Baptism, an Exploration: Samaria, Cornelius

JESUS BAPTISMSamaria

Phillip the Evangelist, the deacon, not the apostle, went to Samaria and made the first Christian converts there. But there was a problem –

(Act 8:14-17 ESV) 14 Now when the apostles at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the word of God, they sent to them Peter and John, 15 who came down and prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit, 16 for he had not yet fallen on any of them, but they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. 17 Then they laid their hands on them and they received the Holy Spirit.

The Samaritans had been baptized but had not received the Spirit “yet” — contrary to all expectations, as the Spirit was normally received concurrently with water baptism (2:38). This was such a problem that the apostles Peter and John left Jerusalem, traveled to Samaria, and imparted the Spirt to the Samaritans.

The theme sentence of Acts is –

(Act 1:8 ESV) 8 “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”

Jesus himself had told the apostles to go to Samaria, but years after Pentecost, they’d not done so. Rather, it was a deacon who made the trip and made the first converts. But God refused to send his Spirit to the Samaritans until the apostles themselves appeared and blessed the addition of the Samaritans to the church.

Boles’ take on this story is to argue that it was the miraculous gifts of the Spirit that the Samaritans lacked and that such gifts could only be imparted by the laying on of hands. But that is plainly not what the text says. Rather, the apostles prayed “that they might receive the Holy Spirit.”

Acts frequently uses “receive” in the context of the Spirit common to all Christians –

(Act 2:33 ESV) Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you yourselves are seeing and hearing.

(Act 2:38 ESV) And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.

(Act 10:47 ESV) “Can anyone withhold water for baptizing these people, who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?”

(Act 19:2 ESV) And he said to them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” And they said, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.”

The statement that the Samaritans had not yet “received” the Spirit means they’d not received the Spirit in the Acts 2:38 sense. You see, God withheld the promised Spirit from the Samaritans to induce the apostles to accept the Samaritans as fully brothers in Christ.

After all, given that Jesus had explicitly commanded the apostles themselves to preach the gospel in Samaria and that they had failed to do so shows that they needed some encouragement from On High to overcome their resentment (or fear) of the Samaritans. (It was common for Jewish travelers in Samaria to be murdered. The antipathy ran in both directions.) Forcing the apostles to personally lay hands on the Samaritans (touching people the Jews considered unclean, even subhuman) demonstrated that the gospel crosses national and ethnic barriers as well as overcoming racial prejudice. The Samaritans would not be second-class Christians but were fully incorporated into the apostolic community — at last.

Paul

(Act 9:17-19 ESV) 17 So Ananias departed and entered the house. And laying his hands on him he said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus who appeared to you on the road by which you came has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” 18 And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and he regained his sight. Then he rose and was baptized; 19 and taking food, he was strengthened. For some days he was with the disciples at Damascus.

In this famous passage about the conversion of Paul, Ananias was sent by God so that Paul might “be filled with the Holy Spirit.” He baptized him, but the stated purpose of his visit was to fill him with the Spirit.

We in the Churches of Christ read this as a baptismal passage, and it is, but the baptism is surprisingly incidental to Luke’s narrative. Luke emphasizes the impartation of the Spirit but adds baptism as an incidental detail. This does not make baptism unimportant, but just as was true with regard to the Samaritans, the point of the narrative is the receipt of the Spirit.

(Acts 22:12-16 ESV) “And one Ananias, a devout man according to the law, well spoken of by all the Jews who lived there, 13 came to me, and standing by me said to me, ‘Brother Saul, receive your sight.’ And at that very hour I received my sight and saw him. 14 And he said, ‘The God of our fathers appointed you to know his will, to see the Righteous One and to hear a voice from his mouth; 15 for you will be a witness for him to everyone of what you have seen and heard. 16 And now why do you wait? Rise and be baptized and wash away your sins, calling on his name.’”

Paul recounts the events a second time in Acts 22, after his arrest in Jerusalem. In this re-telling, Ananias emphasizes baptism and doesn’t mention the Spirit: “Rise and be baptized and wash way your sins, calling on his name.” There is no contradiction (he surely said both things!). Rather, Paul uses this occasion to emphasize the forgiveness of his sins — indirectly arguing that it’s a great sin to persecute those who honor Jesus as Messiah. Of course, Ananias closely associates baptism with forgiveness of sins.

