Paul wraps up his second missionary journey by traveling from Athens to Corinth – where he stays longer than in any other city to this point in his travels – and then to Ephesus, Jerusalem, and back to Antioch. In Corinth he reunites with Silas and Timothy and spends more than 18 months ministering in a city known for its pagan religions and pervasive immorality. While there he faces the usual opposition that has tracked him throughout all of his travels, but he is also reassured personally by Jesus and sees God working not only in the hearts of those who believe but in the actions of the Roman authorities.
Paul leaves Athens after speaking in the Areopagus and travels east to Corinth. Corinth is about 50 miles from Athens and is the capital of the province of Achaia. Located on the Isthmus of Corinth, it serves as the gateway both to the Aegean and Adriatic seas and thus sits on a very important trade route. Ships navigating in the area cross overland at the isthmus rather than sail around the treacherous south end of Greece. Because of its location and trade, the city is extremely diverse and very large with approximately 100,000 people in its metropolitan area.
Corinth has historically been known for its immorality. The Greek word ‘korinthiazomai’ means to practice sexual immorality and ‘korinthiastes’ is a synonym for ‘harlot’. Some historians think this reputation may have more to do with Athenian slanders against the ancient city of Corinth (Corinth was destroyed by Rome in 146 BC and re-founded by Julius Caesar as a Roman colony in 44 BC) than with the current city of Paul’s day. However, it is notable that in his letter to the Corinthians Paul actually has to instruct the believers in the church not to join with a harlot (I Cor 6:15-20) and has to reprimand the church for not disciplining a man who takes up with his stepmother (I Cor 5). Pagan worship is so pervasive in Corinth that Paul has to address the question of whether or not Christians can eat meat offered to idols in good conscience (I Cor 8). So much of it is for sale in the marketplace that it almost cannot be avoided. Lastly, it is also the Corinthians who Paul must rebuke for coming together to celebrate the Lord’s Supper and making it into a drunken party (I Cor 11:17-34). Apparently some of the reputation for carnality is earned.
Corinth is also the home of the Isthmian Games, a contest held every two years which is second only to the Olympics in prestige. These games likely form the backdrop to Paul’s later words to the Corinthians about running for the prize and running to win not a perishable wreath but one that is imperishable (I Cor 9:24-27).
In Corinth Paul meets a Jewish couple named Aquila and Priscilla who have recently come to the city from Rome. They left Rome because the Emperor – Claudius – expelled all Jews of foreign birth from there (49 AD). According to the Roman historian Suetonius, Claudius’ decree was targeted at Jews who “constantly made disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus.” Some scholars believe “Chrestus” is a misspelling of “Christos” and that the decree was a response to the proselytizing of Jewish Christians and the disturbances that came as a result. This could mean that Aquila and Priscilla were involved in proclaiming the gospel in Rome and are already believers when Paul meets them. Note that nothing is said in this text about their believing or being baptized.
Aquila and Priscilla have a continuing ministry with Paul – to whom they open their home in Corinth. They minister with him in Ephesus where they have a church that meets in their house (I Cor 16:19), and eventually go to Rome where they also have a church that meets in their house (Rom 16:3-5). Interestingly, Luke and Paul in their writings often refer to Priscilla (also known as Prisca – her proper name – Priscilla is a diminutive of Prisca, like “Johnny” is of “John”) first before Aquila (18:18, 18:26, Rom 16:3, II Tim 4:19). This could mean she is of a higher social rank than her husband.
Paul stays with Aquila and Priscilla because they are tentmakers – the same trade Paul practices. This is the first mention in Acts of Paul having a trade. This seems to go against what we know of Paul. It is likely that he comes from a well-to-do family that could afford for him to learn from Gamaliel (22:3) – the foremost teacher in Jerusalem. He also was born a Roman citizen (22:28) which would imply a family of some status. Rabbis are generally encouraged to support themselves while teaching, however, and it could be that Paul learned his trade during his training in Jerusalem with Gamaliel. Regardless of how he learned it, it is interesting that Paul goes from addressing the leading intellectuals of the day in Athens to working with his hands in Corinth (with no complaint or any words about his status). It is possible that his working as a tradesman may have lowered him in the estimation of the city’s wealthy inhabitants (may give more meaning to I Cor 1:26-27).
