Acts 19:2-7 – Disciples of John the Baptist

Luke intended this paragraph to be read along with the previous unit, the introduction of Apollos as a disciple of John.  Just as Luke contrasted Barnabas with Ananias in 4:36-28 and 5:1-2, Apollos and the other disciples of John stand in contrast  One disciple heard John and accept Jesus as the Messiah (although not fully understanding the implications of the resurrection, most likely with respect for Gentile salvation), the other disciples heard John but were ignorant of Jesus and the Holy Spirit.

The dozen disciples of John indicate that even 20 years after John’s death there was a movement amount the Jews that held John to be a prophet and in some way kept his teachings alive. Perhaps the gospel of John gives us a similar hint, especially if it can be show that John wrote from Ephesus near the end of the first century.

John the BaptistThese disciples cannot be considered Christians at this point since they had not yet received the Holy Spirit.  While Luke only uses “disciple” for believers in every other case in Acts, his use of μαθητής here is without a definite article, the such example in Acts.  At the very least these are unusual Christians, perhaps “fringe” Christians, similar to the “unusual, fringes of Judaism described in the first half of the book.  Paul’s question – did you receive the Holy Spirit – is equivalent to asked, “are you believers?”  Not only have these disciples not received the Holy Spirit, they do not even know that there is a Holy Spirit!

Paul asked them “into whom” or “into what” they were baptized.  The NIV obscures this a bit, interpreting the question as “who baptized you,” rather than “what was the medium in which you were baptized.” Witherington comments that the image of being immersed into the Holy Spirit was common in the early church, see Rom 6:3, 1 Cor 1:13, 15, 10:2, 12:13, Gal 3:27).  His point is that the “whom” of this verse cannot refer to water; he sees the baptism of the Holy Spirit as entry into saving faith, while baptism in water is entry into the Christian community (Acts, 571).

Since they had been baptized “in John’s baptism,” Paul explains that John’s baptism was not enough, it was a “baptism of repentance,” which looked forward to the ministry of Jesus.  One could not be saved at this point in history only by accepting the message of John, it is only through faith in Jesus that one can be saved (as Acts has made abundantly clear prior to this point in the book!)

As has happened at several points in the book of Acts already, there is a manifestation of the Holy Spirit (tongues and prophesy) after Paul lays hands on these disciples. There is no consistent “order of events” in Acts, sometimes the Spirit comes prior to baptism (10:44-48, Cornelius) and other times baptism is prior (19:1-7), and in the case of Apollos, there is no mention of a re-baptism or of the coming of the Spirit.   Perhaps this is because he properly understood the message of John as pointing forward to Jesus, but that is not clear.

In fact, this is the only case of re-baptism in the New Testament, even the twelve were not re-baptized into the name of Jesus, they only had experienced the baptism of John (although one wonders about Matthew, since he was called to be an Apostle after John’s ministry.)  The point of this brief narrative is to show that it is possible to have a limited knowledge of Jesus which is not enough to be saved – theologically there was nothing wrong with these disciples except that they did not quite believe enough.  They did not believe something that was wrong, but they did not take their belief to the full extent needed for salvation.

Here is another problem for Applying Acts – what do we make of these disciples?  Are these  disciples “partial believers” who have participated in a ritual (John’s Baptism) but did not believe enough to be actually Christians?  What is it that “saved” these disciples?   In any case, it is the reception of the Holy Spirit which demonstrates they are in fact now Christians.

8 thoughts on “Acts 19:2-7 – Disciples of John the Baptist

  1. large problem with this view… no Christian message is given. No new message of the death, resurrection of Christ. The message given is still John’s… repent and be baptize for the remission of sin. It was John who told them to believe in Jesus, not Paul. If they were re-baptize it was done with the message of John. Better to believe that the baptism is referring to the original baptism they experienced under John. My view is that of Charles Baker in his work on Acts.

