The Providence of God (Acts 18:18-28)

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I could not think of a unique title for this sermon because, in many ways, it is directly connected to what immediately precedes it. In this passage, though Paul departs from Corinth, the work of the Lord building His church very much continues. And it does so by God’s amazing providence. Further, as Paul leaves Corinth to head back to his home church, along the way the seed is sown for the planting of one of the most wonderful local churches in the New Testament: that in Ephesus. Again, we see the providence of God in this work as the Lord builds His church. I suppose if we want a unique title (over against “I Will Build My Church, Part 2”) we must settle for simply, “The Providence of God in the Great Commission.” Regardless of your preferred title, the point that is emphasised in this passage is that the work of planting a local church is completely subjected to the will of God. We need to learn to recognise, to rest and to respond to the providence of God as we seek to be faithful to the Great Commission.

Whenever we study the Scriptures we need to do so with an artillery of questions. Perhaps the most fundamental is, “Why is this here?” This is of particular importance when it comes to the book of Acts.

When you consider the theme of Acts (an account of the carrying out of the Great Commission by the early church) it is apparent that a whole lot of material—good, interesting and important historical material—was left out. And so in each section, we need to ask, why was this particular passage and information included? Clearly it must have some relevant importance to the church down through the ages. For example,

  • It must have some theological bearing on how we are to conduct ourselves in the mission of God.
  • It must haves some missiological bearing on how we are to carry out the mission of God.
  • Presumably it has some motivational bearing to encourage us as we obey the mission of God.

When it comes to this particular passage, which closes the account of Paul’s second missionary journey, such a question is quite helpful. On the surface, particularly with reference to vv. 18-23, this passage seems to be merely a travelogue, a journey that covered some 2,500km. But since very little detail is given, there must be other purposes for this text. I think that the primary clue to the purpose of this passage is found in the little phrase appearing in v. 21: “God willing.”

Without going into detail at this point, this phrase was the theological perspective and conviction that undergirded all of Paul’s life and ministry. He believed in the sovereignty and the providence of God. He believed that God was the ruler over the entire universe and that this was not merely theoretical. He believed that God actively exercised His sovereignty, which is a key element behind the concept of providence.

Wayne Grudem defines “providence” as

the doctrine that God is continually involved with all created things in such a way that He (1) keeps them existing and maintaining the properties with which he created them; (2) cooperates with created things in every action, directing their distinctive properties to cause them to act as they do; and (3) directs them to fulfil his purposes.1

In other words, God really does rule all things for His purposes.

Nothing happens outside of God’s purpose and plan. All things are ordained of God. This “all” includes all! And so, as His creatures, we are dependent upon Him. Paul declared this in Athens as recorded in 17:24-28.

It was this conviction that drove Paul’s planning. He was responsible and so he made plans. He was not a fatalist; he was no hyper-Calvinist. He behaved as a rational and therefore responsible human being who made decisions as a free moral agent.

However, his high view of God constantly informed him that all of his plans were subject to God’s ultimate will. He understood the maxim, “man proposes; God disposes,” and hence “God willing” finished out his sentences; if not verbally, at least always mentally and dispositionally.

As Christians we are all called to the same submissive disposition. James understood this when he wrote,

Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a city, spend a year there, buy and sell, and make a profit”; whereas you do not know what will happen tomorrow. For what is your life? It is even a vapour that appears for a little time and then vanishes away. Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we shall live and do this or that.” But now you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil.

(James 4:13-16)

We need to nurture such a conviction, and as we do so many benefits are derived, including:

  • Peace when things seem to be falling apart all around us;
  • Perseverance when disappointments tempt us to quit;
  • Humility when blessings and success abound (after all, they come from God’s hand!);
  • Gratitude rather than grumbling as we recognise God’s wise ordering of history—Including our own history;
  • Optimism in spite of our own failures (after all, the Lord is in control and He can make a way—1 Corinthians 10:13);
  • Spiritual maturity as we wrestle with our responsibility to respond in the face of providence (the anti-fatalist approach); and
  • Encouragement through faith as we labour in the Great Commission.

As we will see in this study, the recognition, restful reliance and embracing of the reality of God’s providence goes a long way towards giving us hope as we labour in the Great Commission. And this can be especially encouraging to those directly involved in church planting.

