While Apollos was at Corinth, Paul took the road through the interior and arrived at Ephesus. There he found some disciples 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.”
Certain impressive traits about these men set them apart from others in Ephesus. They were disciples of someone who had taught them about the importance of repentance from sin and about preparation for the coming of the Messiah – later it was discovered that they were disciples of John the Baptist and had apparently departed Israel for Ephesus before the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry.
“Disciples” of that day were different from students of today. A disciple of Jesus’ day was a follower of one individual, and would seek to take on the personality and mission of his teacher. They often stood out from the crowd in dress or behavior, and were known for their life-long devotion to their teacher, even willing to suffer for him.
But, despite their good qualities, Paul detected something lacking in these men. He apparently assumed them to be Christians at first – they were clearly Jewish in their ethnicity, so probably they had used words that Christians normally used, but something, or rather some One, was not active in their lives. They lacked the Spirit. Paul asked a question that would clarify the entire matter: Had they received the Spirit when they believed?
It is clear from Scripture that this was and is the normal experience – Acts 2:38; Ephesians 1:13-14; Romans 8:9-11. Repenting from sin and believing in Christ as He is presented in Scripture is the simple requirement for salvation and upon our salvation we receive the Spirit of Christ.
But this passage also explains the limitations of teachers and those followers of Christ who seek to make disciples of others. Among those born of woman none greater than John, said Jesus (Matt. 11:11), but only the Spirit is able to do in our souls the work of transformation. He enlightens the mind and changes the heart – whereas a human teacher is merely able to explain some truths and urge toward a decision. The Spirit does the work of conversion and rebirth (Titus 3:4-7).
Through no fault of John the Baptist, these men had not received the whole story, nor even knew the Old Testament very well. Genesis 1:2 mentions the existence of the Spirit of God, but it appears the concerns of commerce forced these men to leave Palestine before they were well instructed. They did not even know there was a Holy Spirit.
The Spirit of God is alive and well, changing lives today. He is with you now as you read the words of the text, as He is always present when the word of God is read or proclaimed. He brings an inner awareness to hearts of its truth and urges people to believe and to follow. He convicts of sin and convinces of forgiveness through Christ. He is forceful but He is so much more than just an impersonal force. He is Christ Himself communicating to human hearts. He is the eternal presence of the eternal God.
Lord, let us listen to Your Spirit’s voice as You communicate Your love to our hearts. Amen.