It’s a funny little story that could only have happened during the church’s earliest days. Paul has been on one of his missionary journeys and, while traveling through Asia Minor, stumbles upon a little group of believers. But there’s something unusual about them, something missing. Here’s how Luke describes it:
And it happened that while Apollos was at Corinth, Paul passed through the inland country and came to Ephesus. There he found some disciples. And he said to them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” And they said, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.” And he said, “Into what then were you baptized?” They said, “Into John’s baptism.” And Paul said, “John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, Jesus.” On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. And when Paul had laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they began speaking in tongues and prophesying. There were about twelve men in all. (Acts 19:1-6)
There in Ephesus, Paul comes across a group of disciples. What exactly it means that they are disciples has been the subject of much debate. Are these genuine pre-Pentecost believers who have trusted in Jesus Christ but not yet heard about the Holy Spirit? Or are they disciples of John who have simply never been told of Jesus? For our purposes it probably doesn’t much matter. Whatever the case, Paul quickly comes to see that something isn’t quite right.
Perhaps he notices behavior displaying a lack of the sanctification that is the inner working of the Holy Spirit. Or perhaps he hears them speak of their faith, but never of the Spirit. Either way, he soon identifies that their theology is seriously and dangerously deficient. They have not yet experienced the indwelling of the Spirit. Why? Because no one has told them. They have not been instructed in his coming, in his presence, in his work, in his utter necessity to the believer. So Paul quickly corrects this oversight, baptizing them into the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Immediately they are granted the gift of the Spirit so they speak in tongues and prophesy.
The problem with these disciples was easily diagnosed. Paul might have been tempted to believe he had stumbled upon a nest of hardened heretics. He might have assumed these people had rejected the Holy Spirit, that they had been told of him and determined they could not believe in such a God. But it was simpler and far more innocent. They were ignorant. “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.”
I find myself pondering these people as I consider the state of the church today. I have been writing about the necessity of sound doctrine and the plague of false teachers. I see mounting evidence of the sad lack of sound doctrine in the church today. And I suspect that among many Christians we would find a situation not unlike the one we read about in Acts.
If we were to speak to Christians at many churches today and ask them about their theology, we might hear responses like, “We have not even heard that there is theology.” Many of these people have not rejected sound doctrine; they’ve never even heard it! Many have never even been exposed to the very existence of theology, to the reality that the Christian faith is established upon a body of knowledge revealed in God’s Word. Many have never been told that God holds each of us responsible to know, to believe, to teach, and to defend the truths he reveals in his Word. Many have never been told that we are all theologians and that the only real question is whether we will be good theologians or bad ones.
Those Ephesian disciples were victims of ignorance, but this was easily diagnosed and easily addressed. They responded with obedience and humility, and God affirmed their faithfulness by not only giving them his Spirit, but by pouring out his Spirit upon them in miraculous ways. In the same way, I trust many disciples today will respond with obedience and humility as they come to learn that they, too, are victims of ignorance. May God be pleased to send teachers to diagnose their ignorance, to explain their woeful lack of theology, and to instruct them in the sound doctrine that will encourage, edify, and preserve them to the day of Christ’s return.