Different Situations, Different Responses

April 6, 1997 / Acts 18:23ó19:41

I buy cheap socks. Theyíre the one-size-fits-all brand. But what works with cheap socks wonít work with people. There is no one-approach-works-for-all method for presenting the gospel.

Listen to these words from the little Epistle of Jude: "Be merciful to those who doubt; snatch others from the fire and save them; to others show mercy, mixed with fear ó hating even the clothing stained by corrupted flesh" (Jude 23). With some people it is appropriate to be patient, gentle, and longsuffering. Others, however, have to be approached more aggressively and "snatched" from the fire. In still other settings, you may be dealing with someone who requires incredible patience and gentleness but with whom you must be extremely cautious.

A man phoned me Tuesday of last week and said he would like to ask a question about something he had read about me. "Sure," I said, "I donít think Iím doing anything I would want to hide from you." He said he had read in a magazine called The Spiritual Sword that I had preached at a Bible conference for charismatics in Alabama last fall. "Yes," I said. "It was a wonderful experience ó and incredibly generous of them to invite me someone who doesnít share all their views on modern-day workings of the Holy Spirit to speak at their conference."

He just couldnít understand why Iíd do that. And I know why he couldnít. "The Bible tells us to be separate from the world," he said. He was making the mistake many of us have made in lumping believers with whom we have differences of interpretation with people who are unbelievers. He makes no distinction between a Baptist and a Buddhist, a Christian with whom I might disagree on church organization or premillennialism and someone who doesnít believe Jesus is the Son of God.

If Iíd been further along in my preparation for this sermon, perhaps it would have occurred to me to use Paul as a New Testament illustration of someone who knew that different situations call for different responses. He and his associates certainly didnít use a one-size-fits-all approach in their teaching. Let me take you to the text and show you what I mean. And then letís think of some ways this biblical insight can help us honor the Lord in our relationships.

Apollos and His Disciples

Paulís second missionary journey essentially ended with his stay at Corinth, After eighteen months there, he sailed to Ephesus for a quick visit, promised to "come back if it is Godís will," and left his friends Aquila and Priscilla there to plant a church. He then went back to Antioch and reported on his most recent work ó formally ending his second tour. Between the time of Paulís brief stopover visit at Ephesus and his return a year or so later, a man named Apollos arrived in the city.

Luke informs us that Apollos was a Jew from Alexandria, "a learned man, with a thorough knowledge of the Scriptures." Moreover, he "had been instructed in the way of the Lord" and "taught about Jesus accurately." Yet his knowledge of Godís work through Jesus was incomplete, for "he knew only the baptism of John" (Acts 18:24-25). I understand all this to mean that Apollos had encountered some former students of John the Baptist who had taught him that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah. He had accepted that truth based on his knowledge of the Hebrew Bible, confessed Jesus as the Christ, received Johnís baptism of repentance, and then began teaching the things he knew about Jesus to others.

What Apollos didnít know when he arrived at Ephesus were the events of Jesusí death, resurrection, and Pentecost. In other words, he passionately believed and taught everything he knew about Jesus. But what he knew was incomplete.

As Apollos began to make his presence felt through powerful teaching in the synagogue at Ephesus, his path crossed that of Paulís two friends in the city. "When Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they invited him to their home and explained to him the way of God more adequately" (Acts 18:26). This is one of the more heartening episodes in the entire Acts narrative. First, Priscilla and Aquila handled it so gracefully. They didnít make a scene at the synagogue, embarrass Apollos and make him defensive, or compromise the gospel. They invited a man whose knowledge of Jesus was partial into their home and shared the fuller truth they knew. Second, Apollos responded so eagerly. He readily accepted what God had done in the death and resurrection of Jesus and in the sending of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost.

There is no evidence that Apollos was baptized after these events. No one who received Johnís preparatory baptism ó including the apostles ó had to be reimmersed when he or she gave allegiance to Jesus. With his full knowledge of Jesus now, Apollos was encouraged by his teacher-friends to go to Corinth and encourage the young church they had just left. We know he became an important leader in that church community. Paul would later write: "I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow" (1 Cor. 3:6). Isnít that a wonderful conclusion to the Apollos story?

