Baptism with the Holy Spirit: What difference does it make?

“I baptize you with water,” John the Baptist said, “but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit,” Mark 1:8. So what’s the difference between the two baptisms, and does it matter?

It certainly mattered to Paul when he discovered some disciples in Ephesus in Acts 19:1-2, because the big question on Paul’s mind was, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” No, they replied, they’d never “even heard that there is a Holy Spirit,” which made Paul wonder what baptism they’d received instead.

“John’s baptism,” they said, which to Paul was all well and good as a “baptism to repentance,” but far more important was belief in Jesus, verse 4. So they were all baptized again, this time “into the name of the Lord Jesus,” at which point “the Holy Spirit came on them,” verse 5.

But what difference did the Holy Spirit coming on them make? There’s a clue in verse 13. Some Jewish exorcists were using “the name of the Lord Jesus” to try and rid people of evil spirits. But it hadn’t worked (verse 15-16). To have power over evil, the name of Jesus wasn’t enough. More was needed. But what?

A famous sorcerer in Acts 8 knew the answer to that. He’d watched many of his followers being baptized when they heard about “the name of Jesus Christ,” verse 12. He was even baptized himself (verse 15). But when Peter and John arrived, “they prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit, because the Holy Spirit had not yet come upon them; they had simply been baptized into the name of the Lord Jesus,” verses 15-16.

So, again, the name of Jesus wasn’t enough. More was needed, and Simon the sorcerer saw what it was. When he “saw that the Spirit was given at the laying on of the apostles’ hands, he offered them money and said, ‘Give me also this ability so that everyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit’.”

Simon knew where the power was. It was in the Holy Spirit, and if he could lay his hands on people like the apostles did and that kind of power was released in people, how much more famous Simon could be. He’d watched Philip even cast out evil spirits and heal paralytics (verse 7), so think of the power the Holy Spirit would give him too.

HE knew what difference the Holy Spirit makes. The Spirit has the power to cure anything that ails us. A baptism to repentance doesn’t do that, nor does baptism in the name of Jesus. It’s only by receiving the Spirit AS WELL that power over evil and the damage it has done to us is possible.

Why do we need the Holy Spirit?

We need the Holy Spirit because the Spirit makes Christ’s love real (Ephesians 3:16-19). And to Paul that was a burning passion, that we understand Christ’s love for us so well that we’ll trust our lives to Christ like a woman trusts her life to a man in marriage (2 Corinthians 11:2).

Paul knew what the Holy Spirit would then do in people who could love and trust Jesus like that. The Spirit would “transform (them) into Christ’s likeness with ever-increasing glory,” 2 Corinthians 3:18. Just as the workings inside the body of a young, gangly girl transform her into a poised and beautiful woman, so does the Holy Spirit work inside us to grow us up into the beauty and likeness of Christ in everything (Ephesians 4:13-15).

We can “live a life of love, just as Christ loved us,” Ephesians 5:1. Imagine being a person like that – where nothing but “what is helpful for building others up according to their needs” is what we think about and say to people, Ephesians 4:29. But this is where the Holy Spirit comes in. I can’t make myself into such a person, but the Spirit can, and wants to.

How I must “grieve the Holy Spirit,” verse 30– or break the Spirit’s heart – when I forget I have the HOLY GOD living and breathing his life in me all the time. God has made himself as intimate to me as he can, by actually “sealing” himself inside me (verse 30). He’s willingly stuck himself inside me for life, with no escape. He has no intention of escaping either, because now that he’s in me he can do what it takes to repair all the damage, suture up the wounds, do a heart transplant and pump his life into my bloodstream. And I’ve got that now working inside me, simply for believing Christ really does love me and I trust him.

That was all it took for the door to my spirit to open up to the Holy Spirit. “Believe in the good news of the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ,” Acts 8:12, and because of that belief the Holy Spirit “comes upon us,” verse 16-17. Now the power begins – transformation, healing, and growing us up into an entirely new creation from the inside out, unrecognizable from the “infants” we used to be “blown here and there by every wind of doctrine and the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming,” Ephesians 4:14.

No more are we the easily influenced youngsters we were. We’re being grown up to become wise, strong and beautiful, fit to be the wife of Christ himself (2 Corinthians 11:2). And it’s the Holy Spirit’s great pleasure to do that for everyone.

Confident, free, and no worries in this world? How?

There are two Covenants and two ministries being compared in 2 Corinthians 3, and both of them are called “glorious” by Paul – which seems a little strange, because how could a ministry that “brought death” and “condemns men” (verses 7 and 9) be glorious?

Paul’s talking about the Old Covenant that was “engraved in letters on stone” (verse 7). He called it a Covenant “of the letter,” but, he says, “the letter kills” (verse 6) – which doesn’t sound very glorious at all. He also says its “radiance was fading away” (verse 13), so it wasn’t even meant to last either. It was just a temporary arrangement that condemned and killed people.

