May 8, 2015


Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles

By: Tom Lowe



Topic #IV: The Church Advancing to the End of the Earth (Acts 13-28)   


Subtopic C: The Missionary Journey (15:36-18:22)   



Lesson: IV.C.9: Paul in Ephesus en route to Antioch of Syria (18:18-22)                                                                                                                                   




Acts 18:18-22 (KJV)


18 And Paul after this tarried there yet a good while, and then took his leave of the brethren, and sailed thence into Syria, and with him Priscilla and Aquila; having shorn his head in Cenchrea: for he had a vow.

19 And he came to Ephesus, and left them there: but he himself entered into the synagogue, and reasoned with the Jews.

20 When they desired him to tarry longer time with them, he consented not;

21 But bade them farewell, saying, I must by all means keep this feast that cometh in Jerusalem: but I will return again unto you, if God will. And he sailed from Ephesus.

22 And when he had landed at Caesarea, and gone up, and saluted the church, he went down to Antioch.






Acts 18:18-22 provides a transition between Paul’s second and third missions.  On the one hand, it concludes the second, with Paul returning to Antioch[13] where his journey began (15:35-41).  On the other hand, Paul’s brief visit to Ephesus looks toward the third missionary period, which would be spent primarily in that city.






18 And Paul after this tarried there yet a good while, and then took his leave of the brethren, and sailed thence into Syria, and with him Priscilla and Aquila; having shorn his head in Cenchrea: for he had a vow.


The note that “Paul . . . . tarried there yet a good while” indicates that the missionary remained in Corinth for some time after his appearance before Gallio, and it confirms the importance of Gallio’s refusal to hear the case.  It was only due to his refusal that Paul was able to stay in Corinth afterwards and continue his witness without hindrance. 


On other occasions persecution had driven Paul on, but this time the opposition was neutralized by the attitude of the officials.  He therefore did not take his arrest as a sign that he should move on.  In any case, he had the Lord’s personal promise that no one would be allowed to harm him in Corinth. If his arrest took place soon after the arrival of Gallio, which seems likely enough, then Paul stayed on for several more months.


“And then took his leave of the brethren, and sailed thence into Syria, and with him Priscilla and Aquila; having shorn his head in Cenchrea: for he had a vow.”Just why Paul decided to end his initial ministry in Corinth and sailed to “Syria” is not specified[1]Cenchrea[2], their port of departure and the eastern Aegean harbor of Corinth, was Paul’s natural point of departure for an eastern journey


He could look back over a tremendously fruitful time in Corinth.  Large numbers had been saved, and a church had been founded that contained many gifted and able believers.  They did “not lack any spiritual gift” (1 Corinthians 1:7).  Indeed, many of the subsequent disorders in the church resulted from its superabundance of gifts, not all of which were exercised in particularly spiritual ways.


Paul’s leaving may have had something to do with his vow.  He is said to have shaved his hair[15] in connection with a vow he had made.  This seems to have been a “temporary” Nazarite vow—A special pledge of separation and devotion—the type of vow discussed in Numbers 6:1-21[3].  [There is no way to verify the type of vow; therefore, it could have been one he made in a time of difficulty or danger.] When Paul made this vow is unspecified.  He may have made it when he left Troas for Macedonia, or at the beginning of his ministry at Corinth, or more likely, before, but the Lord gave him the vision (18: 9-10).  Just why Paul had made a vow is not clear.  It was perhaps in conjunction with his vision (Acts 18:9-10)[4], a means of expressing thanksgiving and seeking the continued blessing of the Lord in his Corinthian mission, or perhaps he made the vow early in his stay at Corinth when he had been depressed and afraid (18:9)[4].  Moreover, the apostle was not above using a Jewish means to reach the Jewish people.  He tells the Romans of his tremendous burden for the salvation of Jews (Romans 9:1-3; 10:1).  He was willing to become all things to all men if only he might win some.  Perhaps his Nazarite vow was intended to attract some of the synagogue Jews.  Perhaps it was just a way of showing the Lord how greatly he desired to be used in the Jewish community at Corinth.  Perhaps it was just a voluntary discipline he imposed upon himself to deepen his own personal consecration.  Certainly at Corinth Paul set aside all natural means for attracting the Greek population to Christ.  He came “not with enticing words of man’s wisdom” (1 Corinthians 2:4), and their assessment of him was that his bodily presence was “weak” (2 Corinthians 10:10), and his speech contemptible.  Paul was not concerned about making a good outward impression at Corinth.  Indeed, he accused the Corinthians of being too willing to judge by the outward appearance (10:7).


