Word-Driven Disciple Makers


Word-Driven Disciple Makers

Acts 18:23–19:10

Main Idea: This section of Acts reinforces the importance of Word-driven disciple making and gives illustrations of what it looks like to teach and receive gospel-centered instruction.

  1. Paul: Following Up with New Congregations (18:23)
  2. Aquila and Priscilla: Filling in the Gaps for Apollos (18:24-26)
  3. Apollos: Helping Believers, Refuting the Jews (18:27-28)
  4. Paul: Evangelizing the Ephesians (19:1-10)
    1. The disciples of John (19:1-7)
    2. The synagogue (19:8-9a)
    3. The lecture hall of Tyrannus (19:9b-10)

The risen Jesus gave his followers this Great Commission:

All authority has been given to me in heaven and on earth. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe everything I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age. (Matt 28:18-20)

The book of Acts is filled with examples of God’s people fulfilling this holy mandate. This section of Acts reinforces the importance of Word-driven disciple making and gives us some illustrations of what it looks like. It introduces us to a variety of teachers and students in a variety of contexts. As we observe these examples, we should examine our own disciple-making practices.

Paul: Following Up with New Churches

Acts 18:23

In verse 23 the third missionary journey begins. After stopping in Antioch (v. 22), undoubtedly giving a report of his second journey, Paul retraces his steps (v. 23). His route most likely included a visit to the churches of Derbe, Lystra, Iconium, and Pisidian Antioch. John Polhill notes that the visits to the Galatian religion and Phrygia might have accounted for the area farther north and may indicate that Paul planted churches in the northern portion of the Roman province of Galatia on his second journey (Acts, 395; cf. 16:6).

Paul’s burden here is much like what he expressed previously in 15:36 at the beginning of the second journey—a desire to follow up with the new churches. He desired to go to Ephesus, but he first chose to revisit his spiritual children. He agonized over the spiritual maturity of recent converts (Gal 4:19) and rejoiced at their progress in the faith (1 Thess 2:19-20). Paul’s evangelistic zeal was mingled with a passion for spiritual growth and healthy congregations. We too must desire earnestly to see people converted and to see them grow in grace—in the context of healthy churches.

Aquila and Priscilla: Filling in the Gaps for Apollos

Acts 18:24-26

While Paul was traveling, a man from Alexandria, Apollos, arrived in Ephesus. He had an impressive résumé and striking teaching abilities, but Apollos needed some further instruction in the faith. So Aquila and Priscilla, remaining in Ephesus for a time, filled in the gaps in his understanding.

Apollos was a well-educated man. His native Alexandria was an intellectual center renowned for its library. Years earlier the Alexandrian community produced a Greek translation of the Old Testament. The city was also home to famous philosophical scholars like Philo and later religious scholars like Clement, Athanasius, and Origen.

Apollos appears to be a Christian. A few clues point this direction. First, he “accurately” taught the way of the Lord (v. 25). Second, the Holy Spirit energized his passion. When Luke says he was “fervent in spirit,” the Greek includes the article “the” before the word spirit, which seems to indicate “the Holy Spirit.” This expression also appears in Romans 12:11. In both places it seems to refer to the Holy Spirit (so J. Dunn, 88, in Polhill, Acts, 396). In contrast, the “disciples of John” were in a different position (19:2-7). They weren’t believers yet.

The reason some feel reticent to label Apollos a believer is that Luke says Apollos “knew only John’s baptism” (18:25), and since the Holy Spirit is the distinguishing mark between the baptism of John and that of Jesus (1:5), they contend Apollos must not have been a Christian. But I’m not persuaded.

Nevertheless, something was indeed deficient in his understanding. I take Luke’s mention that Apollos knew only the baptism of John to mean that he didn’t know about the new covenant baptism practice established by Jesus. Aquila and Priscilla thus needed to explain baptism “more accurately” (v. 26). This godly couple would have taught him how, in Christian baptism, the triune God places his name on his people (Matt 28:19). The ordinance vividly illustrates our union with Christ in his death and resurrection (Rom 6:3-4; Gal 3:27). It seems to me that Apollos understood, believed, and preached the gospel of Christ, but he knew nothing of this ordinance in which the use of water preaches the gospel (Johnson, Let’s Study Acts, 232). Apollos lived in a unique historical situation that caused him to need some clarification on this point.

