When You See Jesus Better Than Me
Passage: Acts 18:18–28
A while back I saw a viral video of a dad giving presents to his two 3 year old girls. To the first girl he gave a chocolate egg. She was predictably thrilled with this. To the other girl he gave two crisp 100 dollar bills. She was heartbroken. Because we experience value as relative. And I’m not gonna lie to y’all, after I told Jim I’d preach this week I opened up to the text and felt a little bit like the girl getting the hundred dollar bills. This is a tricky one. I’m glad I got it now, but it’s a tricky one. And there’s a few reasons for that, but the main one is how it makes mention of some pieces of information that sound interesting, maybe a little confusing, but don’t ultimately change the point of the text. And some of these sort of side-note pieces of information have led to it being a proof text in a number of arguments that are not related to what I think is the main point of the text. So here’s what I want to do, I wanna break form a little bit here and just do a basic two point structure. What the text means and how we apply it. A friend of mine who’s now with the Lord used to call this the KISS method - keep it simple, stupid.
So in honor of him I’ll get to the point. I think the main point of this text is that God uses Christian brothers and sisters to help us see Jesus better. So that’s where we are headed. And to get there, we’re gunna first go through an exegesis of the text, try and address some of the odd things so that we can focus on the main things, and then talk about what the main things mean for us. Now normally what you’re supposed to do is stick some sort of hook in the form of an illustration in the beginning to get people to pay attention. But I don’t have time for that. So how bout I just say that this text is going to take us into a discussion of women’s roles in the church and when and how to disagree with Christians on the internet? My wife got me an embroidered preaching hanky because when I was younger I used to get super nervous and sweat myself blind when I preached but I haven’t had to use it yet. This might be the week. We’ll see. But let’s dig in. So we’ll start with what the text does and doesn’t say, and then we’ll talk about how we should and shouldn’t apply it. That’s where we are going.
- What The Text Does & Doesn’t Say
Right off the bat you got this random reference to Paul cutting his hair because he had been under a vow. Almost certainly this means Paul had taken a type of religious vow called a Nazerite vow which involved separating yourself to the Lord for a dedicated period of time during which you would not cut your hair. It was instituted by God back in Numbers. Same one Samson took for his whole life in Judges. But to be clear, what we aren’t seeing here is Paul reverting to the ceremonial law for justification. Rather this was a vow that would often be taken to express gratitude to God, sort of like an extended fast.
Many commentators assume he was taking it in gratitude for God’s protection of him in Corinth. You remember Paul was afraid to preach in Corinth, but God had told him don’t be afraid, keep on preaching, for I have many people here. And God protected him from harm the entire time he was there. So it’s not at all implied here that Paul was participating in a part of the ceremonial law that pertained to atonement for sins, since all of this was fulfilled by Christ. But he is making a show of gratitude in a way that would have been familiar to him, having grown up a Jew, and which he did not consider to be inappropriate or related to his justification. But as interesting as that is, it’s just a passing remark. The text isn’t about Christians taking Nazirite vows. Despite the fact that it was the main reason I heard it talked about in Bible college. Truthfully, that was probably just a bunch of dudes who wanted biblical justification for growing their hair out like Jason Mamoa. Spoiler alert, none of us looked like Jason Mamoa. Personally I gave up around the level of Jim in season 3 of the office. But we were just fixating on a detail in the text to the exclusion of the point of the text because we wanted to use it to justify what we already wanted to do. This won’t be the last time we talk about that tendency today, by the way.
There’s a similar risk of doing that with this whole baptism of John thing. Some people get really bent out of shape about what that does or doesn’t mean. Now, this mention of it is most likely just intended to set up the context for next week’s text which talks more explicitly about it. So I’ll leave most of this for Jim to sort out. But in the context of our passage, suffice it to say that it’s indicative of Apollos understanding what has happened in redemptive history right up to the point of Jesus, but he hasn’t heard the good news yet. He knows a messiah is coming, but he doesn’t know who it is who came. He’s still living as a faithful Jew who trusts God for salvation and who sees the need to repent, since that’s what John’s baptism is all about, but he doesn’t know that one who is greater than John has come yet. This is not establishing another category of baptism, and as we will see next week, it’s not distinguishing a type of baptism that saves you from a type that doesn’t. Because there is no physical baptism that saves you. But that’s for next week. And it’s not the point of this text. So once again, another opportunity to take a detail in the text that is not the point and use it to miss what’s actually being said.
