Encountering Apollos: What Today’s Christians Need to Learn from Aquila and Priscilla

The Bible contains the stories of many amazing people of faith. When the Holy Spirit wanted to introduce us to one such believer, He piled on the positives through the inspired pen of Luke. This man was:

  • Eloquent in speech
  • Mighty in the Scriptures
  • Instructed in the way of the Lord
  • Fervent in spirit
  • A man who spoke and taught accurately the things of the Lord

There was just one thing wrong with this man: Though he believed in God, he was not a believer in Jesus Christ.

For those who may not know, the name of this man is Apollos. After giving the above glowing description of Apollos, the Holy Spirit added this detail: “though he knew only the baptism of John” (Acts 18:24-25). What’s the significance of this statement?

The John of whom the text speaks is commonly known as John the Baptist, although I usually call him John the Baptizer or Immerser because of the cultural baggage surrounding the word “Baptist.” John was not a member of a denomination that wouldn’t exist until hundreds of years later; he was a prophesied preacher who helped prepare people for the coming Christ by immersing them in water (Mark 1:1-8).

When we hear that Apollos “knew the baptism of John,” we can infer from the rest of the description of him that he didn’t just know it theoretically. He was preaching in that synagogue there in Ephesus as someone who had repented of his sins and had submitted to a “baptism of repentance for the remission of sins” (Mark 1:4). So, either Apollos had heard John the Baptizer himself teach or had been taught the message of John by someone else. In any event, in his zeal, Apollos had gone among the Jewish diaspora preaching John’s message just as John himself had done.

At this point, you might be tempted to balk at my statement about Apollos not being a believer in Jesus. After all, Apollos is a man who knows the Bible, knows the ways of God, teaches what he teaches with accuracy, speaks well and from his heart, AND has been baptized for the remission of sins! Yet, if you keep reading into chapter 19, you find some other individuals there in Ephesus who also only knew the baptism of John (Acts 19:1-3). When Paul discovered this about them, he didn’t receive them as brothers in Christ but taught them about Jesus (v. 4). The text reads, “When they heard this,” these people, who were already baptized according to the teaching of John and therefore for the remission of sins,“were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus” (v. 5).

Paul wasn’t there to hear Apollos that day, but a faithful Christian couple named Aquila and Priscilla were. Aquila and Priscilla weren’t wowed by all the positive attributes of Apollos: his speaking skill, his zeal, or his accurate and profound knowledge of the Scriptures. No, they were more interested in the content of his message. Since Luke records, “he spoke and taught accurately the things of the Lord,” the problem wasn’t what was there. Instead, the problem was what wasn’t there. Apollos’ teaching was missing some vital information regarding Jesus Christ.  

The Choice Facing Aquila and Priscilla

After listening to Apollos’ sermon, Aquila and Priscilla had a choice to make:

  • They could overlook Apollos’ omissions and accept him as a brother. Apollos knew the Bible and had been baptized for the remission of sins; some people even today would be quick to label him a Christian based on that description. Yet, in light of the events of chapter 19, receiving Apollos into fellowship wasn’t really an option. People who had been baptized the right way (immersion in water) for the right reasons (remission of sins) still had to be baptized again if they didn’t have the right understanding about Jesus and His authority (“in the name of the Lord Jesus” – Acts 19:5). They couldn’t call him “brother” because you have to be born again – that is, to be properly baptized in faith – to be in the family of God (John 3:3-5).
  • They could ignore Apollos and begin teaching in Ephesus, hoping that their message would outshine his. At the end of the day, though Apollos was using the same Bible and encouraging the same act of obedience (baptism), he was teaching a different message. He was not guilty of adding to the word; he was guilty without realizing it of taking away from it (Revelation 22:18-19). So, through their public and private teaching, this missionary couple could have simply taken their opportunities to “speak boldly” as Apollos had (Acts 18:26), but unlike him they could have taught “the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27). Perhaps eventually he and others like him would hear, learn, and obey.
  • They could challenge Apollos to open debate. Later, Apollos himself is described as “vigorously refut[ing] the Jews publicly” (Acts 18:28). Aquila and Priscilla could have done the same with him and engaged in direct and public refutation of Apollos’ teaching. People are rarely won through direct debate, but perhaps Aquila and Priscilla could present more convincing arguments than Apollos and win over the audience.

Ultimately, Aquila and Priscilla chose none of the above. Instead, the inspired pen describes their choice as follows: “When Aquila and Priscilla heard him, they took him aside and explained to him the way of God more accurately” (Acts 18:26). Instead of ignoring his deficiencies or attempting to speak either over him or against him, the couple chose to speak to him. Rather than back him into a corner through a public confrontation, they invited him to a corner for a private conversation.

