What Is Apollos?

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Apollos is mentioned in Acts 18:24-19:1, 1Corinthians 1-4, 16:12, and Titus 3:13

What then is Apollos? And what is Paul? (1 Cor 3:5a NASU)

Those seem like fair enough questions, posed by Paul to the Corinthian Christians. What is Apollos? And what is Paul? Regarding himself, Paul had already said, “Paul, called as an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God” (1 Cor 1:1 NASU). So Paul was an apostle of Jesus Christ. Not just an apostle (one sent) but specifically an apostle of Jesus Christ, by the will of God. Sent by Jesus, according to God’s purpose.

But what is Apollos? Well, we know he was a Jew (one of the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob), and an Alexandrian (born in the Hellenistic – Greek – culture of first century Egypt). We also know he was trained in public speaking and well versed in the Hebrew scriptures (the Old Testament – all of this is in Acts 18:24). Apollos knew the way of the Lord, imperfectly at first, and was open to increasing his knowledge and understanding. He was a fervent teacher of what he knew and believed (Acts 18:25-26). All of that, of course, was just the backdrop for Paul’s question, because Apollos was all of those things before either Paul or the Corinthians knew him, and he was still most of those things when they did know him (though with a better understanding of the gospel). From personal experience the Corinthians knew Apollos as an encourager or helper of the brethren, who publicly taught the scriptures and used them to show that Jesus is the Christ (Acts 18:27-28). He had done that in Achaia (where Corinth was). At that time, he was unknown to Paul (or any other apostle of Jesus Christ), but had been personally taught about the way of the Lord by some people who previously knew and worked with Paul, Aquila and Priscilla (Acts 18:1-4, 18-22, 26). When Apollos wanted to go to Achaia from Ephesus, the church (brethren) in Ephesus encouraged him to go and help the brethren in Achaia (where Corinth is) and wrote a letter to the disciples there in his behalf. Aquila and Priscilla had recently come from Corinth to Ephesus with Paul (Acts 18:18-19). Paul had stayed only briefly in Ephesus and then continued on, going back to Antioch for a time. Apollos spent some time in Corinth, we don’t know how long, helping the believers and publicly preaching Christ with great vigor. When Paul finished his visit in Antioch he traveled overland back to Ephesus (Acts 19:1), while Apollos was still helping the believers and publicly preaching Christ in Corinth. Paul continued in Ephesus more than two years (Acts 19:8-10) and during that time, Apollos also returned from Corinth to Ephesus. Then, sometime later, while Paul and Apollos were still both at Ephesus, Paul wrote 1 Corinthians (see 1 Corinthians 16:8, 12).

So what is Apollos? He clearly was not the “pulpit preacher” or “hired minster” at either Corinth or Ephesus, and we can discard that sort of idea completely. Nor is there any suggestion that he was an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God, as was Paul. When the brethren in Ephesus sent him off to Corinth he had no connection with any apostle, and no “spiritual gift,” but was trained, eloquent, mighty in the scriptures, fervent, and encouraged by the brothers to go. Still, in the minds of the Corinthians, and of Paul, Apollos was in some way in a category that Paul and Cephas (Peter) fit into (see 1 Corinthians 1:12, 3:4, 22). What category would that be? Paul and Cephas were both apostles of Jesus Christ by the will of God (see 1 Peter 1:1). While Paul took issue with the divisive attitudes in Corinth, Paul didn’t dispute Apollos’ place in a list or category that included both himself and Peter. However, we know that Apollos was not an apostle of Christ in the sense that they were. If he wasn’t an apostle of Jesus Christ, what was he? Paul said both he himself and Apollos were “Servants through whom you believed, even as the Lord gave opportunity to each one.” 1 Cor 3:5b NASU). Paul pointed out that he and Apollos each had his own work and his own reward in God’s economy (1 Corinthians 3:6-8). He also identified both himself and Apollos as “God’s fellow workers;” (1 Cor 3:9a NASU). He further described Apollos (and others who did the same kind of thing) as a builder, building on the foundation laid by Paul, comparing himself to a “wise master builder” (1 Corinthians 3:10-15). In the illustration, Apollos (or anyone like him) is a builder, and so is Paul, but Paul does have a higher rank or authority as “master builder.” There is a specific application to Apollos (1 Corinthans 3:10 “I laid a foundation and another is building on it”) and then a general teaching about anyone who builds on the foundation of Christ (“each one should be careful how he builds”).

