I would like to examine the life of this lesser-known apostle, Apollos, and ask three questions. First, what were the external influences in his life that helped him become eloquent and mighty in the Scriptures? Second, how did his knowledge of the Scriptures affect his personal ministry? Then of course, the obvious question, what can we learn from his life?
Apollos first appears in the Scriptures in the city of Ephesus after the apostle Paul left his two friends, Aquilla and Priscilla to minister there while he returned to Jerusalem in AD 52. Apollos might have been a ”commercial traveler who engaged in religious teaching as well as in a trade” (Bruce 1985: 52). He would be similar to a Jewish merchant named Ananias, who went to the Kingdom of Adiabene on business and converted the royal family to Judaism (Josephus, Antiquities 20:34-49; LCL 10:19-27).
In Acts 18:24, 25 it says, “Now a certain Jew named Apollos, born in Alexandria, an eloquent man and mighty in the Scriptures, came to Ephesus. This man had been instructed in the way of the Lord; and being fervent in spirit, he spoke and taught accurately the things of the Lord, though he knew only the baptism of John.” I believe the key to understanding Apollos’ eloquence and being mighty in the Scriptures lies in where he was from … Alexandria, Egypt. Where he lived and whom he associated himself with had an impact on his preaching.
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Permit me to use my sanctified imagination as we take an imaginary trip to the city of Apollos’ birth. This city was the second largest city in the Roman world and the capital of the Roman province of Egypt. It is situated on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea on the western edge of the Nile Delta.
The city was founded by Alexander the Great in 332/1 BC after he conquered Egypt. It was his desire to establish a “large and populous Greek city which should bear his name” (Plutarch, Alexander 26:2; LCL 7:299). The ancient sources tell the story of Alexander the Great dreaming he should build a city near the island of Pharos. He gathered together his city planners and architects lead by Deinokrates of Rhodes. Since they did not have chalk to lay out the lines of the city they used barley grain. As they were admiring their work a large variety of birds came and ate up the seeds. Alexander was disturbed by this omen, but his seers calmed his nerves by saying it was a good sign because “the city founded by him would have most abundant and helpful resources and be a nursing mother for men of every nation” (Plutarch, Alexander 26:6; LCL 7:301). The seers’ guess turned out to be on the mark because in the days of Apollos, Egypt was the breadbasket for Rome and all of Egypt’s exported grain left from the ports at Alexandria. Strabo, the Greek geographer who lived in Alexandria from 24-20 BC, gave a detailed description of the city boasted that Alexandria was “the greatest emporium in the inhabited world” (Geography 17:1:13; LCL 8:53).
The city was divided into five districts. Each labeled by the first five letters of the Greek alphabet, i.e. Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta and Epsilon. Most likely, Apollos lived in the Delta District located in the northeast section of the city. The largest Jewish community in the Diaspora, those living outside the Land of Israel, resided in this district. Philo, a First Century AD Jewish philosopher, living in Alexandria, said that the Jewish population of Egypt was about one million Jews and a large portion of them lived in Alexandria (Flaccus 43; 1993: 728).
Alexandria was blessed with two harbors, one called the Great Harbor and the other called the Eunostus Harbor, or “Happy Landing Harbor”! At the mouth of the Great Harbor stood the Lighthouse of Pharos, one of the “Seven Wonders” of the ancient world (Strabo, Geography 17:1:6; LCL 8:23, 25; Empereur 1998: 82-87).
To the west of the Jewish District was the Beta District, or Bruchium. This Central District made up about a quarter of the city and contained temples, palaces and public buildings. They included the tomb of Alexander the Great and the later Ptolemaic kings and queens, the palaces of the Ptolemaic kings, a temple to Poseidon, the Caesarium (also called the Sebasteum) and the great library of Alexandria.
