Reader Robert asked for a more complete explanation of the Spirit’s work in Acts. Sometimes the Spirit comes at baptism, sometimes before, sometimes after, and sometimes entirely separate. Sometimes there are miraculous gifts, sometimes not. How does this all fit together?
Robert (Part 3),
I believe that we are baptized in the Spirit normally (better: normatively) when we’re baptized in water. It’s that water metaphor yet again! But there are three important exceptions in Acts.
The apostles were told to preach the gospel, first, to the Jews, second, to the Samaritans, and third, to the Gentiles.
(Acts 1:1 ESV) 7 [Jesus] said to [his apostles], “It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority. 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.”
At Pentecost, the 120 disciples received the Spirit (not just gifts from the Spirit) when it was poured out from heaven, separate from water baptism. They were baptized in just the Spirit.
In Samaria, the apostles had failed to honor their mandate to go there. Philip, a deacon, had gone to Samaria to convert the Samaritans. They were baptized in just water. The Spirit did not come upon them — contrary to the church’s normal experience. And so the apostles were sent for to endorse their conversion.
Most baptisms were followed by laying on of hands. The apostles symbolically completed the baptisms of the Samaritans by touching them – which good Jews just did not do. They laid hands on them, joining belatedly in their baptisms, and the Spirit came — separate from water.
In the case of Cornelius and his household, God was so anxious to accept the Gentiles he poured his Spirit out before they could be water baptized!
In each case, God broke the usual, normative pattern of Spirit baptism being received simultaneously with water baptism — and in each case God’s decision to do this pushed the gospel further outward to a new class of recipients.
God’s pouring out the Spirit in Acts 2 brought in the first converts — Jews all — on Mt. Zion. It was the sight and sound of the Spirit being poured out that drew the crowd and demonstrated that the Kingdom prophecies were coming true.
God withholding the Spirit in Acts 8 forced the apostles to leave Jerusalem and to formally accept the Samaritans into the church. Had God not withheld the Spirit, there might be a Samaritan church and a Jewish church. God insisted that the leaders cross racial lines and lay hands on the Samaritans to demonstrate that the Samaritans were part of the same church as the Jews. (There’s a lesson here for the modern, racially segregated church.)
God’s pouring out the Spirit on Cornelius proved that God accepted Gentiles — regardless of what the Jewish Christians thought or wanted. He forced their hands.
(Acts 10:47 ESV) 47 “Can anyone withhold water for baptizing these people, who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?”
And in Acts 15, this event was offered as evidence that circumcision is not required to become a Christian.
Hence, God normally gives the Spirit at water baptism. But he doesn’t have to.
 Notice that “we” in Acts 10:47 is a reference to the Jews, not the apostles. Peter was the only apostle present, he was addressing the Jewish Christians who traveled with him (Acts 10:23; 11:12). Peter is saying that these Gentiles have received the Holy Spirit just as have Jewish converts, not that they are receiving some rare, never-to-be-repeated baptism of the Holy Spirit that is different in kind from what was received by other converts. After all, Cornelius spoke in tongues (Acts 10:46) the same as many other converts in Acts.
The only thing different was the timing of the gift, not what was received. And Peter explicitly says that what Cornelius received is the same thing the Jews (not the apostles) received. Besides, no one has ever argued that Cornelius became an apostle by his baptism of the Holy Spirit. He just spoke in tongues, like the Ephesians (Acts 19:6).