I have planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the increase.

I Corinthians 3:6

The diversity that is found in the church of Jesus Christ is an amazing wonder. Many different spiritual gifts are represented in each congregation, and God uses each one to refresh and strengthen the other members. In this way, Christ, the Head of the church, is glorified.

In a more specific sense, the office of the ministry provides diversity. Men with different strengths and weaknesses sound forth a common gospel message each week. God overrules their sin and weakness and uses the “foolishness” of preaching to save His people (I Cor. 1:21).

Examples of the rich diversity of those who preach the gospel can be seen in Paul’s companions. Through his relationship with them, Paul teaches us the proper attitude that we must have for those who are called to be mouthpieces for Jesus Christ.

In the previous Standard Bearer article on Aquila and Priscilla (January 1, 2022), we saw the theological transformation that lowly tentmakers brought to a brilliant man named Apollos.

But who was this brilliant man? He is mentioned ten times in the New Testament, and seven of those references are found in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. As we will see, the relationship between Paul and Apollos was intriguing, especially within the context of the fledgling Corinthian church and the party strife that divided them. This relationship provides us with several valuable lessons about how to view undershepherds in the church.

Apollos was a Jew born in Alexandria, a city located where the Nile River meets the Mediterranean Sea in Egypt (Acts 18:24). During the first century Alexandria was considered the second city of the Roman Empire, with an impressive population of at least 600,000 people. Many of its inhabitants were Jews, and it had a reputation of being a place of learning.

In Alexandria, Greek culture and Jewish religion met. A product of this synthesis was the famous Septuagint, a translation of the Old Testament from Hebrew into Greek, completed some 150 years prior to the birth of Christ. In this connection, the Bible’s descriptions of Apollos match his Alexandrian origin, a place of higher learning and knowledge.

This is the background for Apollos coming to Ephesus at the conclusion of Paul’s second missionary journey (cf. map on next page). From Corinth, just prior, Paul had crossed the Aegean Sea with Aquila and Priscilla, coming to Ephesus (Acts 18:18-21). After a short time, Paul left them there and sailed for Antioch. At some point after Paul left, Apollos came to Ephesus.

Aquila and Priscilla saw in Apollos the characteristics that Luke records in Acts 18:24-25: eloquence in speech, mighty in the Scriptures, fervent in the spirit, and patient in teaching. All good characteristics, except for one problem: Apollos was not preaching the full reality of Christ, but only the baptism of John.1 His preaching was devoid of Christ and the outpouring of His Spirit, and the Lord corrected him through Aquila and Priscilla so that he could support Paul in his mission of preaching Christ to those who were lost (18:26).

After the conclusion of the second journey, while Paul was making preparations for his third journey, Apollos left Ephesus and came to Corinth (Acts 18:27). He may have been attracted by the large Jewish population in Corinth, but he also had a new excitement for using his gifts to preach the true gospel to both Jews and Gentiles in Corinth. The gifts of rhetoric, logic, and debate that he learned in the schools of Alexandria helped him reason with the Jews in the synagogue, showing that Christ was our only firm hope (I Pet. 3:15). Therefore, the Lord used him “mightily [to] convince the Jews, and that publicly, shewing by the scriptures that Jesus was Christ” (Acts 18:28).

After a period in Corinth, Apollos returned to Ephesus. Around the same time, Paul was leaving the Galatian churches on his third missionary journey, planning to settle in with the Ephesians for over two years (Acts 20:31). Here is where Paul and Apollos met for the first time.

Both Paul and Apollos were well educated Jews, but they were men with different styles, personalities, and life experiences. Apollos had greater gifts of speech and eloquence than Paul, who by his own admission was less skilled in speaking (II Cor. 11:6). Apollos may have been able to draw crowds more quickly, while Paul had to work harder to grab the attention of his audience (I Cor. 1:17). Paul certainly had the gift of rhetoric when presenting the clarity of the gospel before crowds and rulers (Acts 17:22-31, 22:1-21, 24:10-21, 26:1-29); yet he may not have had the same level of eloquence and charisma that Apollos possessed (II Cor. 10:10).

In spite of these differences, the beautiful thread of the truth of Christ crucified was woven throughout their preaching.

