Sometimes a Bible verse strikes us as odd. In our passage, v18 can seem that way. Why does Luke interrupt the flow of Paul’s journey to write about a haircut? But in fact the verse captures powerfully Paul’s determination to live for Christ in Corinth, no matter the cost.
Corinth was a prosperous, cosmopolitan, Greek city. One of its core values was the place of education. The ‘wise’ were honoured in the city, recognised by their trained ability to speak well. But the Lord has Paul speak and act in such a way as to tackle this shallow, sinful pride (1Co 1: 20-31). The apostle works at manual labour, evangelises in a Jewish area, resists eloquence and focuses his message on Jesus’ cross, which tends to offend his hearers (1Co 2:1-5). So if anyone was going to believe in Christ, it would not be through Paul’s evangelistic skill but, rather, God’s power. It wasn’t easy to do this, however, which maybe why Paul took a vow (v18). In that way he resolved to preach as Christ would have him preach, despite its outward weakness. Of course, the vow may have made it even harder for him, as his looks were affected by his hair and beard growing long. He also wasn’t helped by the general racist atmosphere towards the Jews (v17). Nonetheless, folk were saved (v8, v10) because conversion to Christianity is never dependent upon us, but upon the Lord and his power; conversion is supernatural.
At the start, however, Paul found it very tough to undertake this task. So in the night – when our anxieties often come on most strongly – the Lord commands Paul not to fear but to keep speaking (v9). Given Athens’ apparent failure (Ac 18:34) and Philippi’s brutality (Ac 16:23), it’s no surprise Paul might have anxieties, especially now the Jews are agitating (v6). But, almost certainly, the nature of the job weighs very heavily on him too (1Co 2:3). Whatever is the case, this may be the point at which Paul makes his vow. Vows help to keep us true to a task when we feel like giving up. In Israel, there was a particular type of vow – the Nazirite (Nu 6:1-21) – which kept the vow-maker on track with a holy task for the Lord. Paul’s vow may well have been in the Nazirite style and bound him to see through his Corinthian mission.
Why did Luke not tell us all that, though? Why is v18 so terse? Well, Luke couldn’t write everything. He was also probably aware of Paul’s letters explaining more. Then, as we see with Jesus, not explaining everything up front can really help the discipleship process (Mt 13:10). And it’s vital to remember that the first Christians did not read booklets like Acts by themselves, but heard them read in church where others could clarify what was written. So v18 is not so odd as we may think at first. But does it have lessons for us? Certainly, times come into our lives when we know we have to see through a task that we feel desperately like giving up. They are rare. But when they come we might feel we have to do what Paul did and bind ourselves with a vow before the Lord. Beyond that, Paul’s vow has this lesson for us: it challenges us to ask ourselves whether we really believe the Lord must come before all else. To ask if we are willing to keep following and honouring Jesus through whatever situations he asks us to face, no matter how tough.
Here in Acts 18, Paul certainly finds it’s no mistake to do that. Jesus promises him safety in the days ahead (v10) and keeps his promise. Paul believes him and settles into Corinthian life for the next 18 months (v11). During the time, an attack comes from the Jews (v12 – Gallio’s name here allows us to date these events to the year 51AD). They accuse Paul of breaking the law (v13) although whose law they mean isn’t very clear. The proconsul, however, takes them to mean their law and shows no interest in resolving the matter (v14,15). The result is that Paul doesn’t even have to speak in the court! Instead, everyone is kicked out (v16) with the result that a racist mob turn on Sosthenes, the ruler of the synagogue, and beats him up outside (v17). Attention has been turned away from Paul completely; the Lord has kept him safe exactly as he promised. Jesus may take us to hard places but he does not leave us alone. He may use unusual means, but he always stays with his people so they can come safely through life and into his eternal home.