One of the most intriguing passages in Scripture is found in Acts 18:24-27, in which Priscilla and Aquila, missionaries with Paul, hear a man named Apollos preach, and they discern that something is missing concerning his understanding of the “way of God.” Indeed, F. F. Bruce comments, “Apollos presents . . . one of the most interesting problems in New Testament history.”1
Apollos was an educated man (v. 24), and “being fervent in spirit, he was speaking and teaching the things concerning Jesus accurately” (v. 25).2 Yet, there was a deficiency in Apollos’ message. Therefore, Priscilla and Aquila “having heard him, took him aside and explained to him the way more fully” (v. 26).3 Although this statement seems at first glance straightforward, exactly what it means in the case of Apollos and his relationship to the Christian faith has been the subject of some disagreement. The burden of this article will be to obtain a better understanding of what this historical account of a leading individual in the first generation church is conveying about what is included in a full understanding of the Christian way.
What does Luke mean when he says that Priscilla and Aquila taught Apollos “the way more fully?” We will answer this question by studying the wider as well as the immediate historical context of the text, selecting the best text and explaining why it is the best text, analyzing the syntax (i.e., why Luke interrupts his narrative in chapters 18 and 19 about Paul’s missionary trips to relate the story of Apollos), and by doing a semantic analysis of important words (i.e., “the way” [ho hodos], “the baptism of John” [to baptisma ʿlōannou] and “more fully” [akribesteron]). We will conclude with an application of the passage for present-day Christians. From this study, we will learn that Apollos was a Christian when he met Priscilla and Aquila, but lacked instruction about the charismata of the Holy Spirit and hence the experience of the power of the Holy Spirit.
The Transformative Power of the Spirit
Could it be that, similarly, some evangelical scholars, both past and present, lack knowledge and experience concerning the powerful work of the Holy Spirit? Some of the foremost contemporary Biblical commentators offer only very tentative conclusions about what Luke meant by “the way more fully,” suggesting that the phrase concerned Apollos’ Christian baptism, the outward ceremonial washing that signifies membership into the visible Church. C.K. Barrett contends, “akribōs and akribesteron have an artificial ring and sound contrived. Why did not Priscilla and Aquila baptize Apollos? Was this feature of the story for some reason omitted, and did Luke supply the akribesteron instruction taking up akribōs from v. 25 and improving on it?”4 F. F. Bruce similarly states, “It may seem strange, no doubt, that someone [referring to Apollos] who was indwelt and empowered by the Spirit should know nothing of Christian baptism, but primitive Christianity was made up of many strands, and some of those strands have little or no knowledge.”5 Other commentators doubt the substantiality of Apollos’ faith, calling him “a Christian of sorts.”6 However, a mid-nineteenth century theologian, Melancthon Jacobus, suggests that Apollos lacked knowledge concerning the charismata of the Holy Spirit: “There are many in the Church who are called believers who are only wilderness-disciples, and need to have the way of God more accurately and fully. They have not learned . . . of the full furniture of the Spirit which he gives.”7
Clark Pinnock argues, “Poor theology can hurt us, for we will miss certain stirrings of the Spirit where we are not expecting them and are not open to them owing to an inadequate doctrinal map. . . . Similarly a person unaware of the full range of spiritual gifts that are available will not be open to receive them or may not value certain gifts.”8 Jack Deere states, “The real reasons for disbelieving the gifts of the Spirit today are not at all based on Scripture; they are based on experience.”9 Our experience is often (but not always) based upon what we have been trained, or taught, to expect.
A brief look at the wider historical context of Acts 18 and 19 will be useful in our understanding of the passage. Luke writes the Book of Acts as a second letter, continuing the account that he had made formerly to Theophilus in the Gospel of Luke (Acts 1:1). In Acts, Luke encourages Theophilus to faith in the risen Lord who, through the Holy Spirit, gave miraculous gifts to the apostles and empowered them to spread the gospel beginning in Jerusalem and then on to the rest of the world. The first twelve chapters deal mainly with the ministry of the first apostles (Peter, John, James, Stephen, and Philip) in Jerusalem and the surrounding environs, while chapters 13-28 focus on Paul’s ministry to the rest of the civilized world.
