Some of us have had the experience of being challenged as to whether we have really received the baptism of the Holy Spirit or not. Speaking in tongues is not something I have ever experienced, and while I have no reason to doubt the authenticity of those who have received that gift, its lack in my life has been used by some well-meaning Pentecostal sisters and brothers to question whether I have the whole Trinity in me or just two-thirds of the Godhead.
But I will say this: when in the past I was asked whether I had been fully baptized in the Holy Spirit, at the very least I can assure you that my answer was never, “What Holy Spirit?” Had I honestly responded that way, I think the shock of it all would have caused my friends to faint dead away even as they would fear the roof would cave in or the ground open up. It may be one thing to wonder whether you are living into the fullness of the Spirit’s power as some might think you should. It would be quite another to indicate you had never heard of such a Being.
Yet that is exactly what happens in Acts 19. In this Epiphany Season when we ponder the spread of the light of Christ throughout the world, here is a story that indicated that in those earliest days, there was still a measure of confusion—or at least a measure of incompleteness—as the Gospel moved into various areas.
Strikingly, it was as often as not the looming shadow and influence of John the Baptist that the apostles kept bumping into in various parts of the Greco-Roman world. Jesus’ flashier cousin had made such a splash that decades later not a few still wondered if he had been the true Messiah after all such that having his baptism was all a disciple needed. Probably the Gospel of John was the last gospel and probably it got written later in the first century at that. Yet we are just four verses into his soaring prologue in John 1 and the evangelist has to interrupt his poetry long enough to say, “Now just to be clear, folks: I am NOT talking about John the Baptist here, OK? He was great and all but he came only as a witness to the Light. He was not the Light. OK? Got it? John the Baptist is NOT the Word, NOT the Light. Now, back to my song . . .”
It is not clear whether Acts 19 is a full-blown instance of that kind of confusion as to who the true Messiah was. But somehow this group of people identified as “disciples” in the metropolitan city of Ephesus had not moved past John’s teachings or baptism. Indeed, when asked whether they had received the Holy Spirit, they really did reply “What Holy Spirit? Never heard of him!”
Notice, though, that in response to this—and contrary to my well-meant Pentecostal friends—the apostles do not then perform a baptism of the Spirit. Rather, they baptize into the name of the Lord Jesus and that is itself enough to bring them the Spirit. The fact that on this occasion this led to that early church hallmark of tongue-speaking indicates this, but the reception of the Spirit through being baptized in Jesus’ name is the main thing to notice here. Jesus himself at the end of Matthew’s Gospel indicates baptism into the full Triune formula of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and that has become the orthodox marker of true baptism ever since. The idea that there is some extra baptism specifically into the Spirit seems to have tenuous biblical support.
But for this passage the striking feature to note is that it was possible in the earliest days to have missed the fullness of the Gospel message about the true Messiah, Jesus, and all the power that could be unleashed in a person’s life upon baptism into his name.
Today you are very unlikely to encounter someone in any church anywhere in the world who would fit the precise situation Paul and others encountered in Ephesus as recorded in Acts 19. So aside from a biblical and historical curiosity, what in Acts 19 might be worth talking about or preaching about today or on the Sunday designated in the Lectionary as “Baptism of the Lord”? Well, it could be an occasion to wonder if we believers actively appreciate the power that was poured over us and into us at our own baptisms.
Whether or not we speak in tongues or have gifts from the more flashy end of the gift continuum as detailed in the New Testament, the fact is that each believer is imbued with tremendous spiritual power at baptism. The riches of Christ are ours. The ability to glorify God in our living, to resist temptations, to do good works are all ours for the taking if we lean into the Holy Spirit who dwells within us and go with his good flow in our lives.
Do we? Or could it tragically enough be the case that those who know us see nothing of the kind? What if someone who knows me were asked about what I do with my life, and if even more specifically what if someone who had observed me for a time were asked “Do you see the Holy Spirit working in and through him,” how sad it would be if this other person had to reply “What Holy Spirit?”
Years ago in one of my seminary classes we had a guest lecturer one day who had spent decades as a missionary in Africa. She did what many of us have often heard missionaries do, and that is tell many tales about African Native Religion, black magic, witch doctors, and many clear instances of demon possession. One of my classmates noted that we often hear such things from other parts of the world but particularly in terms of demon possession, we don’t bump into that so much in North America. My classmate wondered why. The missionary thought for a moment and then said, “Not sure, but maybe it’s because there are so many more baptized people here than in some parts of the world.”
I never forgot that answer. And I have never been sure whether she was onto something spiritually or not. But it raises the question: what does baptism do? Whether you were baptized as an infant, a child, an adult, what mark does baptism leave? What is the action of the Holy Spirit in his sacrament of the church? As pastors, we know this can come up acutely when the parent or grandparent of a wandering covenant child comes to ask if there is any hope for this beloved child. Is God still with her or not? Does the fact that she was baptized years ago count for anything?
Most of us are, I think, correct to say that yes, baptism cannot be undone, even by the person who has (for now anyway) turned his back on the faith. Maybe one thing baptism means is that you can turn your back on God, but he never turns his back on you. Maybe that “hound of heaven” is still there, pursuing, watching, hoping, and forever ready to say “Welcome back!”
Maybe. Probably. The point is: let’s not discount the power or the endurance of baptism into the Triune Name.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, January 7, 2018
Acts 19:1-7 Commentary