God’s Providence in Corinth

The chapter opens with some insight to God’s providence in Corinth: “So Paul still remained a good while.” The word “so” (or “after this” in the ESV) is important. It conveys the idea that, immediately following the events of the preceding passage, Paul stayed longer in Corinth. Some suggest that he stayed an extra nine months. Robertson hits the important point when he writes, “Vindicated as Paul was, there was no reason for haste in leaving.”2

You will remember that, in the providence of God, Gallio, the Roman official, made a legislative ruling (by not making one) that Christianity was a religio licita (a legalised religion), thus giving the church protection under the power of the Roman Empire. This, as we saw in our last study, had a widespread effect for the good of the church as she carried out the Great Commission. This is what we might call a pleasant or happy providence. As we will see, this happy providence served Paul well in the next region of ministry—a region that previously had been closed to him.

Heading Home for Furlough

The local church in Corinth was being strengthened by the hand of God through the hands of His servants during this period, but eventually it was time for Paul to leave. It was time for him to return to his home and sending local church in Antioch. “Then he took leave of the brethren and sailed for Syria, and Priscilla and Aquila were with him” (v. 18).

Paul could leave Corinth because he believed in the providence of God. He believed that the sheep that he was leaving behind were indeed the Lord’s people (v. 10), and therefore he was apparently confident that the Lord would take care of them.

Paul therefore set sail for Syria (where Antioch was located) and Priscilla and Aquila accompanied him—for at least part of the journey. This wonderful, godly couple would serve the cause of Christ well in Corinth and later in Ephesus. God had provided Paul with these co-labourers in the gospel and they would continue to be his co-workers once he returned from Antioch.

Foolish Compromise or Culturally Wise?

The last phrase of v. 18 has caused difficulties for many: “He had his hair cut off at Cenchrea, for he had taken a vow.” I have read some commentators who accuse Paul here of sin; of unholy compromise. After all, it may appear that Paul was reverting to Judaism, and perhaps even placing himself under the ceremonial law. But I am convinced that Paul had in no way abandoned the doctrine of justification by faith alone.

Granted, the apostles were sinful men of the same nature as we; and granted, they were not perfect in all of their actions. Nevertheless, what Paul did here was not sinful. In fact, it was a wonderful display of gratitude for God’s kind providence in Corinth.

As Leviticus 27 bears out, when one of God’s people felt a sense of gratitude to God they would often be moved to make a sacrifice. The Nazarite vow (Numbers 6:1-21) was one such sacrifice.

A Nazarite vow was a willing vow that involved three elements. For the duration of the vow, the one who made it was required to abstain entirely from any fruit of the vine and to keep away from any dead body. He was also to let his hair grow for the duration of the vow. When the time set for the vow was complete, the man was required to shave his hair. This was a visible token that his vow had run its course.3

After the worshipper cut his hair, it was burnt on the altar along with a sacrifice. It was not a sacrifice of atonement or redemption, but rather of praise. Paul was recognising an old covenant practice that could legitimately be carried over into new covenant days. This was perfectly consistent with his religious culture and did not contradict God’s gospel. MacArthur notes, “When he wanted to show his deep thanks for God’s marvelous encouragement during the difficult times in Corinth, he naturally thought of a typically Jewish way of doing so. . . . In Paul’s day, provision was made for those away from Jerusalem at the termination of their vow to shave their heads, as Paul did, then within thirty days present the hair at the Temple (cf. Josephus Wars, 2.15.1).”4

How this Happened

Here is a potential scene leading to this vow.

Paul, for whatever reason had been discouraged in his ministry and wanted to leave Corinth. The Lord appeared to him in a vision, assuring him that his ministry would be successful and that he would be safe as he carried it out.

God did a wonderful thing through Gallio, which ensured that the vision was fulfilled. In gratitude, Paul made a Nazarite vow and consequently did not cut his hair, perhaps for the remainder of his ministry in Corinth. At the completion of that time, he departed from Corinth and, before entering the ship at Cenchrea, cut his hair and packaged it to be offered in Jerusalem. He then headed home to Antioch in Syria. This grateful response to the providence of God would be further used, in the providence of God, in the planting of a church in Ephesus (and perhaps in other ways to which we are not privy).

