Published: 11 October 2021

Why Was The Spirit Not Given At Baptism?, Part 2


In the last post we looked at two exceptions in the book of Acts where the Spirit’s indwelling did not conincide with baptism. The story of the twelve disciples in Ephesus is a head scratcher. No matter your view of baptism and the indwelling of the Spirit, it poses an interesting interpretive challenge.

1 While Apollos was at Corinth, Paul took the road through the interior and arrived at Ephesus. There he found some disciples 2 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.” 3 So Paul asked, “Then what baptism did you receive?” “John’s baptism,” they replied. 4 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.” 5 On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. 6 When Paul placed his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied. 7 There were about twelve men in all.  (Acts 19:1-7 NIV)

Paul had these men re-immersed because there was something about their first baptism that was evidently deficient. We can only speculate about why Paul thought they needed to be baptized again. I suggest that it had to do with their lack of knowledge about Jesus. 

What about Apollos?

Just a few verses earlier we read about Apollos who “had been instructed in the way of the Lord, and he spoke with great fervor and taught about Jesus accurately, though he knew only the baptism of John. (Acts 18:25 NIV)  Priscilla and Aquila took Apollos aside and explained to him the information he was missing. Knowing only of John’s baptism, and not Christ’s baptism, his knowledge was incomplete. Apollos and the twelve Ephesian disciples had something in common: they had all received John’s baptism, but knew nothing of Christian baptism.

Faith in Jesus was the difference

There is no record that Apollos was re-baptized. Why was his previous immersion acceptable but the twelve Ephesian disciples’ immersion wasn’t? Luke clearly says that Apollos had accurate knowledge of Jesus, but he does not say the same about the twelve. The only difference I can see is that Apollos knew about Jesus and presumably the twelve did not. If this is true, it implies that John’s baptism was sufficient, with no need for another immersion, if the recipient went on to learn about and put his faith in Christ. This would explain why there is no record of anyone who received the Spirit on Pentecost ever being re-immersed. Presumably, they either received John’s baptism or Jesus’ baptism (John 4:1-2). 

Another possibility is that the twelve had received John’s baptism after Christian baptism was already in effect rendering their immersion invalid. Regardless, the big difference between Apollos and the twelve appears to have been faith (or lack thereof) in Christ. 

Paul expected them to receive the Spirit during baptism  

This passage in Acts 19 further confirms that Paul expected them to receive the Spirit during immersion. Notice how Paul’s first question after coming to understand these men did not have the Spirit was, “Then what baptism did you receive?” (Acts 19:3 NIV)  Clearly, Paul’s expectation was that they should have received the Spirit during baptism. Because they had not, Paul proceeds to question them about their immersion to determine why. 

Ultimately, these men were “baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus” (vs 5), but again, we see a delay in the receiving of the Spirit. Even though newly immersed, the twelve did not receive the Spirit until Paul placed his hands on them (vs 6). Of the three exceptions in the book of Acts, this one is the most difficult to explain. 

We may surmise that receiving the Spirit through the laying on of Paul’s hands served to confirm Paul’s message. It may have been “Cornelius in reverse.” The Spirit fell upon Cornelius “early” to confirm to the Jews that God had extended salvation to the gentiles. Perhaps the Spirit fell upon the twelve “late” (not until Paul laid hands on them) to convince them that Paul’s message was legitimate and that he was a prophet and apostle of Jesus.

Normal isn’t defined by the exceptions

The bottom line is that the rest of the New Testament suggests God saves us when the Spirit is given during baptism. These three instances were exceptions to the norm of receiving salvation and the Spirit during baptism and the reasons are fairly easy to understand, for the most part.

Some people conclude that these three cases show that we can’t know the exact moment of salvation. The truth is that we can’t determine what is normal by focusing on exceptions. We can see the reasons for the exceptions; the timing of the Spirit’s arrival wasn’t random. The remainder of the New Testament shows that the normal case is that God gives the Spirit during baptism. However, God can do as He pleases!

God makes exceptions

If it troubles you that God might make exceptions to the timing and/or methods He normally uses to save people, understand that there is no cosmic law that He is subject to. God Himself determines the criteria for pardon. In every age God has forgiven sins and extended mercy outside the prescribed covenant terms.

  • When David sinned with Bathsheba, God forgave him without sacrifice.
  • Melchizedek was a priest of God even though he was not part of God’s covenant with Abraham. 
  • Jonah preached to Nineveh and God forgave them without circumcision and other works of the Law.
  • God accepted Naaman without circumcision or animal sacrifice. 
  • God approved of the Jews of the Northern Kingdom who attended Hezekiah’s Passover while unclean. They acted in ignorance, but their motivation was to please God. Even though the Law required the death penalty, God made an exception.

God makes exceptions when it suits Him, and it suits God to keep His promise to save all who have faith.