I love pickled walnuts, but they are very expensive so I only have them as a special treat. However, I have discovered that if I buy a jar of the cheapest sweet silverskin onions, drain them and transfer them into the vinegar that is left from the walnuts, after a few weeks I have some onions that have imbibed the rich taste of walnuts. If I had lived at the time of Jesus, my friends would have described my activity as baptising the onions in walnut liquor.
In classical Greek, the most common use of baptise (in its various forms) was to indicate the coming together of two things where one transfers some of its attributes to the other. So a piece of cloth soaked in dye or a small dirty boy scrubbed in soapy water could both be described as being baptised. Whilst the action involved may often, even usually, have been to plunge the one into the other, the emphasis was always on the result of the act, not the mode of the act itself. The proof that baptism had happened was in the changed colour of the cloth or the cleanliness of the child.
Whilst the term and concept of baptism was used in Jewish and Christian religious language – both the flood and the crossing of the Red Sea were called baptisms – the word was primarily one that was used in everyday life, and virtually always with the emphasis on the result of baptism rather than the act. When Jesus told the disciples that they were to be baptised in Holy Spirit, whilst they would have anticipated that something would happen, the focus of their thinking would have been on what sort of change would occur through that happening. Just as a piece of cloth immersed in red dye would become red, people immersed in Holy Spirit would become holy and spiritual.
Just as our understanding of the sacrifice of Jesus is shaped by the fact that it occurred on the feast of Passover, which recalled the sacrifice of the lamb in Egypt and the deliverance that God accomplished through it, so too our understanding of the coming of the Holy Spirit needs to be shaped by the fact that he came on the feast of Pentecost. The Greek of Acts 2 v 1 can and should be read as ‘Now when the day of Pentecost was being fulfilled’. All the Jewish feasts embodied some agricultural significance, but they also had religious significance as well. Pentecost was the occasion when the Jews remembered and celebrated the commencement of the Old Covenant through the giving of the law on Mount Sinai, when God came down in fire and gave his law to his people on tablets of stone. The prophets had foretold that there would be a New Covenant, when God would impart his Spirit and write his law on the hearts of men and women. That New Covenant promise was fulfilled on the day of Pentecost.
Much is often made of the power that accompanied the coming of the Spirit, and of course there was power, but it is important to remember that Peter and many of the others had already been raising the dead and casting out demons beforehand when they had previously been sent out by Jesus. The biggest difference by far was that the disciples now had revelation imparted inwardly to their hearts and minds. Just as God had written his will on tablets of stone, he was now writing it on the fleshy tables of the heart.
Sometimes baptism in the Holy Spirit is relegated to some sort of added extra, but in the scriptural account of the early church, any suspicion that believers may have had an incomplete experience of the Passover and Pentecostal events was remedied as soon as possible. As we celebrate this season of Pentecost again, let us be certain that we do so on true and full biblical foundations.
A couple of my Booklets, Fresh Approaches to Understanding Baptism and Understanding God’s New Covenant in Jesus Christ, can be read online for free or ordered in hard copy from the book section of this website. They both expand on the biblical teaching of baptism in water and Spirit and the relationship to the New Covenant.