Little bit of a recap on where we are in this series: In part 2 I sought to show from Scripture that “baptism in the Holy Spirit” is an experience that happens to every believer upon conversion, and not something that all believers must still continue to seek. Part 3 was where I addressed the question of why the disciples who had clearly already been believers in Christ didn’t receive the Holy Spirit until the day of Pentecost. My conclusion there was that Pentecost was a unique experience because it was a unique event in history.
But even if you’ve agreed with me up to this point, there’s still three huge “Yeah, BUT!!” examples later on in Acts that seem to completely undermine what I’ve said. The first is in Acts 8, where believers in Samaria aren’t baptized in the Holy Spirit until John and Peter come and lay hands on them. The second is in Acts 10 where Cornelius, who was already “a devout man who feared God”, didn’t receive the Spirit until later. And the final one is in Acts 19 where we come across the disciples in Ephesus, who had not received the Holy Spirit when they believed. “And when Paul had laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they began speaking in tongues and prophesying.” (v.6)
So what do we do with these? Do these examples prove the doctrine of subsequence? Journey with me…
1. The Ephesian Disciples (Acts 19:1-7)
“You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him.”
When Paul arrives at Ephesus, he comes across “some disciples” and asks them whether or not they had received the Holy Spirit when they believed, to which they responded “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.” Probing further, he asked what they had been baptized into. “Into John’s baptism,” they replied. (vv.1-3)
These men were in fact disciples of John the Baptist, the forerunner to Jesus, and the last of the Old Testament-era prophets. The difference between John’s baptism and Christian baptism is a subject for another entry, but for the purposes of this entry it’s enough to know that they aren’t one and the same. John the Baptist had said, “‘I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, who sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.'” (Matt.3:11, cf. Acts 1:5)
Since John testified to the fact that the coming Messiah would baptize with the Holy Spirit, it’s unlikely that these disciples of his who had made their way to Ephesus were ignorant of the Spirit’s existence. Rather, what they mean is that they were ignorant of the fact that the new covenant era had begun, where those who trust in Jesus for salvation are baptized in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit (Matthew 28:19), and where those baptized in the name of Jesus “receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 2:38)
Upon meeting these disciples, Paul, perhaps observing the lack of the Spirit’s presence in their lives, felt the need to ask them whether they had received the Spirit or not when they believed whatever it is that they had believed. Paul’s not asking them if they had been baptized in the Holy Spirit after believing in Jesus. He’s asking them if they’re even believers in Jesus. Since the church was to baptize in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the fact that these men hadn’t even heard that the Spirit had come told Paul all he needed to know. In the words of John Stott, these guys “were still living in the Old Testament which culminated with John the Baptist. They understood neither that the new age had been ushered in by Jesus, nor that those who believe in him and are baptized into him receive the distinctive blessing of the new age, the indwelling Spirit.”
Paul then did what came naturally to him. He preached Jesus to those who were ignorant of him. “And Paul said, ‘John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, Jesus.’ On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. And when Paul had laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they began speaking in tongues and prophesying. There were about twelve men in all.” (vv.4-7)
In short, these men received the Holy Spirit at conversion, not subsequent to it.
2. Cornelius (Acts 10)
Corn-Dawg, “a devout man who feared God with all his household, gave alms generously to the people, and prayed continually to God” (v.2), lived in Caesarea. He was a Gentile and had great admiration for the God of the Jews, even though he had not submitted himself to be circumcised. (Acts 11:3)
You can read the full story in Acts 10, but basically the guy is visited in a vision by an angel who tells him to send for Peter, who was meanwhile having his own visions. The purpose of Peter’s visions was to teach him that what “God has made clean, do not call common.” (10:15) In non-visiony terms: Don’t call the Gentiles unclean. When Cornelius’ servants arrived where Peter was, he followed them to Cornelius’ place and preached the Gospel to him and his fellow Gentile buddies. And as he was sharing the Gospel with them, “the Holy Spirit fell on all who heard the word.” (10:44) Since the Holy Spirit fell on a man who had already been “an upright and God-fearing man” (v.22), does this mean that we should seek a post-conversion Spirit-baptism, too?
The answer, like in the Ephesian disciples case, was that Cornelius wasn’t a Christian until Peter preached the Gospel to him. Where do we see this? In Acts 11:13-14. There, Peter recounts his experience with Cornelius to the Church: “‘And [Cornelius] told us how he had seen the angel stand in his house and say, “Send to Joppa and bring Simon who is called Peter; he will declare to you a message by which you will be saved, you and all your household.'” Cornelius was to hear a message by which he “will be saved”. Salvation for Cornelius was still future. Additionally, if you look at what Peter was telling them when the Holy Spirit fell on them (vv.34-43), he’s just straight up preaching the Gospel, indicating that these people needed to hear it. Furthermore, the Church concluded that this baptism in the Holy Spirit (11:16) was the result of God granting to these Gentiles the “repentance that leads to life.” (11:18)
3. The Samaritans (Acts 8:4-25)
“Jews have no dealings with Samaritans”
Philip had gone to Samaria to preach the Gospel and had some pretty good results to show for it. The crowds had “with one accord paid attention to what was being said by Philip when they heard him and saw the signs that he did.” (8:6) But then we see a few verses down that it wasn’t until Peter and John came to Samaria, laid hands on them, and prayed for the new believers that the Holy Spirit fell on them.
