What the Bible Really Says About Being “Immersed in the Holy Spirit”

What the Bible Really Says About


“Immersed in the Holy Spirit”

[I have studied this subject for several decades. For as long as I’ve had a computer, I’ve kept my research on the subject in Word documents. A dozen years ago, I wrote this article. I’ve slightly updated it, but in essence here is what I wrote in 2005 about being immersed in the Holy Spirit.

Larry G. Overton, Thursday, June 15, 2017]

Decades ago, Gerald Derstine, at the time a young Mennonite clergyman, was “cornered” by a “Pentecostal man” who asked him if he had been “baptized in the Holy Spirit.” Derstine interpreted this expression in light of a recent “glorious sanctification experience,” and quickly gave an affirmative response.

Not satisfied, the Pentecostal pressed the matter further. His follow up question was, “Did you speak in tongues?”

“Why, no, I didn’t,” Gerald replied.

“Well, then, you didn’t get the Holy Spirit,” the Pentecostal shot back.[1]

A friend of mine named Beth had been cultivating a witness to her next-door neighbor Ann (not her real name). Over time, Beth’s verbal witness and Christian lifestyle won Ann’s trust. And at a point of need in her life, Ann turned to Beth for help. As it turned out, she came to Beth at a time when a local Assembly of God church was sponsoring a retreat for women. (Beth was not a member of that church, but she had been invited to attend.)  Beth invited Ann to attend the retreat with her, and she accepted.

That weekend, the leader of this meeting, Gloria, a Pentecostal woman originally from South America, got Ann to agree to be prayed for. Gloria gathered some ladies around Ann (Beth was not present at the time), and they all proceeded to loudly speak in tongues in her ears. They kept pressuring her to “receive” the Spirit, to “just start speaking” to just “start making sounds.” Ann finally mimicked what she heard them doing. They were quick to respond to this. “Did you get it?” they asked, to which Ann replied, “Yes, I got it.”

Later, Ann told Beth that she had simply given those Pentecostal ladies what they wanted to hear so that they would leave her alone. This experience actually undermined the progress that Beth had made over the years. And after this, Beth’s relationship to Ann was a bit strained.

Before I go any further, I want to clarify my position with respect to Pentecostal and Charismatic people. Generally speaking, these folks deserve full marks for sincerity and generosity of spirit. They have had an experience, one that is viewed as a turning point and spiritual “high” in their walk. And all they want to do is share it. So I am not impugning their motives here. This essay is not about Pentecostal/Charismatic bashing.

Some may be reluctant to accept my disclaimer. They would probably ask me, “Why, then, did you start this essay with two stories that present Pentecostals and Charismatics in a bad light?” I have three reasons for choosing to begin in this fashion.

First, both of these stories are true. And these are not rare, isolated examples. Many Christian people (myself included) have had conversations with Pentecostals who questioned their walk in the Spirit simply because their experience did not conform to Pentecostal/Charismatic standards. And I have witnessed overzealous Pentecostals and Charismatics babbling in the ears of some poor victim in the hopes that they could get him or her to “receive the baptism,” that is, to speak in tongues.

The second reason I would give for starting out with these two stories is closely related to my first reason. Simply stated, religious practice stems from religious belief. Actions flow from attitudes. And both of the examples given above illustrate actions that are based upon a Pentecostal/Charismatic understanding or philosophy of what it means to be “baptized with the Holy Ghost.”

My third reason for beginning this essay with these two anecdotes is that I distinguish between people and philosophies. As I just said, this paper is not about impugning the motives of Pentecostals and Charismatics. However, that does not mean that I consider their beliefs to be a sort of Christian “sacred cow.” This paper is going to present what the Bible really has to say about this subject. And if that means that the beliefs and practices of these good folks are found to fall short of the Biblical standard, then so be it.

Pentecostals and Charismatics typically use the phrase “baptized with the Holy Ghost” as though it were the Biblical designation for describing a personal encounter with the Spirit of God, an encounter that is subsequent to conversion, an experience that in their view is always accompanied by speaking in tongues. They treat the phrase “baptized with the Holy Ghost” as though it were a technical theological expression, one that always has the same meaning every time it occurs in the New Testament. The fact that they abbreviate the phrase taken from their King James Bible to simply “the baptism” is proof that they see this phrase as though it were a fixed theological expression.

From a Biblical standpoint, however, the Pentecostal/Charismatic use of this phrase is inaccurate, for three principal reasons: (1) they don’t get the words right, and (2) they apply the phrase incorrectly; and (3) they equate the expression with speaking in tongues.

The Right Words

To begin with, the actual phrase itself (“baptized with the Holy Ghost”) is inaccurate. At this point, some of you might be saying, “Wait a minute. I’ve read the phrase ‘baptized with the Holy Ghost’ in my King James Bible.” Indeed you have. That phrase occurs twice (Acts 1:5; 11:16) in the King James Version, and the phrase “he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost” is found four times (Matthew 3;11; Mark 1:8; Luke 3:16; John 1:33) in the KJV.

