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29. Filling in the Blank (Acts 18:18-19:7)


In my second year of seminary, I watched a very amusing incident in Greek class. It was second year Greek, and the instructor was doing a “chalk talk” entitled, “How to Fell the Greek Goliath.” The “five stones of David” were the five means of dealing with Greek in such a way as to learn the language (and to survive the course). The second “stone” was the Greek Lexicon (or dictionary). The standard Greek lexicon is known in seminary jargon as Arndt and Gingrich, or more simply, “A and G.” The instructor had referred to “A and G” a couple times when one student, sitting in the front row, interrupted the chalk talk with a question. “Pardon me sir,” the student interjected in a voice strikingly similar to the cartoon character, Huckleberry Hound, “but what is ‘A and G’?”

At first, the instructor thought that this student was putting him on. It had to be a joke. And so he replied with a smile, “‘A and G,’ Arndt and Gingrich. You, know, that lexicon which you use whenever you translate your Greek assignments.” Now I must explain to you that in first year Greek, there comes a time when your vocabulary and grammar skills have developed sufficiently that you can begin to read the Greek text of the New Testament (often it is the Gospel of John). By second year Greek, one is expected to be able to translate even more of the Greek text of the New Testament. In order to do this, it is necessary to use “A and G,” the Greek lexicon, to look up the various shades of meanings of the Greek term, and then to choose the meaning which best fits the context. My fellow-classmate was expected to have been a good ways down this path and thus daily making use of “A and G.”

This student’s response took the instructor totally by surprise when he responded, “I’ve never used ‘A and G’.” The teacher’s expression changed from one of amusement, to shock, and finally to bewilderment. “Well then how do you translate your Greek assignments?,” he asked. “Oh,” the student replied innocently, “I just use my interlinear translation—it’s easy, and fast!” And so it was, but it missed the point of the whole Greek language program of the seminary. Well, from that time on translating the Scriptures was not so easy for my fellow-classmate. He had learned that there was something very vital missing from his study of the Greek New Testament.

In the case of Apollos in Acts chapter 18 and the 12 “disciples” in the first seven verses of chapter 19 there was also something vital missing. Initially I was inclined to handle these passages separately, but then I noted that they have much in common. Both Apollos and the disciples were lacking some very important revelation. Both Apollos and these 12 men were acquainted only with the teaching and baptism of John the Baptist.

The text we are about to study raises a number of questions in my mind as I read it and meditate on it. The first question is, “Why is so much detail omitted by Luke in this account, detail which is of great interest to the reader?” Among these details would be a disclosure of what Paul’s vow consisted of, and more information about the conclusion of the so-called “second missionary journey” and the commencement of the “third missionary journey.” A second question is, “Why did Paul not stay on at Ephesus when he first visited the city, and when he was encouraged to stay on by those in the synagogue there?” A third question is, “Just what was it that Apollos and the 12 disciples lacked?” Finally, “Why does Luke include this account of the filling in of Apollos and the 12 at this point in his book?” These are but some of the questions which this text raises. I believe that we will find the lessons of this passage are not only interesting and informative, but relevant.

The Context of Our Text

As I have considered this text, and the blanks which will be filled in for Apollos and for the 12 disciples, it now appears that there may also have been blanks that were filled in for those seekers of the truth in Berea, and for Aquila and Priscilla as well. The response to Paul’s teaching at the synagogue in Thessalonica was similar to that in other synagogues—some received the gospel, but many Jews rejected it and began to oppose Paul and his preaching. But at Berea it was a different matter. Here, the synagogue worshippers were eager to hear what Paul had to say about Messiah, and were eager to receive Jesus as Messiah, once they searched the Scriptures for themselves and were convinced that Jesus fulfilled the prophecies of the Old Testament pertaining to Messiah. Paul’s teaching at Berea thus “filled in the blank” in the understanding and belief of the Bereans—the blank, into which the name of the Messiah was to be filled in, once Messiah appeared, was now filled with the name, Jesus of Nazareth.

Initially I had thought that Aquila and Priscilla were already believers when Paul first met them. Now, I am inclined to doubt this. We are not told that this couple had become believers before meeting Paul. We are not told that their association was rooted in a common faith or in a common ministry. Aquila is introduced to us as “a certain Jew,” and we are then told that Paul lived with them because they had the same trade. When Paul and his colleagues stayed at the home of Lydia (Acts 16:15), the invitation was rooted in the fact that she had now come to possess the same faith as Paul. She wanted her home to be a base of operations for the proclamation of the gospel, as so it was. Nothing of this kind is said of the initial association of Paul and Aquila and Priscilla. I am therefore inclined to think that this man and his wife were looking for the coming of Messiah, like the Bereans, but that they did not yet understand that Jesus was the Messiah. I think that Paul “filled in this blank” for them, and on believing in Jesus, they found their association based on much more than a common occupation.

