What is it within scripture that has led some to conclude miraculous gifts ended with the apostles? An overview of one explanation begins by observing that God chose to impart miraculous abilities through the baptism with the Spirit and the laying on of the apostles’ hands. If neither of these is occurring today this could provide grounds for concluding God no longer empowers his disciples to perform miracles.
Rounding out their perspective is scripture’s stated purpose for miraculous gifts as well as its commentary about their temporary nature. However, first things first. What does scripture teach us about the baptism with the Spirit?
The first mention of the baptism with the Spirit is found in the Gospels. Prior to Jesus’ ministry John the Baptizer had been foretelling that one would follow him who would baptize with the Spirit. This expectation exists in all four of the Gospels (Matthew 3:11; Mark 1:8; Luke 3:16; John 1:33). Although we might expect Jesus to begin fulfilling this prophetic message during his ministry, the Gospels go silent about Jesus baptizing with the Spirit.
While Jesus did enable the Twelve apostles as well as a group of seventy or seventy-two to heal (Luke 9:1,2,6; 10:1,9), neither occasion nor the ability to heal is associated with the baptism with the Spirit. On the contrary, Luke picks up the development of this theme in Acts 1:4-5.
The Acts narrative opens with Jesus having risen from the grave but not yet ascended to heaven. In speaking to his apostles Jesus said, “you heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now” (Acts 1:4,5). Luke has prepared us to learn about this baptism with the Spirit.
About a week later on Pentecost as a mighty sound roared, tongues of fire appeared. These came to rest upon each of them. “They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages as the Spirit enabled them” (Acts 2:4). A crowd composed of many foreigners heard the apostles speak in their own languages. Luke underscored the magnitude of this wonder to instantly speak in foreign languages by outlining the crowd’s diverse geographic origins.
There is only one other occasion in the New Testament labeled as the baptism with the Spirit. In Acts 11 Peter defended his associating and baptizing a Gentile named Cornelius. Peter explained to the circumcised disciples who had taken issue with him how the Spirit had instructed him to go to Cornelius. Furthermore when he was teaching Cornelius’ family about Jesus, “the Holy Spirit fell on them just as he did on us at the beginning. And I remembered the word of the Lord, as he used to say, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit’” (Acts 11:15-16). This out pouring of the Holy Spirit caused Cornelius’ family to also speak in foreign languages and praise God (Acts 10:46).
Several observations are noteworthy. The Spirit’s descent upon the Jewish apostles at Pentecost and upon Cornelius’ Gentile household are both identified as the baptism with the Holy Spirit. On both occasions, the Spirit enabled a miraculous ability to speak in foreign languages. These are the only two events called the baptism with the Holy Spirit.
These two stories distinguish themselves from other accounts where the Spirit enabled someone to possess a miraculous gift. On both Pentecost and with Cornelius’ household no human agent was involved. No one laid a hand upon either the apostles nor Cornelius.
In addition to this, Peter’s language, “the Holy Spirit fell on them just as he did on us at the beginning” is suggestive that this manner of outpouring was not a normal ongoing occurrence. If this manner for the Spirit’s descent was a common event, then why would Peter ignore what the Spirit had been doing all along in order to focus upon Pentecost?
It appears this baptism with the Spirit had only occurred once before the time of Cornelius’ conversion. This does not deny that the Spirit had been poured out at many other times upon men and women through the laying on of hands. An era had arrived when God would pour out his Spirit on men and women causing them to prophesy and perform wonders (Acts 2:17-21). Yet, Peter’s statement in Acts 11:15 is suggestive that how this occurred on Pentecost and with Cornelius’ family was distinctive.
How did people acquire the ability to speak in foreign languages? One method involved the Spirit descending through what the Gospels call the baptism with the Holy Spirit. The narrative of Acts also informs us that the apostles could lay their hands upon disciples to enable them to receive gifts from the Spirit.
There is much more to consider when it comes to miraculous spiritual gifts. Before moving into what Paul and others wrote on this subject, Luke has more to tell us in Acts about miraculous gifts.
The previous article can be found is here.