There were serious divisions in the Corinthian assembly with saints lining up behind local leaders. Yet it appears that Paul did not want to shame these leaders by naming them personally in his letter to the assembly, and so he refers to them only metaphorically (see 1 Cor. 4: 6) using the names of Peter, Paul and Apollos. Now the book of Acts is largely taken up with the history of the labours of Peter and Paul––possibly the greatest of the apostles. Who then was this Apollos whose name was elevated to a place alongside Peter and Paul? Certainly Apollos was not an apostle himself since Paul refers to him only as “the brother Apollos” (1 Cor. 16: 12). In what then lay his greatness? I believe Luke provides the answer in the five verses of Acts 18: 24–28.
If you read Acts 18 and 19 you will see that Luke interrupts his narrative concerning the labours of Paul to turn aside and speak of Apollos. Why does he do this? I think the answer is that we might understand why Paul used Apollos’ name along with his own and that of Peter in his letter to Corinth––for apart from the little that we can glean from 1 Corinthians and a single mention in Tit. 3: 13, we know nothing about the man except what is written in Acts 18: 24–19:1.
However, before I look at what Luke says about Apollos, it will be instructive to see what Luke does not say. Firstly, I would remind you that out of all the NT assemblies Corinth appears to have been the most gifted. Now read the lists of gifts in 1 Cor. 12: 8–11, 28–30 and then ask yourself which of these gifts (apart from teaching) is identified with Apollos. Secondly, to make this point even more forcibly, read the first seven verses of Acts 19 and compare them with the last five verses of Acts 18. In Acts 19 we have twelve disciples who, just like Apollos, knew only the baptism of John. They are enlightened by Paul, baptised to the name of the Lord Jesus, receive the Holy Spirit and speak in tongues. Yet when Apollos is enlightened by Aquila and Priscilla we do not read that he spoke with tongues, or that he was baptised, or even that he received the Holy Spirit. Why? Please be clear as to what I am not saying and what I am saying. I am not saying that Apollos was not baptised or that he did not receive the Holy Spirit or that he never exercised any of the gifts. What I am saying is that the Spirit of God omits mentioning all these things so that which distinguished Apollos might be clearly brought into focus. If you have followed me thus far, I think that we are now in a position to look positively at what Luke does tell us about Apollos in Acts 18.
Firstly, there is what marked Apollos naturally. He was a Jew with a Greek name (Apollos) and he was born in Egypt (Alexandria). He was also an eloquent man––that is, one whose academic background made him skilled in words or speech (for such is the sense of the Greek). A real man of culture! Then we have recorded in the Bible something that is never said of another––that he “was mighty in the scriptures” (v24). There are no apostles and prophets today (see Eph. 2: 20) and many of the gifts that were enjoyed at Corinth may no longer be available, yet here is something still open to us now––to be mighty in the Scriptures. This was what marked Apollos out as exceptional and, as far as the record of Scripture goes, unique. It is not just that he knew the Scriptures like Timothy (see 2 Tim. 3: 15), a matter commendable in itself, but that he was powerful in them. He was a man who could wield the Scriptures that are sharper than a two–edged sword (Heb. 4: 12). If Samson’s power was in his hair, the might of Apollos lay in the Scriptures.
Sadly many of the Lord’s people these days can hardly be said to know the Scriptures––let alone exercise any power in them. For them much of the Bible is a no–go area. Now spiritual weakness and ignorance of the Scriptures go hand in hand and the enemy is able to use that to his advantage. This is why things are allowed among the saints of God that would never have been countenanced for a single moment in a previous generation. Sadly, what Isaiah said of Israel is equally applicable of many today “Therefore my people are lead away captive from lack of knowledge” (Is. 5: 13). To emphasise the point, God repeated the warning by Hosea: “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge” (Hos. 4: 6). Even later the Lord said to the Sadducees “Ye err, not knowing the scriptures nor the power of God” (Matt. 22: 29). These things are written for our learning (see Rom. 15: 4)––so are we prepared to learn the lesson? What is our attitude to His Word? How many have little taste for the Bible! Christianity today is marked by almost anything but the study of the Holy Scriptures. Instead there is a clamouring for signs of outward power––a thirst for power but not for piety. With Apollos, however, we have a man who, as far as the record of the Bible goes, did not speak in tongues, never gave a single prophecy, performed not one miracle and healed nobody––all gifts that were apparently in abundance in Corinth, where he ultimately went. Instead what the Spirit of God sees fit to pen in the eternal record is that Apollos was mighty in the Scriptures.
Yet there is more. He was “instructed in the way of the Lord” (Acts 18: 25). What does that mean? We first read about the way of the Lord in Gen. 18: 19 where God said of Abraham and his household “they shall keep the way of Jehovah”. It clearly has a general meaning that when cross–roads appear, I know which direction the Lord will take. Yet there is a more specific meaning with regard to the present context. This is a phrase quoted from Is. 40: 3 by all four Gospel writers in relation to John the Baptist: “Prepare ye the way of Jehovah, make straight in the desert a highway for our God”. That was John’s mission. He spoke of the coming Messiah as one “whose winnowing fan [is] in his hand, and he shall thoroughly purge his threshing–floor, and shall gather his wheat into the garner, but the chaff he will burn with fire unquenchable” (Matt. 3: 12). John’s message was one of repentance in view of the impending judgement on the nation at the coming of the Messiah. Thus his service was always limited to Israel. Apollos was similarly restricted––for he knew only the baptism of John.