While Paul described both himself and Apollos as “God’s fellow workers”, and himself as the “wise master builder”, it is clear that Apollos was not a surrogate of Paul (or any other apostle of Jesus Christ). He went to Corinth with the encouragement and letter from the Ephesian brethren, before he ever knew Paul. He must have met Paul when he returned to Ephesus and found Paul there, after his sojourn in Corinth. Because of the difficulties Paul later learned of in the Corinthian church, Paul urged (encouraged greatly, not commanded) Apollos to go back to Corinth (1 Corinthians 16:12), while he himself continued in Ephesus awhile longer. But Apollos did not go to Corinth because it was “not at all his desire to come now, but he will come when he has opportunity.” (1 Cor 16:12b NASU). Apollos was not Paul’s messenger boy, and his own desire determined his course of action. Still, he was God’s fellow worker along with Paul, and like Paul a servant “through whom you believed.” Paul also described Apollos as a “servant of Christ” and “steward of the mysteries of God” (1 Corinthians 3:22, 4:1, 6). There is no clue anywhere that Apollos had any special spiritual gift. He had no opportunity for such before going to Corinth, and there is no evidence or hint that he ever received the laying on of hands by Paul or any apostle subsequently. His work in Corinth (and in Ephesus) was not dependant on that, but he was used of God, “as the Lord gave opportunity to each one.” We know too that Apollos continued to do the same kind of work for several years, because Paul wrote of his travels in Titus 3:12-14, implying that Apollos was still engaged in the Lord’s work, and in harmony with other Christian workers, worthy of help in their work for the Lord.

What then is Apollos? A servant, through whom people believed. What else does the New Testament say about “servants through whom you believed”? One classic statement in the New Testament is the sequence Paul laid out in Romans 10:13-15 where we have:


14 How then will they call on Him in whom they have not believed? How will they believe in Him whom they have not heard? And how will they hear without a preacher? 15 How will they preach unless they are sent? Just as it is written, “HOW BEAUTIFUL ARE THE FEET OF THOSE WHO BRING GOOD NEWS OF GOOD THINGS!” (NASU)

We know that Apollos was one sent by the brethren, we know that he was “demonstrating by the scriptures that Jesus was the Christ” (Acts 18:28), and we know that people believed because of his reasoning from the word. Luke and Paul affirm these things about him in their writings, mentioned above. He fits the description of what Paul refers to as a “preacher”. It seems evident in this context that while any Christian may preach the word, not every Christian is in mind when Paul speaks of “a preacher” and one who is sent to preach. Nor was Apollos’ experience as a fervent teacher of the scriptures and spokesman for Christ the experience of every Christian.

What then is a preacher? The word is used inconsistently in English, so let’s notice the Greek term in Romans 10:14. Like all other words in the New Testament, it is an ordinary word, not an ecclesiastical term. The word “preacher” here is from “kerusso” which means to “proclaim as a herald”. The same Greek word is used to describe the work of John (Matthew 3:1), of Jesus (Matthew 4:23), of the apostles (Mark 16:15, 20), of Philip (Acts 8:5), of Paul (Acts 9:20), of Paul (and including Apollos and Cephas in context, “we preach” 1 Corinthians 1:23), of Paul, Silas and Timothy (2 Corinthians 1:19, 1 Thessalonians 2:9), of Timothy (2 Timothy 4:2), and even of false brothers with a false message (2 Corinthians 11:4). So Paul was a preacher, Timothy was a preacher, Apollos was a preacher – and preachers are to be sent to preach.

