While Apollos was at Corinth, 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.
Paul arrived in Ephesus on a route from the north, and upon arriving he met a small group of “disciples” who had been taught by Apollos, apparently before he had been instructed by Aquila and Priscilla. It would seem that Apollos’ initial misconceptions had been passed to these men, who had not been properly instructed. Paul seems to have noticed that something was missing, and asked them if they received the Holy Spirit only to discover that they had not even heard of the Holy Spirit, even though they had believed.
What follows is quite interesting theologically, for Paul sets for us a clear linkage between baptism and receiving the Spirit (19:3-5), followed by events that parallel those we saw take place in Samaria in chapter 8. Notice that Paul explained to them that John’s baptism, which they had received, was a baptism of repentance, and that John had taught those who received to believe in the One who would come after him, Jesus, and that upon hearing this, the men were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus (cf. Acts 2:38). Then, as Peter had done in Samaria, Paul lays his hands on the men and they received the Holy Spirit and spiritual gifts that made the Spirit’s presence obvious. Notice they had to first be baptized into Jesus Christ, and then they would receive the Holy Spirit.
At this point, it might be useful for us to consider that we are looking at an event that took place roughly 20 years after Pentecost, and for that length of time, the Gospel had spread orally from Jerusalem throughout the known world. As we might expect, as the great story was retold over those years, there was some confusion about some of the details that was beginning to be problematic, as in this passage. Of course this shouldn’t be any great surprise, for even now after having the New Testament Scriptures for so many centuries, there is a great deal of confusion about these same matters. For example, what baptism should a Christian receive? As you know, asking a question such as that one will spark endless debates today, and having been in my share of those debates myself, I can assure you that not many of those debaters will mention this particular text, even though it is one of the clearest teachings on the subject.
At any rate, the men obviously received the Spirit, and the stage was set for the next part of the story, an amazing series of events that demonstrate the spiritual power of what was going on in that region…