However, the fact that a certain rendering is found in the King James Bible does not automatically make it right. The question at hand regarding the rendering of this Biblical phrase is not “Is it old?” The question is not “Is it revered?” or “Is it traditional?” Concerning the phrase “baptized with the Holy Ghost”, we must ask, “Is it accurate?”

Fewer Pentecostals today, perhaps, are using this archaic phrasing than in times past. The wording “baptism in the Holy Spirit” is probably more common. Still, the phrase is very much in use, in no small part because the KJV is still in use (particularly in many Pentecostal churches). I’ve heard this 400-year-old expression used in a sermon preached earlier this year, seventeen years into the 21st century. And so I address the phrase “baptized with the Holy Ghost” here.

Ghost. I have referred to this phrase as archaic. The most obvious part of the phrase that is archaic is the term “Ghost,” so let me address this first. Of course, the English word ghost itself is not archaic, but the use of the term as a synonym for “spirit” is uncommon, to say the least, and in reference to the Holy Spirit as Holy Ghost, that is most definitely archaic.

In Elizabethan English, the word “ghost” meant the spirit, or immaterial part of a person, as distinct from the body; and “ghostly” meant spiritual.[2] These meanings of “ghost” and “ghostly” are now obsolete. Merriam-Webster defines “ghost” as “a disembodied soul; especially : the soul of a dead person believed to be an inhabitant of the unseen world or to appear to the living in bodily likeness.”[3]

So the King James Version expression “Holy Ghost” is archaic and does not reflect contemporary English usage. The expression should therefore no longer be used. And for more than a century, since the appearance of the American Standard Version (1901), translators have consistently and uniformly used “Holy Spirit” instead of “Holy Ghost.” And, for that matter, the KJV itself translated the Greek term πνεῦμα (pneuma) as the “Spirit” of God 137 times, even while it employed the expression “Holy Ghost” 89 times.[4]

Baptized. The first term in the phrase (“baptized”) is not an accurate translation of the word in the Greek New Testament (hereafter, GNT). Yes, this rendering is found in almost every English translation of the New Testament from the KJV onward. However, the popularity of this rendering doesn’t change the fact that it is not an accurate translation. In fact, it is not a translation at all.

The words baptize and baptism are actually transliterations. I have dealt with this at length in my article “Irregularities of Translation in English Bible Versions – Part I: Transliterations,” so I’ll just recap here. To “transliterate” is “to represent or spell (words, letters, or characters of one language) in the letters or characters of another language or alphabet.”[5]

In other words, you take a word from one language (such as Greek), and, without translating its meaning, you use the rules and conventions governing spelling in another language (such as English) to represent or spell that word. That is exactly the case with the English verb baptize and the noun baptism. These words are transliterations of two Greek terms found in the original New Testament documents: the verb βαπτίζω (baptizō) and the noun βάπτισμα (baptisma).

Baptizō = baptize. Baptisma = baptism. It is very easy to see that the Greek words were simply rendered into English, almost letter for letter. They were transliterated, not translated. So these religious terms so familiar in the English-speaking world convey the essential form or spelling of the original terms, but not the meaning.

The meaning that was intentionally obscured by this instance of transliteration was quite simply “to dip or immerse.”[6] So if we actually translate the Greek terms into English, baptizō meant to dip, to immerse, and baptisma meant immersion. These facts have a direct impact on the man-made doctrines of denomination, institutional churches that advocate sprinkling or pouring as “modes of baptism.” If the Greek noun baptisma had never been transliterated, the religious expression “modes of baptism” would never have come into existence either, for that is essentially saying “modes of immersion.”

But this is beyond the scope of our present discussion. For although the basic meaning of baptizō and baptisma doesn’t change, the application does. Since the days of classical Greek literature, these terms had both literal and metaphorical applications. Plato and Plutarch used baptizō metaphorically in expressions such as “soaked in wine,” “immersed in debt,” “being drowned with questions,” etc.[7]

In the GNT, the verb baptizō is also used in both its literal and metaphorical senses. In Matthew 3:11, John the Immerser (not “Baptist”) said, Ἐγὼ μὲν βαπτίζω ὑμᾶς ἐν ὕδατι (Egō men baptizō humas en hudati), “I immerse you in water…” Then, in the very same verse, in contrast to that literal reference to immersion that he had just made, John said αὐτὸς ὑμᾶς βαπτίσει ἐν Πνεύματι Ἁγίῳ (humas baptisei en Pneumati hagiō), “Himself you He will immerse in the Holy Spirit.”[8]

Obviously, the latter reference to immersion in Matthew 3:11 is in the metaphoric sense. And that is what we are dealing with in this discussion. But the metaphoric sense is derived from the literal. And so, in referring to the Biblical phrase, it should be translated “immersed,” not transliterated/obscured as “baptized” in the Holy Spirit.