I believe these last two buildings had an impact on the life of Apollos. The Caesarium began as an altar built by Cleopatra in order to worship Mark Antony. Later, after Mark Antony and Cleopatra VII committed suicide (30 BC), Octavian, known in the New Testament as Caesar Augustus, got rid of all the statues of Mark Antony and set up a temple in honor of the emperor, Julius Caesar because it was thought that Julius was the protectorate of the sailors. The emperors were worshipped as gods by the sailors and invoked for safe passage as they plied the seas.
Philo, a Jewish philosopher living in Alexandria, describes this structure this way: “For there is elsewhere no precinct like that which is called the Sebasteum, a temple to Caesar on shipboard, situated on an eminence facing the harbours famed for their excellent moorage, huge and conspicuous, fitted on a scale not found elsewhere with dedicated offerings, around it a girdle of pictures and statues in gold and silver, forming a precinct of vast breadth, embellished with porticoes, libraries, chambers, groves, gateways and wide open courts and everything which lavish expenditure could produce to beautify it – the whole a hope of safety to the voyager either going into or out of the harbour” (Embassy to Gaius 151; LCL 10:77; Levy 1982-83: 102-117). There are very few archaeological remains of this great structure (Empereur 1998: 111-123).
After Julius Caesar was assassinated, the Roman senate, as they did with almost all the Roman emperors, deified him. However, in the days of Apollos, the Emperor Gaius Caligula could not wait to die in order to be deified, so he deified himself. This act of arrogance led to the pogrom against the Jews in AD 38.
The Greek Alexandrians wanted to put statues of Gaius Caligula in every synagogue in Alexandria in order to make the Jews worship him as a god. The Jewish population refused and rioting ensued and the Greeks attacked and massacred a number of Jews in the city (Antiquities 18: 257; LCL 9: 153).
In AD 41, Gaius Caligula was assassinated in Rome. Upon hearing this news, the Jews of Alexandria armed themselves and sought revenge on the Greeks (Josephus, Antiquities 19: 278-279; LCL 9: 343, 345). The new emperor, Claudius, issued an edict to the Alexandrians to stop their fighting and restored the rights of the Jewish people of Alexandria (Antiquities 19: 380-389; LCL 9: 345-351).
As Apollos departed from the harbor of Alexandria he could have looked back at the Caesarium and seen two obelisks. Both had been made by Pharaoh Thutmose III (ca. 1500 BC) and brought to Alexandria by Octavian from the Temple of Ra in Heliopolis in 13 BC. In the 18th and 19th centuries the pilgrims and travelers to Egypt called these obelisks “Cleopatra’s needles”. Today these two obelisks have been removed: one to London and the other to New York City. The New York obelisk was re-erected in Central Park behind the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1880 (D’Alton 1993). One day I visited this obelisk and thought, “I’ll bet Apollos looked at this obelisk from the ship he was on as he sailed from his home city.” Apollos was “instructed in the ways of the Lord”, and from his study of the Scriptures he understood that the LORD was God and not the Caesars.
The Library of Alexandria
The second building that could have influenced the life and ministry of Apollos was the famous library of Alexandria. Josephus Flavius, the first century Jewish historian, said the library was established by Ptolemy II (Philadelphus). He made Demetrius of Phalerum the head librarian because he was “anxious to collect, if he could, all the books in the inhabited world, and, if he heard of, or saw, any book worthy of study, he would buy it” (Antiquities 12:12; LCL 7:9). Over the years they collected books from Greece, Rome, Egypt and even as far away as India. For Biblical studies, Demetrius was instrumental in getting a number of Jewish writings translated from Hebrew or Aramaic into Greek. His most important accomplishment was having the Hebrew Bible translated into Greek. This was called the Septuagint (LXX) after the seventy Jewish Alexandrians who translated the Hebrew Bible into Greek. Josephus tells us there were up to a half a million volumes in this library. Part of the library was destroyed when Julias Caesar invaded Egypt in 48 BC, however the part in the Serapeum, the temple of Jupiter Serapis, was spared. Later, Mark Antony presented his girlfriend Cleopatra with a large gift of scrolls from the Pergamum library. The libraries of Alexandria were finally destroyed in AD 391 when Emperor Theodosius decreed that all the pagan temples in the Roman Empire be destroyed. The libraries in Alexandria were the largest in the ancient world and probably contained a section for Jewish studies (Casson 2001: 31-47). This section was a scholars’ paradise! I am sure that Apollos could have take advantage of this opportunity to study in the libraries.
