Although this reading from Acts 19 may initially seem an odd selection for the church’s celebration of the Baptism of Jesus, it is actually very fitting. For one thing, it is a sequel to the Gospel reading for today, the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist as told in Mark 1. Here in our reading, the baptism of John the Baptist is mentioned once again, and for the last time in the New Testament. More significantly, the celebration of Jesus’ baptism is a Christological festival, focusing on the Father’s declaration of Jesus’ divine Sonship and on the Spirit’s descent upon and empowering of Jesus. While Acts 19 seems to be little more than a troublesome footnote in the story of the early church, this story is a thoroughly Christological event as well, because it shows the importance of faith that is focused on Christ alone.
I call this story troublesome because of the questions it raises about the Holy Spirit and faith, the Holy Spirit and baptism, the Holy Spirit and speaking in tongues, and about baptismal formulas. I’d like to work through the text by first of all asking some fairly simply questions. Then I will highlight the difficult theological questions raised by the story. Finally I’ll give some suggestions about how this knotty little text might be preached fruitfully.
Paul is on his third missionary journey. Having worked his way through lower Asia Minor revisiting churches he founded on his previous journeys, he is at the beginning of what will be a “three year” (actually 2 years and 3 months) preaching ministry in Ephesus. He has been preceded by the ministry of Apollos, whose story is told in Acts 18:24-28. The feature of Apollos’ ministry that is relevant for our text is mentioned in Acts 18:25. He “taught about Jesus accurately, though he knew only the baptism of John.” Priscilla and Aquila heard him speak and invited him to their home, where they instructed him more completely about “the way of God,” undoubtedly including baptism.
However, it seems the effects of his inadequate teaching continued on in the lives of 12 men in the Ephesian church. When Paul arrived at Ephesus, he found those 12 men, whom Dr. Luke identifies as disciples, the ordinary description of Christians. We’re not told how Paul found them. Had Priscilla and Aquila pointed them out to Paul as church members who needed further catechesis? Or did Paul immediately notice their severely ascetic lifestyle (following in the footsteps of John the Baptist) marked by an obvious lack of the joyful and peaceful fruit of the Spirit? If it was the latter, Paul’s initial question makes good sense.
“Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” That is a peculiar question in the mouth of Paul, who would say definitively in Romans 8:9, “And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Christ.” So, were these “disciples” really Christians? Or were they disciples of John the Baptist, but not of Jesus? Or is there some significance in the word “receive?” Is it possible to have the Holy Spirit, but not yet to have “received” that Spirit?
The reply of the 12 disciples is troubling. “No, we have even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.” How could that be? Perhaps their initial instruction in the Christian faith had omitted any mention of the Spirit. That’s possible, if they had, indeed, been brought into the church by Apollos, whose teaching, though fervent, was noticeably inadequate. Or perhaps they knew about the person of the Spirit, but they didn’t know that he had been given to the church. A variant reading of verse 2 has the men saying, “We have not heard that the Holy Spirit is given.” John the Baptist had predicted that the One to come would baptize with the Holy Spirit, and it is possible that Apollos had not explained how that prediction had been fulfilled already. Still stuck in the ministry of John the Baptist, perhaps Apollos had not declared the Good News of Pentecost.
Paul adds to the confusion by asking what may seem a non-sequitur. “Then what baptism did you receive?” Was that merely an allusion to the fact that Jesus had commanded his disciples to baptize in the “name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit?” If you’ve never heard of the Spirit, what kind of baptism did you receive anyway? Or is Paul making some kind of deeper connection between the Holy Spirit and baptism? Did he think that the Holy Spirit is always given at/with/through Christian baptism, so that the absence of the Spirit suggests a less than Christian baptism? Surely there are many Christians who construe the connection of the Spirit and baptism in that fashion.
