M. W. Bassford
Some of the stories that we read about in Scripture are impressive because of what we know about the laws of nature. Others are impressive because of what we know of human nature, and in the latter category falls the enlightenment of Apollos in Acts 18:24-28.
Put yourself in Apollos’ sandals for a moment. Here, we have a guy with a lot going for him, both in terms of ability and understanding. He was an eloquent man, a powerful speaker, which even Paul wasn’t. He was passionate about God and His word. He knew that Jesus was the Christ, and he boldly proclaimed Jesus everywhere he went.
However, there was a problem. Rather than proclaiming the saving baptism into Christ, Apollos knew only the baptism of John. All of his powerful preaching about Jesus led to the wrong conclusion.
The disciples Priscilla and Aquila heard Apollos’ flawed message, and they in turn had the courage to talk to him in private about his errors. Then, an amazing thing happens. Apollos listens to them! Even though changing his message will mean open acknowledgment of his prior misunderstanding, Apollos does change. Now, his eloquence is pointed in the right direction, and he helps the church greatly with his efforts.
Today, there are two great lessons here for us. First, it shows us the importance of leaving space for others to be Apolloses. Priscilla and Aquila did not, Paul-style, oppose Apollos to the face because he stood condemned. Instead, because they knew the truth would be painful for him to hear, they went to him privately in order to spare his pride as much as possible.
God does expect us to be forthright with the truth, but He also wants us to use wisdom in figuring out the most effective way of presenting that truth. After all, our goal in correcting error is hardly ever (or should hardly ever be, at least) to get somebody told. Our aim is not to check off the stand-up-for-Jesus box. It is to enlighten, to persuade, and to change minds and hearts.
Maybe Apollos would have listened if Priscilla and Aquila had blasted him publicly. Maybe somebody will listen to us if we present the truth to them with no consideration for their feelings. However, our chances of success go way up when we speak truth in love.
Second, the day may well come when we find ourselves in the same place Apollos was. We’ve been confidently proclaiming X, and some kind soul comes to us, Bible in hand, and says, “Well, actually, it’s Y instead.”
That’s not much fun! Indeed, we will feel a strong temptation to continue clinging to X. Few indeed are the preachers today who will, like Apollos, accept that they’ve been preaching the wrong baptism and change their tune accordingly. Few indeed are the brethren who will easily embrace the truth after they’ve gone on record saying the opposite. Nonetheless, only if we are willing to humble ourselves and acknowledge our misunderstandings can God be glorified in us.
Last February, Mark Roberts sent me a blog post by a Canadian Baptist pastor entitled “If I Were Starting a Denomination from Scratch”, which can be found here. I found the article intriguing, but even more so were the posts to which the author linked inside it. They explained why he was at the point of starting a new denomination in the first place.
In 2017, the pastor learned that one of the other churches in his denomination had passed a resolution allowing LGTB people to become congregational leaders. A few years later, a pastor in another congregation came out as transgender. The author attempted to rally opposition against such things during denominational conferences, but he lost the power struggle. Now, he and other like-minded Canadian Baptists are leaving their conference in search of an organization that still affirms traditional views of sexuality.
As the saying goes, where the Baptists are now is where the churches of Christ will be 20 years from now. Indeed, I don’t think it will take that long. Some progressive voices in our brotherhood already are appealing for a more inclusive approach. It is probably true that within 10 years, the controversy will take center stage, along with the controversies about women as church leaders, the instrument, and the necessity of baptism for forgiveness of sins.
It's probably also true that the more institutional entanglements a congregation has, the harder resisting this pressure will prove to be. As the Canadian pastor found, the organizations you support financially have a way of exerting influence back on you. The result of being unequally yoked is typically either that you cease to be yoked or that you cease to be unequal.
Congregations without these entanglements will have an easier time withstanding outside influences. When we follow the pattern of the early church, we inherit the strengths of that pattern, and one of them is resistance to worldly coercion. The first-century church thrived despite extreme coercive pressure in the form of persecution. To a truly autonomous congregation, the disapproval of somebody else somewhere else doesn’t matter very much.
Instead, our trial will come from our own members. I know several young people who left the church in part because they objected to its condemnation of the practice of homosexuality. In years to come, as other members are emboldened by an increasingly permissive culture, they will feel free to express those objections and expect to be heard.