He will later tell the Corinthians that he labored so as not to be a burden to any of them. He could rightly expect for them to support him while he ministers among them (I Cor 9:1-17), but chooses to work so as not to inhibit the gospel by being accused of using it for financial gain (II Cor 2:17). Once again Paul shows himself concerned almost exclusively about the gospel and his influence on its spread. Working or not working is not the issue – what enables the gospel to be heard is the only consideration.
Paul spends the early part of his ministry in Corinth doing what he always does in a new city – he reasons with the Jews and the God-fearing Greeks in the synagogue. He starts with the Jews and teaches among them until forced to preach to the Gentiles. In this case he reasons with the Jews every Sabbath in the synagogue and tries to persuade Jews and Greeks.
Silas and Timothy come from Macedonia (they stayed in Berea after Paul left for Athens and perhaps revisited the churches in Philippi and Thessalonica) and reunite with Paul. They bring a gift that enables Paul to stop working and instead focus full time on ministering the word (II Cor 11:7-9). He spends his time solemnly testifying to the Jews that Jesus was the Christ.
The Jews do not believe him – as has become typical in the different cities where Paul has traveled – and even blaspheme either him or the gospel or both. Thus Paul stops his ministry to them and turns to the Gentiles. He tells the Jews, “Your blood be upon your own heads! I am clean. From now on I shall go to the Gentiles.” He takes no responsibility for their eternal destiny. He has a clear conscience because he proclaimed the truth to them and they refused to accept it.
He leaves the synagogue and moves next door to the house of Titius Justus – a Gentile worshiper of God. It is not clear if this means he no longer lives with Aquila and Priscilla. It could be that he simply moves the center of his ministry from the synagogue to the home of this man. Apparently Titius was converted as a result of Paul’s synagogue ministry and now opens his house to him. The fact that it is next door to the synagogue likely does not sit well with the Jews who just rejected everything Paul’s ministry is about.
Probably even more disconcerting to the Jews is the conversion of Crispus, the leader of the synagogue. Crispus believes along with all his household. The leader of the group that resisted and blasphemed the gospel actually believes the gospel and joins the new church. This means that not only does Paul set up his rejected ministry next door to the synagogue but he also takes with him the synagogue’s leader. It is not hard to predict that the Jews will not accept these events quietly. Along with Crispus many other Corinthians believe and are baptized.
Sometime after this, Jesus appears to Paul in a vision at night. He encourages Paul and tells him not to fear but to keep on proclaiming the word in Corinth. He tells him that no one will attack him or harm him – unlike what has happened in other cities – because I have many people in this city. Jesus knows who are His and who will believe the gospel. Thus because so many will believe, it is important for Paul to stay and preach to as many as possible.
It is interesting that Jesus chooses this time to appear to Paul. Paul has been through so much to this point in his journey and Jesus has not reassured him like this anywhere else. Perhaps Jesus appears here because Corinth is going to be different from the other cities where Paul has ministered. In most of the other places he has not been able to stay long because of persecution. Jesus wants him to know that Corinth is a place where he can minister for the long term. He will be able to stay for 18 months rather than just a few weeks. He will face opposition but not the life-threatening persecution of the other cities. Paul has time to put down roots and take a larger role in the ongoing life of the church he plants here.
Paul will later tell the Corinthians that he came to them in fear and in much trembling (I Cor 2:1-3). The reason for this is not clear. It could have to do with being thrown out of Thessalonica and Berea and seeing very little success in Athens. He also began his ministry here alone since Silas and Timothy were not originally with him. Thus he perhaps came to Corinth somewhat discouraged about the trip to this point (it may also be that he does not mean he is discouraged at all but simply expresses to the Corinthians the attitude he always has about proclaiming the gospel because he knows what is at stake – see Phil 2:12-13). Regardless, these words may shed some light on the appearance of Jesus. The Lord comes to him perhaps at a time when Paul truly needs an encouraging word. God knows the heart of His servant and picks just the right time to personally encourage Him. [God LOVES His children and ALWAYS does what is ultimately best for them – He LOVES us and KNOWS us and UNDERSTANDS us and is never callous toward our weaknesses or emotions – remember that He made us in His own image and redeemed us – our God is not just our God but our FATHER and He longs to wrap His arms around us and walk with us and comfort us.]
As a result of the vision Paul stays in Corinth for 18 months and presumably preaches the word as his full time occupation for the duration. Jesus’ statement about having many people in the city encourages him to proclaim the gospel to as many as possible. God’s sovereignty does not discourage Paul from spreading the gospel but motivates him to make sure as many hear it as possible. God chooses who believes but no one believes without hearing (Rom 10:13-14).
