Acts 18:18—19:10 (ESV)✞: Paul Returns to Antioch, Apollos Speaks Boldly in Ephesus, Paul in Ephesus
In these passages Paul quickly passes through the city of Ephesus before returning back for a longer visit. At one point during their travels he also cuts his hair because he was “under a vow” (v. 18:18 (ESV)✞).
Paul is traveling with people named Priscilla and Aquila, and I honestly don’t know if these are men or women. To my modern, Western ears these sound like women’s names, and maybe they are, but they also might not be. They come to the city of Ephesus, and Paul follows his usual custom of going to the synagogue to reason with his fellow Jews, but in this instance he doesn’t stay in the city for long. He leaves behind Priscilla and Aquila and heads back home to Antioch. Before leaving he tells them “I will return to you if God wills” (v. 18:21 (ESV)✞). While he’s gone, though, another man comes to town:
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.
Having seen all this, 19:1–10 is a bit confusing, and I had to work through the timing. Paul eventually comes back to Ephesus yet seems to be starting all over again. Given the context it feels much later—there’s no mention of Priscilla and Aquila still being there, or any converts from their time—but the resource I have for a Bible timeline says that Acts 18 took place around A.D.51 while Acts 19 takes place around A.D.54, only three years later. Regardless, Paul does find twelve disciples there (v. 19:7 (ESV)✞). However, they’re suffering from the same issues Apollos had been facing years earlier: they know about John the Baptist, but not so much about Jesus Himself:
2 And he said to them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” And they said, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.” 3 And he said, “Into what then were you baptized?” They said, “Into John’s baptism.” 4 And Paul said, “John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, Jesus.” 5 On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. 6 And when Paul had laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they began speaking in tongues and prophesying.
Paul then continues with his practice of going to the synagogue to preach, but after a few months of this, seeing that some of the people there are stubbornly refusing to listen, he withdraws and takes to doing his preaching from the “Hall of Tyrannus,” which I assume is a Gentile meeting place. (As a side note, v. 19:9 (ESV)✞ indicates that the stubborn members of the synagogue take to “speaking evil of the Way,” which indicates that that’s what Christianity is still being called “the Way” at this point.)
Paul stays in Ephesus for the next two years, preaching, “so that all the residents of Asia heard the word of the Lord, both Jews and Greeks” (v. 19:10 (ESV)✞). Remember that this “Asia” is not the continent of Asia we think of, it was the name for a region of the Roman Empire; Ephesus was on the Western coast of modern-day Turkey. (I wrote about this “Asia” nomenclature recently, but I don’t remember exactly when.)
Writing this post came at a very opportune time:
- My regular daily Bible reading had me in the book of Ephesians Sunday morning.
- At church we had a guest pastor who preached from Ephesians, starting exactly where my daily reading had left off.
- Later in the week I wrote this post on the book of Acts, discussing the origins of the Ephesian church!
So apparently God wanted me to be immersed in the Ephesian church for a while!
Unfortunately, the Ephesian church we’re speaking of no longer exists. After Paul founded the church there (the second time), he wrote them a letter a few years later—the New Testament book of Ephesians—and then, later still, John writes the book of Revelation in which Jesus Himself addresses the Ephesian church:
1 “To the angel of the church in Ephesus write: ‘The words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand, who walks among the seven golden lampstands.
2 “‘I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance, and how you cannot bear with those who are evil, but have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and found them to be false. 3 I know you are enduring patiently and bearing up for my name’s sake, and you have not grown weary. 4 But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. 5 Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent. 6 Yet this you have: you hate the works of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate. 7 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who conquers I will grant to eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.’”
There’s some apocalyptical language in there about stars and lampstands, but the main point is that the Ephesians are doing really good at keeping to the Gospel, teaching what is right and keeping away from wrong teachings—which is, frankly, great given their history!—and yet, somehow, they’re managing not to do it in love. As far as Jesus is concerned, they’ve actually got it backwards: the love should be driving everything else. How bad was the problem? Well… Jesus threatened to “remove their lampstand,” and that’s exactly what happened: the church at Ephesus died out. (I don’t know if there’s a Christian church meeting now in the city that used to be named Ephesus, it’s very possible there is, but it’s not a continuation of the one Paul started and that Jesus addressed.)
Which is fascinating! Especially in light of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, which doesn’t seem to be overly concerned with any crises at that church. It’s not like Paul is writing the Ephesians with a sense of emergency, telling them they need to be more loving—though he does mention loving and getting along with each other in his letter—yet, sometime between his letter and Revelations 30-something years later they started to emphasize “truth” over and above love, to their detriment.