Finally, we come to this story of Priscilla and Aquilla, who we met last week, correcting Apollos. Or maybe more accurately, sharing Jesus with Apollos. And this is a very important story for a number of reasons. It’s remarkable, because this is the only place I can think of from Acts 13 to the end of the book where the narrative breaks away from Paul and focuses on other characters while he isn’t there. That’s really unusual. But what’s most important about this text is not what it is most often used for. Because this is the last detail we will touch on that can tempt us to focus on it and miss the point. Remember, the point of this text is that God uses other brothers and sisters to show us Jesus. Part of why I think that’s the main point here is that it breaks away from the pattern of the gospel being spread almost exclusively through people holding formal positions in the church. Apostles, prophets, elders, deacons, etc. Those stories are all great. But here you’re seeing the gospel spread by normal people. And it’s normal people sharing the gospel with an educated Alexandrian scholar who’s teaching in the synagogue. And that’s pretty amazing.
But the detail that people can sometimes get a little distracted with is that it’s a woman teaching a man. Now. Before I go further, let me clarify, that is what happens here. And it is important. And this text does matter for the conversation on women’s roles in the church. It does. So you have the famous verse, 1st Timothy 2:12, where Paul says, “I do not permit a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man. Rather she is to remain quiet.” And this text is helpful in understanding that one, because whatever Paul is forbidding in 1st Timothy, it isn’t what we are seeing in Acts 18. And I need to be both careful and brief here, because this is not a sermon on 1st Timothy 2, but a lot of people do the same thing with that text that they do with this one. And that is they look at part of it, ignore the rest of it, and use it to affirm what they already want to believe. And tragically, what that often looks like is men using 1st Timothy to say that women are categorically unable to teach all men in any context. They will use it to say that all men have authority over all women, and even that men are inherently equipped to teach and women are inherently prone to being deceived. Now, if I were preaching a sermon on 1st Timothy, I’d be happy to explain all the reasons that is not what that text says - because it’s not. And I did get into some of that in a sermon on Luke 1 back on December 4th last year and that’s available on the website if you’d like to hear it. The elders are also currently working on a white paper concerning women’s roles in the church as part of our bylaw revision process, and that paper will address those misinterpretations directly.
But for now, in order to focus on this passage, it’s worth noting that this text basically rules out those major misunderstandings of 1st Timothy 2. If all women are to be subordinate to all men, if men are inherently better at teaching and women are prone to being deceived, and if women must never teach men in any context, then this story is Luke breaking from his pattern of following Paul spreading the gospel around the world in order to show how it shouldn’t be spread. And if that’s what he’s trying to do he sorta shoots himself in the foot by showing Apollos receiving that teaching humbly then going on to spread the gospel based on it, when what he really should have done is rebuked Acquilla for letting his wife get ahead of him. But that doesn’t happen. For that reason, pretty much everybody gets that the text can’t possibly be using this story as a negative example. When Luke wants to do that the story ends with somebody getting eaten by worms or something. It’s not hard to do.
So they say well, Aquila was really the one doing the teaching here and Priscilla was just in the background agreeing. But that doesn’t fit with the fact that Luke refers to them here as “Priscilla and Acquila.” Normally in both Greek and English, you mention the leading figure first. “Jim and Robert preach at OGC” is more grammatically correct because Jim is the teaching pastor and usually he preaches. It would give you the wrong impression if I said “I and Jim preach at OGC” because you mention the person with primary responsibility for the action first. And in Greek, when mentioning a husband and wife you would culturally default to the man first, like Paul does when he mentions them in 1 Corinthians 16, and like Luke did when he introduced them at the beginning of the chapter. But here the names are reversed. And I know that may seem like a little detail but I don’t think you want to go down the road of saying “well I think the bible really meant this and Luke probably should have just been more clear with how he wrote it.”
