Sunday, May 15, 2016

Like Peter, Like Apollos: Sermon for Pentecost 2016

Good morning, brothers and sisters! Hallelujah – what a morning! Come, Holy Ghost, our souls inspire. When we last left the Apostle Paul on his journey, his ministry in Corinth was booming – and all because he obeyed Jesus, as we must, to “speak and not be silent” without being afraid (Acts 18:9). 

After Paul's eighteen-month stint in Corinth, he took Priscilla and Aquila, went to the port, got a ritual haircut for a Nazirite vow – Paul was, after all, a devout and converted Jewish Pharisee – and then Paul went to Ephesus for a short stop (Acts 18:18-19). Those in the synagogue actually asked Paul to stay longer with them – now there's a new twist! – but Paul had elsewhere to be, so he set sail for Caesarea, Antioch, possibly a visit to Jerusalem, and definitely a trip through the Galatian churches. He'll be back to visit Ephesus again later.

But meanwhile, after Paul's left Priscilla and Aquila in Ephesus, another fellow passes through. His name is Apollos – probably short for “Apollonius.” He's a Jewish believer, like Priscilla, Aquila, and Paul. But he comes from Alexandria in Egypt. Excuse me – Apollos wouldn't like me saying that. He might rather have me say, “Alexandria by Egypt.” Alexandrians saw themselves as standing apart from Egypt, the same way – and for similar reasons – we wouldn't say, “Washington DC in Maryland.” Alexandria was a sophisticated place – famous for rhetoric, scholarship, education. What Athens was in memory, Alexandria was today. But speakers in Alexandria weren't calm and dispassionate, the ideal in Athens; no, they were emotional, vigorous, heated.

And our friend Apollos here has a lot going for him. Luke tells us he's eloquent and educated – he's got all the rhetorical training, all the great studies Alexandria can offer – and he's also a Jew with a pretty strong education in the Bible, or what we'd today call the Old Testament. Alexandria had a large Jewish community – maybe it's where Joseph and Jesus took the baby Jesus when they hid from Herod – and they had a style unique to them. 

One clue that suggests to me, and Carl, and Martin Luther that maybe Apollos had something to do with writing Hebrews is that it reads like something out of Alexandria, with lots of allegory and typology and echoes of Middle Platonist philosophy. One of the most famous Jewish teachers, Philo of Alexandria – he's left heaps of writings we still have – had just passed away a few years before Apollos reached Ephesus. For all we know, Apollos could have been a student of Philo's once, or a student of a student. 

 Yet not all was well in Alexandria: the Greeks and Egyptians felt threatened by the Jews, and there was a slaughter when Caligula was emperor, about thirteen years before this story. Apollos would've known; maybe he was even there.

But this educated Jew from Alexandria was also a believer. He was “instructed in the way of the Lord” (Acts 18:25). And we know that doesn't just mean the Old Testament, because from the moment he got to Ephesus, he started acting like Paul, jumping into the synagogue and precisely teaching about Jesus by name (Acts 18:26). How did Apollos get converted? We don't know. Maybe some of the crowd from Pentecost returned home to Alexandria and he learned that way. Maybe missionaries made their way there in the two decades since. 

But somehow, Apollos had gotten John the Baptist's baptism – probably during a pilgrimage to Jerusalem during John's ministry – but nobody ever baptized him into Christ. In fact, there were portions of the story he was still missing in Ephesus. Some preachers have speculated he hadn't heard of the cross and resurrection; he just knew Jesus as the kingdom-teaching Messiah. That seems a little far-fetched to me, but I can't rule it out.

Bottom line is, nobody seems to know what the deal is here. But whatever Apollos did know, he had it right. He just needed more. We always need the full gospel; the mere basics, a diet of milk, isn't enough for us. So Priscilla and Aquilla brought him home for some grub, showed him hospitality in their new house in Ephesus, and filled him in with the rest of the scoop (Acts 18:26). And once they did, watch out! 

