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Author:Dr. Wes Bredenhof
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Congregation:Free Reformed Church of Launceston, Tasmania
 Tasmania, Australia
Title:Christ brings the gospel to disciples in Ephesus
Text:Acts 19:1-7 (View)
Topic:The work of The Holy Spirit

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Hymn 47:1,2

Psalm 143:1,4,5,6 (after the law)

Hymn 47:3-5

Hymn 81

Psalm 87

Scripture readings: Ephesians 2, Acts 18:18-28

Text: Acts 19:1-7

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Wes Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

Beloved congregation of Christ,

When you came to church last Sunday, did you know that our Lord Jesus was there too?  In fact, he’s here again today.  Our Lord Jesus is present whenever his word is preached faithfully.  No, he's not present physically.  You can’t see him.  But he is present spiritually.  Right now, at this very moment, our Saviour is here with us to bless us with his Word. 

We know this fact from Scripture.  One of the key places is in Ephesians 2.  Paul was writing to the church at Ephesus, located in present-day Turkey.  He reminded them of how Christ is their peace.  Paul reminded the Ephesian Christians of how they were reconciled to God, how they found peace with God and with one another.  Then in Ephesians 2:17 he says something interesting.  He says Christ “came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near.”  Christ preached peace to the Ephesians, both to Gentiles and Jews. 

But when?  When do we ever read of Christ coming to Ephesus to preach?  You never read of him doing that in the gospels.  Jesus never got into a boat and sailed over to Ephesus during his 33 years of ministry on this earth.  So what does Paul mean when he says Christ came and preached peace to the Ephesians?  It was through the preaching of the gospel.  It was through the preachers who were filled with the Holy Spirit of our Lord Jesus.  Whenever there’s faithful preaching, Christ is present – it’s as if he himself is preaching.

That’s important for understanding what’s happening in our passage for this Pentecost Sunday.  What we have in Acts 19 is like a mini-Pentecost in Ephesus.  It’d be easy to focus our attention on the speaking in tongues and prophesying, as if that’s really what this passage is all about.  As if these incredible events are at the center.  We need to remember what the book of Acts is all about.  As implied in Acts 1:1, Acts is all about Jesus.  It’s all about what he continued to do and teach.  That’s how we have to approach Acts 19 as well.  What is Christ doing here with this mini-Pentecost?  We’ll see that Christ is bringing the gospel to “disciples” in Ephesus.  That’s the theme for the sermon.  We’ll consider their:

  1. Ignorance of the Holy Spirit
  2. Old baptism from John
  3. New baptism from Jesus
  4. Spirit-driven prophesying

There are two important things we ought to note about the ancient city of Ephesus.  Both of these things shed some light on our passage.  First, it was probably a large city for this time.  Some reckon it had about 200,000 residents.  Second, it was located at a crossroads for trade.  People from all kinds of other places would pass through the city as they did their business.  That means it was a strategic location for the gospel.  If the gospel could get a foothold in Ephesus, it would inevitably spread well beyond Ephesus. 

Paul first came to Ephesus in chapter 18, along with Priscilla and Aquila.  Paul was only there for a short time, but hoped to return.  In the meantime, Priscilla and Aquila remained there.  While they were there, they encountered a preacher named Apollos.  He knew “the things concerning Jesus,” but was still missing what Jesus had taught about Christian baptism.  Priscilla and Aquila filled him in.  Apollos then moved on to Corinth, another strategic center. 

While Apollos is in Corinth, Paul returned to Ephesus.  This is probably about 52 A.D.  Then verse 1 tells us, “There he found some disciples.”  Remember that the gospel had already been brought to Ephesus.  It appears that Christ had already worked to bring some to faith.  However, these disciples don’t seem to be part of the church as yet.  Here you need to remember that this is a large city, likely about 200,000 people.  It could easily happen that there were some disciples who didn’t have contact with other disciples.  Some had been discipled by one preacher, others by another preacher and the groups weren’t aware of each other. 

