Strengthened in the Faith (Acts 18:18-19:10)
Rev. Erik Veerman
Strengthened in the Faith
Are you teachable? Someone who is teachable is someone who is always learning and listening and willing to receive instruction.
Many proverbs speak to receiving instruction:
• fools despise wisdom and instruction
• Keep hold of instruction; do not let go; guard her, for she is your life
• Whoever heeds instruction is on the path to life; but he who rejects reproof leads others astray
There are about 15 more where those came from!
You see, one mark of a mature believer in Christ is being teachable… recognizing the lifelong journey of learning.
Martin Luther, the great 16th century reformer said that to be a Christian is to realize that you will never be finished learning… He said, “day and night I am busy studying the Bible, and yet I have remained a student. Every day I begin like someone in elementary school.”
That’s a helpful attitude to have, because even if we dedicated every day of our life to studying the Bible, we would still have much to learn. Every one of us is at a different place. It’s tempting to feel embarrassed, thinking “oh, I should know more” …or it’s tempting to feel prideful, like “oh, I got this figured out.” But we each have more to learn… and more to learn from each other.
I’m not saying that discipleship is only an intellectual pursuit. No, not at all. Discipleship involves your heart and mind, your thoughts and actions. The whole of your life should be growing and maturing. As Paul wrote to the church in Corinth, we need to take “every thought captive to obey Christ.” So, part of growing in your faith is growing in holiness and righteousness. Living out our faith. And the other part of growing in your faith is growing in the wisdom and knowledge of God, his Word, and his world.
And I would say, it’s that second part that these verses focus on. Being teachable as you grow in your understanding of faith in Christ. Apollos modelled that at the end of chapter 18… and the disciple of John the Baptist modelled that at the beginning of chapter 19.
Just to be sure, both of these situation were different, plus there’s a lot of other stuff going on in these verses. As we work through these two examples, I’ll touch upon the more complicated questions.
But first, let me set the stage. These verses cover about 2 1/2 years of time! That’s a lot to cover in 21 verses. Luke, the author of Acts, has really compressed things here.
If you look down at verse 18. Paul had been in Corinth but he left. He was on his way back to Syria, it says. That’s where the church in Antioch was - his missionary sending church. In these 5 verses from 18 to 23, we’re given his travel log. There are some interesting things in here.
• First, he took Priscilla and Aquilla with him. If you remember, Paul had stayed with them. They were tent makers along with him. Paul found them very helpful and wanted them to come with him for part of the journey.
• Along the way, his first stop was Cenchreae. That was the port city where he would board a ship for Ephesus. And he did this really strange thing. He cut his hair because of a vow. We’re not told the details, but likely it was a Nazarite vow. He had been thankful to God for something God did. The practice involved cutting one’s hair at the end of the vow to symbolize his thankfulness.
• Next, verse 19 they sailed to Ephesus. That’s about 200 miles directly east across the Agean Sea. They went from modern day Greece back to modern day Turkey.
• Then in Ephesus, Paul reasoned with the Jews in the synagogue and left Priscilla and Aquila there. He promised, though, verses 20 and 21, that he would return, “if God wills.”
• The next two verses cover about 1000 miles. For us, a short plane ride, but for Paul, that would have taken a few months.
• He sailed from Ephesus to the port city of Caesarea. You may remember, Caesarea is where Peter met Cornelius, the Roman centurion.
• From there it says, verse 22, he went up to the church and then down to Antioch. That language “up” and “down” was used in reference to Jerusalem. We usually think of up and down as north and south, but in this case, Paul visited the church in Jerusalem.
• Next he travelled to Antioch. He would have likely taken the Damascus road – the very road where he was blinded. Verse 23 – he stayed in Antioch for some time.
• Really, this marks the end of Paul’s second missionary journey. Just like the end of his first missionary journey, Paul would have shared everything that happened. Another great mission conference.
• Well, he departs again and he goes back, this time through Asia Minor on foot, visiting all the churches from his first and the beginning of his second missionary journeys. Lystra, Derbe, Iconium, the other Antioch.
That’s a little tiring to think about!
Let me ask the question: what was Paul doing in all these cities? Well, I’m sure a lot of things. He had dear friends in each place. He wanted to see them.
But his primary activity was “strengthening all the disciples.” That’s the phrase there at the end of verse 23. What does that mean? Well, he was encouraging them in their faith; Teaching them more and more about the love of God in Christ; Further instructing them about God’s covenant promises all fulfilled in Christ; coming alongside of them in their walk of faith - their obedience to God, Gospel encouragement enduring persecution and pain, eternal hope beyond this life, and all the ways to care for, love one another and forgive one another in the church.
Now, you may be thinking, “wait, that’s reading way too much into that little phrase ‘strengthening the disciples.’” I don’t think so. You see, we have 13 of Paul’s letters. Letters that he wrote to many of these churches. We know what was on his heart and mind – and therefore what was involved in strengthening the disciples.
Let me tie this back into my introduction. Paul knew that every single believer in Christ is on a lifelong journey of growing in faith – of being strengthened in the faith. If you know the love of God in Christ, that includes you. And it involves being teachable.