One of the secrets of being “mighty in the Scriptures” was studying and memorizing the Word of God. Apollos was in an environment that was conducive to studying the Scriptures. In antiquities, books could be found in public libraries, synagogues, and churches or in private libraries of the very wealthy. A good example of the latter is the Villa de Papiri outside of Herculaneum in Italy. This villa belonged to Julius Caesar’s father-in-law and contained 1,800 papyrus scrolls, mostly in Greek. The villa was covered and preserved by the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in AD 79. These papyrus scrolls are being carefully preserved and translated by the Getty Museum in Los Angeles.
The Apostle Paul made books a priority in his life. Even when he was in a Roman prison, he wrote to Timothy and requested he stop in Alexandria Troas and pick up his coat as well as the books and parchments before he came to Rome (I Tim. 4:13).
A number of years ago I was working with the young people at my home assembly. At a meeting of the counselors we decided to do First Timothy in the Bible study on Friday night. I suggested to my fellow counselors that we all go out and buy some good commentaries on the epistle. One counselor baulked and said, “What? Spend money on a book?” I looked him in the eye and said: “Don’t look at buying books as spending money. Look at it as an investment in your ministry to young people!”
None of us will ever come close to being Paul, Peter or Apollos, but we can follow Paul’s admonition to Timothy. “Study to show yourself approved unto God, a workman that does not need to be ashamed, rightly dividing the Word of Truth” (II Tim. 2:15). The secret to Apollos being mighty in the Scriptures can be summed up in three words: Study, study, and study!
A possible influence on Apollos’s life was Philo, the Jewish philosopher who was an eloquent preacher. He was also known for his allegorical method of interpreting the Scriptures. This later had an influence on an Alexandrian church father, Augustine.
Knowledge of the Scriptures and Personal Ministry
The second question, how did his knowledge of the Scriptures affect his personal ministry?
Luke goes on to say, “So he began to speak boldly in the synagogue. When Aquila and Priscilla heard him, they took him aside and explained to him the way of God more accurately” (18:26).
Open and Teachable
The first way Apollos’ knowledge affected his ministry was that he was open and teachable to further truths from the Scriptures.
Apollos could have gone up to Jerusalem for one of the three Jewish pilgrimages sometime between AD 26 and 28 (Deut. 16:16, 17). If he was there, he could have heard a preacher, known amongst the Jewish people as Yohanan ben Zacharius. This firebrand preacher’s message was pointed: “Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand” (Matt. 3:1-12; Mark 1:1-8; Luke 3:1-20; John 1:6-8,15-37). Apollos, from his studies of the Scriptures, would have known that the time of the coming of the Messiah was near. As an Israelite saint, he trusted in God and looked forward to the Messiah Who would completely take away his sins and offer him total forgiveness of all his sins (cf. Gen. 15; 6; Ps. 32:1,2; Rom. 4). Someone has described Apollos’s salvation as a credit card salvation. With credit cards: one buys now and pays later! Apparently he believed John the Baptizer’s message that Someone else would pay for his sins and understood what John’s baptism was about, but Apollos did not know that Jesus was the Messiah that John was pointing too.
Apollos spoke “boldly in the synagogue” (18:26a). The text of his message that he so eloquently expounded was most likely Isaiah 40 and Malachi 3. Prepare the way for the Messiah. In the synagogue service was Aquila and Priscilla. They knew Apollos was on the right track, but had not gone far enough. He needed more light. They took him aside and “explained to him the way of God more accurately” (18:26b). Most likely, they invited him home for dinner and after a good meal they added to and clarified his understanding of the Scriptures. Apollos received the instruction gladly.
