by Al Maxey

Issue #585 ------- August 15, 2013
There are many creeds, but only one
universal faith. A minimum of creed and
a maximum of faith is the ideal synthesis.

Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972)

The "Dirty Dozen" of Ephesus
Pondering the Purpose of their Baptism

Several people have written to me this summer with the same request: they are puzzled by the incident recorded in Acts 19:1-7 and desire some clarification as to what Luke sought to convey to his audience (and, by extension and inspiration, to succeeding generations). These individuals who wrote to me are not the only ones puzzled by this passage, as disciples of Christ have debated the significance of this text for centuries. Even learned biblical scholars have had to admit that, although they have their opinions, they hesitate to elevate such educated assumption to the level of eternal truth. There is simply insufficient information provided in the text to ever be dogmatic about one's deductions and inferences. "The account is extremely difficult to interpret, principally because it is so brief" [The Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 9, p. 493]. "Their case presents some difficulties hard to explain, unless we had more of the facts" [B. W. Johnson, The People's NT with Notes, p. 499]. Indeed, Dr. W. Robertson Nicoll, a leading NT Greek scholar, declares, "We know so little about these men that it seems hazardous to attempt to define them more clearly" [The Expositor's Greek Testament, vol. 2, p. 404]. And yet, there are some within Christendom who will not hesitate to take their "assumptions of faith" and present them dogmatically as "assertions of fact." Such persons are, and have always been, far more hurtful than helpful to the cause of Christ. There is nothing wrong, contrary to what some would have you believe, in admitting that there are some things in Scripture we simply don't fully grasp. This might be a serious problem if salvation is knowledge based. However, our acceptance by God is not based on how much we know, but rather Who we know.

The passage in question (Acts 19:1-7) presents to our view "about twelve men" (vs. 7), who were living in the city of Ephesus (vs. 1), whom the apostle Paul encountered during his third missionary journey. As Paul conversed with these men, he began to suspect that their level of knowledge about some of the basics of the Christian faith was woefully lacking. Specifically, they seemed not to have progressed in their understanding too far beyond, if at all, the preparatory preaching of John the Baptist regarding the coming Messiah, His mission and message, and the outpouring and ministry of the Holy Spirit. They had evidenced their faith in the message conveyed by John by submitting to baptism, but having no knowledge of significant aspects of that Great Light that had come into the world, they had yet to come to that deeper faith (and, as a result, had yet to evidence such faith through a number of visible responses: such as confession and immersion). "Though their knowledge was imperfect, they were sincere" [Dr. Horatio B. Hackett, A Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles, p. 218]. Few would question their sincerity or the genuineness of that degree of faith they possessed. The problem was not that these were vile, godless wretches, but that they simply had not yet been exposed to some of what had transpired in the past few years. In short, they were still looking for that which (and He who) had already come. "It must not be forgotten that they lived nearly a thousand miles from Jerusalem, in an age when each part of the world knew little of what transpired elsewhere" [B. W. Johnson, The People's NT with Notes, p. 499]. To their credit, however, "they were in that state of mind that they were willing to embrace the truth when and where it was made known to them" [Albert Barnes, Barnes' Notes on the Bible, e-Sword]. When Paul met them, they were seeking, but they had not yet found. This in no way implies that they were, at that point in their lives, "lost" and "bound for hell," but merely that they had not yet heard the good news of what God had done for them. Thus, Paul shared that Greater Light, to which they readily and happily responded.

One of the chief difficulties arising from the passage is the notion in the minds of some that it is "all about baptism." These "dirty dozen" in the city of Ephesus were on the fast track to hell because they had not yet been "baptized right." Had they died before Paul got to them, they would "burn in hell forever," according to the teaching of some. If one had experienced "the baptism of John," they were "covered" only until Pentecost; after that, it was rendered immediately null and void, and thus they went from "saved to lost" until they could get to the nearest water and "do it right." Indeed, this supremacy of Christian baptism over Johannine baptism was made a tenet of the Council of Trent (1545-1563): "If any one shall say that the baptism of John had the same efficacy as the baptism of Christ, let him be anathema." This was done largely "for the purpose of exalting the Christian sacraments as distinguished from those of the first dispensation" [Dr. Horatio B. Hackett, A Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles, p. 219-220]. Unfortunately, this rigid sacramentalism still exists today, and this passage is misused and abused for the purpose of "proving" such a practice.