I will not belabour the point but we need to understand that there is no good reason why Paul could not make this vow and go to Jerusalem to observe a Jewish feast. As Stott writes, “Once Paul had been liberated from the attempt to be justified by the law, his conscience was free to take part in practices which, being ceremonial or cultural, belonged to the ‘matters indifferent,’ perhaps on this occasion in order to conciliate the Jewish Christian leaders he was going to see in Jerusalem.”5

I maintain that was a wise use of culture, and no doubt it enabled his ministry to be prolonged. At least for now, he was not embroiled in turmoil in Jerusalem—though he eventually would be.

God’s Providence in Ephesus

Having highlighted something of God’s providence in Corinth, Luke now turns his attention to God’s providence in Ephesus:

And he came to Ephesus, and left them there; but he himself entered the synagogue and reasoned with the Jews. When they asked him to stay a longer time with them, he did not consent, but took leave of them, saying, “I must by all means keep this coming feast in Jerusalem; but I will return again to you, God willing.” And he sailed from Ephesus. And when he had landed at Caesarea, and gone up and greeted the church, he went down to Antioch. After he had spent some time there, he departed and went over the region of Galatia and Phrygia in order, strengthening all the disciples.

Now a certain Jew named Apollos, born at 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. 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.

(Acts 18:19-26)

This wonderful passage once again reveals the hand of God behind the scenes, orchestrating things for the building of His church—both in Ephesus and in Corinth.

Introduction to Ephesus

Paul arrived in Ephesus, after a long journey, “left” the company of Aquila and Priscilla, and headed to the synagogue. What it means that he “left” them is not quite certain. Regardless, in Ephesus he appears to have encountered those who were more open to his message than in other synagogues. In fact, they asked him to stay a while longer. In an interesting twist of events, Paul refused, saying that he must keep the feast (probably Passover) at Jerusalem. Perhaps he also shared with them that he had a vow to fulfil at that time (the burning of his hair on the altar in the temple). All of this would have gone a long way toward building bridges, which would serve his gospel purposes well upon his return. It is as this point that Paul made the statement that he would return “God willing” (v. 21).

He then departed for Jerusalem.

There are a couple of things to note here.

An Open Door

First, the Lord clearly had opened a door of opportunity for Paul to minister in a region that had earlier been closed to him (16:6). In chapter 16, Paul had been prevented by the Holy Spirit from preaching in this region. The question is, why, then, did Paul not stay?

I can’t offer a full answer to that question. But we do learn from this that Paul did not live his life by reading the “tea leaves” of providence. Rather, he lived by principles while also recognising God’s providence. Here is what I mean: Paul understood that duties do not conflict and he had made a dutiful vow that he was intent on fulfilling.

To Paul, providence was not authoritative. He had other obligations to fulfil, and an unexpected open door would not prevent him from fulfilling a vow he had made to God.

Be careful of living erratically because you accept God’s providence as authoritative. God gets blamed for a lot. Stop it! Rather, while recognising God as sovereign, and while being dependent on His will, be responsible. If you have made a commitment, keep it and don’t use providence as an excuse to break it. Neither use providence as an excuse to do nothing.

When I first felt the call of God to be a missionary, my heart was set on Australia. I went there with my wife and two young daughters, and ministered in Brisbane for some fifteen months. One day, I received a letter from the Australian government informing me that my visa would not be renewed, and if I wanted to apply for permanent residence, I needed to do so in Chicago. I returned with my family to the United States and applied as necessary.

Before long, I received a letter from the Australian consulate informing me that my application had been rejected because I had “no skills” to improve their country. I was asked not to apply again. I had a choice: I could either take God’s providence—in this case, a seemingly closed door—as final, or I could appeal. I chose the latter. I was convinced that God wanted me in Australia, and so I wrote back asking them to reconsider. It was only when I received a reply to my appeal, refusing permission and stating that the matter was quite settled, that I finally accepted it as God’s will that I was not to go to Australia.

We must understand that God’s providence is not always final. Take, for example, countries that are closed to missionary activity. Ought we simply to assume that, in God’s providence, He does not want the gospel to get to the people in those countries? Do we not have a responsibility to find ways around legislation that prevents missionaries from entering such countries? At times, no doubt, God will firmly close the door on our attempts, but at other times He is no doubt waiting for us to exert the effort to break through a seemingly closed door.

