Monday, September 16, 2013

The Spirit that Divides (11 November 2012)

Accompanying Presentation (opens in a new window)


Last Sunday we looked at what the New Testament has to say about the practice of water baptism. Mind you, we have only scratched the surface. There is much more that we could have learnt, many more angles from which we could have viewed the practice. However, for two reasons, we viewed it from the perspective of the burning of bridges – the renunciation of everything that would turn us away from Jesus. 

First, we had to narrow our focus because the time was short. Since, as we discovered, there is no single passage that deals with baptism in a comprehensive manner, we had to focus on some aspect that was most important. And the perspective of burning of bridges allowed us to see both believers’ baptism and infant baptism as achieving the same goal with different presuppositions, thereby providing a way of uniting different Christian traditions. 

Second, we are looking today at the notion of baptism in the Holy Spirit and the view of water baptism presented last week neatly dovetails with the perspective of baptism in the Holy Spirit that we will look at today. 

The phrase ‘baptism in the Holy Spirit’ shot to prominence in the wake of the Pentecostal revival that started at the Apostolic Faith Mission on Azusa Street in California in 1901. Before that, most Christian traditions accepted the idea, but did not make much of it. Baptism in the Holy Spirit was considered to be something that happened at the time of water baptism. 

The Pentecostal revival challenged this view. Most Pentecostal Christians would say that baptism in the Holy Spirit is something that happens to a person at some time after he or she starts believing in Jesus and that speaking in tongues is the determinative evidence that a person has received baptism in the Holy Spirit. 

To begin our study, let us read from 1 Corinthians 12. Paul’s argument is lengthy, so I will only read a smattering of verses, asking you to trust me not to read or interpret out of context. 

I want you to know that no one who is speaking by the Spirit of God says, “Jesus be cursed,” and no one can say, “Jesus is Lord,” except by the Holy Spirit… There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them… 

Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good. To one there is given through the Spirit a message of wisdom, to another a message of knowledge by means of the same Spirit… to another speaking in different kinds of tongues, and to still another the interpretation of tongues. All these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he distributes them to each one, just as he determines… Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink… The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!” … If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honoured, every part rejoices with it… Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all have gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret? Now eagerly desire the greater gifts. 

As I mentioned before we read this passage, many Pentecostal Christians believe that baptism in the Holy Spirit is something that happens after a person expresses faith in Jesus and that it is made visible through the speaking of tongues. Since this view leans so heavily on a particular phenomenon, namely, the speaking of tongues, let us see what we discover in the New Testament. 

The first mention of speaking in tongues is in Acts 2.4, where we read: 

All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them. 

In Acts 2 we can see that, while the apostles and other believers spoke in tongues, there is no reference to their having been baptized in the name of Jesus. Most of them had been disciples of John the Baptist and had presumably been baptized by him. But they had not been baptized in the name of Jesus. So here we have the baptism of John followed by baptism in the Holy Spirit accompanied by speaking in tongues. 

The next mention of speaking in tongues is in Acts 10.44-48, where we read: 

The Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on Gentiles. For they heard them speaking in tongues and praising God. Then Peter said, “Surely no one can stand in the way of their being baptized with water. They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have.” So he ordered that they be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. 

Here, the evidence that those who had heard Peter’s message had received the Holy Spirit is the speaking of tongues. However, note the order. The people in Cornelius’ group first begin speaking in tongues and are only after that baptized in water. 

Also note the rather conspicuous absence of any reference to the faith of those Gentiles. If you were to read the passage without the expectation that it spoke of baptism in the Holy Spirit, you would conclude that their belief, as revealed in their praising God, is actually subsequent to the baptism in the Holy Spirit rather than the other way around. 

The next reference to speaking in tongues is in Acts 19. This is a very instructive passage. Here we read: 

Paul took the road through the interior and arrived at Ephesus. There he found some disciples and asked them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” They answered, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.” So Paul asked, “Then what baptism did you receive?” “John’s baptism,” they replied. Paul said, “John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance. He told the people to believe in the one coming after him, that is, in Jesus.” On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. When Paul placed his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied. 

These people were believers in Jesus though they had been baptized into John’s baptism. On hearing Paul, they received water baptism in the name of Jesus and then were baptized in the Holy Spirit and spoke in tongues. 

In the three references in Acts to speaking in tongues we see the following. The accounts in Acts 2 and Acts 19 are very similar except for the glaring silence about whether or not Jesus’ first disciples were ever baptized in the name of Jesus. Presumably they weren’t since Matthew 28.18-20 seems to indicate that Jesus just expected them to baptize new disciples. 