Therefore, as Paul labored in Ephesus, Apollos assisted him greatly so that the Word could go forth throughout Asia Minor (Acts 19:10). Apollos must have been a valuable asset to the missionary program through his gifts, abilities, and strengthened understanding of the gospel.

During this time in Ephesus, however, Paul received a report from the devout house of Chloe that there were several problems in the Corinthian church, namely, divisions and party strife, undisciplined fornication, and excessive squabbles in Roman courts (I Cor. 1:11-12, 5:1-2, 6:1). In addition to these serious problems, three men from the Corinthian community traveled to Paul in Ephesus, asking him several questions and advice on various topics (12:17). All of this prompted Paul’s extensive first letter to the Corinthians.

Shortly after the first letter to the Corinthians was faithfully delivered and read in the congregation, Paul received a report from Timothy that the situation there had actually worsened (II Cor. 2:1-4). As Paul balanced his frustration towards the impenitence of the Corinthians with his continued efforts with the Ephesians, he desired Apollos to go to Corinth to instruct and correct them. Paul describes Apollos’ decision in I Corinthians 16:12: “As touching our brother Apollos, I greatly desired him to come unto you with the brethren: but his will was not at all to come at this time; but he will come when he shall have convenient time.”

A simple eye-test of the passages reveals nothing of much significance. Paul makes a request, and Apollos was unable to go because of his present commitments in the work of the ministry. Paul understood Apollos’ reasons, but in light of the backdrop of Paul’s request and the serious need of the Corinthians for correction, Apollos would have been immensely helpful. After all, he had just developed a relationship with the Corinthians, and would have been well qualified to work through their problems carefully with them. Therefore, the request was carefully calculated by Paul; yet, in spite of Apollos’ inability to acquiesce, God used Timothy and Titus to provide much-needed assistance (I Cor. 4:17, 16:10, II Cor. 7:13).

Paul’s revelation of this simple request is even more significant when we learn that Paul himself ended up making a separate trip to see the situation in Corinth. This visit ended poorly, with him being verbally attacked by Jewish opponents there.2 Paul reveals this separate trip within the larger scope of the third journey in his second letter to the Corinthians (II Cor. 10:10, 12:14, 13:1).

This separate trip prompted him to write a very painful letter to the Corinthians, in which he admonished them sharply, writing with many tears, pleading for their repentance (2:4, 7:8-12). Unlike I and II Corinthians, this letter has not been preserved but has been omitted by the Spirit from the New Testament canon.

Paul’s request for Apollos to go to Corinth does not necessarily mean there was conflict between them. There was already party strife surrounding these men. “Now this I say, that every one of you saith, I am of Paul; and I of Apollos; and I of Cephas [Peter]; and I of Christ” (I Cor. 1:12). Church members were clinging to different personalities in the church, namely, Paul and Apollos (3:4-5, 22). As an apostle, Paul possessed a higher level of authority than Apollos, but in this instance, Paul’s desire was to pursue peace and unity in the church. Therefore, Paul writes to the Corinthians that “he will come when he shall have convenient time” (16:12).

Transcending these minor logistical details, the almighty, sovereign God rules, maintaining and preserving His church—in Corinth, Ephesus, or wherever she is found today.

And yet there remains one last reference in the New Testament to Apollos. Almost ten years after the Corinthian context, Paul seeks Apollos again through his letter to Titus: “Bring Zenas the lawyer and Apollos on their journey diligently, that nothing be wanting unto them” (Tit. 3:11). Apollos must have been used in the organization of the church on the island of Crete, for Paul mentions him in one of his final letters. Jerome, the monk who translated the Latin Vulgate in c. 405, concluded that because of the dissentions in Corinth, Apollos left the surrounding circumstances and traveled south to nearby Crete. He decided to return once things had been resolved and settled after Paul’s epistles to the Corinthians.3

Therefore, as Paul plans to rendezvous with Titus in Nicopolis to bring instruction and encouragement for the work going on in Crete (Tit. 3:12), Apollos is sought again, indicating that he continued faithful to the gospel and may have been

used to assist and mentor young Titus. The transformation that was worked through lowly tentmakers and strengthened through Paul remained in Apollos, and he continued to water and refresh the church in service to God.

