Acts 18 Bible Commentary

McGarvey and Pendleton

(Read all of Acts 18)
Verse 1.   Having met with so little encouragement in the literary capital of Greece, the apostle next resorts to its chief commercial emporium. (1) "After these things Paul departed from Athens, and went to Corinth." This city was situated on the isthmus which connects the Peloponnesus with Attica. Through the Saronic Gulf and Ægean Sea on the east, it had direct communication with all the great Asiatic cities, and with Rome and the west through the Gulf of Corinth and the Adriatic. It was, therefore, a place of great commercial advantages; and, at the time of Paul's visit, was the chief city of all Greece. Its advantages for trade had attracted the large Jewish population which the apostle found there.

Verses 2, 3.   Paul entered this large city a stranger, alone, and penniless. What little means he had brought with him from Macedonia was exhausted, and his first attention was directed to the supply of his daily wants. He knew what it was to suffer "hunger and thirst;"{1} but he had been taught to look to heaven and pray, "Give us this day our daily bread." A kind Providence found him lodging and means of livelihood. (2) "And having found a certain Jews named Aquila, born in Pontus, and Priscilla his wife, lately come from Italy because Claudius had commanded all the Jews to depart from Rome, he went to them. (3) and because he was of the same trade, he remained with them, and worked; for they were tent-makers by trade." To be thus under the necessity of laboring as a journeyman tent-maker was certainly a most discouraging condition for one about to evangelize a proud and opulent city. From the calm and unimpassioned style in which Luke proceeds with the narrative, we might imagine that Paul's feelings were callous to the influence of such circumstances. But his own pen, which often reveals emotions that were not known to Luke, gives a far different representation of his feelings. Writing to the Corinthians after long years had passed away, and all transient emotions had been forgotten, he says, "I was with you in weakness, and in fear, and in much trembling."{2} Though keenly sensitive to all the distressing influences which surrounded him, he had, withal, so strong confidence in the power of truth, and so gloried in the very humility of the gospel, that he never despaired. The companionship of two such spirits as Aquila and Priscilla afterward proved to be, was, doubtless, a source of great encouragement to him.

Verses 4, 5.   Notwithstanding all the discouragements of his situation, he devoted the Sabbaths, and whatever portion of the week his manual labor would permit, to the great work. (4) "But he discoursed every Sabbath in the synagogue, and persuaded both Jews and Greeks. (5) And when Silas and Timothy came down from Macedonia, Paul was pressed in spirit, and testified to the Jews that Jesus is the Christ." It will be recollected by the reader, that Silas and Timothy, whose arrival is here mentioned, had tarried in Berea, and that Paul had sent back word to them, by the brethren who conducted him to Athens, to rejoin him as soon as possible.{3} He had also "waited for them in Athens,"{4} before his speech in the Areopagus. We would suppose, from Luke's narrative, that they failed to overtake him there, and now first rejoined him in Corinth. But Paul supplies an incident in the First Epistle to the Thessalonians, which corrects this supposition. He says: "When we could no longer forbear, we thought it good to be left alone in Athens, and sent Timothy to establish you and to comfort you concerning your faith."{5} This shows that Timothy, at least, had actually rejoined him in Athens, and had been sent back to learn the condition of the congregation in Thessalonica. His present arrival in Corinth, therefore, was not from his original stay in Berea; but from a recent visit to Thessalonica. Probably Silas had remained till now in Berea.

The arrival of Silas and Timothy brings us to a new period in the life of Paul, the period of his letter-writing. We have already made some use of his epistles to throw light upon the somewhat elliptical narrative before us; but we shall henceforth have them as cotemporary documents, and will be able to fill up from them many blanks in Paul's personal history. The First Epistle to the Thessalonians was written from Corinth soon after the arrival of Timothy, as is proved by the concurrence of the two facts, that, on the return of Silas and Timothy, as seen in the text, just quoted, they found Paul in Corinth, and that, in the epistle itself, Paul speaks of their arrival as having just taken place at the time of writing.{6} Several statements in this epistle throw additional light upon the state of Paul's feelings during his first labors in Corinth. He was not only "pressed in spirit," as stated by Luke, "in weakness, in fear, and in much trembling," as he himself says to the Corinthians{7} but he was racked with uncontrollable anxiety concerning the brethren in Thessalonica, for whom he would have been willing to sacrifice his own life, and who were now suffering the severest persecution.{8} The good report brought from them by Silas and Timothy gave him much joy, but it was joy in the midst of distress. He says: "When Timothy came to us from you, and brought us good tidings of your faith and love, and that you have remembrance of us always, desiring greatly to see us, as we also to see you, therefore, brethren, we were comforted over you in all our affliction and distress by your faith: for now we live, if you stand fast in the Lord."{9} It was, therefore, with a zeal newly kindled from almost utter despair, by their good report from Thessalonica and the arrival of his fellow-laborers, that he now so "earnestly testified to the Jews that Jesus is the Christ."