What is this “good news” that the preacher (herald) is to bring and proclaim (Romans 10:15)? Clearly it is the gospel of Christ, intended to bring people to believe in him (as Apollos’ message was described) and intended to be obeyed (Romans 10:16). In fact “good news” is just what “gospel” means. Our Greek term for “good news” or “gospel” in Romans 10:15 is “euaggelizo” (evangelism, evangelize). Again, the Greek word for evangelize is used to describe the work of John (Luke 3:18), of Jesus (Luke 4:18, 43), of the apostles (Acts 5:42), of the scattered brethren (Acts 8:4, 11:20), of Phillip (Acts 8:4), of Paul and Barnabus (Acts 13:32, 14:7), of Paul and Barnabus and other brethren (Acts 15:35), specifically of Paul’s work in Corinth (in the context again regarding Paul, Cephas, and Apollos, 1 Corinthians 1:17), and of false teachers with a different message (Galatians 1:8-9). Timothy was adjured to share with Paul in suffering for this gospel (2 Timothy 1:8), and he was admonished to do the work of an evangelist (one who brings good news, 2 Timothy 4:5), a word that is also used to describe Phillip (Acts 21:8) and a particular category of church workers (Ephesians 4:11).

Did Apollos bring good news (the gospel)? Clearly, in the descriptions of Luke and Paul, he did so, with the effect that people believed in Jesus and obeyed.

What about that word “servant” Paul used to describe Apollos (1 Corinthians 3:5, 4:1)? We really have two different Greek words in the two passages. The word “hupeeretees” in 4:1 refers to a minister, a subordinate or assistant. It is important to see that Apollos is not pictured there as the subordinate or assistant of Paul, but that both Paul and Apollos are subordinates, ministers, assistants, servants, of Christ. The same word is used to describe Paul’s commission in Acts 26:16 (minster and witness of Christ). Apollos too could be a minister of Christ (but not a witness in the way that Paul was). Others described with this word include people who served as judges (Matthew 5:25), synagogue workers (Luke 4:20), the officers of the Sanhedrin (Mark 14:64, John 7:45, Acts 5:22), Jesus’ close associates (John 18:36), and John Mark’s relationship to Barnabus and Paul (Acts 13:5).

The other word for servant describing Apollos in 1 Corinthians 3:5 is the more frequently used word “diakonoi” which is a few times rendered deacon, one who serves. The word describes the work of Jesus (Romans 15:8), “deacons” (1 Timothy 3:8ff, Philippians 1:1, and the verb in Acts 6:2 – serving tables), the apostles (Acts 6:1-4, the ministry of the word), Paul (Ephesians 3:7, Colossian 1:23-25), the “greatest” among the disciples (Matthew 20:26), servants of a king (Matthew 22:13), the follower of Jesus (John 12:26), rulers under God (Romans 13:4), Phoebe (Romans 16:1), Paul and Apollos (1 Corinthians 3:5), Timothy (1 Timothy 4:6, 1 Thessalonians 3:2), the servants of the devil (2 Corinthians 11:15), Tychicus (Ephesians 6:21, Colossians 4:7), and Epaphras (Colossians 1:7).

Note: We’re focusing on the words that describe Apollos specifically here, but Timothy, like Apollos and like Paul and Epaphras and Tychicus, is referred to as a servant (minister) of Christ and of God. In one reference, Acts 19:22, Luke uses a similar word to describe Timothy and Erastus as helpers of Paul. That word is also used to describe Onesipherus helping Paul, 2 Timothy 1:18; Onesimus helping Paul; Philemon 1:13; Paul helping the Jerusalem church; Romans 15:25; Christians serving the saints, Hebrews 6:10, 1 Peter 4:10-11; the work of the prophets, 1 Peter 1:12; and the work of deacons, 1 Timothy 3:10, 13, Acts 6:2.

The word steward that Paul used to describe himself and Apollos in 1 Corinthians 4:1 is found just a handful of times in the New Testament. It is used of a trustworthy manager (Luke 12:42) and one who abused his position of trust (Luke 16:1), a city official in charge of the treasury (Romans 16:23), Paul and Apollos (1 Corinthians 4:1-6), a guardian, tutor or manager (Galatians 4:2), Christians exercising their own gifts for the benefit of others (1 Peter 4:10), Paul’s ministry (Colossians 1:25), and that of bishops (Titus 1:7).

