Baptism in the Holy Spirit

The Life and Ministry of Jesus

by Edgar R. Lee

Our intention in these articles is to show that we derive the Pentecostal doctrine of baptism in the Holy Spirit from the whole of canonical Scripture, not just a few passages in the Book of Acts. The Old Testament chronicles the ministry of the Spirit in His charismatic work of empowering God’s chosen leaders for particular functions. It often shows that supernatural phenomena are the evidence of the coming of the Spirit. But the Old Testament also promises that the Spirit will bring spiritual life and moral transformation. We can say that the Spirit in the Old Testament has a two-fold ministry: charismatic and conversional.

These two aspects of the Spirit’s ministry, vividly prophesied in the Old Testament, come to unique fulfillment in the life and ministry of Jesus who is the Spirit-filled minister par excellence, and who from the outset of the Gospels is the anointed Spirit-baptizer.

The Spirit in Jesus’ Birth and Early Life

Young Mary, surprised by the angel Gabriel with the announcement she would become pregnant and give birth to Messiah, responded with consternation, “How will this be … since I am a virgin?” (Luke 1:34).

Gabriel replied, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God” (Luke 1:35; cf. Matthew 1:18,20). Then followed a miraculous virginal conception, without benefit of human paternity, accomplished by the Spirit of God who was active at the creation of the world (Genesis 1:1). The one so conceived can only be “the holy one,” “the Son of God.”

Though miracle born, in His early life Jesus did little to demonstrate His unusual origin. But early on, a brief flurry of Spirit-inspired prophecies pointed to His true identity. The Spirit who enabled Mary to miraculously conceive is also the Spirit of prophecy who filled a few pious prophets to herald Jesus’ coming, beginning with Elizabeth (Luke 1:42–45). Simeon, “moved by the Spirit,” found the infant Messiah with His parents in the temple and identified Him as God’s “salvation” (Luke 2:25–32). Then came the prophetess, Anna, presumably also moved by the Sprit, who recognized the Child (Luke 2:36–38).

Beyond the brief sketches of Matthew and Luke, we know little of the early life of Jesus. Luke passes over His first 12 years saying only “the child grew and became strong; he was filled with wisdom and the grace of God was upon him” (Luke 2:40). Certainly not the miracle-worker that some of the apocryphal gospels portray that young Jesus’ precocious wisdom and God-consciousness distinguished Him from other children. The first sign of Jesus’ self-consciousness comes when His anxious parents found Him with the teachers in the temple. “Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?” He asked (Luke 2:49). But then Jesus reverted to His obedient-child identity and Luke passes rapidly over His early manhood, “And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men” (Luke 2:52).

Conceived and indwelt by the Spirit, Jesus from the beginning was an extraordinarily godly child who apparently grew quite normally into an extraordinarily godly young man. The Baptist acknowledged Jesus’ extraordinary nature and character in his hesitation to baptize Him (Matthew 3:14). The Early Church would later bear witness that He was without sin (2 Corinthians 5:21; Hebrews 4:15; 1 Peter 2:22).

The Spirit in Jesus’ Baptism and Anointing

The baptism of Jesus looms large in the Gospels, particularly in light of the accompanying descent of the Spirit. As the Gospels put it, suddenly at about 30 years of age Jesus emerged from the obscurity of His manual labor in Nazareth and appeared at the Jordan requesting baptism by His cousin John. Chagrined by the request and doubtless enlightened by the Spirit of prophecy, John declined. “I need to be baptized by you” (Matthew 3:14). Only when Jesus reassured John that His baptism was “to fulfill all righteousness” (3:15) did the Baptist relent.

But what is particularly significant in the baptismal account is what happened after Jesus’ baptism when He was praying: “the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: ‘You are my Son [Matthew 3:17, “This is my Son … with him I am well pleased”], whom I love; with you I am well pleased’ ” (Luke 3:22). The Gospels tell us that Jesus saw heaven opening and the dove descending. John the Baptist said, “I saw the Spirit come down from heaven as a dove and remain on him” (John 1:32). It may be, based upon Matthew’s use of the third person, that some of the crowd saw these phenomena as well.

The centerpiece of the baptismal event is undoubtedly the descent of the Spirit upon Jesus who, himself, soon provided an explanation. In the Nazareth synagogue, Jesus read the words of the prophet Isaiah, “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor … proclaim freedom for the prisoners … recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18,19). After returning the scroll to the synagogue attendant, Jesus said, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing” (4:21). Luke carefully placed this scene at the beginning of Jesus’ Galilean ministry to show that the Spirit, in keeping with the Old Testament promises, had now anointed Jesus for His mission. And the “Anointed One” is by definition the Messiah, the Christ.

