Gallio in Corinth

This is a probably-never-to-be-used chapter of a possibly-never-to-be-published book I have been working on, tentatively entitled “Apollos the Alexandrian” (see prior post for some background).

The scene below is an expansion of the event recorded by Luke in Acts 18:12-16 —

While Gallio was proconsul of Achaia, the Jews of Corinth made a united attack on Paul and brought him to the place of judgment. “This man,” they charged, “is persuading the people to worship God in ways contrary to the law.” Just as Paul was about to speak, Gallio said to them, “If you Jews were making a complaint about some misdemeanor or serious crime, it would be reasonable for me to listen to you. But since it involves questions about words and names and your own law—settle the matter yourselves. I will not be a judge of such things.” So he drove them off. Then the crowd there turned on Sosthenes the synagogue leader and beat him in front of the proconsul; and Gallio showed no concern whatever.

CHAPTER THREE. The Tentmaker, Part 1

Corinth, Achaia province, summer 51 AD

“What dreary people are these,” muses the Roman proconsul. “Like a bunch of chattering monkeys.” Lucius Junius Gallio Annaeanus, trained rhetorician, son of the great Seneca, peers out through the curtain as the auditorium fills with raucous locals. The shouting is deafening. He pauses for one last swallow from the bronze goblet. “Four more months, Varius,” he says to his assistant. “Four more months and I shall be back in Rome and out of this accursed monkey-cage.” He belches, waves a hand in the air. “All right, then. Service to the emperor and all that. What is the charge today?”

Varius speaks carefully. “A matter from the synagogue, sir.”

Gallio rolls his eyes. “Not again.”

“I’m afraid so, sir. That fellow from Tarsus…”

“Paul?”

“Yes, sir, Paul.”

“I rather like that fellow. He has a clear mind.”

“Well, the synagogue ruler is bringing him to us.”

“On what charge?”

“On the charge of – let’s see here…” Varius consults a parchment. “Not clear, sir. Disrupting their traditions, uhh, advocating unauthorized religion… something like that.”

“Well, this should be interesting, anyway. Are they under the illusion that Rome cares one whit about their strange traditions? Do you know they refuse to eat pork? And they won’t go near the temple at all, lest their pretty consciences be ‘defiled,’ or some such thing.”

Varius knows this. “Yes sir.”

“Very well, let’s get this overwith. Pax Romana, Varius, that’s all we’re about here.”

“Understood, sir.”

Gallio grins at his young assistant. “A good fellow you are, to tolerate my peculiarities.”

“Not at all, sir. Thank you for your kind words.”

The hall is by now filled with people. Paul stands, hands bound behind him, on the marble judgment stand. He supports himself on the wooden rail. A bearded fellow, tall and homely, stands at his side. This man’s hands are not bound. He appears ready to speak in Paul’s defense.

“All hail the emperor! May justice prevail! This session of the court will come to order,” announces Varius. “Proconsul Gallio will preside.”

Gallio motions with his hand and speaks.

“If you have a charge against him, I will hear it. Who speaks for the complainant?”

There is a shuffling, as several different synagogue officials try to speak at once.

“I have little time for this,” says Gallio. “Organize your case quickly.” He glances down at the bearded man standing with Paul. “You there, what is your name?”

“Sosthenes, sir.”

“Sosthenes? Are you not the synagogue ruler?”

“I am, sir, but –”

“Then why are you standing with the accused? Isn’t this a case being brought by the synagogue? Varius?”

Varius consults his papers. “Yes, sir; that’s what I have written here.”

“Sosthenes, does the synagogue wish to bring a charge?”

A voice rises from the assembly. “We cannot have this man in our synagogue!” Other voices join in similar sentiments.

Varius commands them to be silent. Gallio smiles and shakes his head. “You Jews are preposterous. So, Sosthenes, a charge? Or can we all find a more pleasurable use for this afternoon?”

“My wish is that this case be dismissed, sir. Nothing here concerns Rome.”

“He’s unfit to live among us,” shouts one.

“Sir,” says Sothenes evenly, “I wish to inform you also that this man that they dragged here is a Roman citizen.”

Gallio looks for a long time at Paul. “Unbind him immediately,” he orders. A soldier strides forward; a Roman short-sword swiftly cuts through the cords. “You will not treat a Roman citizen in such a fashion. Now, I ask you again: shall we have a hearing, or not? Who brings this case?”

One of the synagogue rabbis speaks up. “This man Paul…”

Gallio cuts him off. “Your name…?”

“Simeon, sir. I am Simeon, one of the rabbis.”

“You are hereby designated, Simeon, as spokesman for the complainants in this proceeding. Congratulations on your appointment. Now, please, state your case. And do so in as few words as possible.”

“The accused, Paul of Tarsus, is persuading the people to worship our God in ways contrary to the law.”

Gallio smiles again. “Whose law? Yours, or Rome’s?”

“Sir, we only wish to –“

“Tell me, Varius: Does Roman law regulate the nuances of foreign religious practice?”

“Not that I know of, sir.”

“Then on what basis, Simeon, do you bring a charge?”

Simeon is silent as five different Jews attempt to speak to him at once. Restlessness grows among the rest of the synagogue group, crowding in behind the rabbis.

“Personally, I am inclined to the opinion of Sosthenes,” says Gallio. “What business is this of Rome’s?”

“Sir,” says Simeon at last, “we urge you to hear our case. Surely Rome cannot tolerate such unrest and – and – and chaos within the empire. This man is teaching things that entirely – ahh, corrupt our religion and furthermore, he preaches this nonsense to the non-Jews of the city!”

At last, Paul clears his throat and opens his mouth to speak. Gallio rises and waves a hand, cutting him off. “Enough. If you Jews were making a complaint about some misdemeanor or serious crime, it would be reasonable for me to listen to you. But since it involves questions about words and names and your own law—settle the matter yourselves. I will not be a judge of such things. This matter is dismissed. Now clear this hall, all of you. Paul, you are free to go.”

Gallio and Varius swiftly turn toward the curtain. But a commotion erupts behind them. Paul and Sosthenes are blocked from exiting the building by the crowd from the synagogue. There are shouts and curses. One of the Roman guards seizes Paul and pulls him aside, safely out of the fray.

Several of the synagogue men now raise their walking staffs against Sosthenes. One blow comes down on his back, crumpling him to the floor. Another blow. The Romans at the periphery prepare to step in. Gallio frowns at the developing fracas, then gestures to the guards, waving them away. Mob justice will suffice in this case. He eases through the curtain and disappears.


“You can be thankful they missed your eye,” says Luke, the physician, looking closely at Sosthenes’ bruised face. “Those ribs will be sore for a few months. The wrist is quite definitely broken, but it seems likely to heal normally. Stay close to home for some time. Plenty of rest, and plenty of water. I can get you some salve for the open wounds.”

The other Christian believers gathered in Priscilla and Aquila’s small house stand around, a bit perplexed. “I don’t understand,” says Crispus. “You weren’t on trial; Paul was. What came over them to attack you?”

“I suppose I – ugh,” says Sosthenes. “It hurts to breathe.”

“Stay quiet, brother,” says Paul, standing next to Luke. “They tried to seize me when Gallio dismissed the case. But a Roman guard took me aside before they could reach me, and that left our brother here alone on the stand.”

“I should have foreseen this,” mutters Sosthenes.

“Nonsense,” interjects Priscilla. “No sense blaming yourself.”