The 12 reply innocently, “John’s baptism.” This seems like clear evidence of the hand of Apollos in this matter, but Paul doesn’t criticize Apollos. Rather, he catechizes the 12 by explaining that John’s baptism was preparatory and provisional. It was designed to bring God’s people to repentance by stressing their sinfulness and thus creating a sense of need for the Gospel. John’s baptism pointed to the need for repentance and forgiveness, but that forgiveness would not be available until the Messiah came. That’s why John “told the people to believe in the One coming after him, that is, Jesus.” In those few words, Paul effects a major change in the lives of these 12 disciples; their attention shifts from John the Baptist to Jesus. Notice that Paul called them not to receive the Spirit, but to believe in Jesus. They will receive the Spirit in a moment, but first they must fully believe in Jesus.
Immediately, they shift their allegiance completely to Jesus, as signified by their baptism “into the name of the Lord Jesus.” This is not John’s baptism; it is Jesus’ baptism. No longer are they under the sway of John; they are under the Lordship of Jesus. Curiously, the Spirit isn’t even mentioned in this baptismal formula, even though Jesus had so instructed in Matthew 28:19. This omission has led some denominations to eschew a Trinitarian baptism in favor of a Jesus baptism.
Yet, the Holy Spirit is clearly associated with this baptism. Luke tells us that when “Paul placed his hand on them (probably in a separate liturgical act as elsewhere in Acts), the Holy Spirit came on them and they spoke in tongues and prophesied.” This whole scene began with Paul’s question, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” “No.” But now, having been more clearly taught and having more fully believed in Jesus and having been re-baptized (the only rebaptism in the New Testament), they have experienced the coming of the Spirit into their lives, as evidenced by speaking in tongues and prophesying. After this, says F.F. Bruce, Ephesus became the primary missionary center of Asia Minor, and these 12 Spirit filled disciples became the nucleus of that church. Whether Bruce is right about that last assertion, it is clear that Luke thought this event was significant enough to include in his account of the Acts of the Apostles/Holy Spirit, even though it raises some troubling issues.
I’ve outlined those issues above and highlighted them as we worked our way through the text. Now I’ll try to say something a bit more definitive about them, foolishly rushing in where centuries of denominational battles have not solved the controversies. So, first, what is the relationship between the Holy Spirit and believing? Is it possible to truly believe in Jesus without the working of the Spirit? Paul’s words in I Corinthians 12:3 seem very clear. “[N]o one can say, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ except by the Holy Spirit.” One cannot be a “born again” believer apart from the work of the Spirit, said Jesus in John 3. So, how could these 12 be disciples without the Spirit? Either they weren’t really disciples of Christ or they were genuine Christians who had not yet consciously experienced the presence of the Spirit. I think it was the latter. The Spirit had done his secret work of giving new life and real faith, but they had not yet realized that the Spirit was present or experienced that presence in a way they could name. This is the case with many Christians today.
Second, what is the relationship between the Holy Spirit and baptism? Paul’s immediate move from the Spirit in verse 2 to baptism in verse 3 suggests some intimate connection between the third person of the Trinity and the sacrament of baptism. Given texts like Titus 3:5 (“the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit….”), it is no wonder that major segments of the church have interpreted our text as warrant for baptismal regeneration at least and the actual giving of the Spirit in baptism at most. On the other hand, such a close and automatic tie between the Spirit and the sacrament has always struck the rest of the church as out of sync with Jesus words about the Spirit “blowing where it wills.” This is a tangled business that has divided the church for centuries, so it is probably best avoided in a sermon on this text. Basing a whole baptismal theology on a text this full of controversy isn’t a good idea.
Third, what is the relationship between the “coming/reception” of the Spirit with speaking in tongues? This text clearly links the two, as do the stories of Pentecost in Acts 2, the conversion of the Samaritans in Acts 8, and the conversion of Cornelius in Acts 10. However, many other stories of the reception of the Spirit (beginning with the conversion of the crowed at Pentecost in Acts 3) do not make that automatic connection. It simply is not the case that whenever anyone receives the Spirit that person speaks in tongues.
