A scribe once asked Jesus: “Which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus replied: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind…” (Matthew 22:37) Sometimes we run across passages in God’s book which require us to wrestle a bit. A case in point is the opening portion of today’s text from Acts 19. So here goes:
When Paul returns to Ephesus, he meets some “disciples.” He quizzes them a bit: “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” Paul is not talking about the general work of the Holy Spirit without whom no one can believe in Jesus. He is asking whether they received that special out-pouring of the Holy Spirit by which the Lord often placed His stamp of approval on the going forth of the gospel in those early days.
Their reply is surprising: “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.” That’s a word-for- word rendering of it. On the other hand, they may mean: “We have not even heard that the Spirit was given” (in that special way as on the day of Pentecost).
A similar passage is John 7:39. Our English translation says: “Up to that time the Spirit had not yet been given, since Jesus had not yet been glorified.” Yet, quite literally, that passage says: “For the Spirit was not yet…” Obviously that does not mean that God the Holy Spirit did not exist yet. Likewise, in our passage from Acts, there are two possibilities. These men may be saying that they have never even heard of the Holy Spirit, OR that they have not heard about the special outpouring of the Holy Spirit.
Paul inquires further: “Then what baptism did you receive?” They reply: “John’s baptism.” Now here the text continues: 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 into the name of the Lord Jesus. When Paul placed his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied.
In the passage above, notice that our English version places the quotation mark after “that is, in Jesus.” So in the next sentence, “they” would refer to these “disciples” who are now properly baptized by Paul. (The Greek text of the New Testament does not have quotation marks.)
If we place the quotation mark after “into the name of the Lord Jesus,” that would mean that Paul is still talking and “they” refers to the people who came to John the Baptist and were baptized by John into the name of the Lord Jesus. This would mean that Paul did not baptize these men since they did know about the existence of the Holy Spirit. They simply had not received that special gift which many in the early Church had received. So Paul then laid his hands on them and they received this special gift.
On the other hand, if these men really did not know about the very existence of the Holy Spirit, then the baptism they received was not really John’s baptism in the first place, for John clearly taught about the Holy Spirit. His baptism was a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. It laid hold of the Christ who was coming. The only difference in our baptism today is that we are given to lay hold of the Christ who has now come. The blessings and benefits are the same. If these men did not know about the Holy Spirit at all, Paul would need to give them a proper Christian baptism.
No matter how we understand this interesting and challenging passage, we nowhere read that the apostles themselves who were originally baptized by John the Baptist, nor Apollos who was also a follower of John, needed to be re-baptized. John’s Baptism was as valid as the one you and I receive. The main point is the same. We need the gospel blessings God freely gives us in Baptism.