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Apollos the Alexandrian

The Arrival of Apollos

We are talking about the mysterious character from the book of Acts and elsewhere, named Apollos. Luke introduces us to Apollos in Acts chapter 18. The scene is the city of Ephesus, on the west coast of Asia Minor (what is now Turkey). We learn that he is Jewish, and that he comes from Alexandria in Egypt, an important center of learning and literature. The great library of Alexandria was known throughout the world. It was also home to the largest concentration of urban Jews anywhere, and was blessed with a great philosopher-rabbi-teacher in Philo, whose teaching surely influenced Apollos.

“Apollos’ origin in Alexandria has led to speculations that he would have preached in the allegorical style of Philo. Theologian Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, for example, commented: ‘It is difficult to imagine that an Alexandrian Jew … could have escaped the influence of Philo, the great intellectual leader … particularly since the latter seems to have been especially concerned with education and preaching.'”

(source: Wikipedia)

Luke depicts him as a well-spoken, well-educated, passionate orator:

Meanwhile a Jew named Apollos, a native of Alexandria, came to Ephesus. He was a learned man, with a thorough knowledge of the Scriptures. He had been instructed in the way of the Lord, and he spoke with great fervor and taught about Jesus accurately… He began to speak boldly in the synagogue.

Acts 18:24-26 (ellipsis added for text intentionally removed)

This was an exciting time to be in Ephesus. A short time earlier, Paul and his friends Priscilla and Aquila had arrived after a lengthy stay in Corinth. Paul had then quickly departed Ephesus, leaving the city without an outspoken evangelist (he would, of course, return later and remain for several years). Now, right on cue, Apollos arrived. Mimicking Paul’s usual strategy, he headed straight for the Jewish synagogue in town and began to boldly proclaim Jesus as the Messiah.

But Apollos was lacking something. There was a hole in his theology. He knew about the way of Jesus, Luke relates, and had in some measure been taught about him. Luke adds, however (this is the missing piece in the text above), that “he knew only the baptism of John.” Meaning, he knew and preached nothing about the resurrected Christ, the Ascension, and the baptism of the Holy Spirit. He was operating with half a gospel (just like many of us, who talk about the death of Jesus but have little idea of what to do with the Resurrection).

So Paul’s friends Priscilla and Aquila (I find it interesting that Priscilla, the wife, is always mentioned first – I have the impression she was the more outspoken of the two) took Apollos under their wing. They brought him to their home and gave him a more thorough grounding in the teachings of the Christian faith. Imagine this lowly tentmaker’s wife, sitting down with the Ivy League educated, well-dressed, articulate Apollos, and telling him what he needs to correct. It’s quite a remarkable scene.

Application: Be willing to learn from anyone! Never dismiss the source.

After his instruction was complete, he announced that he would like to go to Achaia, to the city of Corinth. Why Corinth? We know that Priscilla and Aquila, and Paul, had all recently spent a long time there — eighteen months, to be exact. This is no trivial amount of time. Dorothea and I lived in India for eighteen months. Eighteen months is enough time to change your life; I can tell you this from personal experience. Lifelong bonds are made. We still pray regularly for our little church in India (Bangalore International Christian Fellowship), four years after departing. The three tentmakers had planted a church in Corinth, baptized a number of new believers, and developed relationships. Probably in all their excited talking with Apollos, the couple made a convincing case that Corinth (in the province of Achaia) was a terrific place for him to be; he could really be a help to the believers there with his great knowledge of the Old Testament and his oratorical skills. He could effectively replace Paul, who had made an impact there from a similar set of skills and knowledge. Apollos was excited to be part of this new venture and to lend his talents to the work of the Kingdom. With letters of introduction under his arm, he sailed from Ephesus and arrived in Corinth.

When Apollos wanted to go to Achaia, the brothers and sisters encouraged him and wrote to the disciples there to welcome him. When he arrived, he was a great help to those who by grace had believed. For he vigorously refuted his Jewish opponents in public debate, proving from the Scriptures that Jesus was the Messiah.

Acts 18:27-28

The Corinthian church rejoiced. The mighty Apollos had arrived! With his education and eloquence, he spoke with authority in the synagogue. Apollos was that rare believer who could stand his ground rhetorically in the synagogue, just as Paul had during those glory days.

The Downturn

Yet this is where the thread of Apollos’ life unravels a little. Something soured. Before long, he left Corinth and refused to return. What happened?

Paul wrote two lengthy epistles (and probably others that are now lost) to the Corinthian church. We know from these epistles that something had gone terribly wrong there. The main issue, the one into which he immediately delved, was that church was divided:

I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought. My brothers and sisters, some from Chloe’s household have informed me that there are quarrels among you. What I mean is this: One of you says, “I follow Paul”; another, “I follow Apollos”; another, “I follow Cephas”; still another, “I follow Christ.”

Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized in the name of Paul?

1 Corinthians 1:10-13

Corinth originated the idea of denominational warfare. The church hadn’t split so badly as to begin meeting separately (“First Pauline Church of Corinth” vs. “First Apollosian Church of Corinth”), but certainly that danger was imminent. Some preferred Paul’s teaching. Some preferred the new, bold style of Apollos. Some (Jews who had been present in Jerusalem at that first Pentecost, perhaps) thought that Peter was the paragon. Still others tried to get above the controversy by advocating a sort of originalist, “back-to-the-basics” approach and declaring “I follow Christ.”

Application: Don’t follow men!

Somehow a rift occurred between the doctrine of Paul and the doctrine advanced by Apollos. The latter’s allegorical preaching style, while somewhat congruent with Paul’s early teaching (see Galatians 4, for example), might have been viewed as a departure for those accustomed to Paul’s (later) teaching. One can imagine the more educated Corinthians (perhaps Sosthenes) confronting Apollos, saying, “That’s not what Paul taught. Who are we to believe?” Others likely said, “No, no, they are in agreement. Apollos is merely clarifying Paul’s teaching.” Others viewed the difference (as we often do today in interdenominational disputes) as merely a difference in emphasis without outright contradiction.

Apollos’ bold, provocative preaching style, colored by his novel allegorical interpretations, had become a key factor in that congregation. Apollos was significant. Whatever one thinks about the origin of the contentious situation that occasioned Paul’s (and Sosthenes’) first letter, the eloquent Alexandrian Jew (with the Greek-god name!) cannot be excused from responsibility. He’s in the middle of it. Either he had directly caused it or, at least, failed to prevent it. One can hear the Corinthians: “We don’t like this new guy,” they said, echoing the grumbling of church members throughout the ages when faced with a leadership change. “We liked Paul’s preaching better. Bring back Paul.” Apollos, for his part, either was unaware of the division occurring in his new church, or unable to prevent it. Maybe he was preoccupied with his “vigorously refut[ing] the Jews in public debate,” as Luke tells us in Acts 18:28, and didn’t really attend closely to pastoral duties. It is likely that one or both of the two synagogue rulers (Crispus and Sosthenes) who had embraced the new faith were acting in the pastoral role, as it would have been a logical extension of their previous responsibilities and training.

Critical to understanding the whole scenario, ans its value to us, is the response of Paul. In his letters to Corinth, Paul never directly criticizes Apollos. He will not “throw him under the bus” to vindicate his own ministry. Surely there were differences in the teaching of Paul and of Apollos; the Corinthians were no fools. They observed the differences and took sides. But Paul writes as though they are simply ministry partners.

Application: Appreciate the gifts and roles of others!

