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Lesson 46: God’s Workers in Process (Acts 18:18-28)

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Years ago there was a button that read, PBPWMGINFWMY. These jumbled letters stood for, “Please be patient with me; God is not finished with me yet.” If we all could keep that in mind, we would be more kind, patient, and forgiving toward one another. We are all people in process. We come from a variety of backgrounds. We each have different spiritual gifts and different experiences with the Lord. And we’re all at different places in our walk with the Lord.

There may be some who attend here regularly, but who have not yet put their trust in Christ as Savior. They’re learning about who Jesus is and what He did in dying on the cross. They’re reading the Bible and assimilating the teaching that is there. But they have not yet taken that crucial step of trusting in Christ as Savior and Lord. We who have trusted in Christ need to remember that we once were where they are at, and we need to treat them with patience and grace, giving instruction when there is opportunity.

There are others here who are babes in Christ. It’s a brand new life for them to follow the Lord Jesus. There is much that they do not yet know, much less practice. But they’re in process, and those of us who are further down the road need to treat them with the same tolerance that we show to our children when they are young. We shouldn’t expect a one-year-old to act like a ten-year-old, or a ten-year-old to act like an 18-year-old. Rather, we should model mature behavior to them, and gently when we’re able, help them understand how to live in a more mature manner. But none of us has arrived at total sanctification. We’re all in process.

Our text shows us God’s work and God’s workers in process. It’s a passage of Scripture where I wish that the Lord had seen fit to give us more details than He did. Luke raises a lot of questions that he doesn’t seem to answer. What was Paul’s vow? Why did he take it? Was he right or wrong to take a vow? Should Christians today take vows? Why didn’t Paul stay on at Ephesus when the Jews there were uncharacteristically open to his message? Why was his visit to Jerusalem so short? What happened there? Was Apollos a believer before Priscilla and Aquila explained things to him? If so, what did he lack? Why does Luke skim over some fairly important details in Paul’s ministry here, such as the conclusion of his second missionary journey and the start of his third journey? What happened to Timothy and Silas?

A common thread with this section and with the paragraph we will study next week is that we see people in process, and God using these people to accomplish His work of spreading the gospel and building His church. The lesson is,

To accomplish His work of proclaiming the gospel and strengthening the church, God uses workers who are all in process.

First, let’s focus on God’s work. Two strands of that work are evident in our text:

1. God’s work focuses on preaching the gospel to the lost and strengthening the church.

A. God’s work focuses on preaching the gospel to the lost.

Everywhere he went, even when he was in transition, Paul took advantage of opportunities to preach the gospel, especially to the Jews. So when he was just passing through Ephesus, he went into the synagogue and reasoned with the Jews (18:19). In Romans 9:3, Paul goes so far as to say that he could wish that he himself was accursed and cut off from Christ, if it would mean the salvation of the Jews! What an incredible statement! I have to admit, I wouldn’t want to give up my salvation for anyone! But Paul was burdened with the condition of lost people. We hear a lot today about people with compulsive behavior. Paul admitted his compulsion: “For I am under compulsion; for woe is me if I do not preach the gospel” (1 Cor. 9:16). It dominated his entire life, so that he could say, “I do all things for the sake of the gospel” (1 Cor. 9:23).

We see the same focus in Apollos, even before he gained clarity in the message from Priscilla and Aquila (18:25-26). After they helped him, he went over to Corinth and gave powerful witness to the Jews there, “demonstrating by the Scriptures that Jesus was the Christ” (18:28). Note the word “for” that begins verse 28. When connected with verse 27, it shows that Apollos’ preaching of the gospel strengthened those who already had believed the gospel. I can testify that my own faith has been greatly strengthened by reading many of the gospel sermons of Charles Spurgeon, who was probably the greatest gospel preacher of the 19th century. When it is done rightly, preaching the gospel not only brings the lost to salvation, but also builds believers in their faith. But the point here is that a major part of God’s work involves preaching the gospel to the lost. If we forget that, we are out of focus.