Moreover, the word “disciple” here seems to be used quite loosely.  It seems whatever training they received only brought them into some of the teaching of John the Baptist.  Although Paul assumes that they’ve believed in Christ in his question in verse 2, the reality appears otherwise.  If you think of it in terms of sowing the seed, the ground has been prepared, but the gospel hasn’t yet been sown, hasn’t yet taken root, hasn’t yet borne fruit.  So when we read that these men were “disciples” we have to understand that it’s not saying they’re full-fledged disciples of Christ.

Clearly they’re not.  They’re not because when Paul asks whether they received the Holy Spirit, they replied that they hadn’t even heard there is a Holy Spirit.  If they’d been properly discipled as Christians, they would’ve been taught about the Holy Spirit.  Even if they’d been properly discipled as followers of John the Baptist, they would’ve heard of the Holy Spirit – after all, John the Baptist preached that he was just baptizing with water, but the one coming after him would baptize with the Holy Spirit.  John knew there was a Holy Spirit.  He taught that there was a Holy Spirit.  This also suggests that these men weren’t Jewish.  If they’d been Jewish, they would’ve been familiar with what the Old Testament says about the Holy Spirit.  It appears they were Gentile men who’d been given some of the teaching of John the Baptist, but they remained ignorant of the Holy Spirit.  It wasn’t their fault; it was just the way things had happened up to this point.  Up to this point, no one had taught them about the Holy Spirit.  That’s why they were ignorant.

Ligonier Ministries recently did their State of Theology survey in the United States again.  People had to evaluate different theological statements.  One of them was about the Holy Spirit.  It said, “The Holy Spirit is a force but is not a personal being.”  51% of respondents who identified as evangelical either somewhat or strongly agreed with that statement.  9% were not sure.  33% strongly rejected the statement.    

In our churches too, there can be confusion or ignorance about the Holy Spirit.  Even though we’re taught regularly about the person and work of the Holy Spirit, sometimes our thinking about him isn’t biblical.  That statement, “The Holy Spirit is a force but is not a personal being” – that statement represents what the Jehovah’s Witnesses believe.  Biblical Christians have always held that the Holy Spirit is a personal being.  He is a someone, not a something.  We don’t refer to the Holy Spirit as “it,” we refer to “him.”  He is the third person of the Trinity, and we must honour and worship him as such.  It can’t be stressed enough.  This is basic to being a Christian.  Because he’s God, you can’t be ignorant of the Holy Spirit.  Moreover, you shouldn’t want to be ignorant of him.  After all, he’s described in Scripture as the Comforter.  Christ brings gospel comfort to us through him. 

Christ was at work in our passage too.  We see that as Paul continues to interact with these “disciples.”  He assumes they’ve been baptized.  Indeed, they were, but “into John’s baptism.”  That’s the sort of baptism they’ve received.  Baptism as performed by John the Baptist. 

That brings Paul to teach them what John the Baptist was really all about.  John’s ministry and his baptism weren’t ends in themselves.  It wasn’t as if John the Baptist was about making disciples for himself, disciples who’d go and make other disciples of John.  John the Baptist’s intention wasn’t that two thousand years down the track people would still be getting his baptism and being his disciples.  John’s ministry had a distinct purpose and that was to point to the greater One coming after him, about whom he said he wasn’t worthy to untie his sandals.  “He must increase and I must decrease,” said John.  John was all about pointing people to Jesus.

That started with the baptism he administered.  It was called a “baptism of repentance.”  It wasn’t Christian baptism as instituted later by Christ.  It was something different.  You see, what a lot of people think is that John’s “baptism of repentance” just dropped from the clear blue sky.  A lot of Christians think the idea of baptism didn’t exist at all until John came along.  Suddenly John the Baptist appears and he introduces this radical new idea of baptism with water.  That’s not how it was. 

The Jews practiced baptism before John the Baptist.  It had developed as a ritual for Gentiles who wanted to become Jewish.  Gentiles had to be baptized in order to join the Jewish faith.  It was a symbolic washing for a Gentile, showing that they were cleansed of their dirty Gentile background and now included among the clean Jewish people.  This was called Jewish proselyte baptism.  A proselyte was someone who wasn’t born Jewish, but joined the Jewish faith later. 

