Receiving the Spirit

Notes on Acts 19.1-7
A number of years ago, a book on baptism came out under the title The Water that Divides. The issue of when and how baptism is to be administered has divided believers.

One of the issues that now divides Christians is when and how the Holy Spirit is received. More than we realise this has implications for our understanding of

Key pointers in the text

These verses need to be seen against the backdrop of the teaching of Apollos in 18.24-28. Apollos understood and taught accurately the facts about Jesus but "knew only the baptism of John" (18.25). We read in 18.26 that Aquila and Priscilla "invited [Apollos] to their home and explained to him the way of God more adequately."

Who were these "disciples" in 19.1ff? It is reasonable to assume that they were people persuaded by the preaching of Apollos before he had been instructed by Aquila and Priscilla, since they had only received "John's baptism" (v. 3).

Are we to understand that these "disciples" were "Christians"? We face the problem here that the word "Christian" is a term which is used both broadly and narrowly.

In Paul's dealing with them, we note v. 4 - "John's baptism was a baptism of repentance. He told the people to believe in the one coming after him, that is, in Jesus." In other words, they had accepted the truths declared by John the Baptist, namely

While these people are called "disciples", Paul recognised that something was seriously wrong. But the basic issue was not that an incorrect baptismal formula had been used - nor, in fact, that these people were "Christians" who hadn't yet received the "second blessing". The issue was faith in Jesus - a faith that received him, not just as a teacher external to them, but as a person whom they received into their life.

"On hearing this, they were baptised into the name of the Lord Jesus. When Paul placed his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they spoke in tongues and propesied" (vv. 5-6).

Their baptism "into the name of the Lord Jesus" wasn't the application of the correct formula but their affirmation of faith in the Lord Jesus. Their reception of the Holy Spirit was the normal and expected accompaniment of their faith in the Lord Jesus. Their tongue-speaking was a visible confirmation that they were no longer "John's disciples" but true Christian believers.

Further Issues

Some groups have insisted that people aren't true Christians unless they have spoken in tongues, or at least that without this experience they are incomplete Christians. In this way the unity, which is one of the signs of the Spirit's presence, is broken (Eph. 4.3). We do well to note that the Corinthian church, which was big on "spiritual gifts" but lacking in love - this is why Paul's beautiful chapter on love (1 Cor. 13) comes in the middle of his discussion of spiritual gifts.

One of the dominant themes of Paul is that the Christian lives "in Christ" and that Christ lives in the Christian. Because of this the Christian life is "according to the Spirit", "led by the Spirit"... There is no thought that the completed work of Christ and the continuing work of the Spirit can or should be separated.

But it is also noteworthy that the record of Acts itself does not justify the assumption that all will therefore - now or later - speak in tongues. We know that on several occasions it was in fact so. But we do best to call people to believe in and receive Christ - knowing that we cannot receive Christ without receiving the Father and the Spirit as well - and to let God give whatever particular experiences he will. We separate the Trinity at our peril.

All of this has implications for our understanding of and willingness to work with one another in the commission our Lord has given to us. In God's sight there are no first-class and second-class Christians. To all he has given his Spirit. To each he has given gifts as he wills - so that together we can be his Body, effective to do his will.

I commend for further consideration my paper Ministry Together with its statements and pastoral affirmations.


© Peter J. Blackburn, 9 January 2000
Except where otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from the New International Version, © International Bible Society, 1983.

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