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"Now, to Ephesus"


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Read Acts 19:1-10

This week, we return to Acts as we meet Paul on his third missionary journey in chapter 19.  Paul is on to Ephesus in the province of what was then called Asia.    Ephesus was the leading city in Asia and the most prosperous center of commerce in the Roman Empire.  Roughly stated, Ephesus was to Asia what Chicago is to Illinois.  If you want to penetrate Asia with the gospel, Ephesus is your base of operations.  In chapter 19, we see Luke’s continuing record of the gospel spreading to places it had never been preached. I want us to look at two truths from the text we heard read a few minutes ago.

The first truth is in verses one through six.  Luke records, “1 And it happened that while Apollos was at Corinth, Paul passed through the inland country and came to Ephesus. There he found some disciples. 2 And he said to them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” And they said, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.” 3 And he said, “Into what then were you baptized?” They said, “Into John’s baptism.” 4 And Paul said, “John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, Jesus.” 5 On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. 6 And when Paul had laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they began speaking in tongues and prophesying.  That is one of the more theologically complicated, compressed and debated passages in Acts, but there are some crucial truths here for us if we are to more understand, appreciate and share the gospel.  That’s our goal this morning.

The first truth is: God’s saving work through the gospel is manifold in nature.  By “manifold” I mean, multi-facetted—there are many pieces to it.  In these six verses Luke references at least five elements of the gospel--faith, discipleship, repentance, Spirit-baptism and water baptism.  In addition to the challenge of the theology here, the meaning of this text is very much debated.  The debate centers around the question: “Were these men Paul first meets in Ephesus believers or unbelievers when he met them?”   We run into this question as we think about the first element of the gospel, faith as Luke recounts this event.  In verse two he asks them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?  Many understand that sentence to imply that these men were believers in Christ.  They also point to verse one where Luke calls these men “disciples.”  People who understand the text this way, believe that God simply “finishes” these men here.  That is—they were believers, but were incomplete because they had simply not received the Holy Spirit.  After all (so the argument goes) this was a transitional time in redemptive history and there were other people who also did not receive the Spirit when they believed.  In chapter eight in Samaria, Philip preached the gospel and many Samaritans believed.  They were even baptized, but it wasn’t till Peter and John came and laid hands on them that the Spirit came upon them. 

Others hold these men were not believers and cite verse four.  4And Paul said, “John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, Jesus.” 5 On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.   Here’s the argument on this side.  These men had only been baptized into John’s baptism which was a preparatory baptism of repentance, not of salvation with the Spirit.  Also, Paul explains that John’s mission was not about himself or his baptism, but to compel people “to believe in the one who was to come after him,” It wasn’t until these men heard that gospel call to believe they were baptized as believers in Jesus’ name.  Also and more fundamentally, these men had not yet received the Holy Spirit when Paul meets them.  Therefore, they were not believers. 

The way to sort out the question of whether these men are believers is to remember a very basic, but often overlooked rule in interpreting the Bible.  That rule is—don’t allow a Biblical narrative or story (like this one in Acts) to have the final say in understanding Bible doctrines.  There is certainly doctrine implicit in many narrative texts here and in the Old Testament, but we must remember that Luke’s primary intention in writing Acts is not to teach doctrine, it’s to provide a historical account of the spread of the gospel. When you get your doctrine from a book that isn’t intended to teach doctrine, you are opening yourself up for possible misunderstanding. 

Let’s illustrate from this passage.  Some read this passage and understand from it that these men are believers who, when Paul lays his hands on them, receive the Spirit as a second and separate experience from conversion—a second blessing.  They have the same understanding of the Pentecost texts in Acts chapter two and believe that the follower of Jesus must have two separate experiences—first, trusting in Jesus which saves them and second, the baptism or filling of the Holy Spirit that empowers them for ministry.  They see that as God’s two-step pattern that is still the norm today.  The problem with that understanding is it contradicts Paul’s treatment of the Holy Spirit in First Corinthians chapter 12 which IS intended to be a doctrinal teaching.  There Paul clearly teaches in verse 13, “13For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body— Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit.”   There are not two classes of believers—one that has trusted in Christ and a second that has trusted in Christ AND been filled or baptized with the Holy Spirit.  Paul clearly teaches here that ALL those trusting in Christ have been baptized by the Holy Spirit.  When you read Paul’s doctrinal section on the Holy Spirit in First Corinthians, it gives us a doctrinal lens through which to read and understand the stories in Acts.  We should NOT read a doctrinal teaching through the lens of Biblical narrative.

