Disciples of John the Baptist at Ephesus, 1-7

19:1 While Apollos was in Corinth, Paul went through the inland regions and came to Ephesus. He found some disciples there 19:2 and said to them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” They replied, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.” 19:3 So Paul said, “Into what then were you baptized?” “Into John’s baptism,” they replied. 19:4 Paul said, “John baptized with a baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, in Jesus.” 19:5 When they heard this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus, 19:6 and when Paul placed his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came upon them, and they began to speak in tongues and to prophesy. 19:7 (Now there were about twelve men in all.)

He found some disciples – ‘The most puzzling feature in Acts 19:1-7 is why those dozen whom Paul encountered at Ephesus are said from the start to be “disciples” who “believed.” (Acts 19:1-2) It seems that they were disciples of John the Baptist. They had been baptized “into John’s baptism.” (Acts 19:3) They had never so much as heard “that there is a Holy Spirit,” let alone “received the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 19:2-3) Thus they appear to have caught only part of John’s message (perhaps the “baptism of repentance”), to which Paul has to add that John himself told the people “to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, Jesus.” (Acts 19:4) Immediately on hearing this, “they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.” (Acts 19:5) Such was clearly not a repetition of Christian baptism. Paul next “laid his hands upon them,” and the result was that “the Holy Spirit came upon them, and they spoke with tongues and prophesied.” (Acts 19:6) That sequence of water baptism and imposition of apostolic hands has traditionally been invoked in favor of episcopal “confirmation” after baptism; more recently, the story has been used among Pentecostals and others in support of “Spirit baptism,” even marked by glossolalia, as a second stage after water baptism in the making of Christians.’ (DLNT)

One of the difficulties of this passages is that of determining whether these ‘disciples’ were Christians. Bruce thinks that they were: ‘That these men were Christians is certainly to be inferred from the way in which Luke describes them as “disciples;” this is a term which he commonly uses for Christians, and had he meant to indicate that they were disciples not of Christ but of John the Baptist (as has sometimes been deduced from v3), he would have said to explicitly.’

“Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” – ‘This story has often been used as the basis for doctrines about the reception of gifts of the Spirit subsequent to conversion; but it has no real connection with these. Rather Paul was dealing with an unusual situation which required special treatment…These men can hardly have been Christians since they had not received the gift of the Spirit; it is safe to say that the New Testament does not recognise the possibility of being a Christian apart from possession of the Spirit…Luke (Jn 3:5; Acts 11:17; Rom 8:9; 1 Cor 12:3; Gal 3:2; 1 Thess 1:5-6; Tit 3:5; Heb 6:4; 1 Pet 1:2; 1 Jn 3:24; 4:13) has told the story from the standpoint of the principal actor: Paul met some men who APPEARED TO HIM to be disciples, but because he had some doubts about their Christian status he proceeded to examine their claims more carefully. Luke is not saying that the men were disciples but is describing how they appeared to Paul.’ (I.H. Marshall)

‘This incident has become a proof text in some pentecostal and charismatic circles, especially when the inaccurate and unwarranted AV translation of verse 2 is followed, namely, “Have ye received the Holy Ghost since ye believed?” From this it is sometimes argued that Christian initiation is in two stages, beginning with faith and conversion, and followed later by receiving the Holy Spirit. But those twelve “disciples” cannot possibly be regarded as providing a norm for a two-stage initiation. On the contrary, as Michael Green has written I believe in the Holy Spirit, 135, it is “crystal clear that the disciples were in no sense Christians,” having not yet believed in Jesus, whereas through the ministry of Paul they came to believe and were then baptised with water and the Spirit more of less simultaneously.’ (Stott)

Paul’s questions indicate that he expected that those who had believed in Jesus Christ and been baptised in his name would have received the Holy Spirit. He questions them on this latter point, and finding that they are ignorant both of the gift of the Holy Spirit and of baptism in the name of the Lord Jesus, he affirms that Jesus was the one to whom John pointed, and baptises them in Jesus’ name. When Paul placed his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them in an observably manifest way.

