The Rev. Dr. Irina Dubinski

Paul and Apollos

“I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth”, wrote Paul the apostle in a letter to the Christians in in the town of Corinth. Who was this mysterious Apollos? He did play an important role in the early development of the churches of Ephesus and Corinth - what else do YOU know? Yes, he was a Hellenized Jew born in Alexandria, Egypt; so he identified with the Greek culture, spoke Greek, but in the eyes of the Judaism practicing Jews of the Empire - he was an outsider. A Gentile, despite his nationality. In the early church, which was still a Jewish sect, there were yet few such Gentiles; however, this Apollos was an exception; perhaps, because he was “an eloquent man “competent in the Scriptures”, as the book of Acts tells us. He came to Ephesus around the year 52-4, and is first described in Acts as “fervent in spirit” -- an excellent and convincing orator. As he came from Alexandria, he has likely preached in the allegorical style of Philo, which would have been fascinating to this community, situated all the way across the Mediterranean sea, to the north and a little to the west. Philo’s approach harmonized the Jewish interpretation of scripture with the Stoic philosophy, and it influenced the teachings about the nature of Jesus that we still hold today. Thus equipped with his excellent scriptural knowledge and talent in public speaking, Apollos preached boldly to prove that Christ was the long-awaited Messiah of the Jews.

However, at that time, his understanding of the gospel was incomplete, since he was “acquainted only with the baptism of John” (cf Acts). This meant that his understanding of the baptism as a sacrament was immature -- probably, it focused on repentance, as opposed to the role of the Holy Spirit. So some time after Apollos had already moved on to his new adventure, Paul shows up in Ephesus and asks some people, "Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?" And they said, "No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit." And he said, "Into what then were you baptized?" They said, "Into John's baptism", reflecting perhaps the limitations of Apollos’ teachings. Luckily, before he’d left the town, he did spend some time with Aquila and Priscilla, a couple who had come to Ephesus with Paul on his earlier visit. They were able to fill in the gaps in Apollos’ understanding. Now, armed with the complete message, and a letter of recommendation from the Ephesian Christians, Apollos crosses the Aegean sea, heading westward. He travels throughout the Greek province Achaia, and finds his way to Corinth, which is located right where the main part of Greece is joined by a narrow neck to the large peninsula that hangs off its south.

There, he “waters” where Paul had “sown”. With his natural gifts, he obviously attracts quite a following among the church in Corinth; and now, the word reaches Paul that a simple admiration is starting to grow into divisiveness. Against Apollos’ wishes, there is a faction in Corinth that claims him as their spiritual mentor, to the exclusion of Paul and Peter. Paul is certainly critical of their attitude, and in his letter, he deals with this partisanship by essentially saying that Christ is not divided, and neither should they be. Was there more to read in between his lines? Was he more concerned about the question of authority, rather than unity? Maybe so; but if it was a question of authority, I think that he invokes one of a higher level, than merely that of his own. He does have a history of going to great lengths to make sure that all of the apostles’ methodology and theology aligned, in whichever corner of the Roman Empire they worked. For example, he notes in his letter to the Galatians about such a meeting he held with the Jerusalem apostles, including Peter. Were there times when early Christian teachers disagreed? Absolutely, like when Peter chose not to eat with the Gentiles in Galatia over the issue of circumcision. These issues were continually worked out in the early church, to make sure that nobody preached a “different Gospel”. But, of course, there were differences in the apostles’ personalities and ability to reach different kinds of audiences. And the little communities that comprised the church at the dawn of her existence were, also, simply human, just as we are today. Can we blame them for being fraught with division, so early on? To Paul, their division arose from, or maybe signalled, spiritual immaturity.

As for Apollos, caught in the middle of this crisis, there is no indication that he ever favored an overestimation of his person. Jerome, a historian, states that Apollos was so dissatisfied with this division at Corinth, that he retired to Crete with a lawyer called Zenas. Both of them are mentioned in Paul’s letter to Titus (also at Crete at the time), asking for a full support for them. Obviously, Paul still considered Apollos a valuable co-laborer and friend, and some scholars believe that Apollos eventually returned to Ephesus once the schism was healed. Some even identify him as the unknown author, or at least a major contributor, to the Epistle to the Hebrews living in Rome.

An interesting story, isn’t it; and it does apply to us today. Sometimes, we, too, hear ideas preached to us that might not line up with those of our own. It could be over a big issue, such as when Peter and Paul disagreed whether circumcision was required for the Gentiles to enter the church. Or it could be over the smaller nuances of otherwise sound teachings, like when Apollos was still preaching the baptism of John. Sometimes, we agree with the ideas if people preach them in a way that is really entertaining, while we may miss out on the message or resist it if the illustrations are foreign or speaking is boring. And finally, we may even be called to correct each other’s ideas, like when Priscilla and Aquila helped Apollos. The bottom line is, all of this has the right to take place in the diverse church that’s made up of us, humans. We continue to work on some difficult theological issues today (marriage, MAID), while still balancing a range of convictions re. salvation, historicity of Jesus, original sin, etc. In such conversations we continue to “water” each other’s faith - by staying sincere and patient, speaking humbly and respectfully, and recognizing that all the planting had already been done by God.