The Gospel Prevails
In order to persevere in anything, we have to have hope of possible success. Jesus’ mission is even better: There is a guarantee of success, because the gospel will prevail through our strengths and weaknesses, by the Holy Spirit, and over who we once were.
Bryan Stevenson, who I mentioned a couple weeks ago in the sermon recording, is the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, and once in speaking about what he thinks is necessary for people to do something about injustice in our world, he listed as one of the 4-5 main ingredients, “hope.” If you’re going to really give your life to something, you have to believe it at least has some chance of succeeding, or else you won’t last very long. It is my understanding that Stevenson himself is a Christian, but Christians often struggle with this as much as anyone else. In the book of Acts at which we’re looking, the mission Jesus has given His church is to take the good news of his life death, and resurrection to the end of the earth so that a people from all the peoples of the earth would be gathered to worship God through Him. Any Christian who’s really tried giving themselves to that mission though quickly comes up against things that actually make it seem somewhat hopeless, and one of those things this passage highlights is ourselves. We see our own weaknesses and ways in which we continue to act like who we once were. But in verse 20, at the end of our passage, we read that the word of the Lord continued to increase and prevail mightily. We’re going to see, then, that the gospel prevails through our strengths and weaknesses, by the Holy Spirit, and over who we once were.
Through our strengths and weaknesses
Our passage begins with an introduction to Apollos and his strengths. He’s from Alexandria, which was a center of learning in the ancient world, and he’s described as eloquent, competent in the Scriptures. He had been instructed in the way of the Lord, he was fervent in spirit, and he spoke and taught accurately the things concerning Jesus. Apollos is highly educated, a gifted teacher, a sound theologian, and a passionate evangelist. He doesn’t renounce his education or refuse to use his gifts. Instead, he stewards his gifts, meaning he takes them and puts them to work in the cause of the gospel. One of the ways the gospel prevails is when gifted people take their gifts and put them to use in the cause of the gospel. Some of you have great education and teaching gifts; how could you put them to use in the cause of the gospel? Many of you are fervent in spirit about many things; what if that fervency was directed to the cause of the gospel? Your gifts may not even be the same as Apollos’; you may have a passion for the arts, for cooking for others, hospitality, helping others with their finances, praying for and encouraging the downcast; whatever your gifts and passions, whatever your strengths, use them for the advance of the gospel.
That said, God also uses us while we’re still weak. In verse 25 we encounter the first mention of Apollos’ weakness: He knew only the baptism of John. John the Baptist was a character who came before Jesus to prepare the way of Jesus. A representative sample of his teaching is given in Luke 3:16 – “I baptize you with water, but he who is mightier than I is coming, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” So Apollos it seems heard the preaching of John the Baptist or one of his disciples, and was baptized with water, which indicated his repentance, turning from sin, and believing in the Jesus John the Baptist proclaimed. He spoke and taught accurately the things concerning Jesus verse 25 tells us, but his teaching was incomplete. He didn’t teach about the baptism of the Holy Spirit, who was now available to all who believed in Jesus. But he proclaimed what he did know accurately and even boldly verse 26 tells us.
So here’s good news for all of us: If you know Jesus and you proclaim what you do know concerning Him, God can use you even though there is a lot you don’t know. If you know the gospel well enough to believe it yourself, you know it well enough to proclaim it boldly to someone else. It’s ok to just mess up and get things wrong sometimes. We call that “failing in the right direction.” Apollos didn’t get the whole message out, but he faithfully and accurately communicated the part he did know, and God blessed that.
So God used Apollos while he was weak, AND, God used a couple we meet next, Priscilla and Aquila, to strengthen him. Verse 26 says they took him aside and taught him the way of God more accurately. They didn’t pretend everything he was saying was ok, but they also didn’t shame him on twitter. There’s a way of correcting that implies, or even explicitly says, “Stop what you’re doing.” That’s how you correct a heretic, someone trying to spread falsehood. But that’s not what Apollos is doing. Apollos is failing in the right direction. In response to that you actually want to say, “Keep doing what you’re doing, but can I help you do it better?” That’s what we call godly criticism. And of course, if you really want to see the gospel prevail, you will want to receive that kind of criticism, so you can preach the gospel more accurately. That’s how Apollos, despite his great education and gifts, receives the godly criticism.
