It All Begins With the Holy Spirit

Pastor Kim Gilliland
Baptism of the Lord
SCRIPTURE: Genesis 1: 1-5 and Acts 19: 1-7
And he asked them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?”
Acts 19: 2a 9 (NIV)


The book of Acts in the Bible is a most interesting book. It was written by Luke – the same person who wrote the Gospel of Luke – and its purpose was to document the history of the early Church. Acts 1 begins in about 30 AD with Jesus ascending to heaven after telling the disciples to wait in Jerusalem for the coming of the Holy Spirit. It ends in Acts 28 with the story of Paul arriving in Rome to help establish the young church there. Scholars believe that that was about 60 AD so the book of Acts covers the history of the early Church for about its first thirty years – from 30 AD to around 60 AD. That’s a significant time for the Church because it was experiencing tremendous growth and spreading throughout the Roman Empire.

Today’s reading begins with Acts 19:1-2 (NIV) which says, “While Apollos was at Corinth, Paul took the road through the interior and arrived at Ephesus. There he found some disciples and asked them, ‘Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?’ They answered, ‘No, we have not even heard of that there is a Holy Spirit.’” There’s a whole lot in these two verses so let me try to unpack them for you.

This occurs in about 54 AD. Paul, one of the early leaders of the Church, had been travelling around Asia Minor with Aquilla and Priscilla. They were a husband and wife team whom Paul had met when he was in Corinth. Apparently, he asked them to join his mission team that was going to Asia Minor to plant and build churches. They had agreed and so they boarded a ship and sailed with Paul across the Aegean Sea to Ephesus. Paul left them there to work with the local church while he continued on his way to the interior of Asia Minor to what was known as Galatia and Phrygia.

At the same time, also in Ephesus, there was well meaning man by the name of Apollos who knew something about Jesus. He knew the Gospel message. It seems that he knew about the cross and the resurrection and all of basic tenets of the Christian faith. And he was telling people about Jesus with some positive effects. But one thing he didn’t understand was the Holy Spirit. It says in Acts 18:25 that he only knew the baptism of John which was a water baptism meant to signify repentance and the washing away of sin. And that was a great start except that, because he did not know about the Holy Spirit, he was missing a key element of faith. And because he was missing that key element, so were all of the people whom he was teaching about Jesus. Their education and their experience of Jesus Christ, therefore, was incomplete.

In Acts 18 we learn that Aquilla and Priscilla encountered Apollos while he was still in Ephesus, realized his deficiency and then set him straight. They filled in the theological gaps so to speak by teaching him about the Spirit. Or as it says in Acts 18:26, they, “explained the way of God to him more adequately.” So that’s good. Aquilla and Priscilla got Apollos sorted out. And then Apollos left Ephesus to preach somewhere else.

But there is still a problem because the people whom Apollos had taught are still deficient in their understanding. And that’s where we are today in Acts 19. Paul has been in the interior of Asia Minor preaching the Gospel and planting churches. Then he makes his way back to Ephesus to see how Aquilla and Priscilla are faring in their work. It is there that he meets some of the men whom Apollos had taught about Jesus before he had learned about the Holy Spirit. That’s why when Paul asks them if they received the Holy Spirit, they say that they have not even heard of the Holy Spirit.


We continue with Acts 19:3 (NIV) which says, “So Paul asked, ‘Then what baptism did you receive?’ ‘John’s baptism,’ they replied. Paul said, ‘John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance. He told the people to believe in the one coming after him, that is Jesus.’” So, these men had received John’s baptism. John, of course, was John the Baptist, Jesus’ cousin, who was the one who came to prepare the people to receive Jesus. He was the forerunner. The Bible calls him the voice crying in the wilderness who was to prepare the way of the Lord.

The reason he was called John the Baptist was because much of his ministry involved baptizing people, usually in the Jordan River. The people would come to the Jordan to hear him preach and he would talk about how they had sinned and how that sin needed to be washed away. If they wanted to meet Jesus the Messiah, they had to repent of their sins and be cleansed. That’s the significance of the baptism that he performed. It was the sign of the cleansing away of sin in preparation to meet the coming Messiah.

