The Lord's Day Evening
May 6, 2007
To the Ends of the Earth
Priscilla, Aquila, and Apollos”
Dr. Derek W. H. Thomas
Please be seated. Now turn with me to The Acts of The Apostles, and we pick up the reading once again in the eighteenth chapter of Acts. We left Paul last week in the great and extremely important city of Corinth, and tonight we're going to follow him on a breathless journey that will be 1200 to 1300 miles, but Luke summarizes in just a few verses.
Before we read the passage together, let's look to God in prayer. Let us pray.
Father, we thank you for the Scriptures. We thank You for the books of Genesis through to Revelation, every jot and tittle given by inspiration of God; profitable for doctrine, reproof, correction, instruction in the way of righteousness, that the man of God might be thoroughly furnished unto every good work. We thank You again that holy men of old wrote as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit; that men wrote from God; that what we have in the Scripture is Your word, the product of Your out-breathing. We thank You for the way in which the Scriptures come to us again and again and catch us, as it were, just at the point where we need instruction, or help and encouragement. We thank You for the way in which Your Spirit enables us to understand its teaching, and we come again this evening as needy as ever. We are hungry. We are so fickle in and of ourselves. We need You to come and help us. We need instruction, we need guidance, we need direction, we need help. We need encouragement. We need the word to come and show us our sins and drive us to Christ. We need the Scriptures to open up a glimpse of glory. So come, Holy Spirit. Come in all of Your power, and shine a light upon these words of Scripture, upon our minds, that we might be enabled to understand a little of what You have written, for we know it is good for us and that we need it. And this we ask in Jesus' name. Amen.
Now hear the word of God as we find it in Acts, chapter eighteen, and we are picking it up at the eighteenth verse and reading through to the end of the chapter:
“And Paul, having remained many days longer, took leave of the brethren and put out to sea for Syria, and with him were Priscilla and Aquila. In Cenchrea he had his hair cut, for he was keeping a vow. And they came to Ephesus, and he left them there. Now he himself entered the synagogue and reasoned with the Jews. When they asked him to stay for a longer time, he did not consent, but taking leave of them and saying, ‘I will return to you again if God wills,’ he set sail from Ephesus.
“And when he had landed at Caesarea, he went up and greeted the church, and went down to Antioch. And having spent some time there, he departed and passed successively through the Galatian region and Phrygia, strengthening all the disciples.
“Now a certain Jew named Apollos, an Alexandrian by birth, an eloquent man, came to Ephesus; and he was mighty in the Scriptures. This man had been instructed in the way of the Lord; and being fervent in spirit, he was speaking and teaching accurately the things concerning Jesus, being acquainted only with the baptism of John; and he began to speak out 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. And when he wanted to go across to Achaia, the brethren encouraged him and wrote to the disciples to welcome him; and when he had arrived, he helped greatly those who had believed through grace; for he powerfully refuted the Jews in public, demonstrating by the Scriptures that Jesus was the Christ.”
Amen. And may the Lord add His blessing to that reading from His holy word.
Now there are some couples, married couples, that we invariably know by the name of the wife first. For me, of course, it's Margaret and Dennis Thatcher. I mean, who knows Dennis Thatcher? Do you know anything about Dennis Thatcher? All of you know Margaret Thatcher. An indomitable married couple still, I think. And something like that is to the fore here in the allusion that's given here by Luke to Priscilla and Aquila. When they were first introduced back in Corinth last week, it was “Aquila and Priscilla”, but now it is “Priscilla and Aquila.” Their names will occur six times in the course of the Scriptures, three by Luke and three by Paul. And Paul, just like Luke, introduces them formally as Aquila and Priscilla, and then goes on to speak of them as Priscilla and Aquila. She's also known by Paul, of course, by the name of Prisca, which is the more formal name. Luke uses the diminutive Priscilla, a bit like, I suppose, as Elizabeth and Liz or something like that.