On the flip side, God may initially open a door that He will later close. Just as an initial closed door should not be read as final, so an initial open door should not necessarily be understood as final.

Let’s take a simpler example. Assume for a moment that a young man decides that he would like to pursue a relationship with one of my unmarried daughters. Assume that this man understands that it is necessary to first ask my permission. Assume that this man calls me at my office, but that I am away from my desk and do not answer the phone. Ought that man to necessarily conclude that God’s providence is final and that it is not His will for him to pursue a relationship with my daughter?

You may argue that that is a silly example—and it is—but sadly it is how many Christians live.

Take another example: Assume that your Christian daughter begins seeing an undesirable young man. Ought you simply to throw your hands in the air and conclude, “Oh well, this is God’s providence: What can I do?” Certainly not! God has given you instructions on how to raise your children and protect your daughter. Do not use providence as an excuse for passive disobedience.

I trust that you understand the point. Paul did not see an open door as an authoritative decree from God to stay. A prior obligation first needed to be fulfilled. He would, in fact, return to Ephesus and would be heavily involved, along with Aquila and Priscilla, in the planting of a world-impacting church. This entire region would receive the gospel—all in God’s timing.

Political Providence

But perhaps you have found yourself confused as to why the door was previously closed but now open. Again, we are not given a definitive answer to this question, but I suspect that what happened in Corinth and the response of Gallio was a key ingredient in this mystery.

Asia Minor, the province in which Ephesus was located, was rife with fervent devotion to Rome. There was no province in the Empire that was more devoted to Rome that Asia Minor. In fact, as you read the letters to the seven churches in Revelation 2—3, each of which was located in Asia Minor, it is clear that a challenge faced universally by those churches was that of emperor worship.

Had Paul entered Asia Minor before Corinth, and had the Jews there taken him to a local authority to seek to outlaw Christianity (as the Jews had done in Corinth), it is far more likely that an authority in Asia Minor would have outlawed Christianity. In God’s providence, He first took Paul to Corinth to stand before Gallio. Gallio made a declaration that Christianity was, in fact, a legal religion, and that set the precedent for his ministry in Asia Minor. Had anyone in Asia Minor questioned the legality of his preaching, he could simply have said that Gallio had stamped his evangelistic passport.

When we are confused at the mysterious providence of God, let us remember that He knows what He is doing and that He orchestrates all things for His ultimate glory. He is always at work.

About a month after I was refused permission to enter Australia as a permanent resident, a fellow American man from my sending church was granted permission. (Evidently he had the skills that I lacked!) My plan upon returning to Australia was to move from Brisbane to Toowoomba to plant a church there. My investigations had led me to believe that there was no solid church in Toowoomba. I was confused at the time that God would not permit me to return to a place that desperately needed the gospel.

Some years after the fact, when I had been in South Africa for some time, I received a phone call from the other missionary who had been granted permission to go to Australia. He informed me that God had used him in ministry where he was, but that he was now preparing to go to Toowoomba to minister there. God did not want me in Toowoomba, but He used someone else to go where I could not. How wise is the providence of God!

On the Road Again

Intent on fulfilling his vow in Jerusalem, Paul took leave of his audience in Ephesus. “He sailed from Ephesus. And when he had landed at Caesarea, and gone up and greeted the church, he went down to Antioch” (vv. 21-22).

In these verses we have the travel record of Paul after he left Ephesus. His ship arrived in the port city of Caesarea. He went to Jerusalem and “greeted the church” (no doubt taking the time to fulfil his vow in the Temple), after which he travelled to Antioch.

Just a note here: This loop was some 2,500km and involved a considerable portion of time. I would think that it also involved some wonderful ministry and further wonderful displays of God’s providence. However, we are left in the dark as to these details. Barclay notes, “We may see very clearly here how much we do not know about Paul. Acts 18:23—19:1 describe a journey of no less than 1,500 miles and it is dismissed with barely a reference. There are untold tales of heroism of Paul which we will never know.”6

This narrative silence does not mean that what occurred at this time was unimportant. It simply means that it was unimportant for the purposes of God in Luke giving us this account. No doubt, lives were changed during these journeys as the gospel was proclaimed. No doubt, the church was strengthened as Paul fellowshipped and probably ministered to the church in Jerusalem. These were important happenings in the lives of those affected and in the kingdom of God—but not for the purposes of Luke’s writing. What we can learn from this is that there are a lot of things going on in the kingdom of God of which we are unaware, but God is indeed at work. His providential intervention throughout the world is significant.