Ultimately, we must go to a text that teaches the doctrine defining the relationship between the believer and the Holy Spirit.  We must go to Romans 8:9.  There, in an explicitly doctrinal teaching Paul says, “9 You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him.” That’s pretty clear, isn’t it?  Paul draws a hard line here—if you don’t have the Spirit, you don’t belong to Christ—are not saved.  That forces us to conclude that these men in Ephesus were NOT believers until after the Spirit of God came upon them.  They came to Paul as “believers,” but only in this sense:  they may have believed in Jesus mentally, or believed what John the Baptist said about  the Messiah coming soon, but they were not born-again believers.  They were disciples, but disciples of John the Baptist who, like Jesus also had disciples.

But what about the Samaritans in chapter eight who had two separate experiences—first, belief and water baptism and later, the outpouring of the Holy Spirit?  In that case, there was a very important and unique element in play which not only ALLOWED for the separation of these two experiences, it REQUIRED it.  That is--this was the first time the gospel had been accepted by people outside of Judea.  Unlike all who had believed the gospel up to that point, these were not purebred Jews, but Samaritans.  This is a new chapter in salvation history and as we see in the gospels, many  Jews—even Jewish followers of Christ could not believe that Samaritans could be saved.  So, authoritative witnesses were mandatory to confirm these Samaritans receiving the Spirit.  If the apostles had led the Samaritans to faith, there would have been no need for two experiences, but you’ll recall that it was Philip the evangelist, not the apostles who led these Samaritans to faith.  God wanted the Jews to see that there is continuity between what he had done through the apostles for the Jews and what he had done for the Samaritans.  That meant that, as in the case of the Jews, the Holy Spirit must be given in the presence of the apostles because the apostles weren’t there when they believed and were baptized.  Both texts say something important about faith and that is--the Spirit is only given to those who have faith in Christ.

In addition to the faith element of salvation, another element of God’s saving work in the gospel is repentance. Repentance is referenced to both explicitly and implicitly in this passage.  First, in verse four when Paul explains that “John baptized with the baptism of repentance.  The fact that God intended John’s baptism of repentance to prepare people for Jesus’ baptism of the Spirit implies that repentance is crucial to salvation.  At Pentecost, when the Jews ask Peter, “What must we do to be saved?” he says, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the bane of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Spirit.  Receiving the Spirit is contingent on repentance.  Repentance as an element of the gospel is also implied in two other places here.  First, in verse nine Luke records, “But when some became stubborn and continued in unbelief, speaking evil of the Way before the congregation he withdrew from them and took the disciples with him…   As we see in several places in Acts, Christianity was then known as “the Way.”  Whatever else that label signifies, it means that following Christ is not about making a decision or  praying a prayer or intellectually acknowledging the truth about Jesus.  Following Christ was and is the way.  It’s the only way to God, but it’s also—the way of life that communicates that you are a believer and Christianity as a way of life implies that you have repented of your old way of life.

A final way in which repentance is implied is in verse eight where it says of Paul, “8 And he entered the synagogue and for three months spoke boldly, reasoning and persuading them about the kingdom of God.  Paul is using the same language as Jesus to describe what it is to follow Christ.  It is to be brought into a kingdom.  Jesus preached a gospel of the kingdom and in Matthew 4:17 he says, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”  To become a follower of Christ means leaving one kingdom—the kingdom of this world where sin, Satan and self-rule are the norm and entering God’s kingdom.  Matthew 6:33 says, “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness and all these things will be added to you.” Tom Schreiner says, “…this means that human beings are to give the whole of their lives over to God because the kingdom belongs to God.  He is the great treasure that is received when the kingdom is found…He is the sum and substance of human life and must take priority in everything.[1]  That implies a repentance of self-rule where you are on the throne of your life and a recognition that you are under new management--Christ the King now rules your life.

Two more elements of the gospel Luke highlights are: Holy Spirit and water baptism. When Paul meets these men from Ephesus he asks them two questions.  First, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?”  When they said no, he followed up with the question, “Into what then were you baptized?”  The fact that Paul asks one question about the baptism of the Spirit followed closely by a question about water baptism tells us there is a tight connection between being baptized by the Spirit and water baptism. When Paul hears that they had not been baptized with the Spirit, that doesn’t make sense to him, so he digs deeper and asks about their water baptism.  The relationship between these two baptisms is important.  Being baptized with the Holy Spirit means several things.  First, the fact that God describes it as a baptism tells us that the idea of washing is involved.  When you are baptized with the Spirit, he applies the cleansing blood of Christ to you and you are washed clean from your sin.  Jesus bled and died for the believer, but it’s the Spirit of God that appropriates that blood and its cleansing when the believer is baptized with the Spirit.

