The two episodes recorded in this passage occur during Paul's missionary work in the Aegean region, and in particular, during his ministry in Ephesus, Acts.18:18-19:20. First, we have the story of Apollos who knew only the baptism of John and who was therefore given further instruction in The Way by Priscilla and Aquila. Second, we have the encounter of Paul with some disciples of John the Baptist. Paul also sets out to instruct them in The Way.
v24-25. Our story opens with a man named Apollos who comes to Ephesus and "speaks boldly in the synagogue." He was an "eloquent" speaker with a "thorough knowledge of the Scriptures." In the Western text it is noted that he "had been instructed in the way of the Lord", but other texts have "who had been instructed in the word of God." It is likely that "word of God" is correct.
v26-28. Clearly Apollos is a disciple of the Baptist with only a limited understanding of the coming kingdom, so Priscilla (Aquila is added in the Western text. You can't have a woman instructing a man!!!) took him aside and "explained to him the way of God more adequately" ("way" = the way of Christ = the gospel). Apollos later moves on to Corinth and, with his new-found understanding of the scriptures, is able to explain how Jesus properly fulfills Old Testament prophecy.
19:1. It is after Apollos has moved to Achaia (Southern Greece) that Paul comes to Ephesus. Here Paul meets a group who, like Apollos, are disciples of John the Baptist. The word "disciple" is most often reserved for believing Christians, but here it is being used of John's followers.
v2. Paul then asks the twelve disciples of John whether they had received the gift of the Holy Spirit, whether they had been born anew of God's Spirit. Their answer seems to imply that they had never heard of the Holy Spirit. Yet, John the Baptist taught that the coming Messiah would baptize with the Holy Spirit, Mark.1:8. So obviously, it's not that they had never heard about the Holy Spirit, but rather that they are unaware that the promised Spirit has already been poured out. So, the "disciples" are not yet believers since they have yet to hear the good news about Jesus, respond in faith and so receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.
v3-5. Paul then goes on to enquire about their "baptism". They knew John's baptism, but not Jesus' baptism. John's baptism only pointed to Jesus, but now, what was anticipated has arrived. On hearing this they are "baptized into the name of the Lord Jesus." If we are dealing here with water baptism, then this is the one and only recorded re-baptism in the New Testament. There is no evidence that the apostles themselves were rebaptized and we know that many of them were originally followers of John the Baptist. The word "baptism" means "immersion" and it is very likely that the immersion that is being referred to here is an immersion in information, in teaching, instruction. These "disciples" had received instruction in the teachings of John, but were yet to be immersed / instructed into "the name", into the person of Jesus. They were short on information, not liturgical rites.
v6-7. Following their instruction in the gospel, Paul lays hands on them, they receive the Holy Spirit, and they speak in tongues and prophesy. For Luke, the inclusion of these followers of John the Baptist into the new age of God's kingdom, as with Jews, God-fearers and Gentiles, is evidenced by an outward display of ecstatic prophecy.
Apollos was a disciple of John the Baptist. He was looking forward to the coming of the Messiah and could speak on the subject with great knowledge and fervor. He "had had been instructed in the word of God", that is, he was an Old Testament scholar, and he knew well the teachings of the Baptist with regard the coming of the Messiah. So, what does Priscilla and Aquila do for him? They invite him to their home and explain to him the Christian way more adequately. They tell him how Jesus has completed the ministry of John. So, off goes Apollos, now a Christian apologist.
When it comes to the twelve disciples of John, we discover that they too suffer from a similar problem; they are short on knowledge. They were into John's teachings; they knew all about repentance for the forgiveness of sins. They knew all about the one who was coming after John and of the promised outpouring of the Spirit, but that was it. Once Paul found this out he gave them further instruction; he immersed them into the knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ, the gospel.
Only when properly evangelized with the gospel were the twelve able to respond in faith - to put their trust in Jesus. Only then did Paul have the authority to pray for the gift of the Holy Spirit. This he did in the usual Jewish way with the symbolic laying on of hands. Only then were they overwhelmed with the Spirit, which washing was outwardly evidenced in ecstatic prophetic utterance.
Many questions remain from this most interesting passage. It is often argued that these disciples of John were forgiven, but were without the Spirit. Yet, as Jesus himself tells us, unless a person is born of the Spirit they cannot enter the kingdom of God. Also, what do we make of "they spoke in tongues and prophesied"? Some argue that these are essential signs accompanying the reception of the Spirit. Yet, that would fly in the face of Jesus' own simple teachings on salvation.
What we do know from this passage in the Acts of the Apostle is that salvation is dependent upon a simple acceptance of what Christ has done for us. Only this truth will set us free. So, let us strive to know, and make known, the good news about Jesus.
Given that the passage is open to many interpretations, consult as many different commentaries as possible and list the offered interpretations. Compare them with the interpretation supplied in this sermon. Discuss.