The next three verses (18:27-19:1) as well as the epistles to Corinth (1 Corinthians 1:12; 3:4-6, 22; 4:6; 16:12) and Titus (3:13) describe the happy outcome of Aquila and Priscilla’s choice. Though we aren’t given the details of Apollos’ conversion (perhaps in light of the Spirit’s intention to describe the conversion of individuals with similar beliefs in the very next chapter), we know that Apollos both received Aquila and Priscilla’s guidance in the spirit it was given and believed them. Apollos went from being simply a great preacher to being a great preacher of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Are There People Like Apollos Today?

I’m not sure that there is anyone in the modern world that could be described as a disciple of John the Baptizer. While there are people who still believe the Messiah is yet to come, I’m not aware of any who are preaching about Him or preparing for Him like John did. This isn’t shocking, as although “all Judea” had heard of John in his day (Matthew 3:5), as far as we know, he wrote nothing. So, with the exception of a couple of references in Josephus’ Antiquities of the Jews which mirror the Bible pretty closely, the Bible contains all that we know about John. The Bible makes it pretty clear that John was preparing people for Jesus. Acts 18-19 shows that when people who were taught indirectly or directly by John came later to hear about Jesus, they typically converted.  

The fact that there aren’t disciples of John today doesn’t mean that there aren’t people like Apollos today. In fact, there are a whole lot of them: powerful, eloquent preachers who are clearly devoted believers, who know the Scriptures, and who even know the ways of the Lord. When you listen to them, you’ll find a lot that you can agree with. In fact, because of their knowledge and because of their eloquence, they may say some things better than you’ve ever heard a preacher in the Lord’s church say them. Sometimes, they might even say some things that are totally biblical but that you’ve never heard a preacher in the Lord’s church say!

If you listen long enough though, you’ll hear some things that are troubling because they are there or troubling because they aren’t there. You’ll find them guilty of adding to or subtracting from God’s word. Interestingly, you’ll often find them doing exactly what Apollos and those other disciples in Ephesus were doing: teaching incorrectly about baptism. Now, this can get confusing, because sometimes they’ll teach baptism is important (like Apollos no doubt did). However, if you listen to them long enough (or, in today’s world, look on their websites), you’ll often see that they believe that baptism has nothing directly to do with entering into a relationship with Jesus. Even if you don’t find this difference though, you’ll find others and be forced to make a decision as to how you should respond.

What Do We Do When We Encounter Modern-Day Apolloses?

In my lifetime, I’ve seen any number of responses to people who have an incomplete understanding of the Lord and His message. Many of them really seem to fall short of the decision I see Aquila and Priscilla make.

Some place them under the banner of false teachers; they make note of them and avoid them (Romans 16:17).

At times, it seems very fair and reasonable to simply label modern-day Apolloses as false teachers and move on, but not always. It’s fair in that these people are teaching at the very least an incomplete Gospel and oftentimes an altered gospel (cf. Galatians 1:6-9), which is, of course, false. It’s unfair though in that:

  • In some cases, these people have never been New Testament Christians as the Bible describes them, whereas at least some false teacher descriptions in the New Testament seem to reference those who have fallen away from the true faith.
  • Because they were never in fellowship, it seems wrong to withdraw fellowship or in other ways treat them as we do those who have fallen away.
  • In some cases, these people are truly like Apollos and don’t in any way fit the description of self-serving, money hungry charlatans one finds in several of the passages that discuss false teaching.

It should be noted that Aquila and Priscilla didn’t brand Apollos as a false teacher. Maybe it would have come to that if Apollos had rejected them and attempted to turn Christians from the Gospel. It seems though from Aquila and Priscilla’s example that this shouldn’t be our first response to someone who isn’t preaching the whole counsel of God. 

Some people challenge them to open, public debate.

