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Baptism of the Holy Spirit

Note: The following article is an academic piece that has been modified for blog format. Rather than examine every possible passage on the Baptism of the Holy Spirit, the article below argues against a traditional charismatic understanding of the Baptism of the Holy Spirit from Acts 19:1-7.

The literal expression “Baptism of the Holy Spirit” never once appears in the Bible, although the phrase “Baptism in the Holy Spirit” appears six times. This phrase is sometimes referred to as a “second blessing,” although that language is found nowhere in Paul’s writings. Curiously, many Christian leaders who identify as charismatic not only believe in the Baptism of the Holy Spirit – or, as some prefer, a second blessing – but authoritatively teach on it and encourage others to follow suit.

baptism of the Holy Spirit

In the simplest of terms, the baptism of the Holy Spirit can be defined as a filling of the Holy Spirit after conversion, usually accompanied by the spiritual gift of tongues. The implication behind this definition is that one can be a Christian and not be filled with the Holy Spirit.

It is best to reject the traditional charismatic understanding of the baptism of the Holy Spirit. On the contrary, it is best to view the expression as metaphorical language to denote the continual purification of sin in one’s life.

Space here does not allow me to examine this topic in detail. Rather than examine this doctrine from all of Scripture, our main focus will be Acts 19:1-7. Admittedly, Acts 1:5 and the Pentecost passage (Acts 2) are greater threats to my conclusion, but we’ll have to examine those passages on another today. Again: our main focus will be Act 19:1-7.

As we examine these verses, I will argue that the word “disciples” in this context does not refer to followers of Jesus Christ in the modern understanding of the word and that one cannot responsibly advocate for the Baptism of the Holy Spirit for Christians from this passage.

Let’s read the passage.

Acts 19:1-7

And it happened that while Apollos was at Corinth, Paul passed through the inland country and came to Ephesus. There he found some disciples. 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.” And he said, “Into what then were you baptized?” They said, “Into John’s baptism.” 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.” On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. And when Paul had laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they began speaking in tongues and prophesying. There were about twelve men in all.

Paul Enters Ephesus

Acts 19:1 tells us that Paul enters Ephesus. We read that “there he found some disciples.” He asks these disciples if they have received the Holy Spirit when they believed, to which they replied “no” (Acts 19:2). Even more, they claimed that they had “not even heard there was a Holy Spirit” (Acts 19:2b). After a few more questions from Paul, a clarification about Jesus, and a Christian baptism, he [Paul] eventually lays hands on these men, and that’s when “the Holy Spirit came on them” (Acts 19:6).

For those who use this passage to advocate for a second blessing for Christians, they primarily do so because of their understanding of the word “disciples” in this context. Their logic for this passage goes something like this: “Paul went to Ephesus. There he found some disciples of Jesus Christ. After talking to these disciples, Paul discovered that they had not received the Holy Spirit. After praying and laying hands on these men, they received the Holy Spirit. Therefore, we can conclude that one can be a Christian and not have the Holy Spirit. Christians should seek a second blessing.”

But I do not believe the point of Acts 19:1-7 is to teach a second blessing for Christians. With that said, however, we must respect our evangelical charismatic brothers and sisters in Christ and those who believe in a second blessing. Their love for the Holy Spirit is contagious. The Pentecostal denomination is rising in numbers rapidly, and I wonder if that is because of their earnest commitment to prayer and devotion to being led and empowered by the Holy Spirit.

To be sure, we can all agree that we need the Holy Spirit for empowerment in the Christian life, especially for Christian ministry (Acts 2:4). And yet, when we examine the popular charismatic understanding of Acts 19:1-7 in particular, we see in many ways how the exegetical conclusions associated with this passage falls short. As I. Howard Marshal writes, “This story has often been used as the basis for doctrines about the reception of gifts of the Spirit subsequent to conversion; but it has no real connection with these.” [1]

What Does “Disciple” Mean?

The word “disciple” has linguistic flexibility. In this context, it is not referring to persons who have saving faith in Jesus Christ. Marshall writes, “These men can hardly have been Christians since they had not received the gift of the Spirit; it is safe to say that the New Testament does not recognize the possibility of being a Christian apart from possession of the Spirit.”[2]

The Greek word specifically used here (for the word “disciple”) is mathētēs. What does this mean? It can mean a few different things, and BDAG provides several helpful definitions. Broadly, this word can mean “learner, pupil, disciple.”[3] This is how the word is often used. To be more particular, BDAG provides two more helpful definitions: 1. “One who engages in learning through instruction from another, pupil, apprentice (in contrast to the teacher,” and 2. “One who is rather constantly associated with someone who has a pedagogical reputation or a particular set of view, disciple, adherent.”[4]

It is wrong to assume, then, that when the word mathētēs is used in the Bible, it is always and exclusively in reference to followers of Jesus Christ. In the Bible, this word may refer to disciples of John (Luke 5:33), disciples of Moses (John 9:28), and so on. Even more, as we have seen from BDAG, the word mathētēs can mean one who follows or learns or associates with another person who has a pedagogical reputation. One can be a disciple and not have saving faith in Jesus Christ.

