Paul met some disciples in Ephesus and learned that they had not heard of the Spirit’s arrival at Pentecost and that they were baptized into the baptism of John, i.e., John the Baptist (Acts 19:1–3). Paul consequently baptized them in the name of the Lord Jesus, and similar to what took place in Acts 2, the Spirit came on these men who then prophesied and spoke in tongues to indicate that these Gentiles, too, even as far as Ephesus, had been included into the church that began with the Spirit’s outpouring in Jerusalem (Acts 19:5–6). Paul explained to them that John baptized with a baptism of repentance, which was joined to the belief in Jesus who was to come after him (Acts 19:4; cf. Mark 1:4; Luke 3:3). Perhaps Paul added that John’s baptism was a symbol of what Jesus would eventually do―baptize those who believed in Him with the Spirit (Matt 3:11–12; Mark 1:7–8; Luke 3:15–17; John 1:26–27, 33–34).
From the above, we see that John’s baptism symbolized something past and something future. As to the past, just as water washes away filth, so also the repentant sinner had been forgiven and washed of the guilt from his sins. As to the future, just as the individual was baptized in water, so also Jesus would come and baptize the repentant with the Spirit.
In Acts 19:1–7, now that Jesus had come, died, risen from the dead, ascended into heaven, and sent the Spirit, John’s baptism was no longer valid. It anticipated something that was now past, the coming of Jesus and the initial baptism with the Spirit. What Paul administered to these Ephesians was Christian baptism. This baptism involves an individual’s immersion into and being brought up from water (as did John’s), primarily symbolizing his union with Christ in His death and resurrection in that he has died to sin and has been made alive unto righteousness (Rom 6:3–4; Col 2:11–12; 1 Pet 3:21). Implied in this symbolism is that the individual will be one day resurrected as Jesus was long ago (Rom 6:5).
Similar to the baptism of John, Christian baptism looks to the past and future. As to the past, it looks back to the death and resurrection of Christ and symbolizes the believer’s death to sin and new life unto righteousness. Perhaps also, just as one’s baptism by water brings one into the local church administrating as much (one would hope), so also water baptism may look back and symbolize one’s Spirit baptism and its function of having brought one into the church universal, all of which normally takes place at one’s regeneration (1 Cor 12:12–13). The abnormal situations in which Spirit baptism takes place after conversion are found in the church’s transitional period recorded in the book of Acts, such as we see with the Ephesians described above (Acts 8:14–17; 10:44–48; 19:1–7).