Acts18v12to23: PAUL AT EPHESUS

(A) Introduction (Read the reference.)

I have just changed the title of this exposition. Initially I called it, 'Bits and pieces', because I could not see a unifying theme. However Luke is a very subtle writer and both in his gospel and in Acts he often groups incidents together that do have something in common. These few verses in chapter 18 are about priorities.

(B) Paul's vow.

When Paul completed his ministry at Corinth Luke records: Before he sailed, he had his hair cut off at Cenchrea because of a vow he had taken. v18. Cenchrea was Corinth's eastern seaport.

(1) The nature of the vow.
There is a lot of disagreement about Paul's vow. (See: I. Howard Marshall's commentary in the, 'Tyndale New Testament' series.) I think, as I explain below, that the haircut marked the end of the period covered by the vow. To properly fulfil the vow Paul needed to make a sacrifice in the Temple in Jerusalem. The sacrifice included burning the hair that had been cut off. He is to take the hair and put it in the fire that is under the sacrifice of the fellowship offering. Numbers6v18.

(2) The motivation of the vow.
We should ask why Paul made a vow in Corinth? He was not at his best in that great city. Later he writes to the Christians in Corinth: I came to you in weakness and fear, and with much trembling. 1Cor2v13. Although many Gentiles were converted in Corinth through hearing the word of God from Paul they were strangely unimpressed with the preacher. He was there for 15 months and yet he scarcely baptised anyone himself. This suggests that Paul was deliberately shunning the limelight.

By the time Paul arrived in Corinth he may have lost some confidence. He had been forced out of Psidium Antioch, Iconium, Lystra and Philippi. There is only so much a person can take before a reaction sets in. Paul was fearful of more trouble in Corinth. He may have been physically ill and certainly he was feeling rather low.

So when the Lord came to Paul and reassured him with the words: "Do not be afraid; ...... For I am with you, and no-one is going to attack and harm you, because I have many people in this city;" he may have responded by making his vow of separation. He vowed in gratitude to devote himself entirely to preaching Christ crucified and as a mark of his dedication he foreswore alcohol and haircuts. Paul's vow showed what his priority was going to be..

(3) The appropriateness of the vow.
Paul's vow wasn't really necessary. Vows tend to be what unbelievers make. Many years ago, when I was young and fit, I was walking at height in a remote part of the Lake District when a rather distraught young man approached me. He asked if I was saved! I replied that I believed in Jesus and was saved. The man then pointed to a nearby lake and said, "I was swimming there and the water was so cold I got cramp. I thought I was going to die. I prayed to Jesus to save me and vowed that if he did I would tell people about him." He managed to struggle out of the tarn and he certainly did witness to me. I wonder how long the young fellow kept his vow? Is he still telling strangers about Jesus?

Vows were part of the Old Dispensation. Paul in making a vow showed how difficult it is to make a clean break from old beliefs and traditions. Martin Luther could not discard all the errors that had crept into Roman Catholicism. He retained infant baptism! Martin Lloyd Jones brought up as he was amongst the Welsh Congregationalists and Presbyterians could never bring himself to accept believer's baptism.

There is also a tendency to revert to the old ways in time of real trouble. African converts to Christianity have been known to go back to the witch doctor when illness strikes. An old man in our church who had been a Roman Catholic had the last rites administered by a priest before he died. (I may criticise Roman Catholicism from time to time in this website but I don't doubt that many, many believers exist in that church - in spite of its errors!) What, perhaps, is worst of all is that many Christians forget their church family when problems arise and only seek help from members of their natural family. I find this most perplexing. It casts doubt on the reality of the words of the old hymn:

            Blessed be the tie that binds
            Our hearts in sacred love;
            The fellowship of kindred minds
            Is like to that above.

(C) Gallio's judgement.

Gallio was the proconsul of the Roman province of Achaia of which Corinth was capital. Gallio was Caesar's representative in Achaia and as such a very important individual. His judgement showed where his priorities lay.