His language, “wash away your sins,” would have recalled this famous passage to Paul’s Jewish audience –

(Isa 1:15-17) When you spread out your hands,
I will hide my eyes from you;
even though you make many prayers,
I will not listen;
your hands are full of blood.
16 Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;
remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes;

cease to do evil,
17 learn to do good;
seek justice,
correct oppression;
bring justice to the fatherless,
plead the widow’s cause.

Ananias paraphrases Isaiah to make the point that Paul, like the Israelites at the time of Isaiah, had blood on his hands (v. 15). Therefore, prayer would not be enough (v. 15). He had to be forgiven, and forgiveness requires repentance (v. 15-16) — replacing a life filled with evil with righteous living. Indeed, the Isaiah passage is remarkably appropriate to Paul’s situation at the time Ananias visited him, and by recalling the passage to his persecutors, Paul indirectly charged his accusers with being guilty of the sin he’d been forgiven of.

Therefore, it’s not necessarily so that “wash away your sins” is grammatically caused by the baptism (as would be the case in “be baptized, washing away …”). Indeed, Ananias was likely giving two parallel commands: to repent and to be baptized (in parallel with Acts 2:38). The commands are connected closely, of course, but they are not a single command.

Cornelius

We’ve considered Cornelius already. I just want to add this passage to the exploration –

(Act 10:42-48 ESV) 42 “And he commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one appointed by God to be judge of the living and the dead. 43 To him all the prophets bear witness that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”

44 While Peter was still saying these things, the Holy Spirit fell on all who heard the word. 45 And the believers from among the circumcised who had come with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit was poured out even on the Gentiles. 46 For they were hearing them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter declared, 47 “Can anyone withhold water for baptizing these people, who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?”

48 And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they asked him to remain for some days.

Peter preached, based on the prophets, that “everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.” The Spirit then fell on the listeners — obviously because they’d come to believe in Jesus. They were then baptized.

The Spirit “fell” on Cornelius and his household without baptism. We see similar phrasing in –

(Act 8:16 ESV) 16 for [the Spirit] had not yet fallen on any of them, but they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.

(Act 11:15 ESV) 15 As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell on them just as on us at the beginning.

In 8:16, the problem was that the Spirit had not yet “fallen” on the Samaritans, contrary to expectations. And yet Luke uses the same language of the conversion of Cornelius and Pentecost. “Fallen” seems to emphasize that the Spirit comes directly from heaven above, and the three events where Luke offers this emphasis are the three events found in Acts 1:8 — Jerusalem, Samaria, the Gentiles — the three steps in the spread of the gospel to all the world and the end of ethnic barriers to the spread of the Kingdom.

The point seems to be that God himself was driving the gospel further and further out into the world through the power of the Spirit.

Luke then refers to the Spirit being “poured out” on the Gentiles (v. 45), which is a clear reference to the Old Testament prophesies regarding the Spirit. Luke is showing that the outpouring of the Spirit on the Gentiles (beginning with Cornelius but not just Cornelius) shows that the Kingdom has truly come just as prophesied. God is at work ending the Exile and establishing his long-promised Kingdom.

As a result, Peter commands them to be baptized in water. The presence of Spirit baptism argues for water baptism. They are not supposed to be separate. They obviously can be, but Peter sees that the two should normally go together.

Finally, Luke emphasizes that this baptism was “[into] the name of Jesus.” (Compare 2:38; 8:12,16.) This is not John’s baptism.

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About Jay Guin

I am an elder, a Sunday school teacher, a husband, a father, a grandfather, and a lawyer. I live in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, home of the Alabama Crimson Tide. I’m a member of the University Church of Christ. I grew up in Russellville, Alabama and graduated from David Lipscomb College (now Lipscomb University). I received my law degree from the University of Alabama. I met my wife Denise at Lipscomb, and we have four sons, two of whom are married, and I have a grandson and granddaughter.
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21 Responses to Baptism, an Exploration: Samaria, Cornelius

  1. Frankbellizzi says:

    Jay, I think that your take on these passages, and on Acts as a whole, is correct. My sense is that Boles said what he did because the Churches of Christ have typically understood events in the Book of Acts as normative. But as you're pointing out here, the conversion stories in Acts may assume a norm. However, on special occasions, by God's hand, it isn't followed. Of course, this raises the question of what in Acts is normative versus what is exceptional, and why.

