Sermon Commentary for Sunday, January 7, 2024
Acts 19:1-7 Commentary
It’s even more sad than ironic that baptism is at least arguably one of the most divisive issues among Jesus’ friends. Christians whose baptism the Spirit unites sometimes argue almost endlessly with each other about things like the nature, proper timing and efficacy of baptism.
Among the questions churches and denominations try to answer about baptism is whose is “acceptable” or “transferrable.” Many Christian groups view with at least some sympathy baptisms that are done in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
The church I currently pastor “recognizes” the baptisms performed in all churches that are done in the name of the Triune God. However, today’s Epistolary Lesson at least implies that the church I serve wouldn’t accept the baptisms of the members of the First Church of Corinth.
Some of the details of those baptisms are fairly straightforward. It seems that the Apollos to whom verse 1 refers had previously worked in Ephesus. That may seem like a random detail until readers remember that Acts 18:25 reports that while in Ephesus, Apollos only “knew [epistamenos] the baptism of John [to baptisma Ioannou]*.”
That links him to verse 3’s report that some of Jesus’ disciples in Ephesus “received John’s baptism [Ioannou baptisma].” That also links those Ephesian disciples’ baptism to that of Jesus that this Sunday’s Gospel Lesson describes. Mark 1:9, after all, recounts how Jesus joins countless of his contemporaries in being “baptized by John in the Jordan.”
But, of course, John himself insisted that the baptisms he performed were inferior to the one Jesus would later perform. “I baptize you with water,” he announces to the vast crowds that come to have him baptize them. “But [Jesus] will baptize you with the Holy Spirit (Mark 1:8).
So we may wonder why Paul asked Ephesus’ disciples [mathetas], “Did you receive [elabete] the Holy Spirit when you believed [pisteusantes]?” Did he sense that something about those disciples’ belief was somehow lacking? Some brothers and sisters in Christ suspect that the lack of certain spiritual gifts is a sign of the Spirit’s absence in some people who call themselves Christians.
It isn’t just that they notice that some Christians’ lives are marked by a lack of the love, joy and peace that Paul calls a “fruit of the Spirit” (Galatians 5:22). It’s also that some Christians don’t see other Christians display the spiritual gifts of speaking in tongues and healing (1 Corinthians 12).
Yet while some of Jesus’ friends are tempted to judge those who don’t manifest those gifts, Paul sees Ephesus’ twelve disciples’ ignorance about the Spirit as an opportunity to disciple them. They, after all, don’t just report in verse 2 that they didn’t receive the Holy Spirit when they believed. Ephesus’ disciples also admit that they’d not “even heard [ekousamen] that there is a Holy Spirit.” While their faith seems evident, their theology was somehow lacking.
According to verse 3 Paul presses those disciples by asking them, “Then what baptism [ebaptisthete] did you receive?” He literally asks them, “Into what, then, were you baptized?” The apostle, in other words, seems to ask Ephesus’ disciples just what kind of baptism they did receive.
However, their answer, “John’s baptism [Ioannou baptisma]” (3), is to many Christians mysterious. Thankfully, then, Paul himself helps clear up some of the mystery. He, after all, refers to John’s baptism as “a baptism of repentance [metanoias]” (4). In doing so the apostle echoes the gospels’ testimony to the nature of the baptisms John performed in the wilderness.
This at least suggests the people of the Judean countryside and Jerusalem as well as Ephesus’ disciples wished to be baptized as a sign of their sorrow for their rebellion against God. Their submission to John’s baptism also showed that they were determined to let the Spirit turn them away from rebellion and toward faithfulness to God.
Paul, however, suggests that the baptisms John performed were also meant to point repentant people to Jesus. In verse 4 he says that John “told [legon] people to believe [pisteusosin] in the one coming after him [erchomenon met auton], that is, in [eis ton] Jesus.” The Message paraphrases the apostle as telling Ephesus’ disciples that “John preached a baptism of a radical life – change so that people would be ready to receive the One coming after him, who turned out to be Jesus.”
