In his Acts 17 address, Paul told the Areopagites that God is calling on all people everywhere to repent. He warned of judgment coming by God’s appointed man, whom he raised from the dead (17:31). But was this a gospel message? It appears not. There is no talk of atonement—no reconciliation—no relationship. Paul doesn’t even name Jesus as the resurrected Lord and Savior. Why did Paul not deliver the gospel? Well, he may have been cut short by the negative outburst of the Areopagites to his mention of resurrection. But beyond that, Paul may have recognized that the people to whom he was speaking, while dutifully listening, were not appropriating the truth for themselves, but rather interested only in finding fault with Paul’s ideas. Even the statement “we will hear you again about this” (17:32b) could have been intended to convey that they still were worried about his possible destructive influence on their culture and society. Evidently Paul did not understand the verse 32 statement to be an invitation to preach. Immediately afterwards (18:1), Paul not only leaves the Areopagus, but he leaves Athens, heading for Corinth.
Although he did not speak of the gospel (good news), Paul did present a witness of Christ. The New Testament tells us to prepare for Christ’s return. There are two aspects—two intended acts—regarding Christ’s second coming. He will come to bring resurrection to those who belong to him, gathering us together to be with him in his renewed creation. He will also come to bring final judgment to all sin and evil. Although spoken of usually separately throughout the New Testament, these two aspects of his coming are shown together in 2 Thessalonians chapter 1. It is the second aspect that Paul brings to this relatively hostile crowd in Athens. It is a message similar to John the Baptist’s in warning people to repent for the kingdom was coming. John the Baptist was forerunner of Christ, preparing the way. Just so does Paul forewarn these Athenians to repent to help prepare for the revelation of the gospel.
Corinth is strategically located at the isthmus between the Peloponnesus (lower part of Greece) and the rest of Achaea (the land south of Macedonia). The Ionian Sea to the west and the Aegean to the east are separated by the approximately 4 mile width of isthmus. So this city was important to the trade routes north-south by land, but even more so, east-west by sea. The city was large—5 times the size of Athens. It was also the capital of the province.
Paul came to Corinth and stayed with some Jews turned Christians, Priscilla and Aquila. This couple is always mentioned in Scripture together, signifying the important role of Priscilla to their activity. (Normally a wife is not mentioned that often because of the society’s limited consideration of and opportunity for women in prominent service.) But not only is Priscilla mentioned, she is listed first the vast majority of times, indicating that either she is of higher social standing than Aquila (less likely because of Luke’s lack of social prejudice) or that she has greater prominence in the church.
Paul works with them as a tentmaker. But why must Paul work? In both 1 Corinthians 9:3-15 and 1 Timothy 5:17-18, Paul makes it abundantly clear that pastors and teachers ought to be paid for their services of instruction and support. Yet Paul does not demand remuneration, but rather works a trade in order to pay expenses. We find that 1 Corinthians 9:18 holds a clue. Paul wants the people of Corinth—people of a region dominated by orators who expounded their philosophy for a price—to understand that the gospel is free of charge. Paul does not want them to think he is merely peddling philosophy to make a living. He is compelled by God to present them with the words of life.
But it is not that Paul will not accept a gift. Paul understands clearly the difference between merited pay and benevolent gift. He discusses the difference in regard to faith and works in Romans 4. But we find in Philippians 4:16 that he readily accepted a gift for his needs. And it appears, even in Corinth, that Paul receives a gift. In verse 5 Luke tells us that when Silas and Timothy arrived, Paul could then be fully engaged in ministry of the word. Apparently they brought a gift so that Paul would not have to spend as much time tentmaking.
