The Fork in the Road: On Imperfect Baptisms, Part 4.1 (The Ephesians and Apollos)

I’ve been slow to join in the comments. Elders meeting Wednesday went late. Had a firm function Thursday night. Other stuff Friday. So today I’ve been playing catch up.

Many readers don’t subscribe to the comments, so I’m going to repost some of my comments as maybe they’ll help explain my point of view.

On the baptism of the Ephesians and the non-baptism of Apollos

Guy asked,

If God will accept an “imperfect baptism,” why weren’t the disciples in Ephesus Paul encountered in Acts 19 fine as they were?

(Act 19:1-7 ESV) And it happened that while Apollos was at Corinth, Paul passed through the inland country and came to Ephesus. There he found some disciples. 2 And he said to them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” And they said, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.” 3 And he said, “Into what then were you baptized?” They said, “Into John’s baptism.” 4 And Paul said, “John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, Jesus.” 5 On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. 6 And when Paul had laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they began speaking in tongues and prophesying. 7 There were about twelve men in all.

Paul’s first question is: “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” This is the test of a valid conversion. And Paul assumes that they’ll know that they’ve received the Spirit — either through teaching or experience — but they’ll know. When we question the validity of a baptism, we don’t ask what Paul asked, and therefore we must not have the same theology as Paul. That’s a problem.

When Paul learned that they’d not even heard about the Spirit, then Paul knew they’d not received orthodox Christian instruction — such as Peter preached at Pentecost. The receipt of the Spirit is a critical component of the Kingdom. Thus, Paul suspected they’d not been baptized into the name of Jesus — and so he asked.

They said they were baptized with John’s baptism — for repentance (for the remission of sins! Mark 1:4; Luke 1:77). This is insufficient — even though for the remission of sins — because, as Paul explains –

“John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, Jesus.”

Evidently, Paul believed they didn’t have faith in Jesus — as he uses the teaching of John to explain the necessity for this faith. Paul didn’t respond to the baptism problem by preaching a better baptism. He pointed out that John pointed his disciples toward faith in Jesus.

Now, while this seems clear enough from the dialog Luke reports, Luke refers to the Ephesians as “disciples.” The term is used as a near synonym for “Christian” up to this point in Acts, but as they hadn’t received the Spirit and even evidently lacked faith in Jesus, it’s problemmatic. Rom 8:9-11 is explicit that you are lost if you don’t have the Spirit. John the Baptist taught the same. Baptism with “fire and Spirit” refers to the two possibilities.

Luke uses “disciples” to refer to followers of John the Baptist (Luke 5:33) as well as to Jesus’ followers. It seems likely that these 12 were followers of John the Baptist, expecting the Messiah, but not knowing Jesus of Nazareth to be the Messiah prophesied by John. You see, the teaching Luke records is Paul’s insistence on the right faith — not the right baptism. They were re-baptized, but that was in response to their coming to faith.

Why did Paul re-baptize them? Because they’d not received the Spirit and because they had lacked faith in Jesus (believing rather in a Messiah not yet revealed). And when they came to a saving faith, they responded by being baptized and so received the Spirit — which is the normal course.


Now, a fascinating contrast is found in the immediately preceding verses –

(Act 18:24-28 ESV) 24 Now a Jew named Apollos, a native of Alexandria, came to Ephesus. He was an eloquent man, competent in the Scriptures. 25 He had been instructed in the way of the Lord. And being fervent in spirit, he spoke and taught accurately the things concerning Jesus, though he knew only the baptism of John. 26 He began to speak boldly in the synagogue, but when Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they took him and explained to him the way of God more accurately. 27 And when he wished to cross to Achaia, the brothers encouraged him and wrote to the disciples to welcome him. When he arrived, he greatly helped those who through grace had believed, 28 for he powerfully refuted the Jews in public, showing by the Scriptures that the Christ was Jesus.

Notice that Apollos had faith in Jesus but only knew John’s baptism. The result is that Priscilla and Aquila “took him and explained to him the way of God more accurately.” But there’s no re-baptism — unlike Eph 19. It’s possible that he was baptized and Luke didn’t bother to record the fact, but Acts is filled with conversion stories that end with baptism and the receipt of the Spirit. Why not this time?

Well, because Apollos had faith and gave clear evidence that he had the Spirit. He just needed to be better taught regarding baptism so that his converts would be properly instructed.

Now, some would question my conclusion that Apollos already had the Spirit, but Luke says so. You see “fervent in spirit” (18:25) is really “fervent in the spirit” which is really “fervent in the Spirit.” What the translataors translate as “spirit” is ?? ???????? — “the Spirit.” “To” or ?? is the definite article (“the”).

The same construction is found in –

(Act 6:10 ESV) Acts 6:10 But they could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he was speaking.

(Act 7:51 ESV) ESV Acts 7:51 “You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you.

(Act 15:28 ESV) For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay on you no greater burden than these requirements:

(Act 16:18 ESV) Acts 16:18 And this she kept doing for many days. Paul, having become greatly annoyed, turned and said to the spirit, “I command you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.” And it came out that very hour.