Yes, if baptism is a saving sacrament, then one had better do it, and one had better make absolutely certain that he or she does it right. There is very little wiggle room with a sacrament; not so with a symbol. The more I study Christian baptism, however, the more convinced I become that this evidentiary act of faith is in no way sacramental in nature (i.e., it in no way imparts a divine grace to mankind). It is simply a visible demonstration of our faith in the reality of His gift of grace, and is further participatory in nature in much the same way as our observance of the Lord's Supper. In other words, in this visible demonstration of our faith we participate in a reenactment of His death, burial and resurrection (a completed work on HIS part that we manifest faith in, both to ourselves and others, through baptism). Baptism is a visible act of faith in which we acknowledge what He has already done for us; it is not something we do, or submit to, in order to acquire some divine grace (that is sacramentalism). The former falls under the umbrella of LOVE; the latter under that of LAW.

Those who were baptized with the baptism of John were demonstrating faith in He who was coming. It was preparatory in nature. Those who were/are baptized afterward (during the Christian dispensation) were/are demonstrating faith in He who has come. It is participatory in nature. Dr. J. K. Parratt observes that both Johannine and Christian baptism "signify repentance and faith toward the Messiah. The only difference will be that the Johannine rite was proleptic, whereas the Christian rite looks back to the accomplished work of Christ" [The Expository Times, "The Rebaptism of the Ephesian Disciples," vol. 79, March, 1968, p. 182-183]. As Dr. F. F. Bruce clearly points out, "The pre-Pentecostal baptism, as proclaimed and administered by John the Baptist, was a baptism of expectation rather than one of fulfillment, as Christian baptism now was" [Commentary on the Book of Acts, p. 386]. Thus, the baptism of John was largely anticipatory in nature, which "was inappropriate and inadequate" to a newfound faith in the person and work of Jesus Christ [ibid]. What disturbed Paul primarily with regard to these twelve disciples was that they seemed to be unaware of the arrival of that which they had anticipated. John's baptism looked ahead with the eyes of faith to the promised gift of God's grace (His Son and His Spirit), whereas the Christian baptism looked back with the eyes of faith to the bestowed gift of God's grace (His Son and His Spirit). When one is made aware of the Greater Light, if his or her heart is right, that one embraces that Greater Light by faith, and evidences that faith from that point forward in their daily lives in numerous ways.

It is my personal conviction that baptism is not the central focus of this passage (Acts 19:1-7). Over the years that has become the focus, largely because of the fallacy of sacramentalism. I am convinced that the real focus is on the coming to a fuller experiential faith in "He who God has sent" (the Son) and "He who the Son has sent" (the Spirit). These twelve disciples were lacking in both areas, and thus their faith was in need of being elevated to an awareness and acceptance of a Greater Light. There is nothing in this passage that even remotely hints that these men were "headed for hell" because of their lack of knowledge, or because they had not yet "made another trip to the water" so as to "get it exactly right." That is nonsense! Indeed, in the previous chapter of Acts we encounter Apollos who also "knew only the baptism of John" (Acts 18:25). Priscilla and Aquila helped him come to a greater understanding of God's grace, but nothing is ever said, either there or anywhere else in the NT writings, about him ever being baptized. If, indeed, baptism was the central focus of this whole narrative (Acts 18-19), one would think it would at least be mentioned. It is not! In fact, there is no record of the twelve apostles ever being baptized (Reflections #580 -- Already You Are Clean). This fact is acknowledged by one of the premier NT Greek scholars: Dr. A. T. Robertson -- "Apollos was not rebaptized. The twelve apostles were not rebaptized. The point here is simply that these twelve men were grossly ignorant" of the coming of the One they were looking for and the spiritual significance of that coming [Word Pictures in the NT, e-Sword]. For my in-depth "Study of Rebaptism," see Reflections #407.