‘The combination of questions certainly tells us that Paul assumes that saving faith, the reception of the Spirit and Christian baptism converge at conversion.’ (IVPNTC)

Matthew Poole says that Paul has in mind ‘the extraordinary gifts of the Holy Ghost, as prophesying, speaking with tongues, healing of the sick, etc., as appear by v6, and Jn 7:39; for it could not be, that they, who were instructed and baptized by John, should be ignorant of the essence or person of the Holy Ghost.’

“We have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit” – ‘This suggests that they were not Jews and that they had a very truncated understanding even of John’s message. So it is inconceivable that Paul could have viewed them as truly regenerate believers in Christ. They do respond to his preaching about faith in Jesus, though, and are thereafter baptized, upon which they receive the Holy Spirit and speak in tongues and prophesy.’ (EDBT)

‘The disciples’ response about the Spirit, which the NIV translates literally, should probably be taken to mean that they have not heard of the Holy Spirit’s contemporary presence. (compare Jn 7:39) If they do not know the Old Testament’s witness to the Spirit’s existence, (Nu 11:16-17,24-29 Isa 63:10-11; Joe 2:28-32) they certainly would know such a witness from the preaching of John the Baptist, whose baptism they had received. (Lk 3:16) In fact, John’s preaching of the imminent arrival of a Messiah in eschatological judgment tied closely together the baptism “with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” His followers, even if they had heard about Pentecost, probably would not have seen it as the fulfillment of John’s prophecy, for the purifying fire of final judgment had not immediately followed Pentecost. As Paul’s corrective steps show, (Acts 19:4-6) these disciples, like Apollos, are at best nominal Christians, and at worst simply disciples of John. In either case they are living without either the truth or the power of the Christian gospel.’ (IVPNT)

‘Some talk of the Spirit of Christ in the way that one would talk of the spirit of Christmas-as a vague cultural pressure making for bonhomie and religiosity. Some think of the Spirit as inspiring the moral convictions of unbelievers like Gandhi or the theosophical mysticism of a Rudolf Steiner. But most, perhaps, do not think of the Holy Spirit at all, and have no positive ideas of any sort about what he does. They are for practical purposes in the same position as the disciples whom Paul met at Ephesus-“We have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit”.’ (Acts 19:2) (Packer, Knowing God)

Someone once asked: Why did God cause this to be written? Here is an answer (or four):-

1. to draw for us part of the ‘bigger picture’ in Acts of the gospel’s first spread. The coming of the apostles to the key city of Ephesus afforded an opportunity to influence the whole of Asia Minor. There are clear signs in Acts both of a definite missionary strategy on the part of the apostles, and of God’s overruling providence in opening doors for the spread of the gospel.

2. to demonstrate to us that there are varying ways in which people experience coming to faith in Christ. These variations are partly due to what we were before we were saved. In Acts, some had been rank pagans; some had been educated persecutors of the Church; some (as here) had been sympathisers, but not (yet) fully initiated. We should, accordingly, resist straightjacketing of the conversion experience. There is one gospel, but people’s experience of it varies.

3. to show us that it is possible to have nominal belief, and this is not the same as having a living faith in Christ. By the use of diagnostic questions, Paul ascertains that these ‘disciples’ were not (yet) true believers in Christ, and leads them to faith. We learn from this the pastoral necessity of assessing claims to Christian faith.

4. to remind us that we should expect to see tangible evidences of the Spirit’s presence in our lives. Paul evidently looked for, but did not see, such evidences in these ‘disciples’. How much evidence would he find in us?

“John’s baptism” – ‘A baptism of expectation rather than one of fulfilment, as Christian baptism now was.’ (Bruce)

It might have been expected that Paul, having originally enquired about the reception of the Holy Spirit, would have instructed these ‘disciples’ accordingly. But, rather, he points them to Jesus.

