Audio Only (with the Old Testament Scripture Reading)
A Tricky Passage Fraught with Questions
This morning, it’s quite possible that as we read this passage together, you may have found yourself scratching your head at a number of places. This is a passage that is fraught with confusing details. The passage opens up with a description of one of Paul’s travels—and, it takes us through this particular journey quite quickly. If you don’t know your geography of first century Rome, then this itinerary of Paul’s journeys probably means nothing to you. Even if you do know your first century geography, you still may be scratching your head. These are the details that are mention—he begins in Corinth, and then he heads to Cenchreae, then to Ephesus, then to Caesarea, and then “up” to “the church” (most take that to mean “up the mountain” to Jerusalem, where he greeted the church, there), and then “down” to Antioch, and then to Galatia, and Phrygia, and finally to Ephesus. What’s the point of all these details?
Then, you may be scratching your head at that interesting detail about Paul cutting his hair, “for he was under a vow”. Why is that significant?
Then, there’s the matter of Apollos. If someone were to ask me to generate a list of the five most mysterious people in the New Testament, Apollos might be on there. He’s an intriguing fellow—and, we’re given just enough information to spark curiosity, but not enough information to satisfy our curiosities about him.
Why was apollos even mentioned in this story? The story we get about him doesn’t even mention Paul—it’s a story about Apollos in Ephesus before Paul arrived at Ephesus.
Then (not to overwhelm you with all these questions), we’d do well to ask the theological question which this passage demands. How is it possible for a man like Apollos to teach “accurately the things concerning Jesus”, while only knowing the Baptism of John?
The next story begs a similar question. While Apollos was called a great teacher of Jesus while only knowing John’s baptism, the twelve men whom Paul met at the end of our story were genuinely called “disciples” in chapter 19, verse 1, except that they hadn’t received the Lord’s Holy Spirit yet. In fact, they hadn’t even heard of the Holy Spirit! Let me ask you this: can someone be Jesus’s disciple without the Holy Spirit? Doesn’t this seem a bit off—a little out of order? Remember what Jesus said in John 3:5, “unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God”. Or Paul, in 1 Corinthians 12:3, “No one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit”. How do we reconcile that with the story of these “disciples” who “believed” without the Holy Spirit?
I hope I didn’t just bend your brains forward and backward too much with all these questions, right at the beginning here. Honestly, I somewhat trust that I simply articulated many of the questions you already had after reading this passage. The passage is a bit of a mind bender.
Should we be discouraged, and skip this passage? It’s always tempting to, I’m sure. When we see passages like this, we should find confidence in what God promised concerning his written Scriptures. “All scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16). There’s rich blessings in all of God’s words, folks.
Taking a Step Back: Paul’s Three Missionary Journeys
So, we’ve asked all the questions. How are we going to walk through all this, this morning?
Let’s take step back and remember what’s happening in Acts. Last week, we read about when Paul spent upwards to two years in Corinth, until it seemed right for him to leave. Notice that it doesn’t say he left Corinth due to persecution. In verses 12–17, we saw last week how the Jews attempted to draw legal charges in the Roman court of law against Paul for teaching an unlawful religion in Rome. The proconsul essentially said “this is a Jewish debate, don’t bother me with it”. So, the Jews beat up one of Paul’s new converts, and had to settle the matter themselves without Rome backing them.
So this brings us to the first verse in our passage. “After this, Paul stayed many days longer and then took leave of the brothers and set sail for Syria”. Now at this point, I think it’s fair to say that we can address one of the questions I raised. What’s with the long and detailed itinerary in this passage?
