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Acts 19:1-7 Biblical Commentary:
The preceding story (18:24-28) is related to this one. It tells of Apollos, who “knew only the baptism of John” (18:25). Priscilla and Aquila “took him (Apollos) aside, and explained to him the way of God more accurately” (18:26).
ACTS 19:1. PAUL CAME TO EPHESUS, AND FOUND CERTAIN DISCIPLES
1It happened that, while Apollos was at Corinth, Paul, having passed through the upper country, came to Ephesus, and found certain disciples.
“It happened that, while Apollos was at Corinth” (v. 1a). Luke just now told us most of what we know about Apollos (18:24-28). He was a Jew from Alexandria who came to Ephesus—eloquent and full of enthusiasm. He was well-versed in the scriptures, and “taught accurately the things concerning Jesus, although he knew only the baptism of John” (18:25). His fellow disciples, Priscilla and Aquila, “took him aside, and explained to him the way of God more accurately” (18:26). Paul refers to Apollos several times in ways that make it apparent that Apollos was a significant disciple (1 Corinthians 1:12; 3:4-6, 22; 4:6; 16:12; Titus 3:13).
“Paul, having passed through the upper country, came to Ephesus” (v. 1b). Ephesus is an important seaport in the province of Asia (modern Turkey)—across the Aegean Sea east of Greece.
Paul visited Ephesus on his Second Missionary Journey, accompanied by Priscilla and Aquila (18:19-28). That was a short visit, even though the Ephesian Jews asked him to stay longer (18:20). But Paul left Priscilla and Aquila in Ephesus (18:19), promising to return “if God wills” (18:21).
Now we have the account of that return. It is Paul’s Third Missionary Journey. He will remain in Ephesus for three years (20:31), teaching daily in the lecture hall of Tyrannus for two of those years (19:8-10). He will found a church here, and will write his first epistle to the Corinthian church while living here (1 Corinthians 16:8-9). The Ephesian church is one of seven churches addressed in the book of Revelation (Revelation 2:1-7).
“and found certain disciples” (v. 1c). Are these disciples of Jesus or John? The text does not make that clear, and there is some scholarly debate about it. It is clear that they were baptized only into John’s baptism (v. 3), but Paul’s question, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” (v. 2) sounds as if Paul is treating them as if they are believers in Jesus—disciples of Jesus.
ACTS 19:2-4. DID YOU RECEIVE THE HOLY SPIRIT?
2He said to them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” They said to him, “No, we haven’t even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.” 3He said, “Into what then were you baptized?” They said, “Into John’s baptism.” 4Paul said, “John indeed baptized with the baptism of repentance, saying to the people that they should believe in the one who would come after him, that is, in Jesus.”
“Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” (v. 2a). Why does Paul ask this question? It isn’t a standard question that he routinely asks of believers wherever he goes. He must have noticed some sort of deficiency in these Ephesian believers that prompted his question.
We have been hearing about the Holy Spirit from the beginning of the book of Acts (1:2). Jesus promised, “you will be baptized in the Holy Spirit not many days from now” (1:5) and“you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you” (1:8). This promise was fulfilled on the Day of Pentecost, when the apostles “were all filled with the Holy Spirit” (2:4; see also 2:33, 38; 4:8, 25, 31; 5:32; 6:5, etc.). The frequent mention of the Spirit reminds us again and again of the importance of the Spirit in empowering the work of the apostles and the early church. The Spirit is just as important in today’s church. It brings the power of God. Without the Spirit, we can have pews that are full and coffers that are running over—but to have any spiritual power, we must be Spirit-powered.
In his Pentecost sermon, Peter told the crowd, “Repent, and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (2:38)—so the gift of the Holy Spirit is related to baptism. Acts 2:38 and 19:1-7 suggest that the gift of the Holy Spirit is usually dependent on baptism. However:
• A group of Gentiles received the Holy Spirit prior to baptism. Peter baptized these people shortly after they received the Holy Spirit (10:44-48).
• And Paul received the Holy Spirit when Ananias laid hands on him. “He arose and was baptized” (9:17-18).
“No, we haven’t even heard that there is a Holy Spirit” (v. 2b). Like Apollos, (18:25), their understanding is deficient. Until Priscilla and Aquila took him aside to explain the Way of God to him, Apollos knew only of the baptism of John. These Ephesian believers know nothing about the Holy Spirit.
The Holy Spirit was part of the Christian message from the beginning. John the Baptist spoke of “he comes who is mightier than I… He will baptize you in the Holy Spirit and fire” (Luke 3:15). Scholars either wonder how these Ephesian believers could have missed hearing about the Spirit or assume that they have heard of the Spirit (Polhill, 399; Bock, 599). However, it seems an unnecessary leap of faith to assume that, because John taught about the Spirit, these believers know about the Spirit. They claim never to have heard of the Holy Spirit, and I accept that at face value.
“He said, ‘Into what then were you baptized?’ They said, ‘Into John’s baptism'” (v. 3). John the Baptist “came into all the region around the Jordan, preaching the baptism of repentance for remission of sins” (Luke 3:3). Jews routinely baptized Gentile proselytes, but John was unusual in that he baptized Jews—something that most good Jews could not imagine that any Jew would need. John said that he was preparing the way of the Lord (Luke 3:4) so that “All flesh will see God’s salvation” (Luke 3:6).
At the instigation of his wife and daughter, Herod executed John (Luke 9:7-9; Mark 6:14-29). John’s disciples buried his body (Matthew 14:12). Some of John’s disciples, but not all of them, became Jesus’ disciples (John 1:35-42; Acts 18:24-26).
