Please read Acts 19:1-7 in your Bible. For myself, I used the NIV (1984) to research these remarks.
Don’t settle for a lesser portion; sweat your comfort zone and allow God to do immeasurably more.
Here we find the beginning of Paul’s ministry in Ephesus. He left his home town of Antioch, crossed Asia Minor, encouraging the churches along the way. This was what we call “Paul’s Third Missionary Journey.” Some time previous to this, Paul had briefly visited the city and left two of his associates, Aquila and Priscilla there, to continue the work he started (18:19). In 18:21 he vowed to return if that was God’s will. While Paul was away from Ephesus, Aquila and Priscilla had an encounter with Apollos, a man who KNEW ONLY THE BAPTISM OF JOHN (18:26). This was a similar encounter, but we have no evidence Apollos was connected with this group.
Paul operated on the Jeremiah 29:7 principle; seek the welfare of the city and your own welfare will follow. Ephesus was a city that knew a lot of material prosperity, so the “welfare” sought here was of a spiritual nature. We’ve already noted it was a gateway city, merging land and sea trade routes. It was also the city where the local Roman governor of Asia held court. One example of the wealth of Ephesus is the 25,000 seat theater that also hosted the Pan-Ionian Games, a version of the Olympics.
The people of Ephesus were notorious for their superstition, idolatry, and worldly philosophy. The use of magic items and oaths was particularly widespread.
The route Paul took from Antioch to Ephesus (v. 1) was not the standard trade route along the coast, but went through the middle of the region. Though the text does not state this, but the choice of route implies that Paul was in a hurry to get back to Ephesus.
Upon arriving, Paul was introduced to twelve DISCIPLES. Unfortunately, their discipleship only got as far as the baptism of John. They had no knowledge of Jesus Christ, as demonstrated in the fact that they knew nothing about the Holy Spirit.
God put them in the path of the Apostle Paul. He knew something was amiss and he knew just the right questions to ask to identify the problem of their incomplete faith.
- The problem: an incomplete faith.
Luke identifies the people Paul encountered as DISCIPLES (1). Luke normally used the word DISCIPLES to refer to Christians unless some qualifier is added (i.e., “disciples of John” in LKE 5:33; 7:18.) He also informs us at the end of the passage that there was ABOUT TWELVE MEN IN ALL. Some take the number twelve to be symbolic of the 12 tribes of Israel, a hint that these men were Jewish. That may be, but Luke never seems to be shy about identifying Jews as such, especially when they are being antagonistic to the Church.
You can have a pretty active discussion of whether these men were Christians or not. The good news is, the narrative doesn’t depend on a definitive answer. The point is that their faith – however far it went – was not complete; Paul helped them to find complete faith. They are ready symbols of all of us who haven’t quite understood or haven’t yet really committed ourselves to Jesus
We’re not told how they met or why Paul asked if they’d received the Holy Spirit when they believed (2). Happily, the “how” of this event is not what’s important; otherwise we’d have been given more information. What is important is upon meeting these DISCIPLES, Paul knew immediately there was something wrong.
He needed more information, so he asked, “DID YOU RECEIVE THE HOLY SPIRIT WHEN YOU BELIEVED?” The fact that Paul had to ask implies that these twelve men “talked the talk,” but didn’t “walk the walk.” There was something lacking in their spirit/character/testimony.
That “something” was the Gifts of the Spirit and the Fruits of the Spirit, which God gives to His followers as proof of their faith (Ephesians 1:13-14). When these supernatural abilities and character qualities are found in a person, they prove to ourselves and to others that we are in Christ. It was the absence of these things to which Paul was reacting.
The twelve answered Paul in innocent ignorance: “NO, WE HAVE NOT EVEN HEARD THAT THERE IS A HOLY SPIRIT,” (2). In verse three we find out they had been baptized by John, but he hadn’t taught them everything. John the Baptist did speak about the Holy Spirit (see LKE 3:16), but only in relation to the Messiah.
To be fair, that was not his role: JTB’s job was to announce the Messiah’s coming. His ministry was prepatory. When the Messiah came, his work was over. John said himself in relation to the messiah, “I must decrease, He must increase,” (John 3:30). That is what happened; shortly after Jesus began His ministry John was imprisoned and then beheaded for his opposition to the king’s having married his brother’s wife. While the Gospels portray John the Baptist as living a rather solitary life in the Judean wilderness (Matthew 3:1-6), he also had disciples of his own (Matthew 9:14; 14:12; Luke 5:33; 10:41; John 3:25).
Paul taught them the whole truth (3-4). To do this, Paul needed to ask a second question, going back a bit further; “THEN WHAT BAPTISM DID YOU RECEIVE?” (He clearly assumes they had some baptism?)
They replied that they had been baptized by John the Baptist. We can presume that after their baptism, these men left the region of Judea and were not at hand to see Jesus’ baptism by John or any other part of the ministry, death & resurrection of Jesus Christ.
As Paul explained to them, John the Baptist’s baptism was good for its situation, but his ministry was supplanted by Jesus’ ministry. John’s baptism was for REPENTANCE from sins (Matthew 3:6). It was not, as we are used to it, for conversion to a new faith or membership in a church/synagogue/group. The Bible does not tell us the words John the Baptist used when he baptized someone, but we can safely assume he did not baptize INTO THE NAME OF JESUS when these 12 guys were there, as this was something Paul’s group did for them.
- The solution: be obedient and go all the way with God.
