Ephesus was a city of great note in Asia, famous for a temple built there to Diana, which was one of the wonders of the world: thither Paul came to preach the gospel while Apollos was at Corinth (Acts 19:1); while he was watering there, Paul was planting here, and grudged not that Apollos entered into his labours and was building upon his foundation, but rejoiced in it, and went on in the new work that was cut out for him at Ephesus with the more cheerfulness and satisfaction, because he knew that such an able minister of the New Testament as Apollos was now at Corinth, carrying on the good work there. Though there were those that made him the head of a party against Paul (1 Cor. 1:12), yet Paul had no jealousy of him, nor any way disliked the affection the people had for him. Paul having gone through the country of Galatia and Phrygia, having passed through the upper coasts, Pontus and Bithynia, that lay north, at length came to Ephesus, where he had left Aquila and Priscilla, and there found them. At his first coming, he met with some disciples there, who professed faith in Christ as the true Messiah, but were as yet in the first and lowest form in the school of Christ, under his usher John the Baptist. They were in number about twelve (Acts 19:7); they were much of the standing that Apollos was of when he came to Ephesus (for he knew only the baptism of John, Acts 18:25), but they had not opportunity of being acquainted with Aquila and Priscilla, or had not been so long in Ephesus or were not so willing to receive instruction as Apollos was, otherwise they might have had the way of God expounded to them more perfectly, as Apollos had. Observe here,
I. How Paul catechised them. He was told, probably by Aquila and Priscilla, that they were believers, that they did own Christ, and had given up their names to him; now Paul hereupon takes them under examination.
1. They did believe in the Son of God; but Paul enquires whether they had received the Holy Ghost,—whether they believed in the spirit, whose operations on the minds of men, for conviction, conversion, and comfort, were revealed some time after the doctrine of Jesus being the Christ,—whether they had been acquainted with, and had admitted, this revelation? This was not all; extraordinary gifts of the Holy Ghost were conferred upon the apostles and other disciples presently after Christ’s ascension, which was frequently repeated upon occasion; had they participated in these gifts? “Have you received the Holy Ghost since you believed? Have you had that seal of the truth of Christ’s doctrine in yourselves?” We are not now to expect any such extraordinary gifts as they had then. The canon of the New Testament being long since completed and ratified, we depend upon that as the most sure word of prophecy. But there are graces of the Spirit given to all believers, which are as earnests to them, 2 Cor. 1:22; 5:5; Eph. 1:13, 14. Now it concerns us all who profess the Christian faith seriously to enquire whether we have received the Holy Ghost or not. The Holy Ghost is promised to all believers, to all petitioners (Luke 11:13); but many are deceived in this matter, thinking they have received the Holy Ghost when really they have not. As there are pretenders to the gifts of the Holy Ghost, so there are to his graces and comforts; we should therefore strictly examine ourselves, Have we received the Holy Ghost since we believed? The tree will be known by its fruits. Do we bring forth the fruits of the Spirit? Are we led by the Spirit? Do we walk in the Spirit? Are we under the government of the Spirit?
2. They owned their ignorance in this matter: “Whether there be a Holy Ghost is more than we know. That there is a promise of the Holy Ghost we know from the scriptures of the Old Testament, and that this promise will be fulfilled in its season we doubt not; but so much have we been out of the way of intelligence in this matter that we have not so much as heard whether the Holy Ghost be indeed yet given as a spirit of prophecy.” They knew (as Dr. Lightfoot observes) that, according to the tradition of their nation, after the death of Ezra, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi, the Holy Ghost departed from Israel, and went up; and they professed that they had never heard of his return. They spoke as if they expected it, and wondered they did not hear of it, and were ready to welcome the notice of it. The gospel light, like that of the morning, shone more and more, gradually; not only clearer and clearer, in the discovery of truths not before heard of, but further and further, in the discovery of them to persons that had not before heard of them.
3. Paul enquired how they came to be baptized, if they knew nothing of the Holy Ghost; for, if they were baptized by any of Christ’s ministers, they were instructed concerning the Holy Ghost, and were baptized in his name. “Know you not that Jesus being glorified, consequently the Holy Ghost is given? unto what then were you baptized? This is strange and unaccountable. What! baptized, and yet know nothing of the Holy Ghost? Surely your baptism was a nullity, if you know nothing of the Holy Ghost; for it is the receiving of the Holy Ghost that is signified and sealed by that washing of regeneration. Ignorance of the Holy Ghost is as inconsistent with a sincere profession of Christianity as ignorance of Christ is.” Applying it to ourselves, it intimates that those are baptized to no purpose, and have received the grace of God therein in vain, that do not receive and submit to the Holy Ghost. It is also an enquiry we should often make, not only to whose honour we were born, but into whose service we were baptized, that we may study to answer the ends both of our birth and of our baptism. Let us often consider unto what we were baptized, that we may live up to our baptism.
