Acts 19:1-7

Text Comment


There is a question about the translation of the men’s reply. In earliest edition of the NIV that statement is rendered, “No, we have not even heard that the Holy Spirit has been given.” In printings after 1974 the NIV reads as you have it here: “we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.” John, of course, spoke plainly about the coming baptism with the Holy Spirit and with fire, and the Holy Spirit is known from the OT, so it doubtful that these men hadn’t heard of the Holy Spirit. The meaning seems rather to be that they hadn’t heard that the Spirit had been given, or had come, as John had promised.


It is impossible to tell precisely how much these disciples did know of the ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus. The fact that they are referred to a “disciples” in v. 1 and “believers” in v. 2 certainly strongly suggests that they were Christians. Apparently they did not know about Pentecost and that the Messiah had sent the Holy Spirit.


The relationship between baptism and the demonstration of the Spirit’s presence is varied in Acts. Sometimes the signs of the Spirit’s presence are given at baptism (2:38; 8:38-9 and here in 19:6), sometimes before baptism (10:47), and sometimes after baptism (8:15-16). What is more, it is important to remember that these charismatic manifestations of the Holy Spirit apparently occurred only spasmodically and there are conversions and baptisms in Acts without them (8:39 — the Ethiopian eunuch — 16:34 — the Philippian jailer).

Our text introduces a perennially interesting and important theological debate but also a very important issue touching our own lives of faith and walking with God. The issue is this: does the Christian life progress in two separate and distinct stages separated by a work of the Holy Spirit, subsequent to regeneration or the new birth, that elevates the life of faith to a level of godliness and spiritual emotion higher than would have been possible to achieve by the means otherwise available to a Christian. What that experience is, and exactly what that higher level of spiritual life is have long been a subject of debate among those who believe in a two-tiered Christian life. The Spirit’s second work is sometimes called “the baptism of the Holy Spirit,” sometimes “the sealing of the Holy Spirit,” sometimes “the filling of the Holy Spirit.”

In the last 30 years the subject has most often been discussed in terms of the Pentecostal or Charismatic view of the second blessing, an experience marked by tongues-speaking and the like, but the general idea is as old as Montanism, a Christian sect of the 2nd and 3rd centuries and has been found throughout Christian history in many different forms.

  1. The Wesleys and their doctrine of sinless perfection.
  1. Charles Finney the famous American evangelist and his idea of “entire sanctification.”
  1. The Keswick movement and its doctrine of the “Higher Life” (A.B. Simpson; Hannah Whitehall Smith; and others) who believed in a filling of the Holy Spirit that occurred and left a permanent change when one gave oneself up to God more fully than one had or could at his or her conversion, leading, in some cases, to complete freedom from known sin.
  1. There are shades of this in the carnal Christian theory, still so widely held in our day (in that it is another form of the division of the body of Christians into two classes; a division common to all such views.
  1. And, of course, there is a variety of Pentecostal/charismatic views of this second blessing or second experience.

It is obviously an intra-mural debate: some very exceptional Christians have held such views (Tertullian; Thomas Goodwin; the Wesleys; even, more recently, a hero of our theological tradition, Martin Lloyd-Jones).

In every one of these views — and, to be sure, they are in many cases very different from one another — the idea is that there are two levels or stages of Christian existence and experience and obedience and godliness and that it is a distinct, second, work of the Holy Spirit that separates the two levels and brings a believer from the first level to the second.

Now, you can see why Acts 19 plays a role in such discussions. These men are already believers, but subsequent to their becoming believers and living as believers, they are granted an effusion of the Holy Spirit that leads them to speak in tongues and prophesy.

Now, the Church of Christ has generally not understood Acts 19 as evidence of any such two-tiered Christianity or of a second work of the Holy Spirit in the believer, other than that work that commences at and continues from the believer’s regeneration and initial sanctification. And there are good reasons for that.

  1. Arguments from historical narratives must be shown to be valid as drawing from an event a pattern for all men at all times.

    Even were this event in Acts 19 to refer to a second work of grace by the Holy Spirit in the hearts of these men, it would still have to be shown that Acts 19 (or Acts 2 or 8) is a “hoop through which God expects all his children to jump.” After all, Acts narrates many cases of believers, new and old, with no mention of any such second work or baptism (Apollos, for example). And Acts, of course, gives us the history of many things that we have not taken, in general, in the history of Christian interpretation of the Bible, to be the expectation of the church in general, but rather as belonging to the period of the laying of the church’s foundation: the miracles of the apostles (of which these phenomena were part — and always in connection with the apostles). John 2 does not tell us about how to get more wine at weddings, but who and what Jesus was!

  1. This leads to the second argument against taking Acts 19:1-7 as descriptive of the Holy Spirit’s characteristic way of working his grace in the life of a believer. The crucial point in this theory of a second distinct work of grace is left entirely unmentioned. That is, nothing is said at all about the work of the Holy Spirit within these men, or of the consequences of this experience for their spirituality, their devotion, their obedience, their godliness. What happened clearly served as a public and outward demonstration of the presence of the Holy Spirit, but nothing is said or suggested about any new work of grace in the hearts of these men. (This, by the way, is a problem with all cases that are taken this way in the NT. The NT itself never interprets these events in personal/subjective terms, that is, as having to do with results brought to pass in the hearts of believers — whether Pentecost, or Acts 8,10, or here in 19.
  1. This leads us to a third argument. Acts would perhaps be normative, its events illustrating the rules of the Holy Spirit’s operations in general, if such views of his historical events were ever explained in such terms in the rest of the NT, but they are not.

