(Jn. 20:22) Does this support the Pentecostal notion of “Spirit baptism”?

CLAIM: John writes, “[Jesus] breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit’” (Jn. 20:22). Pentecostals interpret this as the first blessing of the Holy Spirit (where we are sealed in Christ—Eph. 1:13-14; 1 Cor. 12:13), but then, the disciples wait for a time to get the second blessing at Pentecost (Acts 2:1-4). Likewise, it is argued, people can be sealed by the Holy Spirit at conversion, but they should expect a second Spirit-baptism in the future, so that they can be effective in ministry. Is this the case?

RESPONSE: Baptism of the Holy Spirit (sometimes called the “Second Blessing” by Pentecostals) is not biblical (see “Is Baptism of the Holy Spirit Biblical?”). However, this is a difficult passage to handle in this regard. A number of observations can be made:

First, Jesus said that the Holy Spirit would not come until he was ascended. Jesus said, “If I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you; but if I go, I will send Him to you” (Jn. 16:7). Of course, even after his death and resurrection, Jesus hadn’t ascended yet (Jn. 20:17). This wouldn’t happen until Acts 1:9. In fact, in Acts 1:5, Jesus was still speaking of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit as a future event (“You will be baptized with the Holy Spirit…”).

Second, the text never actually says that they did receive the Holy Spirit. This is a command—not an account of them receiving it.

Third, the text never says that he breathed upon the disciples. Carson notes, “The text does not say ‘he breathed on them’ but simply ‘he breathed’ or, perhaps, ‘he exhaled’ (enephysēsen). The lexica give as the meaning of the verb (emphysaō) ‘he breathed in’ or ‘he breathed upon’, but actual usage outside the New Testament (this is the only place it occurs within the New Testament) does not encourage the view that the preposition ‘in’ or ‘upon’ was part of the meaning of the verb itself… The verb emphysaō is absolute in John 20:22—i.e. it has no auxiliary structure, not even a direct object. Apart from other compelling considerations, therefore, the verse should be translated, ‘And with that he breathed, and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’”[1]

In conclusion, Jesus’ command to receive the Holy Spirit is probably symbolic or predictive of Pentecost. This could be a case of prolepsis, where Jesus is speaking of something future, as though it was already present. For instance, regarding his glorification, Jesus speaks in prolepsis, as though he already was glorified (Jn. 13:31). Carson concludes, “So there is no intrinsic reason for thinking that the imperative of 20:22, Receive the Holy Spirit, must be experienced immediately.”[2]

By breathing on the disciples and telling them to receive the Holy Spirit, Jesus was giving them a symbolic act for what was going to come—namely, Pentecost. Carson compares this to the washing of the disciples’ feet in John 13. On one level, this is just Jesus cleaning dirt off of twelve men’s feet, but on another level, Jesus was communicating his role in cleansing them of sin (Jn. 13:8—”If I do not wash you, you have no part with Me”).

[1] Carson, D. A. The Gospel according to John. Leicester, England; Grand Rapids, MI: Inter-Varsity Press; W.B. Eerdmans. 1991. 651, 652.

[2] Carson, D. A. The Gospel according to John. Leicester, England; Grand Rapids, MI: Inter-Varsity Press; W.B. Eerdmans. 1991. 653.