Three Questions from Acts 19:1-7
Were these “disciples” Christians? For some, this question is ridiculous: Luke calls them “disciples”, so of course they are. But things may not be so simple as that. For one thing, Luke does use the word “disciple” elsewhere of faithful Jews who were waiting for the Messiah, and who had responded to John the Baptist’s preaching (Luke 5:33; 7:18-19). For another, the story is clearly told from Paul’s perspective, and thus the word “disciples” may simply reflect what Paul thought when he initially met them. More importantly, however, there are three indications in the story that they were not Christian believers when Paul first met them: they had not heard that the Holy Spirit had come (which is surely inconceivable for a post-Pentecost believer), they needed to be told that “the one to come” was Jesus, and they were then baptised in water. As such, I think it likely that the Ephesian “disciples” were among those who had responded to John the Baptist’s preaching in Judea, and been baptised by him, but had returned to the diaspora before encountering the ministry of Jesus, and certainly before the resurrection and Pentecost. We cannot prove this either way, though.
What did Paul’s opening question mean? For some interpreters, it doesn’t matter whether they were Christians or not; what matters is whether Paul thought they were Christians or not. The reason for saying this is that his opening question, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?”, clearly implies that it is possible to “believe” and yet not have received the Spirit. So the question is: believe what? Again, two different answers are put forward. For some, Paul was asking people whom he thought were Christians whether they had received the Spirit or not, since in his experience, some Christians had and some hadn’t. For others, he was asking people whom he suspected not to be Christians whether they had received the Spirit or not, since for him, receiving the Spirit was the clearest mark of a Christian. In the first view, “when you believed” means “when you came to saving faith in the risen Christ, in response to the preaching of an apostle or Christian evangelist.” In the second view, “when you believed” means something like “when you came to believe the Messiah was coming, in response to the preaching of John the Baptist or whoever.” Typically, charismatics take the first view, and conservative evangelicals take the second view.
Two considerations incline me to think that the conservative evangelicals are right on this one. One is that the Paul who asked this question is also the Paul who wrote Romans and Galatians, in which he argues and assumes that all who are in Christ have received the Spirit (Rom 8:9-17; Gal 3:3-5), and it is hard to reconcile Acts 19:2 with these texts if we take the first view, whereas it is easy if we take the second view. The other reason to favour the conservative evangelical interpretation here is its internal consistency. Charismatic interpreters have often argued that Paul said all Christians had received (or been baptised in) the Holy Spirit, in texts like Romans 8 and 1 Corinthians 12, not because it was necessarily true of all believers, but because it was true in his experience of all believers in the early church. At the same time, however, they take Acts 19:2 as an example of Paul questioning whether believers had received the Spirit. Under the typical charismatic reading, there is an inconsistency: Paul would have to be asking the question in one text, yet denying it needed asking in others. The alternative view of this passage, by contrast, is thoroughly internally consistent; Paul, ministering and writing in the AD 50s, is persuaded that all who are in Christ have received the Spirit, so he asks the question, in effect, to establish whether the Ephesian “disciples” are even Christians.
What is the significance of the laying on of hands? Even if the Ephesian “disciples” were not Christians, and even if Paul’s opening question means (as I believe) that he was looking to establish whether or not they were, it is indisputable that they did not receive the Holy Spirit until Paul laid his hands on them (Acts 19:6), upon which they spoke in languages and prophesied. This poses a problem for those who believe that receiving the Spirit is “automatic” or even “unconscious” at conversion, both because the result of receiving the Spirit was clearly experiential, and because Paul laid hands on them. On the other hand, their receipt of the Spirit was still very much part of their initiation into Christ, so the claim that the delay between 19:5 and 19:6 implies that someone might be a Christian for decades without receiving the Spirit is quite excessive. We can, and should, conclude that receiving the Spirit is an experience, that it produces visible results and that we should lay hands on people and pray for them to receive the Spirit when they believe the gospel; but we should not jump to conclusions about what would have happened if Paul hadn’t laid hands on them. For all we know, the Holy Spirit could have fallen on them immediately anyway - as, of course, he did with Cornelius (Acts 10:44). Nevertheless, laying hands on people to receive the Spirit was clearly something that regularly happened in the early church, to the point that the author of Hebrews could call it one of the elementary doctrines of Christianity (Heb 6:2), and it should therefore be part of our practice today.
So I’m not persuaded that this story provides decisive evidence for the view that Christian believers, either then or today, could live for many months or years without having received the Spirit. Despite the frequent suggestion that conservative evangelicals are trying to “explain away” this “clear example” of receiving the Spirit post-conversion, I think there are good reasons to see it in the opposite way: as a story of twelve people hearing the gospel, getting baptised in water and receiving the Holy Spirit in the same encounter. It gives clear grounds for leading new believers straight into baptism and an experience of the Spirit - on which I would hope we could all agree - but in my view it does not give grounds for asking people who have been following Jesus, experiencing the Father’s love and displaying spiritual fruit for years whether they have received the Holy Spirit or not. From his letters, it seems to me that the Paul whom this story centres on would not have encouraged that question.