Read Acts 19:1-10.
Have you ever had a misunderstanding about where you were going? Perhaps you felt you were on the right path only to realize that you had completely missed the mark. I think back to a time when I was in seminary and my roommate needed me to pick him up from the airport. I was still fairly new to the area and this was my first trip to the airport, but I can be directionally savvy and figured it wouldn’t be too bad once I got back onto the highway. After I picked him up, I followed the signs back into the direction I was supposed to go only to eventually discover that I had missed the subtle exit ramp onto the highway a few miles back. It was once the architecture around me changed and became unrecognizable that I began to notice that something had gone wrong. Things had progressed nicely, I was heading the right way, but one slight detail had me going the wrong direction. Unfortunately, this is a lot of what Christianity is today in America.
We have a lot of the right vocabulary. We know what to say and how to say it in order to satisfy what people want to hear. But after a while, we suddenly realize that something is off. We don’t understand why God isn’t making life easier. We don’t understand that the sin in our life is grotesque in the eyes of God. We view ourselves as good people who have earned a spot in Heaven rather than wretched sinners who deserve nothing but Hell, yet are daily lavished with unmerited grace. We find ourselves in a context that welcomes more excuses than accountability. We sometimes look around and wonder how this all compares to the call of the Christian faith the Bible teaches. Where does the common sense of misplaced excitement, enablement, and entitlement come from?
In chapter 19, Paul has journeyed to Ephesus for what turns out to be quite an eventful chapter. Verses 8-10 have a lot of similar themes that we have already touched on in our study of Acts, so our primary focus for this blog will be on verses 1-7. After finishing chapter 18 by looking at some of the work Apollos was doing, Luke transitions back to focusing on the ministry of Paul. Verses 1-7 give us a fairly familiar topic that we have seen in the book of Acts, that is the baptism of John and receiving of the Holy Spirit. In Acts 1:5 we see Jesus refer to the baptism of John as well as the anticipation of the Holy Spirit which would come about in chapter 2. While the pouring out of the Spirit has been a topic of discussion several times thus far in Acts, we find ourselves in this particular instance reading of twelve men who were incredibly religious and were publicly referred to as disciples (followers of Jesus), but were not understanding how everything fit together.
Paul begins his encounter with this group with a question. He asks, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” This is an interesting question. Paul knows a great deal of theology. He knows that when a person believes they receive the Holy Spirit. The question must therefore be one of motive. Is Paul calling them to examine theirselves to see whether the Spirit has been at work in their lives? Is Paul questioning their salvation or is he looking more towards the presence of the Holy Spirit on their lives as reflected in the form of spiritual gifts? Regardless of the point Paul was trying to make with his inquiry, this should serve as a great reminder to ourselves. We must always be asking ourselves how the Spirit is at work in our own lives. Are we expectant of the Spirit’s presence and power? How is God working in me, transforming me, shaping me, and gifting me to serve the world around me for His glory? Read Galatians 5:22-23. It is the testimony of Scripture that when the Spirit of God comes upon a person He begins to gradually transform them into someone unrecognizable. He grants them gifts to serve the church. It could be possible that you do not necessarily see the specific point where the Holy Spirit noticeably came upon your life. Perhaps there has been no change in your life. In a context where we are often believing in a God that does not require much from us and where we are looking to our baptism or acts of service for the assurance of our salvation rather than the work of Jesus and the presence of the Spirit, maybe we should take a moment to look in the mirror and the Bible while asking, “Did I actually receive the Holy Spirit when I believed?”
The answer of these disciples is a somewhat shocking answer. They said “we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.” The initial reaction to reading this is to think that these men made heretical claims. Could they even be considered followers of Jesus if they deny the Holy Spirit? I am not saying that these men are heretics who are denying the Trinity. Sure, it is possible, but it could very well be that they were unaware that the Spirit had been poured out on the earth. We see what is not taking place in their lives in verse 6. They were not speaking in tongues or prophesying. Their unawareness of the work of the Spirit could have simply been causing them to be missing out on their part of the mission.
However, the crucial point of this passage is found in verses 3 and 4. It is here that we discover the place where their religious identity rested. What was their hope in? Paul asked them about their baptism. Their baptism was linked to John. Paul elaborated that John’s baptism was simply a sign of repentance and that they still needed to look to Jesus. Their identification with Christianity never advanced beyond a religious ritual and into the person of Jesus. Biblical Christianity is a Christianity that advances to Jesus in all things. Whether it be our struggle with forgiveness, anger, bitterness, pride, anxiety, self-sufficiency, lust, envy, laziness, hopelessness, insecurities, identity, security, whatever it is that may plague your heart, the calling of Christianity is to advance to Jesus in all things. Are you doing that? This is where the Spirit leads, and He often does it in ways we didn’t expect or imagine! Or are you being misdirected down a path that will eventually cause you to wonder where it all went wrong?
As a follower of Jesus, be expectant of the Spirit! Listen to Him and in Paul’s terms, “keep in step with him.” He is leading us forward in this mission following Jesus.