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  • Writer's picturePaul Cottington

Levelling Up


'On hearing this, they were baptised in the name of the Lord Jesus' Acts 19:5

You may have heard the expression ‘levelling up’. It’s a relatively new phrase that appeared four years ago in a pre-election political party manifesto. ‘Levelling up’ is a proposal with the stated aim of dealing with imbalances between different areas and social groups - certain people, in certain areas, or certain groups, have greater resource and therefore greater opportunity to grow. Levelling up is the idea that if use the greater resource in some areas to good effect in other areas, we will raise the level of life quality there to a similar point.

The phrase has been nicked - stolen from that great source of novelty and invention - video games! To ‘level-up’ is a phrase that my son George uses. Most of what he says, when playing games online, is spoken in a foreign language - it sounds like English but I have no idea what it means! But I do know what ‘level up’ means because I looked in the dictionary. It says that, ‘‘level up’ is a term that comes from gaming, referring to advancing from one level of skill or power to another’. It also means ‘to advance or improve (oneself or someone else) as if in a game’.

Why do I mention this? Well, ‘levelling up’ may be a relatively new phrase but it isn’t a new practice. It’s an important principle for church life. Perhaps you have some Bible knowledge, or Christian experience, that I currently lack. If you are prepared to share that with me, and if I am humble enough to receive it, I can be levelled up – I can be advanced in what I know about how to live a life for Jesus. It’s a main aim of the New Testament letters.

In 2 Peter 1 5-8, we are instructed to make every effort to level up, or to add to what we already have. Peter says, ‘make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love’. Why? Well, Peter says, ‘For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ’.

The end of Acts 18 and the beginning of Acts 19 has some wonderful examples of people being levelled up that can impact our church life. Last time, in our Acts series, we saw Paul being renewed and refreshed. Paul had been unable to continue bringing his Jesus-message to the Jewish synagogue when his audience became abusive. He seems to have been overcome by doubt and had slipped down a level in his faith-life. The Lord intervened and let Paul know that his fears were without foundation. And so it proved. The Lord ordered events so that Paul was wonderfully protected in his mission for Jesus. The Lord said that this would happen and therefore it did. Like Paul, we often falter, and fail, but God’s word never fails! Our level can easily drop - God’s level never does.

There were various ways in which the Lord supplied Paul in Corinth. He provided people – willing helpers to serve alongside him. Paul met a married couple, Priscilla and Aquila in Corinth. They supplied Paul with lodgings and work. They were committed to the Lord’s work and when Paul leaves Corinth they travel with him. They will prove to be a great source of strength and support not just to Paul. We know this because we are about to see their willingness to help up the level of another person. But we also know this because of what Paul says about them in Romans 16 3. Paul says, ‘not only I but all the churches of the Gentiles are grateful to them’ – it’s wonderful!

But, before they leave, we have this, perhaps strange to us, detail of Paul, in Corinth’s eastern seaport of Cenchreae, having a farewell haircut. What’s that all about? Well, we are told that it was ‘because of a vow he had taken’. This almost certainly is linked to Numbers 6 and the Old Covenant, Nazarite vow. This was something done by choice by a Jew. It was a promise of particular dedication to God for a limited period of time. During that period there were restrictions placed on the person who had made this God-vow. One of the things that they could not do was have their haircut – they had to let it grow long. What was the point of that? Well probably it was a visual illustration to those around them, a reminder that they were currently living a restricted life.

Paul, as a Christian now, didn’t feel the same obligation to his previous Jewish principles but, here, he had chosen to make use of this old practice, to re-dedicate himself in a special way. Why? Well, maybe this was due to what we looked at last time where the Lord promised him particular providential protection while in Corinth. It was like Jesus, there, reminded Paul that he was dedicated to him. Perhaps Paul felt re-dedicated to his mission work in that moment and made that decision to take this vow to live a restricted way of life while in in that place. Now that he is leaving, the restrictions are over, and his hair can once again be cut off.

It probably explains his initial short stay in Ephesus. When this Nazarite vow was over the person had to then present themselves to the priest. That was why Paul was keen to get to Jerusalem, so that this could happen. Because of this, Paul passes up on gospel opportunity it seems, which is really quite something! He reasons with the Jews in Ephesus and they want to hear more. From our understanding of Paul, so far, the last two words I would expect to read in response to a request for more Jesus info are ‘he declined’. But that is what we read in verse 20.