Embedded within the Book of Acts is an account of the founding of the early Church (Acts 1-2), a description of what life was like in the nascent Church (Acts 2:43-47, 4:23-5:11), an explanation of the manner in which the Church handled difficulties (Acts 6:1-7, 15), and an analysis of how it made decisions (Acts 11, 13:1-3, 15).
Luke’s narrative portrays the miraculous work of the Holy Spirit. The characters of those whom Jesus had named apostles are revealed to have changed dramatically after Pentecost (Acts 2). Peter is transformed from a frightened disciple of Jesus who denied him three times to someone who proclaims boldly the gospel message to large crowds (2:14-41, 3:12-26) and even to the Jewish Council (4:1-22, 5:17-42). Peter also, through a vision given by the Holy Spirit, comes to understand that the Gentiles are included in God’s plan of redemption and preaches to the Gentile Cornelius (10:1-11:18).
Luke emphasizes the role of the Holy Spirit in the conversion of Paul as well. Paul is transformed from a legalistic Pharisee to an instrument of God used to carry the gospel throughout the civilized world (chs. 1, 9, 13-28). The Holy Spirit performs many miracles through the apostles, including convicting of sin (2:37, 5:1-16), raising the dead (9:32-42, 20:10), healing the sick (3:1-9, 5:12-16, 14:8-10), casting out demons (16:16-18), enabling believers to speak in other languages (2:1-13), giving visions (9:10-16, 10:9-15, 18:9), inspiring prophesy (21:7-11), and directing ministry (6:1-7, 8:29, 13:2, 16:6-10). These signs by the Holy Spirit accompany the apostles’ preaching (2:1-42; 3; 8:4-8, 26-40; 9:1-19, 32-41, 10; 12:6-19; 13:6-12; 14:8-20; 16:6-10, 16-40; 19:11-12; 20:7-12; 27:10-44; 28:1-6), confirming the good news of the gospel.
Followers of the Way
Narrowing our focus to the immediate historical context, we note the account of Acts 18:18-19:7 occurs between Paul’s second and third missionary trips. The description of Apollos and the twelve disciples in these verses must be taken as one unit, purposely united by Luke for our instruction. C.K. Barrett agrees, “It would be easy to make out of what is treated here as a single paragraph, two distinct paragraphs, 18:24-28, the story of Apollos, and, 19:1-7, the story of twelve disciples; easy but misleading, because the most difficult problems and the most important observations would be missed.”10 Similarly, Jacobus writes, “This paragraph, with that which follows, ch. 19:1, forms, thus, a very interesting link between the Gospels and the Acts, and shows us the case of certainty in the transition state; such as needed to be only further instructed in order to receive the full Gospel.”11 In other words, the disciples in the gospels knew Jesus was “the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matt. 16:16). This much God had revealed to them by the Holy Spirit (Matt. 16:17). However, before the ascension, the first disciples had not received the fullness of the Holy Spirit because Jesus had not yet been glorified (John 7:39).
Beginning in verse 18, Paul sails to Ephesus with his coworkers Priscilla and Aquila. After a short visit in Ephesus, Paul sails for Jerusalem, leaving behind Priscilla and Aquila, but promising to return, Lord willing (vv. 18-20). This is the point at which Apollos appears in the narrative. Beginning at verse 24, we read literally: “And a certain Jew, by name of Apollos, an Alexandrian by race, a learned man, came to Ephesus, being powerful in the scriptures.”12Apollos was a native of Alexandria, a city renowned for its Jewish learning (i.e., the location of the Alexandrian school). It was in this city that the translation of the Hebrew Scriptures into the Greek Septuagint (LXX) had been accomplished three centuries before Christ.13 Apollos was a “learned” man, probably well trained in rhetoric, and no doubt able to interpret the Septuagint as well as the Hebrew Scriptures. The phrase “came to Ephesus” (katēntēsen ēis ʿEphesen) is atypically placed between “a learned man” (aner logois) and “being powerful in the Scriptures” (dunatos ōn en tais graphais) for emphasis.
