The Four Pentecosts of Acts

A Study of Acts 19:1-12

19 While Apollos was at Corinth, Paul took the road through the interior and arrived at Ephesus. There he found some disciples and asked them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?”

They answered, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.”

So Paul asked, “Then what baptism did you receive?”

“John’s baptism,” they replied.

Paul said, “John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance. He told the people to believe in the one coming after him, that is, in Jesus.” On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. When Paul placed his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied. There were about twelve men in all.

I’ve been perplexed for many years about why there are four different Pentecosts— or four Pentecostal events—in the book of Acts. I’ve read commentaries, listened to explanations, and thought through possibilities. No one has given me a satisfactory answer. And so I’ve developed my own theory, and I’d like to see if you agree with it. That’s the subject of today’s study, which comes from Acts 19:1-12.

In Acts 18, we saw a new figure introduced into the book of Acts—Apollos. He was an academic, a scholarly Jew from the Jewish community in Alexandria, Egypt. He had been set on fire by the ministry of John the Baptist, and he had become an evangelist proclaiming the Baptist’s message of repentance. He arrived in Ephesus at the end of Acts 18, preaching this message with great power. Paul had just left town. Apollos arrived just after Paul had departed. They missed each other. But Priscilla and Aquila were there.

Apollos didn’t know the full Gospel. He was familiar with the electrifying message of John the Baptist, who had called people to repentance to hasten the coming day of Messiah. But he hadn’t heard the rest of the story. As we saw last time, Aquila and Priscilla took him into their home. Over a humble kitchen table, they explained the way of God more perfectly to him. It was as if he was doused with gasoline, and he instantly became a powerful follower of Christ and preacher of the Gospel. Shortly afterward, Apollos left Ephesus to travel to Corinth.

That was the end of Acts 18. Now, Luke is going to continue this John-the-Baptist theme as we enter Acts, chapter 19. Here we see a similar situation. While Apollos was traveling across the Aegean Sea from Ephesus to Corinth, Paul was traveling overland through Asia Minor and entering Ephesus, where he found some John-the-Baptist disciples.

I hope you’ll be able to visit Ephesus one day. It’s all in ruins, but they are preserved so you can easily visualize the city as it was in the days of Paul. These are fabulous ruins. If you visit Ephesus, you can actually walk down the streets that Paul traversed, stand in the stadium where the riot occurred that’s described in chapter 19 of Acts, and walk around the remains of the houses where the early Christians would have met. Christianity absolutely transformed that city. It became the apostle Paul’s greatest success story.

Let’s pick up the text at verse 1—Acts 19:1:

19 While Apollos was at Corinth, Paul took the road through the interior and arrived at Ephesus. There he found some disciples and asked them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” They answered, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.” So Paul asked, “Then what baptism did you receive?” “John’s baptism,” they replied.

The ministry of John the Baptist was sensational. The Jews had not seen a fire-and-brimstone prophet for centuries, and suddenly John showed up like Elijah in the wilderness. His ministry sent ripples through Jewish communities across the Roman Empire. But the ministry of Jesus Christ was largely localized among the rural towns and villages of Galilee. It didn’t have such a widespread, immediate following.

So when Paul came to Ephesus and visited the Jewish Community he found a small John-the-Baptist group there. They had taken John’s message seriously and had been baptized with the baptism of repentance. They longed to get their lives right before God and hasten the coming of the Messiah. But they didn’t know the Messiah had, in fact, already come.

Paul said, “John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance. He told the people to believe in the one coming after him, that is, in Jesus.” On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. 

This was the beginning of the church in Ephesus. But the verse I want to emphasize today is verse 6:

When Paul placed his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied.

To me, this is interesting and a bit of a mystery. As I said, there are four Pentecostal events in the book of Acts. Three of them involve Peter and the last one – this one—involves Paul, which affirms that Paul had Peter-like status as an apostle.

Let’s review these four Pentecostal events.