It has been well established that Apollos was Jewish, knowledgeable, and skilled in debate and oratory. These characteristics have led many, including Martin Luther, to suggest that Apollos was the author of Hebrews.4 In a letter emphasizing the fulfillment of Jesus Christ over against the types and shadows of the Old Testament, Apollos as author fits the writing style of a man with an expansive education, particularly of the Old Testament. He was well versed in Scripture and had the ability to engage his fellow Jews. If he was indeed the author, then it solidifies the clear gospel message that he would have preached to the Jews in both Ephesus and Corinth.

Nonetheless, the relationship of Paul and Apollos within the Corinthian context provides important lessons for us in how to view God’s undershepherds in the church.

First, Paul valued the diversity of the men and women who helped support the gospel ministry in the first century, but knew with certainty that God alone receives the glory for the growth of the church. He recognized that “he planted, and Apollos watered,” but through their efforts “God gave the increase.” God uses different skill sets in the planting and watering process of the church.5 It is a wonder that God not only uses the foolish things (preaching) of this world, but also those who are often foolish themselves (preachers) on account of their sin and weakness.

Second, Paul and Apollos did not possess any independent significance; rather, their unity was in their sub-service to God who called them to their work. They certainly had their differences in personality. No minister is a carbon-copy of another—nor should they be. Paul’s beautiful instruction on spiritual gifts in I Corinthians 12 applies to the church as a whole and to the office of the ministry. God’s servants work alongside each other, laboring together, for the building up of the church (I Cor. 3:9).

Third, the truth of the cross overpowers and overcomes any strengths or weakness that men may evidence as they preach the gospel. The gospel is the power of God unto salvation (Rom. 1:16), and the Corinthians needed Paul’s emphasis on believing the power of the cross rather than the attraction that men may portray as they take the pulpit. Such attraction is vain. The focus is on the preaching, not the preacher. For in the preaching of the Word, there is power. bHerman Hoeksema has written,

It is the preaching of the Word that brings Christ to the consciousness of the sinner. Without that preaching, therefore, there can never be in this life an active and conscious laying hold on Christ and on all the benefits of salvation.6

Fourth, strong intellect and gifts of oratory do not necessarily equate to the “lively preaching of the Word” (Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 35, Q&A 98). Lively preaching of Christ where “two or three are gathered in His name” brings glory to God (Matt. 18:20). In contrast, a throng of thousands who hang on the clever words of a man’s “wisdom” can have their souls left empty and void (Is. 55:11).

As you consider these lessons, what expectations do you have for your undershepherd? Are you naturally drawn to someone who challenges and stimulates you intellectually? Do you prefer the out-going, social type? While there are many personality types with various strengths and weaknesses, the central focus must be hearing the words of Christ. Fight natural man’s urge to follow the mouthpiece, who is merely an instrument. Listen for Christ, for you will know His voice (John 10:27).

Some men can use persuasive speech, be knowledgeable in the Scriptures, and draw a crowd like no other. In the end, however, they will be judged according to the divine standard of the gospel message that they preached. Not because of their efforts, but through the power of Christ (II Cor. 13:4).

Paul planted, Apollos watered, but in the end God alone through His Spirit gave the increase, making the seed of the Word sprout and planting Christ into the fertile soil (hearts) of those who heard the gospel. Just as the water from the watering can has no power in itself to give life to the seed in the ground, so Apollos had no power in himself to make God’s Word effective in the hearts of sinners. Rather, the God who is pleased to ordain the means is the sole power to make it effective, directing the water’s path and using it to produce the fruit He wills—in the natural realm and in the spiritual realm. Dear Christian, seek not the man, but seek Christ, the fountain of all good.


1 Don Doezema, Upon this Rock, Vol. 3, (Grand Rapids, MI: Protestant Reformed Sunday School Teachers Association, 2003), 290.
2 J. Gresham Machen, The New Testament: An Introduction to its Literature and History (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1976), 140.
3 Jerome, St. Jerome’s Commentaries on Galatians, Titus, and Philemon, (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2010), 347.
4 John H. Bratt, New Testament Guide (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1946), 106.
5 Corin Mihaila, The Paul-Apollos Relationship and Paul’s Stance Towards Greco-Roman Rhetoric: An Exegetical and Socio-Historical Study of I Corinthians 1-4 (Bloomsbury: T&T Clark, 2009).
6 Herman Hoeksema, The Triple Knowledge, Volume VIII, Love the Lord Thy God (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. 1955), 74-75.