MESSAGE FOR JUNE 26, 2011 FROM ACTS 18:18-28
This week, we continue to follow Paul through the book of Acts as he works to fulfill Jesus’ command to take the gospel to the ends of the earth. In our text this morning, we find Paul in a transitional period between the end of his second missionary journey and the beginning of his third. The transitional nature of Paul’s ministry here in no way makes this text less important. There are some crucial truths to be found in the end of Acts chapter 18. Let’s read beginning with verse 18. Paul has been cleared of all legal charged against him in Corinth and Luke writes, “18 After this, Paul stayed many days longer and then took leave of the brothers and set sail for Syria, and with him Priscilla and Aquila. At Cenchreae he had cut his hair, for he was under a vow. 19 And they came to Ephesus, and he left them there, but he himself went into the synagogue and reasoned with the Jews. 20 When they asked him to stay for a longer period, he declined. 21 But on taking leave of them he said, “I will return to you if God wills,” and he set sail from Ephesus. 22 When he had landed at Caesarea, he went up and greeted the church, and they went down to Antioch. 23 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. 24 Now a Jew named Apollos, a native of Alexandria, came to Ephesus. He was an eloquent man, competent in the Scriptures. 25 He had been instructed in the way of the Lord. And being fervent in spirit, he spoke and taught accurately the things concerning Jesus, though he knew only the baptism of John. 26 He began to speak boldly in the synagogue, but when Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they took him and explained to him the way of God more accurately. 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 text exemplifies the truth that a believer—in this case Paul—is not by his raw ability alone able to honor Christ in ministry. Many believers in Christ’s church have powerful gifts, but because they have little spiritual maturity and are not sensitive to the leading of the Spirit, their usefulness to God’s kingdom is minimal. Today’s message assumes that you desire to bring glory to God by being used in God’s kingdom to your utmost. If that is not true of you, then listen and pray that the truths in this text will motivate you to cry out for God do whatever work in your heart is necessary to make you want to glorify him through powerful ministry.
As he did in Corinth, Paul begins his ministry in Ephesus with the Jews—(we’ll talk in some detail about Ephesus next time). Paul was probably looking more “Jewish” than usual these days because he had shaved his head at Cenchreae—just a few miles southeast of Corinth. Luke tells us the reason for his shaved head was because “he was under a vow.” We don’t know what kind of vow Paul took. Many scholars think it was a Nazirite vow, the stipulations of which are found in Numbers chapter six. It required shaving off your hair as you completed your vow and offering it to God as an act of Paul’s devotion to God rooted in his Jewish heritage—it involved committing himself to a time of intentional consecration to God. Paul didn’t lose his “Jewish-ness” when he was converted. Christ was not substituted for his Judaism. In fact, Christ brought life to his Jewish expressions of devotion and fulfilled them. These Jewish vows were doubtless much more precious to Paul after he trusted Christ because now he knew that his righteousness did not depend on his relationship to Abraham or his performance of any vow or law. Christ was now his righteousness and he had been liberated from the tyranny of trying to be acceptable to God through the Law. That liberty meant that now Paul could (in Christ) offer these times of consecration to God with joy because its purpose was to enhance his relationship with the One he loved and who had died for him. This is also true for our acts of special devotion—like extended times of prayer and extended and intense time in the word or fasting. These should be accompanied by much joy because we don’t have to do them to get God to love us. They are our loving response to Christ who has become our righteousness.
As it relates to ministry, I see three expressions of God’s grace necessary for God-honoring ministry. The first one is: ministering in response to God’s ministry agenda, not our own or the needs of others. It sickens me to think about the enormous amount of God’s time I have spent in ministry—in and out of church in unproductive ways because, rather than allow God’s agenda for me to direct me through the Spirit, I was responding either to my own selfish agenda or giving myself to the person who screamed the loudest. Paul doesn’t model that here and neither did Jesus. Notice here in Ephesus that Paul—as in Corinth—begins his ministry to the Jews as he reasoned with them in the synagogue. But very much unlike Corinth, these Jews are here very receptive to Paul. So much so that Luke tells us in verse 20, “When they asked him to stay for a longer period, he declined. But on taking leave of them he said, “I will return to you if God wills” and set sail from Ephesus.”
There are at least two reasons why it would have been very tempting for Paul to stay with these Jews and minister to them rather than leave as he did. First, because the Jews in the other cities in which Paul ministered were generally very unreceptive to the gospel. Here in Ephesus the Jews were actually open and Paul, as an expert in Jewish law would have relished the chance to persuade them that Jesus was the fulfillment of all their hopes for the Messiah. This receptivity by these Jews must have been very refreshing and compelling to Paul. He’s much more accustomed to Jews who run him out of town on a rail, than those who ask him to stay.
