COULD YOU PLEASE EXPLAIN ACTS 19:1-7?
by Shawn Brasseaux
“Hi Shawn, could you comment on Acts 19:1-7? Thanks.”
Yes, I would be glad to comment on it. You are welcome. This passage can be quite tricky and cryptic if we fail to remember the context of the latter two-thirds of the book of Acts. The book of Acts is the most difficult book in the New Testament Scriptures because people do not understand—or they refuse to understand—its transitional nature. Here, we will “rightly divide the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15). We will make the distinction between Israel’s prophetic program (Acts 3:21) and our mystery program (Romans 16:25). In doing so, we will avoid the confusion that most people experience concerning Acts chapter 19.
We will begin reading Acts chapter 19: “ And it came to pass, that, while Apollos was at Corinth, Paul having passed through the upper coasts came to Ephesus: and finding certain disciples,  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.  And he said unto them, Unto what then were ye baptized? And they said, Unto John’s baptism.  Then said Paul, John verily baptized with the baptism of repentance, saying unto the people, that they should believe on him which should come after him, that is, on Christ Jesus.  When they heard this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.  And when Paul had laid his hands upon them, the Holy Ghost came on them; and they spake with tongues, and prophesied.  And all the men were about twelve.”
What a strange passage, huh? The Apostle Paul had to lay hands on some “disciples” who did not have the Holy Ghost? How was that possible for believers not to have the Holy Spirit?! They had received John’s baptism but they did not even know there was such a Person as the Holy Ghost? What?! My dear friends, like I said in our opening remarks, if we do not recognize the transitional nature of the book of Acts, we do not have a prayer in the world to understand the Bible. We must approach this passage dispensationally. If we are to make sense of these verses, we have to go back and review some basics of dispensational Bible study. Once we do that, we will return to the passage in question and it will become much clearer.
In the Bible, until we come to the ministry of the Apostle Paul (Saul of Tarsus was saved in Acts chapter 9), God is dealing with the nation Israel. Hence, John the Baptist’s ministry was limited to Israel (Luke 1:16-17,80; Acts 13:24), Jesus Christ’s earthly ministry (Matthew through John) was restricted to Israel (Matthew 10:5-7; Matthew 15:24; Luke 19:9; John 1:11; Romans 9:5; Romans 15:8), and Peter and the 11 other apostles’ ministry were limited to Israel during early Acts (Acts 2:36; Acts 3:13,25; Acts 4:8; Acts 5:30-31; Acts 7:2).
During a total of four years (Matthew chapter 3 through Acts chapter 7), Israel refused to listen to the preaching of John the Baptist, Jesus, Peter, the other 11 apostles of Israel, and other men but especially the prophet Stephen. The Jews refused to acknowledge and trust Jesus as Messiah, and they refused to accept the water baptism of repentance for the remission of sins. So, in Acts chapter 7, when Israel stoned Stephen, her prophetic program fell through. That Israeli prophetic program was fully diminished by the end of the book of Acts. Once national Israel stoned God’s prophet Stephen (blasphemy against the Holy Spirit; Matthew 12:31-32), the ascended and glorified Lord Jesus Christ raised up Saul/Paul, a new apostle. He gave Paul a new message and began a new program (that would be Acts chapter 9 onward). Our Dispensation of Grace started with Paul and it will end beyond our present-day. As long as our program is operating, Israel’s program will remain suspended.
The latter two-thirds of the book of Acts (chapters 9-28) can be very confusing unless we keep Romans 11:11-14 in mind. The first step in understanding Acts 19:1-7 is to consider Romans 11:11-14: “ I say then, Have they stumbled that they should fall? God forbid: but rather through their fall salvation is come unto the Gentiles, for to provoke them to jealousy.  Now if the fall of them be the riches of the world, and the diminishing of them the riches of the Gentiles; how much more their fulness?  For I speak to you Gentiles, inasmuch as I am the apostle of the Gentiles, I magnify mine office:  If by any means I may provoke to emulation them which are my flesh, and might save some of them.”
