Paul does not stay in Antioch very long after returning from his second missionary journey (or at least the text makes it appear that way). Luke says he spends some time there and then begins to travel again. On his third journey he will revisit most of the cities he saw on the first two journeys, but also spend a considerable amount of time in Asia, the province God initially did not allow him into on the last trip. The center of his attention on this final journey is Ephesus, the city he briefly visited on his way home from Corinth and where he left Aquila and Priscilla. As he begins his final trip there is no way to know if God has told him that he will never return to Antioch.
In this particular text we come across an individual and a group who both know something of Jesus but whose knowledge of the gospel is incomplete. In the first case it appears the man is a believer with deficient theology. In the second case the group of men do not know enough to be believers at all. By telling us about both of them, Luke shines a light on what makes up the true gospel and verifies – again – that there is no salvation apart from the knowledge of and identification with Christ’s death and resurrection.
As Paul travels from Antioch nothing is said about who goes with him. Unlike the first journey where Barnabas accompanied him or the second with Silas, this trip begins with Luke simply saying that Paul leaves Antioch and travels to Galatia. In Galatia – where he spent most of the first journey – he presumably revisits the churches in Lystra, Derbe, Iconium and Pisidian Antioch (or some combination of those cities) and strengthens the disciples. This is the third time he has visited this area. He has gone back on each of the two trips after establishing the churches on the first journey. [Each trip effectively builds on the trip before it. The second trip took Paul to most of the places visited on the first trip plus Macedonia and Greece. The third trip encompasses most of the second plus adds Asia. The only place not visited multiple times is the island of Cyprus – the first place traveled to on the first trip – and even there Barnabas returns on his second trip with John Mark.]
These verses form an interlude in the story of Paul. Sometime during Paul’s time in Antioch or his travels through Galatia, a man named Apollos comes to Ephesus, where Aquila and Priscilla stayed after Paul returned to Syria. Ephesus is the capital city of Asia (remember that Asia is a province in the Roman empire, not the continent the name denotes today) and one of the largest cities in the empire (perhaps second in size and importance only to Rome). It is either as large as 200,000 inhabitants or possibly as small as 34,000 (older estimates favor the larger number but the geography and physical size of the city suggest to modern scholars that the larger number is impossible). The city is known for its temple of Artemis – four times larger than the Parthenon in Athens and one of the seven wonders of the world – and its theatre which can seat 24,000 people. Ephesus has the largest port in Asia and is a major center of commerce (the port will eventually fill with silt brought by a nearby river, which will end Ephesus’ time as a commercial power).
Apollos is a very interesting person in this story. He is a Jewish man from Alexandria in Egypt which has the largest Jewish population outside of Palestine (and which is known as a center of learning; it is where the Septuagint – the Greek translation of the OT – was written approximately 200 years before Christ). He is an eloquent man (could also mean he is a learned man – in either case he is likely skilled in rhetoric) and mighty in the Scriptures. He has been instructed in the way of the Lord which seems to mean he has learned all about Jesus. The text reinforces this interpretation by saying he teaches accurately the things concerning Jesus. Lastly, he is fervent in spirit which could mean either that he is very enthusiastic about what he does or that he actually teaches in the power of the Holy Spirit (most Bible translations – NASB, ESV, NIV – favor the former while some commentators hold to the latter).
The end of verse 25 is what makes Apollos somewhat of a mystery. For while he teaches accurately about Jesus he is acquainted only with the baptism of John. What does this mean? How can he have been instructed in the way of the Lord and teach accurately about Jesus and yet only know the baptism of John? Does this mean he knows about Jesus as Messiah but does not know about His death and resurrection? Or does it mean that he knows all about Jesus’ life and death and in fact has saving faith, but does not know about Jesus’ commission to the apostles and His command to be baptized in identification with His life, death, and resurrection?
It is notable that after Priscilla and Aquila take him aside – after he begins to speak out boldly in the synagogue (apparently he is not shy about what he does know) – and explain to him the way of God more accurately that nothing is said about him being baptized. This could mean that the second option above is true and he is in fact a believer who needs a better understanding of the baptism Jesus commanded. In this case the description that says he is fervent in spirit could in fact refer to the Holy Spirit (not that it has to for this view to be true). It does not seem likely that Luke simply leaves out that Apollos is baptized since in the story immediately following this one – which is about a similar situation – he explicitly notes that the men involved do not have the Holy Spirit and must be baptized again to identify with Jesus.
On the other hand, the fact that Luke includes this story immediately before the story of John’s disciples who are clearly not saved could mean that he intends to associate the two together and that Apollos is not a believer. If this is true then Apollos teaches accurately about Jesus only up to a certain point and does not know about redemption through His death and resurrection. This still does not explain, however, why Luke records the second group receiving the Holy Spirit and being baptized and says nothing about either with Apollos. In that light it seems to make more sense to say that Apollos is a believer with a deficient theology.
Once Apollos has the full story of the gospel, he decides to go to Corinth. We do not know why he wants to go there but the brethren encourage him and write letters of recommendation on his behalf. He goes and proves to be a welcome resource as a man who powerfully refuted the Jews in public, demonstrating by the Scriptures that Jesus was the Christ. Paul’s letters to the Corinthians show that Apollos has a major effect on the believers there, even to the point that it causes a division in the church between those who call themselves followers of Paul and those who identify with Apollos (I Cor 1:10-17).
After Apollos goes to Corinth, Paul reaches Ephesus. Remember that Asia – where Ephesus is located – is an area God did not allow Paul and Silas to enter on their way to Macedonia on the second trip. Now Paul comes to the city after ministering to the churches in Galatia and has the opportunity to minister freely. When he stopped in Ephesus on his way home from Corinth, the Jews here asked him to stay longer (18:20) – quite a contrast from the Jewish reaction in almost all the other cities where Paul has proclaimed the gospel.
