Baptized and surprised

I love watching people be baptized. As they step down into the baptistery, some seem a little shell-shocked, as if the weight of what they were doing was suddenly sinking in. Others are joyous; they emerge from the water pumping their fists in triumph, as if winning Olympic gold. Family and friends are there to cheer them on, and the mood of the entire congregation is one of celebration.

As the apostle Paul wanted us to understand, baptism is a fitting symbol of being raised from death to new life (Rom 6:3-4). For Paul, as for his Jewish contemporaries, the rite was not a new invention; converts to Judaism were often baptized to mark their purification.

But the rite took on new meaning in Jesus. It was not just a matter of being washed clean, but being made new through the death and resurrection of Jesus, being freed from slavery to sin to serve the cause of righteousness instead (Rom 6:5-23). Baptism is not just a public way of saying, “I believe in Jesus.” It symbolizes the commitment to live in newness.

No pressure, right?

We probably know people whose baptismal vows seemed short-lived. Yes, there was a hope-filled, celebratory moment filled with good intentions. But those intentions got quickly entangled in old patterns and habits that choked off the spiritual oxygen needed to sustain them.

Therein lies a question. We say we believe that Jesus has saved us from the penalty of our sin. Hallelujah — heaven here I come. But do we believe that we’ve been saved from slavery to our sin? We say we believe that we have the Holy Spirit. But is that just an abstraction, a doctrinal box to check, with little concrete relevance to how we live?

Live a righteous Christian life on our own power? Good luck with that.

As Luke opens the book of Acts, he fills in more of the details already alluded to at the end of his gospel. There, Jesus instructed the disciples to stay in Jerusalem until they had been “furnished with heavenly power” (Luke 24:49, CEB). In Acts, Luke makes clear that Jesus was speaking of the Holy Spirit:

While they were eating together, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem but to wait for what the Father had promised. He said, “This is what you heard from me: John baptized with water, but in only a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 1:4-5, CEB)

This hearkens back to John the Baptist’s earlier prophecy that Jesus would indeed baptize with the Holy Spirit (Luke 3:16). John’s words in turn hearken back to an even earlier prophecy given to God’s people through the prophet Joel: “I will pour out my Spirit upon everyone” (Joel 2:28). And this in turn is the prophecy with which Peter will later begin one of the greatest evangelistic sermons of all time, as he preaches to the gawking crowds on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:16-21).

The giving of the Holy Spirit will be a pivotal moment in Luke’s story, a moment without which the rest of the tale would collapse. The followers of Jesus are about to be given a job to do. It’s not what they expected. It’s not what they originally thought they were signing up for when they first began to follow Jesus.

But the rest of Acts will be one long study of what the people of God can do when they’ve been baptized, not with water, but with the surprising power of the Holy Spirit.