Wanted: Preachers with burning enthusiasm

The other morning I was reading from Acts 18 and was struck again by Luke’s comment that Apollos “spoke with burning enthusiasm” (Acts 18.25 NRSV). So I thought I would do a word study. The Greek Lexicon edited by Arndt & Gingrich translates “with burning zeal”. Other English versions offer slightly different translations: “with great enthusiasm” (GNB); “with burning zeal” (JB Phillips); “with great spiritual earnestness” (Jerusalem Bible); “fiery in his enthusiasm” (The Message), “with great fervour” (NIV); “with fervour in the Spirit” (NIV note); or “with spiritual fervour” (REB).

The underlying Greek phrase literally means ‘boiling’ or ‘seething’ in the ‘spirit’ (zeon to pneumati). The question arises: is Luke referring to Apollos ‘boiling over in his own spirit’ and so being ‘zealous’ as he taught others about Jesus? Or is there a direct reference to the Holy Spirit?

The commentator Ben Witherington III has no doubt that Luke has in mind the Holy Spirit. He draws attention to a very similar expression in Rom 12.11 where Paul, in his list of what the NRSV describes as ‘marks of the true Christian’, writes: “do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit (to pneumati zeontes), serve the Lord”. Witherington is convinced that the expression in Rom 12.11 “seems clearly to be the Holy Spirit”, but the English versions offer different translations: “with a heart full of devotion” (GNB); “with great earnestness of spirit” (Jerusalem Bible); “keep yourselves fuelled and aflame” (The Message); “keep your spiritual fervour” (NIV); “let us keep the fires of the spirit still glowing” JB Phillips); or “aglow with the Spirit” (REB).

My own feeling is that the reference here in Romans is indeed to the Holy Spirit. In his great commentary on Romans C.E.B. Cranfield wrote: “The Christian is to allow himself to be set on fire by the Holy Spirit”. He went on: “The real proof of the presence of this fire of the Spirit would not be effervescent religious excitement but renewed energy and determination in the humble and obedient service of the Lord Jesus”. Certainly if Paul’s words to Timothy in 2 Tim 2.6 are allowed to be a guide – and I am aware of authorship issues – then his exhortation “to rekindle the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of hands; for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline” (NRSV) also seems to be a pointer to the Holy Spirit.

So to return to Acts 18.25, how then should we describe Apollos’ teaching? I think that the NRSV, along with the GNB and The Message, are right to speak of “enthusiasm” – particularly when we bear in mind that our English word ‘enthusiasm’ is derived from two Greek words: the word en (in) and the word theos (God). On this basis ‘enthusiasm’ is ‘God-driven fervour’. So Norman Vincent Peale, with whom I confess I often have severe reservations, wrote in a Guideposts blog post: “Enthusiasm literally means, in its root concept, ‘full of God’. Maybe that’s why enthusiastic people are so often creative and joyful!”

Precisely because its roots are in God, enthusiasm is very different from excitement. Excitement comes from without and is the result of stimulation from the ‘outside’ – indeed, the word ‘excitement’ begins with ‘ex’ which is derived from a Greek preposition (ek) meaning ‘outside’. Enthusiasm is also different from emotionalism, which involves people being driven by their feelings rather than by God.

Sadly enthusiasm has never had the best of presses in Britain. It has often been equated with fanaticism. In the 19th century Benjamin Disraeli once counselled Queen Victoria against appointing Bishop Tait as Archbishop of Canterbury, for, he said, “There is in his idiosyncracy a strange fund of enthusiasm, a quality which ought never to be possessed by an Archbishop of Canterbury or a Prime Minister of England”. A century or more before, the respected Baptist statesman John Ryland said to William Carey at a ministers’ fraternal: “Sit down, young man, you’re an enthusiast! If God wishes to convert the heathen he’ll do so without your aid or mine”. Yet in fact it was precisely the enthusiasm – the God-given drive – of a young man like Carey that was needed to begin the modern missionary movement.

Enthusiasm is a quality to be desired. Morris West in his novel The Shoes of the Fisherman has the cardinals ask the newly elected pope, “Quid vobis videtis – What do you want?” The pope replied: “Find me men with fire in their hearts and wings on their feet”. John Perry, a former Bishop of Chelmsford, commented: “What astute insight! In his search for leaders in his Church, God is always on the look-out for people who have the fire of the Spirit in their hearts and the wings of obedience on their feet”. Or with Apollos in mind, would that every preacher was characterized by “burning enthusiasm”!

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