On Receiving the Holy Spirit

‘Certain texts seem to connect baptism so closely with the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38; 19:1-7) that interpreters have come to understand that baptism is a necessary prerequisite for the coming of the Spirit into the life of the believer, a rite of the church by which the faithful receive the Spirit (e.g., Luther: “This doctrine is to remain sure and firm, that the Holy Spirit is given through the office of the church, that is through the preaching of the gospel and baptism,” quoted by Lenski, 109; see more recently, Conzelmann, 22: “Baptism and receiving the Spirit belong together”). But if it is true that the gift of the Holy Spirit is contingent upon baptism, it is remarkable that there is such a varying relation in Acts of baptism to the coming of the Holy Spirit. In Acts 2:38 baptism precedes the gift of the Holy Spirit, from which it could be argued that baptism is a prerequisite for receiving the Spirit. But in Acts 8:16 baptism and the coming of the Spirit are not connected, and in Acts 8:36-39 the Ethiopian eunuch is baptized without any mention of the Holy Spirit coming upon him (see also Acts 9:17-19; 16:14-17,31-33; 18:8; but note the variant reading to Acts 8:39). In Acts 10:44 the Spirit falls upon Cornelius and his household before their baptism takes place, whereas in Acts 18:24-26 baptism appears to be an unnecessary or at least an unmentioned element in the instruction given to Apollos. Finally, in Acts 19:5-6 it appears that the Holy Spirit is not so much conferred upon those who believe by baptism as it is by the laying on of the apostle’s hands (see Barrett, 154). There is, then, in Acts no consistent tie to enable one to say unequivocally that the Spirit is received at baptism. Nor do the apostolic fathers make any such connection between baptism and the giving of the Spirit (Barn. 11.11 excepted, although the translation there of the key expression,——–, is open to question: “in our spirit” Swete 1912, 19, “in the Spirit” Lake, Loeb trans.). If our texts will not permit one to argue with complete confidence that water baptism (though important) is a prerequisite for the conferring of the Holy Spirit, it is possible to infer from them that whenever the Spirit “falls upon” or “fills” any person or group of persons it is because of their positive response to the divine person who encounters them in the gospel. For example, even while Peter was proclaiming the gospel to the receptive Cornelius and his household the Holy Spirit “fell upon all who heard the word,” (Acts 10:44) an event that brought to mind the word of the Lord: “John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 11:15-16) Thus the all-important baptism is the baptism with the Spirit, namely, the coming of the Holy Spirit upon or into the community or into the life of individuals. This baptism is predicated upon and coincident with faith in Jesus-in his person, life, death, resurrection and exaltation. (cf. Acts 8:12,14-17; 16:14-17,31-33; 18:8, passim) It seems clear from comparing Acts 1:5 with Acts 1:8 and Acts 2:4 that baptism with the Holy Spirit and being filled with the Holy Spirit are to be equated. Nothing is to be found in the book of Acts (and Acts is the principal source of information about the person and work of the Spirit in the literature under discussion) to indicate that the Holy Spirit once imparted was ever taken away from those to whom it was given-church or individual. In fact “Luke in Acts believes that the gift of the Spirit is constitutive of the Christian life (see Acts 19.1-6; there is something wrong with a disciple who has not received the Holy Spirit)” (Barrett, 115). What then is meant when Acts says that at a later time Peter and the other believers “were filled” with the Holy Spirit (Acts 4:8,31; 13:52; see also Acts 9:17 with 13:9)? Perhaps the answer to this question can be gained by comparing the Holy Spirit in the life of Jesus with that of the Spirit in the life of the church. Luke records that at Jesus’ baptism the Holy Spirit descended upon him, filled him, was constantly leading (—-) him during the forty days of his wilderness testing (Lk 3:21-22; 4:1-2) and was present with him throughout the remainder of his life, (cf. Lk 4:14,18) even at the cross. (cf. Heb 9:4) Nevertheless, there are points noted by the Evangelists in the ministry of Jesus where it might be said that Jesus, “filled with the Spirit,” healed, spoke, saw or rejoiced. That is, he who was filled with the Spirit at all times was especially inspired by the Spirit at special moments during his ministry. For example, Luke records that on one such occasion “the power = Spirit, see Acts 1:8; Herm. /APC Man 11:21 of the Lord was at hand for him to heal.” (Lk 5:17) Again, when the woman with an incurable menstrual flow purposefully touched Jesus’ clothes, he knew “that power = Holy Spirit had gone out from him.” (Lk 8:46) Jesus’ disciples returned to him with word of their success over the forces of evil. At that instant, it would appear, the Spirit gave him a flash of insight to see in their successes Satan’s fall like a lightning bolt from heaven, for Luke goes on to say that “at that time Jesus, full of joy by the Holy Spirit,” began to praise God. (Lk 10:17-21) So it is with Peter and all other Christians, initially and continuously filled with the Holy Spirit from conversion. When they are faced with especially difficult and challenging experiences they need from the Holy Spirit a special endowment of insight, inspiration, effective speech, power and emotional strength successfully to carry out their mission in life.’ (DLNT)

