In this section of scripture, Paul does a lot of traveling. He leaves from Cenchrea, a port just next to Corinth. Luke tells us he made some kind of vow and cut his hair as a sign of his commitment. He travels with Priscilla and Aquila to Ephesus. There he teaches at the synagogue, probably just long enough to find a departing ship for Judea, leaving Priscilla and Aquila in Ephesus. He makes his way to Jerusalem for a feast, and then back to Antioch. Luke doesn't give us very many details about what happened during his travel, although it would have probably taken him some time to accomplish it. More important than what happened with Paul on his travels is what happened back in Ephesus while he was gone.
After he leaves, a man comes to Ephesus named Apollos. He knew a lot about the scriptures, and even believed that Jesus was the Messiah. He spoke eloquently and even made some disciples. But there was something missing from Apollos' message. He was preaching that Jesus was the Christ, but he stopped at baptizing people with water for the repentance of sins. He did not go on to offer them new life in Christ, or baptize them in His name. Priscilla and Aquila take him under their wing, and give him the rest of the story. Apollos goes on to be an instrument of spreading the gospel once his theology was complete. He went on to the section of southern Greece that contained Corinth, Athens, and Sparta. This is where Paul had just come from with Priscilla and Aquila. Apollos travels there with the encouragement of those believers in Ephesus, and does a lot of good for the believers in Achaia. There he is able to argue effectively for the gospel among the Jews as Paul had been able among the Gentiles.
The next section of scripture is hotly debated by commentators throughout the centuries. I was surprised at how many different opinions there were about the precise meaning of these verses. For some they see that Apollos has been in Ephesus, and that Aquila and Priscilla have corrected his doctrine but not before he has gathered a group of disciples who have all been baptized with John's baptism of repentance. These are the ones that Paul comes upon after Apollos has gone on to Achaia. They are meeting together, they have distinguished themselves from the synagogue, they believe that Jesus is the Messiah, but they have not received his life. Paul asks if they have received the Holy Spirit, and they didn't know what he was talking about. Paul corrects their error and baptizes them in the name of Jesus, lays hands on them and they receive the Holy Spirit.
For others, who would have an issue with re-baptizing this is unacceptable. They would rather view the verses as referring entirely to John's baptism—that his baptism was the same as baptizing into the name of Christ, and so Paul only lays hands on these disciples. Others take a middle of the road opinion and say that they were re-baptized, but not by Paul he only laid hands on them after someone else re-baptized them. Still others say they were not disciples of Jesus, but only of John the Baptist. Everyone agrees, though, that not everyone baptized with John's baptism was re-baptized, in fact all of the apostles, all of the followers of John who became followers of Jesus, none of these were re-baptized. Not even Apollos himself is said to have been re-baptized.
So, why these 12 disciples who were found in Ephesus? The most honest answer to this question is “I don't know.” The commentators don't know, at best we can guess, but until we are face to face with Jesus and spot Paul walking across the golden streets can we ask him exactly what happened here in Ephesus. Frankly, I don't think the passage is meant to prescribe a certain practice, but only records what was done. Luke calls them disciples, so I believe the obvious reading of that is they were believers in Jesus. Paul seems to be making a differentiating statement when he says that John baptized with water for repentance, but told his followers to believe in the one who would come after him. If you recall John the Baptist said that the one who came after would baptize with the Holy Spirit and with Fire. I think these men were baptized again. Maybe they wanted to be. Nowhere in scripture does it forbid baptizing someone twice, and on the other hand it doesn't recommend it either. In this case, I think the important part is that there is a difference between the baptism of John—with water and for repentance of sins, and the baptism of Christian faith—with the Holy Spirit and with power.
The way this applies to us today is this:God wants more than just your repentance. Repentance is important, it is key, but it is not everything. When John the Baptist came preaching and teaching, he baptized people for repentance of their sins. He baptized them with water, but he said that there would be one who would come after him who would baptize with the Holy Spirit and with Fire! God wants you to be repentant, but he also wants to give you life in Christ. He wants to fill you with his Holy Spirit. He wants to baptize your life with a cleansing fire, and ignite your passion for Him.
At Yearly Meeting this year, one of the speakers was Bob Adhikary. He spoke on the final day of the conference about the story of Samson and the foxes. He took foxes, tied their tails together with torches and set the torches on fire. Samson released them into the fields of the enemy, the Philistines and they burned the fields to the ground. Bob talked about how those foxes could have run through the fields of the enemy all day, and if they were not on fire, they would have done no good. The same is true for us. If we just run around in our own strength without the fire of God in our lives, we will get nothing but tired. But with the fire of God burning in us, we can take back territory the enemy has stolen.
Have you been immersed in the Holy Spirit? Are you filled with his fire? Do you have a passion for the truth of God? Do you share your faith with others? Are you willing to run into the fields of the enemy because what is in you is more powerful and consuming than your fear? If not, I encourage you to pray. Ask God to fill you with his Holy Spirit in a fresh way. Don't spend another day just running to reap exhaustion, run because you are on fire and accomplish the tasks God has prepared in advance just for you. The only way we make an impact on eternity is through his power and strength. Our supply of both comes from the Holy Spirit. If you have never trusted Christ as your savior, I encourage you to ask him to come and cleanse you with his consuming fire, and to fill you with his life, eternal life starting now and going on forever. I encourage you to turn your life completely over to him so that he can take you and use you to build his kingdom.
Commentary on Acts of the Apostles —McGarvey, John William (1829-1911)
According to McGarvey the disciples Paul found were re-immersed because they had been mistakenly baptized with the no longer current baptism of John.
New Exposition of the Entire Bible — John Gill (1690-1771), modernised by Larry Pierce According to John Gill, they were not re-immersed, but that Paul was continuing his description of the baptism of John as fully congruent with Christian baptism.
Wesley's Notes on the Bible (notes.i.vi.xx) — Wesley, John (1703-1791)
Wesley argues that they were re-baptized, but that Paul did not do the baptism, but only laid on hands.