Rebaptism and Acts 19

David Pyles

Revised on 09/22/97

The Primitive Baptists have consistently maintained a policy of rebaptizing persons joining them from other orders. This policy is by no means intended as a slap at other denominations, but is thought to be required of us by the scriptures. Accordingly, we would contend that other denominations must also practice rebaptism if they are to be consistent with their claim that those coming to them from other orders are departing error and coming to truth. This follows because baptism is viewed as being an ordinance of the church, and as such, is inextricably tied to the principles that the church maintains, particularly those relating to the intents and accomplishments of the death, burial and resurrection of the Lord Jesus, which are of course symbolized by baptismal immersion.

In what follows, I attempt to show that a precedent for rebaptism is established in the 19th chapter of Acts. Some Bible students do not agree that rebaptism actually occurred here; therefore, I will deliberate this question at length. Finally, I show that even if rebaptism did not occur, the necessity of rebaptism for certain cases is nonetheless implied.

The first four verses of Acts 19 read: And it came to pass, that, while Apollos was at Corinth, Paul having passed through the upper coasts came to Ephesus: and finding certain disciples, He said unto them, Have ye received the Holy Ghost since ye believed? And they said unto him, We have not so much as heard whether there be any Holy Ghost. And he said unto them, Unto what then were ye baptized? And they said, Unto John's baptism. Then said Paul, John verily baptized with the baptism of repentance, saying unto the people, that they should believe on him which should come after him, that is, on Christ Jesus. This then leads to the fifth verse, which shall be central to our discussion: When they heard this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. The critical question is: To whom does the pronoun they refer? If it refers to Paul's audience (i.e. the disciples at Ephesus), then we conclude that a rebaptism took place. On the other hand, if it refers to John's audience, then this conclusion does not follow. The nature of the text is such that one reader might clearly see a rebaptism whereas another reader might not, depending upon the interpretation of the pronoun. However, we hope to show that careful inspection of the context leads to the almost certain conclusion that the disciples at Ephesus were rebaptized.

The interpretation of the text is almost conclusively resolved with one simple observation: If there were no potential for a baptismal problem here, then why did Paul ask, Unto what then were ye baptized? The question clearly reveals that Paul suspects these individuals as having improper baptism. If this suspicion subsequently proved false, then why isn't this clarified in the following verses? Paul's question clearly leads us to anticipate improper baptism, but if no such problem existed, then the question is by itself misleading. The following verses offer no indication that Paul's theory proved false, and indeed, the fifth verse suggests the contrary.

Furthermore, the sixth verse indicates that the audience of the fifth verse consists of the hearers of Paul - not the hearers of John. The two verses together read: When they heard this, they were baptized in the Name of the Lord Jesus. And when Paul had laid hands upon them, the Holy Ghost came on them, and they spake with tongues, and prophesied. The natural reading of the text leads to the understanding that the same individuals who were baptized in verse five also received the laying on of hands in verse six, which again leads to the conclusion that a rebaptism occurred.

Next, the fifth verse describes a baptism which is in the name of the Lord Jesus. The apostles are repeatedly described as baptizing in the name of Jesus (Acts 2:38, 8:12, 10:48, and I Cor 1:13); however, John's baptism is never described in these terms. Instead, it is consistently described as a baptism of repentance (Mt 3:11, Mk 1:4, Lk 3:8).

We strongly contend that John's baptism was under the authority of the Lord Jesus, and that it pointed to the death, burial and resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and that this baptism was in all regards sufficient, so that those receiving it were in no need of subsequent baptism. However, it does not seem likely that John actually vocalized the name of Jesus in any part of his baptismal procedure, or at least not in his early ministry. This follows because John baptized many people before receiving official confirmation from God that Jesus was indeed the Christ. This confirmation came when John witnessed the Holy Spirit descending upon Jesus after being baptized by John. John himself said, ...he that sent me to baptize with water, the same said unto me, Upon whom thou shalt see the Spirit descending, and remaining on him, the same is he which baptizeth with the Holy Ghost (Jn 1:33). Furthermore, had John's baptism vocally announced that Jesus of Nazareth was Christ, then it would not seem likely that the Jews would have questioned John about his baptism as they did (Jn 1:25), nor would John have answered, ...there standeth one among you, whom ye know not; He it is, who coming after me is preferred before me...

