There are times in your life when someone asks you a question, the world narrows and the answer changes everything: Why should I give you this job? What do you want to do with your life? Will you marry me?
In Acts 19 we read about Paul travelling to Ephesus and encountering a strange little group of twelve guys that Luke calls disciples. Whenever he uses that word without saying who they’re disciples of, he means that they’re disciples of Jesus; I think we can be pretty confident that these people are Christians.
Paul joins them in praying and worshipping God. However, something is amiss. I don’t know what it was, but he could tell that these guys weren’t quite right. It was something that showed up in the context of praying and worshipping with them. He then asks them a very strange question. “Did you receive the Spirit when you believed?”
This is one of those questions. The ones on which the world turns. The question shows us three important things.
Firstly, the question must make sense. It must be possible to not receive the Spirit when you believe. Otherwise he may as well be asking which one of them is a hippopotamus. If I ask you whether or not you received a driving license when you were born, it’s obviously nonsense. If Paul was asking a nonsense question, I’m not sure what Luke is expecting us to understand from the story he relays. It’s a pretty safe bet that it’s meant to be answerable.
I suppose he could be doing so to test their thinking—and this is what some who would disagree with the tack I’m taking suggest—but since he goes on to fix the problem, he must be trying to diagnose it here. Some commentators claim that ‘receiving the Spirit’ means the same thing as ‘starting to follow Jesus’, ‘believing’ or ‘being born again.’ This can’t be right, at the very least in Luke’s use of the term, because then Paul would be asking if they became a Christian when they became a Christian. Paul’s a master of language, argument and persuasion; he’s not Doctor Seuss. It’s safe to assume he intended his question to be intelligible. It also looks like he would normally expect receiving the Spirit to happen at the same time as believing. This group are somehow an exception.
Secondly, you must be able to tell if you have or haven’t. He expected them to be able to answer, so they must have known if they had or hadn’t. Therefore receiving the Spirit is something you know about. It’s not an obscure technical thing, or something unconscious you don’t notice. Receiving the Spirit is profound, dramatic and conscious. You know about it.
Thirdly, Paul could suspect that they hadn’t by the way that they acted. Not only did they know if they had received the Spirit, but he was pretty sure that they hadn’t. Something about the way they were praying and worshipping must have made him think that they hadn’t. Perhaps this was because of the lack of power, prophecy and tongues in the way they prayed together—though that is an assumption, we don’t know. This point in particular should give us pause. If Paul came and prayed with you and a group of friends, would he recognise the presence and power of God at work?
The Ephesian Question—which sounds like a nineteenth century political issue—tells us that receiving the Spirit is separate to believing, but normally happens at the same time. You know if it’s happened to you, and others can tell.
They then reveal that they’ve been very poorly taught, not even being aware that the Holy Spirit had been poured out at Pentecost a few years before. The sentence is often translated, ‘didn’t know there was a Holy Spirit’, but that’s such a bizarre thing for anyone exposed to the Old Testament or Second Temple Judaism to say that ‘didn’t know that the Holy Spirit is’ in the sense of having been given to the people as prophesied, seems to be a better translation.
This is like living in the UK and not knowing that the Queen is called Elizabeth. It’s ludicrous, you would have to live with you head under a rock. Who are they?
Paul questions their baptism, decides that they haven’t received Christian baptism, baptises them, and then lays hands on them so that they receive the Spirit. They then “began speaking in tongues and prophesying.” They showed the sort of spiritual life that we might assume lacking previously. Though for the record, I don’t think you have to speak in tongues or prophesy to demonstrate it.
To be gently provocative, in my experience there are lots of Ephesian-style Christians walking around in our churches, who need asking this question. They need the world-turning moment, the direct question, not because they’re lacking but because there is more on offer than they yet know.
There always is, friends. There always is.
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