Cloud of Witnesses: Priscilla

(Message given at Newberg Friends Church on January 19, 2014)

Last summer, on our huge gift of a trip to Europe, we landed in Amsterdam.

We had less than 24 hours there, and were dealing with jet lag. But we made the most of it! We rented some bikes, and when I wasn’t getting us lost, we saw some great things. At one point we stopped at a park, and while Aubrey played on the equipment, we discovered something: Aubrey could pass for being Dutch.

Her fair skin, freckles, and blond hair blended right in with the people who lived in Amsterdam. So much so, in fact, that two different kids came up to her and instantly starting talking to her…in Dutch. It was really funny watching them be surprised that she couldn’t understand them! But being kids, they could play together and begin a little friendship anyways.

How about any of you? When have you made a friend in another country?

A couple of weeks ago, we had Barnabas as our example in the cloud of witnesses. After he and Paul went their separate ways, Paul finds himself a couple of chapters later in the town of Corinth. And he makes some friends in this other country, this wild city of Corinth. Paul begins his lifelong friendship with Priscilla and Aquila. Priscilla is today’s example in the cloud of witnesses.

Grab your bible or the one in front of you, and let’s look at Acts chapter 18.

After this, Paul left Athens and went to Corinth. There he met a Jew named Aquila, a native of Pontus, who had recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla, because Claudius had ordered all Jews to leave Rome. Paul went to see them, and because he was a tentmaker as they were, he stayed and worked with them. Acts 18:1-3

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So Paul has arrived in Corinth from the north, from the great city of Athens. His home town is Tarsus, way to the east. Priscilla and Aquila arrive from the west, from the great city of Rome. Each has left capital cities of power to come to a city with a reputation for overt sexuality with no boundaries at all. And while Paul is there with choice and intention, on a mission to introduce people to Jesus Christ, Priscilla and Aquila are different. They are refugees. They’ve been kicked out of their homes, and have to find a way to survive and live in a new country and culture.

Years ago I read the book The Kite Runner.

One scene is vivid in my mind. It’s a book about a family from Afghanistan, who end up in San Jose California as refugees in 1979. I think one of the reasons it stood out to me is I was born in San Jose, and I lived near there in 1979. The father in this family had been a wealthy business man in Afghanistan, with a lot of connections to political power. He was very capable-he helped many find jobs or start their own businesses, he started an orphanage in Afghanistan before the war with the Soviet Union made them refugees.

The scene that stands out is at a flea market in San Jose, where Baba and his son are trying to earn any money they can selling whatever they can get their hands on. The book does an excellent job describing how poorly they were treated. Baba didn’t speak english well, and people had the stereotypes that many people would have about a poor english speaking person selling things at a flea market.

But we know, as readers, that he is intelligent, influential, with many skills that are unrecognized. He’s lost everything, and rebuilding in a new country is a humbling experience. That image has always stayed with me, reminding me how difficult life can be when you have to start completely over with no resources or relationships or help.

Priscilla and her husband likely faced a similar struggle.

Forced away from their home in Rome, where they likely had been a part of the first Christian church there and also part of the Jewish community, they had no choice but to leave everything and start over completely. The emperor saw the conflict in the Jewish section of Rome…conflict perhaps between Jews and Jewish Christians…and the emperor got tired of the rioting and banished all Jews from Rome.

We have no way of knowing if Priscilla was a part of the riots, or an innocent victim of this edict. But she and her husband travelled a long, long ways to arrive in Corinth. They somehow rebuilt a life, because when Paul arrives in Corinth, they have jobs and a home and are established enough to become a home base for Paul. They take him in, and give him a place.

They and Paul are known as tentmakers. F.F. Bruce writes it probably meant they also worked in all forms of leather making.

“This trade was closely connected with the principal product of Paul’s native province, a cloth of goats’ hair called cilicium, used for cloaks, curtains, and other fabrics designed to give protection against the wet. In Judaism it was not considered proper for a scribe or rabbi to receive payment for his teaching, so many of them practiced a trade in addition to their study and teaching of the law.” (NICTNT commentary, p. 346)

I love this introduction to Priscilla.

Our first picture of her gives us many signs of her strength, and they are all things that we are able to relate to and strive for. She and her husband are able to survive a serious blow, being banished from their homes and becoming refugees. Through perseverance and hard work, they do whatever it takes to re-build a business in a foreign place. The Kite Runner example and our own experience tells us that was likely a very difficult and humbling experience.

And when they have established a foothold in the new place, when they have a business and a home, they are on the lookout and willing to help with hospitality for Paul, a fellow Christ follower and foreigner in Corinth. Their struggles don’t make them selfish; instead, they remember the difficulty and are willing, as Christians, to do what they can to help Paul.

This group of three friends stayed together as a team through a year and a half in Corinth. It’s obvious, but I think important to say that simply living, working hard, and offering hospitality are all part of following Jesus Christ. In this whole series on the cloud of witnesses, we are remembering Hebrews 12. Looking at these Christians who have gone before us helps us to fix our eyes on Jesus and run the race marked out for us.

I’m really glad that we can look at someone like Priscilla, and draw attention to the fact that for several years, following Jesus simply meant surviving! It meant not giving up and working and offering hospitality. That may be exactly the season you are in with your race of life right now. Don’t feel badly about it! Following Jesus faithfully at times means simply surviving and working hard.

Acts keeps the spotlight on Paul in this time in Corinth.

But when Paul moves on from Corinth after his year and a half, we read in verse 18 that Priscilla and her husband went with him. To me, that says a lot about what’s been going on, things that the book of Acts doesn’t narrate. During the year and a half in Corinth, Paul develops a strong enough friendship and trust with these two that he’s willing to take them with him as he continues his journey. We learned with Barnabas that Paul didn’t put up with people who were half-hearted; he couldn’t stand it when John Mark left him.