According to the Old Testament prophetic program, Israel should have arisen to her kingdom glory. She should have accepted and trusted her Messiah-King Jesus, and in the kingdom He would then establish on the earth, Israel would be a kingdom of priests who would evangelize the Gentiles (see Exodus 19:5-6; Isaiah 59:21-60:3; Isaiah 61:6; Zechariah 8:20-23; et cetera). When national Israel refused to accept Jesus but rather crucified Him, and then rejected a renewed opportunity of repentance in early Acts, God caused her program to fall away for a time. That is what Paul is saying in Romans 11:11-12. Israel stumbled at Christ’s earthly ministry (and ultimately at Calvary’s cross) but they did not fall (Romans 9:32-33). Israel later stumbled in early Acts by rejecting God the Holy Spirit who was speaking through Stephen (Acts 7:51,55). It was there in Acts chapter 7 that Israel finally fell before God.
Today, national Israel is “fallen” (Romans 11:11-12). Now, God sees no difference between Jew and Gentile (Romans 3:22; Galatians 3:28; Colossians 3:11). God only sees sinners (lost) and saints (saved). Throughout the book of Acts, from Acts chapter 7 to the end of the book of Acts (chapter 28), Israel’s program is “diminishing.” Paul wrote the book of Romans during the Acts period (circa Acts chapter 20). One day, after God is finished dealing with the Church the Body of Christ, it will be raptured and brought into Heaven, and then He will resume Israel’s program (see Romans 11:25-29; 1 Thessalonians 4:13–5:9; 2 Thessalonians 2:1-12).
Romans 11:13 quoted above says that Paul is “the apostle of the Gentiles.” Unlike John the Baptist, or Jesus in His earthly ministry, or the Apostles Peter and the 11, or Stephen, the Apostle Paul has a ministry that is not limited to Israel. Paul is God’s spokesman to Gentiles. This term “Gentiles” would include lost Jews, since Israel fell before God years earlier in Acts chapter 7. In order to validate Paul’s ministry and show Israel that her program was diminishing, God temporarily granted Paul the power to perform miraculous demonstrations and exhibit other “Jewish-related behavior” (Acts chapters 9 through 28). Throughout Acts, we read how Paul healed the sick (Acts chapter 14), he circumcised Timothy (Acts chapter 16), he water baptized (Acts chapter 16; Acts chapter 18), he raised the dead (Acts chapter 20), he offered sacrifices in the Temple (Acts chapter 21), he spoke in tongues (1 Corinthians chapter 14), and he survived a snake bite (Acts chapter 28). The miraculous demonstrations and other behaviors that Jesus and His 12 apostles performed in Matthew through John and early Acts, Paul was now doing them. This “strange” behavior of Paul was communicating to Israel that her God was now amongst the Gentiles through Paul’s ministry and message. Acts chapters 9 through 28 is a major transitional section of the Bible. It is the record of God being just (fair) in setting Israel aside for a time and going to the Gentiles through Paul’s ministry. Eventually, Paul quit water baptizing (1 Corinthians 1:14-17), he could no longer heal himself or other Christians who were sick (Galatians 4:11-13; 1 Timothy 5:23; 2 Timothy 4:20), and so on.
Let us re-read Romans 11:14: “If by any means I may provoke to emulation them which are my flesh, and might save some of them.” The way Paul would “provoke to emulation them which are my flesh”—that is, the way Paul would encourage his lost Jewish brethren to behave like Gentiles and trust Jesus Christ—was by performing Israel’s signs, miracles, and wonders. Although unbelieving Israel did not like Paul, and desperately tried to hinder his ministry throughout Acts, they were fully aware that the God of their fathers was working in him. Their miracles were now evident amongst the Gentiles (Paul’s ministry).
Okay, with this information as background, Acts 19:1-7 will make more sense. Let us re-read that passage: “ And it came to pass, that, while Apollos was at Corinth, Paul having passed through the upper coasts came to Ephesus: and finding certain disciples,  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.  And he said unto them, Unto what then were ye baptized? And they said, Unto John’s baptism.  Then said Paul, John verily baptized with the baptism of repentance, saying unto the people, that they should believe on him which should come after him, that is, on Christ Jesus.  When they heard this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.  And when Paul had laid his hands upon them, the Holy Ghost came on them; and they spake with tongues, and prophesied.  And all the men were about twelve.”