Significantly, when Paul later returns to this subject of division in the church his letter, he mentions himself and Apollos only:

For when one says, “I follow Paul,” and another, “I follow Apollos,” are you not mere human beings? What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe—as the Lord has assigned to each his task. I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow.
1 Corinthians 3:4-7

The latter chapters of 1 Corinthians could be seen as a direct reply to two of Apollos’ doctrinal blind spots. An Essene preacher like Apollos (at least as he was prior to his being discipled in Ephesus by Priscilla and Aquila; perhaps some blind spots persisted) would have surely neglected to speak about the baptism and ongoing ministry of the Holy Spirit (this being exactly what the Ephesian believers lacked when Paul discovered them in Acts 19:1-6). Paul sees the Corinthians as ignorant in this particular area:

Now about the gifts of the Spirit, brothers and sisters, I do not want you to be uninformed.
1 Corinthians 12:1

Accordingly, chapters 12-14 address the issue of the Spirit’s ministry. The second error of the Essene proto-gospel is to omit the resurrection, perhaps of Christ, but certainly the believer’s own future hope of resurrection was lacking. 1 Corinthians 15 addresses this issue forcefully, to correct wrong ideas that had been planted in the Corinthian church. Paul is adamant that his gospel is correct, others should be rejected:

By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you.
1 Corinthians 15:2

But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? (v.12)

But someone will ask, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body will they come?” How foolish! (vv.35-36a)

These may be mere rhetorical devices, the sort of “invisible interlocutor” constructions that Paul uses often (in Romans, for example) to advance his arguments in a pseudo-Socratic dialogue format. But it’s equally possible that these are real: actual doctrines being taught by actual people in Corinth, as reported to him by Sosthenes and the others when they arrived from there. Some people in the church in Corinth were saying there is no resurrection (or that it had already occurred, a lingering error addressed in 2 Timothy 2:18). Some people raised an intellectual objection to the idea, like those in today’s world who ridicule the notion of bodily resurrection, citing the example of people who have been cremated, for instance, and their ashes scattered at sea, or those who had genetic deformities in life. “How can God resurrect them?” they ask. “What will they look like?” These questions can be answered, yet the objectors in Corinth held fast to them, thinking them to be airtight arguments against the resurrection. Were they taught by Apollos? Or did they interpret his mere neglect of the resurrection doctrine as a categorical repudiation of it?

Undeniably Apollos’ ministry, and Paul’s, continued to cast enormous shadows over the congregation at Corinth. Toward the end of Paul’s letter, having answered all of their other questions (“What about marriage, Paul? What about spiritual gifts? What about the resurrection?”), he finally comes to their (implied) personal question “What about Apollos?” Nothing is revealed to us as to the timing or the reason for Apollos’ leaving Corinth, but clearly there were lingering bad feelings:

Now about our brother Apollos: I strongly urged him to go to you with the brothers. He was quite unwilling to go now, but he will go when he has the opportunity.
1 Corinthians 16:12

“Quite unwilling” is a pretty strong way of saying it. The ESV translates this expression as “it was not at all his will.” Apollos simply refused to go back there. Even Paul couldn’t convince him to go with the brothers who carried his letter. I picture Apollos, sitting in a little rented room, surrounded by his books, sulking, bitter, wondering how it all went so wrong. Paul keeps knocking at the door. “Apollos? Apollos, come out of there. We want you to go.”

There is a veiled reference by Paul to an unnamed brother near the end of the second letter to Corinth:

Did I exploit you through any of the men I sent to you? I urged Titus to go to you and I sent our brother with him. Titus did not exploit you, did he?
2 Corinthians 12:17-18

Could “our brother” refer to Apollos? It is the same terminology used by Paul in 1 Cor. 16:12, except that the name is omitted this time. If so, it means that Apollos made a visit to Corinth at that time, or at least had promised to do so. My hunch is that Paul asked him, but he was still hesitant. Paul thus decided not to call him out by name in the letter, in the event that (as it apparently happened) he did not go. Apollos had fled the scene, leaving Paul and Timothy and Titus to mop up after him.

In Exile

The next time we hear Apollos’s name in the New Testament, he is living on the island of Crete. We find Apollos, remarkably, still unwilling to go back to Corinth, a whole decade later.

Paul visited Crete after his release from house arrest in Rome. In his follow-up letter, he is obliged to remind the young bishop Titus, his beloved deputy/”gopher,” of his purpose on the island:

The reason I left you in Crete was that you might put in order what was left unfinished and appoint elders in every town, as I directed you.
Titus 1:5

Why the acerbic reminder? Titus was distracted. One can imagine Titus encountering Apollos, the great orator, at a synagogue or open forum on the island, and coming under his influence, to the neglect of his duty to the churches all around the island. Titus needed to be reminded that he was not in Crete to listen to Apollos’ rhetoric, but rather to build and equip the churches. The thunderous implication is that Apollos, though greatly gifted to help the church, was not doing anything productive.

Application: Don’t squander your gifts. And encourage others to use their gifts.

Paul then urges Titus to get Apollos back into the game:

Do everything you can to help Zenas the lawyer and Apollos on their way and see that they have everything they need. Our people must learn to devote themselves to doing what is good, in order to provide for urgent needs and not live unproductive lives.
Titus 3:13-14

That second sentence (v.14) can be interpreted as an oblique criticism of Apollos (and Zenas). Paul had himself witnessed the two men’s semi-retired life in beautiful, isolated Crete. Having seen the dire situation in the churches all around the Mediterranean, how the gospel was under siege from Romans and Greeks and Jews alike, how the church badly needed strong teachers, he saw in Apollos’ idle, unproductive life a squandering of great gifts.

A Happy Ending

That is the last we hear of Apollos in the biblical texts. If the story ends there, we do not know whether Apollos ever re-entered active ministry. However, what we do have, from hearsay and tradition, suggests a plausible conclusion:

Jerome (347-420) states that Apollos was so dissatisfied with the division at Corinth that he retired to Crete with Zenas; and that once the schism had been healed by Paul’s letters to the Corinthians, Apollos returned to the city and became one of its elders.

(source: Wikipedia)

Apollos, by this latter-day account, reconciled himself to the church at Corinth and found a valuable, productive ministry there. Probably he toned down his rhetoric. Probably he adopted a more Pauline theology, jettisoning some of the views of Philo and the Essene gospel that had colored his doctrine.

The Anonymous Epistle

His legacy may be deeper than the stories told about him in the New Testament. Two biblical books bear marks of Apollosian influence.

One of the great New Testament mysteries is the identity of the author of the epistle known as Hebrews. There are scant textual clues. Apollos, Barnabas, Paul, and Priscilla (!) have all been suggested. I believe Apollos has the strongest case. We can at least say the following:

It’s not Paul. It lacks his standard opening of “Paul, an apostle…” It was probably therefore written by someone who did not have apostolic authority (and was honest enough not to attach an apostle’s name to his own writing). Its placement in the standard NT canon (after all the epistles of Paul, in obviously decreasing order of length) suggests that the compilers of the New Testament were unconvinced that Paul was the author.

It’s a well-educated Jewish writer. It contains deep, complex thinking about the Old Testament. Apollos (as Luke tells us) was an erudite, articulate Jewish man, having “a thorough knowledge of the Scriptures” (Acts 18:24-25). Certainly, however, if Apollos is taken as the author of Hebrews, it must be seen as a latter-day departure from his Philoesque tutelage, as it lacks strong allegorical content (even less than Paul’s writings, especially the fourth chapter of Galatians).

