Paul had commenced his third missionary journey. After visiting churches he had founded in Galatia and Phyrgia, he eventually reached Ephesus in response to a promise he had made earlier to return there. No doubt he was overjoyed to see the beginnings of a church in that important city. Luke does not mention the contact Paul would have made with the group to whom Apollos had ministered, and it looks as if the disciples described here by Luke had not encountered Apollos, since they had a limited understanding of the Christian faith and did not know that the Holy Spirit, whom John predicted would be sent by the Messiah, had arrived.
Paul knew how to identify a Christian and all that was required here was to ask a simple question about whether or not this group had received the Holy Spirit when they believed. The apostle did not doubt that they were believers in some way, but he obviously had discerned that there was something lacking in their faith. Their problem was that they had not discovered that the Messiah had come, although they had identified themselves with his forerunner. So they were looking forward to the arrival of the Messiah, and when they heard he had come they immediately believed in Jesus. We could say that this immediate response was evidence that they were changed by the Spirit, but had not yet received him in a post-Pentecost manner.
Paul’s response to their faith in Jesus was twofold. First, he baptised them in the name of Jesus and, second, he laid his hands on them. The fact that he baptised them indicates that John’s baptism was not regarded as similar to Christian baptism and that until they had been baptised in the name of Jesus they could not be regarded as belonging to the church in Ephesus. This is a reminder that Christian baptism is very significant and is a sign that identifies true followers of Jesus. We may ask why this baptism was done in the name of Jesus rather than in the name of the Trinity. The answer is that Paul was stressing the Lordship (Messiahship) of Jesus to this group who were looking for the coming of the Messiah.
The experience of the group after Paul laid his hands on them revealed that he was an authentic apostle because through his action they received the Spirit in a powerful manner similar to how Peter had been used by God previously in Samaria and Caesarea. No doubt, this experience would have given assurance to the group that the message of Paul was genuine.
What should we make of them speaking in tongues and prophesying? I think the answer is straightforward. They began to praise the Lord and speak about him in a supernatural manner. When they heard one another doing this, they would have yet greater assurance that the Messiah had come. The question for us is, Are we showing that we have received the Spirit by speaking enthusiastically about Jesus?
Perhaps this special blessing of receiving the Spirit in such a fulsome manner would have enabled those former disciples of John to tell other such followers that the message of John had been fulfilled. They would have known from John that one activity of the Messiah would be to baptise his followers with the Holy Spirit. Now those twelve men could tell others that they had received the Holy Spirit from Jesus the Lord in heaven.
The insistence of Paul in discovering whether or not those disciples of John had received the Spirit is a reminder that the apostle regarded the church as an assembly of people who had experienced the Spirit's power. While it is important to have external arrangements and programmes we should never forget the priority of the working of the Spirit. Without his presence and activity, the externals are merely a shell with nothing in it.