We have been following Paul on his missionary journeys, where he is taking the Good News to the many foreign nations of the Roman Empire (starting with the many Jewish communities) that the Messiah that the Jews had been waiting for has come.
He invariably begins by showing up in a city and going to the local synagogue to speak. But this Good News was not so good to many Diaspora Jews because it bore little resemblance to the teachings of their Jewish religious leadership concerning the nature and purpose of a Messiah.
What was most difficult to swallow, perhaps, was the deity of Yeshua. Not surprisingly, many gentile God-fearers who attended some of these synagogues were more open to the Gospel of Yeshua because they weren’t as indoctrinated to the Jewish traditions about the expected nature of the Messiah as were the Jews.
The traditional perspective was that the Messiah would be much as King David was; even, perhaps, a reincarnation of sorts of King David himself.
This Messiah would be a warrior leader who would propel the Jews to a successful rebellion against Rome, free the Jewish nation from its occupiers, install the Jewish Messiah as the new Davidic king of a new and expanded Israelite kingdom, and replace the Roman Empire as the world power.
And this was an era when the synagogue (not the Temple) was the source of Jewish religious instruction and the synagogue leaders who took their cue from the Pharisees performed the oversight for proper observance and behavior.
The Temple was considered by many ordinary Jews to be at best of questionable authority, and (as with the Essenes) at worst as corrupt and illegitimate. So priests were simply there and tolerated because of the Torah-required ritual and ceremonial functions that they, and only they, could perform.
If the ordinary Jews refused to co-operate with the priests and recognize their authority, then they found themselves unable to comply with the Laws of Moses regardless of how much they might have looked down upon the priesthood with contempt.
Nevertheless, the Jews of Judea and the Galilee had a close connection with the Temple even though they also gave their allegiance to the various synagogues.
But the Jews of the Diaspora had much less to do with the Temple since only the ablest had the wherewithal or the motivation to make the long, expensive and sometimes risky trip to Jerusalem from whatever foreign soil they lived upon to be obedient to the Torah and to participate in the various Biblical festivals.
Certainly, it was completely impractical for them to go to the Temple to offer sacrifices to atone for their sins as the occasions arose. Thus a veritable stream of itinerant prophets and teachers came out from Jerusalem and made their way to the many synagogues of the Diaspora where they were well received and viewed as representatives coming from “home base.” Paul and his disciples were seen as among those many itinerant teachers and so getting an audience was not difficult.
When we left off last time, Paul was about to leave Corinth after lots of trouble had arisen due to the message of Salvation, as he intended to make his way back to the Holy Land. He would take a ship to get there; but before he left, at the seaport of Cenchrea he had his hair cut to fulfill the ritual requirements of a vow he had made. We know nothing about the nature or purpose of this promise or when he first made it.
Acts 18:18 reports on this matter with little comment as though Luke’s readers ought to fully understand the ins and outs of Paul having his hair cut as part of a vow fulfillment.
I certainly wish Luke had told us more because through the centuries Gentile Christians have accepted some very dubious teachings of the early Church Fathers about what Paul did and why he did it.
And while not universal, the consensus is to apologize for what Paul did and try to sweep it under the carpet as a bit embarrassing. Let me elaborate by quoting from a letter written by the early Church Father Jerome from the mid-4th century A.D.
“Granted that there he (Paul) did what he did NOT wish to do, through the compelled fear of the Jews: why did he let his hair grow in consequence of a vow and afterward cut it at Cenchrea in obedience to the law? Because the Nazarites who vowed themselves to God were accustomed to do this according to the commands of Moses”.
So Jerome says that Paul didn’t do this by his own free will; he had it forced on him out of fear of the Jews and only did it to satisfy a Jewish custom so that he didn’t find himself in a bad way with the local Jewish population. Later the Church Father, Venerable Bede, had a different sort of rationalization for Paul performing this vow ritual. In his commentary on the Book of Acts, Bede wrote:
“Paul did these things (performed the vow ritual of hair cutting) NOT indeed because he had forgotten what he, along with the other apostles, had settled at Jerusalem concerning the abolition of the Law, but so that those among the Jews who had come to believe might not be scandalized, so he played the part of a Jew himself in order to win over the Jews”.