With. Once the confusion created by the use of the transliterations “baptized” or “baptism” are cleared up, it is easy to see that the use of the preposition “with” in the phrase “with the Holy Ghost” is not accurate either. It would be awkward at best to say, for example, “I immersed my T-shirt with dye.” You would expect the preposition in that sentence to be “I immersed my T-shirt in dye.”

In the same way, you would not say “you will be immersed with the Holy Spirit,” but rather “you will be immersed in the Holy Spirit.” And this would be Biblically accurate, for in this phrase the Greek preposition is ἐν (en), of which “the primary idea is within, in, withinness.”[9]

Admittedly, en is the “most common preposition in the NT, used with the greatest variety of meanings.”[10] Accordingly, in some contexts, the Greek preposition en can have a causal meaning, expressing means or instrument, and can be translated as “with” or “by.”[11] However, as I have already pointed out, that usage of en does not fit the context of the phrase we are studying, for one does not dip or immerse with something, but rather into something.

So, summarizing what I’ve just said, the Biblical phrase we are talking about here speaks not of some vague, ceremonial “baptism,” but of being immersed. Furthermore, it speaks of being immersed in or into something, or (more correctly in this case) someone, and that someone is the Holy Spirit. Put all of this information together, and you come up with a more sensible, more biblically accurate expression: “immersed in the Holy Spirit.”

I Will Pour Out My Spirit

This phrase “immersed in the Holy Spirit” is not found in the Hebrew Scriptures (i.e., Old Testament). In the New Testament, it occurs just seven times. We will look at each one of those seven occurrences in just a moment.

Although being “immersed in the Holy Spirit” is not mentioned in the Old Testament, there are a number of prophetic references to the Spirit being “poured out.” These prophecies refer to the same event from a different perspective. Here are a couple of examples of Old Testament prophecies about the Spirit being “poured out.”

For I will pour out water upon the thirsty

And flowing streams upon a dry land.

I will pour out My Spirit upon your offspring

And My blessing upon your descendants.

[Isaiah 44:3]

28 It will come about after this

That I will pour out My Spirit upon all flesh,

And your sons and daughters will prophesy.

Your old men will dream dreams,

Your young men will see visions.

29 And even upon the male servants

And upon the female servants

In those days,

I will pour out My Spirit.

[Joel 2:28-29]

These prophecies (and others) point to the divine perspective of this outpouring. In other words, from heaven’s point of view, this sending forth of the Spirit is referred to as an outpouring. By contrast, the passages in the New Testament that refer to being “immersed in the Holy Spirit” speak of this event from the perspective of the recipients, of those receiving this outpouring. So although the Old Testament does not use the phrase “immersed in the Holy Spirit,” its prophecies concerning the outpouring of the Spirit refer to the same event.

Christians universally equate the two phrases “I will pour out My Spirit” and “immersed in the Holy Spirit.” John R. W. Stott, in his book Baptism & Fullness: The Work of the Holy Spirit Today does a fine job of expressing this understanding.

This expectation was usually expressed in terms of God’s promise to ‘pour out’ his Spirit, and the apostle Peter in his sermon on the Day of Pentecost specifically equated the ‘outpouring’ of the Spirit (promised by Joel) with the ‘baptism’ of the Spirit (promised by John the Baptist and Jesus). The two expressions were alluding to the same event and the same experience.[12]

These two concepts (“outpouring” and “immersion”) are universally accepted to be referring to the same event. And Christians universally accept this as fact because it is plainly taught in the Scriptures. As Stott pointed out, Joel’s prophecy of the Spirit being poured out is quoted by Peter in his public proclamation of the gospel on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:16-21). And just ten days before Pentecost, Jesus had told his apostles that they would “be immersed in the Holy Spirit after not many of these days” (Acts 1:4-5). Clearly, then, the “outpouring” prophecy of Joel is equated to the prophetic promise of being “immersed in the Holy Spirit.”

Immersed in the Holy Spirit

Now let’s consider the occurrences of the phrase “immersed in the Holy Spirit.” As I mentioned in the last section, this phrase is found just seven times in the New Testament: Matthew 3:11; Mark 1:8; Luke 3:16; John 1:33; Acts 1:5; 11:16; 1 Corinthians 12:13.

In The Gospels

The first four times this phrase occurs, it is used by John the Immerser[13] referring to the coming of the Messiah. John correctly perceived that his purpose was to prepare the way for the coming of the Lord (Matthew 3:3; Mark 1:3; Luke 3:4; John 1:23). When the Pharisees sent some of their own to question John to see if he was the Messiah, he flatly denied it. When they questioned him further, challenging his authority to be immersing people, he responded by stating the reason for his immersion, and contrasted his work and worth with that of the Messiah. In so doing, he spoke of the Lord immersing in the Holy Spirit. Here are those four references.

