Acts 18 - IVP New Testament Commentaries
Witness at Corinth and Return to Antioch
First-century Roman jurisprudence at its best models for us what every state should be for the Christian: the protector of religious freedom and the promoter of religious toleration. At Corinth, the arena for the final stage of Paul's second missionary journey, Proconsul Gallio's decision sets a precedent of shielding the church from pagan and Jewish attacks and opens a decade-and-a-half-long period of opportunity for the gospel's progress.
Paul, leaving Athens, travels fifty-three miles south-southwest to Corinth. Corinth was politically and economically the main city of Achaia, for it was ideally situated on the three-and-a-half-mile-wide isthmus between the Peloponnesian peninsula and the Greek mainland. Cenchrea was its eastern port city on the Saronic Gulf leading to the Aegean, while Lechaeum was its western port city on the Gulf of Corinth leading to the Adriatic. Thus Corinth (population 200,000) was a key commercial center at the juncture of north-south land and east-west sea routes. Having risen from ruins a little more than a century earlier, when Julius Caesar constituted it a Roman colony (44 B.C.), the city was now dubbed "wealthy Corinth" and had served since 27 B.C. as the capital of the senatorial province of Achaia. The cosmopolitan mix of "local Greeks, freedmen from Italy, Roman army veterans, businessmen and government officials, Orientals, . . . including a large number of Jews," lived in a "rip-roaring town" where, as Horace put it, "none but the tough could survive" (Epistles 1.17.36; Longenecker 1981:480).
To such a city, with all its peril and promise, Paul comes alone (1 Cor 2:3). Given that by the year 2000, we are told, there will be five hundred "world-class" cities (one million-plus population) and twenty-three "megacities" (ten million-plus population), we must have the same strategic eyes Paul had in choosing to evangelize Corinth.
Paul experiences Christian companionship in a common trade when he finds (NIV met) Aquila ("eagle") and Priscilla ("ancient or venerated woman"; this form is a diminutive of Prisca; compare Acts 18:26; Rom 16:3; 1 Cor 16:19; 2 Tim 4:19). Luke introduces Aquila as a native of Pontus, an area of north-central Asia Minor, bordering on the Black Sea, which formed an administrative unit with Bithynia. Aquila and his wife have recently arrived from Rome, having been expelled with all the Jews by Claudius (A.D. 49). Suetonius tells why--"since the Jews constantly made disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus" (Claudius 25.4). Writing seventy years after the event, Suetonius may have assumed "Chrestus" was simply a local troublemaker; however, the dispute in the Jewish community over Jesus Christus (the names would have been pronounced similarly) was the real issue. Through the Roman Jews' resistance to the gospel and an emperor's edict, God's sovereign care worked to bring Paul and this couple together.
Their common trade is "tentmaking," or better "leatherworking." Most tents in that day were constructed of leather, but the meaning of skenopoios was extended (as was the case with the English "saddler") to refer to an artisan who produced a variety of leather articles. While Jewish rabbis were bivocational so that they would not have to charge for their teaching (m. 'Abot 2:2), other traveling teachers in the Hellenistic world received remuneration for their lectures. In Greco-Roman culture the manual labor of the artisan class was despised.
Paul engaged in leatherworking to offer his gospel without charge and model a good work ethic (Acts 20:34-35; 1 Cor 4:12; 9:15, 18; 1 Thess 2:9; 2 Thess 3:8). He probably used his workshop as a place of witness, as some Greek philosophers used theirs as a teaching venue (Hock 1979). His departure from the workshop and exclusive devotion to preaching after Timothy and Silas's arrival from Macedonia probably shows that he did not view his leatherworking as essential to his evangelism strategy (18:5).
Today "tentmaker" missionaries enter "creative access" countries through secular employment when there is no way to enter as a full-time missionary. If they keep Paul's motives in mind, they will be able to see their bivocationalism as beneficial to the spiritual health of churches they plant. Not only will they model a work ethic that is essential to sanctification, but they will avoid creating wrongful dependency, for they will be offering the gospel of grace "free of charge."
When Timothy and Silas arrive from Macedonia, they likely bring Paul a monetary gift (2 Cor 11:9; Phil 4:15). Paul can now be exclusively devoted to ("engrossed or absorbed in") preaching (literally, "the word"; compare Acts 6:4). Bivocationalism may be a good pattern for evangelistic church planting, but for Luke it is not the best. To be free to be fully engrossed in evangelism is best. Paul's work now is to engage in an apologetic (reasoned . . . trying to persuade) and proclamation (testifying) that "the Messiah is Jesus" (so the word order in 18:4-5; compare 17:2-3).
