Studies in the Book of Acts
Paul at Ephesus (Acts 19:1)
While Apollos was at Corinth, Paul came to the important port of Ephesus, a city with a rich history. Ephesus was conquered by the legendary Croesus, King of Lydia, around 560 B.C. Later it came under Persian rule. Alexander the Great captured it in 334 B.C. From Alexander’s death, Ephesus was ruled by the Pergamum kings. But when the Romans were ready to take over the city, the last king of Pergamum, Attalus III, bequeathed the city to Rome. This happened in 133 B.C. The Romans soon made Ephesus the capital of a newly formed province of Asia.
Ephesus had a fine harbor to the west and was at the end of an important trading highway to the east. Ephesus therefore served as a center for east-west trade, and it became the greatest commercial city of the province. Its population may have peaked at around a third of a million.
Ephesus had passed its pinnacle as a commercial power by Paul’s day, though it was still a vital communications hub. Since the city was at the mouth of a river, its harbor continually silted up and had to be dredged. Perhaps that is why Paul had to land at Miletus, a port south of Ephesus, and travel overland to the city (20:15-16).
Paul’s third missionary journey was, in large part, devoted to preaching in Ephesus and the surrounding cities. He had stopped briefly at Ephesus earlier, and found a positive response to the gospel (18:19-21). However, as Paul had been intent on going to Jerusalem and Antioch, he couldn’t stay very long, but promised to return. Luke says little about what happened during Paul’s two-year ministry at Ephesus and Asia. He focused on a few incidents that happened, especially a riot, and devoted most of his report to the circumstances surrounding it.
Found disciples (Acts 19:2)
Luke began his narrative of events at Ephesus by relating a curious story. Paul met some “disciples” (that is what Luke calls them) who had been followers of John the Baptist. The group included 12 men (19:7). It isn’t clear under what circumstances Paul encountered these people. Nor did Luke state if or how they were associated with the Christian community in Ephesus.
These disciples were defective in their knowledge of the Way, and didn’t even know about one defining characteristic of Christians (Ephesians 1:13). When Paul asked whether they had received the Holy Spirit, they replied, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit” (19:2). The group was ignorant of the Pentecost event and everything that followed.
The fact that these people—who were almost certainly Jews—were disciples of John the Baptist and his teachings, and had not heard of the Holy Spirit, is puzzling. John had clearly spoken of the Messiah as one who would baptize with the Holy Spirit (Matthew 3:11; Mark 1:8; Luke 3:16).
John’s baptism (Acts 19:3-4)
Paul then went on to ask which baptism they had received. They replied they had received “John’s baptism” (19:3), which was a baptism of repentance. Paul told the group that they needed to be baptized “in the name of the Lord Jesus” (19:5). Then they would receive the Holy Spirit.
Whether these “disciples” were resident of Ephesus or had come from somewhere else (perhaps with Apollos from Alexandria) is not known. How they could be regarded as disciples—apparently knowing about Jesus—but not understand baptism nor even hear about the Holy Spirit is all rather odd.
Some commentators feel that when Luke called them “disciples,” he must have meant they were disciples of John. This might help explain their ignorance of New Testament baptism, and even the Holy Spirit. But Luke called them “disciples” with no qualification whatsoever. One would think that if he meant they were disciples of John, he would have said so explicitly. Possibly what Luke meant by “disciples” was that they were followers of Christ in the same way that people followed Jesus during his ministry. They were not disciples in the fullest sense of the word, since the sign of the disciple is one who has received the gift of the Holy Spirit (John 3:5; Romans 8:9; 1 Corinthians 12:3; Titus 3:5; Hebrews 6:4; 1 Peter 1:2; 1 John 3:24; 4:13).
Some suggest that these disciples may have once been part of an extensive and influential sect of followers of John the Baptist. They point to evidence that such a sect may have existed in the second century. Josephus mentioned John as being influential (Antiquities of the Jews18:116-119). The New Testament verifies that he was highly regarded by the Jewish people (Matthew 14:5; 21:46; Mark 11:32; Luke 20:6). This may be the reason Luke included this account in his narrative. It could have had something to do with the John-the- Baptist sect competing with the Christian movement for people’s allegiance.
We may see something of this struggle for influence in the Gospel of John, perhaps written in the A.D. 90s. John was careful to portray the Baptist’s ministry as being inferior to Jesus and his ministry (John 1:19-23; 29-43; 3:22-36). The Gospels also go out of their way to make it plain that John the Baptist was only the forerunner of Jesus. They have the Baptist admit that his position is so inferior to Jesus’ that he isn’t even worthy to carry his sandals (Matthew 3:11). Such attempts to define John’s subordinate status “suggest that a John-the-Baptist sect existed within Jewish Christian circles in Asia in the first century” (Richard N. Longenecker, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, “Acts,” page 493).
Luke was careful to define John the Baptist’s ministry. “This is now the fifth time in Acts that John’s role as a precursor to Jesus has been clarified (Acts 1:5; 11:16; 13:25; 18:25). The need to repeatedly take up the issue, plus the fact that John apparently has disciples twenty years after his death in places as far from the Jordan as Alexandria (Apollos) and Ephesus, supports the portrait of John as an important religious figure in his own right” (Luke Timothy Johnson, The Acts of the Apostles, Sacra Pagina Series, volume 5, page 338).
Perhaps this sect grew to some degree on a parallel track to the Christian mission, and may in some cases have been its rival. Luke, writing perhaps between the mid-A.D. 60s to the 80s, would have included this vignette to make a point: the true body of Christ is the church, not the sect of John the Baptist’s followers. Luke would have been trying to show that such disciples of John needed to become Christians. They could do this by being rebaptized into Jesus by a duly authorized missionary of Christ’s body, the church universal—and receiving the Holy Spirit.
Baptized into Jesus’ name (Acts 19:5-7)
When Paul explained to these former disciples of John the Baptist that they should be baptized into Jesus’ name, they readily agreed. By doing so they were putting their faith in Jesus and repenting. The reason these individuals were baptized, and apparently Apollos was not, is unclear from Luke’s account. Perhaps they still thought of John’s baptism as being fully sufficient.
Now, this group of John’s disciples was seeing the light. By accepting another baptism, these people were saying that they understood the superiority of Jesus to John. They were willing to come under the authority of a representative (Paul) of the one body that was correctly defined. (At least some of the apostles had been followers of John and must have been baptized by him [John 1:35-37]. There is no evidence they were rebaptized into Jesus’ name. But they had readily become the followers of Jesus.)
After the former disciples of John were baptized, “Paul placed his hands on them” and they received the Holy Spirit (19:6). There is an association, but not a consistent one, between baptism and the laying on of hands in the book of Acts. Peter and John did lay hands on the Samaritan converts (8:17). This was done in Samaria to make it clear that the despised Samaritans had been accepted into the fellowship by the leaders of the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem.
In Ephesus, too, the laying on of hands denoted acceptance. Paul, as a representative of the church, accepted these former members of a John-the-Baptist sect. Upon this demonstration of faith, the disciples received the Holy Spirit (19:6). As an outward evidence of this, “They spoke in tongues and prophesied” (19:6). As the Jews on Pentecost, and as the household of Cornelius, these people received the same gift. There was no question about it, because the coming of the Spirit had been verified by the same outward signs (11:17).