This week we studied Acts 18:18-23. Go ahead and read this passage so that we can get our bearings before starting today’s discussion…
… My pun in the above paragraph probably went unnoticed when you first read it, but maybe you’ll appreciate it now (or maybe not). I mentioned getting “our bearings.” Having a working knowledge of the geography of the region referenced in today’s passage can help us make a little more sense of the sequence of events Luke is describing. If you have the opportunity to look at a map (either in your Bible or online), follow this leg of Paul’s ministry – starting in Corinth (Acts 18:18) and ending in Galatia and Phrygia (vs. 23).
I wonder if you noticed the same things I did. Like when reading the Scripture with the backdrop of the region’s geography, most translations do not order verses 18-21 sequentially (at least not consistently sequentially … the NLT being the exception I’ve found). Verse 18 reads (at least to me) as if (1) Paul stayed in Corinth for a while (after Sosthenes’ beating [discussed in my previous post]) before (2) saying goodbye and sailing for Syria along with Priscilla and Aquila. (3) Somewhere along the way, at a place called Cenchreae, Paul cut his hair. On your map, did you notice that Cenchreae was actually a port city near Corinth? It is more accurate to think about the mention of Cenchreae in the midst of item (2) rather than a separate item (3).
Verse 19a (i.e. the first part of verse 19) gives us an overview of Paul’s short visit to Ephesus: They arrived in Ephesus, but Paul left alone. Verses 19b-21 tell us what happened during Paul’s short stay. But why so short? Look back at verse 18. Where was Paul’s intended destination?
Right, it was Syria. Looking back at your map, was Ephesus in Syria?
Paul’s course was set, and it appears that – while he wanted to stay longer – Ephesus was a lay-over on his trip back to Syria. So at the end of verse 21, Paul “set sail from Ephesus” and headed for Syria (vs. 18).
After landing in Caesarea, Paul went south to Jerusalem and then north to Antioch, where he stayed for a time and then left (vs. 22b-23a). If you’ve been studying Paul’s missionary journeys alongside of us here on the Now What? blog (or at church in Tentmakers), I really hope the mention of Antioch at least rings a bell. If not, look back at Acts 15:40, 14:27-28, and 13:1-3. Although these verses don’t all mention Antioch explicitly, if you look at the context of each verse, you will see that they all take place in Antioch (of Syria). We might say it was Paul’s home church. It was from this city that we have seen him begin all three of his missionary journeys and end the first two. Some of you may be thinking, ‘But I thought we were still on his second journey?’ Well, we were … until Acts 18:22b-23a when Paul came to Antioch quietly and departed equally so.
The unceremonial tone of the end and the beginning Luke barely describes (again in vs. 22b-23a) remind me so much of an anticipated reunion – family, high school, college, etc. You know when you go somewhere you used to fit in, but things just aren’t like they used to be? Maybe you’ve changed. Maybe they’ve changed. Maybe that person who held the group together is no longer there. It’s just not the same. That is what I see with Paul here in Antioch. I wonder if the difference for him lingering or leaving was Barnabas. Barnabas who, along with Paul (then Saul), had been set apart by God for that first missionary journey (Acts 13:1-3). Barnabas who – even earlier than that – had hunted Saul down in Tarsus to bring him to this new church Antioch (Acts 11:25-26).
As for the “maybe you … or they … have changed” option, that may have played a role as well. Antioch wasn’t the same baby church it was when Barnabas brought Paul there years ago (Acts 11:25-26). Likewise Paul must have had a more definite grasp on his calling than he did in the early days of his own ministry – “to preach the Gospel, not where Christ’s name has already been known … But as it is written, They shall see who have never been told of Him, and they shall understand who have never heard” (Rom 15:20-21, Amp).
Antioch had grown. Paul had grown. Barnabas was gone. And so Paul “left and went from place to place in an orderly journey through the territory of Galatia and Phrygia, establishing the disciples and imparting new strength to them” (Acts 18:23). Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.
Now What? It’s time for a new beginning.