B. God’s work focuses on strengthening the church.

Paul began his third journey by revisiting the Galatian and Phrygian regions, “strengthening all the disciples” (18:23). Apollos, as we have just seen, not only preached the gospel to the lost, but also “helped greatly those who had believed through grace.” Priscilla and Aquila had helped Apollos come to a deeper understanding of the things of God. He in turn helped others. That should be the pattern for all believers. In areas where we have received help, we should offer help to others.

Babies are cute, but they need to grow up. They do that gradually, as we feed them, protect them, care for them, and teach them. Eventually they become mature enough (hopefully!) to get married and have babies of their own, who in turn need help to grow to maturity.

In the same way, God’s spiritual children need help to grow up. This is a major task of those with the gift of pastor-teacher, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, so that they will attain to “the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ” (Eph. 4:11-13). But all members, not just pastor-teachers, have a role to play in this process. The whole body grows as each individual part works properly, according to its function (Eph. 4:16).

If God has helped you work through a problem, He can use you to help someone else struggling with the same problem.  If He has helped you to overcome temptation and walk in holiness, He wants to use you to help other believers learn the same thing. If He has helped you get through a difficult trial by leaning on Him as your strength and comfort, He wants to use you to help others learn to trust Him in similar trials.

You may be thinking, “Yes, but I don’t have it all together yet. Someday maybe I’ll be together enough to help others, but I’m not even close yet.” But notice,

2. God uses workers who are all in process.

Even 25 years after becoming a believer, Paul wrote, “Not that I have already obtained it or have become perfect, but I press on so that I may lay hold of that for which also I was laid hold of by Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3:12). He was still in process! Note first,

A. God always uses workers (plural).

Luke here momentarily, and seemingly on purpose, skims over some fairly major events in Paul’s ministry and instead focuses more detail on Priscilla, Aquila, and Apollos. He will go back to Paul in detail in chapter 19, but the focus briefly shifts as if to remind us that Paul was not the only one doing the Lord’s work. This godly couple Priscilla and Aquila, whom Paul may have led to Christ, leave Corinth with Paul and then stay in Ephesus as he moves on to Jerusalem and Antioch. God used them to raise up a small group of believers there, even before Paul got back into town about a year later. We know this because when Apollos wanted to go over to Corinth, we read that “the brethren encouraged him” (18:27). Where did these brethren come from? Some probably came from Apollos’ preaching there, but some came from the witness of Priscilla and Aquila.

We are not told where Timothy and Silas went, whether they stayed in Corinth or went back to Thessalonica or to other cities. But they were also at work. God’s work is always teamwork, not a one-man-superstar show.

As you may know, after Apollos went to Corinth, a faction there named themselves after him: “We are of Apollos” (1 Cor. 1:12). Others claimed to be of Paul, others of Peter, and still others, trumping them all, loftily declared, “We are of Christ.” While Paul strongly confronted their party spirit, he did not run down Apollos, but rather, affirmed his ministry. He said, Apollos and I are both just “servants through whom you believed, as the Lord gave opportunity to each one. I planted, Apollos watered, but God was causing the growth” (1 Cor. 3:5-6). Paul recognized and affirmed that he was just one servant of many, and that while we all have different roles and responsibilities, it is God who is at work through His church as each member serves Him.

B. The workers that God uses are all in process.

I began to serve as a pastor six weeks before my 30th birthday. I sometimes look back to those years and wonder how God ever could have used me then. In fact, hardly a week goes by now, almost 25 years later, that I don’t feel keenly my inadequacy for the responsibilities that I now have. I have to keep reminding myself of Paul’s rhetorical question, “And who is adequate for these things?” (2 Cor. 2:16), and his encouraging confession, “Not that we are adequate in ourselves to consider anything as coming from ourselves, but our adequacy is from God” (2 Cor. 3:5). The point is, if you wait around to start serving the Lord until you get it all together, you’ll be so old that you will forget where you put it! Look at the characters in our text:

1) The apostle Paul was in process as he served.

We’ve already seen his later confession, that he had not attained yet to where he should be, but he pressed on to know Christ more fully (Phil. 3:12-16). Here, we see Paul keeping a vow and then passing up an open door that he seldom saw because of some unstated need to get to Jerusalem and Antioch. And yet in all of this, he was seeking to be submissive to God’s will (18:20).