We may, perhaps, see this paragraph (vv2-7) as recording a kind of ‘cleaning-up’ exercise. The gospel is to be taken not only to those who have been completely outside the stream of God’s dealings with the Jews, but also to those who had been waiting for the coming of the Messiah and not realised that the promise had been fulfilled. Such were these twelve men, and such, too, was Apollos, and Aquila and Priscilla, and the Bereans.

Paul Continues to Minister at Ephesus

19:8 So Paul entered the synagogue and spoke out fearlessly for three months, addressing and convincing them about the kingdom of God. 19:9 But when some were stubborn and refused to believe, reviling the Way before the congregation, he left them and took the disciples with him, addressing them every day in the lecture hall of Tyrannus. 19:10 This went on for two years, so that all who lived in the province of Asia, both Jews and Greeks, heard the word of the Lord.

The lecture hall of Tyrannus – ‘There is nothing to indicate whether ‘the school of Tyrannus’ was devoted to elementary teaching (6-14 years) or to the advanced subjects of the Greek curriculum, philosophy, literature and rhetoric (14-18 years). A ‘Western’ addition to Acts 19:9 runs: ‘from the fifth to the tenth hour’. Tyrannus’ accommodation was available for hire from 11 a.m. onwards. Instruction began at dawn simultaneously with the obligations of Paul’s own calling. (Acts 18:3) He used the afternoon for teaching in the hired school-house.’ (NBD)

The Seven Sons of Sceva

19:11 God was performing extraordinary miracles by Paul’s hands, 19:12 so that when even handkerchiefs or aprons that had touched his body were brought to the sick, their diseases left them and the evil spirits went out of them. 19:13 But some itinerant Jewish exorcists tried to invoke the name of the Lord Jesus over those who were possessed by evil spirits, saying, “I sternly warn you by Jesus whom Paul preaches.” 19:14 (Now seven sons of a man named Sceva, a Jewish high priest, were doing this.) 19:15 But the evil spirit replied to them, “I know about Jesus and I am acquainted with Paul, but who are you?” 19:16 Then the man who was possessed by the evil spirit jumped on them and beat them all into submission. He prevailed against them so that they fled from that house naked and wounded. 19:17 This became known to all who lived in Ephesus, both Jews and Greeks; fear came over them all, and the name of the Lord Jesus was praised. 19:18 Many of those who had believed came forward, confessing and making their deeds known. 19:19 Large numbers of those who had practiced magic collected their books and burned them up in the presence of everyone. When the value of the books was added up, it was found to total fifty thousand silver coins. 19:20 In this way the word of the Lord continued to grow in power and to prevail.

