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"The Baptist's Impact
Wednesday Evening Home Bible Study
January 14, 2009
Theme: This portion of Acts describes how God sovereignly used the ongoing impact of the ministry of John the Baptist to spread the Gospel into Asia.
At the beginning of Paul's second missionary journey, the Holy Spirit clearly prohibited him and Silas from going into Asia (Acts 16:6); and called them to preach the gospel in Macedonia instead. And as we see from this evening's passage, this was not because God was ignoring Asia. Rather, it was because, in the sovereignty of His divine timing, the way needed yet to be prepared.
Now, after that second missionary journey had been completed, we find that God permits Paul to—at last—bring the gospel to Asia. And what's more, we see that it's reception there is wonderfully affirmed by God Himself. And as we look at this passage, we make the surprising discovery that the thing God used to prepare the way for the gospel into Asia was the abiding impact of someone's ministry who had ended some twenty years prior. It would be easy to think that, after he had been silenced by being beheaded, the ministry of John the Baptist had long since become forgotten. But the way that God brought the gospel into Ephesus should teach us that no ministry He calls into being is ever wasted!
I. THE PLANTING OF A SEED IN EPHESUS (18:18-23).
A. Paul had just finished his ministry in Corinth (see 18:1-17). Paul ministered for a longer period of time there than any other place he had been up to that point—as reflected in the fact that we're told that he still remained there "a good while" (v. 18; see also v. 11); and as evidenced by the fact that he carried on more correspondences with the Corinthian believers than with any other New Testament church. But the time eventually came for him to leave and preach the gospel in regions beyond them (2 Corinthians 10:16).
B. It was apparently Paul's original intention to sail for Syria; and as he left, his two new friends and co-laborers Priscilla and Aquila went with him (v. 18). But here's where it appears that a change in plans occurred We're told that Paul "had his hair cut off at Cenchrea" (just a few miles southeast of Corinth), from where Paul's ship had launched; and that this was because "he had taken a vow". Paul would later strategically support another vow at the end of the period of purification for some believing Jews (Acts 21:23, 26); but here, it seems that this is a vow that he himself took. Josephus may shine some light on this. He writes of Agrippa's wife Bernice who "dwelt then at Jerusalem, in order to perform a vow which she had made to God; for it is usual with those that had been either afflicted with a distemper, or with any other distresses to make vows; and for thirty days before they are to offer their sacrifices, to abstain from wine, and to shave the hair of their head" (Josephus, Wars of the Jews, 2.15 ). It may be that Paul suffered some illness that not only led him to take this vow, but also to somehow—perhaps under some influence of Priscilla and Aquila—change his intended plans and head instead first to Jerusalem.
C. Along the way, he stopped at Ephesus and left Priscilla and Aquila there (v. 19). (As we'll soon see, the Lord had work for them to do.) But before he left, he went to the synagogue and "reasoned with the Jews" (v. 19). The reception that he had with the Jews in Ephesus was comparatively positive; and they asked him to stay longer, but he "did not consent" to do so (v. 20). Some ancient manuscripts have it that he told them that he must hurry to Jerusalem for the feast of Passover (see also 20:16); and this may well be the reason. But he promised, in any case, to return to them again, "God willing" (v. 21). As we will see later, God was willing! From Ephesus, he landed at Caesarea and went from there to Jerusalem and greeted the church (vv. 22-23). Afterwards, he went "down" (up north, in our reckoning) to Antioch—thus making a report to both the Jewish and Gentile centers of Christian missions. After spending some time in Syrian Antioch, he then made a return pass through the cities of Galatia and Phrygia to strengthen the believers in the churches that had been established through his and Barnabas' first missionary journey (see 13:13-28).
D. Here, we see just the initial beginnings of a work in Asia. Paul was only able to stay for a very brief time, but he was able to leave two very capable believers there. It is these two believers that would be used by God to lay the ground-work for Paul's more extended Ephesian ministry in chapter 19. We should never despise the day of small things! (Zech. 4:10).
II. THE ENLIGHTENMENT OF A SCHOLAR FROM EGYPT (18:24-28).
A. Paul now steps out of the picture for a moment, and others step into the spotlight of God's plan. While in Ephesus, it was in the providential hand of God that Priscilla and Aquila would meet up with a very remarkable man. His name was Apollos. He was a Jew who had been born in Alexandria, Egypt—the intellectual capital of the world. We're told that he was "a man of letters" (that is, an eloquent and capable scholar), who was "mighty in the Scriptures". He, for some reason, was led to come to Ephesus—perhaps on a lecture circuit. Apollos had been "instructed in the way of the Lord"; but only in a limited way. What he knew of the Lord Jesus was limited to the instruction he had gained through the baptism ministry and preaching of John the Baptist. It may be that Apollos had been baptized in John's ministry; or—more likely—that he had learned of Jesus through the ministry of those who had been baptized by John. In any case, the knowledge he had from the preaching of John—in combination with his fervency of spirit and scholarly knowledge of the Scriptures—had moved Apollos to speak and teach "accurately" the things of the Lord. But he had only a partial understanding (vv. 24-25).
