The First Sunday after Christmas December 28, 2003
Hebrews 11:1-13, 39-40
136, 99, 108, 97
And it happened, while Apollos was at Corinth, that Paul, having passed through the upper regions, came to Ephesus. And finding some disciples he said to them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” So they said to him, “We have not so much as heard whether there is a Holy Spirit.” And he said to them, “Into what then were you baptized?” So they said, “Into John’s baptism.” Then Paul said, “John indeed baptized with a baptism of repentance, saying to the people that they should believe on Him who would come after him, that is, on Christ Jesus.” When they heard this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. And when Paul had laid hands on them, the Holy Spirit came upon them, and they spoke with tongues and prophesied. Now the men were about twelve in all.
In Christ Jesus, dear fellow-redeemed:
Christmas is over. The shopping is a memory, the caroling has gone silent, the holiday is complete. Soon, the remaining days of this year will be past and the history book of 2003 will be complete, No more will ever be added. In years to come there will be new discussions and old debates over the events of 2003. Maybe there will come a day when people will discover something that happened in 2003 which even we who lived through it didn’t know. If such a discovery is made it will be only new knowledge about what has already happened, it won’t really add anything to the events of the year.
With Christmas past, stores are quickly changing their aisles to reflect the next big sale, and soon enough everyone’s Christmas trees will be gone. That is our way of doing things. We see something through to completion, and then move on to whatever is next. The more quickly we finish one thing, the more quickly we can move on to the next and get more accomplished. But along with speed and “moving on” comes disadvantage. For if we complete something and then it is gone, where is the time to savor it, enjoy it, and carry it with us for a while?
This time of year often comes with a twinge of regret because everything seems to go by so quickly. We may be left wondering whether we could have enjoyed Christmas a little more. Where could we have spent a little more time and care in keeping our hearts where they should be? How can we carry what we’ve celebrated with us throughout the coming year?
It is another part of the wonder of our God and His Word that while there is completion there is also ongoing growth. The Word incarnate—the Son of God made flesh—is our complete all-around Savior. The written Word—Scripture—is our complete revelation from God that provides all we need to know about our salvation. God has completed everything leading to our salvation, but that doesn’t mean it is left behind and “off we go” to the next thing. Rather, THE WORD IS COMPLETE BUT GROWS (WITHIN US). Using Paul’s experience with some of the Ephesians, we consider I. The Incompleteness of Not Knowing II. The Unity of the Word III. The Growth of Knowledge.
We find Paul in Ephesus during his third missionary journey. Paul came to Ephesus and found a situation which involved incomplete knowledge about Christ and the Gospel. However, the incomplete knowledge didn’t begin with the Ephesians.
Our text begins by saying Paul was in Ephesus while Apollos was at Corinth. If we go back a bit into chapter 18 we meet Apollos for the first time and find out that he began with incomplete knowledge and had taught the incompleteness in Ephesus. “Now a certain Jew named Apollos, born at Alexandria, an eloquent man and mighty in the Scriptures, came to Ephesus. This man had been instructed in the way of the Lord; and being fervent in spirit, he spoke and taught accurately the things of the Lord, though he knew only the baptism of John. So he began to speak boldly in the synagogue. When Aquila and Priscilla heard him, they took him aside and explained to him the way of God more accurately” (Acts 18:24-26).
Apollos was able to understand the Old Testament Scriptures very well. He was eloquent and able to convey the truth of the Old Testament mightily to the people. He spoke the Word of God accurately—as much as he knew. Apollos’ knowledge of God’s Word was incomplete. He only knew of John the Baptist and his ministry, nothing further. Apollos didn’t know what Christ had done. He didn’t know and understand the fullness of John’s purpose, namely, that it was pointing ahead to a greater one—Christ!
Whoever had instructed Apollos had known only the Old Testament and had conveyed that to Apollos, but meanwhile there was fulfillment by Christ. Apollos then instructed the people in Ephesus with his knowledge, so theirs too was left incomplete. Next, Aquila and Priscilla shared with Apollos what he didn’t know, Apollos went on to Corinth, and when Paul came to Ephesus he found the disciples who, like Apollos before them, knew the Gospel only up to John the Baptist.
We see how a man with a heart desiring to serve the Lord, excited about God’s Word, gifted and able to do many things in the ministry, was still incomplete in his ability to serve because he did not know the full Gospel and its completion in Christ. As a result, the people to whom Apollos ministered were also left incomplete.
