It has become common usage to speak of the baptism of the Holy Spirit, but how to understand it does not enjoy a consensus. It would seem that part of the reason is that baptism is a ritual or a rite that consists of actions that are observable by those present, while the activity of the Holy Spirit is not visible to human eyes, even when people claim to have observed the results of the Spirit’s activity. In the gospel According to John, John the Baptist distinguishes his baptism from the baptism of Jesus. The Baptist says that, while he baptizes with water, Jesus will baptize with the Holy Spirit (Jn. 1: 33). This description leaves readers expecting to learn how Jesus went about baptizing with the Holy Spirit. The gospel, however, never satisfies this expectation. Instead, we learn that larger crowds than those who were going to be baptized by John came to be baptized by Jesus, and that made the disciples of John unhappy because Jesus had become an unfair competitor (Jn. 3: 22 – 25).
In his conversation with Nicodemus Jesus does not refer to baptism but to birth. Here the contrast is not between two agents for baptism but between two eco systems in which life may begin: birth “of the flesh” and birth “of the Spirit.” The first, in the language of this gospel, is “from below,” the realm of the flesh, and the second is “from above,” the realm of the Spirit. Unlike baptism, birth is not a rite or a ritual. It is not an event that is controlled by humans who follow a traditional routine. Births take place on their own accord and may bring with them many surprises. Births are natural events. Human beings have been gaining more precise knowledge of the workings of nature and try, quite successfully at times, to control some aspects of them, but the forces of nature remain for the most part beyond human attempts to manage them and leave humans in awe and wonder. Contrasting the two births, Jesus does not describe the birth “of the flesh,” but says that those born in the realm “of the Spirit” are born “of water and the Spirit” (Jn. 3: 5).
This description leaves us somewhat puzzled. Is Jesus connecting the birth from above to baptism with water? Since throughout the gospel running, living water serves as a symbol of the Spirit, it would seem that this is the case. The word “and” in Jesus’ description is epexegetical: the second word expands the first. In other words, Jesus’ baptism with water is a baptism with the Spirit. The gospel According to John leaves us still a bit confused because, while it reports that Jesus took away from John some of the crowds who came to be baptized with water, it does not report that John the Baptist actually baptized Jesus with water. John the Baptist only serves as a witness who declares, “I saw the Spirit descend as a dove from heaven, and it remained on him” (Jn. 1: 32). In this gospel, then, Jesus’ own baptism did not involve water and was not performed by John the Baptist. What the gospel emphasizes is that the Spirit that descended on him remained on him. This is the trademark of the baptism of the Spirit. It stays on the person who receives it. Here the baptism of Jesus is given a totally different significance to that found in the Synoptic gospels. The only thing all four gospels have in common is that the Spirit descended on him as a dove. Instead of telling us that John the Baptist baptized Jesus and a voice declared Jesus to be the Son with whom God is well pleased (Mk. 1: 10), this gospel tells us that John the Baptist testified that the Spirit not only descended but also “remained” on him. The “abiding” of the Spirit in Jesus and in the disciples is a central theme of According to John. The water of a baptism with water may be dried away, but the Spirit of Jesus’s baptism remains in those baptized with the Spirit.
As already noted, baptism is a ritual. In an effort to understand rituals, they have been divided into types. Baptism may be conceived as a rite of purification, a rite of initiation or a rite of passage. Rites of purification aim at the removal of uncleanness. In the O.T. uncleanness is attached to different agents. For example, the touching of blood, unclean foods or a dead person renders a person unclean. Lev. 14: 1 – 8 prescribes the washing, or the ablution (baptism?) required of those who become unclean on account of having leprosy. The baptism with water performed by John the Baptist was, no doubt, a ritual of purification. His baptism was for the washing away of sins (Mk. 1: 4). Sins were viewed as blots or spots that need to be washed or cleansed away.