At the very least, it’s tipping us off to see that Paul is making his way back home at the end of this second missionary journey. He set off from his home church in Antioch at the end of chapter 15, and he’s been busy for three years. It’s time to come home, and report back to his home church with all that God had done. So, he sails east on the Mediterranean sea, stops at Ephesus where he drops of Priscilla and Aquila, and makes his way to the port city of Caesarea (verse 22). That’s the port city closes to Jerusalem, where he “went up” the hill to greet the church there, and then he finally “went down” the mountain to Antioch. That’s the end of his second missionary journey. But, it’s not by any means the end of the story. It’s not the end of Paul’s ministry—and, I think there’s more to this itinerary. I think we’re supposed to see how fluid Paul’s transition is from his second to his third missionary journeys. Verses 22–23,
When he landed at Caesarea, he went up and greeted the church [in Jerusalem], and then went down to Antioch [at home]. After spending some time there, he departed and went from one place to the next through the region of Galatia and Phrygia, strengthening all the disciples.
This doesn’t present a Paul who has “home” in mind, at all. He’s not coming back to Antioch to get rest, or to experience a “taste of home”. I trust he simply came back to Jerusalem and Antioch in order to touch base with the leaders of the church—perhaps the other apostles. He likely wanted to encourage them with what the Lord had been doing. Perhaps he wanted to make sure no more theological messes were developing. Or perhaps he wanted to stay accountable to them. There’s value in submitting to a church—even for Paul. So with each missionary journey, he comes back and then heads out again. Paul is making circles, here. He leaves for several years, then comes back briefly. Then he leaves again for several years, then comes back briefly.
Now, what is Paul doing as he leaves? It’s in verse 23, there, which we just read. Paul “departed and went from one place to the next…. strengthening all the disciples”. He’s strengthening the churches he had already planted.
We’re on missionary journey three, here. Years have passed—formative, hard years for the church. Years that weren’t free from persecution and serious opposition. In parenting, we often say that “babies are resilient”, that they can handle more than you think. That doesn’t mean they don’t need constant tending to, and constant nurturing. It doesn’t mean that you leave them alone with their older brother accidentally hits them with an airborne projectile in the house. Paul was constantly seeking to “strengthen” the church—to grow her from infancy to maturity.
The Common Denominator Under the Questions: What’s it Take to Strengthen the Church?
Here, we arrive at the common theme beneath all the questions I asked earlier. This whole passage—the travel details, the mention of Apollos, the theological questions about the Holy Spirit and John’s baptism, and possibly even the mention of Paul cutting his hair, all have a common trajectory for our encouragement this morning. They are all showing us what is involved with Christian growth and maturity. They are showing us what it took for the early church to be strengthened from infancy to maturity.
As we really dig into this passage this morning, let’s keep an eye open for five ways a we can be strengthened in the faith from infancy to maturity. Let’s walk through this passage to find them.
Christian Strength Requires Devoted Ministers
We’ve already touched on the first way Christians are to find strength and maturity in the faith. Paul’s ministry wasn’t simply aimed at conversions. It was aimed at building the whole church up. He set off on his third missionary journey to strengthen the existing disciples (verse 23).
This ought to remind us that God does, indeed, appoint certain men in certain offices, and with certain gifts, with the primary duty of strengthening and building up the church through faithful preaching and discipleship. This is the classic passage in Ephesians 4, folks. This flies in the face of the rampant Christian individualism in America today. If you haven’t familiarized yourself intimately with this passage yet, you’d do well to open there now. Ephesians 4:11,
11 And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, 12 to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, 13 until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, 14 so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes.
God gave ministers—ordained offices like the evangelist or the shepherd and teacher (i.e., elders and pastors) to build up the church. To strengthen her.
Notice some of the ways Christian maturity is talked about, there. It’s talked about as “the unity of the faith”, or the unity “of the knowledge of the Son of God”. It’s referred to as “mature manhood”. It’s measured by “the stature of the fullness of Christ”—in other words, the supreme measure and goal of Christian maturity is the very godliness of Christ himself, and his fulness of joy and peace and strength. Nothing can move him, to make him waver in godly virtues. Then Paul says tha the goal here, negatively speaking, is “so that we would no longer be children” who are “tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by. human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes”. That’s the purpose God has in giving the church her ministers.
