Paul arrives in Ephesus in Acts 19:1 and discovers a little pocket of John the Baptist’s followers. At some point in his conversation with them he asks in verse 2, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when (or after) you believed?”
To our ears that could seem like an odd question, because believers are supposed to automatically receive the Holy Spirit according to Ephesians 1:13. The process is the same for everyone: First of all, “you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation,” and then, “Having believed, you were marked in him (Christ) with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit.” It’s a three step process: Hear the gospel, believe the gospel, receive the Holy Spirit.
That little pocket of disciples in Ephesus, however, hadn’t “even heard that there is a Holy Spirit,” Acts 19:2. And that raised another question in Paul’s mind in verse 3: “Then what baptism did you receive?”
Again, to our ears that might seem like an odd question as well, because what other baptism could there be? To a Jew in Paul’s day, however, there were now two baptisms: There was baptism with water, and baptism with the Holy Spirit, John 1:33. John the Baptist was sent by God to baptize the Jews with water, and Jesus was sent by God to baptize them with the Spirit. First the water baptism by John, followed by the Spirit baptism by Jesus.
The only baptism the disciples in Ephesus had received, however, was “John’s baptism” with water, Acts 19:3. That was good, of course, because God had sent John the Baptist to baptize his fellow Jews with water as a necessary first step, but John had also made it clear in Matthew 3:11 that “after me will come one who is more powerful than I. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” For the Jews of that time, therefore, there was another baptism to come.
So, when Paul discovered the disciples in Ephesus had only received “John’s baptism of repentance” in Acts 19:4, he reminded them of what John himself had said about “believing in the one coming after him, that is, in Jesus.” In John’s own words his baptism with water to repentance was only a first step to the baptism that Jesus would do. And when the disciples in Ephesus realized that, “they were baptized into the name of the Lord Jesus,” verse 5, and “the Holy Spirit came on them,” verse 6.
And that was the baptism Paul was interested in, their baptism with the Holy Spirit, because that was what “marked” and “sealed” them “in Christ,” Ephesians 1:13, “guaranteeing their inheritance,” verse 14. When he asked, therefore, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit?” it’s not such an odd question, is it?