Verses 6 and 7 of chapter 18 present Paul, for the second time in Acts, announcing to the Jews that he is turning away from reasoning with them to concentrate on the Gentiles. Paul had been showing the fulfillment of the old covenant in Christ to the gathered members of the synagogue each Sabbath. But at the point of verse 6 we find that the Jews, just as in most of the other cities, have had enough of Paul. They oppose and revile him. And Paul shakes the dust from his clothes, symbolically indicating the end of his efforts with them. Paul did the same sort of thing in Acts 13:45-46, being fed up with the Antiochan Jews contradicting and reviling. What does this action mean for us? Should we, at times, do the same with those to whom we witness? When is it appropriate to do as Paul and say, “Enough! I am no longer going to present the gospel to you”? Clearly, Paul made no hasty decision. In all cases, Paul has presented his message in weeks of Sabbath teachings. It appears that Paul fully explains the way of the Lord so that he is confident that they understand. Only then—after they understand, after they reject, after they oppose and revile (translated from the Greek word for blaspheme—meaning that they rail at and reproach Paul for his view)—only then does Paul finally say, “Enough!” We must take the same amount of care to ensure that those to whom we witness are not blinded by some obstacle of Christian caricature in the foolish or kooky element prevalent in today’s society. We must ensure that they understand true Christianity. Then upon their demonstration of a rejecting AND reviling attitude, we may (and must as commanded by Christ—Matthew 7:6) take the gospel elsewhere.
Verse 7 tells us that Paul “left there.” Some people confuse this in understanding that Paul left the home of Priscilla and Aquila to live with Titius Justus, but that is not the case. Paul leaves the synagogue—ends his teaching there. He goes to the house of a believer, Titius Justus, that is located next to the synagogue to continue preaching, inviting Gentiles to turn to Christ. This is the establishment of a church in Corinth. Churches began in the larger homes of believers who could house many that would come to hear and discuss the gospel.
We have seen a pattern in Paul’s ministry in the various cities he has visited. He begins by going to the synagogue to show Christ’s fulfillment of the covenant. Usually some Jews and some Gentiles believe. Other Jews become jealous or zealous for the old covenant, especially with regard to the Gentiles not being required any longer to submit themselves to the rigors of the Law to have relationship with God. These Jews, then, either attack or threaten to attack Paul. And Paul responds by leaving the city.
We have a similar pattern evolving here in Corinth. Paul preached in the synagogue (18:4). Some Jews and Gentiles believed (18:8). Other Jews became jealous/zealous for the old covenant (18:6). But this time, before any attack or threat of attack occurs, the Lord appears in a vision to Paul to let him know that this time, he is not to follow the pattern. The Lord tells Paul that he does not need to be afraid because he will be protected. Wait a second. We’re talking about Paul here. Isn’t Paul a charge-ahead guy, never fearing any beatings, torture, persecution, stonings…. Perhaps we don’t necessarily have the right picture of Paul in our minds. He certainly did stand firmly for Christ. He certainly did present the gospel everywhere he went. But that does not mean that he was free from the same fears that can lay hold of most of us. In fact, in 1 Corinthians 2:3 he tells us that there in Corinth he was with them “in weakness and in fear and much trembling.” The Lord’s assurance in the vision was something that Paul needed. But fearful or reassured, Paul stayed his course for his service for God. The Lord wanted him to remain in Corinth until he completed an extensive work in proclaiming the gospel. And we find that as a result of this vision, Paul remained in Corinth for a year and a half, much longer than other cities so far.
But the persecution did come. Verses 12 through 17 relate how the Jews dragged Paul before the proconsul Gallio (brother of the Stoic philosopher/dramatist Seneca) with charges of illegal worshipping of God. Gallio did not necessarily dislike Jews any more than any other group of foreigners. But he was concerned primarily with Greek society and civil control. Rome did recognize the religion of the Jews as an official state-sanctioned religion. But when the Jews began arguing that Paul was promoting Jesus within their Jewish religion, Gallio was less than impressed. Adjudicating the finer points of this foreign (albeit sanctioned) religion was more than that with which he wanted to involve himself. Before Paul even needs to defend himself, Gallio tells them he will not hear their case. The Jews probably respond with protests, and Gallio has to order them driven from the tribunal (18:16).
