Acts 19:1-7

While Apollos was at Corinth, Paul took the road through the interior and arrived at Ephesus. There he found some disciples and asked them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when[a] you believed?”

They answered, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.”

So Paul asked, “Then what baptism did you receive?”

“John’s baptism,” they replied.

Paul said, “John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance. He told the people to believe in the one coming after him, that is, in Jesus.” On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. When Paul placed his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they spoke in tongues[b] and prophesied. There were about twelve men in all.

– Acts 19:1-7, New International Version


When the event in Acts 19:1-7 took place, Paul was on his third missionary journey. He was going through (Acts 18:23) the “Galatian region and Phrygia.” Having passed through (Acts 19:1) the “upper country,” he came to Ephesus. According to Horton (p. 220), the “upper country” was “the higher central plateau of North Galatia.”

Meanwhile, Apollos was in Corinth (I Corinthians 3:6) where he “watered” the churches planted by Paul. Earlier, Apollos had been in Ephesus. In Acts 18:24-28 Luke tells how Apollos powerfully preached in Ephesus. Apollos was lacking in knowledge in that he was acquainted only with the baptism of John. That lack was made up by the teaching of Priscilla and Acquila.

Now, Luke tells us (Acts 19:1-7) about the disciples that Paul found at Ephesus. They were lacking in both knowledge and experience. They had been baptized into John’s baptism. Paul taught them further, baptized them in the name of Jesus, and led them to receive the Holy Spirit. Thus, the disciples were led to take definite forward steps in their Christian experience.

Some Disciples

When Paul arrived in Ephesus, he found “some disciples.” Much discussion surrounds the spiritual condition of these disciples. Various scholars have held that they were not Christians, that they were almost Christians, that they were Christians with rather complete knowledge of the gospel, and that although they were Christians, they lacked much in knowledge and experience. Although we cannot cover every view in detail, we will mention three views that bring into focus the crucial debate over this passage.

Dunn (p. 84) asserts that reception of the Spirit is the decisive step in becoming a Christian. Therefore, he holds that these disciples were not Christians. He supports this by saying that Luke uses the indefinite pronoun “some” (tinas) instead of saying “the” disciples. In his view they lacked a relationship with the church in Ephesus. He states (p. 85), “In short, they are disciples, but do not yet belong the disciples; that is, they are not yet Christians.”

Turner (p. 391) holds that “some” disciples does not necessarily refer to Christians. He thinks of the disciples as near-Christians. Turner writes (p. 393): “For whatever reason Luke has portrayed the Ephesian ‘twelve’ as ‘almost’ Christians up to 19.4, the point remains that the Spirit is there granted as usual as part of their conversion-initiation package–no significant ‘delay’ is implied between 19.5 and 19.6.” This approach is typical of the views of many in the charismatic camp.

Against Dunn’s view, Menzies (p. 222) writes: “However, since Luke uses the same pronoun in the singular with mathetes [disciples] in order to describe Ananias (Acts 9:10) and Timothy (Acts 16:1), we must reject this attempt to lesson the force of the phrase in 19.1.” (Transliteration Mine) According to Menzies (p. 224):

In Luke’s perspective, conversion centers on God’s gracious act of forgiveness (e.g. Acts 5:31-3210:43). And, although faith –repentance and water baptism are usually closely linked, in terms of human response, faith-repentance is the decisive element in conversion, for it forms the sole prerequisite for receiving the forgiveness of God (Lk. 5.2024:47Acts 3.195.3110.4313.3826.18). Therefore, since forgiveness is given to faith, and Luke considered the Ephesians to be people of faith (disciples and believers) before they receive the gift of the Spirit, he cannot have considered the gift to be the means by which God granted forgiveness to the Ephesians.

Paul’s Question

Luke records the dialogue between Paul and the Ephesian disciples. The dialogue begins (verse 2) with Paul asking this question: “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed (pisteusantes)?” Our discussion of this question includes the following points:

First, with regard to the aorist participle pisteusantes, it can be translated “when” you believed, “after” you believed, or literally “having believed.” The action of the aorist participle can either precede the main verb (receive) or be coincident with it. The literal translation “having believed” is actually best. The aorist participle leaves the matter open. We do not have to choose between “when” and “after.”

Second, the aorist participle does support the view that “having believed” is prerequisite to receiving the Spirit. This truth is consistently taught in the New Testament. John, Luke, and Paul (John 7:39Acts 2:38Ephesians 1:13) all sustain this pattern. According to Paul’s teaching (Romans 8:9), one is not a Christian unless he has the Spirit. Therefore, the reception of the Spirit, in the sense of indwelling, happens immediately when one comes to faith. The same is not true, however, of receiving the Spirit in the sense of being filled. As Paul exhorts in Ephesians 5:18, “be filled” or “keep on being filled” with the Spirit.

