If, according to the gospels, baptizing people with the Holy Spirit was Jesus' primary mission, what exactly is Spirit baptism?
I believe it has little to do with spectacular gifts like tongues, signs and wonders. I'm not saying that being filled with the Spirit never results in these gifts, but what I do believe is it is easy for these spectacular gifts to become distractions from the real point, namely, love.
As Paul says, "If I speak in tongues … but don't have love, I'm like a clanging gong" (I Corinthians 13:1). I certainly don't believe being attuned with Divine Spirit is synonymous with tongues, ecstatic visions or miraculous manifestations. In fact, those of us who seek extraordinary gifts and experiences are especially prone to "ego consciousness. " Our very desire for something extraordinary is our ego seeking to identify with being or doing something special.
(What I mean by "ego consciousness" is the state of finding my identity in external things like my reputation, accomplishments, failures or spiritual status, or the church or denomination I belong to.)
Spirit baptism is ultimately about being baptized with the essence of God, which is love. But what does baptism mean?
A 19th-century Presbyterian minister named James W. Dale embarked on what is probably the most comprehensive study of the word "baptism" to date. He dedicated 20 years of his life to one word, baptizo, the most common Greek word for "baptize. " He fastidiously examined its use in a wide range of historical documents and published his findings in four volumes. He concluded that to "baptize" essentially means to "merge. "
This understanding is illuminating. It means Jesus came to merge human spirit with Divine Spirit. This is especially meaningful considering the time of year in which we find ourselves. During the Advent and Christmas seasons, we celebrate the incarnation—the birth of a baby who was both God and human. The incarnation is the merging of humanity and divinity. From the very beginning, the early church believed followers of Christ are the body of Christ, meaning we are the ongoing physical presence of incarnation. Through Spirit baptism, humanity is merged with Divine Spirit.
(This leads to the early Christian doctrine of theosis, which I will talk about in another article.)
So what does it mean to have humanity and divinity merged within our own beings? I believe there are three primary states involved in this process:
- Image of God. All humans are made in the image of God. Another way of speaking about this is to say there is a divine spark or inner light in every human being. Think of it this way: God is omnipresent, so God must be present in every human being. As Paul says, in God "we live and move and have our being" (Acts 17:28).
- Indwelling of God. What creates this second state of being is an acknowledgement of the omnipresence of God within us, and taking a posture of hospitality towards God. We welcome God's presence to dwell within us and with us.
- Attunement with Divine Spirit. This is the Spirit baptism Jesus talked about and promised to his followers. This is the merging of human spirit and divine Spirit. It is one thing to welcome God into our lives. It is an entirely different thing to be merged with Divine Spirit. What happens in this state is that one's consciousness—one's perspective, desires, values, goals, etc. —is merged or aligned with God's. In this state, we become co-creators with Divine Spirit, who is love.
Spirit attunement is not a one-time experience. It is important to continually attune ourselves. The New Testament doesn't just talk about being baptized or filled with the Spirit. It also talks about walking in the Spirit after one's awakening or rebirth.
Just because I was in a state of Spirit attunement five years ago, or even five minutes ago, doesn't mean I'm in that state right now. It's very easy and quite common for humans to slip into ego consciousness. It's our default state.
Some of the most destructive forces in the church and the world are people who have experienced Spirit attunement, but operate out of a state of "ego consciousness, " thinking they are attuned to God's Spirit. In this state, we begin doing or enforcing our own agenda, claiming it is God's will. It happens all the time. It also helps explain the checkered past and present condition of the church.
Troy Watson (email@example.com) is pastor of Quest in St. Catharines, Ont.
Part 1 (Sept. 30. 2013 issue)
Part 2 (Oct. 28, 2013 issue)
Part 4 (Jan. 6, 2014 issue)
Part 5 (Feb. 3, 2014 issue)
Part 6 (March 3, 2014 issue)