How Are We to Understand Apollos?

29 Mar

Apollos is an interesting figure, whom we meet for the first time in the New Testament at Acts 18. Paul has left Ephesus on his way to Jerusalem, and for the first time since Acts 15 Luke introduces us to a person who is preaching about the Messiah, but it is not Paul. What should we make of this, and why does Luke introduce us to Apollos but mention him no more in his thesis? Why does Paul in his letter to the Corinthians speak of Apollos’ mighty work in Achaia, but makes no mention of his labor at Ephesus or in any other part of Asia either in that letter or in his epistles to the Ephesians or the Colossians?

Apollos appears on the scene as a dynamic speaker (Acts 18:24). One has to wonder if this isn’t at least part of the reason Paul is led to explain his own somewhat weak appearance among the believers at Corinth (cp. 2Corinthians 10:10). Indeed, Apollos and Paul were different types of speakers. Paul claimed that he planted but Apollos watered (1Corinthians 3:5-6). Paul came to Corinth in weakness, intending in himself to know nothing but Christ and him crucified (1Corinthians 2:2), but Luke shows that Apollos came to Corinth, mightily convincing the Jews that Jesus was the Messiah (Acts 18:28). The difference between the two became somewhat of a problem among the immature believers at Corinth and divided them into small sects, some claiming Pauline leadership and others looking to Apollos (1Corinthians 3:4).

Apollos’ introduction in Acts is the backdrop that gives sense to Paul’s description of him in his epistle to the Corinthians. Luke tells us that Apollos came to Ephesus out of Alexandria, Egypt, saying he was mighty in the Scriptures. That is, he was a very learned man (a rabbi?), but though he was instructed in the way of the Lord and taught accurately those things concerning Jesus, something was lacking, because, Luke tells us, Apollos knew only the baptism of John (Acts 18:25). Some disciples of John followed Jesus after John pointed to Jesus as the Messiah (John 1:29), but others, though knowing Jesus was the Messiah, were content to remain with John (cp. Luke 7:17-20). How, then, should we understand Apollos?

It seems that knowing only John’s baptism concerns John’s understanding of Jewish eschatology. Clearly, John didn’t understand Jesus’ eschatology, because when he heard about what Jesus was saying and doing, it didn’t fit with John’s understanding of the coming judgment. It was because he misunderstood Jesus that he sent some of his disciples to clear things up (Luke 7:17-20; cp. Luke 3:17). Jesus sent those disciples back to John, saying they should tell him what they saw Jesus do, namely, the blind are given sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised and the poor hear the Gospel (Luke 7:22; cp. Isaiah 29:18-19; 35:5-6; 61:1-3). In words that John could understand, Jesus gave his reply. No one would doubt that John was instructed in the way of the Lord nor would anyone claim that John didn’t preach accurately of things concerning Jesus, but knowing and preaching these things in the name of the Lord didn’t mean John was in the Kingdom of God (cp. Luke 7:24-28).

What I find very interesting in Luke’s account of Apollos is what he does not say of him. Luke never says Apollos was full of the Holy Spirit (cp. Luke 4:1; Acts 6:3, 5; 7:55; 11:24)! Luke says, instead, that Apollos was fervent in the spirit, which should be understood as how Paul uses the same phrase in Romans 12:11. There fervent in (the) spirit is placed in contrast with being slothful. The Holy Spirit cannot be slothful nor are we able to cause the Holy Spirit to be anything he is not. Therefore, Paul’s command to be fervent in (the) spirit must point to the human spirit. In other words, don’t allow yourself to become slothful but be fervent—work hard in your ministry. This is what Apollos was doing in Ephesus. He poured himself into his service to the Lord and gave it all he had—worshiping God with all his heart, soul, mind and strength (Mark 12:30).

Therefore, because he doesn’t say of Apollos that he was full of the (Holy) Spirit but, rather, describes him as an eloquent speaker who knew only John’s baptism, I don’t believe Apollos was what we would call a Messianic believer/Christian at this time. Think about it, if one knew only the baptism or teachings of John, how could he offer anything more than what John was able to offer? By Luke’s account, Jesus even claimed John was not one of his disciples—i.e. not one who was in the Kingdom of God. Furthermore, Luke tells us Jesus claimed the Law and the Prophets were preached until John, but after this—i.e. after John and in Jesus’ ministry—the Kingdom of God was preached (cp. Luke 16:16). John never preached the Kingdom of God.

Luke doesn’t tell us that Apollos was baptized by Priscilla and Aquila, but I believe he was. I believe it necessarily follows, if one is in need to be introduced to the baptism (teachings) of Jesus—i.e. he knows only the baptism (teachings) of John, then he was in need to be baptized, just as those 12 disciples of John whom Paul baptized later (Acts 19:1-7). Apollos was an important figure in the early church, but in our context here he was “a secondary participant in the messianic movement, not a prophet commissioned by the Spirit of God, but a teacher instructed by the Pauline school and commissioned by the churches.”[1]

[1] Luke Timothy Johnson, The Acts of the Apostles; page 335.


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2 responses to “How Are We to Understand Apollos?

  1. Eddie

    March 29, 2013 at 15:15

    Your welcome, and thank you for stopping by to read.

  2. chaddamitz

    March 29, 2013 at 10:07

    Thanks for the insightful article.


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