1 And it happened that while Apollos was at Corinth, Paul passed through the inland country and came to Ephesus. There he found some disciples. 2 And he said to them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” And they said, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.” 3 And he said, “Into what then were you baptized?” They said, “Into John’s baptism.” 4 And Paul said, “John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, Jesus.” 5 On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. 6 And when Paul had laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they began speaking in tongues and prophesying. 7 There were about twelve men in all. – Acts 19:1-7 ESV
At the close of the last chapter, Luke had Apollos headed to Achaia, while Paul was beginning the first leg of his third missionary journey. Paul would circle back through the regions of Galatia and Phrygia, eventually arriving back in the city of Ephesus. Apollos, meanwhile, was still in Corinth, having not yet left for Achaia. For time being, these two men would pass as ships in the night, but their paths would eventually cross.
If you recall, Apollos had been in Ephesus. That is where he had met Priscilla and Aquila. They had found him there, teaching in the synagogue, where “he spoke and taught accurately the things concerning Jesus, though he knew only the baptism of John” (Acts 18:25 ESV). That last point is important because, as we will see, upon his arrival in Ephesus, Paul will meet additional individuals, referred to as disciples, who knew only the baptism of John. This is important. Were these people believers or not? They are referred to as disciples, but that does not necessarily mean they were disciples of Jesus. In fact, in this context, Luke seems to infer that they were disciples of John the Baptist. They had been baptized with his baptism. But what is the difference between the baptism of John and that of the Holy Spirit? All the way back in Acts chapter one, we have recorded Jesus’ command, given to the eleven just before He ascended back into heaven.
4 While he was with them, he declared, “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait there for what my Father promised, which you heard about from me. 5 For John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.” – Acts 1:4-5 NLT
Jesus mentioned the baptism of John, and he referred to it as a baptism with water. Why did he bring this up at that particular time? He appears to be contrasting John’s baptism with the baptism of the Holy Spirit, which the disciples were soon to receive. But what is the difference? To understand that, we have to go back to the gospels and see how John himself described his baptism.
“I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” – Matthew 3:11 ESV
His was a baptism of repentance. He was unable to offer the baptism of the Spirit because Jesus had not yet begun His ministry, and most certainly had not yet died, been resurrected or ascended. Therefore, the Spirit had not yet come. So, John’s baptism was limited in its scope.
John made the difference between their two baptisms clear.
8 I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” – Mark 1:8 ESV
John’s baptism was reserved for those who repented. But what does that mean? To repent literally meant to change one’s mind, to change your way of thinking. John was demanding that they turn away from their sin and back to God. He was requiring people to prepare their hearts for the coming Messiah by changing the way they thought about their own sin. And John was also demanding that they change their behavior.
8 “Bear fruits in keeping with repentance.…
But listen to how he answers the questions of those who wanted to know what kind of fruit he was expecting.
10 And the crowds asked him, “What then shall we do?” 11 And he answered them, “Whoever has two tunics is to share with him who has none, and whoever has food is to do likewise.” 12 Tax collectors also came to be baptized and said to him, “Teacher, what shall we do?” 13 And he said to them, “Collect no more than you are authorized to do.” 14 Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or by false accusation, and be content with your wages.” – Luke 3:8,10-14 ESV
John was demanding lifestyle change. He was requiring behavior modification. In other words, he was providing them with a list of works to perform to prove that they were truly repentant and turning from their sins and back to God. But how long could that kind of self-manufactured change last? Would any of those people be able to pull off what John was demanding, over the long-haul? No. But why? Because they lacked the very thing they needed to do it: The Holy Spirit. And John knew that what he was doing was temporary in nature, designed to prepare the way for the coming of Jesus.
30 “This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks before me, because he was before me.’ 31 I myself did not know him, but for this purpose I came baptizing with water, that he might be revealed to Israel.”– John 1:30-31 ESV
He also knew that his water baptism was not going to be enough. What the people really needed was the baptism Jesus would make possible: That of the Holy Spirit.