4. They own that they were baptized unto John’s baptism—eis to Ioannou baptisma that is, as I take it, they were baptized in the name of John, not by John himself (he was far enough from any such thought), but by some weak, well-meaning disciple of his, that ignorantly kept up his name as the head of a party, retaining the spirit and notion of those disciples of his that were jealous of the growth of Christ’s interest, and complained to him of it, John 3:26. Some one or more of these, that found themselves much edified by John’s baptism of repentance for the remission of sins, not thinking that the kingdom of heaven, which he spoke of as at hand, was so very near as it proved, ran away with that notion, rested in what they had, and thought they could not do better than to persuade others to do so too; and so, ignorantly, in a blind zeal for John’s doctrine, they baptized here and there one in John’s name, or, as it is here expressed, unto John’s baptism, looking no further themselves, nor directing those that they baptized any further.
5. Paul explains to them the true intent and meaning of John’s baptism, as principally referring to Jesus Christ, and so rectifies the mistake of those who had baptized them into the baptism of John, and had not directed them to look any further, but to rest in that. Those that have been left in ignorance, or led into error, by any infelicities of their education, should not therefore be despised nor rejected by those who are more knowing and orthodox, but should be compassionately instructed, and better taught, as these disciples were by Paul. (1.) He owns that John’s baptism was a very good thing, as far as it went: John verily baptized with the baptism of repentance. By this baptism he required people to be sorry for their sins, and to confess them and turn from them; and to bring any to this is a great point gained. But, (2.) He shows them that John’s baptism had a further reference, and he never designed that those he baptized should rest there, but told them that they should believe on him who should come after him, that is, on Christ Jesus,—that his baptism of repentance was designed only to prepare the way of the Lord, and to dispose them to receive and entertain Christ, whom he left them big with expectations of; nay, whom he directed them to: Behold the Lamb of God. “John was a great and good man; but he was only the harbinger,—Christ is the Prince. His baptism was the porch which you were to pass through, not the house you were to rest in; and therefore it was all wrong for you to be baptized into the baptism of John.”
6. When they were thus shown the error they were led into, they thankfully accepted the discovery, and were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus, Acts 19:5. As for Apollos, of whom it was said (Acts 18:25) that he knew the baptism of John—that he rightly understood the meaning of it when he was baptized with it, though he knew that only—yet, when he understood the way of God more perfectly, he was no again baptized, any more than Christ’s first disciples that had been baptized with John’s baptism and knew it referred to the Messiah at the door (and, with an eye to this, submitted to it), were baptized again. But to these disciples, who received it only with an eye to John and looked no further, as if he were their saviour, it was such a fundamental error as was as fatal to it as it would have been for any to be baptized in the name of Paul (1 Cor. 1:13); and therefore, when they came to understand things better, they desired to be baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus, and were so: not by Paul himself, as we have reason to think, but by some of those who attended him. It does not therefore follow hence that there was not an agreement between John’s baptism and Christ’s, or that they were not for substance the same; much less does it follow that those who have been once baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost (which is the appointed form of Christ’s baptism), may be again baptized in the same name; for those that were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus had never been so baptized before.
II. How Paul conferred the extraordinary gifts of the Holy Ghost upon them, Acts 19:6. 1. Paul solemnly prayed to God to give them those gifts, signified by his laying his hands on them, which was a gesture used in blessing by the patriarchs, especially in conveying the great trust of the promise, as Gen. 48:14. The Spirit being the great promise of the New Testament, the apostles conveyed it by the imposition of hands: “The Lord bless thee with that blessing, that blessing of blessings,” Isa. 44:3. 2. God granted the thing he prayed for: The Holy Ghost came upon them in a surprising overpowering manner, and they spoke with tongues and prophesied, as the apostles did and the first Gentile converts, Acts 10:44. This was intended to introduce the gospel at Ephesus, and to awaken in the minds of men an expectation of some great things from it; and some think that it was further designed to qualify these twelve men for the work of the ministry, and that these twelve were the elders of Ephesus, to whom Paul committed the care and government of that church. They had the Spirit of prophesy, that they might understand the mysteries of the kingdom of God themselves, and the gift of tongues, that they might preach them to every nation and language. Oh, what a wonderful change was here made on a sudden in these men! those that but just now had not so much as heard that there was any Holy Ghost are now themselves filled with the Holy Ghost; for the Spirit, like the wind, blows where and when he listeth.