That same ignorance was NOT present in either Apollos or the Twelve. Indeed, we are told, with respect to the former, that "he taught about Jesus accurately, though he knew only the baptism of John" (Acts 18:25). Was Apollos LOST at this point? Was he "headed for hell" until such time as he "made another trip to the water" so as to "get it exactly right"? If so, why wasn't that "trip to the water" mentioned? If it is the very "point of salvation," then one would think it would be emphasized. Others insist that Christian baptism is what bestows the Holy Spirit, and it was for this reason Paul insisted these twelve men in Ephesus be baptized. It is argued that Apollos and the Twelve already had the Holy Spirit, and thus there was no need for this "rebaptism." Some see a validation of this theory in view of Paul's discussion with these men: he asks them if they had received the Holy Spirit when they believed. They respond that they were unaware that the Spirit had been given. Then later Paul places his hands on them and they receive the Holy Spirit, "and they spoke in tongues and prophesied." So, was this the reason for their Christian baptism? Well, if it was, then it seems strange that the Spirit didn't fall on them at the moment of their baptism, but instead came later by the laying on of hands by Paul. Further, what is one to make of Acts 8:14-17? -- "When the apostles in Jerusalem heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God, they sent Peter and John to them. When they arrived, they prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit, because the Holy Spirit had not yet come upon any of them; they had simply been baptized into the name of the Lord Jesus. Then Peter and John placed their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit." Here we find people who had submitted to Christian baptism, but who still had not received the Holy Spirit. Thus, it wasn't the baptism that conferred the Spirit (indeed, the Spirit was conferred on Cornelius before his baptism -- see Reflections #472).

It is also true that the specific interaction described here is most likely the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, which was similar to that experienced on Pentecost, by Cornelius and his household, and also by the Samaritans in Acts 8, as Luke describes the reception of the Holy Spirit in Acts 19 as being in connection with the laying on of hands by an apostle and evidenced by the fact that they "spoke in tongues and prophesied" (vs. 6). This, therefore, would be what some might call "Holy Spirit baptism," which was given in special circumstances and for a special purpose. In my view, the purpose of the outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost (Jews), in Acts 8 (Samaritans), and in Acts 10-11 with Cornelius and his household (Gentiles) was the visible fulfillment of the prophecy of Joel 2 -- "I will pour out my Spirit on all people" (vs. 28). Jew and Gentile (and Samaritan -- which was somewhat of a mixed breed between the two) was "all flesh/people" in the eyes of the Jews, and thus in the three outpourings referenced in Acts we find that prophecy representatively fulfilled. The Acts 19 outpouring, however, was somewhat different in that the purpose was to confirm in the minds of this group of disciples that the aforementioned outpouring of the Spirit, which was sent forth by the Lord Himself, had actually occurred (which outpourings these twelve men had no knowledge of). Although Paul could have simply told them it had happened, far more convincing would be to show them. Their faith in his teaching was thus affirmed beyond question when they themselves experienced that outpouring.

By making baptism the central focus of Acts 19:1-7, I believe we miss the message being conveyed in that passage! The real focus of the passage is the working of the Holy Spirit, who was not sent forth until the Son ascended to the Father. Thus, when these twelve men indicated they had no awareness that the Spirit had been given, this indicated also that they had no awareness of the full extent of the ministry of the Messiah, who had indeed now come, had given His life on the cross, had arisen, had ascended, and had sent forth the Spirit. Their baptism (of John) indicated they were anticipating this good news, but they apparently had, for whatever reason, not yet heard of it in its fullness. Thus, Paul informed them that the One John proclaimed was coming had indeed now come. When they heard this, they believed and evidenced that by a visible act of faith in His completed work: baptism. Paul then confirmed the Spirit had indeed been sent forth, and he did so in a dramatic way: he laid hands on them and they experienced His power firsthand.