I indeed immerse you in water in response to repentance. But He who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not fit to carry. He Himself will immerse you in the Holy Spirit. [Matthew 3:11]

I indeed have immersed you in water. But He will immerse you in the Holy Spirit. [Mark 1:8]

John answered, saying to all, “I indeed immerse you in water. But One mightier than I comes. I am not fit to loosen the strap of His sandals. He Himself will immerse you in the Holy Spirit and fire.” [Luke 3:16]

And I, I did not recognize Him. But He who did send me to immerse in water, He to me did say, “Upon whoever you should see the Spirit coming down and remaining upon Him, He it is who is immersing in the Holy Spirit.” [John 1:33]

The writer of each Gospel narrative recorded these words of John the Immerser with slight differences from the other three. That is to be expected, of course. In his Gospel account, the apostle John quotes the words of John the Immerser on the same subject of Jesus being the One to immerse in the Holy Spirit. But while those words quoted by the apostle John deal with the same subject as the other Gospel writers, they were spoken on a different occasion than the writers of the synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) reference. As for the synoptic Gospel accounts, Mark’s Gospel narrative is fast-paced, brief and to the point, Matthew and Luke were to different individuals (a Jew and a Gentile) writing from different perspectives to different audiences. These facts more than account for the slight differences between the narratives.

The point of this discussion, however, is what these accounts have in common. And the common element in each of these four accounts is that Jesus, the One who was to come after John the Immerser, would “immerse in the Holy Spirit.” The wording of this phrase in the Greek New Testament is essentially the same in each of the four Gospel accounts.

The same verb baptizō is used each time. The tense of the verb is different in the apostle John’s account, but as I pointed out before, he recorded a quote of John the Immerser from a different occasion. The preposition is the same in each account: en, which means “in.” The noun in this phrase is the same in each case. It is Pneumati, which means “the Spirit.” The adjective in this phrase modifying that noun is the same in each case. It is Hagiō, which means “Holy.”

So, each of the Gospels records these words of John the Immerser. Jesus, of course, is the one who came after John. He was the Messiah. He was the one who immersed in the Holy Spirit. Each of these references, then, records a prophetic utterance by John the Immerser about the Lord Jesus immersing His disciples in the Holy Spirit. The question at this point is this: Has Jesus continually immersed His disciples in the Holy Spirit throughout Christian history, or was this a one-time event that had continuing effects? The next three occurrences of the phrase will answer this question.

In Acts

In Luke’s account of the acts of the Holy Spirit in the lives of first century believers (i.e., “Acts”), the phrase “immersed in the Holy Spirit” is found twice:  Acts 1:5 and 11:16.

Because John indeed did immerse in water, but you, you will be immersed in the Holy Spirit after not many of these days. [Acts 1:5]

Then I was reminded of the saying of the Lord, how He said, “John indeed did immerse in water, but you, you will be immersed in the Holy Spirit.” [Acts 11:16]

The wording of the phrase about being immersed in the Holy Spirit in these two verses is the same. And it is essentially the same as the references found in the Gospels we just considered. I say “essentially” because there is a slight difference in the tense of the Greek verb baptizō.

Again, this is understandable given the different speakers and different occasions. In Matthew, Mark and Luke’s accounts, John the Immerser was speaking of Christ, and so the verb βαπτίσει (baptisei) is in the third person singular, future tense, active voice: “He will immerse…”

In John 1:33, John was quoting the word he received from the Lord about how he would recognize the Messiah, the One immersing in the Holy Spirit. The form of the verb baptizō in this verse is the present active participle masculine singular form, used with the definite article as a substantive, ὁ βαπτίζων (ho baptizōn), “the One who is immersing.”

However, in Acts 1:5 and 11:16, Jesus is speaking to His disciples, and He is paraphrasing John’s words. Consequently, the form of the verb baptizō is the future indicative passive, second person plural form βαπτισθήσεσθε (baptisthēsesthe): “you will be immersed…” Aside from this difference, the rest of the phrase as it is found in Acts is the same: the same preposition, the same noun and the same adjective.

The first reference, Acts 1:5, took place just ten days before Pentecost. In verse 3, Luke informs us that Jesus spent forty days after His resurrection, appearing to and teaching His disciples. At that time, Jesus had told his apostles that they would “be immersed in the Holy Spirit after not many of these days” (Acts 1:4-5). And ten days later, the day of Pentecost and the Holy Spirit came (2:1). So Jesus was quoting the prophecy of John concerning disciples being immersed in the Holy Spirit, and He was applying it to the outpouring of the Spirit prophesied by Joel (see Joel 2:28-29 and Acts 2:16-18).