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  2. The disciples who had not heard of the Holy Spirit present a very interesting discussion on salvation. My first question is why Luke would add this into the book of Acts; what was Luke’s purpose for including this? As P. Long has mentioned several times in the Acts class, the book of Acts tracks the movement of the Holy Spirit as it moves outward into the world. I think that Luke adds the section on John’s disciples in order to show the need for a baptism by the Spirit in this time. I think that Luke certainly portrays John’s disciples as lacking in their belief in Christ. However, it is also obvious that these people were not believing in the wrong thing, they just did not have a complete faith as they did not know the Holy Spirit. Paul obviously thought that the Spirit was necessary, otherwise he would not have talked to them about it. In Paul’s epistles, he always assumes that true Christians have been baptized by the Spirit and are living in step with Him. In Ephesians 4:30, Paul says that the Spirit is the seal for believers until the day of redemption. For this to be consistent with Paul’s ministry, it seems to me that it would be safer to say that John’s disciples’ faith was inadequate until they were baptized by the Spirit.

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  3. I think an interesting Topic that comes up is Baptism in general. The ideas about Baptism in the current era are in conflict with each other, some believing in the sprinkling, others in full immersion, and others in ‘spirit’ baptism. There seems to be a lot about Baptism in the New Testament and it is pointed out that there is an importance to baptism. I think that there has to be a connection between water and baptism, otherwise, Jesus would not have been baptized in water. 1 Corinthians 12:13 “For by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body, whether we be Jews or Gentiles, whether we be bond or free; and have been all made to drink into one Spirit. I believe the whole baptism experience is to illustrate the washing and cleansing of oneself and being brought into the body of Christ. It is also interesting that this water baptism reflects the cleansing of the Old Testament. I think that this water baptism may be the new symbolic cleansing for the people of God, Jews and Gentiles.

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  4. In my opinion these “disciples” were not yet believers. I think that they are almost in the same category as the Hebraic Jews who had not yet accepted Jesus. They followed the same God and obey his commands, trying to live for him. I’d put them a step above those Jews who had not heard John the Baptist’s message though. They had a little more information especially when you consider that John’s main message was that a Messiah was coming and that he was to prepare the way for him. This was likely not totally understood by his followers as it was something that had been prophesied now for hundreds of years. So they had a bit more knowledge but I don’t think it was enough for them to be saved. I think for a person to be saved they have to have the knowledge that Christ came and laid down his life as a sacrifice for sin. That is the key belief of Christianity and there isn’t an account in the Acts of a person receiving the Holy Spirit without first hearing that message.

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  5. I agree with the point that Josh brings up about Baptism. It seems to me that the “Disciples” really did not understand what Paul was getting at with the Baptism by the spirit speech(s). It is the fact that only through faith in Christ and what he did on the cross are we baptized into the body of Christ. I believe that he is also making a distinction between what the way of the law would show in comparison with the New covenant. Yes, Israel was to be baptized with water and become circumsized, but now, that is not necessary. It is by faith we are now saved, not by works. I believe this is what Paul is getting at with the disciples and they do not necessarilly understand that.

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  6. I don’t know if we could say that these men were partial believers but more of people who had been told only part of the story. Yes, John mad it clear that some one, the Messiah was coming, but John had not said who that Messiah was. These men had only gotten part of the message, the message of the coming Lord, and until these men had been presented with the rest of the story they had only to go on what they had been told by those who were John’s disciples. I also don’t think the fact that Paul baptized them was something of an odd occurrence either, Paul was doing what he does best and that is speaking and using things that those who are listing can resonate with and connect with, using their vernacular. I think that we could say that Paul was not only following what he thought to be right in terms of baptism but that he was also doing something that these men equated with salvation previously.

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    • Perhaps…and it is not unlikely. But is there any evidence for this other than he knew the Baptism of John (Ats 18:25)? Does that entail “discipleship”? Seems like Luke is contrasting Apollos and the disciples of John.

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