Do you know who the Holy Spirit is? If you’re a believer in the Lord Jesus, then your most likely answer to that question is, “yes”. But do you really understand what He’s done for and to you, and what He wills to do through you? If you’re like most believers in the western world, then you may have a shallow and even false idea of the Holy Spirit’s work for and in believers.

Why do I say that? Number 1, is because I’ve experienced enough of western Christianity to discern that most churches have a poor view of the Spirit. But number 2 — there’s an insightful example of believers who were ignorant of the Holy Spirit’s work found in Luke’s book of the Acts of the Apostles.

In this account, we can learn three main lessons:

  1. It’s possible to be a disciple of Jesus, and yet be ignorant of the Holy Spirit’s work.
  2. It’s possible for a well-known evangelist and Bible teacher to fail to instruct the believers in his area of work.
  3. Long-term, regular, and public teaching in the form of discussion, is one of the most effective ways of spreading the gospel in a localized area.

The Temporary Evangelist

The first two lessons come from the background and beginning of this narrative of the enlightened disciples. In order to understand the situation in which we find these disciples, along with Paul the apostle, we need to first learn about our well-known Bible teacher in question. This is Luke’s account of him:

“Now a Jew named Apollos, an Alexandrian by birth, an eloquent man, came to Ephesus; and he was mighty in the Scriptures. This man had been instructed in the way of the Lord; and being fervent in spirit, he was speaking and teaching accurately the things concerning Jesus, being acquainted only with the baptism of John; and he began to speak out boldly in the synagogue. But when Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they took him aside and explained to him the way of God more accurately. And when he wanted to go across to Achaia, the brethren encouraged him and wrote to the disciples to welcome him; and when he had arrived, he greatly helped those who had believed through grace . . .”

— Acts 18:24-27

Here, we see that Apollos had been diligently preaching the gospel in Ephesus. However, he seems to have confined himself mainly to its synagogue, where there would have been mostly Jews and Gentiles who were interested in Judaism (called “God-fearers”). He had been preaching a correct message, but not correct enough, since the godly couple Priscilla and Aquila had to inform him of the fullness of God’s way of salvation through Jesus. After he receives this instruction, he seems to make a relatively quick decision to leave Ephesus, and to travel to the Greek region of Achaia, across the sea. Hence, it seems that he spent very little more time in Ephesus after receiving the full truth about Jesus. So, he leaves to go to Achaia.

The Ignorant Disciples

Next, Luke continues the account of the situation in Ephesus:

“It happened that while Apollos was at Corinth, Paul passed through the upper country and came to Ephesus, and found some disciples. He said to them, ‘Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?’ And they said to him, ‘No, we have not even heard whether there is a Holy Spirit.’ And he said, ‘Into what then were you baptized?’ And they said, ‘Into John’s baptism.’ Paul said, ‘John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in Him who was coming after him, that is, in Jesus.’ When they heard this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. And when Paul had laid his hands upon them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they began speaking with tongues and prophesying. There were in all about twelve men.”

— Acts 19:1-7

The first important thing to note about this account is that Luke calls this dozen of men “disciples” before they receive the Holy Spirit (v. 1). And given that Luke had just used this term with reference to Christians in the last passage, that’s what he must mean here. Further, Paul implies that they had believed the gospel about Jesus when he asks if they received the Holy Spirit when they “believed” (v. 2). So, these men are clearly believers in Jesus to some degree. They must at least be believers in the Messiah, and in His work. And yet, they display a profound ignorance of one of the greatest gifts from the Messiah — the Holy Spirit, since they respond to Paul’s question about the Holy Spirit by confessing that they hadn’t even heard about Him (v. 2).

Why? Why hadn’t they heard about the Holy Spirit? Because their experience of the Messiah’s salvation went no further than “John’s baptism”, which is the baptism that they received (v. 3). In other words, they had only learned of John’s message of repentance in preparation for the coming Messiah, just like Apollos had at the beginning.

As a result, Paul had to explain to them the purpose of John’s preaching and service — to call people to trust in the crucified and risen Jesus, who succeeded him (v. 4). After learning this fullness of the gospel, they’re then baptized again, not because of John’s message, but in acceptance of the message about Jesus (v. 5). It is only then that they receive the presence and power of the Holy Spirit, and begin to speak God’s direct revelation in foreign languages and prophesying (v. 6).

Neglectful Evangelism and Ignorance of the Evangel

So, what does this account teach us? The first thing it teaches us is that it’s possible to be a well-known Bible teacher and evangelist, and yet fail to teach the full message of the gospel to the believers in your area. Although Apollos had a powerful ministry in the synagogue, he failed to ground the believers in Ephesus in the full truth of the gospel which he had just learned from Priscilla and Aquila. And apparently, even they had failed to instruct many of the believers in Ephesus about the fullness of the message of Christ. Let us not be like Apollos and neglect to teach a full gospel and Christian message to those to whom we preach the gospel! We’ll be in danger of leaving the new believers in our sphere of influence in a similar ignorant and weak position as Apollos left Paul’s disciples.

The second thing this passage teaches us is that it’s all too possible to be a believer in the gospel, and yet be ignorant of all the fullness of the Holy Spirit’s work. Sadly, many in our day are ignorant of these truths, since they have a faith in Jesus that’s elementary and shallow. And what are some of the most important and encouraging works of the Spirit? We could speak of several:

  1. His immersion (or baptism) of believers into Christ, uniting them to His death, resurrection, and ascension
  2. His regenerating and renewing work which grants repentance and faith to sinners
  3. His work of enlightening and renewing the minds of believers through the truth of Scripture
  4. His sealing of believers into Christ, preserving them for the day of resurrection
  5. His empowerment of believers to imitate and serve Jesus, including conforming them into His image
  6. His adopting work of turning believers into sons of God

I’m sure that I could add more. All these truths are so important to understand, and yet most believers are woefully ignorant of — or in error on — some of them. Thankfully, there are those who understand and apply these truths to their lives. Do you? If so, then how concerned are you that your brothers and sisters in Christ know what an amazing gift the Holy Spirit is, and the “greatness of His power toward us who believe” (Eph. 1:19)?