A further description of Apollos follows:
This man had been instructed (perfect passive participle, masculine, singular, nominative),14 in the way of the Lord15 and being fervent (present active participle, masculine, singular, nominative) in spirit, he was speaking and teaching (both verbs imperfect active indicative, third person, singular)16 accurately the things concerning Jesus,17 knowing (present middle participle, third person, singular)18 only the baptism of John (Acts 19:25).19
There is much to be studied in this verse! We shall see that Apollos is a Christian, but, as Luke explains, he only knew the baptism of John.
To begin, we understand that “the way” (ho hodos) must mean the Christian way for the following reasons. First, if we compare Luke’s use of ho hodos in Acts 9:2; 19:9, 23; 24:22, we see in each case that Luke is referring to the Christian faith. Second, Apollos taught accurately about Jesus, who is the Way. Third, Luke employs the phrase “the way of the Lord” (hodon tou kuriou, v. 25) prior to the phrase “the way of God” (tēn hodon tou theou, v. 26). If these phrases were reversed, if Luke started by saying that Apollos knew the way of God, and then said Priscilla and Aquila taught him the way of the Lord more accurately, we might doubt the validity of Apollos’ Christian faith. But Luke starts by asserting that Apollos knew “the way of the Lord.” Then later he says that Priscilla and Aquila taught him the “way of God more fully.”20
Another important phrase in this verse is “the baptism of John” (to baptisma ʿlōannou). Let us look primarily at how Luke defined this phrase in his writings, although the same definition could be derived from other New Testament writings. We find that Luke records the prophecy of the mission of John the Baptist through Zechariah, his father: “And you [John] will be called the prophet of the Highest; For you will go before the face of the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the remission of their sins, through the tender mercy of our God” (Luke 1:76-78, NKJV). John the Baptist’s mission, then, is to give knowledge of salvation through the remission of sins. Accordingly, we read that John came baptizing and “preaching a baptism of repentance for the remission of sins” (Luke 3:3). Furthermore, John’s baptism is a fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy, a preparatory rite for receiving and recognizing the coming Messiah (Luke 3:4-6). Those receiving John’s baptism were looking forward to the Messiah whom God had promised, that through him their sins would be forgiven: “And all the people who heard this, including the tax collectors, acknowledged the justice of God, because they had been baptized with John’s baptism” (Luke 7:29, NRSV). The people who heard John’s message and were baptized by him recognized that they were sinners under the wrath of God, but they also believed that God in his mercy would send the Messiah to save them from their sins.
Next, the reason John came baptizing was so that he would be able to identify just who the Messiah was:
And John bore witness, saying, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and he remained upon him. I did not know him, but he who sent me to baptize with water said to me, “Upon whom you see the Spirit descending, and remaining on him, this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.” And I have seen and testified that this is the Son of God” (John 1:32-34, NKJV).21
John’s message, then, included that Jesus was the Messiah. This gives rise to the question: Were the people who received John’s baptism numbered among those saved by faith in Christ? The appropriate answer would be “yes,” provided that they also believed John’s testimony that Jesus was the Messiah, about whom he had prophesied.22
Finally, John prophesied that the Messiah would baptize with the Holy Spirit: “I indeed baptize you with water; but One mightier than I is coming, whose sandal strap I am not worthy to loose. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire” (Luke 3:16). In Acts 1:4-5, we read, “And being assembled together with them, he commanded them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the Promise of the Father, ‘Which,’ he said, ‘you have heard from Me; for John truly baptized with water, but you shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now’” (Acts 1:4-5). We can glean from these verses that Jesus affirmed the baptism of John, but that he will institute a baptism by the Holy Spirit to those who put their faith in him.
In summary, John’s baptism of repentance, which included the message that Jesus was (and is) the Messiah, was sufficient for salvation, but did not include the baptism of the Holy Spirit.23 The baptism of the Holy Spirit, and teaching about the charismata that accompany this baptism, is a more full, more exact way, or teaching, of the Christian life after Pentecost.