Priscilla and Aquila, then, must have shown Paul  faithfulness and dependability for him to invite them to travel with him. Priscilla and her husband, in turn, must have believed enough in God’s call on Paul’s life to give up their hard won new life in Corinth and go with Paul. Again, Priscilla is a great example for us. Sometimes, following Jesus is just working hard and surviving and showing hospitality. And other times, it’s being willing to go through the pain and struggle all over again, just because God says “go”.

Paul stayed on in Corinth for some time. Then he left the believers and sailed for Syria, accompanied by Priscilla and Aquila. Before he sailed, he had his hair cut off at Cenchreae because of a vow he had taken. They arrived at Ephesus, where Paul left Priscilla and Aquila. He himself went into the synagogue and reasoned with the Jews. Acts 18:18-19

So Priscilla and her husband stay in Ephesus. This tells me that, more than just following Paul, they were being led by God on their own plan, their own ministry. Priscilla seems to be willing to enter another culture, but more of a person to put down roots and build longer term relationships than Paul’s evangelistic journeys. And God uses them in Ephesus.

Meanwhile a Jew named Apollos, a native of Alexandria, came to Ephesus. He was a learned man, with a thorough knowledge of the Scriptures. He had been instructed in the way of the Lord, and he spoke with great fervor and taught about Jesus accurately, though he knew only the baptism of John. He began to speak boldly in the synagogue. When Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they invited him to their home and explained to him the way of God more adequately. Acts 18:24-26

Priscilla’s example to us is someone who can build bridges, offer hospitality, and teach.

Remember Paul and Barnabas a few weeks ago, when they first arrived in Ephesus. They stirred the place up like a stick in a hornet’s nest, with the whole town rioting and ready to kill them not long after they arrived.

Priscilla and her husband are different sorts of people. Having already been a refugee, kicked out of Rome because of the uproar Jews caused there, they learned how to go to a new place, keep a low profile, and build relationships. They establish themselves in Ephesus, worship with the Jews in the synagogue, and in doing so see Apollos come in with his strong speaking ability.

I believe they are able to see the potential for God’s work in him. So they do what they do best-they invite him into their home. They live their lives, and as they fix their eyes on Jesus, they are in tune with the people around them. When they see someone with potential, whether it’s Paul or Apollos or others Acts doesn’t tell us about, they welcome them in and see what they can do to equip them for whatever God has called them to do.

You and I can do that, can’t we? We can make ourselves available to God, eyes open for others to whom we can give time and a welcoming friendship.

But I also like in these two verses that we see there is more to Priscilla than just hospitality.

She is wise and discerning. Apollos speaks boldly, he’s educated, he knows Jesus. Priscilla and her husband appreciate this, and they also notice that some things are lacking. He only knows the baptism of John the Baptist. There’s more that this learned man can be taught.

F.F. Bruce writes how this shows another strong character trait:

“Priscilla and Aquila’s procedure was admirable: how much better it is to give such private help to a teacher whose understanding of his subject is deficient than to correct or denounce him publicly!” (NICTNT commentary, p. 356)

Today we might be tempted to tweet or blog about some other teacher’s faults or mistakes; but taking the wider view of helping God’s kingdom might mean learning from Priscilla and using it as a moment to privately correct and equip.

Their approach definitely works! Apollos travels to several places, and Acts says “he was a great help to those who by grace had believed.”

I’ve chosen today so far to not emphasize that Priscilla was a woman who ministered alongside Paul and Apollos, two of the strongest teachers in the early church.

It is noteworthy that Priscilla and Aquila are always mentioned together; they are mentioned together when the bible says they taught Apollos. And uncustomarily, she as the woman is almost always listed first. I love that in Acts, the fact that she is a woman is not something to draw attention to. She just is a follower of Jesus and a fellow minister with Paul, and a teacher of Apollos.

The church in the third century DID notice and draw attention to it. A monk named Ammonius wrote:

“It must be noted that we must believe that women passed on the faith… [Priscilla] explained to him in her teaching the things of faith, and Apollos listened and received them, for while he knew that Jesus was the Christ and the servant of God and concluded so from the Scriptures, his knowledge was imperfect…” (Quoted in Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture-Francis Martin, Ed, p. 231)

Between the two services, I remembered another interesting connection.

For this series, we have been letting Hebrews chapters 11 and 12 give the shape for our cloud of witnesses, reminding us to fix our eyes on Jesus. The book of Hebrews is not attributed to a particular author, and scholars have wondered why.

The Greek used in the book of Hebrews is much more classical and refined than the Greek Paul uses in his letters. Because of that, some have guessed that perhaps Apollos was the author of the Hebrews, since he is known as a trained orator in Acts. But if it was Apollos, why not just name him?

So other scholars have put forth the idea that maybe it was the one who taught Apollos “the way of God more adequately;” maybe it was Priscilla herself who wrote the book of Hebrews. There’s no way to know for sure, but the fact that she was a woman may have inhibited the early church from associating her name with it. It’s fun to think that Priscilla may have given shape to this very series with the way we are using the book of Hebrews.

If I boil it down, what are the main things we can draw from Priscilla’s life?

Priscilla followed Christ in obedience to her path. When she had to survive, she did, working hard and enduring persecution. When she could offer hospitality, she did, helping Paul in his ministry. When she could teach and empower and equip another great teacher, Apollos, she did so. She didn’t copy Paul or Apollos, but fixed her eyes on Jesus to do what was in front of her.

May we do the same!

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