Verses 6, 7.   The increase of Paul's earnestness was responded to by an increased virulence in the opposition of the unbelieving Jews. (6) "But when they resisted and blasphemed, he shook his raiment, and said to them, Your blood be upon your own head; I am clean. Henceforth I will go to the Gentiles. (7) And he departed thence, and went into the house of a man named Justus, a worshiper of God, whose house was adjacent to the synagogue." When they began to resist his preaching with passion and violent imprecations, he could no longer hope to do them good, and to press the subject further upon them would be to cast pearls before swine. Upon leaving the synagogue, he was not driven into the streets for a meeting-place; but, as was usually the case, while he was urging, with so little success, the claims of Jesus upon the Jews, at least one Gentile, who had learned to worship the true God, heard him more favorably, and offered him the use of his private dwelling, which stood close by. Justus was not yet a disciple, but, as suits the meaning of his name, he was disposed to see justice done to the persecuted apostle.

Verse 8.   Although he left the synagogue in apparent discomfiture, he was not without fruits of his labors there. (8) "But Crispus, the chief ruler of the synagogue, believed on the Lord, with all his house; and many of the Corinthians, hearing, believed and were immersed." It was very seldom that men of high position in the Jewish synagogues were induced to obey the gospel. It is greatly to the credit of Crispus, therefore, that he was among the first in Corinth to take this position, and this, too, at the moment when the opposition and blasphemy of the other Jews were most intense. He must have been a man of great independence of spirit and goodness of heart--the right kind of a man to form the nucleus for a congregation of disciples.

The conversion of these Corinthians is not detailed so fully as that of the eunuch, of Saul, or of Cornelius, yet enough is said to show that it was essentially the same process. "Many of the Corinthians, hearing, believed, and were immersed." They heard what Paul preached, "that Jesus is the Christ." This, then, is what they believed. That they repented of their sins is implied in the fact that they turned to the Lord by being immersed. To hear the gospel preached, to believe that Jesus is the Christ, and to be immersed, was the entire process of their conversion, briefly expressed.

Verses 9, 10.   Although his success, when about leaving the synagogue must have been a source of some comfort to Paul, an incident occurred just at this period, which shows that he was far from being relieved, as yet, from the "weakness and fear, and much trembling," which had oppressed him. (9) "Then the Lord said to Paul in a vision by night, Be not afraid; but speak, and be not silent; (10) for I am with you, and no man shall assail you to hurt you. For I have many people in this city." The Lord never appeared by a vision to comfort his servants, except when they needed comfort. The words "Be not afraid" imply that he was alarmed, and the assurance that no one should hurt him implies that his alarm had reference to his personal safety. His very success had, doubtless, fired his opponents to fiercer opposition, and his recent sufferings at Philippi seemed about to be repeated. But, at the darkest hour of his night of sorrow, the light of hope suddenly dawned upon him, and he was strengthened with the assurance that many in the city would yet obey the Lord.

In the declaration, "I have many people in this city," the Lord called persons who were then unbelievers, and perhaps idolaters, his people. This would accord with the Calvinistic idea that God's people are a certain definite number whom he has selected, many of whom are yet unconverted. But it can not prove this doctrine, because it admits of rational explanation upon another hypothesis. He knew that these people would yet believe and obey the gospel, and he could, therefore, with all propriety of speech, call them his by anticipation. Such is no doubt the true idea.