If I am correct in my conclusion, then we have in chapter 18 and the first part of chapter 19 a thread which links the Bereans, Aquila and Priscilla, Apollos, and the 12 disciples, and this thread is that of a “blank” which was filled in, so that Jesus of Nazareth is now recognized and believed in as Israel’s promised Messiah.

Heading Home

18 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. 19 And they came to Ephesus, and he left them there.421 Now he himself entered the synagogue and reasoned with the Jews. 20 And when they asked him to stay for a longer time, he did not consent, 21 but taking leave of them and saying, “I will return to you again if God wills,” he set sail from Ephesus. 22 And when he had landed at Caesarea, he went up and greeted the church, and went down to Antioch. 23 And having spent some time there, he departed and passed successively through the Galatian region and Phrygia, strengthening all the disciples.

Paul left Corinth, after spending a year and a half there (18:11). Unlike many other occasions, he did not seem to leave Corinth because of Jewish or Gentile opposition. We really do not know why he left. It seems more that Paul was “drawn to” somewhere else more than he was forced out of Corinth. The question is, “What was it that caused Paul to leave Corinth, and to leave Ephesus so quickly as well?”

While we are not told exactly why Paul was drawn away, I do believe that we are told where he was drawn to—Syria (verse 18). Syrian Antioch, you may recall, was the city in which Paul and Barnabas ministered (Acts 11) and it later served as the starting and ending point for the so-called “first missionary journey” (Acts 13:1–14:28). It would therefore seem that Paul felt the need to return to home base in Antioch. Paul’s destination was therefore Syria, and he was determined not to be prevented from reaching there as soon as possible.

Luke’s account of this final “leg” of the second missionary journey, of Paul’s itinerary and ministry on the way and upon his arrival, seems purposefully brief and sketchy. The more I read it, the more I am inclined to the conclude that Luke is really just informing us that Paul directed of God so that he was “out of the way,” set aside for a while, so that the ministry of others might blossom and develop.

If this is true, Luke is only briefly explaining Paul’s absence, and is more intent on describing what took place in his absence through the ministry of Priscilla and Aquila, and then of Apollos.

Paul’s “second missionary journey” comes to an end in these verses, and yet Luke makes little of it. The dividing up of Paul’s ministry into three missionary journeys may therefore be more a matter of our doing than it was a part of Luke’s structure or argument in Acts. And if Luke wants us to know that a “third missionary journey” has now commenced, he has surely not made a great point of it. As we read these verses, we have to remind ourselves of the structure of Paul’s three journeys, or we would not even notice that one journey had ended and another had begun.

From Corinth, Paul went on to Cenchrea.422 Here, Luke tells us only that he cut his hair, terminating a period of time during which he was under a vow. This vow, if not the same as that described in Numbers chapter 6, would at least be a vow which Paul observed as a Jew. We are not told what the vow was, although it is tempting to speculate on such matters. Luke seems only to be informing us that while Paul was an apostle to the Gentiles (see Galatians 2:7), he had not ceased to be a Jew, nor did he need to. He only rejected legalistic Judaism, and its system of works-righteousness which was a perversion of the purpose and intent of the Law. Paul’s practice here is completely consistent with principles which governed Paul’s lifestyle and ministry, such as we find referred to in 1 Corinthians 9:

19 For though I am free from all {men,} I have made myself a slave to all, that I might win the more. 20 And to the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might win Jews; to those who are under the Law, as under the Law, though not being myself under the Law, that I might win those who are under the Law; 21 to those who are without law, as without law, though not being without the law of God but under the law of Christ, that I might win those who are without law. 22 To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak; I have become all things to all men, that I may by all means save some. 23 And I do all things for the sake of the gospel, that I may become a fellow partaker of it (1 Corinthians 9:19-23).

Paul sailed from Cenchrea in Achaia to Ephesus in Asia, taking along Priscilla and Aquila.423 He would leave them in Ephesus when he departed. Their ministry was soon to blossom, as our text will indicate, as well as that of others.424 Paul went to the synagogue at Ephesus, as his custom was, and those who heard him wanted to hear him out, but Paul declined, pressing on for Syria, and promising to return if it was the will of God. This strongly suggests that Paul felt it was God’s will for him to leave, and that he, as yet, had no leading as to his future ministry at Ephesus. We should probably not forget that on Paul’s first journey through Asia, he was forbidden to “speak the word in Asia” by the Holy Spirit (Acts 16:6). Was Paul reluctant to stay on there until he received clear direction to do so, as he received in Corinth (Acts 18:9-11)? Possibly so.

