The Disciples in Ephesus – Acts 19:1-7

One debated passage when it comes to the baptism of the Spirit, or the initial reception/filling of the Spirit, is that of Acts 19:1-7. The debate surrounds the questions of whether or not the twelve disciples mentioned in Acts 19:1-7 were actually born again or not. If they already were, I believe this has certain implications on our pneumatology. If they were not, then that has other implications on our doctrine of the Spirit.

So, here’s the passage up for discussion:

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 baptised?” They said, “Into John’s baptism.” 4 And Paul said, “John baptised 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)

So the passage identifies these twelve men as disciples (vs1), but were they authentic and real disciples?

Describing the situation of Acts 19:1-7, John Stott is persuaded they are not true believers, asserting:

There [in Ephesus] he [Paul] met about a dozen men who, if we may judge from Luke’s description of them, do not seem to have been Christians at all. It is true that he calls them ‘disciples’ (verse 1), but this need mean no more than professing disciples, just as Simon Magus is said to have ‘believed’ (8:13), although the context indicates that he had only professed to believe. (Baptism & Fullness: The Work of the Holy Spirit Today, p34)

So let’s consider these seven verses more carefully.

For starters, one interesting thing to note is that Luke uses the words disciple or disciples 30 different times throughout the book of Acts, one of those times being in 19:1. Even more, in all of the other 29 times the word is used, the context is definitely clear that Luke is speaking of true Christian disciples. Of course, it is possible that, in this one instance, Luke is not referring to true believers. But knowing he consistently uses the word as a positive affirmation of true disciples, it is highly likely he has done the same in describing these twelve men in Ephesus.

Secondly, here we have an example of our chapter and verse divisions not being helpful in seeing the larger context of Scripture. The whole of Acts 19 is actually specifically connected to the last five verses of Acts 18 where we learn about a certain man by the name of Apollos:

24 Now a Jew named Apollos, a native of Alexandria, came to Ephesus. He was an eloquent man, competent in the Scriptures. 25 He had been instructed in the way of the Lord. And being fervent in spirit, he spoke and taught accurately the things concerning Jesus, though he knew only the baptism of John. 26 He began to speak boldly in the synagogue, but when Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they took him and explained to him the way of God more accurately. 27 And when he wished to cross to Achaia, the brothers encouraged him and wrote to the disciples to welcome him. When he arrived, he greatly helped those who through grace had believed, 28 for he powerfully refuted the Jews in public, showing by the Scriptures that the Christ was Jesus. (Acts 18:24-28)

We see that Apollos had settled, at least for a time, in the city of Ephesus, which was the residence of the twelve ‘disciples’ of Acts 19. Concerning Apollos, we read that he was:

  • Competent in the Scriptures
  • Instructed in the way of the Lord
  • Fervent in spirit
  • Taught accurately the things concerning Jesus

But the problem is that he only knew the baptism of John (that is, John the Baptist). Therefore, Priscilla and Aquila were very helpful in the life of Apollos, becoming mentors to him in the faith.

We read that they ‘explained to him the way of God more accurately’ (18:25). Still, we never read that this was Apollos’ conversion. He was already converted and was a true believer. True, we would probably expect that Priscilla and Aquila would have seen Apollos finally ‘baptised into the name of Jesus’ (an expression used frequently in Acts – 2:38; 8:16; 10:48; 19:5). But this did not negate that he was already a true Christian disciple.

Therefore, keeping this in mind, we return to the twelve men of Acts 19:1-7.

Knowing Apollos’ ministry in Ephesus, it is most likely that these twelve were disciples of Apollos. The argument might arise that this is the problem – they were disciples of Apollos and not Christ. But such an argument does not hold up when we consider that, in the book of Acts, Luke refers to a group as ‘disciples’ of Paul (see Acts 9:25). Yet we can only expect that they were also true believers.

Thus, whether the word ‘disciples’ in 19:1 refers to being disciples of Christ or disciples of Apollos, it matters little. Why?

  • If they were disciples of Christ, which is highly likely since Luke uses the word everywhere else in Acts to describe true believers, then these twelve had to be true Christians.
  • If they were disciples of Apollos, which is also highly likely, then they would have been true disciples because Apollos was, himself, a true disciple.

Thus, Acts 19:1-7 presents to us a case of a group of twelve men that would have needed to be taught more accurately the way of God, just as Apollos had needed such in Acts 18:24-28. But they already were true believers.

Still, problems arise for many in regards to these Ephesians disciples. The next problem to consider is: If they were believers, why did Paul ask them if they had received the Spirit when they believed (vs2)? Paul makes it clear in other places that all Christians receive the Spirit at conversion (e.g. Romans 8:10-17; etc).