Some have assumed that these twelve men did not know previously that the Holy Spirit even existed. They assume this from the statement, "We have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit" (Acts 19:2). However, "this cannot be the meaning, since the personality and office of the Holy Ghost, in connection with Christ, formed an especial subject of the Baptist's teaching. Literally, the words are: 'We did not even hear whether the Holy Ghost was given'" [Drs. Jamieson, Fausset & Brown, Commentary Practical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible, p. 1119]. This was certainly the expectation of the Jews, as John 7:39 clearly states: "By this He meant the Spirit, whom those who believed in Him were later to receive. Up to that time the Spirit had not been given, since Jesus had not yet been glorified." What these twelve men in Ephesus were saying is that they had not heard that the Spirit had been given, thus indicating to Paul that they were unaware that Jesus had accomplished His mission and been glorified. It is possible they were aware of Jesus, but not aware of the extent of what had occurred in Palestine. Paul, therefore, filled in these dark spots in their awareness with the Greater Light, to which Light they responded in fuller faith, evidenced by their baptism, and then later affirmed when Paul laid hands on them and they experienced the miraculous outpouring of the Spirit, which served to affirm the glorification of Jesus and the subsequent giving of His Spirit. "There could not be any question as to the existence of the Holy Ghost, for the Baptist had pointed to the future baptism of the Spirit to be conferred by the Messiah, and the OT would have taught the existence of a Holy Spirit. The meaning is that they had not heard whether their promised baptism of the Spirit by the Messiah had been already fulfilled or not" [Dr. W. Robertson Nicoll, The Expositor's Greek Testament, vol. 2, p. 403].

The baptizing of these twelve men in water, as a visible attesting of their faith in the completed work of Jesus Christ, was, in a way, incidental to the central focus of this account, which was the sharing of Greater Light with those who were unaware of the full extent of its coming. There is nothing in the account that even remotely suggests these twelve disciples were eternally lost at this point in their journey of faith (any more than Apollos was lost before Priscilla and Aquila shared that greater insight with him). As disciples who had embraced the teaching of John the Baptist, they were looking for the Messiah, and indeed may have heard that the Messiah had come. However, they lacked knowledge as to the outcome of that incarnation, and the subsequent sending forth of the Spirit. Paul provided that knowledge, which they readily embraced. "And thus those twelve men who came forward so abruptly in our history disappear as suddenly, leaving us in doubt whence they came, where they had been, and in some respects what particular phase of religious belief they represented. The episode is one of strange interest from the very fact of its suggesting so many questions the solution of which our imperfect knowledge of the first Christian age has put beyond our reach" [Dr. Horatio B. Hackett, A Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles, p. 220]. For religionists today to twist this account to their own sectarian ends, seeking to use it as a proof-text for compelling disciples to "make another trip to the water and 'get it exactly right'," is an appalling abuse of the text. I pray this current study will awaken us to a far more reasoned understanding of the text.

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Readers' Reflections

From a Minister in Tennessee:

I just found your Web Page today -- oh, thanks also for accepting my friend request on Facebook as well. I have been challenged by quite a bit of your writing, since I come from the Non-Institutional point of view. However, I don't mind being challenged. First and foremost, I want to understand God's Word correctly. My allegiance is to the Lord and His message, not to any particular viewpoint. I'm particularly interested in your writings about "patternism." It certainly seems like you've addressed this from just about every angle. I'm making my way through your material, but I'm still unclear about some things, so I hope you don't mind if I ask you questions now and then before I've read all that you've written. Again, thanks for making your positions very public and easy to find in your writings. I also appreciate very much the attitude with which you engage those who disagree with you, as well as your openness to others about how you understand things.

From a New Reader in [Unknown]:

Please add me to your subscription list to receive your weekly Reflections articles. I've been reading them online, and they have been very encouraging as we journey out of legalism. Thank you!