The Jews have enough of Paul’s ministry and its success and decide to stop it. They – with one accord (they are unified in their hatred of the gospel) – bring Paul before Gallio, the proconsul of Achaia [Gallio is a higher level official than the magistrates who authorized Paul and Silas’ beating in Philippi. He is the governor of the province compared to the city magistrates of Philippi. He is the second proconsul Paul has appeared before (Sergius Paulus in Cyprus – 13:7) but the first in a judicial setting]. They accuse Paul of persuading men to worship God contrary to the law. It is not clear what law they refer to. It is likely that they mean Roman law and are perhaps trying to make the same point the Thessalonian Jews made about Paul causing social unrest by preaching a different king (17:5-9). Whatever their intent, Gallio does not buy it and tells them their concerns are strictly religious and he is not interested in ruling on them. He refuses their case and drives them away from the judgment seat.
By refusing to hear the case against Paul, Gallio effectively provides legal cover to the gospel. He makes the gospel and how it relates to Judaism strictly a religious issue and therefore outside of the purview of the state. Paul can now preach and teach with no fear of reprisal in Achaia. His only worry is the Jews themselves and they are limited by the state as to how much they can do. They can make things uncomfortable for him – as they do with Sosthenes – but they cannot imprison or execute him without the state’s permission. God gives Paul the protection He promised him in the vision (it is always good to remember that no decision of the state happens outside the will and control of God). It enables Paul to remain many days longer in Corinth.
It is hard to understand the scene after Gallio dismisses the case against Paul. The crowd – either made up of the Jews who brought the case or of Gentiles who are simply at the trial – begin to beat Sosthenes, the leader of the synagogue. The reason for the beating is not stated. Sosthenes presumably replaced Crispus as the head of the synagogue perhaps after Crispus converted to Christianity (vs 8). There is no way to know if he is the same man Paul refers to in I Cor 1:1, so it is not clear if he has converted (or will convert) also. If the Jews beat him they do it perhaps out of frustration over having the case against Paul dismissed (he is the leader of the group who brought the case so he bears the responsibility for its failure). If the Gentiles in the crowd beat him it could be that they see the dismissal as simply an opportunity to beat a Jew (anti-Semitism is common in the culture). In either case, the scene likely does not reassure either the Jews or the Christians as to the justice to be expected under Gallio as he is not concerned about any of these things.
This story acts as an interesting backdrop to Paul’s later warnings to the Corinthians about taking their cases before non-Christian authorities (I Cor 6:1-8). Paul will tell them that believers should rather suffer wrong than take a brother to court. If the Corinthians have this event in their memory as they read Paul’s words, it would certainly give credence to his commands.
After many days longer – no way to know if this is in addition to the 18 months referred to in verse 11 or part of them – Paul leaves Corinth and begins the trip back to Antioch in Syria. He takes Aquila and Priscilla with him. They apparently are very transient as they left Rome for Corinth and now leave Corinth for Ephesus and will later live back in Rome (see verses referenced above).
The group first goes to Cenchrea – the port city located seven miles east of Corinth that acts as the gateway to the city from the Aegean Sea – where Paul has his hair cut for he was keeping a vow. This may have to do with a Nazirite vow explained in Numbers 6. For the duration of the vow the person keeping it cannot cut his hair or become unclean or partake of strong drink. At the end of the vow the person cuts his hair and has it burned as part of the offering to God. There is no way to know what Paul has vowed here (this could also be the beginning of the vow rather than its end – perhaps he intends to end it in Jerusalem). It could have something to do with the ministry in Corinth or perhaps the trip back to Antioch. Luke apparently does not think it is important enough to tell us. The vow does show, however, that Paul continues to acknowledge the Law and its role in his life even as he preaches to the Gentiles and expresses the freedom all believers have from it.
The trip takes the group to Ephesus in the province of Asia where God did not allow Paul and Silas to minister on their way to Macedonia (16:6). Paul spends some time ministering in the synagogue here and, unlike in most other cities, the Jews are receptive to him and ask him to stay longer. He tells them he cannot but that if God wills he will come back. It could be that this has something to do with the vow, since certain rites associated with it cannot be accomplished outside of Jerusalem.
Paul leaves Aquila and Priscilla in Ephesus and sails to Caesarea. He then proceeds to Jerusalem and greets the church there before heading back to Antioch. The text does not specifically say he goes to Jerusalem but the phrases went up and went down are always references to travel to and from Jerusalem. His arrival in Antioch concludes the second missionary journey.