Sorting by

Skip to main content

Have you been baptized? What does your baptism mean to you? Did you do it or was it done to you? Were you baptized as an adult or as an infant? How much do you value it? Do you think God had much to do with it? Or was it simply a human action done at God’s behest? Were you sprinkled, dipped, or immersed? What was your baptism a sign of? Was it “a sign and wonder”? Was there any miracle in it, any mystery? Have you experienced anything subsequent, like a second baptism, a so-called “baptism of the Spirit,” with manifestations like speaking in tongues?

The church has been entrenched for centuries in disputes about baptism, and our confidence in our own baptisms can weaken in the trenches. In this essay I want to suggest one way out of the baptismal trenches. I will point to the trail of the Holy Spirit in the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts.[1] In both books Luke gives the Holy Spirit prominence, and we will note one arc of the Spirit from Nazareth to Ephesus. We will follow “the baptism of the Spirit.” This is a familiar phrase which is easily misunderstood and often disconnected from baptism itself, as if it were a second thing. Along the way I will make a number of claims. I will not attempt to prove each claim as such, but connect the claims in a broad way to show you old things in a new light.

The baptisms of John and of the Spirit

 My first claim is that there is a movement in the New Testament from the baptisms by John the Baptist to the baptisms by the Holy Spirit, and the pivot in this movement is John’s baptism of Jesus. There is some overlap. Our Lord’s baptism is not the last baptism by John, but it is the first baptism by the Spirit. It is reported in all four gospels (after the fact in the Gospel of John) as the beginning of Jesus’s public ministry. All four gospels report that something new and miraculous happened to water baptism with the voice from heaven and the descent of the dove. God used what had been heretofore an act of human intention and made it the sign of God’s presence in the person baptized. The baptism that Jesus entered in common with all the other penitents was turned into something new as he came out of it. At his baptism his Father did a miracle in him—that is, a sign and a wonder, converting John’s baptism into the baptism of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit had been prophesied by John: the Messiah would baptize the people with the Holy Spirit and with fire, for purging, refining, and consuming. But John had not anticipated a baptism of the Spirit done to the Messiah already there at the water, and as gentle as a dove. God’s action in Jesus altered the meaning of water baptism and foreshortened what it had been the penitential preparation for.

The gospels report that John continued baptizing until his arrest, and Jesus’s disciples did as well. It is therefore easy to assume that it was the baptism of John that Jesus had in mind when, after his resurrection, he gave the Great Commission to his disciples in Matthew 28:19—to baptize the nations in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. That’s probably what the apostles under­stood him to mean. But when they started doing such baptisms it became apparent that something was happening beyond what John’s baptism had signified. Now baptism was becoming in general what it had been uniquely with Jesus: a sign of the advent of the Holy Spirit. In other words, the water bath became a sign of the action of God more than a signal of the intention of the penitent.

The baptisms in Acts

Luke develops the baptism of the Spirit over ten occurrences:

Acts 2:1-4                   The outpouring of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost.
Acts 2:41                     The baptism of 3000 on Pentecost.
Acts 8:12-17               The baptism of the Samaritans.
Acts 8:36-38             The baptism of the Ethiopian eunuch.
Acts 9:18                    The baptism of Saul of Tarsus.
 Acts 10:44-48          The baptism of Cornelius and his company.
Acts 16:15                  The baptism of Lydia and her household.
Acts 16:33                 The baptism of the jailer and his household.
Acts 18:8                   The baptism of the Corinthians.
Acts 19:5                   The baptism of the Ephesians.

My second claim is that these ten baptisms should not be treated as discrete monads, but as a succession of markers in the over-arching and intertwining double story of Acts. The first story of Acts is the history of the invasion of the Roman Empire by the Kingdom of Jesus, of which bap­tisms are beachheads. The second and parallel story of Acts is the news of the coming of the Holy Spirit into the world, of which baptisms are landmarks. Thus, the baptism of Lydia and the jailer within a Roman military city mark these two people crossing the boundary into the Kingdom of Jesus from right inside the Empire, as if to say, “Even here!” The baptisms of the Samaritans, the eunuch, and Cornelius mark the coming of the Holy Spirit into ever widening circles of the world, as if to say, “These people too!” One gets the impression of the apostles having to keep up with the Holy Spirit always ahead of them. The coming of the Holy Spirit into the world beyond Jerusalem and Israel was by no means taken for granted or even anticipated by the apostles. They do not dispense the Spirit—the Spirit moves first and they respond to it.

The baptisms in Acts do not show a formal, ritual consistency. Why would they, if “the Spirit blows where it wills”? Sometimes the baptisms are quiet and peaceful, as with the eunuch, with Saul of Tarsus, with Lydia, and with the jailer. Sometimes they are accompanied by noisy manifestations of the Spirit. One time that manifestation comes before the baptism, with Cornelius, and one time it comes after, with the Ephesians. The baptism of Lydia (at the riverside) could well have been by immersion, but the baptisms of the eunuch (in the desert) and of the jailer (in a guardhouse) probably were not. The baptisms of the 3000 in Jerusalem could not have been by immersion, simply because of Jerusalem’s notoriously bad water supply. We should not expect the reports of baptisms in Acts to provide models for the church to imitate. Their purpose in Luke’s design is to show markers on people, landmarks on individuals, milestones in groups of believers, and beach­heads in Roman cities of the intertwining parallel stories of the invasion of the Empire by the King­dom of Jesus and the coming of the Holy Spirit into the wide world.

