the Week of Proper 20 / Ordinary 25
Whyte's Dictionary of Bible Characters
THE founding and the naming of Alexandria, its matchless situation, its architectural beauty, the rare wisdom of its statesmanship, and the splendid catholicity of its sacred scholarship,-all these things greatly interest us and greatly impress us. And all these things tell at once upon the text and serve richly to illustrate the text. For Apollos, though a Jew, was born in Alexandria, and received his education in Alexandria. The repeated dispersions of the Jewish people had filled the Jewish quarter of Alexandria with tens of thousands of that expatriated people, but everywhere an industrious, enterprising, and successful, people. By that time the Jews of Alexandria had almost the half of the whole city given up to themselves, and the Jewish merchants, and bankers, and scholars of Alexandria were, in all their several walks of life, in the very foremost rank. And, without in any way forsaking or forgetting the faith of their fathers, the Jews of Alexandria had opened their own minds, and the minds of their children, to the best learning of that eminently learned city. Apollos, when an inquiring boy, would be taken up by his father to the famous synagogue every Sabbath day, where he would see the seventy elders sitting on their seventy thrones of gold, and where he would watch for the waving of the far-off flag that summoned the immense congregation to fall down at the same moment on their knees to say their Amen. On the week-days, and in spite of the fierce anathemas of the fanatical scribes of Jerusalem, young Apollos would be sent to school where he would learn to read Homer and Plato, as well as Moses and Isaiah. And in his holidays he would be taken out of the city to walk along the sevenfurlong mole to the famous lighthouse island, on which the Sacred Septuagint had received its finishing touches. And as the talented boy became a student he would often find his way to the world-renowned library of Alexandria, into which had been collected the whole literature of the ancient world, sacred and profane; all the best books of Israel, as well as all the best books of Greece and Rome and Egypt and India.
It is not in our power to fix down the exact date of Apollos's birth, but we are quite sure of this, that he was a contemporary, and almost certainly a schoolfellow, of Philo the famous Hellenistic Hebrew of Alexandria. We possess no book of Apollos's authorship, unless Luther's bold guess is also a correct guess that Apollos wrote the Epistle to the Hebrews in his mature years. And unless that other guess is also correct that he wrote the Book of Wisdom in his Alexandrian years. These, to be sure, are only guesses at his authorship, but the guesses of men of learning and genius have often far more truth in them than the proofs and certainties that satisfy less learned and less imaginative men. At the same time, if it is but an illuminating guess that we possess anything at all from Apollos's pen, we are quite sure about the many extant works of Philo. And so much alike were those two great contemporaneous men, that we can almost transfer to the one what we are told about the other. For, just as of Philo it may with absolute certainty be said that "he was a Jew, born in Alexandria, an eloquent man, and mighty in the Scriptures," so, on the other hand, it is no great stretch of the imagination to picture Apollos to ourselves as the author of The Allegories of the Sacred Laws, The Theology of Moses, and The Indictment of Flaccus.
Paul was not what we would call an eloquent preacher. The Apostle's detractors were wont to set Paul aside with this contemptuous sentence, that his bodily presence was weak, and his speech contemptible. But his greatest enemies could not say that about Apollos. Depth of mind and fluency of speech do not always go together. They did not go together in Moses and Paul, the two greatest men of the Hebrew race. But Apollos was both a man of a deep mind and of great oratorical genius. Quintilian, another contemporary of Apollos, has a fine chapter on this theme, that a great orator is just a good man well skilled in speaking. Now, Apollos satisfied both parts of that excellent definition also. For Apollos was first a good man, and then he was a skilful speaker. No man in the Apostolic Church was nearly such a skilful speaker as Apollos was. And the sacred writer is careful to add concerning Apollos that he was "mighty in the Scriptures" also. In saying that the sacred writer intends what he says to be all but the very highest praise that can possibly be given to Apollos. A great mind alone will not make a man mighty in the Scriptures. A great gift of oratory alone will not do it. It is the moral and spiritual qualities of the sacred orator, when they are added to his intellectual qualities, that make men confess his might when he handles the Holy Scriptures. The acknowledged might of Apollos in the pulpit was the might of conviction and of character; it was the might that has its seat in the conscience and the heart of a good man, taken together with that other might of a great intellect and real eloquence. The great might of Aristotle and Quintilian combined would still have left Apollos weak as other men in the things of God, unless there had been united with all that the might of a conscience on fire against all unrighteousness, and of a heart on fire with the love of all truth and all goodness. Apollos has much still to learn, but this is a right noble foundation on which to build up a great preacher of the Gospel: "a Jew, born in Alexandria, an eloquent man, and mighty in the Scriptures"; so far, that is, as he as yet understands the Scriptures.
