65. Acts 19:1-6: The Baptism of John and Rebaptism

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Can you explain the EHV’s understanding of Acts 19:1-6? It seems to understand verses 2 and 4 in a different way than some other translations.

Here are the EHV translation of the passage and the relevant EHV Study Bible footnote:

While Apollos was at Corinth, Paul traveled through the interior districts and came to Ephesus.a There he found some disciples and asked them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you became believers?”

“No,” they answered, “we have not even heard that the Holy Spirit was given.”

Paul asked, “What were you baptized into then?”

They replied, “Into John’s baptism.”

Paul said, “John baptized with a baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one coming after him, that is, in Jesus.b When they heard this, they were baptized into the name of the Lord Jesus.”c

Note c19:5 The punctuation in the EHV translation treats verse 5 as a continuation of Paul’s words. With this understanding, Paul did not baptize these disciples, who had already been baptized with John’s baptism, which was a valid baptism into faith in Jesus. Paul simply explains the meaning of John’s baptism to the Ephesians. However, if the quotation marks are placed at the end of verse 4, Paul did baptize them. The quotation marks are not a part of the original text, so either interpretation is textually possible.

John’s baptism was a valid baptism that was essentially the same as apostolic baptism. The apostles themselves had practiced John’s baptism during Jesus’ ministry. Scripture does not tell us whether people baptized by John were customarily baptized a second time with the apostolic baptism. It is possible that the people at Ephesus had received “the baptism of John” from misguided followers of John long after the ministry of John had ended. In that case, the Ephesians would have been baptized by Paul.

In verse 2 it is clear that Paul’s initial question is whether the Ephesian Christians had received the special gifts of the Holy Spirit, such as speaking in tongues, at the time of their baptism as other Christians had (Acts 8:11-17, Acts10:44-48). In Acts 8 the gift was given at the arrival of the apostles after the people had already been baptized by the evangelist Philip. In Acts 10 the special gift was given directly by the Spirit before the people had been baptized. Paul is inquiring if either of these circumstances applied to the Ephesians.
The Ephesians reply that they had not heard about the Holy Spirit. This statement has been understood in two ways: 1) that they had never heard about the existence of the Holy Spirit, or 2) that they had not heard about such a “receiving of the Spirit.” The EHV accepts the second interpretation for the following reasons:

  • It is hard to believe that the Ephesians had never heard of the Holy Spirit or Spirit of God, who is mentioned often in the Old Testament. See especially Psalms 51:13 and Isaiah 63:9-10.
  • Jews recognized a plurality in God, though they differed on whether they thought of it as a force from God or a person.
  • The Spirit was also present at Jesus’ baptism. John says that he saw the Spirit descend on Jesus at the time of his baptism. John told his followers that he had seen the Spirit descend on Jesus (John 1:32-34).
  • We do not know if others beside Jesus and John saw the sign of the Spirit and heard the voice, but when the voice from heaven spoke again in John 12:28-30, people heard the voice, though perhaps they did not understand it clearly. Jesus says that the voice was for the sake of the people. At Jesus’ transfiguration those present heard the voice (2 Peter 1:17-18).
  • While the translation of εἰ πνεῦμα ἅγιον ἔστιν as “We have not even heard that there is Holy Spirit” is a possibility, it should be noted that in John 7:39 there is a similar use of the Greek verb εἰμί (οὕπω γὰρ ἠν πνεῦμα) as a reference to the giving of the Holy Spirit: “Up to that time the Spirit had not been given since Jesus had not yet been glorified.”

The next question is what is meant here by “John’s baptism.” Was it a genuine baptism received from John or one of his disciples during John’s ministry? This is hardly likely since John had been dead for many years, and it is hardly likely the Ephesians had been in Israel during John’s ministry.

That leaves two possibilities: 1) the Ephesians had recently been baptized by well-meaning but misguided disciples of John, who continued to baptize after John’s death; or 2) they were baptized by an anti-Jesus sect that claimed to be followers of John. We believe the first option for the following reasons:

  • It is true that some disciples of John were jealous of Jesus and the apostles-to-be (John 3:25-30; 4:1). It is also true that pro-John, anti-Jesus sects developed, such as the later Mandaeans. That does not seem to be the case here. Apollos, who was a sincere preacher of Jesus, had apparently received this baptism of John (Acts18:24-28). There is no indication he needed another baptism, but only further instruction.
  • Some of John’s disciples continued to baptize after the death of John. It is likely that these disciples of John baptized in the proper form that John had taught them. (We do not know what that form was.) Their form of baptism may have been valid, but was not proper in cases in which it was motivated by jealousy of the apostles and unwillingness to come under the ministry of the apostles. In some cases, jealous followers of John may have done this in spite, but in other cases like Apollos and the Ephesians their practice was simply due to lack of information, and they readily accepted the apostles’ ministry when they learned of it. It is likely that the Ephesians had received the baptism of John from Apollos, and that Luke mentions this in Acts 18 in anticipation of his account in Acts 19.