Such a question is definitely worth considering. But the problem is that we are walking down the path of conforming Luke’s emphasis of the work of the Spirit to Paul’s emphasis on the Spirit. As I have hinted at before, Luke has a very specific perspective on the charismatic activity of the ‘Spirit of prophecy’, all in regards to empowering God’s people for service. Paul’s emphasis is on the reception of the Spirit at conversion, bringing God’s people into union with Christ and making them the sons and daughters of God.

Though Acts 19:1-7 describes Paul’s activity, we must let Luke teach and emphasise the charismatic, empowering role that comes through the baptism of, or filling with, the Spirit.

Also, worth noting is that Paul asked, ‘Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed (vs2)? Again, some will claim that Paul thought they had ‘believed’, but these Ephesian twelve had not truly believed. But we have already seen the high prospect that they were truly believers.

Next, some might have difficulty with the response of the Ephesians disciples to the question of Paul. They answer his question in this way: ‘No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.’

Our English translations for their answer are not very helpful. When we read it in the ESV, NIV, etc, it seems that they are not even aware that the Holy Spirit exists. But such cannot be true. They would have sat under the teaching of Apollos and he would have definitely known about the Spirit.

In vs3, we also see that they had been baptised into John’s baptism. It is possible that Apollos had received some teaching from John the Baptist, which he then had passed on to others, some of those being the disciples in Ephesus. Even John taught that the Messiah would come and baptise in the Holy Spirit (Matthew 3:11). Thus, it is most likely they had heard about the Holy Spirit.

But what we must note is that the better translation of the response of the Ephesian disciples would be, ‘We have not heard that the Holy Spirit is given.’ Why? Well, consider what we just discussed above about how they would have heard of the Spirit. Recognising their connection to Apollos, and Apollos’ connection to John the Baptist, they would have known about the Holy Spirit.

But, also, we point out that the Greek wording of their response in Acts 19:2 is almost identical to the words of Jesus in John 7:39:

Now this he said about the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were to receive, for as yet the Spirit had not been given, because Jesus was not yet glorified.

Literally, the bolded phrase in John 7:39 should be translated as, ‘for not yet was the Holy Spirit’. This is seen in Young’s Literal Translation.

Our English versions translate the bolded phrase as above because they are bringing out the intended message of the words, rather than a literal wording that might not make as much sense. Yet, when we turn to the words of Acts 19:2, we normally do not find the translators doing the same with the response of the Ephesians disciples, which we noted is very similar in the Greek.

Why?

This is probably due to one’s theology leading to a specific translation. Yet, both the middle phrase of John 7:39 and the response of the Ephesian disciples in Acts 19:2 are very close in the Greek text.

Therefore, these twelve men were not stating that they had never heard that the Holy Spirit existed. They were declaring that they did not know He had been given (as of yet). Thus, we cannot use their response in Acts 19:2 as a pointer to them not being true believers and disciples. And, therefore, I believe it looks more and more likely that these twelve in Ephesus were actually true disciples.

But Paul does recognise that they had not yet been baptised into the name of Jesus. Thus, he corrects this (vs4-5). And, as I noted above, this would have been similar to what Priscilla and Aquila had probably done with Apollos when they taught him more accurately the things of God.

Then, and only then, we read that the Holy Spirit came upon these twelve. These Ephesian disciples were true disciples, believers in Christ. But they needed some greater instruction. They needed to step into the fuller things of Christ – through water baptism and through Spirit baptism.

And here is the point: I believe such breaks down the typical package that we teach about Luke’s theology of the Holy Spirit in Acts. I understand that Acts is all about the outworking of the thesis in 1:8 – But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth. And what is normally argued is that Acts 2 is the outpouring of the Spirit initially on the Jews, Acts 8 is the initial outpouring on Samaritans, and Acts 10 (with Cornelius’s household) is the initial outpouring on the Gentiles.

But I believe that the account of the Ephesian disciples in Acts 19, as well as the account of Paul’s delayed initial filling of the Spirit in Acts 9:17, both show that the package does not remain nice and neat. Theologically, I believe there is room to breathe that says the baptism/initial filling of the Spirit might not happen at conversion. Luke’s theological emphasis of the empowering work of the Spirit for service shows that a delayed reception of this empowering just might occur in the life of the believer.

In a perfect world, I would say it probably wouldn’t be that way. But I don’t believe the neat package stands with regards to the outworking of the thesis of Acts 1:8 throughout Acts. There are enough examples, even of the great Paul, that one might not receive such an empowering Spirit baptism/filling upon initiation-conversion.

