In recent studies we have seen the establishment of the church of Corinth, one that has proved very significant throughout church history; if for no other reason than the two important (because inspired) letters found are in our Bibles. I cannot imagine pastoring without either of them! We saw how the Lord worked some amazing providences in the establishing of that church, including the later ministry of Apollos.
After at least eighteen months (and perhaps as much as two years in total), Paul left Corinth and departed for his home church. On his journey he, with Aquila and Priscilla, stopped at Ephesus. The apostle spent some time there speaking in the synagogue and was well-received. The Jews asked him to stay longer, but he was determined to go to Jerusalem, having taken a vow that he needed to fulfil. He did, however, say that, “God willing” (18:21), he would one day return. And so he departed, while his co-labourers remained behind.
While Paul was gone, Aquila and Priscilla were used of the Lord to help ground a believer named of Apollos further in the correct way of the Lord. This man would prove to be a great blessing to the church back in Corinth.
After some time, perhaps several months, Paul returned to Ephesus by the will of the Lord. He had said that he would return if God was willing, and apparently He was! With Paul’s arrival, one of the greatest churches in the New Testament times was either planted or, most likely, greatly strengthened.
Paul would remain in Ephesus for at least three years—longer than he stayed in any other city. And not only would a great church be planted, but the entire region of Asia Minor would receive the gospel. An area, most likely because of Gallio’s judicial summary (18:12-15), was now open to Christianity. At least, it was not illegal to practice it there. And Paul would take advantage of this to the glory of God and to the good of countless souls.
This region would become filled with churches in such cities as Colossae, Hierapolis, Thyatira, Smyrna, and Philadelphia and would have a great impact on the further spread of Christianity. Timothy would one day be the pastor-teacher in Ephesus, and the apostle John would later become a prominent leader in the region. Further, several New Testament letters would be written both to and from this region. It is not an overreach to say that Paul’s ministry there continues to this very day to impact the church throughout the world. And so I think you can see that we should be careful to not passing over this material too hastily. For good reasons, the historian Luke chose to capture this record for the profit of his readers.
There are several lessons that we can learn from Paul’s ministry in Ephesus, and we will take several studies to do so. In this particular study, I want to simply consider one major aspect of his ministry, and that is his encounter with the disciples of John in Ephesus. We will learn that these “incomplete Christians”1 were in fact not Christian at all. Their inadequate faith is shared by multitudes today, and we would therefore do well to learn from Paul how to deal with them.
Having been back to his home church in Antioch, and having completed his vow in Jerusalem, Paul set out on his third missionary journey. And having promised to return to Ephesus if possible, he did so. “And it happened, while Apollos was at Corinth, that Paul, having passed through the upper regions, came to Ephesus” (v. 1).
When we read that “it happened,” we must understand that “it happened” in the plan of God (18:21). As noted above, Paul intended to return if God willed, and evidently God did so will. Before he returned to Ephesus, however, he “passed through the upper regions.” Perhaps this is an indication that he first passed through Galatia strengthening churches he had earlier planted there. Regardless, Luke’s focus in this particular section is that he “came to Ephesus.”
Ephesus was a significant city in the ancient world. It was “the market of Asia Minor” and “was known as ‘The Treasure House of Asia.’” It was home to many criminals, for “the Temple of Diana possessed the right of asylum. That is to say, if any criminal could reach the area around the temple, he was safe. Inevitably therefore, Ephesus had become the home of the cut-throats and the swindlers and the law-breakers and the criminals of the ancient world.” Additionally, “she was a centre of pagan superstition. She was famous for her charms and spells called ‘Christian Letters.’ They were guaranteed to bring safety on a journey, to bring children to the childless, to bring success in love or any business enterprise.” Of course, “the greatest glory of Ephesus was the Temple of Artemis. . . . It was one of the Seven Wonders of the World. It was 425 feet long by 220 feet wide by 60 feet high. There were 127 pillars, each of them the gift of a king. . . . The greatest glory of Ephesus was that she was the guardian of the most famous pagan temple in the world.”2
In the midst of all of this God would establish a remarkable church here. He would use non-apostles greatly here (chapter 18). The church would exert great influence for a long time (see v. 10). Apostle-trained leaders would arise (chapter 20). But, sadly, her “candlestick” would ultimately be removed (Revelation 2:1-7).
