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.'”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
Apollos may therefore be the connection between these two, and Ephesus the site of the transfer of knowledge.
Much of the above is speculative, of course, but it does demonstrate the outsize role of Apollos the Alexandrian in the early church.