What was new and radical about John’s baptism was that he called for Jews to be baptized too.  He was saying the Jewish people were just as dirty as the Gentiles.  They needed their sins washed away, just as much as the Gentiles.  To be baptized by John, you had to humble yourself in recognition of that.  You had to say, “I’m a dirty sinner, I need to be washed clean.”  Saying that is an indication of repentance, a change of mind about yourself.  It’s showing how you see your sin as a problem that needs to be dealt with.  John’s old baptism was about preparing people’s hearts for Jesus Christ. 

But John also preached.  He told people not to believe in him, but to believe in Jesus Christ.  Paul brings that forward to these Ephesian “disciples.”  If they’re followers of John in any sense, they ought to believe in Jesus because Jesus was the one John preached. 

Now you can be sure that at this point, Paul said a lot more about Jesus.  The book of Acts doesn’t record every single word said on any given occasion.  Most of the time, Luke is giving us a summary and that’s the way it is here too.  We have to read between the lines and understand that Paul would’ve expanded on who Jesus was and why it’s necessary to believe in him.  He would’ve explained how indeed, we’re all dirty sinners inside and out.  We need our filthy sins to be washed away with the blood of Jesus Christ.  Paul would’ve encouraged them to place their entire trust in the one to whom John pointed.  To say that they have no hope for salvation, no hope for heaven apart from Jesus Christ.  To say what we all need to say for ourselves if we’re going to be rescued from the wrath to come:  Jesus died for me on that cross, he died to pay for my sins.  I have eternal life only because of Christ.  Through that kind of preaching, Jesus was there to bring the gospel to these men.  Through that kind of preaching, Jesus continues to be here to bring the gospel to us.

Verse 5 shows us how that preaching had an effect.  The word of Christ was powerful to draw these men in.  The Holy Spirit worked to give regeneration and faith in Christ.  They were born again, and so they believed.  Christ accomplished the salvation of these Ephesians, not only at the cross, but on that day in Ephesus as he worked in their hearts through his Spirit.  As Paul would later write to these same Ephesians, “For by grace you have been saved through faith.  And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God…” (Eph. 2:8).  Their faith was the gift of God.   

Since they had believed and were now part of God’s covenant people, they could receive the sacrament of baptism.  They could receive the sign and seal of public initiation into the covenant of grace.  With their baptism, God was publicly claiming them as his own, placing his name upon them – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – just as he’s done with us.  And notice how it says in verse 5 that they were baptized.  That’s important.  They were baptized.  They didn’t baptize themselves.  Baptism was something done to them.  The one doing the baptism was God, the Triune God, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Now if you look closely at verse 5, you might have a question in your mind.  It says that they were baptized “in the name of the Lord Jesus.”  But hold on, didn’t Jesus say that the church was to baptize “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit”?   Perhaps you’ve heard of churches where baptism is done just in the name of the Lord Jesus.  There are churches where they don’t use what we call the Trinitarian formula from Matthew 28:19.  They appeal to passages like this one in Acts 19.  They say they’re baptizing like the early church did, like Paul did: “in the name of the Lord Jesus.” 

When Luke tells us that these men were “baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus,” he’s telling us they were baptized in the manner instituted by the Lord Jesus.  That contrasts with the baptism of John.  They’re two different baptisms.  When you are baptized in the manner instituted by Christ, you’ll be baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  That’s what happened with these Ephesian believers.  They received Christian, Trinitarian baptism. 

That was the practice of the early church.  We know that from an early Christian writing known as the Didache.  This dates from somewhere around 70 A.D.  The Didache says baptism should be administered as Christ instituted, in the Trinitarian way. 

One more thing on this.  The churches that baptize only in the name of Jesus hold to heretical teaching about the doctrine of the Trinity.  If you hear of a church that only baptizes in the name of Jesus, you can be quite sure they don’t believe what the Bible teaches about the Trinity.  Instead, they hold to a heresy called modalism.  Modalism is also known as Oneness teaching.  This teaching says that God is one, but he shows himself in three different ways.  So, if you baptize in the name of Jesus, they say, you’re also baptizing in the name of the Father and the Holy Spirit, because Jesus actually is the Father and Jesus actually is the Holy Spirit.  That’s a heresy.  It’s a dangerous false teaching.  So don’t be deceived.