Another reason is even more fundamental and that is—Paul had an invincible burden to see Jews embrace Jesus as their Messiah. When Paul went into a city—he generally went first to the Jews. Paul’s compulsion to minister to Jews wasn’t simply theological—(“to the Jew first”) it was also deeply visceral. Paul had a burden in his heart for the Jews that bordered on the irrational. We see it in Romans chapter nine verse one and following. He writes, “1 I am speaking the truth in Christ—I am not lying; my conscience bears me witness in the Holy Spirit—2 that I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. 3 For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh.” He’s saying that his great sorrow and unceasing anguish of heart was so profound that if it were possible, he would spend eternity in the torment of hell for the salvation to the Jews. We must remember that Paul loved Christ perhaps as much as anyone in history—his suffering for him establishes that. That means that for him,—even though suffering God’s eternal wrath would be horrific, even worse for Paul would be eternal separation from Christ—his greatest love.
Because this is such a dramatic statement of the degree of his anguish for his people, Paul prefaces it with the qualifiers, “I am not lying; my conscience bears me witness in the Holy Spirit.” He’s not exaggerating or engaging in a literary flourish—he would give himself to the eternal wrath of God if it would save the Jews. Paul’s dramatic love for the Jews is peerless. Yet, here in Ephesus, Paul’s “kinsmen according to the flesh” are receptive to the gospel—even to the point of requesting that he not leave them but Paul says, “I will return to you if God wills” and off he goes. Paul knew these Jews were in need of the Savior and they asked him to remain with them. But he also knew that neither their request, nor their need constituted a call from God to minister to them. His ministry was not “by request” or need-centered, it was Christ-centered. This is so important! If we allow the controlling factor of our lives and ministries to be people’s professed need of us, or our own personal ministry agendas, we will miss God and work outside his will. Allowing the desires of others and meeting these kinds of obvious needs may be very rewarding ministry on a certain level. It makes us very popular among those who we are helping. But if it’s not God’s agenda for you—then you are wasting your life doing good things that are not at all from the Holy Spirit even though they may be very good things.
This temptation to overlook God’s leading, in favor of the requests of others or our own ministry burdens or agendas is sometimes very difficult to do, especially for believers who are compassionate and whose hearts bleed easily for others in need. They assume that because someone is needy or hurting and that need pulls at their heartstrings, God must be behind that. Paul shows us—that’s not true and Jesus even more dramatically manifests this unbending devotion to do God’s will alone—even if it means leaving people behind who are in deep need. We see this several times in texts like Luke chapter four. Jesus was in Capernaum healing people and teaching. Verse 42 says, “42 And when it was day, he departed and went into a desolate place. And the people sought him and came to him, and would have kept him from leaving them, 43 but he said to them, “I must preach the good news of the kingdom of God to the other towns as well; for I was sent for this purpose.” 44 And he was preaching in the synagogues of Judea.” It was God’s purpose for his life—not the cries of help from others that directed Jesus. Every place Jesus left, he left people who were in need of healing and truth, but he was not fundamentally sent here for them, but to do the will of his Father. That is an absolutely crucial distinction and very difficult to hear sometimes in the din and clamor of needy people who want our help.
Maybe God has someone else to serve them. If I assume I must do it because I am the only one person or the best person or the closest person to do it—I am are shortening God’s arm and assuming a messianic attitude—as if God couldn’t possible use someone other than ME to help that person. Please don’t misunderstand. God’s leading of Paul here does NOT teach that we avoid needy people—that’s not the point at all. The point is--we mustn’t allow our personal feelings and sympathies or the requests of others to guide how and where we minister, but rather the Spirit of God. The need or the request does not constitute the call to minister. Ministering in this way absolutely requires the grace of God—you cannot do that on your own. That leads us to the second expression of God’s grace necessary for God-honoring ministry. That is: trusting a sovereign God who does not need us to work without us. Doubtless, the main reason Paul felt freedom from the pull of the needs of the Jews in Ephesus was because he trusted that if God wanted to reach the Jews in Ephesus, he could use someone else.