Paul pressed on to the city of Caesarea in Syria. Luke tells us that when Paul landed he “went up and greeted the church,” and then “went down to Antioch” (verse 22). The question is, “What church did Paul go up to and come down from?” Initially, it would seem that Paul went up to the church at Caesarea. There well may have been a church here. We know that Cornelius and his whole household lived here, for this is where Peter came at the prompting of God to preach the gospel to Cornelius and his whole household (Acts 10:1, 24). But it is also true that when one spoke of “going up” from Caesarea, he often referred to going up to Jerusalem. So, too, when one went to Caesarea from Jerusalem you “went down” (see Acts 25:1, 6).425 Thus, Paul could have “gone up” to the church at Jerusalem. If this was so, Luke certainly did not make much of this visit.

Paul then went to Antioch, where he spent some time. The length of his stay, and the role which he played in the church is not stated. It, too, was not important to Luke, at least not important enough to his argument to include these details here. Paul then returned to the “Galatian region and Phrygia,” once again visiting the saints in the churches which he had helped to establish, strengthening them in their faith and Christian walk.426 Follow-up was a very important ministry to Paul, who either personally visited those to whom he had previously ministered, or he sent a representative (like Timothy), or he wrote. Sometimes he may have done all three. The church at Ephesus is one example (see here, Acts 20:16ff.; 1 Timothy 1:3; the Book of Ephesians).

Priscilla and Aquila Enlighten Apollos

24 Now a certain Jew named Apollos, an Alexandrian by birth, an eloquent man, came to Ephesus; and he was mighty in the Scriptures. 25 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; 26 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. 27 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; 28 for he powerfully refuted the Jews in public, demonstrating by the Scriptures that Jesus was the Christ.

In Paul’s absence, Priscilla and Aquila will play a very crucial role in the life and ministry of Apollos, a man of great intellect and ability, but also a man with a “blank” which needed filling in. This man was a Jew, born in Alexandria, an Egyptian city located on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea, a city of great learning and education, a city to which Christians would later migrate. It may have been here that Apollos received much of his training. He was regarded as “an eloquent man,” a man who not only knew his subject matter well, but was skilled in communicating what he knew. He was, in short, both a scholar and a communicator. His abilities were all related to his love for and knowledge of the Old Testament Scriptures. He was so well versed in the Old Testament that Luke would refer to him as “mighty in the Scriptures.” He was also a man a great intensity—”fervent in spirit.” This may also indicate that he was empowered by the Holy Spirit, not perhaps in the same way as the apostles, who had received a special empowerment by the Spirit at Pentecost, but as was true of the Old Testament prophets, including John the Baptist.

What, then, was this mighty man, Apollos, lacking? In the synagogues, Apollos accurately taught “the things concerning Jesus,” and yet he was “acquainted only with the baptism of John.” How can this be? We must first take note of the fact that while the knowledge of Apollos was limited, he was accurate and correct in that which he did teach. As far as his teaching about Jesus went, it was absolutely right. How, then, did it fall short? It fell short in that it went only as far as John’s baptism.

My greatest difficulty in trying to understand what Luke wrote here is that the two expressions, “the way of the Lord” (verse 25) and “the way of God” (verse 26) seem to be reversed. Apollos was instructed in “the way of the Lord,” and yet Priscilla and Aquila more fully informed him of “the way of God.” It would seem from these expressions that he had already been taught the things pertaining to Jesus, but that he was taught by Priscilla and Aquila in the more general “ways of God.” I would have expected from the context that Apollos already knew the Old Testament revelation well, and that he only lacked specific knowledge of Jesus of Nazareth, as the Christ, the promised Messiah.

This is exactly Luke’s point. The problem is that we tend to read into the two expressions (“the way of the Lord” and “the way of God”) meanings opposite to that which they were meant to indicate. A little search in my concordance cleared up the problem for me, in a very informative way. The expression, “the way of the Lord,” is one that is found quite often in the Old Testament, while the expression, “the way of God” is not an Old Testament expression at all. This expression, “the way of God” is found only in the New Testament, on the lips of Jewish leaders, who were seeking to trap the Lord Jesus by asking Him a loaded question pertaining to paying taxes to Caesar (Matthew 22:16; Mark 12:14; Luke 20:21). The expression, “the way of the Lord,” however, is often used in the Old Testament, in both a general way (Genesis 18:19; 2 Kings 21:22; Proverbs 10:29; Jeremiah 5:4-5; Ezekiel 18:25, 29; 33:17, 20), and in a way which more pointedly referred to the Messiah (Isaiah 40:3).