B. It must be that Aquila and Priscilla had gone to the synagogue and heard Apollos speaking on the Lord Jesus. But it must also be that they detected an imperfect understanding on Apollos' part; because they graciously "took him aside and explained to him the way of God more accurately" (v. 26). What a remarkable moment in history—two of the most famous representatives of Roman Christianity minister to the greatest representative of Alexandrian Christianity! Would Aquila and Priscilla have been a little intimidated at first from speaking to the learned Apollos and correcting him? If they were, we should be grateful that they resisted the temptation; because through their obedience to the Spirit's leading, they gave the church one of its most remarkable servants (1 Corinthians 2:9; 3:4-7, 22; 16:12; Titus 3:13).
C. Perhaps the influence of Paul on Aquila and Priscilla had put it in Apollo's heart to serve where Paul had served. He desired to cross over to Achaia (the region from which Paul had just left); and some of the brethren (perhaps with Aquila and Priscilla) wrote letters to exhort the Corinthian believers to receive him (v. 27). We're told that he "greatly helped those who had believed through grace, for he vigorously refuted the Jews publically, showing from the Scriptures that Jesus is the Christ" (v. 28); much as Paul himself had done (9:20, 22).
III. THE CONVERSION OF A COMMUNITY OF TWELVE (19:7).
A. Now; Paul himself is brought back into the picture. We're told that Apollos had gone to Corinth (19:1); and while he was ministering there—perhaps "watering" where Paul had "planted" (1 Corinthians 3:6), Paul, "having passed through the upper regions", came to Ephesus. It was there that he discovered a gathering of "some disciples" (v. 1)—who had even been "baptized". There must have been something about them that caused concern for Paul, however. Perhaps it was that they—in some way—demonstrated only an intellectual apprehension of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Whatever it was that Paul saw, he was led to ask them, "Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?" (v. 2). And they answered that they had not so much as heard whether there was a Holy Spirit. And when Paul asked further into what they were baptized, and they said, "Into John's baptism" (v. 3). Perhaps what they knew of the Lord Jesus had come to them under the influence of Apollos' own imperfect understanding—having himself only known of the Lord Jesus through the baptism of John.
B. It's interesting to note how it is that Paul solved this problem. He didn't—as we may have expected—solved the problem of their lack of experience in the Holy Spirit by teaching them about the Holy Spirit. That's an error we often make in the church today. The Spirit's ministry on earth is to shine the spotlight on God's Son (see John 14:25-26; 15:26; 16:13-15). And so, Paul told them about Jesus: "John indeed baptized with a baptism of repentance, saying to the people that they should believe on Him who would come after him, that is, on Christ Jesus" (v. 4; see also Matthew 3:1-12; Mark 1:1-8; Luke 3:15-17; John 1:19-34). Hearing about Jesus—under the enabling power of the Holy Spirit—they believed and "were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus" (v. 5).
C. Previously, Paul had been prohibited from bringing the gospel to Asia. But now, he had felt free to do so—taking them who had been given an imperfect 'light' on the Jesus through the preparatory ministry of John (as had Apollos), and bringing them to a more complete understanding of the gospel. And what was God's response to this? God confirmed the preaching to these Ephesians by the fact that when Paul laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit manifestly came upon them (as He had on the household of Cornelius in Acts 10-11); and they "spoke with tongues and prophesied" (as did the believers in Acts 2). Perhaps God allowed "twelve" of these Asians to manifest the reception of the Holy Spirit in something similar to the twelve who originally believed—in order to show that God is no respecter of persons.
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God's sovereign ways with the spread of His gospel message are truly remarkable! Tracing the preparatory work of the Holy Spirit—from John, to Paul's brief ministry in Ephesus, to Priscilla and Aquila, to Apollos, to the twelve Ephesians, and to Paul's ministry once again—should leave us staggered at the depth of God's intricate workings! What a privilege it is to be used by Him! And who but Him can know what small thing we do today may lead to a great breakthrough for the gospel in some other place, at some other time in the future?
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