Its not that God didn’t want to reach these Jews in Ephesus. It’s clear that he did. However, in his sovereign will, he simply wanted to use someone else. The temptation for us is to ask, “When it comes to Jewish evangelism, how can God use anyone like the Hebrew of Hebrews?” After Paul left for what most scholars agree was Jerusalem and then (as Luke tells us) to Caesarea and then his home church in Antioch, someone else just happens to show up in Ephesus. Verse 24 says, “24 Now a Jew named Apollos, a native of Alexandria, came to Ephesus. He was an eloquent man, competent in the Scriptures. 25 He had been instructed in the way of the Lord. And being fervent in spirit, he spoke and taught accurately the things concerning Jesus…” Luke says three things about this man that are very impressive. First, “he was an eloquent man.” By “eloquent,” Luke first means that Apollos was well educated or a learned man. He was from Alexandria, which was one of the academic powerhouses in the empire and ultimately supplied the early church with some of its best scholars. This word “eloquent” also means that he was formally skilled in rhetoric. Apollos had spent years learning how to formulate arguments and articulate positions in a compelling manner. He was an impressive and persuasive speaker.
Second, Apollos was “competent in the Scriptures” according to verse 24. That word translated “competent” in context probably means something more like “mighty” or “powerful.” Apollos knew the Old Testament very well and was capable of expertly arguing from it. When he leaves Ephesus for Achaia, verse 28 says, “…He powerfully refuted the Jews in public, showing by the Scriptures that the Christ was Jesus.” The word translated “refute” more literally means to “overwhelm” someone in an argument. In Achaia—the province of Athens and Corinth, none of the Jews could touch Apollos rhetorically or intellectually. He utterly confounded them as he proved that Jesus was the Messiah.
Finally, Apollos was “fervent in spirit.” Not only was he well educated and powerful in his Biblical arguments for Jesus as the Christ, he was also on fire. He had tremendous passion. For Apollos, proving that Jesus was the Messiah was not fundamentally an intellectual or rhetorical pursuit. It grew out of his incendiary love for God. Apollos was a specially fitted and called vessel of Christ who, perhaps out of the entire church, was the one man who could be compared in his skills for ministry to the apostle Paul. The Bible indicates that Paul related to Apollos as a peer in ministry. In First Corinthians 16:12, Paul writes, “12 Now concerning our brother Apollos, I strongly urged him to visit you with the other brothers, but it was not at all his will to come now. He will come when he has opportunity.” That tells us something of Apollos’ relationship to Paul. The apostle strongly urged him—he didn’t offer a suggestion, but strongly urged him, “You really need to come to Corinth, Apollos.” But Apollos refuses—literally it says, “It was altogether not Apollos’ desire to come now.” Corinth was not on Apollos’ radar screen and he lets Paul know it. That implies that he thinks the apostle Paul is just plain wrong in this matter. That Apollos would feel the independence to refuse Paul’s strong urging and that Paul would not indicate to the Corinthians that Apollos was mistaken--tells us that, even though Apollos was not an apostle in the same sense Paul was, they related as peers in terms of ministry.
The grace-filled, sovereign hand of God is easy to trace here in Ephesus. Paul follows God’s will and leaves Ephesus, trusting God that he will take care of these truth-hungry Jews for whom he was so deeply burdened. And after Paul leaves, God just happens to bring to Ephesus a man who in many ways was Paul’s equal or even superior in ministry, Apollos. Paul was not indispensible to the spread of the gospel in Asia. This is so important for those of us who want to honor God in our ministries. This reminds us of a truth that is easy for us to forget. That is--God doesn’t need us. If God didn’t need Paul in Ephesus for these hungry Jews, then he surely doesn’t need us! The only Person who is indispensible in the church is the One who bled and died for her. ANYONE can be replaced and the moment we think we are indispensible or irreplaceable is the moment we open a huge door of pride to the enemy. It’s not about us—its ALL about God’s grace, God’s leading, God’s purposes, God’s glory! Paul trusted God to minister to the Jews in Ephesus while he went to Jerusalem and God did just that, through a very capable servant, Apollos. This does not mean that Paul was finished in Ephesus. A bit later, he spends three years there. It just means that God didn’t want him there at this particular time—he wanted Apollos.
As we know from the text, Apollos was not without deficiency. Verse 25 says of him, “He had been instructed in the way of the Lord. And being fervent in spirit, he spoke and taught accurately the things concerning Jesus, though he knew only the baptism of John.” At this point, Apollos has a gap in his understanding of Christ’s saving work and it’s an important one. As we explain it, we come upon a third expression of God’s grace necessary for God honoring ministry. That is: Expressing humility as we give and receive ministry. God can use proud people—he does it sometimes to show that even pride, which is so contrary to him and his methods, cannot overturn his purposes. But humble servants are the norm as the vessels through which he pours his grace and this account of Apollos reeks with humility.