While Apollos was in Corinth (Acts 18:27), Paul traveled to Ephesus (on the western shore of modern-day Turkey). Paul encountered some disciples, and he asked them, “Have ye received the Holy Ghost since ye believed?” They replied, “We have not so much as heard whether there be any Holy Ghost.” Paul then responded, “Unto what then were ye baptized?” They replied, “Unto John’s baptism.” Like Apollos (Acts 18:25-26), these Jews were ignorant of further revelations from God. They too are fixated on John the Baptist’s ministry and message. John’s ministry was 20 years earlier, and these disciples were unaware of the progression of God’s program since John’s ministry. They did not know about Jesus’ earthly ministry, His death, His resurrection, His ascension into heaven, the coming of the Holy Ghost on the day Pentecost, Paul’s salvation, et cetera. Note how these 12 Jews in Acts chapter 19 admitted that they did not even know about the Holy Spirit. (How strange, huh?! What in the world is going on here? How do we make sense of all of this?!)
Remember, Jesus had told His disciples to wait in Jerusalem to receive the Holy Spirit in Acts chapter 2 (see Luke 24:49; Acts 1:4-5; cf. John 14:26; John 15:26; John 16:7). These disciples whom Paul met in Acts 19:1-7 were evidently not in Jerusalem when the Holy Spirit came in Acts chapter 2 some 20 years earlier. Furthermore, the 12 apostles of Israel had never laid hands on these 12 Jews in order for them to receive the Holy Ghost (see Acts 8:14-17). Hence, they did not have the Holy Ghost and this is why they were not even aware of His presence on Earth. By the way, we know Acts 19:1-7 has nothing to do with us because no man needs to lay hands on us in order for us to receive the Holy Ghost. We receive the Holy Spirit when we trust the Gospel of Grace, Christ died for our sins, was buried, and rose again the third day (see Ephesians 1:12-14; 1 Corinthians 15:3-4). See, again, dispensational Bible study helps us come to terms with the various verses in the Bible that are meant to be separated.
Paul informed these 12 men in Acts 19:1-7 that John the Baptist did water baptize via the baptism of repentance, but John also preached that the people of Israel should believe on the Lord Jesus Christ who would come after him (Matthew 3:11-12; Mark 1:7-8; Luke 3:16-17; John 1:29-31). Once these Jews heard Paul’s preaching, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. Paul then laid his hands on them, and they received the Holy Ghost. The gift of speaking in tongues (intelligent human languages never formally learned) is given to them, and they preach God’s Word. The Bible says these Jews were about 12 in number. This may refer back to Israel’s 12 apostles, men who had received the gift of tongues back in Acts chapter 2. Israel’s apostles, once they received the Holy Spirit, would then lay hands on believers in Israel’s program so they could receive the Holy Spirit (Acts 8:14-17; cf. Acts 9:17). Again, none of Israel’s apostles had visited these 12 Jews, nor were these 12 Jews present in Jerusalem to receive the Holy Ghost in Acts chapter 2, which Jesus had instructed His believers to do in Acts 1:4-5.
In this passage of Acts 19:1-7, God was demonstrating to Israel that He was working through Paul, for Paul was doing the same things Israel’s apostles did. This odd and often controversial and confusing passage is actually God validating Paul’s apostleship. It has nothing to do with us because it occurred during the transitional Acts period, while God was moving from Israel to the Gentiles. Paul, when teaching the Church the Body of Christ in his epistles of Romans through Philemon, never instructs us to be water baptized, or to lay hands on people to heal them, or to give the Holy Ghost to others, et cetera. Acts 19:1-7 is not a pattern for us to follow. It was simply something God wanted Paul to do in order to teach Israel doctrine. God wanted Paul to teach Israel that his ministry was replacing Peter and the 11’s, and if any lost Jews wanted salvation, they would have to come to his ministry and Gospel message.