Initiation rituals aim at installing a person as an official member of a group. At the time of Jesus and Paul the mystery cults had quite elaborate initiation rituals. Going through the initiation process qualified the person to enter into the mystery that gave “salvation” to the initiates. In Judaism, circumcision integrated the newly born baby to the people with whom God had made a covenant at Sinai. A rite of passage, on the other hand, is an event in a person’s life marking a transition from one stage in life to a more important one. In Judaism once one is circumcised he is in, and that is all he needs. In the mystery cults of antiquity there were higher stages that the initiate could attain to by going through specific procedures. Mithraism, for example, had seven stages (Raven, Bridesman, Soldier, Lion, Persian, Sun-bearer and Father). Devotees were encouraged to reach the higher tiers by means of ascetic exercises. As they ascended through the tiers they gained access to deeper secrets of the mystery, but reaching higher stages was dependent of the attainment of certain conditions. The final stage allowed the devotee to participate in a sacred meal with the god Mithra. Central to Mithraism was Mithra’s slaying of the bull to dispense his blood as the ultimate cleansing of the initiate who had reached the rank of Father. Some rituals of the masonic lodges and of some forms of Christian mysticism have some things in common with the traditions of the mystery cults. The famous mystical book of Santa Teresa de Avila, Las Moradas (The Interior Castle, in English) , for example, has the Christian passing from one room of the house to the next. Ultimately the person reaches the innermost chamber where the mystical marriage is consecrated. Passage from one to another morada is possible only when specific spiritual and moral goals have been achieved.
What kind of a rite is the baptism of the Holy Spirit? Are those baptized expected to ascend to higher levels with more Spirit? From According to John, the only place in which reference to it is made, since it is equated with the birth from above, or from the Spirit, it seem that it does not fit comfortably in any of the three types described above. It would seem that it comes closer to being an initiation rite. But it is not quite such because there is no official reception by a group for those born from above. The baptism of water and the Spirit does not accomplish the integration into a group, but the reception of power for the abundant life. This means that there are no further rites of passage for those who have been born of the Spirit. According to this gospel, once born from above with water and the Spirit that remains on them, Jesus’ disciples have eternal life. To be anxiously waiting and praying to be baptized with the Spirit as if it were a baptism separate from water baptism, or to struggle to attain the condition necessary to pass to a higher form of life, is not within the horizon of According to John. The abundant life offered by Jesus in this gospel (Jn. 10: 10) is already full with the Spirit.
The apostle Paul understands that Christian are “baptized into Christ Jesus.” Baptism is participation in the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus (Rom 6: 3 -4). In as much as death and burial are normal human events, their symbolic re-enactment in baptism is an observable fact. There is no doubt that the person has come to the water willingly and has decided to die to his former way of life. Whether he has actually died to his past is to be seen. The re-enactment of the resurrection as the one being baptized is lifted out of the water requires faith. According to Paul, the resurrection of Jesus is not the resuscitation of Jesus. The Risen Christ does not have the body of Jesus. The body of the Risen Christ, and the body that the believers will receive at the resurrection of the dead, is a glorious, Spirit body (1 Cor. 15: 42 – 52; Phil. 3:21). For Paul the resurrection of Christ is a New Creation (2 Cor. 5: 17). It inaugurates the dispensation [economy] of the Spirit (2 Cor. 3: 8). As a human being born of a woman (Gal. 4: 4), Jesus was a son of Adam; as the Risen Lord he is the Last Adam (1 Cor. 15: 45). It is on account of God’s raising him from the dead that he is the Son of God (Rom. 1:5). Just as the Spirit of God that moved over the primordial waters was the facilitating agent for the creation of the original cosmos (Gen. 1: 1), so also the Spirit was the agent of the New Creation in the Risen Christ. This means that for Paul, baptized Christian are a New Creation. Having been crucified and buried with Christ, they rise from the watery grave to life in the Spirit that raised Christ from the dead. The Spirit remains in them and brings in them a steady display of the glory that emanates from the Risen Christ and is a guarantee of their ultimate glorification in a Spirit body (2 Cor. 5: 5).