Moving to the next verse, we note that verse 26 explains:
And this one began (aorist middle indicative, third person, singular) to speak boldly (present, middle, infinitive) in the synagogue, and Priscilla and Aquila having heard him (aorist active participle, third person, plural), took him aside (aorist active indicative, third person, plural), and more fully (akribesteron, an adverb) explained (aorist active indicative, third person, plural) to him the way of God.24
Priscilla and Aquila went to the synagogue to hear Apollos preach; he was a powerful preacher and taught accurately about the Lord Jesus (v. 25), but Priscilla and Aquila noticed a deficiency in Apollos’ understanding about “the way.” They take him aside to explain to him the way “more fully” (akribesteron, v. 26). The only clue we have so far about the meaning of this phrase “more fully” is in connection with Luke’s statement that Apollos knew only the baptism of John. In this, he is implying that there is more to the Christian message than just knowing the baptism of John.
The Holy Spirit Gives Fulness
It will be helpful at this point to undertake a brief word study of “more fully” (akribesteron). This word is a superlative of the word for “exact” or “full” (akribēs). It is used four times in the New Testament, and all by Luke in the book of Acts.25 First, we see it here in Acts 18:26. Second, in Acts 23:15, several Jews take an oath to kill Paul; they ask the elders and chief priests to feign interest in learning Paul’s teaching “more fully” (akribesteron), though they really are planning to kill him on the way to this testimony. Third, in Acts 23:20, we see Paul’s nephew exposing the conspirators’ plot, revealing that the Sanhedrin only asked for Paul on the pretense of inquiring about something “more exactly” (akribesteron) concerning him. Fourth, in the context of Acts 24:22, we hear Paul’s defense before Felix. Luke writes that Felix, “more accurately” (akribesteron) knowing about “the way,” adjourns the proceedings. Luke must mean here that Felix had a fuller understanding of “the way.” Finally, we understand that Luke uses akribesteron to mean “more exactly,” “more accurately,” and “more fully.”
Further, we read that, shortly after his encounter with Priscilla and Aquila, Apollos departs for Achaia (Corinth, see Acts 18:27-19:1) and begins to minister to the disciples there with great zeal and persuasiveness (vv. 27-28). Meanwhile, Paul has visited Jerusalem and makes his way back to Ephesus through “the upper regions” (19:1).26 Paul finds some disciples in Ephesus, about twelve in all (19:1, 7). There is an accentuation of the word “some” in Greek, which implies that Paul was speaking to a small group of the believers at Ephesus.27 Like Priscilla and Aquila concerning Apollos, Paul senses something is lacking in these believers’ instruction about Christ. He asks the probing question, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” This question is significant. If Paul had not had the sense that these people were already Christians, and that they understood Christ’s death, resurrection, and atoning sacrifice, he would have started by preaching the gospel to them. But he does not. Instead, he starts by inquiring about their knowledge of the Holy Spirit, which means he believed them to be disciples already.28 They respond, “We have not so much as heard whether there is a Holy Spirit.” It is unlikely that they had never actually heard about the Holy Spirit. They had the Old Testament, and John’s message, which included the idea that Jesus would baptize with the Holy Spirit (Luke 3:16). Some postulate that Luke means that these Ephesian believers had not heard about Pentecost, the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Perhaps this is true. But Luke also uses akouō, “to hear,” to mean “to learn something about someone” (Luke 7:3), or “to understand” (Luke 22:9). This is the most appropriate sense for the meaning here.
Clearly, these disciples at Ephesus had only received John’s baptism. Why would this conclusion be true? Because Apollos, their teacher, had only known John’s baptism. This account, which follows hard on the heels of Apollos’ story, helps Luke’s reader deduce what was missing in Apollos’ understanding of the way. Apollos lacked instruction about the Holy Spirit and the miraculous gifts that accompany the baptism of the Holy Spirit. The “way more fully” includes an understanding of Pentecost and the miraculous gifts of the Holy Spirit, which are available to all believers in any age.