As one final note, you might have seen that the Holy Spirit thought it noteworthy to tell us that these Jews in Acts 19:7 “were about twelve.” We briefly mentioned earlier that 12 in Bible numerics is a reference to the nation Israel. God was saying that if lost Israel wanted to receive the Holy Spirit, they should not go to the 12 apostles (for their ministry and program was fallen). Even today, if a lost Jew wants to receive the Holy Spirit, they will have to come to God through the ministry and message that Jesus Christ gave to the Apostle Paul. They will have to come to Father God the same way a Gentile comes!
SUPPLEMENTAL: SHOULD ACTS 19:2 READ “SINCE” OR “WHEN?”
“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.”
Since the average English Bible translator—like the average English Bible reader—does not recognize the dispensational nature of the Holy Bible, he or she tries to make every Bible verse agree with every other Bible verse. After all, denominations have drilled into most people’s minds that everything in the Bible is all the same thing. It will not be surprising then to learn that translators change the wording of verses that are at variance with each other. They introduce their theological biases into the Bible instead of letting the Bible passages highlight the changes in God’s dealings with man through time. They smooth over the distinct verses that differentiate the dispensations from each other. The tampering with of Acts 19:2 in modern English versions is a perfect example of this mishandling of God’s Word. Acts 19:2 is a rather troublesome verse because it, as found in the King James, opposes the widely held belief that there is only one Gospel in the Bible and that all salvation messages in the Bible are the same.
Again, we read in our King James Bible: “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.” This is a very difficult reading for most to accept because they do not understand how Israel’s salvation worked in her program and how our salvation works in this the Dispensation of Grace. Why did Paul ask them, “Have ye received the Holy Ghost since ye believed?” Why did Paul not ask, as modern versions read, “Did you receive the Holy Ghost when you believed?” We know when one believes on the finished crosswork of Jesus Christ as sufficient payment for their sins, they instantly receive the Holy Spirit in this the Dispensation of Grace (Ephesians 1:13-14). They receive the Holy Spirit instantly: they receive Him when they believe on Jesus Christ. Yet, why did Paul ask these Jews in Acts 19:2, “Have ye received the Holy Ghost since ye believed?”
Friends, please pay very close attention to these next several lines. You will avoid much confusion by just listening to these simple truths. In Israel’s program, salvation in Israel’s believing remnant had phases. Jews were to accept and participate in John’s water baptism during Jesus’ earthly ministry, but there was no indwelling Holy Spirit until Acts chapter 2. The Holy Spirit would not come upon an individual believing Jew until the day of Pentecost in Acts chapter 2. The Jews of Acts 19:1-7 had participated in John’s water baptism (Matthew through John), but they did not receive the Holy Ghost because they were not in Jerusalem in Acts chapter 2. The 12 apostles had not imparted to them the Holy Spirit. Hence, our King James Bible says “since.” “Since” was a reference to Acts chapter 2—Acts chapter 2 being the passage “since” (or, following) John the Baptist’s ministry. That is why our King James Bible does not say “when.” “When” would be a reference to how salvation operates today—“when” we believe the Gospel we instantly receive the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 1:13-14). The King James Bible has the correct reading in Acts 19:2 (“since”); the modern versions are in error.
“Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” is the erroneous retranslation of Acts 19:2 in the Amplified Bible, Darby Translation, English Standard Version, Good News Bible, Holman Christian Standard Bible, J. B. Phillip’s New Testament, The Message, New American Standard Version, New Century Version, New English Translation, New International Reader’s Version, New International Version, New King James Version, New Living Translation, New Revised Standard Version, Revised Standard Version, New World Translation (Jehovah’s Witness Bible), and The Voice. In other words, the popular Bibles people use today keep the glorious truths of Acts 19:2 hidden. They destroy the clarity of God’s Word rightly divided. All the more reason to keep our King James Bible! By the way, the Roman Catholic Douay-Rheims 1899 American edition has “since” (the correct reading in Acts 19:2, agreeing with the King James Bible)!