Also, the account in Acts 10 contains only three of the elements and they are not in the order that Pentecostal Christians insist on. So it seems that the notion that baptism in the Holy Spirit is something that happens always after one expresses faith in Jesus is not strictly borne out in the accounts in Acts. 

However, what is borne out in Acts is that in all three occasions the baptism in the Holy Spirit is accompanied with speaking in tongues. So does that not mean that Pentecostal Christians are right to claim that speaking in tongues is the external sign that a person has been baptized in the Holy Spirit? Before we answer that question, let us read from Acts 8. 

When the apostles in Jerusalem heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God, they sent Peter and John to Samaria. When they arrived, they prayed for the new believers there that they might receive the Holy Spirit, because the Holy Spirit had not yet come on any of them; they had simply been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. Then Peter and John placed their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit. 

Here we see that there is no reference to speaking in tongues, though it is clearly an occasion of baptism in the Holy Spirit. So the evidence of the New Testament is not as nicely partitioned as we would like it to be. What we can conclude is that there are occasions in which baptism in the Holy Spirit is accompanied by speaking in tongues. At other times, it is not. At times it comes before water baptism. At other times it comes after. 

Both Pentecostal and non-Pentecostal Christians have focussed on the order of phenomena. But this is a poor way to think about God and how he works in us. 

So we need to ask ourselves what in the four accounts is crucial. In Acts 2, the Spirit baptizes Jewish believers. In Acts 8, the Spirit baptizes Samarian believers. And in Acts 10, the Spirit baptizes Gentile believers. In Acts 19, the Spirit baptizes a now amorphous group, the ethnicity of which we cannot determine. But in all four accounts, Luke is clear that the groups received the Holy Spirit. The variations in the four accounts should lead us to be less rigid about what happens, about the phenomenon of baptism in the Holy Spirit. 

Then we can realize that the Holy Spirit inspired Luke to narrate these four occasions to mark the fulfilment of Jesus’ words in Acts 1.8: 

You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. 

These four occasions are not there to instruct about the link between baptism in the Holy Spirit and speaking in tongues but to indicate that the three ethnic groups of Christians are on par with each other and that in a few years, they could only be classified as disciples without reference to their ethnicity. 

It is the marvellous work of the Holy Spirit of uniting enemy ethnicities and making them all one group that is the focus of the records in Acts. 

What we realize again, as we did when we looked at water baptism, is that the New Testament record is very fluid. We conclude that our experiences of the Holy Spirit cannot be made universal. Just because I do not speak in tongues does not mean no one else can or that those who claim to do are misled or in the grasp of the evil one. Similarly, just because I do speak in tongues does not mean that anyone who does not is not truly a Christian or are rebelling against God. 

So what, then is this baptism in the Holy Spirit? John told people that Jesus would baptize in the Holy Spirit. And in Acts 1, Jesus tells his disciples, “For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized in the Holy Spirit... You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you.” 

Almost all Christian traditions would accept this simple definition. The arguments begin when we try to unpack what the words mean. What does it mean to receive power? In fact, what is power? 

But Jesus went on to say, “And you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” 

Power is whatever the Holy Spirit decides is necessary and decides therefore to give us in order to fulfil the task of bringing the message of Jesus to the world. It is person specific – depending on the person who carries the message and on the person to whom the message is carried. 

The four Gospels are different in flavour and content despite being about the ministry of Jesus. They are different because different people wrote them and in inspiring them the Holy Spirit did not override their personalities. And they are different because their audiences are different. 

In the same manner, baptism in the Holy Spirit depends on the bearer of the message and the recipient of the message. As in the case of water baptism, we realize that baptism in the Holy Spirit is not a onetime thing. Rather, it is a process that lasts the whole of one’s Christian life. 

The New Testament is clear that every Christian is to be baptized. The New Testament is also clear that every Christian is a bearer of the message of Jesus. And so we realize what Paul means when he speaks of one baptism in Ephesians 4.5. Water baptism and Spirit baptism are not two baptisms. Rather, they are two sides of the Christian life. Both are necessary. But the order in which they appear in a person’s life will differ from person to person. And the external manifestations of Spirit baptism will also differ from person to person. 

Last week we saw that water baptism is burning the bridges that would keep a person away from Jesus. In a complementary manner, baptism in the Holy Spirit can be viewed as crossing the bridges to join the Holy Spirit where he thinks people are ready to hear the message about Jesus. Water baptism is a turning away. Baptism in the Holy Spirit is a turning toward. One is renunciation of powers aligned against Jesus. The other is accepting empowerment from the Holy Spirit who is aligned for Jesus. One is escaping the grasp of things that would keep us from the purposes of Jesus. The other is falling into the embrace of the one who reveals Jesus’ purposes for us. Into this continuous escape-to-embrace Jesus calls us daily by his Spirit.

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