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Pondering Pentecostal Proof-texts in Acts 19:1-7

23/04/2021

Pondering Pentecostal Proof-Texts.

Text:  Acts 19:1-7, Ephesians 1:12-14. 

Paul is now in Ephesus.  It was a huge city, a sea-port, and the capital of the Roman province of Asia, and with a large population, around a million people, and deeply steeped in idolatry.  It probably would have been on the agenda for Paul’s second missionary journey, for it seems that he was set to travel down to the province of ‘Asia’ when he experienced his ‘Macedonian Call’.  Acts 16:6-9  And when he had left Corinth at the end of his second journey, heading for Jerusalem and Antioch, Paul had made a point of staying for a short time in Ephesus, probably just to assess the situation, to test the ground and see whether there would be any opportunity to preach the gospel, and what reception it would have.  It was a good reception, and some of the Ephesians had wanted Paul to stay, and when he needed to leave he had promised that he would return, and when he did return he would remain for three years, and it would be his most fruitful period of ministry.  No wonder he was anxious to return, and travelled by the quickest route…

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

1 John’s Baptism.  V1 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.

Paul was led of the Lord to encounter a little group of twelve men whom Luke describes as ‘disciples.’  Some think that since they’d had only had John’s baptism they must have been some of John’s followers, only, If so, they were not Christians, but likely Jews who were genuinely seeking the Messiah.  Others differ, and point out that for Luke to speak of ‘disciples’ would imply that they were Christians, – believers in Christ, whose understanding of the faith was defective or deficient. But if these were disciples of Jesus, it throws up a serious problem for us.  How do we relate to, and cope with professing believers whose understanding of Christian doctrine is less than perfect, perhaps less than orthodox?  A case study is needed!

  • Defective Christianity. Now there are many strange groups, with strange beliefs sheltering under the umbrella of ‘Christendom’ – the visible church. Of course we understand that ultimately, one the Lord Himself knows who are His.  But one of the strangest of these doctrinally suspicious groups are the so-called‘Oneness Pentecostals.’  One of their most famous names is Bishop T D Jakes from the USA.  He is a well known preacher on the American religious TV channels.  But they have churches here in NI, and they are nothing like Td Jakes.  Many of them are conservative, pentecostal, and, sitting in their meetings and listening to their preachers, they sound just like gospel preaching, baptistic churches. They will tell their people that they are sinners, and point to Jesus as Saviour.  They will stand with us on moral issues, and do so very strongly.  But when you examine their doctrines, you will find that they do not believe in the biblical Trinitarian formula of the Godhead.   They will talk about God ‘manifesting himself’ as Father, Son and Holy Ghost.  When someone says that, you know that their doctrine, their understanding of the Godhead is deficient.  Somehow, as Paul spoke to these believers, he discovered that there was something lacking, some doctrinal abnormality.  He asked them a question… v2 He said unto them, Have ye received the Holy Ghost since ye believed?.  Their answer must have been a shock.
  • Pneumatological ignorance!  And they said unto him, We have not so much as heard whether there be any Holy Ghost.   Isn’t this hard to understand?  How could they NOT have heard of the Holy Spirit?  FF Bruce thinks it is unlikely, if they really were disciples of John that they could not have heard anything at all about the Holy Spirit, for disciples of John would surely have known what John had said, in Mark 1:7-9 … he shall baptise you with the Holy Ghost. And surely they would have known about the baptism of Jesus, where the Holy Ghost had descended,  Mark 1:10-11   You have to work really hard to avoid that verse when you believe that God consecutively manifests himself as Father Son and Holy Spirit – for here are all three persons of the Trinity acting together simultaneously.  Commentators suggest that what they didn’t know about the Holy Spirit was the events of Pentecost.  That they were believers in Jesus who had never had any personal experience of the Holy Spirit’s work in their lives.  So he then probes further. 3 And he said unto them, Unto what then were ye baptised? And they said, Unto John’s baptism.  Paul’s right.  These disciples who were either beavers in Jesus, or believers in the promised messiah who was Jesus, were lacking.  Lacking in doctrinal knowledge, and thus lacking in their personal experience of God.  Now, how would Paul remedy that deficiency?

Paul’s answer to defective Christianity (and, I suggest, it should be ours too) is simply to PREACH THE GOSPEL.    4 Then said Paul, John verily baptised 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. Let’s see how he does this:-

  • He reminds the disciples that John’s ministry was NOT primarily about baptism!  There were more important issues, for John’s ministerial purpose was PREPARATORY.  He just was to prepare the way for the coming of Jesus.  John’s ministry was not to form an enduring religion or sect.  That there must have been disciples of John travelling around, even as far as Ephesus, and preaching the message that John preached, was actually a denial of John’s ministry and purpose.  John was to point people to the coming Messiah, and he declared that Messiah to be Jesus.  John the evangelist wrote, in John 1:6-8  Mark 1:3  
  • He preaches John’s theology to the disciples, REPENT and BELIEVE. John baptised people, but his baptism was just a symbol of repentance of heart.  His theology is a proper mix of Law and Gospel.  Repent of your sins, and believe on Christ.  It’s the same gospel which we preach today, and the only difference was that while we point sinners back to Calvary, John points them forward to the coming Messiah, to Jesus. 