We’re now at verse 6.  This is where we see the mini-Pentecost take place.  Paul laid his hands on these twelve men and then something remarkable happened.  Scripture says “the Holy Spirit came upon them.”  Now that might raise a question too.  Does that mean that prior to this they didn’t have the Holy Spirit in their hearts?  If they had faith, which they must have for them to have been baptized, then they must have had the Holy Spirit dwelling in their hearts.  You can only have faith if you’ve been born again, if you’ve been regenerated.  Being born again is something that only happens through the Holy Spirit.  So verse 6 isn’t saying that these men had nothing to do with the Holy Spirit until that moment.  It can’t mean that in the light of what Scripture says elsewhere about regeneration and faith. 

It’s helpful to again think of this as a mini-Pentecost.  In Acts 2, at the first Christian Pentecost, the Holy Spirit didn’t come upon unbelievers.  He didn’t come upon people who’d never believed in Christ.  He came upon the disciples, the followers of Christ, believers in Christ.  It’s the same here, even though the time during which these Ephesian believers have been believers is compressed, shortened.  It’s just a short time between their regeneration, their faith, their baptism, and this mini-Pentecost.  These things all happen in rapid succession.

When Scripture says “the Holy Spirit came upon them,” it means that exactly what happened in Acts 2 happened again in Ephesus in Acts 19.  Christ poured out his Holy Spirit upon his church there.  In other words, the Holy Spirit came upon them in abundance, in full measure.  They were lavished with the Holy Spirit.  And that led to these men “speaking in tongues and prophesying.”

What exactly did that involve?  Well again, just like in Acts 2, it means that that they were speaking in foreign languages that they hadn’t previously learned.  They were suddenly speaking in known human languages.  In those real human languages, they were “prophesying.”  That doesn’t mean they were predicting the future.  It means they were doing exactly the same thing as the Christians in Acts 2 – they were telling “the mighty works of God.”  In other words, they were witnessing to Christ.  They were witnessing about the gospel, about what God has done for our salvation. 

That’s one reason why the Holy Spirit was poured out.  He was poured out so these Christians would be his instruments to spread the gospel of Christ, to spread it as fast as possible.  Remember that Ephesus was a large, important city.  It was at a crossroads.  There would have been all kinds of different ethnicities and languages flowing through that city on any given day.  All those people would’ve been able to hear the gospel in their own language.  If they heard and believed, they could take the gospel onwards.  This speaking in tongues and prophesying was strategic for the rapid spread of the Christian faith in the time of the apostles.  Christ worked through this to push out the gospel rapidly into the world.

But there’s another reason why this mini-Pentecost happened, and it was another reason why the original Pentecost happened in Acts 2 as well.  This was a sign to the Jews, to God’s Old Testament people.  They had a special relationship with God – we call it the covenant of grace.  In that relationship, God called them to believe in him and to follow him.  This speaking in tongues was a warning within the context of that covenant relationship.  In the Old Testament prophecies, God said that there would be speaking in tongues.  When it happened, it would be a warning sign, a sign of impending judgment upon his covenant people.  It’s in passages like Isaiah 28:11.  The word of God being brought in a language you can’t understand was a sign that you needed to turn from your sins and repent. 

Both before and after our text, we read of efforts to bring the gospel to the Jews in Ephesus.  When you read Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, you can’t help but get the impression that most of the church was Gentile, not Jewish.  The gospel didn’t find much acceptance amongst the Jews.  And the speaking in tongues would have signalled to those Jews that God was ready to move on to others with the gospel.  He would leave them under his covenant judgment.    

