Sermon Commentary for Sunday, January 10, 2021
Acts 19:1-7 Commentary
The woman who told me with a puzzled look on her face, “I don’t think anyone here has the Holy Spirit,” had been part of a church community I pastored for about six months. Yet in that short time she’d concluded that members of our church didn’t have the Holy Spirit. So she sadly left our church community.
In this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson, Paul too might have deduced, “I don’t think anyone here has the Holy Spirit.” He, after all, meets what Luke calls “disciples” in the church in Ephesus.
Yet while we might assume this means Paul met Jesus’ followers in Ephesus, something about those folks must have made him question that. So we might wonder of those believers weren’t, perhaps, saying, “Praise the Lord” or raising their hand when they sang enough?
We only know with any certainty that, as John Rottman notes, our text’s Paul gets out his stethoscope and blood pressure cuff and does a kind of spiritual check-up on Ephesus’ Christians. Like any good doctor, he has some questions for them.
But they don’t include, “How’s your physical health been?” Instead Paul asks, according to verse 2: “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” “The Holy Spirit,” the Ephesian Christians answer the apostle, perhaps with voices confusion accents, “What’s that?”
Of course, what we call the Old Testament mentions a Holy Spirit. Since Acts 19’s Jews knew about John the Baptizer’s teaching, they probably also knew that he mentioned someone who would eventually baptize with the Holy Spirit. Yet these Ephesians didn’t seem to know that Spirit was now also available to them.
So like any good doctor, Paul asks his “patients” a follow-up question. “What baptism did you receive?” he asks them in verse 3. “John the Baptizer’s,” the Ephesian Christians answer. So it seems as if they had, at best, an incomplete understanding of both baptism and the Holy Spirit.
John’s baptism was one, after all, of repentance (4). When people turned away from sin and toward God, he dunked them in the Jordan’s muddy waters as a sign that God had washed away their sins. So the Ephesian Christians whose visit by Paul this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson recounts had apparently responded to God’s prompting by repenting of their sins.
Yet Paul senses they lack the presence and power of the Holy Spirit. So he explains to them that the Jesus whom God raised from the dead was the Person about whom their mentor, John, had preached.
When John’s disciples in Ephesus hear about Jesus, they must want Paul to baptize them. And when the apostle lays his hands on and prays for them, probably as part of their baptism, the Holy Spirit fills them. The Ephesian Christians then speak in strange languages and speak messages from God.
It all sounds, candidly, a lot like what happened on the first Pentecost. The Holy Spirit and baptism in the name of the Lord Jesus, after all, always somehow go together. Yet the link between baptism and the Spirit is a bit murky as well as controversial to at least some of Jesus’ modern followers. John’s baptism. Baptism into the name of the Lord Jesus. First baptism. Second baptism. Immersion. Sprinkling. Speaking in tongues. Prophesying.
So ever since the first Pentecost, as Dave Davis notes, “Where ever two or three are gathered, there will be disagreement about the Spirit or baptism or tongues or prophecy.” Yet Davis finds it important that our text also reports that Paul baptizes twelve people in the Lord Jesus’ name in Ephesus. That’s, after all, not just the number of Jesus’ disciples. It also symbolizes completeness in the Bible. We might say, then, those twelve are, in one sense, all of Jesus’ followers, including both those who proclaim and those who hear Acts 19.
So what if Paul were to somehow ask this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson’s modern proclaimers and hearers the same questions he asked the Ephesian Christians? What if he were to ask us if we received the Holy Spirit when were baptized? About what baptism we received?
Christians profess that the Holy Spirit is absolutely vital to everything we are and do. In the Heidelberg Catechism Reformed Christians profess that God has given Jesus’ followers that Spirit to make us “share in Christ and all his blessings,” comfort us and stay with us “forever.”
In fact, at least Reformed Christians admit that we can’t even be honest about our sins or turn toward the living God unless the Holy Spirit works in us in the first place. Yet Christians’ repentance is also crucial to the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit in and through us. When, after all, we stubbornly refuse to forgive someone or cling to our anger, we make it hard for the Spirit to do the Spirit’s work through us.