Consequently, the promise to be immersed in the Spirit was equated to the Spirit being poured out. It is clear, therefore, that the first five times the phrase “immersed in the Holy Spirit” occurs, it is prophesying the coming and reception of the Spirit on the day of Pentecost. And these five occurrences refer to this immersion in the Spirit as something that Jesus the Messiah was to do.

This understanding tracks with statements Jesus made to His disciples regarding His sending the Comforter, the Holy Spirit. He promised them that He would ask the Father, and the Father in His name would send the Spirit (John 14:16-17, 26; 15:26; 16:7, 13). Jesus is the Immerser in the Holy Spirit.

Therefore, the phrase “immersed in the Holy Spirit” as used in the NT is not a doctrinal statement promising every believer a personal “Pentecostal” or “Charismatic” experience. The focus of the Biblical expression is instead upon a one-time, universal event. Jesus immersed His followers in the Holy Spirit, and in that act the Holy Spirit was poured out as never before in history. Yes, believers then and now experience or enter into the effects of that event on an individual basis, but the NT’s use of the phrase “immersed in the Holy Spirit,” particularly in its first five occurrences, is upon the event, not the experience.

The next occurrence of the phrase “immersed in the Holy Spirit” is in Acts 11:16. The background to this verse begins in Acts chapter 10, where the apostle Peter enters the home of a Gentile named Cornelius. He and his household are described as God-fearing (10:2). As Peter proclaimed the good news, Cornelius and those of his household believed, and they immediately received not only the remission of their sins, but also the indwelling and empowering of the Holy Spirit. (Note that this experience of the Spirit’s indwelling and empowering was not a “subsequent” to their experience of salvation.) The manifestation of their empowerment came in the form of speaking in tongues.

After spending a few days with them, Peter went up to Jerusalem. There the other apostles and some other brothers confronted Peter regarding his actions, i.e., his entering the home of Gentiles and eating with them. In recounting the events that happened in the household of Cornelius, Peter explains his sharing the gospel with them, and what happened as they believed.

15 And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them, even as also upon us in the beginning. 16 Then I was reminded of the saying of the Lord, how He said, “John indeed did immerse in water, but you, you will be immersed in the Holy Spirit.” [Acts 11:15-16]

In this context, Peter recounts that when he witnessed the personal experiences of Cornelius and the other Gentiles in attendance, he was “reminded” (ἐμνήσθην [emnēsthēn], passive voice) of Jesus’ promise of His disciples being “immersed in the Holy Spirit.” Peter is no doubt recalling his own experience on the day of Pentecost in Jerusalem (Acts 2). Peter actually says that the Holy Spirit “fell upon” the Gentiles in Cornelius’ household “even as also upon us in the beginning” (emphasis mine).

It is easy to see how some sincere Pentecostals and/or Charismatics would view Peter’s use of the phrase “immersed in the Holy Spirit” here as an emphasis on the experience of Spirit-directed speaking in tongues (i.e., speaking in languages the speakers themselves did not know).

However, in point of fact, Peter recalled more than his own personal experience here; he also reflected upon the prophetic promise of Jesus, the theological basis for what he was witnessing in the home of Cornelius. He reflected upon the work of Jesus as the One immersing in the Holy Spirit, a work accomplished on the day of Pentecost, which Peter himself described at the time as the fulfillment of the outpouring prophecies of the Hebrew Scriptures.

Excursus: “Fell Upon”

Before we move on to consider the last occurrence of the phrase “immersed in the Spirit” in the NT, there is another expression Pentecostal/Charismatic theology would have us consider, that of the Holy Spirit “falling upon” someone.

I have already quoted a verse that contains the expression above, specifically, Acts 11:15. Here it is again:

And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them, even as also upon us in the beginning. (Emphasis mine.)

As I also said above, the context of this verse is Peter being questioned by the apostles and other Jewish believers in Jerusalem after returning from staying with the Gentile Cornelius. Peter referred back to the Holy Spirit falling upon the Gentiles when they believed. Luke’s description in the previous chapter (Acts 10:44) was the same:

While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit fell upon all those hearing the word. (Again, emphasis mine.)

Both of these occurrences refer to the same event: the Spirit coming upon the household of Cornelius when they believed the gospel message Peter proclaimed to them. The Greek word for “fell upon” is the same verb in the same tense: ἐπέπεσεν (epepesen), the indicative aorist active, third person singular form of the verb ἐπιπίπτω (epipiptō), to fall upon.[14]

There is one other occurrence of this verb in connection with the Holy Spirit, and that is in Acts 8:16. In the verses immediately preceding this (verses 14-15), the apostles Peter and John had been sent to Samaria. And once there, they prayed for them to receive the Holy Spirit. Then, in verse 16, we are told

For He had not yet fallen upon any of them, but they had only been immersed in the name of Christ Jesus. (Again, emphasis mine.)

