2 And he said to them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” And they said, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.” 3 And he said, “Into what then were you baptized?” They said, “Into John's baptism.” 4 And 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, Jesus.” 5 On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. 6 And when Paul had laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they began speaking in tongues and prophesying. 7 There were about twelve men in all. – Acts 19:2-7
Few passages exemplify studying the trees to spite the forest than this text. It is hard to cumulatively explain the theological issues of this text without deviling into detail unfitting for this current work. This text pitted the venerable John Calvin and John Murray against each other. As is to be the case, the younger served the older. Calvin was correct in demonstrating that this text like Acts 10 did not undermine the link between John the Baptist and Jesus Christ. It is a pointed expansion of Pentecost. Here the baptism of water and Spirit is separate. Like Acts 8, and unlike Acts 10, the disciples were baptized with water before their Spirit baptism which came at the laying on of hands. Like Acts 10 there is speaking in tongue. All of this guides study of Acts 19.
On the surface this text seems to place a definitive distinction between the baptism of John and the baptism of Christ as well as Spirit baptism and water baptism. Instead of permitting the descriptive elements of this text to shape doctrine, they should be compared to the other things found on baptism. The gospel of Luke links together the baptism of John and Jesus (Luke 3:3; 24:47). There is hardly any room to separate the two except on the basis of reading Acts 19:5 in the straight forward-water baptism-sense. This however is not necessary since Acts starts with a use of the word "baptize" in the Spirit sense (Acts 1:5). Luke then makes clear that this type of baptism came from the laying on of hands and resulted in speaking tongue. This very combination of events is laid in the book of Acts concerning individuals baptized in the name of Jesus Christ (Acts 8:12-17)! The name attached to the baptism is not the important variable! So the situation for these disciples of John is not the result of John’s baptism over against Christ’s baptism but for a distinct expansion of the church through the hands of the Apostles. Peter and John had their ministries confirmed in Acts 8 by giving the Spirit long after water baptism. Here too, Paul’s ministry is confirmed by his ability to give the Holy Spirit through the laying on of hands.
Given the strength of this defense against a split between John and Jesus, some might be left presuming this proves the split between water and Spirit. However, this passages simply follows Acts 10 and Acts 2 to depict a mini-Pentecost. These mini-Pentecosts coming at specific expansions of the church that would defy the status quo. An important indicator of this that once again the gift of tongues plays a prominent role in the affirmation of the Spirit’s expansion (Acts 19:6). This is a non-normative Spirit baptism that testifies to the Holy Spirit's expansion outside of the land of Israel. This Spirit baptism in Ephesus is the first such stretch outside of the Land and validates Paul's ministry in establishing churches.
The focus given to the Holy Spirit has led to overlooking Luke's inclusion that the disciples were about “twelve men” (Acts 19:7). This generic, rounding style is consistent with other parts of Luke (Luke 3:23; Acts 2:41) and indicates a symbolic purpose. So though this text affirms Paul's ministry, this baptismal encounter remains paradigmatic in even another sense. This number points back to Christ's disciples and the beginning of Acts (Acts 1:15-26). Christ's disciples pointed back to the twelve sons of Jacob. This is not an inconsequential number. Just as Pentecost reflects the reversal of the judgment at Sinai (Exo 32:28; Acts 2:41) this text points to a second establishment of twelve important pillars. It is not alluded to here that these men are Gentile in nature, in fact the opposite should be presumed since they were baptized under John. So these twelve are a new Israel outside of the land of Israel. Conjoined to the twelve disciples at the start of Acts, these men symbolically fulfill the 24 subtribes of Levi selected to be the priests before the temple (1 Chron 24-25; Rev 4:4; 4:10; 5:8). The priestly selection for the new temple have been completed and the Holy Spirit’s expansion is complete. The church has reached its resting place in fulfillment of Christ's promise. The remainder of Acts sees no special baptisms of the Holy Spirit or speaking in tongues. Far from being paradigmatic to a split between water and spirit baptism, this is a historical text that symbolically establishes the new Jewish priests in the New Covenant.