But it clearly served a glorious purpose as a comparison to the New Covenant, which Paul called a Covenant “of the Spirit,” and it’s so much “greater” than the Old Covenant (verse 11) that “what was glorious has no glory now in comparison with the surpassing glory” of the New.

But how is this new ministry so surpassing in its glory? Because, verse 3, it’s “written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts” – and whatever the Spirit is writing on human hearts it “gives life” (verse 6), it “brings righteousness” (verse 9), and it “lasts” (verse 11).

And it’s all being done by God himself, because, Paul writes in verse 17, “the Lord is the Spirit.” The Spirit, therefore, is not only “the Spirit OF the living God” (verse 3), the Spirit IS God. The Spirit is “Lord” too, so in the New Covenant it is God himself who is ministering to us. Everything in our lives now “comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit,” verse 18.

This is why the New Covenant is so much greater than the Old Covenant; it’s because none of it depends on our doing. We “are BEING transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory.” This is something the Spirit Lord is doing to us. It’s not like the Old Covenant where blessings of any kind depended entirely on the obedience of the individual or the nation. This is the New Covenant where the blessings of life, righteousness and gradual transformation into “the Lord’s glory” (verse 18) all come from the Spirit Lord, and do not depend on anything we do.

That’s why “where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom,” because in the New Covenant the Spirit is totally in charge of our lives, and he is doing the job of transforming our hearts perfectly. “Therefore, since we have such a hope, we are very bold,” verse 12. We can walk through life in this world every day utterly “confident” (verse 4). We have no worries. We are free.

What’s it like to be “born of the Spirit”?

I got my first real whiff of what being “born again” is like when our 6 year old granddaughter came to stay with us for a week. She was ecstatically happy to be with us, and for the life of me I couldn’t work out why. I’m a doddery old codger now and not much fun to be with, and I can’t run around like I used to. I’m risking injury just walking fast.

When she came to stay, therefore, I wondered what on earth we could do together to keep her occupied. She had the energy of three nuclear power stations, while I tottered in her wake on worn out batteries. Would she be so bored by Day 2 that she’d be crying for home?

By Day 6, however, she was still happy. She scampered down the front path each morning as happily as she did on Day 1. To her, it didn’t matter where we were going either, because wherever Granpy was going was just fine with her. And if all Granpy could manage was a trip to the Library where he collapsed in exhaustion with a newspaper, it was still fine, because for her being together was enough.

Her trust and contentment in whatever we did together was a joy – and a revelation, too, because this was John 3. In that chapter, Jesus is telling Nicodemus what being born again is like, and comes up with this remarkable explanation in verse 8: “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”

When I’m born of the Spirit I have no idea where the Spirit’s taking me, just like my granddaughter had no idea where I was taking her each day. It was no problem for her, though. Granpy knew where he was going, and that’s all that mattered. She could scamper into each day in total trust and contentment. And that’s what it’s like being born of the Spirit. The Spirit knows where he’s going, so what else matters? And every morning it’s the same. Out we go together, the Spirit and I, just like I did with my granddaughter.

And Jesus said it would be like this in John 14:16-18, too. The Spirit would live with us and be with us forever. Every moment of every day, then, we’d have a Spirit guide. Where he’s going, we do not know, but he knows – and for my granddaughter with me as her guide – that was all that mattered.

Is the Holy Spirit a person or a power?

Whether person or power, the Holy Spirit is named separately from the Father and the Son. But it’s in relationship with the Father and Son that we discover who or what the Holy Spirit is – as we see in Acts 16:7, for instance, where the Holy Spirit is called the “Spirit of Jesus.”

That’s because Jesus’ entire life was intimately related to the Spirit. He was conceived by the Spirit, identified by the Spirit at his baptism, led by the Spirit into the wilderness, and in his first public address Jesus said, “The Spirit of the Lord is on me,” Luke 4:18. Jesus identified the Spirit as being in close, intimate relationship with him.

The Spirit is also called “the Spirit of your Father,” Matthew 10:20, so the Spirit is intimately related to the Father too. In John 14:26 the Father sends the Holy Spirit in Jesus’ name, so in trying to discover who or what the Holy Spirit is, Scripture clearly identifies the Spirit in intimate relationship with both Father and Son.

And just as Jesus never said or did anything on his own authority (John 12:49-50), the Spirit does “not speak on his own (authority)” either, John 16:13. What we see in Scripture, then, is the Father, Son and Spirit operating in total harmony together. It’s a wonderful window into who and what God is. God is a communion of love, an intimate relationship, as we see again in the relationship between the Holy Spirit and Jesus, because Jesus’ great goal in his life, death, resurrection and ascension was to have the Holy Spirit given to us (John 14:16, 16:13, Acts 1:8, 2:38). But it’s the Spirit’s great purpose to bring us into union with Christ (Ephesians 3:16-17, 1 John 4:13).