Priscilla and Aquila give us a good model of how a high-capacity teacher should be corrected. They don’t rebuke Apollos publicly. They don’t embarrass or shame him. They demonstrate humility and compassion in addressing him, but they also demonstrate conviction. That is, they don’t just let the matter of his deficiency go. Instead, they address the gap in his instruction in a Christ-honoring way. They take him aside, perhaps to their home(v. 26 NIV), and gently explain baptism fully. Every Christian should take note of this couple’s gentle persuasion method, which is advocated elsewhere in the New Testament and demonstrated by Jesus, the Servant of the Lord (Matt 12:17-21; 2 Tim 2:24-26). We shouldn’t try to correct brothers and sisters by using an argumentative, critical spirit; rather, we need to use an open Bible and a loving tone.

Sometimes disciple making will resemble this scene involving Apollos, Aquila, and his wife. You may not need to correct a teacher, but you may need to pull a brother or sister aside to discuss a doctrinal matter privately. Perhaps you will have the opportunity to disciple a younger believer in private, showing him or her what Scripture says about the essentials of the faith in a setting that invites questions. Remember, this type of personal disciple making is important. No one needs to stand behind a pulpit to teach.

Apollos’s attitude in this passage is instructive, too. Think about it. This guy probably had far more education than Aquila and Priscilla combined, but he maintained a teachable heart. He listened to their counsel and adopted their position. This is a reminder that we should never think we are beyond the need for further instruction in God’s Word—no matter how long we have been Christians or how many degrees we hold.

Apollos: Helping Believers, Refuting the Jews

Acts 18:27-28

Regardless of whether you consider Apollos a Christian prior to his meeting with Aquila and Priscilla, he is clearly a believer after it. In verse 27 Apollos is powerfully teaching others. Apollos decides to go to “Achaia,” that is Corinth, where Paul recently ministered the Word for an extended time. Apollos is mentioned in several places in 1 Corinthians (1 Cor 1:12; 3:4-6,22; 4:6), and it’s possible that some Corinthian believers invited him there. But more likely, Aquila and Priscilla stimulated his interest in Corinth by passing along a report of how God had been at work in that city (Polhill, Acts, 397). The believers of the early church in Ephesus wrote a letter of recommendation to the saints in Corinth, which was a common early church practice (cf. Rom 16:1; 2 Cor 3:1-3).

When Apollos arrived, he “was a great help to those who by grace had believed” (v. 27). The saints in Corinth believed not just because Paul’s teaching had been powerful but because of God’s saving grace at work among them (cf. 3:26; 11:18; 13:48; Eph 2:8-9). Apollos watered what Paul had planted in Corinth, but Paul was quick to point out the real hero behind their efforts: “God gave the growth” (1 Cor 3:6). The Lord greatly used Paul and Apollos in the lives of the young believers at Corinth (1 Cor 3:8). They served as “God’s coworkers” (1 Cor 3:9). But Paul assigned all glory to God, not to the messengers (1 Cor 3:21-23).

While we should honor faithful teachers, we should not deify them. First Corinthians rebukes believers for such idolatry. If you don’t think this issue is a real problem today, just listen carefully to some Christians talk about certain speakers, share stories about how they went to great trouble and expense to visit a big conference featuring a particular individual, or most sadly, consider what has happened to a few congregations who lost their own “Apollos” to another assignment. To the Corinthians who were arguing over who was the best preacher, Paul wrote, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord” (1 Cor 1:31), and, “Let no one boast in human leaders” (1 Cor 3:21). Be thankful for Word-driven disciple makers, but worship and adore the triune God alone.

Apollos also had a powerful evangelistic ministry in Corinth (v. 28). Like Paul he explained how the Messiah must suffer and rise and that Jesus was this Messiah (cf. 17:3; 18:5). Apollos’s thorough knowledge of the Old Testament equipped him to be an effective evangelist to the Jews in Corinth.

Later, when Paul wrote 1 Corinthians from Ephesus, he mentioned Apollos being there with him (1 Cor 16:12). Apollos’s ministry blessed many, and Paul must have appreciated having another laborer in the harvest field (Matt 9:37-38).

