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 accepted 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.

John the Baptist The dozen disciples of John indicate that even 20 years after John’s death there was a movement among 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 shown that John wrote from Ephesus near the end of the first century.

These 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 asking, “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.

Acts 5:13 – No One Else Dared Join Them

The first few chapters indicates that there was remarkable growth in Jerusalem after Pentecost.  But in Acts 5:13, Luke tells us “none of the rest dared join them, but the people held them in high esteem.” Even those within the church were greatly afraid.

AnaniasFor insiders, Spencer points out two factors which may have enhanced the fear of the church. Ananias and Sapphira were not outsiders who joined the church without fully understanding what they were getting into. These were part of the group who were “of one mind” in 4:32 and had decided to sell property to help the community. If these full members of the community were caught in a sin worthy of death, what of the rest of the group?

Second Spencer, draws a parallel to the shame of Adam and Eve. Ananias and Sapphira are the first of the new community to sin and be judged with death (75). While we know Jesus’ death atoned for sin, the earliest community had not worked out all of the implications of the death and resurrection and were quite seriously living with expectant hope in the return of the Lord almost immediately. They are the first “new covenant believers” to die, therefore any member of the community is in danger of not surviving to the return of Jesus.

Perhaps this is a result of the death of Ananias and Sapphira. Acts 5:11 says not only was the whole church greatly afraid, but anyone who heard about the deaths was also afraid. For outsiders, the deaths meant the Jesus movement dealt with infractions quite seriously indeed! It is likely the rumors of the untimely deaths of Ananias and Sapphira but a damper on evangelism, and no outsiders dared join them, although v. 14 says “more believers were added.”

Craig Keener understands the fear in 5:11 more positively, since fear is often a response to God’s work in Luke and Acts. He gives several examples both in Acts and other literature of the positive nature of “fear falling” on a person. But not all his data supports a positive response: Acts 19:17 indicates fear came on both Jews and Greeks in Ephesus as a result of the beating of the Sons of Sceva and the name of Jesus was extolled (μεγαλύνω, the same word as Acts 5:13). The people who were afraid were outsiders and the result is they spoke highly of God, but the text does not say they became disciples.

In fact, in Acts 5:13, Luke chooses a verb (κολλάω, kollao) which as the sense of clinging to something very closely. For example, dust clings to a cloak (Luke 10:11) or a man to his wife (Matt 19:5) or a man to a prostitute (1 Cor 6:9). The connection is of a very close, intimate relationship.  Luke uses the term in Acts 17:34 to describe individuals who become disciples of Paul. The word appears in 1 Macc 3:2 with the same sense as the brothers of Judas Maccabees join their father to fight for Israel.

In Acts, it seems to me people outside of the apostolic community respected the apostles, but they were increasingly less likely to join in their community. Why? Perhaps they did not want to suffer the fate of Ananias and Sapphira, but it is also possible the growing popularity of the apostles inevitably would lead to confrontation with the Temple aristocracy. Keener suggests this fear may have even prevented other Christians from joining the apostolic community (2:1199).

There were other followers of Jesus who did not sell possessions to support the poor or go up to Solomon’s Portico to preach and teach. These were respectful but afraid of the community led by Peter and John and may have wanted to avoid confrontation with the authorities. Could one “accept Jesus as Messiah and Savior” without joining Peter’s community? Possibly, since Stephen and Philip seem to consciously expand the movement away from the Temple to the Hellenistic synagogue and later to the Samaritans.

Bibliography: F. Scott Spencer, “Scared to Death: The Rhetoric of Fear in the ‘Tragedy’ of Ananias and Sapphira.” Pages 63-80 in Reading Acts Today. London: T&T Clark, 2011.

Acts 4 – Peter and the Holy Spirit

In Acts 4, Peter and John are arrested and brought before the high priest and some of his associates. In the previous two chapters Luke has described the ministry of Peter in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost and just after that time. He and the twelve seem to have gone regularly to the temple for prayer and worship. While they were there, they had opportunity to preach Jesus as the messiah and the gospel of the risen and ascended Jesus to groups of religiously minded Jews who were also in the Temple for prayer and worship. In both cases God does a miracle which demonstrates that the messianic age has begun (the descent of the Holy Spirit and the healing of a lame man), and in both cases Peter’s sermon is based solidly on messianic prophecies found in the Hebrew Bible.

Peter SanhedrinBoth sermons show that Jesus was the messiah, and that while he was crucified in ignorance, that ignorance will no longer be overlooked, judgment is coming. In each case they have great success with thousands of people believing that Jesus is the messiah and that he will return soon to establish his kingdom. As Ben Witherington comments, it is in this chapter that we “see the beginnings of the power struggle for the hearts of the Jewish people.” (Acts, 189).

In 4:8 Peter is “filled with the Holy Spirit” as he addressed the meeting. That Peter is filled with the Holy Spirit is an indication that Luke sees this speech in the tradition of the Prophets of the Hebrew Bible. John Polhill points out that the verb used (an aorist participle of πίμπλημι) is used for “special moments of inspiration,” see Luke 1:15, 1:41, Acts 6:3-5, 7:55, for example (Acts, 143). Luke is therefore presenting Peter as giving a prophetic speech like Isaiah or Jeremiah, directly to the leadership of the Jewish people, calling even the High Priest to repent of the sin of killing the Messiah.

The words which follow are therefore a prophetic speech of condemnation, which amazes the listeners. But it is not Peter’s skills as an orator which is important, but that the words come through the Holy Spirit. In each case, the target of the speech is Jewish; 9:17 refers to Paul receiving the Spirit, 11:24 refers to Barnabas as a man “full of the Spirit.”