‘In a divine initiative, God weds extraordinary miracles with the spread of the Word of the Lord throughout Asia, a territory that Satan had firmly and manifestly in his grasp. We have met such strategic “power advances” before in Acts: in Jerusalem and its Judean environs, Samaria, and Macedonia (Acts 5:16; 8:7; 16:16-18). Now, at the climax of Paul’s efforts as a missionary free to move about as he will, Luke presents another. These evidences of the presence of the reign of God (19:8) in liberating wholeness occur through a unique means. The application of handkerchiefs (, sweatbands for the head; compare Jn 11:44; 20:7) and aprons (better “belts”-, a loanword from the Latin; Martial Works 14.153; Petronius Works 94.8; Leary 1990), carried away from contact with Paul’s skin during his leatherworking, bring healing and release from evil spirits. (compare Lk 8:43-48; Acts 5:15)

The skeptic and the mimic will immediately draw the wrong conclusions about these happenings: either they did not occur, or they should be copied. Neither response is the intention of Luke or the rest of biblical teaching (Stott 1990:306). Paul, by his own testimony, was a miracleworker; this was part of his credentials as an apostle. (Rom 15:19; 2 Cor 12:12; Gal 3:5) These healings did occur, but to imitate them-as some media evangelists have been wont to do with “prayer cloths” or other “prayed-over” trinkets sent through the mail-is to reduce miracle to magic, or impersonal manipulation. (contrast Lk 8:43-48) Following James’s instructions is still the best way to call on the Lord for healing.’ (Jas 5:14-15) (IVP Commentary)

Compared with the Gospels, there are relatively few references to demons and demonisation in the Acts and Epistles. This instance, then, may be thought of as exceptional.

‘There were people who went around making a living by various kinds of pseudo-scientific or clairvoyant powers, including the practice of exorcism. They were ready to call on the names of any and every god or divinity in their invocations – and often they recited long lists of names so as to be sure of including the right god in any particular case…These Jewish exorcists (cf Lk 11:19) now proceeded to use the name of Jesus in an endeavour to rival Paul’s powers. A magical formula preserved in the Paris magical papyrus reads, “I adjure thee by the God of the Hebrews, Jesus.”‘ (IH. Marshall)

The radical difference between Christian deliverance and non-Christian exorcism is illustrated by this passage. The exorcists attempted to invoke the name of Jesus as a magical formula, but ‘like an unfamiliar weapon wrongly handled it exploded in their hands’ (F.F. Bruce). ‘Pagan exorcisms are simply a trick by which Satan brings people increasingly under his power. The stronger demon in the sorcerer will most certainly expel the demon in a possessed person. But that person is not healed. He has not been delivered from the power of the enemy. The expelled demon can and probably will return.’ (Leahy, Satan Cast Out, 103) See Mt 12:43-45; Lk 11:24-26. For permanent dispossession to take place, there must be a spiritual repossession of the victim.

There is a radical contrast between the deliverances effected by Jesus and the exorcisms attempted by others. See Acts 19:14. ‘Pagan exorcisms are simply a trick by which Satan brings people increasingly under his power. The stronger demon in the sorcerer will most certainly expel the demon in a possessed person. But that person is not healed. He has not been delivered from the power of the enemy. The expelled demon can and probably will return.’ (Leahy, Satan Cast Out, 103) See Mt 12:43-45; Lk 11:24-26. For permanent dispossession to take place, the must be a spiritual repossession of the victim.

Christians are not fully converted or perfected in an instant, and pagan ways of thinking can persist alongside genuine Christian experience; the history of the church in Corinth shows that Christians took some time to be persuaded that sexual immorality and idol-worship were ultimately incompatible with Christian faith. (1 Cor 6:9-11)

‘But they burn their books, to deprive themselves and others of the means of going wrong in the future, and, by the fact that the very high value does not deter them from throwing the books away, they demonstrate, all the more clearly, how zealous their piety is. Therefore, while the confession that Luke has just described is a verbal one, so now this is a real one, if I may put it like that.’ (Calvin)

A Riot in Ephesus

19:21 Now after all these things had taken place, Paul resolved to go to Jerusalem, passing through Macedonia and Achaia. He said, “After I have been there, I must also see Rome.” 19:22 So after sending two of his assistants, Timothy and Erastus, to Macedonia, he himself stayed on for a while in the province of Asia.
19:23 At that time a great disturbance took place concerning the Way. 19:24 For a man named Demetrius, a silversmith who made silver shrines of Artemis, brought a great deal of business to the craftsmen. 19:25 He gathered these together, along with the workmen in similar trades, and said, “Men, you know that our prosperity comes from this business. 19:26 And you see and hear that this Paul has persuaded and turned away a large crowd, not only in Ephesus but in practically all of the province of Asia, by saying that gods made by hands are not gods at all. 19:27 There is danger not only that this business of ours will come into disrepute, but also that the temple of the great goddess Artemis will be regarded as nothing, and she whom all the province of Asia and the world worship will suffer the loss of her greatness.”