The Italian Connection. At the end of the letter, the author mentions that “those who are from Italy send their greetings.” This interesting statement implies that the writer is accompanied by people who are from Italy, and who are known to the recipients of the letter. Three locations are present, then: a) Italy, where the friends hail from; b) the site of the writing, where the author and his Italian friends are currently; and c) the city receiving the letter, where the Italian friends are known. This complex set of circumstances is resolved beautifully by presuming that the “Italians” are Apollos’ friends Priscilla and Aquila, Jews from Rome who had ministered in Corinth for a while, and then wound up in Ephesus (ref. Acts 18:1-2, 19, 24, see also 1 Corinthians 16:19). Apollos had been instructed by them at their home in Ephesus (after Paul had departed, else he would likely have been the instructor), then went to Corinth to minister and later (we know from 1 Corinthians 16:12) returned to Ephesus. I therefore believe — not absolutely, but with reasonable confidence — that Apollos wrote the epistle called “Hebrews” (the word “Hebrews” never appears in the text, and the addressees are not named) as a letter to the Corinthian church, during his time in Ephesus.

A Little Help From My Friends. The writer oscillates (see 13:18-19) between a plural and a singular first person. This ambivalence suggests that the author collaborated with others, perhaps writing lines in alternating format at some points. Again, my theory is that Apollos wrote the bulk of the letter, then reviewed it with Priscilla (and Aquila) before sending it off. That collaboration produced the greetings, and the bewildering pronoun changes, of chapter 13.

The Timothy Connection. Hebrews 13:23 mentions the release of Timothy from prison. The letter’s recipients must have had some interest in Timothy’s well-being. Timothy, the pastor at Ephesus, where Apollos lived after Corinth, had himself been in Corinth previously (Acts 18:5). Upon Paul’s eventual return to Ephesus, he wrote to Corinth, sending Timothy either with the letter or soon afterward (1 Cor. 4:17, 16:10). So it is entirely plausible that the Hebrews letter would have passed between Ephesus and Corinth, Apollos’ two ministry centers.

The Author’s Return. One interesting item that may either support or militate against this view: the author of Hebrews asks that the recipients “pray so that I may be restored to you soon” (13:19). This indicates that the author had previously spent time among the recipients, and that he has been prevented in some way from returning. While this is consistent with our “Apollos writing to Corinth theory,” we also know from 1 Corinthians 16:12 that Apollos was “quite unwilling” — of his own volition — to go back to Corinth. Paul does mention a change of heart, after some persuasion, but one must admit that it requires a major turnaround to move from “quite unwilling” to “I’ll go when I get the chance” to “pray that I may be restored to you.” Either Apollos wrote the epistle to Corinth before meeting with Paul, who had some critical words about the state of the church there, or he wrote after meeting with Paul and having a change of heart. But he still evidently feels that someone (perhaps the “I follow Paul” group at Corinth) stands in his way.

The Church’s History. Hebrews 10:32 asks the recipients of the letter to “Remember those earlier days after you had received the light, when you endured in a great conflict full of suffering.” While such conflict could be descriptive of any number of churches in the NT, it certainly doesn’t rule out Corinth, in which Sosthenes the synagogue ruler, an early convert to the new sect, was savagely attacked by the Jews of the city (Acts 18:17). Evidence indicates that two different synagogue rulers (Crispus and Sosthenes) had both come to faith in Christ during Paul’s early ministry. The encouraging words of a learned fellow Hebrew might have been especially welcome to that church.

The Logos

An even more intriguing possibility is that Apollos influenced the writing of the Fourth Gospel (John). This gospel differs from the other three in its unique stories, its unusual organization, its symbolic content, and its unique depiction, in its very opening phrase, of Jesus Christ as the “Word” (the Greek “Logos.”) This terminology is very similar to the teaching of the Philo of Alexandria, whose writings have fortunately survived to our day. Philo identifies “Logos” as the divine creative principle, calling it (or him) “the first-born of God.” John writes in his first chapter that 1) the Logos was with God in the beginning, 2) all things were made by him, and 3) the Logos became flesh in the person of Jesus Christ “who came from the Father.”

Tradition strongly holds that the Apostle John lived much of his life in Ephesus.

“The Gospel of John might have been written in Ephesus, c 90–100.”

(Source: Wikipedia)

Apollos may therefore be the connection between these two, and Ephesus the site of the transfer of knowledge.

Conclusion

Much of the above is speculative, of course, but it does demonstrate the outsize role of Apollos the Alexandrian in the early church.

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The Parallel Parables of Luke 14

Open your Bible to Luke 14:28-33. In this passage, Jesus teaches the same truth by means of two different parables, one concerning the building of a tower and one concerning a king deciding whether to commit his nation to a hopeless war.

The heading over these parables, in almost every English Bible, says something like “The Cost of Being a Disciple.” I have never heard any Bible teacher, or read any commentary, that attempted to contradict that interpretation.

But I think it’s wrong.

I think we built that interpretation because it is the most facile understanding of the first – ONLY the first – of the two parables.

So I would like you to join me in a little thought experiment. Let’s say that Luke never recorded that first parable of the man seeking to build a tower. Let’s start with the second parable:

“Or suppose a king is about to go to war against another king. Won’t he first sit down and consider whether he is able with ten thousand men to oppose the one coming against him with twenty thousand? If he is not able, he will send a delegation while the other is still a long way off and will ask for terms of peace.” Luke 14:31-32

The king finds his own army to be half the size of that of his enemy. Should he go to battle (and certainly lose)? Or should he surrender, and ask for ‘terms of peace’?

Remember, we know nothing of that other parable. How would you interpret this one? Who is the king? Who is the opposing king? What is the dilemma?

This is a parable about discipleship. Jesus is informing people that the choice between following him and not doing so is exactly like a choice between surrender and stubbornly going in to a hopeless battle. The wise person, Jesus says, goes to the opposing king in humility and subjection and seeks out the terms of peace. These are not his own terms; he must accept whatever terms the opposing king gives, if he is to have peace.

The opposing king is God Himself, surrounded by his angels, ready to judge mankind. The king is YOU, listener, would-be disciple. How long will you cling to your kingdom? How stubborn will you be in the name of human bravery? If you do not give up everything you have; i.e., if you refuse to surrender, Jesus insists that you cannot be his disciple (v.33), and you place yourself under the judgment of God. But if you come to Him in humility, lay down your arms, you will find Him utterly gracious.

The lesson in the parable is that one ought not stubbornly hold on to one’s own selfish ‘kingdom.’ The only reasonable course of action is to surrender. That is the only path to peace. Surrender. The conditional phrase “if he is not able” invites an affirmative response (“yes, he is not able!”).

Now, with that teaching firmly implanted in our minds, we return to the first parable:

“Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Won’t you first sit down and estimate the cost to see if you have enough money to complete it? For if you lay the foundation and are not able to finish it, everyone who sees it will ridicule you, saying, ‘This person began to build and wasn’t able to finish.’”  Luke 14:28-30

Jesus connects these two parables by the little word “or,” indicating that they are intended to convey the same truth. “You can understand what I mean by this illustration,” he says, “OR that one.”

In both parables, we have a person with a desire:

King considering a war | Man wants to build tower

In both parables, we have an obstacle:

King is outmanned | Man lacks sufficient funds

In both parables, we have a dire consequence looming if the obstacle is not overcome:

Kingdom is destroyed | Man is ridiculed for half-finished project

However, only in the king/war parable is a potential solution mentioned:

King surrenders | ???