We should learn from this that a glorious beginning does not guarantee glory for generations. It was not very long after the planting of the church that John wrote to it in Revelation. This church, so gloriously planted, went downhill fairly quickly.
What Paul Found
What Paul found when he returned was a group of what Barclay called incomplete Christians.
And finding some disciples he said to them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?”
So they said to him, “We have not so much as heard whether there is a Holy Spirit.”
And he said to them, “Into what then were you baptised?”
So they said, “Into John’s baptism.”
Then Paul said, “John indeed baptised with a baptism of repentance, saying to the people that they should believe on Him who would come after him, that is, on Christ Jesus.”
When they heard this, they were baptised in the name of the Lord Jesus. And when Paul had laid hands on them, the Holy Spirit came upon them, and they spoke with tongues and prophesied. Now the men were about twelve in all.
The text tells us simply that these individuals were “disciples.” Some have concluded, based on their baptism “into John’s baptism,” that they were related to Apollos, but the similarities are superficial at best. We cannot assume that this was the case. Whereas Apollos, it appears, was a disciple of Jesus—though in need of some clarification—these were disciples only of John the Baptist. In fact, historical evidence points to the existence of such sects even into the second century.
As noted, Barclay refers to these men as “incomplete Christians.” Some might refer to them as “nominal Christians” or perhaps even “unsaved Christians.” I am not entirely comfortable with any of these terms. While I understand the labels, a Christian is someone who has been completely saved by Christ. In the same way that “reborn Christian” is a redundant term (all Christians are reborn), “incomplete” or “nominal Christian” is contradictory.
What we have here, it seems, is a group of confused, unbelieving disciples. The Greek word translated “disciple” simply means “learner,” and does not in itself indicate saving faith. In fact, John describes a group of “disciples” who turned back entirely from following Jesus (John 6:66). They were “disciples” but not believers. It seems to be the same here. These men had learned, but had not learned enough.
Having met these people, Paul asked them a strange question, which he asked no one else in the Acts record: “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” We should not assume that these were the first words that he spoke to them. More likely, he spent some time getting to know them and seeing their lifestyle before he asked this question. As Stott notes, “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.”3
It no doubt took time for Paul to realise that the lifestyle of these men did not match their profession. We are not told exactly what it was that led Paul to ask this question, but clearly he was “probing to find out if they really believed, in the evangelical sense.”4 After getting to know them, something just did not sit well with him. Perhaps they spoke more about John than they did about Jesus. Perhaps their talk of Jesus was merely historical rather than experiential. It may be that they lacked genuine joy, or that they had all the right answers but no experiential knowledge of Christ. Perhaps it was something they said, or failed to say. We don’t know, but something led Paul to question the salvation of these disciples. For whatever reason, they lacked evidence of life.
We should note that it is not unloving to question whether another’s faith is genuine. The issue is why and how we question, and whether we are willing to help. The truth is, we are usually too cautious to ask these questions because we perhaps do not care enough or are too complacent in our own conviction. Perhaps we are just too complacent in our confidence of what the gospel produces.
Paul looked for evidence of life, and when he did not see it he asked some hard questions. He did not know the hearts of these men, but he challenged their faith based on what he saw. We would do well to follow his example in this regard.
It is significant to notice the exchange between the apostle and these disciples in vv. 2-4. In response to his question about their reception of the Holy Spirit, these disciples said, “We have not so much as heard whether there is a Holy Spirit.” We must understand what they meant by this. The Old Testament spoke of the Holy Spirit, and given that John was steeped in the Old Testament, we cannot assume that they had never heard of the Spirit’s existence. John himself made reference to the Holy Spirit in his preaching (see Matthew 3:11), and so if they were indeed disciples of John, they must have heard of the Spirit.
It is, in fact, John’s preaching in Matthew 3 that helps us understand what these disciples were saying. Consider Matthew’s account of John’s ministry.
