A Narrative Reading of Apollos and Paul (Acts 18:24-28; 19:1-7)

In our Acts seminar today we had a helpful discussion on the relationship of Acts 18:24-28 and 19:1-7. It seems that a cursory reading of scholars understand Apollos as being a Christian who just needs to understand the Gospel more fully while the disciples in Ephesus are clearly not Christians who need to hear the Gospel from Paul. David Pederson in his commentary on Acts sums the discussion up nicely:

It seems likely that some of John the Baptist’s disciples retained their distinctive beliefs for a while after his death and continued to urge other Jews to prepare for the coming of the Lord by accepting the baptism offered by John. While many of the Baptist’s disciples recognized in Jesus the fulfillment of their expectations, others may have had a mixture of beliefs and practices that fell short of the understanding and experience of mainstream Christianity as portrayed in Acts. Apollos and the Ephesian ‘disciples’ appear to have emerged from that sort of background. Apollos was clearly Christian when Priscilla and Aquila met him, but the Ephesians had not come so far when Paul encountered them1

From my brief examination of the two narrative I think Luke is presenting the two narratives not necessarily to show differences and similarities of the situation but rather the two provide two stories back-to-back that shed light on one another. My reasoning below is brief and I would love to hear any feedback you may have.

When we read these two narratives together we are presented with a more complete picture of the deficiencies of only following the teaching of John the Baptist. I take the story to present Apollos as a Jew who was following in the tradition of John the Baptist and proclaiming a message of repentance.

Acts 18:24-28

First, we can note that Apollos was well-versed in the scriptures, been instructed in the way of the Lord2, presented accurately the facts of Jesus, and was fervent in spirit (Acts 18:24-25).3 On the surface this seems to portray Apollos as a Christian who is preaching but needs further teaching from Priscilla and Aquila. The key caveat is that “he only knew the baptism of John (Acts 18:25).” Without the subsequent episode of Paul and the disciples in the next story we could easily read Apollos as a Christian preacher, as many commentators do, but Luke provides a subsequent story to give a more complete picture.

Acts 19:1-7

When Paul arrives at Ephesus he is greeted with whom he thinks are disciples. Upon meeting them he asks if they have received the Holy Spirit (Acts 19:2). When they reply that they didn’t even know of the Holy Spirit Paul quickly asks them how they were baptized (Acts 19:3). They respond that they were baptized in John’s baptism. Paul then tells them that John’s baptism was only a baptism of repentance and that they needed to be baptized in the name of Jesus and receive the Holy Spirit (Acts 19:4).

Conclusion

This last encounter sheds light on the situation with Apollos. Apollos, who only knew the baptism of John, was, according to the narrative flow of the two stories, only preaching a baptism of repentance. Indeed, he was preaching the things of Jesus and the way of the Lord in the same way that John the Baptist was. The things of Jesus do not necessarily have to refer to the acts and teaching of Jesus but instead could be in reference to the same Messianic expectations that John the Baptist was speaking of. This preaching was in preparation for the Messiah. But the Messiah has now come and the message is to believe on Jesus in order to receive the Holy Spirit and subsequently be baptized in his name.

Luke shows how Paul laid hands on the disciples then they received the Holy Spirit and were baptized. Afterwards they went about speaking in tongues and prophesying. Luke does not need to explicitly state that Apollos was converted at this time. But the similar situation in understanding the baptism of John in the next story makes it probable that he was converted during the “more accurate teachings of the ways of God” by Priscilla and Aquila. This story fills in the gaps of Apollos. Only knowing the baptism of John is only further defined in the subsequent story with Paul and the disciples.

Thus, reading the two stories together we get a clearer picture of why Priscilla and Aquila needed to teach Apollos more accurately the things of God. His message was not contrary but just deficient. It seems a more literary reading of the two stories together gives us a complete picture of Apollos.

  1. David G. Peterson, The Acts of the Apostles (The Pillar New Testament Commentary; Grand Rapids, MI; Nottingham, England: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2009), 524. ↩︎
  2. This should not be understood as a reference to “The Way” as in Acts 9:2; (16:17); 19:9, 23; 22:4; 24:14, 22. This is the only place with the modifier “of the Lord,” which may imply a reference to John the Baptist preparing the way of the Lord. All of references are just to “The Way,” which implies either the Christian message or sect. ↩︎
  3. I take this phrase to be an emotional state and not being fervent in the Holy Spirit ↩︎

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