Then this little portion of scripture has this breathless journey. Paul makes a journey from Corinth to the port city of Cenchrea, to the east; then across the Aegean to Ephesus; taking with him Priscilla and Aquila, he leaves from there. Then by sea, along the Mediterranean he makes his way to Caesarea. He may–we’ll come to it in a minute–but he may have gone to Jerusalem. Then he went north to the home church, Antioch…Antioch in Syria. Having spent some time in Antioch in Syria, he then makes his way back by land, going to places that we looked at on Paul's first missionary journey (Iconium, Derbe, Lystra), and then by a land route back to Ephesus. It's about 1200 miles, 1300 miles, and Luke summarizes it all in just a few verses.
Then, Apollos, somewhat of a new figure for us here in The Acts of The Apostles, and an enormously important figure in the New Testament. And what we have in this section of The Acts of The Apostles are three cameo sketches, each of which contain something of a puzzle.
The first is Paul. Luke tells us in almost a matter of fact sort of fashion that he makes this extraordinary journey all the way to Caesarea and Antioch and all the way back again to Ephesus, but he tells us in Cenchrea, the port city of Corinth, he stops at the barber's (that's it… he doesn't really tell us much more) “…because he had made a vow.” And we've got a thousand questions, and Luke doesn't give us any answers.
Then there's Apollos. He's an Egyptian. He comes from Alexandria, one of the great…well, it would be hard to exaggerate the importance of the city of Alexandria on the northern coast of Africa. The story of the spread of Christianity through North Africa along that strip of just a few miles right along the topmost part of North Africa (think of it in your heads) — that story is one of the great untold stories. I mean, it is told, but it is not told often enough. And Apollos, he's obviously converted. What he's saying is true. He comes from Egypt…comes from Alexandria… he finds himself now in Ephesus…he will end up in Corinth, and yet there's something odd about him, because Luke tells us he only knows the baptism of John. Again, we've got a thousand questions! Luke, what on earth do you mean?
The third little cameo sketch is that of Priscilla and Aquila. This godly married couple, this married team ministry that's taking place…family ministry, supportive ministry in the life of the church in Ephesus…a godly, godly couple who are themselves exiles from the city of Rome. We picked them up last week in Corinth, now they’re in Ephesus. And again there's something of a puzzle. Why does Luke refer to them now as Priscilla and Aquila, when before he referred to them as Aquila and Priscilla? Maybe not a big deal…but it is, I think.
So, three cameo portraits, and three…I was going to say “little puzzles,” but actually they are big puzzles. I have to tell you up front, I don't have all the answers.
Let's begin with the first one: Paul. We pick him up in Corinth. We read in verse 18 of chapter 18 that he spent many days there. Now Luke has already told us that he's been there a year and a half. And then, remember from last week, Gallio, the proconsul in Corinth and in this region of Achaia, has given a political legal verdict in favor of Paul…well, at least he hasn't favored the arguments of the Jews against Paul. It's a very important thing that Gallio does, and I think for at least a short period of time during the rest of the reign of Emperor Claudius it means that the gospel is given a period of peace for a few years, perhaps in order to enable the gospel to spread just a little further and just to enable the churches to stabilize and grow. It's not going to last long, but Gallio's decision in that brief period of church history has immense consequences for the region. Paul now can travel throughout Achaia, and I think we see a little bit of that.