In fact, let’s go through this history of the Ephesian church, given all that we’ve discussed so far:
|A.D.51||Paul, Priscilla, and Aquila show up and preach Jesus. Paul leaves but Priscilla and Aquila stay behind to pastor this new set of believers.|
|A.D.51–54||During this time Apollos shows up, knowing about John the Baptist but seemingly not much about Jesus Himself, so Priscilla and Aquila teach him more fully. He then leaves and continues preaching Jesus elsewhere.|
|A.D.51–54||At some point during these three years Priscilla and Aquila must leave Ephesus or die, and the church seems to wither.|
|A.D.51–54||A small number of new believers starts to build up in Ephesus—no account is given as to where they heard about the Gospel, or the bits of it that they’ve got hold of—who, like Apollos before them, know of John the Baptist but not much (if anything) about Jesus and nothing about the Holy Spirit.|
|A.D.54–56||Paul arrives in Ephesus again and essentially starts over, pastoring a new church.|
|A.D.56–62||The Ephesian church continues without Paul, seemingly doing pretty well.|
|A.D.62||Paul writes the book we now know as Ephesians, and, as mentioned, there don’t seem to be urgent matters he feels he needs to warn them about or admonish them on.|
|A.D.62–95||The Ephesian church continues on without Paul, but now they seem to start focusing more and more on “truth” to the exclusion of love.|
|A.D.95||The letter we now know as Revelation is written, including a letter specifically warning the Ephesian church that they need to get back to their previously loving ways or their church will cease to exist.|
|???||I’ve heard sermons mentioning that the church at Ephesus no longer exists, but couldn’t find anything online indicating as to when the church’s lampstand was removed.|
This is yet another case where I’m betting that initial good intentions led to bad results. I can easily envision a scenario, for example, in which the Ephesians were looking back on their early days, and not properly knowing the full Gospel of Christ, and deciding to never fall into that kind of lack of knowledge again.
But even if that’s not the case and they weren’t focusing on their “John the Baptist” days, I’m 100% positive that their goal of adherence to the Truth initially came from a good place. Of course Christians want to stick to the Truth! Jesus wanted them to stick to the Truth too – his letter to them included a lot of praise on that point! They were doing well to want to adhere to the Truth.
Their problem was in feeling that Truth was more important than love, and that seemingly small mistake was so crucial that Jesus eventually removed their church altogether (I’m led to believe).
Paul Was “Under a Vow”
As mentioned above, during his journey to Ephesus Paul cuts his hair because he was under a vow. I know I go on and on about this, but this is another example of the fact that the earliest Christians still considered themselves to be Jewish, and still adhered to at least some of the Jewish laws and customs. The “vow” we’re talking about here would have been a Nazarite vow, meaning that Paul wouldn’t have been able to drink alcohol1 or cut his hair (so this must have been the end of the vow, not the beginning of it, since that’s when the person has his hair ritually cut off at the tent of meeting or temple).
Paul wasn’t rushing to distance himself from his fellow Jews, and he obviously wasn’t trying to impose Jewish laws and traditions on non-Jewish Christians (has has been discussed here in numerous recent posts), he was carefully trying to read the Scriptures and determine:
- What was already fulfilled by Christ?
- What was still very relevant to the Christian? and
- What was cultural vs. religious?
I’m not advocating that modern-day Christians start taking Nazarite vows—I’m not saying they can’t either—but I’m saying that Paul examined the Scriptures and decided, with the guidance of the Holy Spirit, that it wasn’t against the spirit of Christianity to take a Nazarite vow, so he did.
Apollos and The Baptism of John
I’m sure I’m not the only one who finds Apollos’ story fascinating, though until this reading I hadn’t fully put together the weird initial history of the Ephesian church (as discussed above).
Apollos is a Jewish man who’d heard the teachings of John the Baptist. The text doesn’t indicate he was taught by John, which I think Luke would have mentioned, so he apparently heard about John’s teachings from someone else who’d been taught by John; given the fact that the Ephesian church is later going to be made up of people following these same teachings, it seems to me like these teachings from John the Baptist were really making their way around the ancient world! Apollos, however, is able to combine this teaching with his knowledge of the Scriptures (and the Holy Spirit, whether he realized it or not) to accurately teach some things concerning Jesus, even though he doesn’t seem to have heard much about Jesus Himself. It seems to be a matter of, “The Scriptures say this, and John the Baptist said this about Jesus, and therefore this is what you need to know about your Christ.”
Luckily Priscilla and Aquila are still around in Ephesus so they’re able to teach Apollos more fully about Jesus so that he can be even more effective at proving that the Christ promised by the Scriptures is Jesus.
Apollos’ story is one of those stories I never would have guessed would happen, and yet as soon as I read it the whole thing makes total sense in retrospect: of course there would be people in the early days of the Church who’d gotten some information but not exhaustive information. Apollos didn’t have a little red New Testament2 he could carry around with him, almost none of the New Testament letters/books had been written yet. (Acts 18 takes place around A.D.51 while James’ letter was written six years earlier in A.D.45, and Paul himself starts writing some of his letters in A.D.51, so there were some “books” of the New Testament being written, but just because some letters had been written it doesn’t mean they were being widely distributed yet, and that still left the majority of the New Testament to be written.) Of course there would be people who’d heard of John but not heard much about Jesus, just as there were a number of people who might have heard Jesus preach and yet never heard of John.
- It’s a bit of an oversimplification to just say “no alcohol.” Numbers 6:3–4 (ESV)✞ says, “he shall separate himself from wine and strong drink. He shall drink no vinegar made from wine or strong drink and shall not drink any juice of grapes or eat grapes, fresh or dried. All the days of his separation he shall eat nothing that is produced by the grapevine, not even the seeds or the skins.” But I think this is just a very, very strict interpretation of “no alcohol.” ↩
- I should explain this, as it may just be a North American thing, but it’s common for Christians in North America to give out Bibles when we have the opportunity, and often we give out versions of the Bible that contain just the New Testament and the books of Psalms and Proverbs. (Mostly for reasons of portability; you can produce a pretty small, easy-to-carry book if you don’t include all of the books. It’s more substantial than a tract, but not as large as a full Bible.) For some reason, they’re always red. So if you hear North American Christians referring to “red New Testaments,” this is what they’re talking about. ↩