(Act 19:21 ESV) Acts 19:21 Now after these events Paul resolved in the Spirit to pass through Macedonia and Achaia and go to Jerusalem, saying, “After I have been there, I must also see Rome.”

(Act 20:22 ESV) Acts 20:22 And now, behold, I am going to Jerusalem, constrained by the Spirit, not knowing what will happen to me there,

Everywhere those two words appear together in Acts, they refer either to “the Spirit” or else to an evil spirit — not to the person’s heart or attitude. Therefore, the natural reading is that Apollos had the Spirit — despite an imperfect baptism. And, of course, the text is clear that he had faith.

If that’s not right, then why wasn’t he re-baptized? If he was re-baptized, why did Luke omit it — given that Luke just told us that he’d only received John’s baptism and that Luke routinely records the baptisms of converts?

Therefore, here we have an imperfect baptism and a man who was nonetheless saved because he had faith. In chapter 19, we have an imperfect baptism and an inadequate faith. Where the faith was adequate and the baptism inadequate, there was no rebaptism. Where both were inadequate, rebaptism was necessary.

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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4 Responses to The Fork in the Road: On Imperfect Baptisms, Part 4.1 (The Ephesians and Apollos)

  1. Gary Cummings says:

    Faith is the means of salvation, not baptism. He had a baptism into the Kingdom of God by John the Baptist.
    Maybe an imperfect baptism preceded perfect (mature) faith, making rebaptism not necessary.

    The COC has such a hangup over the when and amount of water, when faith is what is necessary-the one thing necessary for salvation. Salvation is by faith from first to last.

  2. Guy says:


    (1) The Ephesian disciples would know they received the Spirit because when Paul laid his hands on them, they prophesied and spoke in tongues.

    (2) i don't see why you must conclude from the text that Paul's question was the test of a valid conversion. Those disciples may have been in the same situation as those of Samaria in Acts 8 who had been baptized but not received the Spirit who needed the laying on of the apostles' hands. Paul being an apostle was in a position to give this to these men in Ephesus if they didn't already have it.

    (3) Asking a question Paul didn't ask is not indicative of parting ways with Paul's theology. Christians in the years immediately following Paul encountered situations and teachings that Paul did not encounter. John encountered Gnostic teaching after Paul's death. A relevant question at the time was whether you believed that the human being Jesus of Nazareth was God incarnate. Paul wasn't asking people that question. Should we then conclude that John's work is set against Paul rather than harmonious with it? If Christian-baptism-being-performed-incorrectly never came up in Paul's time, why would he have asked those questions? But it did arise after Paul's time. (The in-whose-name question arose in Paul's time, but mode? purpose?) How then does that mark a difference in kind from Paul's theology? This is simply a non-sequitir.

    (4a) You've still practically conceded the point. i didn't argue that Paul preached a different baptism to them or anything like that. My point was that he re-baptized them period. Their previous baptism wasn't sufficient. Their new understanding of things didn't render their previous baptism sufficient. They still needed re-baptized. Thus some degree of understanding is required for a baptism to do what it's supposed to do ("valid").

    You keep referencing an "imperfect baptism" as though any level of expectation or criteria is just demanding perfection of someone. But the real matter is that there is some bottom line such that anything less is simply not a baptism of any kind, imperfect or otherwise. What are the minimum criteria? You still haven't seemed to get there at all.

    Peter told his Pentecost crowd what they were being baptized for. Paul was told by Ananias what he was being baptized for. Is there any place in Acts where the texts makes clear that a person most certainly did not know what they were being baptized for? Think about what a text would have to say for that to be true.

    (4b) i say you *practically* conceded the point because you did say they needed to be re-baptized in order to receive the Spirit. But they didn't receive the Spirit upon the moment of baptism, but when Paul laid his hands on them. i suppose in a way this still makes your point, but it doesn't counter mine though. If baptism was needed for receiving the Spirit, a new understanding was needed for baptism.

    (5a) Luke famously omits details. Of course there are many things he mentions and even patterns that seem to arise. But leaving out seemingly relevant details–Acts is full of it. Why do we get a full account of Stephen's martyrdom, but James only gets one line? –when arguably it would seem that the death of James would have been a more weighty and consequential event? Yet Luke gives us one line about James dying by the sword. Thus it shouldn't surprise us too much when Luke doesn't say something it seems like he should've said as though he otherwise spares no detail.

    (5b) The fact that Luke doesn't say Apollos was re-baptized doesn't mean it didn't happen. Luke doesn't record anyone in the church singing for the first several chapters of the book. Should we thus conclude no one in the church ever sang? The point is, when it doesn't say, we can't make a knowledge claim either way. If you can make a knowledge claim based on what the text doesn't say, i don't see why conservatives can't do the very same thing concerning instrumental music.

    If the text doesn't say one way or the other, then this event in Acts 18 differs from Acts 19 only in what is mentioned, not necessarily in what happened. Whether it differed in what happened, we don't know because the text doesn't tell us. Thus Acts 18 is not some "proof text" for an exception to what we read in Acts 19. –again, not unless you're willing to presume upon silence.



  3. abasnar says:

    I don't think that Apollos wasn't baptized after the clearer instructions by Paul's co-workers.