Ok, let’s now consider these two case studies. First Apollos, and second these other disciples in Ephesus.
So, after Paul left Ephesus, a godly and competent man arrived in Ephesus. Apollos. And Luke goes out of his way to describe Apollos.
• First, he was from Alexandria – the northern coast of Africa. Alexandria wasn’t just another city. It was one of the intellectual cities of the Mediterranean – the capital of Egypt. Known for its education and Hellenistic culture. 200 years prior, scholars from Alexandria produced the Septuagint. That’s the Greek translation of the Old Testament - widely used throughout the Mediterranean. Apollos was well educated. And he knew the Scriptures – we see that in verses 24 and 25.
• Second, he was eloquent. That’s a contrast to Paul. Paul even said in one of his letters that he didn’t come with lofty speech. No, he was straightforward - plain spoken. But Apollos was trained in the oratorical and rhetorical skills of the time. One of the popular things back then was listening to eloquent speakers. Apollos employed those skills as he taught and spoke about the Scriptures and Jesus.
• Although he was Jewish, Apollos had a Greek name, and we get the sense that he was on the upper end of society. He had the means to travel from Egypt to Ephesus, and the means to focus his attention on teaching and speaking.
Well, Apollos had arrived in Ephesus and he was boldly and eloquently proclaiming Jesus in the synagogue. People were listening to him – Christians and Jews. And, of course, Priscilla and Aquila, whom Paul had left in Ephesus, heard him.
As they listened, though, they realized that Apollos had more to learn. I want you to notice an important phrase in the middle of verse 25. “He spoke and taught accurately the things concerning Jesus.” Apollos was a believer. He was teaching truth… but there were some gaps in his knowledge.
So, Priscila and Aquila took him aside. This could have led to conflict and division.
Think about differences between them.
• Apollos was well educated – his mind was his trade. Priscilla and Aquila, on the other hand, worked with their hands.
• Apollos was more of a cultural elite, whereas Priscila and Aquila were working class.
• Apollos was a single man. Priscilla and Aquila, obviously, were married. But did you notice that Priscilla is always mentioned first. That was unusual. Some have suggested she may have been the more theological one, knowing the Scriptures well and able to converse and teach. And Aquila perhaps focused more on the trade. That’s just speculation, but I think a reasonable suggestion.
In any regard - there was potential conflict here. Apollos could have pulled out his educational trump card, or his class status, or that he was a man – culturally, at that time, women were not as educated and did not teach. There are myriad possible conflicts here.
I was remembering back to my elementary school days. Sometimes that’s a risky thing to do. After lunch on the playground… we would sometimes gloat over what we learned that day. “I know something you don’t know.” It was said to me, and I said it myself. Especially to my sister! We all have that innate sin in us of thinking we’re better and smarter. And when someone comes up to us to correct us, our natural reaction is what? Defensive, dismissive, we can give the cold shoulder, or worse.
The beautiful thing, here, is that we get no sense that Apollos reacted against their instruction. We don’t know what Priscilla and Aquila said to him, but they were sensitive to pull him aside.
Maybe the conversation went something like this:
“Brother Apollos, what a joy it is to meet you. The Lord is clearly using you in a powerful way as you testify to the Scriptures and to Jesus.”
“Priscilla and Aquila, my sister and brother in the Lord, the joy is mine to meet you and so many other faithful believers.”
“Brother Apollos, we have spent time with Paul – he’s one of the apostles. He instructed us in the way of the Lord. May we explain to you, more fully, the Gospel of grace. Some of the things you are saying, while they are accurate, are only part of the truth of Christ.”
“My brother and sister in Christ, thank you for your sensitivity and care to help. Please do teach me. I desire to know more, and grow more in my faith and knowledge, that I may more faithfully teach and preach.”
We don’t know the specific areas of their instruction; except, we’re told, that Apollos only knew the Baptism of John. That is, John the Baptist. We’ll come back to that in a few minutes. At the very least, Priscila and Aquila helped fill out Apollos’ understanding of Jesus as the Messiah, and all that he accomplished on the cross and through his resurrection.
Apollos humbly received their instruction. He was teachable. By all accounts, Apollos continued to mature in his faith and teaching. Notice the last couple of verses of chapter 18 and the first verse of 19. Apollos traveled to Corinth where he “greatly” helped the believers and “powerfully” refuted the Jews. Some scholars believe that Apollos is the one who wrote the book of Hebrews. That’s certainly possible given the scholarly nature of the book and its focus on Jesus in the Old Testament.
What a beautiful model for us of a lifelong journey of faith and learning.
Well, that brings us to the second case study - John the Baptist’s disciples. We’re still in Ephesus. But now, Paul has returned. Apollos had left for Corinth, but Paul has arrived back in Ephesus. Of course, he would have reconnected with Priscila and Aquila. We know they are still in Ephesus because in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, which he wrote from Ephesus, Paul includes a greeting from Priscilla and Aquila.
