Sign of the Spirit
Discussions on the baptism in the Holy Spirit raise the question – What is the “sign” that demonstrates someone has received the Spirit? Because the New Testament elsewhere never states explicitly what that “sign” is, inevitably, the answer to the question is sought in the accounts in the book of Acts.
In 1 Corinthians, Paul does state that “tongues are a sign” to unbelievers, but he does not say they are THE “sign” of the baptism in the Spirit. That is not the issue being addressed in the letter; instead, he is contrasting “speaking in tongues” with the gift of prophecy in the church (“but prophesying is to them that believe”), and he addresses the proper practice of spiritual gifts in the assembly - (1 Corinthians 14:22).
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Under discussion in 1 Corinthians is not conversion or baptism in the Spirit, but the proper operation of the gifts of the Holy Spirit in the assembly during worship, including the “gift of tongues.”
In Acts, there are five relevant incidents when believers received the Spirit following their conversion - on the Day of Pentecost, the arrival of the gospel in Samaria, the conversion of Saul of Tarsus, the opening of the gospel to the Gentiles, and Paul’s encounter with twelve disciples of John the Baptist in Ephesus.
And there is an immediate problem. The 120 disciples who are filled with the Spirit are not recent converts, but believers who have followed Jesus for some time. What sets their experience apart is that the Spirit is given to the people of God for the first time; it was the commencement of the fulfillment of the “promise of the Father” given centuries earlier.
When the church received the gift for the first time, its arrival was marked by the “sound of a rushing mighty wind,” the appearance of “tongues of fire,” and “speaking in tongues as the Spirit gave utterance” – (Acts 2:1-4).
The crowd of Jewish pilgrims gathered in the city witnessed all three phenomena, and this is confirmed by Peter when he addresses the crowd and refers to what “you have seen and heard.” Of the five accounts, this is the only one that makes any mention of wind-like sounds or “tongues of fire.”
And while Peter does refer to the things the Jewish pilgrims have seen and heard, he does not elaborate on any of them though he does link them to the “signs” and “wonders” prophesied by Joel. He does not state whether any of the three manifestations is the “sign” of the gift of the Spirit.
In Samaria, the Spirit was received when Peter and John “laid hands on” the Samaritan converts and prayed for them. And Simon the Magician “saw” that “through the laying on of the apostles' hands the Holy Spirit was given” - (Acts 8:14-18).
The passage says nothing about what Simon heard, if anything, and what he “saw” is never specified. It simply does not say, and any assumption by us regarding what he “saw” is speculation.
If the other relevant accounts in Acts were explicit and consistent, it would be plausible to assume that “speaking in tongues” or one of the other manifestations recorded in Acts was the “sign” seen or heard by Simon. But at this point, we lack insufficient evidence to make that case.
After his encounter with Jesus on the Damascus Road, God sent Ananias to pray for Saul of Tarsus. Upon his arrival, Ananias prayed for the restoration of his sight, and for him to receive the Spirit:
- “Now Brother Saul, the Lord, even Jesus, who appeared to you in the way which you came, has sent me, that you may receive your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit” – (Acts 9:17).
Immediately, “scales” fell from Saul’s eyes and he “received his sight.” Thereafter, he was baptized in water. The passage does not state whether he received the Spirit though this is implied. But what it also does NOT state is what manifestation occurred when he did receive the Spirit. It is safe to assume that he did receive the gift, but we cannot assume with any confidence that he “spoke in tongues” at the time.
Did Paul “speak in tongues”? Did Ananias hear the “sound as of a rushing mighty wind”? The text simply does NOT say. We know from his letter to the Corinthians that Paul did speak in tongues, but he did not state when and how he received that gift - (1 Corinthians 14:18).
When the Gentiles received the Spirit at the house of Cornelius, they all were heard “speaking in tongues and magnifying God.” This is the first and last time “magnifying God” is mentioned in connection with Spirit baptism. Peter mentions both, and he does not specify whether one or the other or both is the “sign” of the gift – (Acts 10:44-48, 11:).
The passage does describe the amazement of the Jews with Peter since “that on the Gentiles also was poured out the gift of the Holy Spirit,” and they knew this to be a fact because they “heard them speak with tongues and magnify God.” At least one purpose was to confirm to Jewish believers that Gentiles had received the same gift that the 120 disciples had received on Pentecost.
Since the only manifestation mentioned common to both events is “speaking in tongues,” it is plausible that the Jewish believers present that day took that as evidence that Gentile believers had received the Spirit. However, the stress is not on “tongues” as the “sign” of Spirit baptism, per se, but on “speaking in tongues” as the confirmation that the Gentiles had experienced the same infilling of the Spirit as the church did in Jerusalem on the Day of Pentecost.
And this understanding is confirmed by Peter’s testimony before the church on his return to Jerusalem:
- “Then answered Peter, As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell on them, even as on us at the beginning. And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he said, John indeed baptized with water; but you shall be baptized in the Holy Spirit. If then God gave them the like gift as he did also us when we believed, who was I, that I could withstand God?” – (Acts 11:16-18).
When he recounts how the Spirit “fell on” the Gentiles, Peter does not mention “tongues” or any other “sign,” though it is highly probable that he took “speaking in tongues” as proof that the Gentiles had received the Spirit. But, again, the purpose was to confirm that God had granted the same gift to Gentile believers, and that is why one of the same phenomena seen on the Day of Pentecost occurred in Caesarea.
In Ephesus, Paul met a group of 12 disciples of John the Baptist who had a deficient understanding of the gospel. After determining that they had not received the Spirit, he laid hands on them, and they “spoke in tongues and prophesied” - (Acts 19:1-7).
As in Caesarea and Jerusalem, when these men received the Spirit, they “spoke in tongues.” But they also “prophesied,” a phenomenon not mentioned anywhere else in Acts in connection to anyone receiving the Spirit.
Taken by itself in this grammatical structure, the clause could be proof that either “tongues” or “prophecy” constitute evidence of Spirit baptism, or both together. The passage makes no distinction between the two in this regard, and both manifestations occurred when the twelve men received the Spirit.
The only “sign” or evidence of Spirit baptism presented with any consistency is “speaking in tongues.” However, it is NOT mentioned in two of the recorded incidents. The other phenomena, “tongues of fire,” wind-like sounds, and “magnifying God,” are each mentioned only once. What evidence of the Spirit, if any, occurred in Samaria or Damascus is not provided.
Based on the accounts in Acts, it is plausible, perhaps probable, to conclude that “speaking in tongues” is a “sign” of the baptism of the Spirit. But to conclude that it is the one, only, and necessary “sign” is to go beyond the evidence. At no point does Acts state directly that “speaking in tongues” is the required “sign” or evidence of Spirit baptism.
On the other hand, based on the same evidence, “speaking in tongues” should not be seen as something unexpected or rare. It is a phenomenon that should be a common experience among Christians whenever anyone receives the Spirit, though, perhaps, not the only or exclusive one.