Published: 4 October 2021

Why Was The Spirit Not Given At Baptism?, Part 1


In the accounts of conversion recorded by Luke in the book of Acts, there are three times when receiving the Spirit did not coincide with immersion. These were the Samaritans, Cornelius and his household, and the twelve disciples in Ephesus. This post will focus on the first two.

The Samaritans

“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.” (Acts 8:14–17 ESV)

Why was the Spirit not given at baptism? It is odd that immersion and the giving of the Spirit didn’t happen simultaneously – so much so that the apostles dispatched two of their own to investigate. The text strongly suggests that the Apostles expected the indwelling of the Spirit to happen during immersion.

Notice that the text does not connect the timing of the indwelling of the Spirit to faith, repentance or confession. For example, it does not say, “the Holy Spirit had not yet come on any of them; they had only believed in the name of the Lord Jesus. No, the expectation was that the Samaritan believers should have received the Spirit during immersion. 

The phrase “they had only been baptized” tells that something was missing. They had only been immersed in water and the Spirit didn’t indwell them during their immersion. Luke does not spell out for us why there was a delay in the receipt of the Spirit. There are several possible answers however.

Keys of the Kingdom

Did the Holy Spirit delay His indwelling so as to involve Peter? Jesus gave Peter the “keys to the kingdom” (Mat 16:19). Jesus gave him the honor of opening the door to the kingdom on Pentecost (for Jews), for the Samaritans (half Jews) and for Cornelius (a gentile). 

It is interesting that the order of these doors being opened is exactly as Jesus had described, “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” (Acts 1:8 ESV). Was the Holy Spirit waiting on Peter to be present so that he could be involved in the introduction of the gospel to each group of people just like Jesus said? Could be.

Samaritan bias

Another possibility is that receiving the Spirit would be the proof that God would save someone who is not 100% Jewish. The Samaritans were a mixed race (which included Jewish ancestry) who practiced their own brand of Judaism. For both of these reasons they were social outcasts. It is not easy for us to understand how much animosity there was between the Jews and Samaritans. It is quite possible that many of the Jewish disciples would not have accepted the Samaritans as brothers in Christ. However, the involvement of apostles when the Spirit finally did descend upon them, that might change some attitudes.

Unity in the church

Another consideration is that Peter and John’s involvement helped to unify the two groups by overcoming the animosity between Samaritans and Jews. By involving the Apostles and other Jews, no one could accuse the Samaritans of copy catting another religion. Both groups received the same Spirit. This event may have served as a unifying force in the early church. It may well have prevented a split which would have resulted in a Jewish church and a Samaritan church which might have been at odds with each other.

The household of Cornelius

Cornelius and those of his household also didn’t receive the Spirit during immersion. The Spirit fell upon them prior to their immersion. Why? Cornelius and his household were gentiles. It was unthinkable to the Jews that God would save a gentile without first converting to Judaism. As Gentiles, they were outside of the covenant with God. So strong was the aversion Jews felt for gentiles that Peter told Cornelius, “You know it’s forbidden for a Jewish man to associate with or visit a foreigner” (Acts 10:28 CSB)  

In fact, God had to give Peter a vision to prepare him to accept the Spirit’s command to go to this gentile house in the first place. Peter had a lot of explaining to do in Acts 11 when the apostles and believers in Jerusalem got word of what had happened. The Jewish believers criticized him for going into the house of an uncircumcised gentile. After explaining the whole situation, the Jewish believers ultimately accepted that the gentiles could also have eternal life (Act 11:18). 

Can Gentiles be saved?

Had the Spirit not been given early, the Jews (Peter included) would have never have accepted Gentiles as fellow believers. Would Peter have even offered to immerse them? But immerse them he did. 

47 “Surely no one can stand in the way of their being baptized with water. They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have.” 48 So he ordered that they be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they asked Peter to stay with them for a few days. (Acts 10:47-48 NIV)

Even with this event, it took a lot of discussion back in Jerusalem to convince the Jewish Christians.

The exceptions happened for a reason

So, in both of these cases the Spirit’s indwelling did not coincide with baptism. One group’s indwelling came late while the other group’s indwelling came early. In both of these situations, it is not hard to see why the Spirit’s arrival didn’t happen as expected. 

In the next post, we’ll look at the third group whose indwelling didn’t occur when anticipated.