The Spiritual Gifts: Experiencing the Spirit (Part 3)

The Bible’s comprehensive teaching presents us with three different, yet related, ways of understanding the doctrine of the baptism of the Spirit. Taken from within a Perspectival framework we can see a (1) situational perspective, (2) an existential perspective, and (3) a normative perspective. Each opens up the doctrine in a unique light and allows us to see how God’s Spirit works differently in different situations. He is not flat but dynamic and therefore His work is dynamic. This view will also allow us to interpret the doctrine within the original context of each passage, instead of trying to make each passage fit a predetermined conclusion. We begin to explore this idea more clearly with a post on the situational perspective. The Situational perspective reveals that the baptism of the Spirit has an eschatological emphasis.

Four of the seven passages in the Bible, which directly speak to this doctrine, are from this perspective. They come from the Gospels and describe John the Baptist’s pronouncement of the distinction between his baptism and the baptism of the Messiah. So, we read:

“I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. (Matthew 3:11)

“I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” (Mark 1:8)

John answered them all, saying, “I baptize you with water, but he who is mightier than I is coming, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” (Luke 3:16)

I myself did not know him, but he who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ (John 1:33)

These four texts have in mind the inauguration of a new era. John’s language of contrast, distinction, and progression all indicate something new, something advanced in the Kingdom of God is happening.His language of “fire” in the Luke quotation is particularly interesting.

The language of a “baptism in Spirit and fire” is reflective of apocalyptic prophecies. In the words of Larry Hart:

This is eschatological, even apocalyptic, language. Johns’ words resonate with the Old Testament promises of an end-time outpouring of divine judgment and blessing. Isaiah had long ago predicted that the Messiah would one day revive Israel by his Spirit (ruach) – “by a spirit of judgment and by a spirit of burning” (Isa. 4:4). Numerous Old Testament prophecies pointed to an eschatological outpouring of God’s Spirit, bringing both purification and punishment, depending on the human response (Joel 2:28-32; Ezek. 36:25-27; 39:29; Mal. 3:2-3; cf. Isa. 11:15; 29:10; 30:28; 32:15-17; 44:3). Thus, in comprehensive language, John summarizes the total impact of Jesus’ saving mission, which continues to this very day! (Perspectives on Spirit Baptism, 111)

John’s eschatological language points to a fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies. James D.G. Dunn says similar things about John’s language of “Spirit and fire.” He writes:

In short then, the baptism in the Spirit-and-fire was not to be something gentle and gracious, but something which burned and consumed, not something experienced by only Jew or only Gentile, only repentant or only unrepentant, but by all. It was the fiery (Spirit) in which all must be immersed, as it were, and which like a smelting furnace would burn up all impurity. For the unrepentant it would mean total destruction. For the repentant it would mean a refining and purging away of all evil and sin which would result in salvation and qualify to enjoy the blessings of the messianic kingdom. (Baptism in the Holy Spirit, 14)

The Spirit and Fire point to the eschatological purification and punishment that inaugurates the new Kingdom of God coming.

What is true of the Luke passage is true of the other texts too. They emphasize baptism of the Spirit as a launching of a new era in the work of God. The point of contrast for John the Baptist is that his baptism is incomplete; the baptism of the Messiah is still needed. In John’s gospel the pharisees assume that there is an eschatological element to this baptism. Why, after all, would John baptize if he is neither Elijah or the Christ (John 1:25). The Old Testament foresaw a time in the “last days” when the Spirit would be poured out on all people. What John the Baptist is alluding to, then, is a fulfillment of the promises of the Old covenant. It is an epochal shift in the work of God among His people. There is something of eschatological significance that is associated with the baptism of the Spirit.

Such an emphasis does not encompass all that the Bible says about this doctrine, but it does discuss an important dimension. Within the situational perspective we are analyzing God’s attribute of control and our relation to God through the world in which we live. The Eschaton is God’s activity to bring all things under the feet of Christ (Heb. 2:7-8). God is increasing His sovereign control and rule in the fulfillment of the last days promises and the outpouring of the Spirit. The Baptism of the Spirit is part of God’s subjugation of the world and all in it. Baptism is an aspect of the fulfillment of the coming Kingdom. John the Baptist’s pronouncement, then, is telling of a dramatic shift in God’s activity, and we should expect it, then, to speak to some unique activity at the dawn of the new age. In other words, not everything that we see the Spirit do in the New Testament has a direct corollary in our contemporary setting. This will be an important idea to flesh out, reflect on, and apply as we consider the nature of the Spiritual Gifts directly.

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