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A Model of Unity

Acts  18:18 - 19:10

The unity of the church is something seldom discussed these days - it seems that new denominations and fellowships (partitions however you describe them) spring up daily. How is it that we have come to the point where another split in the body of Christ is considered the normal way to handle things? That I cannot answer; but perhaps the example given here may spur us to consider the unity of the church to be a desirable thing - and give us some tips on how to achieve it.

(Acts 18:18-28 NIV) Paul stayed on in Corinth for some time. Then he left the brothers and sailed for Syria, accompanied by Priscilla and Aquila. Before he sailed, he had his hair cut off at Cenchrea because of a vow he had taken. {19} They arrived at Ephesus, where Paul left Priscilla and Aquila. He himself went into the synagogue and reasoned with the Jews. {20} When they asked him to spend more time with them, he declined. {21} But as he left, he promised, "I will come back if it is God's will." Then he set sail from Ephesus. {22} When he landed at Caesarea, he went up and greeted the church and then went down to Antioch. {23} After spending some time in Antioch, Paul set out from there and traveled from place to place throughout the region of Galatia and Phrygia, strengthening all the disciples. {24} Meanwhile a Jew named Apollos, a native of Alexandria, came to Ephesus. He was a learned man, with a thorough knowledge of the Scriptures. {25} He had been instructed in the way of the Lord, and he spoke with great fervor and taught about Jesus accurately, though he knew only the baptism of John. {26} He began to speak boldly in the synagogue. When Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they invited him to their home and explained to him the way of God more adequately. {27} When Apollos wanted to go to Achaia, the brothers encouraged him and wrote to the disciples there to welcome him. On arriving, he was a great help to those who by grace had believed. {28} For he vigorously refuted the Jews in public debate, proving from the Scriptures that Jesus was the Christ.

(Acts 19:1-10 NIV) While Apollos was at Corinth, Paul took the road through the interior and arrived at Ephesus. There he found some disciples {2} and asked them, "Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?" They answered, "No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit." {3} So Paul asked, "Then what baptism did you receive?" "John's baptism," they replied. {4} Paul said, "John's baptism was a baptism of repentance. He told the people to believe in the one coming after him, that is, in Jesus." {5} On hearing this, they were baptized into the name of the Lord Jesus. {6} When Paul placed his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied. {7} There were about twelve men in all. {8} Paul entered the synagogue and spoke boldly there for three months, arguing persuasively about the kingdom of God. {9} But some of them became obstinate; they refused to believe and publicly maligned the Way. So Paul left them. He took the disciples with him and had discussions daily in the lecture hall of Tyrannus. {10} This went on for two years, so that all the Jews and Greeks who lived in the province of Asia heard the word of the Lord.

A Time of Transition

One of the impressions most Bible believing Christians have today is this: the Old Testament Law was completely abolished in the early church. On the day of Pentecost, all that went out the window, and the Apostles starting worshiping just like we do (including the amplified bass guitar). One of the benefits of studying Acts is that it corrects that impression. The transition was a gradual but guided one.

Why a gradual transition?

Moses got forty years in the wilderness to change the Jews - and it still wasn't enough. But even after two thousand years under the Law, the Jews were not ready for instant change to the New Covenant. The Spirit, therefore, brought about this change more gradually. Why?

·         First, this makes it a more comfortable transition for the Jews. One point in particular is this: the older generation dies off - leaving newer Christians who have experienced only the transition. So the Spirit does not require the experienced Jew to jump through new hoops. Keeping the ceremonial law did such people no harm, as long as they were willing to listen to the Spirit's teaching.

·         For the Gentiles, this smoothes the transition as well. They are not burdened with keeping the entire law - just those parts which they would see as a reasonable form of righteousness. Thus, there is no requirement for them to make the transition to Jews and then to Christians.

·         It also emphasizes the fact that Christ did not come to destroy the Law, but to be its culmination.[1]

The parallel to the Christian experience

Many new Christians could learn from this. We often begin a new Christian's life by handing him or her a massive set of rules, correcting every possible problem on the first day. The Spirit does not do this, nor did He do so to the early church.

·         We are not expected to be pure and righteous on the day of our conversion. We are expected to have changed direction. Our righteousness is Christ, not our own worthiness.

·         In my experience, the Spirit brings problems to mind and example as they are to be dealt with. As a young man I had many vices which later were removed - but I was not ready to deal with them at the time. There were other, bigger things to be dealt with first.

·         Why would the Spirit deal with us in this way? Because God is merciful.

John the Baptist - an example of this

We see in this passage much mention of John the Baptist. He is an example of this kind of transition - an example just before Christ. Look at his message:

·         God offers forgiveness for those who are willing to repent.

·         The outward sign, or symbol, of that repentance is baptism.

·         There is one coming who will complete this message

The first two points are still true; the third has been fulfilled (and will be fulfilled again). John's message is not "wrong" - it has been superceded by something infinitely better. But see how those who received the baptism of John found the Good News to be so wonderful! If you will receive the partial, or incomplete, message of God, how much more ready will you be to receive all of it?

Building a ship

Permit the teacher a metaphor. Building the church, or becoming a Christian, bears a strong resemblance to building a ship.

·         First, the keel must be laid. This is parallel to the Law of the Old Testament. For the church, it was the basic training needed. For the Christian, it is the hearing of the word as preached.

