18 After this, Paul stayed many days longer and then took leave of the brothers and set sail for Syria, and with him Priscilla and Aquila. At Cenchreae he had cut his hair, for he was under a vow. 19 And they came to Ephesus, and he left them there, but he himself went into the synagogue and reasoned with the Jews. 20 When they asked him to stay for a longer period, he declined. 21 But on taking leave of them he said, “I will return to you if God wills,” and he set sail from Ephesus. 22 When he had landed at Caesarea, he went up and greeted the church, and then went down to Antioch. 23 After spending some time there, he departed and went from one place to the next through the region of Galatia and Phrygia, strengthening all the disciples. 24 Now a Jew named Apollos, a native of Alexandria, came to Ephesus. He was an eloquent man, competent in the Scriptures. 25 He had been instructed in the way of the Lord. And being fervent in spirit, he spoke and taught accurately the things concerning Jesus, though he knew only the baptism of John. 26 He began to speak boldly in the synagogue, but when Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they took him aside and explained to him the way of God more accurately. 27 And when he wished to cross to Achaia, the brothers encouraged him and wrote to the disciples to welcome him. When he arrived, he greatly helped those who through grace had believed, 28 for he powerfully refuted the Jews in public, showing by the Scriptures that the Christ was Jesus.
Let us begin our consideration of this amazing passage of scripture by looking at a fairly dense but profound statement from Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s 1927 doctoral dissertation, Sanctorum Communio. This is admittedly pretty heavy stuff and will require some slow and careful consideration, but I think Bonhoeffer is hitting on something here that is key to our understanding of what happened in the life of the early church and what should happen in the life of the church today.
Thus the essence of community is not ‘commonality’ – although formally every community has this. Rather, reciprocal will constitutes community. Communities that are really founded only on formal agreement, on commonality (lecture halls, etc.), are not communities of will, but should be considered under the sociological category of the mass, or public…’Unity’ of will thus signifies an identity of content in what is intended and willed. Here a further distinction must be made. ‘Unity’ must exist absolutely in the willing of the community, that is, as formal unity in the sense of ‘agreement’ above. At first it will also exist as absolute unity in regard to content, namely the purpose that is apart from the pure will to community. But in the historical development of every community, differences of opinion arise about the realization of the aim. These often lead to substantive differences in the conception of the purpose itself, so that the unity of content can only be described as relative. Thus even the formally absolute unity of the empirical community of the church…is only relative unity as regards content…
Wills can will ‘together’, ‘beside’, and ‘against’ one another. Only the first leads to empirical social formation. The second is sociologically irrelevant…The third, when developed in completely pure form, does create real social vitality, but remains unable to create social form.[i]
I share this with us because I think the distinction between “commonality” and “reciprocal will” to be a significant and helpful one. As Bonhoeffer says, true community cannot be built on mere commonality. If you look around, you will see numerous commonalities that we all share, and they are essentially external though not exclusively so. For instance, we are all inside this building and we are all observing together what is happening on the platform. Furthermore, most of us in this room live in this area and most of us in this room are Americans. We could list others, but these are commonalities. They are not insignificant, but they do not, in and of themselves, build community.
Bonhoeffer argued that community is constituted of “reciprocal will,” that is of a people who have come to will together a common thing. I believe he is right to say this. Our church, for instance, will not become a true family until we are united by the Spirit in the common cause of wishing to see God’s glory magnified through the expansion of the Kingdom of God by means of the bold proclamation of the gospel and the conversion of the lost. When we will together a core belief, in other words, something deep and community-shaping happens: we become a church.
I would urge us to consider this truth this morning: community cannot be built on mere commonality. Merely showing up and observing or consuming religious goods offered by a paid staff does not a church make! But being on mission together and willing together to see Christ made much of in the world…that will build community!
