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In service of a Greater Name

Date: 17 September 2023

Speaker: Ps Luwin Wong

Sermon Text: Acts 18:23–20:1

17Sep23 Herald
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I remember, as a teenager, being at Kinokuniya bookstore, browsing the shelves of the religion section. I was flipping through a Christian book, and a middle aged man next to me asked if I was a Christian. I said, “yes”. He asked, “which church do you attend?” And I said, “Mt Hermon Bible Presbyterian”. He said, “Oh, BP, so you guys only use the KJV right?”. And I replied, “No, we use the NIV”. And he looked surprised, and I looked surprised. In my mind I was thinking, “What a weird question, why would he assume we use the KJV only?”

You see, at the time I had just joined Hermon, and I had no idea about the BP church history, and went I found out about the VPP doctrine that led to a lawsuit between our FEBC, our denominational college, and Life BP, our founding denominational church, I understood the question. Not so weird after all. We’re the weird ones.

Several years ago, I attended a Christian conference in Malaysia, organised by the Anglican Church, and during tea time, we were introducing ourselves and when they learnt that I was a ministry staff in BP church in Singapore, attending an Anglican conference in Malaysia, one of them asked me, in a hushed tone, “Does your church know you’re here?” I said, “Yea, actually, they paid for my conference fee.” Once again, he was surprised by my answer, but I was less surprised by the question, because by the time, I was aware of the BP controversy of biblical separation, so I understood his confusion.

More recently, I found myself a table of Christians, and most of us didn’t know each other. And since Christianity was the common denominator, we started talking about church. Casual Christian small talk. And when I shared that I was a pastor in Mt Hermon BP Church, one of them, this lady remarked, “the only thing I know about BP Church is that there is a lot of drama”. What? Okay… thanks for sharing your knowledge about the BP church. I don’t recall anyone asking. But you know, it’s small talk, so I tried to handwave it by saying “Yea, there was a bit of drama in the 80s”, referring to the events that led to the dissolution of the Synod in 1988. And she replied, “I think in the 90s there was drama as well”. I’m like, Ma’am, you keep this up, who knows, there might be drama tonight.

Suffice to say, the BP Church in Singapore has had a chequered history. If you go to our Wikipedia page, one of the major headings is “Divisions”.

One of the unspoken assumptions in the Church today is that doctrine divides while action and love unites. It's assumed that a focus on doctrine not only makes the body of Christ introspective but also divisive.

This has engendered a brand of Christianity which is skeptical of reading too much theology and going “too deep” into Bible study. A brand of Christianity which believes that “faith is all you need”, a child-like faith that is marked not by knowing, but by trusting. And so regards ignorance not merely as bliss, but as a virtue.

Everywhere else, in every other enterprise, profession and industry, knowledge is a valued, knowledge is demanded, knowledge is desirable. Only in Christianity, it appears, is ignorance considered a virtue.

But Ps Luwin, I’ve seen uneducated, simple men and women, who nonetheless lived a life of faith and love and joy in the Lord Jesus Christ. And then there are PhDs in the BP Church squabbling and dividing the church over nonsense. Doesn’t this invalidate the idea that theology really matters?

To that I say, I have seen men and women, who because of theological ignorance, are led astray by false teachers and had their lives ruined by cults, and I have seen Christian professors live faithful lives of love and joy, because of the Jesus they have come to know.

What it boils down to, then, is not the exchange of anecdotes, but attention what the Scriptures is calling us to follow. What the voice of God, in the Word of God, is calling us to do.

And while it calls us to have faith like a child, it at the same time calls us to have the doctrine of theologians. It calls for simple faith, but will not permit simple minds.

And the reason for this is straightforward. As JI Packer puts it, “We are all theologians. Everytime we mention God we become theologians, and the only question is whether we are going to good ones or bad ones.”

And so, the BP Church, with its historical emphasis on doctrine, need not be a scandalous thing, and division need not be our heritage and legacy. Rather, our emphasis on knowing truly and knowing fully the Word of God can be the very catalyst for our mission to glory God by being and making disciples.

And our text today shows us why.

Our text today offers us two reasons why a robust theology is necessary for ministry.

1. Because we have a responsibility for correcting those inside.
ACTS 18:24-26 24 Now a Jew named Apollos, a native of Alexandria, came to Ephesus. He was an eloquent man, competent in the Scriptures. 25 He had been instructed in the way of the Lord. And being fervent in spirit, he spoke and taught accurately the things concerning Jesus, though he knew only the baptism of John.
26 He began to speak boldly in the synagogue, but when Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they took him aside and explained to him the way of God more accurately.

At the onset of the passage, we are introduced to Apollos, a Jew who knew his OT Scriptures, and who had been instructed about Jesus Christ, and these, coupled with his eloquence, made him a formidable minister of the Word.

