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“The Spirit's Chess”

Acts 18:18-28
Bob DeGray
May 8, 2005

Key Sentence

The Spirit puts His people in place for His purposes.


I. Paul, Priscilla and Aquila (Acts 18:18-23)
II. Priscilla, Aquila and Apollos (Acts 18:24-28)


        I’ve never really mastered chess. I know some people think of me as very analytical and logical, but I’m not, really, at least not in the ways that make you good at chess. I’ve played chess, probably hundreds of times. I’ve lost most of those games. I’ve lost to computers on the beginners level. I mean old computers, with a lot less computing power than your cell phone. I’ve lost to children; toddlers; I think my dog beat me once. All this losing has taught me something though - that good chess players can anticipate their opponents moves; they can almost see into the future to knoe where they need to put the pieces to support each other, to take advantage of their opponents weaknesses and to maximize their own opportunities.

        This morning I want to present to you the Holy Spirit as a chess player, one who is able to anticipate his opponent’s moves and who can literally see into the future to put his pieces, his people, where they need to be in order to support each other, take advantage of his opponent’s weaknesses and maximize His own opportunities. I’d like you to think about the idea that the Spirit has you right where he wants you to be right now, and that the ministry opportunities he is giving you are strategic in his great chess game, even if right now they seem trivial to you, or you can’t understand what he’s doing. My contention is that Acts 18:18-28, reminds us of the Scriptural truth that the Spirit puts his people in place for His purposes.

I. Paul, Priscilla and Aquila (Acts 18:18-23)

        Let’s begin with Acts 18:18-23, where we see the Spirit moving Paul, Priscilla and Aquila into new positions. Acts 18:18 Paul stayed on in Corinth for some time. Then he left the brothers and sailed for Syria, accompanied by Priscilla and Aquila. Before he sailed, he had his hair cut off at Cenchrea because of a vow he had taken. 19They arrived at Ephesus, where Paul left Priscilla and Aquila. He himself went into the synagogue and reasoned with the Jews. 20When they asked him to spend more time with them, he declined. 21But as he left, he promised, "I will come back if it is God's will." Then he set sail from Ephesus. 22When he landed at Caesarea, he went up and greeted the church and then went down to Antioch. 23After spending some time in Antioch, Paul set out from there and traveled from place to place throughout the region of Galatia and Phrygia, strengthening all the disciples.

        We began studying the Book of Acts in January, but at the end of March we took a pause, first for Easter and then for our ‘Missing Peace’ series. I hope you’ve enjoyed that, but I also hope you’ve looked forward a little bit, as I have, to getting back into Acts and traveling with Paul on what will be his third missionary journey. The text we’ve just read marks the very brief transition between the second and third missionary journeys.

        Let’s go ahead and track Paul’s moves first. We left him in Corinth, where he had stayed for two years in response to the Lord’s promise that many people in the city would be saved. Even after the unbelieving Jews brought Paul before the proconsul, he stayed on. But finally he felt the Spirit’s leading to move on. He first went to the seaport of Cenchrea, one of the two major seaports that served Corinth. By sea he moved on to Ephesus, one of the great cities of Asia Minor, a city the Holy Spirit had kept him from at an earlier stage of his mission. Even now he didn’t stay long, possibly a few weeks, but he promised that if God so willed, he would come back. We’ll see in Acts 19 that he does come back and Ephesus becomes the major focus of his third missionary journey, just as Corinth had been for the second.

        But for now he moves on, again by boat, and travels all the way across the Mediterranean to Ceasarea, the seaport entrance to Palestine. From there, the text says, he went up and greeted the church. When Luke as an author says that Paul or Peter or anybody ‘went up’, he means that they went up to Jerusalem. It was a very common way of saying it. So here Paul goes up to greet the church in Jerusalem - and in a sense that completes the second missionary journey, because it was from Jerusalem that Paul and Barnabas had set out to bring the Gentile churches the good news that they could remain Gentile and yet be believers. In another sense Paul had set out from Syrian Antioch, and it is to that sending church that Paul went next, to give an update on the wonderful things that God was doing among the Gentiles. But again, he didn’t stay long. Luke reports that after a while - and a chronology of Paul’s life would indicate that it might have been six months - he set out again on what is called the third missionary journey. Continuing north from Syrian Antioch, he returned by foot to Asia Minor and visited the churches in Galatia and Phyrgia, strengthening, Luke says, all the disciples.