As much as brethren like hearing about doctrine that separates them from the world, they dislike hearing about doctrine that separates them from one another. If LGBT issues become too sensitive to discuss, soon we will stop insisting on the Genesis 2:24 model for sexuality altogether.
This is going to be a problem for the Lord’s church in the 21st century, and we must prepare for it by turning to the Scriptures and embracing their teaching about sexual morality. To the worldly, sexuality is a matter of identity, but in God’s word, it is a matter of behavior. Just as the Bible defines a thief as a thief because they have stolen something, it defines a homosexual as a homosexual because they have practiced same-sex intimacy.
The adoption of God’s definitions in these matters accomplishes two important goals. First, it sidesteps the tedious debate about why someone experiences same-sex attraction. In Biblical terms, the answer to the question (whatever it might be) doesn’t matter. It’s not a sin to be tempted. It’s only a sin to give in, so the motivations behind any temptation, including this one, are of no spiritual consequence.
Second, it gives hope to those who struggle with these desires. “Such were some of you” in 1 Corinthians 6:11 does not mean that any of those people were released from temptation once they obeyed the gospel. Instead, the adulterer was still tempted to cheat on his wife, the reviler was still tempted to shoot his mouth off, and so on. They became ex-adulterers and ex-revilers because, even though they continued to feel those temptations, they ceased to be controlled by them.
The same is true for the godly ex-homosexual. He has not changed his sexual inclinations. He has not prayed the gay away. Instead, he has determined to devote his body to Christ instead of sin. If he spends the rest of his life fighting off temptation, that does not make him a spiritual failure. It makes him a success.
To the world, this is the most awful fate imaginable because it violates the preeminent worldly value of sexual autonomy. Here too, we must reject fleshly thinking. Sexual satisfaction is not the Christian’s preeminent value. Holiness is.
Just as Christ calls the unscripturally divorced to celibacy, so too He calls to celibacy those whose know only same-sex attraction. This is a burden, but it is not a spiritual death sentence. There are thousands of Christians who live celibately according to His will but find joy in His service regardless. Blessed are those who join them!
This Biblically faithful approach bears meaningful fruit in two ways. First, it allows us to defeat accusations of bigotry. No longer do LGBT people occupy their own special, disfavored category, in which they stand condemned because of the desires they feel. Instead, they are held accountable to the same standard as the rest of us.
Second, it allows us to reach out compassionately to sinners. I shudder to think how many people have been driven away from Christ not because of their sins, but because of their temptations. Jesus will receive such if they sincerely seek Him, and so should we.
Some of the challenges that will face the 21st-century church remain hidden from us, but the looming problems with issues of alternative sexuality are obvious. However, the gospel prevailed in these areas 2000 years ago, and it will prevail tomorrow too. If we are true to it, it will not fail us.
This article originally appeared in the April issue of Pressing On.
There are many things that I love about being a preacher, but one of my favorites is the encouragement I get from good people who are diligently seeking God. For me these days, it seems like every Sunday night is a Paul-in-1-Thessalonians 3 moment. Since the big pandemic shutdown late last year, it’s been a joy to watch our evening attendance slowly rebuild itself.
The progress hasn’t been linear, but on the attendance charts, it’s plain to see. More and more, the members here, people who had gotten out of the habit of worshiping on Sunday nights, are investing the effort to re-instill that habit. I think that’s great, and it speaks volumes about who all the people who are here tonight want to be.
To the Sunday evening crowd, then, I can only repeat Paul’s commendation in 1 Thessalonians 4:1. All you can say to the folks who are already working is encouraging them to do better! Though obviously there are any number of ways that all of us can improve in our service to God, there are three that I want to focus on this evening, ways that every brother and sister here can do even more.
The first of these is to MAKE THE MOST OF THE TIME. Consider Paul’s words in Ephesians 5:15-16. I think his reasoning here is fascinating. He says some familiar things: pay attention, and make the most of your time. However, his reasoning is not very familiar at all. We should do these things because the days are evil. In other words, we should take advantage of the opportunities we have right now because life is hard, the future is uncertain, and we may never get opportunities like this again.