If these parables are truly meant as parallels of one another, what is the parallel solution for the man building the tower? What would a wise builder do if he lacked funds?

I submit to you it is this: Surrender. Give up the project. Acknowledge your inability. Find peace.

This interpretation flies in the face of the usual heading of “the cost of discipleship.” Interpreted in this usual way, the parable leads one to a completely different application – “Following Jesus will be costly, but press on! Be strong! Charge ahead!”

Such a teaching is not wrong, but this parable doesn’t teach it. The cost-of-discipleship interpretation is incorrect, I believe, because it is difficult to understand the king/war parable in that way. Would you really teach that the lesson of this story is that the king should boldly go into battle? That whatever “cost” he incurs in terms of lost lives and destruction is actually worth it? I can’t imagine anyone preaching a message that way.

Why? Many passages encourage believers to press on, regardless of the apparent odds. Many Old Testament heroes (Hezekiah, Joshua, Gideon) won great battles against poor odds. But this parable doesn’t conclude like that. It is summarized by a “surrender” verse (14:33). The parable obviously commends the king’s wisdom in seeking peace rather than a pointless war.

We have the wrong elements assigned within the tower parable:

Man:  Believer  Potential believer
Tower:  Discipleship  His own religious system
Money:  Commitment  Human works
Lesson:  Fight On!  Surrender

Building the tower is not Christian discipleship. Building the tower is a man building his own religious system – a project he must abandon in order to follow Christ. No edifice built of human works will survive the judgment. That is the true ‘cost of discipleship’ – that a person must, in order to call himself a disciple, abandon all pride, all pretense, all personal projects.

(This subject was explored earlier, from the perspective of the king, in the original song “Terms of Peace.”)

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A Ransom for Jerusalem

Harness the steeds to the chariots, inhabitants of Lachish;
it was the beginning of sin to the daughter of Zion,
for in you were found the transgressions of Israel.

Micah 1:13

Aha! Here Micah gives us the beginning point. The anatomy of sin. Micah says that the downfall of the nation of Judah began in the town of Lachish.

What happened in Lachish?

Micah wrote at the time that the “northern kingdom,” called variously Israel and Samaria, was about to be swallowed up by the bloodthirsty Assyrian king Sennacherib. Soon that whole population would be dragged away to exile, hundreds of miles to the north, many dying along the way due to the Assyrians’ unspeakable cruelty.

But Micah in fact had no business with the northerners. His prophetic ministry was to the southern kingdom, which would not only survive the ascendancy of the Assyrians, but in fact soon deal them a stupendous, debilitating blow. Only a few years later, having swallowed up every kingdom in the region, Sennacherib’s mighty army surrounded lonely Judah, the last holdout, clinging to the rugged hill country around Jerusalem and began a siege. Good king Hezekiah beseeched YHWH for help. And the answer, recorded by Micah’s contemporary Isaiah, was truly miraculous:

Therefore thus says the Lord concerning the king of Assyria: He shall not come into this city or shoot an arrow there or come before it with a shield or cast up a siege mound against it. By the way that he came, by the same he shall return, and he shall not come into this city, declares the Lord. For I will defend this city to save it, for my own sake and for the sake of my servant David.”

And the angel of the Lord went out and struck down 185,000 in the camp of the Assyrians. And when people arose early in the morning, behold, these were all dead bodies. Then Sennacherib king of Assyria departed and returned home and lived at Nineveh.

Isaiah 37:33-37

This story is a wonderful example of prayer being answered despite impossible odds. Hezekiah is justly lauded by the chronicler: “Hezekiah trusted in the Lord… There was no one like him among all the kings of Judah, either before him or after him.” (1 Kings 18:5)

Sadly, as good Bible students know, this miracle was but a reprieve. YHWH’s judgment on the southern kingdom (Judah) would come eventually, several generations later, at the hands of the Babylonians. At that point Jerusalem was destroyed. The people of God no longer had a national presence.

This was the result of their own rebellion, of course. But what started Judah down the road to losing their place on earth? What was the root of their sin? What happened at Lachish?

Shortly before the miraculous massacre of the Assyrian troops at Jerusalem there was another incident between Sennacherib and Hezekiah. This one does not reflect nearly so well on the good king of Judah. He acted out of desperation rather than faith:

In the fourteenth year of King Hezekiah, Sennacherib king of Assyria came up against all the fortified cities of Judah and took them. And Hezekiah king of Judah sent to the king of Assyria at Lachish, saying, “I have done wrong; withdraw from me. Whatever you impose on me I will bear.” And the king of Assyria required of Hezekiah king of Judah three hundred talents of silver and thirty talents of gold. And Hezekiah gave him all the silver that was found in the house of the Lord and in the treasuries of the king’s house. At that time Hezekiah stripped the gold from the doors of the temple of the Lord and from the doorposts that Hezekiah king of Judah had overlaid and gave it to the king of Assyria.

2 Kings 18:13-16

Hezekiah came to Lachish and was horrified at what he saw — the destruction, the mounds of dead and near-dead bodies, men, women and children. He saw the trails of blood from his own people having been dragged off (with hooks!) to Nineveh. He was the cruel Assyrian soldiers gloating. Hezekiah was frightened for Jerusalem. This menace was coming too close to home. He asked for a price. Sennacherib gave it. Hezekiah’s men then set to work dismantling the beautifully-adorned Temple, and hauling out of the royal palace all the silver and gold that had lain there since Solomon’s time, two hundred years earlier. A parade of heavy ox-carts came trundling down the hill from Jerusalem and arrived in Lachish, a ransom for Hezekiah’s capital city.

Yet Hezekiah found, to his regret, that paying off the evil Sennacherib did not satisfy his thirst for blood. Within a very short (unrecorded) span of time, he was laying siege to Jerusalem. One can imagine Hezekiah and all his officials saying “What is with this guy? We paid him all that silver and gold to make him withdraw, and yet he continues to press in against us! What a rat! What a waste of money!”

What can we learn from this incident? The sin of Hezekiah was his attempt to buy off evil. Hezekiah trusted (in this instance) in the wealth of his nation, rather than the God of his people. As it was with Hezekiah and Sennacherib, so it is with us and our adversary the devil. We try to compromise, to appease, to buy his favor — but he remains bloodthirsty, attacking again and again. Making concessions to him doesn’t satisfy him. It emboldens him. He comes back hungrier, expecting us to be even weaker than before. This is how Lachish became the “beginning of sin” for the nation of Judah. They gave away what was sacred. The judgments that fell upon them 140 years later had their origins in that devil’s bargain at Lachish.

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Loaves, Fishes, Perfume

It is not a matter of how many loaves we have in our hands, but whether or not God has blessed them. ― Watchman Nee

While Jesus was in Bethany in the home of Simon the Leper, a woman came to him with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, which she poured on his head as he was reclining at the table. When the disciples saw this, they were indignant. “Why this waste?” they asked. “This perfume could have been sold at a high price and the money given to the poor.” Aware of this, Jesus said to them, “Why are you bothering this woman? She has done a beautiful thing to me. The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me. When she poured this perfume on my body, she did it to prepare me for burial. Truly I tell you, wherever this gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.”
‭‭Matthew‬ ‭26:6-13‬

Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he gave thanks and broke the loaves. Then he gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the people. They all ate and were satisfied, and the disciples picked up twelve basketfuls of broken pieces that were left over.
‭‭Matthew‬ ‭14:19-20‬

Jesus invests with meaning the offering of the woman at Bethany. Where she brought a simple act of perhaps extravagant devotion, he finds in it a vital piece of the drama unfolding during the last week of his eathrly life: “She did it to prepare me for burial.”