Third, why, then, did Paul ask this question? Dunn (p. 84) says Paul thought they were Christians but was mistaken or was just being charitable. If Paul thought they were Christians, and believed receiving the Spirit in the sense he intended was necessary to be a Christian, then why did he ask the question? On the other hand, if he thought they were not Christians, and just was being charitable, then his question was merely tactical.

Others offer different views. For example, Rea (p. 185) says that Paul noticed “an obvious lack of power in their lives.” Horton (p. 221) suggests, “The question he asked shows rather that they lacked the freedom and spontaneity in worship that always characterized Spirit-filled believers.” According to Lenski (p. 780), Paul did not notice anything wrong with the disciples. He just was asking a normal question about whether or not they had experienced any charismatic expressions.

My view is that Paul observed that the disciples were lacking in their Christian experience. He perhaps suspected that they had not received the Spirit in a way that they could know they had received Him. Therefore, he asked them whether or not they had received the Spirit in an experiential way. Paul is asking, “Having believed, have you had a recognizable, experiential reception of the Spirit?”

Fourth, whether the disciples were Christians or not, Paul addresses them as though they were. His question presupposes that one can believe in Christ without having had an experiential reception of the Spirit. Lloyd-Jones (p. 311) asserts that Paul’s question:

shows clearly that it is possible to believe without receiving the Holy Ghost. These examples [Samaria and Ephesus] show clearly that we must not say that at the moment of belief, or regeneration, every Christian automatically, as it were, receives the baptism of the Holy Spirit.

Lloyd-Jones relates the baptism in the Holy Spirit to assurance of salvation rather than to empowerment to serve, but he concurs concerning the presupposition of the question.

Fifth. several points about this experiential reception can be made. One, Paul was not referring to the initial work and presence of the Spirit because that automatically follows faith. We agree with the premise that one cannot believe and be without the initial saving work of the Spirit and His indwelling presence. Given the fact that Paul’s question presupposes that there can be a separation, he has to be referring to receiving the Spirit in another sense.

Two, the experience to which Paul refers is experiential. Even scholars who believe there is only one reception of the Spirit readily support additional outpourings of the Spirit upon the believer under the term “filled.” I would simply say that the term “receive” the Spirit can be used in the same way. Here, Paul probably was referring to an initial experiential reception of the Spirit. However, the experience of believers includes ongoing experience in the Spirit. A believer can both continue to receive and repeatedly receive the Spirit.

Three, it is not likely that Paul thought of the disciples as being unique in their need for an experiential reception. Indeed, his question indicates that receiving the Spirit in an experiential way was normal.

The Disciples’ Reply

The disciples answered (verse 3), “No, we have not even heard whether there is a Holy Spirit.” Literally, their answer says, we have not heard whether or not the Holy Spirit exists. However, the word given is often added.

Holding to the literal translation of the Greek sentence is not feasible. Old Testament believers, God-fearers in New Testament times, and disciples of any kind would know that the Holy Spirit exists. As the story unfolds, we learn that the disciples were baptized into John’s baptism. As Rea (p. 185) states:

In addition to knowing Old Testament references concerning the Spirit of God, disciples of John the Baptist would have know that he had spoken of a coming baptism in the Spirit. . . . so that they could hardly have been ignorant about the existence of the Holy Spirit.

As Horton says (p. 223), “It is more likely that the phrase compares with John 7:39.” In John 7:39 the word “given” is added in the translations. With regard to this verse 2, Bruce says (p. 385) that “given” is added to the Western text and the Byzantine. Wallace (p. 312) states that some Manuscripts say, “We have not heard if some have received the Holy Spirit.”

Obviously, the knowledge of the disciples about the Holy Spirit was incomplete. Presumably, they knew something about the Holy Spirit from the Old Testament and the teaching they had heard. However, it is entirely possible that they did not know people were receiving the Holy Spirit in an experiential way as well as other facts about the Spirit.

Paul’s Second Question

Now Paul asks a second question (verse 3): “Into what then were you baptized?” Paul would not have asked this question unless there were a connection in his mind between baptism and the reception of the Spirit he mentioned in verse 2. What is the nature of the connection? As with many subjects, there is a variety of interpretation surrounding this question.

One view is expressed by Lange who rephrases the question. According to him (p. 348), the question means: “To what then did the baptism which ye received, refer?” Here the emphasis is on what they had been taught. Or to put it another way, the emphasis was on what they had heard. This puts the focus on the teaching connected with baptism and not just the baptism itself.

