Finally, Paul is able to evangelize the province of Asia, as he had intended a few years earlier (Acts 16:6). As he begins his third recorded missionary journey, Paul found 12 men at Ephesus who seemed to understand Jesus is the Messiah, but he noticed that something just wasn’t kosher about them (cp. Acts 19:1-7). After further inquiry Paul realized they were familiar with Jesus through the baptism of John. How should this be understood?
To begin with John preached about the coming of the Messiah who would judge Israel (cp. Luke 3:16-17), and John even identified Jesus as the Messiah who should come (John 1:29-34). However, it needs to be pointed out that John was never one of Jesus’ disciples. When Jesus first came to John and John witnessed the sign of the Holy Spirit coming and resting upon Jesus, he tried to make Jesus the head of his (i.e. the Baptist’s) own ministry, and John would have stepped down to permit Jesus to lead, but Jesus denied his request (Matthew 3:13-15). There was even some tension between John’s disciples and Jesus’ disciples concerning righteousness (Matthew 9:14) and competition for faithful followers (cp. John 3:25-30). Moreover, John’s understanding of how the Messiah would judge Israel was different from what Jesus was doing while John was in prison (cp. Luke 7:17-19).
How these 12 men understood John’s eschatology and Jesus’ death and resurrection, I don’t know, but they may have thought he would return from the heavens to mightily judge Israel and her enemies—in much the same manner as many today believe Jesus will do shortly. Nevertheless, this kind of eschatology didn’t fit Jesus’ preaching of the coming Kingdom of God, nor what he was saying about cooperating with the powers that be (cp. Matthew 5:39-41) and not resisting evil or an enemy who persecutes you (Matthew 5:43-45). This sort of behavior doesn’t quite fit with a literal rendering of John’s teaching of the coming judgment in Luke 3:17. Certainly John was accurate that Jesus would judge Israel, because Jesus also claimed he would judge his people (John 5:26-27), but not in the same way that John or his disciples were expecting.
No doubt it was a discussion or Paul’s preaching upon arrival at Ephesus that brought on a discussion of eschatology or the coming judgment that alerted Paul to something different in the understanding of these twelve men and found that the Holy Spirit was lacking in their knowledge and application of the Scriptures. Where did these men come from and how did they come by their understanding? It seems to me that Luke’s mention of them on the heels of his introduction of Apollos would link them to his ministry at Ephesus, before Priscilla and Aquila acquainted him with a more perfect understanding of Jesus (cp. Acts 18:24-26), rather than their embracing John’s baptism while on a pilgrimage to Judea, but the latter is a possibility.
The disciples of John were more ready to embrace Jesus as Savior than were Jews who were not disciples of John, simply because John pointed to a need to change (repent) and the coming of the long awaited Messiah. These twelve men and Apollos readily became Messianic believers/Christians, because that had already believed John who pointed out Jesus as the Messiah. What remained was to embrace the coming Kingdom of God (Jesus’ eschatology) rather than the false doctrine of forcing the Messiah of God into the human eschatology of judging Israel and destroying her enemies.
Both Apollos and these twelve men did believe Jesus’ in this way, and these twelve became Paul’s firstfruits of Asia. No doubt they would become the backbone of Paul’s evangelistic outreach, which would eventually embrace the whole province (Acts 19:10, cp. verse 26).