Now I could read this in almost any church in the world and get affirming nods of heads and perhaps even applause; but I hope that you realize how anti-Semitic, anti-Scripture, and just plain erroneous such a thought process is.
Bede claims that Paul indeed did do this hair cutting vow ritual even though he knew that the Law had been abolished at the Jerusalem Council (in Acts 15).
But even more, Bede suggests that Paul pretended to be a Jew still (he merely played a role) to win the approval of Jews so that they would hear the Gospel from him. That is, Bede claimed (as did most of the Church by this time) that James and the Jerusalem Council abolished the Law of Moses for Believers (Jew or Gentile), even though no such statement or implication exists in Scripture.
But even more, we see that the Church view had very early on hardened such that to be a Believer in Christ meant that if one was born a Jew, one had to convert to a gentile and entirely abandon his or her former Jewish identity. Thus the Church Fathers felt that somewhere along the way Paul had renounced his Jewish heritage and become a gentile.
The hair cutting ritual was merely a ruse that allowed him to continue playing a role: pretending to be still Jewish. And Paul did that to deceive his fellow Jews (for their benefit) so that they would listen to what he had to say about salvation in Yeshua, give up their Jewishness and become gentile Christians.
I hope you are as appalled at this as I am. But friends, this well-documented mindset of many of the influential early Church Fathers (all gentiles of course) is the source of what a majority of Christians still believe to this day, and these thoughts are enshrined in some of the most foundational doctrines of Christianity.
It is the classic methodology of Bible interpretation to begin with a theory decided upon long ago by a gentile Church council and then work backward to twist and turn Scripture passages to make them fit the doctrine.
In Acts 18:18 the recorded beliefs of these two highly respected Church Fathers imply that Paul isn’t a Jew anymore. However, he wants the local Jews to think he still is. And so Paul goes through with this ceremonial hair cutting as part of a vow, but he isn’t sincere about it. It is merely part of a bait and switch scheme so that the local Jews might find him trustworthy as one of them. And then when their guard is down, he can pounce on them with the Gospel of Christ! (Unbelievable. You can’t make this stuff up!)
Let’s Read Acts 18:19-28
So Paul arrived in Ephesus and stayed there briefly. The only reason he was even in Ephesus is that was the route of the ship that he was on; first, it would stop at Ephesus and then continue on to Caesarea Maritima, the major port city of the Holy Land and Paul’s destination.
His first agenda item upon arrival was to go to Jerusalem and report to the Believing community there since that was the headquarters of The Way.
A couple of things: first, while the Complete Jewish Bible inserts the word “Jerusalem,” it is not there. The text merely says that first Paul “went up” to greet the community (in most Bibles community is translated as Church). Then after he went up, he went down; down to Antioch.
These terms “went up” and “went down” are merely typical Jewish expressions. “Went up,” or to “go up,” always referred to going to Jerusalem. Thus in contrast to the “up” of Jerusalem, anywhere else one might go is “down.” It is an expression of veneration and status of the place.
Jerusalem was by no means the highest geographical elevation even in the Holy Land, but it was the highest place from a ranking perspective, and from a religious viewpoint. Thus every other place in the world (even Mt. Everest) would be considered as being “down” from Jerusalem.
Second, in verse 22 where we usually find the word Church in English Bibles (but in the Complete Jewish Bible we find instead Messianic Community) the Greek word is ekklesia. Ekklesia is a common, generic Greek word that means assembly or community (any assembly or community). It carries no religious connotation with it.
However, most modern Bibles substitute the word Church for ekklesia to give us the mental picture of going to a place with stained glass, a steeple, pews and a group of gentile “Christians” meeting there to praise Jesus.