But even John the Baptist said that his baptism wasn’t enough. In Matthew 3:11 (NIV) he said, “I baptise you with water for repentance. But after me will come one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not fit to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” Remember that because we’re going to come to it later. John’s baptism was with water as a sign of repentance. But there someone coming after him whose baptism will be with the Holy Spirit and with fire. That person, of course, is Jesus. But again, we’ll get back to that so just tuck it away in your memory chips for few minutes.

There is a bunch of stuff in this story but I want to highlight two important issues of which we must always be conscious. One of them is this: It is important for the church to have trained and educated leaders who know what they are talking about because they have spent significant time learning about the Bible and what it says. Don’t forget, the reason why Paul is having this conversation with the men in Ephesus is because Apollos did not give them enough instruction. He knew a little bit about Jesus and about the Good News but there were fundamental gaps in his knowledge. And so Paul, who did know these things and was properly trained, was able to bring them up to date and add to their understanding.

That’s why, in the United Church, we put such a strong emphasis on having a well educated clergy. Many of you don’t know this so let me fill you in. The normal route to ordination in the United Church involves earning an undergraduate degree which takes four years, followed by a three year masters degree in which we study theology, philosophy, biblical studies, Church history, worship and Church polity. Then there is a year long intership when a student works under the supervision of another minister who has done further training in order to qualify him or her as a supervisor. That’s eight years of post-secondary education. That’s a lot. In fact, it’s more than almost any other profession. And that’s not the end of it. There are continuing education courses available every year to further enhance our knowledge and understanding of theology, biblical studies and the various tasks of ministry.

We believe that it is important to have a well educated clergy to guide the church. That doesn’t mean that everyone who teaches in the church needs to have a masters degree in theology. You don’t need that to teach Sunday School or lead a Bible study. But it is important to have someone around who can tell you the context in which the Bible was written, to whom it was written and why so that you don’t make the mistake of trying to read the Bible as though it was written to 21st century North Americans. It wasn’t. It was written to ancient Semitic peoples who understood the world and the concept of truth very differently than we do today. And knowing that context makes a huge difference to how we read the Bible and understand it.

The problems that Paul encounters in Ephesus is the men he met were deficient in their training because they were taught by Apollos who himself had not been properly trained. Apollos had picked up something here and something there. He knew something about Jesus and his message. He was excited about it and wanted to tell others which were all very good things. But his information was incomplete and that was the problem.

The same thing happens today. Only today it happens most often with the Internet. The Internet is a great resource. All kinds of information is available to us online at a click of a button. That’s great. The problem is that not all of that information is accurate or complete. People read something on this website or that website and they think that’s all there is to understanding the Bible. But usually, the one thing that these sites don’t provide is context and without the context, there is grave danger in misinterpreting the Bible.

So we need educated clergy to help us to understand what the Bible says and not only what it says but also what it means. That’s exactly what happened with Apollos and why when he taught the people at Ephesus he did not finish the job. But thankfully, Paul finds the men and corrects their misconception.


That’s the first thing I want to highlight, that we need to train our people well and provide a good education when it comes to the Bible and the basic beliefs of the Christian faith. The second thing is that believing in Jesus is more than just head knowledge. It also has something to do with the Holy Spirit. Remember that Apollos knew all about Jesus. He must have heard about him somewhere. He was clearly intrigued by the message and he found it valuable. In fact, he found the message so good that he wanted to share it with others, which he gladly did. And he shared it with such conviction that other people, because of his testimony, also believed in Jesus. So something good is happening here.

But knowledge of Jesus isn’t enough. The problem is that they believed in Jesus the same way that they believed in Plato or Socrates or Aristotle or any one of the other great minds of the day. Basically, they believe that Jesus existed and that he was an amazing teacher who shared an incredible message of hope with the world. But they didn’t go far enough because becoming a fully committed follower of Christ involves something more than the head. It has to go deeper than that.

Again this holds true for many people today, even those who are in the Church. They see Jesus as a great prophet and teacher, perhaps a philosopher with a profound message. There are all kinds of people out there, even non-Christians, who think that Jesus had some very good things to say. In fact, you’d have to look far and wide to find anyone who would disagree with most of what Jesus said. Who’s going to argue with things like do unto others as you would have them do to you and love your neighbour as yourself. Those are pretty well-established universal truths.