  • The first was on the day of Pentecost itself, in Acts 2, when the Holy Spirit descended on the 120 Jewish believers in the Upper Room, launching the conception of the church.
  • The second is in Acts 8, and it’s the Samaritan Pentecost. Acts 8:14 says, “When the apostles in Jerusalem heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God, they sent Peter and John to Samaria. When they arrived, they prayed for the new believers that they might receive the Holy Spirit, because the Holy Spirit had not yet come on any of them; they had simply been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. Then Peter and John placed their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit.” This was the Samaritan Pentecost.
  • The third Pentecostal experience occurred in Acts 10, with Cornelius and the Gentiles. Acts 10:44 says, “While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on Gentiles. For they heard them speaking in tongues and praising God.” This was the Gentile Pentecost.
  • Now here in Acts 19 we have something similar. When Paul placed his hands on these Ephesians, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied.

What does it mean?

I can understand the first three Pentecostal events—to the Jews, to the Samaritans, and to the Gentiles. That seems like a logical domino effect. But what are we to make of the event in Acts 19, to the disciples of John in Ephesus?  

I have a theory about that. Here is the essence of my hypotheses: The first two Pentecostal events (in Jerusalem and in Samaria) represented the Israelite Pentecost; representatives from all twelve tribes were swept into the church. The episode with Cornelius represented the Gentiles being swept into the church. And here at Ephesus, the final Pentecost represented the Jews and Gentiles being joined in glorious unity to form a cosmopolitan, universal church.

Now, let me explain.

Everyone in Acts 2 who was baptized in the Spirit was Jewish. It occurred in Jerusalem, the capital of Judah. The bulk of the people there—even those from around the world who had come for the Festival of Pentecost—were Jews. That is, they had descended from the tribe of Judah, which had been dispersed when Babylon destroyed the nation in 586 B.C. This was the tribe from which the Messiah would come. In a technical sense, not all of Israel were Jews. Jews were the children of Israel (or Jacob) who had descended from Jacob’s son Judah. The words Judah and Jew are connected words. If you were a member of the Tribe of Manasseh, for example, you were not technically a Jew. You were an Israelite, not from the tribe of Judah, but from the tribe of Manasseh. The Day of Pentecost was a baptism of Jews—it was the Jewish baptism.

But have you ever noticed how concerned Jesus was for Samaria? Some years ago, I was struck by how burdened Jesus was for this patch of land between Judah and Galilee, which was despised and avoided by the Jews of Judah. In Luke 17:11, we’re told Jesus traveled along the border of Samaria and Galilee. In John 4, He cut through the mountains right into the heart of Samaria and evangelized that area. In Luke 9, He diverted into Samaria a final time as He was on His way to Jerusalem for His crucifixion. In Luke 10, He told the story of the good Samaritan. In Luke 17, the one thankful leper was a Samaritan. And in His great commission, Jesus said, “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

Why this burden for the small tract of land known as Samaria? Well, of course, Jesus had a burden for everyone. But there are two special things to keep in mind about Samaria.

First, this was Holy Ground. When God gave the Holy Land to Israel at the conquest of Joshua, it included both the south and the north, from the Negev Desert in the South to the border of Lebanon to the North. This was divine geography. 

Second, and more important, I believe Jesus knew that the Samaritans had Israelite blood in them. They were the survivors of the so-called Lost Ten Tribes of Israel, which had been deported during the Assyrian Invasion. I don’t have time to summarize the history of the nation of Israel in the Old Testament, but suffice to say the nation of Israel divided into two different nations, with the ten tribes occupying the area of Samaria. They were destroyed and deported, but it’s inconceivable that every single person in the entire area was shackled and led away. There were survivors and stragglers who remained in the land and intermarried with the new inhabitants that came into the area.

There are still some Samaritans in the Holy Land, descendants of these people. Less than a thousand, but they trace their ancestry back to the Lost Ten Tribes.

Michael Heiser points out that today’s Samaritans themselves claim they’re direct descendants of northern Israel tribes who survived the exile. They weren’t deported. They escaped the act of the Assyrians in getting rid of them.