How can we come to understand and appreciate the Spirit’s work more? There’s no better view of Scripture to take for this than New Covenant Theology. New Covenant Theology highlights all the blessings of the Spirit for believers, since it rightly understands the relationship between the Old (or Mosaic) and New Covenants. This being the case, it’s able to allow us to see that one of the greatest and most powerful gifts of the New Covenant is the Holy Spirit; all that He’s done for us; and is doing to us, and through us. So, if you understand the meaning and implications of the New Covenant, please don’t withhold this knowledge from the believers in your life who lack it. In order to most effectively work with and through the Holy Spirit, we need to understand Him.

Needed Evangelism

The last lesson from Luke’s account of these dozen disciples is found in the three verses after the previous passage:

“And he entered the synagogue and continued speaking out boldly for three months, reasoning and persuading them about the kingdom of God. But when some were becoming hardened and disobedient, speaking evil of the Way before the people, he withdrew from them and took away the disciples, reasoning daily in the school of Tyrannus. This took place for two years, so that all who lived in Asia heard the word of the Lord, both Jews and Greeks.”

— Acts 19:8-10

After Paul enlightens the ignorant disciples about the fullness of Jesus’s work, and they receive the Holy Spirit after being baptized into the name of Jesus, Paul takes them along with him to the synagogue. Apollos had previously preached here, so Paul is building upon Apollos’s work. And how does he do this? First, not by preaching, or giving speeches, but by “reasoning” (v. 8). The Greek word that Luke uses here is the one from which we get the English, “dialogue”. So, Paul was not simply giving sermons, but discussing the Scriptures and the life of Jesus. And what was the result? He was “persuading” people about the nature and work of God’s kingdom (v. 8).

However, since some Jews harden themselves to God’s Word, and malign “the Way” of Christianity toward the rest of the Ephesians, Paul takes his disciples from the synagogue (v. 9). Where does he go? The next best public place he could — “the school of Tyrannus” (v. 9). Evidently, this was some kind of public lecture hall for philosophers, and Paul thought it was the best place to continue to teach the gospel to the Ephesians.

Now, notice Paul’s method of teaching the gospel. First, he took along “the disciples” with him (v. 9). He didn’t do this simply as a lone gospel preacher, but led his disciples, who had just received the Holy Spirit, to participate with him in this service. Second, he again “reasoned”, or “dialogued” (v. 9). He was again not simply giving speeches or sermons, but asking questions, and interacting with the thoughts of his hearers. Third, he was reasoning daily (v. 9). He disciplined himself to be available on a daily basis in order to teach and preach the gospel. And finally, he engaged in this service for two years (v. 10). This was a long-term service, which enabled him to reach many people, and to develop relationships with his audience.

So, what can we take away from Paul’s example in this passage?

  1. Paul first preached the gospel to those to whom he had the most immediate access. This happened to be synagogue attendants. Who are the people in your life with whom you can speak the gospel of Jesus?
  2. Next, having his reception at the synagogue closed off, he finds the next best place to preach the gospel. Likewise, we ought to use whatever means available to us to preach the gospel, and whatever public avenues are open to us. It might be a community center, a college campus, a café, or any other public area.
  3. We ought not only preach the gospel alone, but along with other brethren in Christ. This way, they can learn from us, and we can learn from them, and grow in our understanding and ability to teach the gospel.
  4. Following Paul’s example, through regular prayer and a consistent Christian lifestyle, such evangelistic service can result in widespread knowledge of the gospel, and in the conversion of sinners through the Holy Spirit’s power.

Why not think about how we as individual Christians, and as local assemblies, can reach out to unbelievers in public places more wisely, earnestly, and prayerfully?

Three Applications

To summarize, we learned three main truths from this whole passage:

  1. Eminent evangelists and Bible teachers who fail to make sure that the brethren in their area have access to comprehensive teaching on the gospel and its implications are doing at least some brethren a major disservice. Evangelists ought to not only preach the gospel to unbelievers, but also make sure that new converts understand the fullness of the message of salvation. Ground new believers in the fullness of the gospel.
  2. It’s possible to be a follower of Jesus, and yet to have an inadequate understanding of who He is, and what He’s done. Particularly, there’s a great danger of misunderstanding, or being ignorant of, what the Lord has accomplished, and is accomplishing through His Spirit. We must keep in mind that most of what the Lord is doing now on earth is empowered and guided by the Holy Spirit, since He is the Person who now works as His direct representative on earth. Ignorance of the Lord’s work through the Spirit can lead to weakness and a lack of spiritual growth. We must make sure, as we’re able, that we understand this work, apply it to our lives, and also apply it to our brethren in Christ. Understand and appreciate the work of the Spirit because of Jesus’s work, and seek your brethren’s enjoyment of the Spirit as well.
  3. The long-term, regular, and public teaching and preaching of the gospel should be one of our most important means of spreading the gospel in a localized area like the city of Ephesus. If we want to see more people saved, then we must use whatever opportunities we have to preach the gospel to sinners. Such work, through prayer, and the Lord’s answer, will result in the gospel spreading and bearing fruit. Work together with others for the spread of the gospel through the best ways possible, to as many people as possible.