We live with ticking clocks in our minds, aware of time passing and of key life-events arriving. In his work, Paul was very conscious of a huge event the Lord had planned and which time was counting down towards. In our passage, indications of this major step in history start to appear.
On leaving Corinth, Paul crosses the Aegean sea and arrives in Ephesus, a city on the west coast of (what we would call) Turkey (v19). Now, after his ‘success’ in Corinth (Ac 18:10,11), we might expect Paul to be pumped up for more evangelism. But, in fact, after a brief synagogue visit (v19), and despite clear gospel opportunities being available (v20), he leaves (though his friends remain, v19). And he offers no certainty about whether he will have the opportunity to return since it’s all in the Lord’s hands (v21). But why does he act this way?
It may be that he’s burned out, and needs to get away to a church which knows him and can care for him. That is a wise course of action for a travelling church planter like Paul. However, it seems that he is thinking of more than that: as he says, he’s waiting on the will of God. And that’s probably because Paul is aware of God’s ticking alarm clock for Jerusalem and Israel.
On the day of Pentecost, Peter told the Jews that they needed God’s forgiveness for their terrible rejection of Jesus as king (Ac 2:36-38). He also told them this was urgent since God would soon bring judgement – this was a message they and their children had to obey before it was too late (Ac 2:39-40)! Peter said this because of Jesus’ warnings (eg Lu 11:47-51). Time was going; God would punish sinful Jerusalem soon; only Jesus could save them! So Peter warned the Jews that they had only 1 generation (40 years, Nu 14:33). And, indeed, Jerusalem fell in 70AD to a violent Roman army. Here in chapter 18, we are over halfway to that deadline since Paul was in Corinth in 51AD. Within 15 years or so, a terrible war will begin. A few years later, Jerusalem will be ruined. Paul knows this and the fate of his own people troubles him deeply (Ro 9:1-4).
When we love others, we feel it very much when we see them destroying their lives in sin. Paul felt that for Israel. However, there was one thing he believed he could do: provoke his brothers to envy (Ro 11:13,14). When Paul called Gentiles to Jesus, it stirred Jews to bitter anger. But he hoped that that resentment would be the means of waking them up to the truth about Christ. We hope for the same today. Sometimes we take decisions for Christ that are resented by others who know us. How do we handle that? Certainly, we steel ourselves to do what God says (Ac 5:29). But we can also hope that ‘provoking’ others will not just bring trouble but, in God’s grace, a new attitude in them. It happened to Paul (Ac 26:14-17) and he longed for others to find the same.
Paul, then, had a clock ticking in his mind, counting down to Israel’s judgement, and he ached for some of his fellow Jews to repent before it came. But could he do more? He knew he would; he knew that eventually he would go to Jerusalem (Ac 19:21), just as Jesus did before him, with Gentile disciples as a testimony to his own people of Jesus’ kingdom (Ac 20:4). Here in our verses, Luke records the first sign of that future journey – the ‘reappearance’ of John the Baptist. In the gospel, John is the starting point of Jesus’ public ministry which took him to the capital (Mk 1:1-4). Luke mentions John here as a sign that Paul will also go to Jerusalem (within a few years, Ac 19:10). How does John ‘reappear’? After Paul has gone home to Antioch (v22,23), Apollos comes from Egypt and teaches about the Lord (v24). But he only has the limited knowledge of John the Baptist (v25). However, on hearing him at the synagogue, Priscilla and Aquila instruct him more thoroughly about Jesus (v26). Then, when he discovers Paul’s work in Corinth, Apollos is excited to go there himself. So commended by other Christians in Ephesus, he sails west to arrive like a whirlwind in Corinth, where he helps the believers (v27) and publicly refutes the Jews (v28 – a bit like John). Was this wise? It seems from Paul’s later letter it may actually have caused problems (1Co 3:4-8). But if so, Luke keeps those hidden. What matters to him is that the sign of John the Baptist has been given and Paul’s next steps are becoming clear.