So he's there for eighteen months now. He's there for a little while longer, maybe two years, and then he decides he needs to go back to Antioch - the home church, Antioch in Syria. And he catches a boat in Cenchrea, one of the port cities of Corinth to the east of Corinth, and travels across the Aegean to this…well, wonderful and extraordinary city of Ephesus. [Now I won't say anything about Ephesus tonight. The next two chapters in Acts are going to. We’re going to spend just a wonderful Mediterranean vacation in Ephesus the next few weeks, and I’ll try and tell you a little bit more about this extraordinary city of Ephesus. It's as important, and perhaps a little more so, than the city of Corinth.] He takes Priscilla and Aquila with him, leaves them in Ephesus. But Luke tells us that at Cenchrea, he visits the barber. He has a haircut
Now, it's a curious thing. It's an immensely curious thing. You know, we ought to have just a little bit of curiosity when we're reading the Bible. It helps us understand the Bible to ask the Bible certain questions. Well, why doesn't Luke tell us more little details about Paul? I'd like to know what he ate. I'd like to know what he wore. I'd like to know some of his sleeping habits. Where did he stay in some of these cities? Now, sometimes there's a clue that he stayed in somebody's house. Sometimes Luke doesn't tell us. There are lots of little details. Imagine when you’re going on a mission trip for two weeks, all of the things that…you know, you lay out your case on the bed somewhere in a spare room, and you put all the things there that you think you might need. Luke doesn't tell us…why is he telling us this about Paul having a haircut in Cenchrea? Was it Priscilla saying to him, “You can't possibly go back to Antioch looking like that!”? Well, Luke says…he gives us a clue. He says he had made a vow. What kind of vow? (Well, you need to go to the website of First Presbyterian Church. How many of you go to the website of First Presbyterian Church? You go to that page that says “Sermons.” And you click on Numbers, the series that Ligon has just begun on Wednesday evenings, and if you are one of those who were at the Wednesday evening when we were dealing with Numbers 6, just a few weeks ago, it's all there on the website. Every little aside that Ligon makes, it's all there! Some secretary in the church types every word that he says. And somewhere in the course of Numbers 6 dealing with the Nazarite vow, he said, and I quote, “I can't wait for Derek to come to this passage in Acts 18.” Well, that made me very nervous! And Ligon and I were emailing back and forth yesterday, as there are some complications here.)
I think it's almost self-evident this is a Nazarite vow. In Numbers 6, Moses tells us about this special vow - a voluntary vow, a temporary vow, a costly vow - that men and women could make that involved three things. It involved refraining from strong drink; it involved refraining from almost anything to do with grapes, either grape juice or dried grapes of some kind; and thirdly, from having a haircut. Now, it's the haircut part that's the clue that this is a Nazarite vow.
You might make a Nazarite vow as a way of thanksgiving for an extraordinary deliverance that God had given you in the course of providence. There have been times, of course, in your own life when you have felt something of God's extraordinary blessing, when you've been drawn, as it were, closer to Him, and you just feel as though you want to give yourselves to the Lord and to His service in an extraordinary way. And the Nazarite vow was a very public thing. Not cutting your hair for a period of time, people would see that and note that. [It wouldn't make much difference for Ligon and myself, you understand, but for some it would make an extraordinary difference!] It was a public thing. It was saying publicly, “I am the Lord's. I'm giving myself to the Lord. I don't care who knows about it. This is something that I want the whole world to know. I am out and out for the Lord.”
At the termination of this Nazarite vow your hair would be cut. Actually, you’d shave yourself entirely. And if you were in the Old Testament economy and near Jerusalem, you’d take that hair and it would be ceremonially burnt in some way, and then an offering would be given: a ewe lamb; a male lamb; a ram; and, a plate of unleavened bread. That's an enormously costly thing to terminate, finish, the vow. It looks–though not everyone is agreed–but it looks as though what is happening here is the termination point of the vow. This isn't the beginning of the vow, this is the termination point. He hasn't come to Ephesus, so it's got nothing to do with anything that's going on in Ephesus, if that's the point. It's got something to do with what went on in Corinth. Well, what went on in Corinth? Well, what went on in Corinth was the decision of Gallio; the vision, or the voice, that Paul heard that would deliver him from physical harm in Corinth. He's been there two years, and he hasn't been whipped. He hasn't been put in prison. He hasn't been beaten. Do you know how thankful Paul must have been for that, after all the things that happened to him on the second missionary journey? He's had two years of respite. It's been like an oasis. It's been like a home from home. He's been able to go about and minister and do the things that he loves doing for the Lord, and to do so without fear of harm and danger. Maybe at the tail end of that he enters into this Nazarite vow.
