We’re continuing in our study Unstoppable in the Book of Acts. In chapter 18 Paul arrived in Corinth in a state of fear and trembling, but God had placed two disciples waiting for him there—Aquila and Priscilla. They started working. At some point, the Lord Jesus came and told Paul: “Do not be afraid; keep on speaking, do not be silent, and no one is going to attack and harm you, because I have many people in this city.” So Paul stayed a year and a half. Then there was a legal challenge to his ministry, but Governor Gallio ruled in Paul’s favor before the apostle even had to speak in his own defense. Afterward, Paul settled down and stayed in Corinth, it says, for some time. Today I want to look at the last half of Acts 18, to the final days of Paul’s ministry there.
In this passage there are two spiritual habits I want to learn to practice more effectively, and which I want to recommend to you. Neither of them is at the very heart of the passage we’ll study, but they both show up. I’m certain that these two habits represent two powerful ways to grow more powerful in our Christian life and influence.
Let’s begin in Acts 18:18: Paul stayed on in Corinth for some time.
This is, by the way, where and when he wrote 1 and 2 Thessalonians.
Then he left the brothers and sisters and sailed for Syria, accompanied by Priscilla and Aquila. Before he sailed, he had his hair cut off at Cenchreae (sin’-kre-a) because of a vow he had taken.
Cenchrea was the eastern port for Corinth, and the remains of the ancient harbor are still visible. In Paul’s day this was a harbor town serving Corinth, and evidently a church had been started there, probably as an outgrowth of Paul’s year-and-a-half of ministry. In Romans 16, Paul wrote, “I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon in the church of Cenchrea. I ask you to receive her in the Lord in a way worthy of his people and to give her any help she may need from you, for she has been the benefactor of many people, including me.”
So Paul left Corinth and went four or five miles down to this harbor town and visited with the disciples there, including Phoebe. We have two very strong Christian women who are leaders in this passage—Priscilla and Phoebe. I’m sure he was glad to get out of Corinth and back on the road. But he stoped here, after leaving Corinth, and he got a haircut.
Scholars don’t know exactly what this was about, but many people believe Paul had made a vow to God. If it was in the form of a Nazarite vow, he would have abstained from alcohol during its duration, and from cutting his hair, and he would have gone out of his way to avoid touching a dead body.
This comes from Numbers 6:
6 The Lord said to Moses, 2 “Speak to the Israelites and say to them: ‘If a man or woman wants to make a special vow, a vow of dedication to the Lord as a Nazirite, 3 they must abstain from wine and other fermented drink and must not drink vinegar made from wine or other fermented drink. They must not drink grape juice or eat grapes or raisins. 4 As long as they remain under their Nazirite vow, they must not eat anything that comes from the grapevine, not even the seeds or skins. 5 During the entire period of their Nazirite vow, no razor may be used on their head. They must be holy until the period of their dedication to the Lord is over; they must let their hair grow long.”
And it goes on to say they must not touch a dead body.
So here is a possible scenario. As I said in an earlier podcast, Paul entered Corinth in a state of psychological exhaustion. His second missionary journey was his most brutal, with riots and floggings and stocks and physical and mental trauma. He entered Corinth, he said, in much weakness and with fear and trembling. He was likely suffering from what we call post-traumatic stress disorder. But Jesus came to him in a vision and said, “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.”
Perhaps in response to that, Paul made a vow to God. We might say he rededicated himself to the Lord and renewed his zeal to serve God on the basis of that vision. He might have gone back to Numbers 6 and taken a Nazarite vow for the duration of his time in Corinth. He would have abstained from alcohol, let his hair grow long, and avoided touching a dead body. It would have been a typically Jewish act of rededication. It would have expressed his renewed commitment to serve the Lord without letup.
Having left Corinth, the terms of his vow were now over, and so he got a haircut and perhaps had a glass of wine, although the text doesn’t say the latter.
Now, if you read further in Numbers 6, you’ll find that those who take the Nazirite vow are to take their cut-off hair to the temple where it would be burned on the altar, signifying the sacredness of their vow and its successful completion. So Paul would have had his locks tucked away in a little pouch because he was getting ready to head to Jerusalem.
Let’s think about this. The first Pauline habit we can experiment with:
Deepen Your Christian Faith with Vows
When I was a student at Columbia International University, we had periodic prayer days when classes were suspended. We had extra time to devote to a special Bible study, we had times of prayer with others, and we had extra time for personal prayer. Sometimes we fasted for the day. We said, “Lord, I am going to dedicate this day to you from sunup until sundown.” I kept up that habit for many years, but it’s fallen away.
I need to resurrect it and say, “Lord, I promise to find a day next month and set it aside for special prayer, study, rest, meditation, and worship.”