So we’ve got Christ’s great desire being to unite us to the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit’s great desire to unite us to Christ. In the relationship between the Holy Spirit and Jesus, then, we have the same window into God, and again it’s all about God being an intimate relationship of love, which then extends to loving us too.

We don’t see God primarily as either persons or powers, therefore. Instead, we see God as a relationship always operating in total harmony. And the Holy Spirit is identified as being part of that relationship, operating in exactly the same way as the Father and Son do, in close, intimate relationship together. When thinking of the Holy Spirit, then, it’s in relationship with the Father and Son, operating in total harmony together on our behalf. That’s the focus in Scripture, not on whether the Holy Spirit is a separate person or a power.

Did a virgin really give birth to Jesus?

But why couldn’t Jesus be born from a virgin mother? Look up the word “God” in the Dictionary and one definition given is “having no limits or boundaries.” God, therefore, can do what he jolly well pleases, so having a virgin give birth to Jesus was a walk in the park for him.

Predicting Jesus’ virgin birth hundreds of years before it happened was a walk in the park too. But let’s face it, we weren’t there when Isaiah predicted it, nor did we witness Jesus’ birth personally, so how do we know the virgin birth (and the prophecy of it) really happened? On the other hand, if Jesus’ unique birth did happen as Scripture says it did, and God really was Jesus’ Father and Jesus truly was both human and divine, the impact of such a being on this planet must have been huge, right?

And it has been huge. Billions of people have put their trust in Jesus in the centuries since his birth. But was it his miraculous virgin birth that captured their trust? No. It was their own miraculous birth. Suddenly, new and completely different things started happening to them. God, for instance, became a loving Father to them (not a distant ogre), Jesus became a personal source of strength for them, and they found themselves becoming much better people with great results in their relationships with other people. It was like a new birth.

And what had they done personally toward this new birth? Nothing. It came out of the blue, like some other power had suddenly conceived it in them. But that’s exactly what scripture said would happen to people because of Jesus’ birth – and in scriptures written many years before Jesus was born too, as in Jeremiah 31:31-34 and Ezekiel 36:25-27. Miraculous changes would happen in human hearts those scriptures said.

And why would these changes happen? Because of the Holy Spirit   –  ah  –  the Holy Spirit, the same Holy Spirit that conceived Jesus. Is it any surprise, then, that Jesus had a unique virgin birth created by the Holy Spirit when that same Spirit is creating new births in people all the time? Conceiving new births is what the Spirit does. New birth, miraculously conceived by God, is his speciality. It’s a walk in the park for him.

Is the virgin birth so strange, then? Not when the Spirit is constantly giving birth to new creatures who are being “conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers,” Romans 8:29. Jesus, therefore, was simply the first miraculous birth by the Holy Spirit – to be followed by millions and millions more.

Experiencing death before we die

It’s an odd thing being a Christian because we experience death before we die. That’s probably why Christians aren’t phased much by dying, because, as Paul said, we die daily, so we’re old hands at death long before our physical bodies die.

We die in the same way we die physically too. When we die physically the vital systems in our bodies that kept us alive start shutting down. It’s like turning off the lights in a large room. As each switch is clicked off, the room slowly darkens, until one final click and the lights go out entirely.

And isn’t that what happens in our Christian lives too? Jesus’ death provided us with the switch to turn the power of sin off, and the Spirit now turns the lights out one by one. The systems that kept us alive before, therefore, like ambition, competition, making a name for ourselves, being popular and liked, self-preservation and security, start shutting down. The room they occupied in our heads slowly darkens until the lights make a last fizz and splutter, and die.

It’s quite something when an old attitude that animated our lives before makes its last splutter and dies, like the attitude of being critical and condemning. For much of our lives, putting others down really got the blood flowing. It made us feel good and alive, and it gave our sagging ego a boost when others made glaring mistakes and we could laugh and scoff at their expense.

But the Spirit’s at the switch gradually shutting that kind of nonsense down, until one day it’s of no interest to us anymore. We don’t need to condemn and judge others to feel better about ourselves. It doesn’t have the same appeal. It becomes a horrible thing we don’t want hanging around in our heads anymore. Get rid of it. Turn it off. And turn it off we do, daily.

And what about those other attitudes that lit up our emotions before, like getting all hoity-toity if someone cuts us off in traffic, or a well-known gossip says things behind our backs that aren’t quite true, or our great knowledge on a subject is exposed as faulty by a snotty know-it-all?

Those things probably squirted all sorts of highly inflammable fuels into our systems before, stirring up fiery anger and heated replies. But the Spirit has been let loose on us now, and he’s at the switch turning that stuff off until it’s dead, and it stays dead, daily. As Christians, then, we experience death many times before we die, as the lights go out on what made us feel alive before.