The Third Missionary Journey Begins

Acts 18:23-28

Paul has spent 18 months in Corinth, and in the previous post we followed his journey back to Palestine and to his “sending church” in Antioch, having left Priscilla and Aquila in Ephesus.  We pick up the story again at v23 of Chapter 18 in Acts.

This is a great opportunity to remember that chapter and verse divisions are not inspired!  They’re just a human mechanism to make it easier to find and refer to specific passages of scripture.  If ever there was a momentous occasion to begin a new chapter, this is it.  In a similar light, we must remember that the headings between sections are added by human hands and often convey the commentator’s theology — not necessarily a correct one!

At the same time, it’s important to point out that Luke ended the previous “paragraph” with v23 and started a new paragraph with v24.  As we’ll see shortly, v23 is an effective “segue” between historic passages.  Luke simply placed this segue at the end of the previous story, and begins a new paragraph as he begins relating specific events in the new journey.  Interestingly, this first event swings attention away from Paul.  But first things first…

As always, please read the entire passage before continuing with my comments below.  Then you can evaluate what I say against the truth of God’s Word, not the other way around!

v23 – Luke tells us that Paul spent “some time” in Antioch.  Passages like these are what make it difficult to construct an accurate time line of Paul’s life and ministry.  However long he remained, eventually he felt a need to revisit the churches he had begun.  He traveled through Galatia and Phrygia — Pisidian Antioch, Iconium, Lycaonia, Lystra, Derbe,  and other communities that were part of the first missionary journey, modern day central Turkey.

Regardless of geography, Paul’s purpose was to “strengthen the disciples” (NASB).  ”Strengthen” is the Greek word epistayridzo.  Epi is a Greek prefix that can communicate many things, and we use it in English in many words such as epidermis (the outer layer of the skin) and epilogue (a closing remark added to the end of a larger writing).    It is used widely in medial and scientific terminology.  For instance, an “epizote” is a parasitic animal that lives on the outside of another animal.  An “epicycle” in geometry is a small circle that travels around the circumference of a larger circle, like the moon’s orbit around the earth as the earth travels around the larger circle of its own orbit around the sun.  So when epi is used as a prefix, both in Greek and in English, it conveys a sense of “application to the outside.”  The other half of this word, stayridzo, is to “make firm”   — think of Jello setting up.  Taken together, it’s a picture of Paul on the outside working to harden his spiritual children on the inside.  It’s very much like the application of nail hardener by a manicurist, only with eternity in view.

vv24-25 – Luke now introduces us to an important character, giving us his theological history.  Apollos was (1) a Jew, (2) born in Alexandria, Egypt, (3) an eloquent man, (4) mighty in the Scriptures, (5) instructed in the way of the Lord, and (6) fervent in spirit.  These characteristics are all derived from being raised in Alexandria.

Alexandria was Egypt’s largest city in Paul’s day.  It had been founded by Alexander the Great  over 300 years earlier when the Greeks had conquered the known world, and was the home of the largest Greek community outside Greece and the home of the largest Jewish community in the world.  Alexandria was the hub of intellectualism in its day — philosphy, science, religion — and anyone being privileged enough to be raised in that environment would have been seen as an intellectual.  What is different in Apollos’ case is that he was instructed in the way of the Lord and was fervent in Spirit.

As such, he was speaking and teaching accurately what the Hebrew scriptures said concerning the coming of Messiah, but not to the point of having identified Jesus as that Messiah.  Luke tells us that he spoke of things “concerning” Jesus and was aware of events only up to the ministry of John the Baptist.  We can surmise that he was still looking for Messiah to come, and was fervently trying to prepare Jewish communities in gentile lands for His coming.