Where I have certain difficulties is the suggestion that in order to actually complete this vow, if you are far away from Jerusalem you would collect this hair and actually take it with you to the temple in order to burn it, and then offer all of these sacrifices. Now, I have to tell you that I have problems with the idea that Paul at this stage in his life and in the life and development of the early church, that Paul would actually offer sacrifices that included ritual spilling of blood in the temple in Jerusalem. Now I'm ready to be told I'm wrong here. I just can't imagine it. There are some scholars here tonight, and you can put me right afterwards. I just can't imagine it, that Paul at this stage…now, I know that it's problematic as to when did true Christians, spiritual Christians, Christians who believed Jesus was Messiah, when did they actually terminate, ending the temple? That's a difficult question to answer. We certainly see Paul in the synagogue. The synagogue of course didn't involve ritual blood-letting sacrifices, but the temple was another thing.
In addition to that, if you’re reading the King James Version now, you've got a different text here. The eclectic text makes absolutely no mention of Paul going to Jerusalem at all. It just says that he went to Caesarea and he went up to the church. Now the inference is that he went “up”–you know you ascend to Mount Zion, so going “up” from Caesarea means you’re going up to Jerusalem, and then “down”–although you’re going north, but actually geographically and topographically you’re going “down” to Antioch. All of that is an inference that's not there in the text, and I have no problem with the idea that Paul is making a vow, and he's making a Nazarite vow. And I have to ask him in heaven whether he actually went to Jerusalem and offered sacrifice. I have problems with the very idea that he would do that.
But you know, there are times in our lives we believe in making vows. We make vows when we get married; we make vows when we join the church; we make vows at the time of baptisms. Now, there are traditions in the church. The Anabaptists, for example, at the time of the Reformation, were against making vows. They understood something of what Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount, I think, in an incorrect way. Jesus isn't saying that vows in and of themselves are wrong, but it was the motive for which they were making them that was wrong. And there are times in our lives when God draws near, when we experience extraordinary deliverances in God's providence, when it might be the very right thing, the proper thing, to give yourselves now in grateful acknowledgement of what God has done for you - that for a period of time you devote yourself to the Lord and concentrate on serving Him.
Now maybe that's God's word for some of us tonight - that we've never even thought of doing that. You know, that our vision and horizon is so worldly, so this-worldly, that the very idea of refraining from doing certain things for a period of time…it's a parallel to fasting. And that there are occasions in our lives when as an act of gratitude, as an act of consecration, as an act of focusing upon the Lord for a period of time, we engage in something like Paul is doing here as a vow of thanksgiving to the Lord.
Well, secondly, there's Apollos. I was intrigued in the way God sometimes weaves the morning and evening services together. I was intrigued…Ligon mentioned tangentially this morning the idea of ethnic diversity in the kingdom of God. And as I've been reflecting on this particular portion of Scripture, I've been intrigued. Here's this man; he's an Egyptian. He comes from this great city of Alexandria. Alexandria was one of the great cities. It was where the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, the so-called Septuagint, the enormously important document…it was the Bible version…it was the translation of the Bible that most people in Paul's day were actually reading. Many of them were no longer reading the Hebrew Scriptures, they were reading the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures. That had been done in Alexandria. Alexandria was where Philo came from. Philo was a contemporary of Jesus. He was a man who was trying to answer the question as to the relationship of the Hebrew Scriptures to Greek philosophy…didn't always answer it correctly, but he was trying to answer that relationship. This man Apollos, he was an Egyptian who comes to preach in the great city of Ephesus. Now he's Jewish, but there's no hint in Luke…Luke doesn't tell us anything at all, but he was unacceptable to enter the church in Ephesus because of his ethnicity. He was perfectly acceptable, as it should be, because in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female, bond nor Scythian . We are all one in Christ Jesus.