This then was the Alexandrian scholar and orator who came to Ephesus on an Old Testament mission immediately after Paul had left that city. Paul and Apollos had no acquaintance as yet with one another. They had never met, and though they were both great preachers, they did not at all preach the same Gospel. With all his Alexandrian learning, and with all his finished eloquence, and with all his knowledge of Moses and Isaiah and John the Baptist, Apollos knew nothing, or next to nothing, of Jesus Christ. How Apollos had come to know so much as he did know, we are not told; but we are told distinctly that his knowledge came to an end with the preaching and the baptism of John, the son of Zacharias and Elisabeth. It perplexes us to be told that about such a man as Apollos was. That such a universal student, and such a lover of all kinds of truth, and especially of revealed truth, should have lived so long in the very metropolis of all intelligence, and not have got beyond the school of John-that quite staggers us about Apollos. At the same time, we must remember that with all his marvellous activity and success, Paul had never been so far as Alexandria. If Paul had preached Christ even once in that magnificent synagogue, what a chapter we would have had in the Acts of the Apostles about Paul's conversations with Apollos. But as it was, Apollos was still preaching just as John had both preached and baptized twenty years before at Bethabara beyond Jordan. John's doctrines and exhortations were preached by Apollos with tremendous passion and impressiveness; with all John's own tremendous passion and impressiveness; and with a polish of manner and a perfection of style to which John was an utter stranger. But that was all the preaching that Aquila and Priscilla listened to Sabbath after Sabbath, as Apollos stood up in the pulpit of Ephesus. Sabbath day after Sabbath day, Aquila and Priscilla came up to the synagogue and listened to Apollos preaching John; and every returning Sabbath day they listened to him with increasing regret that he had not come to Ephesus in time to have heard Paul preaching Christ. With a weekly increasing distress they listened to what they heard, or rather, did not hear, till, at last, they took Apollos and expounded unto him the way of God more perfectly.
Such then is this so beautiful passage, and so full of all manner of lessons for students, for young preachers, and for old people. And first, for old people, and for people far on in the spiritual life. I can overhear Aquila and Priscilla on their way home from the synagogue Sabbath after Sabbath; or, rather, I can overhear them after their children are asleep. For you may depend upon it, Aquila and Priscilla did not discuss Apollos's sermons at the church door or at the dinner table. Was that a good sermon today, father? asked young Keble. All sermons are good, my son, answered his wise father. And Aquila was like old Keble. All the way home from church Aquila talked to his sons and daughters about Alexandria and her schools; about the Septuagint; about Apollos's great learning and great eloquence; about the work that he had laid out on that sermon; about his noble style; about his commanding manner, and about the great lessons to be learned from every sermon of his. And then, when the Sabbath was over, and they were alone, Aquila and Priscilla would open their minds quite freely to one another about the young preacher. Now how would we have done had we been in Aquila's and Priscilla's place? This is what we would have done. We would have let the whole congregation see what we thought of Apollos. We would have shifted about in our seat. We would have looked at the clock. We would have held down our head. We would have covered our eyes with our hands. We would have glanced at our neighbours to see how they were taking it all. We would have smiled sadly, so that all might see us. And then, at the door-"How did you like him? Poor boy! he does not know the very A B C of the Gospel!" And so on, till it would all have been told to Apollos, and till we had ruined our influence with him, and his influence with us and with our children for ever. How Aquila and Priscilla managed it I cannot imagine. But manage it they did, for "they took Apollos unto them," says the sacred writer, "and expounded unto him the way of God more perfectly." "An old and simple woman, if she loves Jesus, may be greater than our brother Bonaventure."