An expression similar to this occurs in the eighteenth chapter of Revelations, where the angel, announcing the downfall of the mystic Babylon, cries: "Come out of her, my people, that you be not partakers of her sins, and that you receive not of her plagues." It has been argued, from this, that God has a people in the apostasy, who are already accepted as his own. But the language, like the statement, "I have many people in this city," may be used simply in anticipation. The most that can be argued from it, is that he knew a people would come out of Babylon whom he could accept, and that he called them his people on account of that fact.

Verse 11.   Under the assurance given by the Lord in the vision, Paul was encouraged to continue his labors. (11) "Then he continued there a year and six months, teaching among them the word of God." Instead of the more usual expression, "preaching the word of God," we have here "teaching the word of God." This change of phraseology is not without a purpose. It indicates that Paul's labor, during this period, consisted not so much in proclaiming the great facts of the gospel, as in teaching his hearers the practical precepts of the Word. He was executing the latter part of the commission as recorded by Matthew: "Teaching them to observe and do all that I have commanded you."

Verses 12, 13.   The next paragraph introduces an incident which occurred within this period of eighteen months, and which is worthy of special notice, because of several peculiarities not common to the scenes of apostolic suffering. (12) "While Gallio was proconsul of Achaia, the Jews, with one accord, rose up against Paul and led him to the judgment-seat, (13) saying, This man is persuading men to worship God contrary to the law." Here we have the same charge, in form, which was preferred against Paul at Philippi and Thessalonica, causing all the trouble which befell him in those cities.{10} But the charge, in those instances, was preferred by Greeks, with reference to the Roman law; while, in the present, the Jews had the boldness to prefer it in their own name, with reference to their own law. This fact indicates a degree of confidence in their own influence which we have not seen exhibited by the Jews in any other Gentile city.

Verses 14-16.   In this case, however, they had to deal with a man of far different character from the magistrates of Philippi, or the city rulers of Thessalonica. Gallio was a brother of Seneca, the famous Roman moralist, who describes him as a man of admirable integrity, amiable, and popular.{11} Such was the character which he exhibited on this occasion. Instead of yielding to popular clamor, as did so many provincial and municipal officers, before whom the apostles were arraigned, he examined carefully the accusation, and seeing that it had reference, not to any infraction of the Roman law, but to questions in regard to their own law, he determined at once to dismiss the case. (14) "But when Paul was about to open his mouth, Gallio said to the Jews, If it were a matter of injustice or wicked recklessness, Jews, it would be reasonable that I should bear with you. (15) But since it is a question concerning a doctrine and words, and your own law, do you see to it; for I do not intend to be a judge of these matters. (16) And he drove them from the judgment-seat." This is the only instance, in all the persecutions of Paul, in which his accusers were dealt with summarily and justly. The incident reflects great credit upon Gallio.

Verse 17.   Prompt and energetic vindication of the right, on the part of a public functionary, will nearly always meet the approbation of the masses, and will sometimes even turn the tide of popular prejudice. Whether the disinterested public were favorable or unfavorable to Paul before the decision, we are not informed; but when the case was dismissed, the spectators were highly gratified at the result. (17) "Then all the Greeks seized Sosthenes, the chief ruler of the synagogue, and beat him before the judgment-seat; and Gallio cared for none of these things." For once, the heart of the unconverted multitude was with the apostle, and so indignant were they at the unprovoked attempt to injure him, that when it was fully exposed, they visited upon the head of the chief persecutor the very beating which he had laid up for Paul. Sosthenes was most probably the successor of Crispus, as chief ruler of the synagogue, and may have been selected for that position on account of his zeal in opposing the course which Crispus had pursued. The beating which the Greeks gave him was a riotous proceeding, which Gallio, in strict discharge of his duty, should have suppressed. That he did not do so, and that Luke says, "Gallio cared for none of these things," has been generally understood to indicate an easy and yielding disposition, which was averse to the strict enforcement of the law. This, however, is inconsistent with the promptness of his vindication of Paul, and his indignant dismissal of the accusers. I would rather understand it as indicating a secret delight at seeing the tables so handsomely turned upon the persecutors, prompting him to let pass unnoticed a riot, which, under other circumstances, he would have rebuked severely. The rage and disappointment of the Jews must have been intense; but the rough handling which their leaders experienced admonished them to keep quiet for a time.

