I frequently encounter a misunderstanding over the usage of the term “baptism”–both in scripture and modern theology. Bringing some biblical clarity to this fuzziness seems to often help people see the promise of Spirit baptism as an unclaimed blessing from God.

Just as a word of introduction, the practice of water baptism pre-dates the New Testament times by at least a thousand years–most likely more. Baptism in water was even performed commonly at the time of Jesus by law-observing Jews. I believe that Jewish baptism probably got it’s start with the parting of the Red Sea, but it was certainly fleshed out with the brazen laver in the tabernacle/temple. This laver was used to ceremonially wash the priests who would minister before the Lord. If you’ve ever seen pictures of the temple mount in Jerusalem, you can find excavations of “micvahs” at the southern end of the temple ruins; these were public baptistries for the penitent as they would enter the temple and worship God. These micvahs are a likely spot where the 3,000 may have been water baptized on the Day of Pentecost. The obvious metaphor in Jewish baptism is getting clean before a holy God.

There are four distinct baptisms mentioned in scripture; let’s look at them in chronological order.

1. John’s Water Baptism

John was the prophetic forerunner of the Messiah and part of his role was to bring to light the need for repentance. The scripture clearly speaks that John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance (Acts 19:4). Though Jesus himself experienced this baptism, it is technically pre-Christian because His work on the cross had not yet been completed. In a similar way that John’s ministry announced the coming fulfillment, John’s baptism was a precursor, foreshadowing the next baptism.

2. Baptism in the Body of Christ

This baptism involves no water because it is a metaphor for becoming part of the Body of Christ at the time of salvation; it has a dual meaning in that it is a metaphor for both our conversion and our joining the family of God. 1 Cor 12:13 demonstrates this metaphorical language as the entry point into the Body of Christ, the moment we are Born Again. Unlike John’s baptism, this baptism is still intact and is the single greatest event that can take place in a person’s life!

3. Christian Water Baptism

In the Great Commission, Jesus instructs us to baptize the new disciples in water with the acknowledgement of the nature of the triune God. This command marks the obsolescence of John’s Baptism as we clearly see with Paul’s reaction to the Ephesian converts in Acts 19. We see Christian water baptism being a foundation stone of the early church’s discipleship model and understand that like John’s baptism it demonstrates repentance, but it also now signifies identification with the death and resurrection of the Messiah, Jesus. This Baptism is not obsolete and should be obediently observed by all followers of Jesus.

4. Spirit Baptism

Like the Baptism into the Body of Christ, this baptism involves no literal water but marks a significant spiritual moment. Matthew, Mark, Luke John and Acts all prophesy that Jesus the Messiah will Baptize His followers in the Holy Spirit. In Acts 1:8, Jesus spoke to His assembled followers–who had now put their faith in Him as the resurrected Christ, they were Born again as you and I now are–and told them that they would receive supernatural ministry power at a future event, namely Spirit baptism. This promise is initially fulfilled in Acts 2 at Pentecost but is also demonstrated as a consistent pattern for apostolic discipleship in Acts 8, 9, 10 and 19 where new converts are quickly Spirit baptized.

It is clear from scripture that this baptism is not about salvation, but rather about receiving ministry power to help other people. It is also clear that this baptism is not experienced at salvation as a part of the Spirit’s work of regeneration, but is a event to be desired and pursued by Born Again followers of Jesus. This baptism has not expired and is still available to every believer today (Acts 2:38-39).
Here is a chart that I have modified from Dr. Les Holdcroft which simply categorizes the four baptisms:

John’s           Pre-        Penitent       John          Water             Acts 19:4
Baptism        Resur-    Sinner
Baptism       At            Penitent       Holy          Body of          1 Cor 12:13
into               Salv-       Sinner          Spirit         Christ
Christ           ation
Water          After        Convert/      Elder         Water             Mat 28:19
Baptism      Salv-        Disciple
Spirit           After        Believer        Jesus         Holy               Acts 2:4
Baptism      Salv-                                                   Spirit

(This chart is modified from Dr. Holdcroft’s “The Holy Spirit” first edition, 1962, page 131.)
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