I’m going to read you something from the DNA testing website, 23 and Me:

“What do the genetic data reveal about the Samaritans’ origins? Luckily, there have been many genetic studies of the Samaritans, both to uncover their origins and to understand how they have survived so many generations of isolation. One such study… argue(s) that the traditional hypothesis, that the Samaritans were transported into the Levant by the Assyrians and have no Jewish heritage, is largely incorrect. Rather, these Samaritan lineages are remnants of those few Jews who did not go into exile when the Assyrians conquered the northern kingdom of Israel in 721 BC. Those who remained in the Levant may have taken non-Jewish wives, which would account for the genetic admixture on the female side. But according to the authors the Y-chromosome clearly shows that the Samaritans and the Jews share common ancestry….”

Dr. Gary N. Knoppers was a brilliant OT scholar who died at age 62 of pancreatic cancer. In his book, Jews and Samaritans: The Origins and History of their Early Relations, which was published in 2013 by Oxford University Press, he says: “…the common assumption of a comprehensive northern exile needs to be rethought. To be sure, tens of thousands of Israelites were deported by the Assyrians to foreign territories and were forced to adjust to living in cultures considerably different from their own. But many others continued to reside in their ancestral homeland, albeit under foreign rule.”

This would explain why Jesus was so preoccupied with the Samaritans. First, their geography belonged to God as part of His Holy Land; and second, these were His brothers. These were Hebrews, remnants of the so-called Ten Lost Tribes. They were non-Jewish Israelites—that is the Children of Israel from tribes other than Judah.

So the Pentecostal event in Jerusalem brought the Southern Hebrew bloodline into the church, and the Samaritan Pentecostal event brough the Northern Hebrew bloodline into the church. It represented two sides of the same event.

The Pentecostal event in Acts 10 involved the family of Cornelius, and it was clearly the Gentile Pentecost. It merged the Gentiles into the church along with the Israelites, and so we have one church made up of two segments.

But the whole concept of the church of Ephesus is the merging and amalgamating of these two, so that they are no longer two, but one. At Ephesus, the Holy Spirit descended to mark the birth of a great, cosmopolitan church, which would signal the unified church, belonging to both Jews and Gentiles.

Let’s turn over to Ephesians 2 and see how Paul later described this remarkable church. 

11 Therefore, remember that formerly you who are Gentiles by birth and called “uncircumcised” by those who call themselves “the circumcision” (which is done in the body by human hands)— 12 remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. 13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ.

14 For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, 15 by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, 16 and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. 17 He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. 18 For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.

19 Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household, 20 built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. 21 In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. 22 And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.

And maybe that’s the significance of the fourth Pentecost.

  • The first Pentecostal event was for the Jews—in Jerusalem.
  • The second was for the Samaritans—the remaining Israelites from the Lost Ten Tribes.
  • The third was for the Gentiles.
  • The fourth was for the cosmopolitan church, composed of both Jews and Gentiles in the full unity of Christ.

One more thing to notice. The ministry of Paul in Ephesus was a miniature reenactment of the ministry of Christ in Israel. You can’t help but notice this.

  • It began with the ministry of John the Baptist.
  • It started with twelve men (Acts 19:7).
  • It lasted three years (Acts 20:31).
  • It involved the proclamation of the Gospel, punctuated with miracles and overcoming demonic forces.
  • At the end of the three years, the great preacher left his flock, but the church continued to grow.

This is the unfolding of the birth of the church as it’s rolled out in the book of Acts, and now it’s my belief that the moment we come to Jesus Christ we are instantly shareholders and partakers of this baptism. There are so many implications of this.

If my theory is true, this is the true biblical answer to racism. We’ve all been baptized together into one family.

If my theory is true, this is the true biblical answer to powerlessness. We’ve all be baptized into the unstoppable church.

If my theory is true, this is the true biblical answer to the future. For we ourselves have the Holy Spirit within us as a promise or preview or deposit of things to come. Now it’s our duty to be filled with the Spirit, led by the Spirit, to walk in the Spirit, and to let the Holy Spirit do His work in us and through us.

You and I, when we are in Christ, are participants in the most dramatic spiritual event that has ever come upon the world. We are truly Pentecostal Christians.