The reference to his having cut his hair at this point presents some difficulty.  Generally one cut the hair at the end of the vow and made a sacrifice at the temple in Jerusalem, throwing the cut hair into the burnt offering as a part of the sacrifice.  Some interpreters suggest that at Cenchrea[2] Paul was beginning a vow that he would later complete in Jerusalem, but the past tense of the Greek verb indicates Paul had already taken the vow.  There also is no evidence for cutting the hair at the initiation of a vow—only at its completion.  A passage in Josephus seems to indicate the practice of cutting the hair elsewhere before going to Jerusalem to make the sacrifices.  Perhaps this is what Paul was doing.  At least he would not show up in Jerusalem with the outward sign of a Nazarite upon him.  There it might easily be misinterpreted.  Paul had made up his mind to go to Jerusalem.  The Nazarite vow[3] had to be completed in Jerusalem with the offering of the proper sacrifices; but it was not necessary for one to be in Jerusalem to make a vow.


In any event, the significance of the vow is that it shows Paul to have been a loyal, practicing Jew.  In his mission to the Gentiles, he did not abandon his own Jewishness.  Luke’s mention of this trivial matter may have been intended to show how unwarranted were the Jewish and even Jewish-Christian attacks upon Paul for his supposed opposition to their traditions.  He was still a “Jew to the Jews” and still continued his witness in the synagogues. Interestingly, on Paul’s final visit to Jerusalem, when James wanted him to demonstrate his Jewish loyalty before the more legally zealous Jewish Christians, participation in a similar vow was chosen as the means to accomplish this (21:20-24)[5].  We should not be surprised when later on, Paul paid the expenses for four men to be released from a Nazarite vow. 


With him, at this time, were his friends Aquilla and Priscilla which indicates that there was sufficient leadership in Corinth, with men such as Gaius, Sosthenes, Stephanas, and Crispus..  This was probably in a.d.52.  Claudius died in a.d. 54, and his death signaled the return of many exiled Jews to Rome.  Aquila and Priscilla themselves move back to Rome later—a.d. 57—and became active in the work of the Roman church (Romans 16:3)[6].  Their trade did not tie them to one spot.  Paul doubtless welcomed their companionship on his eastern journey.  Perhaps they originally intended to accompany him all the way to Jerusalem, but if so, their plans were soon to be altered.


There are a great many people who find fault with Paul because he made a vow.  They say that this is the man who preached that we are not under Law but we are under grace, and so he should not have made a bow.  Anyone who says this about Paul is actually making a little law for Paul.  Such folks are saying that Paul is to do things their way.  Under grace, my friend, if you want to make a bow, you can make it.  And if you do not want to make a vow, you don’t have to.  Paul didn’t force anyone else to make a vow.  In fact, he said emphatically that no one has to do that.  But if Paul wants to make a vow, that is his business.  That is the marvelous freedom that we have in the grace of God today.  I would like to offer this as an example: if one wishes to eat meat, there is freedom to eat meat.  If one wishes to celebrate a certain day, there is freedom to observe it.  “Whether therefore ye eat, or drink, or whatsoever ye do, do it all to the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31).  The important thing is to do all to the glory of God.  Eating meat will not commend you to God and neither will abstaining from meat commend you to God.  Actually, if what you do glorifies God, it is probably all right for you to do it.



19 And he came to Ephesus, and left them there: but he himself entered into the synagogue, and reasoned with the Jews.


“And he came to Ephesus,” and presumably, Silas and Timothy[7] stayed behind in Corinth to continue the work that Paul was leaving, and to oversee the churches in Macedonia and Acadia; and Aquila and Priscilla accompanied Paul to Ephesus. They remained there and undoubtedly continued the Christian witness in the city after Paul’s departure (18:26).  At this point Paul made an appearance in the Ephesian synagogue.  It was nothing more.  Ephesus was not a major point on his itinerary for the second journey.  It was often a port of call for ships traveling from Corinth to the Assyrian coast, and that probably was the case in this instance.


