Commentary on Acts 19:1-7
The journey to Christian faith
At the heart of this passage is the sacrament of baptism, which is particularly appropriate today as we consider and reflect upon the baptism of our Lord Jesus Christ. Set in the city of Ephesus, this passage encourages us to learn together about the journey to Christian faith through the involvement of the believing community, understanding discipleship as an ongoing process or journey, the necessity of baptism to transformation, and the hopefulness of a new beginning.
The involvement of the believing community
The passage begins with the apostle Paul arriving in Ephesus and meeting some disciples. Our first question is quite simply, “Where did these disciples come from?” Obviously, disciples do not make themselves, and we should expect and anticipate the involvement of others in the creation of disciples. And for this we need to step back to Paul’s first visit to Ephesus recorded in 18:19–21.
When Paul first arrives in Ephesus (18:19), he takes himself off to the synagogue where he engages in discussion with the Jews who are present. We have no record of what was said. But the word used here is instructive because it is about a dialogue—questions, comments, answers, queries—a veritable back-and-forth.
However, we need to notice that Paul is not alone in Ephesus; he has arrived with Priscilla and Aquila. And we note that they remain in the city when Paul moves on (18:19). The creation of disciples depends not simply on a dialogue, but also on the ongoing presence of those who live out the values and qualities of the Christian life, which we may consider was exemplified by Priscilla and Aquila.
We then learn of the arrival in Ephesus (18:24) of Apollos. The role of Apollos is one that apparently fits him well. He is knowledgeable about the Scriptures, and well versed in the “Way of the Lord.” Apollos teaches those in the synagogue—possibly the people who had briefly met Paul, and may have been acquainted with Priscilla and Aquila. Interestingly, Priscilla and Aquila improve Apollos’ knowledge (18:26).
And then when Paul arrives, he finds these disciples. And Paul is able to build on what they have learned already and bring them to a fuller and more complete—although not final—knowledge of the life of Christ. Interestingly, we see what may well be Paul’s own perspective on this in 1 Corinthians 3:5: “What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you came to believe, as the Lord assigned to each.”
Discipleship as an ongoing process
Already we have seen that the discipleship journey involves a number of people and a variety of engagements with the gospel. But it is worth emphasising that discipleship has not finished, it is not yet complete—either for the Ephesian believers or for us.
We need to note that when Paul first visited Ephesus, he dialogued with the Jews in the synagogue. The dialogue was clearly not about an upfront delivery of a series of prepared propositional statements, as can so often be our presentation style today. A dialogue in the discipleship process involves listening, and responding carefully to questions and concerns as they are raised. A simple example of this is presented for us as part of the learning process involved in discipleship. Paul asks them a question: “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you became believers?” The Ephesians respond. Paul asks another question, and they respond again. Paul makes a third comment, which then convinces them of the need to further their faith in Jesus. And in addition, they receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.
Additionally, we should accept the limits of both our process and our communities, understanding that discipleship doesn’t happen in a day, but extends over a lifetime. Recognizing the necessity of the ongoing presence and companionship of different people is a vital aspect that is exposed here.
Baptism as transformation
At the center of this brief narrative account is baptism—two baptisms, in fact. First, there is the baptism of John. This is about repentance and faith. Repentance is about a change of mind or heart, and a considered decision to turn our focus toward the ways and values of Christ. To then “believe in the one who was to come” is a step of faith. This is a decision to not simply look at or focus upon, but to pledge our allegiance to the way of Christ.
Then there is the baptism of Jesus. The opening narrative of Mark’s Gospel clearly expounds the centrality of baptism in the name of Jesus in the proclamation of John, a baptism which includes the gift of the Holy Spirit. This is the empowering life of Christ, enabling the disciple to walk in the way of Christ.
The hopefulness of a new beginning
The final note here concerns the perhaps innocuous reference to the number of disciples present: “altogether there were about twelve of them” (19:7). This may simply be a factual account of how many were present, but it is worth reflecting on the significance of the number 12 in the Hebrew Scriptures.
A straightforward example is 12 as the number of the tribes of Jacob—the basis of the Israelite community, which grew into a nation. There were 12 spies—one from each tribe—who were sent to have first sight of the promises of God in the land which became their home (Deuteronomy 1:23). Twelve stones were taken from the river Jordan to serve as memory or story stones for future generations to remind them of the faithfulness of God (Joshua 4:9). Elijah used 12 stones as the basis for his altar when he faced off against the prophets of Baal in 1 Kings 18:31. And of course, in the Gospels Jesus chooses 12 to be his disciples and witnesses to his resurrection.
All this is the possibility of hopefulness for a new beginning that God forges as his community comes together with whatever they have and whoever they are, to encourage one another and others to make the journey of discipleship, of which baptism is a key aspect.