When Paul arrived at Ephesus some time later, he met a dozen men who had been taught by Apollos before his encounter with Priscilla and Aquila. Although he initially acknowledged them to be "disciples" (i.e., a term elsewhere in Acts used as an equivalent to the word "Christian," cf. 11:26), he was confused when he discovered they didnít know anything about the Holy Spirit and his work in a discipleís life. That discovery led him to probe their conversion, and he learned that they knew only "Johnís baptism." After he taught them about Jesus and the Holy Spirit, the twelve "were baptized into the name of the Lord Jesus."

We are at a loss to explain fully the difference in these two situations. Apollos was not baptized a second time but the twelve men Paul taught were. Why? Maybe it was a matter of timing. Apollos may have learned and received Johnís baptism before Jesus died. That would have made him exactly like Peter, James, and John. They were prepared by Johnís baptism of repentance and had only to transfer their allegiance to Jesus after his vicarious death and validating resurrection. The twelve men at Ephesus clearly received Johnís preparatory baptism well after that time ó after it had "expired" and had become "obsolete" in Godís plan. Or perhaps Longnecker is correct in saying Apollosí baptism was acceptable because he viewed it as pointing to Jesus as the Messiah but the dozen men of Ephesus saw their baptism as "rivaling commitment to Jesus" or as a saving act of works righteousness. Baptism is Christian only as it is understood to have its meaning and fulness in Jesusí person and work.

Again, the wonderful thing about these two instances is the patient teaching of the Christian evangelists and the admirable openness of Apollos and those he had previously taught and baptized at Ephesus. Would that more people could demonstrate these qualities today. But we will return to this later.

The Magicians and Cultists

Paul also ran into two other groups of people during his ministry at Ephesus. He was neither as conciliatory, patient, nor gentle with them as he had been with Apollos and his disciples.

After Paul established himself at Ephesus, he used the synagogue as a base for his teaching ministry for three months (Acts 19:8). When that was no longer possible, he moved to the lecture hall of Tyrannus. There he taught both Jews and Greeks for two years. The entire Roman province of Asia was evangelized through his efforts there (Acts 19:9-10).

God did "extraordinary miracles" in connection with Paulís work at Ephesus. "The power at work through the Apostle was so great that the Ephesians actually believed that the handkerchief and aprons he wore working at a trade would have his power. Superstition? Perhaps. But the Lord condescended to meet peopleís need because of Paulís clear preaching of the power of the name of Jesus. It was because people had heard the Apostleís message and witnessed the Lordís miracles through him that they believed an article from him would be efficacious. The evil spirits could not resist the name of Jesus and the simple faith of those who trusted, however primitive their method was. The point is that the Holy Spirit was moving mightily in Ephesus, confronting the entrenched evil of the city. When the power of the name is proclaimed He does miracles." [Ogilvie, Acts, p. 279.]

Because there were so many magicians and cultists at Ephesus, the predictable response to Paulís ministry soon came about. On the one hand, some tried to counterfeit the miracles being performed by the name of Jesus. On the other hand, some simply tried to put a stop to Paulís authentic ministry by the power of the Holy Spirit and tried to put him to death. Luke does a poor job of concealing his sense of humor in reporting these events.

Seven Jewish exorcists tried to use "the name of Jesus whom Paul preaches" in their rituals. One day an evil spirit spoke back to them! "Jesus I know, and I know about Paul," said the demonic voice, "but who are you?" The man in whom the spirit had lived pounced on the seven men, beat them up, and chased them away "naked and bleeding" (Acts 19:13-16). One of the remarkable responses to this event was that some Christians who had continued to engage in sorcery and magic "openly confessed their evil deeds." Bringing forth the fruits of repentance, they brought their cult manuals and magic scrolls together and burned them (Acts 19:17-20).

Paulís three-year ministry at Ephesus eventually ended when a silversmith named Demetrius began a riot that could have gotten the apostle killed. The church at Ephesus was growing so rapidly that a major segment of the cityís economy was being threatened. One of the seven wonders of the ancient world was at Ephesus, the Temple of Artemis. The idolatry of the Artemis cult brought people from all over the world of that time to Ephesus. Among the more popular souvenirs people took home with them were silver replicas of the cityís temple. The spiritual revival going on in the name of Jesus began to hurt the silver shrine business. With their pocketbooks pinched by the gospel, Demetrius incited a riot, tried to get Paul hauled before a kangaroo court, and doubtless meant to silence him permanently (Acts 19:23-34).