The saints' practical protection now takes the form of a co-opted meeting place. The familiar pattern of the gospel's confrontation with Judaism--proclamation, division, rejection, separation, further advance--occurs here in rapid succession (see comment at 13:42). Jews "oppose and blaspheme" the gospel and the Lord Jesus Christ, who is at its center. In an acted parable, "shaking out his robes," Paul disassociates himself from the Jews for several reasons. He wants to be clear of the judgment that their blasphemy will incur. He wants them to know that their rejection of the message places them in the same position as Gentiles: facing judgment. He wants to declare his freedom from any further responsibility for their eternal destiny (Neh 5:13; Lk 9:5; 10:10-11; Acts 13:46, 51). Using Old Testament phraseology (2 Sam 1:16; compare Mt 27:24-25), Paul's declaration says as much. Their guilt and coming punishment are their own responsibility.
Through with his mission to the Jews here, though he will continue it elsewhere (see Acts 18:19), Paul will now focus on the Gentiles. His base of operations will be the house of God-fearer Titius Justus, next door. Again God has providentially protected his mission by giving it an ideal venue for harvesting Gentile God-fearers. That harvest is not long in coming: first Crispus, the synagogue ruler, holding that highly visible position of supervising sabbath services and maintaining order, and his entire household believed in the Lord (compare 16:15, 33). Then many of the Corinthians who heard him believed and were baptized.
Earlier Paul has received guidance and encouragement in visions from the Lord (9:12; 16:9-10). Now the Lord appears to him at night again, with a threefold command attached to a threefold promise, all expressed in biblical language (Deut 31:6; Josh 1:5; Is 41:10; 43:5; Jer 1:7-9):
Do not be afraid (literally, "Stop being afraid")/I am with you
Keep on speaking/No one is going to attack and harm you
Do not be (literally, "become") silent/Because I have many people
in this city
For Paul--or for us--to be afraid is to doubt the last promise of the risen Lord (Mt 28:20). Though Paul has territorially moved beyond the Macedonian call (16:9-10), the Lord is here to guide, telling him to keep on speaking. He promises that no one will attack Paul to harm him (see fulfillment of this in 18:12-17; NIV turns the purpose or result expression into a parallel promise: to attack and harm). Persecution would aim to stop the freely proclaimed, life-changing gospel message (compare 4:18-20; 5:18-20, 28-29; 16:21; 17:7, 13). Therefore Paul is not to become silent. The Lord has already chosen many people (see comment at 15:14) for his own in this city. The Lord's predestination (13:48) not only guarantees a fruitful ministry but demands that Paul responsibly fulfill his obligation to witness. And that he does, teaching . . . the word of God in Corinth for a year and a half.
In light of the vision of Revelation 5:9-10 and 7:9-10--"a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb"--it is right for us today to claim the promises and obey the commands of Acts 18:9-10 for the eleven thousand people groups that have yet to hear the gospel.
The Jews mount a united attack on Paul (4:1; 6:12; 17:5), bringing him into court (literally, "to the judgment seat"). Lucius Junius Gallio, the proconsul who hears the case, was the son of Spanish orator and financier Marcus Annaeus Novatus, who, after the relocation of his family to Rome, participated in the highest and most influential circles of society. Gallio's brother Marcus Annaeus Seneca, a Stoic philosopher, politician and dramatist, was tutor to the young Nero. Gallio pursued a career in government and between his praetorship and admission to the consulate served as the governor of the senatorial province of Achaia. A series of inscriptions help us date his tenure fairly precisely and give us good extrabiblical evidence for placing Paul in Corinth between A.D. 49 and 51 (Barrett 1961:48-49). Seneca described his brother's affable personality thus: "No other human being is so charming to just one person as he is to all people" (Naturales Quaestiones 4A, preface 11). Paul probably appeared before Gallio at the beginning of the governor's tenure and near the end of the apostle's stay in Corinth (A.D. 51).
The Jews bring an ambiguous charge. Who are the people Paul is persuading (better, "inciting")? Are they Jews or Gentiles? More to the point, are they Roman citizens? Against what law are they being incited to worship God? Is it the Roman law against proselytizing citizens for "foreign cults" (see note at 16:20-21; compare 17:7)? Is it the Jewish law as Gallio understands it (18:15)? Or is it an application of the edicts of Claudius that the Jewish people are to be treated as a collegium lictum--a legal, social and in this case religio-ethnic entity whose customs and practices are to be respected and whose lives are to be left undisturbed (Josephus Jewish Antiquities 19.278-91)? Possibly the Jews mean for Gallio to extend Claudius's edicts into their internal affairs. In their view Paul's teaching of the word of God is contrary to the Jewish law and creates an internal disturbance. In this sense he is violating the edict.