Willing together does something else as well: it allows us to appreciate the unique points on our shared pilgrimage that each of us occupy and it frees us to help each other grow as followers of Jesus. We are not all at the same place in our journeys. Some of you, for instance, need to learn how to say “no.” You are doing everything and you are racing toward burnout! Some of you, on the other hand, need to learn how to say “yes.” You have been inactive for too long and now need to go deeper in your commitment and in joint ministry with this church. Some of you are hurting and need healing. Some of you are bored and need a fresh vision for what God is doing in the world. Some of you are skeptical. Some of you are thrilled! Some of you are nervous. Some of you are content. On and on it goes.
Willing together for the cause of Christ in the world allows us to take each other where we are and help each other move forward. Nowhere is the power of such reciprocal willing more evident than in the account of the early church in Acts. What I love about our text today is that it shows what I am going to call three “groups” in the Church and how they helped each other by willing together for the same thing.
Paul: Recommitment, Regrouping, and Renewing
The first group is represented by Paul. In our text, Paul represents those in need of recommitment, regrouping, and renewal. As we pick up the story in Acts 18:18, we find Paul concluding the second missionary journey and preparing for the third. In this transition period, Paul does something quite interesting as evidence by a specific verbal clue that Luke leaves for us.
18 After this, Paul stayed many days longer and then took leave of the brothers and set sail for Syria, and with him Priscilla and Aquila. At Cenchreae he had cut his hair, for he was under a vow. 19 And they came to Ephesus, and he left them there, but he himself went into the synagogue and reasoned with the Jews. 20 When they asked him to stay for a longer period, he declined. 21 But on taking leave of them he said, “I will return to you if God wills,” and he set sail from Ephesus. 22 When he had landed at Caesarea, he went up and greeted the church, and then went down to Antioch. 23 After spending some time there, he departed and went from one place to the next through the region of Galatia and Phrygia, strengthening all the disciples.
Paul ends his second missionary journey in Ephesus, bids adieu to Priscilla, Aquila, and the other believers and then turns toward Jerusalem. Before doing so, however, Luke tells us that, “At Cenchreae he had cut his hair, for he was under a vow.”
At first glance, Luke almost seems to slip this into the story as almost a throwaway comment, but clearly it is not. It is significant enough for Luke to mention and, in fact, it reveals something quite interesting about Paul’s walk as a Christian.
Why does Paul cut his hair at Cenchreae? To help us get at what is happening, we should consider the words of Numbers 6.
1 The Lord said to Moses, 2 “Speak to the Israelites and say to them: ‘If a man or woman wants to make a special vow, a vow of dedication to the Lord as a Nazirite, 3 they must abstain from wine and other fermented drink and must not drink vinegar made from wine or other fermented drink. They must not drink grape juice or eat grapes or raisins. 4 As long as they remain under their Nazirite vow, they must not eat anything that comes from the grapevine, not even the seeds or skins. 5 “‘During the entire period of their Nazirite vow, no razor may be used on their head. They must be holy until the period of their dedication to the Lord is over; they must let their hair grow long. 6 “‘Throughout the period of their dedication to the Lord, the Nazirite must not go near a dead body. 7 Even if their own father or mother or brother or sister dies, they must not make themselves ceremonially unclean on account of them, because the symbol of their dedication to God is on their head. 8 Throughout the period of their dedication, they are consecrated to the Lord. 9 “‘If someone dies suddenly in the Nazirite’s presence, thus defiling the hair that symbolizes their dedication, they must shave their head on the seventh day—the day of their cleansing. 10 Then on the eighth day they must bring two doves or two young pigeons to the priest at the entrance to the tent of meeting. 11 The priest is to offer one as a sin offering[a] and the other as a burnt offering to make atonement for the Nazirite because they sinned by being in the presence of the dead body. That same day they are to consecrate their head again. 12 They must rededicate themselves to the Lord for the same period of dedication and must bring a year-old male lamb as a guilt offering. The previous days do not count, because they became defiled during their period of dedication. 13 “‘Now this is the law of the Nazirite when the period of their dedication is over. They are to be brought to the entrance to the tent of meeting. 14 There they are to present their offerings to the Lord: a year-old male lamb without defect for a burnt offering, a year-old ewe lamb without defect for a sin offering, a ram without defect for a fellowship offering, 15 together with their grain offerings and drink offerings, and a basket of bread made with the finest flour and without yeast—thick loaves with olive oil mixed in, and thin loaves brushed with olive oil. 16 “‘The priest is to present all these before the Lord and make the sin offering and the burnt offering. 17 He is to present the basket of unleavened bread and is to sacrifice the ram as a fellowship offering to the Lord, together with its grain offering and drink offering. 18 “‘Then at the entrance to the tent of meeting, the Nazirite must shave off the hair that symbolizes their dedication. They are to take the hair and put it in the fire that is under the sacrifice of the fellowship offering. 19 “‘After the Nazirite has shaved off the hair that symbolizes their dedication, the priest is to place in their hands a boiled shoulder of the ram, and one thick loaf and one thin loaf from the basket, both made without yeast. 20 The priest shall then wave these before the Lord as a wave offering; they are holy and belong to the priest, together with the breast that was waved and the thigh that was presented. After that, the Nazirite may drink wine. 21 “‘This is the law of the Nazirite who vows offerings to the Lord in accordance with their dedication, in addition to whatever else they can afford. They must fulfill the vows they have made, according to the law of the Nazirite.’”
