Friday, 14 March 2008

Acts 18:24-28: the God that uses ordinary people

Here's the notes that I used for a talk on Acts 18:24-28 at Manchester University CU this week. I was really struck by the beauty of these verses as I prepared the talk.

Pick up a dictionary and you’ll read the following definition to the word ‘ordinary’: ‘commonly encountered, usual; of no exceptional ability, degree or quality; average.’ And I think it’s fair to say that ordinariness isn’t something that’s exactly celebrated in our culture. The writer Johann Goethe put it like this: ‘A man can stand anything except a succession of ordinary days and being ordinary.’ Being ordinary is not worth celebrating.

And yet, I guess, most of the people here in this room would describe themselves as being pretty ordinary. As the dictionary definition put it: we’ve go no exceptional ability or degree or quality. We’re pretty average, really.

And that can paralyse us as we read through Acts of the Apostles. Sure, we know that the people mentioned were just men and women, but they seem so … extraordinary. And we look at ourselves and we seem so different from them. Not only that, but because even in Christian culture we celebrate extraordinariness in individuals, we look at Christian leaders and then consider ourselves useless. We’re nothing like them. We’re ordinary. Can we really make a difference? Can God really use me?

Well, if what I’ve described resonates at all with you, then these few verses in Acts 18 are for you. It’s noticeable that Luke didn’t have to include these verses. He could have left them out and the narrative would have still made sense. But in these beautiful verses, Luke shows us how God can use the ordinariness of many of us for his glory. I’m going to just draw out two points.

Firstly, these verses teach that God uses ordinary individuals to draw out the gifts in others.

This is the first time in the New Testament that we come across Apollos – and here we see his understanding of the gospel develop from simple to superlative. And that happens with the aid of two of his brothers and sisters in Christ, a couple named Priscilla and Aquila. Under these two, Apollos’ spiritual gifts matured until he reached maximum effectiveness.

When we’re introduced to Apollos in verses 24-25, we learn several things. First, we notice that he’s a native of Alexandria. Alexandria was one of the educational centres of the world at the time, perhaps like the Harvard or the Oxford or the Cambridge of his day. In other words, his credentials are impressive. Not only this, we’re also told that Apollos was a learned man, with a thorough knowledge of the Scriptures, and that he had been instructed in the way of the Lord. And he was dynamic: Apollos taught with great fervour and had been taught about Jesus accurately. It was clear that Apollos had been gifted by God for a ministry of public teaching.

But Apollos did have a shortcoming. He knew only the baptism of John the Baptist.

God was very good in sending his people John the Baptist. John the Baptist was the last of the Old Testament style prophets, designed to prepare people for Jesus. The fact that God sent John the Baptist when he did shows that he really wanted people to understood who Jesus was when he came. Of course, John is best known for his baptism. It was designed to bring people to a point of confession of sin and repentance – in order words, to show people that they had rebelled against God and wanted to turn back to a God-centred life. But John’s baptism couldn’t bring new life or inward cleaning, it could just make people wet. It could just point people to Jesus, as a kind of arrow, just as John himself did as he pointed Jesus out as ‘the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.’ John made people aware of their sin in order to point them towards the one that would make turning back to God possible.

Now we’re told that Apollos knew only John’s baptism. In other words, it appears that Apollos probably majored on the importance of repentance from sin – but he had limited knowledge of what it meant to have placed faith in Christ and no knowledge of the coming of the Holy Spirit into his life. We’re told that Apollos taught about Jesus accurately – so presumably he must have known about his death on the cross and his resurrection. But perhaps he’d never heard about what it meant to put sin to death with the help of the Holy Spirit or sanctification by grace. He wouldn’t have known the Holy Spirit’s presence in evangelism or in ministry. In other words, Apollos knew Jesus as a figure in history, but not as a living presence in his life. And so Apollos was, at this point, a real diamond in the rough.

Now put yourselves into the shoes of this ordinary couple, Priscilla and Aquila. We’re told elsewhere that they made tents for a living. In other words, they’re not clergy and I guess they wouldn’t have been considered particularly special. Anyway, they turn up as normal to the synagogue and they’re impressed by this new young preacher. As they head home for Sunday lunch, you can perhaps imagine them discussing Apollos’ ability and giftedness, excited by the way in which, with some discipleship, Apollos could be used as a powerful servant of Jesus Christ. And what particularly strikes me is that they don’t lay into Apollos and tear him down; rather they see that he’s not yet the finished article and, with the eyes of faith, see what God can do in and through Apollos. And so they get busy.

