The journey continues – Corinth, Ephesus and back to Antioch.
We continue on Paul’s second missionary journey. A journey that took Paul and his companions back through Turkey and with God’s prompting across the Agean sea to Macedonia
where the gospel was preached in Philippi, Thessalonica, Berea and Athens.
This was a tough schedule and whilst there were notable successes I find it striking that wherever the gospel was preached there was organised rejection and opposition. Often this opposition sadly came from the Jews , these people were the chosen people, they had centuries of experience of God’s leading and provision and now town after town, synagogue after synagogue we see rejection and fierce opposition. It should not surprise us that this persistent and continued opposition should elicit some sort of response from God – I think we see more than a few hints of the changing landscape for the Jews in chapter 18 – but more of that later. But what of the church? In spite of opposition, the gospel was not only spreading but was taking root, churches were being formed and a network of believers was beginning to take shape - even in the most unlikely of places such as Corinth: a city with an ‘anything goes’ reputation. We have noted how Paul preached the gospel in recent chapters of Acts – he explained, he reasoned, he proved, he convinced – the response was mainly dependent on the attitude of the hearer but interestingly the response is in part conditioned by the quality of the presentation – something for us to ponder on. We will consider chapter 18 in three parts:.
- Paul’s vow
Corinth was just 50 miles down the road from Athens. If Athens was known for learning and culture, Corinth was known for commerce and the worship of the goddess of love, Aphrodite. The city had a reputation for immorality. Whilst in Corinth, Paul met a couple who would be of great encouragement and help to him; Aquila and Priscilla. They were Jews but Corinth was not their home town, they had been residents of Rome, but Claudius the emperor had ordered the deportation of all Jews out of Rome. We now know that in AD 70 (less than 20 years after the events of chapter 18) God would use the Romans to bring judgment on the Jews for their persistent rejection of the Messiah. Perhaps the actions of Claudius were the first rumblings of this storm that would bring devastation to this disobedient people.
Paul was no sponger! He accepted material gifts to enable his work in preaching the gospel to continue, but he had no problem at all in paying his own way and working to earn money. He was a tentmaker and interestingly so were Aquila and Priscilla. Perhaps Paul met the couple as a result of their shared interest in tent-making. They worked together. I think this is a rather good mode; Paul lived in the real world, he knew what it was to work and earn his keep, he knew the stresses and worries of everyday folk. Whilst there does not appear to be specific directions in the New Testament on how church leaders should operate, we have here one example of an effective model.
As had become his practice, Paul headed for the synagogue on the Sabbath days and once again reasoned with and persuaded the Jews and Gentiles who gathered there. Note again the method – reasoning and persuading – the gospel is not just to be chucked out with a hope and a prayer! There is to be engagement, argument (in the positive sense of that word) and persuasion. I recall hearing that CS Lewis said that he had to be dragged screaming and kicking into the kingdom – he didn’t really want to give his life to God, but the power of the evidence forced him to the point where he could no longer remain an unbeliever! Someone had to present the gospel to him and persuade him – just as Paul had done in Corinth and just as we should be doing in East Grinstead.
Soon enough Paul’s companions Silas and Timothy arrived from Macedonia and this enabled Paul to spend 100% of his time preaching that Jesus was the Messiah.
The response of the Jews to Paul’s preaching no longer surprises us: they opposed Paul and became abusive. Paul’s reaction is perhaps more surprising and of note, perhaps marking an important milestone in the progression of Jewish rejection: he said ‘Your blood be on your own heads! I am innocent of it. From now on I will go to the Gentiles.’ We have noted previously that Acts is a bit like a motorway junction, it is a point of intersection and we do well to both be aware of this and to attempt to dissect out the different emphases on the Jews and Gentiles, Israel and the church. Paul no longer entered the synagogue, but instead he visited the house of Crispus (verse 7), who had become a believer – Crispus was the synagogue leader, and given that a different synagogue leader is named just a few verses on from verse 7 we can assume with some confidence that Crispus resigned from his position in the synagogue. It seemed sadly that it was necessary to separate from the Jews if one was to become a believer.
We should not underestimate the physical and mental strain that was on Paul at this time. From time to time we have to deal with disputes and such like, but the fierce opposition and constant pressure Paul was under would have been immense – this was no ordinary opposition, there seems little doubt that there was spiritual warfare going on and Paul was on the front line of this intense struggle. He needed sustenance and encouragement - one can imagine the great comfort he derived from supportive Christian friends, but God had a special and particular encouragement for him via a vision: ‘Do not be afraid; keep on speaking, do not be silent. For I am with you, and no one is going to attack and harm you, because I have many people in this city’. What a great encouragement at a difficult time! Perhaps this reminds you of Elijah when in an exhausted state of mind and body God spoke to him words of encouragement. We too should be encouraged by this – God is on our side! Strengthened by these words Paul stayed on in Corinth for 18 months teaching the word of God.
Once again Paul came under attack by the Jews. The Jews appealed to the Roman proconsul, Gallio - the charge was not unfamiliar – ‘this man is persuading the people to worship God in ways contrary to the law’. Will we one day be accused of something similar in the UK? it seems so. Interestingly Gallio refused to get involved, taking the view that this was an internal matter for the Jews to sort out. What happens next is of some importance, the newly appointed leader of the synagogue, Sothsenes was set upon by the locals. Gallio did nothing to protect Sosthenes. Could this again be a sign that the Jews were out of favour in the Roman world – more rumblings of the storm of judgment to come upon the Jews? Before we leave this section we should note that Sosthenes almost certainly became a believer at some stage (see 1 Corinthians 1).
