Bible and crossThe three-year Lectionary that many Catholics and Protestants hear in public worship gives us a great variety of Holy Scripture.

Yet, it doesn’t tell the whole story.

My series Forbidden Bible Verses — ones the Lectionary editors and their clergy have omitted — examines the passages we do not hear in church. These missing verses are also Essential Bible Verses, ones we should study with care and attention. Often, we find that they carry difficult messages and warnings.

Today’s reading is from the English Standard Version with commentary by Matthew Henry and John MacArthur (here and here).

Acts 18:18-23

Paul Returns to Antioch

18 After this, Paul stayed many days longer and then took leave of the brothers[a] and set sail for Syria, and with him Priscilla and Aquila. At Cenchreae he had cut his hair, for he was under a vow. 19 And they came to Ephesus, and he left them there, but he himself went into the synagogue and reasoned with the Jews. 20 When they asked him to stay for a longer period, he declined. 21 But on taking leave of them he said, “I will return to you if God wills,” and he set sail from Ephesus.

22 When he had landed at Caesarea, he went up and greeted the church, and then went down to Antioch. 23 After spending some time there, he departed and went from one place to the next through the region of Galatia and Phrygia, strengthening all the disciples.

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Last week’s post described the violent tribunal scene in Corinth before Gallio, the proconsul.

That post also has a biography of Gallio, who was a most learned man and brother of Seneca the Younger, the great poet. Matthew Henry’s commentary says there is evidence to suggest that Gallio might have met privately with Paul afterwards (emphases mine below):

Some tell us that Gallio did privately countenance Paul, and took him into his favour, and that this occasioned a correspondence between Paul and Seneca, Gallio’s brother, which some of the ancients speak of.

After the tribunal incident, Paul stayed on in the city. Readers following this series would have recalled an earlier verse in Acts 18:

11 And he stayed a year and six months, teaching the word of God among them.

After that time, Paul took leave of the congregation in Corinth and sailed to Syria. Priscilla and Aquila, the converts with whom he had been living and working, joined him (verse 18). They were not natives of Corinth, so probably had no particular tie to the city. It was the place where they lived, having been exiled from Rome along with the rest of the Jews.

Henry explains:

He took with him Priscilla and Aquila, because they had a mind to accompany him; for they seemed disposed to remove, and not inclined to stay long at a place, a disposition which may arise from a good principle, and have good effects … There was a great friendship contracted between them and Paul, and therefore, when he went, they begged to go along with him.

They went to Cenchreae, which Henry tells us:

 … was hard by Corinth, the port where those that went to sea from Corinth took ship

There, Paul cut his hair because he was under a Nazarite vow. That might sound strange to us, knowing that Paul was such a committed follower of Christ. However, John MacArthur explains that Paul continued with some Jewish observances, as they were a fundamental part of his upbringing:

Paul was yes, in every whit a Christian. Being a Christian is a momentary miracle,but the transition takes time and old features of Judaism died slowly even in Paul’s life. By the time he gets to the book of Philippians, a lot more of them have died off. He says, after saying that, “I was a Jew, and I was a Hebrew, I was a Hebrew and a Pharisee and all,” he says in the next verse, “But what things were gained in me? Those I—” what? “Counted lost.”

In other words, those things used to be what made up my life, but I let them go, and I considered only Christ. From now on, I’m not interested in ceremonies. I’m not interested in rituals. I only know one thing—I want to know Him. That’s what he said to the Colossians. That’s all. “I want the excellency of the knowledge of Christ.”

Later on, more of the old things begin to die, but as we see Paul here, in chapter 18, most significantly, he is in transition.