In conclusion, Apollos’ understanding of “the way” of Christianity lacked the knowledge of, teaching about, and experience of the Holy Spirit. The way “more fully” that Priscilla and Aquila taught Apollos concerned the Holy Spirit. We have come to this conclusion by showing how Acts 18:18-19:7 must be studied as one contextual unit, by selecting the best text to be tou ʿlēsou (“concerning Jesus”) in Acts 18:25 (see endnote 17), by understanding that Apollos was a Christian before he met Aquila and Priscilla (because, we noted, he had undergone John’s baptism of repentance, which included the message that Jesus was—and is—the Messiah, but did not include the baptism of the Holy Spirit), and by finding the meaning of akribesteron to be “more exactly” or “more fully.” Therefore, just like Apollos before his encounter with Priscilla and Aquila, those who believe that Jesus is the Messiah—the Son of God, who came to die, arise, and defeat death so those who put their faith in him will have eternal life—have embarked upon the path of salvation. However, Jesus intends that his followers also experience his living presence and continuing work through the power of the Holy Spirit, who today still is manifested miraculously, just as in the early days of the church in Acts.
- F.F. Bruce, Bible Study Commentary (London: Scripture Union, 1982), 85.
- Translation provided by the author.
- Translation provided by the author.
- C.K. Barrett, Acts (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1998), 889.
- F.F. Bruce, The Book of Acts (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1998), 360.
- David J. Williams, New International Biblical Commentary, Acts (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 1990), 324.
- Melancthon Jacobus, Notes on the Acts of the Apostles (Philadelphia, Pa.: Presbyterian Board of Publication, 1859), 309.
- Clark H. Pinnock, Flame of Love (Westmont, Ill.: InterVarsity, 1996), 12.
- Jack Deere, Surprised by the Power of the Spirit (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1996), 56.
- Barrett, Acts, 886.
- Jacobus, Notes, 314.
- Translation provided by the author.
- Jacobus, Notes, 306.
- In Greek, the perfect tense signifies a completed action that impacts the present. Apollos came to Ephesus already having been instructed in the way of the Lord.
- There are several variants of the text tēn hodon tou theou. I am comfortable with the text chosen by the United Bible Society. Among the manuscripts that support this text are ), A, B, and 33.
- In Greek, the imperfect tense implies a continuous action. Apollos was speaking and teaching over a period of time.
- Again, there are variants of tou ‘Iēsou. The best texts choose tou ‘Iēsou. Among those texts are P74, a, A, B, and 33, all of which are Alexandrian texts and early manuscripts. The choice ta peri tou ‘Iēsou demonstrates that Apollos taught about Jesus accurately (akribōs), which means that he must have known at least the bare essentials, i.e., Christ died for our sins and rose again on the third day. Apollos was a Christian and taught the Christian faith accurately, although his knowledge was deficient. Interestingly, NKJV uses the variant with the least support, “the Lord” (tou kuriou), which is supported only by Byz [P] and Lect. Chrysostom. Why? I conjecture that perhaps these scholars maintain that Apollos was not a Christian. By using the “way of the Lord,” it is unclear as to whether or not Apollos knew about Jesus. However, I think Luke uses “the Lord” in 25a and “Jesus” in 25b to make sure that his readers know that Apollos had connected Jesus with being the Lord. It is noteworthy that “Messiah” is not the term used by Luke, because that might lead to confusion about the certainty of Apollos’ faith. If Apollos knew only the baptism of John, but did not know about Jesus, Luke might have used the term “Messiah,” the coming anointed one. But Luke does not, which I believe clearly points to the fact that Apollos knew Jesus as Lord.
- The present participle indicates that Apollos, during the time he was teaching in Ephesus, only knew of one baptism: the baptism
- Translation provided by the author.
- Barrett, Acts, 889.