“He says that man-made gods are no gods at all” – ‘We need to remind ourselves that a religiously plural environment is nothing new for biblical faith. In Old Testament times, the people of the Lord were surrounded by the gods of many nations such as Egypt, Canaan and Babylon. (Ex 20:3,Ps 115:2-8,Isa 46:1-4,Dan 3:1-6, etc.) There was a riot in Ephesus as people turned to Christ away from Diana, so undermining the trade of silversmiths in their religious trinkets. (Acts 19:26-27) This is just one example of how in the New Testament era, it was against a background of many other religions and philosophies that the early church ‘turned the world upside down’ for Christ. (Acts 17:22-23) So the gospel making its way in a pluralistic society is actually only par for the course.’

“She whom all the province of Asia and the world worship will suffer the loss of her greatness” – It is a characteristic of idols that they need to adoration of their worshipers.  The one true God, however, needs nothing from us.  No-one, and no thing, can diminish his greatness.  We depend utterly upon him, and not he on us.

19:28 When they heard this they became enraged and began to shout, “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!” 19:29 The city was filled with the uproar, and the crowd rushed to the theater together, dragging with them Gaius and Aristarchus, the Macedonians who were Paul’s traveling companions. 19:30 But when Paul wanted to enter the public assembly, the disciples would not let him. 19:31 Even some of the provincial authorities who were his friends sent a message to him, urging him not to venture into the theater. 19:32 So then some were shouting one thing, some another, for the assembly was in confusion, and most of them did not know why they had met together.

Luke writes here of a civic assembly (ecclesia, v32) taking place in the theatre at Ephesus. An inscription has been discovered which speaks of silver statues of Artemis to be placed in the ‘theatre during a full session of the ecclesia’. The theatre has been excavated, and was found to have room for 25,000 people.

19:33 Some of the crowd concluded it was about Alexander because the Jews had pushed him to the front. Alexander, gesturing with his hand, was wanting to make a defense before the public assembly. 19:34 But when they recognized that he was a Jew, they all shouted in unison, “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!” for about two hours. 19:35 After the city secretary quieted the crowd, he said, “Men of Ephesus, what person is there who does not know that the city of the Ephesians is the keeper of the temple of the great Artemis and of her image that fell from heaven? 19:36 So because these facts are indisputable, you must keep quiet and not do anything reckless. 19:37 For you have brought these men here who are neither temple robbers nor blasphemers of our goddess. 19:38 If then Demetrius and the craftsmen who are with him have a complaint against someone, the courts are open and there are proconsuls; let them bring charges against one another there. 19:39 But if you want anything in addition, it will have to be settled in a legal assembly. 19:40 For we are in danger of being charged with rioting today, since there is no cause we can give to explain this disorderly gathering.” 19:41 After he had said this, he dismissed the assembly.

“Her image, which fell from heaven” – A number of cults honoured objects such as meteorites, which had ‘fallen from heaven’, and therefore thought to have come from the gods.

‘This description was a clever response to the accusation leveled by Demetrius against Paul and his converts who say that gods made with hands are not gods (v. 26), and it is a clever response to the Jews (who are also the target of the tumult) who believe that the images worshiped in the temples of the Greek and Roman cities are the work of human hands. The city clerk argues that given the special relationship between Ephesus and Artemis and given the divine origin of the image of Artemis in her Ephesian temple, there is no reason why they should be concerned about people who claim otherwise, let alone start a riot.’ (Schnabel)

A legal assembly – The term ekklesia was used in the Greek world of the body politic, ‘assembled to conduct the affairs of state’ (Fee on 1 Cor 1:2).  Hence the concern about an illegal assembly.