Peter would much later echo this understanding of Jesus’ anointing. Preaching to the house of Cornelius, he said, “God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, and … he went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with him” (Acts 10:38). The Spirit did not come to regenerate or purify Jesus. As the sinless, incarnate Son of God He did not need to be born again or spiritually cleansed. Nor did the Spirit come merely for indwelling and fellowship with God, which Jesus already enjoyed. The Spirit came at Jesus’ baptism expressly to empower Him to begin and successfully complete His mission on earth.

Immediately after Jesus’ baptism and anointing, however, Jesus faced a challenge. Mark writes, “The Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. And he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan” (Mark 1:12,13, ESV).1 Mark used a very strong verb, ekballo, meaning basically “to throw out” or “to drive out”to depict the Spirit’s new and sudden impetus in Jesus. We often note that during his 40-day sojourn in the wilderness, Jesus overcame the evil one by the Word of God. But we also need to remember that it is now the Spirit-anointed Jesus who so ably wields the Word against His powerful foe.

Jesus, the Baptizer in the Spirit

While Jesus was still laboring as a carpenter in Nazareth, John the Baptist emerged from the wilderness and began preaching and baptizing along the Jordan River. Central to the Baptist’s call for repentance was the announcement that one more powerful than himself was on the way. As the Lord had spoken through Malachi several hundreds of years before, “See, I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me. Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to this temple” (Malachi 3:1). Fulfilling the Old Testament prophecies, the Baptist proclaimed the coming of Messiah: “I baptize you with water. But after me will come one who is more powerful than I. … He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire” (Matthew 3:11).

The prophecy of Messiah’s Spirit-baptism is so important each of the four evangelists places it at the beginning of his Gospel, giving his “primary lesson on pneumatology up front.”2 The wording of the Synoptics is almost identical (Matthew 3:11; Mark 1:8; Luke 3:16). In John’s Gospel, the Baptist looks back reflectively and testifies, “the one who sent me to baptize with water told me, ‘The man on whom you see the Spirit come down and remain is he who will baptize with the Holy Spirit’ ” (John 1:32).

It is important to realize that the Baptist’s practice of baptizing his fellow Jews in water was radical and outrageous. While Jews had many ceremonial washings, they were not baptized. Only Gentile converts to Jewish faith were baptized and even then not quite in this fashion. Predictably, the Jewish leaders declined John’s baptism. But as radical as John’s baptism was, the Spirit-baptizing activity of Jesus is to be even more radical and significant.

The power of the baptismal metaphor is compelling. The verb “to baptize” is baptizo, deriving from the verb bapto,3 which denotes a thorough immersion as of cloth in a vat of dye or a person in water. John’s baptism signaled a total reorientation of life in which people confessed and forsook their sins in expectation of the coming Messiah. But sharply contrasted against John’s water baptism, Messiah’s baptism in the Spirit was to be even more definitive and life-changing.

With such a forceful introduction to Jesus’ promised Spirit-baptism, especially within the larger context of Old Testament prophecy and New Testament fulfillment, it appears that historic Christian theology has made too little of it and dials down the language to make baptism in the Holy Spirit speak only of the conversion or, in some cases, the sanctification experience of believers.

The Spirit in Jesus’ Ministry

The coming of the Spirit made a dramatic difference in the life of Jesus. Luke vividly highlighted the change. “Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit, and news about him spread through the whole countryside” (Luke 4:14). Thereupon, Jesus began an astounding ministry of teaching and preaching, of healing and casting out demons. His former neighbors in Nazareth were stunned by the change in their former handyman. “The people were all so amazed that they asked each other, ‘What is this? A new teaching — and with authority! He even gives order to evil spirits and they obey him’ ” (Mark 1:27). Incidentally, with regard to the exorcisms, there is no indication that evil spirits recognized Jesus prior to His Spirit-anointing or that He cast them out. Thereafter, it was a common occurrence.

It is sometimes wrongly assumed that Jesus performed His ministry in the power of His divinity. To be sure, we cannot fathom the interplay between the divine and human natures of Jesus. His divinity does indeed seem to flash forth in the Transfiguration, for example, and is certainly implied in His forgiveness of sins. Some would see His divinity at work also in such nature miracles as the calming of the sea. But alongside the Gospels we also have the witness of Paul, “although He [Christ Jesus] existed in the form of God, [he] did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied (kenoo) Himself [“made himself nothing,” NIV], taking the form of a bond-servant … being made in the likeness of men (Philippians 2:6,7, NASB).4 “Emptied” is the literal translation of the Greek verb kenoo. But we must not reason that the Son of God in becoming incarnate “emptied” himself of His deity, as some earlier scholars erroneously taught. God cannot cease to be God. What Paul seems to mean is that the Son of God, in assuming human flesh, voluntarily and purposefully limited the use of His divine attributes to live and serve as a human being.