Now I want you to notice four pretty ordinary things that Priscilla and Aquila then get about doing.

Firstly, they invited him into their home. Hospitality is a key theme in the Bible, and I think that’s because when you invite someone into your home, you're opening your life to them. When you invite someone into your home, you’re saying that, in effect, you care enough about that person to want to develop a relationship with them. And so when the Bible calls us to be hospitable, I think that’s in part due to the fact that hospitality goes a long way to developing the types of relationship that allow significant ministry to happen. It shows that you’re on a person’s side. I guess Apollos would have needed to have known this in order to stay teachable.

The opposite environment for Christian ministry is when everything stays professional. The older Christian meets up with the younger Christian but everything stays quite clinical and clearly-defined. Do you see what’s lost there? Not only the care, but also the context. The younger believer never sees what theology looks like to be lived. And, as they invite Apollos into their home, you can imagine Priscilla and Aquila explaining to him how the gospel affects their marriage, their relationships with their neighbours, their church relationships, how they vote and so on. They shared their lives with Apollos. And it’s something that Priscilla and Aquila kept doing for their whole lives. Years later, back in Rome, they hosted one of the house churches that developed. They went on sharing their lives and the gospel, and saw how they went hand in hand.

Secondly, they explained to him the way of God more accurately. In other words, they exposed him to a more accurate theology. Over coffee and over a course of weeks, they filled in the blanks of Apollos’ theology and experience, and led him to know the empowering presence of the Holy Spirit in his life. They would have explained to Apollos that we are God’s workmanship – that by his Spirit, God is sculpting us to be more and more like Jesus; that the Spirit provides the power to cut away sin. They would have done a seminar with him on God’s part and ours in evangelism. They would have explained what it means to live the Christian life: to love the things that God loves, to hate the things that God hates and to treat others in accordance with God’s own character.

Isn’t that beautiful?! Priscilla and Aquila take Apollos under their wing and teach him. Now, let me say, isn’t this a couple making the most of their spiritual education? They’d been on house-parties, they’d listened to sermons, they’d read Christian books, they’d studied their Bibles carefully, and so they were now able to share with Apollos what he needed to know. And just note that, instead of confronting him harshly, Priscilla and Aquila lovingly disciple Apollos. Sometimes CUs can become places where different people feel that they need to prove their soundness to others and so conversations can get aggressive. Those that are younger in the faith feel paralysed and stupid for asking questions. I hope that’s not the case here. I hope that, like in the case recorded here, there’s a real attitude of humility and love in learning more about and experiencing the truth.

Thirdly, they then enlisted the help of other Christians to encourage Apollos. Priscilla and Aquila looked out for opportunities where Apollos could serve, so that soon other believers too were urging him forward, encouraging Apollos to use his gifts. And just note the humility that this involved – soon Priscilla and Aquila were ministered to by the one they had themselves been ministering. And they weren’t too proud for this to be the case.

During my time on CU committee, a guy called Gareth became a Christian during Freshers’ Week. He soon was placed into one-to-one discipleship with Alex, who at the time was the CU President. They continued to meet up for the best part of two years. Alex is now gifted in Christian ministry in his own right – in fact he’s now a missionary in Africa – but before he left, he was telling me how much he’s learned over the years from Gareth; not just during their time meeting together in Bristol, but also since as Gareth as himself gone into full-time Christian ministry. I think it’s fair to say that Gareth has now got a deeper understanding of theology than Alex. And what’s wonderful is that Alex isn’t too proud to learn from Gareth. Alex is humble enough to realise that Gareth’s gifting from God means that he can learn from the one he previously taught.

The fourth and final thing that Priscilla and Aquila do for Apollos is they endorse him, writing letters of commendation to the disciples in Achaia as Apollos headed there to do Relay in a different city. They were his supporters long after he left.