But there was one problem: Apollos only knew the baptism of John.

John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And it pointed forward to a greater baptism, a baptism into the name of Jesus Christ, a sacrament in which one shares in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus through the Spirit.

In the theology of John’s Baptism, there is neither the idea of being a spiritual union in the death and resurrection life of Christ, nor the promised Holy Spirit at the moment of faith. As such, his teaching, however eloquent, however fervent, is nonetheless deficient.

Now what course of action does this passage suggest we take? To leave Apollos be? To leave him in his deficient theology of baptism, because after all, he is fervent Christan, he is gifted and he is serving. Isn’t that the point of Christianity? He’s fine. Leave him be. Everyone has their own opinion on what baptism means. Don’t complicate things with theology.

No. Rather, we are given the following as a positive example to follow:

26 He began to speak boldly in the synagogue, but when Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they took him aside and explained to him the way of God more accurately.

Priscilla and Aquila noticed that Apollos’ view of baptism was deficient, and instead of “agreeing to disagree”, rather than sweeping it aside, they took him aside and remedied his deficiency, they explained to him the way of God more accurately.

Here we see the necessity of theology for discipleship. It is needed to edify believers, to remedy gaps in their understanding, correct any mistaken beliefs they might have about the gospel.

Some of us might say at this juncture, teaching and correcting others is not my job. That’s the responsibility of the leaders, the pastors of the church. But that’s not what we see here. Priscilla and Aquila were tent makers. Just a Christian couple. They weren’t apostles, or elders or deacons. Just fellow Christians who recognised that building up the body of Christ by speaking the truth in love is the job of everyone; the responsibility of every single Christian.

And if so, then everyone needs a robust theology. Everyone of us needs to strive to know the gospel truly and fully, if not for yourself, then for the person next to you. It takes everybody to build up the body.

Which Apollos goes on to do.

ACTS 18:27-28 27 And when he wished to cross to Achaia, the brothers encouraged him and wrote to the disciples to welcome him. When he arrived, he greatly helped those who through grace had believed, 28 for he powerfully refuted the Jews in public, showing by the Scriptures that the Christ was Jesus.

When he arrives at Achaia, he greatly helped the believers there, and he powerfully refuted the Jesus as he demonstrated that the Scriptures pointed to Jesus.

How was he able to greatly help those inside church and powerfully refute those outside the church? Because he knew the word. Because he was competent in the Scriptures. Because he was instructed in the way of the Lord and he was privately discipled by a Christian couple in church. And all his learning allowed him to more and more accurately teach the things concerning Jesus.

Do you see how knowing our theology is vital and central to our mission to proclaim Christ to the ends of the earth? There are no two ways about it.

And we see this repeated in the second event of our passage:

ACTS 19:1-2 1 And it happened that while Apollos was at Corinth, Paul passed through the inland country and came to Ephesus. There he found some disciples.
2 And he said to them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” And they said, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.”

Here we see Paul, coming across a group of disciples. That is, they profess to be Christians – followers of Jesus Christ. But as they got talking, something struck Paul as odd. Which led him to inquire about their faith, rather uncomfortably, I can assume, because his question actually calls into question their very identity as Christians.

He asks, “Hey do you guys have the Holy Spirit?” It’s quite offensive to ask a professing Christian that question. Paul knew there was a chance that he would have to “baptise” a group of men who believed they were Christians, which is going to be rather awkward.

But Paul risked it anyway because these things matter in Christianity.

What’s in a name? Juliet asks Romeo. It’s the substance, it’s the person, that truly matters. So to ascertain if someone is Christian, it’s not enough hear him claim “I believe in Christ”, you have to hear him describe the Christ he believes in – to see if it comports with the biblical Christ – the Christ revealed in the Bible.

To disagree is to assume that false teaching, and faulty theology do not exist. But the Scriptures, even today’s passage, repeatedly remind us that they do.

2 And he said to them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” And they said, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.”

These men had neither heard about, nor received, the Holy Spirit promised to all who believe in Jesus Christ.

In other words, Paul realized that these men weren’t truly Christians to begin with.

3 And he said, “Into what then were you baptized?” They said, “Into John's baptism.” 4 And Paul said, “John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, Jesus.”
5 On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. 6 And when Paul had laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they began speaking in tongues and prophesying. 7 There were about twelve men in all.

“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”. Paul was making these “disciples”, true disciples of Christ. And did that by taking the uncomfortable step of questioning their understanding of salvation, and then teaching them the truth more fully.

So this is the first reason why theology is important. Because we need it for discipleship – to instruct, to edify and to correct those within the Christian community.