·         Then the ship must be launched. Indeed, the trip to water is like baptism for the individual and Pentecost for the church.

·         But even after launch, the ship is not yet ready. It must be "fitted out." This is like the church in transition at this time, or the Christian learning and growing in the Spirit.

·         Finally, the ship is ready to sail - as the Christian matures, more and more he performs the works of the faith.

A ship that has no unity is full of holes - and sinks. The Spirit, shown here, guards the unity of the church by allowing gradual transition to a fuller understanding of the purposes of Christ.

Apollos - unity in the heart

We may see in this minor character, Apollos, an example of the unity of the church as it should be.

What do we know about him?

Very little. He is mentioned slightly here and in a few lists in other places, but even church historians have very little to say about him. (Even the detailed Catholic Encyclopedia has nothing to say about him). But we do know a few things:

·         He is from Alexandria. That is a center of Jewish intellectual (and mystical) thought. So it is likely that he is an intellectual of the time.

·         Martin Luther saw in him the author of Hebrews - but there is no other support for this theory.

·         He was the cause of faction in the Corinthian church, though unwillingly.[2] Evidently, he left that area and had to be persuaded by Paul to return[3] - the sign of a man who would do nothing to undermine the unity of the church.


We can see some other things by his actions:

·         He was greatly knowledgeable about the Scriptures. There is no substitute for this in a teacher. If you don't know the landscape of the Bible, you will soon stumble.

·         More than that, he was very teachable. Indeed, there is an interesting point here. Note that Priscilla is mentioned first, then her husband. People are listed in order of importance. It would have been viewed as a very humbling thing for a scholar to accept instruction from a woman. He was willing to do that.

·         The man is fervent - even though he has only a partial knowledge (what an example for the young Christian!) The man is on fire for God, to the point that he travels to teach what he knows. There is an interesting parallel here to Cornelius. Both of them were men of God who knew only a part, not the whole. But by their purity of heart and desire for God they drew the Holy Spirit to them.

The unity of the church depends in great measure upon the teachability of its teachers.

The role of the teacher in the unity of the church

Consider: is it really the layman who causes the faction in the church? Aren't most of those in the pew willing to "take the preacher's word for it?" This lays a heavier burden on the teacher, to be sure. For if a teacher is prone to factionalism, then he carries students with him.

The perils of pride

Why, then, do teachers participate in factionalism? Surely they know the prayer of Christ that we may all be one? Perhaps the peril of pride is the chief cause. For a teacher - if he's any good at all - will soon hear his students praising him for his lessons. This can be taken in two ways:

·         It should be taken as encouragement. For if the teacher hears about his lessons, it usually means that the students have been encouraged and uplifted by them - perhaps even corrected. This is good.

·         But this can be twisted from, "It was a good lesson; it served the Kingdom well, God be praised" to "I must be a wonderful fellow to have done it."

Once, in another church, I delivered a lesson on the Lord's Supper. As a part of that lesson, we actually served the Lord's Supper in the class (with the knowledge and permission of the elders of that congregation). The next week the president of the class approached me and asked that we serve the Lord's Supper in class every week! This was misguided praise for a good lesson (it's a lot easier when the topic is that powerful). I stalled them for a week (I'm a chicken) and then said no - for to say yes would have been, ultimately, to split the church. Would it have mattered that my lessons were more eloquent than the preacher's sermons, or vice-versa?

Pride is a deadly disease to teachers. You can get to the point where you sneer, "I'm more humble than you are!"

Successive imitation

Teachers must remember that they will be imitated. We often make a point of saying what sinners we are (it being less than useful to deny it with your wife around). We should recognize that imitation is a normal form of learning. Indeed, Paul explicitly encouraged it:

(1 Cor 11:1 NIV) Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ.

As Christ imitated his Heavenly Father[4], teachers should expect to be imitated.

The role of the Spirit

We cannot deal with the unity of the church without speaking of the role of the Holy Spirit. The tail of a lesson is too small a space to do this justice, but there are three things which should come to mind.

·         The ancient church believed in the "indefectability" of the church - that is, the Holy Spirit will not allow the church to remain in error.

·         We are all united, but we have differing gifts, and this is the work of the Spirit.[5] We should not quarrel over this, but accept this as a blessing.

·         We are all one - interchangeable in Christ Jesus - but we are all parts of the body as well. This too is the work of the Spirit, for it is the same Spirit in each of us which gives us the differing gifts.

The role of Love

Ultimately, failure in unity comes down to failure in love. If there is a first duty of teachers, it is that we encourage all to love one another, so that by this all men may know that we are His disciples. St. John Chrysostom put it this way, speaking of the Spirit:

But the musician is the Might of Love: it is this that strikes out the sweet melody, singing a strain in which no note is out of tune. This strain rejoices both Angels, and God the Lord of Angels; this strain rouses the whole audience that is in heaven; this even lulls (evil) passions--it does not even suffer them to be raised, but deep is the stillness. For as in a theatre, when the band of musicians plays, all listen with a hush, and there is no noise there; so among friends, while Love strikes the chords, all the passions are still and laid to sleep

Let us love one another, so that the world may know we are His.

[1] Matthew 5:17

[2] 1 Corinthians 1:11-12

[3] 1 Corinthians 16:12

[4] John 5:19

[5] Romans 12:6

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