        So what are we seeing? Paul is moving around quickly: He leaves Corinth, he goes to Ephesus, he stops at Jerusalem, he heads up to Antioch, he stays just a little while, and he starts out again. From a human point of view you might say that Paul was just dabbling, or that he didn’t sit still well, or he was in too much of a hurry. But at a deeper level it’s clear the Holy Spirit was carefully moving him from place to place both to prepare for future work and to preserve present work. For example, the stop in Ephesus laid the groundwork not only for Priscilla and Aquila to minister there, but also for Paul’s own extended ministry on the third journey. The little comment Luke makes about a vow Paul had taken shows that Paul was still thinking about reaching out to his Jewish brothers, and about preserving unity with the Jewish Christians he would meet. Such a vow, a Nazirite vow, was made, according to Stott ‘either in thankfulness for past blessings or in petition for future blessings.’ Paul had plenty of reasons for such praises and petitions, and was perfectly happy to use Jewish forms in the worship of God - as long as they were understood not to be means of salvation.

        His stop in Jerusalem may have had similar motivation; he visited the church there, and probably celebrated Passover. Some of the Greek texts of Acts include in verse 21 a specific mention of going to Jerusalem for the feast. Finally, his time in Antioch allowed him to renew contact with those who were praying for him and supporting him, and the beginning of the third trip gave him the chance to strengthen disciples he had previously visited, who had now been left alone for about three years.

        So this was all intentional ministry - intentional on Paul’s part, and intentional on the Spirit’s part, that great chess player. This is even more clear when you consider the ministry of Priscilla and Aquila in Corinth. They were believers, who had been expelled from Rome along with other Jews. They ministered with Paul in Corinth, and he worked with them as a tent-maker. Then, when he left, he took them with him. One might have expected him to leave them in Corinth to strengthen the church there. I’m sure he had a good reason to take them, but what will become really clear is that the Spirit had a great reason. So they travel with Paul to Ephesus, and he preaches for a little while, and one assumes there are a few conversions and a few believers already gathered there, and so when Paul leaves he leaves Priscilla and Aquila behind to carry on the work - promising to return.

        Do you see the Spirit playing chess here? Okay, I’m going to move Priscilla and Aquila from Rome to Corinth, so that they can meet Paul and become part of that ministry, and then I’m going to move the three of them over to Ephesus, seemingly leaving Corinth bereft, and furthermore I’m going to leave Priscilla and Aquila in Ephesus, even though I’m going to move Paul over to here and over to here and then over to here. Why did Paul leave Priscilla and Aquila in Ephesus? Simply to minister. But why did the Spirit leave them there? For a very specific ministry in Ephesus and Corinth that we’ll see in a moment.

        But before we do, I want to apply this a little bit. First, let me assert that the Spirit hasn’t stopped playing chess just because the pieces he was using back then have passed from the board. He still moves people around and creates circumstances that allow ministry to happen. I can think of many examples both in the work of our missionaries and in own congregation. I think of Robin and Debbie Rushing going to Slovakia. God gave them the desire and opened the doors for them to go, and now it’s clear that they arrived in Slovakia in time to provide real support for the Abrmans in several areas of need. That’s God’s chess. On a more local level isn’t it interesting that God moved the Duttons here and gave them the opportunity to wait several months for their new house to be built, and while they were waiting they were in an apartment complex with a huge population of kids, some of whom were touched by our recent outreaches. In my own life I’ve often seen the Spirit move me someplace or fail to move me another place in order to bless me or to accomplish ministry or both. I suspect you’ve seen this too.

        When we moved to Illinois for seminary we began going to an Evangelical Free Church in Lake Zurich, principally because they had an Awana program. But we seriously considered leaving a short time later when it became clear the church was in a crisis with the pastor, who was soon fired. Gail and I prayed about whether God wanted us to stay in that difficult, tense situation. And we both sensed for different reasons that he did. The outcome: that church got a great interim pastor, a Canadian named Daryl Busby, who allowed me to do my seminary internship with him, and when he had to go back to Canada, I took the role of interim pastor for a year, and was able to do significant ministry. I know the Spirit left us there for his purposes in the chess game. God takes us in unexpected directions to work out his subtle purposes, and he puts us in places where we can do an unexpected ministry for him.

