While Apollos was at Corinth, Paul took the road through the interior and arrived at Ephesus. There he found some disciples and asked them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?”
They answered, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.”
So Paul asked, “Then what baptism did you receive?”
“John’s baptism,” they replied.
Paul said, “John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance. He told the people to believe in the one coming after him, that is, in Jesus.” On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. When Paul placed his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied. There were about twelve men in all. (Acts 19:1-7)
Let’s talk about these disciples that Paul found.
We read that they were “believers” and that they had been baptized after the baptism that John the Baptist had preached. They were lovers of God and believers in God but they had not received the Holy Spirit (they had not been born again).
Does this sort of thing happen today?
Are there people in the world or even the church who are believers in God, who are trying to live a holy life that have never been regenerated by or filled with the Holy Spirit as a result of faith in the Lord Jesus Christ? I believe the answer is, “yes” and that is why I am sharing on this subject.
Let’s take a brief look at the message and ministry of John the Baptist.
In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” (Matthew 3:1-2)
John the Baptist arrived on the scene of the first century in true Old Testament prophetic form. He preached against unrighteousness, injustice and hypocrisy; calling for people to forsake their sins and turn their hearts back towards God.
Can you see him standing by the Jordan River clothed in leather and camel hair preaching and baptizing those who responded to the call?
Isaiah the prophet prophesied (Isaiah 40:3) about John’s ministry; declaring that he would prepare Israel for the ministry of the Messiah. Matthew 3:5-6 declares, “People went out to him from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River.”
Was God’s purpose in sending John to preach repentance of sin to correct the attitudes and actions of those who repented? Was holiness the goal?
We know from reading the New Testament that we cannot be saved by obeying the law because: “For no one can ever be made right with God by doing what the law commands. The law simply shows us how sinful we are.” (Romans 3:20)
I believe that John the Baptist’s message of repentance and righteousness helped prepare people to recognize their need for a Savior.
John preached to the Jewish people to repent of their sins and to change their lives because the Messiah was coming. He declared that the kingdom of heaven was at hand. He demanded of the people, including religious leaders, to “Prove by the way you live that you have repented of your sins and turned to God.” (Matthew 3:8)
The beginning of John’s message sounds much like every prophet of the Old Testament. He is calling for the people to repent of their sins and turn the hearts back to God. The second part of his message was new. There was no prophesy of impending judgment, rather, there was a declaration that God’s kingdom was near.
The message of John in modern terminology may sound like, “stop sinning and turn your life back towards God because He is about to open His kingdom.”
John’s message was in preparation of what was to come.
“I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” (Matthew 3:11-12)
John’s message was one of power and promise. The Israelites had been waiting for the Messiah for almost two thousand years. His coming had been prophesied by Moses and almost every prophet that followed. The prophecy of the coming of Messiah was not new with John but the immediacy of the prophecy was.
The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, “Look! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! (John 1:29)
I believe this is one of the greatest statements in all of scripture for it truly communicates the heart of the New Covenant.
John the Baptist was calling for repentance from sin. The believers that Paul had found in Ephesus had answered that call. They wanted to please God and had been baptized to show that they were forsaking their sins or turning their back on sin.
Good works, righteous living and making restitution for sins committed are admirable and biblical but they are the result of salvation, not the pathway to salvation.
The passage we quoted from Acts 19 is normally used to teach about the baptism in the Holy Spirit with the evidence of speaking in other tongues (by preachers and teachers who believe like I do) and it is a powerful message. I will share on this subject at a later time.
I want to look at this passage of scripture from a different angle.
John the Baptist preached repentance from sin to prepare people to receive the Messiah. The apostles preached repentance from sin, belief in the Lord Jesus Christ and receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38). Paul filled in the timeline for these believers at Ephesus; taking them from John’s message through the resurrection and Pentecost. What they had been waiting for had already happened.
Holiness | Righteousness |Morality | Purity | Godliness | Sanctification
These are words that accompany our belief in Jesus Christ. In fact, they are fruits of the Spirit or part of the evidence that we have placed our faith in Jesus Christ. We become the temple of the Holy Spirit and as we surrender our lives to Him we are changed.
Holiness is not a work of the flesh. Holiness is not a work of the human will. Holiness is a work of the Holy Spirit in the life of a born again believer who is submitted and surrendered to Jesus as Lord.
For many Christians our public discourse has been reduced to standing up for the issues we believe in and standing against the issues we oppose. We proudly declare what is righteous and right and decry what is not. We tell an unbelieving world to repent because what they are doing is unrighteous but far too often we leave them like the believers Paul found at Ephesus, “we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.”
Each nation on earth is embroiled in a cultural war of values, ethics and morality. There are forces and groups pushing us towards pluralism, humanism, Islam, socialism, and many other isms. We will constantly be frustrated in this struggle if our message is holiness without the Holy Spirit.
If our barometer for people’s lives is their repentance from sin or the uprightness of their manner of life we have betrayed the gospel. Jesus did not come so that our behavior would be corrected and that we would believe the correct things. Jesus came so that the Holy Spirit might live inside each of us so that then we might be made like Him.
Here is a promise from the Old Testament.
Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean. Your filth will be washed away, and you will no longer worship idols. And I will give you a new heart, and I will put a new spirit in you. I will take out your stony, stubborn heart and give you a tender, responsive heart. And I will put my Spirit in you so that you will follow my decrees and be careful to obey my regulations. (Ezekiel 36:25-27)
Here is a promise from Jesus during His earthly ministry.
“If you love me, obey my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, who will never leave you. He is the Holy Spirit, who leads into all truth. The world cannot receive him, because it isn’t looking for him and doesn’t recognize him. But you know him, because he lives with you now and later will be in you.” (John 14:15-17)
Here is the reality of the New Testament.
The Spirit of God, who raised Jesus from the dead, lives in you. And just as God raised Christ Jesus from the dead, he will give life to your mortal bodies by this same Spirit living within you.
Therefore, dear brothers and sisters, you have no obligation to do what your sinful nature urges you to do. For if you live by its dictates, you will die. But if through the power of the Spirit you put to death the deeds of your sinful nature, you will live. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. (Romans 8:11-14)
What am I trying to say?
Holiness comes from submitting our lives to the will of the Holy Spirit who lives inside of us after we are born again. We don’t work to be righteous so that we can receive the Holy Spirit. We believe on Jesus so that we may receive that Holy Spirit who changes our hearts.
Morality and righteousness are truths that need to be declared at every level of society but as followers of Jesus we cannot divorce the changing of the human heart from the power of the Holy Spirit. God calls us to be holy (1 Peter 1:16) and even to be perfect (Matthew 5:48) and in order to fulfill this calling He sacrificed His Son so that our sins may be forgiven and that His Spirit could live inside of us.
Our message must not be repentance and righteousness. It is not enough to ask people to obey the Ten Commandments and live morally upright lives. We cannot expect holiness from those who have not received the Holy Spirit. If we do, we are asking people to accomplish through the power of their will what only grace can provide. Our message must be that of the apostles:
Peter replied, “Each of you must repent of your sins and turn to God, and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. Then you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. This promise is to you, and to your children, and even to the Gentiles—all who have been called by the Lord our God.” (Acts 2:38-39)