June 14, 2015


Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles

By: Tom Lowe



Topic #IV: The Church Advancing to the End of the Earth (Acts 13-28)   


Subtopic D: The Third Missionary Journey (18:23-19:19) 


       Sub-subtopic 3: Paul in Ephesus (19:1-41)                                      



         Lesson: IV.D.3.a: The Twelve Men (1-7)                                   



Acts 19:1-7 (KJV)


1 And it came to pass, that, while Apollos was at Corinth, Paul having passed through the upper coasts came to Ephesus: and finding certain disciples,

2 He said unto them, Have ye received the Holy Ghost since ye believed? And they said unto him, We have not so much as heard whether there be any Holy Ghost.

3 And he said unto them, Unto what then were ye baptized? And they said, Unto John's baptism.

4 Then said Paul, John verily baptized with the baptism of repentance, saying unto the people, that they should believe on him which should come after him, that is, on Christ Jesus.

5 When they heard this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.

6 And when Paul had laid his hands upon them, the Holy Ghost came on them; and they spake with tongues, and prophesied.

7 And all the men were about twelve.






This nineteenth chapter, and the first seven verses, are one of the most familiar passages in the whole book, but unfortunately it is also one of the most constantly misinterpreted passages.  It needs careful consideration.


Paul, having paid his visit to Palestine, returned overland to Ephesus (thus fulfilling his promise; see 18:21) and settled down there for some two and a half years, speaking daily in the school of Tyrannus, from the autumn of 52 to the spring of 55.  There a great work was accomplished, radiating out from Ephesus to other cities of the province of Asia.  The effect of the preaching is vividly portrayed by Luke in a few scenes.


Ephesus was commonly called “the Light of Asia.” It was the seat of the Roman proconsul and also of the confederation of cities known as the “Asiarchte,” and it was a hotbed of Roman “emperor worship.”


In the first scene, which Luke describes in verses 1-7, we meet the 12 “disciples” who knew only John’s baptism and had never heard of the Holy Spirit.








1 And it came to pass, that, while Apollos was at Corinth, Paul having passed through the upper coasts came to Ephesus: and finding certain disciples,

You will remember that Paul had come through Ephesus on his return trip from his second missionary journey and had told them that he would come back to them if God so willed.  He had not stayed in Ephesus previously and had had no ministry there.  Now he returns to Ephesus, but he has been preceded there by that great preacher, Apollos.  You recall that Apollos did not know anything about the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ until Aquila and Priscilla had talked to him.  All he had been preaching was the baptism of John, which was as far as his knowledge went.  As a result of this, the people who had heard his preaching had been instructed only as far as the baptism of John and had not even heard of the Holy Spirit.  Paul, somehow became aware of that. 


“And it came to pass, that, while Apollos was at Corinth, Paul having passed through the upper coasts came to Ephesus.” From Luke’s description, it appears that Paul made the journey to Ephesus by way of the shorter, though less frequented, route through Caster valley.  At least this seems to be the meaning of the phrase “the upper coasts” (the interior, NIV), since this road did lead over higher ground than the main road through Colossae and Laodicea; the more frequently traveled trade route.  He was now in proconsular Asia. By the second century B.C. this region was under the rule of the Seleucids, but with the defeat by the Romans of the Seleucid king, Antiochus III (133 B.C.), it was bequeathed back to the Romans.  This new Provence was called Asia because the Attalids were known to the Romans as the kings of Asia.  It took in Mycia; Lydia; and Caria; the coastal areas of Aeolia, Iconia and the Troad; and many of the islands of the Aegean. The province was enlarged in 116 B.C. by the addition of greater Phrygia.  Its first capital was Pergamon, the former capital of the Attalids, but by the time of Augustus, Ephesus had assumed that position.  The city governed its own affairs through the citizen assembly and elected magistrates.


