There’s a lot more going on in this little vignette than one might suppose at first glance. Paul, having returned to his old stomping grounds in Antioch, is now making a tour of Galatia – what we would call central Turkey. Back in Ephesus (on the Aegean coast opposite Greece) he has left Prisca and Aquila – a married couple who are more or less co-leading the missionary enterprise until Paul gets back. (Interestingly, Prisca, the wife, is usually mentioned more prominently in this endeavor than her husband, Aquila.) And then Apollos comes to town.
Apollos is from Alexandria, in Egypt. Alexandria was a hotbed of Jewish scholarship. It’s where the Scriptures were translated into Greek. And we are told that Apollos was both “eloquent” and “well-versed in the Scriptures.” One might expect that from an Alexandrine Jew, but apparently, Apollos is pretty top shelf even by Alexandrian standards.
He hasn’t been sent by anybody. He doesn’t belong to the newly forming Church; he’s just a visiting scholar, speaking up in synagogue. But he has also been powerfully affected by the ministry of John. Apparently, he was one of those who was baptized by John or his disciples years ago, and he is now teaching about the Christ, based upon John’s message and his own study of the prophecies. He “spoke and taught accurately concerning Jesus,” but we don’t know if he actually had heard about Jesus of Nazareth, or just was continuing to tell people to get ready for the one who was to come; but in any case, he was a powerful influence.
And then, we’re told this amazing thing: “when Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they took him and expounded to him the way of God more accurately." As both believers in Jesus and as leaders of the Church, Prisca and Aquila were clued into a lot – not to mention the whole matter of saving faith – that Apollos hadn’t heard about or experienced yet.
And it says a lot for Apollos that he immediately accepted their teaching and began to incorporate it into his own store of knowledge, so that once he had crossed over into the area around Athens (Achaia), "he greatly helped those who through grace had believed, for he powerfully confuted the Jews in public, showing by the scriptures that the Christ was Jesus." He could have gotten all huffy and defensive and asked to see Prisca and Aquila’s credentials; I mean, he was an Alexandrian scholar, and they were, what – tentmakers? But, no, he truly was as wise as his reputation and he immediately laid hold of this new truth now revealed to him and by humility as well as smarts went to the head of the class again.
Now, I want to point out to you that before Apollos got his update on God’s plan from Prisca and Aquila, the merest child in the church at Ephesus was more spiritually mature than he was – for that child knew and trusted Jesus, and Apollos knew only the baptism of John. Of course, once Apollos learned and received this new truth and finished incorporating it into everything else he knew, he became far more advanced than the children – or even the other leaders – of the Church. But if even a child in the faith was wiser in this one way than the great scholar Apollos, then that brings up the question, “How much do you really have to know to be saved?”
The official answer, of course, is that nobody is saved by knowing or understanding anything, but only by faith – that is, by trusting – in Christ. Faith is an experiential thing more than an intellectual thing; but that said, most people need to have some basic information before they can understand what you’re inviting them to do.
So, we tell them about Jesus. We relate some of the Gospel story. And we explain some of our beliefs about Jesus as Son of God, as Savior, and as Lord. A little Bible, a little doctrine. We do this knowing that the experience of love they have with both us and with God directly will probably act upon them more strongly than the details we’re teaching, but still, details are important. As the writer to the Hebrews put it, for anybody to attempt to please God (assuming they want to), they first have to believe that there is a God to please and also that God would reward those who make the attempt.
Thus, we set out to teach some basic facts before the Big Ask. From simple facts about Jesus, we go on to teach the background to the Gospel, which encompasses the whole Bible. From simple doctrine, we go on to explain many beliefs and practices we have. And then we go on to teach about the movement of God’s people since New Testament days: the history of the Church (and especially our part of the Church).
We do this through Sunday School and through Confirmation Classes, through Bible studies and retreats and through sermons, through books of instruction and videos and puppets and all kinds of ways. And along the way, we make reference to a whole world of great literature and drama and art and political ideas that draws from and elaborates upon the main themes of our faith – the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, Dante’s Divine Comedy, the speeches of Abraham Lincoln, the music of J.S. Bach – and also the history of the world, which cannot be understood apart from the religious motivations of those who did the deeds that we study – the defeat of Islam by Charles Martel at the Battle of Tours 1282 yrs ago this month, the Reformation that made England different from Spain, and how that impacted the colonization of America, and on and on. We ponder how our beliefs and values should shape our response to current controversies and how a follower of Christ should practice one’s citizenship in our country today.
There is much to learn – far too much to learn to be encompassed in a few classes and other experiences offered by the Church, even if we could get everybody to attend them. And what that means is, beyond the merest introduction, you’re on your own. Which is why we say that Study is a spiritual discipline – a lifelong pursuit by each follower of Christ.