Paul has almost certainly taken a Nazirite vow of the kind described in that passage as he concludes this second missionary journey. Why would he do such a thing? William Barclay explains:
When a Jew specially wished to thank God for some blessing or some deliverance he took the Nazirite vow (Numbers 6:1-12). If that vow was carried out in full it meant that for thirty days he neither ate meat nor drank wine; and he allowed his hair to grow. At the end of the thirty days he made certain offerings in the Temple; his head was shorn and the hair was burned on the altar as an offering to God. No doubt Paul was thinking of all God’s goodness to him in Corinth and took this vow to show his gratitude.[ii]
There is a note of gratitude, then, in such an act, but notice also how Numbers reveals that those who take such a vow are doing it to express dedication to God or a spirit of rededication. Thus, this is a sign of recommitment, regrouping, and renewing. This is what Paul is apparently doing in our text.
So at Cenchreae Paul cuts his hair. John Polhill suggests that “the reference to his having cut his hair at this point presents some difficulty” because Jews taking a Nazarite vow typically cut their hair at the end of the vow and not at the beginning. When the hair was cut, it was to be offered on the altar at the Temple. So did Paul cut his hair at the beginning of the vow with plans to present it at the Temple when he arrived in Jerusalem? Polhill notes that the grammar suggests that he had already taken the vow, thus this cutting of the hair was the completion of it. The solution might be found in Josephus’ observation that some Jews cut their hair outside of Jerusalem and then carried it with them to offer with sacrifices at the Temple later when they arrived in the city.[iii]
So Paul likely took his vow 30 days before arriving in Cenchreae in anticipation of the conclusion of this second missionary journey. Then he saved his hair and went to Jerusalem. This is alluded to by Luke’s usage of the phrase “the church” in, “When he had landed at Caesarea, he went up and greeted the church…” “The church” refers to the Jerusalem church. Thus, between landing at Caesarea and going to Antioch, Paul went to Jerusalem to mother church. We can also reasonably assume that he went to the Temple to offer his cut hair in sacrifice in fulfillment of his Nazirite vow.
This, I would submit to you, is a beautiful picture. Paul is completing another journey. He has worked hard. He has been through a lot. He has reasoned in the synagogues and planted churches. He has faced opposition and persecution. He has seen the power of God in action. He has made new friends and he now also has new enemies. In short, he has labored hard in the fields of the Lord.
And now, as this journey ends, in the precious few moments of rest he has, he takes a vow of rededication, of recommitment, of renewal. He takes a vow that he concludes by cutting his hair. He offers it at the Temple and he visits the church at Jerusalem. In other words, he realizes that the only thing that can keep him going like this is to walk honestly and humbly and with complete devotion before God. And because Paul and the believers in Jerusalem are practicing reciprocal will, are willing together the same thing, they can be for each other what they need to be: Paul can be the source of inspiration for the Church that he was and the Church can encourage and strengthen Paul as they no doubt did.