Now Apollos had the complete message. The Messiah had already come and died on a cross outside the city of Jerusalem in order to pay for all the sins of all humanity. He rose from the dead three days later and is now seated at the right hand of the Father. The Lord Jesus offers the forgiveness of sins to any and all who will put their trust in Him. He provides His righteousness to believers in Him so they can stand before a holy God, clothed in a righteousness freely given by grace through faith alone in the Lord Jesus (Phil. 3:9; Eph. 2:8,9; I Cor. 15:1-4).
Edify the Church and Defend the Faith
The second way Apollos’ knowledge affected his ministry was that he exercised his spiritual gift, most likely teaching (Rom. 12:7), and went to Corinth in order to help the believers there (18:27).
In Corinth, Apollos had a twofold ministry. First, he taught the Scriptures to those who “believed through grace” (18:27). Second, he had an apologetic ministry to the Jewish people in Corinth, using his considerable knowledge of the Hebrew Scriptures (but most likely the Septuagint, the Greek version) to demonstrate that Jesus was the fulfillment of all that the Prophets predicted (18:28). He would have shown how Isaiah prophesied His virgin birth (7:14) and the death of the Messiah for sin (52:13-53:12). Micah predicted His birth in Bethlehem of Judah (Micah 5:2). David predicted the Messiah’s death on a cruel cross (Ps. 22), and His subsequent resurrection (Ps. 16:9-11).
Apollos’s eloquence led to a major problem in the church at Corinth. Paul describes the Corinthian believers as carnal because they followed personalities. Some in the church would say, “I am of Paul.” Others would say, “I am of Apollos or Peter.” And the real pious ones would say, “I am of Jesus.” Paul spent four chapters of his first epistle to this church trying to straighten out this problem (I Cor. 1:12; 3:4-6, 22; 4:6).
Paul uses three illustrations to rebuke their carnality and give them a Biblical perspective of the Lord’s work and workers. The first illustration he uses is an agricultural word picture. Corinth was famous for it’s grapes. In fact, the word “current” comes from the word Corinth. Paul points out that he planted, Apollos watered, but it was God who gave the increase (I Cor. 3:6). Paul goes on to say that he and Apollos were farmers laboring together, but God is the one who ultimately gives the bountiful harvest and each is given a reward according to his labors (3:7).
The second word picture is of a builder building a temple. There was plenty of building activity in Corinth during the 4th decade of the first century AD. Paul points out that he laid the foundation, which is Christ, but others, including Apollos, built on top of it (I Cor. 3:9-11). It was a team effort and they were working together.
The third illustration is a beautiful word picture found in I Cor. 4:1. “Let a man so consider us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God.” He invites the Corinthian believers to consider “us”, in the context, the people are Paul, Peter and Apollos and he says they are “servants.” This word is not the Greek word “dulos” used for slaves or domestic servants, but the word “huperetes” which should be translated “under-rowers”. The recipients of First Corinthians would have caught this powerful word picture because Corinth was a maritime city with two harbors: Lechaio on the Gulf of Corinth and Cenchrea on the Saronic Gulf. Trading vessels would dock at one, off load their cargo and carry it overland to the other port. Then they would drag the boat across the isthmus via the Diolkos. If the ship was too large, the cargo was off loaded and carried overland to the other port and placed on another large vessel.
Some of the larger vessels that plied the Aegean Sea were the trireme vessels. This kind of ship had three decks of oarsmen, or “under-rowers”. These were freedmen, not slaves, who had volunteered for this job. They were seated on the three decks underneath the main deck and could not see where they were going or what was going on around them. They were to “row by faith and not by sight” (cf. II Cor. 5:7). In order to do this, they had to trust the captain on the top deck to take them safely to their final destination. The captain had a drum at his side and the drummer would beat out the strokes. “Boom”, then they would take a stroke. “Boom”, then another stroke. The only thing the under-rowers listened for was the beat of the captains’ drum and not that of any other ships around them.