The baptism of the Spirit also brings inclusion into the body of Christ.  Luke records the coming of the Spirit on the Samaritans and later, the Gentiles in part to show that these non-Jews too were now part of the people of God because they had been baptized in the Holy Spirit.  13 For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body— Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit.  The presence of the Spirit is the decisive indicator that you belong to Christ and Christ’s church.  The age of the Holy Spirit, which began at Pentecost signified that salvation is not found in the Old Covenant—it is found by faith in Christ through the New Covenant of the Spirit.

Paul tells these Ephesian men that believer’s water baptism is not the same as John’s baptism and its only after they are baptized by the Spirit that he physically baptizes them in the name of Jesus.  One reason they are baptized in the name of Jesus is to outwardly signify that they now belong to Christ.  Spiritually they are IN Christ, so they are physically baptized in the name of Jesus.  Water baptism outwardly signifies what has happened to you spiritually--that you have been washed of your sins by the blood of the Lamb as that washing is applied or mediated by the Spirit of God.  In Acts, water baptism almost always immediately follows Spirit baptism.  There was no need to delay baptism because—in most cases, the person’s baptism by the Holy Spirit was outwardly seen through speaking in tongues, prophesying or other outward signs.  It was appropriate to baptize the person as a believer because the giving of the Spirit to them was plain to see.  The chance of a false convert during the period Luke records in Acts was far less than it is today where conversion is not typically accompanied by any outward manifestation like tongues.  We must use other, less overt measures to determine if a person is converted.

Early in the second century, the church made a conscious decision to wait to see if a professed convert really was a believer, in part because the outward signs of receiving the Spirit in Acts had disappeared.  That meant you couldn’t know as certainly as in Acts if the new convert had trusted in Christ with saving faith.  Probably because they didn’t want to signify outwardly something that had not occurred inwardly (which is what baptism does), they waited and looked for evidence of a changed life.  I wish we could immediately baptize in water everyone who claims to have trusted Christ, but because we also don’t want water baptism to signify something that is not an inward reality, we typically wait for a while after conversion to see if the person’s life bears fruit indicating their authenticity.  That gives us a better chance of baptizing with water someone who has also been baptized by the Spirit.

A second truth this text teaches what we have seen before and is:  The gospel will without fail spread to every people group under God’s sovereign hand.  Again, all of these texts detailing Paul’s missionary journey are intended by Luke to show that the gospel was extending to all the nations just as Jesus had commanded.  Here are two ways the gospel goes forward then and now.  The first way is by gospel preaching that appeals first to the mind.  When you look at apostolic ministry in Acts—Paul’s or Peter’s--the first appeal in preaching is to the mind—you have to KNOW something—thought and reflection are required.  In verse eight, Luke says this about Paul’s ministry.  “And he entered the synagogue and for three months spoke boldly, reasoning and persuading them about the kingdom of God.  We see these same words used in connection to his ministry to the Thessalonians and the Corinthians.

John Stott expresses the importance of this kind of preaching so well.  He writes, “This vocabulary shows that Paul’s presentation of the gospel was serious, well-reasoned and persuasive.  Because he believed the gospel to be true, he was not afraid to engage the minds of his hearers.  He did not simply proclaim his message in a ‘take it or leave it’ fashion; instead, he marshaled arguments to support and demonstrate his case.  He was seeking to convince and convert, and in fact, as Luke makes plain many were persuaded.  He continues, “…Arguments of course are no substitute for the work of the Holy Spirit.  But then trust in the Holy Spirit is no substitute for arguments either.  We must never set them over against each other as alternatives.  No, the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of truth, and he brings people to faith in Jesus not in spite of the evidence, but because of the evidence, when he opens their minds to attend to it.”[2] 

The gospel spread as Paul preached to the intellects of his hearers.  You must get truth into the mind before it can then be manifest in the person’s the affections—things like conviction or joy or enthusiasm to obey, and finally a willful decisions to follow Christ.  Mind, then affections, then the will—thinking, feeling, obeying.  That is the order in which God works in people.  A second way in which the gospel spread is through opposition that God uses to further advance the gospel.  In Acts, as well as through much of church history, God has used opposition to the gospel powerfully to help spread the gospel.  In Acts chapter eight, persecution drove the church out from Jerusalem and in so doing served God’s purpose to extend its reach to the Samaritans.  In this text, when people in the synagogue “became stubborn and continued in unbelief, speaking evil of the Way before the congregation, he withdrew from them and took the disciples with him reasoning daily in the hall of Tyrannus.”  Paul is forced to flee the synagogue and decides to set up shop in a lecture hall--a secular place where people of many different beliefs came.  This would have been a bit like preaching in a lecture hall at UMD.