If there is any lesson that we should have learned from the pandemic, surely this is it! On January 1, 2020, none of us anticipated the way that the next 18 months were going to go. We had no idea how greatly our lives were going to change. For many of us, we had no idea that an illness from the other side of the globe was going to put those lives in danger.
On January 1, 2020, all of us were rotten future-predictors. On June 6th, 2021, are any of us any better future-predictors? We have no idea what the future holds! For all we know, on January 1, 2023, we might not even be here anymore!
This tells us, then, that the time for serving God in all those ways we’ve been thinking about is not 18 months from now, or at some indefinite point in the future. That time is now.
This could mean any number of things for us. It could mean that we follow through on that good intention of being here every time the doors are open. It could mean that we commit to spending more time on our kids and grandkids instead of work and hobbies. It could mean that if we fell off the daily-Bible-reading wagon in February, we get back on it in June. I don’t know what the answer is for all of you, but I think each of you knows what it is for yourself.
The future is uncertain. We might not be able to act then, but all of us can act now. Every day that God gives us is a priceless opportunity. Let’s use each of them to glorify Him.
Second, let’s recognize the opportunity we have right now to LOVE OUR NEIGHBOR. Jesus emphasizes the importance of love in Matthew 22:34-40. This is a familiar passage to most of us, but I think there is a particular application that we need to consider. Remember how back during the pandemic, we would check the CDC site every day to get the latest COVID numbers? Right now, there’s a public-health crisis going on that may be even worse, but nobody is updating a website daily about it. It’s a mental-health crisis.
Human beings are social creatures. God designed us to enjoy and even need being around others. This is why in prison, the worst thing that you can do to punish somebody who has been locked away for life is to put him in solitary confinement. Well, brethren, for the past 18 months, COVID plus government intervention has put us all in solitary confinement, and the mental damage that has done is incalculable.
Worse still, the disease prevents the cure. If you’ve got COVID bad, you’re going to go to the hospital, but if you’re badly depressed, you’re not going to want to go anywhere or do anything to get better. None of us have the foggiest idea how many Americans are in this predicament, but I would guess that they number in the tens of millions. Each one of those people is a silent tragedy.
If they can’t reach out to us, we need to reach out to them. We need to be checking up on the people we know, both inside and outside the church, and engaging deeply enough with them to make sure that they’re OK. This is particularly true for those whose behavior has changed significantly pre-pandemic to post-pandemic. There may well be a problem there, and we need to love our neighbor enough to find the truth and act to help if needed.
Finally, let’s PRAY FOR DOORS. Paul advises the Colossians to do so in Colossians 4:2-4. It’s axiomatic that people start seeking the Lord in hard times. We see this pattern occur repeatedly in the book of Judges, among many other places in Scripture. We have undeniably been through a hard time, so what does that tell us that a lot of people have been thinking about?
Once again, though, these people aren’t necessarily going to be boldly coming to us. If you don’t have God in your life, and COVID has got you thinking about the frailty and insecurity of human existence, that’s a pretty depressing line of thought! Right now, the people who most see their need for God and would be most willing to accept Him may well also be those who are least able to do anything about it. They’re really unlikely to show up on their own at a church building full of people they don’t know.
What do we do about it? We pray about it, that’s what! We ask that God through His providence will lead us to encounter people who will be receptive to the gospel. Of course, if we are loving our neighbor as we should and checking up on people, we show God that we will walk through the door if He opens it, and we make it more likely that opportunities will arise.
When that door opens, you don’t have to be Jesus or the apostle Paul to take advantage, either. I’m here to tell you: converting somebody who isn’t ready for the gospel is impossible, but converting somebody who is, is easy. Even if you’re not up for even a basic study, you’re up for inviting somebody to services. Just do that, and keep praying, and good things will happen.
If there is anything that Americans like, it is the easy way. A decade or two ago, the office-supply chain Staples ran a series of ads featuring the Easy Button, a big red button that you could push to accomplish whatever it was that you wanted done. As funny as the commercials were, most people in our country would love to Easy-Button their way through life, reaping the rewards of virtue without putting in the work.