Now how do we take this into our lives today?  Let’s start with the speaking in tongues.  Speaking in tongues as it existed in our text stopped with the death of the apostles.  There’s no more speaking in tongues like it took place in the New Testament.  It’s not necessary with a completed Bible.  We have a sufficient revelation of God and the gospel in the Bible, so tongue-speaking isn’t needed any longer.  So what about the speaking in tongues you sometimes hear about today?  It’s not the speaking in tongues described in Scripture.  In Scripture, the believers spoke in actual, known human languages.  Speaking in tongues today isn’t like that.  Most of the time it’s a psychological phenomenon which involves making sounds with no meaning.  Linguists have studied modern-day tongue-speaking.  They’ve observed that this phenomenon produces sounds, but not actual language.  Unlike real languages, modern-day tongue speaking has no grammar, for instance.  So modern-day speaking in tongues isn’t the speaking in tongues we read about in the Bible.         

Nevertheless, the warning that speaking in tongues represented still stands for us today.  Like the Jews in Ephesus, we’ve been brought into this special relationship with God called the covenant of grace.  Within that context, God continues to warn us about the dangers of rejecting him, of rejecting the preaching of Christ.  Graciously he brings that warning to us in our own language.  In plain English he says that it will be more tolerable on the day of judgment for Sodom and Gomorrah than for covenant people who reject the gospel.  Loved ones, Pentecost reminds us of the grave consequences of unbelief.  Pentecost reminds us of how the consequences of unbelief are even more severe if you’ve been brought up in the covenant of grace.  God warns us and teaches us how it’s far better for us as covenant people to look to Christ in faith and live.    

And it also teaches us about our ongoing prophetic calling.  The Holy Spirit was poured out on the church in the apostolic age so the gospel would go out.  The Holy Spirit is still in and among us for that purpose.  The purpose of the Holy Spirit is always to shine a light on Christ, to point people to the gospel. When those new Ephesian believers were prophesying, they were witnessing about Christ.  That’s what believers do.  Believers who’ve been blessed with the Holy Spirit act as prophets.  They’re doing what our Catechism says in Lord’s Day 12.  If you’ve been anointed with the Holy Spirit, then you’re a prophet.  As a prophet, you confess the name of Christ.  Now sometimes it’s said that confessing the name of Christ just means that you live like a Christian.  You let your lifestyle speak.  And yes, you should live like a Christian, absolutely.  The witness of your life can raise questions and provoke curiosity about what makes you different.  True.  But in verse 6, when we’re told that these new Ephesian believers “prophesied,” do you think they were silent?  Do you really think that means that they just went about their daily business trying to live a Christian life?  Of course not.  It says they were speaking.  And that’s the way prophesying works, also for Christian prophets like you and me today.  Christian prophets are supposed to speak.  You’re supposed to bring the gospel, speak about Christ to whomever you can.

You see, Christ brought the gospel to those men in Ephesus.  They truly became his disciples through the ministry of Paul.  Today Christ continues to bring the gospel worldwide.  Jesus continues to work through his Word and Spirit -- through his Word shared by believers who’ve been blessed with an abundant measure of the Holy Spirit.  His call is for each of us to embrace this work and be eagerly involved with it.  His call is for us to tell of the mighty works of God done in and through our Lord Jesus.  The Holy Spirit would have it no other way.  AMEN. 


Our Lord God in heaven,

Thank you for the gift of your Holy Spirit.  Thank you that he has been poured out on the church, and that we’re still blessed with his abundant presence.  We’re grateful for the work of your Spirit in our hearts – that he’s given us regeneration and faith.  We pray if there’s anyone among us who hasn’t yet been born again and not yet believed – we pray that you would send your Spirit to transform hearts and bestow the gift of faith in Christ.  Please do a mighty work of grace in them, just as you have in us.  We pray that the Holy Spirit would continue to work in us so that we grow in faith and in holiness.  We also pray for the help of your Spirit to be prophets for our Lord Jesus in this dark and hostile world.  Give us strength with your Spirit so we can witness to the gospel to those who don’t know you.  Help us to be witnesses, prophets wherever you’ve placed us, with whomever you’ve put in our lives.  Help us to show how great our Saviour is and the mighty works that have been done in him.  We pray that Christ would work through us by his Word and Spirit to continue to gather, defend, and preserve his church.             

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Wes Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

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