    Where, for example, in Paul do we ever find such a second, distinct work of grace ever taught, explained, or sought on behalf of his churches? If it exists, if Acts 19 is describing what should happen in general, then why does not Paul say something about such an experience, our need for it, how to seek it, what it would bring to us?

    1 Corinthians 12:13: but this clearly refers to what all Christians have in common, not to what separates some Christians from others. Besides, if that baptism was a second, distinct work of grace, what does it say of the character of that work, considering the state of the Corinthian church, morally and spiritually, when Paul wrote his letter? “We were all baptized…” Whatever that work was, it wasn’t what the charismatics think of their second blessing, or Finney thought of his “entire sanctification” or Keswick thought of its “higher life,” etc.

    Ephesians 1:13: (Thomas Goodwin and Lloyd-Jones took this as evidence of a second “blessing”, following the KJV “after you believed, you were sealed by the Holy Spirit…” This “sealing” was subsequent to regeneration and produced a deeper experience, emotion, godliness. John Owen, without mentioning Goodwin’s name, responded with better exegesis of Paul’s statement. (1) The Greek text will not support an interval between “believing” and “being sealed.” As the NIV makes clear, they are contemporaneous events: “Having believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit.” (2) The Spirit is not the sealer but the seal: (v. 14) “who is the deposit guaranteeing our inheritance…” (cf. 4:30: “And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption.”)

    Fact is, Paul never says anything about a two-stage Christian life or a distinct, separate work of the Holy Spirit that lifts believers from the first stage to the second.

  1. The fourth argument against this view of Acts 19 is that it requires us to conclude that most of Christianity’s heroes and great men, its holiest saints, its most useful servants did not have the “second blessing” or “filling of the Spirit,” for they didn’t say anything about any such thing or bear witness to it or demonstrate in their lives such a dramatic change. Nor did they teach such a doctrine.

    Furthermore, many claims to such experiences and elevations simply do not survive scrutiny.

    Here is Whitefield [Dallimore, vol. 2, p. 66] on some of the folk who claimed perfection according to the teaching of John Wesley,

    “I talked with three women. One said she had been perfect these twelve months; but alas! she showed many marks of imperfection whilst I was with her. I asked her if she had any pride. She said ‘No.’ I asked if she every prayed for pardon…for her sins and infirmities. She said ‘No, for she did not commit any sin.'”

    Wesley, by the way, was furious with Whitefield for pointing out the fact that the claims of sinless perfection in the Wesley camp were utterly unconvincing to those who actually met the people who claimed to be beyond sin.

    Spurgeon tells of a man who claimed to have attained to sinless perfection by a second work of grace. “Then someone stepped on his toe and his sinless perfection vanished like morning dew.”

  1. There is a final argument against taking Acts 19:1-7 as teaching a second, distinct work of grace by the Holy Spirit in the life of believers. And that is that such a state or condition of life as is imagined such an experience lifts a believer to is contrary to the picture of the Christian life taught us in the Bible.

    Certainly Paul had this experience, if anyone did, but he spoke frankly of his continuing battle with sin, was even willing to speak of himself as a “bondslave of sin.”

    The spiritual perfection of God’s law, demanding as it does truth in the inward places, can be regarded as being met to the extent that the believer now lives primarily in victory over the flesh, the world, and the devil, only if our view of sin is altered dramatically. Keswick used to teach that a man would, after this second blessing, be carried along in external purity, doing right all the time, though his motives may not be pure. But what is that for a God who looks on the heart and for a life, the issues of which, come from the heart, as the Bible never tires of saying?

So, in Acts 19:1-7 we read of the introduction of some men into the full acquaintance of apostolic Christianity and see a sign miracle which accredited Paul, which demonstrated the resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ who sent his Spirit, and the presence of the Spirit of God in the world, and the new program of this epoch to take the gospel to the world, for this is the advancement of the gospel into a new part of that world — a miraculous event like so many others in the era of the NT.

But, what then, of the many who have claimed such experiences? Owen himself did not doubt that such experiences of the Spirit’s nearness, power, and filling regularly occur in the lives of believers; he only disputed that such were taught in the NT to be a second, distinct work of grace producing a different kind of Christian life and experience and that such a thing was taught in Ephesians 1:13.

Rather, our doctrine is that, as both Romans 8:15-16 and Ephesians 3:16-19 both testify, the Spirit is personally at work in our souls to make himself known, or, better, to make Christ known and felt, and that that work, being as personal as it is, and not at all mechanical, varies in degree at different times.

  1. We know in Scripture, church history, and our own experience how believers can, at times, “bask in Christ’s love” or “feel his nearness.” Peter’s “joy unspeakable” in 1 Peter 1:8 (objectively always; subjectively from time to time).
  1. The Puritans called this “inner enlargement” and recognized that it took many forms: assurance, affection, zeal, penitence and a sweet humility, etc.
  1. But in this world it is not once for all — indeed, some of its strongest instances are often very early in the Christian’s experience; and it is accompanied along the way of life with our constant sinfulness and failure.
  1. It is something we ought always to seek and pray for, and ought to work for (by not grieving the Holy Spirit). Ephesians 5:18 “Be filled with the Spirit.” That is for all Christians, all the time.

After all, and here is the most important point to carry away from Acts 19 for ourselves today: that Spirit who produced such a startling and wonderful demonstration of his power in those men in Ephesus, lives in us today if we are believers in Christ. That same power and goodness is in us. We are to be filled with that Spirit. There is not to be any contentment, therefore, with the merely ordinary and pedestrian in our Christian life. We are to be filled with the Holy Spirit! And that is really something! Even for people who are still very much sinners, that is really something!