Were the Apostles' Baptisms Insufficient Before They Received the Holy Spirit?

The New Testament lesson (from Acts) in this week’s Revised Standard Lectionary is quite short, and thematically spare:

When the apostles at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God, they sent Peter and John to them. The two went down and prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit (for as yet the Spirit had not come upon any of them; they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus). Then Peter and John laid their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit.

The somewhat puzzling word there is “only.” Baptism is a big deal, especially for those baptized by choice as adults after first learning the Gospel. But the word “only” in that context seems to belittle baptism’s importance, and its power.

Yet that can’t possibly be the connotation intended. The Bible repeatedly stresses the importance, even the majesty, of baptism. Its readers understand, and presumably have internalized, this sacrament’s importance.

So if “only” is not intended to make light of baptism, what is meant by it? Well, think about the best meal you’ve ever eaten, one where the light appetizer, soup, and salad are all so wonderful that you’re already in gustatory rapture – and you tell the waiter as much. The waiter smiles and says “and you’ve only had the first courses; the entrée is still to come!”

That, I think, is the intent of the author (reputedly the physician Luke) of the Acts of the Apostles: to say to the newly baptized that as wonderful as their newly baptized status is, it’s just the first step toward something even more wonderful still.

The “more wonderful still” part is the Holy Spirit.

Which begs the question: Why is the Spirit so important? Why is it more wonderful still?

Well, think about it this way: Baptism is an act that welcomes someone into the communion with the Almighty … but the Spirit infuses us with the mission, and the ability, to bring that communion to others – to build the community of the faith, and its love, outward, to make it even more vibrant by welcoming others, too, into the fold and thus into the promise of redemption and joy.

Put another way, baptism immerses us, and then the Spirit empowers us. It commissions us to spread the Word, to help the poor, to comfort the afflicted, to ready our little corner of creation for the coming Kingdom of God.

It is a joyful empowerment. It is up to us to go use the Spirit’s power in ways worthy of the blessings it offers.

Quin Hillyer is a veteran conservative columnist. He has an undergraduate degree in Theology from Georgetown University and has served for years in various forms of ecumenical lay leadership.