The peace that Augustus had brought to the Roman world was especially welcomed by the people of Asia, whose own history had been turbulent.  They developed a strong sense of loyalty to the emperor, which was expressed in the establishment of the cult of “Rome and the Emperor” in 29 B.C.  The cult was administered on behalf of the participating cities (the Asian League) by their representatives, the asiarchs, appointed each year for that purpose.  As a member city of the League, Ephesus had been a center of this worship from the outset, and coins and inscriptions show how much the city prided itself on being “Temple Warden,” both of the imperial cult and of Artemis, its own patron goddess.  Most of the evidence in this regard relates to the imperial cult, but the title “guardian of the temple of the great Artemis” (v. 35) is attested (though later than the New Testament), and there is no question that Ephesus was famous for the worship of the goddess.  Her latest temple—that seen by Paul—was regarded as one of the wonders of the world.


Soon after his arrival in Ephesus, or so it seems, Paul came across a number of men (“about 12,” v. 7) whom Luke appears to have regarded as (in some sense) Christians, for he wrote that the apostle found “certain disciples[4]” and they are said to have believed (v. 2), yet they only knew “the baptism of John” (v. 3).  In the early days of the church there were probably any number of cases like this, where a clear distinction could not be drawn between the disciples of John and the disciples of Jesus. 



2 He said unto them, Have ye received the Holy Ghost since ye believed? And they said unto him, We have not so much as heard whether there be any Holy Ghost.

Something must have prompted Paul to investigate the faith of these men.  He asked, therefore, “Have ye received the Holy Ghost since ye believed?” His criterion for what distinguished the Christian is significant.  So, too, is the way in which his question is framed.  It implies that the Holy Spirit is received at a definite point in time and that that time is the moment of initial belief.  The same thought is expressed, for example, in Ephesians 1:13 (KJV)—“In whom ye also trusted, after that ye heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation: in whom also after that ye believed, ye were sealed with that holy Spirit of promise.” No space of time is envisioned between the two events.  Nor is the possibility entertained of believing without also receiving the “seal of the Spirit,” of which Christian baptism is the outward and visible sign.  The question was important because the witness of the Spirit is the one indispensable prove that a person is truly born again (Romans 8:9, 16; 1 John 5:9-13).  The Apostle Peter told a Jerusalem crowd, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost”. (Acts 2:38, KJV).


So why did Paul ask about their baptism?  Because in the Book of Acts, a person’s baptismal experience is an indication of his or her spiritual experience.  Acts 1-10 records a transition period in the history of the church, from the apostles’ ministry to the Jews to their ministry to the Gentiles.  During this transition period, Peter used “the keys of the kingdom” (Matthew 16:19) and opened the door of faith to the Jews (Acts 2), the Samaritans (Acts 8:14), and finally to the Gentiles (Acts 10).


It is important to note that God’s pattern for today is given in Acts 10:43-48; sinners hear the Word, they believe on Jesus Christ, they immediately receive the Spirit, and then they are baptized.  The Gentiles in Acts 10 did not receive the Spirit by means of water baptism or by the laying on of the Apostles’ hands (Acts 8:14-17[5]).


I said in the introduction that this is one of the most constantly misinterpreted passages in the book of Acts, and the reason it is misunderstood is found in the question Paul asked, “Have ye received the Holy Ghost since ye believed (KJV).” The problem is created by the word “since,” which seems to separate the salvation experience from the receiving of the gift of the Spirit.This is definitely an instance where the NIV is the better translation: “Did ye received the Holy Ghost when ye believed” (NIV).  The misunderstanding disappears.  Some use this verse to support the theory that the Holy Spirit comes some time after salvation, which in the terminology of our own day is described as a “second blessing.”


These disciples were probably in much the same situation as Apollos had been, having been “instructed in the way of the Lord” up to a point (18:25[1]), but unaware of what had happened on the Great Pentecost some 20 years earlier (and perhaps of other things; Jesus’ death and resurrection).  They answered Paul’s question by declaring; “We have not so much as heard whether there be any Holy Ghost.” As disciples of John the Baptist you would think they knew that there was a Holy Spirit, and that the Spirit would one day baptize God’s people (Matthew 3:11; Luke 3:16; John 1:32-33[7]).  The Holy Spirit was clearly presented in the Old Testament and in the Baptist’s teaching.  It is possible that these men were Apollo’s early “converts” and therefore did not fully understand what Christ had done.


