The connection between the Spirit and baptism, so central to the early Christian understanding of the Spirit (and the Spirit-theme in Luke-Acts), features in one episode of the Pauline missionary narratives in Acts. This episode (19:1-7) is part of the Ephesus section within the narrative of Paul’s second and third missionary journeys (15:36-21:14). I would outline this section as follows:
- Establishment of Apostolic (Pauline) Christianity in Ephesus, contrasted with the incomplete understanding of ‘Baptist’ believers (18:23-19:7)
- Paul’s Missionary Work in Ephesus (19:8-41)
As indicated above, Acts 19:1-7 is the first of two episodes narrating the establishment of Apostolic (Pauline) Christianity in Ephesus. The point of contrast lies in the incomplete understanding of certain ‘Baptist’ believers, regarding the true nature of Christian baptism. In the first episode, this was included as a detail related to the missionary Apollos. It is interesting to note how the author cautiously presents this motif in the case of Apollos:
“This (man) was (one) having been sounded down (into the ears) [i.e. given oral instruction] (regarding) the way of the Lord, and, seething with the Spirit, he spoke and taught accurately about the (thing)s of Yeshua, (though) being fixed in (his mind) upon only the dunking of Yohanan; and (so) this (man) began to speak with all (bold)ness in the (place) of gathering together [synagogue].” (18:24-26a)
In all respects, Apollos was like the inspired (apostolic) missionaries, but for his lack of proper understanding regarding baptism. The parallel with the next episode might suggest that he had not (yet) received the Holy Spirit, although it is said here that he was “seething [i.e. fervent] with the Spirit”. It is possible to translate the Greek as “seething in the spirit [i.e. in his own spirit]”, but I am reluctant to understand it this way, considering that there is no indication that Apollos subsequently received the Spirit (not having possessed it prior). In at least one other instance in the book of Acts, believers received the Spirit quite apart from (and prior to) being baptized (10:44ff).
In any case, Priscilla and Aquila, being older (or at least more experienced) believers, took Apollos aside and gave him an even more accurate instruction in the Christian faith (v. 26b), which certainly would have included the nature of Christian baptism.
As we turn to the episode in 19:1-7, Paul encounters a group of (around twelve) believers, in a similar situation to that of Apollos, being familiar only with baptism as practiced by John the Baptist (and his followers). Note the smooth manner in which the author joins this episode to the earlier Apollos scene:
“And it came to be, (with) Apollos (now) being in Korinthos, (as) Paulus was going through the upper [i.e. highland] parts, (he was) to come [down] to Ephesos and find certain learners [i.e. disciples], and he said to them: ‘(Hav)ing trusted, did you receive the holy Spirit?’ And they said to him, ‘But we did not even hear if [i.e. that] there is a holy Spirit.'” (19:1-2)
On the surface Paul’s question seems curious, certainly an odd way to introduce oneself to a group of believers. However, it reflects an important thematic concern within the book of Acts—namely, the relation between conversion (including baptism) and the Spirit, and how this relationship was to be maintained as Christianity spread beyond Jerusalem and the domain of the Twelve Apostles. Paul, along with the leading missionaries who were his colleagues, was also an apostle, in the fundamental meaning of the word. Such missionaries continued the apostolic tradition, and would also continue the practice of the Twelve (cf. 8:14-18), who laid hands on believers after baptism, and thus conferred (or at least confirmed) the presence of the Spirit on them.
As Paul traveled through the unevangelized parts of the Roman Empire, it would have been somewhat unusual for him to encounter people there who were already believers, which is perhaps what prompted him to ask the question he does. He may have sensed that it was at least possible that a proper performance of the rite of baptism (in the new Christian sense) had not been undertaken for them. With regard to this Christian sense of baptism, Paul’s follow-up question states the issue well enough:
“And he said, ‘Into what, then, were you dunked?’ And they said, ‘Into the dunking of Yohanan’.” (v. 3)
Early Christian baptism was related to, and (we may say) inspired by, the baptisms performed by John, and yet clearly the Christian ritual came to take on a very different significance. Paul understands and explains this succinctly in verse 4:
“And Paul said, ‘Yohanan dunked (with) a dunking of a change-of-mind [meta/noia], saying to people (that it was) in the (one) coming after him that they should trust—that is, in Yeshua’.”
This statement quite clearly summarizes the Christian tradition(s) that formed the basis for the new view of baptism, being rooted in the early Gospel tradition—specifically the two sayings by the Baptist in Mark 1:7-8 par. These two sayings, which Mark presents as a sequence, but which Matthew and Luke (3:16, perhaps drawing upon a separate “Q” tradition) combine together into a single compound saying, are:
If we accept the authenticity of Paul’s words here, then he was clearly familiar with both of these traditions, as he alludes to each of them in v. 4:
- “Yohanan dunked (with) a dunking of a change-of-mind [meta/noia]”, implying the contrast between the two kinds of baptism [i.e., the baptism-saying]
- “…saying to people (that it was) in the (one) coming after him that they should trust”
The baptism-saying is especially important for the Acts narrative, as the author cites it twice, but in a form whereby Jesus is the speaker (1:5; 11:16), which may reflect an entirely separate line of tradition. The saying about “the one coming” is also mentioned (by Paul in his sermon-speech at Antioch) at 13:24-25.
Part of the Baptist-tradition in the Gospel is that the primary goal of John’s baptism-ministry was repentance (Mk 1:4-5 par). Paul does not deny that Christian baptism likewise involves a “change of mindset” (meta/noia, i.e. repentance)—the issue is “into what” this repentance leads. Trust in the Gospel leads one “into Jesus”. I rendered the preposition ei)$ quite literally in verse 3, while in v. 4 the same preposition is rendered as “in”, when referring to a person’s trust in Jesus. If we may summarize these two ways of translating the preposition in terms of the Christian experience:
- Trust in [ei)$] Jesus leads to =>
- being united into [ei)$] Jesus
- Trust in [ei)$] Jesus leads to =>
And it is the second aspect that is reflected (and symbolized) by the baptism ritual. The presence of the Holy Spirit represents the manifest presence of the exalted Jesus (cf. the parallel phrasing in 16:6-7, discussed in the previous note). It also symbolizes the unity of believers in Christ—a point discussed a number of times in recent notes. Paul wishes to make certain that these believers understand the proper meaning of Christian baptism, in terms of: (1) its relation to trust in Jesus, and (2) the close connection between baptism and the presence of the Spirit. That these men were genuine believers is indicated by the ready way that they accept Paul’s instruction (much as, we may assume, Apollos accepted the instruction from Priscilla and Aquila, cf. above):
“And hearing (this), they were dunked into [ei)$] the name of the Lord Yeshua” (v. 5)
The laying on of hands (by Paul) follows the dunking in water, and, according to early Christian tradition, it was this second stage of the ritual that was specifically connected with the coming of the Spirit (on the exception to this in 10:44ff, cf. the earlier note):
“…and (at) Paul’s setting (his) hands upon them, the holy Spirit came upon them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied” (v. 6)
Again, it must be emphasized that “prophesying” in the early Christian sense fundamentally refers to proclaiming the Gospel, though the more general aspect of speaking out the word and will of God (as His representative) is also in view. In the book of Acts, all believers fulfill this role, though there are certain ones who may be more gifted in speaking and understanding.