When Ephesus’ disciples hear this, this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson reports that they agree to be “baptized into [eis] the name [to onoma] of the Lord Jesus” (4). This, however, raises another potentially thorny question: what does Acts mean when it reports that Paul baptized the disciples “into the Lord Jesus’ name”?
The New International Version tries to excise that thorn by offering an alternate to its translation of the Greek word eis. Its footnote admits that the word it translates as “into” can also be translated as “in.” That would then reflect a (slightly) more Trinitarian understanding of the baptism Ephesus’ disciples received from Paul.
But for at least some Christians, even this doesn’t completely solve this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson’s mysteries. After all, in verse 6 we read that “When Paul placed [epithentos] his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came [eilthe] on them.” Does that mean the Holy Spirit hadn’t yet come on Ephesus’ disciples before Paul baptized them? If so, how did they become disciples in the first place? At least some of Jesus’ friends, after all, believe that no one can believe in Jesus Christ without already having the Holy Spirit in them.
Preachers will again want to peer at such questions through their own theological lenses. But it’s worth noting the proximity of the Spirit coming on Ephesus’ disciples to their speaking [eleloun] in tongues [glossais] and prophesying [epropheteuon].” Perhaps the Spirit descends on those disciples not to give them the gift of faith, but to, instead, empower them for proclaiming the saving grace of God in Jesus Christ. That, after all, helps fulfill the ascending Jesus’ promise to his confused disciples: “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you” (Acts 1:8).
Paul ends this Lesson with a report of the size of the group of those newly baptized and empowered disciples. He probably intends us to hear something when he reports that they number “about [hosei] twelve men in all.” That number, after all, matches that of both Israel’s tribes and Jesus’ disciples.
The Spirit may use that last report as a kind of “launch pad” for a sermon on this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson. While the text is somewhat mysterious, it’s, finally, an account of how God prepares a kind of complete new set of followers of Jesus Christ.
Baptism plays a role in that preparation. But God also includes far more than baptism. Approximately twelve people began with an incomplete understanding of both God and baptism. But the Spirit equipped the apostle Paul to ask them some leading questions that revealed their ignorance.
The Spirit also empowered the apostle to teach the disciples about the meaning of both baptism and faith in Jesus. The Spirit then equips those disciples for acts of service by empowering them to declare God’s praises and share God’s Word.
That’s, after all, God’s way in Jesus Christ through the work of the Spirit. Christians don’t always agree on the way God works in and through baptism. Yet God always graciously meets us where we are, shines God’s truth on our ignorance, and equips us with faith that leads to service of God and our neighbor.
*I have here and elsewhere added in brackets the Greek words for the English words the NIV translation uses.
Few stories illustrate both the potential misunderstanding of baptism and baptism’s power than Flannery O’Connor’s The River. Its Harry Ashfield is a boy who grows up in a largely loveless home. Nearly everything his perpetually inebriated or hungover parents say to Harry is either cynical or critical.
However, one day Mrs. Connin, Harry’s religious babysitter, takes him to the river where the roughhewn but charismatic Rev. Summers is baptizing people. Mrs. Connin convinces Summers to baptize Harry, whom they both mistakenly call Bevel. After baptizing Harry, the preacher tells Harry that he now “counts,” that he’s finally someone. Harry, whom O’Connor refers to as Bevel throughout the rest of the story, leaves feeling that he now somehow matters.
Yet his baptism leaves Bevel feeling unfulfilled. The preacher had, after all, promised him that he’d enter the Kingdom of Christ when he was baptized. Bevel, however, doesn’t feel like he’s entered anything new yet. Even after he’s baptized he mostly just enters his loveless home.
So Bevel returns to the river the following day determined to finally enter this Kingdom of Christ. When, however, he tries to baptize himself by ducking under the water, he finds he can’t stay there. Bevel just keeps bobbing back up to the surface.
So he decides this whole baptism thing is just another cynical joke, just like the ones his parents so often told or played on him. As a result, Bevel angrily kicks out at the river … and loses his footing. The river’s current, says O’Connor, catches him “like a long gentle hand” and pulls him “quickly forward and down.” “For an instant,” O’Connor adds, Bevel “was overcome with surprise; then, since he was moving quickly and knew that he was getting somewhere, all his fury and fear left him.”
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