Now that’s a long way of saying I think the issue of whether women can teach men is a distraction from the point of this text. Remember, I think the point of this text is that God uses brothers and sisters to show us Jesus. And misunderstanding women’s roles in the church, or making this passage all about that, is a great way to miss that. I’m not kidding when I say God uses both brothers and sisters. One of the things I love about this church is that I have encountered more women here than anywhere else who have studied the bible longer and in more formal contexts than myself. Two weeks ago I had a mean sermon draft and one of the women on our sermon review team helped me see Jesus better in that text. And that’s not unusual. There are 3-5 women who regularly review and provide feedback on the sermons before they are preached. But this text isn’t just a reason to have women on your sermon review team, it’s a reason to have a sermon review team. Because the church is intended to be a place where we help each other see Jesus. But this is where we start to get into the second point. Now that we talked about what the text does and doesn’t say, let’s talk about how we should and shouldn’t apply it.
- How We Should & Shouldn’t Apply It
I’ll start with the concern first because I want to be brief with it. I’m concerned that we might read this text as a justification for just about any correction one Christian wanted to offer to another. So if I’m prone to correcting people’s theology, then I look at this text and all of a sudden it becomes a categorical justification for what I’m doing. And there’s a lot that could be missed there. Because even though it’s true that Priscilla and Acquilla are correcting Apollos, there’s a lot of nuance we can miss out on by flattening it in that way. Let me attempt to spread the discomfort around evenly here, ok? On the one hand, I have seen many a seminary student rush into correction of other saints and even their pastors because they read this awesome book that you’ve probably never heard of by a guy named Saint Augustine and he says you’re wrong. And because Priscilla and Aquila corrected Apollos I have to tell you that you have no idea what you’re talking about. Now, mind you, I’ve only seen other seminary students do this. I myself have never done this. And I can say that because the guy who was my pastor when I was 20 years old is out of town this week. :) So you see how we just cut that piece out and paste it right over what we are already doing? Nevermind some important details we will get to in a moment that point the other direction…
But on the other side of things, and allow me to begin to tread even more lightly here (if possible), I have seen other blessed saints wanna put seminary students in their place and use this text as justification for it. Now, hopefully you can tell from the previous example, I’m not opposed to putting us seminary students in our place. We need that sometimes. But hear me out. I have observed saints in other churches, certainly never this one, just other churches, totally dismissing whatever these young kids learned in seminary because I’ve been reading the bible for 20 years longer than they’ve been able to chew food. And because Priscilla and Acquilla were regular folks who corrected this hotshot Alexandiran scholar named Apollos when he was out of line. But the point here is that Priscilla and Aquila have learned about Jesus from others and they are sharing it with Apollos who has not yet been connected to the Christian community. So it’s true, the question isn’t who’s more educated or even who’s been reading the bible longer, it’s who knows Jesus. But this passage is clear that we should expect to learn about Jesus from others, so it follows that we shouldn’t be quick to dismiss somebody who’s going to seminary to learn about Jesus from others.
But it’s not just an issue that shows up with seminary students. It’s an issue that shows up any time any of us let fear or pride determine the way we give or receive correction, rather than showing and seeing Jesus. That applies well beyond explicitly theological issues. It could be parenting, marriage, job-related, school related, what have you. The way that Priscila and Acquila engaged Apollos, and the way he received it, is instructive for us as we consider how to engage with other brothers and sisters on any number of issues. Their priority wasn’t glorifying themselves or attacking an enemy, it was showing Jesus to a friend. And his priority wasn’t justifying himself, it was understanding.
Often times our interactions with other Christians are too distorted by fear and pride for this to happen. We correct either because we are rightly afraid of error but have an overinflated sense of our personal obligation and ability to prevent it, or because we want to be seen as knowing more than somebody else. In a works-based culture, everybody is only as valuable as what they bring to the table. So you can actually take value from somebody else for yourself by correcting them. Because that makes them wrong and you’re smart enough to see it. So you leave that exchange with you having a little more value and them having a little less. Doing this over social media is one way to virtually guarantee this happens, btw. But it can just as easily happen in person - especially in scenarios where you’re tempted to correct someone in front of a group. That isn’t to say I’m against speaking truth in the public square, because that’s exactly what Apollos does once he learns about Jesus. But notice that Priscilla and Aquilla pulled him aside to show him Jesus. In doing so, they preserved his reputation and bolstered his credibility so that he could speak even more persuasively to the jews after that. Their correction was an others-focused, gracious, self-forgetful, magnification of Jesus Christ.
My point is this, if this text becomes a simple go-to example to provide blanket coverage for your personal entitlement to correct any part of anybody’s theology or practice in any context then probably stop doing that. And that’s coming from a man who, at 18 years old, was more willing to correct anybody’s theology than anybody has ever been willing to do anything. Thankfully the truth of the Bible isn’t contingent on the faithfulness of the messenger. I’m speaking to you as the chief of sinners here, but that’s ok because the gospel isn’t based on the faithfulness of the messenger it’s based on the faithfulness of the messiah. So you and I can be sinners without being hypocrites when we share the gospel. And more importantly, we can repent and count it as a gain rather than a loss.
I can tell you from personal experience, If you read this text and think "Oh I should correct people more" then dear brother or sister please do not. If you hear this and think back on the loving gifts of correction that have given you better views of Jesus, then you should be ready to pass those gifts along. My concern is that we will hear this text and become hasty to rebuke and to correct each other. Perhaps it would be helpful to think first, if somebody says something you disagree with, might it not be a chance for you to correct them, but rather for you to learn from them. That they may unwittingly bless you with the gift of seeing Jesus better. I think it’s possible that more of us need to work at imitating Apollos more than we need to work at imitating Priscila and Acquila. Narratively speaking, Apollos actually ends up being a pretty major figure in the New Testament. And here we are sort of getting his “origin story.” And it’s worth seeing that, as far as the Bible is concerned, his story began with the humility of learning about Jesus from others. Seminary student or not, man or woman, old or young, educated or not, we should all be willing to see Jesus better through somebody else in the body.
Last week I was up running again at Cranes Roost. This time it wasn’t before sunrise because I realized that’s crazy and repented of that insanity. This time the sun was already up over the lake and it was actually brighter being reflected off the water than it was looking at it from my perspective. Not because the lake is brighter than the sun. Because the sun was obscured by some clouds from where I was standing. This meant the lake had a better perspective on the sun than I did, and shared some of it with me. But I never would have come home and described that to Julianne by saying "wow honey the lake sure was bright today" because brightness isn't an attribute of lakes. It's an attribute of light that bounces off them. Same with magnifying glasses, or telescopes, or camera film. These are all tools we use to magnify important things we can’t always see on our own. And that’s a lot like our job as Christians. We are to make Christ more glorious to those around us. It's not that Christ is less glorious. It's that we have been blessed with a close perspective of him and instructed to share it with others.
You might see Jesus better than me because of your perspective. And that's OK. Because seeing Jesus is a miracle. Much like I couldn't get the clouds to move or the sun to readjust its position if I wanted to, it is a gift when you see Jesus. It's something he does. And your best bet to see him is to move into the position with the best view. But that would entail changing our current position and none of us are willing to do that apart from grace. And one of the major ways that grace comes is from brothers and sisters that can brightly reflect Jesus to you. The lake didn't have to argue with me about its superior vantage point. It just had to make me squint. It was obvious it had a better view than me. And there was nothing I could do to argue because I was standing in the shade of a cloud I could never get to move. There is nothing that I can do to manufacture or force a better view of Jesus but to go to him. Quit trying to forecast the weather and do the reverse rain dance and wait it out and whatever, I don't care if you like your spot. Pickup and move to where you see Jesus being most brightly reflected. He said I'm going to be here, you go there. He said I'm going to be in the fellowship of believers, join a church. He said I'll be with you in prayer, pray. He said I'm in my word, read it. Quit trying to read tea leaves from a bad vantage point because this is your spot and surely you can't be wrong pick up and go see him.
And our brothers and sisters play a role in this. Because maybe they have a better view of Jesus than we do. You can see it on their faces. You can tell these people have been with Jesus. Pick up and go stand where they're standing. It is worth it to see him. This is why Paul can say he's making up what is lacking in the suffering of Christ - because he sees Jesus and they don't yet so he's going to go show him to them. Listen, you may think your position is the best because you know stuff. You've read stuff. You've been to school. Apollos was from Alexandria. That was like the Oxford or Cambridge of that time. They know stuff over there. Priscilla and Acquilla are making tents in Corinth, which isn’t exactly a bastion of academic excellence. But they see Jesus because the clouds parted where they were standing and they reflected that light to Apollos. You can see he already had the skills, the rhetoric, the knowledge of the scripture, the vocabulary, but he didn't see Jesus. Because Jesus isn't obligated to reveal himself to the educated. I'm not saying he can't or won't use your education. Apollos became a powerful force once we leveraged his learning from a position of seeing Christ. I'm saying his learning didn't qualify him to see.
That's because, and I'm gunna say it again and I'll keep saying it until we're all sick of it, reality is not inherently mechanistic, it's relational. It's not about what you do, or even what you know, it's about who you know. It’s not about cause and effect, it's about the laws and affections of God. You want to know the Lord? Walk in his statues and abide in His love. Don’t forsake the company of other believers. Lean not on your own understanding. So I don't care how comfy your position is. If you cannot see Jesus well, get up and move. I don't care if you're smart. I don't care if you're educated. He doesn't either. And I don't care if you caught a glimpse of His light reflected in somebody you think highly of or not. You go to where he is. Be among people who you can see that they can see him.
And you might say if God has to do it anyway I might as well stay here and wait for him to come but that's not usually how it works. The normative way is that he works in and through you to will and to work for his good pleasure so you still have to get up and move. Now obviously when I say position I don't necessarily mean geography, I mean your point of view. Whether it's relational, philosophical, intellectual, political, theological, doesn't matter. If where you are at does not give you as clear a view of all of Jesus as you can get then you need to move. If your position shows you his righteousness but not his mercy, or his love but not his justice, or his peace but not his truth, or his work but not his person, and you see those qualities that you are missing reflected in the faces of others then you should probably go over there. I'm not saying God can't or won't part the clouds where you stand, I'm saying it's arrogance to stand in the shade and yell at the sun to move when there's a bright spot right over there.
Don't live in the sand and vacation on the Rock. Don't just go for a dip in the lake then go back to the shore. Dive in and abide there. Build your house there. Stay there. Grow there. I don't care if the metaphors are mixed there and the grass is greener on the shore. Go to where you can see Jesus. Go to where even the hungriest people have enough bread to share.
I don't know what position you're in that the Holy Spirit is calling you to leave. I don't know if it's a position of not knowing Jesus at all, or not knowing all of Jesus. I don't know if it's from a position of desiring things other than Jesus to a position of surrender. Maybe it's moving from a position of arrogance to one of humility. Maybe it's from isolation to community and you need to sign up for a DOGC class. I'm not even kidding, our next one is in two weeks on the 20th. Maybe you need to step out and call a brother or sister who has been calling you out of your darkness into a clearer view of him. Maybe it’s from a non-commital position to a committed position. Maybe you wanna talk to an elder about getting baptized. Whatever it is, this is the time to pray and ask him where to look for him. It's a time to reflect and think of who in your life looks and thinks and speaks like the Jesus you see when you open your Bible. Where are they standing? Are they inviting you to come check it out? Maybe for you repentance includes inviting all the people you pulled over to your position to get up and move with you, because you've seen Jesus now and you want that for them. Apollos turned around and started teaching as soon as he saw Jesus because its not about how much experience you have it's about whether you know him.
Whatever it looks like, seek him and you will find him. But seek is an active verb. You may need to get up to go do it. Not to earn it. To find it. I have one last piece of good news for you. The gospel means that your worth isn’t in your understanding. None of us, as much as we wish, will be able to fully understand Jesus in our fallen state. But that doesn't give us freedom to just close our eyes and not seek Him, or say whatever we have is good enough and not seek to grow from where we are. Rather, it should give us grace and mercy towards ourselves and others, and a willingness to repent of misunderstandings that we might see him as he more truly is. The gospel makes this possible because it means your value is not in your record of being right. Your worth isn’t in knowing better than somebody else. It means your value is not diminished by repentance, it is confirmed by repentance. If you repent, it means Jesus has you. And if Jesus has you, you have value. You can play the game of who can be right the longest but you’ll eventually lose and get canceled. Give up, get up, and go be among people who will bless you with a new vision of Jesus every day. Would you join me in praying that we would be those kind of people?