If we truly love Jesus, we will want to learn and obey everything He taught.
Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for Acts 18:24-19:7
God used Paul, Aquila and Priscilla, and later Apollos to disciple others in the complete truth of Jesus. They all would be important figures in brand new churches around the Roman Empire, and even they needed instruction. We need capable leaders and teachers to help build strong churches and protect us from the falsehoods taught in the world.
[This post was originally a printed newsletter to supplement a weekly Bible study. I'm putting old resources online for reference.]
Getting Started: Things to Think About
The Omniscient Narrator
In books and movies, it is common for the reader/viewer to know more about what’s going on than the character. Ask your group for some examples of this. (Here are some old ones that come to mind. In Sleeping Beauty, we know about the spinning wheel curse, but the princess does not. In Snow White, we know that the apple in poisoned, but the princess does not. In Cinderella, we know that she is the princess, but the prince does not. In The Little Mermaid, we know that Ursula is setting a trap, but the princess does not. There seems to be a pattern here...) What makes that such a great technique in storytelling? It raises the tension, but it does so in such a way as to draw the reader into it. (Conversely, scary movies raise the tension by not letting you know what will happen next.)
If you let your group think about this for a bit, you’ll see that this “omniscient narrator” is used all the time.
The Bible is trying to do that for us. The Bible doesn’t want there to be surprises or confusions. The Bible wants us to know what’s going on and why (salvation is mysterious enough). That way, when we see an episode like in our passage this week, we can sympathize with the characters but also know what they should do. The purpose is so that we can “learn from their mistakes”. If people in your group have been relying on their own acts of repentance or their show of baptism for proof of salvation, this passage will help them see that true salvation is only found in Jesus.
Where We Are in Acts
Paul’s “Second Missionary Journey” emphasized his time in Greece, particularly his years in Corinth where he met Aquila and Priscilla. Paul’s “Third Missionary Journey” begins when he takes Aquila and Priscilla with him from Corinth to Ephesus, and he leaves them there while he travels to Antioch. From there, he travels back through many of the cities where he had started churches (his missionary journey). While Paul is doing that, Aquila and Priscilla are working in Ephesus where they disciple a young man named Apollos. Apollos moves on to Corinth and Paul returns to Ephesus where he spends several years. Our passage covers this time in Ephesus.
Just as a note, Paul spent more time in Ephesus during this period than any other city. It is likely that he wrote several of his letters while in Ephesus. Eventually, Christianity rivaled the Roman religions, creating a riot that forced Paul to leave. He went from Ephesus back through the churches one more time, collecting money that he would deliver to the church in Jerusalem (which is what the rest of Acts is about).
This Week's Big Idea: The Baptism of John and the Holy Spirit
If you get any questions about our passage this week, it will be about this very strange exchange—the baptism of John, the baptism of Jesus, and the baptism of the Holy Spirit. We talked about this when we went through the first part of Acts a couple of years ago, but we’ve all slept since then. Here’s the gist:
Pentecost / Acts 2: The disciples are “baptized with the Holy Spirit”, the evidence of which is the miraculous speaking in foreign languages.
The Samaritans / Acts 8: Philip preached the gospel in Samaria, and many people believed and were baptized in the name of Jesus. But when Peter arrived, Peter prayed that they might also receive the Holy Spirit (and they did).
The Gentiles / Acts 10: Peter has gone to Cornelius’s house and shared the gospel with his family. But this time, the Gentiles first receive the gift of the Holy Spirit and then are baptized in the name of Jesus. Here, “Spirit-baptism” is evidenced by speaking in tongues.
God grants a miracle in these instances so the disciples can know that these new salvations are real. It follows the basic pattern of Acts: first the disciples (“in Jerusalem”), then the Samaritans (“in Judea and Samaria”), and then the Gentiles (“and to the ends of the earth”). But our passage introduces a new twist on baptism.
There are two different questions in our passage this week!