It’s clear that Apollos didn’t know that with the appearance of Christ, a new age in salvation history—the age of the Holy Spirit had dawned. Not everything would be as it was in the time of John the Baptist or the Old Testament. All those who trust in Christ would receive a New Covenant, Spirit baptism. Paul says in First Corinthians 12:13, “For in one Spirit we have been baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit.” This has many implications for New Covenant ministry, but one that would be very important for Apollos that the entire church—unlike the nation of Israel—has been given a supernatural anointing of the Spirit that remains on a believer and has a cleansing and empowering impact the nation of Israel as a whole never experienced. These and other implications of this truth would have been crucial for Apollos to know in his ministry. This does NOT mean that Apollos had not experienced the baptism of the Spirit. If he had not, then his Spirit baptism would have almost certainly been included by Luke in the text here. What we have already heard about Apollos in my mind argues strongly that he was indeed a born-again, Spirit-baptized follower of Christ. He just didn’t understand all the theology behind that.
That’s where the two disciples we met last week come in. Verse 26 says of Apollos, “26 He began to speak boldly in the synagogue, but when Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they took him and explained to him the way of God more accurately.” This verse provides two powerful expressions of God’s grace of humility. First, note the way Priscilla and Aquila handle this. They hear this outwardly impressive servant of Christ boldly speaking in the synagogue, but he’s missing something. Notice what they DON’T do here in response. They do not publicly correct him. It would have been easy to justify doing this—“This man is speaking publicly an incomplete message. Because these people should not leave here with an incomplete understanding, I better publicly correct his mistake to prevent misunderstanding.” It would have been so easy to put on public display your superior knowledge in the name of informing these people more completely.
But they are wise and James tells us wisdom from above is “gentle [and]…full of mercy.” Theirs is a humble wisdom. They know that the message Apollos preached was not heretical, only incomplete. And he is evidently giving them enough of the gospel to make salvation possible. They are also wise enough to know that they don’t know Apollos and aren’t sure how he would respond to public correction and they see he has great promise for future ministry and they don’t want to jeopardize that. So, “they took him aside” out of public hearing and “explained to him the way of God more accurately.” They were more concerned with building up Apollos, than they were in enhancing their own theological reputation. They put their selfish interests behind the interest of Apollos and the spread of the gospel. They don’t care who gets the spotlight or the credit. They don’t need it and do not seek it. Prideful people will use any opportunity to place on display their superior knowledge or understanding—not these two. They have the grace of humility.
Perhaps even more dramatic is the humility of Apollos. Remember his resume. He is well educated, highly trained and skilled in arguing down people from their false positions. He is a scholar and an orator and he is preaching his heart out when these two uneducated laborers—tentmakers, call him over to educate him on his message. From Luke’s account, it appears that Apollos humbly received this instruction from these two uneducated tentmakers and remains zealous for the gospel. He doesn’t sulk--reflecting on his deficiency—depressed as he wonders what the other believers who know about the Spirit must have thought of him--or just feeling like a failure. No, verse 27 says this newly equipped messenger “wished to go to Achaia” and he was aided in this by the disciples in Ephesus who wrote him a letter of recommendation.
The result of this humility from both parties is that Apollos is greatly sharpened and the gospel powerfully goes forward. If you who long to do effective ministry in your homes, neighborhoods, churches or to the nations, this grace of humility is indispensible. There are several reasons for this but the most basic is perhaps in James chapter four. James is writing about God’s jealousy when his people become friends with the world and says, in verse six, “But he gives more grace. Therefore it says, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” All effective ministry requires God’s grace and a humble believer is a magnet for grace. God gives you grace in your ministry as you humbly look to him and are willing to receive from anyone the resources you need to do his will. God also gives grace to those who are humble enough not to cave in to their prideful impulse to publicly trumpet their expertise.
As we close, let me remind you that, in a section about making Christ the foundation for all our ministry, Paul writes in First Corinthians 3:13 of believers, “13 each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. 14 If the work that anyone has built on the foundation [of Christ] survives, he will receive a reward. 15 If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.” Ministry in the home, neighborhood, church or world that survives the fire of God’s testing is founded on Christ and is done by the Spirit’s leading and in the power of his grace so that Christ alone is exalted. I have often thought of me bringing my ministry before God at the judgment and as it passed through the fire of testing, all that is left is ashes. That’s what I spent a lifetime giving to the One who suffered and died for me—ashes—because ultimately, I made it all about me instead of Christ?
Is that what you want? If our works are to pass through the fire un-charred, they must be done--NOT fundamentally in response to our own personal burdens or those in need who ask for our help. They must be done--NOT with the attitude that God needs us and that we are the only or the best ones he could use in a given situation. They must be done--NOT with the prideful motive to make much of ourselves—spotlighting our gifts and abilities. They must be done by the power of his grace as we hear and follow the leading of the Holy Spirit even if it means turning our backs on someone in need. May God give us the grace to minister that way for our joy and God’s glory.
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