These three verses are often cited as just cause for seeing the expression “the Spirit fall upon” someone as synonymous with being “immersed in the Spirit.” As I see it, there are three questions to ask in considering this claim. (1) What do these three verses teach us regarding the receiving of the Spirit and speaking in tongues? (2) Is this expression pervasive in the NT, or at least in the book of Acts? (3) Is this a fixed theological expression?

Regarding the first question, in Acts 8, the apostles Peter and John prayed for the Samaritan believers, whom as yet had not had the Holy Spirit “fall upon” them. Then, in verse 17, at the laying on of the hands of those two apostles, Samaritan believers “received the Holy Spirit.” No specific manifestation connected with their reception of the Spirit is mentioned, but it was obvious enough that Simon (a Samaritan sorcerer converted to Christ) observed the phenomenon. But in the absence of an explicit statement concerning how it was manifested, it is purely speculative to suggest that they spoke in tongues.

The second question concerning the pervasiveness of the expression “fall upon” in the context of receiving the Holy Spirit is easy to answer. It is not pervasive at all. Far from being a prevalent and widespread expression, the Spirit “falling upon” someone is a rare occurrence in the NT. In fact, the three instances I’ve already quoted are the only three times this expression occurs in the NT. Not only so, but we should also bear in mind that the verses in Acts 10 and 11 refer to the same event. So in reality there are just two instances of the Holy Spirit being received in Acts described in such a manner. And one of those two makes no mention of tongues.

In a way, the answer to the second question also answers the third. The phrase “the Holy Spirit fell upon” is not a technical, fixed theological expression. It is descriptive language, and nothing more.

But to elaborate on this, the aforementioned Greek word underlying “fall upon” (epipiptō) may only occur three times in connection with the Holy Spirit, but the word is found in various other contexts, referring to different things. It is an old compound word that quite literally means “to fall upon,” and it was used just that literally in classical Greek for such things as a hailstone falling upon someone’s head. It also was used in classical Greek to refer to “falling upon” in a hostile sense, i.e., coming under attack, of storms or disease or misfortunes or grief falling upon individuals.

Its usage in the GNT is similar. It was used literally of the apostle Paul falling upon the young man Eutychus that had fallen out of third story window (Acts 20:10). It is used of crowds pressing in to touch Jesus (Mark 3:10). It is used idiomatically in both the GNT and the Septuagint (the ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures) for an embrace. The expression is ἐπιπίπτειν ἐπι τὸν τράχηλον (epipiptein epi ton trachēlon), “to fall upon the neck” (Genesis 46:29; Luke 15:20; Acts 20:37). It is also used of insults (Romans 15:3) or fear “falling upon” people (Luke 1:12; Acts 19:17).

Clearly, then, the Greek verb epipiptō is not used strictly as a fixed, technical theological expression for the reception of the Holy Spirit. It is used that way in the GNT to describe two events. It is more often used as an idiom for embracing, and just as often for being afraid. The use of this as descriptive language for receiving the Spirit, irrespective of specific manifestations, is obvious, but to press this into service as part of a Pentecostal theological construct equating it to being “immersed in the Holy Spirit” that always includes speaking in tongues is saying more than the NT does.

In 1 Corinthians

Speaking of that “immersed in the Holy Spirit” phrase, let’s return again to that topic. The last occurrence of the phrase is found in 1 Corinthians 12:13. Before we do anything else, let’s read that verse of Scripture. Here is my translation of it.

For also in one Spirit we all into one body were immersed, whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free persons, and all one Spirit were given to drink.

Now, the first clause in the verse is the one that contains the seventh occurrence of the “immersed in the Spirit” phrase. So let’s take a closer look at the first clause of this verse. Here is that clause in Greek: Καὶ γὰρ ἐν ἑνὶ πνεύματι ἡμεῖς πάντες εἰς ἓν σῶμα ἐβαπτίσθημεν (Kai gar en heni Pneumati hēmeis pantes eis hen sōma ebaptisthēmen)

There is more information contained in the first clause of this verse than has been given in the other occurrences of the “immersed in the Spirit” phrase. This fact has led some to challenge the listing of this verse with the other six passages we have just discussed. However, when you examine the clause more carefully, you find common factors between this phrase and the others. In fact, only one real difference emerges.

Let’s go through this clause a step at a time. The verse begins with the two conjunctions kai gar, which connects this verse to the previous one. In verse 12 Paul continues one of the themes of this chapter, i.e., unity within diversity, and he does so by presenting a “one body, many members” analogy, a theme that carries on to the end of the chapter (verses 12-31).

The preposition en (“in”) is here, as is also found in the other six occurrences of this phrase. At this point, I must discuss something I alluded to earlier: the rendering of the preposition en in this verse. As I said before (page 5, footnote #11), the preposition en may also justifiably be translated “by,” and in this particular verse (i.e., 1 Corinthians 12:13) various English versions such as the KJV, RSV, NASB, NIV and NKJV read “by one Spirit.” This rendering takes the Spirit as the agent doing the immersing, thus creating an interpretation that differs from the other six passages we have been discussing, where the Holy Spirit is seen as the element into which one is immersed.

