While Apollos was in Corinth, Paul … came to Ephesus, where he found some disciples. He said to them, ‘Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you became believers?’ They replied, ‘No, we had not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.’ Then he said, ‘Into what then were you baptized?’ They answered, ‘Into John’s baptism’. Paul said, ‘John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, in Jesus.’ On hearing this, they were baptized into the name of the Lord Jesus. When Paul had laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came upon them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied…
The early Church clearly had some difficulty with the relationship between John the Baptist and Jesus, not least in the significance of John’s baptism by comparison with Christian baptism. So long as this was confined to Palestine, it was usually manageable. But Jews were not just confined to Palestine: the Jewish diaspora was spread around the whole eastern Mediterranean from Alexandria into Asia Minor (modern Turkey). This passage from Acts is evidence that the baptism of John had spread at least as far north as Ephesus. The distinction drawn by Paul became the standard one, although he does not mention fire which some other references do and which fits with Luke 12:49-50 (see last Tuesday), and is one characteristic of the Pentecost experience, linked also to ‘tongues’ as a sign of the universal nature of the Church. Since the gift of tongues caused divisions at Corinth, there has been a tendency to ignore these further aspects of the baptismal experience until the Pentecostal revival of the late 19th and 20th century. If we do so, we narrow the significance of baptism, confining it simply to our understanding. We do not need to understand everything; and we can learn from what we do not.
Teach us, Lord, to learn from what we do not understand; humble us to appreciate the fullness of yourself, which you offer to us when we are baptized. Set us on fire with enthusiasm for the proclamation of the Good News of your eternal kingdom, that we may be faithful to the preaching of your Son, Jesus Christ; in his name we pray. Amen.
The Rev’d Professor David Thompson is a retired minister and a member of Downing Place URC in Cambridge.