Acts 19:1-7 an Exegetical Look

Introduction

Take a moment and think back to your own personal conversion; the day you chose to follow hard after Christ. That day the preacher was on fire, and it felt like he was speaking directly to you or so you thought. He was driving home a message of repentance; for those of us that were not raised in the church repentance is an unfamiliar word, the Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary defines it this way,

“In its biblical sense repentance refers to a deeply seated and thorough turning from self to God. It occurs when a radical turning to God takes place, an experience in which God is recognized as the most important fact of one’s existence.”[1]

While listening to him speak you begin to feel something stirring inside of you. You have never felt like this before, what could it be? It is the Spirit of God himself working inside of you convicting you that your life without him is null and void. You answer the preachers’ invitation to faith and get baptized. After some time passes another preacher comes to town, and as soon as you meet him he begins questioning your faith. Only to find out that what you came to accept may have been derelict. But, you are not alone he’s speaking to a group of you. How would you feel? This is very similar to the event that happened to a group of men in Ephesus.

In Acts 19:1-7 Paul arrives in Ephesus after Apollos and finds a group of around twelve men that have not received the Holy Spirit (so therefore were not living according to his power) and were only baptized into the baptism of John. My goal is to show the importance of the Holy Spirit and the need to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.

Paul Arrives in Ephesus
(Acts 19:1)

“And it happened that while Apollos was at Corinth, Paul passed through the inland country and came to Ephesus. There he found some disciples.” (Acts 19:1, ESV) While a cursory glance at this verse shows nothing out of the ordinary, upon further investigation we notice several important factors. Luke takes the time to mention Apollos being in Corinth and the fact that Paul went “through the inland country and came to Ephesus” which is where Apollos was prior to going to Corinth. John MacArthur points out that, “By going through that area, Paul took the direct route to Ephesus, not the more common trade route.”[2] What could make Paul want to get there so much quicker than taking the normal route? Had he heard that Apollos was preaching there and wanted to meet with him? Scripture does not tell us.

What we are told next is that “There he found some disciples.” Were these men just wandering in the streets? Because in most other cases when Paul arrives in a new city one of the first things it mentions is his entering the synagogue (Acts: 17:2, 10, 16 and 18:4) show this to be true. An aspect of this verse that has caused some controversy between the commentators I have read deals with the use of the word disciples. The word commonly used for disciple is mathētēs in the New Testament it appears 269 times and is used 28 times in the Book of Acts alone; it can also mean learner, pupil or disciple.[3] The problem is not with the definition of the word, but rather how the word is applied.

Norris for example believes that, “…it is highly improbable that the phrase in 19:1 can mean anything but “certain Christians” because the word for “disciples” is technical designation for Christians everywhere else in Acts…”[4] On the other hand MacArthur believes them to be followers of John the Baptist. He believes, “They were of John the Baptist (v.3); hence OT seekers. That they did not fully understand the Christian faith is evident from their reply to Paul’s question (v.2)”[5] It seems more likely that MacArthur is correct since Pentecost and times following the Spirit indwelt all believers even if he was not preached specifically. This will be dealt with further in the next section.

Paul’s Concern of the Holy Spirit
(Acts 19:2)

“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.” (Acts 19:2, ESV.) Fernando makes and excellent point when he says, “What is significant is that Paul specifically asked them whether they received the Holy Spirit when they believed (19:2). This suggests that people can really know when they receive the Holy Spirit.”[6] The term Paul uses to ask them if they received the Holy Spirit is lambano in the Greek. It is used 257 times in the New Testament and 29 times in Acts, the term can mean “receive”, “take”, “or “have”[7]. Strong also elaborates on the word by stating, “to receive a person, give him access to one’s self.”[8]

While there may be some confusion around their understanding of the Holy Spirit. The confusion arises because like Polhill states,

“John’s disciples would surely have been acquainted with the Spirit and his teaching that with the coming Messiah the Spirit would be poured out (cf. Luke 3:16). What they would not be aware of, if they had not heard of Jesus’ death and resurrection and of the event at Pentecost, was that this proclamation of John had been fulfilled in Christ.”[9]

So according to the previous definition there is no way they could have given access to someone they did not even know existed. Most translations either say they did not know he existed or heard there was a Holy Spirit. But Bruce chose to translate it that they “…never even heard that the Holy Spirit is available.”[10] With respect to Bruce if the text says they didn’t even know he existed how can we be sure of their “Christianity”? Because in the rest of Scripture we are assured that as we come to believe in Christ we become indwelt with the Holy Spirit, as MacArthur points out, “Since all Christians receive the Holy Spirit at the moment of salvation (see notes on Rom. 8:9; 1 Cor. 12:13), their answer revealed they were not yet fully Christians.”[11] It is also their response to this question that leads Paul in to his very next line of questioning.

Paul’s Concern Over Their Baptism
(Acts 19: 3-5)

“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.” (Acts 19:3-5, ESV.)