Bible scholars run the gamut on the question of whether Paul was right or wrong to make a vow. Most say that Paul was free in Christ to make or not to make a vow, even though they admit that it was a carryover from Judaism. Some explain it as Paul’s strategy of being all things to all men (1 Cor. 9:19-23). But Donald Grey Barnhouse states dogmatically, “Here, Paul was definitely out of the will of the Lord. He had no right to take this vow…. This was deliberate sin on his part” (Acts [Zondervan], pp. 168-169).

Since the text gives no hint that Paul was wrong, I’m not comfortable with Barnhouse’s strong denunciation. But at the same time, I don’t think that Paul should have taken a vow in order to relate to the Jews. If he took a vow, I believe that it reflects the fact that he was strongly steeped in the Old Testament as a Jew, and that even though he was God’s apostle to the Gentiles, he still had not totally shed his Jewish roots. This could have been a vow to express Paul’s thankfulness to God for keeping him from bodily harm during his stay in Corinth. Most commentators think that it was a Nazirite vow (Num. 6:1-8), which separated a person unto God for some special purpose or task. If it was a Nazirite vow, then Paul could not have taken communion for the period of the vow, since it forbade drinking wine or grape juice. The bottom line is, nobody knows for sure what kind of vow it was or exactly why Paul took it, since the text does not say. I view it as an incident that shows that Paul was in process from the Jewish way of thinking into the completely different New Covenant way of thinking.

This raises the question, “Should Christians today make vows before God?” Bill Gothard’s popular seminar has promoted the idea of making a vow to spend five minutes every day reading the Bible and praying. In my humble opinion (feel free to disagree with me, since I, too, am in process!), this is not a healthy way to encourage Bible reading and prayer. We should read the Bible and pray every day, but we are in a loving relationship with God, not in a performance relationship where we check off each day that we have done our duty. If you’re not reading your Bible and praying often, I’ll shoot straight: You need to repent and get back to your first love for the Lord (Rev. 2:4-5). But if your normal pattern is to seek the Lord through His Word and prayer, but you happen to miss a day, I don’t think you need to kick yourself because you have broken a vow before God. The point is, spend time with the Lord often because He loves you and you love Him.

2) Priscilla and Aquila were in process as they served.

They, too, were growing in their understanding of the things of God. When Paul first met them, they may not have yet been saved. As they worked together in their trade of making tents, Paul talked to them about Jesus Christ, His death on the cross as the substitute for sinners, and His resurrection from the dead. He quoted Scripture after Scripture that proved that Jesus was the promised Messiah. And they came to faith in Christ and grew in faith and knowledge.

Now they were at a point where even though Paul was not there, they had the maturity and knowledge to help this gifted young preacher get the message straight. Even though he was mighty in the Scriptures (18:24), they knew some important truths that he did not yet know. They heard him speak in the synagogue and they whispered to one another, “That young man is right as far as he goes, but he seems not to understand that the One of whom John the Baptist spoke actually has come. Let’s have him over to dinner and ask the Lord to give us an opportunity to talk to him.”

Priscilla is mentioned before her husband, which is unusual in that culture. It may indicate that she was the more knowledgeable or articulate of the two. Maybe she had been a believer longer than her husband had. They were both in process. But this godly couple used great tact and wisdom in not confronting Apollos publicly, but talking with him privately. While Scripture plainly limits the public teaching of men to men (1 Tim. 2:11-15), there is nothing wrong with a godly woman privately helping a young man understand the things of God more clearly. I’m sure that after this, Apollos would have viewed Priscilla as a mother in the faith, and have thanked God for her willingness to help him understand the way of God more accurately.

3) Apollos was in process as he served.

Apollos was a Jew from Alexandria, which was a famous center of learning. Luke calls him “an eloquent man” (18:24), which refers either to his speaking ability or to his learning. He was probably trained in rhetoric, and able to communicate in a manner that held people’s attention. As we’ve seen, Luke describes him as being “mighty in the Scriptures,” which implies not only raw knowledge, but also the ability to understand and fit together the major themes of Scripture. He was fervent in spirit, showing his zeal for God.