However, despite his limitation, Apollos was, like the Baptist, “fervent in his spirit” (Acts 18: 25). Now in the Greek this word for fervent is taken from a verb that means to boil. When water boils, it bubbles up and spills over the side of the vessel containing it. Apollos was so full of the things concerning Jesus that his speaking was as of one coming to the boil and bubbling over! Setting aside for the moment his limitation, this is the sort of ministry that saints need––not dull dry verbiage but the clear evidence that the one who is speaking is in the real gain of what he is putting forth. Of his mentor John the Baptist we read “He was the burning and shining lamp” (John 5: 35). There was not only light in John’s ministry but warmth as well. Apollos was similarly fervent––but it is significant that while fervency marked him, it did not govern him. With some speakers their emotions get the better of them and clarity suffers. Not so Apollos, for he taught exactly or accurately the things concerning Jesus. There was no vagueness, or uncertainties in his teaching––he was marked by exactness. Still there was a limitation: Apollos taught the things concerning Jesus knowing only the baptism of John. His knowledge was restricted. Nonetheless he spoke what he knew and this is an important principle in any speaking, whether private or public. “We speak that which we know, and we bear witness of that which we have seen” (John 3: 11)––so said the Son of God. Never go beyond what you know in speaking––it will carry no weight. I have heard addresses to saints in which the speaker merely regurgitated what he had heard others say. Such speakers inevitably lack conviction in their speech and have no power in their words. Now the limitation in Apollos’ knowledge was not his fault. He had not got beyond the baptism of John. This is a phrase that occurs a number of times in the NT and it marks the commencement of the Lord’s ministry to Israel (see John 1: 31 and Acts 1: 22). John’s ministry never went beyond the bounds of Israel––it was always limited to the Jew. Indeed once the Baptist had identified Jesus as the Messiah to the Jew at his baptism, his ministry was really over. This too was as far as the testimony of Apollos went. It excluded the death, resurrection and ascension of the Lord Jesus (see Acts 10: 36–43). The “things concerning Jesus” (Acts 18: 25) would be those things that identified Him with His earthly people as Messiah. Thus in John 1: 11 we read “He came to his own” and the word own can have the sense of ‘He came unto his own things’.
In the ways of God it was not the apostle Paul who was to give further instruction to Apollos for God had seen to it that Paul had left Ephesus and had not as yet returned (Acts 18: 21; 19: 1). The instruction was left to two ‘ordinary’ Christians, Aquila and Priscilla. Note that they do it in private, not in public. Their purpose was not to expose this brother's short–comings, but to build upon what was there. Apollos gains by their help and thereby shows his greatness, for the mark of one truly great is that he is not beyond being helped by others who may be less able than himself. They knew what Apollos was ignorant of and so unfolded to him the way of God more exactly. “Impart to a wise [man], and he will become yet wiser; teach a righteous [man], and he will increase learning” (Prov. 9: 9). While limited knowledge may be exact, increased knowledge can refine what we already know to increase its exactness–just as in optics a better quality lens can increase the resolution of the object viewed.
The end result of all this is that Apollos goes to Achaia of which Corinth was the principle city and there contributed much to the brethren. It is a good thing to ask ourselves now and again just what we contribute towards the well–being of the saints. One is reminded of the liberality of the heave offering for the tabernacle in Ex. 35: 4–29 which everyone whose heart was willing brought. What valuable contributions were then made! How sad when saints have nothing to contribute to their brethren! Apollos contributed much! We learn from 1 Cor. 3: 6–8 that while Paul did the planting, the refreshing water so necessary for growth came from the ministry of Apollos. His vast knowledge of the Scriptures would enhance the ministry there. It would also appear that the brethren in Corinth were under much pressure from the Jews. The arrival of Apollos therefore brought relief for he was able to convince the Jews publicly that Jesus was the Christ. It says he did it with great force––he broke down their opposition and destroyed their arguments. In so doing he lived up to his name––for Apollos means “destroyer”.
There is one final matter that I must mention in relation to Apollos and it concerns 1 Cor. 16: 12: “Now concerning the brother Apollos, I begged him much that he would go to you with the brethren; but it was not at all [his] will to go now; but he will come when he shall have good opportunity”. On account of his apostleship, Paul could send an Artemas (Tit. 3: 12) or a Tychicus (Col. 4: 7, 8; Tit. 3: 12) and could instruct Titus to come to him (Tit. 3: 12), but he does not exercise that authority in relation to Apollos. This shows how great Apollos was in the eyes of Paul. 1 Cor. 16: 12 suggests that Apollos was with (or had recently been with) Paul and that Paul had wanted Apollos to go with the brethren that would carry the apostle’s letter to the Corinthians. Yet Apollos deemed it better not to go––perhaps because he felt that if he returned to that divided assembly it would increase the party spirit by encouraging one faction at the expense of another. It seems that Paul was quite prepared to accept the wisdom of Apollos.
This then was Apollos as the Scriptures present him. Although He has long since gone, what lessons does he leave for you and I today? Much of his labour was among those who possessed many of the original spiritual gifts such as prophecy, healings, tongues and miracles––gifts that in their exercise were demonstrations of power. Scripture does not say he possessed any such gifts but it does say that he was “mighty in the scriptures”. Power marked Corinth but not piety. They were thoroughly worldly and dishonouring to Christ. Apollos was approved of God; the majority at Corinth were not (1 Cor. 11: 19). Sadly there are many today who, while owning the Lord’s name, have little thought for piety. They are obsessed with the display of power in gifts and have little or no appetite for the Scriptures, with some going even so far as to say that the Bible is no longer needed! The lesson for us is to walk in the footsteps of Apollos, each desiring to be one of the true David’s mighty men (see 1 Chron. 11: 10) able to wield the sword: “For the arms of our warfare [are] not fleshly, but powerful according to God to [the] overthrow of strongholds” (2 Cor. 10: 4). May it be so for each one of us!