Commentary on Acts 19:1-7
How can you tell if someone is a Jesus-follower?
It’s not that easy to spot, especially at a glance. After a few minutes of conversation, however, you can usually tell; their speech gives them away.
In Act 19:1-7, Paul encounters a dozen men in Ephesus who claim to believe in Jesus. When asked if they had received the Holy Spirit when they became believers, the men scratch their heads, confessing that they’ve never even heard of the Holy Spirit. Perplexed, perhaps perturbed — this is Paul, after all — he asks, “Into what then were you baptized?” The men respond that they were baptized under John’s ministry. Paul then explains the difference between a baptism of repentance and the kind of baptism inaugurated by Jesus.
A baptism of repentance (metanoia) signifies a change of mind that is at once intellectual and existential. Such is an ingredient in a baptism in the name of Jesus. We see this throughout the Book of Acts. In Acts 2:37-8, for instance, we find a group of three thousand people who were “cut to the heart” in response to Peter’s preaching. Peter tells them to “repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” We witness a similar scene in Paul’s own conversion and baptism in Acts 9. So, the baptism that these twelve Ephesian men received was only a partial baptism: they had in fact turned from their old way of being-in-the-world, but they had not yet been empowered to effect kingdom change for the good of the world.
It is easy to misconstrue Acts 19:1-7, along with all instances of tongue speaking in the book of Acts. Pentecostals tend to valorize such texts to bolster certain ecclesial practices while non-Pentecostals, sadly, skip over the speaking in tongues part. In the space that remains, I would like to offer a way of thinking about this narrative that avoids one or the other extremes. More concretely, I’m interested in ways that this pericope can shine fresh light upon contemporary ecclesial thought and praxis. This is not otherwise than textual exposition, nor am I aiming to decontextualize the text. The text decontextualizes itself, as reception-historian Brennan Breed argues, “The skill of escaping contexts is not an anomaly or problem but in fact a central feature of texts.”1 Reading Acts 19:1-7 today we are able to discern an undeniable truth: inauguration into the way of Jesus empowered by the Holy Spirit disrupts and deconstructs the status quo linguistically (tongue speaking) and ethically (prophesying).
Speaking in tongues, inasmuch as it circumvents and destabilizes conventional patterns of discourse, can pave the way for kingdom change in the world. Tongue speaking can be construed as a mode of discourse that refuses to conform to reificatory patterns of thought and speech. It overwhelms speech by exposing it to an otherness beyond convention. Such discourse, empowered by the Holy Spirit, can dismantle systems of thought that subjugate and marginalize human others. We catch a glimpse of this in the work of womanist and black feminist writers, writers who endure a double marginalization on account of their race and gender. As Mae Gwendolyn Henderson observes,
What distinguishes black women’s writing, then, is the privileging (rather than repressing) of ‘the other in ourselves.’ … Through the multiple voices that enunciate her complex subjectivity, the black woman writer not only speaks familiarity in the discourse of the other(s), but as Other she is in contestorial dialogue with the hegemonic dominant and subdominant or “ambiguously (non)hegemonic” discourses.2
African American women writers — with Audrey Lorde and Toni Morison as privileged examples — display a way of thinking about language that refuses to participate in systems of thought that favor patriarchal, heteronormative, and Anglo-European modes of thought. It is a kind of speaking and writing that embraces difference and multiple identities through discourse. As such, it showcases a way of thinking about speaking in tongues that does not devolve into the inanity of charismatic expression, but is nevertheless productive in the lives of men and women.
Baptism into the Holy Spirit, as Luke teaches us, also manifests as prophetic speech. This is a mode of discourse that directly challenges systems of oppression and marginalization. Luke doesn’t go into detail here, but in the very next verse we discover that Holy Spirit empowered discourse is “bold speech” that is inextricable from the “kingdom of God” (Acts 19:8). As Gustavo Gutiérrez observes, “By preaching the gospel, by its sacraments, and by the charity of its members, the church proclaims and welcomes the gift of the kingdom of God at the heart of human history. The Christian community professes a ‘faith which works through charity.’ It is — or at least it ought to be — efficacious love, action, and commitment to the service of others.”3 We see such efficacious love at work in Paul’s ministry in Ephesus, where he heals the sick and offers psychological relief for the afflicted — tangible acts of care.
How can you tell if someone is a Jesus-follower? Well, from Luke’s narratological vision we see that one way that you can discern the work of the Holy Spirit in a person is by observing how s/he employs language — either capitulating to hegemonic speech and writing or resisting such oppression through discursive acts of deconstruction and fervent denunciation. May God’s Spirit move the church beyond mere repentance and toward such action for the good of the world!
1 Brennan W. Breed, Nomadic Text: A Theory Of Biblical Reception History (Bloomington & Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2014), 93.
2 May Gwendolyn Henderson, “Speaking in Tongues: Dialogics, Dialectics, and the Black Woman Writer’s Litearry Tradition,” in Changing Our Own Words: Essays on Criticism, Theory, and Writing by Black Women, ed. Cheryl Wall (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1989), 19-20.
3 Gustavo Gutiérrez, “Theology: A Critical Reflection,” in Gustavo Gutiérrez: Essential Writings, ed. James B. Nickoloff (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1996), 32.