Even before Christ came and completed His work, it was possible to have a better understanding of the Gospel than did Apollos. We heard in the Gospel reading that John very clearly spoke of himself as being the forerunner of One who was greater. “He who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I’m not worthy to carry…” (Matthew 3:11) John spoke of Jesus coming and baptizing with fire and with the HOLY SPIRIT. Mention of the Holy Spirit was part of John’s ministry, but these disciples baptized into John’s baptism hadn’t even heard about the Holy Spirit.
Christ and the work of our Savior was very much a clear part of John’s ministry. When John saw Jesus coming, he said, “Behold! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:28). Later when some of John’s disciples were upset because of Jesus’ growing popularity, John corrected them by saying, “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30). Paul also points out that John’s ministry and baptism did involve Christ, “…John INDEED Baptized with a baptism of repentance, saying to the people that they should believe on HIM WHO WOULD COME AFTER HIM, that is ON CHRIST JESUS.” [v.4] As the message of God’s Word was taken from John, to others, and then to these disciples whom Paul met, part of the truth which John proclaimed had been lost. The disciples in Ephesus were left “not knowing” about the Holy Spirit and Christ’s completion because they had not received the whole truth.
The Ephesians were, essentially, still Old Testament believers…incomplete while God had already completed salvation through Christ. In the New Testament, we have the great blessing of a complete revelation. Peter wrote in his second letter, “We have the prophetic word confirmed, which you do well to heed as a light that shines in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts” (2 Peter 1:19). We have the benefit—the blessing—of a complete revelation that shows not only how sin came into the world and how God promised to provide salvation from sin. But we also have the fullness of revelation which shows How God did has accomplished salvation for us and for every other sinner.
In this experience between Paul and the Ephesians we can see the danger of an incomplete knowledge of God’s Word. This incompleteness may range from not knowing the fine details of Scripture to not knowing the heart and core of the truth which God intends us to have. Someone might read the Bible, but if they skip over the truths that say Christ died for all people, they might be left with an incomplete knowledge: “He died for people but not for someone like me.” If they read through Scripture and overlook the truth that Jesus did everything for our salvation, then they are incomplete and may look to their own works for help.
There is a great danger of people taking a little bit of God’s Word and add their own ideas while still calling it “God’s Word.” This is a dangerous thing indeed! Some might decide what they want to believe and what they want to do and then search the Bible to find words that can be used to support the position (whether it fits the context and what God intends to say or not). This is “not knowing” the truth because it involves only a part of the Truth rather than the complete truth which God has given.
In this experience of Paul, we also see the danger of relying completely on third hand information. If a pastor or a theological teacher says something and we automatically assume that it must be true and accept it without question, then we too may be left “not knowing.” Certainly, pastors and teachers are intended to help us in our studies and be a benefit to us. However, they are not the final answer. We see how the message came to Apollos and these disciples from John, but it wasn’t the fullness of what John was preaching. So we too can listen to preachers and teachers who instruct us with the Word of God, but then we need to go back to the source—back to the complete revelation of God and there find what is absolutely going to be true (as the Bereans did, cf: Acts 17:11).
There is also an opposite danger in which we would say, “I don’t know everything so I better not say anything.” A complete knowledge of Scripture is not knowing everything in Scripture from the top of your head because that would be impossible. The studying of the completeness of God’s Word is a lifetime endeavor. We go forward not knowing everything, but knowing where to find the completion and then sharing that completion with others.
Completion implies a “wholeness” with everything fitted together. We wouldn’t consider a project complete unless all of the parts are in place. John the Baptist’s ministry took place at an interesting time and served as a “bridge” between Old and New Testaments. In the early New Testament Christian Church we see the “switchover” still underway. The Old Testament believers who were brought to a realization and faith in the completion of the Old Testament, had some difficulty letting go of some of the Old Testament laws. The whole epistle of Hebrews is a demonstration of how Christ is the fulfillment of the Old Testament and it helped the Old Testament believers cross the “bridge” to the New Testament.
In other ways, the transition from Old Testament to New Testament was really quite easy because the substance of both is the same. It is a unified whole and that is part of God’s completion.
If ever you have a chance to witness your faith to someone who doesn’t necessarily grasp the New Testament fulfillment of the Old through Christ—perhaps someone who holds to the Jewish traditions and faith—you can start with the Old Testament and you will still end with Christ and all that He did. This is true because God’s Word is a unified whole. What was started in the Old Testament, Jesus came to fulfill and did fulfill.