What is Apollos? The word evangelist is found just three times in the English New Testament, though the noun gospel (good news) and the verb “to preach the gospel” (evangelize) are found dozens of time. Did Apollos preach the good news of Jesus, that men might obey? Clearly, he did, Paul affirmed it. Was he sent to preach? Clearly he was, Luke described it. Did he settle into a congregation and become their “preacher” or “pastor”? Clearly he did not. Did his work include both preaching to the lost and building on a foundation already laid, watering what was already grown and sowing new seed? That’s how Paul described it. Was he a teacher of the church or a preacher to the lost? He was both. Did he have a responsibility to assist churches with problems, even though they had capable leaders to whom they should listen (see 1 Corinthians 16:12, 15-18)? Paul thought he could help. Was Apollos a servant of Paul, his subordinate or assistant? Clearly not, he used his own judgment about where and when to go. Was he connected to a particular congregation? Evidently, the congregation at Ephesus which encouraged him to go to Corinth and wrote a letter for him, and to which he later returned and stayed for awhile. Did he have some spiritual gift? Not at the time he went out from Ephesus to preach in Achaia, when he was “fervent in spirit”, and no clue that he ever did receive any miraculous spiritual gift. Luke’s account emphasizes his readiness in the word, his ability, and his zealous commitment.

Additional thoughts about some of those sent out to preach in the New Testament

The word “evangelist” does not stand as a solitary construct in the New Testament to be interpreted arbitrarily however anyone would like to. Most of the same descriptive words and action words applied to Timothy are applied to Apollos, and several of the same words are used to describe Epaphras and Tychicus. It is also evident that others of Paul’s fellow workers (Barnabus, Titus, Demas, Luke and more) were doing similar things. The word evangelist is a descriptive word, and does not appear in Ephesians 4:11 without context or content. Who had been associated with the church in Ephesus? Paul, the apostle of Jesus Christ, and Timothy (Acts 19:22, 1 Corinthians 4:17, 16:10-11, 1 Timothy 1:3, 2 Timothy 1:18) and Apollos (see above) and Aquila and Priscilla and Tychicus (Ephesians 6:21-22) that we know of. When Paul mentions apostles, prophets, evangelists, and pastors and teachers in Ephesians 4:11, what context did they have for those words? Paul had been there, whether any other apostle had been there or not, and he reminded them of his role in Ephesians 1:1. After that he mentions apostles three times, each time in conjunction with prophets (Ephesians 2:20, 3:5, 4:11). Whether any prophets existed in the church at Ephesus or whether any had visited there, we have no testimony, but Paul described their purpose and role in relation to the Lord and the church in 2:19-22 and 3:2-6, along with that of the apostles, as a foundation and as revealers of God’s mystery. What context did they, the church at Ephesus have for the words “evangelists” and “pastors and teachers”? We know the church had elders (Acts 20:17ff, probably appointed by Timothy before he joined Paul in Macedonia, Acts 20:4, 1 Timothy 1:3, 3:1, 14ff), so they had been taught, they had a context for “pastors and teachers.” What did they know of evangelists? What context did they have for that word? We know Timothy was told to do the work of an evangelist, is described with the right terms for such a role, and had been there on different occasions, and had worked with them. We know Apollos is described with all the right words for the work, and had been there, had been sent out by them and returned to them.