The main question is the “baptism of John”. John the Baptist came before Jesus; he baptized Jews in the Jordan River “for repentance”. Even Jesus came to him to be baptized (much to his shock). John’s baptism was a declaration that one wanted to live a changed life—wanted to turn aside from former sins and life anew. It was a popular idea, and many people came to John to make this declaration. But there was no power in John’s baptism. He himself said that though he baptized in water, someone was coming after him who would baptize in fire and the Holy Spirit. In other words, John’s baptism was just for show. John’s baptism was all about that person’s declaration. Jesus’ baptism was/is about salvation. But the way that baptism was so closely tied to receiving the Holy Spirit confused some early disciples, making them think that they had to be baptized in the name of Jesus in order to be saved. (This is still a source of confusion today.)
And that’s the big deal in our passage this week: people in Ephesus, well meaning and eager, had incomplete knowledge about what it meant to be a Christian. They had heard about John and his call to repentance, but they hadn’t heard all about Jesus (remember: “repentance” is turning away from sin and turning to Jesus; they only had half of the story). There isn’t anything magical about this formula for baptism; it’s more about “why” they were baptized.
A Second Question: Can We Do Baptism Wrong? The reason this episode confuses people is they think it has something to do with the “formula” for baptism—the words that are used. They’re worried that if they don’t “do baptism right”, their baptism will be invalid (see the back page for an example). That’s not what’s going on in this passage. There’s nothing magical about saying “in Jesus’ name”. This episode is about realizing that Christians are baptized as a part of following Jesus. The folks in Ephesus just knew about repentance; they needed to learn that true repentance was only possible through the sacrifice of Jesus.
So Then, What’s the Deal with Receiving the Holy Spirit after Being Baptized? One way or another, we end up at the place where Paul lays his hands on these Christians and they receive the Holy Spirit, just like in Acts 8 and Acts 10. (From a narrative perspective, Luke is trying to draw parallels between Peter and Paul, but don’t worry about that.) But here’s the point: receiving the Holy Spirit wasn’t tied to their new baptism, it was tied to Paul “laying hands” on them. And as in those other instances, God is validating salvation—not only who can be saved but how they are saved (in the name of Jesus).
Part 1: A Partial Witness (Acts 18:24-26)
Now a Jew named Apollos, a native Alexandrian, an eloquent man who was competent in the use of the Scriptures, arrived in Ephesus. He had been instructed in the way of the Lord; and being fervent in spirit, he was speaking and teaching accurately about Jesus, although he knew only John’s baptism. He began to speak boldly in the synagogue. After Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they took him aside and explained the way of God to him more accurately.
You have plenty of background information on these verses elsewhere in the post. One last thing to point out about that is that Alexandria had the largest population of Jews in the entire world (at that time, settled by refugees from Babylon), and it was the second largest city in the Roman Empire.
Here’s what to note about Apollos.
He was a well-educated Jew who knew the Old Testament thoroughly.
He was eloquent and apparently a very effective teacher.
Someone had taught him about Jesus.
He believed them so well, in fact, that he was fervent in spirit (lower-case “s”, meaning his own spirit) about sharing it with others.
Here’s the big question: was Apollos saved? I believe he was not. I believe the Bible makes the distinction between the baptism of John and Jesus in “who do you follow?” terms. Some Bible scholars disagree—they say that Apollos was a Christian with deficient knowledge about baptism. Look, I never want to imply that one has to be baptized “properly” in order to be saved! But I think the main deal of this passage is that Apollos knew about Jesus, but He didn’t know Jesus. There are a lot of people around us who know about Jesus, but that doesn’t make them a Christian.
Prove it: “The Movie Faker”. I don’t watch enough movies to keep up with popular culture, but I fake it by reading the synopsis and plot of a lot of movies. Find someone in your group who hasn’t seen a really popular movie (like Star Wars) and see if they can fool the group into thinking that they have. The point to this silly exercise is to demonstrate that people can talk our way through a lot of things, even if we don’t really know what we’re talking about!
Here are two points to make: (1) even when someone can talk about Jesus, we still need to prayerfully listen to their heart. Apollos said something that made Priscilla and Aquilla share Jesus with him. Of course, Apollos wanted to know Jesus, so he listened and responded to them. But (2), we also need to be discerning about the “spiritual leaders” we listen to. Apollos was a great, bold teacher, but he didn’t know all he was talking about. Do you prayerfully discern the people you follow? Are you bold enough to be willing to correct them?
And finally note: this is why we care about having a working knowledge of Scripture. It’s not just for us—it’s for the people we influence.