When this expression, “the way of the Lord,” is used in the New Testament, it is found four times before it occurs in out text in Acts. Note these four instances:

For this is the one referred to by Isaiah the prophet, saying, “The voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘Make ready the way of the Lord, Make His paths straight!’” (Matthew 3:3).

The voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘Make ready the way of the Lord, Make His paths straight’ (Mark 1:3).

As it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet, “The voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘Make ready the way of the Lord, Make His paths straight’” (Luke 3:4).

He said, “I am a voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ as Isaiah the prophet said” (John 1:23).

It is not often that every one of the four Gospels includes an account of the same event. The ministry of John the Baptist is one such event. All four Gospel accounts are parallel, referring to the same event and the same reference to the prophecy of Isaiah 40:3. On the basis of this Old Testament text, John rests his calling and ministry as the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy.427 The key to understanding Isaiah’s prophecy is the word “Lord.” The meaning and significance of this term can be seen by this remark, found in the preface of the NASB, which explains the way the word Lord is rendered:

The Proper Name for God: To professing Christians, whether of conservative or liberal persuasion, the name of God is most significant and understandably so. It is inconceivable to think of spiritual matters without a proper designation for the Supreme Deity. Thus the most common name for deity is God, a translation of the original Elohim. The normal word for Master is Lord, a rendering of Adonai. There is yet another name which is particularly assigned to God as His special or proper name, that is, the four letters YHWH. See Exodus 3 and Isaiah 42:8. The name has not been pronounced by the Jews because of reverence for the great sacredness of the divine name. Therefore, it was consistently pronounced and translated LORD.428

When the Hebrew Old Testament was translated into the Greek language (in a version of the Old Testament known as the Septuagint) the Hebrew word for Yahweh (or Jehovah, as some English versions render it) was rendered by the Greek term KURIOS. This is the same term which all four gospel writers used in their account of John the Baptist’s citation of Isaiah 40:3, cited above. It is also the term which is found in Acts 18:25. Thus, when Luke tells us that Apollos was “instructed in the way of the Lord” he meant that he was instructed in the Old Testament, in those Scriptures pertaining to Yahweh, and in particular the text of Isaiah 40:3, which indicated that the Messiah was not only the “Servant of Yahweh,” but Yahweh in person. Apollos therefore knew about the coming of the LORD, based upon his instruction in and from the Old Testament. His knowledge was confirmed by and consistent with the preaching and ministry of John the Baptist, who was appointed to prepare the way of Messiah by calling upon the nation Israel to repent.

The early teaching of John the Baptist would not have informed Apollos as to who the Messiah was, but only as to the fact that Messiah was coming, and that repentance was necessary to be prepare for His arrival and kingdom. John himself did not know who the Messiah was until the day that Jesus appeared for His own baptism:

19 And this is the witness of John, when the Jews sent to him priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” 20 And he confessed, and did not deny, and he confessed, “I am not the Christ.” 21 And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” And he said, “I am not.” “Are you the Prophet?” And he answered, “No.” 22 They said then to him, “Who are you, so that we may give an answer to those who sent us? What do you say about yourself?” 23 He said, “I am a voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ as Isaiah the prophet said.” 24 Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. 25 And they asked him, and said to him, “Why then are you baptizing, if you are not the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?” 26 John answered them saying, “I baptize in water, {but} among you stands One whom you do not know. 27 “{It is} He who comes after me, the thong of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie.”

28 These things took place in Bethany beyond the Jordan, where John was baptizing. 29 The next day he saw Jesus coming to him, and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! 30 “This is He on behalf of whom I said, ‘After me comes a Man who has a higher rank than I, for He existed before me.’ 31 “And I did not recognize Him, but in order that He might be manifested to Israel, I came baptizing in water.” 32 And John bore witness saying, “I have beheld the Spirit descending as a dove out of heaven, and He remained upon Him. 33 “And I did not recognize Him, but He who sent me to baptize in water said to me, ‘He upon whom you see the Spirit descending and remaining upon Him, this is the one who baptizes in the Holy Spirit.’ 34 “And I have seen, and have borne witness that this is the Son of God.” 35 Again the next day John was standing with two of his disciples, 36 and he looked upon Jesus as He walked, and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God!” 37 And the two disciples heard him speak, and they followed Jesus (John 1:19-34).