The church at Jerusalem sent Barnabus to Antioch (Acts 11:22) because they had heard of what was happening there. What was he when the church sent him out, before the Spirit directed the church at Antioch to set apart Barnabus and Saul? Why did he go on the first occasion? The church at Antioch sent Barnabus and Saul to Jerusalem with a gift (Acts 11:30). On that trip they had a mission (ministry, service) to fulfill (Acts 12:25) a word also used to describe Paul’s work (Acts 20:24, 1 Timothy 1:12) and Timothy’s (2 Timothy 4:5). Barnabus was sent out twice in the record at hand, by the churches at Jerusalem and Antioch, before the “miraculous” call of Acts 13:1-3. The basis of Barnabus being sent was apparently what is said of him in Acts 4:36-37, his demeanor in Acts 9:27, and the summary of his character and spirit in Acts 11:24. Compare the description of Barnabus in Acts 11:24 to that of the prospective deacons in Acts 6:3. In another example, the basis for Timothy going with Paul is laid out in Acts 16:1-3. He was a disciple, he had a good reputation at home and in nearby churches, and Paul wanted to take him. The prophetic message in 1 Timothy 4:14 occurred in connection with the laying on of hands of the elders, and of Paul (2 Timothy 1:6-7). We can picture a very likely sequence from the interrelated passages. Paul was acquainted with Timothy’s family from earlier trips. Timothy made a good impression on Paul, and because Timothy was active in the churches Paul heard good things about him. Paul decided to take Timothy along (willingly, certainly, else he would never have submitted to circumcision at this stage in life, he wanted to be effective). The elders laid their hands on Timothy. A prophetic message was given at that time, perhaps affirming Timothy’s character, perhaps relating to his future difficulties (consider Hebrews 13:23, Acts 21:10-11). We know that Silas was in the company at the time (Acts 16:40) and that Silas was a prophet (Acts 15:32). We see in 1 Timothy 4:14 that the prophetic message was given in conjunction with the laying on of the hands of the elders, not as a prerequisite for it, and that the gift itself then came through Paul’s hands as described in 2 Timothy 1:6-7. The sequence in Paul’s language, supplementing Luke’s account, has to be that first Timothy was chosen to go, with the blessings of the brethren, then he was commissioned by the elders, at that time a prophecy was made about him, then Paul laid hands on him and he received some spiritual gift. The grounds for sending an evangelist today are the same as they were for Barnabus or Timothy, and it is the church’s responsibility to do the sending.

The qualifications of preachers or evangelists are in those descriptions of Timothy and Barnabus, and Apollos, and others, as well as the passages that prescribe behavior and work for Timothy and Titus (such as 1 Timothy 4:11-16, 2 Timothy 2:21-26). In terms of age or marriage, Paul makes it clear that young men have their place, and there is work for those who are single and those who are married. Being a good steward is required, being grounded in the truth, etc. are qualities the evangelist must have, according to Paul’s various statements about such men and to such men (the word qualifications in the context of elders, deacons, or evangelists may sometimes be misleading).

Everything in the letters to Timothy and Titus is specifically directed to them, just as everything in Philemon is specifically directed to him. Some of the instructions make sense only for the one who first received them (bring my coat). Some of them make sense only for an evangelist (do not be hasty in the laying on of hands) and some of them, directly or indirectly inform us what an evangelist must do, and what all Christians should do. If an evangelist (call him a preacher, or minister, or steward, or whatever) like Titus is responsible for teaching certain things (as in Titus 2), then the people those things are directed toward will be responsible for doing them. Everyone can learn from what is laid out as Titus’ responsibility, but he still had a specific responsibility to do those things in his day in Crete, and anyone in a similar position today will be responsible for doing similar things.

Some question whether an evangelist has “authority,” or suppose that the only authority in the church is that of the word of God, or else that only elders have authority in the local church. The word of God in fact says that leaders have authority over other believers and should be submitted to (Hebrews 13:17). The word used there does not specifically refer to elders, and surely is used on purpose in that general epistle, because not all churches are led by elders. Notice how the same word is used in Hebrews 13:7, those who have the rule over you, who taught you the word. Notice also 1 Thessalonians 5:11-13, there is a need to edify one another, but also to acknowledge the authority of (esteem) those over us in the Lord (v.13). Again, the words there may not be limited to elders, but to more mature brothers who admonish. The word “authority” in Titus 2:15 is the same as the word “command” in Titus 1:3 (also in 1 Timothy 1:1, 1 Corinthians 7:6, 25). Since we live in an age of presumed personal autonomy, many people take issue with the idea of anyone having more authority or different authority than anyone else (2 Peter 2:10). However, there is a particular responsibility of stewardship (see above passages related to Apollos) of things entrusted to one, and unlike some human institutions, God gives no responsibility without the appropriate authority to do the job, which is only real if exercised appropriately. Timothy was instructed to “command” people to do what they should (1 Timothy 4:11, 5:7, 6:17). Christians in general are told to edify, encourage, teach and admonish one another, but not directed to “command” fellow believers.

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