The first and tenth baptisms in Acts frame all this. The first baptism, with tongues of fire, we call a “baptism” because that’s what Jesus named it when he predicted it in Acts 1:5, in contra­puntal harmony with his cousin’s earlier prophecy. The tenth and final baptism is of the Ephesians, wherein Luke’s narrative expressly distinguishes between the baptism of John for repentance, which they had already received, and the baptism in Christ, who sends the Holy Spirit among the Ephesi­ans with a manifestation of a sign and wonder similar to Pentecost. With the final baptism in the Book of Acts, the baptism of John is explicitly and finally superseded by the baptism of the Spirit.

The Spirit who came down upon the Ephesians acts not on her own, but is sent by the ascended Lord Jesus. This leads us to my third claim, that what the New Testament calls the baptism of the Spirit, in the name of Christ, is what we subsequently but properly call baptism in the name of the Trinity. The baptism of the Spirit is not some second internal non-water baptism as taught by Pentecostals and the Charismatic Movement. And this leads directly to my fourth claim, that the right distinction by which to understand the baptisms in Luke and Acts is not the familiar distinction between water baptism and baptism in the Spirit, but the distinction between the baptism of John and the baptism of the Spirit.

We should not take what Jesus promised his disciples in Acts 1:5 as proof that water bap­tism cannot also be the baptism of the Spirit. Indeed, the baptisms of John and the Spirit share the same sign of water, but that sign signifies something further with the baptism of the Spirit. If with John’s baptism the water signifies cleansing for repentance, with the Spirit’s baptism it also signifies new birth, as Jesus suggests to Nicodemus in John 3. With that new birth is new citizenship in the Kingdom of God, as shown with Lydia and the jailer.

Distinguishing the two baptisms

If the baptism of the Spirit signifies the advent and prior power of the Holy Spirit, the baptism of infants makes sense. But the baptism of John would of course not be administered to infants. It assumed an adult informed decision. It was a symbolic expression of human intention and conven­tional repentance. It was not a miracle of God, and while it was a sign it was not a wonder. It was not even a covenantal sign, because in a covenantal sign God binds Godself to the sign, and that was never intended by John’s baptism. It was a sign of human aspiration, a signal of a personal desire to be admitted to the Kingdom of God whenever the Messiah would establish it. From all of this my fifth claim becomes apparent, that Protestants who deny infant baptism do so because they see baptism primarily in terms of the baptism of John.

In the baptism of John the water signifies cleansing and purification, and the washing demon­strates repentance and the aspiration of the penitent to get ready for the coming of the Messiah, in anticipation of the Holy Spirit still to come, as John the Baptist preached. With the baptism of the Spirit the sign of water still means repentance and cleansing, although not in anticipation of the Spirit, but rather by the advent, presence, and power of the Spirit, for the Messiah has already come. The baptism of the Spirit is a baptism of repentance not in the bare conventional sense of repent­ance as only “the dying away of the old self,” but in the fuller “evangelical” or Reformation sense (Heidelberg Catechism 88-90) as also the “the coming to life of the new,” the beginning of the resurrection that John the Baptist’s repentance could only anticipate.

The baptism of John was not Trinitarian, but the baptism of the Spirit was from the start a Trinitarian event. As the Lord Jesus rose from the Jordan, with the voice of the Father from heaven and the Spirit as a dove upon him, the Holy Trinity was manifested. It’s not that Jesus didn’t have the Spirit in him already, but the baptism of the Spirit was the sign of the wonder of the fullness of God within him.

Notice that I refer to the “fullness” of God. This is my sixth claim, that when you receive this Spirit, you don’t receive one-third of God, but all of God—all three persons. Our Lord himself taught this in John 14-16, in the Upper Room, when he promised the sending of the Spirit—that he and his Father would come and make their home in us. Paul expressed this in Ephesians 3:14-19, where­in his Trinitarian exposition led him to speak of being “filled with the fullness of God.” From this teaching of both Jesus and [DB1] Paul, the church has developed the theological principle that in the work of any one person of the Trinity you always get all three persons in the mode of that one person (Opera trinitatis ad extra indivisa sunt.)

I wonder if we Protestants unconsciously regard the presence of the Holy Spirit as the presence of one-third of God. As if the Father does such-and-such for the universe and the Son does such-and-such for world, while the Spirit lives in me and does the Spirit’s own thing with me. As if the work of the Spirit is narrow and mostly personal and realized in my personalized gifts and consola­tions. As if the Spirit that dwells in believers were not “the Lord and giver of life” for all the world, from microbes to even the Messiah, who is the Spirit of the Father and the Spirit of the Son. The baptism of the Spirit is not the indwelling of one-third of God, but of all three—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—in the person of the Spirit. And thus in the baptism of the Spirit we are baptized, as the Lord Jesus commanded, in the name of the Holy Trinity. By the Spirit we are joined to the Son, standing at the Jordan, and our Father says from heaven, “You are my beloved.”