People may never hear of BBC, and in fact, many believers in Johannesburg beyond have no idea that we exist. Nevertheless, God is at work, and what we are doing is significant in the greater picture.

I am no John MacArthur and I am no Martin Holdt, but I have had opportunity to be used by God. And so have you. Your story may never be recorded for others to read, but God is taking note of what you do in the silence from Ephesus to Jerusalem and from Jerusalem to Antioch. Remain faithful!

Back to Work

After spending some time reconnecting with his local church in Antioch, Paul departed on his third (and final) missionary journey: “After he had spent some time there, he departed and went over the region of Galatia and Phrygia in order, strengthening all the disciples” (v. 23). Evidently he departed alone, though we cannot be dogmatic merely from the silence of the text.

Here we see again the pastoral concern of Paul as he retraced his steps and performed some follow-up work in the churches he had previously planted. We do not know how long this took but we can be pretty sure that Paul was a blessing to them and that they were to him.

I want to highlight just one important observation: It is vital that the missionary and his sending local church maintain a close relationship. Paul was initially sent from Antioch (13:1-4), and he returned there after his first and second missionary journeys. No doubt, he would have returned there after his third too, had he not been arrested and taken to Rome. The relationship between a missionary and his sending church is one of God’s kind providences.

Apollos, God’s Provision

The closing verses of this chapter introduce us to a man named Apollos.

Now a certain Jew named Apollos, born at 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. 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.

(Acts 18:24-26)

Because God is God, because He is sovereign, and because He providentially cares for everything according to His plan, Paul’s absence from Ephesus did not mean the absence of ministry. Instead, the Lord was very much at work there.

While Paul was travelling, another man was also apparently travelling: from Alexandria to Ephesus. I wonder if their ships passed each other on their respective journeys. As Paul journeyed away from Ephesus, Apollos headed to the city.

Before looking at these verses I think the comment by Harrison is helpful at his point, “The description of Apollos is unexpectedly full, indicating the importance to be attached to him and his work, and demonstrating that Luke was not so taken up with Paul as to ignore other men who made a contribution to the spread of the gospel.”7 God in His providence has given many gifted people to the church. This is one of His happy providences.

A Gifted and Passionate Preacher

Apollos was an “eloquent” and devoted follower of the Lord and “mighty in the Scriptures.” Apparently, he had a wonderful knowledge of the Scriptures and the ability to teach them. “Apollos combined his deep knowledge and eloquence with a passionate heart.”8 What a wonderful testimony! He knew the Old Testament and could convincingly proclaim it to others. He was no doubt both precise and persuasive in his preaching and teaching.

The text tells us that he “had been instructed in the way of the Lord.” “The way of the Lord” refers to “the path of spiritual and moral standards God expected His people to follow.”8

Apollos was zealous for the things of God. He was zealously waiting for the kingdom to come through God’s Messiah. In fact, we are told that he was “accurate” in what he said. But his knowledge was incomplete and therefore in a very real sense deficient and insufficient. We know this because Luke tells us that “he knew only the baptism of John.” I take this to mean that Apollos was awaiting Messiah in terms of John the Baptist’s ministry of preparation. Harrison concludes that “his gospel, then, was one of anticipation and preparation rather than of absolute fulfilment. He knew nothing of the baptism with the Holy Spirit based on the finished work of Jesus Christ.”10 I am not so sure that that is clear from the text. It is quite possible that Apollos knew that Jesus had come and was aware of His death, burial, resurrection and ascension. And yet at the same time perhaps he did not understand the new covenant significance of this! Whatever his insufficiency, he needed further reformation. And in the providence of God he had come to the right place.