Now these men were almost certainly Jews, but even if they were Gentiles, being influenced by the teaching of John the Baptist and of Jesus, they must have at least heard of the Spirit, especially since John taught that with the coming of the Messiah the Spirit would be poured out—“John answered them all, “I baptize you with water. But one who is more powerful than I will come, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire” (Luke 3:16, NIV).  Perhaps these men were not aware that the proclamation of John had been fulfilled in Christ. It is better, then, to understand their answer to mean that they did not know that. Evidently that was the case with this group[3].  They had not heard that the Spirit had been poured out.  They were unaware of Pentecost.  The Holy Spirit had been given (See John 7:39[2], where the same expression in the Greek is found).  Thus whatever else they knew about Jesus, they were unaware of the one event that more than any other confirmed that the age of salvation had dawned.  In short, they were essentially no further along than where John the Baptist had left his followers.


The popular but false teaching in some quarters is that believers must ask God to give them the Holy Spirit.  The gift of the Spirit is one of the benefits sovereignly and eternally bestowed upon a believer at the moment of conversion.  Romans 8:9 says, “If any man have not the Spirit of Christ, he is none of his.” Either one has the Holy Spirit, in which case he belongs to Christ and is saved, or else one does not have the Holy Spirit, in which case he is not saved.  It is wrong to ask God to give us something He has already given to us.  The baptism of the Spirit and the gift of the Spirit are inter-related.  The baptism puts me in Christ; the gift puts Christ in me. The one makes me a member of His mystical Body; the other makes my material body the Holy Spirit’s Temple


It is equally wrong to ask God to give me more of His Spirit.  The Holy Spirit is a Person, and one cannot receive a person by installments.


When you accepted Christ has Savior, God gave you the gift of His Holy Spirit.  You received that marvelous Person into your life.  The Christian life is largely the process of finding out more and more the vastness of the wisdom, the love and the power of the amazing Person who has come to share His life with those who trust Christ as Savior.



3 And he said unto them, Unto what then were ye baptized? And they said, Unto John's baptism.

Now, Paul does some further probing which revealed that in fact “John’s” was the only baptism they had known.  Furthermore, these dozen Ephesian converts of “John’s” knew little or nothing about the gift of the Holy Spirit, about His baptism and indwelling, or about His sealing and anointing ministry or the fact that He is the earnest of our inheritance.  They had not been made partakers of the sovereign acts of God that are all part of a genuine Christian experience.  Thus these men were believers in Christ, to the best of their knowledge of Him, but they were not yet Christians, nor had they received the Holy Spirit.  Dear reader, the moment you trust Christ you are regenerated by the Spirit of God, you are indwelt by the Spirit of God, you are sealed by the Spirit of God, and you are baptized into the body of believers by the Spirit of God.  This happens the moment you believe and trust Christ. However, this does not deny that in a believer’s life there are times when the Holy Spirit comes on individuals in a sovereign manner, empowering them for special ministries, giving them a good boldness in the faith and pouring out on them a passion for souls.   Paul detected that these people had not experienced the Holy Spirit at all, and therefore were not saved.  He immediately explained to them that they must trust the Lord Jesus to be saved.  They responded to his message and many believe. 


Keep in mind that John the Baptist was a prophet who ministered under the old dispensation (Matthew 11:7-14).  The Old Covenant was ended not by John at the Jordon, but by Jesus Christ at Calvary (Hebrews 10:1-18).  The baptism of John was important to the Jews of that time (Matthew 21:23-32), but it is no longer valid for the church today.  In a very real sense, these twelve men were like “Old Testament believer’s” who were anticipating the coming of the Messiah.  Certainly Paul explained to the men many basic proofs that Luke did not record.  Perhaps he told them that John’s baptism pointed to Jesus Christ as the One in whom they should believe—“I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire” (Matthew 3:11-12; also see Mark 1:7-8; Luke 3:16-17).    Then he baptized them, for their first “baptism” was not truly Christian baptism.