Paul: Evangelizing the Ephesians

Acts 19:1-10

While Apollos was watering the seed in Corinth, Paul arrived in Ephesus, the major stop on this third missionary journey. Paul expounded the Scriptures and exalted the Savior (1) to the disciples of John, (2) to the Jews in the synagogue, and (3) to many residents of Asia in the lecture hall of Tyrannus.

The Disciples of John (19:1-7)

In chapter 19 we find Paul first encountering “some disciples” (v. 1). Unfortunately, these people weren’t true disciples of Jesus; rather, they were “twelve almost Christians” (Begg, “About Twelve Almost Christians”). They resembled Apollos in some ways, but the differences outweigh the similarities (Johnson, Let’s Study Acts, 235). Apollos taught accurately about Jesus and was fervent in the Holy Spirit, but the same can’t be said for this group.

Perhaps Paul observed something in their behavior and demeanor, leading him to ask them some important spiritual questions. This is a good possibility since it’s clear that this group didn’t possess the Holy Spirit, who indwells all believers (e.g., John 14:17; Rom 8:14-16; Gal 3:1-5; Eph 1:13-14; 3:16; 4:30). Paul wrote to the Romans clearly and emphatically: “If anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to him” (Rom 8:9).

After a discussion about the Spirit, baptism, and the Christ (vv. 2-4), they were baptized “into the name of the Lord Jesus” (v. 5). Paul then laid hands on them, and they experienced the Spirit’s presence and power in a mini-Pentecost sort of way, speaking in tongues and prophesying (v. 6).

Surely these disciples had at some level heard of the Spirit since they were familiar with John the Baptist, who spoke of the Holy Spirit (cf. Matt 3:11). But they hadn’t heard of the fulfillment of John’s ministry—that the Holy Spirit had come into people’s experience (Johnson, Let’s Study Acts, 235). They were ignorant of Pentecost (Stott, Message of Acts, 304). John Stott describes their condition well:

In a word, they were still living in the Old Testament which culminated with John the Baptist. They understood neither that the new age had been ushered in by Jesus, nor that those who believe in him and are baptized into him receive the distinctive blessing of the new age, the indwelling Spirit. (Ibid.)

But after Paul explained the gospel to them, they believed by the grace of God.

Later Paul wrote to the Corinthians, urging them to “examine” themselves to see if they were of the faith (2 Cor 13:5). In 1 John we also see tests: every believer will pass a “doctrinal test,” an “ethical test,” and an “experiential test.” Doctrinally, they will believe in the real Jesus and what he did (1 John 1:1-4; 2:2,22-23; 4:2-3,10,15; 5:1,5). Ethically, they will walk in light and love (1 John 1:6; 2:6,9-11,29; 3:6-10,14; 4:8). Experientially, they will know the abiding presence of the Spirit (1 John 3:24; 4:6,13). Paul forces John the Baptist’s disciples to examine themselves, and doing so leads to their conversion.

Often religious people, like these disciples, are unconverted people. One need only look at popular cults—like Mormonism, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Christian Science—to find examples of what I mean. Those who often attend Christian religious events but can’t articulate the basic truths of the gospel and who give no signs of regeneration also serve as examples. This is why we must explain the true gospel to religious types; they too are in need of salvation.

What should we make of these disciples speaking in other tongues and prophesying after believing? These signs, like those experienced by the believers in Samaria, were visible and public indicators that they possessed the Spirit. But this pattern is not universal in Acts. Not every convert experiences such manifestations. The norm is repentance and faith in Jesus and possession of the Spirit. And the visible profession of faith is baptism.

The disciples of John at first had some external form of religion, but until Paul told them about the gospel, they had not been changed truly and internally. But praise God, he changes all sorts of people—from the hedonists to the religious types.

I have always been moved by the story of John Wesley’s conversion, which bears some similarity to what we see here. Wesley was the son of a minister, Samuel Wesley, and of a godly mother, Susanna. Wesley attended Oxford and became double professor of Greek and logic at Lincoln College. He served as his father’s assistant and was later ordained by the church (Hughes, Acts, 245). While at Oxford, Wesley was a member of the “Holy Club,” a group dedicated to wholeheartedly pursuing godliness. He then became a missionary to the American Indians in Georgia.

