1. Knowing Only Part of the Story
Have you ever had that feeling, that someone you know had been given information, but it’s obvious to you they’ve only heard part of the story? Maybe your suspicion was aroused by the way they responded to something you said. Or maybe it was because of something else completely. But it’s like they are confident they have the whole story. And, consequently, they are responding accordingly, totally ignorant of the fact that there are bits of information missing. Information, that if they knew, should have resulted in a completely different reaction.
But then their behaviour may be the result of knowing that they haven’t got all the facts. But they’ve got most of them, and they’ve allowed their imagination to fill the gaps. It’s like doing a jigsaw puzzle, when there are a few pieces missing, and you’re confident that you know what the full picture looks like. Totally oblivious to the fact that when all the missing pieces are found the completed puzzle will look quite different to what you expect.
But regardless, you still have this feeling that the person doesn’t have the full picture and, as a consequence, is acting—or has acted—not knowing all the facts. It’s like they’ve added two and two together and made five.
2. A New Testament Example
Well something like that is what we have in this passage from the Acts of the Apostles. We have a group of people who are acting on the knowledge of only part of the story.
For there were twelve men—former followers of John the Baptist—but men who appeared to be of great faith. They were confident in their beliefs, and they were living their lives accordingly. And, yet, they didn’t have the whole picture. They were missing a vital ingredient. Only they didn’t know they were missing an ingredient at all. On the contrary they thought they knew it all. That is, until they came face to face with the apostle Paul.
B. PAUL IN EPHESUS
1. The Story (19:1-7)
Indeed, the story begins with the arrival of Paul in the town of Ephesus on his third missionary journey (1). And whilst there, he found the twelve men (7), who on the surface appeared to be disciples (1). But there was something about them, Paul identified, that was not quite right.
Now we’re not told what it was that triggered Paul’s questioning of their faith (2). Whether it was the things that they did, or something that they said. But in the early days of the church there were probably lots of people whose understanding was limited, who didn’t have the whole picture. And Paul had reason to suspect this of this group of twelve men too.
So being concerned that there was something missing in their faith, Paul asked them a series of questions. And being a no-nonsense sort of person, the very first question that Paul asked was a question based on the criteria that distinguishes a Christian from all other people. “When you believed, did you receive the Holy Spirit?”
Now, it was Paul’s belief, and it’s the church’s belief even today, that the Holy Spirit is received at a definite point in time—at the moment of initial belief. And without the Holy Spirit, people are not Christians at all, no matter what they call themselves. However, the twelve men knew nothing about the Holy Spirit.
Yes, they would have known much about Jesus. They would have known about his crucifixion. And they would have known from John the Baptist’s teaching at least, of the Old Testament promise of the Holy Spirit. But yet somehow Pentecost—the time of the birth of the church, the time when the Holy Spirit had been given to all believers—had passed them by totally unnoticed. So sadly, they were unaware of the one event—more than any other—that confirmed that the age of salvation had dawned.
As a consequence, they were no further forward in their beliefs than when John the Baptist had left his followers by being arrested and executed. And as subsequent questioning by Paul showed, John’s baptism was the only one they knew (3).
So, having established the missing piece of the puzzle, and having alerted the group to the fact that they had a fundamental piece missing, Paul helped them by filling in the missing gap (4).
Paul reminded them that John’s baptism had only been a means of preparing people for what was to come. John’s baptism was about people pledging themselves to a new way of life. It was about the need to have a change of heart and a corresponding change of way of life. And then he told them, that Jesus’s baptism was quite different. Because it involved the need for belief in Jesus—to put their total trust in him—and it involved the receiving of the Holy Spirit.
And as a result of the discussion with Paul, for the men, the final piece of the puzzle was fit into place. They believed, and they submitted themselves to Christian baptism (5). And, perhaps, as a consequence of their new found faith, Paul placed his hands on them to assure them they were now members of the true fold (6). And then the Holy Spirit came upon them and was witnessed by the outward signs of the outpouring of the gifts of tongues and prophesy.
Now, it’s an amazing story. The twelve men had regarded themselves as Christians. But as Paul had been able to show them, they hadn’t been Christians at all. As a consequence, it’s a story which shows dramatically the importance of having all the pieces of the puzzle in place.
1. Missing Pieces
Now of course, the former disciples of John the Baptist are not the only ones in history to have had only part of the story, while believing they had it all. Indeed, at times, we may be all guilty of doing the same thing. And that can relate to all sorts of things in life. But what this story tells us is that we need to constantly examine what we know and have been told, and make sure that we have all the pieces. And in particular we need to do that regarding our faith.
After all, in our own culture, there are many people who know the story of Jesus. They know that the coming of the Messiah was prophesied; they know the story of Jesus’s birth; they know the story of his death and resurrection; and they may even have knowledge of his ministry years. Furthermore, they may have even mixed in Christian circles, and heard of the need to have a personal relationship with Jesus; and the practice of baptism (with water) may run in the family. But for many, that’s as far as it goes—a piece of the puzzle is still missing. And if that is true, even of ourselves, then we too need to examine the place of the Holy Spirit in our lives. Because remember, the first question that Paul asked the disciples of John the Baptist was, “When you believed, did you receive the Holy Spirit?”