Apollos is a powerhouse – evangelism and apologetics and preaching all in one awesome package. In fact, his reputation as a preacher was even better than Paul's. Can you imagine that? There's a reason Apollos is, next to Jesus, literally my favorite person in the Bible. And when he wandered off to Achaia, the province where Athens and Corinth were, he proved a huge help to the believing, grace-filled church (Acts 18:27). And that's because he had the skills needed to totally and thoroughly debunk the Jewish objections to Jesus, and he made an irrefutable case that Jesus was the promised Messiah (Acts 18:28). And like I said, I suspect if you want to know what that looks like, read Hebrews.

But beyond all of that, that's not the most important thing Luke tells us about Apollos. Oh, it's good to know. It's encouraging to hear that there are people like that in the early church. And his intellectual prowess, his training, his obvious skill – those are certainly traits that set him apart from virtually every early Christian except Paul himself. These things all make Apollos stand out. But they aren't what's really important. No, what's really important is this little reference tucked away in verse 25 – in him dwelt the Spirit of God. He doesn't just have skills and education and training; he has the Spirit. But the Spirit uses all those other things he has: his broad knowledge base, and his talents, and his training in rhetoric, and his education in the Scriptures, and his awareness of what Jesus taught, and all of that, the Spirit uses it.

Too often, we're tempted to think that, if we have the Spirit, then doing anything else is pointless. We focus in on those passages that talk about God choosing the weak of the world and announcing the gospel through them so as to shame the strong – and we think that the Spirit and natural talent, or the Spirit and high culture, or the Spirit and education, are somehow alternatives. You can go with one or the other, so pick. 

That kind of defective pietism plays into the anti-intellectual trend in American culture. And, to be honest, our own denomination has some of that in our history. Early Evangelical Association preachers looked down on anybody who went to seminary, thinking that if they got an education from trained theologians, they'd somehow lose the power of the Spirit. It took a lot of effort by faithful, intelligent pastors like William Yost to convince the Powers-That-Be otherwise and open up a school.

But even today, we can find ourselves thinking like that – that somebody untrained is in a way more pure, more in tune with the Spirit, than somebody with natural skills and the training to put them to use. For some pastors even today, for instance, there's no need to research or plan for a sermon, because they just depend on the Spirit to teach them what they need and put words in their mouths. And I remember one of my seminary professors – world-renowned New Testament scholar, and a faithful believer – recounting a conversation with a student with this mindset. And the student says to him, “Professor, I don't need to study this, I don't need to plan, I don't worry about any of that; the Spirit will get things done.” And my professor told the student, “Well, son, I sure wish you'd give the Spirit more to work with!” Ain't that the truth. Well, Apollos did. But, of the two, the more important was that he had the Spirit. The Spirit takes up his skills and puts them to use; it's not an “either/or.”

That's what makes Apollos' situation different from the people next chapter who also only knew the baptism of John. We'll meet them soon – a band of twelve Jews in Ephesus, evidently disciples of John the Baptist, whom Paul has to tell that Jesus is the One Who Was to Come (Acts 19:4). When Paul finds out they're clueless about the Holy Spirit, he has to do a double-take: “Wait, whoa, what kind of baptism did you boys get, anyway? They a little lax down where you're from?” They didn't have a Christian baptism – they weren't baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ – and so John's baptism wasn't enough. They needed to be baptized as believers, not merely washed as part of John's mission (Acts 19:5). And only then do they get a visit from the Holy Spirit. “When Paul laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they began speaking in tongues and prophesying” (Acts 19:6). For folks who only know John's baptism, it's no surprise – that baptism was just to get ready, to point the way – but now the Messiah has died and risen and ascended and poured out power, and it's a whole new ballgame, friends.

But then there's Apollos. Luke mentions nothing about anybody baptizing Apollos again. Aquila doesn't do it. Priscilla doesn't do it. Why did they need it, but not him? Well, this is a pretty messy situation – don't get me wrong – but it looks like the reason is that Apollos, unlike them, knows who Jesus is. I mean, even before Priscilla and Aquila get to him, he's accurately teaching things about Jesus. He's preaching the gospel! Or at least some of the gospel. And God has given Apollos the gift of the Holy Spirit. He may just know John's baptism, but do we have a record of Jesus baptizing Peter or Andrew? Andrew was John's disciple first, had been baptized by him. Apollos is like that – he's had John's baptism, and he's learned about Jesus being the Messiah, and he has God's Holy Spirit in him somehow.

