It is written:
“And it happened, while Apollos was at Corinth, that Paul, having passed through the upper regions, came to Ephesus. And finding some disciples. 2 he said to them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” So they said to him, “We have not so much as heard whether there is a Holy Spirit.” 3 And he said to them, “Into what then were you baptized?” So they said, “Into John’s baptism.” 4 Then Paul said, “John indeed baptized with a baptism of repentance, saying to the people that they should believe on Him who would come after him, that is, on Christ Jesus.” 5 When they heard this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.” (Acts 19:1-5)
Who were these disciples that Paul met in Ephesus?
Were they already Christians when Paul met them?
Why were they rebaptized?
And what does this account teach us about the subject of rebaptism today?
First, the text identifies these Ephesians as “‘disciples.” The word “disciple” simply means “follower.” Were they already believers in Jesus with incomplete knowledge of Jesus, or were they baptized disciples of John who had not yet heard of Jesus? Keener has well stated the arguments for both positions:
“Scholars divide in their opinions concerning the identity of the “disciples” here. Were they already followers of Jesus or not? Some argue that they were Christians, former disciples of John never rebaptized,  perhaps originating in the same less-informed circles as Apollos.  Most would agree at least that these disciples, even if Christians, were incomplete in their faith.  Although many scholars argue that they were not Christians at all  (and I am inclined to venture that they are probably correct), the matter warrants more investigation than is often assumed.  Without further identification, “disciples” in Luke-Acts elsewhere means Jesus’s disciples, whether those during his earthly ministry (e.g., Luke 9:16, 18; 10:23; 16:1; 17:22; 18:15; 19:29, 37; 20:45; 22:39, 45) or those converted after his resurrection (Acts 6:1–2, 7; 9:19, 26, 38; 11:26, 29; 13:52; 14:20, 22, 28; 15:10; 18:23, 27; 19:9, 30; 20:1, 30; 21:4, 16).  This factor would clearly weigh in favor of the disciples’ being here Jesus’s disciples. In 19:1, the expression is not precisely “the disciples” but “certain [ τινας ] disciples,” yet phrases such as “a certain one of his disciples” or “a certain disciple” refer elsewhere only to followers of Jesus in both the Gospel (Luke 11:1) and Acts (Acts 9:10, 36; 16:1).  (Though cf. one who did not follow them, in Luke 9:49–50; Mark 9:38–40.) This argument is not absolute, however; many others had disciples, including the Pharisees (Luke 5:33) and Paul (Acts 9:25), and where context makes clear, “disciple” does apply to John’s disciples (e.g., Luke 5:33; 7:18; 11:1). It seems as if these are John’s disciples here, because they know only John’s baptism (Acts 19:3).  It is much harder to conceive how followers of Jesus could be unaware of the Pentecost event—which preceded their spread—than how informed followers of John could….Yet Apollos was not rebaptized, as these disciples are, and whereas he is preaching about “Jesus” (18:25), Paul (after he learns of their Spirit deficiency in 19:2–3) must be specific that Jesus is the one in whom John invited faith (19:4, τοῦτ᾽ ἔστιν εἰς τὸν Ἰησοῦν ). A decision is not easy, nor is consensus soon likely. Nevertheless, in the final analysis, what I believe probably tips the scales against their being believers in Jesus is their lack of knowledge that the Spirit has come (19:2); even a minimal association with any part of the Jesus movement should have revealed that the Spirit had in fact been poured out (cf., e.g., 2:17–18; Rom 8:9; Titus 3:5–6; Jude 19; 1 John 3:24). That Paul finds it necessary to explain that Jesus has fulfilled John’s promise of the Spirit-baptizer (19:4) implies that they lacked even basic knowledge of Jesus—that is, they knew less than Apollos (18:25).” (Craig S. Keener, Acts: An Exegetical Commentary Volume 3: 15:1-23:35, 17403-17436 (Kindle Edition); Grand Rapids, Michigan; Baker Academic)
Keener points out that these disciples did not have even a passing familiarity with Jesus (Acts 19:4). Notice that it is when they received this knowledge, that we are told the disciples are baptized into the name of Christ (Acts 19:5). This argues strongly against their having even heard of the message of Christ prior to Paul’s arrival.
Some argue that the fact that these Ephesians are termed “disciples” demands that they be recognized as followers of Christ before Paul met them. However, the Greek of the New Testament argues against this position. Indeed, the wording of Luke indicates that these disciples were NOT disciples of Christ when Paul first met them:
“(a) Did Luke regard the twelve Ephesians as already Christians before their encounter with Paul? Their ignorance of the Holy Spirit and about Jesus, and the fact that Paul did not count their earlier baptism sufficient but had them undergo baptism in the name of the Lord Jesus, indicates a negative answer. But what of Luke’s description of them as ? It is true that in Acts usually equals ‘Christians’, but the 19.1 usage is unique: it is the only time that is not preceded by the definite article. Now used absolutely always has the sense in Acts of the whole Christian community of the city or area referred to, not just ‘Christians’ generally, but the whole body of disciples as a single entity: for example, (6.7); (9.19); [ ] (9.38); (21.16). is almost a technical term for Luke. ‘The disciples’ act as one (19.30), are ministered to and consulted as one (20.1), are one as the target for the false teachers (20.30), are one so far as the decisions of the council affect them (neck–singular–15.10). When he wishes to speak of a smaller group than the whole body, Luke either qualifies his description of precisely (as in 9.25) or else he speaks of ‘some of the disciples’ ( –21.16). Luke’s description of the twelve as therefore probably implies that the twelve did not belong to ‘the disciples’ in Ephesus–a fact confirmed by their ignorance of basic Christian matters. Indeed, I would suggest that Luke deliberately describes them in this way in order to indicate their relation, or rather, lack of relation to the church at Ephesus. Nor need the mean any more than a mistaken (or charitable) presumption on Paul’s part4–a mistake which Paul quickly discovered and rectified by putting them through the complete initiation procedure, as with all new converts.” (James D.G. Dunn, Baptism In The Holy Spirit, 1972-2001 (Kindle Edition); London; SCM Press)
Paul assumed that the Ephesians were already baptized disciples of Christ (Acts 19:2), but soon realized from their answers that they were not.