It sounds like Paul has had experience with these things. He’s seen weak, childish Christians get tossed around in the faith. He’s seen them stumble, to be robbed of the “fullness of Christ” because some cunning fool entered the church with deceitful schemes. With lies that sound good—but in reality, they’ll destroy you. They’ll capsize you—back to the flesh and sin you go.
Christian growth requires devoted, determined ministers, whom God gave to the church to keep the church—indeed, individual Christians—immovable with a heavy ballast beneath them.
Paul was devoted to this. God called him to travel countless miles all around the Mediterranean seacoast to strengthen the disciples. If you read his personal letters to these churches, it’s very clear that he felt an urgency for them. He was burdened man—yet, as he trust in the Lord, he was a joyful and content man. He cast his anxieties upon the Lord in prayer as he thought of all these churches—those prayers are written down in the letters he wrote, which are in our Bibles. When I see Paul traveling like this, I can almost sense his urgency for the churches he’s traveling to. “Lord, please sustain the church in Ephesus until I get there.” Christian growth and maturity is greatly fostered by devoted ministers who understand the weight of their task—and, who are readily received by the church.
Devoted Under an Oath
By the way, this is where the detail of Paul cutting his hair comes into play. At the end of verse 18, we’re told that “At Cenchreae [the city next to Corinth], he had cut his hair, for he was under a vow.” This detail makes virtually no sense to us—and, I read a few opinions on this strange verse. However, the uniting theme behind all the views is that Paul’s vow pertained to his ministry. When he was ministering at Corinth, he put himself under a vow as an act of humble dependence before God, who had called him to be his apostle. Under such a vow, Paul couldn’t cut his hair until the vow was fulfilled. It’s a good way to make sure you make good on your vows. You say, “I’m not going to cut my hair until I’ve completed my doctoral dissertation”. I trust you won’t ever forget to complete that dissertation—and, you may even be more motivated to get it done sooner! When Paul left Corinth from Cenchreae, he had fulfilled his ministerial vow to the Lord, and could cut his hair. Paul was determined to honor the Lord, and to serve his people. There won’t be mature, strengthened churches or Christians without such godly and devoted men.
Yet the passage we read in Ephesians 4:11 does, indeed, speak of pastors and shepherds and teachers in the plural. “He gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers”—plural! He gives many of them, to labor side-by-side. The apostle Paul himself knew the great value of working alongside other gifted teachers and preachers. He didn’t leave Corinth alone. He brought Aquila and Priscilla with him (verse 18 of our passage). Paul calls them his “fellow workers in Christ Jesus” in Romans 16:3. He worked with them for 2 years in Corinth, and he brought them along on his journey out of Corinth. He stationed them in Ephesus, with hopes to return to Ephesus after he makes his journey home.
Then, what happens in Ephesus while Paul was away? That’s the story of Apollos. God raised up Apollos to strengthen the Ephesian church, there. We’re told in verse 24, “a Jew named Apollos, a native of Alexandria, came to Ephesus. He was an eloquent man, competent in the Scriptures. He had been instructed in the way of the Lord. And being fervent in Spirit, he spoke and taught accurately the things concerning Jesus.” He’s an amazing man, this Apollos. He’s from Alexandria—that was the capital city of Egypt at the time. It was also a place of incredible learning. This is where the famous Alexandrian library was—the greatest library in all of Rome at the time. Yet, it wasn’t just pagan. There were upwards to a million Jews living there at the time, and there were prestigious Rabbis and Rabbinical schools. Based on the way Apollos is described, we might presume that he was educated at one of these rabbinical schools. Little did Apollos know, that God was raising him up to prove from the Old Testament Scriptures that the promised Messiah is Jesus.
This all simply illustrates that Christian maturity and growth requires us to receive the gift of God’s appointed ministers. God uses passionate, discerning men to strengthen his people—and, as we see in Paul and Aquila and Apollos, he intends them to work together under his mighty hand.