And, so, practically in today’s world, how many Christians are believers in Christ, but have never truly known the empowering of God’s Spirit? They ‘prayed the prayer’, even truly believed upon Christ and repented of sins. Yet, they possibly have never been water baptised nor received the empowering baptism-initial filling of the Spirit like these twelve Ephesian disciples. This is part of God’s model for all Christians. Not just faith and repentance, but also that of the powerful working of God in water baptism (Colossians 2:11-12) and the powerful working of the Spirit through His baptism.

God, send Your Spirit to empower us, since that is truly Your desire.

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5 thoughts on “The Disciples in Ephesus – Acts 19:1-7

  1. Scott,

    Great work here, exegetically. I’m tracking with you. It makes much more sense that the disciples in Ephesus were speaking of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, not His existence.

    However, where you lose me is your application – “how many Christians are out there today that are believers in Christ, but have never truly stepped into all that God has for them.”

    Have you? Have I? Who’s to say? To the extent it depends on me, the answer is certainly no.

    These men in Ephesus didn’t “step into” anything. Paul laid his hands on them and the Holy Spirit came upon them apart from an act of their will.

    Nor have you explained the text in light of its massive transitional issues from Old Covenant to New Covenant, highlighted by the John the Baptist and Apollos tension.

    When these are weighed, it makes it much less likely that Luke intended this passage to be applied by believers as the fullness of the Spirit is something “stepped into” subsequent to salvation.

  2. Ted –

    Thanks for the comment and thought-provoking questions.

    Have you? Have I? Who’s to say? To the extent it depends on me, the answer is certainly no.

    These men in Ephesus didn’t “step into” anything. Paul laid his hands on them and the Holy Spirit came upon them apart from an act of their will.

    Of course, in one sense, as you note, none of us have stepped into all that God has for us. But there is also a sense that we could easily say that one who is, say, not water baptised has not stepped into something essential in our new covenant life in Christ. So, there is a way in which I believe we can speak of not truly stepping into what God fully has for us in this age through the working of His Spirit.

    Also, these 12 people put themselves in a place to receive. They had a will and acted upon it in opening up to God and to what Paul was teaching. Yes, God’s Spirit is sovereign. But there is a healthy working together between God and humanity, which is what I am emphasising.

    Nor have you explained the text in light of its massive transitional issues from Old Covenant to New Covenant, highlighted by the John the Baptist and Apollos tension.

    I didn’t take as much time laying out the whole teaching of Acts, Luke’s emphasis in the early church historical record, and the whole question about Acts being a transitional book between old and new covenants. It would have been better to start in Acts 1 and work my way through 5 or 6 main texts all the way to Acts 19 to give a better theology of what I am trying to say. Perhaps one day I shall do so in multiple posts.

    For those who mainly argue that Acts is a transitionary book between old and new covenants, and thus should not be used to build a doctrine of the Spirit and his work, the normal argument is that Acts 2 was the outpouring on Jews, Acts 8 is the outpouring on Samaritans, and Acts 10 is the outpouring on Gentiles. Thus, this is the progression going succinctly along with Luke’s initial thesis statement of Acts 1:8.

    But, while I believe Acts 1:8 is the overall thesis statement that does project forward into the whole book, I don’t think it is as nice and neatly packaged as many try and teach from the Acts 2 – Acts 8 – Acts 10 specific model. The reason is because we have Acts 19 as another delayed reception of the Spirit/Spirit baptism, not to mention that Paul, a Jew, also had a delayed initial filling of the Spirit in Acts 9. I think Acts 19 (and Paul is Acts 9) is another example of breaking down the usual box as given by the whole transitional argument for Acts.

    I believe that Luke’s intention in Acts is about the giving of the ‘Spirit of prophecy’ (Jewish intertestimental terminology) for empowerment, which is different from Paul’s emphasis of the Spirit bringing one into Christ at conversion. We have to let Luke bring his own theological emphasis, as I note here. Thus, I believe there is enough breathing room in Acts (and the NT) to allow for a subsequent act of the Spirit upon believers (or subsequent acts [plural]), noting that Luke’s emphasis is on the empowering of the Spirit for service rather than conversion-initiation, which was Paul’s emphasis.

  3. What is this ‘work’ you are referring to in connection with water baptism? I hope you are not claiming it has any salvific value, because that would be placing a work of human hands in a position that is to be occupied solely by God, Who claims about Himself that He is the only Savior, apart from whom there is none other (there are a number of verses in Isaiah in particular which speak to this issue).

    I also understand the letter to Titus to be claiming that it is the Spirit which regenerates us, not water baptism. And that likewise, Peter talks about Noah’s survival of the flood as a prototype of baptism – which he then expressly states to not be a matter of washing the body with water, but the pledge of a clean conscience before God.