The narrative structure of the Gospels, as well as Jesus’ own words, attest His dependence upon the power of the Spirit. Remember, there is no messianic ministry on the part of Jesus prior to the coming of the Spirit at His baptism. In the midst of Jesus’ conflicts with the Pharisees, Matthew inserted another of Isaiah’s prophecies, “Here is my servant whom I have chosen, the one I love, in whom I delight; I will put my Spirit on him, and he will proclaim justice to the nations” (Matthew 12:18, citing Isaiah 42:1–4). Since the Pharisees could not deny Jesus’ power to heal and cast out demons, they claimed His power came from Beelzebub, the prince of demons. In a scathing response Jesus pointed to the Spirit of God as the source of His power (Matthew 12:28).

Luke indicated in his narrative about the return of the 72 disciples that Jesus experienced personal intimacy with the Spirit. When Jesus heard their reports, “Lord, even the demons submit to us in your name” (Luke 10:17), He appears to have been almost overcome. “At that time Jesus, full of joy through the Holy Spirit, said, ‘I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. Yes, Father, for this was your good pleasure’ ” (Luke 10:21).

Jesus’ Teachings About the Spirit in the Synoptics

The Synoptic writers, after dramatically putting their pneumatology of Spirit-baptism at the beginning of their Gospels, report very little of Jesus’ teachings about the Spirit. Luke records that Jesus, while teaching on prayer, said that just as humans give good gifts to their children, the Father in heaven will give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him (Luke 11:13). Luke then paired that saying with his account of the exorcism where Jewish critics insisted that Jesus cast out demons by Beelzebub (verses 14–25; compare Matthew 12:22–37). Jesus countered that He did so by the “finger of God” (verse 20; “Spirit of God,” Matthew 12:28) and that, thereby, the kingdom of God had come (Luke 11:14–26). Luke’s development of this passage in its context seems to indicate that the “good gift” of the Spirit may well come after conversion and with works of charismatic power.

There are also two passages in Luke where Jesus promises charismatic wisdom and speech. In Luke 12:12, He tells the disciples that, under threat of the courts, they are not to be anxious for “the Holy Spirit will teach you at that time what you should say.” And similarly in Luke 21:15, Jesus promises once again that when the disciples are hailed before the magistrates, “I will give you words and wisdom (presumably by the Spirit as in 12:12) that none of your adversaries will be able to resist or contradict.”

Luke’s post-Resurrection narratives are particularly significant. “I am going to send you what my Father has promised,” Jesus said, “but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high” (Luke 24:49). Any doubt about the nature of the Father’s promise is quickly resolved in Luke’s introduction to the Acts where he again quotes Jesus, “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 1:4,5). Luke has carefully structured his narrative to show that Jesus closed His earthly ministry by reiterating the Baptist’s promise about the baptism in the Holy Spirit. Jesus as the Spirit-baptizer was now prepared to dramatically immerse His followers in the same Spirit who had empowered His own ministry.

The charismatic nature of the Father’s promise is unmistakable. When the promise is fulfilled, the disciples will be “clothed with power (dynamis) from on high” (Luke 24:49). In Acts, Jesus said, “you will receive power (dynamis) when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses” (1:8).

There can be little question that the baptism in the Spirit prophesied by the Baptist at the outset of Luke’s Gospel is intended to depict a powerful visitation of the Spirit that prepared disciples for dynamic service as a witness to Christ. To interpret Spirit-baptism as regeneration (conversion-initiation) and thereby to shear it of charismatic power is hardly in keeping with the development of the Gospel narratives.

Jesus’ Teaching About the Spirit in John’s Gospel

John, of all the Gospels, has the most comprehensive teaching about the Spirit. Beginning with the testimony of the Baptist, this Gospel reflects a somewhat fuller pneumatology and sheds light on the teachings of Jesus regarding the Spirit’s larger work. Generally, John’s emphases tend to be more soteriological than charismatic, and he brings out nuances of Jesus’ teaching that the Synoptics do not. The highlights of John’s pneumatology, briefly stated, are:

  • John the Baptist witnessed that, at the baptism of Jesus, the Spirit came down from heaven on Jesus — and remained on Him (1:32,33).
  • This event certified Jesus as the One who is to baptize with the Holy Spirit (1:33).
  • In His dialogue with Nicodemus, Jesus indicated that His followers must be born (“anew” or “from above”) of the Spirit (3:6,8).
  • God gives the Spirit to Jesus without limit (3:34).
  • It is the Spirit who gives life (6:63).
  • The Spirit was not to be universally available to the disciples and other believers until Jesus was glorified (7:39).
  • Upon and after Jesus’ glorification, believers will receive the Spirit as “streams of water” that “will flow from within” them (7:38)
  • John reveals the Spirit as the Parakletos who will come to the disciples after Jesus’ departure to be with them as their Comforter, Friend, and Advocate forever (14:16,26; 15:26; 16:7).
  • John reveals the Spirit as the Spirit of Truth who will teach the disciples and remind them of everything Jesus had said (14:17,26; 15:26; 16:13).
  • The Spirit comes from both the Father and the Son (14:26; 15:26).
  • The Spirit comes, not as an autonomous or independent authority, but to make known the things of Christ (16:15).