So what do we make of this story and the others? Well, it is important to note that each of the examples given in the previous paragraph occur at a major turning point in the progress of the Gospel in the world. In Acts 1 Jesus said that the Gospel would be preached in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. In Acts 2, the Spirit is poured out on Jews in Jerusalem and they speak in tongues. In Acts 8, the Spirit comes upon Samaritans in Samaria and they speak in tongues. In Acts 10 the Spirit is poured out on Gentiles in Caesarea and they speak in tongues. And here in Acts 19, the Spirit is poured out on inadequately instructed members of the church in Asia and they speak in tongues. This text represents a new phase in the spread of the Gospel. If the first three examples of the Spirit and tongues were extensive, this one is intensive. The Gospel has extended to the ends of the earth (symbolically) and now the church must be more intensively instructed for the next phase of the mission. The Spirit makes his presence known by the gift of speaking in tongues at each critical juncture as a way showing the church that God is in this new move. But the coming of the Spirit is not always accompanied by speaking in tongues.
So how should we preach this text? I suggest that we can focus on stages in the journey of discipleship. These 12 were “disciples,” but they needed to grow in several significant ways. For one thing, they were attached to one teacher in a way that inhibited their growth. That happens to Christians all the time, particularly in the early phases of their Christian life. The one who brought them to Christ can become more important than Christ himself. These disciples needed to move beyond John, even as the Christians at Corinth needed to get over Paul, Apollos, or whoever else their favorite preacher was.
For another thing, these Christians needed more doctrinal instruction. They had been inadequately instructed, and Paul had teach them the “full council of God” by clarifying what John and his baptism were really about. Particularly in this postmodern age, where doctrinal instruction is viewed with suspicion as narrow minded and bigoted, many Christians are more interested in practical teaching than in truth claims. So, they remain what Paul in Ephesians 4 called “infants…, blown here and there by every wind of teaching….”
Thirdly, these Christians needed to be more Christ focused. They were disciples, but they needed to put their faith more centrally in Christ alone. As Joe Stowell puts it in his fine little book, Simply Jesus, we all have a tendency to add something to Christ. It’s Christ and works, Christ and politics, Christ and sports, Christ and my family, Christ and…. Paul directs these 12 to stop dividing their allegiance between John the Baptist and Jesus and “believe in the One coming after him, that is, Jesus.” When they did exactly that and made Jesus Lord, their lives were changed. So, we can legitimately challenge our congregations to get rid of the “and” in order to make Christ Lord of all.
Finally, we can confront our congregations with Paul’s opening question. Even people who have consciously made Jesus Lord of their lives can still try to live under his lordship in their own power. They began in the Spirit (as Paul puts in it Galatians 3:3), but they now try to attain their goal by human effort. All of us need to be confronted with the importance of receiving the Spirit in a conscious and continual way. “Did you receive the Spirit when you believed?” And have you continued to receive that Spirit? Are you continually filled with the Spirit, as Paul put it in Ephesians 5:18?
When Jesus was about to begin his public ministry, his baptism was the occasion at which God the Father publicly announced him as God’s beloved Son and the Holy Spirit came upon him in a new and unusual way. Then, and only then, did he embark on his mission. If Jesus needed the Spirit to go into the world to redeem sinners and make disciples, how much more do modern day disciples need to “walk in the Spirit?” If we can find a way to touch on the troubles in this text without getting tangled up in them, this odd little story can provide us with a powerful opportunity to call our people to make Christ the Lord of their lives and then live for him in the power of the Spirit. Paul’s opening question is a good, shocking way to get them off balance enough to listen to the familiar Gospel call with fresh interest.
How is it possible to have the Holy Spirit, but not yet to have received the Spirit? Think of these analogies. Science tells us that our brains have much more power than we ever use. It takes education and training to experience our latent brainpower. We have a powerful brain, but we haven’t tapped into/received all that power. People interested in the paranormal claim that humans have psychic powers they literally can’t imagine, until they learn how to access and use those powers. We always have the power, but we don’t use it until we “receive” it. In the popular Spider Man story, Peter Parker is a normal teenager until he is bitten by a radioactive spider. Then he has very special abilities, but he doesn’t immediately realize what he has been given. He experiences his powers some time after they are given to him. So, we are given the gift of the Spirit who works within, but we don’t “receive” that Spirit until we learn of his presence and by faith access his leading and empowering presence.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, January 11, 2015
Acts 19:1-7 Commentary