To the End of the Earth: To the End of the Earth (43): Priscilla, Aquila, and Apollos

Sermon by Derek Thomas on May 6, 2007

Acts 18:18-28

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The Lord’s Day

May 6, 2007

Acts 18:18-28

To the Ends
of the Earth

Priscilla, Aquila, and Apollos”

Dr. Derek W. H.

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

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.

I. Paul.

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

II. Apollos.

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

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

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

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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