And left them there: but he himself entered into the synagogue, and reasoned with the Jews.  As always, Paul hastened to the Jewish synagogue and lost no time in introducing the Jews to Jesus.



20 When they desired him to tarry longer time with them, he consented not;


They were apparently interested in what he had to say, because he received an invitation from the Ephesian Jews to stay with them longer.  But Paul was in a hurry to catch his boat to Syria and refused the invitation.  The prohibition on his preaching in Asia was now apparently lifted (16:6), as indicated by his warm reception.  The Ephesian Jews must have already heard much about “the Way”[8] and no doubt would like to have heard more.  The Jews seldom rose against the Gospel till the successful preaching of it stirred them up, and there was no time for that here; so he came and went without incident. 


21 But bade them farewell, saying, I must by all means keep this feast that cometh in Jerusalem: but I will return again unto you, if God will. And he sailed from Ephesus.


“But bade them farewell, saying, I must by all means keep this feast that cometh in Jerusalem.” The statement “I must by all means keep this feast that cometh in Jerusalem” must not be interpreted to mean that Paul and the early Christians felt obliged to observe the Jewish feasts (see Acts 20:16) being in Jerusalem during the important feasts (in this case, Passover; though at least one interpreter says it was probably Pentecost[14]) would give Paul opportunity to meet and witness to Jewish leaders from throughout the Roman Empire.  He would also be able to minister to Christian Jews who returned to their homeland.


Paul taught clearly that the observing of religious feasts was neither a means of salvation nor an essential for sanctification (Galatians 4:1-11).  Christians are at liberty to follow their own conscience so long as they do not judge others or cause others to stumble (Romans 14:1-15:7).  Also, keep in mind Paul’s personal policy with regard to these matters of Jewish practice (1 Corinthians 9:19-23)[9].


For a second time, someone may ask what business Paul has in keeping feasts. Remember his background.  He is a Jew like Simon Peter.  He has the background of the Mosaic system.  He knows a lot of his friends will be in Jerusalem for the feast.  He wants to go up to witness to them.  He feels that he must by all means keep this feast that is coming in Jerusalem[16].  He is under grace.  If he wants to do that, that is his business.


But I will return again unto you, if God will. And he sailed from Ephesus. He promised to return, “If it is God’s will[10].” Knowing and doing God’s will is one of the blessings of the Christian life (Acts 22:14)[11].  In some of his letters, Paul identified himself as “an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God” (1 Corinthians 1: 1; 2 Corinthians 1:1; Ephesians 1:1; Colossians1:1; 2 Timothy 1:1).  At a most critical time in his life and ministry, Paul found courage in affirming, “The wIll of the Lord be done!” (Acts 25:10-12). The stage was set for Paul’s third mission (19:1-21:16).  In the meantime Aquila and Priscilla would carry on the witness in Ephesus until his return. 


Paul caught his ship, but why the rush to get to Palestine?  The Western text provides an answer, adding to verse 21 the note that Paul was hurrying to Jerusalem for the upcoming festival.  Although that is almost surely not the original text, it may be an accurate assumption.  On the other hand, Paul may have been hurrying to Jerusalem to complete his vow.  Or perhaps he simply felt the need for a change. Considering their eagerness to hear more from Him, there must have been some pressing reason for his not remaining in Ephesus and making the most of this opportunity.



22 And when he had landed at Caesarea, and gone up, and saluted the church, he went down to Antioch.


And when he had landed at Caesarea, and gone up, and saluted the church. Whatever his purposes for going to Jerusalem, his ship landed at Caesarea[12], the port for Jerusalem—a voyage of about 500 miles from Emphasis.  He then went “up” and greeted “the church,” then “down” to Antioch[13] (people did not “go down” to Antioch from Caesarea, but from Jerusalem).  “The church” referred to is almost certainly Jerusalem.  It was traditional language to speak of going “up” to the holy city, which sat high on Mount Zion.  The impression given here is that Paul’s stay in Jerusalem was a short one (perhaps a week, to complete his vow), but it would have been long enough to observe the economic plight of the church and to determine to do something about it.  Whatever might have been Paul’s business or pleasure in Jerusalem, the Holy Spirit does not say.  It was of no real interest.  Paul’s ministry was not to be at Jerusalem.  In any case, his stay at Antioch must have been much more congenial.  There was less legalism there, he had many friends and converts there, and it was the church that had commended him to the Mission Field and that prayed for him.


