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Please read Acts 19:1-6. When Paul came to Ephesus on his third preaching trip, he found some disciples there and asked them whether they had received the Holy Spirit when they believed. Paul evidently assumed they were already saved. If he had not, he would have asked them to begin with about their relationship to Jesus. Hence, Paul's question implies he assumed they had been saved but might not have received miraculous powers of the Spirit (cf. 1 Cor. 12:29,30; Acts 8:12-19).
The men responded that they had never heard of such a thing as the Holy Spirit (vv 1,2). This would imply they did not know much about the gospel and specifically they had not heard of the coming of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost. Since Pentecost, men had been preaching the gospel by the guidance of the Holy Spirit and had confirmed their message by miracles. The fact these men were ignorant of all this raised doubts about whether they heard the true gospel which was being preached since Pentecost (Acts 1:8). Therefore, Paul moved to the very basics and asked about their baptism.
The men then stated that they knew only the baptism of John. Paul responded by explaining why John's baptism was insufficient (v4). John's baptism, though it required repentance, yet looked forward to the coming of the One for whom John was a forerunner (Jesus). Jesus had not yet died when John baptized people. His was a baptism of preparation looking forward to Jesus' death (cf. Matthew 3:3; etc.).
This shows that John's baptism cannot be the baptism which Jesus commanded people to receive under the gospel (Mark 16:15,16; Matthew 28:18-20). The baptism of the gospel, looks backward to Jesus' death and resurrection as accomplished facts. We are baptized into His death, picturing His death, burial, and resurrection (Rom. 6:4; Col. 2:12). Before we can be baptized, we must believe in Jesus as God's Son who has been raised from the dead (Rom. 10:9,10; cf. Mark 16:16; Acts 8:36-38). Clearly, John's baptism cannot be Scripturally applied to anyone after Jesus' death.
It is possible that not all the differences between John's baptism and gospel baptism have been revealed to us in the Scriptures, since we today don't need to know them all. It is sufficient for us to know John's baptism is not valid today and to understand the gospel baptism that is valid.
The people Paul was teaching clearly understood the impact of his teaching. They had received baptism, but it was not the baptism they needed to be saved. If they wanted to obey the gospel and receive salvation through Jesus' death, they had to be Scripturally baptized with gospel baptism in Jesus' name (cf. Acts 2:38). They did so (v5).
This teaches some important lessons for us today:
(1) If a person received a form of "baptism" which does not agree with the Scriptures, that baptism is not valid. The person has not really obeyed the gospel in baptism. Since baptism is essential to salvation, it must be done properly for the person to be saved. (See our web site at /instruct for a study that shows the importance and proper purpose of baptism.)
(2) Specifically, it matters what understanding a person has about the purpose of baptism at the time when he is baptized. The men in this passage had been baptized by immersion (the proper action) and had even done it because God commanded it. Yet that was not enough. They also had to understand the proper connection between baptism and Jesus' death and resurrection. It follows that, in order to be Scripturally baptized, one must understand and believe that baptism is necessary to receive forgiveness by Jesus' blood, and he must do it for that reason (Acts 2:38; 22:16; Mark 16:16; Rom. 6:3,4; Gal. 3:26,27).
(3) There are some still today who claim that they are followers of John the Baptist, practicing his baptism, and even claiming to wear his name. These people are in the exact same condition as the men here, and they need to do what these men did. They need to receive the true baptism of the gospel Jesus, because they have not yet been properly baptized.
(c) Copyright David E. Pratte, 2005; www.gospelway.com
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Scripture quotations are generally from the New King James Version (NKJV), copyright 1982, 1988 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. used by permission. All rights reserved.