A Commentary by John Stott

Acts 19:1-41 Paul in Ephesus.

*While Apollos was at Corinth, Paul took the road through the interior* (or ‘made his way overland’, JB) *and arrived at Ephesus* (1), keeping his promise to return if God willed it (18:21). It was, therefore, during Paul’s year of absence from Ephesus that Apollos came, ministered and left again.

a). Paul and John the Baptist’s followers (19:1b-7)

On arrival at Ephesus Paul *found some disciples*. At least that is what they claimed to be. In reality, however, they were disciples of John the Baptist, and were decidedly less well informed than Apollos had been. Luke records the dialogue which developed between them (2-4) and its sequel (5-7).

Paul’s first question: Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?

Their answer: No, we have not even heard that there a Holy Spirit

Paul’s second question: Then what baptism did you receive?

Their answer: John’s baptism.

Paul’s comment: John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance. He told the people to believe in the one coming after him, that is Jesus.

On hearing this, they were baptised into the name of the Lord Jesus. When Paul placed his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied. There were about twelve men in all.

This incident has become a proof text in some pentecostal and charismatic circles, especially when the inaccurate and unwarranted AV translation of verse 2 is followed, namely, ‘Have ye received the Holy Ghost since ye believed?’ From this it is sometimes argued that Christian initiation is in two stages, beginning with faith and conversion, and followed later by receiving the Holy Spirit. But those twelve ‘disciples’ cannot possibly be regarded as providing a norm for a two-stage initiation. On the contrary, as Michael Green has written, it is ‘crystal clear that those disciples were in no sense Christians’, having not yet believed in Jesus, whereas through the ministry of Paul they came to believe and were then baptized with water and the Spirit more or less simultaneously.

When Paul first met them, he assumed that they were believers, but noticed that they gave no evidence in their bearing or behaviour of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. So he asked them his two leading questions, whether they had received the Spirit when they believed, and into what they had been baptized. His first question linked the Spirit with faith, and his second with baptism. That is, his questions expressed his assumptions that those who have believed have received the Spirit (cf. Gal.3:2), and that those who have been baptized have received the Spirit, for he cannot separate the sign (water) from the thing signified (the Spirit). He took it for granted that baptized believers receive the Spirit, as Peter also taught (2:38-39). Both his questions imply that to have believed and been baptized and not to have received the Spirit constitutes an extraordinary anomaly.

Consider now the answers which Paul received to his questions. In answer to his first, they said that they had ‘not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit’. This cannot mean that they have never heard of the Spirit at all, for he is referred to many times in the Old Testament, and John the Baptist spoke of the Messiah as baptizing people with the Spirit. It must rather mean that, although they had heard John’s prophecy, they had not heard whether it had been fulfilled. They were ignorant of Pentecost. In answer to Paul’s second question, they explained that they had received John’s baptism, not Christian baptism. In a word, they were still living in the Old Testament which culminated in John the Baptist. They understood neither that the new age had been ushered in by Jesus, nor that those who believe in him and are baptized into him receive the distinctive blessing of the new age, the indwelling Spirit.

Once they came to understand this through Paul’s instruction, they put their trust in Jesus of whose coming their teacher John the Baptist had spoken. They were then baptized into Christ, Paul laid his hands on them (giving his apostolic imprimatur to what was happening, as Peter and John had done in Samaria), the Holy Spirit came upon them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied. In other words they experienced a mini-Pentecost. Better, Pentecost caught up on them. Better still, they were caught up into it, as its promised blessings became theirs.

The norm of Christian experience, then, is a cluster of four things: repentance, faith in Jesus, water baptism and the gift of the Spirit. Though the perceived order may vary a little, the four belong together and are universal in Christian initiation. The laying-on of apostolic hands, however, together with tongue-speaking and prophesying, were special to Ephesus, as to Samaria, in order to demonstrate visibly and publicly that particular groups were incorporated into Christ by the Spirit; the New Testament does not universalize them. There are no Samaritans or disciples of John the Baptist left in the world today.

Tomorrow: Acts 19:8-10. b). Synagogue and lecture hall.

The John Stott Bible Study is taken from The Message of Acts. The Bible Speaks Today John Stott. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press UK, Nottingham. All rights reserved.