Most of us appreciate a little conceptual order and consistency. We sort things into mental categories and expect them to stay put. No wonder people have come to blows over such deep existential quandaries as this:
Is a tomato a fruit or a vegetable?
I don’t want to tell you where I stand on this important issue, to avoid getting tons of hate mail. (Here’s a hint, though: have you ever noticed that there are cherry tomatoes and plum tomatoes, but no broccoli tomatoes? Just saying.)
But the best answer seems to be, “It depends” (isn’t that just like an academic?). In other words, the question has to be pushed back one conceptual step: it depends on what you mean by “fruit” and “vegetable.” Some people insist that the tomato is a fruit by botanical definition — it grows and ripens from a flower and contains seeds. We may treat it like a vegetable, but botanically, it’s a fruit.
Then again, by that same botanical definition, the humble zucchini is a fruit.
There go our neat little categories.
No, I don’t really care what we decide about tomatoes. As the old song goes, “You say to-may-to, and I say to-mah-to… Let’s call the whole thing off.” There’s a more important question to deal with, one raised by Luke’s description of Paul’s ministry in Ephesus. The question is this: who belongs in the category of “believer”?
As we’ve seen, Paul’s first visit to Ephesus was a brief one. He left his friends Priscilla and Aquila there, and sailed for Jerusalem. He was elsewhere when Apollos came to Ephesus and met Priscilla and Aquila, and by the time Paul made his way back to Ephesus, Apollos was in Corinth.
Paul’s ministry in Ephesus begins on a somewhat odd note:
While Apollos was in Corinth, Paul passed through the interior regions and 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 have 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 in 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—altogether there were about twelve of them. (Acts 19:1-7, NRSV)
Luke calls them “disciples”; Paul calls them “believers” (or more accurately, he refers to them as people who have already “believed”). But how can someone who is a disciple or a believer not even have heard of the Holy Spirit?
It messes with our categories.
It’s clear that their knowledge is incomplete. Apollos, you’ll remember, was well-educated in Scripture, and had a good grasp of the gospel, but had never heard of baptism in the name of Jesus (Acts 18:25). Priscilla and Aquila quickly set him straight on the matter. That in itself adds to the puzzle. Here were twelve “believers” in Ephesus; did Priscilla and Aquila not know them? If they did, why did they not re-educate them as they had Apollos?
Somehow, Paul is the one to sniff out this gap in their understanding. Like Apollos, they only knew of the kind of baptism that traced back to John the Baptist. But here, too, there’s a puzzle. John himself pointed forward to the coming of the One who would baptize “with the Holy Spirit and fire” (Matt 3:11). Did these believers receive a version of John’s baptism that had been scrubbed of any reference to the Holy Spirit?
In the end, of course, there’s no way to know. One scholar interprets their response to Paul’s question in a way that partially solves the problem. They didn’t mean, “We’ve never heard of the Holy Spirit”; instead, they meant, “We hadn’t heard that baptism in the Holy Spirit had begun.”
Possibly. What seems clear, though, is their readiness to receive Paul’s correction. He points them to Jesus — as John himself had done — and they are immediately baptized into Jesus’ name. Paul then lays hands on them and they receive the Holy Spirit, as tangibly demonstrated by their speaking in tongues and prophesying.
It would be easier if Luke had called them “would-be disciples” or “disciples of John.” It would keep our categories neater if Paul had not addressed them as “believers” — unless we imagine him muttering to himself, Actually, I suspect you’re not really believers, but you seem to think you are, so let’s just go with that for now to get things rolling.
That stubborn bit of ambiguity, however, can’t easily be brushed away. We can’t be arrogant about our categories. Mind you, I’m not saying that “anything goes”: Paul clearly sees that these disciples need to be corrected, and brings them all the way into the fold. But it’s as if these disciples are already described from God’s point of view, from the standpoint of what’s in their hearts and who God knows they will be.
Maybe we should try to see ourselves and each other that way, too.