4 Then said Paul, John verily baptized with the baptism of repentance, saying unto the people, that they should believe on him which should come after him, that is, on Christ Jesus.

At this point “Paul” did not continue the discussion of the Holy Spirit.  There are many people who have received some kind of unscriptural “instruction” in how to receive a so-called baptism of the Spirit, who have had some kind of a “charismatic” experience, who are thus united in a bond of fellowship with others who have had a similar “experience,” and who have never been genuinely saved at all.  It is doubtful they have had a genuine encounter with the Holy Spirit at all.  We should do for them what “Paul” did for these inadequately instructed disciples of “John the Baptist.”  “Paul” directed the thoughts of these men to “Christ.”


Let us note that the Holy Spirit is here.  He is here in His abundance and power, in His glory and grace, in the beauty of holiness and in the bounty of His heart.  But He is here, above all, to point “people” to “Jesus.”  When people are taken up with the Spirit at the expense of “Christ” they missed the whole point and purpose of the Holy Spirit’s coming.  Certainly we need to know all the Spirit of God has revealed to us about Himself, but He would have us know that, first and foremost, He is here to point “people” to “Christ.”  “Paul” directed the attention of the men to “Jesus.”


They knew “Jesus,” but they only knew Him as preached by John.  They had obeyed the light they had and had been “baptized” by “John.” Evidently they were not at this point strictly Christian disciples but rather disciples of John the Baptist.  Now God gave them more light, and immediately they responded to that.  In his conversation with them, “Paul” discovered at once that their knowledge of Christ was deficient.  John’s “baptism” pointed forward to One who was coming; Christian “baptism” points back to One who has come.  John’s baptism was linked to repentance: “I am repentant, therefore I submit to this “baptism”; it is the public expression of a personal expectation of the soon-coming ‘Christ.’” Christian “baptism” is linked to regeneration: “I have been regenerated; therefore I submit to this “baptism”; it is the public expression of my personal experience of an indwelling Christ.” Moreover, John’s water “baptism” pointed to a promised “baptism” of the Spirit—it predicted the day of Pentecost.  Christian baptism points to a present “baptism” of the Spirit—it proclaims the day of Pentecost.  John’s “baptism” said, “There is going to be a change in the dispensations; the Holy Spirit is going to come into the world.” Christian “baptism” not only demonstrates that that has happened, it says, “There is a change in my disposition; the Holy Spirit has come into my heart.” John’s “baptism” was essentially Jewish in character, scope, and significance; believer’s “baptism” is essentially Christian in character, scope, and significance.  A Jew “baptized” at the urging of “John” remained a Jew.  A believer “baptized” at the urging of “John” remained a Jew.  A believer “baptized” in the name of “Jesus” remains a Jew or an American or a German, but he is publicly identified, by his “baptism,” with something far greater than nationality; he is identified with the church.  His “baptism” does not make him a Christian, but it proclaims him a Christian; it does not put him in the church, but it announces that he is in the church.


Paul’s statement in verse 4 is the critical point.  John’s “baptism” was a “baptism” of repentance, preparatory to the coming of the Messiah.  John’s entire role as forerunner was to prepare the people for the Messiah’s coming.  Paul showed them that John never intended that those he baptized should rest there, but told them that they should believe on Him who should come after him, that is on Christ Jesus.  The Messiah had indeed come, and He is Jesus.  Thus, to be a true disciple of John was to confess Jesus, for He is the One whom John had heralded.  The real deficiency of these 12 or so was not their “baptism.”  It was much more serious.  They failed to recognize Jesus as the One whom John had proclaimed, as the promised Messiah.


The defective answer these twelve men revealed to “Paul” showed just where they stood in relation to “Christ.”  As Aquila and Priscilla did for Apollos, so “Paul” did for these men—he explained the full gospel of “Christ” to them.  They believed at once and followed the Lord in believer’s “baptism.”