While indeed it was Believers in Yeshua that Paul went to see, they were all Jews; and they all continued to practice their Jewish ways. They continued to meet in their synagogues and followed their standard Jewish liturgy; no stained glass, no steeples, and no pews.
Antioch was where the synagogue that had been sponsoring his missionary trips was located. Paul visited there for some time and then departed to visit again a number of the Believers that he had established in the region of Phrygia.
Verse 24 changes the subject, and we are introduced to a Believer named Apollos; he had come to Ephesus to teach. Ephesus at this time was similar to London; it was a commercial and banking center. It was self-governing and was probably the 3rd largest city in the Roman Empire after Rome and Alexandria, Egypt. So if one wanted an opportunity to connect with a significant number of Jews or Gentiles in a short time, Ephesus was the place to go.
I pointed out in earlier lessons that while Paul was a special emissary personally commissioned by the risen Yeshua to take the Good News to both the Jews and the gentiles, he was not the only Believer doing this.
Paul was the foremost Jewish Apostle, but he wasn’t in charge of all the efforts to evangelize. Many others took it upon themselves (usually no doubt at the direction of the Holy Spirit) to tell people in foreign lands about the ways of the God of Israel.
But Apollos was not from Jerusalem; he was a Diaspora Jew who lived in the largest Jewish center outside of the Holy Land at that time: Alexandria, Egypt.
History knows of Alexandria (named after Alexander the Great) as a cosmopolitan city of diverse cultures. One of its most famous institutions was its unrivaled library. The city sat at the crossroads of commerce and so it was a thriving and wealthy place that attracted people from all over the empire.
Many famous Jews lived in Alexandria including the intellectual Philo. A treasure chest of Jewish thought was created and stored in Alexandria; the education system was unsurpassed. So it is not surprising that someone of Apollo’s capabilities would come from there.
However, the most popular brand of Judaism practiced in Alexandria was quite progressive and in line with the Hellenism that Rome wanted as the sort of universal culture in their empire. Thus Jewish philosophy more than Torah scholarship was the result.
Nevertheless some of the best and brightest Jewish minds flocked there to argue their points of view with other Jewish intellectuals. But it was also in Alexandria that the first Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible was created, three centuries earlier. And this is the Bible that we today know as the Septuagint and it was what most Jews of that era used for their Bible.
Apollos is (not surprisingly) described as an eloquent speaker well studied in the Tanakh: the Old Testament, the Hebrew Bible. What we learn about what Apollos knew and believed and taught can be a little confusing.
On the one hand, he is a great Bible scholar, informed about the way of the Lord, and that he accurately taught facts about Yeshua. But then we’re thrown a curve ball; verse 25 says that even so, he only knew about the immersion of Yochanan (John the Baptist).
Apollos was such a good speaker that he was invited to speak in synagogues and Paul’s friends Aquila and Priscilla, who were still in Ephesus, went to hear him speak and teach. But they quickly realized that there was much Apollos didn’t know about Christ, so they undertook to educate him. The implication is that the brilliant Apollos was sufficiently humble that he welcomed Aquila and Priscilla’s knowledge about Yeshua. There is a lot to talk about here.
At this time in history (around 52 A.D.), there were many strands of Messianic Judaism in existence. The one we know most about was the one led by James and Peter in Jerusalem, but there were several more. Not all of those strands looked to James and Peter as their religious authorities.
Some Believers (no doubt including Apollos) were so intelligent and educated that they didn’t feel the need to have a mentor or to be given official permission to teach about Yeshua and the Gospel. So, they didn’t all believe the same things and therefore didn’t all teach the same doctrines. They studied on their own and sought to enlighten others on their own. So it is nearly impossible to know with any certainty exactly what it is that Apollos was teaching about Yeshua.
What is startling, however, is that when asked about baptism Apollos said he only knew about John’s baptism and knew nothing of being immersed into Yeshua. What does “John’s baptism” mean? We’ve dealt with this before but let’s review.