    It's been a long time since I read it, but as I recall the book by F. D. Bruner, A Theology of the Holy Spirit, handles some of these sorts of questions very well.

  2. Laymond says:

    Jay these two scriptures seem to say, receive the spirit, then be baptized, as many others do.
    (Act 10:47 ESV) “Can anyone withhold water for baptizing these people, who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?”

    Act 9:17-19 ESV) 17 So Ananias departed and entered the house. And laying his hands on him he said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus who appeared to you on the road by which you came has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” 18 And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and he regained his sight. Then he rose and was baptized;

    In other words, repent, accept/receive the Lord as your savior, and be baptized.

  3. Tim Archer says:

    Jay,

    The problem I have with what you are saying is I don't see how Philip or Peter or John (or Simon) could see when someone received the indwelling Spirit. How did they know the Samaritans hadn't received the Spirit?

    Note that verse 16 talks about the Spirit "falling on them" (coming upon, as some versions say) which is a common expression for the Spirit operating in an external way on human beings. (as in the case of Cornelius)

    The only thing that we can be certain of is that the Samaritans had not received the external signs of the Spirit. We can conjecture beyond that, but it remains mere conjecture.

    Grace and peace,
    Tim Archer

    P.S.—My first time to use the new comment format. Man, is this one tiny box to write in! Are you intentionally discouraging long comments? :-)

    Was it common for the Spirit to "fall upon" people when they received the indwelling? Possibly, though the Bible never says that. We do know that the Spirit could even "fall upon" unrighteous people, so the two aren't necessarily connected.

  4. Tim Archer says:

    Sorry about the stray paragraph. Yep, this is one small comment box…

  5. Arland Pafford says:

    Jay- Yes, Acts 2 : 38, 39 is normative. How do we know? The text says so. It is to you and children and all them that a far off. That does not mean it excludes all other accounts.
    Samaritans- special problem- how can God show they are included?
    Eunuch- special problem- how are proselytes to be dealt with
    Paul- special problem- a persecutor of Christ and His church
    Gentiles- special problem- they are to be brought in
    Jewish false prophet
    woman- Lydia
    pagan- non-believer, jailor
    converts to John' s baptism
    We would do better to focus on the complete resolution of conversion, faith repentance, water and Spirit rather than trying to pick them apart to see if we can have one without the other. Some have concluded the Gentiles were saved one way and the Jews another. Bad idea, in my opinion!
    Not much emphasis with the Holy Spirit for the eunuch and Lydia, not because it was unimportant but because that was not the emphasis of the story. We must be born of both water and the Spirit to be born again.
    Thanks

  6. Jay Guin says:

    Frank,

    I agree with your recommendation of Bruner's book. Highly recommended!

  7. Jay Guin says:

    Laymond,

    I agree that Cornelius is unquestionably an example of the Spirit being received pre-baptism.

    Paul's conversion is less clear. We can't assume that he received the Spirit when his sight was restored vs. when he was baptized. The text doesn't really say when he received the Spirit.

  8. Jay Guin says:

    Tim,

    Regarding the comment box, it's decent size for me in both IE and Firefox. I can't find a setting to make it any bigger. You might try Ctrl-+ to make it bigger on your screen.

  9. Jay Guin says:

    Tim,

    I admit that the text doesn't tell us how Phillip knew they'd not received the Spirit, but it speaks of receiving the Spirit, not gifts of the Spirit. And the text says the Spirit had been received "yet," meaning the Spirit was expected.

    (Act 8:14-16 ESV) 14 Now when the apostles at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the word of God, they sent to them Peter and John, 15 who came down and prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit, 16 for he had not yet fallen on any of them, but they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.

    The implication is that the missing Spirit was expected and surprisingly not received.