But the objector will likely say that this interpretation necessarily implies that John's baptism was not sufficient for the reception of the Holy Spirit. To this we reply that it must be agreed that any interpretation which invalidates the baptism of John is altogether unacceptable. However, being baptized unto John's baptism does not imply being baptized by John himself, and indeed, the context suggests the contrary.

First, it is highly unlikely that so large a group of John's disciples would be uniformly ignorant of the Holy Ghost. It is a matter of scriptural record that John preached the Holy Ghost. In particular, he preached that Christ would baptize with the Holy Ghost (Mt 3:11, Mk 1:8, Lk 3:16), that Christ's identity would be confirmed by the Holy Ghost (Jn 1:33), and that Christ would have the Holy Ghost without measure (Jn 3:34). Since the Holy Ghost is apparently a principal theme of John's ministry, how could a group of over 12 persons be completely ignorant of the Holy Ghost if they were indeed the disciples of John?

It is quite possible that this ignorance of the Holy Ghost alerted Paul to the probability that the Ephesians were not baptized by John, which then prompted his question, Unto what then were ye baptized. In this light, Paul's question is quite understandable, because if these individuals were not baptized by John, nor by an apostle, nor by a student of the apostles, then their baptism could not have been performed by a proper administrator, even under the loosest qualifications admitted by the scriptures.

Furthermore, the previous chapter very specifically suggests a baptizer other than John. In the final verses of Acts 18 we read of one named Apollos, dwelling at Ephesus, who was mighty in the scriptures, who eloquently and diligently taught the things of the Lord, but who knew only the baptism of John. We read further how that Aquila and Priscilla took him unto them, and expounded unto him the way of God more perfectly, after which, Apollos departed Ephesus to continue his ministry in Achaia. This brings us to the chapter in question, where we read of Paul coming to Ephesus and finding the disciples under consideration; namely, those who were baptized unto John's baptism, and whose knowledge of the Lord was so imperfect that they had not so much as heard of the Holy Ghost. Is it not apparent that these disciples were of common fellowship with Apollos, and were in all likelihood the disciples of Apollos? Moreover, it is very reasonable to suspect that these disciples were baptized by Apollos, because this theory fully reconciles the difficulties presented.

Apollos was a man of unquestionably good intents; however, it is unlikely that he had any scriptural authority to baptize as of Acts 19. This would follow even if he himself were baptized by John (as is likely the case), for while John had the authority to baptize, there is no scriptural indication that he had the authority to convey that same authority to others. That is, John likely could not ordain men to perform baptisms, and we certainly have no scriptural record of him ever trying to do so. Therefore, it would seem that Apollos was himself baptized by John (which would explain why he was not rebaptized with the others at Ephesus), and that he subsequently attempted to carry on John's ministry, not knowing that neither it nor its baptism were transferrable.

Of course the most critical question is: What do these texts imply concerning our baptismal practices today? In this regard the texts speak with clarity and certainty, even to one who remains unconvinced that rebaptism occurred at Ephesus. Paul's question, Unto what then were ye baptized, clearly suggests that a baptism under improper principles is a potential deterrent to certain blessings of the Holy Spirit. Furthermore, this question was asked of those whose intents were altogether good, whose error was in innocence, and who were recognized by Paul as being believers. Notwithstanding all these considerations, Paul felt it necessary to inquire into the nature of their baptism.

All must agree that it would be a tragedy indeed for a member of the church to be prevented in any degree from the full blessings of the Holy Spirit because of an improper baptism. Accordingly, it must be agreed that a minister cannot charitably and responsibly place a new brother or sister at such risk regardless of how small that risk is perceived to be. We therefore conclude that Acts 19 teaches the necessity of rebaptism in principle, and we are strongly persuaded that it teaches it by example also.