John’s ministry had two phases: (1) that phase during which he announced to the nation Israel that Messiah, as yet unidentified and unknown to him, was soon to appear; and, (2) that phase after Jesus had been designated as Messiah, when John proclaimed Him to be the Messiah, introducing Jesus to the nation as the fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecies. Until the time that Jesus was designated as the Messiah, when He was baptized by John, John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance, and a baptism of anticipation of the One who had not yet been revealed.

Imagine, for a moment, that you were a God-fearing Jew, who eagerly awaited the coming of Messiah. You knew that Messiah would make His appearance at Jerusalem. All your life you had been saving up money so that you could make one trip to the “holy city,” Jerusalem. You, along with thousands of others, would go there for one of the feasts. And when you made your trip, it was during the time when John the Baptist was proclaiming the coming of Messiah. But it was still at a time when John had not yet been informed that Jesus was the Promised One. You would have left Jerusalem with heightened expectation, but without the specific identification of Jesus as Messiah. You might, from that time on, make an intensive study of the Old Testament prophecies concerning Messiah, but these would only tell you a part of what you wanted to know—what Messiah was like, and what would characterize His coming. What you would not (and could not) know is who He was.

Apollos was like this, as I understand Luke’s words in our text. He was limited in his knowledge and preaching of Messiah to the revelation of Him in the Old Testament and, more recently, through John the Baptist. No doubt there were rumors circulating about concerning Jesus, His presentation to the people of Israel as their Messiah, His teaching and ministry, His miracles, His rejection, execution, and even, perhaps, His resurrection and ascension. But none of this had been documented or defended from Scripture. It was only rumor. How was Apollos to know for certain that Messiah had come?

I believe that this is the situation with Apollos, as perhaps also it might have been with the Bereans, Priscilla and Aquila, and the 12 disciples of chapter 19, verses 1-7. For someone who had finally learned of Jesus, and had come to trust in Him as the Messiah, how strange it must have been to hear a man like Apollos preach, a man who was still living in a past era, still looking for Messiah, but not knowing He had come. As Priscilla and Aquila sat in the synagogue and heard Apollos teach, they must have looked at one another in astonishment, and said, “His teaching points to Jesus, and he doesn’t know it.” I believe that what Priscilla and Aquila did was to “fill in the blank” for Apollos, informing him that Jesus of Nazareth was not only Messiah, but that He was Yahweh—God in person, in human flesh.429

Once this was known to Apollos, his preaching now filled in the blank for others. I can imagine Apollos trying to recall all the places he had been, and the synagogues he had preached in, so that he could return to tell them what he had just come to know himself—that Jesus was the Christ. From this point on, this was his message, which he proclaimed powerfully in the synagogues. He was, as it were, another Paul:

But Saul kept increasing in strength and confounding the Jews who lived at Damascus by proving that this Jesus is the Christ (Acts 9:22).

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; 28 for he powerfully refuted the Jews in public, demonstrating by the Scriptures that Jesus was the Christ.

Filling in the Blanks for Twelve Disciples430

1 And it came about that while Apollos was at Corinth, Paul having passed through the upper country came to Ephesus, and found some disciples, 2 and he said to them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” And they said to him, “No, we have not even heard whether there is a Holy Spirit.” 3 And he said, “Into what then were you baptized?” And they said, “Into John’s baptism.” 4 And Paul said, “John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in Him who was coming after him, that is, in Jesus.” 5 And when they heard this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. 6 And when Paul had laid his hands upon them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they began speaking with tongues and prophesying. 7 And there were in all about twelve men.

It is difficult not to see Luke’s account of these mysterious “12 disciples” as having a very close link with the immediately preceding account of the enlightenment of Apollos. There is a common element in the two accounts. Apollos was acquainted only with the “baptism of John” (18:25), just as these “disciples” had experienced only the “baptism of John” (19:3). I therefore see the two accounts as similar, placed side-by-side to make an impression on the reader, and to further the argument which Luke is striving to develop. Based upon my conclusion (above) that Apollos was an Old Testament saint when found by Priscilla and Aquila, and that he became a New Testament saint due to their ministry, I am likewise inclined to see these 12 “disciples” in the same light. The one difference is that Priscilla and Aquila “filled in the blank” for Apollos, while Paul “filled in the blank” for the 12.

Many would agree that what was missing for these “disciples” is the same as that which was missing for Apollos. Where I would differ with them is on what it was that both lacked. Others say that what both lacked was a “Pentecostal experience,” the second blessing consisting of the “baptism of the Holy Spirit.” If this is true, why then does Luke not say anything about the Holy Spirit when speaking of the enlightenment of Apollos? I believe that the Holy Spirit fell upon these twelve men because they had just come to a personal faith in Jesus as their Messiah, in addition to (and culmination of) their hope of a Messiah, based upon the Old Testament and the ministry of John the Baptist. Let me seek to demonstrate why I believe this to be true.