33 “I myself did not know him, but he who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.” – John 1:33 ESV
So, Paul arrived in Ephesus and met some disciples. They obviously knew about Jesus, but when Paul asked them if they had received the Holy Spirit when they had believed, they had answered, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit” (Acts 19:2 ESV). When Paul asked them what kind of baptism they had received, they told him, “The baptism of John” (Acts 19:3 NLT). They had been baptized because they had repented of their sins. And Paul pointed out the difference.
“John’s baptism called for repentance from sin. But John himself told the people to believe in the one who would come later, meaning Jesus.” – Acts 19:4 NLT
John’s baptism had been symbolic in nature. It was done to signify that the one being baptized had repented and agreed to change their behavior, to live a different lifestyle, all in preparation for the arrival of the Kingdom of God. These disciples anticipated the coming of the Messiah and the Kingdom of God, but had not understood that Jesus had been the fulfillment of those expectations. And they had no idea that there was a baptism of the Spirit of God awaiting all those who truly believed that Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah. And Luke records that, as soon as these individuals heard the truth that Paul shared, they believed.
5 As soon as they heard this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. 6 Then when Paul laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they spoke in other tongues and prophesied. – Acts 19:5-6 NLT
Their belief in Jesus resulted in the same outpouring of the Spirit that the disciples had experienced in the upper room on the day of Pentecost. These men exhibited the same miraculous manifestations of the Spirit’s indwelling power. Again, it is important that we understand that the events recorded in the Book of Acts are not meant to be prescriptive in nature, but descriptive. What happens here in Ephesus is not intended to be a hard-and-fast example of how the Holy Spirit comes. We have already seen that Cornelius and all those in his home who believed, immediately received the Spirit without the laying on of hands by Peter. Each of these events represent a specific circumstance with unique characteristics surrounding it. Paul was in Ephesus, a hotbed of demonic activity and idolatry. Apollos had been there before Paul, and Luke made it clear in chapter 18, that Apollos had also been baptized in water for having repented of his sins. But he had not yet received the baptism of the Spirit. He most likely propagated among the people what he knew and had experienced. It was Priscilla and Aquila who had come along and opened the eyes of Apollos to the truth. It seems that Paul’s laying on of hands and the subsequent pouring out of the Spirit was a way in which God confirmed the difference between mere repentance and true redemption, available only through belief in the finished work of Jesus on the cross. The arrival of the Holy Spirit by the laying on his hands also validated Paul’s apostleship and authority among the people in Ephesus. Paul would later write to the believers in Ephesus, telling them:
13 And when you heard the word of truth (the gospel of your salvation)—when you believed in Christ—you were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit, 14 who is the down payment of our inheritance, until the redemption of God’s own possession, to the praise of his glory. – Ephesians 1:13-14 NLT
The Holy Spirit came with belief in the name of Jesus. In the case of those in Ephesus, He came with a slight delay and by the laying on of hands. But that was not to be the norm or the required means by which the Spirit was received. It was only in this instance and under circumstances unique to those in Ephesus at that time.
The real issue is that, with the arrival of the Spirit and His indwelling of the believers in Ephesus, they received the very power that was going to make true repentance possible. Up until that time, they could only hope to live repentant lives. They could try, eagerly and sincerely, but they would ultimately fail, because they lacked the power to keep their promise to repent and live differently. And Paul would later write to these same believers, reminding them that their salvation and subsequent sanctification, was the work of God.
8 For by grace you are saved through faith, and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God; 9 it is not from works, so that no one can boast. 10 For we are his workmanship, having been created in Christ Jesus for good works that God prepared beforehand so we may do them. – Ephesians 2:8-10 NLT
Now, for the very first time in their lives, they had the capacity to live truly repentant lives, marked by holiness and righteousness. And they could accomplish the will of God because they possessed the power of God in the form of the Spirit of God. Their lives would be radically different, but not based on anything they had done or would do. It was all the work of God.
New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.