Disciples Without the Spirit? Acts 19:1-6

I am sitting in the library at Schloss Mittersil eating commentaries on Acts. When many commentators get to Acts 19:1-6 an alarming tendency emerges to state things that the text doesn't. 

The story in question is about people in Ephesus who Luke identifies as "disciples who believed" but who haven't heard about the Holy Spirit and who have only receive the baptism of John, not the baptism of Jesus. What makes me uneasy about a lot of the commentaries is that they seem to come to the text feeling a prior need to prove that there is no such thing as post-conversion filling with the Spirit. That is, there is a strong agenda. Now, I know all commentaries are inevitably written in the context of debates at the time within the church, but here the agenda seems unusually strong, even from people I greatly respect. For example:

  • Michael Green: "it is crystal clear that these disciples were in no sense Christians"
  • John Stott: they have not yet believed in Jesus. Paul assumed they were believers but they weren't
  • I. Howard Marshall: "Luke is not saying that these men were disciples but is describing how they appeared to Paul. In view of his uncertainty Paul put a test question to them"
  • Larkin: "these disciples, like Apollos, are at best nominal Christians, and at worst simply disciples of John. In either case they are living without either the truth or power of the Christian gospel"  

I am slightly staggered by all this for two reasons. They deny the text says something that it clearly does say - that they were disciples who had believed. And all go beyond the text to rapidly assume something that it doesn't say - that surely they only appeared to be disciples to Paul who clearly got it wrong at first. 

Are we to assume therefore that the Apostles weren't fully-fledged disciples-who-believed before Pentecost because they hadn't received the Spirit? Can we concur that people like Apollos who was well-taught in the scriptures, instructed in the way of the Lord, who enthusiastically and accurately preach Jesus are nominal Christians?? Hardly! Many of these comments seem to go a long way beyond what the Bible actually says, driven by a prior theological framework.

I get the feeling people are trying to protect against an idea of a two stage initiation - getting converted but not filled - or against any suggestion that there are upper and lower class Christians. Of course it is an age old debate. But why? Everyone who has seen the Lord move powerfully in church life or in missions knows we have met people who seem to have assimilated the facts of the gospel and, to that extent, believed. But who seem to have no power over sin, no testimony to the work of the Holy Spirit in their lives. No joy in God or experience of God working supernaturally to bring himself glory, build the church and reach the nations with the good news. Anyone who hasn't seen God work like this must be very careful before justifying their lack of experience by saying it doesn't happen. As C.S. Lewis said you don't have to live by the railway, but if you don't at least don't pretend trains don't exist.

I am not saying the Ephesian disciples were in that situation. Who know, when the gospel was first making its way there? I am saying not to assume that because they didn't have everything God had for them yet that therefore they weren't disciples. And, conversely, just because they were disciples (who therefore must have some knowledge or experience of the Lord) don't assume that they already have everything there is to have from God. Both of those are logical fallacies.

The trouble is that I know people who use such commentary on a passage like this to validate their lack of experience of God, using the argument that they already have all God has to give them. Therefore they don't have to seek him for more of himself, it would be a pointless exercise for what more is there?

For sure noone can say "Jesus is Lord" but by the Holy Spirit. However it seems to me ridiculous and quite against both scripture and reason to suggest that someone who has had the Spirit work on and in them for salvation and acknowledgement of his lordship may not have the same Spirit lead them on with him, take them to new depths of submission and appreciation that are profound enough to be indicated by terms of receiving and being baptised in the Spirit. Nor that he cannot give them higher thoughts, greater insight into scripture, truer obedience, more holy affections. None of these latter are saving works, but I sincerely hope that the Holy Spirit will continue working them in me until I die. 

I think great care needs to be taken in distinguishing the justifying and sanctifying work of the Spirit. His ministry of bringing salvation and bringing growth in discipleship. If we don't the danger is we get converted and happily think "I now have it all" and then fail to seek God for his continual work in our lives. Worst case scenario we justify to ourselves not seeking him and theologise seeking away as based on dubious biblical warrant.