Paul is aware that he cannot do everything. He cannot complete his vow and also stay with these enquirers. Something has to give but both seem really important - can you feel the stress? Often in these situations we can be tempted to promise things that we cannot deliver – we think, ‘I’ll say ‘yes’ and then sort out the consequences later’. Paul doesn’t. He doesn’t promise what he cannot deliver. His promise is based on one who always delivers. Verse 21 says, ‘But as he left, he promised, ‘I will come back if it is God’s will’. It was God’s will. Paul will return.

But now he leaves, and he leaves Priscilla and Aquila behind in Ephesus awaiting his return. He goes to Jerusalem, where he also visits the believers, before returning to his home church in Syrian Antioch. And that’s it – the end!

‘That was quick’, you may be thinking, ‘I’ll say amen to that’. No, not just yet. It’s not the end of today’s message. It’s the end of Paul’s second missionary journey, after around three years away. The Acts account is really brief here. We have already seen what happened when he returned the first time, in Acts 14 27. I’m sure there was the same kind of debrief, and the same kind of rejoicing in God who opens the door of faith to people who otherwise would never get through.

Verse 23 is also concise. There are no details of what happened during the ‘some time’ which Paul spent at home. Then we are on the move again – Paul’s third missionary journey. Here we see Paul performing another role in church life. He re-visits some churches which he had previously planted. Why? He ‘travelled from place to place… strengthening those disciples’. He knew that starting a church was not the end, it was just the beginning. There would always be ongoing work required. Paul had this same desire towards churches that he hadn’t planted himself. Paul hadn’t yet been to Rome when he wrote his Romans letter but he wanted to go there and with good reason. He says, in Romans 1 11, ‘I long to see you so that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to make you strong’. He wanted them to grow strong in the Lord. He wanted them to advance. He wanted them to level up and he knew that he could help them do just that.

In 1 Corinthians 3 9, Paul tells the believers in Corinth, ‘you are… God’s building’ – a church fellowship is like a building. Where I work there are several buildings. Some of them have existed for years. But, there has been little maintenance, and lots of neglect, for a long time now. I know what is going to happen in the near future. Those buildings are either going to be knocked down, or they are going to fall down - whichever comes soonest. Buildings need maintaining - weak bits need strengthening – other bits need repainting. God’s building is no different - church fellowships need regular maintenance. Where people’s faith has grown weak, someone will need to re-strengthen. When people have lost the gloss from their Christian living, they’ll need someone to come along and bring a fresh bit of colour. When my level drops – I need you to lift me back up. Paul was willing to do that when he could.

Then we have another example of levelling up. Verse 24 has the word, ‘meanwhile’. While this is going on – God is still going on. Paul has left Corinth but God has got a replacement in hand – a man named Apollos with a gift for speaking, but he needed help to get to the required level to serve effectively in a new role. There’s a lesson for us here. Can you imagine what the church in Corinth must have felt when Paul left? I bet there were people thinking exactly what I think in times of uncertainty and change. That question we so easily, so anxiously ask, ‘What are we going to do?’ Our loving, Heavenly Father has it in hand. So, there’s a better question that we can ask in such circumstances - ‘what is he going to do now?’ Look at what he does here.

Apollos had passion for the Lord, but he didn’t yet have the full story. He was a gifted workman but his toolbox was incomplete. Priscilla and Aquila have possession of the things he lacks and so they hand them over. Two things are needed. Their willingness to help level up this man. His humility to accept the missing pieces. By God’s grace the lack is quickly overcome. What a lesson we have here! Verse 27 has Apollos going to Achaia, that’s the region where Corinth is. He can now go highly recommended by those at Ephesus, with all the tools for the job in hand. Look at the knock on effect, of church levelling up. Priscilla and Aquila were a great help to Apollos, moving him closer in his understanding of all things Jesus. Consequently, when he arrives in Corinth, we find that ‘he was a great help to those who by grace had believed’.

Apollos’ natural character is highlighted in verse 25 – ‘he spoke with great fervour’. In the original New Testament Greek this is ‘zeō pneuma’. ‘pneuma’ relates to air, or spirit, and zeō means to boil water. Have you ever forgotten to close the lid of your kettle so that it cannot automatically switch off? It just carries on bubbling vigorously, filling the kitchen with steam. That was Apollos. Compare him to Paul. Paul reminds us in 2 Corinthians 10 10. This is what people were saying about Paul – ‘in person he is unimpressive and his speaking amounts to nothing.’ And verse 28 tells us something else wonderful. What Paul couldn’t continue doing, the Lord had shaped an Apollos who could. Apollos made greater inroads into the Jewish community. ‘He vigorously refuted his... opponents’ – he was like a boiling kettle with the lid open where no-one could find the off switch! He got time, and so proved ‘from the scriptures that Jesus was the Messiah’. God’s hand moulded Apollos for that role. Why couldn’t Paul do it in Corinth? Because, like us, he had limits. God is not limited - his resource is infinite.