2. The second reason it is important is because we need it to convince those outside of the church.

ACTS 19:8-10 8 And he entered the synagogue and for three months spoke boldly, reasoning and persuading them about the kingdom of God.
9 But when some became stubborn and continued in unbelief, speaking evil of the Way before the congregation, he withdrew from them and took the disciples with him, reasoning daily in the hall of Tyrannus.
10 This continued for two years, so that all the residents of Asia heard the word of the Lord, both Jews and Greeks.

Here we see Paul in his natural element. Entering the synagogue, speaking boldly, reasoning and persuading the Jews about the Kingdom of God. How do you do that? You do that by knowing the Old Testament Scriptures, knowing Christ, and knowing how the Scriptures point to Christ. How else can you hope to reason and persuade Jews about the Gospel of the kingdom?

And then we see him withdrawing from the synagogue, and entering the Hall of Tyrannus – that is, he moved from a Jewish audience to a Gentile audience. And what was he doing? The same thing. Reasoning with the Gentiles to persuade them about the kingdom of God.

He reasoned at the Hall of Tyrannus daily for two years. That is 700+ days of reasoning. How do you do that? Every teacher knows that an essential aspect of teaching is knowing. Knowing your content. That is why every good teacher is first and foremost a good student – someone who studies.

And what’s the result of Paul’s teaching, reasoning, persuading ministry? All the residents of Asia heard the word of the Lord, both Jews and Greeks. And that’s the plan of God, the blueprint of Acts, that the gospel of Christ be proclaimed to the ends of the earth.

We know it from Matthew as the Great Commission. And it is given to all of us. And the Great Commission has the effect of making all of us teachers.

19 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, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

We Christians, we the church, are called to teach the world about Jesus Christ. We are all theologians; we are all teachers. That’s inescapable. The only question is, are we going to be good teachers or bad teachers. And so much of it hinges on how truly and how fully we know our theology.

So two reasons why theology is important – to correct those inside, and to convince those outside. We need to know our theology to edify the church and to evangelise the world.

And what happens when we do so? Let’s see:

ACTS 19:23-25 23 About that time there arose no little disturbance concerning the Way.

When we seek to teach the world, it will inevitably cause a disturbance. Or our editorial this week remind us: our association with Christ will cause us discomfort in the world.

There arose no little disturbance concerning the way. What occasioned this disturbance?

24 For a man named Demetrius, a silversmith, who made silver shrines of Artemis, brought no little business to the craftsmen. 25 These he gathered together, with the workmen in similar trades, and said, “Men, you know that from this business we have our wealth.

ACTS 19:26-27 26 And you see and hear that not only in Ephesus but in almost all of Asia this Paul has persuaded and turned away a great many people, saying that gods made with hands are not gods. 27 And there is danger not only that this trade of ours may come into disrepute but also that the temple of the great goddess Artemis may be counted as nothing, and that she may even be deposed from her magnificence, she whom all Asia and the world worship.”

The reasons Demetrius offers the tradesmen to rally an opposition against Paul’s teaching ministry has nothing to do with the content of his teaching. It has everything to do with the idols that they cherish.

The idols of Mammon (wealth) and Artemis.

Now to understand Ephesus, you have to know the temple of Artemis. The Temple of Artemis is one of the seven ancient wonders of the World. And it is the main reason for the fame of Ephesus. A grand structure in which the famous image of “the great goddess Artemis” was housed, and its renown drew thousands of visitors to the temple. The sanctuary is famous for its size, its antiquity, its beauty and works of art. It even served as the “bank of Asia” at the time.

It is the centre of culture and commerce for the city of Ephesus. It represented their way of life, their religion, their very identity as Ephesians.

That’s the significance of Artemis to Ephesus. Artemis is not merely a goddess that the Ephesians worships. Artemis is the city of Ephesus itself. Her beating heart, the lifeblood of the city.

So Demetrius’ rally speech was pretty persuasive. It checked the right boxes. These guys are threatening two things: (1) your bottom line, (2) your way of life. Your wallet and your worldview.

Now what is an idol? Something that occupies the position of God in your life. Yea, okay, but how do you know if something is an idol to you? How do you know if something has taken the place of God for you?

Timothy Keller offers the following diagnostic questions:

  • What do we fear the most?

  • What if we lost it would make life meaningless and not worth living?

Idols are things that demands our worship because we feel we must have them or life is meaningless. And money occupies that role for many.

For the first Century Ephesians, as for the 21st Century Singaporean, Mammon is still very dominant idol in our culture.

Every year, we literally have an event where Cai Shen Ye, the God of Wealth comes to town. He will be visiting Gardens by the Bay next year. Visitors are reminded to book their tickets early, because Cai Shen Ye is very popular amongst Singaporeans.

So when we seek to proclaim Christ we will be confronting and challenging and even chastising the idols of our culture. Calling the world to turn away from them, and towards Christ, the only true God.