I admire all the three so much, that I really do not know which to admire the most; Aquila and Priscilla in their quite extraordinary wisdom and tact and courage, and especially love; or Apollos in his still more extraordinary humility, modesty, and mind of Christ. A shining student of Alexandria, a popular and successful preacher, not standing-room when he preached in the synagogue, followed about by admiring crowds, and with many seals to his ministry among them; such a famous man to be taken to task about his pulpit work by two old workers in sail-cloth and carpets, and to be instructed by them how to preach, and how not to preach-"the whole thing is laughable, if it were not for its impudence." So I would have said had I been in Apollos's place. But like the true Alexandrian he was, and the true preacher, and the true coming colleague and successor of Paul, Apollos instantly saw who and what he had in Aquila and Priscilla. In a moment he felt they were by far his superiors in the things of the pulpit at any rate, and he at once made it both easy and successful for them to say to him all that was in their minds and hearts. I would far rather have Apollos's humble mind and quiet heart at that supreme moment of his life than all his gold medals, first-class certificates, and all his crowds to boot; the noble young Christian gentleman that Apollos at that moment proved himself to be.
It was their own experience of the way of God that enabled and authorised Aquila and Priscilla to take Apollos and teach him that way more perfectly. It was not Paul's preaching that did it. Their own experience, in their case, went before Paul's preaching, accompanied it, and came after it. They knew the doctrine of Christ perfectly because they had lived the life of Christ perfectly. Tent-makers as they were, and wholly unlettered as they were, they received it as soon as it was written, and read and quite well understood the Epistle to the Ephesians, because they had all its deep mysteries already in their own hearts. Paul in his best preaching had only told Aquila and Priscilla, with all his authority, what they knew to a certainty before. Every true preacher comes on the same thing continually among his people. And every wide reader of such literature knows where to find illustrations of the same thing. Brother Lawrence, the humble cook, instructing the theologians of his day about the practice of the presence of God; Jacob Behmen enlightening William Law; Thomas Boston's old soldier giving his minister a loan of "The Marrow"; and Cowper's poor Cottager. But the classical passage is in Grace Abounding. "Upon a day the good providence of God did cast me to Bedford to work on my calling; and in one of the streets of that town I came where there were three or four poor women sitting at a door in the sun, and talking about the things of God; and being now willing to hear their discourse, I drew near to hear what they said, for I was now a brisk talker myself in the matters of religion. But I may say, I heard, but I understood not; for they were far above, out of my reach. Their talk was about a new birth, the work of God in their hearts, also how they were convinced of their miserable state by nature. They talked how God had visited their souls with His love in the Lord Jesus, and with what words and promises they had been refreshed, comforted, and supported against the temptations of the devil. And, methought, they spoke as if joy did make them speak; they spoke with such pleasantness of Scripture language, and with such an appearance of grace in all they said, that they were to me, as if they had found a new world, as if they were people that dwelt alone, and were not to be reckoned among their neighbours. Therefore I should often make it my business to be going again and again into the company of these poor people, for I could not stay away. And presently I found two things within me at which I did sometimes marvel; the one was a very great softness and tenderness of heart; and the other was a great bending of my mind to a continual meditating on them, and on all other good things which at any time I had read or heard of." All that might have been found in the best Alexandrian Greek among Apollos's papers after his death. Better Greek he could not have written, nor a better description of his experiences as he came and went to Aquila's and Priscilla's house in Ephesus. "By these things," adds Bunyan, "my mind was now so turned that it lay like a horse-leech at the vein, still crying out, give, give."
They complain that there threatens to be a dearth of candidates for the Christian ministry. But that can never be. For where can the flower of our youth find a field for their scholarship and for their eloquence like the evangelical pulpit? What other calling open to a talented young man can compete with spiritual preaching? What other occupation can possess and satisfy a pure mind and a noble heart, and that more and more, to the end of life? Where will our intellectual youth find a literature for one moment to compare with the literature of Jerusalem and Alexandria? And a sphere of work like a congregation full of such people as Aquila and Priscilla? How long halt the flower of our Scottish youth between two opinions? If the Lord be God, follow Him. But if Baal, then follow him. Choose ye this day whom ye will serve. Will ye also go away? Lord, to whom shall we go? Thou hast the words of eternal life.
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Whyte, Alexander. Entry for 'Apollos'. Alexander Whyte's Dictionary of Bible Characters. https://www.studylight.org/​dictionaries/​eng/​wbc/​a/apollos.html. 1901.