A Commentary by John Stott
Acts 18:18b-28. Paul in transit.
Luke now follows Paul from Corinth to Ephesus, Caesarea, Jerusalem, Antioch and back through Galatia to Ephesus again. His narrative is very condensed, either because his information was limited (he was himself still in Philippi) or because his purpose was to get Paul from Achaia to Asia (where he had previously been forbidden by the Spirit to preach, 16:6), from his two years in Corinth to his three years in Ephesus, without dwelling on his intervening months of travel.
a). Paul visits Ephesus, Jerusalem and Antioch (18:18-23).
Some time after Gallio’s refusal to take cognizance of the Jewish charge against the apostle, Paul *left the brothers and sailed for Syria* (18a), presumably intending to report back to the church of Syrian Antioch which had sent him out (13:1ff; 14:26ff.; 15:35ff.), and was *accompanied by Priscilla and Aquila*, who may well have financed his trip. Luke now adds the interesting detail that *before he sailed, he had his hair cut off at Cenchrea*, Corinth’s eastern port, *because of a vow he had taken* (18b). Commentators have been perplexed regarding who made this vow, what it was, when it was taken and why. As for the person concerned, although the grammar permits it to be Aquila, the context requires that it was Paul. The reference to his hair makes it almost certain that it was a Nazirite vow (Nu.6:1ff.), which involved abstinence from drinking wine and from cutting one’s hair for a period, at the end of which the hair was first cut and then burned, along with other sacrifices, as a symbol of self-offering to God. If the vow was completed away from Jerusalem, the hair could still be brought there to be burned. Such vows were made ‘either in thankfulness for past blessings (such as Paul’s safekeeping in Corinth) or as part of a petition for future blessings (such as safekeeping on Paul’s impending journey)’. Once Paul had been liberated from the attempt to be justified by the law, his conscience was free to take part in practices which, being ceremonial or cultural, belonged to the ‘matters indifferent’, perhaps on this occasion in order to conciliate the Jewish Christian leaders he was going to see in Jerusalem (cf. 21:23ff., relating to his subsequent visit).
*They arrived in Ephesus, where Paul left Priscilla and Aquila. He himself went into the synagogue and reasoned with the Jews* (19). His mission was so much more acceptable to the Jews in Ephesus than in Corinth (did this have anything to do with his shaven head?) that they wanted him to stay. But *when they asked him to spend more time with them he declined* (20), adding (according to the western text), ‘I must at all costs keep the coming festival in Jerusalem’, which Ramsay declared ‘may be confidently understood as the Passover’. Whatever the reason for Paul’s haste, *as he left, he promised to return, saying: ‘I will come back if it is God’ will.’ Then he set sail from Ephesus* (21).
*When he landed at Caesarea*, Palestine’s chief port, *he went up and greeted the church and then went down to Antioch* (22). The church which he greeted on disembarkation was almost certainly not that of Caesarea, but of Jerusalem, about sixty-five miles inland, for ‘the terms “going up” and “going down” are used so frequently of the journey to and from Jerusalem as to establish this usage’.
*After spending some time in Antioch*, probably from the early summer of AD 52 to the early spring of 53, and having doubtless given its church a full account of his second missionary expedition, *Paul set out from there* on what proved to be his third and last. He will have gone first in a northerly direction, then west through the Cilician Gates, over the Taurus range, *and travelled from place to place throughout the region of Galatia and Phrygia, strengthening all the disciples* (23). This must mean that he revisited the churches of Pisidian Antioch, Iconium, Lystra and Derbe, which he had established during his first missionary journey (chapters 13 and 14) and consolidated during his second (16:6).
Tomorrow: Acts 18:24-28. Apollos visits Ephesus.
The John Stott Bible Study is taken from The Message of Acts. The Bible Speaks Today John Stott. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press UK, Nottingham. All rights reserved.