Now John himself was clothed in camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist; and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then Jerusalem, all Judea, and all the region around the Jordan went out to him and were baptised by him in the Jordan, confessing their sins. But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “Brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Therefore bear fruits worthy of repentance, and do not think to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I say to you that God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones. And even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Therefore every tree which does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance, but He who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fan is in His hand, and He will thoroughly clean out His threshing floor, and gather His wheat into the barn; but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”
John had been sent by God to prepare the way for Messiah (Matthew 3:1-3). He made this clear (John 1:19-28), and his disciples understood this. Hearing John’s preaching, his disciples knew that the coming Messiah would “baptise . . . with the Holy Spirit.” Their claim that they had not even heard whether there is a Holy Spirit should be understood, then, as an admission that they were unaware that John’s prophecy had been fulfilled. Though John had actually pointed to Jesus as the Christ, they had not yet believed this. “If they did not know the Holy Spirit, they had missed the point of John’s baptism.”5 Because they had missed Jesus as the Christ, they had not experienced the baptism of the Spirit of which John spoke.
There are many people like this in churches today. They just don’t get it. They only see the shadows, not the substance. These disciples had missed the fact that Jesus was the Messiah. Perhaps they thought of John the Baptist as the height of God’s revelation—perhaps even as the Messiah himself.”6 Regardless, they clearly had not seen past John to Jesus.
Realising that they had not yet seen Jesus as Messiah (and therefore been baptised by the Holy Spirit, Paul asked, “Into what then were you baptised?” They replied, “Into John’s baptism.” Again, they were followers of John but not of Jesus. In their minds, they elevated John, whereas John elevated Jesus (John 3:30). Perhaps they had embraced John’s message of judgement (baptism with fire) but had not yet embraced his message of salvation (baptism with the Holy Spirit). In fact, John himself may have struggled with this at one time, for when he was in prison he sent messengers to Jesus asking if he was indeed the Messiah (Matthew 11:1-6).
There are all too many who are like this. As Barclay notes, “These incomplete Christians knew the condemnation; they knew the moral duty of being better; but the grace of Christ and the help of the Holy Spirit they did not know. . . . Without the Holy Spirit there can be no such thing as complete Christianity.”7
It is clear that these were lost disciples. Some have said that they simply did not know how to be “baptised by the Spirit” and so Paul showed them how to accomplish this. But it is clear from Scripture that salvation is always accompanied by reception of (baptism with) the Spirit (2 Corinthians 12:13; Acts 2:38; 9:17-18; 11:15-18).
Paul’s response is instructive. He asked them about the Holy Spirit, but when it was clear that they had not received the Spirit, he did not dwell on the Spirit. Instead, he urged them to “believe on Him who would come after [John], that is, on Christ Jesus.” These men needed Jesus Christ, and that is who Paul preached. They had missed the point of John’s ministry, and so Paul helped them to see this.
Erdman helpfully notes,
There are men like Apollos in Christian pulpits, but there are many more like these twelve “disciples” in the pews of Christian churches. They are sincere men, they hate their sins, they believe in the teachings of Jesus, they admire the Sermon on the Mount, they yearn for the highest and best things, but they lack spiritual power. Why? Because they are “disciples of John,” they have not fixed their hearts and their hopes upon a divine, risen, glorified Christ, they do not know “the grace of God.” When, however, they learn the full gospel and yield themselves to Christ, they are not merely baptized with water, but also by the Holy Spirit.8
It is not that John’s baptism was somehow inadequate. Instead, they needed to understand what John really taught and what his baptism really signified.9
The important principle here is simply this: If we are not walking in the Spirit and are not filled with the Spirit, the solution is to look to Christ. For the Spirit is where Christ is (cf. John 16:5-15; 2 Corinthians 3:12-18).
A dozen religiously lost disciples heard the gospel became reborn disciples by the power of God in the gospel of God (vv. 5-7).
Having heard Paul’s preaching, these men were “baptised in the name of Jesus.” That is, they now identified with Jesus as the Messiah. He was now to them Christ Jesus the Lord.
We should briefly note that this is the universal expectation of the New Testament. Belief is always accompanied by baptism. There is no example in the Bible of an infant being baptised. Baptism always followed repentance and faith.