This “filling with the Holy Spirit” is salvation in a Pauline sense, but rather an enablement to speak boldly before a crowd of people who can (and will) physically persecute Peter for what he says in this brief speech.  In what other ways is the activity of the holy Spirit evident in this chapter?

John 16:1-4 – A Warning to Not Fall Away

The reason for Jesus giving this warning is so that the disciples will not “fall away” when the persecution begins. The verb translated “fall away” in the ESV is σκανδαλίζω. The word can mean brought to a downfall, or “cause to sin.” For example, for a person on a diet, bringing a platter of their favorite dessert is likely going to cause them to sin by breaking their diet and eating the dessert. The food “trips them up” and the fall off the wagon, so to speak.

The word can also have the sense of being offended by someone or something, or to be shocked or angered by something. This may lead to sin as well, so it is sometimes difficult to decide how the word ought to be translated. But in either case, Jesus wants his disciples what they will have to face in the very near future, so that they are not shocked to the point of sin. If they were under the impression that the new few months would lead to a great deal of health and wealth for them personally, they are going to be in for a great shock!

Jesus once again predicts that the disciples will be subjected to persecution. It is clear in these verses that the Jews will be the source of this trouble.

The disciples will be put out of the synagogue. To be thrown out of a synagogue is an indication that the members of the synagogue consider you to be no longer permitted to worship God or study the scripture in that place. This may be the result of some sin, but also for a defection from the truth. We should resist the inclination to read this as “excommunication” in a medieval sense, but in a small Jewish community to be expelled from the synagogue was to be expelled from polite society!

The disciples will be killed. While execution for non-belief is not common in the Jewish world, there are some examples in the book of Acts, certainly Stephen (Acts 7) and James (Acts 12) are examples of this very things

The ones who are doing the persecution think that they are serving God. This is possibly a result of the type of zeal demonstrated by Phineas in Numbers, when he “burned with zeal” and attacked a man who was sinning with a Moabite prostitute at the tabernacle. So too did Elijah “burn with zeal” when he killed the priests of Baal in 1 Kings, or Judas Maccabees when he attached the Greeks after the desecration of the Temple.

Paul’s own persecution of Jewish believers in Jesus as messiah and savior is an illustration of this very persecution. Certainly he worked to silence those who claimed that Jesus had been the Messiah, that he had been raised from the dead and that he was coming back to judge. This is not a matter of a slight difference of opinion, for pre-Christian Paul this was an attack on the heart of Judaism and a completely false accusation against the high priest and the Sanhedrin. For Paul, his actions were exactly the right course to take in the service of God.

The sad truth is that this passage has been badly misunderstood and used as a justification for all kinds of attacks on the Jewish people for centuries at the hand of “good Christian people.” Fredrick Bruner has a stunning commentary on the abuse of Jews in World War II at the hands of people who were a part of the confessional church. It is a sad irony that while many thought they were killing Jews as part of their Christian duty, they were as guilty as those who persecuted the apostles in Acts.

This passage (nor any other in the Bible) advocates any sort of persecution of Jews (or anyone else) because they are “unbelievers.” We can disagree, slightly or completely, with another religion, but as Christians it is not our duty to respond with hate or violent repression.

John 15:26-27 – The Holy Spirit as Comforter

The Holy Spirit as Comforter is a major topic of John 14-16. In 14:16 and 16:7 the Holy Spirit is described as παράκλητος, paracletos, a noun which is translated Comforter (KJV, NIV 1984), Helper (ESV, NASB), Advocate (NIV 2011), Counselor (HCSB), or sometimes it is left untranslated, Paraclete. A real problem for understanding the word is that the English words have a different connotation than the Greek. (D. A. Carson quips that the translation “comforter” sounds more like a quilt, although “counselor” is good, as long as one does not think of a marriage counselor or camp counselor!)

In pre-Christian Greek, the noun can have the sense of a advocate or mediator in a general way. Someone who is called upon to give assistance in a time of need could be described as a paraclete. This word rarely means “lawyer” in the modern sense of the world.  The word was often translated into Latin by the word patronus, a patron who comes to the aid of a client. The patronus was a sponsor or advocate of the client, and could in some respects shield the client from legal trouble, or provide representation for a client in a court case.  (This is a fascinating possibility, given the discussion here on the status of friendship in the ancient word.)

This may be the sense of the word in 16:7, since the Spirit is described as convicting the world of sin and guilt. But the Spirit is not an advocate for the defense of the disciples, but rather a prosecutor of the world. The legal metaphor is found in 1 John 2:1, where Jesus himself is called our advocate before the Father.

Perhaps the background for this word should be the Hebrew Bible rather than Greek usage. The form of the word which appears in John does not appear in the LXX, but the related form παράκλησις does 16x. Most often the word has the sense of consoling a person who is grieving, the exception is Isa 28:29, God is “wonderful in his counsel” (advice, plans, etc).

In Isaiah 57:18 and Hos 11:8, the Hebrew word is נְחֻמִים, a noun built on the root נחם, one of the most theological important words in the Hebrew Bible. The verb appears at the beginning of the second part of Isaiah, the “voice crying in the wilderness” announces “comfort” for God’s people at the end fo the exile. God is beginning to make a straight and level path from Babylon back to Zion so that his people may return in a new Exodus.

The role of the Spirit in Isaiah 40-55 is to announce the coming of the new age when Israel’s long exile is finally over. The ending of that period of estrangement between God and his people Israel is an occasion for compassion – God has compassion on his people and he draws them back to himself.

If this background from the Hebrew Bible is what Jesus had in mind when he described the Holy Spirit as the “comforter” who is coming, then he is alluding to the common tradition of the Hebrew Bible that the coming eschatological age will be a time when the Holy Spirit is poured out on God’s people.