When Jesus was talking to people on the earth, He went back to the Old Testament prophecies and said, “Today, this Old Testament prophecy from Isaiah is fulfilled before you because I am here fulfilling it” (cf: Luke 4:21). After Easter, when Jesus was instructing His disciples about His suffering and death, He went back to the Old Testament to show them how all that He had done was all part of the fulfillment. When we see the connection between Old and New Testament, we then begin to see the complete revelation taught by the whole of Scripture.
There is a question raised about John’s baptism. The Ephesians in our text said they were baptized into “John’s baptism.” So is there a difference between John’s baptism and the baptism we practice today? No, because there is unity in the completion of God’s salvation. The purpose of John’s baptism was for the remission of sins (Luke 3:3). The baptisms that were done in the early New Testament Church and the ones we perform are likewise for the forgiveness of sins, “Arise and be baptized and wash away your sins” (Acts 22:16).
The purpose and result of John’s baptism and the our own are the same. The only difference is that John baptized while looking ahead to Christ who would come and accomplish the salvation which was being given through that baptism. We baptize in Christ’s name and in the fullness—the completion—of what Christ has already done.
This unity of the Word is so important as we move now from Christmas to Epiphany and then on to Lent and Easter and so forth. Whatever the season, everything is the same. Christmas is the same truth as Easter. Epiphany is the same truth as Lent—different aspects, but the same unified whole. Every truth is in harmony with the other as part of God’s complete, full, unified Word. This makes God’s Word a living Word applicable to every stage and every aspect of our lives.
When the Ephesians were baptized in the name of Christ and Paul laid his hands on them, we hear that “the Holy Spirit came upon them, and they spoke with tongues and prophesied. Now the men were about twelve in all.” [vv.5-7]
When these disciples were baptized in the name of Christ Jesus—when they were given the fullness of God’s revelation through Christ Jesus—they were able to speak in different languages like the disciples had done on Pentecost. But we shouldn’t understand this to mean that unless we can speak in different tongues we haven’t received a good baptism, or that we don’t have the fullness of Christ. Rather, the speaking in tongues was just one way in which the Holy Spirit showed the blessing He was working in the hearts of the Ephesians at that time.
Paul wrote in his first letter to the Corinthians: “Now concerning spiritual gifts, brethren, I do not want you to be ignorant…Therefore I make known to you that no one speaking by the Spirit of God calls Jesus accursed, and no one can say that Jesus is Lord except by the Holy Spirit…” (1 Corinthians 12:1,3). The simple fact that we believe that Jesus is our Lord and Savior is of itself a gift of the Spirit. It makes no difference, whatsoever, if we can speak in other languages or not because the fact that we have faith is proof, Paul says, that we have received the gift of the Holy Spirit.
Paul continues in his letter to the Corinthians, “There are diversities of gifts, but the same Spirit. There are differences of ministries, but the same Lord. And there are diversities of activities, but it is the same God who works all in all. But the manifestation of the Spirit is given to each one for the profit of all: for to one is given the word of wisdom through the Spirit, to another the word of knowledge through the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healings by the same Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another discerning of spirits, to another different kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. But one and the same Spirit works all these things, distributing to each one individually as He wills” (1 Corinthians 12:4-11).
Even in the early days of the New Testament church, not everyone could heal, though some could. Not everybody could speak in other languages, though some could. Not everybody had the gift of great insight and wisdom into the truths of Scripture, though some did. God gives different gifts. He uses His united whole Word in the hearts of people and gives the gifts of the Spirit in differing ways so that when you put it all together it is a complete whole. It is a complete unit of the body of believers serving one another to the glory of God and the work and spread of His Word.
In a similar way, Paul wrote to the Romans, “Having then gifts differing according to the grace that is given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, let us prophesy in proportion to our faith; or ministry, let us use it in our ministering; he who teaches, in teaching; he who exhorts, in exhortation; he who gives, with liberality; he who leads, with diligence; he who shows mercy, with cheerfulness” (Romans 12:6-8). Different gifts from the Spirit grow in us through the working of the Word and that growth shows itself in the use of the gifts in our lives.
In Galatians, Paul talks about the fruits of the Spirit (cf: Galatians 5:22-23)—fruits of faith. These are all things that grow. The Word is complete, the Salvation is done and fulfilled, but when the Gospel works in our hearts and the Holy Spirit gives us gifts then the gifts grow, our faith grows, our trust grows, and our Christian life grows.
We are completed because we are completely redeemed in Christ and our salvation is sure. But don’t let it be done and gone and move on to the next thing. We have the completion of salvation and at the same time it grows in us as we ponder it like Mary.
So, as we move away from Christmas and move on to the next thing, keep that COMPLETION and it will GROW by the grace of God and the work of His Holy Spirit. Amen.
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