Now we’ve seen that Christian growth and maturity involves devoted ministers of Christ working together. The next question we’d do well to ask is what should Godly ministers and teachers seek to instill within the church for strength?The next four pieces to Christian growth answer that question. What are Paul, Aquila, and Apollos seeking to instill within baby Christians, to make them strong?
Christian Strength Requires Repetition
We’ve already touched on one of them. Remember how I mentioned that Paul seemed to keep making circles, revisiting the same churches to strengthen them on each of his missionary journeys? Verse 23 tells us that en route to Ephesus, Paul went through “Galatia and Phrygia, strengthening all the disciples” he had made on previous journeys. How do you suppose he desired to strengthen them? I trust there were a number of ways. He mentions several throughout his letters. In Romans 1:11, Paul says this—
11 For I long to see you, that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to strengthen you— 12 that is, that we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine.
I love how personal that is. There’s a reason why Paul didn’t hunker down into a bunker at Antioch, and just write letters. He wasn’t a book-writer. He was a true minister who sought face-to-face ministry. That’s why he traveled. There’s something incredibly valuable about being face-to-face with another brother or sister in Christ, to encourage them in the faith. “I long to see you”, Paul says, to impart “some spiritual gift to strengthen you”—and that spiritual gift is mutual encouragement “by each other’s faith”. Seeing another believers faith is strengthening. Seeing their eyes light up at the name and work of Jesus is strengthening. Seeing them talk about Jesus’s salvation is strengthening. In our modern day of “internet church”, we really are missing out on one means the Lord uses to strengthen us.
Although, that’s not the greater point that I see here, in all this. When Paul is making his rounds to strengthen the church, I trust that he is bringing the gospel of Jesus Christ into every situation. That’s what he did in his letters, and I trust it’s what he did as he strengthened the churches in the faith, as he visited them. If there was a dispute, a quarrel in the church, an unresolved sin, a point of theological confusion—Paul most certainly resolved it with the wisdom and peace that comes from the gospel: Jesus’s free grace of salvation, accomplished at the cross and sealed with the Spirit.
Paul was a single-minded man in his ministry, as we all should be. The fact that Jesus died for our sins, and rose from the dead literally changes everything. It means we can quickly confess our sins, receive forgiveness, and walk in newness of life without the fear of God’s wrath or judgment over us. It means we can forgive one another. Paul’s commands us to “forgive one another, as God in Christ forgave you” (Ephesians 4:32). Jesus’s death and resurrection means we can look forward to eternity—we don’t need to put our hope in this world. It means we all of God’s promises in the Old Testament are fulfilled on our behalf. Jesus’s death and resurrection means that we ought not turn to another forgiveness, another gospel of salvation. Jesus said “I am the way, the truth, and the life, no one comes to the father except through me”.
Everything always comes back to Jesus’s perfect life, death, and resurrection for Paul. He circled back to these churches time and time again in order to strengthen them in these matters. As Paul said in First Corinthians 15:1, “I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, 2 and by which you are being saved…”. Or in First Corinthians
2:2, “For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.”
We have a way of forgetting, every day, don’t we? Every time we hide or ignore our sin, we forget the sufficiency of Christ’s sacrifice that frees us to confess. We forget the sweetness of Christ’s fellowship—the peace of conscience—that moves us to confess. We forget the wisdom that the cross offers. We slowly pay less attention to it, until it’s no longer a thought—and, we wonder why life is getting more miserable.
I mentioned Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians, but perhaps Hebrews gets even more on point. Hebrews 2:1 says “we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it”. The imagery there is powerful. It’s the imagery of a boat that was docked at port, but someone forgot to tie it down. It slowly drifts—you can’t even see it moving. Although, it drifts—and before long, it’s lost to the sea. We need to pay “much closer attention to what we have heard”. We need to hear it over, and over, and over again.
