Sermon for Sunday Evening, July 9th, 2023 at First Presbyterian Church at Unionville, NY (BPC)
[Act 18:24-28 ESV] 24 Now a Jew named Apollos, a native of Alexandria, came to Ephesus. He was an eloquent man, competent in the Scriptures. 25 He had been instructed in the way of the Lord. And being fervent in spirit, he spoke and taught accurately the things concerning Jesus, though he knew only the baptism of John. 26 He began to speak 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 wished to cross to Achaia, the brothers encouraged him and wrote to the disciples to welcome him. When he arrived, he greatly helped those who through grace had believed, 28 for he powerfully refuted the Jews in public, showing by the Scriptures that the Christ was Jesus.
We take a brief brake from Paul here and diverge into a passage about Apollos who is with Priscilla and Aquila in Ephesus. This is, after-all, not the “Acts of Paul” but the “Acts of the Apostles.” Well, as I said once before, it is really the Acts of the Holy Spirit. Neither Apollos nor Priscilla nor Aquila are Apostles, but are certainly disciples of the Lord. And so the book takes up their story as well, especially as the Holy Spirit works through them to accomplish the purposes of the Lord.
Now this Apollos was a Jew, a native of Alexandria Egypt who had come to Ephesus. There had been a thriving Jewish community in Alexandria Egypt for many years. And there would even be a thriving Christian community there in at least the first few centuries after Christ. Though it was not in Israel, there were many Jews in Alexandria. But these Jews had been “Hellenized.” That is, they spoke more Greek than Hebrew. And so a few centuries previous, when they realized they needed the Scriptures in a language that they could understand, they had the Hebrew Bible translated into Greek. That this famous Septuagint translation. That work, done in Alexandria, has been taken up by many Christian churches—particularly in Greek-speaking places—for their Old Testament readings.
So Apollos has come from a place of learning. Alexandria was even known in the ancient world for its famed “Library of Alexandria” which housesd books that scholars today can only dream of, but was burned down in part during the Roman period and destroyed sometime during the Muslim period there.
Both Jewish and Christian thinkers had originated from that learned city. So, because of the learnedness of Apollos, there has been some speculation, by Martin Luther among others, that it was this Apollos who wrote the great epistle we have in the New Testament to the Hebrews. But, we’ll probably never know if Apollos wrote that book or not.
We do know that he was a man “competent in the Scriptures.” He had read and largely understood the Old Testament. He even “spoke and taught accurately the things concerning Jesus.”
But there were at least some important things he didn’t know. “He knew only the baptism of John.” And it was apparent to Priscilla and Aquila that Apollos needed to know more about Christ. So when he “began to speak boldly in the synagogue, Priscilla and Aquila took him aside and explained to him the way of God more accurately.
This is interesting … they WATERED him. In 1 Corinthians Paul has a passing reference to Apollos.
He says “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.” By the time Paul had written to Corinth, Apollos was a capable Christian leader watering the flock of God. But first he needed to be watered. And so he was taught by Priscilla and Aquila. This helps us to see that the early Christian church wasn’t a one-man show. Many have critiqued Christianity saying “Paul made it all up.” Well, Paul was a latecomer. He heard the Gospel from others. And many came to the faith from sources other than Paul. Priscilla and Aquila came to the fait before they met Paul. Apollos came to the faith before he met Paul. And Apollos was even watered by Priscilla and Aquila, not by Paul.
Here Apollos himself needs to be watered. He doesn’t know all that he needs to know. He knows some, and that is great. Similarly, we should be thrilled when a person comes to simple belief in Christ. But there is much more to learn.
Well I want to focus this evening particular on this idea that Apollos only knew the baptism of John.
And the reason I want to note that is because we see that though he had not been baptized in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, he yet was a believer. He was “fervent in the spirit.” He even taught Christ and spoke fervently in the synagogue.
There is a great question as to whether the Holy Spirit indwelt believers in the Old Testament. And many people will point out that the indwelling of the Holy Spirit is only explicit in the New Testament, and that in the Old Testament the spirit merely “came upon” some person for a time and presumably left them later. But … there were believers in the Old Testament. And belief is ONLY possible by the work of the Holy Spirit. 1 Corinthians 12:3 says: No one can say “Jesus is Lord” except in the Holy Spirit. And then we have Psalm 51:11 – “Cast me not away from your presence, and take not your Holy Spirit from me.” So it is clear that the Holy Spirit was with or in believers in the Old Testament as well as in the New.
One difference between the time of the Old Testament and New Testament was that of quantity.
Puritan Francis Roberts explains it this way: “Under the Old Covenant the Spirit of God was given but so sparingly, so restrictively, to an handful of people the Jews, and in such small measure, and producing so few and small effects; that it is said, not to be given; … But under the New Covenant the Spirit was shed forth abundantly, in great variety of graces and gifts, both upon Jews and Gentiles, beginning at Pentecost to be poured forth upon the Apostles, and afterwards falling upon private believers.” … Under the Old Covenant the Holy Spirit was but as it were sparingly sprinkled upon them; their knowledge and love of God was dark, feeble childlike; their hearts were very stony hard and inflexible, as God intimated to them in writing his Laws upon stones, etc. But under this, the Holy Spirit is plentifully poured forth as in streams and rivers upon them; and into them; their knowledge and love of God is clear, strong, ripe, man-like: their hearts very fleshy and flexible to God and his will, etc. . .Hence, the Spirit is said not to be given, till Christ was glorified: not as if it had not been given at all; but because it was bestowed so sparingly and slenderly, in comparison to what is now, that it might seem not to be given at all.”