How did Apollos become a Christian? There's another puzzle. Did he become a Christian after the persecution of Stephen, when many of the Jews, you remember, believers who had come to faith in Christ, left the city? Some of them went up to Antioch. We've already seen how important the northern city of Antioch in Syria is. Some of them fled to the north coast of Africa. Perhaps that's how Apollos came to be a believer. We know that Christianity on the north coast of Africa, and particularly in Alexandria, had some problems with it. Some of it–and we needn't go into it all now–but it's often thought to have had some Gnostic tendencies, some mystical tendencies, some bits of philosophy and so on mixed in with Christianity.
What Luke tells us is that this man was eloquent (verse 24); he was competent in the Scriptures (verse 25); he was a follower of the Way. (That's one of those wonderful expressions that Luke is fond of using. He's a follower of the Way.) But he was fervent in spirit; he spoke and taught accurately the things concerning Jesus. He was a great preacher. He was an eloquent preacher. He was a preacher with verve, and the expression “fervent in spirit”–maybe that's not strong enough for what Luke is saying to describe the way that Apollos preached. And he came to the synagogue, and that's where Priscilla and Aquila hear him. And they see in him the evident marks and qualities of a man endowed with gifts of the Holy Spirit to preach and proclaim and teach the word of God, and their hearts are thrilled as they listen to Apollos, this Egyptian preaching in the synagogue in Ephesus. But there's something missing. There's something that's not quite right. He only knew the baptism of John. He seems as though he doesn't know anything about Christian baptism.
Now a thousand questions come to mind. I mean, how wrong was he? How right was he? What did he know or didn't he know? He was obviously preaching Jesus. He’d heard certain things that Jesus had said, some of the oral tradition that had made its way down to North Africa and Alexandria. But there were gaps in his thinking and gaps in his theology. Here's a man who showed such promise, and yet…and yet there was something missing.
III. Priscilla and Aquila.
And that's where Priscilla and Aquila come in. I told you there were three cameos and three puzzles: Paul and his haircut; and Apollos and only knowing the baptism of John; and now we've got Priscilla and Aquila. And all of a sudden Luke is calling this godly couple by the name of the wife first, just at Paul does on at least two occasions puts Priscilla before Aquila.
They must have heard Apollos preaching in the synagogue, and you can imagine something of the conversation: ‘Isn't that wonderful? Isn't it extraordinary to think of the power of God the Holy Spirit in taking the gospel to that great city of Alexandria in Egypt? Wasn't it wonderful to hear him expound the Scriptures with such verve and such enthusiasm?’ You know Aquila and Priscilla might have said, ‘You know, my heart was really blessed as I listened to him, but did you think there was something missing?’ And Aquila said, ‘Yes, what do you think?’ And she says, ‘Well, you know what I think? I think we should invite him home. I think we should invite him to dinner. I think we should invite him home and not embarrass him in public, but let's take him aside and let's instruct him. Let's help him, let's encourage him.’
You know, three things come out of this passage as I reflect on it. First of all, here's a godly couple who take an interest in a young man with great promise, and they want to encourage him.
Now I can't tell you the number of couples that did that to me when I was, you know, 23 or 24. Now there are threats at the seminary of trying to discover photographs of me when I was that age, and I hope they never will, but I can think of godly, godly couples…a deacon and his wife who regularly would invite me as a young student and a graduate student, recently converted, showing perhaps a little bit of signs that God was calling me to the ministry…but taking me to their home, inviting me to dinner. Now I get it! They were constantly giving me books, but they weren't just giving me books. The next time I would go for dinner, they would ask me, “Tell me about the book that you've been reading,” and gently, but very certainly they were instructing me–actually they were instructing me in Calvinism. They were instructing me in the Five Points of Calvinism! They wanted me to be a no-holds-barred unapologetic Calvinist! That was their agenda. They were just a wonderful, extraordinary couple. My heart still goes out to them.