Not surprisingly, this attitude has permeated American religion too. The most popular preachers of our time promise every earthly blessing and demand very little in return. If you want the rewards of prosperity and happiness in this life, Jesus will be happy to provide those things to you. You don’t have to live a life of humility, service, and self-sacrifice. All you have to do is write a check to the guy with the perfect coiffure, the fancy suit, and the million-dollar smile.
What the Bible actually teaches, though, is very different. Yes, the promises that the gospel makes are extravagant. They start with eternal life and go on from there. However, rarely do they concern this-life prosperity, and they come with a catch. If you want to live with Jesus forever, you’d better seek Jesus now.
This process is not easy and painless. Indeed, the opposite is true. In 1 Thessalonians 3:4, Paul reminds the Thessalonians that during the three weeks he spent in Thessalonica, he warned them that they would face affliction for the sake of Christ. Paul didn’t have time to teach them much of anything, but the warning of future adversity was so important that he made time for that.
His prediction was fulfilled very quickly. The same angry mob that chased Paul out of town also laid hands on several of the new Christians. A few decades down the road, the Roman Empire itself would engage in persecution of the early church.
The problem is simple. Jesus is a polarizing figure. Either you love Him, or you want nothing to do with Him. People who love Jesus are called “Christians”, and we find them in His church. People who don’t want anything to do with Him are those outside, and if they don’t like Jesus, they aren’t going to like the people who are trying to be like Jesus either.
If we are loud and proud about our allegiance to the Lord, if we are eager to lead others to Him, and if we stand with Him against every form of evil, all of those things are going to generate pushback from the world. This is always going to happen, whether the ones offended are secular or “religious” like the Pharisees who opposed Jesus. We’ve confronted them with something they don’t like, so they’re going to repay us in kind. The only way to avoid this kind of affliction is to conceal our faith, but if we do that, we are imitating neither the Thessalonian disciples nor the Lord Himself.
In addition to the other things that make Hebrews challenging for us to follow, the writer assumes that his readership is familiar with the Old Testament. He jumps from allusion to allusion, rarely pausing to explain his references to the Law with more than a phrase or two. However, because our Old-Testament knowledge is rarely the equal of a first-century Jew’s, it’s often worthwhile for us to slow down, flip back to the front part of our Bibles, and figure out what in the world the writer is talking about!
This is certainly useful in Hebrews 6:13-18. The conclusion here is relevant to every Christian—that we should have strong encouragement to seize the hope that is before us. However, the discussion before the conclusion omits the information we need to reach that conclusion. In order to figure out what’s going on, we have to go back to the incident he is discussing, the conversation between God and Abraham in Genesis 22:15-18.
Contextually, Abraham has just won God’s favor by demonstrating his willingness even to sacrifice his own son if God commands him to do so. Now, He is about to explain what this means for Abraham. God begins by swearing an oath by Himself. This is not usual; in fact, there are only three places in the whole Bible where God swears an oath by Himself. Then, He tells Abraham, “I will indeed bless you.”
This is what the writer is talking about in Hebrews 6:17. “I will indeed bless you,” is God’s unchangeable purpose. “By Myself I have sworn,” is the oath He used to guarantee His promise. As the writer observes in 6:18, it’s impossible for God to lie in either of these things, which is where the strong encouragement comes from.
However, the writer does not explain (because he expects his audience to know already) what an ironclad promise that God made to bless Abraham has to do with us. If we can’t fill in that blank on our own, we have to go back to Genesis 22:17-18. There, God specifies that His blessing will take two forms. First, Abraham’s offspring will be as numerous as the stars and the sand. Second, through his seed (singular, not plural, as Paul notes in Galatians 3:16), all the nations of the earth will be blessed.
Now we start seeing why this is relevant! According to Galatians 3:7-9, everyone who has faith is a descendant of Abraham, whether they are Jew or Gentile. Second, as per Galatians 3:16, the singular seed of blessing is Jesus.
Thus, God’s unchangeable purpose and oath have done two things. First, they have prepared a special people for Him, a people that comprises everyone who seeks Him in faith. Second, those two unchangeable things guarantee that those who seek will find blessing in Him through Christ.
Ever wonder if you really, really are going to inherit eternal life because you are faithful? You don’t have to wonder. God has both pledged and sworn it by Himself, and for us, that is strong encouragement indeed!