In Acts, we sometimes see people who have just water baptism needing to get the gift of the Spirit separately – usually to make a point about the apostles being special. And in Acts, we do on occasion see people who have just the Spirit needing to get baptized into Christ in the water – folks like Cornelius, for instance – and usually it's because unless God acts first in those cases, things aren't going to get done. But Apollos has a water baptism – John's – and the Holy Spirit. 

And so Apollos, “born of water and the Spirit” (John 3:5), is made clean with the holy power of God. Water and Spirit go together somehow – they belong together. Not that you can't get them out of order or a bit jumbled up – it's a crazy world – but no role model in Acts ever had the thought, “Well, I have the one, I guess I don't need the other.” And that's because the Holy Spirit and baptism were promises that went together. It's what God told Israel through Ezekiel years ago:

I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. (Ezekiel 36:25-27)

But Apollos doesn't just have the Spirit. Luke doesn't say the Spirit descended on Apollos, or that Apollos spoke and worked by the Spirit, or that Apollos was filled with the Spirit. All those things are true, but Luke goes further, picks a rare word here. Literally, Luke says that Apollos is boiling in the Spirit” (Acts 18:25). That's a strong image! It's one thing for a pot to have some water, it's another thing for a pot to be filled to the top, but we have some profound chemistry going on when you crank up the burners and set that thing a-boilin'! But... it's an odd image. I mean, what exactly is Luke saying?

Have you ever really thought about what boiling is? Go ahead, close your eyes, and picture a boiling pot of water on the stove. Mentally put your hand over it; see the steam wisp between your fingers; feel the heat against your palm. Watch the bubbles pop and froth – that thing's going pretty crazy there, isn't it? What is boiling? Here's a definition of boiling for you: “Boiling is the rapid vaporization of a liquid, which occurs when a liquid is heated to its boiling point.” And what's a boiling point? Well, a boiling point is “the temperature at which the vapor pressure of the liquid is equal to the pressure exerted on the liquid by the surrounding atmosphere.” That's boiling.

So first, the liquid has been heated – heated a lot. It isn't just everyday water anymore. It's water with all this kinetic energy, so much energy the molecules are bouncing to and fro, and because they just can't contain themselves, they have to throw off the excess, and you've seen that, you've felt that. And that's what's going on in Apollos. When he has the Spirit making himself known in his life, the energy of God is at work in him. 

And because the energy of God is exciting Apollos's soul, elevating it to a new state, he can't hold it all. The energy of God – the action of God – is so at work in Apollos' life that he knows exactly what Scripture means when it calls God a “consuming fire” (Deuteronomy 4:24), whose wrath “burns hot” (Exodus 32:11), seated in heaven on a throne of “fiery flames” (Daniel 7:9). God is hot! God is more than we can handle! When God comes to work on us, he stirs things up with his heat and gets everything excited! And that energy spills over into Apollos' life.

See, here's another thing about boiling water. It gets so hot, by the time it reaches its boiling point, that any microbes living in it are killed off, rendered inert and dead and unable to hurt us. Because when water is dirty, what it needs is to be boiled, because to be boiled is to be sterilized. Boiling helps to make water clean. And because Apollos is boiling in the Spirit, he's being made clean – he's being sanctified – because anything foreign in him, things like sin and death, are being killed off by the Spirit's heat! 

That's what sanctification is all about. And if it keeps going on, if Apollos boils all up and recondenses, perfectly free from all specks and germs and impurities... well, John Wesley had a name for that: “Christian perfection,” or “entire sanctification.” Whether we reach it in this life or not, God does have it in store for us. But it comes about through boiling in the Spirit.

And then, what else happens when water boils? Remember the definition. When water boils, when it reaches the boiling point, then the vapor pressure matches and rises beyond the ambient atmospheric pressure. In other words, the air pressure holding the water in place gets trumped by the pressure of energetic water molecules trying to get out as vapor, as steam. The pressure inside due to the heat is more than the pressure outside – and so, water versus atmosphere, the water wins! 

And Apollos knows all about that. He's boiling in the Spirit – the pressure in him to live for God, to exercise his spiritual gifts, to think and declare the gospel, is too great to be hemmed in by the pressure of the synagogue, of the world, of his own fleshly inhibitions pressing in on his soul. Nothing can keep his faith, his gospel, his gifts, trapped inside – the pressure is too great – it has to get out, it needs a rapid release, there's no containing Apollos anymore! That's boiling in the Spirit!