John made it clear to his followers that he was not the messiah, but was preparing the way for the messiah. He said, “I indeed baptize you with water, but he comes who is mightier than I, the latchet of whose sandals I am not worthy to loosen. He will baptize you in the Holy Spirit and fire” (Luke 3:16; see also John 1:20; 3:28). The repeated emphasis on the subordination of John to Jesus was made necessary by the fact that John continued to have loyal disciples long after his death (Filson, ISBE, II-1110).
“John indeed baptized with the baptism of repentance” (v. 4a). Paul explains that, while John’s baptism was good, it was preliminary and incomplete. It was a baptism of repentance, which is still an important aspect of Christian baptism (2:38). But Paul initiated this conversation by asking whether they had received the Holy Spirit, which they had not (v. 2). This verse does not say that he goes on to tell them that they need to be rebaptized so they can receive the Holy Spirit, but we can infer from the report of their baptism in verse 5 that he does so.
“saying to the people that they should believe in the one who would come after him, that is, in Jesus” (v. 4b). Paul emphasizes John’s role in pointing to Jesus. As great as John is, he is subordinate to Jesus in every way (Luke 3:15).
Much has happened since the time that John was baptizing. John is dead, and Jesus has gone through the death, resurrection and ascension cycle. It is now time for these disciples (whether disciples of John or Jesus) to complete their understanding and their discipleship. Among other things, that means experiencing Christian baptism and receiving the Holy Spirit.
ACTS 19:5-7. THEY WERE BAPTIZED IN THE NAME OF THE LORD JESUS
5When they heard this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. 6When Paul had laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they spoke with other languages and prophesied. 7They were about twelve men in all.
“When they heard this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus” (v. 5). This is the only rebaptism recorded in the New Testament. Apollos knew only the baptism of John (18:25), but there is no indication that he was required to submit to another baptism.
In the Great Commission, Jesus commanded his disciples to baptize “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19), and that triune formula is used by most churches today. But Paul baptizes these Ephesian disciples “in the name of the Lord Jesus.” There are two other instances in Acts where people were baptized in the name of Jesus (2:38; 10:48).
“When Paul had laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them” (v. 6a). These people receive the Holy Spirit, not when they are baptized, but when Paul lays his hands on them following their baptism. Earlier, “they (Peter and John) laid their hands on them (a group of Samaritans), and they received the Holy Spirit” (8:17). But there was no standard pattern:
• On the day of Pentecost, the disciples were filled with the Holy Spirit without any mention of baptism (2:4).
• Then Peter called on the crowd to repent and be baptized to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit (2:38).
• Then we have two instances where people were baptized without any mention of the Holy Spirit (8:12-13, 38-39).
• Then Luke tells us of an instance where “the Holy Spirit fell on all those who heard the word” (including Gentiles)—and these people who had received the Holy Spirit were then baptized (10:44-48).
“and they spoke with other languages and prophesied” (v. 6b). Speaking in tongues and prophesying are two manifestations of the Spirit. On the day of Pentecost, the apostles “were all filled with the Holy Spirit, and began to speak with other languages, as the Spirit gave them the ability to speak” (2:4). On that same day, Peter quoted the prophet Joel, saying, “I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh. Your sons and your daughters will prophesy” and “in those days, I will pour out my Spirit, and they will prophesy” (2:16-17)
“They were about twelve men in all” (v. 7). Scholars differ regarding this number. Most consider it to have no special significance, but a few think of the number twelve as pointing to the twelve tribes of Israel. However, if that were the case, Luke would almost certainly have said that there were twelve of them instead of saying that there were about twelve of them. The indefiniteness of the number argues against any symbolism.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
Barclay, William, Daily Study Bible: Acts, (Edinburgh: The Saint Andrew Press, 1976)
Bock, Darrell L., Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament: Acts (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007)
Boice, James Montgomery, Acts: An Expositional Commentary (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1997)
Bruce, F. F., The New International Commentary on the New Testament: The Book of Acts (Revised)(Grand Rapids: William B Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1988)
Brueggemann, Walter; Cousar, Charles B.; Gaventa, Beverly R.; and Newsome, James D., Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV—Year B (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1993)
Chance, J. Bradley, The Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary: Acts (Macon, Georgia: Smyth & Helwys Publishing, Inc., 2007)
Craddock, Fred B.; Hayes, John H.; Holladay, Carl R.; Tucker, Gene M., Preaching Through the Christian Year, B (Valley Forge: Trinity Press International, 1993)
Faw, Chalmer E., Believers Church Bible Commentary: Acts, (Scottdale, Pennsyvania: Herald Press, 1993)
Filson, F.V., in Bromiley, Geoffrey (General Editor), The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Volume Two: E-J – Revised (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1982)
Gaventa, Beverly Roberts, Abingdon New Testament Commentaries: The Acts of the Apostles (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2003)
Pelikan, Jaroslav, Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible: Acts (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2005)
Polhill, John B., New American Commentary: Acts, Vol. 26 (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1992)
Wall, Robert W., The New Interpreter’s Bible: Acts, Romans, I Corinthians, Vol. X (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002)
Walaskay, Paul W., Westminster Bible Companion: Acts (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998)
Williams, David J., New International Biblical Commentary: Acts (Paternoster Press, 1995)
Willimon, William H., Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching: Acts (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1988)
Copyright 2008, 2010, Richard Niell Donovan
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