John the Baptist preached repentance of sins, and so when he baptized, it was for repentance of sins. That is an entirely different issue than salvation in Christ. John did not baptize for salvation in Christ, and consequently one did not receive the Holy Spirit in John’s baptism (of course John was baptizing before the Pentecost event happened after Yeshua’s death and resurrection).
However what John taught was that before one could be saved, one first had to repent of sins; thus John’s was a sort of preliminary baptism to Christ’s. Then what is baptism in Christ? The Bible tells us that this immersion is a complete re-birth from a spiritual perspective. So the sequence is repentance first, re-birth second.
Apparently, Apollos knew a great deal about Yeshua. He was well steeped in information about Yeshua (which would have come mainly word of mouth), and he could communicate these things. And that while he had repented for his sins (John’s baptism), he had not accepted Yeshua in the way we typically think of it (and apparently didn’t know enough to realize that this baptism in Christ was the vital step). Therefore he could not have received the Holy Spirit.
Now, this shows us something important: a non-Believer can be quite an effective Bible teacher. I can vouch for this because many modern Bible commentators that I have read…excellent ones…not only aren’t Christians, they don’t even believe in God. Before you pick up a commentary, do a little research on the author. Often it will shock you.
And this goes for both Jewish and gentile Bible scholars. Usually, they are highly educated historians or brilliant language scholars. But for them, the Bible is merely humanly created literature, and they have become an expert on the Bible as a career path; but not as a source of truth or as a divine Holy Book.
Apollos, on the other hand, was a spiritual man; he believed in the God of Israel, and in the Hebrew Bible (the Tanakh) as truth. He also seemed to believe some things about Yeshua that is not at all clear to us. Apparently, Aquila and Priscilla tutored Apollos in the beliefs and doctrines of The Way, the Jerusalem-based strand of Messianic Judaism. By all accounts, he seems to have accepted it.
Remember: there was no such thing as a New Testament for Apollos to study, and there wouldn’t be a New Testament for another 150 years. In time (but not yet), some of Paul’s letters would start to be shared among Believers, and a couple of the Gospel accounts would also begin to circulate, informally.
But many other teaching letters and Gospels written by other authors than the ones that are in our Bibles also gained traction. So whatever Apollos had learned, and would learn, about Yeshua would have come from listening to others. Who those others were before Aquila and Priscilla we don’t know.
I don’t want to wax too philosophical; however, there are so many millions of Christians who have some facts and knowledge about Jesus; but what is it that they think they know about Him? What is it that they believe in Him? What is it that they felt was happening to them when immersed if ever they were immersed? And if they were immersed, immersed into what?
Are we saved in God’s eyes if the Jesus Christ that we believe in is nothing like the one in the Bible? Or that what He taught (as recorded in the New Testament) are not the doctrines that we’ve been told is what He commands of us or are not the values we are to live by?
I wish I had answers for you. But there can be no better example of this conundrum than Apollos; we are left to ponder whether this eloquent man actually saved before he met Aquila and Priscilla. Or was it only afterward when vital blanks of his faith in God filled in?
Knowledge is indeed the key, but it must be the correct knowledge. And trust in Yeshua is the door; but it must be in the real Yeshua, not the one of our imaginings or the one we prefer.
Apollos was a motivated evangelist, and a gifted one as well. So after some undisclosed amount of time, he traveled to Achaia to speak and teach. He apparently had gained enough knowledge, and now sufficiently agreed with the doctrines of The Way, that letters of recommendation were sent on his behalf to Believers in Achaia to welcome him. When he arrived, he fearlessly debated the unbelieving Jews, in public, and used the Scriptures (as opposed to “reasoning” with them) to demonstrate the truth of what he was teaching: that Yeshua of Nazareth is indeed the Messiah the Tanakh (Old Testament) spoke about.
That is the end of the lesson for today. Remember to check out any commentaries that you may have to make sure that the commentator is in fact, a Believer in Yeshua as the Messiah. God bless!