And yet, Apollos didn’t have it all together. He was in process. It is not clear what Luke means when he says that he was “teaching accurately the things concerning Jesus,” but then adds, “being acquainted only with the baptism of John” (18:25). Some say that he knew all about the ministry of Jesus, including His death, resurrection, and ascension, but was lacking the experience of Pentecost, the personal indwelling of the Holy Spirit. I think this goes too far.

Rather, it seems to me that Apollos knew the Old Testament prophecies concerning Messiah, and he had heard of John’s ministry and knew that the Messiah was coming shortly, but he had not heard that these things had been fulfilled in Jesus. Perhaps Apollos had even heard rumors about Jesus being the Messiah, but it had never been clearly explained to him until Priscilla and Aquila did it.

Put yourself in Apollos’ sandals. You’ve been trained in the prestigious city of Alexandria. You are eloquent and learned far beyond the common person. People are always telling you how much they appreciate your sermons. And along come this tentmaker and his wife (and she is the main one doing the talking) and they tactfully let you know that you don’t know what they know. It would have been easy for Apollos to reject their help. The fact that he received it shows that he was teachable and humble.

When Apollos arrived in Corinth, we read that “he helped greatly those who had believed through grace” (18:27). The Greek grammar here is ambiguous, so that it could also mean, “he helped greatly through grace those who had believed” (Calvin prefers this meaning). But both are true, aren’t they? No one believes apart from God’s grace, and no one serves effectively apart from God’s grace. God doesn’t save us because of anything in us. And He doesn’t use us because we have it all together and we’re totally qualified. He uses us in spite of our shortcomings. “We have this treasure in earthen vessels, so that the surpassing greatness of the power will be of God and not from ourselves” (2 Cor. 4:7).

Conclusion

Here are three questions to help you put this message into shoe leather:

1) Are you focused on proclaiming the gospel to the lost?

You’re thinking, “No, I’m not gifted in evangelism.” Neither am I. But we’re all called to help fulfill the Great Commission. What I’m talking about here is a matter of deliberate focus. Are you burdened about the condition of lost people? If not, put that on your prayer list: “God, give me a burden for the lost, both here and abroad.” Maybe you don’t even want the opportunity to talk to someone about Christ, because you’d be at a loss to know what to say! Get some training (like Evangelism Explosion). Read some books on the subject. When the opportunities come up, do as Apollos did: focus on the person and work of Jesus Christ (18:28).

2) Are you focused on strengthening the church?

You’re thinking, “No, I’m not gifted as a pastor.” That’s beside the point. If God has helped you to grow, He expects you to help others to grow. You may not be a Paul or Apollos, but you may be a Priscilla or Aquila. They were vital in God’s work. What if they had thought, “We aren’t in the same league with this young man; someone else will have to talk with him”? The danger is for the one-talent person to bury it, not for the two or five talent person to bury his. God puts every believer on His team, and He doesn’t have any benchwarmers. So get into the game!

3) Are you in process in your Christian walk?

I’m not asking, “Do you still have a ways to go before you’re perfect?” We all do. I’m asking, “Are you deliberately doing things to help you to grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ?” Do you go often to God’s Word, seeking to know Him better and to understand the things of God more accurately? Do you study and meditate on the Word, trying to get a better grasp of God and His revealed truth? Do you read solid Christian books that challenge your thinking and help you to walk in greater holiness? You won’t grow as a Christian by accident. You have to make it your focus.

So please be patient with me and I’ll try to be patient with you, since God isn’t finished with any of us yet! But let’s also be deliberately focused on making the gospel known, on building up one another, and in growing personally in the things of God!

Discussion Questions

  1. Do you think that making vows is a healthy or unhealthy approach to spiritual growth? Why/why not?
  2. Why is it essential for every Christian to be able to lead another person to faith in Jesus Christ? What are the basics here?
  3. How can a Christian discover where God wants him to serve?
  4. A person tells you, “I tried reading the Bible, but I couldn’t get much out of it.” How would you help him?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2001, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Discipleship, Ecclesiology (The Church), Evangelism