As with the loaves and the fishes, Jesus’ blessing transforms a simple offering into something magnificent and meaningful. So I ought never be shy about making such offerings, out of thankfulness or devotion or just because it seems like the best thing to do. He is neither limited by its smallness nor offended by its extravagance. The point is that it is offered, and that he blesses it.

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The Foolish Virgin

I was that foolish virgin. And all those around me were likewise.

We pick up the story in Jesus famous parable after the ten young women have fallen asleep waiting for the bridegroom to arrive:

At midnight the cry rang out: ‘Here’s the bridegroom! Come out to meet him!’ Then all the virgins woke up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish ones said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil; our lamps are going out.’

‘No,’ they replied, ‘there may not be enough for both us and you. Instead, go to those who sell oil and buy some for yourselves.’

But while they were on their way to buy the oil, the bridegroom arrived. The virgins who were ready went in with him to the wedding banquet. And the door was shut.

Later the others also came. ‘Lord, Lord,’ they said, ‘open the door for us!’ But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I don’t know you.’

Matthew 25:6-12

No one enters the kingdom of heaven by slipping in the door with another party. The wise virgins, it is said, have oil for their lamps. The foolish ones have none, only what remains in the wick. Though all the lamps appear equally bright at the moment, only those with a reservoir of oil will remain lit.

This is a parable, of course, not advice about illumination. Why are the wise virgins admitted to the feast? Because they have oil in their lamps. They are persons transformed, fueled internally by the Holy Spirit. They have been born again. The foolish virgins have only the appearance, a light that once appeared bright, but is about to go out. “I do not know you,” says the doorkeeper at the wedding feast. These are people who have a profession of Christianity, maybe even some works to show for it. But the answer here is the same as Jesus’ prediction many chapters earlier:

Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’
‭‭Matthew‬ ‭7:22-23‬

“I never knew you.” I don’t recognize you. We have no relationship. When a person needs to have a document notarized, he or she goes to a notary public. Pretty much all of us have used, or at least know, a notary public. The point of having something notarized is that you sign the document in the presence of the notary, who knows you by sight. He or she vouches for your identity. They are effectively saying, “This person who signed here – they are who they claim to be, because I know them.”

Admittance to the Kingdom of God is not about having done enough works to buy a ticket. It’s about a relationship. Does Jesus know your face, or not? Are you someone he recognizes, or not?

I grew up going to a church in which the notion of being “born again” was never broached. It was tacitly assumed that if one was in the church, one was in the faith. Every person in that congregation, including myself, would have called me a Christian in good standing.

But we were all wrong. I was the foolish virgin. There was no anointing, no Holy Spirit, no regeneration, no oil for my lamp. I was spiritually dead. Had the bridegroom appeared in 1980, I would have rushed out to meet him, only to be icily shut out of the kingdom.

I am thankful that God had other plans.

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Human Refuse

Jesus went on from there and walked beside the Sea of Galilee. And he went up on the mountain and sat down there. And great crowds came to him, bringing with them the lame, the blind, the crippled, the mute, and many others, and they put them at his feet…”

Matthew 15:29-30

Stop right there. What do we picture? A great crowd has gathered, coming from the surrounding villages. To this hillside, where they have heard that Jesus has come, they carry their disabled friends, their children, their loved ones. Lovingly and tenderly they lay them at the feet of Jesus, begging for a miracle.

But look again. The Greek word rendered “put at his feet” is a form of the verb “rhipto.” “Rhipto” is not a nice word. “Rhipto” is not the word one uses when one brings an ailing relative to the healer, motivated by compassion and love. “Rhipto” is more commonly used for discarding refuse, as in, “Hey, it’s Monday night, don’t forget to rhipto the recyclables by the curb.”

Now the picture changes. These people are not bringing their beloved daughters and servants to Jesus. They are probably motivated by two factors: first, the lure of celebrity and spectacle – they rhipto these people at Jesus’ feet, not because they want to see them healed, but merely to see a miracle occur. Second, they are hoping to be rid of a nuisance. These beggars and panhandlers clog their streets. Some have been isolated into special homes and communities, away from the “normal” people. The villages are weary of this useless burden on their resources. They are hoping that maybe this Jesus fellow can solve their problem. So they rhipto them at his feet.

To the world, these people are human refuse, articles to be discarded after stumbling over them one too many times. Our society today does the same thing. We dehumanize classes of people. We wantonly discard the unborn in the pursuit of personal autonomy for the more powerful. We dismiss entire races or religions. We cast aside our aged, our infirm, anyone who cannot participate fully in the common life of the world.

But Jesus does not see them this way. The story concludes:

…and he healed them, so that the crowd wondered, when they saw the mute speaking,the crippled healthy, the lame walking, and the blind seeing. And they glorified the God of Israel. Then Jesus called his disciples to him and said, “I have compassion on the crowd…”

Matthew 15:30-32

Out of this apparent pile of human refuse, Jesus raised up a congregation of worshipers. We do not know the subsequent history of these healed persons, but it is certainly conceivable that some of them became followers of Jesus after this stupendous miracle.

Far too often our ministry focus is on the salient one: the leader, the wealthy, the influential, the strong, popular extrovert. “If we could reach out to Tom,” goes a common youth-ministry conversation, “imagine what kind of an impact he would have for Jesus in this school! Captain of the football team, popular, handsome, well-respected. Lord, please convert Tom!”

While praying for the conversion of anyone is always good, the above represents a wrong attitude, one rooted in regarding persons according to the standards and values of the world:

From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh.

2 Corinthians 5:16

We must break ourselves of this ingrained habit, this utilitarianism, this evaluating of persons from a worldly point of view. We must learn to see others exactly as Jesus sees them, whether they are rich or poor, influential or reserved, healthy or ill, well-connected or lonesome. Because God is interested in making things new, and using unlikely building materials, which brings worship to Him alone, and not to the one having natural attractiveness:

But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being [literally, ‘no flesh’] might boast in the presence of God.

1 Corinthians 1:27-29

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Every Plant

“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit. Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.”

John 15:1-6

“Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be rooted up.”

Matthew 15:13

Reading this latter verse reminded me of one of my favorite passages from The Normal Christian Life:

We can take meetings, and build churches, we can go to the ends of the earth and found missions, and we can seem to bear fruit; but remember that the Lord’s word is: “Every plant which my heavenly Father planted not, shall be rooted up” (Matt. 15:13). God is the only legitimate Originator in the universe (Gen. 1:1). Anything that you plan and set on foot has its origin in the flesh, and it will never reach the realm of the Spirit however earnestly you seek God’s blessing on it. It may last for years, and then you may think you will adjust here and improve there and maybe bring it on a better plane, but it cannot be done.

Origin determines destination, and what was “of the flesh” originally will never be made spiritual by any amount of ‘improvement’. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and it will never be otherwise.
Watchman Nee, The Normal Christian Life

I admit that when this little book was first recommended to me I had no idea what it was talking about. It was solid food; I was still subsisting on milk. In my self-important arrogance, however, I assumed that my inability to understand it was due to its mystical “Christ-in-you” theme, which I found impractical. I recall our dear sister Sharon F. (now promoted to glory) urging this book on me and telling me “It’s not about what you do for Jesus; it’s what Jesus does through you that counts.”  “Sure, that’s all good,” I would counter, “but what is it that I am supposed to DO? Just tell me what to DO!”

