Purposive learning: Lessons from Apollos

He was an apostle of the second generation, a well-educated man, an intellectual of his time. Only rarely is he mentioned in the New Testament, his influence was noteworthy in the early church.

Meet Apollos. Acts 18:24-281 introduces this young Jewish man as a citizen of Alexandria, the second-largest city in the Roman Empire at that time, named after Alexander the Great. A home for many Jewish emigrants, the city was responsible for the translation and production of the Septuagint translation of the Bible. Alexandria hosted the competing priorities of Judaism, Hellenism and Greek philosophy, and eventually became a great educational center, with extensive library holdings of 900,000 volumes.

Apollos was “an eloquent man” (vs. 24, NASB), which can also mean a learned or well-educated man. He obviously was instructed in Hellenistic sciences, philosophy, and especially rhetoric, as the word “eloquent” points out. Rhetoric, which was the main discipline of philosophy in those days, enabled a person to argue convincingly and make his case clearly.

Apollos also had “a thorough knowledge of the Scriptures” (vs. 24), which means that he knew the Old Testament and could interpret it well. He wasn’t a superficial reader but studied the Scripture in depth and thus had obtained a thorough knowledge of the Bible.

He was a contemporary of Philo, a famous Jewish philosopher and theologian. Philo of Alexandria had written commentaries on Old Testament books, developed different methods of interpreting the Scripture, and tried to harmonize the wisdom of Hellenistic philosophy with the revelation in Scripture. He believed that all truths of the Greek philosophers could ultimately be traced back to Moses.

Apollos, who probably was a student of Philo, knew well Hellenistic philosophy as well as the Old Testament. He had gone through both academic and religious education. From the little we know of him in the book of Acts, he was a successful debater, establishing beyond any doubt the veracity of the Scripture. His method probably included logical reasoning and rational presentation.

A passionate Christian

We do not know exactly when, but sometime during the post-Pentecost spread of the gospel, Apollos became a Christian and had been “instructed in the way of the Lord” (vs. 25). Once he learned the tremendous meaning of the Christ-event, Apollos could not remain silent. He became a passionate missionary and preached the gospel wherever he went “with great fervor and taught about Jesus accurately” (vs. 25). Apollos used his knowledge and his education for the service of the Lord. He profited from his knowledge of Scripture and also from his studies in philosophy and rhetoric, when “he refuted the Jews in public debate” (vs. 28). He engaged completely in Christian ministry and left traces of his enthusiasm in history–in Achaia, in Ephesus, in Corinth. Especially in Corinth. In that city, he must have made a deep impact, because some of the Christians there named themselves after him (1 Corinthians 1:12).

One significant point about Apollos must not escape our attention: his humility and desire to learn more. Even though a skillful scholar with much formal education, he was ready to learn more about Jesus – His death and resurrection – from simple believers like Aquila and Priscilla, “who, perceiving that he had not yet received the full light of the gospel, ‘took him unto them, and expounded unto him the way of God more perfectly.’ Through their teaching he obtained a clearer understanding of the Scriptures and became one of the ablest advocates of the Christian faith.”2

Learning from Apollos

What can we learn from the life of this great man, whose influence in the early beginnings of the Christian church only heaven can fully reveal?

First, in our search for knowledge and in our pursuit of academic excellence, we must not hesitate to strive for the best in education. At the same time, we need to bear in mind that human knowledge is not the ultimate goal. Rather, our objective should be to obtain divine wisdom revealed in Scripture. We need to let both come together and synthesize as they did in the ministry of Apollos. Early Adventist educators promoted these two aspects. Ellen White wrote, “God’s purpose has been made known, that our people should have an opportunity to study the sciences and at the same time to learn the requirements of His word.”3

Education is not a goal in itself; it is rather a means to an end. For Adventist pioneers, education stood for the service of mission. The Church’s first educational institutions were missionary schools. They were training centers for mission.

After all, one of the goals of the oldest adventist educational institution, the Sabbath School, is preparation for mission. Engagement in Sabbath School provides us with two benefits: we have the chance to become continually educated in Bible and religion. This will increase our knowledge, enlarge our skills, and help us grow spiritually. We also have the opportunity to teach what we have learned and thus contribute to the education and development of others.

Second, like Apollos, we need to be open to new learning. In the learning process, there never comes a time when we can say we have arrived. Learning is a journey, and even in eternity we will ever be learning. Apollos, gifted and devoted as he was, had a great deficiency: “he knew only the baptism of John” (vs. 25). When Priscilla and Aquila noticed that, they saw the need to instruct him and “explained to him the way of God more adequately” (vs. 26). Apollos was humble enough to accept new teachings from them. He was open to new learning experiences.

Today, we often hear about the need for lifelong learning. This is mandatory in many professions and even more, in matters of faith and religion. For Adventists, the idea of continuous learning is rooted deep in our history. Ellen White envisions, “Before the student there is opened a path of continual progress … He will advance as fast and as far as possible in every branch of true knowledge.”4 The search for “new light” motivated the pioneers to keep on studying and learning. So, we need to be open to new insights and experiences, be ready to learn and dig deeper – into academic studies and into the Word of God. We need to trust the Spirit, who will “guide you into all truth” (John 16:13).

Third, all learning must ultimately lead to the proclamation “that Jesus was the Christ” (v.28). Apollos knew Greek philosophy; he was well versed in interpreting the Scripture; and he knew the rigors of logic and the rules of rhetoric. But he focused all this to teach the truth “about Jesus” (vs. 25). Apollos exhibited the true knowledge of Jesus the Christ.

Our education, academic knowledge, and even the understanding of Scripture are in vain unless they point to Jesus Christ. Not academic or even scriptural knowledge is the ultimate goal, but the knowledge of Jesus Christ. This, Apollos understood very well. Ellen White pointed out: “To obtain an education worthy of the name, we must receive a knowledge of God, the Creator, and of Christ, the Redeemer.”5

So let us direct all our education to a closer relationship with Christ so that what Paul, a good companion of Apollos, envisioned may come true: “Until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:13).

Roland E. Fischer (Ph.D., University of Bayreuth, Germany) is the director of the Institute for Continuing Education in Germany and adjunct professor at Friedensau University, Germany. E-mail: roland.fischer@adventisten.de


  1. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture passages in this article are quoted from the New International Version.
  2. Ellen G. White, Acts of the Apostles (Mountain View, California: Pacific Press Publ. Assn., 1911), p. 270.
  3. ______, Testimonies for the Church (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Publ. Assn., 1948), vol. 5, p. 21.
  4. ______, Education (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Publ. Assn., 1952), p.18.
  5. Ibid., p. 17.