So God’s dearly beloved people not only receive God’s grace with our initial faithful repentance. God’s adopted sons and daughters also respond to that grace by repeatedly repenting of our sins. That’s why many Christians spend time in corporate confession nearly every Sunday, repenting as a church community.
Yet what if Paul were to also ask us into whose name we were baptized? Hopefully our hearers would answer that we were baptized in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. But what if Paul were to press us, “Are you sure you have the Spirit?”
After all, the woman to whom I referred earlier mourned that members of my church community didn’t have it. What’s more, some Christians still speak in tongues and prophesy, just as those Ephesian Christians did in this morning’s text. Others laugh, cry, or fall down when the Spirit touches them.
So is there something wrong with those who don’t display any of those spectacular evidences of the Holy Spirit’s presence? Are we sure we have the Spirit? I, for instance, have enough trouble speaking in English, to say nothing of trying to speak in tongues.
That’s why it’s good to remember some of the other gifts the Holy Spirit also gives Christians in whom the Spirit lives. The Bible lists gifts of service, teaching, giving, mercy and leadership as evidence of the Spirit’s presence. It also mentions the Holy Spirit’s gifts of healing, miracles, pastoring, wisdom, intercession and more. So if this Epistolary Lesson’s proclaimers and hearers have one or more of those gifts, we can know that God’s Spirit lives in you.
As we use those gifts the Spirit gives us, we often sense the power of that Spirit at work in us. Jesus’ followers have a growing sense that this is especially what God wants us to do. So Acts 19’s proclaimers might point out that if God has given our hearers, for instance, the gift of mercy, they may never feel as alive as when they bring someone a meal in Jesus’ name. If God has given them the gift of intercession, they may feel most alive when they’re praying for God’s world and its people.
Yet there’s also at least one more sign of the Holy Spirit’s presence in us. God’s adopted children profess that the Spirit graciously works through the Lord’s Supper. We profess that the Spirit works through its elements to assure us that we belong to Jesus Christ. Christians profess that the Holy Spirit somehow uses this bread and juice to strengthen our faith in Jesus Christ.
So neither Acts 19’s proclaimers nor hearers may speak in tongues. But if when Jesus’ adopted siblings take the Lord’s Supper bread we feel even a flicker of the comfort of God’s forgiveness, we can know the Spirit is working in you. We may not feel like rhythmically clapping our hands when we sing. Yet if when God’s dearly beloved people sip communion’s juice we sense that Christ’s blood flowed for you, we can be sure God has given you the Holy Spirit.
And just think … it all somehow started, in God’s sovereign purposes, when God sent us the Holy Spirit when we were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus!
While some of the more spectacular “manifestations of the Spirit” remain controversial, they’ve proven to be quite durable. In a March 7, 2014 article in Christianity Today entitled, “The Enduring Revival,” Lorna Dueck writes about returning to the church where the “Toronto Blessing” originated.
She notes that early in 1994, a small church in a strip mall near Toronto Pearson International Airport had thousands of people waiting at its doors night after night—50,000 unique visitors, as we’d say today, in the first six months of the year, enough to make it “‘Toronto’s top tourist attraction of 1994, according to Toronto Life magazine.’
“Laughing, falling over, shaking, roaring like a lion, and being ‘drunk in the Holy Spirit’—the Toronto Blessing was a charismatic revival featuring manifestations of spiritual power more commonly associated with the Great Awakenings of the 18th and 19th centuries. Thousands registered first-time conversions to Christianity at the services. Every evening people lined up to stand or fall under shouts of ‘More, Lord!’ while hands were laid on them in prayer.
Dueck reports that the atmosphere felt just the same to her as it had 20 years ago as she made her way through a crowd that had turned up two hours early to celebrate the revival’s anniversary on January 20, 2014. The services were held at Catch the Fire, formerly known as the Toronto Airport Christian Fellowship, which was the Toronto Airport Vineyard at the revival’s inception. The church has grown from its storefront beginnings to a 3,200-seat auditorium, 8 satellite campuses, 23 church plants, and a global “Catch the Fire” church network.
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