Aside: Apollos and Alexandria
All we know is that Apollos came from Alexandria. By this time, Alexandria was the center of learning for the entire Roman world (it had surpassed Athens). It’s library was unparalleled (and tragically destroyed by fire during an attack on the city by Emperor Aurelian in ~275 AD).
Alexandria would go on to be one of the two most influential churches in the early centuries of Christianity (with Antioch). It was noted for being the source of several important heresies, including Arianism. The Christians in Alexandria continued to “think” in terms of the major Greek philosophies, including Platonism, and they applied those methods to Christianity, resulting in bizarre interpretations of Scripture and Jesus. Apollos came from this milieu—very high education levels, but also very human-centric. That can be dangerous in Christianity; God is the author of truth, not us.
Apollos is a vey important figure in the New Testament. Acts 18 tells us that after he left Ephesus, he went to Corinth. He apparently did an excellent job there winning converts and building up the church. Such a good job, in fact, that Paul calls him by name in 1 Corinthians (esp. 3:4, 3:22, and 4:6) and puts him on the same level as Paul and Peter! However, in 16:12, Paul makes sure to call him one of the brothers, so any factions being built in Corinth were not Apollos’s fault.
Martin Luther put forth the hypothesis that Apollos may well have written the book of Hebrews, due to its creative use of the Old Testament and very high level of writing. This is a popular theory (I'm good with it), but it is impossible to prove for now.
Bonus Aside: Aquila and Priscilla
Aquila and Priscilla were a Jewish tentmaking couple (2 Tim 4:19) who lived in Rome until the emperor Claudius expelled all Jews from Rome (possibly between 49-53 AD). They moved to Corinth where they met Paul, probably through the craft of tentmaking. Because the Bible does not talk about it, it is most likely that they were Christians before they met Paul. Acts 18:2 says that Aquila was a native of Pontus, which is a province in Asia Minor, just south of the Black Sea. The account of Pentecost specifically mentions Pontus as one of the places represented, so Aquila could possibly be one of the first Christians from Asia Minor.
The pair was successful enough in their tentmaking that they were able to travel with Paul from Corinth to Ephesus and obtain a home there large enough for the church to meet in. According to Romans 16:3, they were influential throughout the ”Gentile churches”. The fact that Paul called them out with gratitude in Romans 16:3-4 leads many to speculate that Aquila and Priscilla moved back to Rome and were important parts of the new Christian church there. (No one is quite sure of the incident in which they saved Paul’s life; it could be the riots in Ephesus mentioned in Acts 19:23-31.)
We know that the pair was firm enough in their faith to disciple the brilliant young Apollos, who would go on to be an important leader. Also, Paul says that they helped him write the letter of 1 Corinthians (16:19). Interestingly, 4 of the 5 references to the couple mention Priscilla first (not normal in that culture), so she must have been an impressive and admirable Christian!
Part 2: A Complete Witness (Acts 18:27-28)
When he wanted to cross over to Achaia, the brothers and sisters wrote to the disciples to welcome him. After he arrived, he was a great help to those who by grace had believed. For he vigorously refuted the Jews in public, demonstrating through the Scriptures that Jesus is the Messiah.
This is a very encouraging conclusion. Apollos would go on to share his newfound faith everywhere he went. He was vigorous, effective, and not afraid. I have been around Christians with that ability, and I can’t tell you how great it is to see someone very smart and very eloquent defending Christianity in the public square. These verses just give us hope that sometimes our investments in the lives of other people have visible returns.
Part 3: An Incomplete Faith (Acts 19:1-7)
While Apollos was in Corinth, Paul traveled through the interior regions and came to Ephesus. He found some disciples and asked them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” “No,” they told him, “we haven’t even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.” “Into what then were you baptized?” he asked them. “Into John’s baptism,” they replied. Paul said, “John baptized with a baptism of repentance, telling the people that they should believe in the one who would come after him, that is, in Jesus.” When they heard this, they were baptized into the name of the Lord Jesus. And when Paul had laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they began to speak in other tongues and to prophesy.
