Spirit Baptism and the Believers in Ephesus

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Let’s take a closer look at this little band of believers in Ephesus. First, we are told that they were disciples. We are told in Acts 19:1 that when Paul arrived he “found some disciples.” It doesn’t say whether they were disciples of John or disciples of Jesus. The word “disciples” is used by itself eleven times in Luke and twenty-one times in Acts, and in every case it clearly refers to Christian believers, so just the generic term “disciple” does not mean that they are only disciples of John. The three times Luke refers to John’s disciples, he qualifies it by saying John’s disciples or the disciples of John (Luke 5:18; 7:33; 11:1). We don’t have any evidence external to the New Testament that there were persistent bands of followers of John the Baptist scattered around the ancient world. On the other hand, how could a follower of Christ not know about or have experienced the baptism of Jesus? Surely, by all accounts, baptism in the name of Jesus is the most fundamental and initiatory liturgical rite in the life of the church.

Bounded Set vs. Centered Set and the Fullness of the Gospel

First, the question—Are the twelve believers in Ephesus followers of John who need to be brought to Christ, or followers of Jesus who need better instruction?—may depend on whether the underlying premise assumes what we call a “bounded set” or assumes a “centered set.” A bounded set is where the word Christian has very strict boundaries—you are either “in” or “out,” based on certain defining things which move you across a boundary from “non-Christian” to “Christian.” If that is the assumption, then there may very well be a real distinction between Apollos and the twelve Ephesian “disciples.”

If, however, the same question is framed as a centered set, then what you have are two situations, Apollos and the Ephesian disciples, who are both on a journey toward Jesus. Jesus is the center and the goal of the journey, and people are at different places in the journey. We may not know if and when any particular line is crossed between “Christian” and “non-Christian.” In a more Christianized world, bounded-set thinking is not only predominant, but actually may be useful. But in a non-Christian context, or a mission field context, a centered-set understanding is more appropriate.

Second, note that there are twelve of them. This clearly should call to mind the number of the original twelve disciples, underscoring the point that the original apostolic band is being reproduced through the mission of the church. We saw this with the transition from the ministry of the Twelve in the opening of Acts; to the ministry of the first deacons, particularly Stephen and Philip and then, in the ministry of the unnamed disciples from Cyprus and Cyrene. It is showing that the ability to convey the Holy Spirit does not die out with the disciples.

Third, they had only received the baptism of John. Actually, it really does not matter whether these are disciples of John, and not actually Christians yet. They are on the journey toward Jesus Christ. The point is that you can be a follower of Jesus, whether as a pre-Christian moving toward Christ, or (as with the believers in Samaria), a Christian who is simply deficient in your understanding and your experience. There are many ways in which we can be theologically deficient (the thief on the cross had simple faith in Jesus, which was sufficient, but there is so much more fullness awaiting all believers). There are even more ways in which we can be deficient in our Christian experience. It might be in our prayer life, or in our understanding of the uniqueness and lordship of Christ, or in our experience with the Holy Spirit. We may have a deficient theology of the body and human sexuality, or we may have misunderstandings in our doctrine of Christian revelation, or our experience of ecclesiology.

We should not dismiss this account because their deficiency is not our deficiency. Rather, we should see this as a centered set whereby we are all moving toward Christ in our journey, and we all have blind spots that we may later look back on regretfully. But the point is that we are on the journey of seeking to come into the full life of what God has for us.

Finally, Paul places his hands on them to receive the Holy Spirit. The act of laying on of hands to receive the Spirit is by now familiar to us in the book of Acts. We saw this, for example, with Philip’s ministry in Samaria. Even Paul himself, though presumably converted on the road to Damascus, received the Holy Spirit by the laying on of hands several days later through Ananias. One of the persistent points to remember is that we, as Christians, have emphasized the importance of receiving Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior, but have not had a comparable emphasis on the reception of the Holy Spirit.

The early church not only emphasized both, but they actually created two separate liturgical actions or rhythms to mark the events. Water baptism marked the entrance into the faith, the theological space we call justification; and the laying on of hands marked the entrance into the theological space we call sanctification by the Holy Spirit. This, as we have seen, has three dimensions: empowerment for global witness, purifying holiness for sanctified living, and discerning wisdom for life’s journey. Power, holiness, and wisdom are just as important from a “big salvation” picture as forgiveness, rebirth, and reconciliation, since both justification and sanctification are subsets of the larger biblical theme of salvation.

The Methodist movements distinguished between water baptism and spirit baptism all the way to the nineteenth century, when they began to lose what Wesleyans call the “second half of the gospel.” The first half of the gospel refers to the justifying work of Jesus Christ. The second half of the gospel refers to the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer. Both are integral to a full reception of the gospel. In other words, God does not just forgive us (justification), he also transforms us and makes us holy (sanctification).

Central to the Christian life should be the recovery of full, biblical Christianity. We have often used the phrase “the second half of the gospel” as a shorthand for that. You can call it what you will, but there is a lot of gospel work to be done in our lives and in our churches along these lines. Remember the great trajectory which spilled out over the world through the power of the Holy Spirit. This great, global vision is at the heart of what happens when the Spirit of God infuses his people to join the triune God in his redemptive mission in the world.

Did you enjoy this entry? Timothy Tennent will be one of the guests in the upcoming How to Experience the Holy Spirit course starting on July 25, 2022. Our hope is that together, we will:

  • Deepen our understanding of the person, presence, and power of the Holy Spirit in the lives of awakened believers
  • Unite and conform our expectations of the Holy Spirit’s work to the purposes manifest in the person of Jesus Christ, the image of God
  • Ground our spiritual experiences of God’s Spirit in the biblical framework for the Spirit’s divine purposes in our lives and in the world

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Timothy C. Tennent is the President of Asbury Theological Seminary and a Professor of Global Christianity. His works include Invitation to World Missions: A Trinitarian Missiology for the Twenty-first Century and Theology in the Context of World Christianity: How the Global Church Is Influencing the Way We Think about and Discuss Theology. He blogs at timothytennent.com and can be followed on twitter @TimTennent.

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