In Ephesus Paul comes upon a group of disciples. These disciples are not disciples of Jesus – even though Luke typically only uses the word ‘disciple’ to indicate a believer – but seem to be followers of John the Baptist who perhaps claim to believe or maybe think they have the whole story because they know of Jesus through John. Paul apparently has doubts because he asks them about their salvation. He asks them specifically if they received the Holy Spirit when they believed. [This does not mean that they are in fact believers. Paul asks about their belief to verify it. If someone says, “I climbed Mt Everest,” you might ask, “What time of year did you climb Mt Everest?” It does not mean you think they really did climb it, it means you are using their claim to ask more information to confirm that they did. Thus this text does not teach that salvation is a two-step process whereby someone can believe and then receive the Holy Spirit at a later date. The only case where something like that occurred was with the Samaritans, and that was a special case meant to confirm for the Jews that the gospel could in fact go to their hated neighbors (8:14-16).] Their answer betrays their status. They reply that they have not even heard whether there is a Holy Spirit.
Their answer means they know nothing of Pentecost and nothing of the Spirit coming to indwell believers. If they are in fact disciples of John, however, they would know of the Spirit and His acts in the Old Testament and how John prophesied that Jesus would baptize His followers with the Holy Spirit and fire (Lk 3:16). They simply do not know of the ongoing ministry of the Holy Spirit among followers of Jesus.
Paul asks a second question to determine fully where the men stand. He asks them – in light of their ignorance of the Holy Spirit – “Into what then were you baptized?” Their answer again shows they are not Christians. They say they were baptized into John’s baptism. Their knowledge ends with the work of John the Baptist. They do not know of the death and resurrection of Jesus, His ascension and continuing ministry.
Now Paul fully understands their status. He explains to them that John baptized with the baptism of repentance that pointed to the Messiah. John’s whole purpose in ministry was to direct people to Jesus. If they are John’s disciples they will follow the One John heralded. It is Jesus who these men must be baptized into.
The disciples – 12 men, interestingly – believe and are baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. After baptism Paul lays his hands on them and they receive the Holy Spirit. They then speak with tongues and prophesy to demonstrate the Spirit’s presence in their lives. They were willing before but ignorant. Now they know and believe and are no longer disciples of John but of Jesus.
Note the differences in this story as compared to the preceding account of Apollos. Apollos – even before Aquila and Priscilla corrected him – taught accurately about Jesus. He also was not baptized – or at least the text says nothing about his baptism – after he heard the full truth from the couple. Thus it makes sense that he was a believer with incomplete theology versus the disciples who knew nothing of the Holy Spirit and were not in fact believers at all. The good news is the Holy Spirit worked in both cases and 13 men now follow Jesus and spread His word in Corinth and Ephesus.
The conversion of the disciples shows salvation includes belief (faith in Jesus), repentance, and the gift of the Spirit. Baptism is not required for salvation but is included in obedience to Jesus’ command. No one is saved without the gospel and no one is a believer without the Holy Spirit. The disciples of John responded in obedience to the gospel message, but before they heard the gospel they were disciples of a man, not God.
What is the gospel?
- God created a perfect world but man corrupted it through his sin. Because man corrupted the world all are tainted by sin. Gen 3, Rom 5:12
- Everyone has sinned. There is no one who has not sinned and no chance of anyone living a perfect life. Humans are actually conceived in sin. Ps 51:5, Rom 3:10-12 & 3:23
- The consequence of our sin is eternal separation from God. Sin – any sin – equals death. God promised Adam and Eve that if they sinned they would die, and through them all are sentenced to death. Gen 2:16-17, Rom 6:23a
- We can do nothing in ourselves to remedy our situation. We are powerless to change the sentence of death that is justifiably ours. Rom 5:6a
- Thankfully, amazingly, Jesus died for us. He took our place and paid the price for our sins – all of our sins. Acts 13:30, 13:38-39, Rom 5:6b, 5:8, 6:23b, I Pet 3:18
- God loved us so much that He gave His Son for us. Jesus loved us so much that He laid down His life for us. There is no greater love than this. Jn 3:16, 15:12-14
- Jesus not only died but rose again on the third day. Because He rose again He showed that death is defeated and no longer is the end of all men. I Cor 15:12-28
- If we call on the name of Jesus and have faith in Him we will be saved. His death will be effective to redeem us from our sins. Rom 10:9-10, 10:13, Eph 2:8-9, I Jn 4:15
- There is salvation in no other name and by no other method. We can only come to God through the death of His Son. Jn 14:6, Acts 4:12
- Salvation through Jesus brings us peace with God. We live under His love instead of His wrath. Rom 5:1, 8:1, 8:38-39
- We stand before Him justified – innocent of our sins and declared wholly righteous with the righteousness of Jesus. Ps 103:12, Rom 5:18, Col 2:13
- We are now His children, adopted into His family. Eph 1:5, John 1:12
- We have the gift of His Spirit who gives us God’s power, who pours out God’s love within our hearts, and who tenderly communicates to our spirit that we are children of God and heirs of eternal glory in heaven (Milton Vincent, A Gospel Primer for Christians, 62). Eph 3:16, 1:13-14, Rom 5:5, 8:16-17
- We are now free from the power of sin and no longer its slaves. Rom 6:6-7, 16:14
- We will one day live eternally with Jesus in paradise. Lk 23:43, I Cor 15:50-58, I Thess 4:13-18, I Jn 3:2, Rev 21, 22:1-7