Second, the account of Apollos needs to be considered in this investigation. We are told of him earlier:
Acts 18:24-26-Now a certain Jew named Apollos, born at Alexandria, an eloquent man and mighty in the Scriptures, came to Ephesus. 25 This man had been instructed in the way of the Lord; and being fervent in spirit, he spoke and taught accurately the things of the Lord, though he knew only the baptism of John. 26 So he began to speak boldly in the synagogue. When Aquila and Priscilla heard him, they took him aside and explained to him the way of God more accurately.
Apollos is said to have been instructed in the way of the Lord, and that he spoke and taught accurately the things of the Lord. This is clear testimony that he knew of and defended Jesus and His Word, even though his knowledge is incomplete (since he knew only the baptism of John). Aquila and Priscilla taught him the way of the Lord more accurately, and he went on his way teaching and preaching Christ.
However, there is no evidence of his being rebaptized (unlike the disciples of Acts 19:1-5).
What is the difference between these two accounts?
The difference between Apollos and the disciples of Acts 19:1-5 is very simple when we consider this: Apollos already had received knowledge of Jesus, yet the disciples of Acts 19 had not (as Paul’s preaching to them suggests). The minimum knowledge requirement for acceptable baptism was understanding Who Jesus Christ is: the Son of God. This is made especially clear earlier in Acts:
Acts 8:35-38-Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning at this Scripture, preached Jesus to him. 36 Now as they went down the road, they came to some water. And the eunuch said, “See, here is water. What hinders me from being baptized?” 37 Then Philip said, “If you believe with all your heart, you may.” And he answered and said, “I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.” 38 So he commanded the chariot to stand still. And both Philip and the eunuch went down into the water, and he baptized him.
Third, this passage teaches us some very important facts about the subject of “rebaptism.”
This passages teaches us that sometimes rebaptism is necessary.
The reason for rebaptism in this passage is spelled out for us: when one is baptized and does not understand Who Jesus is, then rebaptism becomes necessary.
If a believer is baptized without realizing that Jesus Christ is the Son of God Who died for the sins of mankind, was buried, and arose from the dead on the third day (1 Corinthians 15:1-8, as the eunuch of Acts 8:31-39 was thus instructed from Isaiah 53), then rebaptism is necessary.
Furthermore, if a believer is baptized without repentance, his baptism becomes invalid. This is made especially evident when we realize that confessing Jesus “Christ” as Lord indicates repentance on the part of the baptized person (Acts 8:37). Therefore, if a person is baptized without any real desire to change his heart and life to follow the Lord, his baptism is invalid.
What if a baptized person had misunderstood some aspect (purpose) of baptism, but yet understood Who Jesus is and repented of sin?
Would they be required to be reimmersed?
It is important to realize that these disciples clearly understood that baptism was for the remission of sins when they were baptized (since John’s baptism was for the remission of sins-Mark 1:4), yet they were still required to be rebaptized. As important as understanding the purpose (s) of baptism is, it was not the most important element of baptism. What mattered most was the person’s focus and understanding of Jesus Christ.
It bears repeating that nearly every reference to baptism in the Epistles was written to previously baptized believers who had misunderstood some element of baptism.
The Romans had not understood the connection between baptism and burial/resurrection to new life with Christ (Romans 6:3-4).
The Corinthians had misunderstood the connection between baptism and the leadership of Jesus (1 Corinthians 10:1-5), and between their baptism and being made to drink of one Spirit together in the one body (1 Corinthians 12:13). They had also failed to realize that denying the resurrection of Christ was robbing them of their hope of being with their loved ones who had died in Christ through baptism (1 Corinthians 15:29).
The Galatians had failed to grasp that baptism made Jews and Gentiles into the chosen people of God, the seed of Abraham (Galatians 3:26-29), and the Colossians somehow had missed that baptism into Christ’s death and resurrection affirmed the end of the Old Testament Law (Colossians 2:11-17).
Peter’s readers had not understood the connection between the salvation of the Noahs through water and our own through the waters of baptism, thus seeing the relationship with redemptive suffering (1 Peter 3:19-21).
In all of these examples of disciples who had misunderstood some element of baptism, the recipients of these Epistles were still hailed as Christians. They needed to learn (or perhaps in some cases “relearn”) these facts, correct misunderstandings, and grow in their knowledge and appreciation of these truths; but they were acknowledged as saved believers nonetheless. It was never suggested that they were unsaved believers in need of rebaptism.
With all that being said, most of the people that I study with who have been baptized in denominational churches (having been erroneously taught that they are saved before baptism) desire to be rebaptized (and I encourage them to be).
Very simply, there is a 100% safe way; so why not follow through with this safe way and be reimmersed?
Let’s also remember, however, that there may be some believers that we study with who do not desire to be rebaptized, but who want to champion the cause of New Testament Christianity. These should not be rejected from the local church, but should be accepted and embraced. People should never be “rebaptized” in order to appease a local body of believers, but in in order to obey the command of the Lord (Acts 10:47-48).
Have you been baptized into Christ (Acts 2:37-47)?