Baptism is not unique to Christianity. The use of water in purification and cleansing rites is as old as recorded history, and for a devoted first-century Jew, ritual washings were a regular part of life.
Unlike ritual washings, however, baptism involved the complete bathing of the entire body, and for first-century Jews it was reserved for proselytes, or gentile converts to the Jewish faith. If a gentile became a proselyte, besides keeping the Sabbath and avoiding defiled meat, he had to undergo certain rituals. He had to be circumcised, because circumcision was the mark of the Abrahamic covenant. A sacrifice had to be made for him to make a blood atonement for his sins. And he had to be baptized as a sign of his cleansing from past pollutions and the beginning of his new, purified life as a member of the household of God.
John the Baptist preaching
|The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God, as it is written in Isaiah the prophet: “I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way”— “a voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.’”
And so John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River. John wore clothing made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. And this was his message: “After me comes the one more powerful than I, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
But John was calling for Jews—already members of the covenant people — to be baptized as though they were in no better standing with God than gentiles. Indeed, John’s message was a declaration that God’s prophesied judgment on faithless Israel was near, and that only those who humbled themselves and turned back to God would be spared.
But for those who would turn to God, who would make their confession and undergo this watery sign of commitment to a new life before God, something even greater was in store. There lay ahead a baptism that was not merely a sign or a ritual, but the real thing — the actual cleansing of the heart and mind that would result not merely in new behavior but in an entirely new person!
This baptism would be one that only the Son of God could provide, and he would provide it by sending the Holy Spirit to dwell both with and in the people of God.
“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 24:49). Jesus was referring to the Holy Spirit, described in Acts 2:2 as a powerful wind and flames of fire.
It might be tempting to think about this “power” that the Holy Spirit provides as something we can use to make us stronger than others, wiser than others, braver than others, or more talented, healthier or wealthier than others. But the Holy Spirit is God, not a genie in a bottle to grant our every wish.
Indeed, God loves us dearly, cares for us tenderly and moves mountains to help us in our need. But God’s priority is to make us like Jesus Christ, and Jesus left us an example of suffering for righteousness’ sake (see 1 Peter 3:17-18), not of amassing fortune and fame.
There is only one God — Father, Son and Holy Spirit. There is no Holy Spirit, therefore, except the one sent by the Father and the Son to minister their presence with you and in you for your redemption. The Holy Spirit does not draw attention to himself, but leads us to the Son who presents us to the Father (compare John 14:26; 16:13-14).
The Spirit does not have his own agenda, but only the agenda of the Father and the Son, who sent him. That agenda is human redemption and salvation — the gospel agenda. The Spirit is not a prima donna, a showboat, an entertainer, a circus or a side show. The Spirit is God, and he is God with the Father and the Son and no other way.
Our heavenly Father is the Father of Jesus Christ, the Father who loved the world so much that he sent his Son to save the world (see John 3:16-17) and who, with the Son, sent the Holy Spirit so that he and the Son would always be with us and in us (see John 14:16-19 ).
That means that any other idea you have about God — about him being mad at you, for example, about him being unsure about what he is finally going to do with you, about him not listening to you or not caring about you or not loving you — is pure fiction.
The God who has revealed himself fully in Jesus Christ is the only God there is. He is the God who loves you, who sent his Son to save you and his Spirit to make you what you are in Christ. He is the God who will not be without you and there is no other God but this one — Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
That means that the Holy Spirit empowers you, not for human means and ends, but for God’s means and ends, which have to do with conforming you to the image of Christ, not with granting you the life – style of the rich and famous.
Baptism of the Spirit
To be baptized with the Holy Spirit (Mark 1:8) is to be baptized into the baptism of Jesus Christ. It is to enter into new life in Christ — the life of the kingdom of God. When Jesus was baptized in water, the Holy Spirit came upon him, and when we enter into Jesus’ baptism, we enter the fellowship of the Holy Spirit who ministers to all the saints the things of Christ. Our baptism in water is a sign of the baptism we receive in Jesus, which is ministered to us from the Father by the Holy Spirit.
The gifts of the Spirit, then (see 1 Corinthians 12:7-11; 27-31), whether tongues or healing or administration or teaching or whatever they might be, are for the benefit of the body of Christ, and not for personal acclaim or gain (2 Peter 4:10). They are not to enable us to stand out among people or appear to be closer to God than others. They are not to make us feel more spiritual or more saved or more righteous than others. Rather, they are to enable us to share in Christ’s work of love and redemption.
The Holy Spirit lives in us, unites us with the Father and the Son and transforms us into the image of Christ. If you are looking for riches, talk to an investment counselor. But if you are looking for hope, courage, endurance, love, mercy and help in time of need, talk to God. He’ll send you the Holy Spirit.
- What is the meaning of baptism? What is baptism with the Holy Spirit? Who is the Holy Spirit?
- What is the Holy Spirit doing in the world? In the church? In your life?
For further reading:
The Outpouring of the Holy Spirit by Karl Barth (Church Dogmatics, vol. I, part 2, sections 16-18)
Understanding the Trinity, by Alister McGrath
Author: J. Michael Feazell, 2003, 2012