These DISCIPLES responded in obedience and received a new baptism (5). Their new baptism was better because it was IN THE NAME OF THE LORD JESUS. This is not a matter of using the right words; it’s deeper than that. To do anything IN THE NAME of JESUS is to do it in His spirit, following His teaching, honoring His name, exercising His power, under His authority, and at His direction.
In the history of the Church, people have got wound up about which words you say when you baptize people. To me, they missed the point. The point is about genuinely being in Jesus Christ in all the ways I just mentioned. Anything else is just not real.
These 12 DISCIPLES can represent people who are sincere and yet are not fully in Christ. They made a good response to the truth they’ve known, but they don’t know the whole truth. This fact would cause insecurity if not for the Gifts and Fruits of the Spirit being objective evidence. The presence of the Holy Spirit gives us assurance that we are truly saved or brings accusation if the Spirit is absent.
Their baptism was needed and was important. However, it was not by their baptism, but by Paul LAYING his HANDS on them that the twelve received the Holy Spirit, as indicated by the Spiritual Gifts of Speaking in Tongues and Prophesy. In Acts, these are the first and second most frequent Gifts that accompany salvation.
The Laying on of Hands is a frequently mentioned ritual act with different uses; in every case, it was to be taken seriously (1 Timothy 5:22; Hebrews 6:2). Biblical uses of this ritualistic gesture include:
– Consecrating offerings (Leviticus 1:4; 3:2; 4:15; 16:21) or items (Numbers 8:10 27:18; Deuteronomy 34:9).
– Miraculous healing (Mark 6:5; 7:31-36; 16:18; Luke 4:40; 13:13; 28:8).
– Granting blessings (Genesis 48:14; Matthew 19:15; Mark 10:16).
– Granting authority, power, or installing officers (i.e., ordination; Acts 6:6; 1 Timothy 4:14; 2 Timothy 1:6).
Prayer is sometimes given in conjunction with laying on of hands, but is not considered a single activity.
The Gift of Speaking in Tongues is the miraculous use of a language the speaker does not normally possess (ex., Acts 2, 10, + 19). The NT recognizes two ways in which this Gift is exercised: publicly & privately.
– Publicly: when it occurs in worship, a second Spiritual Gift, Interpretation of Tongues, must be exercised to translate the utterance or the speaker is required to stop speaking.
– Privately, it can be used without a translator because it is an offering to God in prayer. In this case, it expresses the heart of the worshiper without using any familiar language.
Especially in worship and other public contexts, Paul vastly preferred readily known speech to unknown speech (see 1 Corinthians 14:19).
The Gift of Prophesy likewise comes in two forms; foretelling and forth-telling (ex., Acts 19 and possibly ch. 8).
– Foretelling is miraculous communication of new things that are going to happen, given in advance of their occurring; communicating what God WILL do. The test here is whether they come true or not.
– Forth-telling builds on what God has already revealed but applies it with authority to a specific situation; communicating what God wants people to do.
A mistake some people make in applying this passage (and similar ones) is to say this one unique situation is supposed to be everyone’s experience: they apply it too broadly and too specifically. By “too broadly” I mean that they don’t recognize the difference between descriptive and prescriptive. Without complicating matters, there are two types of Bible passages and they need to be interpreted differently.
– Descriptive passages narrate historical events. In addition to the information they contain, narratives can be used to set examples to be followed or avoided. Just because something happened once or twice in the Bible, it doesn’t by itself mean it should always happen that way. The narratives do not fit a consistent pattern, except to say that the exceptions are the rule.
– Prescriptive passages that teach truths and give instructions. God is communicating truth that prescribes righteous behavior and true hearts. They can be used by literal application of the words expression truth propositionally.
By “too specifically” I mean that Tongues and Prophecy are only two of about 20 Spiritual Gifts. (As an alternative example, in Galatians 3:5 Paul wrote that working MIRACLES accompanied the Spirit’s coming to that church, not Prophecy or Tongues.) All Spiritual Gifts are signs of real faith. Along with the Fruits of the Spirit, they are ways that a real faith works out through our skin into words and deeds we can observe in daily living.
Let me explain the title of this message. One strategy for getting a reduced cost lunch is to invite your vegetarian friends to the steak house. “Eating Salad at the Steak Buffet” means you split the ticket evenly. In that case, the steak-eater literally eats the lunch of the salad-eaters!
I’m teasing my vegan and vegetarian friend a bit. But seriously, it makes no sense to settle for a little portion of what God offers us. As we learned last week from Ephesians 1, God’s GRACE is RICH and He lavishes it on us generously. Why settle for less?
One reason people settle for less of God or even nothing at all is that we somehow know that life will not be the same after we say “yes” to God. We are not willing to puncture our comfort zone and thereby say “no” to God. Even if it’s a polite “No thank you,” saying “no” to God is wrong.
However we explain a decision to settle for less, we must take courage and receive all God offers. We must not settle for a faith tamed by science, secular culture, or selfishness. To enjoy the view we must brave the heights. Let’s have an adventure of faith by releasing the weights that hold us down: THEREFORE, SINCE WE ARE SURROUNDED BY SUCH A GREAT CLOUD OF WITNESSES, LET US THROW OFF EVRYTHING THAT HINDERS AND THE SIN THAT SO EASILY ENTANGLES, AND LET US RUN WITH PERSEVERANCE THE RACE MARKED OUT FOR US (Hebrews 12:1).
Don’t settle for a lesser portion; sweat your comfort zone and allow God to do immeasurably more.
O Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary on Acts, J. Bradley Chance.
O More Hard Sayings of the New Testament, Peter H. Davids.
O Illustrated Davis Dictionary of the Bible.
O The Communicator’s Commentary, Lloyd J. Ogilive.