During Paul’s third missionary journey, he encountered some men who are described as “disciples” who had not yet received the Holy Spirit. Luke recounts the incident: “Paul took the road through the interior and arrived at Ephesus. There he found some disciples and asked them, ‘Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?’ They answered, ‘No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.’ So Paul asked, ‘Then what baptism did you receive?’ ‘John’s baptism,’ they replied. Paul said, ‘John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance. He told the people to believe in the one coming after him, that is, in Jesus.’ On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. When Paul placed his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied. There were about twelve men in all” (Acts 19:1–7).
We know that, when a person is born again, the Holy Spirit takes up residence in that person’s life (1 Corinthians 6:19). If a person does not have the Holy Spirit, then he does not belong to Christ (Romans 8:9). So why is it that these men in Ephesus did not have the Holy Spirit, when it seems that they had believed?
The key is that they had not yet believed in Christ. They did not know about Jesus’ saving work (or the Holy Spirit’s indwelling) until they met Paul. A careful reading of the first part of Acts 19 reveals several facts about this group of twelve men: 1) They were “disciples”—but not of Christ. Rather, they were self-identified disciples of John the Baptist (verse 3). 2) They were not believers in the risen Lord Jesus Christ—Paul’s question about their conversion experience reveals that they knew nothing of the Spirit or His power (verse 2). 3) They had taken the first step—repentance of sins—but they had not taken the corresponding step—faith in Christ.
In short, the “Ephesus Dozen” were still living under the Old Testament economy. They saw the need of repentance and were still awaiting the Messiah. They did not know the Christian message.
A further clue of their spiritual condition is found in the preceding chapter. Apollos, an Alexandrian Jew and a skillful orator, had been preaching in Ephesus (Acts 18:24). However, “he knew only the baptism of John” (verse 25). The only information Apollos had about Jesus was what he had heard from John; thus, he knew Jesus was the Messiah, but he knew nothing of Jesus’ sacrificial death and resurrection. Two believers in Ephesus, Priscilla and Aquila, took Apollos aside and “explained to him the way of God more adequately” (verse 26). After he understood and received the gospel, Apollos became a great apologist for the Lord Jesus (verse 28).
It would seem that the twelve men whom Paul encountered were some of Apollos’ followers. They had been baptized for repentance, but they had not heard the whole gospel message. Paul filled them in on the details of Jesus’ death and resurrection—the essential elements of the gospel—and told them to believe (Acts 19:4). Once the men received Christ by faith, the Holy Spirit, true to form, filled them with His presence. They became new creations (2 Corinthians 5:17).
John the Baptist’s ministry was one of preparation for people to receive Christ (Mark 1:2). He preached repentance of sins, and, as people repented, they showed their change of heart by an outward cleansing. But simply repenting of sin is not enough. We must have Christ. John himself understood the limitations of his ministry: “I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire” (Matthew 3:11).
Those who, like Apollos and the “Ephesus Dozen,” stopped with John’s baptism only had half the story. They needed more than repentance; they needed faith in Christ. The disciples in Ephesus heard about Jesus from Paul the apostle, Jesus’ representative (Acts 9:15). As they received his message, they were baptized in the name of Jesus Christ, and they received the Holy Spirit in a way that publicly, unmistakably linked them to the gospel as preached by Paul.
“For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink” (1 Corinthians 12:13).