“While Apollos was in Corinth, Paul went through the inland regions and came to Ephesus. He found some disciples there and after he spent some time with them he asked, ‘Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?’
“They replied “No, we haven’t even heard that there was a Holy Spirit.’
“So Paul said, ‘Into what then were you baptized?’
“’Into John’s baptism,’ they replied.
“Paul said, ‘John baptized with a baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, in Jesus.’
“When they heard that, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus, and when Paul placed his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came upon them, and they began to speak in tongues and to prophesy. (Now there were about twelve men in all)”—Acts 19:1-7
Now Paul is fulfilling his promise to return to Ephesus. Naturally he went to the synagogue where he had been invited to stay. When he came to the Jewish community there, he found some disciples—about 12 of them. We aren’t told whose disciples they were, but when we link this with the previous account, it seems obvious these were disciples of Apollos. They were men and women who he told about Jesus, at least to the extent of the baptism of John. Paul heard them talking about Jesus. He obviously knew they were Christians when he first met them. But, as he watched them, he notice that something was missing, and I’m sure there was a little confusion in his voice when finally he asked them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?”
That’s a rather interesting question, don’t you think? This question obviously indicates that the normal Christian pattern is that the Spirit is given immediately when someone believes in Jesus Christ. The King James Version says “since you believed,” but that’s not a good translation. The word in Greek is clearly, when. Neither here nor anywhere else in the rest of the New Testament does it say that the Spirit of God is given a long time after believing in Christ. Jesus had said that it would be immediate. In the seventh chapter of John we are told that on the great day of the feast Jesus stood up and proclaimed, “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me, and let the one who believes in me, drink. Just as the scripture says, ‘From within him will flow rivers of living water.’” John adds, “(Now he said this about the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were going to receive, for the Spirit had not yet been given, because Jesus was not yet glorified).” In other words, it is belief in Jesus which brings the Holy Spirit.
This is what puzzled Paul. These people knew something about Jesus. They appeared to be disciples of Jesus. But there was something missing. What it was we aren’t told. Maybe Paul saw that there was no joy in their lives, or no peace or confidence. Certainly there was no power. I remember one sister who always held that she could “smell” a Christian . . . as I’ve shared before, in the early days of my Christian life I saw believers radiating light from themselves. But whatever it was, Paul noticed something about these believers and couldn’t put his finger on it . . . they were still under the domain of the Law and never brought out into the deliverance and joy and peace of the full Christian message. So he asked them, “Did you receive the Spirit when you believed?”
Some render this as, “Did you receive the baptism of the Holy Spirit?” But I’ve checked several translations, and I simply can’t find that additional pronoun anywhere. But the disciples looked at him quite puzzled, and told him that they had never even heard that there was a Holy Spirit.
That doesn’t mean like it sounds here, that they never knew there was a third Person in the Trinity, because John clearly taught the doctrine of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit came on Jesus when John baptized him, and he knew what it meant. The believers meant, “We never heard that the Holy Spirit was given already, that he has come, as John announced that he would.” Paul, understood what they meant and asks them, “What were you baptized into?” And they replied, “Into John’s baptism.” Ah-ha! A little light popped on and suddenly Paul understood what the problem was. They were halfway Christians. They had come as far as repentance and forgiveness of sins, but they knew nothing about the work of the Holy Spirit in their lives. So he begins to instruct them:
Paul said, “John baptized with a baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, in Jesus.” When they heard this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus, and when Paul placed his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came upon them, and they began to speak in tongues and to prophesy —Acts 19:4-7
If interested, you can download the entire study of The Story of Acts