As someone who spends a lot of his time on speaking and teaching work, I can testify that I’ve been so helped by you all, many of whom wouldn’t identify yourselves as gifted teachers, when you’ve given me godly criticism on my preaching and leadership to help me do it better, in the spirit of, “Keep doing what you’re doing.” Just in the past couple weeks in particular a couple non-white members have given me godly criticism that’s already lead me into some necessary repentance you heard a couple weeks ago and some new thoughts about my preaching and leadership going forward. Thank you to those of you who did that. Not only does it help me, but the kind of community that gives godly criticism has the potential to create would be a beautiful witness to the world around us in the time in which we live, which is basically either totally affirming, or totally cancelling. So go ahead and use your strengths, even though weakness remains. It’s ok to fail in the right direction, especially as you’re willing to give and receive godly criticism to proclaim the gospel more accurately.
Another way God deals with our weakness is He brings other Christians along, not only to correct us, as Priscilla and Aquila did, but to continue the work of ministry where we left off. So after Apollos leaves Ephesus, God sends Paul, who knew about the Holy Spirit in a way Apollos didn’t. The gospel prevails, second, by the Holy Spirit.
By the Holy Spirit
So at the beginning of chapter 19 we read that Paul came to Ephesus and found disciples who knew only John’s baptism, ostensibly because that’s all Apollos, who was there before Paul, knew. Upon realizing this, Paul teaches them the way of God more accurately, explaining that John’s baptism pointed forward to Jesus, and those who heard were then baptized in Jesus’ name. Having now been baptized in Jesus’ name, they then received the Holy Spirit through the laying on of Paul’s hands.
So what is happening here? We have here and in other places throughout the book of Acts a unique period in the history of God’s dealings with humanity. The consummate revelation of the gospel of Christ had not yet gotten to them: They’d heard the gospel similar to how believers in the Old Testament, before the coming of Christ heard the gospel, believing in the Jesus who was to come, not yet knowing that He died, resurrected, ascended into heaven, and poured out His Holy Spirit on His church, all of which are signified in Christian baptism, while John’s baptism merely signified repentance. So in a sense, they needed to get with the times. Just as believers who were circumcised under the old covenant needed to be baptized under the new, so believers who were baptized in the name of John needed to be baptized in the name of Jesus. The Holy Spirit then comes upon them in a unique, tangible way, to mark this changing of the times.
But we no longer live in that time, so that for every Christian living after the book of Acts, and even in a lot of the stories within Acts, conversion is not a 2-step phenomenon: Once believing the gospel as it was proclaimed by John or Apollos for that matter, and once believing it as proclaimed by Paul, and then receiving the Holy Spirit. We have the consummate gospel laid down for us in Scripture, and the moment anyone believes it, they receive the promised Holy Spirit. There are no believers, no disciples today, walking around without the Holy Spirit. So Romans 8:9 says, “Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him.”
What this passage shows us, then, is how essential the Holy Spirit is. The gospel did not prevail mightily, ultimately, through Apollos’ might, or even through Paul’s for that matter. Zechariah 4:6 God says, “Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit.” Do you see how prayerful that should make us in our mission? We won’t see the gospel prevail if it’s not by God’s Spirit, and the good news is that God has poured Him out richly on us through Jesus. Pray for God to do that in your neighborhood. Pray for God to fill you more and more with His Spirit, that all your doing might be fueled by the strength of seeing the glory of Jesus and knowing His love for you, which the Holy Spirit provides. And finally, the gospel prevails over who we once were.
Over who we once were
While Paul was in Ephesus, we read that God was doing extraordinary miracles by his hand in verses 11-12. Some of the itinerant Jewish exorcists, a group known as the sons of Sceva, hear about the miracles and seek to use the name of Jesus to cast out an evil spirit. But the evil spirit kinda calls him out in verse 15: Jesus I know, Paul I recognize, but who are you? In other words, not even the evil spirit is fooled, nor is the evil spirit overpowered, as it actually compels the man in whom he dwelled to attack them, master them, and overpower them, so that the sons of Sceva flee naked and wounded. As this becomes known throughout Ephesus, the name of Jesus is extolled verse 17 tells us. You see the difference there? The Sons of Sceva tried to use the name of Jesus, but the residents of Ephesus extolled the name of Jesus. One approach keeps self on top and puts Jesus under it, the other submits to Jesus on top and puts self under it.