II. Priscilla, Aquila and Apollos (Acts 18:24-28)

        That’s clear in the next verses, Acts 18:24-28 24Meanwhile a Jew named Apollos, a native of Alexandria, came to Ephesus. He was a learned man, with a thorough knowledge of the Scriptures. 25He had been instructed in the way of the Lord, and he spoke with great fervor and taught about Jesus accurately, though he knew only the baptism of John. 26He began to speak boldly in the synagogue. When Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they invited him to their home and explained to him the way of God more adequately. 27When Apollos wanted to go to Achaia, the brothers encouraged him and wrote to the disciples there to welcome him. On arriving, he was a great help to those who by grace had believed. 28For he vigorously refuted the Jews in public debate, proving from the Scriptures that Jesus was the Christ.

        Remember, Paul, by the Spirit, had left Priscilla and Aquila behind in Ephesus. One of the Spirit’s purposes was that these mature believers would be there when this man Apollos arrived. Luke tells us that Apollos, despite his obviously Greek name, was a Jew from Alexandria. That great Egyptian city had a huge Jewish population. It was there that the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament had been produced, some 200 years before Christ, and it was there that Philo, the Jewish scholar, had lived and worked during the time of Christ. So it is not at all surprising that a Jewish man from Alexandria should be well educated - the word can also mean eloquent - nor that he should have a thorough knowledge of the Scriptures.

        What was somewhat unusual about this man was that he had been instructed in the way of the Lord and spoke about Jesus accurately, though he only knew of the baptism of John. How can this be? Apollos seems to know about Jesus - which must mean that he knows something about his life, his teaching, his death, and his resurrection. He is certainly convinced that Jesus is the promised Messiah and he was teaching that conviction fervently. But Luke tells us he only knew the baptism of John. This probably means that he knew about being baptized as a sign of repentance, but not about being baptized as a sign of belief in Jesus, and in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. On top of that, Apollos may not have known much about the Spirit’s ministry, nor about the growth and impact of the church.
        It’s only speculation, but my theory is that in Alexandria, as in many places in the Roman world, knowledge of the Gospel came by word of mouth, and in waves. I think the teaching of John the Baptist was well circulated in the Jewish communities. Behind that came the teaching that John was looking forward to the messiah, and then that John had identified the messiah, and then that this Jesus was teaching and healing and performing miracles in Galilee and Judea, then that he had died, and finally that he had risen from the dead and sent his disciples to preach the forgiveness of sins through faith in him. That core Jesus story had reached Alexandria and was known to Apollos. But the later details of the Spirit’s work in the church, and the church’s understanding of what Jesus had done had not yet reached his ears. So he was accurate in what he knew, but he didn’t know everything.

        But because of the Spirit’s chess, he was about to get that missing information. The Spirit had left Priscilla and Aquila in Ephesus, and when Apollos arrived, teaching about Jesus but baptizing in the manner of John, they took him aside and taught him the way of God more accurately. They closed the circle of his knowledge, so he could teach Jesus as the messiah, and baptize people in the name of Jesus, and put those people in touch with Jesus’ Spirit led church. Notice a couple of things. First, they did this discretely. They took him aside and privately shared the truth he needed to know. Since he was open to this instruction, they didn’t need to challenge him publically; they were able to strengthen him, not to tear him down. Notice also that Priscilla, Aquila’s wife, a woman, does at least some of this teaching. Paul will later give careful instruction about women not taking the teaching leadership in the meetings of the church. But this episode reminds us that doesn’t mean women may never teach. In this setting it was appropriate, and there are many contemporary settings where it is appropriate as well.

        So the Spirit brought these three people together for a specific purpose, but that wasn’t his last move in this text. After a while it appears that Apollos wanted to move on. The Spirit led him to Achaia - that is, to Corinth, in the province of Achaia. God had moved Paul and Priscilla and Aquila from Corinth some months earlier, seemingly leaving Corinth bereft of mature teaching. But now Apollos will go there, with a letter from Priscilla and Aquila encouraging the people to welcome him. And clearly this was God’s will, for Luke tells us that Apollos was a great help to those who by grace had believed. In fact Paul will later write of the ministry in Corinth: “I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow.”

        I want to pause and pick up a beautiful phrase from verse 27. It says “on arriving, he was a great help to those who by grace had believed.” Isn’t that a great way to describe Christians? I’m not sure I can think of a better - we are those who by grace have believed. Paul will later write to the Ephesians that it is by grace you have been saved through faith, and even the faith is not from yourselves, it is a from God. Luke captures all that in this little phrase ‘those who by grace have believed.’