Others have proposed that Luke was referring to disciples of John. Howard argues that this is “unlikely” since “John the Baptist did not need to be held responsible for any strange views from his followers.”[6] However, in 19:3 these men confess to having been baptized into John’s baptism, and one can see the correlation between being baptized into John and being John’s disciples. It is not far-fetched to say that these disciples were followers of John as we see direct correlations to this conclusion in the text.

It is not clear whether these “disciples” were disciples of John or not, but it clear that they were not yet Christians. Since they had a relationship with John the Baptist, it is hard to believe that they would know nothing about Christ since he was the one who John pointed to. However, one can know about Christ and not be saved by him. It’s not that they had no knowledge of Jesus whatsoever; it’s that their knowledge of Jesus was insufficient.

Thus, when Luke uses the word “disciples,” we can conclude two possibilities: 1. He was using the word in reference to disciples of John the Baptist who had some knowledge, but not saving knowledge of Jesus. 2. He was using the word in reference to how these men originally appeared to Paul.[9]

I think number two is correct.

One can appear to be a Christian – especially when you first meet them – but really not be a Christian. That may be what happened here. That is, Luke may be simply writing from Paul’s point of view. They appeared to be Christians but were not.

When You Believed?

Another aspect of this passage that we must address is the Greek word for “when you believed.” This is admittedly a more difficult issue to flesh out. The word, in this context, can be rendered as “having believed.” The ESV states it slightly differently when it says, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” (Acts 19:2; emphasis added). The implication is that these men have already believed in something. But the text does not mention what they believed in.

The advocates for a second blessing will say that they believed in Jesus, thus showing that one can believe in Jesus and not have the Holy Spirit. The root word for “having believed” is pisteuó. The two definitions BDAG provides for this word are: 1. “To consider something to be true and therefore worthy of one’s trust, believe . . .” 2. “To entrust oneself to an entity in complete confidence, believe (in) trust.”[11] Two similar words are used in James 2:19: “You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder!” (James 2:19; emphasis added). It would be ridiculous to assume that demons could have saving faith in Jesus or the possibility to receive the Holy Spirit, yet James tells us that they also “believe.” So we can conclude that this word is not always used in association with saving faith in Jesus.

Ephesus

The city in which Paul found these men, Ephesus, was known for cults and idolatry.[12] As a result, there seems to have been many theological errors floating around in Ephesus which separated Christ’s resurrection and outpouring of the Spirit, and these men fell into those errors.[13] Their confusion about the Holy Spirit is obvious when they say, “we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit” (Acts 19:2). It is best not to take this statement literally. Wallace argues that the rendering of this sentence can be: “we have not heard whether a Spirit can be holy.”[14] Bock mentions that this does not mean that they did not know the Holy Spirit exists. That’s because John the Baptist spoke about it (Luke 3:15-16). Rather this statement is best understood to mean that they didn’t know the Holy Spirit has come.[16] They were those who “knew about Jesus but not the work of the Spirit that is also a part of the promise”[17] They lacked both sufficient knowledge and saving faith.

Paul Points Them to Jesus

Remember, these men appeared to Paul to be disciples. Naturally, then, it is fitting that Paul would ask a question about belief and faith as an introductory question. When you have faith in something, and you meet someone who you think also has faith in that same thing, you naturally would want to talk to them about it. But soon into the conversation, Paul realizes that appearance is not always reality.

While in conversation with these men, Paul realizes that the disciples’ understanding of Christ is skewed, and Paul seeks to correct their misunderstanding. That’s why Paul says, “John Baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, Jesus” (Acts 19:4). The Apostle Paul is essential saying: “Your baptism was not done in the name of Jesus. The one you follow, John the Baptist, pointed to a greater reality, Jesus, and you must turn to him and be baptized in his name.” Paul is showing these men their need for Jesus Christ, that’s why he mentions “repentance” in verse four — to point these unbelievers to John the Baptist’s primary message: repent and believe in Jesus.

If we describe this text as “Paul evangelizing these disciples,” we might be using too strong of language. But it is not too strong to say that Paul provided clarification about Jesus to these men for the purpose of persuading them to repent and believe in Christ. Paul succeeds. Faith comes by hearing, and after hearing about repentance and Jesus, these men come to faith in Christ: “On hearing this, they were baptized into the name of the Lord Jesus” (Act 19:5).

