The Johannine Pentecost

February 19, 2013 in Theology · 0 comments


In my post Baptism in the Holy Spirit, I discussed the Biblical basis for understanding Spirit baptism as an initial experience that occurs at conversion. In this post, I’d like to briefly discuss the passage that Pentecostals often refer to first when defending their understanding of baptism in the Holy Spirit:

On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the disciples had gathered together and locked the doors of the place because they were afraid of the Jewish leaders. Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. So Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. Just as the Father has sent me, I also send you.” And after he said this, he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone’s sins, they are forgiven; if you retain anyone’s sins, they are retained.” (John 20.19-23)

This passage is held in contrast with Acts 2.1-4:

Now when the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like a violent wind blowing came from heaven and filled the entire house where they were sitting. And tongues spreading out like a fire appeared to them and came to rest on each one of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit, and they began to speak in other languages as the Spirit enabled them.

The argument then goes something along the lines of:

  1. The disciples became regenerate in John 20. They believed in Jesus and were fully indwelt by the Holy Spirit.
  2. These same disciples, already fully indwelt by the Holy Spirit, were subsequently baptized in the Holy Spirit and began speaking in tongues on the day of Pentecost.
  3. Therefore Baptism in the Holy Spirit is an experience that occurs after our initial salvation. It is a filling and empowering of the Holy Spirit in the life of the Christian that is evidenced by speaking in tongues.

So what to make of all this? Is such an understanding correct? Are the disciples’ experience in John 20 and their subsequent experience in Acts 2 a model for Christians today? Are we to expect a two-stage experience of initial indwelling of the Spirit and then a later baptizing in the Spirit?

There are several different understandings of the impartation of the Holy Spirit in John 20. Some view it as merely symbolic: Jesus was simply foreshadowing Pentecost, but no actual giving of the Spirit occurred. Some view it as a partial anointing: Jesus gave the disciples a taste of what was to come, but they had to wait till later for the full empowering. Finally, some view this as a full anointing of the Spirit: Jesus breathed his Spirit into them and they were filled with it and empowered by it.

All of these views have intriguing theological and textual arguments for and against them. But in the end, I don’t think it really matters exactly what happened to the disciples in John 20, because the events of John 20 and Acts 2 should not be used to model the normative experience of Christians today. This was a unique period in the redemptive ministry of God. As James D. G. Dunn says:

the Pentecostal must argue … that the experience of the apostles is, or can be a pattern which may be repeated in the lives of later Christians. It is with this further step that he definitely misses the way. For the chronological sequence of events in the lives of the apostles is unique and unrepeatable. The coming of the Son from the Father to dwell among men in human flesh was something which had never happened before and which has never happened since. Similarly the relation of Jesus’ disciples to him in the period before Pentecost was one which simply cannot be known again.

Jesus’ life and ministry and death and resurrection and ascension and the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost are all unique events in human history, ushering in a new age of God’s redemptive work. And just as we shouldn’t seek an initial impartation of the Holy Spirit through the actual breath of the resurrected Jesus, or a second experience of the Holy Spirit by waiting in Jerusalem for a violent storm and flames of fire, we probably shouldn’t seek a singular “Baptism in the Holy Spirit” subsequent to becoming a Christian — for in this post-Incarnation, post-Resurrection, post-Pentecost, New Covenant era, all Christians have already been “baptized in one Spirit.”

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