Synagogue Evangelism

Apollos picked up where Paul had left off: in the synagogue of Ephesus. As he boldly proclaimed the truth of God’s Word the dynamic duo of Aquila and Priscilla heard him.11 Discerning some gaps in Apollos’ theology, they came alongside to help him. Apparently they did so in private and he responded in humility. “Evidently he received with humility and gratitude the help extended to him, leading to a greatly enlarged understanding and ministry.”12

Again, we do not know where his gaps were, but I have every reason to believe that Apollos was a believer at this point. For one thing, there is no mention here of his being (re)baptised or of his receiving the Holy Spirit (cf. 19:1ff). It would probably be an accurate conclusion that Apollos was a Christian, a Jewish man who trusted Christ alone for his salvation, yet for whatever reason he was inadequate in his fuller understanding of some essential truths.

We might liken this to a man who is an Arminian and yet proclaims the gospel, or to one who is confused about the gifts of the Holy Spirit and yet faithfully proclaims the rest of Scripture. The point is that God used him, even though he was in some kind of error. But God also kindly provided others to gently correct his errors. And in humility he accepted this and it further strengthened his ministry. “That the mighty preacher and scholar would consent to be taught by a lowly tentmaker and his wife attests to his godly humility.”8

Incidentally, the mention of his origin in Alexandria may give us a clue as to his error. That large and important city was infamous for allegorising Scripture. They alleged to see a hidden meaning below the surface understanding of the text. Of course, the danger was always present of preachers making the Scriptures say what they thought the Scriptures should say rather than what they actually did teach. Perhaps Aquila and Priscilla detected this error and therefore sought to help Apollos to come to a greater appreciation of the sufficiency of Scripture thus help him to be more precise and more effective as a preacher of the Word.

The result of their ministry was an even more effective ministry for Apollos—both in Ephesus and beyond.

Now, what can we learn here about God’s providence?

First, in the providence of God, Apollos was incomplete in his understanding. And as I have conjectured, perhaps it was because of his upbringing in Alexandria. Yes, this was all related to the providence of God. There are happy providences and not-so-happy ones.

Second, note that neither Apollos nor Aquila and Priscilla were content to leave things as they were. Rather, in the providence of God, these believers helped another believer to a greater understanding.

I must admit that, as I reflect on the theological training I received before entering the ministry, it was, in retrospect, quite insufficient in many areas. But such insufficient training is no excuse to throw my hands up in despair. It is no excuse for me to be content with my insufficiency and to do nothing to correct it. Indeed, in God’s kind providence, I have had opportunity over the years to correct it.

Whatever is true of me is also true of you, and of all believers. We need to gently help those who have not had such happy providences in their spiritual education. God in His providence provides help along the way.

Third, God in His providence gives to some gifting and educational opportunities that He does not give to others. Let us not be grudging but grateful.

Fourth (and I have already alluded to this), let us learn that the Lord in His kindness often gives us opportunities to learn from others and to be corrected where we are in error. We should humbly accept this. Likewise, if you are one of the God’s gifts to another, be gentle and humble towards the apolloses in your life. God provides people in our lives to increase our understanding of truth. Be grateful for this happy providence.

Fifth, God’s providence is not gender bound! Priscilla is often mentioned in Scripture before her husband. This is probably due to her gifting. She was a gifted teacher of the Word, and her husband was evidently unthreatened by this. We should understand that there are believing women whom God has gifted as teachers of the Word. The Bible is quite clear that women cannot be pastors, but that does not mean that they have nothing to offer. Through books, blogs, private conversations, etc., gifted women can be used by God to help believing men understand the Word.

Sixth, great things can happen even when we are not around! Because God is sovereign, He builds His church even without an apostle Paul. In point of fact, the ministry of the husband-and-wife team and of Apollos most certainly laid a providential foundation for a yet greater work under Paul. God, in the exercise of His providence, uses various peoples in various places with various particularities to build His church.

God’s Providence in Achaia

Finally, we read of God’s providence in Achaia:

And when he desired to cross to Achaia, the brethren wrote, exhorting the disciples to receive him; and when he arrived, he greatly helped those who had believed through grace; for he vigorously refuted the Jews publicly, showing from the Scriptures that Jesus is the Christ.