(1) The term “disciple” does not always mean a believer in Jesus as the Messiah. In the Gospels and the Book of Acts there are various kinds of disciples, based on the fact that the term disciple may have various shades of meaning, all the way from a mere follower (perhaps out of curiosity) to those deeply committed to Jesus. There are those “disciples” who follow Jesus, but are not committed, are only temporary, and are not even believers in Him (see Matthew 8:21; Luke 6:17; 19:37, 39; John 6:60-61, 66). There are the disciples of John the Baptist (Luke 5:33; 7:18). There are also those who are disciples of men other than Jesus or John the Baptist (Matthew 22:16). In the Book of Acts, the term “disciple” almost always refers to believers (6:1, 2, 7; 9:10, 19, 25-26, 36, 38; 11:26, 29; 13:52; 14:20-22, 28; 15:10; 16:1; 18:23, 27), but not always.

One notable exception to the general rule in Acts that “disciples” are believers is to be found in the near context of our passage:

But when some were becoming hardened and disobedient, speaking evil of the Way before the multitude, he withdrew from them and took away the disciples, reasoning daily in the school of Tyrannus (Acts 19:9).

One might think that these “disciples” were true believers in Jesus, but I am not so certain. These were those who had not, like the other Jews, become hardened to Paul’s reasoning, and were still interested and wanted to hear more. But the fact that Luke tells us Paul “reasoned” with them causes me to think that some of them may, as yet, have been unbelievers.431

(2) The baptism of this group of 12 disciples by the Holy Spirit argues for their salvation here, in the fullest sense of the word. There are four “pentecosts” recorded in the Book of Acts. The are described in chapters 2, 8, 10, and 19. There are distinct differences between these “pentecosts,” but they share a couple of common features. To begin with, these “pentecosts” are never the experience of but one person, but of a group of individuals. Those who are baptized by the Holy Spirit are all God-fearers, those with a knowledge of the Old Testament Scriptures and of the prophecies pertaining to the coming Messiah and His kingdom. There are no “raw pagan” Gentiles included in any of the four “pentecosts.” I believe this is because they would have understood what happened as the fulfillment of prophecies which they were aware of and understood. For a Gentile, with no understanding of the Old Testament prophecies, such a spectacular spiritual experience might have had associations with their pagan past, more than with biblical prophecy (see 1 Corinthians 12:1-3, especially verse 2). Finally, I believe that each of these baptisms of the Spirit was directly related to the salvation of those baptized. Peter promised those who were at Pentecost that those who repented and were baptized would “receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38-39). I believe that this is what is described in the four “pentecosts.” The baptism of Cornelius and his household and of these 12 disciples came immediately upon their belief in Jesus as Messiah.432 The delay of the reception of the Holy Spirit at the initial Pentecost (Acts 2) and for the “pentecost” at Samaria was purposeful. In the first instance, the disciples needed to wait and to pray, and leave this to God’s timing. In the second instance, the apostles, Peter and John, needed to arrive, so that they could receive these new believers as fellow-saints and so that they could identify themselves with the work of God among the Samaritans.

(3) I believe that Paul’s question about their reception of the Holy Spirit at the time they believed was intended to determine whether or not they had come to faith in Jesus as their Messiah. Think about it for a moment. Suppose that you were Paul, and that you met some fellow-Jews, who believed in the Old Testament, and who were waiting for Messiah to come, in fulfillment of the words of the prophets. How could you quickly determine whether or not these folks had come to a completed faith, knowing about Jesus and trusting in Him, or whether they still waited for a Savior with the blank for His name not yet filled in? For Paul, the way to determine whether or not a person had trusted in Jesus for salvation was to discern whether or not they had received the Holy Spirit. Paul’s question to the 12 disciples was based upon his assumption expressed in Romans chapter 8:

9 However, you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you. But if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Him. 10 And if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, yet the spirit is alive because of righteousness. 11 But if the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, He who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through His Spirit who indwells you. 12 So then, brethren, we are under obligation, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh—13 for if you are living according to the flesh, you must die; but if by the Spirit you are putting to death the deeds of the body, you will live. 14 For all who are being led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God (Romans 8:9-14).