I will examine Gallio's judgement under 4 headings:

(1) What prompted it?
It seems likely that Gallio had been newly appointed Governor of Achaia and the Jews hoped to benefit from his inexperience. They charged Paul with persuading the people to worship God in ways contrary to the law. v13. What did the Jews mean? Judaism was a religion that was recognised and permitted by the state. It is probable that they were accusing Paul of trying to discredit a legitimate religion. The Jews wanted Gallio to put a stop to it.

(2) It showed good sense.
Gallio wasn't going to get involved in a religious dispute. He didn't believe that it was a matter for the civil authorities and law courts. He said: "If you Jews were making a complaint about some misdemeanour or serious crime, it would be reasonable for me to listen to you. But since it involves questions about words and names and your own law - settle the matter yourselves. I will not be a judge of such things." Gallio did not consider that it was his responsibility to make judgements on religion.

Criticism of other religions should never be illegal in Britain. I would not object to a Moslem, Hindu or Jew arguing against Christian beliefs nor would I expect to be stopped from expressing my views on those faiths. The state should keep out of it so long as militants do not practice violence against members of other religions.

(3) It was providential.
Gallio's decision protected Paul and legitimised his ministry. Christians have won certain freedoms under the law - freedom of speech, freedom of assembly and freedom of worship. Increasingly, new government legislation is impinging upon freedom of worship. I do not believe it is right to make worship in a public place conditional upon that place having a toilet for disabled folk. A church attended by paraplegics in wheelchairs should make every effort to accomodate them. A church should not have to provide a facility that is not needed by its members.

(4) It did exhibit a contempt for religion.
Gallio does give the impression that he is contemptuous of religion. He cuts in and stops Paul from speaking and is very dismissive of Jewish concerns - questions about words and names and your own law. "Don't bother me," he says. "Don't waste my time. Sort it out yourselves." So he had them ejected from the court.

The Jews took Gallio at his word and beat up Sosthenes, the synagogue ruler, in front of the court. He may have been a recent convert to Christianity. They were saying to Gallio, "Look - there you are - that's what we would do if we had our own way." It was a nasty, spiteful reaction. But they didn't push their luck too far.

There are plenty of people in Britain today who are totally disinterested in religious arguments. Religion is just words and names to them - superstitious mumbo-jumbo. They are not interested in the truth.

Some Christians, too, refuse to get involved in arguments or disputes over doctrine. I have heard some say, "There are more important things to worry about - like saving the lost." No-one could accuse Paul of not caring for the lost but he was always prepared to confront error and to show Christians where they were going wrong. See exposition on Acts15v1to5.

(D) Many visits.

Paul, Aquila and Priscilla leave Corinth and travel to Ephesus. Paul was welcomed in Ephesus. The Jews actually wanted him to spend more time with them. Paul declined and said: "I will come back if it is God's will." v21. I wonder if he made the right decision.

Paul's priority was to get back to Jerusalem yet his visit is summed up in only seven words: he went up and greeted the church. He was anxious to fulfil his vow in the Jewish capital, to celebrate Passover and to receive the blessing of the Jerusalem fellowship. Paul was, perhaps, too concerned about being accepted at headquarters. He longed for his ministry to the Gentiles to be recognised and valued by James and his associates. This was so important to Paul because he took such a pride in being Jewish and loved his people intensely. It is ironical that the apostle to the Gentiles who experienced such fierce opposition from Jews should care so much for his own people. This is something for modern Jews to ponder who remain hostile to the great man.

After visiting Jerusalem Paul went on to Antioch, his home church. He spent some time there amongst his friends. Paul must have found it good to relax for a while; to minister in a secure environment. Most of us need a break sometimes. It's nice just occasionally to be made a fuss of. I can't say it happens very often! I hope the church at Antioch gave Paul what he needed. Those who helped Paul recharge his batteries performed a gracious service.

After his rest in Antioch Paul travels back to the churches he founded in Galatia and Phrygia to strengthen the disciples. This is excellent policy. Paul showed interest, concern and love for the churches in Iconium, Lystra by going to visit them. Some Christian leaders seem to lose interest in churches that they have pastored after they have moved on or retired. It is impossible to love a brother in Christ without taking an interest in him. I often feel that love is in short supply!