Earlier in the chapter, we learned that Crispus, the synagogue ruler, had converted to Christianity. He, no doubt, accompanied Paul to Titius Justus’s house when Paul turned away from the synagogue. The Jews promoted another high-ranking Jew named Sosthenes to the position of synagogue ruler. But apparently Sosthenes also had become more sympathetic to Paul and his message. He probably tried to dissuade the Jews from taking Paul before the tribunal. After Gallio dismissed the case, Sosthenes probably urged the protesting Jews to leave. This resulted in the Jews beating Sosthenes in full view of the tribunal. The motivation for beating Sosthenes was not only that he was now sympathetic to Paul; the Jews probably hoped that Gallio would interfere in the beating so that they could further press him with their charge against Paul since he had involved himself in their dealings. But it was not to happen. Gallio “paid no attention to any of this” (18:17). Sosthenes, it appears, continued after this with Paul, as is evidenced by the opening of 1 Corinthians. Verse 1 of chapter 1 reads: “Paul, called by the will of God to be an apostle of Christ Jesus, and our brother Sosthenes…”
At first read, verses 18 through 23 appear to be miscellaneous facts that Luke tosses in as he hurriedly shifts scenes. However, these events actually give much support to not only what happened but to what Luke’s intended message is. After the Gallio incident, Paul remained in Corinth for many days. When he does leave, he takes with him Silas, Timothy, Priscilla and Aquila, and apparently some others intending to help him in his mission efforts. They travel from Corinth by land only a couple miles to Cenchreae, which is actually the eastern-Aegean Sea port for Corinth. Luke mentions that Paul cuts his hair because of a vow. (We will get back to that shortly.)
They sail from Cenchreae across the Aegean to Ephesus. In verse 19 Luke tells us that after they came to Ephesus, Paul leaves his accompanying missionaries there while he departs. This is a little confusing because the next verse tells us that he goes to the synagogue. What Luke is saying is that Paul is in a hurry. When they arrive at Ephesus, Paul does first go to the synagogue, but his intention is to leave very soon. That is why when they ask him to stay in verse 20, he declines. He promises he’ll come back to them if God wills.
The next couple of verses trace Paul’s route. He sailed from Ephesus to Caesarea, and then he “went up” to Jerusalem to greet the church there. Following that he travels “down” or north to Antioch. (This completes the second missionary trip.) After spending some time there he heads out again to Galatia and Phrygia, intending to traverse Asia Minor on foot in a course set for Ephesus.
The question obviously arises as to why Paul does this. Why does he refuse to stay in Ephesus when asked? Why does he seem intent on getting back to Syria (the whole region from the actual country of Syria in the north, through the land governed by the Roman governor in Syria which included Palestine)? The answer, I believe, involves Paul’s vow mentioned in 18:18.
Pagan vows usually began with cutting the hair at the start of the vow, allowing the hair to go uncut during the vow, and then another cut at the end of the vow. However, this is not the pattern outlined in Numbers 6 concerning Nazarite (separation) vows. Numbers 6 does not include a cut of hair at the beginning of the vow. The vow, once made, simply includes not cutting the hair. It is only at the end of the vow that the hair is cut (Number 6:5, 18). Cutting his hair in Cenchreae, therefore, indicated the end of Paul’s vow. Luke does not tell us what the vow was about. But because of what Luke does tell us—the Lord’s insistence that Paul remain in Corinth until the gospel was proclaimed in sufficiency, the beating of Sosthenes while Paul continues with assurance of protection from harm, and the fact that Paul decides in Acts 18:18 it is time to leave Corinth—we may perhaps associate the vow with Paul’s desire to finish his work in Corinth as expeditiously as possible. The end of Paul’s vow coincides with his leaving Corinth.
Notice that in Numbers 6:18 the one who vowed presents his cut hair at the tent of meeting (the temple) at the conclusion of his vow. This gives reason as to why Paul declined the requests to remain in Ephesus. He was intent on returning to Jerusalem to satisfy the ceremonial conclusion to his vow. So Paul leaves Ephesus, instructing those with him to remain there, and returns to Jerusalem and Antioch before setting out across Asia to meet his co-workers again in Ephesus.