For Paul, to be saved was to have received the Holy Spirit, and to have received the Holy Spirit was evidence of one’s salvation. When he asked these twelve men if they had received the Holy Spirit “when they believed” I understand him to be assuming that they believed in Messiah, in general terms, just as Apollos did, based upon Old Testament revelation and the preaching of John the Baptist. But if their belief also included the revelation of Jesus of Nazareth (may I call it the “full gospel”?), the gospel with the blank filled in, then they would have received the Holy Spirit.

These “disciples,” like Apollos and many others, knew only of Messiah from the Old Testament Scriptures and through whatever word they had heard of John the Baptist and his preaching. As Priscilla and Aquila filled in the blank for Apollos, so Paul filled in the blank for these 12 men. And when they believed, they received the Holy Spirit, in the same way as those at the Jerusalem Pentecost (Acts 2), and at the Samaritan (Acts 8) and Caesarean (Acts 10) Pentecosts.


There are a number of important lessons to be learned from our text. I want to begin by looking at how our text contributes to the developing argument of Acts, as Luke seems to have intended it. I see Luke indicating, once again, but in a very different way, the fact that time is running out for Israel and for the Jews to repent and to accept Jesus as the Messiah. I have said previously that Paul’s sense of urgency in preaching the gospel as widely as possible seems to emerge out of his realization that the time of the Gentiles is about to begin and the times of the nation Israel are, for a period of time, to end. Paul hurries from city to city, eager to press on and to preach Christ to everyone who has not yet heard and received Jesus and the Christ, their Messiah.

But there is another side to this coin. Not only does the gospel need to be proclaimed to those who never heard it before, but it also needs to be proclaimed to all those who are, in reality, the last of the Old Testament saints, and who must transfer their faith from a Christ that is to come to the Lord Jesus who has come. If time is running out for the people of God, then time requires that the gospel be proclaimed to all those (like the Bereans, Aquila and Priscilla, and Apollos) who were waiting for Messiah, but did not know that Jesus was the Promised Savior. I look at this paragraph as God’s “cleaning up” all the untidy ends, so that all who have looked for Messiah in truth may find Him.

There is yet another “transition” which Luke is aware of, in addition to the transition from Israel to the church and from a predominantly Jewish orientation to one that is Gentile, and that is the transition which is about to occur in the ministry of Paul. Paul’s ministry has, to this point in time, been a personal one, a direct, “hands-on” ministry, to the churches he has helped establish. But Paul is soon heading toward Jerusalem, and ultimately to Rome (19:21). From this point on, much of Paul’s ministry will be from a distance, and from a prison cell. His pen and his prayers will become God’s powerful instruments in ministry to others.

I think that the Holy Spirit has guided Luke to show us the laying of the groundwork for this new era of ministry in the life of Paul. In our text, we have seen God at work through Paul, in his presence, and we have seen God at work in Paul’s absence (in his return to Syria), through others, such as Priscilla and Aquilla. I further believe that to some degree, Apollos is to Paul what Elisha was to Elijah. Apollos was to serve as Paul’s successor, speaking in the synagogues with great eloquence and power, proving that Jesus is the promised Messiah. And just as Paul was raised up for his work, independent from the 12 apostles, so Apollos was raised up for his work, independent of Paul. God has a new focus, and a new location for Paul’s ministry, but He has already made arrangements for the continuation of the ministry which Paul has been doing. God’s sovereign plans and purposes continue on, without a hitch or hesitation. He does all things well!

There is a sense in which this “transition period” described in Acts is unique. Those people whose lives encompassed the ministry of the last Old Testament prophet—John the Baptist—and the fulfillment of his prophecy—Jesus Christ—were a unique group. We do not have the same situation today, nor will we ever see this dilemma again. The problem for these “Old Testament saints” was that their faith in the Messiah who was to come had to be converted, updated, or revised so as to be a faith in the One who had come—Jesus of Nazareth. That is what we see described in our text.

But there is in this at least an analogy, an illustration which can be made. There was a necessity for these “Old Testament saints” to hear of Jesus and trust in Him personally. That need was met through Priscilla and Aquila, as well as by Paul. My friend, if these “believers” in the “Christ to come” had to be told of Jesus and His coming, and to trust in Him, no one will be saved apart from a personal knowledge and trust in Jesus as the Savior today, either. Unlike these “Old Testament saints,” who had not heard of Jesus, you know all that you will ever need to know about Him. You know that He came as the sinless Son of God, that He lived a perfect life and that He died as a perfect sacrifice, for sinners, and that by faith in His death, burial, and resurrection, you can have the forgiveness of sins and the hope of eternal life. But have you ever really crossed the line, from a knowledge about Jesus to a personal faith and trust in Him? Have you made the transition (known as conversion, or being born again) from knowing about Jesus to knowing Him intimately as Savior and Lord? If not, the hour is late and the need is urgent. Cross that line today!