But while the translation “by” is possible here, it is not necessary. Rendering en in this verse as “in” instead of “by” is grammatically possible and—one might argue—contextually preferable. Furthermore, a number of Bible versions over the last century and quarter have opted for the translation “in” here (cf. RV, Darby, YLT, ASV, Weymouth, Rotherham, NEB, NRSV and REB).

In his Emphasised New Testament, Joseph Bryant Rotherham gives the following footnote to the rendering “in one Spirit” in 1 Corinthians 12:13:

For Baptizein with en of element, see Mt. iii.11; Lu. iii.16; Jn. i.26, 31, 33; Ac. i.5; xi.16.[15]

Others have commented on their preference of “in” for the translation of the preposition en in this verse. In the commentary on 1 Corinthians contributed to the Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (TNTC) series by Leon Morris, he referred to the rendering “by one Spirit” in the KJV (the version referenced in the TNTC series), and then had this to say.

Notice the emphasis on the Spirit. By one Spirit is really “in one Spirit”, the construction being the same as that in Mt. iii.11 (‘with water’, ‘with the Holy Ghost’). It points to the Spirit as the element ‘in’ which they were baptized.[16]

In Volume II of his Renewal Theology, J. Rodman Williams states:

1 Corinthians 12:13…reads in the Revised Standard Version; “By one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit.” It could be argued that Paul is dealing with a different matter here, namely, a baptism by the Holy Spirit, so that the Holy Spirit (unlike the cases in the Gospels and Acts) is the agent. However, since the Greek word translated “by” (en) is the same as that in the Gospels and Acts, it would seem preferable to translate it thus: “In one Spirit we were all baptized…” Accordingly, the Holy Spirit is again seen as element and not agent, and Christ (though not mentioned directly) is implied to be the agent.[17]

So, respected and reliable scholarship takes the preposition en in this verse to convey the same meaning it has in the other six instances of its occurrence in the Gospels and Acts.

The next word in the Greek text represents what I referred to earlier as the “only one real difference” in the phrase in this verse from the others. In this verse, the Spirit is described as the “one” (heni) Spirit, whereas in the other six instances of the phrase, He is described as the “Holy” Spirit. This difference is certainly understandable in the context of Paul’s emphasis on unity within diversity in 1 Corinthians 12. Paul is not denying that the Spirit is “Holy” in his use of the term “one” here. He is simply emphasizing another truth about the Spirit (namely, that He is one[18]) as this truth pertains to the point he is making to the Corinthians. Accordingly, Paul’s wording here presents no substantial change of meaning in the phrase we are considering.

The noun “Spirit” (Pneumati), which is of course the same as in the other six occurrences, is seen as the “element” into which we are immersed. This observation has been made by numerous scholars. Morris and Williams, as noted above, see the Spirit in this light here.

Other commentators affirm this same view of en heni Pneumati (“in one Spirit”). In their commentary on 1 Corinthians in The International Critical Commentary series, A. T. Robertson and Alfred Plummer state that “The Spirit is the element in (en) which the baptism takes place…”[19]

Gordon Fee, after commenting at length on the two clauses of 1 Corinthians 12:13, says

If this is the correct understanding of these two clauses, and the full context seems to demand such, then the prepositional phrase “in the Spirit” is most likely locative, expressing the “element” in which they have all been immersed, just as the Spirit is that which they have all been given to drink. Nowhere else does this dative with “baptize” imply agency (i.e., that the Spirit does the baptizing), but it always refers to the element “in which” one is baptized.[20]

The next words in this first clause in 1 Corinthians 12:13 speak again to the idea of unity in diversity. Paul states that “we all into one body” (hēmeis pantes eis hen sōma) were immersed, or ebaptisthēmen, the first person plural aorist passive form of the same verb baptizō found in the other six verses in the Gospels and Acts.

Putting all of this together, then, in light of the unity within diversity that is displayed in a single body with many and diverse parts, Paul informs or reminds the Corinthians that “in one Spirit we all into one body were immersed.” And this corresponds very well to the phrase “immersed in the Holy Spirit.” There is no doubt in my mind that 1 Corinthians 12:13 should be listed with the other six verses where the phrase “immersed in the Holy Spirit” is found.

So, what does this verse tell us about this immersion in the one Spirit? Paul’s point must be seen in the immediate and overall context of this verse. In 1 Corinthians 12, two themes predominate: unity within diversity and spiritual gifts. In verses 4-6, Paul refers to the diversities of gifts, service and workings, but the same Spirit, Lord and God. Verses 7 and 11 speak of manifestations given and distributed by the Spirit for the common good. Verses 7 and 11 also “frame in” verses 8-10, where the nine manifestation gifts of the Spirit are mentioned.