So to say this simply—Christian growth and maturity requires repetition. Christian leaders like Paul and Apollos are called to instill a certain repetition into God’s people—constantly declaring and explaining the gospel of Christ’s forgiveness and new life in fresh and helpful ways. That’s why Paul kept making circles in his journeys—even in this third and final missionary journey. He’s instilling repetition.
Christian Strength Requires Correction
Yet more than repetition, Godly pastors do well to instill correction, in order to strengthen the church. Look with me again at the story about Apollos.
As I have already alluded to, the story of Apollos happens after Paul leaves Ephesus for his home in Antioch. We’re told in chapter 18 verse 19 that Paul left Priscilla and Aquila in Ephesus when he made his brief stop there, en route to home. That sets us up for this story with Apollos.
We already talked about Apollos’s prestigious background and learning from Alexandria. He knew his Old Testament scriptures, he concluded Jesus is the promised Messiah, and so he “spoke and taught accurately the things concerning Jesus”. Verse 25 even says that he was “fervent in spirit”. There’s debate about whether “spirit” is referring to Apollos’s spirit (meaning that he was passionate in his own spirit about Jesus), or if that’s a reference to the Holy Spirit (meaning that he was fervently filled with the Holy Spirit). Either way, it seems Apollos was a Spirit-filled believer who was teaching Jesus when Priscilla and Aquila met him. The problem was that he only knew the baptism of John. Meaning, Apollos somehow never heard about Jesus’s water baptism. It seems Apollos knew about Jesus’s resurrection and the outpouring of his Holy Spirit, since you can’t accurately speak about Jesus without that. Apollos simply needed some instruction on water baptism, and perhaps some other secondary matters of the faith that Aquila could have helped him out with.
Aquila and Priscilla came into Ephesus, and the church needed to be strengthened. Apollos, one of the great teachers at Ephesus, needed to be corrected and equipped with the great blessing of Jesus’s water baptism, among other possible matters.
This illustrates that Christian growth requires correction. Godly leaders ought to instill a humble, Godly correction in order to strengthen the church. I love how gentle Aquila and Priscilla were about this. Verse 26, “He began to speak boldly in the synagogue, but when Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they took him aside and explained to him the way of God more accurately”. They made this a private affair, to not embarrass Apollos or harm his ministry. I actually trust this was a joyful thing, to be corrected and informed of a greater and more obedient way of serving Christ.
Seek to be corrected and taught, and you will be strengthened in the faith. It’ll be easier to say no to sin, and to enjoy the blessings of Christ every day.
So strengthening Christians and churches involves the ministry of Godly pastors and leaders, and those pastors specifically strengthen the church through repetition of the gospel, and through correction, or instruction.
Now, consider what happens to Apollos’s ministry after he was corrected.
Christian Strength Requires Confidence
27 And when he wished to cross to Achaia, the brothers encouraged him and wrote to the disciples to welcome him. When he arrived, he greatly helped those who through grace had believed, 28 for he powerfully refuted the Jews in public, showing by the Scriptures that the Christ was Jesus.
This is beautiful. Apollos is corrected and strengthened in his ministry by Aquila and Priscilla, and then he feels so strengthened and emboldened that he desired to go to Achaia in order to pick up where Paul left off in Corinth (Corinth is in the region of Achai). Again—godly ministers working together to strengthen the church. This is literally where Paul says in his letter to the Corinthians, “I planted [your faith], Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.” God, in the end, is the one who gives growth through the ministries of his pastors.
Yet, what specifically did Apollos do that strengthened the church in Achaia? He “greatly helped those who through grace had believed”—again, God, through grace, gave the growth. He made them believe. Apollos helped them, we’re told, “for he powerfully refuted the Jews in public, showing by the Scriptures that the Christ was Jesus”. That’s awesome. Apollos was a Jewish scholar who could swing with the best of them. He refuted the Jews “powerfully” and “publicly”—possibly the same Jews that sought to bring Paul before the proconsul with criminal charges earlier in chapter 18.
