In Acts 19:1-7 we read:
"And it happened that while Apollos was at Corinth, Paul passed through the inland country and came to Ephesus. There he found some disciples. And he said to them, 'Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?' And they said, 'No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.' And he said, 'Into what then were you baptized?' They said, 'Into John's baptism.' And 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, Jesus.' On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. And when Paul had laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they began speaking in tongues and prophesying. There were about twelve men in all."
Their baptism was an act of faith. Paul laid his hands on them as a symbol of the coming of the Holy Spirit. As they were receiving baptism because they believed in Jesus, it was at that moment the Holy Spirit fell on them.
Then what? They prophesied. They spoke in tongues. From that day on, no one could ask them whether or not they had received the Holy Spirit when they believed. There were signs that He had come! There was clear evidence of His presence. Now the inner life of the Spirit poured itself out in joy and praise and proclamation. They believed on Jesus and on the entire message concerning Him. Before, they had believed on Jesus, but only within the narrow limits of John’s message concerning Him. They had never heard the rest of the story.
As we examine our text in the light of this context, we can see what an important question this is for us today. Did we receive the Holy Spirit when we believed? Here in our Bible Study group I’m quite sure that all of us believe in Jesus. If I were to go around this table and ask each person here the same question, “Do you believe in Jesus?” I believe that each one of us in a natural, honest, truthful way would answer, “Yes.” But this morning, I want us all to examine our hearts in light of Paul’s question. “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” Do we have a belief that has resulted in the reception into our lives of the Holy Spirit of God?
Dr. Morgan wrote that he believed that if the apostles of the early church were to walk in and face many of the congregations that assemble every Sunday morning throughout the world, they would ask that question within the first ten minutes.“Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” There are literally hundreds and thousands of people who, to some extent, believe in Jesus Christ, who have never received the Spirit, who have never been baptized by the Holy Spirit, who have never been born-again by the Spirit of God.
These three terms all hold the same meaning. They refer to a new life lived in the power of a new Spirit who comes to live within us. Without the Holy Spirit we become people who are ruled by ethics, but we lack enthusiasm. We have principles, but no power. We desire more because we lack energy and conviction. This is a dangerous position to live in because it leads to what the writer of the letter to the Hebrews called becoming “hardened” (Hebrews 3:13). Bondage grows out of ethics that are casually accepted as true. Heartlessness grows out of principles that are obeyed without strong belief.
We see this very thing happening everywhere. We believe on Jesus. We believe on Him with reverence. We don’t take His name in vain. We have always attended church and Bible studies. We listen to the messages delivered by our pastors and our teachers. We may be the one delivering them! We are active in our church. We serve on committees. We sing the old hymns and the new choruses. We believe in the ideals of Jesus. We accepted them long ago, and we call ourselves Christians; but there is no fire in our hearts, no passion, no courage, no joy, and no songs.
This is what it means to be dead while we yet live. Intellectually we believe in Jesus, but we are spiritually dead. Our churches are crowded with such people. In truth, they have never been born again or baptized by the Holy Spirit. They have never received the Spirit of Christ, and if we were to ask them our question: “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you first believed?”, they would answer that they just aren’t sure about the doctrine of the Holy Spirit. They might add that they don’t really know whether or not the Holy Spirit is real, and besides that, if He is real, they believe He was only active in the early church.
For a moment, let’s go back to our text. What was the fault of these people? They had come to a halt. John pointed them on to Jesus, but they had stopped short of embracing all of the truth concerning Him. They may not have been to blame. They may not have had the opportunity to hear the final facts about Jesus. The crucifixion may have wiped out the hope they had placed in Him. They may have only heard rumors of His resurrection and ascension. Be all that as it may, this we know for certain. After they had repented, they halted. They came to a standstill.
They failed to take that second step that John had commanded of accepting the baptism of the Holy Spirit. When Paul came and preached to them the full message of Jesus Christ, they believed in Him. They gave themselves to Him, and they felt the windows of their lives thrown open. They felt the joy and peace and power for which they had waited. It was all theirs when they abandoned themselves to Jesus!
What one thing is lacking in all who believe in Jesus, in all who have come so far as to recognize the glory and beauty of His purpose, to value His ideals and ethics? What one thing is needed? Just to take one more step, and that is, by an act of faith, to hand your life over to Him. Surrender yourself completely to Him.
These people expressed that act of faith in baptism. Dr. Morgan wrote that he did not believe that the method of expression was the important thing. No one believes that they received the Holy Spirit because they received water baptism, but through being baptized in the name of Jesus they expressed their faith in Him. In answer to that faith, the Holy Spirit came upon them.
This is what all of us need. In order to receive the Holy Spirit we must add faith to our repentance and confidence to our conviction, and these things must be held in relation to Jesus Christ. The living Christ has come. He asked the Father to send the Holy Spirit just as He said He would, and the Spirit has been poured out
People make a mistake when they wait for years hoping that He will come. They wait in nights of lonely prayer. They wait while they attend conventions and retreats. They wait while they read books on the Holy Spirit. They grieve and they agonize. They beg and they plead, while all the time He is here! He has come to earth, and He wants to come into every one of our lives to lead us into all Truth and to bring Light and Glory.
What signs followed His coming? “They spoke with tongues and prophesied” (Acts 19:6). That was their experience of Pentecost. The waiting and longing had led to the joy and gladness of receiving. Surely joy and gladness will be a great part of our individual experience of Pentecost. There is an enormous difference in believing in Jesus intellectually and in having belief that abounds in the love and joy and peace and courage that only the Spirit of God can give. The coming of the Holy Spirit brings to our lives the inner reality of the presence of God here and now, and we experience the gladness of receiving! What is that like for us?
Mother bought a plaque for me that hangs in my kitchen. Its inscription reads, “Joy is the most infallible sign of the presence of God.” I have found that to be true! Hour by hour and day by day we can choose to live out of our spirits, thereby discovering a joy that is constant and authentic.
Along with the joy comes a lightness and strength of spirit. The well-known Chinese Christian, Watchman Nee, wrote of that and for a long time I didn’t understand his meaning. Then an experience came my way that brought with it a heaviness of spirit and an overpowering weakness. Nehemiah 8:10 came to my attention: “The joy of the Lord is your strength.” I discovered that as I kept my focus off of the distressing circumstances and on the presence of the Holy Spirit, I experienced deep joy that brought with it a buoyancy of spirit that greatly increased my strength!
In order to experience Pentecost, we must rest in God by living as if He is as good as his word. Back in the days when my grandfather worked in the Fort Worth Stockyards, business was all done on a handshake. There were no long and costly contracts drawn up. Business transactions worth hundreds of thousands of dollars were concluded only on a man's word. These men trusted one another!
Do we trust God? Do we take Him at His word? He has given us many promises, yet how seldom we accept them at face value . . .
“And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.”
“Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. He chose to give us birth through the word of truth that we might be a kind of first fruits of all he created.”
“Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.”
We have been given many such promises! The experiences of Pentecost becomes OURS when we choose to live as if they are true.