Now, the question as to the difference in the workings of the Holy Spirit in the Old Testament and in the New Testament is in some ways like the question as to the difference between the Baptism of John and the Baptism of Christ.
We see that Apollos knew not the Baptism of Christ. He had not been baptized in the name of the Triune God. But was Apollos yet a believer? Yes, he was. And was the Holy Spirit working in Apollos. Yes, HE was.
Like the believers in the Old Testament, he had faith in Christ, even if he had not yet been baptized in Christ.
This tells us that baptism is not “absolutely necessary” for salvation. I heard a distinction many years ago that I quite like. The man said “Baptism is necessary for salvation, but it is not absolutely necessary.” What is meant is that ORDINARILY the Christian is to be baptized. If you believe in Christ but REFUSE TO be baptized, then you are fighting against Christ. So it is necessary that you obey and be baptized. But Baptism is not “Absolutely necessary” for salvation. The thief on the cross was saved though he was never baptized. And salvation is in Christ, not in the sacramental signs of Christ. We ought never to confused the sign with the substance.
That Apollos was “fervent in the Spirit” though not properly or fully baptized also tells us that it is not at the time of the Baptism of water that one comes to believe and have the Holy Spirit enter in. Baptism symbolizes that outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon us (hence why Presbyterians “sprinkle” or “pour”), but it not usually at the precise moment of Baptism that one comes to faith.
So what does it mean that Apollos knew only the Baptism of John? And what is the difference between the two baptisms; that of John and that of Christ?
For one, John the Baptizer (there weren’t any Baptists yet) preached a baptism of repentance but it was not in the done in the name of the Triune God.
John’s baptism — for John was the last of the OLD Testament prophets, was preparatory. John’s baptism was about repentance, clearing the way for the acceptance of Christ. But in Christian Baptism, the messiah Jesus Christ is now known, and our faith is put not in mere shadows but in the substance of Jesus Christ and his Gospel.
A.A. Hodge, the son of “American’s greatest theologians” Charles Hodge wrote a commentary on the Confession explaining the difference in the baptisms:
“John, the forerunner of Jesus, came baptizing also. But this was not Christian Baptism, because — (1.) John was the last Old Testament prophet, and not a New Testament apostle (Luke i. 17); (2.) He did not baptize in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost; (3.) His baptism was unto repentance, not into the faith of Christ; (4.) He did not by baptism introduce men into the fellowship of the Christian Church, as the apostles did at Pentecost (Acts ii. 41, 47); (5.) Those baptized by John were baptized over again by the apostles when they were admitted to the Christian Church (Acts xviii. 24 — 28; xix. 1 — 5). For analogous reasons we believe that the baptism performed by his disciples previous to the crucifixion of the Lord (John iii. 22; iv. 1, 2) was not the permanent Christian sacrament of Baptism, binding its subjects to the faith and obedience of the Trinity, and initiating them into the Christian Church; but that, on the contrary, like the baptism of John, it was a purifying rite, binding to repentance, and preparing the way for the coming kingdom.”
Hodge is correct. In fact, there had been been lots of “baptisms” in the Old Testament. And John’s could be added to the list. But Christian baptism is the last baptism, that which fully cleanses as it point to Christ who has forgiven ALL our sins.
Old Testament baptisms or washings included:
That of Moses. Paul says that “all were baptized unto Moses in the cloud and in the sea.” (1 Corinthians 10:2).
That of Naaman who washed himself seven times in the Jordan, and this was called a Baptism.
Hebrews 9:10 even says that there were “various washings” in that period of the ceremonial law, now done away with. Those were sprinklings of water, of blood, and/or of oil upon persons in ceremonies of cleansing.
Finally, and somewhat comically, we even find in Mark’s Gospel that the Pharisees “baptized” their dining couches. (Mark 7:4) This is often pointed out by Presbyterians as we explain that “washings” are not “dunkings” as the Baptists vehemently insist. It would be a challenge, to say the least, to dunk a couch. And we scarcely need to point out that while rain fell upon Noah and his family, the rest who were dunked under water never came back up. The same came be said for the chariots of the Pharaoh of Egypt.
So what does it mean that Apollos knew only the Baptism of John? Literally it means he didn’t know that a the Christian should be baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit as a sign and seal of covenant of Grace. But he knew much about Christ. He knew the Gospel. He just needed it explained more fully and accurately.
He had spoken boldly.
But now, having been further trained we find that “When he arrived, he greatly helped those who through grace had believed, 28 for he powerfully refuted the Jews in public, showing by the Scriptures that the Christ was Jesus.”
Apollos who had been watered was now watering. He greatly helped those who through grace had believed. Saint Apollos was a very capable teaching and a blessed worker for the Lord.
He watered the saints. And he refuted the Jews, showing that the Christ was Jesus.
And where did he find that information? In the Scriptures! He didn’t just take the word of others, of Priscilla and Aquila, or of Paul, or of whoever else it was that first told him the Gospel. Rather, he looked to the Word of God and saw that the prophecies of Old must be fulfilled by Jesus.