Now let’s take a step back and realise what’s going on here in Ephesus. Don’t we see exactly the group of Christians that we’d like to be amongst? In fact, doesn’t it sound like the Christian community that each of us desires? And let’s make it personal. Can you recall a pastor, teacher, a friend (or maybe even a Staff Worker!) who challenged you to go further than you would have on your own? Isn’t it wonderful that God used them for his glory to develop gifts in you. Perhaps there’s someone in your life in whom you have noticed a gift that needs developing or acknowledging or encouraging. Could you be the one to help develop them? Could God use you and your gifts to help that person become all God wants him or her to become?

Church history tells us that Apollos became a key figure in the early church. In a moment we’ll read of his immediate impact. But Apollos’ impact went beyond what we’ll read of here in Acts 18. Apollos became one of the best communicators of the gospel in his day. He’d became the sort of person you’d have rejoiced to have heard preach, such was his gifting. He became the evangelical rockstar of his day. There’s some good evidence that Apollos may well have gone on to become the unnamed writer that wrote Hebrews, one of the most incredible syntheses of the gospel ever written. More than fifteen years after Apollos first appeared in Ephesus, in his letter to Titus, Paul goes out of his way to ensure that Apollos lacks nothing in his work of proclaiming the gospel. And all this was because a couple in the church in Ephesus accepted the challenge to make disciples, empower others and maximise others’ gifts for God’s glory. It’s not that Apollos’ giftings were better than those of Priscilla and Aquila. They were just different. That’s what Priscilla and Aquila realised in wanting to develop Apollos’ giftings for God’s glory. And that’s something that each of us can do.

In one of his books, Chuck Swindoll asks the following:

  • Who taught Martin Luther his theology and inspired his translation of the New Testament?
  • Who visited Dwight L. Moody at a shoe shop and first spoke to him about Christ?
  • Who was the elderly woman who prayed faithfully for Billy Graham for over twenty years?
  • Who financed William Carey’s ministry to India?
  • Who helped Charles Wesley get underway as a composer of hymns?
  • Who taught John Stott how to preach?

You probably don’t know who played these crucial roles in encouraging these famous Christians in their ministry. I have to admit, I have no idea. And so Swindoll writes, "Had it not been for those unknown people – those ‘nobodies’ – a large chunk of church history would be missing. And a lot of lives would have been untouched." And the point is this: all of these people were people just like you and me, and God used them in their ordinariness to encourage and empower others, and as a result church history was dramatically changed.

These verses in Acts 18 are just the sort of verses that encourage people that consider themselves ordinary. I guess that’s most of the people here. So often we look at ourselves and, because we’re not Billy Graham or Don Carson or any of those so-called ‘heroes of faith’, we consider ourselves useless. And yet these verses remind us that God has gifted us each differently and made us diverse for a reason. We’ve deliberately not all been made to be Billy Grahams or Don Carsons or Mike Pilavachis. With due respect to these men, it would be awful if we were! Instead, as we use our gifts together we build each other up for amazing works of service. I build you up to use your gifts, and you build me up to use mine. And that includes each of us here. God has given you your gifts for a reason, and he’s placed you in Manchester for a reason: so that you have opportunities to use your gifts to build up others. Using our gifts may seem ordinary and unspectacular, but God, in his grace and sovereignty, can use them. To Priscilla and Aquila, it probably didn’t seem like a big deal having Apollos round for tea and Bible study; to God, it was building up a future church leader. There was a ripple effect. Similarly, to us, it’s just having a younger Christian around for dinner; to God it’s an opportunity by which he can show what Christian community and hospitality look like. To us, it’s just chatting to an old lady at church; to God, it’s an opportunity to encourage a weary senior saint to keep fixing her eyes on Jesus. To us, it’s using our long summer holiday to visit some missionaries; to God, it’s an opportunity to remind some of his people that they’re not forgotten. To us, it’s just checking on a Christian friend; to God, it’s an opportunity to remind a lazy Christian not to drift. And the point is this: we don’t have to be superstars. We just need to be ourselves and look out for opportunities to serve God and his people. God uses ordinary individuals to impact others.

That’s a massive encouragement. But there’s more encouragement still for ordinary Christians in this passage. And that’s this: that God is extraordinarily sovereign and uses many different individuals in his mission.

