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Putting a Ring on It: The Holy Spirit, Baptism & Covenant

Bonham pic croppedJoseph Bonham, M.A. is today’s guest blogger. Joseph has his own blog called the Biblical Bean, linked below. In addition to a Bachelors in Biblical Studies, he holds a master of arts from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in Biblical Languages / Hebrew Bible. ·He has agreed to address a question I asked in an earlier post (A Baptism in Confusion) concerning the use of the term baptism to describe the promised Holy Spirit encounter predicted by John in the Gospel of Mark 1:8. I asked, whether the term “baptism” was used with a covenantal sense, ratification or otherwise, or whether it was used solely with regard to the idea of immersion or washing. Here is Joseph’s reply.

Is it necessary to define the relationship (DTR)?

Before my wife was considered my girlfriend, she decided that I was being so nice to her that it was inappropriate “for friends.” We studied together, ate together, hung out together, and did this every day. She insisted that I needed to stop lavishing her with attention if we were going to remain “just friends.” This was a conversation that I wanted to avoid at all costs at the time.

What if having an experience with the Holy Spirit meant more than just a passing moment of intimacy with the Divine? What if it was like an engagement, or even more? What if it meant we had entered into a legally binding covenant relationship with God, full of expectations and responsibilities? This is precisely what is at stake by calling the baptism in the Holy Spirit an act of covenant.

In a recent post, Andrew Sargent asked whether baptism in the Holy Spirit might be a covenantal act in the same way water baptism ratifies a covenant. There are several pieces of archaeology and ancient literature that suggest this is true.

1) The Book of Acts:

Covenants are most commonly called promises in this book.[1] When we compare the “covenant made with the fathers” of Acts 3:25 with the “promises made to the fathers” in Acts 13:32 and Acts 26:6, the two words appear virtually synonymous. The book of Acts also calls what we know as the “covenants” made with Abraham and David as the “promises” God made with them in Acts 7:5-17 and Acts 13:23. When we are familiar with the language of the whole book of Acts, the word “promise” takes on a much more nuanced meaning, as in Acts 1:4 and Acts 2:33 and Acts 2:39). Calling Spirit baptism a promise inherently suggests that it is a covenant just like God’s other covenants.

2) The Dead Sea Scrolls:

Here we have a direct connection between the giving of the Spirit and a covenant ratification ceremony. In the third month of every year, which happens to be the month of Pentecost, the Jewish community at Qumran inducted new members through a special ceremony. This ceremony involved priests reciting blessings and curses over the initiates, and recounting the “mighty deeds of God”[2] This is blatant covenantal language. Gordon Fee highlights that, “Entrance into the community was understood to be accompanied, ‘by the Spirit which thou has put in me…by cleansing me by the Holy Spirit.”[3]

3) The Book of Jubilees:

Here, every covenant God ever made was made on the day of Pentecost, from Noah, to Abraham, to Moses, to David, in this Jewish retelling of Genesis. It was once thought that this book was written too late to have bearing on the culture of the New Testament. Since a copy was found among the Dead Sea Scrolls, however, it proves that this was not a new idea to Paul and the Disciples. To this day, Jews celebrate Pentecost (Shavuot) as a commemoration of the giving of the law by Moses which happened during the covenant forged at Sinai. The only reason for the Bible to connect the giving of the Spirit with the day of Pentecost is to deliberately compare the giving of the Spirit to covenant law, which Jeremiah envisions as the law written on our hearts (Jeremiah 31:31-33).

Many years ago my wife forced me to “define the relationship.” There was no way I could avoid the encounter. There was no way to continue our relationship without this pivotal conversation. There came a day, many moons later, when I proposed marriage, offered her an engagement ring and she accepted. Does it really matter how we classify a relationship? Only if we want to get along.

I believe the Bible suggests that the Spirit has a DTR of sorts with us. The Spirit overwhelms our senses and creates a new heart within us, one branded with the very words of God’s covenant. This is not merely an emotion we feel. It is a covenant ratified, a marriage of sorts. There is no way to avoid it other than refusing to admit its reality or living at odds with it.

If water baptism is an act which forges a covenant commitment, and if Spirit baptism is an act which forges a covenant commitment, I see no reason why we should not consider the most basic component of baptism to be a covenant commitment. This might be the reason why Jesus was water baptized and why the Spirit descended upon him. Perhaps it represented an oath he was taking, a commitment the Father was making – installing Jesus as king.

[1] Promise επαγγελια (x8) 7:5,7,17; 13:23, 32, 33; 23:21; 26:6.  Covenant διαθηκη  (x2) 3:25; 7:8.

[2] 1QS I 16 – iii 12. The similarity of this phrase with what is found in Acts 2:10 is highly significant.

[3] Fee, God’s Empowering Presence, Hendrickson 1994, 914.


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