Verse 18.   This incident occurred some time previous to the close of the eighteen months of Paul's stay in Corinth, as we learn from the next verse. (18) "Now Paul, having still remained for many days, bade the brethren farewell, and sailed into Syria, and with him Priscilla and Aquila, having sheared his head in Cenchrea; for he had a vow." It is after the arraignment before Gallio, and previous to his departure from Corinth, that we best locate the date of the Second Epistle to the Thessalonians. That it was written in Corinth is determined chiefly by a comparison of its contents with those of the First Epistle. The congregation was still suffering from the same persecution mentioned in the First Epistle,{12} and there was still among them some improper excitement in reference to the second coming of the Lord.{13} Both these circumstances indicate that it was written shortly after the first; as soon, perhaps, as Paul could hear from them after their reception of the first. That it was after the arraignment before Gallio, is sufficiently evident, I think, from the absence of those indications of distress in the mind of the writer, which abound in the First Epistle. He did not enjoy this comparative peace of mind until after the persecutions of the Jews culminated and terminated in the scene before Gallio's judgment-seat. Many eminent commentators have contended that it was Aquila, and not Paul, who sheared his head at Cenchrea. The argument by which they defend this position is based upon the fact that the name of Aquila is placed after that of his wife Priscilla, and next to the participle keiramenos, having sheared, for the very purpose of indicating that the act was performed by him.{14} Others, who insist that it was Paul, reply that the order of the names is not conclusive, inasmuch as they occur in this order in three out of the five times that they are mentioned together in the New Testament.{15} My own opinion is that it was Paul, and my chief reason for so thinking is this: the term Paul is the leading subject of the sentence, to which all the verbs and participles must be referred, unless there is some grammatical necessity for detaching one or more of them, and referring them to another subject. Priscilla and Aquila are subjects of the verb sailed (understood): "Paul sailed into Syria, and with him (sailed) Priscilla and Aquila." But if it was intended also to refer the act of shearing to Aquila, the English would require the relative and verb instead of the participle: "with him Priscilla and Aquila who had sheared his head," instead of "Priscilla and Aquila, having sheared his head." The Greek, in order to express this idea, would also have required the article or relative after Aquila. In the absence of such a modification of the construction, we must refer the terms keiramenos, having shaved, and eike, had, to the leading subject of the sentence, with which agree all the other verbs, prosmeinas, tarried; apotaxamenos, took leave of; and exepei, sailed away. The objection that Paul could not have taken such a vow consistently with his position in reference to the law of Moses, is fallacious in two respects. First, It assumes a degree of freedom from legal observances on the part of Paul which his conduct on subsequent occasions shows that he had not attained.{16} Second, It assumes, without authority, that this vow was one peculiar to the law, which it would be improper for Christians to observe. The vow of the Nazarite would certainly be improper now, because it required the offering of sacrifices at its termination.{17} But this was not that vow, seeing the hair was sheared in Cenchrea; whereas the Nazarite's hair could be sheared only at the temple in Jerusalem.{18} What the exact nature of the vow was, we have now no means of determining.

The only practical value of this incident arises from its bearing upon present practice. But this is altogether independent of the question whether it was Paul or Aquila who had the vow. If we admit it was Aquila, the presence of Paul, and the approbation indicated by his silence, gives to it the apostolic sanction. We conclude, therefore, that disciples would be guilty of no impropriety in making vows, and allowing their hair to grow until the vow is performed. But it must not be inferred, from this conclusion, that we are at liberty to make foolish or wicked vows, which would be better broken than kept.

