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.


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.