We at WRC are beginning a sermon series through Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians. Acts 18:24-19:7 tells us about Paul’s arrival in Ephesus, where he discovered a group of disciples of John the Baptist. After hearing Paul’s full revelation of the gospel, they believed, were baptized, and received the Holy Spirit with external, supernatural phenoma. What should we think about these disciples? Were they previously saved? If so, does this mean we must become Pentecostal, holding to a subsequent baptism of the Holy Spirit?
Rather than a transition from “unsaved” to “saved,” this text narrates their movement from the old to the new covenant. Looking forward to the Messiah (under John’s baptism), those Acts 18:24-19:3 disciples were still under the old covenant like other pre-Christ believers (e.g., Daniel, Ezra, David). They were justified by faith in the coming Messiah. These same believers recognized that, one day, the new covenant would come, and it would be accompanied by God’s outpouring of the Spirit (Joel 2; Jer. 31; Ezek. 36-37). The visible phenomena recorded in Acts 19:4-7 demonstrated to them and continues to demonstrate to us, that this covenantal transition has occurred, the new covenant has come. Christ brought it through the ministry of His Apostles.
Signs and Wonders Accompany Epochal Shifts
This doesn’t mean that visible, outward phenomena must always occur when a person enters the new covenant. The covenant made with Abraham (Gen. 15) was surrounded by supernatural signs that signified a covenantal shift but this did not become normative for those that subsequently entered the Abrahamic community by circumcision. Likewise, Mt. Sinai (Exod. 19-24) was an epochal change, accompanied by supernatural signs and wonders. But plenty of people were incorporated into the old covenant at later points in time, and the old covenant was renewed on many occasions, yet there was not a Mt. Sinai event, where it was flaming, smoking, and shaking with God’s presence. Likewise, The new covenant epoch dawned through the hands of the Apostles, so signs and wonders accompanied their ministry as they went forth.
Acts 19 is an example of how external phenomena occurred as the gospel spread. I’m personally inclined to believe that it occurred in each new locale that the Apostles visited. There’s no reason, however, to believe that every subsequent Ephesian convert experienced the same thing. Due to the experience of the first members of the new covenant, they would have all been told, “God has poured out His Spirit upon us! The new covenant age has come, just like the Scriptures prophesied!”
Signs and Wonders Are Not Normative but Still Speak to Subsequent Generations
There’s also no reason to believe that those same twelve believers continued to experience that phenomena in their lives. Just like in Num. 11:16-30, the 70 elders prophesied momentarily, which confirmed that God had established the office of elder through Moses. Subsequent generations of elders would look back to that initial event as confirmation that God was with them and had given them a measure of His Spirit in order that they could exercise their office and calling.
Likewise, the signs in Acts 19 simply confirm the Apostle’s authority and message (demonstrated in the laying of his hands, cf. Acts 8:14-17), that the new covenant age was indeed dawning through them. These disciples recognized in the moment that Paul was an authoritative messenger from Christ. We look back on the events recorded in Scripture, where the Spirit is poured out in through the Apostles – in Jerusalem, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth, fulfilling Acts 1:8 – as signs that Christ has brought us the new covenant through those men we call Apostles. The Ephesian disciples recognized in the moment that the Spirit was given to new covenant believers. We look back at Acts 19 and the testimony of Scripture and are confident that we all possess the Spirit, though we don’t experience the same signs and wonders.