To take it to the other extreme, even those who fundamentally disagree with Jesus usually believe that he existed. James wrote about that. Listen to what he wrote in James 2:19 (NIV). He was talking to early Christians when he said, “You believe there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that – and shudder.” Basically, what James is saying is, “So what if you believe in Jesus?” Anyone can do that. In fact, even demons believe he exists. So just believing in Jesus isn’t enough. There needs to be something else, something more. And that’s where the Holy Spirit comes in. And that’s what we’re going to get to right now.


In Acts 19:6 (NIV) we read: “On hearing this, they were baptized into the name of the Lord Jesus. When Paul placed his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied.” This particular verse raises all kinds of questions. What does it mean to be baptized into the name of the Lord Jesus? I could preach another whole sermon on that. In fact, there have been books written on it. But for our purposes today, let it suffice to say that the writer of Acts is simply trying to distinguish between John’s baptism, that these men in Ephesus had already received, with the baptism of the Holy Spirit that they had missed when they were initially taught by Apollos.

So they were baptized into the name of the Lord Jesus. Then what happens? Then Paul places his hands on them and the Holy Spirit comes on them.

This is the something more that they need to experience in order to get past being people who simply believe in the existence of the Jesus and into a place where they can become fully committed followers of Christ.

What they need to do is receive the Holy Spirit and that happens when Paul places his hands on them. Listen again to what it says: “When Paul placed his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied.” Something amazing happens here. Do you remember a few minutes ago when I asked you to remember what John the Baptist said about someone coming after him who would baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire? This is it. This is the Holy Spirit and fire thing. John’s baptism was with water. This Holy Spirit baptism is with fire.

Then what happens? Then they began to speak in tongues and prophecy. Again, I could spend another whole sermon talking about this. In fact, I’m considering sharing a series of sermons after Easter on this very topic. But for today, I’ll give you the short version of what’s going on here. Speaking in tongues is simply about giving control of your lips and vocal chords over to the Holy Spirit so that the words that you say are the words that the Holy Spirit wants you to say. You may not understand what you’re saying and it may sound like gibberish to others but it is a way of praising God. Some of you will be surprised to learn that lots of people speak in tongues today.

Tongues and prophecies are often referenced in the Bible and when they are they are almost always recognized as a sign that someone has received the Holy Spirit. We see a similar stories in Acts 2 when the Holy Spirit first came at Pentecost. We see it in Acts 10 when Cornelius and his family became Christians. In both of these examples speaking in tongues followed the coming of the Holy Spirit.

What this tells us is that if we want to become fully committed followers of Christ, we must first receive the Holy Spirit. I’m not saying that you have to speak in tongues and prophecy. But you have to receive the fire of the Holy Spirit if you are to do the work of Jesus Christ. Believing in Jesus is not just a head exercise. It is not just about having the right knowledge and theology. It is about giving your life over to Jesus and allowing his Spirit to enter you and take over your life. Some of you, in fact most of you, have already done that but some of you haven’t. And some of you aren’t sure. And if you haven’t or if you’re not sure, we’re going to say a prayer in a few minutes that may help you to decide to do that. And if you have any questions, please feel free to contact me at any time so that we can talk about it.


And that brings us to the final verse for today. Acts 19:7 (NIV) simply says this: “There were about twelve men in all.” This almost sounds like a throw away line. Why should we care how many people were filled with the Holy Spirit that day? We care because there is more here than meets the eye and this is where all that education comes in handy. What most people today do not understand is that numbers in the Bible often have deeper significance than we see on the surface. While that deeper meaning isn’t always obvious to us it was perfectly clear to the people to whom the Bible was written. Sometimes numbers are just numbers. But there are other numbers that, when we see those numbers in the Bible, we need to sit up and take notice because more often than not there is a deeper significance. Twelve is one of those numbers. Twelve actually comes up often in the Bible. There are the twelve tribes of Israel and the twelve apostles of Jesus. After Jesus fed the 5,000 people in Luke 9, the twelve apostles went around and gathered up twelve basketfuls of scraps. In Revelation 21 we read that the New Jerusalem will be 12,000 stadia square and that its wall will be 144 cubits thick which is 12 times 12. Lots of twelves.