Verses 19-22.   Embarking at Cenchrea, which was the eastern port of Corinth, on a voyage for Syria, the frequent commercial intercourse between Corinth and Ephesus{19} very naturally caused the vessel to touch at the latter city, which was the destination of Priscilla and Aquila. (19) "And he went to Ephesus, and left them there. He himself went into the synagogue and discoursed to the Jews. (20) They requested him to remain longer with them, but he did not consent, (21) but bade them farewell, saying, I must by all means keep the coming feast in Jerusalem; but I will return to you, God willing. (22) And he set sail for Ephesus; and having gone down to Cæsarea, he went up and saluted the Church, and went down to Antioch." The context plainly implies that the Church which he "went up and saluted" was that in Jerusalem, and not, as some have supposed, that in Cæsarea; for it had just been said that he must reach Jerusalem, and the statement that he "went up," especially as it occurs after reaching Cæsarea, implies that he went up where he had intended to go. The final termination of his journey, however, was not Jerusalem, but Antioch, whence he had started with Silas on his missionary tour. The two missionaries had gone through Syria and Cilicia; had revisited Derbe, Lystra, and Iconium; and had taken a circuit through Phrygia, Galatia, and Mysia, to Troas on the Archipelago. Thence they had sailed into Europe, and had made known the gospel throughout Macedonia and Achaia, planting Churches in the principal cities. Setting sail on their return, Paul had left an appointment in Ephesus, where he had formerly been forbidden by the Spirit to preach the Word;{20} had revisited Jerusalem, and was now at the end of his circuit once more to gladden the hearts of the brethren who had "commended him to the favor of God," by rehearsing all that God had done with him, and that he had opened still wider "the door of faith to the Gentiles." Whether Silas had returned with him we are not informed. What changes had taken place in Antioch during his absence is equally unknown. The historian has his eye upon stirring events just ahead in Ephesus, and hastens all the movements of the narrative to bring us back to that city.

Verse 23.   In accordance with this plan, he gives but a brief glance at the apostle's stay in Antioch, and the first part of his third missionary tour. (23) "Having spent some time there, he departed, passing through the district of Galatia, and Phrygia, in order, confirming all the disciples." The historian now leaves Paul in the obscurity of this journey among the Churches, and anticipates his arrival in Ephesus, by noticing some events there, which were, in the providence of God, opening the way for his hitherto forbidden labors in that city.

Verses 24-26.   (24) "Now a certain Jew named Apollos, born in Alexandria, an eloquent man, and mighty in the Scriptures, came to Ephesus. (25) This man was instructed in the way of the Lord, and, being fervent in spirit, he spoke and taught accurately the things concerning the Lord, understanding only the immersion of John. (26) He began to speak boldly in the synagogue. But Aquila and Priscilla, having heard him, took him and expounded to him the way of the Lord more accurately." The distinguished position which Apollos acquired, after this, in the Church at Corinth, and the familiarity of his name among disciples of all subsequent ages, renders it a matter of some interest to acquire an accurate conception of his personal endowments and his subsequent history. The former are set forth in the two statements, that he was "eloquent," and that he was "mighty in the Scriptures." The gift of eloquence is a natural endowment, but culture is necessary to its effective development. That he was an Alexandrian by birth gives assurance that he was not wanting in the most thorough culture; for Alexandria, being the chief point of contact between Greek and Jewish literature, was the chief seat of Hebrew learning in that and some subsequent generations. The Alexandrian Jews, who constituted a large element in the population of that city, were noted for their wealth and their learning.

That he was "mighty in the Scriptures," shows that he had been educated to a thorough knowledge of the word of God. The apostles, being inspired, and able to speak with miracle-confirmed authority, were not entirely dependent upon purely scriptural proofs. But he, being uninspired, was entirely dependent upon the use of the prophesies and types of the Old Testament, in proof of the Messiahship. In a day when a knowledge of the word of God had to be acquired from manuscripts, and in which the art of reading was acquired by only a few, it was no ordinary endowment to be familiar with the Scriptures. Such an attainment is rare, even in the day of printed Bibles, and among preachers who profess to devote their lives chiefly to the study of the Bible. Indeed, the amount of clerical ignorance now extant would astonish the masses of men, if they only had the means of detecting it.