Finally, I want to say a word about Priscilla and Aquila. What an encouragement this couple should be to every Christian. It was this couple that God used mightily in the “conversion” of Apollos from an “Old Testament saint” to a New Testament Christian. Think of it for a moment. Apollos was a highly trained, highly intelligent, Bible scholar and communicator. Who would you have sent to Apollos, to tell him, in effect, that he was “not far from the kingdom of God”? Who would you have chosen to “fill in the blank” so that this man’s faith was not in the Messiah to come, but in the Jesus who had come, as Messiah?

God chose Priscilla and Aquila. God did not choose Paul—our first choice, for sure. Why? First, because God does not appeal to men’s pride. Humility is the beginning of wisdom, and if Apollos was to be wise in God’s sight, he must be humble enough to believe the truth, regardless of the worldly standing or stature of the instruments through whom he was informed. But more importantly, God did not choose a scholar to inform Apollos because what he needed to know was very simple. He had not overlooked the tense or nuance of some Hebrew verb. He did not need some hidden truth exposed to him. He needed to know that Jesus of Nazareth was the promised Messiah, that He had fulfilled the Old Testament prophecies, and that He had not only died for sinners, but had risen from the dead.

Think on this for a moment. God can use simple (in the eyes of this world) people to accomplish His great purposes because the gospel is simple, and because it is the power of God unto salvation. What joy there is to know that He uses such simple people as we to achieve His purposes, and what encouragement to us to tell others the simple message of the Savior. May God raise up many more men and women like Priscilla and Aquila.

421 It is difficult to discern how strong Paul’s influence had a bearing on their decision to stay on at Ephesus. Did Paul recommend that they stay on, knowing the ministry they could play here, or was this entirely their decision?

422 Phoebe lived here and served the church in this city. See Romans 16:1-2.

423 Note that the order here and in verse 26 is reversed from 18:2.

424 See Romans 16:3-5 and 2 Timothy 4:19.

425 “Went up--went down”--See Luke 2:42; 18:10; Acts 11:2; 18:22; 21:15; 24:1, 10; 25:1, 6.

426 It seems that Paul did not try, on this occasion, to evangelize in this region. Why? I suspect it was because there was now a church there, and this was their task. His task now was to edify and build up the body of believers.

427 It is interesting to note that while in each gospel John is quoting from Isaiah 40:3, the rendering of the Isaiah text is slightly different in the NASB, “Clear the way for the Lord in the wilderness,” but the sense is the same. The King James version does render it, “Prepare ye the way of the LORD.”

428 The New American Standard Bible (La Habra, California, 1973), p. ix.

429 There were two things about Messiah that perplexed the Old Testament saint. The first was that He was prophesied to be a mighty, conquering King, who would subdue His enemies and establish justice, while at the same time He was spoken of elsewhere as a suffering Savior (compare Psalm 2, 110 with Isaiah 52-53). Peter spoke of this tension in 1 Peter 1:10-12. The second tension was that the Messiah would be a man, a human being, the seed of the woman (Genesis 3:15), and of Abraham (Genesis 12:1-3; 15:1-6; 17:15-21; 2 Samuel 7:13-14), and yet He was God (Isaiah 9:6-7; Micah 5:2). He was to be the Son of Man and the Son of God. John’s reference to Isaiah 40:3 was, therefore, a clear reference to the deity of the Messiah, in the minds of those who knew and understood this text as referring to the Messiah as LORD (Yahweh). The teaching of Priscilla thus linked together the complete revelation of the Old Testament (that Jesus was the Suffering Savior and the Triumphant King, and that He was both divine and human) with the events of Jesus’ first coming and His on-going ministry through His church. The very things of which Priscilla and Aquila informed Apollos are, in my opinion, the things of which Luke wrote in his first (Luke) and second (Acts) volumes, addressed to Gentiles.

430 I must confess, the appearance of “twelve (Gentile) disciples” seems just a bit coincidental. Is there any possibility that Luke is somehow drawing some kind of analogy to the “twelve (Jewish) disciples”?

431 Every other time the term “reasoned” is used of Paul’s ministry in Acts, it has a definite apologetic sense, and he does not appear to be teaching primarily believers, but rather trying to convince unbelievers. See Acts 17:2, 17; 18:4, 19; 19:8-9.

432 Note, however, that the order of events differs, for Cornelius and his household received the Holy Spirit before their water baptism, while the 12 disciples were baptized with water first.

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