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Acts 19:1-7

Our Acts passage has created a lot of doctrinal debate over the years. It’s one of those passages that people “proof-text” to demonstrate the validity of re-baptism, the necessity of adult believer’s baptism, a Pentecostal/charismatic “speaking in tongues” experience, and for holiness folk a “second (Holy Spirit) crisis experience, subsequent to regeneration.” There’s a lot of baggage associated with this passage — in the mind of both preacher and congregation. I wouldn’t blame anyone for avoiding this passage altogether! 

To be fair, this passage illustrates partially that there was a variety of teachings and practices in the early Church. We do well to remember the admonition: “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; and in all things, charity.” The question then becomes: What is essentially Christian about this passage and what is non-essential?

The lectionary assigns this Acts passage to the Sunday where we celebrate the Baptism of the Lord, which brings Christmastide to a close and begins Epiphany. I believe that in selecting the text for this particular day, the Church in its wisdom gives us the interpretive key to this otherwise oft-misused text. Here’s a brief history of the Baptism of the Lord:

The Baptism of the Lord has historically been associated with the celebration of Epiphany. Even today, the Eastern Christian feast of Theophany, celebrated on January 6 as a counterpart to the Western feast of Epiphany, focuses primarily on the Baptism of the Lord as the revelation of God to man.​

After the Nativity of Christ (Christmas) was separated out from Epiphany, the Church in the West continued the process and dedicated a celebration to each of the major epiphanies (revelations) or theophanies (the revelation of God to man): the Birth of Christ at Christmas, which revealed Christ to Israel; the revelation of Christ to the Gentiles, in the visit of the Wise Men at Epiphany; the Baptism of the Lord, which revealed the Trinity; and the miracle at the wedding at Cana, which revealed Christ’s transformation of the world.​

Thus, the Baptism of the Lord began to be celebrated on the octave (eighth day) of Epiphany, with the miracle at Cana celebrated on the Sunday after that. In the current liturgical calendar, the Baptism of the Lord is celebrated on the Sunday after January 6, and, a week later, on the Second Sunday of Ordinary Time, we hear the Gospel of the Wedding at Cana.” [1]​

The point of an epiphany and/or theophany is to reveal (not to obscure things). During Epiphany, the point is to reveal God in the person of Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit. The Triune God’s nature and activity is on display here. Our passage reveals to us that what is “essentially” Christian is an encounter with and a choice to follow the Triune God. Let’s consider the evidence here:

  1. While these 12 persons were called “disciples” — that term is not exclusive in application. They were not yet disciples of Jesus. Paul first questions whether they’d received the Holy Spirit and then discovers that they’d been baptized into John’s baptisms. They were, effectively, disciples of John for all intents and purposes. The baptism that these twelve Ephesian disciple received was a partial one. This eliminates the re-baptism argument, for their first baptism was not a Christian baptism. They turned from their old way of living (metanoia) but they had not yet turned to something — an empowered, Kingdom living and purpose. So, Paul helps them complete the process. This is what it means to be Christian (which many people claim to be). It’s more than nominal, it is more than ritual, and it is more than just being “forgiven.” Disciples of Jesus encounter him and identify with his life, share his mission, and become a part of his new community.

  2. We’ve come to think of baptism or filling with the Holy Spirit as a mark of individual piety or proof of personal salvation but that is not how it functions in Acts. In our passage, as in other passages in Acts, the Holy Spirit comes to a group of people — in this case about 12 people in Ephesus (Side Note: “About” 12? Luke was obviously giving his report to the DS. “fuzzy” counting). We know the number 12 is significant. There are 12 Tribes of Israel, 12 Apostles, and here 12 Gentile believers. The point behind the number is to demonstrate the continuity and fulfillment of God’s saving activity in the world from the promise of Abraham, through Christ, and now in the Church — to the ends of the earth. The filling of the Holy Spirit has a missional purpose. The gift of “tongues and prophecy” here follow this logic. This is not some private prayer language or special knowledge for personal edification. It is empowerment for evangelism (just as it was after Pentecost). Our life in Christ, including being filled with the Holy Spirit — while affecting us personally, isn’t a badge of honor or the goal itself. It is a starting point to life in the Spirit, which empowers us to know the mind of Christ and carry on the mission of Christ in the world.

The essentials of Christianity are not found in the non-essentials of denominational debates. We can practice a generous (charitable) orthodoxy. Far from being confusing and divisive, our Acts text clarifies some Christian essentials for us. We are baptized into the name of the Triune God, whom we must encounter in order to be transformed. We identify with Christ who identifies with us in his own baptism, which itself prefigures a life of love and sacrifice for the salvation of the world. We are filled with the Holy Spirit to be empowered to live a transformed, Christ-centered life that bears witness to God’s love through evangelistic words & deeds. ​ [1]