That brings us to the final question: Did Paul baptize the Ephesians? Placing quotation marks after verse 4 indicates the interpretation that Paul baptized them. Placing quotation marks after verse 5 indicates that he did not. For the reasons above, we believe he did not, because the baptism they had received was valid.

We do not have enough information to be dogmatic about the answer, and it is not a relevant question for us whether someone baptized by John had to be baptized again.

The interpretation of this passage has a long and complicated history, which we will not go into here, since this exegetical brief has already become an exegetical not-so-brief. For those who want to delve into the question in more depth we have attached the detailed study by Martin Chemnitz, with a few highlights italicized. Chemnitz’s discussion is motivated by disputes concerning rebaptism and the nature of John’s baptism.

Martin Chemnitz reviews the various interpretations of this account in his Examination of the Council of Trent (translation by Fred Kramer).

St. Louis. MO: Concordia, 1978, Part II, p 133-136.

The other passage which was appealed to very often by the Donatists in this dispute, with which also they caused Augustine much trouble, is the story in Acts 19:1-7. This story appears to relate that certain believing disciples, who confessed that they had been baptized with John’s baptism, were commanded by Paul to be baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. But neither does this passage prove with certainty, clearly and necessarily, that it was necessary for all who had been lawfully baptized with the baptism of John to be again baptized with water by the disciples of Christ; much less does it prove that the baptism of John was without the remission of sins in believers. For from dark, ambiguous, and disputed passages nothing can be proved.

However, this passage is explained in various ways by the interpreters. Some, in order to refute the Anabaptists more readily, contend that those 12 were not baptized twice with water, first by John and afterward by Paul, but that they were baptized with water only once. And among these some take the word “baptism” in the earlier part of the statement not for the application of water but for the institution and doctrine, as the whole ministry of John is called his baptism in Acts 18:25: “Apollos knew and taught only the baptism of John,” so that the meaning of, “Into what were you baptized?” is, “With what doctrine were you instructed and initiated?” And these think that these 12 had indeed been instructed in the teaching of John but had not been baptized with his baptism, but that they were afterwards baptized for the first time in the name of Jesus.

Others take the word “baptism” in the earlier part of the story in its proper sense, but in the second part they take it metaphorically for those wonderful and outstanding gifts of the Spirit which Christ designates with the word “baptism” when He says (Acts 1:5): “You shall be baptized with the Spirit.” And their understanding is that these had been baptized with the baptism of John but were not baptized with water by Paul, but that the particle kai (and), as often elsewhere so also here, is explanatory. They were baptized in the name of Jesus, that is, when Paul had laid his hands on them, the Spirit came upon them.

But both these explanations have something forced about them, and neither preserves entirely the simplicity and clarity of the text. Therefore some, considering the little Greek word men to which the Greek particle de in the following clause corresponds, do not take the clause “On hearing this they were baptized in the name of Jesus” to be words of the historian Luke concerning those 12 but as the uninterrupted context of the speech of Paul, in this sense: John indeed baptized with the baptism of repentance by faith in the Christ to come, and those who heard (namely, this teaching of the Baptist concerning faith in Christ) were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus; that is, it was the same thing as if they had been baptized by the apostles. The Greek context readily bears and permits this explanation. An explanation that is also akin to this is found in the Glossa which is called Interlinear, although it takes those words as words of Luke the historian, namely: “When those 12 heard that there was no difference between the ministry of John and of the apostles, except that John had baptized into Him as coming, of whom the apostles testified that He had come, they at once accepted it; they were not rebaptized, but when they had heard this declaration, the baptism of John was for them baptism in the name of the Lord Jesus. For John baptized in such a way that he commanded men to believe in Christ Jesus. Therefore those whom John baptized were baptized in His name.” That gloss, the entire statement of which is taken from Ambrose, De Spiritu Sancto, Bk. 1, ch. 3, I have quoted above. He is, however, arguing about the true and lawful baptism of John, not about those 12 of whom he thought that they had received a spurious baptism under John’s name. This explanation agrees beautifully with that which is written toward the end of ch. 18 concerning Apollos, whom, because he knew only John’s baptism, they indeed instructed more accurately in the way of the Lord; but we do not read that they baptized him again with water, but having instructed him more fully they commended him to the disciples that he should be received as a Christian. This statement of the Glossa is very simple and fitting, and Lombard also argues that those who did not place their hope in that ceremony of John but believed in the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit were not afterward again baptized with water by the disciples of Christ. But to the possible objection that without the Holy Spirit there is neither the grace of God nor the forgiveness of sins, and that although those 12 are said to have been baptized with the baptism of John yet they first received the Holy Spirit by the laying on of hands, the answer is not difficult. For Luke himself explains that he understands by the term “Spirit” the extraordinary gifts of the Spirit, as the term is understood in John 7:39. Or, if it is taken literally, it will follow that not even by the baptism of Christ was the Holy Spirit given. For it is reported that they received the Spirit after the baptism of Christ, when Paul laid his hands on them.