What were the exact attainments of this distinguished man in reference to the gospel is a question of some difficulty, though in reference to it there is a very general agreement among commentators. It is generally agreed that he understood no more of the gospel than was taught by John the Immerser; and of this the statement that he understood only the immersion of John is considered sufficient proof. But I confess myself unable to reconcile this supposition with two other statements of the historian, equally designed to give us his religious status. The first is the statement that he was "instructed in the way of the Lord;" and the second, that he "taught accurately the things concerning the Lord." That the term Lord refers to the Lord Jesus Christ can not be doubted by one who consider's Luke's style, and observes the connection of thought in the passage. But for Luke to say, at this late period, that a man was instructed in the way of the Lord and taught it accurately, certainly implies a better knowledge of the gospel than was possessed by John; for he preached him as one yet to come, and knew nothing of his death, burial, or resurrection. The two expressions combined would, if unqualified, convey the idea that he understood and taught the gospel correctly, according to the apostolic standard. They are qualified, however, by the statement that he "understood only the immersion of John." This is the only limitation expressed, and therefore we should grant him all the knowledge which this limitation will allow. Whatever a man must lack, then, of a thorough knowledge of the gospel, who knows no immersion but that of John, we must grant that Apollos lacked; yet the other things of the Lord he taught accurately. His ignorance had reference to the points of distinction between John's immersion and that of the apostles, which were chiefly these, that John did not promise the Holy Spirit to those who were immersed, and did not immerse into the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Whatever confusion of thought upon kindred topics is necessarily involved in ignorance of these two things, Apollos must also have been subject to; but we are not authorized to extend his ignorance any further than this. On these points he was instructed by Priscilla and Aquila, and was then able to teach the things concerning the Lord more accurately. There is no evidence whatever that he was reimmersed.{21}

Verses 27, 28.   For some reason unexplained, Apollos concluded to leave Ephesus, and visit the Churches planted by Paul in Achaia. (27) "And when he desired to cross into Achaia, the brethren wrote, urging the disciples to receive him. When he arrived, he afforded much aid to those who through favor had believed: (28) for he powerfully and thoroughly convinced the Jews in public, clearly showing by the Scriptures that Jesus is the Christ." This is the earliest mention of letters of commendation among the disciples. It shows that they were employed simply to make known the bearer to strange brethren, and commend him to their fellowship.

The parties to whom Apollos afforded much aid were not, as some have contended, "those who believed through his gift;"{22} for the term charis is never used in the sense of either a spiritual or a natural gift. Neither, for the same reason, can we render the clause, "he aided through his gift those who believed."{23} Favor is the true meaning of the original term, and it stands connected in the sentence with the participle rendered believed. If there were any incongruity in the idea of believing through favor, we might, with Bloomfield, connect it with the verb, and render the clause "he afforded much aid, through favor, to those who believed." But through this is the only instance in which parties are said to have believed through the favor of God, it is true of all disciples; for the favor of God both supplies and the object of faith, and brings before men the evidence which produces faith. Luke's own collocation of the words, therefore, should guide us, and it rules us to the rendering, "he afforded much aid to those who through favor had believed."

Apollos mightily convinced the Jews in Achaia; whereas Paul's converts had been mostly among the Gentiles. This was, no doubt, owing to the peculiarity of his endowments, giving him access to some minds which were inaccessible to Paul. A variety of talents and acquirements among preachers is still necessary to the success of the gospel among the immense variety of the minds and characters which make up human society.

      {1} 2 Cor. xi: 27.
      {2} 1 Cor. ii: 3.
      {3} Acts xvii: 14, 15.
      {4} Acts xvii: 16.
      {5} 1 Thes. iii: 1, 2.
      {6} 1 Thes. iii: 6.
      {7} 1 Cor. ii: 3.
      {8} 1 Thes. ii: 8, 14-16.
      {9} 1 Thes. iii: 6-8.
      {10} Acts xvi: 20-23; xvii: 5-10.
      {11} Life and Ep., vol. 1, p. 418, and note.
      {12} Compare 2 Thes. iii: 9, with 1 Thes. ii: 14-16; iii: 1-4.
      {13} Compare 2 Thes. ii: 1-3 with 1 Thes. iv: 13; v: 3.
      {14} See Bloomfield and Howson.
      {15} Acts xviii: 26; Rom. xvi: 3; 1 Cor. xvi: 19; 2 Tim. iv: 19; also, Hackett and Olshausen.
      {16} See Com. xxi: 24.
      {17} See Com. xxi: 24.
      {18} See Com. xxi: 24.
      {19} Life and Ep., vol. 1, p. 423.
      {20} Acts xvi: 6.
      {21} See further, Com. xix: 1-7.
      {22} Olshausen.
      {23} See Bloomfield.