couldn’t actually change anyone. What was needed for that was a baptism by the Lord himself, a baptism not in water but the Holy Spirit. So John told his hearers to wait for Christ to do just that (Lk 3:16). ‘Baptism in the Spirit’, therefore, describes how Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit, took sinful, failing Israel and transformed her into a kingdom committed to God.
But what did that look like when it happened? Answer: a glory-filled storm. At Jerusalem’s Festival of Pentecost, after Jesus’ death, God’s renewed Israel was born in a tempest (Ac 2:1-4), starting with around 120 followers of Christ (Ac 1:15). But why did the Lord launch it with a storm of noise and fire filling their house? The Old Testament tells us. When ancient Israel was moving from Egypt to Canaan, she was guided by a pillar of cloud and fire (Ex 13:21,22) which showed the presence of the Lord. Likewise, at Mount Sinai, it was a firestorm which represented the Lord coming near to them (Ex 19:16-19). And the prophet Isaiah identified all this with the Holy Spirit (Is 63:11-13). Therefore, the events on the day of Pentecost were the most suitable way for Jesus’ first followers to experience the coming of the Spirit. However, unlike ancient Israel they didn’t just see the storm from a distance but found themselves in the middle of it! Through his death Jesus had so cleansed them from sin, that they could now be up close to God. Which meant that when the noise and fire had gone, that didn’t imply the Spirit had left them; rather, he had moved inside them, to live within (Ro 8:9). How was that seen? By a miracle: they spoke languages they had never learned (Ac 2:4). The believers spilled onto the streets to tell of God in the tongues of other nations (Ac 2:6). But had other Israelites now missed the chance to receive the Spirit? No. There would be no more fire and noise, since those were the signs of the Spirit’s arrival. But Peter promised the Spirit within to all who turned to Christ (Ac 2:38).
However, the Spirit wasn’t going to be limited only to those in Jerusalem or Judea who turned to Jesus. Old Israel had had strong laws to keep non-Jews (Gentiles) or even corrupted Jews (ie the Samaritans) at arm’s length. But Jesus had no further need of those laws because he, through his death, is able to make anyone fit for God. So the Lord showed his willingness to welcome any who repent into his kingdom, by replaying Acts 2 in two further locations: Samaria (Acts 8) and the home of a Gentile (Acts 10). Our v44 is, effectively, Jesus saying ‘Gentile believers are welcome to join my reborn Israel!’ This is why the Jews are so shocked (v45,46) and Peter has to rush to catch up with the Lord by making sure they are baptised in water (v47,48).
So Baptism in the Spirit was the arrival of the Holy Spirit to create God’s kingdom on earth and be with its citizens. We don’t need to seek it today as a personal event since he now lives in all Christians. But we should deeply desire to see that reality in every part of our lives (Ga 5:16-25).