He said to them, Have you received the Holy Ghost since you believed? And they said to him…
Paul at Athens stands for Christianity flinging down its challenge to the world philosophies; Paul at Ephesus, the rich port of the Orient, the seat of the splendid worship of Diana, the most dissolute spot on the globe, stands for Christianity summoning iniquitous heathenism to wash and be clean. Paul meets with the twelve disciples of John the Baptist. The life of John the Baptist to an earthly judgment seems a most pitiful failure. There is nothing more sublimely touching in history than the complete self-effacement of John the Baptist. But such a judgment of John the Baptist contains much error. We think of his work as being effaced. Yet here are twelve men, a quarter of a century after they have heard him, holding fast to the truths he taught. Who can tell how many hundreds, perhaps thousands, of other lives there were, of whom we have never heard, who received at the hands of the Baptist for all eternity the impress of Divine truth? Call no man's life unsuccessful because its results are not visible or measurable to us. Moreover, John the Baptist had the honour of being the greatest of forerunners. John the Baptist did nothing that stands for himself. All his work was but a pedestal for someone else to stand upon, John the Baptist deserves not our pity but our congratulation. Such thoughts concerning the forerunner are suggested to us by the appearance before Paul at Ephesus of twelve men who had accepted John's message and had cherished it for thirty years. Now let us study the lessons of their appearance.
I. We see in their case THE REALITY OF AN IMPERFECT CHRISTIANITY. There are certain simple things which, once truly possessed, make one a Christian. The line between death and salvation has been passed. Much advance is still possible, but it does not make the fact of one's being a Christian one whir more real. The feeblest, weakest Christian is just as truly saved as the most advanced in the things of God.
1. The truth of this statement is plain in the case of these twelve disciples of John the Baptist. Just what they knew and just what they did not know has been much disputed by commentators, and to little use, as the Bible record is so slight. What was the extent of the Christianity of these men?
(1) They had repented of sin and put their faith in a coming (and as yet unknown) Saviour, and had confessed this faith in baptism (vers. 3, 4).
(2) They had known as much of the Holy Spirit as was common among the Jews and as was known to John, but they had not the specially definite knowledge of Him given after the ascension of Christ, and particularly that manifestation of the Spirit which came through miracles. Nevertheless they were true Christians, for Luke calls them "disciples" (ver. 1), which he would not have done in the quiet time when he wrote this record of the Acts without full cognisance of its meaning.
2. The general inference follows for ourselves that one may be a real Christian though a very imperfect one. If a wide knowledge of Divine truth in its extension and a deep experimental knowledge of its separate elements were required at the entrance, who could be saved? How gracious is the Lord in accepting us when there is so little in us that would seem to warrant Him in calling us His! And yet that little is everything. Faith may be smaller than a mustard seed to the eye, yet if it be genuine it has in it a mountain-moving potency.
3. Yet one thing must be said: that a genuine faith is one which utilises what knowledge it has. The message of John the Baptist was very fragmentary compared to the full revelation of God's truth given by Christ, yet it had in it the power of salvation. The measure of our learning unto eternal life is not how much truth we have heard (as by preaching and teaching and reading), but how much we have incorporated into our own being. A very little food will save a human life, but not until it is assimilated.
II. The story of the twelve Johannean disciples shows us THE NECESSITY OF THE HOLY SPIRIT IN THE CHRISTIAN LIFE. The reply of the men to Paul's question looks as though they had never known that there was such an existence as the Holy Spirit. But this is incredible in men who were probably Jews and certainly disciples of John — who knew of the Holy Spirit. Their reply must be understood in the light of Paul's question (ver. 2). And that question must be understood by the sequel when the Holy Spirit was given (ver. 6). The Holy Spirit was given to them in miraculous form (it led them to speak" with tongues" and to prophesy), and this was the form of manifestation Paul was inquiring about and they were answering about. They meant, therefore, that they knew nothing of a Holy Spirit miraculously manifested; they did not intend to say they knew nothing at all of the existence of the Holy Spirit.
1. It was necessary that they should receive the Holy Spirit. The form in which they received Him was conditioned by the circumstances of the time. It was an age of beginnings. Christ had left the earth to take His throne in glory, and miracles were particularly calculated to allay the doubt of Christ's continued existence and power which must arise in the first years of His bodily absence. Powerful signs were an evidence of Christ's enthronement. It was necessary, therefore, that, in addition to that enlightenment of the Holy Spirit which is given to all at the beginning of the Christian life, there should be given to believers at that time this special endowment of the Spirit for temporary purposes which came by the laying on of apostolic hands.
2. The same necessity for the Spirit's presence holds with us. The form of the Spirit's manifestation has doubtless changed. The place of the Holy Spirit in the scheme of salvation is unchangeable. If a man could save himself he would not need supernatural help, he would not need the Holy Spirit. Salvation is in a change of heart, in being made a new creature before God. This is a superhuman work.
3. Always ought we therefore to be praying for the presence of the Holy Spirit. He makes ours all that Christ has secured for us at such infinite cost!
III. Although a very small faith has in it the power of salvation, yet THERE REMAINS THE DUTY OF FULL BELIEF.
1. Opportunity is of God. God gave them the chance to hear John the Baptist. They believed the message they heard as far as it went. God by His Providence had withheld from them full Christian knowledge. Then after a time He gave them another opportunity, which they also embraced. It is a helpful thought that God's Providence is similarly directing us in our Christian opportunities. There are some far away from Church privileges, away from libraries, away from the possibility of reading Christian newspapers. Providence has cut off opportunity of growth by these external helps. Let such souls take courage. God has not forgotten them; He is leading them in His own way.
2. These men showed by their conduct that they had a desire for a more perfect faith. They had used what opportunity they had and were longing for more. The reason of Christian lethargy is never lack of opportunity, but failure to use what opportunities one has, which implies absence of the longing for growth. The smallness of Christian knowledge is not against it, but deadness is, even if it be very large. A little thing which is increasing will soon eclipse a big thing which is defunct.
3. When twelve men had a chance to have a new accretion of Christian faith they accepted it instantly (ver. 5). There was promptitude in their belief because desire had gone before it. When the new knowledge came they did not have to debate whether they wanted it or not.
IV. THE SEAL OF SUCCESS WAS GIVEN TO PAUL'S LABOUR IN EPHESUS (vers. 8-12). The blessing of heaven was upon his endeavours (vers. 11, 12) in such a form that no one could mistake it.
1. The form was unusual, for special reasons which have already been named. Miracles were wrought because at that time miracles needed to be wrought.
2. Extensive success was part of the corroboration of Paul's work being God's work (ver. 10).
3. Intensive success was an additional proof of the divineness of Paul's work (ver. 12).
(D. J. Burrell, D. D.)
Parallel VersesKJV: 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.