Thankfully, God dragged me out of that “practical” state.

Today I find Nee’s truths to be powerful and liberating, very near the center of my own heart for teaching and discipleship.

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Son of God

What Kind of Man is This?

Then he got up and rebuked the winds and the waves, and it was completely calm. The men were amazed and asked, “What kind of man is this? Even the winds and the waves obey him!”
Matthew 8:26-27

"Christ on the Sea of Galilee," by Eugene Delacroix (1854).

“Christ on the Sea of Galilee,” by Eugene Delacroix (1854).

The disciples, at least four of whom (Peter, Andrew, James and John) were seasoned boatmen, openly lamented their impending death in the watery grave of the lake. Jesus commanded the storm to be still, demonstrating his power over the forces of nature. Upon seeing this miracle, his followers marveled: “What kind of man is this?”

Astute readers will note that this is a question. They ask a question because they do not yet have an answer. In a short time they will have found out at least part of that answer.

Another Lake Event

Shortly thereafter, the boat was again out on the lake. After the miraculous late-afternoon feeding of the five thousand on a remote hillside, Jesus dismissed the crowd and “made the disciples get into the boat” (Matthew 14:22) so that he finally could spend some time alone in quiet prayer. Then, in the wee hours of the morning, he began walking out to the boat atop the water. Again the disciples were in awe, and faced with an identity question, suspecting the mysterious figure to be a ghost. But Jesus soon invited Peter to come and walk on the water for himself. The story is familiar, but I want us to examine the reaction of the men in the boat at the end, as Jesus and Peter rejoin the group:

And when they climbed into the boat, the wind died down. Then those who were in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”
Matthew 14:32-33

This latter incident on the lake elicited not a question but a declaration: “Truly you are the Son of God.” The identity question has been answered.

Son of David

But “Son of God”? This is unusual terminology, even for those Jews who were prepared to see the Messiah. Typically their term for Messiah was “Son of David.” For instance, Matthew’s lengthy opus actually begins with the words ” This is the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David…” (Matthew 1:1).

Blind men on the streets of Israel called him “Son of David”:

As Jesus went on from there, two blind men followed him, calling out, “Have mercy on us, Son of David!”

Matthew 9:27 (see also 20:30-31 for a strangely similar account)

The common Jewish people called him “Son of David”:

Then they brought him a demon-possessed man who was blind and mute, and Jesus healed him, so that he could both talk and see. All the people were astonished and said, “Could this be the Son of David?”

Matthew 12:22-23

The crowds that went ahead of him and those that followed shouted, “Hosanna to the Son of David!”

Matthew 21:9

Soon after this, Jesus quizzed the Pharisees about Messianic expectations. They replied similarly:

Jesus asked them, “What do you think about the Messiah? Whose son is he?”
“The son of David,” they replied.

Matthew 22:41-42

Clearly, the Jewish people of the Second Temple period, from the best-educated professor to the poorest beggar, had been expecting a Messiah who would evict the Romans from the Holy Land and restore the Davidic kingdom. This Messiah would come as a descendant, a “son,” from the lineage of David. This idea was well-inculcated in the minds of first-century Palestinian Jews.

Son of God

The title “Son of David” carries political-military overtones. In the context of Israel occupied by Imperial Rome, the title took on a specific temporal meaning. But the disciples’ boat-borne declaration “You are the Son of God” goes beyond the accepted theology of the time. Up to this point they might have had a variety of opinions about him, or perhaps they uniformly accepted that Jesus was the “Son of David” earthly Messiah they had been taught to expect. But no one in all Israel, from Dan to Beersheba, was expecting a “Son of God” Messiah. This is entirely a new thing.

What may be surprising to modern Christian readers is that the term “Son of God” does not appear anywhere in the Old Testament. This is not a case of the teachers skipping over certain verses, or emphasizing one kind of Messiah over against another. It simply isn’t there at all. (Here we are discounting the phrase “sons of God” in Genesis 6 which appears to refer to fallen angels, and Nebuchadnezzar’s seeing “a son of the gods” in the furnace in Daniel 3:25). Read through the dozens of Messianic prophecies – you will never find the expression “Son of God.” Common as it may seem to us two millennia later, it simply could not have been an orthodox, recognized Messianic title in the first century AD. Jesus’ disciples would not have heard this language at any time in their lives – not from their rabbis, nor in their yeshivas, nor from their parents, nor from the scribes and Pharisees.

The pertinent question is then, Where on earth did they get this verbiage? Where had they ever, prior to that early morning on the lake in Matthew 14, heard of the notion of calling their Messiah the “Son of God”?

The answer may surprise you. It actually comes to us as New Testament readers in several forms, from several sources. We will look at them in roughly chronological order.

First, Luke reports that the archangel Gabriel, in making the announcement to Mary, referred to the one who would be born as the “Son of God”:

“So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God.”

Luke 1:35

This is a consequential announcement. But the disciples were not with Mary; they may not even have been born at the time Gabriel made this announcement. So they did not learn it from the angel.

During Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, Satan twice referred to Jesus as “Son of God” (Matthew 4:3, 6).

The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.”

… Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple.

“If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down…”

Matthew 4:3-6

But again, the disciples weren’t there in the wilderness. No one heard Satan say these things to Jesus, except Jesus himself. The disciples first heard the title “Son of God” applied to Jesus at a later time.

The narratives of Mark and Luke both include an account early in Jesus’ public ministry in which the phrase “Son of God” was uttered:

Whenever the impure spirits saw him, they fell down before him and cried out, “You are the Son of God.”

Mark 3:11

Moreover, demons came out of many people, shouting, “You are the Son of God!”

Luke 4:41

These comments are related not as one-time incidents, but as a sort of habitual description. The earliest disciples may have heard this one or more times during Jesus’ exorcisms. It is possible these demonic entities planted a seed in their minds, which would later become a confession.

However, there remains one more defining moment, more directly pertinent I think, which we will examine shortly. It’s interesting to note at this point, however, that we have thus far collected five mentions of the phrase “Son of God” – all of which, remarkably, come from the spiritual realm of angels and demons, not the natural / political world of mankind. Evidently “Son of God” is the appropriate spiritual-realm title of the Messiah, how he is known in that realm, while “Son of David” is the earthly-realm title.

In the Boat After the Storm

Now return to the first scene on the lake. Jesus has commanded the wind and waves to be still. But Matthew’s account doesn’t give us the boat’s coordinates. Presumably they were trying to point the bow in a northwesterly direction, to return to Capernaum or Bethsaida, where the fishermen of the group (Peter, Andrew, James, and John) made their living. Instead, the westerly wind had blown them off course, to the eastern shore of the lake, a strange, uncivilized place inhabited by – gasp! – Gentiles. This is the frightening land of the Gadarenes, part of modern-day Syria. As the boat reached that forsaken shore, it seems that none of the disciples even dared to climb out and walk up the beach – in the account that follows, only Jesus is mentioned.

Imagine yourself in the boat, among the Twelve, as they row through the still, shallow water, awaiting the bump of the sandy bottom. Look at the shoreline with the disciples. Look at that large herd of sheep on the hillside. “Thousands of sheep. A fortune,” says Matthew, the accountant.

“Wait,” says one. “Those aren’t sheep.” You look again. He’s right. Those are pigs.