He went down to Antioch. Paul’s second mission Journey finally ended with his return to the congregation that had sent him forth (15:35-41), the great missionary church of Antioch[13].  There he reported all that God had done on this second missionary journey.  He had been gone from Antioch perhaps two years or more, and the saints were no doubt overjoyed to see him and hear about the work of God among the Gentiles.







Special Notes


[1] Syria may be intended in the regional sense as being all of Syro-Cilicia, which included Palestine, since Caesarea is the actual final port of disembarkation (18:22).  On the other hand, Syria may indicate Antioch as Paul’s final destination and end of his journey.


[2]Cenchrea was the port for Corinth on the eastern side of the isthmus, and remains of the ancient harbor are visible in the water today.  Paul had his hair cut here because of a vow, and then set sail from the harbor, concluding his 18-month stay in Corinth on his second journey.


[3] Samson and John the Baptist are famous examples of such a vow.  For them it was a lifelong commitment, but there were provisions for vows of shorter term, 30 days seeming to be the minimum period.  During the course of a Nazarite vow, one was forbidden to cut one’s hair, to consume wine or strong drink, and to come into contact with a corpse.  Vows could be taken for various reasons—to seek divine blessing in an undertaking, to express thanksgiving, or to seek deliverance from an illness.  The Nazarite vow appears to have been a common feature of Jewish piety (23:21-26).


[4] (Acts 18:9-10, NIV) “One night the Lord spoke to Paul in 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.’”


[5] (Acts 21:20-24, NIV) “When they heard this, they praised God. Then they said to Paul: “You see, brother, how many thousands of Jews have believed, and all of them are zealous for the law. They have been informed that you teach all the Jews who live among the Gentiles to turn away from Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children or live according to our customs. What shall we do? They will certainly hear that you have come, so do what we tell you. There are four men with us who have made a vow. Take these men, join in their purification rites and pay their expenses, so that they can have their heads shaved. Then everyone will know there is no truth in these reports about you, but that you yourself are living in obedience to the law.


[6] (Romans 16:3, NIV) Greet Priscilla and Aquila, my co-workers in Christ Jesus.


[7] Silas and Timothy are believed by some interpreters to have accompanied the apostle along with Erastus, Gaius, and Aristarchus (19:22, 29).


[8] “The Way” is an early term for early Christianity, found in the Book of Acts


[9] (1 Corinthians 9:19-23, NIV) “Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.”


[10] The expression “God willing” was a Greek expression that was taken over by Hellenistic Judaism.


[11] (Acts 22:14, NIV) “Then he said: ‘The God of our ancestors has chosen you to know his will and to see the Righteous One and to hear words from his mouth.”


[12] Caesarea is situated 25 miles north of the Sea of Galilee and at the base of Mt. Hermon; it is the location of one of the largest springs feeding the Jordan River.  This abundant water supply has made the area very fertile and attractive for religious worship.  Numerous temples were built at this city in the Hellenistic and Roman periods. There is no record of Jesus entering the city, but the great confession and the transfiguration both occurred in the vicinity of the city (Matt 16:13), then known as Caesarea Philippi.


[13] Antioch, Turkish Antakya, populous city of ancient Syria and now a major town of south-central Turkey. It lies near the mouth of the Orontes River, about 12 miles (19 km) northwest of the Syrian border. Antioch was founded in 300 b.c. by Seleucus I Nicator, a former general of Alexander the Great. The new city soon became the western terminus of the caravan routes over which goods were brought from Persia and elsewhere in Asia to the Mediterranean. Antioch’s strategic command of north-south and east-west roads across northwestern Syria greatly contributed to its growth and prosperity in Hellenistic, Roman, and Byzantine times.


[14] Pentecost was a Christian festival celebrated on the seventh Sunday after Easter, commemorating the descent of the Holy Ghost upon the apostles.


[15] Commentators are divided as to whether it was Paul or Aquila who had his hair cut off at Cenchrea.


[16] Since the feast was probably Passover, which in a.d. 52 fell early in April, and as the seas were closed for navigation until march 10 there was less time to spare, so that may be the reason he was in such a hurry to get to Jerusalem.