    The phrase "fell upon" is only found regarding the Spirit here and regarding Cornelius.

    "Receive the Holy Spirit" is similar to "receive the gift of the Holy Spirit" in Acts 2:38. It's hard to insist that the "Holy Spirit" in 8:15 is different from "Holy Spirit" in 2:38.

    Now, it could be that, at the time, gifts of the Spirit were routinely received with the Spirit or it may be that Phillip simply knew that they'd not received the Spirit by inspiration.

  10. HistoryGuy says:

    Jay,
    I love this series. Give me your thoughts on the following, please. I have generally perceived Ananias to “heal” Paul, thus giving him his sight, and then instruct Paul in water baptism, calling on the name of the Lord, and remission of sins, which are seemingly connected. I believe that the Holy Spirit came upon Christians in 3 ways (1) directly (2) means of water immersion (3) means of laying on hands by an Apostle.

    There is no doubt that Ananias had miraculous gifts and could use them, but could he impart the Spirit or pass the gifts on? I am biased, but open; do you believe it is more likely that Paul received the Spirit directly, or through the means of Ananias laying hand on Paul when healing his sight? If the latter, what are your thoughts on the teaching that only the Apostles could impart the Spirit or gifts of the Spirit to others? I accept that view as true, but welcome your thoughts on the topic as I study.

  11. HistoryGuy says:

    Jay,
    In regards to my last post, my last sentence is not clear as to “what” I believe is true. I believe that only the Apostles could pass on the gifts of the Spirit and/or the Holy Spirit himself. I welcome your thoughts on the topic.

  12. Jay Guin says:

    HistoryGuy,

    I considered this question a while back at http://oneinjesus.info/2009/07/church-of-christ-d

    For reasons laid out there, I don't buy the theory that gifts only come from the laying on of apostolic hands.

  13. HistoryGuy says:

    Jay,
    Thanks for the link. I will read it.

  14. HistoryGuy says:

    Jay,
    My wording is horrible tonight, or perhaps it always is and I am just now noticing, anywho… I read your link. I would like to try to better communicate my question. I believe that the Holy Spirit came upon Christians in 3 ways (1) directly from the Father (2) means of water immersion (3) means of laying on hands by an Apostle. This seems to concur with your thoughts in the link.

    However, I was trying to flush out your view on a possible 4th category and then separately get your thoughts on Paul. In your view, should there be a 4th way to receive the Spirit I.e. (4) any Christian could be a means of giving the Holy Spirit by laying on hands? I get the rule book thing, so I am just asking if you think it happened.

    Regarding Paul’s reception of the Spirit, do you suppose that (a) Paul received the Spirit directly from the Father (b) that Ananias gave Paul the Spirit by laying on hands [is this a viable option?] (c) Immersion in water (d) not enough info to know. I hope this is clearer than my previous post. Thank you for your thoughts.

  15. Royce Ogle says:

    Thanks Jay for your teaching. I think you are exactly right on this post. One of my posts that had received the most attention from readers is on this very subject. http://gracedigest.com/2007/09/21/3-baptisms-in-a

    Merry Christmas.

    Royce

  16. Jay Guin says:

    HistoryGuy,

    Normally God chooses to give the Spirit concurrently with water baptism, meaning that normally there is but one baptism — into water and Spirit. God will always keep his promise to give the Spirit to those who are baptized in water with faith in Jesus. But God is free to do more or better or even sooner than his promises.

    In the case of the Samaritans, God gave the Spirit when the apostles laid hands on the converts, but this was an exceptional event. Just so, in the case of Pentecost and Cornelius, God gave the Spirit entirely apart from water baptism.

    In the early centuries of Christianity, hands were laid on the baptized immediately following immersion. This is still practiced in many denominations, but not in most Churches of Christ, as the practice is not clearly attested in the scriptures. This is true of many denominations with Zwinglian roots.

    I guess the hard question is what happens to someone baptized as an infant who later comes to a genuine faith in Jesus but isn't re-baptized. In many denominations, the believer goes through confirmation, and some confirmation rites include the laying on of hands as a means of imparting the Spirit.