When Paul asked these men into what they were baptized he was also asking them into whom they were being baptized. The word for “what” is tis in Greek, and it could also be defined as, “anything(1), how(7), how*(2), person(1), something(3), suppose one(2), what(266), what each(1), what*(5), which(24), which one(3), who(128), whom(16), whose(6), why(70), why*(33).”[12] There reason for this distinction is because when hearing the word “what” it may cause us to think of a certain substance, however referencing whom clears things up.

Their response of John’s baptism leads Hedlun think their baptism is the reason for their lacking the Holy Spirit. He states, “It must be concluded from Paul’s immediate follow-up question and the inferential conjunction that a defective baptism experience prohibited these men from receiving the Holy Spirit.”[13] If these men’s reception depended upon their first being baptized, that would contradict previous accounts of the Spirit indwelling believers first and then baptizing them in Acts 2 and 10. So Hedlun’s argument does not seem to stand up to Scriptural criticism.

After hearing their response Paul being the evangelist that he is took the opportunity to clearly explain that John the Baptist was proclaiming the coming of Jesus Christ to these men. In dealing with these men’s understanding Bruce points out,

“…Paul explained to them the anticipatory character of John’s baptism and its close association with his announcement of the stronger one than himself who was about to come. Paul’s summary of John’s message combines the Markan account, with its emphasis on repentance, and the Johannine account, in which John points expressly to Jesus as the coming baptizer with the Holy Spirit. Now that Jesus had come and accomplished his mission on earth, now that he had returned to the Father’s presence and sent to his followers the promised gift of the Holy Spirit, and anticipatory baptism was no longer appropriate or adequate.”[14]

Verse five makes it clear that after hearing that Jesus Christ was who they were to believe in they were baptized in his name. This should show us that they now having been given a clearer understanding of the gospel are willing to do what it takes to show they believe in Jesus Christ as Lord. Bock makes a good observation by noting that, “In Acts, this is the only case of a second baptism, where Christian baptism follows John’s baptism.”[15]

The Ephesians Reception of the Spirit
(Acts 19:6-7)

“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 19:6-7, ESV.) From this verse we see Paul showing their inclusion in to the church by laying his hands on these disciples and confirming their faith. Polhill points out,

“Some argue on the basis of this text that the gesture of hand-laying accompanied early Christian baptism. This, however, is the only instance in Acts where hand-laying directly follows baptism; and there is no evidence it was associated with baptism as a regular practice before A.D. 200.” [16]

These men just like others before them after receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit began to speak in tongues and prophecy. This is external evidence that they have come to a saving faith in Christ Jesus. When it comes to the Holy Spirit there is no I am not sure if I have him, as Fernando says, “What we insist on is that the Spirit must be experienced.”[17] We may not all experience signs like speaking a different language to know we have received the Spirit; we will however begin to show signs of change in our lives. Some will try to make conclusions about the number of disciples involved in this incident, but most commentators merely mention the verse in passing.

Conclusion

In the end we are assured that they understood who Jesus Christ was and received the gift of his Spirit. Today we can have that same assurance just like those men did. If we receive the gospel of Jesus Christ in our hearts and confess him as Lord (Romans 10:9-10), he has promised to give us his Spirit to comfort us, just as he led the believers in the early church. Jesus says that if we love him we will keep his commands (John 14:15), and he commanded that we be baptized (Mt 28:19). Even though this group of men may have started out lacking understanding or even proper knowledge they allowed themselves to be corrected, and we must also have that same humility.

If you go to a church where you cannot sense the Holy Spirit or you do not see his work, it may be time for a change. Or if you do not attend church, find one that not only focuses on the external signs of the Spirit, but the growth and vitality of its members also. So when you come across someone with spiritual discernment like the Apostle Paul, they will know the Spirit dwells within you.


[1] Chad Brand, Charles Draper, Archie England et al., Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary (Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers, 2003), 1376.

[2]John MacArthur. The MacArthur Bible Commentary. (Nashville, Tennessee: Thomas Nelson, 2005) 1474.

[3] James Strong. Enhanced Strong’s Lexicon. Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 1996.

[4]Frederick W Norris,. “Christians only, but not the only Christans (Acts 19:1-7).”( Restoration Quarterly, 1986: 97-105) 101.

[5] MacArthur, Commentary, 1474.

[6]Ajith. Fernando, NIV Application Commentary: Acts. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998) 505.

[7] Strong, ESL, 2983.

[8] Ibid, 2983

[9] John B.Polhill, Acts. (Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 1992) 399.

[10] F.F.Bruce, The Book of the Acts. (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1988) 362.

[11] MacArthur, Commentary, 1474.

[12] Robert L. Thomas, New American Standard Hebrew-Aramaic and Greek Dictionaries : Updated Edition (Anaheim: Foundation Publications, Inc., 1998).

[13]Roger E. Hedlund, “A new reading of Acts 18:24-19:7: understanding the Ephesian disciples encounter as social conflict.” (Religion & Theology, 2010: 40-60)54.

[14] Bruce, Acts, 364.

[15] Bock, Darrell L. Acts. (Grand Rapids: Baker Publishing, 2007) 600.

[16] Polhill, Acts, 400.

[17] Fernando, Acts, 508.

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