(Acts 18:27-28)

After some time, Apollos got itchy feet and he desired to extend his ministry of the Word into Achaia. It would be interesting to know how this came about. Perhaps he heard from Aquila and Priscilla of what God was doing in that region, or perhaps he heard about Paul’s vision. Regardless, Apollos was stirred to go there and preach the Word. His new friends (and mentors) in the faith wrote a letter of introduction (commendation) on his behalf. Entering Achaia, he ministered to the church(es) with the result that believers were greatly edified. The church was being built up by this man who, in the providence of God, had been sent to them. And it would seem that this would not have been the case if Paul had not sailed for Syria by way of Ephesus.

Demolishing Arguments

Verse 28 informs us that one way in which he was a blessing to the church in Achaia was by his profound ability to “vigorously refute the Jews publicly, showing from the Scriptures that Jesus is the Christ.” MacArthur notes with reference to the phrase “vigorously refuted”: “This fervent, brilliant Old Testament scholar also exploded like a bombshell on Corinth’s unconverted Jewish community. . . . deakatelegchomai [is] an intense double compound word. Apollos was so effective in his discourse that he crushed his opponents, totally disproving them at every point.”14 The fact that he could do so “publicly” would have given some credibility to the followers of Christ.

Martin Luther was the first person that we know of who punted the idea that Apollos authored the book of Hebrews. We cannot know for sure, but this passage in Acts lends some credibility to such a conjecture.

Hebrews is a letter meant to persuade Jewish people to believe in Jesus as Messiah. It was meant to help believers to see the continuity and the discontinuity of the old and the new covenants. It would seem that this had been Apollos’ error, which was corrected by his godly friends Aquila and Priscilla. Thus Apollos, coming to see the truth more fully, would no doubt have been in a wonderful position to help others who were struggling with the same error.

The point that I simply want to make is that, in the providence of God, Apollos would have been prepared to minister to those who had experienced a similar background. It is wonderful that God uses cracked vessels to help other cracked vessels. Don’t despise your past; embrace it effectively for the kingdom of God.

Provision for Corinth

Finally, we need to note that, in the providence of God, Apollos was used in a mighty way to strengthen the local church that Paul had planted in Achaia. In fact, in 1 Corinthians, Paul notes that he had planted and that Apollos had watered (3:5-6). And it appears that Apollos was so effective in this ministry that some even became sectarian around him (1:12). Under God’s providence, the church was strengthened even though Paul was gone.

Don’t miss the picture here. Paul came to Corinth and was strengthened by the provision of fellow labourers (by a Roman edict, v. 2). He moves on, and these fellow labourers then edified another brother, who then edified Paul’s initial converts in Corinth. But before that, this brother, in the providence of God, helped lay a foundation for the great apostle in Ephesus. And these are only some of the providences that we can see here.

The point is simply that we need to be encouraged that God is at work in the world for His glory through the spread of His gospel. Let us therefore pray and labour, believing that, because Christ is sovereign (Matthew 28:18), and because He is providentially present (Matthew 28:19-20), we can be sure that He will build His church.

Show 14 footnotes

  1. Wayne Grudem, [1. Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan,, 1995), 1252.
  2. A. T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament, 6 vols. (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1930), 3:303.
  3. The only other time a Nazirite would shave his hair would be if he broke his vow. This was then a visible sign to all that he had failed to keep his promise. He was then required to begin the terms of the promise from scratch again.
  4. John F. MacArthur, Jr., Acts: The MacArthur New Testament Commentary, 2 vols. (Chicago: Moody Press, 1994), 2:158, 160.
  5. John R. W. Stott, The Message of Acts: The Bible Speaks Today (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1990), 301.
  6. William Barclay, The Acts of the Apostles: The Daily Study Bible Series (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1955), 150.
  7. Everett F. Harrison, Interpreting Acts: The Expanding Church (Grand Rapids: Academie Books, 1986), 302.
  8. MacArthur, Acts, 2:162.
  9. MacArthur, Acts, 2:162.
  10. Harrison, Interpreting Acts, 302.
  11. By the way, note once again that these new covenant believers are still attending the synagogue. They were well aware of both the continuity as well as of the discontinuity of the old and new covenants.
  12. Harrison, Interpreting Acts, 303.
  13. MacArthur, Acts, 2:162.
  14. MacArthur, Acts, 2:163.