Public debate has been at least a part of what it was to preach the Gospel since the birth of the church in Acts 2. It comes as no surprise then that God’s people today occasionally find themselves involved in it. However, before embracing open, public debate as the main response to the Apolloses of today, several things should be reflected on:

  • Debates in the Biblical world were neither formal nor publicized. They arose organically in gatherings of people who came together to study Scripture.
  • Debate isn’t how the disciples of Jesus first approached non-believers. Instead, whenever they could, they appear to have sought common ground with non-believers before moving on to the more controversial portions of the Gospel (e.g. Paul on Mars Hill in Acts 17). The idea of Paul walking into a synagogue and challenging its ruler to “sign the proposition” for a formal debate on his first Sabbath day in a given town is not only not in the text, but it’s also at odds with the text.
  • New Testament teaching appears to guide us away from the most adversarial forms of debate. On one occasion “the chief priests and the elders of the people confronted [Jesus] as He was teaching,” demanding to know where He got the authority to do what He did (Matthew 21:23). Jesus asked them a question in response, and when they refused to answer His question, He refused to answer theirs (Matthews 21:24-27). Jesus knew these individuals were seeking conflict rather than truth, and He wanted nothing to do with it. “[A] servant of the Lord must not quarrel” (2 Timothy 2:24).
  • Formal, public debate has been a feature of western culture for a long time. It’s no surprise to me at least that in the history of the modern church we see formal debates taking place between members of the church and outsiders. I have little doubt that these debates have done good over the years both for those who attended them and those who read the records of them later. Not knowing for sure, I can only hope that all of these debates were conducted as I know some of them were: with civility and decorum and only after much one-on-one communication between the Christian and his opponent. However we might view the debates of the past, we must be honest about the present: the format is losing the civility and decorum it once had (e.g. political debates), and it is losing popularity. Challenge a modern Apollos to a formal debate, and don’t be surprised if he not only refuses to participate but refuses to return your phone calls and text messages.

Some people engage in informal public debate over message boards and social media.

I’ve seen a lot of debate unfold over social media (and even participated in it to a degree). To be honest though, I can’t think of a time where someone in the shoes of Apollos said, “What you’re saying really makes sense. I’d like to renounce what I’ve said.” Sometimes, an online interaction is the only interaction possible, and sometimes, even if Apollos doesn’t benefit, third party observers gain much and are even won over by what we say.

However, if ever there was a time for Christians to strive for “sound speech that cannot be condemned” (Titus 2:8) and speech that “may impart grace to the hearers” (Ephesians 4:29) it should be when speaking into the public record of the internet. Any Christian who speaks must be aware of the permanent nature of his speech (even a deleted post on social media can often be retrieved by the diligent). He should also be aware of the fact the fact that written words are at times pretty limited vehicles of communication. Without hearing our tone and seeing our body language, people will often interpret speech that is merely formal as being harsh and unyielding.

Some people seem to forget that it is possible to be a misguided believer like Apollos; they treat modern Apolloses as Christians and promote their material.

I love it when Christians behave as love behaves. Among its other beautiful attributes, love “thinks no evil… believes all things, [and] hopes all things” (1 Corinthians 13:5, 8). It’s beautiful when Christians approach people this way. However, the New Testament would have us balance out giving the benefit of the doubt with other instructions such as “test all things” (1 Thessalonians 5:21) and “judge righteous judgment” (John 7:24). Jesus once told His disciples, “Be wise as serpents, and harmless as doves” (Matthew 10:16).

Identifying Apolloses today can be difficult. The Apollos of Acts 18 was an amazing speaker who knew the Bible very well, and today’s Apolloses are often like that. However, there is a big difference between a modern Apollos and his ancient counterpart. You see, it probably didn’t take Aquila and Priscilla very long to realize Apollos wasn’t a Christian by virtue of this simple fact: he would have never mentioned Jesus, His New Testament, or His church. Today’s Apolloses frequently mention Jesus, the New Testament, and the church as they understand these subjects.

To illustrate the difficulty: A brother once shared some material of a modern-day Apollos on a Christian message board. When someone pointed out that he wasn’t sure where this man stood with the Lord, the brother who shared the material pointed out how solid the man was on baptism. However, when I looked at the website for the church where the man preached, I discovered that common thread among today’s Apolloses: while baptism was important to the church, the website affirmed, they did not believe it was in any way connected with salvation.

Sadly, the material of modern-day Apolloses dominate the Biblical content of the internet. Because they speak well, write well, and produce incredibly professional material that contains at least part of God’s truth, Christians can be tempted to accept their material in isolation without really considering the source. Sometimes, Christians are even aware of the issues with a speaker/writer but like what they see in the sermon/article/video/etc. so much that they feel the need to pass it along. Sometimes, Christians might even describe Apollos as their favorite preacher/teacher/writer and publicize their love for what he or she (as there are Apollonia’s out there) produces.

I’m sure Aquila and Priscilla could have learned a thing or two from Apollos that day in the synagogue. Apollos might have even been a better speaker than Aquila or a better Bible student than Priscilla. However, it would be unimaginable to think of this Christian couple ignoring Apollos’ omissions and simply passing along their notes from Apollos’ sermon to fellow Christians or recommending him as a great teacher to others.