        Believed what? Believed on the Lord Jesus Christ - believed that he died on the cross for the forgiveness of sins, and trusted him as the one who by that death saves you from sin. And this faith is a gracious gift of God. The salvation that results from it is a gracious gift of God. The eternal life we now possess, the love relationship we now have with the Father and the Son and the Spirit, the promises we now know, of comfort and strength and guidance and future glory, all of these are gracious gifts of God. We are those who by grace have believed. And it was those who by grace believed who were strengthened by the ministry Apollos brought to Corinth.

        But the Spirit didn’t just have him there for the believers, but also to serve as an evangelist and an apologist to those who did not believe. Apollos came alongside this church and helped in their dialog with the culture. In particular he refuted the arguments of the unbelieving Jews, and demonstrated from the Scriptures that Jesus was the Christ. This was probably his strength even before Priscilla and Aquila taught him - even more so afterward. And it was of great help to this fledgling church to have someone there who could reason against the reasoning of the unbelievers. God gives people like that to his church. Jonathan Kittle and I were recently mentioning Ravi Zacharias, who has been that kind of person for this generation.

        So the Spirit is playing chess. Maybe you don’t feel good about being a pawn in the Spirit’s chess, but remember it’s only a figure of speech. We could have used war gaming, weaving a tapestry or even managing a company as the visual image for what’s going on here. It’s the conceptual reality behind the image that matters. A sovereign God is working out his purposes in detail in this world, and he has chosen to use his people to accomplish many of those purpose. And people aren’t the only tool he has - circumstances are very important as well, and the direct influence of the Spirit on people’s hearts is important and the sovereign gift of grace is critical. But God has chosen to give you, his follower a part in the divine plan, a role to play in his drama, and he’s put you right there, where you are, for his purposes.

        Think about your circumstances for a moment. You live here in the greater Houston area, and there in your neighborhood, and you attend worship here at this church and none of those choices was completely voluntary on your part. Outside forces and circumstances and the Spirit’s guidance had a lot to do with them. Why then do you find it hard to believe you’re where God wants you to be? Is it because you don’t see anything happening, except maybe discouraging things, and so you think ‘God’s not using me. I’m not important’. Balderdash. Bunk. He’s using you, and he wants to use you more, and you are important, and his heart’s desire is that you cooperate with his purposes and do the things Scripture calls you to do, to play a godly part in his plan. That’s what Apollos did when he defended the faith in Corinth. That’s what Priscilla and Aquila did when they taught Apollos. That’s what Paul did when he strengthened the churches and preached the Good News. The Spirit puts his people in place for his purposes.

        Let me close with a couple of recent examples from our own church. The first is our special needs ministry, Can-Do Kids, which is already in place and poised to really move forward. Why does this ministry exist? Partially because Joanna Rask has observed a need for such a ministry for years. But she hasn’t had, we haven’t had, the resources to really make it happen. Then God brought Mike, and he got to know Pat and Robin and Daniel Oliver, and Don and Pam and Valerie Sederdahl, and he made a connection with a special needs ministry on the north side of Houston. God also showed the Sederdahls and the Olivers the value of the right people reaching out in this area, and God had in place people like Rebecca Balciunas, Eric Chan and now Suzanne Topness, whose experience and preparation suited them for helping with the ministry. As a result of all this, Can-Do Kids is now providing care for our special children during the second service, and they plan to fix up a classroom and then offer at least a little evening respite care to all comers sometime this year. God had these people in place for His purposes. That’s the way the Spirit works.

        Last example. This past year a small group got going, under the leadership of Jim and Sue Berreth. Several factors seem to have come together to make that group happen. First, there was the church’s long standing vision, which recognized the importance of small groups. But vision alone didn’t make anything happen. The second factor was the Associate Pastor Search Committee’s decision that small groups would be an explicit part of the Associate Pastor’s job description. Then, when Mike came, one of his first areas of focus was starting small groups. But the fourth factor, the key to this group, was the preparation for ministry God had given the Berreths in their church out in California. There they not only learned the importance of small groups, but they learned the nuts and bolts of leading a small group, and when God called them here, the combination of experience and opportunity came together, and the very effective small group they help lead was the ministry result. Even the topic they are now studying, the Love and Respect marriage materials, is something they had been taught first hand by the authors while in California.

        So if you want to start calling Jim ‘Apollos’ I think that’s legitimate. But the truth is that all of us have been put in place by the Spirit for his purposes. We’ve seen it in Acts; we’ve seen it in our own church. You have no reason to doubt that God has placed you for his purposes. My counsel is that you go ahead and jump into ministry where he has you, and don’t let circumstances discourage you, because you are part of the Spirit’s plan for the world, the Spirit’s chess.