Luke doesn’t tell us what brought Apollos to Ephesus where Priscilla and Aquila remained.  But Apollos did speak boldly in the synagogue in Ephesus, where they heard his presentation.  Were Priscilla and Aquila regular attenders of the synagogue as well as “grace believers” involved in what we know as the Ephesian church today?  Perhaps — they were after all Jews, and perhaps they could continue to hold out the gospel in that environment when Paul was unable to.  Or perhaps they received word of this fellow Apollos and specifically went there to hear him.  Luke doesn’t distinguish for us, and we must remember that Paul himself continued to have a tremendous burden for his kinsmen and continued to begin in each new community in the synagogue.  The fact that Priscilla and Aquila went to the synagogue (whether deliberately to hear Apollos or not) does not deny the distinctions of Paul’s message.  In fact, the very next verse demonstrates that they knew the distinctions very well.

v26 – When Apollos’ presentation concluded prematurely with the baptism of John, they “took him aside” and “explained the way of God to him more accurately.”  Notice that Apollos’ understanding up to the point of John’s baptism was described as “accurate” as far as it went.  Priscilla and Aquila simply brought him up to speed with more recent events.  They didn’t tell him he was wrong, they simply told him what he was missing.

The “taking aside” is an interesting word here.  Its not the familiar parakaleo (“calling along side” that we have discussed before.  It’s proslambanomai, a form of lambano with a prefix of pros.  Think of pros as “with.”  Lambano is to “take away” much like a tax collector takes your coin away with him.  The term is neither negative nor positive, but simply is a description of an action.  When put together, proslambanomai means that Priscilla and Aquila took him away from the synagogue environment with them (not necessarily merely aside).  Where did they go?  Luke isn’t specific, but it was somewhere where they could have an extended conversation without being overheard  and countermanded by opponents to the gospel.  Perhaps they brought him to their home.

One other interesting point:  Apollos had every reason to be proud of his knowledge and his ability to publicly refute Jewish objections to the coming of Messiah.  If we had such ability, would we have willingly gone away with someone who suggested our knowledge was good but incomplete?  Apollos did.

I have made this point before, and hesitate to raise it again, but I think it bears repeating in the case of Apollos.  It has been my experience that those who have seminary training are loathe to be told that their information may be incomplete, and that you have what they are missing and will share it freely with them if they will just look at what the Word says plainly.  That is, of course, the basis for this entire blog site — that this “perspective” is information that they are missing.  Without it they reproduce equally incomplete disciples.  The burden of my heart is the same as that of Priscilla and Aquila, only on a larger scale:  most of evangelical Christian theology today, which seems to have lost the concept of the mystery that was revealed through Paul.  To that end I persist in this project, regardless of the opinions of my detractors.  Should I obey God or men?  To their credit, Priscilla and Aquila’s bedside manner must be better than mine!

We don’t know the immediate result of this “explanation” or how long it took (hours? days? weeks?), but the end result was Apollos’ desire to go to Greece (Achaia).  The church in Ephesus wrote a letter of introduction to the churches there, admonishing them to receive him on their recommendation.  When he arrived, he proved to be a tremendous help to those who had “believed through grace.”

That’s a phrase that’s easily skipped in casual reading, but is loaded with meaning.  There are no mysterious Greek words to dissect here.  The Greek literally says “believed through grace.”  So what makes it unusual?  We have not encountered this description of Christians before!  The word “believed” is the verb form of the noun translated as “faith.”  The word “grace” … well, you know already — it’s a personal favor received from someone with no expectation of getting paid back (unmerited favor).  If ever there was a sound bite for the gospel, this is it.  What the Corinthian church members had in common (along with all the churches founded by Paul) was that they had “believed through grace.”  That is something more than “believed”.  There were “believers” in the Jerusalem church who had believed through apostolic authority.  This seems different to me — but then I’m biased, as you know.  Was this just an off-handed twist of words, or did the Holy Spirit direct Luke to say it this way?  It’s a nuance you’ll have to decide for yourself.

v28 – What specifically did Apollos do?  He refuted the claims of their Jewish detractors eloquently, accurately, powerfully… and in public.  We know from Paul’s two letters to the church in Corinth that he became one of the leaders of that body, and was no doubt used by God to add many Jews to the number of those who had “believed through Grace.”

How about you?  Are you a “Grace Believer?”  Do you know the way of God accurately?Could you be missing information that could revolutionize your relationship to Christ? While at this point in Acts we are still in transition between the Kingdom program and the “Age of Grace”, the evidence of the transition — and the redirection of the message to gentiles through grace alone — is mounting.

Next time — Paul finds more “believers” who know only of John’s baptism when he arrives in Ephesus.

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