“He said unto them, Have ye received the Holy Ghost since ye believed? And they said unto him, We have not so much as heard whether there be any Holy Ghost.” (Acts 19:2, AV)
A short while after being called to pastor in New Hampshire, I began a small group Bible study in my home. In one of these studies, we discussed the atoning work of Christ on the cross. In the middle of the discussion, one of the participants stated that she needed to speak with me urgently. So, I dismissed the group to sit out on the patio and spoke with her. She stated that she never heard anything about this. The surprising thing was that she was a long-time member of the church, having joined years before I accepted the call to pastor there. So, I shared the gospel with her and she placed her faith in Jesus Christ alone for her salvation. It is not unusual for people to have gone through the motions of accepting the faith without fully understanding everything. We have a real example of this in Paul’s visit to Ephesus.
While on Paul’s third missionary tour, he again visits Ephesus and has a unique experience. It is an encounter with about twelve disciples of John the Baptist. These were a group of Old Testament saints who seem to have trusted in the promises of God as it related to the coming of Israel’s Messiah. Yet somehow, they missed something. Paul asks them a question, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” He had identified that something was deficient in that they had not experienced the work of the Spirit. They responded that they did not even know there was a Holy Spirit. It is possible that this meant that they did not know the Holy Spirit came upon believers on the day of Pentecost. Paul then explained the message of John as it relates to faith in Jesus (v4). After hearing this, they believed in Jesus and were baptized in the name of Jesus (v5). Then, followed by Paul’s laying on of hands the Holy Spirit manifested the gift of tongues and prophecy in them (v6).
This situation is unique to these disciples of John. They were Old Testament saints, who were awaiting the Messiah but had not experienced Jesus as the Messiah. They had a faith experience similar to Abraham, who “believed God and it was counted to him as righteousness” (Romans 4:3) in that they were looking forward to the fulfillment of the promise. As such, the sequence for these disciples is contrary to the mode for people today. They had a righteousness of faith prior to this meeting and then an experience of the Spirit after their encounter with Paul. Thus, this incident does not set a precedent for us today. The Scripture clearly teaches that the Spirit is instrumental in salvation by grace through faith and that every believer is indwelt by the Spirit upon coming to faith (Romans 8:9; Titus 3:5).
Moreover, this does not set a precedent for all believers to speak in tongues and prophesy. Paul makes it clear in the Corinthian letter that not every believer would experience these manifestations (1 Corinthians 12, 14). This incident of tongues and prophecy was a sign to these disciples of John and to others that these Old Testament saints had also received the promise of the Spirit as just as they had.
Often today, we will encounter people who state they belong to a church. From this, we presume that they are believers. This is not necessarily the case. In an Evangelism Explosion Teacher Training Session some years ago, the Lord saved a Methodist Pastor in the middle of the course. Perhaps one of our greatest mission fields is in our own back yard, the church. We will find people deficient in their understanding of the gospel and unsaved. The point is this, we need to build relationships with churchgoers and ask pertinent questions about their conversion experiences. We might discover that they have never experienced true salvation and that we need to proclaim the truth of the gospel message to them.