Having found little success in Athens, and still alone, Paul moved on to Corinth hoping to be reunited with Timothy and Silas there. Recall that they had been jailed in Philippi, ministered in Thessalonica for only three weeks, and sent on to Berea for their own safety. The same Jews who had stirred up trouble in Philippi and Thessalonica followed them to Berea, where after a short time the believers took Paul to Berea’s seaport and sailed for Athens, leaving Timothy and Silas behind. Paul instructed his escorts to send Timothy and Silas to him as soon as possible. Paul later reminded the Thessalonians of how difficult this time was for him:
“Therefore when we could endure it no longer, we thought it best to be left behind at Athens alone; and we sent Timothy, our brother and God’s fellow worker in the gospel of Christ to strengthen and encourage your faith, so that no man may be disturbed by these afflictions; for you yourselves know that we have been destined for this. For indeed when we were with you, we kept telling you in advance that we were going to suffer affliction; and so it came to pass, as you know. For this reason, when I could endure it no longer, I also sent to find out about your faith, for fear that the tempter might have tempted you, and our labor should be in vain. But now that Timothy has come to us from you, and has brought us good news of your faith and love, and that you always think kindly of us, longing to see us just as we also long to see you, for this reason, brethren, in all our distress and affliction we were comforted about you through your faith…” (I Thessalonians 3:1-7 NASB)
There is some disagreement among scholars about the order of events concerning the separation and reunion of Paul, Timothy and Silas. Timothy may have come to Paul at Athens, whereupon Paul sent him to Thessalonica — but Luke fails to record it, and his narrative seems to indicate that Paul received no visit while at Athens. Paul may have sent instructions back with those who delivered him to Corinth to send Timothy back to Thessalonica (this seems most likely to me). See Conybeare and Howson, pp. 302-303 footnote 1 for more details. But in any case, Paul was doubly burdened for the new believers and the ministry associates he had left behind in Macedonia as he arrived at Corinth.
As we proceed through verses 1 through 11, please read the verses for yourself before reading my comments!
v.2-3 Aquila and Priscilla
Luke doesn’t give a description of how Paul met Aquila and Priscilla. It may have been in the synagogue or in the workplace. Luke does tell us some interesting facts about this unusual couple who would become so instrumental in the progress of the gospel in the region.
- They were Jews
- They were from Pontus, a region in northeastern Turkey bordering Galatia and Bythinia (this was the region that the Holy Spirit forbade them to enter prior to Paul’s vision of the call to Macedonia; see Acts 16:6-7)
- They had been living in Rome
- The Roman emperor Claudius had decreed that all Jews must leave Rome, so they had moved to Corinth
- Aquila and Paul shared the same trade — tent-making
- Paul lodged with them and worked with them
Note that there is no indication that Aquila and Priscilla were believers at this point, nor does Luke record their specific conversion. However, by v.12 they were travelling with Paul back toward Israel at the end of the second missionary journey. Paul left them in Ephesus and proceeded to Jerusalem and Antioch without them.
By the start of the third missionary journey, while Paul was travelling through Galatia and Phrygia, we find Aquila and Priscilla explaining “the way of God more accurately” (Acts 18:26) to Apollos while they were in Ephesus. At Apollos request they sent him almost immediately back to Corinth, realizing that his skills in “powerfully refuting the Jews” (v.28) were just what were needed in a region plagued by Jews who had persecuted Paul, his associates, and the new believers. He proved to be a tremendous encouragement to the church in Corinth, and by the time Paul wrote his first letter to the Corinthians, Apollos had become a prominent leader in the Corinthian church (I Corinthians 1:12, 3:4-6). By the time of the writing of Romans they were living again in Rome and hosting a “house church” (Romans 16:3). As Paul wrote to Timothy at the end of his life from prison in Rome, he instructed Timothy to “greet Priscilla and Aquila and household of Onesiphorus,” so they all must have been in the same location (II Timothy 4:19). Other clues in the same passage indicate where they were not — Thessalonica, Galatia, Dalmatia, Ephesus, Troas, Corinth, or Miletus. We’re just not sure where they were.
It is interesting that the end of the second journey is predicated upon Paul “keeping a vow” (v.18). One wonders if this vow arose from discussions between Paul and Aquila, both being Jews and both understanding Paul’s message of grace to the Gentiles. Paul’s heart was always burdened for his “brothers in the flesh” (the Jews), and on several occasions there’s evidence that Paul tried to keep a foot in both Jewish and Gentile camps.
Paul continued his normal practice of beginning in the synagogue, trying to persuade both Jews and Greeks that Jesus was the Christ. Let us remember that the Greeks mentioned here were gentiles who adopted Judaism as proselytes, recognizing the God of the Jews as the one true God but pursuing a relationship with Him through obeying the Jewish Law. They were just as unaware of the events of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus as were their Jewish counterparts.
When Timothy and Silas finally catch up with Paul, his spirits are raised and he has a renewed energy for ministering to the Jews and gentiles of the synagogue. Luke says that “Paul began devoting himself completely to the word.” Does this mean he ceased his tent-making activities with Aquila? Possibly. But in any case his more intense message had a predictable effect on the Jews of the synagogue — they “resisted and blasphemed.”
Paul’s response was strong, clear and final — a response that would be essentially repeated to the Jews of Rome within three verses of the end of the book of Acts. He shook out his garments before them (a Jewish custom tantamount to “washing his hands of them” and breaking fellowship with them), and said, “From now on I shall go to the Gentiles.” This is the very essence of the book of Acts, and is the most important lesson that modern believers should learn. As Paul wrote later in several letters, Israel was being set aside while God ushered in a new era — the unprophesied Age of Grace.
No doubt Paul meant that he would no longer come to the synagogue in Corinth to argue the point. Instead he would minister among the gentiles who had believed. To underscore his intentions he left the synagogue and moved his center of operations to the home of a God-fearing gentile, Titius Justus, right next door to the synagogue. But in spite of the localized nature of this instance, Paul’s statements to them are prototypical of a more universal application that comes fully to pass by the end of Acts.
v.8-11 Extended Stay
Paul’s efforts within the synagogue among the Jews were not entirely a loss, for the very head of the synagogue, Crispus, and his entire household believed in the Lord. Many gentiles of Corinth also believed when they became aware of Crispus’ conversion.
These events – the reunion with Timothy and Silas, the conversion of Crispus and his household, and the conversion of many gentiles — were a tremendous encouragement to Paul. But doubts probably remained concerning the physical and emotional cost of this progress, anticipating the persecution that had always come in other communities. But God had something else in mind. The Lord appeared to him in a night vision, telling him to hold nothing back, for no one would lay a hand on him. Like the hidden 7,000 in Israel who had not bowed the knee to Baal nor kissed Baal (I Kings 19:18), Paul is also informed that the Lord “has many people in this city.”
So Paul finally had peace and space to minister the Gospel of Grace in the city of Corinth. He settled in Corinth for a year and a half, teaching the Word of God to gentile Corinthians and the few Jews that joined them. During this time he also wrote both letters to the Thessalonian church.
His time was not entirely without controversy, however. In the next post we’ll consider the only instance that Luke records, events that center around the court of Gallio, Proconsul of Achaia, and the end of the second missionary journey.