You know, there's a story in the time of the Reformation of Hugh Latimer. Hugh Latimer, of course, was to be greatly used by God in the cause of the English Reformation, but Thomas Bilney was a young monk who understood the gospel, I think, better at that point than Hugh Latimer did. Hugh Latimer was above him in station and so on, and he wondered, “How can I teach Hugh Latimer the gospel without offending him? I want to encourage him.” And you know what he did? It was of course in the early part of the Reformation when they still had confessionals; they would still go to a confessional box and confess their sins to a priest. So Thomas Bilney goes to Hugh Latimer and says, “I want to confess my sins.” And Hugh Latimer takes him to the confessional box, and in the confessional box Thomas Bilney begins to preach the gospel to him! And he was a captive audience, so he couldn't leave! And slowly but surely, after several of these “confessions,” Hugh Latimer got it! He understood the doctrines of the gospel and the substitutionary nature of Christ's atonement for us.
Here's a godly couple, Aquila and Priscilla, showing interest in young men. Some of you do just that here with young men at the seminary who are called to the ministry, and some of them show enormous gifts and enormous talent and enormous potential, but they’re young, and there are green bits about them. But you encourage them, you motivate them and help them, and you’re doing work just like Aquila and Priscilla.
Secondly, they are a married couple, and the question that arises perhaps, why does Luke put her name first? Now don't be offended or bent out of shape, but there's something going on here, because there are couples where the wife is much more clued up in the things of the gospel than the husband is. There are many couples where the wife has a better grasp of theology and is sometimes more articulate theologically than the husband is, and I think that's what's going on here. But at no stage, I think, do you even detect that there was any difficulty in this marriage whatsoever. Here's a wonderful demonstration of how the New Testament actually supports and encourages the education of women in theological matters, and there is no reluctance whatsoever in the New Testament of saying that Priscilla can actually instruct Apollos without in any way contravening her responsibility to her husband to be subject to him in all things, and to be silent in the church in that sense, and to do this in her home. And I think here is a wonderful example of a very talented woman. And there's no hint here of course of any office or any call to the ministry. That isn't even on the agenda or on the page here at all. It's just a positive affirmation that here is the New Testament affirming the right of women to be educated in the things of the gospel.
And then thirdly, you know when Paul gets back to Ephesus after this breathless journey of his, he writes a letter to the church in Corinth. Now meanwhile, Apollos has been sent there, and sent there with letters of recommendation from folk like Priscilla and Aquila and others recommending him to the church in Corinth, and they've played a part in that. And when Paul writes that first letter to the Corinthians, right at the end of First Corinthians 16, he talks about the church, the church sending greetings, the church which meets in the house of Priscilla and Aquila. He's sending greetings from Ephesus to the church in Corinth, and he's sending greetings from the church that meets in the house of Priscilla and Aquila.
Now, Priscilla and Aquila were exiles. They’d been kicked out of Rome. They've been out of Rome for six or seven years now. Eventually (we know from the letter to Rome), they’ll be back in Rome again, when a new emperor is in town. But you know–and this is a wonderful thing–they didn't waste those six or seven years of exile from their home city. They were tent-makers. Maybe they had a business in Corinth, maybe they had another business in Ephesus, but they didn't waste that period. They have used that period of exile and providential hardship for the furtherance of the gospel in Corinth and in Ephesus, and in the life of this important man, Apollos.
You know, sometimes when God brings hardship or difficulty, sort of what you Americans call a “curve ball”…I'm not even sure what that means, but when that comes into your life maybe it's God's opportunity for you to do something for the kingdom of God like Priscilla and Aquila did.
Three portraits; three puzzles, some of which we don't have answers to, but some of which here are lessons, I think, for us to learn.
Let's pray together.
Father, we thank You that every part of Scripture is meant to help and instruct, and edify and encourage and rebuke and draw us to Christ, and we pray this evening that we might learn those particular truths that You want us to learn, and hide Your word now within our hearts, that we might not sin against You. For Jesus’ sake. Amen.
Please stand and receive the Lord's benediction.
Grace, mercy, and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ be with you all. Amen.
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