Perhaps you have heard an argument that challenges the Christian faith. It’s troubling, isn’t it? Then, you hear a pastor stand up and publicly refute the person. It not only gives you peace in knowing your faith stands, but it also strengthens your faith. It strengthens your certainty, your confidence, that our faith can stand up against even that argument. That was Apollos, folks.
This illustrates that Christian growth requires confidence. Godly leaders and pastors ought to instill confidence with sound arguments from Scripture that Jesus is the Messiah. As pastors water and plant the seed of faith, we trust that God will indeed give the growth.
So, God has designed his church to be strengthened through the ministries of godly men who instill repetition of the gospel, correction and instruction, and confidence into God’s people. These are all matters of the faith, folks. They aren’t “five steps to the newer and stronger you”. They are all pointing to the power of knowing and remember Jesus as the Messiah, the savior who offers forgiveness and peace. God strengthens our souls through his gospel. Yet the final story in our passage reminds us that it truly is God who gives the strength and growth. Even the most eloquent Pastor cannot instill faith and strength on his own.
Christian Strength Requires the Holy Spirit and Baptism
In chapter 19 verse 1, we see that Paul made it to Ephesus. There, we’re told that Paul met some “disciples”, as verse 1 calls them. In fact, Paul seems to be under the impression that these disciples really were believing upon the Lord Jesus. He said, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” (verse 2). So, it seems that Paul attributed some sort of faith to these disciples.
However, he recognized something was really missing. He asked them if they had received the spirit, and they said they hadn’t even heard of the Spirit. Then, he asked them “then into what baptism were you baptized?” They answered, “into John’s baptism”.
Now, here’s what is particularly odd about this. They said they hadn’t heard of the Spirit, yet they confessed to be baptized with John’s baptism. John’s baptism was literally a baptism that prepared people for Jesus who, in John’s words, “will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire”. If these disciples who were baptized into John’s baptism knew anything about what John taught, then they would have heard of the Holy Spirit.
The easiest way to understand this is to recognize that these disciples had, indeed, received the spirit of new birth and revelation, although they hadn’t yet received the Spirit of Pentecost (I'll explain that in a moment), much less Jesus’s water baptism. So, Paul had to fill them in. When he did, he “baptized them into the name of Jesus” (verse 5)—that’s water baptism, as any Christian ought to receive after believing. Then Paul laid his hands on them for them to receive the Spirit in an extraordinary way, that they might speak in tongues and prophesy (verse 6). It’s important for us to recognize that unlike water baptism, which all believers ought to receive, this Pentecostal filling of the Spirit for tongues and prophesying is not normative for all Christians. It was an experience that was unique to the church at that time, as God was giving a miraculous and visible sign that he had indeed brought gentiles into his kingdom. At Pentecost in Acts 2, tongues and prophesy signified that the Spirit of Christ had fallen upon the Jews in Jerusalem. Then, a similar Pentecostal event happened to the half-Jewish Samaritans in Acts 8. This was followed up by the “God-fearers” of Cornelius’s household, who spoke in tongues and prophesied in Acts 10. The God-fearers were gentiles who worshipped in the synagogue as gentiles (they never underwent formal proselyte conversion). Now, here in Acts 18, gentiles who never associated with the Jews in any capacity are confirmed by these same signs of tongues and prophey. As the gospel moved from Jerusalem, to Samaria, to god-fearing gentiles, to (formerly) godless gentiles—God was stamping his approval of their inclusion into his kingdom with visible signs of his Spirit.
Paul strengthened the church, here, by ensuring that these gentiles knew they were full members of Christ’s kingdom. So, he baptized them with water, and he lay his hands upon them that they might receive the signs of tongues and prophesy.
Summary: Five Ways God Strengthens Us
The Lord strengthens his church in powerful ways. To boil all this down, God strengthens his church (1) through his devoted ministers, who together instill God’s people with (2) repetition in the gospel, (3) correction, (4) confidence, and (5) baptism and the Holy Spirit. By God’s grace, may we find strength and growth together in these things.