W.A. Sessions, in his introduction to Flannery O’Connor’s prayer journal, referred to “her outlandish hope, at least in the twentieth century, for total commitment to God.”[iv] But I wonder how “outlandish” such a hope really is and what the fact that she had this hope in “the twentieth century” has to do with anything? From a human perspective, total commitment to God is indeed outlandish, but it should not appear such to the people of God in the world today. Total commitment should comprise our daily lives together as the Church. It will not do so, however, without periodic and, indeed, daily rededications of ourselves to God.
Maybe you are in this group. Maybe it is time for you to come before the Lord and remember what it is that we are doing together as a body of believers. Maybe it is time for your to make your own vow of dedication and total commitment, no matter what that looks like.
Priscilla and Aquila: The Identification, Mentoring and Encouragement of Leadership
Paul was at a place where he needed to stop and rededicate his life to the Lord and the mission that God had given him. Priscilla and Aquila, however, were at another place. In Ephesus, this amazing couple met a powerful preacher named Apollos. And in their encounter with him they saw an opportunity to help him come to understand better that which they needed to all be willing together: the gospel of Christ and its spread throughout the world. Apollos comes to Ephesus and Priscilla and Aquila hear him preach. We will skip down to verse 26 and see their reaction to this.
26 He began to speak boldly in the synagogue, but when Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they took him aside and explained to him the way of God more accurately. 27a And when he wished to cross to Achaia, the brothers encouraged him and wrote to the disciples to welcome him.
As we will see, Apollos was a great man who loved the Lord. However, his knowledge of the gospel was not complete. All he knew, Luke will tell us, was the baptism of John the Baptist. Presumably, then, he did not know all that he needed to know about the Christ to whom John the Baptist pointed. So he was preaching not a false gospel but an incomplete gospel.
Upon hearing him and, obviously, upon seeing his giftedness, Priscilla and Aquila “took him aside and explained to him the way of God more accurately.” This is telling. We notice, for instance, that they do not go off and talk about Apollos’ deficiencies behind his back. They do not have “roast preacher” for lunch. They do not smile and shake his hand only to dismantle him over the lunch table. On the contrary, because they see that they are all willing the same thing (to make Christ known in the world) and because they know the importance of that which they are willing together, they pull him aside and lovingly help him grow in understanding.
I do not know how well you know preachers, but I can promise you that this whole situation is most unusual. They love him enough to help him and he loves the Lord enough to submit himself humbly to their counsel. What was it, then, that allowed them to set aside their own egos and agendas and freed them to help each other in this way? It was the fact that they were in the same community of reciprocal will: they were all pulling for the same thing in the same direction. As a result, they were more concerned with their higher shared values than with their lower individual egos.
Have you ever experienced the joy of encouraging somebody to grow in the gifts that God had given him or her? It is an awesome thing! Priscilla and Aquila did this with Apollos. He obviously received their instruction well, for he grew in his knowledge and eventually moved on with letters of recommendation from the believers in Ephesus. Richard Longenecker suggests that the letter of recommendation from the believers in Ephesus to those in Achaia was probably written by Priscilla and Aquila.[v] We do not know this for sure, but it is quite possible and is a beautiful thought.
Perhaps you are in this group: you need to exercise the gifts of encouragement and mentoring. You need to help believers in their ministries, investing your own life into theirs. This requires time and effort, but it is one of the kindest things we can do for one another!
Apollos: Raw Enthusiasm Willing to Be Humbled Beneath Needed Instruction
And then there is Apollos. He will represent for us the group of those Christians who are filled with raw enthusiasm but need to grow in their knowledge of Christ. This group will need to exercise humility and receive the sound instruction they are given. This is precisely what Apollos did. Let us go back up and begin at verse 24.