And it will cause no little disturbance to our culture. And we will thereby invite discomfort upon ourselves, if not outright persecution as Paul would experience.

ACTS 19:32-34 32 Now some cried out one thing, some another, for the assembly was in confusion, and most of them did not know why they had come together. 33 Some of the crowd prompted Alexander, whom the Jews had put forward. And Alexander, motioning with his hand, wanted to make a defense to the crowd. 34 But when they recognized that he was a Jew, for about two hours they all cried out with one voice, “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!”

Now one thing I want us to notice is the way Luke describes the crowd.

Now some cried out one thing, some another, for the assembly was in confusion, and most of them did not know why they had come together.

Once again, don’t expect opposition to the gospel to be rational. There is more than a hint of herd mentality going on. All they know is that the Gospel of Christ is bad, its destructive, it must be opposed. Why, exactly, is far less clear to most of them. They are in confusion, most don’t even know why they had come together.

But ignorance will by no means deter their enthusiasm.

for about two hours they all cried out with one voice, “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!”

This much they are clear about. This much the crowd can unite around. That their idol will not be diminished. Their idol must be exalted. “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians.”

That is what we’re up against when we attempt to teach the world about the good news of Jesus Christ. We will be confronting idols when we seek to glorify God by being and making disciples of Jesus Christ.

And it will not be easy, nor might we even be allowed to make a defense. The odds, make no mistake about it, are stacked against us. We are up against a world who are jealous and zealous for their idols.

Will we ever find success in such a ministry environment?

Yes. Paul did.

ACTS 19:17-20 17 And this became known to all the residents of Ephesus, both Jews and Greeks. And fear fell upon them all, and the name of the Lord Jesus was extolled. 18 Also many of those who were now believers came, confessing and divulging their practices. 19 And a number of those who had practiced magic arts brought their books together and burned them in the sight of all. And they counted the value of them and found it came to fifty thousand pieces of silver. 20 So the word of the Lord continued to increase and prevail mightily.
  • The fear of God experienced.

  • The name of Jesus extolled.

  • People confessing and repenting en masse

  • The word of the Lord increasing and prevailing mightily.

These are what we pray to see in our ministry. This is what we hope to accomplish when we proclaim the gospel of Christ. This is missional success.

How did Paul do it in such a hostile ministry environment? The answer? He didn’t. Well, he did. But not really. Luke attributes these markers of missional success not primarily to the ministry of Paul, but to the work of God.

Notice the events that led to the name of Jesus being extolled, to people repenting, and the word of God prevailing.

ACTS 19:11-15 11 And God was doing extraordinary miracles by the hands of Paul, 12 so that even handkerchiefs or aprons that had touched his skin were carried away to the sick, and their diseases left them and the evil spirits came out of them. 13 Then some of the itinerant Jewish exorcists undertook to invoke the name of the Lord Jesus over those who had evil spirits, saying, “I adjure you by the Jesus whom Paul proclaims.” 14 Seven sons of a Jewish high priest named Sceva were doing this. 15 But the evil spirit answered them, “Jesus I know, and Paul I recognize, but who are you?”

“God was doing”. That Paul’s handkerchief had the power to heal diseases and exorcise demons, is that something Paul could do? Of course not. It was done through him, but it was done by God.

And then evil spirit announcing that “Jesus he knew, and Paul he recognised”, is that something Paul did? Paul isn’t even in this story. But it was what led to the mass repentance of the magicians in Ephesus, it was what occasioned the fear of God and the exaltation of the name of the Lord Jesus amongst them.

It was God. God was doing.

So as we proclaim the gospel, as we fulfil our mission to be and to make disciples, as we seek to edify the church and to evangelise the world, know this: God is right there with you. He is working too. In our gospel work, we can count on God to work.

And because he is God, there can be no failure. What he ordains will come to pass. What he pleases will be accomplished. His word, proclaimed by us, will not return him void.

That is the God we are serving and proclaiming – a sovereign God, a great and mighty God.

For two hours, the crowd chanted: “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians”.

We know a better name. A higher name. A greater God than Artemis.

Paul would write to the Ephesians some years later, to the church in the city that exalted the name of Artemis; he writes to them saying:

EPHESIANS 2:19-21 19 according to the working of his great might 20 that he worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, 21 far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come.
The Lord Jesus Christ is the name above all names.
And in his letter to the Philippians, we read:
9 Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

We serve a greater name – the name of Jesus.

And if the crowds in Ephesus, in their theological ignorance, can shout for hours straight, “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians”. Then shall we not, as Christians, who have received the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, who know the true and living God in his word once for all delivered to the saints; shall we not see it fit to spend our lives proclaiming the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous kingdom of light?

Let it be known that this world can offer no greater mission and no higher purpose, than a life devoted to proclaiming the name above all names.

We live in service to a Greater Name.

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