5 When they heard this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.

Paul explained that the baptism of “John” had only been a preparatory rite by which people had pledged themselves to improve their life in anticipation of the coming Messiah in whom they should believe—“To him give all the prophets witness, that through his name whosoever believeth in him shall receive remission of sins” (Acts 10:43, KJV).  But the Messiah had now come, offering forgiveness where there was repentance, and blessing where there was belief.  No doubt Paul set this out for them in full with proofs from Scripture, but Luke has summed it all up in the two words at the end of verse 4, “Christ Jesus.”  All that “John” and the prophets had looked forward to had been accomplished in “Jesus.”


Unlike Apollos, who had already been instructed in “the way” and who accurately talked about Jesus, this group was totally unacquainted with the Gospel.  They knew only John’s preparatory message.  But John had prepared them well, and they immediately responded to Paul’s good news that Christ the Messiah had come; “they were baptized in His name.”  Paul then laid his hands on them, and they received the Spirit.


What God did through Paul for these twelve men would not be normal for the church today.  How do we know?  Because it was not repeated.  The people who were converted in Ephesus under Paul’s ministry all received the gift of the Holy Spirit when they trusted the Savior.  Paul makes this clear in Ephesians 1:13-14[6], and this is the pattern for us today.



6 And when Paul had laid his hands upon them, the Holy Ghost came on them; and they spake with tongues, and prophesied.

These disciples had regarded themselves as Christians and yet were shown not to have a full understanding of the Christian faith.  Perhaps for this reason “Paul”placed “his hands on them” to assure them that they were now saved and members in good standing of Christ’s church.  Perhaps for this reason, too, the outward signs of the Spirit’s presence were added in their speaking in “tongues” and prophesying.  They needed this tangible evidence that the Holy Spirit now indwelt them, since they had not heard that He had come (v. 2). [Read Acts 2:38 and 8:16 and the notes, for more on them being “baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus” (v.5).]  These men could now speak the Gospel in other languages—in tongues that could be understood.  Ephesus was a multi-lingual city of the Roman Empire.  There were many languages spoken there, just as there had been in Jerusalem on the Day of Pentecost.  East and West met all along that coast.  It was a great city of that day.  These men were now able to give the good news of Christ to the entire city.  Though we do not now expect miraculous powers, yet all who profess to be the disciples of Christ, should be called on to examine whether they have received the seal of the Holy Ghost, in His sanctifying influences, to the sincerity of their faith.


There is yet another reason why it was necessary for Paul to lay hands on these men before they could receive the Spirit.  Keep in mind that this was a special group of men who would help form the nucleus of a great church in Ephesus.  By using Paul to convey the gift of the Spirit, God affirmed Paul’s apostolic authority and united the Ephesian church to the other churches as well as to the “mother church” in Jerusalem.  When Peter and John laid hands on the believing Samaritans, it united them to the Jerusalem church and healed a breach between Jews and Samaritans that had existed for centuries.


Some argue on the basis of this text that the gesture of hand-laying accompanied early Christian baptism. This, however, is the only instance in Acts where hand-laying directly follows baptism; and there is no evidence it was associated with baptism as a regular practice before A.D. 200.  In this instance the gesture is closely associated with the disciples receiving the Spirit, much as with the case of the Samaritan disciples in 8:15-17[5].  In both instances the reality of their experience was demonstrated in an ecstatic manifestation, with this group speaking in tongues and prophesying.  As throughout Acts, there is no set pattern.  The Spirit came at various times and in various ways.  What is consistent is that the Spirit is always a vital part of one’s initial commitment to Christ and a mark of every believer.


It was after “the Holy Ghost came on them” that “they spake in tongues, and prophesied.” It is not clear from this, whether they began to speak in tongues and prophesy, or that they kept on “speaking and prophesying.” These two gifts are fully discussed in 1 Corinthians 12 and 14, which were written from this city.