    What is the sense of having better knowledge but not acting upon it? And is the one who teaches any subject of faith not obliged to live what he teaches?

    The church in Ephesos wrote a letter of recommendation to the churches in Achaia (Corinth). Is it likely that they wrote:
    "Here is Apollos, a fine speaker and teacher who studied theology in Alexandria. He is not baptized in the name of Lord Jesus because of some misunderstandings, but he received the Spirit anyway. So we did not think it necessary to baptize him in the name of Christ. Please note, that when Paul wrote to you that we have all been baptized into one body by the same Spirit, that we don't have to be too picky on the baptism. Actually, the water isn't that important. and we must give some freedom for exceptions to the rules. So, please don't argue with him about baptism, and accept the work of the Spirit within him."

    That does not sound credible to me at all. There are other conversion stories, where baptism isn't mentioned specifically: Acts 17:34 (the believers from Athens), Acts 18:8 (Krispus), Acts 19:8:10 (no further baptisms recorded in Asia Minor) …

    So I am convinced that Apollos has been baptized after having received the better instruction. After all, Peter also baptized Cornelius and his house even though they had already received the Spirit.

    My conclusion to this: Regeneration is a process, that involves:
    – hearing the Gospel
    – Faith in Christ and repentance
    – Confession of sins
    – Baptism in Water in the name of Christ (or Father, Sion and Holy Spirit)
    – Baptism with the Spirit

    This process ideally falls together as more or less one "act", but it can also stretch out over a couple of days, weeks, months. Some things may also be in reverse order (Spirit before Water) and this should not bother us more than it bothered the Apostles.

    I can imagine, that even in the churches of Christ some have been baptized without receiving the Spirit. Strong opinion? I have no proof for that, but consider this:

    Some baptize almost traditionally at a certain age (Somewhere between 10 and 14 years even). And since the focus in our theology is so much on the right procedure (immersion) and the right meaning (forgiveness of sins) and most of the times without laying on of hands and prayer for the Holy Spirit to come, I think – watch out! – that the baptisms in churches of Christ are sometimes somewhat between the baptism of John and the apostolic baptisms!

    Judge for yourselves: Is the new life clearly evident among those who have been baptized? Are the fruits of the Spirit visible? I think it is safe to say: Not among all of those, who have been baptized. And that's in harmony with the parable of the dragnet. But this does mean, we should be concerned about these members of the church who are in danger of being sorted out at the end, pray with them and – no we don't have to repeat a baptism in the name of Christ as some do, but we need to lay hands upon them in the name of Christ.

    What bothers me a lot is the tradition of "immediate baptisms" often within 24 hours. "Quick and dirty" as I call it. The act of baptism lasts 5min or less, there is not really time to meditate on the meaning to convey the message … Since we normally don't have to deal with mass-conversions or mass-baptisms, we can "take time to be(come) holy." Give some time for instruction before baptism, help the comvert to count the costs and to grasp the meaning and commitment of baptism.

    We, who are so quick to say, a person must understand that baptism is "for the remission of sins" don't give even the time to consider the weight of sin and the necessity of separation from this "corrupt generation"!

    But the apostles baptized on the spot, you may say. Yes, I will answer, and their sermons lasted less than five minutes. Please remember, that as Luke summed up a deep messeage in a few sentences, he also summed up the process of baptism in a sentence or two. There is more to say and more to consider than we normally do. And so, I think, some baptisms in the churches of Christ – esp. these "quick and dirty" ones – lack the fruit and must be completed. Not by a rebaptism, but as the apostles did it and gave it to us as a pattern: By laying on of hands.

    And that's how I would deal with any baptism in the name of Christ done by adult-baptizing churches, when a brother or sister would like to join our church.


  4. Jay and Those Who Comment Above:

    I see general confusion between the Spirit as a gift and the Spirit as a giver of gifts.

    The Spirit was a giver of gifts prior to Pentecost. Jay's early articles on the Holy Spirit in the Old Testament shows that clearly.

    The Spirit was not given as a gift until Pentecost.

    In John 7:37-39, Jesus spoke of coming to Him to drink – and that those who believed in Him would have "rivers of living water" flowing from his heart. John added an explanation: "This He spoke concerning the Spirit, whom those believing in Him would receive, for the Holy Spirit was not yet given, because Jesus was not yet glorified."

    The construction here translated "the Holy Spirit was not yet given" is the same as the Ephesian twelve used in response to Paul's question where the translation is quite different: "We have not heard whether there is a Holy Spirit."

    Not knowing if the Holy Spirit exists and not knowing that the Holy Spirit had been given are quite different things.

    In view of the clarity of John 7:37-39, I believe we should understand Acts 19:2 in the same sense as John 7:39.

    When Paul laid his hands on them (and when Peter & John laid hands on the Samaritans) it was not the Holy Spirit Himself that the people received. They had received the Holy Spirit already. It was gifts from the Spirit visibly evident by tongues and prophecy.

    All Christians receive the Holy Spirit; not all receive the special gifts – or at least that is what the totality of 1 Corinthians 12 indicates.

    I blog on this here.


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