A more common view is stated by Bruce. He says (p. 386) that Paul “assumes that they [the disciples] have been baptized (an unbaptized believer is not contemplated in NT), but regards it as anomalous that baptized persons should not have received the Spirit.” Given this, Paul wants to know more about their baptism

Another view is expressed by Rea. He states (p. 186): “In the early church the Spirit was normally communicated in His fullness at the time of a person’s baptismal ceremony.” The emphasis of his comment is on the reception of the Spirit in fullness.

In my view, Rea has the best approach. We observe the connection between baptism and being filled with the Spirit at Pentecost (Acts 2:38), in Paul’s life (Acts 9:17), at Samaria (Acts 8:15-16), and at the house of Cornelius (Acts 10:47-48). Our baptismal services ought to be times when the Spirit is powerfully present among us. Indeed, the baptismal service should be a time when believers are baptized in the Holy Spirit.

John’s Baptism

This time, the disciples answered (verse 3), “Into John’s baptism.” These disciples had experienced John’s baptism but they had not been baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. At this point Paul spoke about the meaning of John’s baptism. He said (verse 4), “John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in Him who was coming after him, that is, in Jesus.”

Menzies (p. 223) defends the view, as I do, that the Ephesian disciples were Christians. In support of this he holds that verse 4 does not represent new teaching for the disciples. “Rather,” he says, the verse should be seen as a summation of Paul’s argument for the appropriateness and necessity of baptism in the name of Jesus, an argument which builds on what the Ephesians already knew: the coming one which John proclaimed is Jesus.”

In my view, the disciples knew enough to come to faith in Christ and be saved. However, it is possible that they did not fully understand John’s baptism or the message connected with it. If the Ephesian disciples had fully understood John’s message, they would have already known what Paul told them. Whatever the disciples knew, Paul’s comment prepared the way for them to be baptized in the name of Jesus.

Baptism in the Name of Jesus

Luke writes: “When they heard this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.” Luke does not record any comments that may have been made by Paul concerning baptism in the name of Jesus. Apparently, the disciples understood Paul’s comments on John’s baptism to be an encouragement for them to be baptized in the name of Jesus. They were believers in Jesus who should take the next step and be baptized in His name.

Lampe (p. 75) says that “In all probability these men were converts of Apollos.” However, we cannot be sure from the Biblical record. We know that Apollos was acquainted (Acts 18:25) only with the baptism of John. Further, we know that these disciples (Acts 19:3) had been baptized into John’s baptism. Neither of these points prove that the disciples were converts of Apollos, but it is a possibility.

Like Apollos, the disciples had received John’s baptism. Unlike Apollos, the disciples were baptized again. We do not know why this was the case. We can only explore some potential reasons.

One reason the disciples were baptized again may have been their lack of knowledge. Apparently, they did not know as much about John’s baptism and teaching as Apollos. Even if they were converts of Apollos, this would not be unusual. Disciples often do not know as much as their teacher. They did know enough to be saved.

Another reason may have been that Paul simply made a pastoral decision to encourage them to be baptized in the name of Jesus. As far as we know Apollos was not baptized anew. It appears that Acquila and Priscilla did not suggest to Apollos that he be baptized again.

Finally, it may be that the disciples chose of their own volition to be baptized again. Clearly, there was no rule in the early church that those who had been baptized into John’s baptism had to be baptized again in the name of Jesus. Bruce (p. 386), “This is the only account of re-baptism that we find in the NT.”

The Holy Spirit

Now, Luke writes (verses 6-7): “And when Paul had laid his hands upon them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they began speaking with tongues and prophesying. There were in all about twelve men.”

When the disciples were baptized in the name of Jesus, Paul proceeded to lay his hands on them. Whether this laying on of hands was a part of the baptismal ceremony or came afterward is uncertain. Turner (p. 391) holds that it may have been. The more likely view, it seems to me, is that upon completing the baptism Paul laid hands on them and prayed.

When he laid hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them. The laying on of hands to receive the Spirit was not without precedent. Peter and John (Acts 8:17) laid hands on the believing Samaritans and they were receiving the Holy Spirit. Ananias (Acts 9:17) laid hands on the Apostle and prayed for him to be filled with the Spirit. However, laying on of hands did not always accompany reception of the Spirit.

When the Holy Spirit came on the disciples, they “began speaking in tongues and prophesying.” At Pentecost (Acts 2:4), the disciples “began to speak with other tongues as the Spirit was giving them utterance.” They spoke in languages unknown to them but known to the audience. The Gentiles (Acts 10:46) at the house of Cornelius were heard “speaking with tongues and exalting God.” When they spoke in tongues and prophesied, they gave a powerful witness to their conversion and allegiance to Christ.


The reception of the Spirit at Ephesus was highly experiential. The apostle Paul had asked them an experiential question: “Having believed, did you receive the Holy Spirit?” What Paul asked about, they now received. It was a major forward step in the spiritual experience of the disciples.


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© Copyright 2003. GMF.


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