“If Cornelius experienced the ‘baptism of the Holy Spirit,’ why can’t men receive that same baptism today?”
While it is a fact that Cornelius did receive a “baptism” of the Holy Spirit (Acts 10:45; 11:15-16), the key to understanding why Holy Spirit baptism is not being replicated today is to be found in discovering the purpose behind the particular events of Acts 10.
Let me begin by saying there is no reason to deny that Cornelius and his kinsmen actually were given a “baptism” of the Holy Spirit, as some have done (in over-reacting to certain denominational claims). The facts are too clear in this case.
Holy Spirit promised to all flesh
Centuries before the birth of Jesus, the prophet Joel foretold of a time when the Holy Spirit would be poured out upon “all flesh.” The expression “all flesh” obviously is not employed in an unrestricted sense (which would include every human being — or even animals, since they have “flesh”). Rather, the phrase “all flesh” merely embodies the two major segments of humanity, from that ancient vantage point, i.e., the Jews and the Gentiles.
Joel’s prophecy in fulfillment
On the day of Pentecost, Peter quoted Joel’s prophetic declaration (see Acts 2:16ff), thus revealing that the prophecy was beginning to enjoy its fulfillment that very day. Since, however, only the apostles (all of whom were Jews) received this outpouring of the Spirit on that occasion, one must look for a further bestowal of the Spirit to exhaust the scope of Joel’s prediction.
Holy Spirit outpouring a “baptism”
This outpouring of the Holy Spirit is metaphorically designated as a “baptism” (see Mt. 3:11; Acts 1:5; 11:16) because it involved an overwhelming miraculous bestowal of divine power (Thayer, 94).
Fulfillment of Joel’s prophecy completed
The final demonstration of “Holy Spirit baptism” occurred when Peter and his Jewish brothers visited the family of Cornelius in the city of Caesarea (Acts 10). The Spirit of God was “poured out” (10:45) on Cornielius, his family, and near friends at that time.
Later, as Peter defended their acceptance of the Gentiles (to the Jewish church) he identified the Caesarean experience with the events that occurred “at the beginning” (i.e., on Pentecost). He further tied the circumstance to John’s prophecy of a “baptism” in the Spirit; he even called it a “like gift” (Acts 11:15-17).
Moreover, the evidence of the Spirit’s endowment was demonstrated similarly. Both the apostles on Pentecost, and the Gentiles during this incident, were empowered to speak with languages they previously had not known (2:4ff; 10:46).
What Was Purpose of Holy Spirit Baptism?
The fact that the apostles received a supernatural outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost, and the further reality that the Gentiles also were given a similar experience a while later, does not mean either of the following:
- that the same purpose obtained in both cases; or,
- that equivalent authority was bestowed in each instance.
In fact, in each of these cases, a different purpose and scope of authority was manifested by the overwhelming reception of the Holy Spirit.
Why Did the Apostles Receive the Holy Spirit?
The purpose for which the apostles received the Spirit on the day of Pentecost was unique. The background of this matter is vividly described in John’s Gospel account. The Lord promised his apostles that they would receive an unparalleled measure of the Spirit’s power to guide them in teaching the gospel in an infallible way.
The Spirit would bring to their memories the things they had learned from the Savior (Jn. 14:26). He would guide them into all truth and declare unto them things to come (Jn. 16:13). The Lord promised they would be able to proclaim his message, unfettered by the need of personal preparation; rather, gospel truth would be “given” to them as they required it (Mt. 10:19-20; cf. Lk. 21:14).
The apostles have no successors today; the gospel message is embodied in the sacred Scriptures of the New Testament. These documents carry the same weight as the messages proclaimed by Christ’s original disciples (cf. Mt. 19:28; 1 Cor. 13:8ff; Eph. 2:20). [Note: For a discussion of Matthew 19:28, as pertaining to the present authority of the apostles of Christ, see McGarvey, 170.]
There is no need today, therefore, for a replication of Holy Spirit baptism, such as was received by the Lord’s apostles.
Why Did Cornelius Receive the Holy Spirit?
The baptism of the Spirit at the house of Cornelius was different in design from that received by the apostles (though the manifestation of speaking in foreign languages was the same). There is no evidence that Cornelius had teaching powers analogous to the apostles. Certainly there is no indication that the centurion could lay his hands upon other people, thus imparting to them spiritual gifts, as an apostle could do (see Acts 8:18; 19:6; 2 Tim. 1:6).
The purpose for which Cornelius was granted the Spirit was to demonstrate to the Jews that God was ready for the gospel to be offered to the Gentiles — which circumstance constituted a problem in the thinking of the Hebrews.
This was evidenced by the fact that even Peter initially resisted the idea that the Gentiles could become Christians (Acts 10:14ff), as did the Jews of Jerusalem when they learned of the matter (Acts 11:2-3).
It was the miraculous demonstration of the Spirit upon Cornelius and his associates that turned the tide (cf. Acts 11:4ff; 15:7ff). The effect of this divine documentation of Gentile acceptance remains intact to this very day.
Accordingly, there is no need for a modern, supernatural outpouring of the Spirit to accomplish the same purpose.
Those who argue for a “Holy Spirit baptism” today misconstrue the design of that experience, as bestowed upon the early apostles, and then the first Gentiles to be admitted into the church. Holy Spirit baptism is not requisite to one’s salvation today, nor is it a demonstration of such. It was a phenomenon of the first century, unique to those circumstances.
When Paul wrote his epistle to the Ephesians (c. A.D. 62), he affirmed that there was but “one baptism” (Eph. 4:5). Clearly, this was “water” baptism — the rite that was to continue to the end of the age (Mt. 28:19-20).
Consequently, by default, Holy Spirit baptism is eliminated as a modern endowment.