Luke records that this ministry “continued for two years, so that all the residents of Asia heard the word of the Lord, both Jews and Greeks.”  God’s strategy worked.  Ephesus, as the hub of Asia where everyone would eventually travel for some reason, was where all the residents of Asia heard the gospel.  Do you suppose the Greeks and all the residents of Asia would have heard the gospel if he had stayed in the Jewish synagogue? Of course not.  Only Jews and God-fearing gentiles went to the synagogue and those two groups together comprised only a small percentage of the population of Asia.  So, God uses opposition to the gospel to drive Paul to preach in a place where it will be heard by a much larger audience.  As we give the gospel out—(even this Wednesday when many are going to the Lake to share the gospel) don’t let possible opposition discourage you.  God uses it all the time for the conversion of sinners.

As we close, here are two points of application.  First, doctrine and knowing doctrine can be, and often is, the difference between heaven and hell.  This has been a doctrinal sermon because this text is chocked full of doctrine—If you are going to do faithful to this text, doctrine must be a huge piece.  We must know that ultimately Paul’s concern about these men of Ephesus was not only about their spiritual experience, but more fundamentally, sound doctrine.  When Paul asks them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” The implication is a doctrinal claim.  That is—receiving the Holy Spirit is essential to be saved.  When he asked them about their baptism, another doctrinal truth lies behind it.  That is—water baptism in Jesus’ name reflects the baptism by the Holy Spirit.  That’s a doctrine.  When Paul understood what had happened with these men, he explained the doctrine of John the Baptist’s ministry.  Verse four, “John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who as to come after him, that is, Jesus.”  He is teaching doctrine here. Specifically, the relationship between John and his baptism and message and Jesus and his baptism with the Spirit to all who believe.  That is a doctrinal distinction.

In evangelicalism today, doctrine is so often frowned upon or at least marginalized and that is the result of a deadly deception Satan has perpetrated on the church.  John Piper speaks of Athanasius who in the third century argued against those who claimed that Jesus was not God.  He argued against a heretic named Arius who taught much the same doctrine about Christ as espoused today by cults like the Jehovah’s witnesses and the Mormons that deny his deity.  Piper writes this as it applies to today’s church, “What was clear to Athanasius was that propositions about Christ carried convictions that could send you to heaven or to hell. There were propositions like: “There was a time when the Son of God was not,” and, “He was not before he was made,” and, “the Son of God is created.” These propositions were strictly damnable. If they were spread and believed they would damn the souls which embraced them…”

“I believe Athanasius would have abominated, with tears, the contemporary call for “depropositionalizing” that you hear among many… I think he would have said, “Our young people in Alexandria die for the truth of propositions about Christ. What do your young people die for?” And if the answer came back, “We die for Christ, not propositions about Christ,” I think he would have said, “That’s what Arius says. So which Christ will you die for?”  Athanasius would have grieved over sentences like “It is Christ who unites us; it is doctrine that divides.” And sentences like: “We should ask, Whom do you trust? rather than what do you believe?”  He would have grieved because he knew this is the very tactic used by the Arian bishops to cover the councils with fog so that the word “Christ” could mean anything…”  Learning, believing and articulating sound doctrine mattered then and it matters just as much now.

A second and final point of application is one we have mentioned before, but Luke’s multiple repetitions of it tell us that we must also repeat it—it’s that important.  That is: repentance is necessary for salvation. Those within the church who claim repentance is not part of the call of the gospel because it is a “work” simply do not understand repentance, the gospel—or frankly, much of the message of Scripture very well.  In Second Timothy 2:25 tells us that the man of God must, “25 correct… his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth,” Repentance is granted by God—it’s not a work. Beyond that, Paul explains his gospel ministry in Romans1:5.  “…we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the nations.  Saving faith brings about obedience to God and that means repentance from dead works.  Hebrews 6:1 says, “1 Therefore let us leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God,”  Repentance from dead works is elementary—it’s foundational—it’s part of the gospel.  May God give all of us the grace know the truth so we can obey the truth.

[1] Schreiner, New Testament Theology, p. 123.

[2] Stott, Acts, p. 313.


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