Making much of the soteriological work of the Spirit to follow Jesus’ departure, John’s narrative points to a dramatic culmination. Unlike any of the other Gospels, John describes the sudden appearance of the risen Lord to 10 anxious apostles who have yet to see Him (20:19–22). Jesus calmed them with a blessing of peace and assured them of His identity and the reality of His resurrection. “As the Father has sent me, I am sending you,” He said (verse 21). But particularly striking are the words that follow, “And with that He breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit’ ” (verse 22). With this utterance, John appears to bring the Spirit teachings of Jesus to dramatic fulfillment.

Early Pentecostals believed this event was the point at which the first disciples were born again by the Spirit. While this remains a debated point among both Pentecostals and non-Pentecostals, it seems that we can make a good case for this view. First, as noted above, John’s Gospel has carefully arranged the Spirit teachings of Jesus to point to a definitive, climactic, life-giving encounter with the Holy Spirit after the Resurrection and at the end of the Gospel. This passage seems to be the culmination of all that has come before. Second, the language is striking. The Greek verb for “breathe” is emphysao, which has a powerful theological sense in biblical theology. In the Greek translation of the Old Testament (the Septuagint) widely used in Jesus’ day, this verb is found at Genesis 2:7 where “God … breathed into [Adam’s] nostrils the breath of life”; at 1 Kings 17:21 where Elijah “breathed” on the widow’s dead son and he returned to life; and at Ezekiel 37:9 where God commanded, “Come … O breath [pneuma], and breathe into these slain, that they may live.”

Jesus’ Death and Resurrection in the Spirit

While the Gospels say nothing directly about the work of the Spirit in the death and resurrection of Jesus, the larger New Testament witness helps us recognize that Jesus lived, died, and rose again experiencing the power of the Holy Spirit. According to the writer to the Hebrews, “Christ ... through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God” (Hebrews 9:14).

The New Testament never says that Christ raised himself from the dead. Usually, it is God (the Father) who raised Jesus from the dead. The precise nature of the Spirit’s role in the resurrection of Jesus is uncertain and the exact significance of certain texts is debatable. But the very nature of Trinitarian faith demands the presence and activity of the Spirit and several texts seem to be supportive. Thus in Romans 1:4, Paul wrote, “[Jesus] through the Spirit of holiness was declared with power to be the Son of God by his resurrection from the dead.” In Romans 8:11, the Holy Spirit is “the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead” and the agent through whom our mortal bodies experience resurrection life. In 1 Peter 3:18, Christ is “put to death in the body but made alive by the Spirit.”

The Implications of Jesus’ Experience and Teachings on the Holy Spirit

Our purpose in this series of articles is to show that the classical Pentecostal doctrine of baptism in the Holy Spirit is profoundly rooted in the full sweep of redemptive history running through both Testaments. The Gospel narratives contribute a number of insights that are relevant to our understanding of Spirit-baptism:

  • Jesus obviously had an indwelling experience of the Spirit from the time of His conception onward.
  • The descent of the Spirit on Jesus after His baptism in water brought a new experience of the Spirit, a charismatic endowment, which empowered Him for ministry.
  • It was the Spirit who enabled Jesus to carry out His ministry of preaching, teaching, and miraculous works. The biblical text does not support the belief that Jesus carried out His work through the power of His divinity.
  • In His teaching, Jesus certainly associated the Spirit with the new birth, but He never refers to the new birth as a “baptism in the Spirit.”
  • We can make a strong case that Jesus’ breathing on the apostles after the Resurrection may well be their experience of new birth that would then be prior to and separate from their Spirit-baptism on the Day of Pentecost (though the Pentecostal doctrine of Spirit-baptism does not rest only on this conclusion).
  • Jesus’ only reference to the baptism in the Holy Spirit identifies it as baptism of power that will enable disciples to be effective witnesses. Jesus never identified Spirit-baptism with the new birth that comes from the Spirit.

Jesus’ experience of the Spirit as well as His teachings on the person and work of the Spirit provide crucial data that add to those of the Old Testament and the Acts, as well as the Epistles, as we formulate a biblical doctrine of baptism in the Holy Spirit.


1. Scripture quotations marked ESV are taken from The Holy Bible: English Standard Version, copyright © 2001, Wheaton: Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

2. The phrase is from Craig S. Keener, The Spirit in the Gospels and Acts: Divine Purity and Power (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers, 1997), 50.

3. See the bapto word group in F.W. Danker, ed., Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3d ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000).

4. Scripture quotations taken from the New American Standard Bible®, Copyright © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission (