From confusion to the wisdom of God

It is no great shock to realize that these uneducated disciples were so slow at that time that the slightest difficulty made them hesitate, just as children who are learning the alphabet cannot read a single verse without pausing frequently. Almost every word of Christ gave them some sort of confusion. This hindered their progress. 

But soon afterward, having been enlightened by the Holy Spirit, they no longer will have anything to prevent them from becoming familiar with the wisdom of God.

(Welcome, Ron! This week, he joins the reflection team)

Image by Darrell Nixon

From confusion to the wisdom of God

By Ron Bruni
Acts 18:23-28
Jn 16:23b-28

In the weeks since Easter, we have been sojourning with Jesus and his disciples as depicted in the Gospel of John, which happens to be my favorite of the Gospels, so please pardon my extra comments.

John’s Gospel and the Lectionary

There is a reason for how John’s Gospel is used in the Liturgical Year. Our lectionary has a year of Matthew for A, Mark for B, and Luke for C, and we are currently in the latter stages of A, but where is John? The answer: he is scattered over all three. And on closer examination, we find that of the seventy passages use from John’s Gospel, about thirty are in the year B compared with twenty in each of A and C. Most of these appear during Lent and Easter. Some favorite passages occur every year, no matter what the cycle, such as Jesus washing his disciples' feet or the very beginning of John’s Gospel of the word made flesh during the Christmas season. Otherwise, we have great symbolic passages, and in Easter, those concerned with Jesus’s final advice to his disciples.

The Gospel of St. John deserves to be treated differently, as the church recognizes. John was a Jew, apostle, and eyewitness. In his gospel John emphasizes Jesus’s discourses more than his miracles. His whole narrative centers around the person of the Redeemer. He intends to lead us to a deeper understanding of Christ’s divinity and majesty by considering His words, discourses, and teachings. John with all his heart, wants his readers to “believe” in Jesus as God and Savior. He uses “believe” about one hundred times to get the message across.

The seven miracles, which the first part of John’s Gospel is centered around, are more about symbolism. Take for example the feeding of the five thousand which appears in all the synoptic Gospels as well as John’s, in John it becomes a meditation on Jesus is the bread of life. The healing of the blind man in John becomes a reflection on Jesus is the light of the world. And finally, the raising of Lazarus is now a celebration of spiritual resurrection and life.

All this to set the stage for what John is really trying to tell us. In the Gospel passages it is almost as if Jesus is trying to prepare his disciples for their “final exam”, giving them a review of what is really important and to trust his instructions.

Whom Jesus tells his disciple to “Ask”

Within the next 24 hours, Jesus would be taken from his disciples, tried, beaten, and crucified, and three days later, at his resurrection, they would see him again. Their sorrow would be replaced by joy. Jesus’s victory through death and resurrection would give them confidence in God that they never had before. They would see Jesus as the go-between or Mediator through whom they can confidently pray to the Father and thankfully receive the Father’s blessings.

Whenever Jesus uses the words in the Bible, “Amen, amen I say to you,” or “truly I say to you,” it’s very important. “Amen, amen I say to you, whatever you ask the Father in my name he will give you. Until now, you have not asked anything in my name; ask, and you will receive, so that your joy may be complete.”

The word “ask” here may have two interpretations—one asked by way of inquiry, the other to ask for assistance. While he was with them, they had been accustomed to depending on him for the supply of their needs. And to a great degree, they grudgingly learn through his teachings. They complain to him, expecting his aid (see Matthew 8:25; John 11:3).                         

They were also dependent upon his personal instructions. However, now he tells them that henceforth their requests were to be made to God in his name and that He, by the influences of his spirit, would make known to them what He would do himself if He were bodily present. That is to say, their requests were not to be made to him but to the Father directly. The apostles did not yet realize that things would be totally changed after the resurrection. They would not need the Lord’s physical presence as an ever-available teacher to answer their questions and allay their doubts and fears. They would ask Jesus nothing, that is in the ordinary sense of inquiring of a human teacher. On the other hand, they would pray directly to the Father in Jesus’s name.

Next, Jesus says to his disciples, “I have told you this in figures [of speech]. The hours coming when I will no longer speak to you and figures of speech, but I will tell you clearly about the Father.” The Greek for this is paroima—a word for Jesus’s parables. It means a saying that is hard to understand, a saying whose meaning is hidden from the casual listener, and a saying which demands thought before its meaning can become clear. A veiled truth, if you will.

Jesus goes on to tell his disciples that they will receive another grace of the Spirit which would be given to them at Pentecost. They would “receive so great light of understanding as would raise them on high to heavenly mysteries.” It is no great shock to realize that these uneducated disciples were so slow at that time that the slightest difficulty made them hesitate, just as children who are learning the alphabet cannot read a single verse without pausing frequently. Almost every word of Christ gave them some sort of confusion. This hindered their progress. But soon afterward, having been enlightened by the Holy Spirit, they no longer will have anything to prevent them from becoming familiar with the wisdom of God.

Then Jesus says something so simple yet so profound. His disciples can approach God directly because God loves them. He says this before he goes to the cross. “. . . because the Father himself loves you because you have loved me and have believed that I came forth from the Father.” Jesus’s unconditional love merely reflects the Father’s love for His disciples and all of us.

Finally, Jesus tells them plainly that he came from God and is returning to God. This is a tremendous claim. He is none other than the son of God. The cross is not for him a criminal’s death but the way back to God. And although we do not have a description of the ascension in the synoptic Gospels, the glorification described by the ascension story seems to have taken place immediately after Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection in John’s Gospel.

Added comments on the Reading from Acts

In the past several weeks, we have seen what the conversion of Paul and the decrease in persecution by him has allowed the disciples to branch out not only in Israel itself but now going forth north and across the sea, as we will see in Paul’s journeys. The newfound gifts of the Holy Spirit that were given to the disciples manifest as we have seen in the healings and other miracles, the proselytization, and the spreading of the word of God to the hinterlands. 

It must be quite amazing to the disciples as they go forth that in a mere 40-50 years since Christ’s death, they are encountering people who know of Jesus and John the Baptist and his teachings. One such a fellow is someone named Apollos, a Hellenized Jew, a native of Alexandria. 

We know that Alexandria was the capital of the Roman province of Egypt since being founded by Alexander the Great and about a million Jews lived there during that time, many in Alexandria itself. It was an intellectual haven and a hub of philosophers, especially Philo. Apollos probably studied under Philo, and he cultivated a thorough knowledge of the Scriptures there, which is why he was such a powerful spokesman when he arrived in Ephesus. 

In the acts of the apostles, Apollos is described as “. . . an eloquent speaker… An authority on the Scriptures… And instructed in the way of the Lord with an ardent spirit who spoke and taught accurately about Jesus although he only knew of the baptism of John.” Despite his giftedness, there was something Apollos lacked. He did not know about the baptism of the Holy Spirit. He only knew of the baptism of John the Baptist, the baptism unto repentance, and the active confession of sin in anticipation of the Messiah’s coming. 

As a likely disciple of John, Apollos would have preached repentance in view of the approaching kingdom of God in Christ. Apollos did not fully understand the scope of God’s gospel message—the death and resurrection of Jesus. In other words, the bold and fervent Apollos only knew and preached some of the truth. He had not yet experienced the power of the Holy Spirit in his life. He needed more spiritual understanding, which he received through Aquila and Priscilla, two of Paul’s friends from Corinth. The two of them understood the strong doctrine from Paul’s teachings. “After hearing Apollos speak in the synagogue, noticing his natural strengths and not wanting to embarrass him, they took him under their watch to explain quotes the way of God more adequately.” Thus, Apollos learned of the Messiah Jesus, his life, death, and resurrection.

After his mentoring, Apollos travels to Achaia with a letter of recommendation to the disciples there. He eventually ended up in Corinth and during his time there, somewhat of a schism developed between the faithful in that city. Some proclaiming to be followers of Paul, others Apollos, others Cephas and others Jesus Christ himself. Paul eventually healed the schism, as we hear in first Corinthians 3:6: “I planted the seed, Apollo’s watered it, but God has been making it grow.” Thus, Paul urges believers to focus on truth not personalities. 

The New Testament leaves Apollos in Crete as a traveling preacher. In Paul’s letter to Titus, we hear of him again when Paul states “do everything you can to help Zenas the lawyer and Apollos on their way and see that they have everything they need.” Some believe Apollos finished his ministry in the Ephesus church, but the Bible does not verify that.

So, what are the lessons we learn from Apollos? He was a learned man, and he allowed Aquila and Priscilla to pour truth into his life, teaching us that when believers squelch intellectual pride and are teachable, they can grow into the grace and knowledge of the Lord. 

As a side note, Christians can learn from Aquila and Priscilla’s mentoring style they did not condemn but corrected in a loving way using sound doctrine and encourage Apollos progress. Finally, Apollos models the importance of using God-given spiritual gifts. Likewise, every Christian has at least one spiritual gift and Apollos would encourage all believers to discover and use their gifts to bring glory to God in advance His work.

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