- Paul’s vow
Having stayed for a good while in Corinth it was time for Paul to move on. Silas and Timothy remained in Corinth to continue to build the church – but Paul set sail from the nearby port of Cenchrea with his ultimate destination as Antioch. Before he sailed, he took this rather strange vow which involved having his hair cut off. Luke the writer of Acts gives us little detail of the purpose of the vow, but we can make some educated guesses as to what may have been going on. The idea of making a vow and marking it by some physical sign was not unknown in Jewish culture, the Nazirite vow (see Numbers 6:1-21) involved abstinence from wine and letting the hair grow. Its purpose was a ‘vow of separation to the Lord’. It seems that Paul likely had a similar intention of ‘taking time out with God’. It was about this time that Paul wrote the epistles to the Thessalonians – perhaps this taking time out with God was associated with these letters – the letters themselves contain dramatic new revelation about the end times and mark a significant milestone in the journey of Acts. The big story told by Luke in Acts emphasises the impact of the gospel on Israel and the Jews at the start, and progresses to emphasise the church which takes more prominence as the story line in Acts progresses. You may recall at the start of Acts that on the day of Pentecost Peter very deliberately associated the coming of the Holy Spirit to the prophecy of Joel, a prophecy that spoke of the end times and specifically of the Day of the Lord. The day of the Lord is all about the future for Israel, and the day itself begins with the night-period of judgment followed by a day-period of blessing as the Messiah sets up his kingdom. This is Israel’s future and the Old Testament is filled with this idea – it is the hope of the coming Messiah. Paul taught in Thessalonians of a future for the church which is rather different. We in the church are not to look towards a day of judgment and blessing for the world but rather we are to look forward to a point of rescue from the world. Paul says in Thessalonians that we are to look for a day when we will be caught up to meet the Lord in the air – we are not appointed to the day of wrath (the night-period of the Day of the Lord), but rescue from that wrath and benefits of being in the presence of the Lord. This is new revelation and is all wrapped up in the great transition of Acts – a focus that turns from the Jews to the church.
Exactly what Paul did with his hair is a subject of some debate – did he cut it at the end of the vow (the Nazirite vow involved not cutting the hair and presumably was ended when the hair was cut) or did he cut it in preparation for a period of not cutting his hair or was the vow itself about cutting his hair short? It’s not absolutely clear, but this is fine detail that matters little to what is clear which is that he did take a vow!
It was time to set sail – Paul headed for Ephesus in the company of his fellow tent-makers, Aquila and Priscilla. In Ephesus Paul headed for the synagogue and once again reasoned with the Jews. Paul was in a hurry to get to Jerusalem and declined the invitation to stay on in Ephesus, but promised to return if it was in God’s will. Paul once again left trustworthy believers behind, this time Aquila and Priscilla stayed on to continue the work amongst the people of Ephesus, just as Timothy and Silas stayed on at Corinth. Meanwhile, Paul headed back home, he visited Jerusalem and his ‘home church’ in Antioch. Paul never seemed to stay still for long - before long he was back on the road in Turkey strengthening the believers in that region.
Chapter 18 concludes by taking us back to Ephesus. We are introduced to Apollos – he was well educated, from Alexandria (in Egypt) and not only knew the Old Testament scriptures well, he was a believer – he taught about the ‘way of the Lord’ and ‘taught about Jesus accurately’, he was a Hellenistic Jew. But the rapidly changing situation at this time had left Apollos out of date and out of step with what was going on - he ‘knew only the baptism of John’. Luke does not fully elaborate what this meant, but we learn a bit more about a similar situation in chapter 19 (more of that next time). What we can say is the following: 1). The baptism of John involved Jews repenting and making themselves ready for the Messiah 2). The outward process was baptism with water 3). The New covenant (internal change, with a new heart and the indwelling Holy Spirit) was not associated with this baptism 4). John said that his baptism was only with water, but Jesus would baptise with the Holy Spirit and with fire. This baptism with the Holy Spirit came after Jesus had returned to heaven – we studied the day that this started in Acts chapter 2. We might therefore conclude that Apollos had somehow missed the start of this new period characterised by baptism with the Spirit rather than John’s baptism with water which was not about internal change but about preparation and readiness for the coming of the Messiah. This incident with Apollos should not surprise us at all as Acts is telling us a story of the development of church and the change of emphasis as God’s attention is turned away from the Jews.
So, here’s this highly effective preacher doing a great work in Ephesus but he has only an incomplete picture of what God is doing – what to do? Priscilla and Aquila kindly invited Apollos to their home and ‘explained to him the way of God more adequately’. What a great way to deal with something that could have caused friction and difficulty – Priscilla and Aquila could have challenged him publically or could have turned against him as a potentially dangerous influence on the church, but they acted in love, with tact and good sense.
Apollos wanted to go to Achaia and was encouraged in his work by the Christians at Ephesus. Apollos did go to Achaia and was a great help to those who had believed.
Thus Acts 18 plots the continued progress of the church and the progression of Jewish rejection.