Henry has a few important facts about the Nazarite vow:

Those that lived in Judea were, in such a case, bound to do it at the temple: but those who lived in other countries might do it in other places. The Nazarite’s head was to be shaved when either his consecration was accidentally polluted, in which case he must begin again, or when the days of his separation were fulfilled (Numbers 6:9,13:18), which, we suppose, was the case herethe vow of the Nazarites, though ceremonial, and as such ready to vanish away, had yet a great deal of moral and very pious significance, and therefore was fit to die the last of all the Jewish ceremonies. The Nazarites are joined with the prophets (Amos 2:11), and were very much the glory of Israel (Lamentations 4:7), and therefore it is not strange if Paul bound himself for some time with the vow of a Nazarite from wine and strong drink, and from being trimmed, to recommend himself to the Jews; and from this he now discharged himself.

MacArthur thinks that Paul took the 30-day vow as a form of thanksgiving:

they took it out of gratitude to God for some great deliverance and he had just experienced a great deliverance in the city of Corinth and very likely took a 30-day Nazarite vow. And a Nazarite would touch nothing from the fruit of the vine at all. He would restrict himself to holiness under God. He would let his hair grow as an outward sign to others and to himself, touch no dead body. It was just an abstinence from everything in order that he might set himself unto God to express his gratitude for God’s deliverance. This was common in the Old Testament.

Men who took a Nazarite vow had to keep the cut hair, which they took to the temple to offer as a burnt sacrifice:

… in the Old Testament, the hair that he cut off had to be taken to Jerusalem and burned with an offering in order to complete the vow, and so he’s got to hustle to Jerusalem.

When the three reached Ephesus, Paul left Priscilla and Aquila there to start spreading the Gospel message. Ephesus — Efes — is in modern-day Turkey, ancient Asia Minor. It is an important port city dating back to the 10th century BC.

However, Paul did not leave Ephesus without preaching in the synagogue first (verse 19). The Jews in Ephesus were receptive to Paul’s reasoned discussion of Christ and ancient Scripture. They asked him to stay (verse 20). Although he declined the invitation, he said he would return if it were God’s will (verse 21).

This positive reaction from a Jewish congregation was unusual in Paul’s ministry. Paul normally had trouble and often had to leave. Henry has this explanation:

These were more noble, and better bred, than those Jews at Corinth, and other places, and it was a sign that God had not quite cast away his people, but had a remnant among them.

Having left Ephesus, Paul continued on his way home to Jerusalem, a long journey.

He arrived to greet the church in Caesarea (verse 22). Peter founded this church when he spoke with Cornelius, the Roman centurion. Cornelius and his whole household converted. Cornelius was the first Gentile — and Italian — convert. Acts 10 has his and Peter’s dramatic story:

Acts 10:1-8 – Cornelius, divine vision, angel, Peter, God-fearer

Acts 10:9-16– Peter, divine vision, allegory, animals, Gentiles, forbidden food is now clean

Acts 10:17-23— Peter, Holy Spirit, obedience, Gentiles, hospitality

Acts 10:24-29 — Peter, Cornelius, Jewish converts, Gentile converts

Acts 10:30-33 – Peter, Cornelius, Jew, Gentile, Jesus Christ

Acts 10:44-48 – Peter, Cornelius, the Holy Spirit, baptism, Gentile, Jew

Verse 22 tells us that after Paul left Caesarea, he went to Antioch, but John MacArthur says Paul went to Jerusalem after visiting nearby Caesarea:

When he landed, verse 22, at Caesarea, he went and greeted the church. Then he went to the church in Jerusalem and finished his vow, met with the church for just a brief time and then went to Antioch.

Paul then visited all the churches he had founded in that part of the world to strengthen the disciples (verse 23). Luke documented these churches in Acts: Antioch (Syria), Perga and Antioch (Pisidia), Iconium and Lystra. For some of these congregations, it was the second time Paul made a return visit, having made his first return trip with Barnabas (Acts 14).

Paul was an excellent preacher and servant for Christ. He really loved his flocks and expended a lot of physical and emotional energy on them for the Lord’s sake. What a shining example he set for the Church.

Next time — Acts 18:24-28

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