Before Paul can utter a word in his defense, Gallio decides not to render a verdict in the matter. God is fulfilling his promise of protection. Gallio evaluates how the charges relate to the spheres of necessary and discretionary jurisdiction. Using technical legal language (kata logon aneschomen hymon, "I would have been justified in accepting your complaint"), he says that some misdemeanor, open or violent wrongdoing, or serious crime, an offense involving fraud, deception, unscrupulousness (13:10), would be a legitimate matter for his jurisdiction. But the Jews have brought him controversial questions (15:2; 26:3) about words (literally, "a word"--the gospel message, 18:11) and not deeds, about names (messianic titles and Jesus' identity as the Christ, v. 5) and about [their] own law (a law-free gospel for the Gentiles, vv. 6-8). I will not be a judge of such things.
Here Gallio articulates two principles of church-state relations that, when lived out in any political structure, will pave the way for the gospel's unhindered progress. First, by saying that Paul is not accused of a misdemeanor or serious crime, Gallio declares Christianity's innocence before the state. Missionary activity is not illegal (contrast the Jewish leaders' assessment: 4:18, 21; 5:28). Second, by refusing to adjudicate an intramural religious dispute, Gallio declares that religious questions do not fall within the competence of secular state powers (Lk 20:25). For the fifties of the first century this was truly a precedent-setting decision. The decision of so eminent a proconsul would carry weight wherever such issues arose throughout the Empire (Longenecker 1981:486).
Yet there is a dark side to Gallio's lack of involvement. Not only does he eject the defendant and plaintiffs--possibly by physical force through the lictors--from the court, but he takes no action when the Jews begin to beat one of their own, Sosthenes. If Sosthenes is a Christian sympathizer (compare 1 Cor 1:1), then this breakdown of law and order within the collegium lictum is a warning that a state's hands-off policy in religious matters may simply make room for persecutors to continue opposing the gospel. Paul's instructions concerning prayer for state rulers should always be on our hearts (1 Tim 2:1-4).
Shielded by the state, Paul remains in Corinth for some time. Eventually, in full fellowship he left (better "said farewell to") the brothers and, accompanied by Priscilla and Aquila, sails for Syria. This refers either to his final destination or to eastern territory that included Judea.
At Corinth's eastern port city, Cenchrea, seven miles southeast, Paul cuts his hair, signaling the beginning of the end of a Nazirite vow (Num 6; m. Nazir). Evidently he had begun this vow after either the Macedonian or Corinthian vision, as a sign of earnest beseeching of the Lord for success in the mission to which Paul had been called (Acts 16:9-10; 18:9-10). Now in thanksgiving Paul ends the vow and thus recognizes that the Lord made good on his promises. In our life of faith we too may be confident that what God calls us to do he will enable us to complete (Phil 1:6).
The first leg of Paul's journey involves a flying visit to Ephesus, politically and economically the leading city in the province of Asia--in fact the third largest city in the Roman Empire (population 250,000 plus; see comment at 11:19 on Syrian Antioch, the second largest city in the Empire). Jews had been resident there since early Hellenistic times. Quite a number had Roman citizenship, and the Romans upheld the Jews' rights consistently from Augustus onward (Josephus Antiquities 14.228-30, 234, 236-40; 16.162-66, 171-73; see Stern 1974:152). Though Paul receives a positive response to his synagogue preaching (dialegomai, 17:2, 17; 18:4; see note at 17:2)--he is asked to stay longer--he makes a hasty departure. Though the time is short, perhaps he is still intent on getting to Jerusalem by Passover. The sea lanes opened on March 10, and in A.D. 52 Passover was in early April (Bruce 1988:356). Or he is hurrying there to complete his vow. In any case, he expresses his intention to return if it is God's will (18:21; Rom 1:10; 15:32; 1 Cor 4:19; 16:7).
Here Paul and we learn that personal desires and divine guidance so interact that all our planning will be implemented only if it is part of God's sovereign design. This makes us at once more flexible and more confident as we face our future, and more thankful as we reflect on our past.
In a very abbreviated fashion Luke describes Paul's arrival at Caesarea, his "going up" and "coming down" from Jerusalem (8:15; 11:2; 25:1, 6-7) after greeting the church there, and his return to Antioch (compare 14:26-27). Paul models considerate communication, promoting the unity of the body and the continuity of the mission. Today too, the stability of the gospel's advance will be only as strong as the lines of communication with praying and supporting sending churches.