The baptism of John is a personal sign of dedication to the future Kingdom whenever it might come. The baptism of the Spirit is the sign and wonder of the Kingdom already coming in the power and the presence of the Spirit, in whom we have not one-third of God, but the whole of God, the Holy Trinity. The baptism of the Spirit is God acting first, God initiating, God claiming, God gathering. God’s gathering is not just into the church, but into the Kingdom of God, of which the church is the first-fruit.

So then, since Luke reports Jesus saying that “to children belongs the kingdom of God, and whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it” (18:16-17), the wonder is not that we baptize infants, but rather that we don’t tell adults that the only way they can be baptized is if they enter like children. The deacons should wrap adults in swaddling clothes, and the elders should carry them to the font and plunge them in the water like babies in a bath.

 I am equating what the church calls “baptism into the Holy Trinity” with what in Luke and Acts is “the baptism of the Spirit,” in which the Spirit of God, the Lord and giver of life, makes her specific claims on human beings as part of her world-wide work, so that God comes down to inhabit us, and we are marked and branded with a sign, a seal, a mark, a landmark of the Kingdom of God, a sign subsequently invisible to the world but visible to God, the sign that we belong to God and that God dwells in us. Indeed, what the sign no longer signals is our spiritual aspiration and human desire and intention. On the human side it signals our reception and response to God’s effectively enacted desire and intention, and it claims our whole life of response to God’s free and sovereign work. Such is entirely appropriate to infants.

Three addenda

First, Psalm 104:30 says, “When you send forth your spirit, they are created; and you renew the face of the ground.” The Holy Spirit certainly gives us personal spiritual gifts, but the Spirit’s mission goes far beyond individual persons to the redemption of all humanity and the renewal of the whole created world. Even in our witness on matters of planet ecology and social justice the Spirit goes before us. Our baptisms in the name of the Trinity seal us to this mission and call us to share in this redemption and renewal.

Second, while Luke and Acts present baptism as a sign and wonder of the Holy Spirit, the Epi­stles present it as a covenantal sign and seal, connected to the atonement. There is richness here, and when correctly understood, this too celebrates God’s initiative, God’s gathering, and God’s sove­reignty, extending to children both biblically and naturally. This covenantal-sign-and-seal material is found in the Heidelberg Catechism and the Belgic Confession and also in the old Dutch Reformed Liturgy. The sign is visible and the wonder is invisible, a miracle of the Spirit who binds us to the saving work of Jesus Christ.

Third, Luke’s gospel initiates its account of the signs and wonders of the Holy Spirit with the pregnancy of Elizabeth. The angel Gabriel announces to Zechariah, “He will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb.” In this new age of the coming of the Kingdom, even an infant may be filled with the Spirit. Soon after that, to the Virgin Mary, the angel announces an even greater sign and wonder, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you, therefore the child to be born of you will be called Holy, the Son of God.” The Holy Spirit rests upon the water of her womb, just as in Genesis 1 the Spirit brooded upon the primeval waters of the deep. We may treasure the mystery of the virgin birth of the Lord Jesus not least because of all that it suggests about the Holy Spirit. The Annunciation is an early Pentecost. In the Lord Jesus is born the new creation, though at this point as small as a seed, a fetus, an infant, a child, conceived by the Holy Spirit (not by the Father!) without male privilege. This is all miracle, this is all sign and wonder, and it begins with babies.

[1] An earlier version of this article was given as a lecture at the Reformed Church Center of New Brunswick Theological Seminary on December 7, 2017.


Daniel Meeter

Daniel Meeter

Daniel Meeter is the pastor emeritus of the “Old First'' Reformed Dutch Church of Brooklyn NY. He and Melody have retired to New Paltz NY, where he does pulpit supply, some teaching, childcare of grandchildren, and feeding birds.    


  • Kathryn VanRees says:

    I always love to learn through your words, Daniel.

  • Thomas Boogaart says:

    “…the Spirit of God, the Lord and giver of life, makes her specific claims on human beings as part of her world-wide work…” one of the many thoughtful insights in this essay. Thanks for this Daniel. The link between the work of the Spirit and new creation is one of the great, neglected gifts of the Reformed tradition. I was intrigued with the connection that you made between the Spirit moving/stirring the waters at creation and stirring the waters in Mary’s womb. The Wind over the waters is such a rich, and again neglected, theme in Scripture. Early Jewish and Christian theologians often returned to the theme of the creational wind over the waters. I am thinking of the accounts of Jesus waking on the waters and stilling the storm but also the broken and lame waiting for the waters to stir at the pool of Bethesda in John 5.

  • Rowland Van Es, Jr. says:

    Thanks for this thoughtful reflection on baptism. Looking at the list of 10 baptisms in Acts I also notice that only 2 are baptisms of individuals (Ethiopian eunuch and Saul), all the rest are of groups and/or households. In the history of missions around the world we also see more group baptisms than just individual baptisms. It seems that the Holy Spirit, more often then not, works her way among a whole company of believers at once