Salvation in Jesus brings the obligation to testify to him through baptism and the gift of the Holy Spirit. These 12 men had been baptised into the baptism of John the Baptist, but they had never heard about the Holy Spirit.
Read Acts 19.
In verse 1 we learn that Apollos was in Corinth at the same time that Paul had arrived in Ephesus. Now, this was Paul’s 2nd time in Ephesus. It seems that he goes to some Believers there and asks them if they had received the Holy Spirit when they came to believe. “No,” they said. In fact, they had never even heard of the Holy Spirit.
So what we’re learning is that apparently through one Believer or another, many Jews and Gentiles had learned about Yeshua, and believed what they heard. And, just like Apollos, they had even been baptized; but they had been baptized into John’s baptism: a baptism of repentance of sins. And indeed Paul agrees with that but says that there must be another baptism as well.
One of the issues of New Testament times was that immersion (baptism) had become a kind of social norm that tended to identify a person with a particular teacher, philosopher, or even religious party. Thus we’ll hear of Paul speaking of people being baptized in his name, just as we hear the same thing of John the Baptist and of course of Yeshua.
In fact being baptized in the teachings or ways of someone or another was ordinary and didn’t carry the specific religious meaning that we think of it today. Joseph Shulam calls this a personality cult; not unlike young people who will follow particular Rock Stars wherever they go because they are so enthralled with them. And then it was somewhat usual that after being immersed into a specific teacher or philosopher, another teacher would eventually come along that tickled this person’s ears and he’d change allegiance by being baptized (literally and figuratively) into this latest teacher’s ways. So the practice of immersion (baptism) had become somewhat tainted in its reason and purpose.
Thus we see one reason why Paul would even think to ask into what (or more in line with the times, into WHO) these professed Believers in Ephesus had been immersed.
These disciples told him that it was into the immersion of John. But the second reason for his inquiry is that no doubt Paul sensed that these Believers had but the vaguest understanding of their faith in Yeshua. Paul never seems to question whether they rightly accepted that from a historical and factual basis Yeshua was the Messiah, but to Paul, there was also no sign that any of these disciples were bearing the evidence of having received the spirit. No doubt Paul had encountered this before; so he knew the symptoms as well as what questions to ask, and how to respond.
Now we must be honest in noting that after immersing these disciples (who seemed to put up no protest) into the immersion of Yeshua, Paul then laid his hands on them and it is upon laying on of his hands that they received the Holy Spirit the text says.
It has been a long-running debate within various denominations as to whether it was the immersion or the laying on of hands that the Holy Spirit came upon these men. Even more, they began speaking in tongues; it is the speaking in tongues and not the reception of the Holy Spirit that we need to be looking at.
Speaking in tongues is something that seems to have occurred whenever one of the Apostles was directly involved in someone coming to faith (we saw it in the case of Cornelius and Peter for instance). Paul clearly implies that it is being immersed into the name of Yeshua that brings in the Holy Spirit. Baptism and laying on of hands are two different things done for various purposes.
So it is hard to know what to make of this other than it may be a unique privilege that the Lord blessed these Apostles with to cause those disciples present to speak in tongues. After all; when the Holy Spirit came at Pentecost, Peter was present, and there was no immersion at all. Even so, the disciples began speaking in tongues.
So I think it is wrong to contrive a rigid doctrinal formula or demand a particular sequence based on what we’ve read to this point about the coming of the Holy Spirit, Baptism, laying on of hands, and speaking in tongues.
But one thing is clear: water immersion in the name of Yeshua is a New Testament commandment for Believers; this is not an option. And receiving the Holy Spirit is the sign of our acceptance into the Kingdom; yet we had seen instances where the Holy Spirit came before immersion and other situations when He came after immersion. We’ve seen cases of the new Believers speaking in tongues; and different times when it doesn’t happen (or at least, not mentioned).
Paul previously had made a short visit to the synagogue of Ephesus when he was on his way from Corinth to the Holy Land and promised them that if the Holy Spirit led him back that he would come and teach them more.
Having completed his business back home, he made the 1500-mile overland journey back to Ephesus to fulfill his promise. Paul taught there for three months, apparently without interference. But as always happened, in time those who just could not bring themselves to accept Paul’s teaching on Yeshua and salvation turned on him, and the trouble began.
Those in the Ephesus synagogue who had hardened their hearts and become firm in their opposition to the Gospel began, of course, to speak against Paul but also against The Way. This time in response Paul did an interesting thing: he took those disciples who had come to believe and departed with them in tow from the synagogue and began preaching and teaching in an entirely new venue: the hall of Tyrannus (or as it says in the Complete Jewish Bible, in Tyrannus’ yeshiva).
What we see here is what today we might call a church split. When we look at this from God’s perspective, this goes back to one of the first God-Principles: the principle of Division, Election, and Separation.
Sometimes the Lord determines to divide us into groups, select the team that He chooses to follow Him for a specific divine purpose, and separate them (us) from everyone else. I can tell you from experience that as painful and gut-wrenching as it is, sometimes there is no choice but to leave a congregation that you had been part of and go elsewhere.
Perhaps it happens because you have learned too much to continue identifying yourself with a group you know is stubbornly wrong-minded and is no longer in harmony with Yeshua. At other times it isn’t so often about right and wrong as it is about following the Lord’s plan for your life. Sadly, it can also be over the pettiest or selfish things, and the split and separation reflect nothing but human failure.
Yet, when it is done for the right reasons and seems to be God-directed, what are we to do? Twice we have seen Paul do this: the first time he acrimoniously parted company with his longtime traveling companion Barnabas (over his nephew John Mark), and now he not only leaves this synagogue on bad terms but he takes with him those who adhere to what Paul is teaching. It is one thing to go away, but the anger only increases when you take people with you.
Let’s part today with this thought. What Paul did in leaving the synagogue and taking disciples with him was radical and was considered a severe offense against Halakhah: Jewish Law. No doubt the word got around the Jewish communities of the Diaspora and so from here forward we don’t find Paul going to many more synagogues (some say that he never again preached in synagogues, but I see that as highly improbable).
This incident would have had much to do with what we’ll read in Acts chapter 21 about Paul going to Jerusalem and consulting with James, with one of the leading issues being that Paul was slandered among the Jewish communities with the accusation that he was speaking against the Law. So James would have Paul give a public demonstration of his continuing allegiance to the Law of Moses.