- Jesus underwent John’s baptism. When queried by John the Baptist as to why he, who was perfect, asked for this baptism, Jesus replies, “Permit it to be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness” (Matt. 3:15, NKJV). Echoing Matthew 3:15, Ignatius, in his Letter to the Smyrnaens, paragraph 1, says Jesus was, “baptized by John in order that all righteousness might be filled by [Jesus].” (See Michael W. Holmes, The Apostolic Fathers [Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books, 1992], 185). We can draw two conclusions from this. First, Jesus was affirming John’s baptism as a “right” act in God’s sight. Second, Jesus was emptying himself of his Godhood, identifying with sinful humankind, becoming sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in him.
- Jesus himself underwent this baptism with water, a baptism of repentance and remission of sins. However, Jesus himself did not baptize with water; only his disciples did (John 3:23-26). Perhaps the reason Jesus did not baptize was so that there would be no confusion. John’s baptism was one of repentance and faith, while the baptism Jesus would give was the baptism of the Holy Spirit. Also, the disciples, at least some of whom started as followers of John the Baptist (John 1:35-42), were saved before the death and resurrection of Christ, based on their repentance and faith in Jesus.
- Josephus, in Jewish Antiquities XVIII, 116-118, refers to John’s baptism as a “consecration of the body implying that the soul had already been cleansed by right behavior.” If baptism was to be acceptable to God, an inward repentance must have already taken place.
- Translation provided by the author.
- For extrabiblical literature, compare the meaning “more exactly” (POxy 102, 12; BGU 388II, 41; Philo; Josephus; Tat. 15, 2; Ath. 9, 2). PPetr II, 16, 13 [205BC] and Epict.1, 24, 10 use akribesteron in the sense of “more accurately.” (See Walter Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3rd ed., trans. William Arndt and F. William Gingrich. Revised and edited by Frederick William Danker [Chicago, Ill.: University of Chicago, 2000], 39.)
- The “upper regions” include Tarsus, Galatia, and Phrygia.
- Scholars have suggested that these disciples were not Christians, because in all other places in the New Testament (with the exception of John 4:1, where John says hoti ‘Iēsous pleionas mathētas), when referring to Christian disciples, the author uses the article before the word “disciples” (hoi mathētas). However, it could be just as easily argued that hoi mathētas means “the entire group of believers.” A. T. Robertson explains this verse: “The accent of enclitics calls for comment. As a rule W.H. do not accent them. . . . However, plenty of cases call for accent of the enclitic, as, for example, in eurein tinas (Acts 19:1) for emphasis.” See A.T. Robertson, A Grammar of the Greek New Testament in Light of Historical Research (Nashville, Tenn.: Broadman Press, 1931), 233. This would imply that Paul was talking with only some disciples at Ephesus, not the whole body of believers. This helps to answer the question of why Apollos, after he had heard about the more accurate way, would have gone back to the disciples at Ephesus and corrected his teaching before leaving for Corinth. Perhaps he did. But maybe all the disciples had not been present for this instruction.
- Later, Luke states that Paul baptizes these “believers into the name of Jesus” (20:5). This again might cause speculation about the authenticity of the Christian faith of the twelve. To explain this would take another article! However, briefly, to be baptized into the name of Jesus means that one submits to the leadership of Jesus. (Compare “baptism into Moses” as found in 1 Corinthians 10:2. In this passage, Paul explains that the Israelites had followed Moses as their leader through the “cloud and the sea,” when they were delivered from the Egyptians. In that sense, they were “baptized into Moses.”) In modern terms, this would be something like surrendering your life to Jesus. We are talking about three possible stages in a Christian’s understanding of salvation (which is what happened to me personally). First, I believed I was a sinner and trusted Christ to save me. (I believe that was when I became a Christian.) Second, two years later, I asked Jesus to take over my life. I surrendered my life to Him. (There was a big time lapse, I realize, but I had not been adequately instructed about the importance of surrender.) Then, several years after that, I received teaching about the charismata of the Holy Spirit. All these things ideally should take place at once, but they often do not, depending, as they do, upon the adequate knowledge/teaching of our teachers. Apollos, no doubt, thanked God that Priscilla and Aquila were well-instructed teachers and knew the way more fully.