So what is the significance of the number twelve? Twelve is the number of completeness in unity. What that means is that when the number twelve is used, it signifies that everything included in that number is united in one purpose or one idea. In this case, saying that there are twelve believers in Ephesus who all receive the Holy Spirit is significant. There are twelve men – that signifies unity. They are described as believers – meaning that they are followers of Jesus. And they received the Holy Spirit. When we put all of that together it simply tells us that all followers of Jesus, if they are to be united in purpose and meaning, if they are to become fully committed followers of Christ, need to receive the Holy Spirit. That included all of the Christians in Ephesus. It included all of the people who first read the book of Acts and it includes you and me. All of us are called to receive the Holy Spirit because it is with the Holy Spirit that we truly begin to do the ministry of Jesus Christ. Twelve is not a throw away number. It is no coincidence. Like everything else in the Bible it is there for a reason.

So the final question is this: have you received the Holy Spirit? Is your belief in Jesus just head knowledge or do you think that you need something else that will enable you to go deeper? I’m going to lead all of us in a prayer now and, if you want, please pray with me. And again if you have any questions, please do not hesitate to contact me any time you want on this or any other matter.


Saviour Jesus, hear our prayers and the thanksgiving of our hearts. We are amazed at your capacity to care for us and your desire to heal our wounded bodies, souls, spirits and relationship. You care for every one of us. You know us by name. You have counted every hair, every pore of our skin, every blood vessel. You see our pain and you reach out to us with your Holy Hands and offer the soothing balm of your Spirit.

Thank you for this new year as we prepare for what you will bring our way. We don’t know what this year will bring but we know that you will be in it offering us strength and guidance and hope. Remind us our your presence and remind us that we are not alone. We have other brothers and sisters in the faith who rejoice with us, hear the cries of our hearts, and keep us in constant prayer.

Our prayers go to you for various people as they are affected by the latest example of terrorism. Many lives have been needlessly lost and for no real purpose. Your peace is needed, O God. Touch their hearts and bring reconciliation and healing to that region.

We continue to pray for Canadian soldiers throughout the world who put themselves in harm’s way in an effort to bring peace and justice to war torn areas. May conflicts cease and your peace reign. We know that this will not be fulfilled until Jesus’ return but we would be bold to ask for a glimpse of it even now.

We lift up in prayer those who need your special blessing at this time. Some are sick and suffering. Others are mourning and grieving. But you, O God, can bring healing into these situations and to these people. Bring it now God by your great love.

Holy God, thank you for loving us as you do. Even though there are times when others may not treat us as valuable, and we may wonder about our own value, help us to understand the awesome value you see in each and every one of us. We know you are faithful to do everything you have promised. Help us to learn to trust you completely in every area of our lives. Hear our prayers and answer in the name of Jesus, the Christ. Amen.


January 7, 2018 / Baptism of Jesus


Genesis 1:1-5; Psalm 29; Mark 1:4-11; Acts 19:1-7


God’s glory is in the heavens;

God’s power is in the earth.

God’s love is in our hearts;

God’s wisdom is in our Spirits.

Let us worship the One who gives us life;

Come, let us give our praise to God.


We come before your throne, O God, seeking your presence in our worship. Your voice, full of majesty and might, covers the ocean waters. Your words are like tongues of fire which shake the wilderness and cause the hills to skip and jump. How great is your compassion and mercy. How wonderful is your wisdom. How redeeming is your love. Sit upon the throne of our hearts this day and give us the strength to be your people. Amen.


The life that you call us to live is full of joy and laughter. Forgive us when we are miserable and forget about the good gifts of Creation. When pain comes our way, you are there. Forgive us for forgetting about you and trying to find comfort in the things of this world. In your arms, we are safe. In your love, we are redeemed. In your vision, we are perfected in Jesus Christ. Hear our confessions and cleanse our spirits. Amen.


Jesus, the Sinless One, gave himself as a sacrifice for all people. In his actions, the price of our sinfulness was paid. All who come to the mercy seat of God and confess their sins are forgiven and made new in Christ Jesus our Saviour.


Jesus gave himself for us. Without reserve or regret he gave all that he had. Bless our gifts, God of Love, and enable us to be generous givers, trusting in you to put our tithes to the purposes of your Kingdom. Amen.


May the blessings of God who fills our lives with love, bring us to ever greater heights of faith and compassion. May we share the Word as we serve our God.

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