The riot was quieted and the mob disbursed by a Gallio-like city clerk at Ephesus. He told the bloodthirsty crowd ó most of whom didnít even have a clear idea of what the commotion was about (Acts 19:32) ó that Paul had broken no civil laws and that their riot could get the city in trouble with Rome. He told them all to calm down and go back to their homes (Acts 19:35-41). As in the earlier situation at Corinth, Paul didnít even get the chance to speak to the mob. A level-headed public official took charge and defused a dangerous situation.

Some Implications for Us

Some implications from this text that seem obvious to me are rejected by some of my brothers and sisters in the Lord ó people like the fellow who called me last Tuesday. Most simply and broadly stated, I believe this text teaches that Christians should demonstrate gentleness, self-control, and kindness to those who show any deference whatever to Jesus in their beliefs and teaching. Without compromising the truth on a single point, we should look at other disciples with whom we disagree through very different eyes than we do those who blaspheme Jesus or "malign the Way."

I am embarrassed by the way some members of the Church of Christ treat their Presbyterian, Baptist, or Charismatic neighbors. Do you know why some people accuse us of believing that only members of our churches will be saved? Itís because some of our people believe that. Some say it explicitly. And others imply it by the attitude they display toward people who are members of other Christian groups.

Please notice that I didnít say "people of other faiths." A follower of the Shinto, Buddhist, or Muslim religion holds to another faith-system than the one I embrace. I confess Jesus Christ as my Savior and Lord. Presbyterians, Baptists, and Charismatics arenít "of another faith," but of another franchise or interpretation within the larger Christian tradition.

Do they believe we are right in all of our interpretations about baptism, church organization, frequency of the Lordís Supper, or a dozen other issues we could name? No. Do I sign off on the interpretations of Billy Graham by telling people how much I appreciate his personal integrity and public preaching of the gospel or the Calvinistic theology of Charles Swindoll by telling people how much I respect his ministry and value the fledgling friendship we have developed? Do I embrace the non-trinitarian Pentecostal theology of L.H. Hardwick by telling you what a dear friend that godly Christian man is to me? Do I stand behind all the practices of the Methodist, Presbyterian, and Disciples of Christ groups with whom I joyously worship three times a year in a Community Worship Service? No, of course not.

Church, one of the best things that has happened in Nashville in the last twenty years is the friendship that has evolved among fourteen preachers from eight or ten different backgrounds. It has allowed us to pray together, study the Bible together, and work together to make this city a better place. It has generated some acts of Christian compassion such as "From Nashville With Love" and "Project Goodwill." It has opened the door to some racial reconciliation that this city has needed for generations. It has even allowed us to work ó in good Pauline fashion! ó with two synagogues in this city where a respectful and open attitude toward Jesus and his followers has been displayed.

It is not necessary to be ugly to people in order to be faithful to Christ! As a matter of fact, I cannot imagine that anyone could think Jesus is being imitated when he or she is passing harsh judgment on someone else, treating someone with disrespect, or making someone so angry that the possibility of his ever being reached with the gospel is made unlikely if not impossible.

In 1894 David Lipscomb wrote an article in the Gospel Advocate in response to some criticism he and others had received for holding gospel meetings in Christian Churches where instrumental music was used. In the article, titled "Where Should Men Preach?", he told of accepting occasional invitations to preach from Methodist Churches as well as Churches of Christ / Christian Churches that used an organ. As you can imagine, those practices made him a target of some of his own brothers who assumed his presence in those places was a compromise of his convictions, an endorsement of beliefs and practices he thought were wrong. Here was his reply:
I never preached to acongregation practicing what I thought a wrong that I did not try to correct that wrong. I tried to use discretion in the correction; did not denounce directly or publicly the wrong. Jesus did not do that way. He first laid down the principles of truth and righteousness, and sought to get these fixed in the heart. When this was done, he led on to the correction of all errors incompatible with these. [July 5, 1894, p. 414.]

Perhaps Lipscomb was mistaken in his approach. Perhaps I am mistaken in mine. Perhaps Priscilla and Aquila were mistaken in their treatment of Apollos. Perhaps Paul was mistaken in his of Apollosí disciples. Until I am convinced of the mistakenness of that approach, however, it will continue to be my method for trying to keep dialogue open in an atmosphere of mutual respect.