Or, Lord, I’m going to fast on this particular day. Now, fasting can be done in any way you want. You can totally go without food for a day, drinking only water or juice. You can lower your calories for the day. You can go for a week without lunch. You can cut something out of your diet. The whole purpose is to practice a bit of self-denial, using the extra time for prayer. There’s a current fad in dietary circles called intermittent fasting. People everywhere are doing this for health reasons, but perhaps we can also do it for spiritual reasons.
Some Christians give up something for Lent each year. That’s a similar idea interwoven into the calendar.
Our it could be something as simple as saying, “Lord, I vow to you I’m going to skip my $5 cup of coffee every day this week and give that money to missions.
Or, Lord, I’m going to give up television in the evenings this week and listen to Bible study podcasts instead.
Or Lord, I promise I’ll keep a gratitude list every day this coming month. Or I promise to read my Bible every morning this week before breakfast. No Bible, no breakfast.
Or Lord, I commit myself to memorize The Lord’s Prayer this month, whatever it takes.
I confess I’ve not done as well with short term spiritual vows as I should. I haven’t thought about it recently until I came to this passage. But perhaps there should be periods in our lives where we set aside a little season of time for self-denial or spiritual service or accelerated growth.
As I prepared this Bible study, I looked at my calendar and marked off a day of fasting for later in the fall.
Paul made a temporary Nazirite vow, in which he abstained from wine, let his hair grow, and avoided touching a dead body. He sustained during his days in Corinth; and as soon as he left the city limits, he was ready for a haircut.
At Cenchreae (sin’-kre-a), Paul booked passage on a boat cross the Aegean Sea, west to east, to the great city of Ephesus. During his ministry, Paul started many churches, but the two most prominent ones were across the Aegean from each other—in Corinth, the doorway to Europe, and in Ephesus, the doorway to Asia. But Paul was wanting to get to Jerusalem, and he didn’t take time to evangelize Ephesus yet. This was the end of his second missionary tour, and he would tackle the task of establishing a church in Ephesus during his third tour. But he did take some advance work: He left an advance team and he sowed some early Gospel seed.
19 They arrived at Ephesus, where Paul left Priscilla and Aquila. He himself went into the synagogue and reasoned with the Jews. 20 When they asked him to spend more time with them, he declined. 21 But as he left, he promised, “I will come back if it is God’s will.” Then he set sail from Ephesus. 22 When he landed at Caesarea, he went up to Jerusalem and greeted the church and then went down to Antioch.
That is the end of Paul’s second missionary tour. Why the person who divided the New Testament into chapters didn’t put a chapter division here is a mystery to me. You have to look closely to see the transition between Paul’s second journey and his third one.
I’ve drawn a line between verse 22 and verse 23 so I can see clearly when Paul began his third missionary tour. It’s here in verse 23—Acts 18:23:
23 After spending some time in Antioch, Paul set out from there and traveled from place to place throughout the region of Galatia and Phrygia, strengthening all the disciples.
This is where a map of Paul’s journeys is helpful. This is an overland trip. It’s all by foot or perhaps by mule or horse. He traveled all across modern day Turkey, east to west, visiting churches along the route, which he had already established, especially in the region of Galatia.
This would have been a very long trip, but meanwhile Luke takes us back to Ephesus where something interesting is happening in Paul’s absence.
24 Meanwhile a Jew named Apollos, a native of Alexandria, came to Ephesus.
This man arrived in Ephesus from Alexandria, Egypt. He was a native of Alexandria, so he was a North African Jew. Alexandria was a great center of Jewish learning and scholarship. Alexandria was the largest city on earth, with the exception of Rome. We believe the population of Alexandria in the first century was no less than a million. It was full of palaces and public buildings, interlaced with parks and recreational areas, and wide boulevards. The royal palace where Julius Caesar first met Cleopatra occupied a wide section on the waterfront, and the famous lighthouse, which stood hundreds of feet tall. It was one of the wonders of the ancient world.
Alexandria was a university city, and it was here that the Septuagint translation took place, rendering the Old Testament from Hebrew into Greek. The Septuagint was produced in the inter-testamental period, between the end of the Old Testament and the birth of Christ. A very strong and academically rigorous Jewish community had developed in Alexandria.
It really wasn’t that far from Jerusalem, especially by sea, and so it became a magnet to the Jews of the diaspora.
Well, hold that thought in mind and let me tell you something else that becomes very important to us here in Acts 18. Most of us have underestimated the influence of the John the Baptist movement.
Please think about this. Since Malachi, there had not been an inspired prophet in Israel. And since Elijah and Elisha, there had not been a prophet who was rough and unorthodox and fiery and a little on the wild side. The Jews were starving for a sensational figure who would represent the renewal of God’s voice to them. And when John the Baptist appeared in the desert of Judea alongside the Jordan River, it was the most exciting thing that had happened, religiously, in centuries. The word spread like wildfire all over the Jewish world. People came from Alexandria, Europe, Asia, and all over the Middle East to listen to this man, who was like George Whitefield, D.L. Moody, and Billy Graham combined. People thought he was Elijah himself come back from heaven to earth.