And it reminds me of Peter decades before. Now Peter didn't have Apollos' talent, or gifts with rhetoric and oratory, or special education – though before we rush to judgment, Peter was a student of a pretty excellent rabbi for a full three years – he's a graduate of the Seminary of Jesus Christ. But Peter didn't have Apollos' training; his style was probably a lot more simple. But there Peter was, staying in Jerusalem on the Feast of Weeks, the sixth day of the month of Sivan. The wheat harvest was ripe. So was the human harvest. 

In Jewish tradition, Shavuot – the Feast of Weeks – commemorated the gift of the Law to Israel. The Sinai Covenant, the Covenant of Moses, is renewed – Israel thanks God for the gift, renews her oath to follow it. But the problem is, Israel had a heart of stone. She couldn't make good on what she promised at the Feast of Weeks. If she wanted to walk in God's statutes and carefully obey his laws, she couldn't do it without another gift: the gift of God putting his Spirit in her.

And now the Feast of Weeks rolled around again. Pilgrims swarmed the Holy City, each presenting his firstfruits of wheat, barley, grapes, figs, dates, olives, and pomegranates at the temple (Deuteronomy 8:8; 26:1-4). They recounted the story of their deliverance: they were immigrants, foreigners, slaves in Egypt, but God multiplied them in his mercy, and when they were oppressed, they cried out to the LORD and were heard, and he brought them out of Egypt and into “a land flowing with milk and honey,” where there's plenty to go around – but the credit goes not to any farmer in Israel, but to the LORD who grants the growth (Deuteronomy 26:5-10; cf. 1 Corinthians 3:6). Springtime is here; the pilgrims think of the legend that Sinai's heights blossomed when God came down to give the Law.

But this is no ordinary Feast of Weeks this year. It doesn't follow an ordinary Passover. This year, the true Lamb was sacrificed. And this year, God has a greater gift than the Torah to offer. God offers the Spirit. And if the Feast of Weeks remembered how Israel was forged into one nation, a kingdom of priests (Exodus 19:6), this Feast of Weeks – this Pentecost – marks the empowerment of a New Israel to really live as a kingdom of priests and a holy nation (1 Peter 2:9).

The Twelve are clustered with the other followers – the real Israel meeting in secret – the church, the “assembly of the LORD” – in the upper room. And like at Sinai, God comes down bearing a gift – a better gift – the gift of the Spirit! And with tongues of fire, he fills the apostles with the presence and power of God (Acts 2:1-4). The crowds outside are confused, bewildered, amazed; some scoff (Acts 2:5-13) – they don't see the connection. But again, the Spirit gave Peter the same boldness later given to Apollos. And so he declares the gospel (Acts 2:14-36). He reminds the crowd of God's promises to pour out his Spirit during the last days (Acts 2:18; cf. Joel 2:29) and reminds them the prophet Joel said they'd be saved at the Day of the LORD by calling on the name of the LORD (Acts 2:21; cf. Joel 2:32).

Peter explains these must be the last days, because Israel crucified their promised King. God proved Jesus was the King, the Messiah, by attesting him with “mighty works and wonders and signs,” and still he was delivered up and killed (Acts 2:23). But the story isn't done, because the promise of Psalm 16 wasn't for David, it was for Jesus: that the Holy One precious to God wouldn't be left in the grave, wouldn't be abandoned to rot, but would experience the paths of life (Acts 2:27-28; cf. Psalm 16:10-11). 

The crowd knows the news; they were there at Passover; they've heard that Jesus is risen, he's alive, and that's not some weird modern idea; it fits the weave of the Scriptures (Acts 2:29-31). They all are witnesses that God raised Jesus up again, the final proof that he's the priest and king who belongs at God's right hand – Israel's Messiah and Lord, whom Israel crucified (Acts 2:32-36). What a sermon! No wonder the people were sliced deep, right to the heart (Acts 2:37), and ready to hear the call to repent of what they'd done – and all their other sin – and be baptized and receive the same Spirit by whom Peter spoke (Acts 2:38). That's what we remember at Pentecost!

