Commentary on Acts 19:1-8
We are still with the Third Missionary Journey of Paul.
Apollos (to whom we were introduced last Saturday) has now left Ephesus for Corinth at the invitation of the Christians there. Later, he will return to Ephesus while Paul is still in the city. Meanwhile, Paul himself now reaches Ephesus. We are told that he travelled “through the interior of the country”. This means that he did not follow the lower and more direct route down the Lycus and Meander valleys but followed the upper route through Phrygia (where he had evangelised before) thus approaching Ephesus from the north.
Today Ephesus is only a heap of ruins but in its day it was one of the great cities of the region. The ruins of its great temple dedicated to the goddess Diana are still standing. The city was regarded, with Alexandria, as one of the finest cities in the empire, a religious, political and commercial centre of mixed population.
One of the finest letters in the Pauline canon is addressed to the Christians here. (Although it certainly reflects his thinking, its personal authorship by Paul is in some doubt and it is also thought to have been a kind of encyclical letter sent to a number of church centres, of which Ephesus was one.) It is also thought that, during his stay in the city, Paul wrote his letters to the Corinthians (1 Corinthians), the Galatians and, probably, the Philippians.
On arriving in Ephesus, Paul came across a number of disciples. As they are called ‘disciples’ they seem to have been followers of Jesus but only indirectly through John the Baptist or some of his followers. Or perhaps they had received their teaching from Apollos himself in his earlier state of partial understanding and so, like Apollos, had only a limited understanding of the Gospel.
On asking them if they had received the Holy Spirit, they replied that they had never even heard of a Holy Spirit and that they had been baptised with the baptism of John the Baptist. They were unaware, not that the Spirit existed (which would be evident from the Old Testament to even the most casual reader) but that the messianic promises had already been fulfilled and the Spirit was being poured out in abundance (cf. Acts 2:17-18,33).
Paul pointed out to them that John’s baptism was only a ritual of sorrow for sin. It was preparatory and provisional, stressing man’s sinfulness and thus creating a sense of need for the Gospel. John’s baptism looked forward to Jesus, who by his death would make possible the full forgiveness of sins and reconciliation with God. Baptism in the Holy Spirit involved faith in and total commitment to Jesus as Lord and Saviour.
After they were baptised in the name of Jesus and Paul had laid hands on them they immediately began to speak in tongues and to prophesy – a sure sign that the Spirit had come down on them. This was exactly the same experience the disciples had at Pentecost (2:4,11) and Cornelius and his household had in Caesarea (10:45-46).
We now pick up again the narrative of Paul’s mission which had been interrupted by the words about Apollos and the disciples who had only had the baptism of John. For three months, Paul preached the Gospel in the local synagogue. We are told that he “debated boldly with persuasive arguments about the Kingdom of God”. The establishment of the Kingdom on earth is the focal point of the Gospel message. It was the beginning, too, of the establishment of a vigorous Christian community Church in Ephesus. And Paul was again following his usual approach – Jews first and then Gentile Greeks.
In our own times, some Christians speak of being “born again”. They had gone through the ritual of baptism, perhaps as infants, and may have grown up with very little faith in their lives. Then they “discover” Christ through personal contact or participation in an active Christian group and they feel as though they have been “reborn”. Their baptism, which had lain dormant for such a long time, begins to exercise its effects.
It is an indication how the sacraments can never be separated from close contact with and involvement in a living community.
All of us, at whatever stage of commitment we find ourselves, can deepen our unity with Jesus and the way of life he invites us to follow. We can renew the pledges that we made (or that were made for us) when we were baptised. We might even make those pledges consciously for the first time!