From a Minister in Washington:

Just a few years ago I preached a six lesson series on Bible authority. I was very proud of my effort; I had poured many hours into preparing those lessons. Upon completion of the series, I felt a strange emptiness. I had done my research and made some great PowerPoint slides with numerous charts demonstrating how to apply command, example and inference, but I found I could not escape the fact that I had not truly studied the Scriptures to reach these conclusions. I had simply studied material provided by other preachers. I then realized that I had done what I had said I would never do: I was preaching the doctrine of men, and then looking for verses to support it. Since that time I have been wrestling with HOW to establish what Christ would have HIS church do. You have helped me a lot, and I thank you, but I still need help. In a nutshell, how do we determine church activity? I am not ready to toss CENI out the window entirely, but I no longer hold to the idea that you must have a command, example or inference to have the authority to do a thing. Yet, I am afraid to let the pendulum swing too far the other direction. What hermeneutic would you suggest? Thank you, and may God bless you.

From a Reader in New Mexico:

At the head of your last Reflections you placed this quote from Emily Dickinson -- "Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul and sings the tune without the words and never stops at all." I love that poem! Thanks so much for sharing this. I haven't even read your article yet, but just had to tell you how much those words by Dickinson have meant to me for more years than you have been alive. You made a bright spot in my day!

From a Reader in Louisiana:

I have been amused that some of the legalists who declare Baptists and others "damned" and "lost forever" continue to sing the hymns written by those same "devils." I once preached at a church in Alabama and told them point blank: "If you really believe what you preach, then why don't you tear all the songs out of your song books that were not written by Church of Christ people?! I'll tell you why you don't -- you are hypocrites! Either stop teaching a lie or start living by what you preach!" Surprisingly, I didn't get one negative comment, although if looks could kill I'd currently be residing in heaven! (LOL) Love you, my friend!

From a Reader in Georgia:

Just read your article "Precious Hope of Pastor Mote." It took most of my adulthood to truly appreciate the following words from his hymn: "Faultless to stand before the throne." I only wish more could. Al, I really appreciate these biographical articles ... even if the guy was a Baptist (LOL). Blessings, my friend. I always look forward to our time together each week via your Reflections.

From a Reader in North Carolina:

I really enjoyed this article on Bro. Mote and his hymn "My Hope Is Built On Nothing Less." That hymn has been a part of my life and Christian walk for at least 40 years. It is a powerful message, and I've sung it hundreds of times. I'm sure we all have. Now, if we can just LIVE that message! God help us to do so.

From a Reader at Vanderbilt University:

I have been reading your writings for a couple of months. Thank you so much for them. Are there other web sites by others within the Churches of Christ that address these same issues in like manner? Also, I want to balance my knowledge with those who make the "best" arguments to the contrary of your view of Scripture. It bothers me when people believe they have "studied the Word," when in reality they have only studied those things which fortify their own understandings. It is good to hear both (all) sides of any issue or doctrine. Thanks again!

From a Reader in California:

With regard to the comment by one of your readers who mentioned Yater Tant: although I was never in the ultra-conservative corps of the Churches of Christ, Yater was my friend. I spent a lot of time with him, and visited with him in my parents' home on more than one occasion. I know his reputation, however, one-on-one, he seemed to be very different from his reputation. I thought the world of him and thoroughly enjoyed his book. In fact, I have a signed copy of it that I treasure. My wife even cut Yater's hair one time when he was holding a Gospel Meeting where my parents attended.

From a Minister in Tennessee:

I just wanted to tell you I enjoyed your latest offering ("Precious Hope of Pastor Mote") as well as the responses. The reader from North Carolina spoke of preachers in Tennessee treating Guy N. Woods as though he were the 4th person in the godhead. I think he was definitely highly respected by a large number, though perhaps not by some who would challenge him on certain issues or who attempted to trick him when he ran the Open Forum during the FHU Lectureships. He meant a lot to me. In spite of all the "write up" articles in some of the ultra-conservative papers which denounced me, Guy N. Woods continued to fellowship with me, treating me with respect, and never once did he bring up any objections to my presence, whether in private or in public. Others who had been my friends for years would avoid me like the plague. Not Bro. Woods. So, I respect him for that. I also enjoyed his 20 minute sermons!! Further, he was a very kind debater (at least in those that I attended). Just some of my thoughts. Keep up the good work.

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