It’s when we come to verses 27-28 that we see why Luke included these verses at all in his history of the early church. Read through the whole of the book of Acts and you’ll see that Luke is concerned to keep reminding us that the spread of the gospel is God’s own mission. Jesus promised in 1:8 that the gospel would spread from Jerusalem to Judea to Samaria to the ends of the earth. Read through Acts and you’ll be wide-eyed as the gospel spreads from Jerusalem (chapter 2) to Judea and Samaria (in chapter 8) and finishes in chapter 28 in Rome, symbolic of the ends of the earth. In other words, God is the great missionary throughout the book of Acts, equipping his church and powerfully moving through ordinary people so that many are saved. And God’s sovereignty is the theme of verses 27-28, as we read the circumstances that led Apollos to end up in Achaia.

Earlier in chapter 18, you can read of the miserable time that Paul experienced in Corinth, the capital of the province of Achaia. Verses 9-10 speak of how close Paul was to giving up during his time there. And worse was to come – despite God’s promise that he had many people of his own in Corinth, the small church was heavily persecuted. Paul must have left Corinth and the province of Achaia with mixed feelings – he’d established a fledgling congregation there and seen some come to Christ, but overwhelmingly he’d have remembered his time there as being characterised by hardship, and probably fearing for the future of the church there.

And it’s in that context that we see the kindness of God in sending Apollos to Achaia, almost certainly to the city of Corinth. There Apollos is able to build on the work that Paul had started there. Years later, when Paul was to write his first letter to the Corinthians, he’d reflect on it like this: ‘I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow’ (1 Corinthians 3:4). Paul was able to know God’s sovereignty and the amazing way in which he used two very different individuals to establish the church in Corinth.

When I was a Relay Worker in Bristol, I had the privilege of seeing a guy (who’d become a close friend) come to Christ. His name was Matt. I clearly remember the day that he started professing as a Christian, because it was the day that Portugal knocked England out of the 2002 European Championships! Suffice to say, it was close to the end of summer term. I was leaving Bristol to move to Lancaster. Matt was still a baby Christian. I’d only had a short time to help kick-start Matt’s discipleship and had quite quickly tried to get him settled into a local church there. He’d only been a handful of times. And then I had to leave. And I can remember fearing for Matt’s future as a Christian as I left – would he be OK? It’s now, on reflection, that I praise God for his sovereignty and kindness in providing a guy called Chris, who was able to get alongside Matt and establish him as a Christian. Matt’s still going strong as a Christian and a major part of that, under God, is down to Chris. Chris was a kind of Apollos to Matt, responsible for his growth when I’d gone.

Or I think about a guy I know at the University of Central Lancashire called Jonny. I’ve not really seen him lately – certainly we’ve not had any chances to speak about the gospel. And yet only the other day I heard from another girl on his course called Miriam who’s had plenty of opportunities.

The point is this: God is sovereign and uses many individuals in his mission. God is God. And that means sometimes we need to realise that God may choose to do things his way, and not the way that we would prefer. Sometimes that means that you will witness and witness to a friend and be praying like mad for them, but they show no obvious sign of interest. Then, perhaps, they move away and someone else comes along and sparks that interest. We tend to think that evangelism and Christian ministry is individualistic, but I hope that you can see that none of us is working along. Not only do we have God the Holy Spirit with us, but just as we’re sharing the gospel with different people, many of whom have heard something of the gospel before meeting us, we can pray that they go on to meet other Christians who’ll keep gospelling them afterwards. Final year students: perhaps this is a particular challenge for you: are you praying for an Apollos to get alongside your friends? Are you praying that those friends who you’ll see much less of will find themselves in an office or a neighbourhood where another Christian gets alongside them? Let’s be those that pray for Apolloses for our friends!

Let’s draw to a conclusion. I’m really glad that Luke wrote down these sentences in Acts 18. I’m glad because it reminds us that God plus one is a majority. We look around at ourselves and what we see, on the whole is people that are pretty ordinary. Most of us feel pretty ordinary most of the time. Yet in his goodness and grace, God uses ordinary Christians to impact his world. Ordinary Christians empower other ordinary individuals to use their extraordinary, God-given gifts. And God’s sovereignty means that, in our ordinariness, he will continue to build his church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.


Scott said...

Thanks again for this Peter - it was very encouraging.

peterdray said...

Cheers Scott :)