Before I make my next couple of points, let me soften what I’m about to say with a few considerations:

  • First, obviously Aquila and Priscilla had a unique responsibility in that they knew Apollos and could talk to him. We can’t always do that with the Apolloses of today.
  • Second, there’s nothing wrong with learning from individuals outside of the Christian community. Paul demonstrated his familiarity with religious, non-Christian material and even was willing to affirm its truthfulness (cf. Acts 17:28; Titus 1:12). It’s important to note though that Paul didn’t recommend specific sources publicly and appears to have quoted material to illustrate his points rather than to establish his points. In other words, he didn’t treat these sources as though they had any real authority. Still, there’s a lot of truth intermingled with varying degrees of error to be found in the world, and Christians would be foolish not to take advantage of it.
  • Third, if we truly benefit from something an Apollos (or Apollonia!) says, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with wanting others to share in that benefit. If the Holy Spirit was unwilling to deny the quality of Apollos’ message and if Paul was unwilling to deny the truthfulness of those poets and prophets he quoted, why should we think there’s anything wrong with acknowledging truth where it’s found and with using that truth to edify ourselves and others?

Having said all of that, I am not in favor of giving unqualified public approval to the material produced by modern-day Apolloses, nor am I in favor of overlooking or mitigating these Apolloses’ misunderstandings. Personally, I always try to read material through the lens of “test all things” (1 Thessalonians 5:21) and am especially careful when I know or suspect something has originated outside of the Lord’s church. Further, whenever I share or reference material that I know has an origin outside of the New Testament Church publicly, I always try to reference its origin as well as any disagreement I might have found between myself and the material and/or the author’s stances on other subjects. I can’t say that I’ve always done this perfectly, but I can say that I try to make it my habit.  

To some, the opinion and personal choice I’ve expressed here might seem harsh or extreme. Yet, in Paul’s day, a faithful saying of the church was “that those who have believed in God should be careful to maintain good works” (Titus 3:8). Biblically speaking, there’s nothing wrong with being careful.

What could happen if we aren’t careful as we engage the teaching of modern-day Apolloses and/or pass that teaching along to others?

  • Individually, when we engage the teaching of a modern-day Apollos without our filters up, we can be so swayed by the quality and content of what’s there that we overlook what’s missing or what’s wrong. If we do that long enough, we can find ourselves sympathizing with what is ultimately error and even unnecessarily challenging our own faith and practice. I’ve seen any number of Christians move away from scriptural beliefs and practices after becoming enamored with teaching outside of the church.
  • When we pass this teaching along to others without considering its source or offering any warning, we can encourage them to let their guard down as well. Further, when we share something on a social media platform or in some other public forum, we have no way of knowing the maturity or knowledge of the ones who will read our recommendation. We should take seriously the warning of Jesus not to cause “one of these little ones who believe in Me to stumble” (Mark 9:42).   

What Should We Do When We Encounter Modern-Day Apolloses?

Having considered what people sometimes do when faced with a modern-day Apollos, I’m going to suggest that the best approach if it is at all a viable one is to do exactly what we see happening in the Bible text: we should attempt to “[take] him aside and [explain] to him the way of God more accurately” (Acts 18:26). There’s no reason to reinvent the wheel here.

Having said this, I know there’s many situations where this simply isn’t possible, and all that we have access to is the material these individuals have produced. At these times, we should still do with that material what Aquila and Priscilla did that day with Apollos’ sermon in the synagogue: engage the material critically and in the light of the Gospel. We should always keep in mind that a message that is less or more than the Gospel is not the Gospel at all. Paul said,

“I marvel that you are turning away so soon from Him who called you in the grace of Christ, to a different gospel, which is not another; but there are some who trouble you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel to you than what we have preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again, if anyone preaches any other gospel to you than what you have received, let him be accursed.”

(Galatians 1:6-9)

What always strikes me about this reading is that the only specific difference in this “different gospel” that I can detect from the Galatian epistle is the way these teachers in Galatia are approaching the Law of Moses and in particular circumcision. As far as I can tell, these teachers were still teaching the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus as well as other aspects of New Testament faith and practice. That Paul still condemns what they are doing so harshly serves as a reminder to me and I hope to you as well that there is nothing minor about omissions and/or additions to New Testament teaching.

Conclusion

The world might be full of Apolloses, but my hope is that the church will train itself to be full of Aquilas and Priscillas to meet them and win them over to Christ. May God bless us with the wisdom we need to be discerning, the courage and compassion we need to confront people and show them the way more accurately, and the opportunities to bring as many people as we can to God through Jesus.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s