As a metaphor, a creation is not the same as a birth. A birth reproduces what already is, while a creation brings about something new. Even though he works with a different metaphor, Paul agrees with the Gospel of John that Christians live “in the Spirit” rather than “in the flesh.” Unlike the Gospel of John, however, Paul is an apocalypticist. He has a vision of the Fall as the cosmic intrusion of evil that makes humans to sin on account of the weakness of the flesh. Sin is not a blemish, a spot that needs to be washed away, but a cosmic power that enslaves humans in sin. This necessitates a cosmic new creation. Moreover, Paul is a realist who knows that while those who are baptized are made participants in the life of the Risen Christ by the power of the Spirit, after their baptism they still live in bodies of flesh with propensities for sin. This means that he envisions that Christians are empowered by the Spirit to steadily disentangle themselves from life in the flesh, so that they are transformed from one degree of glory to another by the power of the Spirit (2 Cor. 3: 17 – 18). For Paul, the resurrection of Christ is the ultimate manifestation of the righteousness and the glory of God. Thus life in the creation of the Risen Christ is characterized by glory. It is a shining life. Those baptized into the death, burial and resurrection of Christ will be fully energized and “glorified” with the Spirit when they receive a Spirit body like that of the Risen Christ, and no longer have a body of flesh, at their resurrection.
The ultimate significance of living in “the dispensation of the Spirit” inaugurated by the resurrection of Christ is freedom. As Paul explains it, those baptized and living in Christ no longer live in “the dispensation of condemnation” ruled by the law. Living in that dispensation people are bound to the flesh, and have a veil in their faces. They cannot see the glory in the face of the Risen Christ. They cannot even read the Scriptures, because they lack the Spirit. Living by the power of the Spirit that raised Christ from the dead gives freedom, in the first place, to read the Scriptures correctly, see the glory of the Risen Christ, and thereby be transformed from one degree of glory to another (2 Cor. 3). In the second place, the freedom that characterizes life in the Spirit is the result of a renovation of the mind that empowers Christians to live determining [dokimazein = discern and approve] “what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Rom. 12: 2).
Unlike what the authors of the lesson in the SS quarterly teach, neither Paul nor the gospel According to John teach that Christians should strive to be baptized with the Spirit, or to receive a greater measure of the Spirit. In fact, both teach that God is not stingy, or in need of demonstrable worthiness before giving out the Spirit. Unlike the mystery cults of antiquity, they do not propose “conditions” for the reception of the Spirit. According to John uses a most telling metaphor: “it is not by measure that he [God] gives the Spirit” (Jn. 3: 34). Paul says the same from the opposite angle: “Hope does not disappoint us because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us.” (Rom. 5: 5). God does not dispense the Holy Spirit with a drop- counter, or a measuring spoon. God pours love and the Spirit prodigally on all. It is because God has given us the Holy Spirit to start with that he pours his love on us. God does not react to our effort by dispensing a bit more of the Spirit if we meet certain conditions. Rather, it is because God has poured the Spirit on us that we are transformed by the Spirit from one degree of glory to another. Paul does not teach that Christians must show themselves worthy before God would give them more of the Spirit. He writes, “it is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ: (1 Cor. 4: 6). The glory of God that shines in the face of the Risen Christ also shines in the hearts of all Christians giving them the power and the guidance of the Spirit that causes this glory to increase in brightness. Ultimately, the glory of God that shines in the face of the Risen Christ will not just be in the heart of believers but in their whole Spirit bodies at their resurrection. Thus, while recognizing that Christians go through a trajectory of ascending glory, Paul does not teach that Christians are the ones who must prove worthy to receive the fullness of the Spirit. The trajectory of Christians who go from glory to glory until their final glorification in Spirit bodies is the result of the pouring of the Spirit and love by a God who demonstrates His righteousness by giving life to those who live in obedience to His call. Summarizing the fact that Christians do not live in a “dispensation of death” but in the “dispensation of the Spirit,” Paul says, “All this is from God who through Christ reconciled us to himself ” (2 Cor. 5: 18).
Herold Weiss is professor emeritus of Religious Studies at Saint Mary's College, Notre Dame, Indiana.
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