The fact that Luke put these two stories back-to-back indicates that this “incomplete knowledge” of Jesus was a big problem in the early Gentile church. These men that Paul found—they were “disciples”, but it seems that they were disciples of John. That’s not good enough! Paul writes about factions in churches, disciples of “Peter” vs. disciples of “Apollos” and so on. Today, we have disciples of “Rick Warren” and disciples of “Andy Stanley” and so on. Friends, we are all supposed to be disciples of Jesus. But there’s a big difference between the people in Acts 19 and people today: those guys had an excuse. They had incomplete knowledge of Jesus. We don’t have any such excuses today.
In our passage, the men had not heard about the Holy Spirit, and they had received the baptism of John. We can think of that as an “Old Testament” religion. John was the last and greatest of the Old Testament-style prophets. In Jesus (God with us), God revealed the full plan of salvation, and we learned that God was going to live permanently and literally with His people through the Holy Spirit, who was God in us. Paul explains this by saying that John’s baptism pointed us to someone else, namely Jesus. And until we know Jesus, we don’t know why God sent John in the first place.
The good news is that these men wanted to know Jesus. They were on the right track. So when Paul told them the whole story, they were ready to respond. And the proof of that was the gift of the Spirit, in this case both speaking in tongues and prophesying. This is the only example I can find of those two gifts displayed together. I think that’s important: it shows us that there was no “formula” to how God proved salvation. In each of these key moments in salvation history (Pentecost / Acts 2, the Samaritans / Acts 8, Cornelius / Acts 10, Apollos / Acts 18, and here), the events are always slightly different. There is no one pattern God used.
Ask your group this very important question: what does someone have to know in order to be saved? Basically, the gospel. Jesus is the Son of God. Jesus died for our sins according to God’s plan laid out in the Bible. God raised Him from the dead. We must repent of our sins and turn to Jesus in faith for forgiveness and salvation. The Holy Spirit indwells every believer in witness (proof) of our salvation. If someone in your class says more than that, ask them “If someone doesn’t know or understand that, does that mean they cannot be a Christian?” Look, I believe that Christian doctrine is extremely important. I believe that the Great Commission commands us to teach everything Jesus said (which is a big part of Sunday School). But I also believe that you can be a Christian without knowing all of those things. Does that make sense? Explain this to your class: following Jesus includes a lifetime of learning what He taught. Do you want to have an incomplete witness, or a complete one? We should desire to learn more and more about Jesus out of love for Him.
Aside: What Else Do You “Have” To Know?
So, we have to know the gospel. But what about other important stuff -- the Trinity, the nature of baptism, spiritual gifts? If we're not careful, knowledge becomes a "work" that we add to salvation. However, some of this knowledge—and I think “John’s baptism” fits into this category—directly affects our understanding of salvation. And that’s what I think we “have” to know—enough about God, sin, and Jesus to know what we’re saved from and what we’re saved to. That’s why Bible knowledge is important.
Closing Thoughts: "Jesus-Only" Baptism and Modern Heresy
Roman Catholics believe that only baptisms carried out using a Trinitarian formula are valid. Martin Luther argued that specific wording is not the point—rather the person’s intent in baptism is what matters. But there is a group of churches who live and die on the idea that a true baptism must be carried out in the name of Jesus only. The two largest are the Pentecostal Assemblies of the World, and the United Pentecostal Church International (incidentally, White Oak Pentecostal is a UPCI church).
Here’s where things get squirrely. Over the years, those groups that have completely focused on Jesus have slowly had their theology distorted. They emphasize Jesus and as a result de-emphasize God the Father and the Holy Spirit. In the case of the UPCI and others, they have gotten to the point of saying that Jesus Christ is the only God. In fact, they go on, God the Father and God the Holy Spirit are just other names for Jesus! Jesus is the Creator and the Spirit (see https://www.upci.org/about/about-oneness-pentecostalism). And until Trinitarian churches realize the error of their ways, they will never receive full Pentecostal power. Right. This is why we need to care about having a complete witness. Those churches say things that sound good. They talk about having power, having the gifts of the spirit, about passionate worship. That sounds right!
But it’s wrong. It makes them very much like Apollos or these disciples in Ephesus. It’s our responsibility to teach them more accurately about the way of God (and certainly not to let them sway us from truth). And the only way we can even know that those teachings are wrong is if we know the truth (like Aquila and Priscilla).