In contrast, the actual earthly ministry of Jesus was less sensational. It was mainly confined to a small area within Israel—to the rural areas of Galilee. During his lifetime, Jesus did not cause the international stir produced by John the Baptist. And when John the Baptist was decapitated, he became a martyr, strengthening his influence.
John’s message had been one of repentance: “You need to turn from your sins. You need to turn back to God. And if you want to make your decision public, then use the Jewish custom of submerging yourself in water—baptism—to represent your willingness to cleanse your life from whatever habits are defiling you. If you do that, you will hasten the coming of the Messiah.”
The disciples of John the Baptist took this message all over the Roman world. Among Jews everywhere there were John the Baptist movements. These Baptist disciples knew the message of repentance and the ensuing promise of a Messiah, but the full message of Jesus had not yet reached them.
Now, let’s go on to verse 24: This man from Alexandria, Apollos, was a learned man, with a thorough knowledge of the Scriptures.
That is, of the Old Testament. He was a brilliant Jewish rabbi with a powerful grasp of the Law and the poetical books and the prophetic books of the Old Testament. He was like a modern-day Ezra. He had apparently left Alexandria to be a John-the-Baptist evangelist. He wanted to preach repentance to Jews everywhere, as John had done by the Jordan River. He was a powerful voice for the message of repentance among the Jews. He was taking John’s message abroad: Prepare ye the way for the Lord!
25 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 knew that John taught repentance, and that John said the Messiah was coming. But he knew little more than that. Now he had apparently come to Ephesus as a Baptist evangelist, that is, to spread the message of John—repentance signaled by baptism, and the message of the coming Messiah. He was a very eloquent and powerful speaker. And so here he came to Ephesus just after Paul had left town.
But remember, Paul had left an advance team there—Priscilla and Aquila.
26 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.
So here we have the second New Testament habit I want to recommend to you:
Extend Your Christian Faith Through Hospitality
The fact that Priscilla’s name is first indicates that she zeroed in on Apollos. I can almost hear her. “Mr. Apollos, what a great message you gave in the synagogue. What a way you have in stirring people, in getting them to see their sinfulness, in painting pictures about the coming Messiah. Oh my, your eloquence, your knowledge, your message! In all my life, I haven’t ever heard anyone like you. Why don’t you have dinner with my husband, Aquila, and me tonight. We have something to tell you that I think you’ll be interested to hear.”
And that’s what happened. Perhaps over a period of many days, this humble couple took this renowned scholar through the Gospel story, showed him who Jesus was, why it was necessary for him to die and be resurrected, how the Holy Spirit had come at Pentecost, and how the Gospel was spreading through the entire world.
This scene must have been extraordinary! It’s not unrealistic to say Apollos had one of the best minds in the New Testament, and he was one of the best educated men in Judaism. Priscilla was a tentmaker. She was not an intellect. She was not a scholar. She did not belong to the academy. She didn’t have a classroom in the university. She was a simple woman, but she knew the Gospel and she had learned a lot about life. She had just spent 18 months with the apostle Paul, listening to him every day. And so this learned rabbi and zealous John the Baptist evangelist sat at her kitchen table as she cleared away the supper dishes and told him everything she and her husband knew, much of which they had learned from Apostle Paul.
Don’t you just love it?
And that’s how Apollos became one of the first great Christian evangelists. It came about through mentoring at a kitchen table. Don’t underestimate how you can mentor and disciple and teach people around the kitchen table, or in your living room, or on your back porch. You don’t have to be a great scholar to speak into a scholar’s life. As you learn the Bible and grow in faith, remember the lessons God has taught you. Keep a refreshing vitality in your Christian life, and you can edify and build up others—especially young people.
I learned a great deal in the classrooms of the schools I attended, but I have vivid memories of learning even deeper truths at the round kitchen table of a woman who lived in the mountains and would have us college kids up to her house.
One of the things I try to do on a regular basis is entertain high school and college-age kids in my home. I’ll cook for them, have Bible study with them, answer questions, and teach them truths from Scripture. It’s among my favorite things to do. It helps that I have grandkids in high school and college, so they’re usually the ones who invite their friends. It also helps that I’m part of a church with a lot of young people.
But when I look back at the influence of those who mentored me, it makes me long to do that for today’s young people.
27 When Apollos wanted to go to Achaia [Corinth], the brothers and sisters encouraged him and wrote to the disciples there to welcome him. When he arrived, he was a great help to those who by grace had believed. 28 For he vigorously refuted his Jewish opponents in public debate, proving from the Scriptures that Jesus was the Messiah.
So there you have the stories of Paul and the Apollos in Corinth, along with Aquilla and Priscilla.
The two lessons I’m taking away from this study, and which I recommend to you, are:
- Deepen Your Christian Faith Through Vows
- Extend Your Christian Faith Through Hospitality