    And Jesus Himself, furthermore, talks about the Holy Spirit as being given to all who believe – without reference to baptism. Even in John 3, he is contrasting the first birth and the second birth. Baptism had not yet been given as an ordinance at the time when he had that conversation with Nicodemus, so from a literary standpoint it appears that being born of water corresponds to the first birth, and being born of the Spirit corresponds to the second birth. And indeed – we all spend the first (usually) nine months of our lives floating around in… water.

    There are also those who will cite the last chapter of Mark as adding baptism into the mix, but first of all, he says ‘he who believes and is baptized’ will be saved, but ‘he who does not believe’ is condemned, so it appears that he is not presenting lack of water baptism as grounds for condemnation. And more importantly, the best manuscripts we have available apparently do not contain these verses at all.

    And furthermore, did you know that Quakers – even the most evangelical among them – do not practice water baptism on principle, precisely in order to avoid the sort of confusion I allude to above? Most probably they would view the commandment to baptize others as signifying the preaching of the word, as is implied furthermore in Jesus’ discourse about the vine and the branches, so that it may be received by the hearers and thereby inure to their salvation.

    I write the above as a person who was baptized as an infant in the Episcopal Church, which teaches some form of ‘baptismal regeneration’; later traveled in Presbyterian circles which taught that regeneration (on the part of the parents in the case of an infant) must occur prior to water baptism; yet later became convinced of the need to be baptized as an adult, so had that done; and then began to travel in Quaker circles.

    It’s actually a very sensitive issue for me as someone I have been spending time with for several years (at first, in the context of engaging in music ministry at church, though that has had to be laid aside indefinitely for reasons I will not go into here) and, God willing, would in principle like to marry, turns out to believe that water baptism is necessary for salvation.

    And taking things to their logical conclusion, my understanding of this issue would require me to view him as an idolater due to his placement of a human work in a position that must be occupied solely by God. It would require me to view any spiritual reality he may have acquired as a direct result of water baptism as being from somewhere other than God.

    And likewise, his view would require him to view me, a person who rejects any spiritual reality I may have received as a result of either infant or adult baptism as having rejected God, so that if I have any spiritual reality in my life, it would therefore be from somewhere other than God.

    We continue to spend time together – mostly on the phone, as we normally only meet alone in person if there is business to transact or some particular personal item to discuss that is not suitable for the telephone and requires a level of privacy that is impossible to effectuate at home due to the continual presence of other parties. But we are at least sufficiently on the same page to assume that we do not have fellowship with each other and can therefore for the foreseeable future not move forward with any changes in the status of our relationship.

  4. carboska –

    What is this ‘work’ you are referring to in connection with water baptism?

    I have mainly been speaking of the work of the Spirit. It is hard to define all of His work in a nice and neat package, at least as we look at the outworking of the Spirit’s work in the text of Acts. Some received water baptism and then were baptised in the Spirit. Some vice versa. But, in all, I am speaking of the baptism of the Spirit/initial filling of the Spirit. But also I have noted the importance of water baptism. At least Scripture teaches that it is important.

    I hope you are not claiming it has any salvific value, because that would be placing a work of human hands in a position that is to be occupied solely by God.

    I am not saying water baptism merits or earns our way into justification and standing within God’s covenant community. But salvation is wider than ‘going to heaven when we die’. And water baptism is the act of walking out our joining with the body of Christ and confirming our identity in Christ. It is still His work, but by His grace we walk in that work.

    I also understand the letter to Titus to be claiming that it is the Spirit which regenerates us, not water baptism.

    I agree. But again water baptism plays a major role in the outworking of God’s work of salvation. Col 2:11-12 says it is a powerful working of God. And water baptism and Spirit baptism are connected as a working of God through the greater salvation process in our lives.

    And furthermore, did you know that Quakers – even the most evangelical among them – do not practice water baptism on principle, precisely in order to avoid the sort of confusion I allude to above? Most probably they would view the commandment to baptize others as signifying the preaching of the word, as is implied furthermore in Jesus’ discourse about the vine and the branches, so that it may be received by the hearers and thereby inure to their salvation.

    This is unhelpful and not Scriptural. I appreciate clarifying confusion. But the best way to approach a particular issue is not to get rid of the practise that might be abused, but to walk it out in a healthy and biblical way. Water baptism is essential to walking out our life in God. In and of itself, it does not save. Without faith and the working of God, one just gets wet. But, Scripture makes it an important act through our faith in Christ.

    If you would be interested in more of my thoughts, you can visit this post on water baptism

  5. Ted –

    I re-worded some things at the end of the article to clarify what I meant, some of the things being what I said in my other comment to you. So you can read from where it starts by saying: And here is the point…

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