So, briefly to Acts 19 – While Apollos is bubbling away in Corinth, Paul returns to Ephesus. He meets some people who are in the same position as Apollos was before Priscilla and Aquila explained Jesus to him ‘more adequately’. These were people who I suspect had been instructed by Apollos before. We now get some more levelling up. Here in Ephesus we have a role reversal. Paul would later comment about the church he planted in Corinth, in 1 Corinthians 3 6. He says, ‘I planted the seed, Apollos watered it’. Here in Ephesus, the seed that Apollos has planted, in the lives of these twelve men, is watered by Paul.

When Paul meets them he seems to sense a lack – something is missing. Paul gets his checklist out to see where these people are on their faith journey. Spirit Life – No. Baptism – Yes… hold on, though, is that Jesus’ Baptism? No, it’s John’s Baptism. We have heard about this recently in Tim’s series on Mark’s gospel. John was sent by God to prepare people for the coming ministry of Christ Jesus. Mark 1 1-3 quotes from the prophets Malachi and Isaiah who, hundreds of years before, had predicted this happening. John was God’s ‘messenger’ sent ‘ahead of’ Jesus. His job role was to ‘prepare the way for the Lord’ Jesus, to ‘make straight paths for him’. We have a lovely illustration here in Acts of how this worked. These men have been prepared by their second-hand receiving of John’s message. Paul now has a straight path to walk them into the full embrace of Christ. That’s what I call levelling up!

We might ask the question – ‘were they believers before?’ Paul implies that they were in verse 2, when he questions them and uses the phrase, ‘when you believed’. But I think that sometimes we can be prone to ask the wrong question.

When we have someone who identifies as a believer, but the light of gospel in their lives seems so dim, we can start to ask questions that don’t lead us anywhere positive. There’s a better question that we can ask, which is, ‘how can I move this person closer to Jesus?’ Because that is all that Paul does here. Look at the effect – in verse 5 ‘they were baptised (now) in the name of the Lord Jesus’, and in verse 6 the evidence of God’s Spirit is clear for all to see.

But, someone may say, ‘is that going to happen now – speaking in tongues and prophesy?’ Probably not in quite the same way, but don’t turn from those verses because of that, because there is something for us to take note of. When people are moved closer to Jesus, there will be an increase in lively passion – a love for him and a desire for his people. We may not see the ‘tongues of fire’ of Acts 2 3, but we want to, and will, see a greater burning. The size and shape of what we witness may be a little different now, to verse 6 here, but the enthusiasm, and betterment, and levelling up, will be things to be delighted about.

Is there a word for this process – something that will help me remember? this idea where the Lord’s people sometimes have one role and sometimes another - where sometimes you will instruct me and help me to understand something which I was struggling with, or get close to me, when my spirits have dropped, and point me to my Saviour once again, raising my level, and where sometimes I will be able to do that for you? There is. The Bible has a word for this process. It’s a big feature of Acts. It’s called ‘church’.

The letters that Paul would go on to write to these churches in these two places, Corinth and Ephesus, are full of instruction about ‘church’. In 1 Corinthians 12 he speaks of the gifts which the Spirit distributes. They aren’t given for the good of the individual but for ‘the common good’ – not to make one, or another, look superior, but to make the whole more complete. In Ephesians 4 he speaks of the necessity of the church keeping Christ at the head of everything it does. If we do this, and if we are ‘joined and held together by every supporting’ piece of God’s church jigsaw, and as ‘as each part does its work’, what will happen? The church ‘grows and builds itself up in love’.

It isn’t easy. We are all limited and our sin often gets in the way. We are quite prone to knock other people over by what we do and say. Sometimes we’ll all be found rolling round the floor in pain, but let’s be ready to offer a hand up. Let’s be ready to accept a hand up.

Let’s think of who we - the church - are. We are those whose sin left us down and staring defeat in the face. The burden we carried was so heavy, and we could not shift it, and we could not hope to ever rise again. But God sent his Son. He took the load that would have buried us, by dying for our sin on Calvary’s Cross. He rose from the dead and called us to rise by faith in his name. He extended a hand when we were down and dying and raised us to eternal life. That’s what Jesus did. In church life, by God’s grace, may (as 1 Corinthians 2 16) ‘we have the mind of Christ’.


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