Well, shortly after Paul arrived, he met these disciples of John. If we compare these 12 disciples of John to Apollos, there’s both a similarity and difference. The similarity is that they were only familiar with the baptism of John – just like Apollos. So, they also had a gap of understanding.
The difference between these disciples and Apollos is that they were not aware of the Holy Spirit… and they didn’t appear to know much about Jesus. Apollos knew Jesus. He was teaching about him.
A good way to think about these disciples of John the Baptist is that they weren’t yet Christians. Some of you are thinking “time out! how can you say that!” Let me put it this way, I think they were believers in the promised Messiah, but they didn’t know Christ. They were believers in a Hebrews chapter 11 kind of way. Hebrews 11 is the chapter that talks about the faith of many Old Testament believers - Abel, Noah, Abraham, Moses, and Rahab to name a few. They were saved by the same grace of Christ, but it was a hope in the future promise of Christ.
I think that’s a faithful way to understand this. John the Baptist was the last Old Testament prophet. These men were disciples of John or disciples of John’s disciples, but wouldn’t have had the full understanding or revelation of Jesus… or known about Pentecost.
Now, before we talk about the Holy Spirit, one question here is whether John’s baptism – you know, with water, is the same as the Christian baptism – also with water in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit? It appears that they are different because these disciples were baptized into John’s baptism and then it looks like they were baptized again, verse 5, into Jesus’ baptism. But some scholars have argued verse 5 continues the quote from verse 4. In the Greek, there are no quote marks, so translators are the ones who decide. There are good arguments on either side and I’m not sure.
Plus, since there are no more disciples of John, today, there is just one baptism – baptism in Christ. The outward sign signifying being in the body of Christ.
The big, amazing thing that happens in these verses is that these disciples of John receive the Holy Spirit! You can see that in verse 6. This is similar to what happened in Acts chapter 2 and chapter 8 and chapter 10. We call the very first pouring out of the Holy Spirit in chapter 2, “Pentecost.” That happened in Jerusalem. The other examples are like extensions of Pentecost. They follow the pattern of Jesus words in Acts 1:8, “you will be my witness in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” Here in chapter 19, the pattern is continuing like the ripples in the lake, “to the ends of the earth.”
If you’ll remember from other sermons, this is not a pattern you should individually be seeking or expecting, rather it’s part of the history of God accomplishing salvation.
I do want to affirm, though, that every believer in Jesus receives the Holy Spirit. That happens at the point you believe by faith in Christ. It’s not even connected to your baptism. In fact, if you look at these 4 events – the initial Pentecost and the expansions (chapter 2, 8, 10 and 19), the outward sign of baptism (with water) is not connected to the timing of receiving the Holy Spirit. In chapters chapter 2 and 10, the people were baptized with water after they received the Holy Spirit. In chapter 8, they had already been baptized, and here in chapter 19, it happened at the same time. So, if you are believer in Jesus, you received the Holy Spirit when you believed by faith. You may have been baptized before that, maybe as a baby as part of the church, or you may have been baptized after that as a testimony to your faith.
But now, let’s get back to these disciples. Similar to Apollos, they are models of receiving the Word. And in their case, likely receiving Christ for the first time! And if you jump down to verse 9, Paul had been reasoning with the Jews in the synagogue. And who was with him? After the Jews rejected Paul, it says “he took the disciples with him.” This could refer generally to the Christians who were with him, but likely it included these same disciples. They continued to watch and learn and presumably participate, because, notice verse 10 – “this continued for 2 years, so that all the residents of Asia heard the word of the Lord.” That’s a vast area on the western part of Asia minor. Paul would not have been able to himself reach all the towns and people.
Having a teachable spirit - growing in faith and practice - being a lifelong learner - seeking to be strengthened in knowledge and wisdom and faith and obedience - deepening your understanding of God in his world and his Word.
This lifelong path of discipleship is your call as a believer in Christ. And it happens through and is motivated by two foundational realities.
First, the Gospel – the hope of Christ. Forgiveness and salvation in Jesus through his death on the cross, his resurrection, and his ascension to heaven. The primary strengthening of their faith – both Apollos and the disciples of John - was the strengthening of their faith in Christ. It involved a fuller understanding of him and deeper realization of the grace of Jesus in their lives.
As we each seek to be teachable and lifelong disciples, we each need to constantly go back to the foundation of our faith. It’s not in our strength. It’s not in our wisdom. No, it all begins with Jesus. From that foundation, we can continue to build upon him in our life …throughout our life.
And the second foundational reality is the work of the Holy Spirit in you. It was the Holy Spirit that gave Apollos a humble teachable spirit. And it was the Holy Spirit that opened the hearts of John’s disciples to receive Christ by faith. For you and me, that means listening to the convicting work of the Spirit in you as you study and apply the Scriptures; being sensitive to him, and his leading, that you may grow in the grace and knowledge and holiness of Christ.
These 2 foundational realities, the Gospel of Jesus and the Holy Spirit are for anyone who puts their faith and trust in Christ. This lifelong journey of growing in the wisdom and knowledge of God in Christ and being strengthened in faith is for you. Humble yourself and come to him, or humble yourself and be teachable in him.