Verse 12 begins the “one body, many members” analogy, and this theme carries on throughout the remainder of the chapter (verses 12-31). It is in this context that Paul says “…in one Spirit we all into one body were immersed…” This statement, then, refers to a truth that all have experienced. To view this passage therefore to be a reference to a special experience that not all have had is to introduce something that is foreign to the context.

The emphasis of this passage is that we all in the Spirit have been immersed into the one body of Christ. So this passage has little to do with a “Pentecostal” or “Charismatic” type of experience, per se. It speaks instead to the unity of all believers in the one body of Christ.


So that’s it, then. There are just seven references to being immersed in the Holy Spirit found in the NT, and I’ve listed and discussed each of them here. In each case, they were statements pointing to the outpouring of the Spirit upon all mankind that historically took place on the day of Pentecost recorded in Acts 2. The first five times the phrase occurs, the words were spoken prophetically, prior to the event of Pentecost. The last two occurrences refer to events made possible by the outpouring on the day of Pentecost, and so point back to the fulfillment of the prophetic event.

And none of these references tracks with the traditional Pentecostal theological construct. In that understanding, the “baptism” in the Holy Spirit is the “normal experience of all in the early Christian Church” which “is distinct from and subsequent to the experience of the new birth.” And according to this view, “speaking with other tongues” is “the initial physical evidence” of “the baptism.” Again, this view perceives the Biblical phrase “immersion in the Holy Spirit” less as a prophesied and fulfilled event, and more as an individual experience, which they have normalized for all believers.

I do not reject the validity and perpetuity of the gift of tongues, but I do not speak in tongues myself. I am neither a Pentecostal nor a cessationist. I do not feel the need to pass judgement on who should receive it and who should not. But I believe that if we choose to call things by Bible names, then we should accurately represent what the Bible has to say about the Biblical phrases we adopt as labels. For all the reasons detailed in this essay, I find the Pentecostal use of the phrase “baptism in the Holy Spirit” wanting in this regard.


[1] Gerald Derstine, Following the Fire, p. 91.

[2] Ronald F. Bridges & Luther A. Weigle, King James Bible Wordbook.

[3] Webster’s Third New International Dictionary of the English Language, Unabridged. p. 954.

[4] Bridges & Weigle, ibid.

[5] Webster’s Third New International Dictionary of the English Language, Unabridged. p. 2429.

[6] Henry George Liddell & Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon (Seventh edition), pgs. 274f.; Walter Bauer, William F. Arndt, F. Wilbur Gingrich & Frederick W. Danker [BAGD], A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, p. 131; Joseph Henry Thayer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, p. 94; G. Abbott-Smith, A Manual Greek Lexicon of the New Testament, p. 75; Timothy & Barbara Friberg, Neva F. Miller, Analytical Lexicon of the Greek New Testament. Electronic edition. #4491, βαπτίζω, #4504, βάπτισμα.

[7] Liddell-Scott, p. 275.

[8] All Scripture quotations in this essay, unless otherwise noted, are my own translations.

[9] Friberg, #9388, ἐν.

[10] F. Wilbur Gingrich & Frederick W. Danker, Shorter Lexicon of the Greek New Testament, p. 64.

[11] An example of en being rendered as “with” is found in Luke 22:49, where the disciples of Jesus asked Him “…should we strike with (en) the sword?” As for translating the preposition en as “by,” this rendering will become more of an issue later on, as we consider a passage (1 Corinthians 12:13) where the KJV, RSV, NASB, NIV, NKJV, et al. read “by one Spirit.”

[12] John R. W. Stott, Baptism & Fullness: The Work of the Holy Spirit Today, p. 22.

[13] Traditionally rendered “John the Baptist.” The Greek phrase is Ἰωάννης ὁ βαπτιστὴς (Iōannēs ho Baptistēs). Baptistēs), a noun meaning “one who immerses,” is yet another example of a transliteration.

[14] Liddell & Scott, p. 547; BAGD, p. 297; Thayer, p. 241; Abbott-Smith, p. 172; Friberg, #10922, ἐπιπίπτω.

[15] Joseph Bryant Rotherham, The Emphasised New Testament, p. 175, footnote b.

[16] Leon Morris, “The First Epistle of Paul to the Corinthians: An Introduction and Commentary.” Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, Volume 7, p. 174.

[17] J. Rodman Williams, Renewal Theology: Salvation, the Holy Spirit, and Christian Living (Volume II), p. 199.

[18] Cf. Ephesians 2:18; 4:4.

[19] A. T. Robertson and Alfred Plummer, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the First Epistle of St. Paul to the Corinthians, p. 272.

[20] Gordon D. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians (The New International Commentary on the New Testament [NICNT]), pgs. 605f.