FAQ: What Is Baptism With The Holy Spirit And Why Didn't The Samaritans In Acts 8 Receive It?
From time to time I will attempt to answer some of the more frequently asked questions from Into The Word readers and listeners. If they are short I will post the responses on the Facebook page. If they are longer, as here, I will address them via a special post.
Hi Pastor Paul! I was reading Acts 8 for RMM, and I'm a little confused about how the Samaritans had been baptized and "received the word of God", but hadn't received the Holy Spirit. How does that work, since being saved and receiving the Spirit go together? And what is the significance of them only receiving the Spirit by the laying on of the apostles' hands?
Hi friend! Thanks for your question! This gets asked A LOT – in fact, you are the third person to bring this up in the last several days. First of all let me state that your confusion is actually a very good sign, it means that you have spotted the general pattern. The Bible makes it clear that people receive the Holy Spirit upon conversion. For example, in Acts 2 Peter says:
“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. (Acts 2:38 ESV)
Later in Acts 5 Peter says:
And we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him.” (Acts 5:32 ESV)
In the NT the word “obey” is an overlapping synonym with the word “believe”. See for example:
But they have not all obeyed the gospel. (Romans 10:16 ESV)
Then in Acts 11 when Peter was explaining why Roman/Gentile believers had been granted water baptism Peter explained:
As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell on them just as on us at the beginning. 16 And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ 17 If then God gave the same gift to them as he gave to us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could stand in God’s way?” (Acts 11:15–17 ESV)
Putting all of that together you should immediately notice a general pattern. People received the Holy Spirit when they heard the Gospel, repented of sin and believed/obeyed the message that they heard.
So what in the world do we do with Acts 8? Acts 8 is the exception to the rule. Some people say that Acts 19 is a second exception to the rule but that doesn’t quite work. Look at Acts 19:2. Paul found some people there who thought they were believers but they had not received the Holy Spirit. So Paul asked 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.” 3 And he said, “Into what then were you baptized?” They said, “Into John’s baptism.” (Acts 19:2–3 ESV)
These people clearly were not Christians! They hadn’t even heard of the Holy Spirit and knew only the baptism of John! They were “pre-Christians” at best. Therefore, Acts 19 is not a second exception to the rule and what we are left with is a clearly stated rule and a rather remarkable exception.
So what gives?
Most of the commentators I’ve read have understood this exception as designed by God to convince the Apostles of the reality of the Samaritan conversion. Keep in mind that the Apostles were all Jewish by birth and background and Jews regarded Samaritans are idolatrous half breeds. The Apostles would have viewed reports of a Samaritan conversion with extreme skepticism and so the idea is that God delayed the giving of the Holy Spirit until the Apostolic delegation could arrive to witness it first hand.
That is the view expressed for example by I. Howard Marshall:
"Why, then, was the Spirit withheld on this particular occasion? It is wholly unlikely that a second reception of the Spirit was conveyed by laying on of hands, perhaps accompanied by unusual charismatic gifts; verse 16 completely rules out this possibility. Nor is it likely that the Spirit could be conveyed only by the laying on of apostolic hands, since elsewhere the Spirit is given without mention of laying on of hands (2:38) or without any of the twelve apostles being present (9:17). Moreover, it can be assumed that the Ethiopian official received the Spirit without any further ado when Philip baptized him. Only two types of explanation remain. The first is that God withheld the Spirit until the coming of Peter and John in order that the Samaritans might be seen to be fully incorporated into the community of Jerusalem Christians who had received the Spirit at Pentecost.38 This view is confirmed by the way in which, when Cornelius received the Spirit, Peter explicitly testifies that the Holy Spirit fell on him and his family just as he had fallen on the first Christians; it was the same experience (11:15–17). The second view is that the response and commitment of the Samaritans was defective, as is shown by the fact that they had not yet received the Spirit"
I cite that at length because I. Howard Marshall is himself very sympathetic to Pentecostal theology but he does not see any warrant for a belief in any sort of “second baptism” experience from this particular passage.
In short, it seems that this exception has more to do with the native prejudice of the Apostles than it does with a desire to encourage Christians to seek after a second baptism in the Holy Spirit. While all Christians should desire to be EVER being filled by the Holy Spirit as per Ephesians 5:18, the Bible clearly teaches that we are baptized with the Holy Spirit upon conversion.
Thanks be to God!
Pastor Paul Carter
I. Howard Marshall, Acts: An Introduction and Commentary, vol. 5 of Tyndale New Testament Commentaries. IVP/Accordance electronic ed. (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1980), 166-167.