There can be no doubt that this is an extraordinary and unusual incident, even for apostolic times.  It is actually secondary to the whole story of the book of Acts.  A contemporary style of writing would probably treat this whole incident as a footnote to the main story.  The story of Apollos is certainly interesting and informative, but secondary to the main purpose of the book of Acts, especially at this point, which is more concerned with Paul’s missionary activity than those of other people.


How are we to view this particular incident?  It only involved a dozen Jews, disciples of John the Baptist, who came into a fuller understanding of the Gospel, embraced it, had hands laid on them apostolically by Paul, and the Holy Spirit came upon them and they spoke in tongues—their heightened emotion expressed itself in ecstatic utterances of praise—for tongues were bestowed, not for edification, but always for adoration.  This was not a second blessing, but the first blessing, as the baptism and reception of the Holy Spirit always is.  The incident is so minor and unusual we cannot use it as a basis for doctrine and remain true to sound principles of Bible interpretation. 


In the first place, these men were Jews, and tongues was a Jewish sign.  Everywhere the gift of tongues is mentioned in Acts, Jews are in the picture.  That is understandable, because tongues was essentially a sign to the Jews.


Those who cite this incident as the bases for giving the Holy Spirit to people today and cite it as proof that people who have the Spirit speak in tongues betray a misunderstanding both of the work of the Holy Spirit in this age and the significance of tongues in the early church.


In Acts 19:6, we have the last instance of the gift of tongues in the Book of Acts.  The believer’s spoke in tongues at Pentecost and praised God and their listeners recognized these tongues as known languages (Acts 2:4-11) and not as some “heavenly speech.” The Gentile believers in the house of Cornelius also spoke in tongues (Acts 10: 44-46), and their experience was identical to that of the Jews in Acts 2 (see Acts 11:15).  This was of historic significance since the spirit was baptizing Jews (Acts 2) and Gentiles (Acts 10) into the body of Christ—“For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. (1 Corinthians 12:13).


Today, the gift of tongues is not an evidence of the baptism of the Spirit or the fullness of the Spirit.  Paul asked, “Do all speak with tongues?” (1Corinthians 12:30) and the Greek construction demands NO as an answer.  When Paul wrote to his Ephesian friends about the filling of the Holy Spirit, he said nothing about tongues—“Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit” (Ephesians 5:18).  Nowhere in Scripture are we admonished to seek a baptism of the Holy Spirit, or to speak in tongues, but we are commanded to be filled with the Spirit. Read Paul’s letter to the Ephesian church and note the many references to the Holy Spirit of God and His work in the believer.



7 And all the men were about twelve.

Paul is not definite about there being 12 men; Luke’s expression, “All the men were about twelve,” makes it unlikely that he attached any significance to the number.  He certainly made nothing of it. 






End Notes:


[1] (Acts 18:25, KJV) “This man was instructed in the way of the Lord; and being fervent in the spirit, he spake and taught diligently the things of the Lord, knowing only the baptism of John.”

[2] (John 7:39, KJV) “(But this spake he of the Spirit, which they that believe on him should receive: for the Holy Ghost was not yet given; because that Jesus was not yet glorified.)”

[3] There is evidence that groups existed well into the fourth century who claimed John the Baptist as their founder.

[4] The word “disciple” means “learner,” or “follower,” and does not always refer to Christians (Matthew 9:14; 11:2; Mark 2:18; Luke 5:33; 7:18, 19; 11:1; John 1: 35; 6:66).

[5] (Acts 8:14-17, NIV) “When the apostles in Jerusalem heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God, they sent Peter and John to Samaria. When they arrived, they prayed for the new believers there that they might receive the Holy Spirit, because the Holy Spirit had not yet come on any of them; they had simply been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. Then Peter and John placed their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit.”

[6] (Ephesians 1:13-14, NIV) “And you also were included in Christ when you heard the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation. When you believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession—to the praise of his glory.”

[7] (John 1:32-3, NIV) “Then John gave this testimony: ‘I saw the Spirit come down from heaven as a dove and remain on him. And I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water told me, ‘The man on whom you see the Spirit come down and remain is the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.’”