After failing in his work among them, he was forced to return to England. He wrote, “I went to America to convert the Indians; but, oh, who shall convert me?” (cited in Hughes, Acts, 245). By God’s grace, however, in America he had encountered some Moravians, a Christian group that emphasized Bible reading, prayer, and worship. Their spiritual vitality had a tremendous impact on him. He sought out one of the leaders, having become convinced of his own unbelief. Wesley wrote in his journal about his conversion the night of May 24, 1738:

In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street where one was reading Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me, that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death. (Quoted in Hughes, Acts, 245)

Prior to that experience, Wesley was a committed religious man who even traveled overseas as a missionary. But in spite of his theological knowledge, he wasn’t truly born anew. He needed to experience and embrace the reality of the living Savior. Many religious people are in a similar position today. May God grant us grace to proclaim the gospel to them so that they too may come to saving faith in Christ.

The Synagogue (19:8-9a)

As was his custom, Paul evangelized in the synagogue, proclaiming Jesus as Messiah. He had already visited the Ephesian synagogue briefly (18:19-21), but now he’s able to stay longer. Unlike some other synagogue experiences, Paul taught this time for “three months” before opposition ensued. That suggests the Ephesians were more open to Paul’s message than previous Jewish audiences. Some of them became believers, but others persisted in unbelief. The latter slandered the Way publicly, as Paul once did (22:4), bringing opposition once again (cf. 1 Cor 16:8-9). The “hardened” Jews were rejecting the only way to God (John 14:6).

The Lecture Hall of Tyrannus (19:9b-10)

As in Corinth (18:7), Paul took the new converts to a different location in order to continue his evangelistic exposition. They went to the lecture hall of Tyrannus. Some traditions claim Paul taught during the typical siesta times in Ephesus, between 11:00 and 4:00. This would make sense if Paul made tents in Ephesus (see 20:34). I like to imagine Paul taking a break from tent making to expound the Word, once again displaying his exemplary work ethic. This went on for “two years” (v. 10), a long stay for Paul.

Since the hall was a public place, Paul could evangelize all sorts of people, both Jews and Greeks, there. It’s possible Epaphras became a Christian there during this time and then helped establish the congregation in Colossae and probably many others (Col 1:7; 4:13; Rev 2–3). The origins of many of the churches in Revelation, in fact, probably date from this period (Rev 1:4,11; Johnson, Let’s Study Acts, 236). Here then is another example of the benefit of planting the gospel/churches in major cities, as Paul did in Ephesus. From city centers other churches in other areas are often started.


Luke presents to Theophilus a range of people who need Christian instruction. Some people know Christ and simply need encouragement and reinforcement, as Paul’s return visits in verse 23 illustrate. Others may be genuine Christians, but they lack doctrinal clarity on a particular matter, as Apollos did. Still others are religious but have no understanding of the gospel, as the disciples of John demonstrate. Further, some have heard the gospel but refuse to believe in Christ, as was the case with many unbelieving Jews in Ephesus.

The great news is that many people—of great diversity—will believe the gospel when it’s taught to them. The world needs thousands of Bible-teaching, Christ-exalting, Spirit-empowered, prayer-soaked, gospel-centered teachers. The world needs Word-driven disciple makers who will teach others one-on-one in homes, in public settings, in marketplaces, and everywhere in between. So, by the power of the Spirit, with the Word of Christ, let’s go make disciples of all nations.

Reflect and Discuss

  1. What do Paul’s follow-up visits (v. 23) teach about the importance of follow-up discipleship and the value of the local church?
  2. What can we learn about instructing leaders from the example of Aquila and Priscilla?
  3. What can we learn about how to receive instruction from the example of Apollos?
  4. What about the ministry of Apollos most resonates with you?
  5. Why do you think Paul thought it necessary to ask these spiritual questions of the “disciples of John the Baptist”?
  6. What does Paul’s encounter with the disciples of John teach about the need to evangelize religious people?
  7. Compare Paul’s ministry in the synagogue in Ephesus to previous synagogue experiences.
  8. What might a contemporary “lecture hall of Tyrannus” ministry look like today? Where might we have opportunity to publicly evangelize large numbers of people?
  9. What were some of the results of Paul’s ministry in the lecture hall of Tyrannus?
  10. What does this passage teach about making disciples through teaching?