Acts 19:6

ESV And when Paul had laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they began speaking in tongues and prophesying.
NIV When Paul placed his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied.
NASB And when Paul had laid hands upon them, the Holy Spirit came on them and they began speaking with tongues and prophesying.
CSB And when Paul had laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they began to speak in tongues and to prophesy.
NLT Then when Paul laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they spoke in other tongues and prophesied.
KJV And when Paul had laid his hands upon them, the Holy Ghost came on them; and they spake with tongues, and prophesied.

What does Acts 19:6 mean?

Paul is in Ephesus in the province of Asia in western modern-day Turkey. He comes across twelve men who had received the baptism of John the Baptist but know little about Jesus. Paul explains that John prophesied that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah and would baptize His followers in the Holy Spirit (Matthew 3:11). The men accept Paul's explanation and are baptized (Acts 19:1–5). Now, Paul lays his hands on them and the men receive the Holy Spirit.

There are two issues that make the account puzzling to modern readers: that the men are baptized before they receive the Holy Spirit and that they speak in tongues and prophesy.

First, the men seem to be baptized prior to receiving the Holy Spirit. This is not the first time this has happened. When Paul started persecuting the church, the deacon Philip went to Samaria to share Jesus' message. Those who accepted his message were baptized, but they did not receive the Holy Spirit until Peter and John came from Jerusalem and laid hands on them (Acts 8:12–17).

The sequence of events in Samaria clearly showed the apostles that the Samaritans had received the Holy Spirit, and it showed the Samaritans that they had the same faith as the Jewish apostles: they are part of the same church. Here, it's possible that Paul had assistants baptize the men; he seems to avoid baptizing when he can to prevent division and keep the focus on Christ (1 Corinthians 1:14–17). The men make a choice to follow Jesus, and they are baptized as a public affirmation of that choice. That is a very cultural standard no one would have thought twice about. Having completed that act, Paul affirms their choice and their new-found unity with his message about Christ by laying hands on them. The Holy Spirit comes at that time to validate Paul's message and the salvation of the men.

The second puzzling piece is that when the men receive the Holy Spirit, they start to speak in tongues and prophesy. The Holy Spirit manifests His validation of Paul and the new converts and gives physical evidence of His presence. It's not clear why the Holy Spirit did this in the book of Acts or why it seems to have largely stopped. It is interesting to note that there was no church in Ephesus, yet. Priscilla, Aquila, and Apollos had shared Jesus' message (Acts 18:24–28), but the church didn't start until Paul had preached at the synagogue for three months (Acts 19:8–9).

We no longer live in the era where we need visible displays to validate the Spirit's work. Today, the Holy Spirit manifests in explicit ways when He will, but comes to all at the moment of salvation. Baptism is the rite by which the church affirms the person's salvation. The new believer is to clearly explain their understanding of the Trinity and their faith in Jesus for the forgiveness of sins and reconciliation with God. The congregation hears their testimony and validates their understanding is correct. In response, they are baptized in water as the church agrees that Jesus has taken their sins. Their testimony takes the place of tongues, and the Scriptures that informed their testimony take the place of prophesying.
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