24 Now a Jew named Apollos, a native of Alexandria, came to Ephesus. He was an eloquent man, competent in the Scriptures. 25 He had been instructed in the way of the Lord. And being fervent in spirit, he spoke and taught accurately the things concerning Jesus, though he knew only the baptism of John. 26 He began to speak boldly in the synagogue, but when Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they took him aside and explained to him the way of God more accurately. 27 And when he wished to cross to Achaia, the brothers encouraged him and wrote to the disciples to welcome him. When he arrived, he greatly helped those who through grace had believed, 28 for he powerfully refuted the Jews in public, showing by the Scriptures that the Christ was Jesus.
What do we know about Apollos? He was from Alexandria. He was a good speaker. He was well versed in scripture. He was passionate about the things of God and wanted others to know the Lord. He had a limited knowledge of Jesus and knew more about John the Baptist’s message than about the gospel itself. It is hard to know how much he knew about Jesus, but it seems clear that he had not yet come to grasp the full beauty of the gospel. So he was teaching a baptism of repentance but he was not teaching the full story of the coming of Christ, Christ’s work on the cross, and the empty tomb. Thus, his message was not false or heretical, it was simply incomplete and needed to be filled in.
This was apparent to Priscilla and Aquila. So they approached Apollos, asked to speak with him, and helped him understand that Christ Jesus was the One to whom John the Baptist was pointing and the One to whom Apollos needed to point as well. After all, that is what John the Baptist would have wanted Apollos to do anyway, for John came to prepare the way for Christ.
This was undoubtedly one need in Apollos life: the need to understand the gospel more fully. John Polhill has further pointed out that Apollos was from Alexandria where the main method of interpreting scripture was allegorical. This was a way of reading the Bible that downplayed the plain meaning of the text and saw instead various spiritual lessons in all of the details and minutia of scripture. This approach to scripture often meant that the interpreter ended up reading his own views into the minutia of scripture instead of simply stating what scripture says. Obviously, such an approach has real limitations. Polhill writes that “it is tempting to see Apollos as being steeped in such methods, but this is not explicit in Luke’s description.”[vi]
It is tempting and it is also possible that this was part of the issue. Who knows? Regardless, Apollos was a man who had more enthusiasm than knowledge and who needed to grow more deeply in the things of Christ. And, beautifully, he did just that. He receives instruction and continues his preaching ministry this time armed with what Paul Harvey famously called “the rest of the story.”
Apollos would become a great leader in the Church. Paul will praise him for his great ministry. Later in history, Martin Luther will wonder aloud if Apollos might not have even been the author of the book of Hebrews.[vii] We will never know that on this side of heaven, but the fact that Luther would propose it shows the abiding power of Apollos’ ministry and character.
But note this: none of this would have happened if Apollos had not coupled his zeal and enthusiasm with deeper knowledge and growth in the content of the faith. And that would not have happened if Priscilla and Aquila had not encountered him in Ephesus and cared enough to invest in him. And that would not have happened if Paul would not have loved Priscilla and Aquila enough to share a joint ministry with them, carry them to Ephesus, and then know that they needed to stay there while he moved on.
And none of that would have happened if all of the characters in our story had not joined together in a mutual act of reciprocal will and solidarity and commitment to be the body of Christ around the gospel of Christ for the glory of God in Christ!
We have one body composed of many parts…but we should have one will and that should be focused Godward and led by the Spirit and bathed in the blood of the Lamb.
[i] Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Sanctorum Communio: A Theological Study of the Sociology of the Church. Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, vol.1 (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1998), p.83-84,88.
[ii] William Barclay, Acts. The Daily Study Bible. (Edinburgh: The Saint Andrew Press, 1969), p.149.
[iii] John B. Polhill, Acts. The New American Commentary. Vol.26. David Dockery, gen. ed. (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1992), p.390.
[iv] Flannery O’Connor, A Prayer Journal. (New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013), p.xi.
[v] Richard Longenecker, “Acts.” The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: New Testament. (Abridged Edition) Eds., Kenneth L. Barker and John R. Kohlenberger III (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994), p.483.
[vi] Polhill, p.396,n.4.
[vii] Stott, John (2014-04-02). The Message of Acts (The Bible Speaks Today Series) (Kindle Locations 5497). InterVarsity Press. Kindle Edition.