They were not Christians when Paul met them. They became Christians through Paul. They were baptized and received the Holy Spirit. While there are certainly examples of the Spirit empowering certain Christians for Christian ministry after their conversion, the example of the Holy Spirit “coming upon” these men in Ephesus in Acts 19:6 should not be understood to be a second blessing, but merely the recipient of the Holy Spirit at the time of their conversion. That’s what happens to every person who repents and trusts in Christ: they receive the gift of the Holy Spirit (Eph. 1:13).

Baptism of the Holy Spirit from John’s Gospel

One may object to this discussion of the Baptism of the Holy Spirit and refer to John the Baptist’s saying on the Baptism of the Holy Spirit in the Gospels (Matt. 3:11; Mark 1:8; Luke 3:16). It seems appropriate to address this here because the disciples in Ephesus in Acts 19:1-7 may have been disciples of John, although I won’t address it in-depth.

Let’s look at this verse from John’s Gospel: “. . . ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit’” (John 1:32-33).

When the authors of the Gospel accounts speak of the Baptism of the Holy Spirit, what exactly are they trying to tell us? I believe Andreas J. Kostenberger eloquently contributes to our discussion when he writes: “In context, this also reveals a soteriological dimension of the Spirit’s work in that Spirit baptism is related to the removal of sin.”[19] When John speaks of the baptism of the Holy Spirit, he is using metaphorical language; he is not speaking literally. In particular, when the Gospel writers speak of the baptism of the Holy Spirit they are illustrating the purification, removal, and sanctification of sin through the empowering Holy Spirit whom every Christian receives at the time of their justification.

Does that mean we do not need the Holy Spirit? Perish the thought. Every Christian has the Holy Spirit and needs continuous empowerment of the Holy Spirit. So while we want to avoid the language of speaking of a “second blessing” or presuming upon a subjective, emotional experience that one has at a given point to authenticate the Holy Spirit’s working in one’s life, we must speak of experiencing the Holy Spirit and receiving empowerment from the Holy Spirit – particularly for Christian ministry. This is what happens at Pentecost. The believers are told to wait for the Spirit: “And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance” (Acts 2:4). This particular verse is unique in that it embarks in a new covenant age, something Old Testament believers would have not experienced in full. But still, the point remains that even believers who have been sealed by the Spirit should seek to be continually and regularly empowered by the Spirit.

Acts and the Holy Spirit

We must understand that we are not Apostles and our time is not the same as the time of the book of Acts. The book of Acts is a unique time period in redemptive-historical history in which miracles, manifestations of the Spirit, and other supernatural occurrences simply do not happen in the same measure today as they did back then. It is also best to avoid proof-texting when it comes to the doctrine of the Holy Spirit.

We must, furthermore, admit that our text here in Acts – Acts 19:1-7 – is descriptive, and not prescriptive. That is, Luke is merely describing one unique story in Apostolic history and not trying to prescribe a new normal concerning the Holy Spirit in the life of the church. One would be unwise to build an entire theology of the Holy Spirit based on one passage – especially on just one passage (or verse) in the book of Acts. The Scriptures that are rare or ambiguous must be combined with the Scriptures that are clear. And it is clear from New Testament teachings that one cannot be a Christian and not have the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 1:13). Therefore, we should assume that our text in Acts is not an attempt to prescribe a second blessing for the life of the church. It’s merely describing one story in redemptive-history.

Acts 19:1-7 is an encouraging text, but the application of the passage can cause damage in the church if the exegesis of the text is not appropriately done. Can you argue for a baptism of the Holy Spirit from another passage? Maybe. But not from Acts 19:1-7. Indeed, we should think twice about a second blessing when we examine Acts 19:1-7 since all of the exegetical evidence seems to vote against it.


[1] I. Howard Marshall, Acts: Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2008), 323.

[2] Ibid, 323.

[3] BDAG, 609.

[4] BDAG, 609.

[5] Bock Darrell, Acts Baker Exegetical Commentary on The New Testament (Ada: Baker Academic, 2007), 599.

[6] Ibid, 323.

[7] Bruce, F.F. The Book of the Acts New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988), 363.

[8] Bock, 599.

[9] Marshall, 324.

[10] Barrett C.K., Acts: Volume 2: 15-28 International Critical Commentary (New York: T&T Clark, 2004), 893.

[11] BDAG, 816-817.

[12] Wallace B. Daniel, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament (Grand     Rapids: Zondervan, 1997), 312.

[13] Ibid, 325.

[14] Ibid, 312.

[15] Wallace, 312.

[16] Bock, 599.

[17] Bock, 599.

[18] Ibid, 325.

[19] Kostenberger Andreas, John Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Ada: Baker Academic, 2004), 71.

[20] Bock, 600.

About David Qaoud

David Qaoud (MDiv, Covenant Theological Seminary) is associate pastor of Bethesda Evangelical Church in St. Louis, Missouri, and founder of gospelrelevance.com. His work has appeared on The Gospel Coalition, For the Church, and Banner of Truth. He lives in St. Louis with his wife and two children. Learn more.