Verse 18 then narrates what those who extol the name of Jesus do: They confess and divulge their practices, and those who practiced magic arts brought their books together and burned them in the sight of all. Verse 19 tells us the value of all the books came to 50,000 pieces of silver, or about 4 million dollars in modern terms. Now these people were already believers we’re told, but as is always the case for believers, there remain inconsistencies between the new life we have in Jesus and who we once were. In the end however, as verse 20 summarizes, the word of God increased and prevailed mightily. Eventually, in the life of every true believer, the gospel wins. When the name of Jesus is extolled, when He is acknowledged as Lord, it leads us to confess, divulge, and put to death the lords we used to worship.
What sins are you holding onto from who you once were? What are you still hiding? Notice here they could have just burned their books privately if that’s all they wanted to do, but they confess their practices, divulge their secrets, and burn them in the sight of all. They could have sold them and made a lot of money off of them, but that would all have missed the heart of repentance. The heart of repentance is not “What’s the minimum I can do to cleanse my conscience?” It’s, “I want to be new! I don’t want to hide anymore! I want to bring my sin out into the open and burn it to death.” If you are a Christian today and you are hiding sin, can I be honest with you? I’ve tried that before, many other Christians have too, and it is an awful place to stay. It’s painful to expose sin, no doubt, but it’s more painful in the long run to keep hiding it. There is such freedom in just getting it out in the open and parting with it. Maybe start with a trusted Christian friend or a pastor, but get it out in the open.
What do you need to burn, literally or figuratively? Maybe you do still have magic around just in case: dreamcatchers, rabbit’s feet, Ouija boards, etc. Maybe it’s a sinful relationship that you’re letting linger just in case. If your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away, says Jesus. Better to burn your magic books now than burn in hell with them, to paraphrase Jesus. I’ve talked to some of you who struggle with pornography usage who have taken drastic measures like this: Cancelling the internet at your apartment, deleting apps and putting a password lock on your phone that only a trusted friend or wife has, getting accountability software for your computer even though it gums up the functionality. I’ve talked to others of you who in your dating relationships want to fight sexual sin and have committed to never being alone in private until you’re married. If you aren’t willing to take this kind of decisive action against the sin that remains in your life, are you really fighting it? If you won’t delete an app that’s leading you into sin, what does that say about your posture toward that sin?
Does some of this sound crazy to you? Think about how crazy this would have been for people who had practiced magic their whole lives. That was the way they maintained a semblance of control over their lives; it was a way of salvation really. If you really believe the spells in those books are the key to being safe in the world, do you see how hard it would be just to burn them up? That’s not even to mention the 50,000 pieces of silver worth of value going up in flames. They don’t have insurance; what are they falling back on? They’ve learned to trust a new Lord. They’ve learned a new way of salvation really, the “way of the Lord” as we saw it described earlier. The magical way of salvation says the world is scary and you can’t trust the Lord to save you, so you have to use the Lord to save yourself.
But the way of the Lord, the Bible’s message of salvation, reveals that there is a Lord who reigns over this scary place called earth, and He is good. He is so good that you actually don’t need to coerce Him into helping you through magic spells; He already came of His own accord to help you. You can’t save yourself; your “self” is the problem, but Jesus came to help that “self,” the guilty sinful you, the you working so hard to hide sins that were never hidden from Him in the first place. He had no magic books of His own to burn, no sins of His own for which to repent, but on the cross, He went through the fire of God’s judgment for our sins. He bought us with more than 50,000 pieces of silver; He bought us with the infinite value of His own life, and then rose from the dead, ascended to the position of Lord, and poured out His Holy Spirit on His people. So you see when you extol His name as Lord, you submit to the Lord who went through the flames for you first, the Lord who bought you with His own blood, and the Lord who says, “You cannot serve two masters.”
So forget the books. Burn them. Forget the 50,000 pieces of silver; who needs them? They weren’t working anyway. Hiding isn’t going to work anyway. Even if you’ve spent your whole life looking for salvation there, you won’t find it. Salvation is in the name of the Lord Jesus, who died and rose again. Believe in Him today. Extol His name today. Bring the sin you’re hiding into the light; He already knows about it and died for it. Take decisive action to put it to death; why on earth would you want to keep it? Use your gifts and resources for the advance of the gospel; what better could you give them to? Give and receive godly criticism; it’s ok to fail in the right direction, learn, and press on. Jesus saves you, not your gifts, and His Spirit brings the fruit, not your strength. His Word will increase to the end of the earth and prevail mightily, over all the sin that remains in you, through all of our weaknesses, by His Spirit, and for His glory.