2. The Importance of the Holy Spirit
And why did he ask that? Because in the Old Testament, the Spirit was given to prophets and national leaders. Sometimes it was temporary and other times it was more permanent. But the Old Testament also looked forward to a time when the Spirit would be given to all believers, and on a permanent basis.
Come the New Testament, then, and Jesus talked about the Spirit as a person—God, active in his world. Someone whom his Father would send to the disciples after he had returned to the Father. Someone who would take up residence in the heart and life of each believer.
And, of course, in the New Testament pages, in the Acts of the Apostles, we have recorded the story of Pentecost—fifty days after the resurrection of Christ—the day the Holy Spirit was given, to every genuine believer, at the point of belief.
We can see, then, the importance that God places in the priority of the Holy Spirit in a believer’s life from the time of Pentecost onwards.
3. The Role of the Holy Spirit
And the reason for this is what the Holy Spirit actually does. And that can be described in four ways.
a). To Convict of Sin
Firstly, the Holy Spirit convicts people of their sins. (And is the only reason we can say yes to Jesus in the first place.) Consequently, when someone becomes a Christian, the Holy Spirit moves into a person’s life. And like a house-buyer, who moves into their house, he proceeds to turn that house into a home. The rubbish is thrown out, the decay and damage are put right, and he removes the accumulated junk of years—the old ideas and motives and old ambitions and standards.
In other words, the Holy Spirit works in a believer’s life, to break the stranglehold of habits and sins which we can’t deal with on our own.
b). To Give New Life
Secondly, using the analogy of the house-buyer again, he helps us bring in the new. He doesn’t leave a void where those habits and sins have been. On the contrary, he fills the void with new things.
It’s like new parts are added to the home, and new furniture is moved in. So that in the end, not even the former owners would know the place. The Holy Spirit brings new desires, new appetites . . . and a new will to live for him and to please him in everything we do.
Of course that’s what happens on the inside. What happens on the outside—what we do, and what we don’t do—then follows automatically.
Now some people might think that all this is a bit scary. That, somehow, we’re taken over and we disappear as individuals. But Jesus wants us to be ourselves. And we can never be more ourselves, than when we are living out the potential of Christian experience.
But the transformation—like from a caterpillar to a butterfly, or from a sinner into a saint—means that in the end we will have been involved in nothing less than the remaking of ourselves, to become as we were originally designed.
But the changes that the Holy Spirit brings take time—a lifetime in fact. The amount of unscrambling and remaking takes years and will only be completed when we finally see Jesus face to face.
c). To Teach About Jesus
The third thing about the Holy Spirit is that he teaches us about Jesus. He gives us insight into his story, into his reason for living: his birth, his life, his death and his resurrection. What it means, and the implications for our own lives.
And as a consequence, he helps us to think like Jesus; to share his concerns; to learn to love others, just like he did; to want to serve like him. And he gives us the desire to act in the same way that he acted.
d). To Empower
And the fourth thing about the Holy Spirit is that he empowers us to do the things we can’t naturally do ourselves.
In the bible there are many instances of the Spirit giving special abilities to those who did not possess them before. Shy blushing types were transformed into bold brave men and women of God. Tongue tied, stammering failures became powerful eloquent leaders who performed beyond their wildest dreams.
So, whatever our own inadequacies and failings may be. The Spirit has been given so that we can accomplish the tasks that God gives, to continue Jesus’s work in the world. And, in giving us the power, to live as the people of God.
As you can see, therefore, there is a great difference between knowing the facts and having the Holy Spirit living inside us. And if we only have bits of the story, but don’t have the Holy Spirit, then at the very best we can only go through the motions of belief. Indeed, even if we are familiar with all the stories, and have been baptised with water, but don’t have the Holy Spirit, then we will only be going through the motions.
Baptism with water is only part of the conversion process. Indeed it is only a good work begun. But it requires faith, and the sealing of that faith with the Holy Spirit, to be complete.
You can see, then, how important it was for Paul to fill that missing gap. How important it was for him to give those twelve men the opportunity to correct their mistaken beliefs—and for them to receive the Holy Spirit.
Before Paul spoke, they only had part of the story. They had added two and two together and made five. They were oblivious to the fact that they had a vital part of the puzzle missing. And that missing part was necessary to make them true believers.
And we need to make sure that we are not being prevented from being true believers too.
So, this morning, we are faced with a challenge. When we do things, do we first check that we have all the facts? Or do we add two and two together and make five, and then sail on in blissful ignorance thinking that we know it all?
Most importantly, are we confident in our faith? Do we not only know the story, but have we received the Holy Spirit too? Because that was the part of the puzzle that was missing in the in the lives of those twelve men. And we need to make sure that it is not missing in ours.
Posted: 8th March 2021
© 2021, Brian A Curtis