Is this just another case of people who we have assumed were believers but really weren’t? I don’t think the text really gives us that option here. First of all, what Philip had proclaimed was Christ. (v.5) He “preached good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ” to them, and as a result they were baptized in the name of Jesus (vv.12, 16), which meant that they had passed into Jesus’ ownership. Whereas Paul knew the Ephesian disciples weren’t believers because they had only been baptized into John’s baptism, the Samaritans appear to have baptized with a Christian baptism.
Secondly, they “had received the word of God” (v.14) which, as Sam Storms points out, is “identical terminology to [Acts] 2:41 and 11:1, where genuine conversion is in view.”
Finally, whereas Peter preached the Gospel to Cornelius before he was baptized in the Holy Spirit, all that Peter and John do here is lay hands on the Samaritans and pray for them, which then results in the Holy Spirit falling on them. They didn’t preach the Gospel to them first because they had already had it accurately preached to them and believed it. What we have here is genuine believers in Christ receiving the Holy Spirit after they had believed. The question now is why? Is this normative? Or is it, like Pentecost, unique?
This is a very unusual case in the book of Acts, and before going further with it I feel the need to address some very important rules to interpreting Scripture. The first is always compare Scripture with Scripture. The second is closely related: don’t create doctrines out of obscure texts. Parts 2 and 3 in this series were my argument for why being baptized in the Holy Spirit is something that happens to all believers at their conversion. If you believe in the doctrine of subsequence, your argument with me is over those two entries, not this one. In other words, if I’ve faithfully built a biblical case for why Spirit-baptism occurs at conversion, then the three instances addressed in this entry are, at best, exceptions to the rule and not the rule itself. Or to say it yet another way, the doctrine of subsequence can’t stand on these three passages alone. I say all this because even though two of the three cases can simply be written off as unbelievers becoming believers, this one can’t. And since the rest of Scripture links Spirit-baptism with conversion, we need to be wary of taking the Samaritans’ experience and saying that it should be all Christians’ experience.
Peter had linked faith with receiving the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38), and Paul claimed that if anyone didn’t have the Spirit, he did not belong to Christ (Romans 8:9). Luke, the author of Acts and a companion of Paul, would have been familiar with this link, which is probably why even the way he recounts the Samaritan experience indicates the uniqueness of it. He writes that the Spirit “had not yet fallen on any of them, but they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.” (v.16) “Only,” writes James Dunn, “implies that the two things were expected or accustomed to go together.” John Stott explores this further:
…contrary to expectation, water-baptism had been received without Spirit-baptism, the sign without the thing signified. There was, Luke implies, something distinctly odd about their separation. It was because of this irregularity, Professor Dunn writes, that ‘the two senior apostles came down hot-foot from Jerusalem to remedy a situation which had gone seriously wrong somewhere’.
Not only was this the first time the Gospel had been preached outside of Jerusalem, it was the first time it had been preached in Samaria. The reason that God withheld the Spirit from these new converts is most likely due to the relationship between the Jews and Samaritans. These people hated each other. While we can utter the words “good Samaritan” without choking, this was a contradiction of terms in the Jewish mind. When Jews had to pass from Galilee to Judea or vice versa, they would literally go out of their way to get there since a direct path between the two would take them through Samaritan soil.
This incident was most likely God’s way of preventing ethnic-schism between Jew and Samaritan from becoming schism within the body of Christ. The cross of Christ tears down barriers (Gal.3:28), and unifies all believers. Thus, as the Gospel spread into hostile territory, God wanted the leaders of the Jerusalem church to see for themselves the Holy Spirit come upon those who were formerly enemies. This “extension of Pentecost” was a necessary “demonstration of the power of the Spirit to convince die-hards among the Jewish Christians that it was really proper to bring the gospel to the Samaritans.” (Anthony Hoekema) As Geoffrey Lampe writes,
…at this turning-point in the mission something else was required in addition to the ordinary baptism of the converts. It had to be demonstrated to the Samaritans beyond any shadow of doubt that they had really become members of the church, in fellowship with the original ‘pillars’ [John and Peter]…An unprecedented situation demanded quite exceptional methods.
Like Pentecost, this was a unique historical situation. It was the first time the Gospel had been preached outside Jerusalem. And this first time happened to be among people the Jews had traditionally hated. God was making a unique and visible demonstration of his commitment to bring salvation to those “‘in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.'” (Acts 1:8)
In the fifth and final part of this series, I’ll address the question of what it means to be “filled with the Spirit.”