“Where in the world are we?” asks a voice behind you. There are gasps. This boatful of good Jewish youths is about to land in a filthy world of unclean animals.

The boat strikes the sand. Peter and Andrew jump out, splashing in knee-deep water to drag the craft ashore. Jesus steps out and begins to stride purposefully up the stony beach, toward the dark cliffs. You decide to stay in the boat, squinting into the morning sun rising above the pastures. As you marvel with the other disciples at the pigs in the distance, from the caves and cliffs a human form appears. He is clothed only in filthy gray-brown rags (if anything at all). His hair is wild and tangled. His nails are long. As he comes close, loping along like an ape, scratching at the stones and dust beneath him, it becomes apparent that he is covered with scars – hundreds of self-inflicted cuts. He holds a sharp flint in one hand, the better to cut Jesus, or himself. His eyes are wide open. He bares his teeth and screeches and grunts like an animal. Spittle drips from his scraggly beard.

You, like the others, have crouched down behind the gunwales. The braver ones peer over the top. “I knew we shouldn’t have landed here,” says one of the cowering disciples. “This is a dreadful place.”

“My parents always told me this is how Gentiles live,” says one, probably Peter or Nathanael, devout Torah-observant Jews. “Uncivilized brutes, drawing their own blood, eating the flesh of pigs and unclean things.”

The crazed man is now standing directly in front of the Master, chillingly close. With a few steps and a swipe of the flint knife he could easily injure him. The men in the boat gasp and point to the cliffs. A second similarly wretched human has appeared behind the first one. (Again, Matthew’s account differs from Mark’s and Luke’s in the inclusion of a second demonized man, but it’s possible that of the two men, one did all the talking.)

When he arrived at the other side in the region of the Gadarenes, two demon-possessed men coming from the tombs met him. They were so violent that no one could pass that way.

Matthew 8:28

“Oh no. How many of them do you suppose are in there?” asks one.
It is far too late to intervene. You can only watch with the other disciples. The first crazed man opens his mouth. Terror fills his eyes. In a guttural rasp he forms words, directed at the Master. The words come slowly, rasping, but in clear, understandable Aramaic.

“What do you want with us, Son of God?” they shouted. “Have you come here to torture us before the appointed time?”

Matthew 8:29

“Did you hear that?” whispers one of the disciples, in the bottom of the boat. “They called him ‘Son of God’!” Their minds race back to their childhood at the synagogue. Messiah was always referred to as the “son of David” – a king returning to restore Israel’s kingdom. And yet here is another voice from the realm of the spirits, announcing that this rabbi – the one they have called “Messiah” – is actually a ruler in a completely other sense. This is a new revelation for the disciples.

This is now the sixth instance of the Messianic expression “Son of God” appearing in the Gospel accounts. This one is certainly not lost on the men in the boat. When they are next on the lake, and they see their Messiah walking on the water (and enabling one of their own number to do the same), one of them (Peter? Nathanael? Thomas?) at last speaks the words: “You are the Son of God.”

The notion of Jesus as “Son of God,” an apparent novelty in first-century Messianic Jewish theology, came to the twelve disciples by way of the world of angels and demons.

Peter, John, and Paul

This recognition continues to ripen in their thinking until the moment of Peter’s great confession two chapters later:

“But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?”

Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”

Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven.”

Matthew 16:15-17

As Jesus points out so clearly, this theological insight was not revealed to him by “flesh and blood.” No human teacher had ever included this on his syllabus. This is a new revelation, destined to overtake and transform the world. By the end of his own gospel account, John is asserting that belief in Jesus as the “Son of God” is the whole point of his writing, and indeed the path to eternal life:

These are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.

John 20:31

Question: What was the first thing that Paul began preaching, immediately after his conversion on the Damascus road? With all his years of rabbinical training, he was uniquely able to expound upon Old Testament texts and prove that Jesus of Nazareth was in fact the promised Messiah:

Saul grew more and more powerful and baffled the Jews living in Damascus by proving that Jesus is the Messiah.

Acts 9:22

This sort of biblical argumentation was a hallmark of his later ministry recorded in Acts. Yet two verses earlier, Luke tells us that the actual launching-point of Paul’s preaching ministry consisted of this startling theological innovation:

At once he began to preach in the synagogues that Jesus is the Son of God.

Acts 9:20

Such an idea must have scandalized Saul’s former classmates. Had he preached that Jesus was the “Son of David,” he might have encountered opposition or perhaps only a friendly discussion. But “Son of God” implies divinity: a Messiah possessing an office far higher than the mere throne of David. Peter, John, and Paul, the three primary New Testament writers, had glimpsed the spiritual realm, and all explicitly acknowledge Jesus as the “Son of God.”

After this, the title “Son of God” becomes the predominant appellation of the apostles for describing Jesus, appearing dozens of times in the Epistles that follow.

The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.

Galatians 2:20 (Paul)

Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life. I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life.

1 John 5:12-13


Notes:

  1. We have consciously neglected to include the first two recorded instances of “Son of God” in John’s gospel. It might be argued that the somewhat formulaic-sounding utterances attributed to Nathanael (John 1:49) and to Martha (11:27) were put into their mouths by the author John, in keeping with his stated purpose of writing; i.e., to show that “Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God.” One can, without denying or diminishing the inspiration and inerrancy of the text, acknowledge that John’s narrative style allows for statements of doctrine to be mingled with what appears to be dialogue. (See, for instance, John 3:10-21 – where exactly do Jesus’ words end and John’s words begin? Or does it matter?) Jesus also refers to himself as the “Son of God” in his prophecy about the resurrection of the dead (5:25).
  2. Psalm 2, acknowledged by all to be Messianic, does in fact encourage the nations of the world to “kiss the Son” (v.12) – but again, the phrase “Son of God” is not used explicitly.

 

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The Aluminum Cross

Imagine the following advertisement:

NEW! The perfect gift for the stylish disciple on your list! Had enough of those bulky, clumsy wooden crosses? Why should carrying your cross be burdensome? Well, say goodbye to the sore back, the painful splinters, the aching shoulders! Our new lightweight cross is made from aerospace-grade aluminum, and features a comfort-grip carrying handle. You’ll forget you’re even carrying it! It also folds to the size of a matchbook, and comes with a handsome black nylon case, so that you can conceal it discreetly when needed. Carrying your cross has never been easier!

Dimensions: 12″ x 6″ x 1.5″ (fully extended)
Meets TSA guidelines for carrying on domestic flights
Weight 0.2 lb
MSRP: $29.95

“And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”  Matthew 10:38-39 (ESV)

As I read this, I wonder: Who are these “whoevers,” these putative disciples who do not take up their crosses? What sort of person is it that would claim to be “worthy” of Him, yet neglect to pick up their cross and follow? What do these ‘disciples’ look like? They take no risks. They choose not to venture beyond their self-defined circle of comfort. They deny themselves nothing (Luke 9:23, Matthew 16:24). They wish to change nothing about their lives – because they have “found” their lives, they have established their places in this present world and have no real longing for another one. They love their lives and expend their effort in augmenting and perfecting them (John 12:25, Mark 8:35, Luke 9:24).

They have opted for the aluminum cross. A cross that demands nothing. A cross whose effect on this earthly life is as minimal as possible.

Am I this person, this risk-averse, unbelieving disciple? What steps have I taken solely in obedience to following the way of the cross? Am I still shopping around for a lightweight, convenient, aluminum cross, while the seconds and days and years slip by? How presumptuous! Perhaps the time for excusing myself is past.

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