We start out by telling new believers to read the Bible as a daily practice. Some of them think that that’s going to be a mystical experience: they think God is going to speak from the pages of this book and tell them what to eat for breakfast or whom to marry or something. And God does, indeed, speak to us in the words of his Scripture, but mostly by us so soaking ourselves in them that he can draw them out of us without our labor. No, our labor is just to learn what’s there; content mastery comes before great insight, though there are new insights to be found from the v beginning of our acquaintance with the Scripture. We are to read the Bible every day, just as we are to pray every day, until we become shaped by the thoughts of God and our thoughts and his chime together.
And we are to investigate the other, vast realms of Christian ideas and art and accomplishment, including the history of the people of God. We are given the run of the place, to learn what we will from wherever we may – so long as we fully digest what we read and see and experience and incorporate it into our understanding of the world and the way we live our lives. The fact is, we are to serve God with our minds as well as our hearts and our hands.
So while it is true that the merest child who believes in Jesus is more spiritually advanced than the greatest scholar who doesn’t, still, God expects us to grow up and not stay at the level of childhood in any branch of our knowledge, including the knowledge of himself and his ways with his creation. Jesus said we are to become “wise as serpents” while remaining “innocent as doves,” and that places equal emphasis on both those ideals.
Going back to our story of Apollos in Ephesus, I would call your attention again to the odd phrasing of how Prisca and Aquila shared the gospel with Apollos: "they expounded to him the way of God more accurately." Which brings up another critical question: not just, how much do you have to know to be saved, but how important is it that you get it right? This pertains less, perhaps, to our knowledge of the Bible than to our adoption of doctrinal or moral commitments, but still – who cares what you believe, so long as you’re sincere?
Ah, but what about people who are sincerely wrong? The people cutting off heads and crucifying people they disagree with in Iraq and Syria today aren’t just moral defectives – though they are that, too – they are also intelligent believers in certain facts and values which are wrong by Christian standards. That doesn’t mean everybody we might disagree with needs to be violently opposed -- in fact, an open society should let everyone advocate whatever they want, confident that the better ideas will prevail – but let’s not have any of this nonsense that sincerity makes all beliefs and all values equivalent.
The murderers of the Islamic State are quite sincere – and they are still wrong. And some of those we know better who would never hurt a fly are also sincerely wrong, and we can let them be wrong – but we must not give in and be wrong with them. In his last letter to Timothy, Paul says he should “do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth.” And then he points to two guys, Hymenaeus and Philetus, who were getting some things wrong and upsetting the faith of some people in the churches.
Oh yeah, even back then, there were folks who were sincerely wrong. And they weren’t bad people, but over time, their teaching might lead the Church farther and farther off the right path, and then the right teaching that leads people to Jesus might be lost.
It’s important that we apply ourselves not just to learn what we can, but that we test ourselves and not fall in love with an idea just because it’s ours – or because somebody we like told it to us – or worst of all, because it lets us off the hook for our besetting sins. I know, I know, it gets wearisome to keep having to ask for forgiveness for the same old sins. You can get to where you either want to give up on yourself or give up on God. At which point, you are open to looking for more cheerful beliefs. But comforting yourself with convenient lies is not the way to wisdom.
Charles Williams was right when he said, “Hell is inaccurate.” For the ways of hell are encapsulated in the tendency to make a small mistake, and then make a bigger one in full knowledge that it is a mistake, in order not to have to confess that you messed up the first time. Now, nobody was ever saved by good theology – but only by the grace of God in Jesus Christ; so, yeah, even those who get it wrong can be saved. But part of our offering of ourselves to God is to try to get it as right as we can, as regards both our beliefs and our practice, and humbly to accept correction, from whomsoever it comes.
In any case, it is my intent this morning to call you to offer your minds, as well as your hearts and your hands, to God – to apply yourself to learning the story and discovering all that God may reveal to you, over the whole rest of your life. I’ve been teaching the faith for nearly forty years now, and I’m still learning new things. We are studying the prophets Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi in our Wednesday Bible Study. And you know what? I couldn’t have led that Bible Study thirty years ago. I couldn’t have led it ten years ago. But I keep poking my nose into odd corners, and God keeps showing me new things I never saw before.
If you apply yourself to the discipline of study, you will find that what you fill your mind with, God can use – to comfort you, to challenge you, to equip you to meet hard situations and to make difficult choices. And you will also find, I hope, that it is a joy to learn about God, and to share in all the beauty and wisdom that have been created as offerings to him in the past.
Blessed be his Name for ever. Amen.