Commentary on Acts 19:1-7
This episode in the Book of Acts stands as a sequel to the account of John the Baptist’s ministry, including the baptism of Jesus, that is narrated in the Gospel for the Day (Mark 1:4-11).
Appearing in the two-volume work of Luke-Acts, it’s more precise antecedent is the account in Luke 3:1-20. The sequence of readings at worship necessitates that this passage from Acts will precede the Gospel for the Day. While this passage refers to John and his ministry, that era is now in the past tense. It is already the time of the church. Nevertheless, this account does prepare the listener for the Gospel reading by its reference to John and the kind of baptism that he performed.
If we follow Luke’s account of Paul’s journeys, the story related in Acts fits within his third missionary journey (18:23-21:16). Just prior to it, attention is upon Apollos of Alexandria, already a Christian, who was preaching in Ephesus (18:24-28). But his knowledge of the faith was inadequate, and it fell to Priscilla and Aquila to explain “the Way of God to him more accurately” (18:26). One of the things lacking in his understanding was a fuller view of baptism, for “he knew only the baptism of John” (18:25).
When Paul arrives in Ephesus, where our story takes place, Apollos had left for Corinth. But Paul meets a group of Christians there who, like Apollos, had an inadequate understanding of baptism. They had never heard of the Holy Spirit, and they had been baptized “into John’s baptism” (19:3). Paul has to explain to them that John’s baptism was a “baptism of repentance” anticipating the coming of the Messiah. Subsequently, Paul baptizes them into “the name of the Lord Jesus” and lays hands upon them. The Holy Spirit comes upon them, and they speak in tongues and prophesy.
The story highlights both the continuity with and the difference between the ministry of John the Baptist and Jesus of Nazareth. John anticipates the coming of the Messiah, “who will baptize…with the Holy Spirit” (Mark 1:8). There lies the continuity. However, there is a difference between John’s baptism, a “baptism of repentance,” and that of Jesus, a baptism in which the Spirit is bestowed. It becomes clear that baptism “into Jesus” or “into the name of Jesus” is accompanied by the gift of the Spirit. Paul rebaptizes those who are already called “disciples” (19:1), but who have not yet received the Spirit, in order to bring them into the fullness of life in Christ.
The Baptism of Our Lord is a Christological festival, and a sermon on this text from Acts (or reference to it in a sermon) should not diminish that. Still, there are themes within it that complement the Christological emphasis. The baptism of Jesus by John inaugurated Jesus’ earthly ministry. It marked the moment when he was designated God’s Son by a voice from heaven, and was endowed with the Spirit to carry out his work on earth (Mark 1:10-11). Likewise in Christian baptism, the event marks the inauguration of a new life and vocation for the one being baptized. These points can all be inferred and developed out of the Gospel for the Day.
The story in Acts can be used to supplement that basic point. Luke writes that those who were baptized “spoke in tongues and prophesied” (Acts 19:6). The speaking “in tongues” recalls the speaking in “other tongues” in the Pentecost story (Acts 2:4). Curiously, the word for “other” (heteros) is left out in our text. The “other tongues” of Acts 2:4 meant foreign languages, as subsequent verses make clear. But in Acts 19:6, the expression “they spoke in tongues” may be closer to the gift of ecstatic speech some have, which Paul writes of in 1 Corinthians (12:10, 28-30; 13:1; 14:1-6, 18-19, 22-26), and which Paul considers a gift that some have, but not all. In addition, the people baptized “prophesied.” They give testimony in their own language concerning Jesus. Paul also considers “prophecy” essential for Christians at worship (1 Corinthians 14:1-5, 39).
While not all baptized Christians have the gifts of tongues or prophecy, the giving of them reminds us of two things. First, all Christians are endowed by the Spirit, and there are many gifts. Tongues and prophecy are not the litmus test of whether or not one is a Christian. The true test is whether that person makes the confession that “Jesus is Lord,” which is prompted by the Spirit and cannot be made otherwise (1 Corinthians 12:3). Secondly, we are reminded that being baptized entails the use of whatever gifts one has to witness to what God has done in Christ.
Another theme that emerges from this text in Acts is that baptism presupposes catechesis. Paul takes time and effort to speak to the disciples at Ephesus about the meaning of baptism into the name of Jesus. A sermon cannot do everything, but as a congregation celebrates the Baptism of Our Lord, it is an opportunity for the preacher to speak about the many levels of baptism. One can teach, not only about its obligations (as above), but also about baptism’s significance as an event where we are incorporated into Christ and, consequently, share his destiny. If we were baptized as infants, we were “handed over” to Christ. If we were baptized as adults, we entrusted ourselves into the care of the one who baptized us (as well as to the community of believers), and then were “handed over” to Christ.
Baptism is to be remembered and celebrated. As we celebrate the Baptism of Our Lord, and focus on that event for our salvation, it is only natural that we reflect on our own baptisms. A fine resource for that purpose is what Paul says in Romans 6:1-14, which can be paraphrased and summarized: As we have died with Christ in baptism, we now belong to him. We share his destiny, and know for certain that we shall live with him in eternity. And in the meantime, we walk in newness of life.