On the first Sunday we worshiped in this building, two young men visited with us. One of them had been dismissed from a preacher training school the week before. His report of what had happened is very believable to me. On Monday evening of that week, a speaker at the schoolís lectureship spoke on the theology of the group known as Jehovahís Witnesses. The speaker insulted the intelligence of those people and had the audience laughing at a series of jokes and wisecracks about them. The young man got so upset that he got up, walked out of the hall, and went home. The next day, that same young man was scheduled to make a devotional talk at chapel. Without referring to what had happened the previous night, he spoke of the biblical mandate of loving oneís neighbors and treating all men with respect. He said he believed the Second Commandment about loving oneís neighbor as himself applied to those we believe are wrong in their theology ó and that it was wrong to insult, mock, or otherwise show disrespect to such people. The schoolís director called him to his office, referenced the previous nightís lecture, and made him declare himself about what had happened. His response led to his being dismissed from that school. It is probably the best thing that has happened to him in his educational career to date!

In the article by Lipscomb, he also wrote:

It takes more courage and more patience, and more of all the Christian graces, to correct wrongs in a gentle and kind spirit than it does to angrily denounce them. Getting angry and violently denouncing a sin is akin to getting drunk to denounce a thing. A man gets drunk or angry to give him courage he lacks.

It doesnít take a Solomon or a rocket scientist to figure out that fallible human intelligence needs to be tempered with a hefty dose of humility. So long as truth rather than personal vindication is the goal, people in its pursuit can study, teach, and learn without fear.

Some of the people to whom I am most indebted as teachers are not from my own fellowship. F.F. Bruce and John R.W. Stott, for example, are two evangelical scholars from England to whom I will be indebted always. Bruce was a member of the Church of the Brethren, and Stott is an Anglican. Does learning from them mean that I embrace all their theology? No more than my learning from some excellent teachers at Church of Christ schools means that I have adopted all theirs! No more than your patience in listening to one of my sermons means that you will agree with everything you hear me say!


All theology is faulty, for theology is human reflection on divine revelation. Even if one believes, as I do, that Holy Scripture is infallible, he or she is certainly not required to think human conclusions about biblical teachings are infallible. Every person saved in the Last Day will be saved in spite of varying degrees of theological error. Some topics in theology are more important than others. And some conclusions are more dangerous than others.

Salvation is based on the person and work of Jesus. The closer any theological issue is to him, the more critical it is. The more important it is to be right about that issue. "Salvation comes no other way; no other name has been or will be given to us by which we can be saved, only this one" (Acts 4:12, The Message).

When he first came to Ephesus, Paul felt a closeness to the Jews that he did not feel toward the worshipers of Artemis. The former were monotheists who believed in Yahweh and accepted the authority of the Hebrew Bible; the latter were polytheists who were generally attached to a depraved lifestyle. After he had been there for a time, he was closer to some truth-seeking Gentiles than to the Jewish leaders who had blasphemed the name of Jesus. He and his associates therefore treated Apollos and Demetrius differently. Apollos was an honest truth-seeker, while Demetrius was a man using religion to make money off his silver shrine business.

All this tells me that I cannot make a one-size-fits-all judgment about the people of my world. It tells me that I should warn you against the same error.

A scholarly Jewish rabbi in this city who took his wifeís homemade soup to the home of one of our members recently, respects the rabbinic teachings of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, and engages me in serious discussions of Christian views of Jesus deserves my respect and courtesy. To treat him with anything less than civility would be wrong, a dishonoring of the Christ I worship. At the other end of the spectrum for me are the Marshall Applewhites of the world who mix pseudo-science and pseudo-theology to create a UFO cult in order to exploit unhappy, socially inept persons for their own schemes.

There are men like Apollos in many pulpits today. They know "only the baptism of John." They call on people to repent of their sins, to uphold social justice in the culture, and to follow the example and teachings of Jesus. They are sincere and good people who affirm the Sermon on the Mount but are silent on the central theme of New Testament theology. Usually because they were trained at seminaries where professors created doubt rather than faith, they do not know a divine and risen Christ and do not have the anointing of the Holy Spirit. If they were to learn the full gospel of the grace of God, receive not merely water baptism but the new birth of water and Spirit, and live in the power of the Spirit, some of these men could be as powerful with the gospel as Apollos was.

There are many in church pews like those twelve disciples at Ephesus. Because their teachers knew an incomplete gospel proclamation, their faith is ill-formed and deficient. Approach them as some of us have in the past and there is defensiveness. Approach them as Paul and his friends did and there is often an amazing openness to receive the gospel.

A sure sign of spiritual maturity is the willingness to learn, to grow. When we can praise that quality rather than indict people for their deficiencies, we avoid creating unnecessary defensiveness. No, more than that. When we get to the point that we can model it ourselves, we will be part of the revival that is coming!

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