Some may wonder why there is no mention of Apollos being rebaptised, or of the apostles being baptised. Apollos was likewise baptised with John’s baptism as were the apostles, but they evidently did not need to be rebaptised. The reason, no doubt, is that Apollos and the disciples, while perhaps confused in some areas, nevertheless saw beyond John to the Messiah for whom he had come to prepare the way. As Longnecker says,
When baptism by John the Baptist was seen as pointing beyond itself to Jesus (as with Apollos), it was apparently taken as Christian baptism and was not repeated on learning and experiencing more of the faith. But when John’s baptism was understood as rivaling commitment to Jesus, then on profession of faith in him, Christian baptism “into the name of the Lord Jesus” was administered.10
This, by the way, is an important pastoral issue. I have often had people expressing to me their desire to be rebaptised, and I am always cautious when it comes to this issue. There is no doubt that there are some cases in which rebaptism is required. Those who come to the realisation that they were only sprinkled rather than being biblically baptised should be baptised by immersion. Those who realise that they were baptised as unbelievers ought to submit to believer’s baptism. But I have often had people requesting baptism simply because they have come to understand more about the lordship of Christ, or about some or other doctrine. In such instances, rebaptism is wholly unnecessary. So long as a person is immersed upon a credible profession of faith as an act of obedience to Jesus Christ, it is sufficient. We all grow in the faith after we were baptised, but that is no reason to be immersed afresh.
After these new converts were baptised, “Paul had laid hands on them, the Holy Spirit came upon them, and they spoke with tongues and prophesied.” Some get very excited when they read this and take it as evidence that baptism with the Holy Spirit necessarily produces speaking in tongues. This is hardly a reasonable conclusion to draw.
There are four instances in the book of Acts in which such miraculous working of the Spirit followed conversion and baptism. The first was when a group of Jewish believers were baptised by the Spirit in Acts 2:1-4. The second is when a group of Samaritans received the Spirit in Acts 8:16-17.11 The third is when a group of Gentiles received the Spirit in Acts 10:44-47. The fourth is in our present text.
To understand the significance of this we must realise that the time described in Acts was a transitional time for the church. The transition was being made from old covenant, which was largely Jewish focused, to the very-much multi-ethnic new covenant. That these particular four groups showed evidence of the Spirit is significant. There was clearly no more distinction. Jews, Samaritans, Gentiles and the disciples of John were all one body. And now that that was clear, there is no more mention in Acts of the gift of tongues. It had served its purpose.
Although these disciples had now received the Spirit, it is evident that the theology of the Holy Spirit was heavy on Paul’s heart when he thought of this church. The Spirit is prevalent in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians (1:13; 2:18, 22; 3:5, 16; 4:3, 4, 30; 5:9, 18; 6:17, 18). He is mentioned more only in the book of Galatians. It seems that Paul may well have had this very incident in mind when he later wrote to the Ephesians. It was a theme that was impressed on them in these early years by this very incident.
Luke closes this account by telling us that “the men were about twelve in all.” I wonder if these men perhaps became the “elders” of which Acts 20:17 speaks. We cannot say for sure, but no doubt they played a prominent role in this church in the years to come.
There is no doubt much more that could be said with regard to this text, but I would be remiss to not ask, do you know that you have received the Holy Spirit? Is there evidence in your life of this? After all, disciples are known by their fruits. Those who are born again walk in the Spirit, are filled with the Spirit and display the fruit of the Spirit so that they do not fulfil the lusts of the flesh. If you haven’t received the Spirit, let me urge you to believe on the eternal Son of God, who is the Saviour of the world.
- William Barclay, The Acts of the Apostles: The Daily Study Bible Series (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1955), 154. ↩
- Barclay, The Acts of the Apostles, 152-53. ↩
- John R. W. Stott, The Message of Acts: The Bible Speaks Today (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1990), 304. ↩
- Everett F. Harrison, Interpreting Acts: The Expanding Church (Grand Rapids: Academie Books, 1986), 307. ↩
- A. T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament, 6 vols. (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1930), 3:312. ↩
- Richard N. Longnecker, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 12 vols. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan 1981), 9:493. ↩
- Barclay, The Acts of the Apostles, 154. ↩
- Charles R. Erdman, The Acts: An Exposition (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1966), 148. ↩
- Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament, 3:312. ↩
- Longnecker, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 9:494. ↩
- Note: While the text doesn’t specifically state that they spoke in tongues, etc., it does say that Simon “saw” that the Holy Spirit was given (v. 18). There was clearly some external evidence of the reception of the Spirit. We can assume that if followed the pattern set in Acts 2. ↩