There are, however, those to whom the text of the story seems to convey this meaning entirely, that those 12 had first been baptized with the baptism of John and that they were afterward baptized by Paul in the name of Jesus. Ambrose, indeed, so explains this passage, Ad Galatas, ch. 3. For he thinks that those 12 had not been washed, but polluted by a counterfeit baptism under the name of John, and that therefore Paul commanded them to be baptized in the name of the Trinity. He argues the same way in De Spiritu Sancto, Bk. 1, ch. 3. And to this interpretation this could be fitted, that they do not simply confess that they had been baptized with the baptism of John but “into the baptism of John.” For what this phrase means is quickly explained, where they are said to be baptized “into the name of Jesus.” For this is the same as what Paul says in Rom. 6:3: “All of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death.” And in 1 Cor. 1:13, 15: “You were not baptized into the name of Paul.” Also it seems to follow from their confession and from the answer of Paul that they had been baptized in such a way that they neither knew the Holy Spirit nor believed in Christ, but appear to have placed their hope in that ceremony of John, so that it was a certain false zeal, yes, a manifest corruption and adulteration of the baptism of John. And so the two accounts will not hang together badly. Apollos, who had been baptized with the true and genuine baptism of John, was not again washed with water but was more fully instructed. But those 12 because they were no more baptized than those who had been washed with the baptism of the Pharisees (Mark 7:4), were not rebaptized but were truly baptized for the first time by Paul. This understanding also Lombard embraces and follows.

Augustine, however, thinks that those 12 had been baptized with the true baptism of John and that nevertheless they were afterward also baptized by Paul. For he thinks that John’s baptism is one thing and Christ’s another, so that anyone who had the baptism of John needed afterward also to receive the baptism of Christ. And yet he defended this his understanding against rebaptism. For anabaptism is a repetition of one and the same baptism. This understanding seems to be favored by the fact that Luke gives them the testimony that they were disciples, that is, Christians, as they were then called. And Paul ascribes faith to them when he says that they believed. For this reason also some among more recent writers think it is not unfitting if one takes the passage to mean that those 12 were first baptized with John’s baptism and that they were afterward baptized by Paul in the name of the Lord Christ. For as John preached, so he also baptized into the Christ who was to come (Acts 19:4). The apostles, however, taught Christ as manifested, and joined to this teaching they had a sign—the baptism of Christ. As therefore it was necessary for the disciples of John to accept the preaching of the apostles concerning the Christ who had been manifested, so if they are said to have received the sign connected with this apostolic doctrine, this is not unfitting and there is no rebaptism; nor is the previous baptism, that of John, condemned, as the Anabaptists do. And what the text says, namely, that they were baptized in the name of the Lord Christ, this is the same as if it said: “In the name of the manifested Christ.” For God made the crucified Jesus both Christ and Lord. (Acts 2:36)

I have reviewed these varying interpretations of the story in Acts 19:1–7 in order that I might show that there is no sufficient cause why he who embraces one meaning should at once condemn with the anathema those who think otherwise, and that I might wrest from the papalists this weapon in which they have great confidence. For no matter how this story is understood, one cannot draw from it a sure, clear, and necessary conclusion that there was in the baptism of John no efficacy and that the believers received neither grace nor the remission of sins from it. For by the same reasoning it would follow either that those who had been circumcised should not have been baptized or that circumcision had no efficacy in believers.

Martin Chemnitz and Fred Kramer, Examination of the Council of Trent, electronic ed., vol. 2 (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1999), 133-136.