But friends, Pentecost isn't just a day. It isn't merely an annual festival. Pentecost is the history, reality, and destiny of the church of God. A church absent Pentecost is a club. And we have enough clubs. We need new hearts. We need to be the church. And that's exactly who we're called to be! The Spirit that burned in Peter, the Spirit that boiled in Apollos, lives in each believer's new heart, and especially in the believing church. “God's Spirit dwells in you” (1 Corinthians 3:16)! 

That's the promise of Jesus, and anybody who doesn't have the Spirit doesn't belong to him (Romans 8:9). The Spirit is here to unite us with God – to give us access to the Father, through the Son, in one Spirit (Ephesians 2:18). The Spirit is here to supercharge our conscience. The Spirit is here to expose and cast out sin; to bring our earthly darkness into the life of the Light of the World. The Spirit is here to lead us into all truth (John 16:13; cf. Ephesians 3:4-5). The Spirit is here to grow fruit for the harvest (Galatians 5:22).

But most of all, the Spirit of Christ is here to make us the Body of Christ for the mission of Christ (cf. 1 Corinthians 12:13). That's what Pentecost is all about. It's not simply “the birthday of the church.” Pentecost isn't so much the birthday of the church as the explosion of the mission! The Church doesn't have a mission; the Mission has a church! And that's what the Spirit is all about. I mean, why did the Spirit on the apostles make them audible in all the world's languages? Because Abraham's blessing was at last swallowing Babel's curse. The Spirit translates the gospel to every mind and every heart. The nations were being bound together as one humanity in the Spirit (Galatians 3:27-28; Colossians 3:11; Ephesians 2:15).

Why did the Spirit fill Peter? Not just for his personal communion with his beloved Jesus, there there is that. Not just to make him a better person, though there is that. Not just to let him worship with joy, though there is that. But the Spirit filled Peter to make him bold to announce the gospel, not in his own rocky strength, but in God's incomprehensible power! 

The disciple who denied Jesus by a campfire was now fearless to speak the truth – to let loose all Jesus taught him – to confront the crowd with sin and repentance, to offer grace and mercy and love, in the boldness of God. He was filled with the Spirit “of power and love and self-control” (2 Timothy 1:7). Like Micah, Peter could say, “I am filled with power, with the Spirit of the LORD, and with justice and might, to declare to Jacob his transgression and to Israel his sin” (Micah 3:8). Jesus was right: with this gift, Peter really had received power – power to be a witness in Jerusalem and all Judea and Samaria and unto the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8)! 

And why did the Spirit fill Apollos? To drive him to use all that skill and talent and learning in the cause of Christ, to lay out an irrefutable case for the gospel, to strengthen the church for her life of mission! Paul planted, but to keep Corinthian and Ephesian believers from drying up under pressure, Apollos was sent to water (1 Corinthians 3:6).

And if that's what the Spirit was given for then, what do you think the Spirit wants to do with us now? We live in the same story as Peter and Apollos. It's the same Spirit working in us, near to us, present in and among us. And like Peter said, the Spirit is a promise – a promise for everyone the Lord our God calls to himself (Acts 2:39). If you're a believer – if you've repented, been baptized in Christ's name – then rest assured, you are forgiven by grace through faith, you are saved by grace through faith, and you are gifted by grace through faith. You are gifted for your role in the working of the Body of Christ, who is on a mission as the Spirit leads us. 

So rest assured, we have the Spirit. But are we walking in the Spirit? Are we following the Spirit? And, like Apollos, are we boiling? Does the Spirit overflow from this tiny cup of ours. Because we should be boiling! There's only one other time the word crops up in the Bible, and that's in Romans 12. It's one of Paul's exhortations for the church: “Be boiling in the Spirit” (Romans 12:11).

This Pentecost, let's turn aside from anything that hinders. Let's fix our eyes on Jesus, who went up to send the Spirit down. And let's implore him to breathe into us a double measure – like Peter, like Apollos – for the life of the world. May this church be found boiling in the Spirit! “O LORD, revive thy work in the midst of the years” (Habakkuk 3:2). “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit” – that 'Pentecostal power' – “you may abound in hope” (Romans 15:13).

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