I wonder about my own response to people who are professing believers, brothers and sisters in Christ, whose doctrinal standards seem to fall short of biblical standards.  How do I think of them, speak to them?  If I follow Paul’s example, my conversation with them will be savoured with Gospel truth, pointing them winsomely to the Saviour, that they may respond, as the Holy Spirit opens their eyes, and illuminates their minds.

2 Baptism in the Name of the Lord  V3 5 When they heard this, they were baptised in the name of the Lord Jesus. 

And that is exactly what happened here in Ephesus. When the twelve men realised the Gospel, heard that John’s preaching was Christ centred, they were baptised in the name of the Lord Jesus. Now this raises two important doctrinal issues for us, when dealing with doctrinally lacking believers.

  • When do we practise rebaptism?   I wonder did you notice that in the previous chapter, Apollos had John’s baptism, but there is no biblical record of him having been rebaptised, after he had been catechised by Priscilla and Aquilla.  Perhaps this is because he had evidence of the Holy Spirit in his life and witness.  The phrase, ‘fervent in the spirit’ in Acts 18:25 ζεων τω πνευματι could equally be translated, ‘fervent in the Spirit.’  In other words he had a lively faith, – he was full of the Holy Ghost! He was accepted as a born again believer. But these believers in Ephesus had no such evidence of being spirit filled, no assurance that the Holy Spirit was indwelling them.  So Paul rebaptised them!  It’s the one single incident of rebaptism in the whole NT, and it’s not a precedent for us, for Acts is telling us what WAS DONE, not what WE MUST DO!  It was a one-off particular case.  Should we rebaptise?  Someone once asked me if a Roman Catholic was saved, would I insist on rebaptising them!  My answer?  No, but I would rebaptise a person who had been baptised by a Oneness Pentecostal!  
  • What is the formula for baptism?  they were baptised in the name of the Lord Jesus.   When these people were ‘baptised in the name of Jesus’ it is simply to inform us that they were baptised into Christ, as opposed to their previous baptism into the name of John.  Just as their former baptism would not have been ‘in the beautiful name of John the Baptist’ so their Christian baptism would have been as instructed by Jesus himself in Matthew 28:19  

So, the twelve disciples have been brought to a fuller experience of Christ, they have responded to the preaching of the Gospel and have been baptised as Christian believers.  And what a change that makes!

3. Baptism in the Holy Spirit.  v6 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.

There is one more important aspect to this passage that we are forced to consider.  This passage contains a Pentecostal proof text.  At Pentecost there were manifestations – indications that the Holy Spirit had come upon the church.  This passage is still set in the apostolic times, before the completion of the Canon of Scripture, so is it not likely that these disciples would have a similar experience to that of the people who were in the Upper Room on the Day of Pentecost?  It brings two challenges.  

  • Dedication and anointing.  Paul laid his hands upon them.  It’s an apostolic blessing, and ‘The Holy Ghost came upon them.  It was ever thus.  The Holy Ghost comes upon us when we are saved.  I know that there are those who will urge you to seek for a second blessing, or an entire sanctification, or a spiritual baptism, but, with great respect to those Christians who believe this, we cannot use this incident in Acts 19 as the foundation for a doctrinal position.  This is a unique event, dealing with a particular situation and should not be deemed to be normative for every believer.    1 Corinthians, 12:13 For by one Spirit are we all baptised into one body, When do we enter the body of Christ?  When we believe?  When do we be baptised in the Holy Spirit, – when we believe…
  • The vocal evidence.  They spoke with tongues and prophesied. To understand this we need to read Acts 2:7. The word TONGUES here indicates languages, – spoken languages that foreigners could understand, and the purpose was to declare the gospel to all the nations.  There is a link between them speaking with other languages and ‘prophecy’ – in its truest sense prophesy IS the declaration of the will of God to men and women, and that is that they should repent and believe.

These ‘disciples’ – of whatever sort, now have ASSURANCE, of salvation, for the Holy Spirit in now indwelling them, a downpayment of heaven, a guarantee of their future redemption.  Paul would later comment on this in his letter to the church, in Ephesians 1:12-14  

So, there are now a dozen converted, committed believers at Ephesus, worshipping with those Jews who had been converted at Paul’s first visit. They will be a strong church, and they will strike a blow against the egregious idolatry of the city of Ephesus, and there will be riots…  

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