The word-picture is clear: Paul, Peter and Apollos were under-rowers, listening to the drumbeat of the Captain, the Lord Jesus Christ, whom they could not see. They rowed together, by faith, so they could swiftly and safely reach their final destination. The believers in Corinth needed to get on board and row together with them as well, following the beat of the Captain’s drum. They needed to follow the Lord Jesus Christ and His Word.
Apollos apparently was with Paul in Ephesus when he wrote First Corinthians. Paul encouraged him to return to Corinth in order to help straighten out the carnality in the assembly. Apollos, for whatever reason, declined this invitation (I Cor. 16:12). Paul did write that Apollos would come at a more convenient time.
New Testament Pattern of Missions
The third way Apollos’s knowledge affected his ministry was that he followed the New Testament pattern of missions. When the Lord Jesus sent out His disciples, He sent them out “two-by-two” (Luke 10:1; Matt. 10:2-4). In the early church, the apostles followed this same pattern. Peter and Silvanus went to the Roman provinces of Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bythinia (I Pet. 1:1; 5:12). The Holy Spirit sent out Barnabas and Saul on their first missionary endeavor (Acts 13:1-4). Later we see Barnabas and John Mark (Acts 15:39), Paul and Silas (Acts 15:40), Paul and Aquila / Pricilla (Acts 18:18), and Paul and Luke (Luke 27:1).
This pattern of missions afforded both men who went out two-by-two, an opportunity to disciple a small group of men (II Tim. 2:2) in sort of a “traveling seminary” with “on the job training” (Acts 20:4). They would both be accountable to each other and also a source of encouragement for one another. There were no “Lone Ranger” missionaries in the New Testament!
Some Bible teachers believe that Paul wrote the epistle to Titus from Corinth. If that is the case, perhaps this was the “convenient time” (I Cor. 16:12) when both Apollos and Paul could be at Corinth again so that together they could straighten out any lingering problems that might still exist in the church. Paul also took the opportunity to send the letter to Titus on Crete with Apollos and Zenus (Tit. 3:13). They apparently were two itinerate preachers traveling from Corinth to an undisclosed destination, possibly Alexandria, via Crete. If this was the case, Apollos was returning home.
What can we learn from the life of this lesser known apostle who was so eloquent and mighty in the Scriptures?
First, Apollos took advantage of the place where he lived in order to develop his understanding of the Scriptures. Alexandria had a great library and he apparently used it. A person who is serious about studying the Scriptures should avail oneself to resources that are available, i.e. a church library, perhaps even a public library, or borrow books from an elder or friend’s library (but do return them when you are done!), or even build up ones personal library.
Second, Apollos took II Tim. 2:15 to heart. He studied, studied, studied! Perhaps his studying paid off in a big way. Martin Luther conjectured that Apollos was the unnamed author, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, of the epistle of Hebrews.
Third, Apollos was open and teachable to the truths of the Word of God. As the hymn writer, Adelaide Pollard so eloquently composed:
Have Thine own way, Lord! Have Thine own way!
Thou art the Potter; I am the clay.
Mould me and make me, after Thy will,
While I am waiting, yielded and still.
Fourth, Apollos made it his goal to use his gift of teaching the Word of God to build up the Body of Christ (cf. Eph. 4:11-13). The apostle Paul was an evangelist, so he planted the seeds. Apollos was a teacher, so he watered the seeds. Yet it was God who brought forth the fruit for His honor and glory. Each gift is needed for the work of the ministry. Every believer in the Lord Jesus has at least one spiritual gift (I Cor. 12:4-11). These gifts are to be used to build up the Body of Christ. If you have trusted the Lord Jesus as your Savior, have you discovered your spiritual gift and are you using it to build up the Body of Christ?
Fifth, Apollos had an apologetic ministry in which he used his knowledge of the Scriptures to defend historic / orthodox Christianity.
Sixth, Apollos followed the NT pattern of missions when he traveled. He always went with at least one other believer for mutual encouragement as well as accountability.
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