    I've never really studied the arguments re confirmation, but I imagine that someone might argue that, based on the conversions of the Samaritans, Paul, and Timothy, the laying on of hands is when the Spirit is imparted. And if God wants to give his Spirit at that time, it's his business — and perhaps he does.

    The only thing I know for sure is that all who have faith in Jesus will be saved. Therefore, while God sometimes acts to give his Spirit sacramentally (concurrently with some human action other than coming to faith, such as baptism), God doesn't bind himself to act sacramentally. He doesn't always wait on a church official to engage in a rite before saving someone.

    And so is it possible that God sometimes imparts the Spirit via laying on of hands? Does confirmation work? I don't know. I do know that faith in Jesus always works. But as the Samaritans show, God may choose to time his salvation to suit his purposes. It may not be instantaneous.

    Therefore, unlike the Zwinglian strain of thought, I have no problem with the idea that God normally delays imparting the Spirit until water baptism. But I don't think that means he ultimately denies salvation to those with genuine faith who've been wrongly instructed on baptism.

    We try to be too Baconian, too scientific, in reducing God to rules and plans and patterns. He's a person and acts wisely to our best benefit — and he does so with perfect foreknowledge.

  17. HistoryGuy says:

    Jay,
    Most of the time I feel that I am torn between three worlds: the agnostic world that I left, the church history world that I cannot ignore, and the Scriptural world of infallible authority shaded by many hermeneutics and division.

    John 3:8 says, “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.” I know the Spirit is free to move, but there are many things that I don’t know, nor will I ever. Life in the world and the church was very different before the enlightenment. I struggle with many things, and thank you for your thoughts.

  18. HistoryGuy says:

    Jay,
    Most of the time I feel that I am torn between three worlds: the agnostic world that I left, the church history world that I cannot ignore, and the Scriptural world of infallible authority shaded by many hermeneutics and division.

    John 3:8 says, “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.” I know the Spirit is free to move, but there are many things that I don’t know, nor will I ever. Life in the world and the church was very different before the enlightenment. I struggle with many things, and thank you for your thoughts.

  19. Jay Guin says:

    HistoryGuy,

    Exactly. If John 3:8 means anything, it means the Spirit's work isn't reducible to equations and patterns. There are going to be times we're surprised. God will never break a promise, but at times, he'll do so much more than he promised that we'll be struggle to believe it.

  20. Tim Archer says:

    Well, having subscribed to comments, I was surprised that no one said anything else. Guess the subscription didn't work. Sorry to be responding out of order.

    "Now, it could be that, at the time, gifts of the Spirit were routinely received with the Spirit or it may be that Phillip simply knew that they'd not received the Spirit by inspiration."

    That's what I meant by saying that trying to interpret beyond what is there in the passage is nothing more than conjecture. The most logical way of understanding what happened is to see that, for whatever reason, they didn't receive the external manifestations of the Spirit. Even Simon could tell when people had received the Spirit and when they hadn't.

    "The statement that the Samaritans had not yet “received” the Spirit means they’d not received the Spirit in the Acts 2:38 sense."

    This affirmation is made without conclusive evidence. Feel free to say, "It's my belief…" or "It's my opinion…", but to state this conclusively when there based on word phrasing is a mistake. Just as to insist that "fall upon" has to mean the external gifts. It's my belief that it does, but we need to make it clear to others when we are merely drawing conclusions based on our own reasoning and when we are stating a fact.

    The teaching that gifts were given only through the laying on of the apostles hands, with Cornelius being an exception, is a possible explanation, though admittedly not the only one. It helps me to make sense of all the different passages, but I see no need to bind it on others.

    Grace and peace,
    Tim Archer

    P.S.—Now the comment box works just fine; not sure what changed.

  21. Jay Guin says:

    Tim wrote,

    "This affirmation is made without conclusive evidence."

    Tim,

    I'll admit that a number of these questions aren't capable of conclusive interpretation — by any side. We just have to do the best we can with the evidence we have — reaching back 2,000 years into a very different culture.

    I would recommend Bruner's A Theology of the Holy Spirit as an excellent source book on many of these questions. I've not read it in a quite a long time, but my intepretation of Acts 8 comes from him.

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