12. When Gallio was proconsul of Achaia, the Jews with one accord rose up against Paul and brought him to the judgment seat,
Now after Paul had spent a year and a half in the city of Corinth, trouble finally does arise for Paul. This takes place, Luke tells us, when Gallio was proconsul of Achaia. Remember that I said before that Achaia was the ancient name for Greece. So what this is telling us is that Gallio was proconsul, or the Roman ruler, over Greece at this time. This Gallio is a historical figure, and he did have rule over Greece during the time when Paul was in Corinth. He was the elder brother of a philosopher, named Seneca. He died in 65 AD. Jerome says he committed suicide, but some think he was killed by Nero.
Now while this Gallio is proconsul, the Jews finally can take Paul and his ministry no longer. They rise up against him with one accord. There were many divisions among the Jews at this time, even among the leadership, which is who this refers to, so they must have been quite determined to get rid of Paul in order to all act together like this. Yet remember as I pointed out above that any of the Jewish leaders who followed Paul were apparently kicked out of their leadership positions, so them acting “in one accord” is only possible because they had already removed those who supported Paul from among them.
13. saying, “This fellow persuades men to worship God contrary to the law.”
This is the accusation they bring against Paul to Gallio. These words reveal to us how they had justified their rejection of God’s truth in their own minds. Of course, this is not what Paul was doing, but they had to explain to themselves in some way why they were rejecting the truth, and this is what they told themselves. Alas for them, but their excuses with which they convinced themselves will not hold water when made before the living God on the day when they stand before Him to be judged.
This charge they bring against Paul was an accusation that would have held a lot of weight among Jews. However, it was unlikely to move a Roman very much. From the fact that this is the charge they brought against Paul, we would wonder if this move against him was hastily made, or something they seized upon because of a chance moment of opportunity or sudden passion on their part, and not with careful planning beforehand. It could also be that they didn’t know Gallio very well, and were hoping that he would take them seriously just because they were powerful and influential men among the leadership of the Jews in Corinth. Whatever the reason for their bringing this charge against Paul rather than something more relevant to a Roman, it was a mistake on their part, and won them no favors from Gallio, as we will see in the following verses.
14. And when Paul was about to open his mouth, Gallio said to the Jews, “If it were a matter of wrongdoing or wicked crimes, O Jews, there would be reason why I should bear with you.
Paul is about to open his mouth to defend himself, but he does not get the opportunity, as there is no need for it. Instead, Gallio speaks up, and speaks against the Jews. He knows his job, is what he basically tells them. If Paul had done some wrong or performed some wicked crime, then there would be a good reason for him to take their charges seriously and look into the matter. Indeed, the tenants of Roman law would have demanded it, and as I said, it was his job to deal with such things. Yet Gallio can see that this is not their reason for coming before him.
15. But if it is a question of words and names and your own law, look to it yourselves; for I do not want to be a judge of such matters.”
Gallio sees instead that their complaint against Paul has to do with what he characterizes as “words and names and your own law.” This apparently was his summary of what the Jews believe. They have a lot of words they argue about, a lot of names they quibble over, and a law of their own with which they are greatly concerned. Gallio, on the other hand, has no concern for such things. This is not his field of expertise, nor is it his job to make it so. If the Jews have a problem with such things, he advises them to worry about it themselves. He, on the other hand, is just not interested in getting involved.
Gallio was a ruler in the kingdom of Greece. In that land, the Jews were a minority. Though there were enough of them to be of some significance, there were not nearly so many of them as there were in the land of Israel, where they made up the vast majority of the population. Therefore, we can see the relative indifference to their complaints. In Judea or Galilee, the Jews were the majority of the population that the Roman rulers had to deal with. Therefore, they were often eager to please the rich and powerful men among them, and to gain favor with them. For this reason, we often see in the New Testament that the Roman rulers gave a lot of deference to these men, and would continue to hear their complaints even after it became obvious that there was no truth to them. Yet not so in Achaia with Gallio. He does not need to gain favor with the Jews, and he does not seek to gain favor with the Jews. Instead, he seems rather disgusted by the whole thing, and tells them more or less to leave him alone.
Though Gallio’s attitude was good in this case because it allowed Paul to go free, as he should have done, we have to wonder if his attitude was indeed a good one overall. It does not seem likely from the record here that he was doing this because he sympathized with Paul, or wished to see the word of the Lord Jesus Christ to win out. His attitude towards the law of God is that it is just a lot of words and names and rules. This shows an ignorance of what the Word of God is really all about. Yet we could certainly wonder if this kind of ignorance is not something he shares with many people today. All they think about the Bible is that it is a book of rules and regulations, of boring history and antiquated philosophy, of names and places and people not relevant to this present world. When they see the Scriptures this way, they do not realize what it is that they are missing. The fact is that this book is, as Peter put it, the words of eonian life. It is the revelation of the living God to men. For those of us who know and love this God, His Word is a thing most precious, a thing to be studied and sought after and loved. Yet the world misses this, and thinks of the Word much like Gallio did.
16. And he drove them from the judgment seat.
To punctuate his indifference and disgust, Gallio has the Jews driven from the judgment seat. Instead of getting a judgment passed against Paul, the Jews find themselves held in contempt, and humiliated before the governors of the city. Certainly this was one of the least successful attempts to raise persecution against the believers that we read about in the book of Acts. Thus we see the Lord’s promise to Paul in his vision did indeed come about. Paul had no reason to fear persecution in this city. Yet could it be that a man like Gallio was really what God was talking about when He said He had many people in this city? It would hardly seem like it could be so.
17. Then all the Greeks took Sosthenes, the ruler of the synagogue, and beat him before the judgment seat. But Gallio took no notice of these things.
The Greeks see that the sentiment in Gallio’s court is strongly against the Jews at this time, and so they decide to take advantage of it. Remember, the Greeks were those who supported the culture, lifestyle, and religion of the Greeks as being the best way of living and behaving. Their view was by far the dominant one in the Roman Empire, and the only real competing culture to it was that of the Jews. The Greeks could not have taken kindly to the fact that the Jews looked down on the culture and lifestyle they so respected and practiced. Therefore, any opportunity they could find to get back at them for their superior attitude would be one they would gladly welcome. When they see Gallio’s disgust at the Jews, they see an opportunity to get back at some of top men in the Jewish party. Therefore, they grab unto Sosthenes, the ruler of the synagogue who took over for Crispus after he left the synagogue and followed Paul. Then, they beat him right there before the judgment seat. Gallio apparently looks on with the same indifference which he claimed when speaking to the Jews. Though he had not given the order himself, he seems to have been perfectly satisfied to see one of these troublemaking Jews who had come to waste his time be punished for inconveniencing him. Perhaps, in fact, he was himself a Greek, something that is not at all unlikely. If he was fairly new to the position of proconsul, as the passage would seem to imply, it may be that he is taking this opportunity to align himself with the Greek party, something that they would have taken great delight in, and against the Jewish party. If so, he certainly announced his intentions with a bang.
But the positive outcome of all of this is Paul is let go, and his enemies instead are the ones who are humiliated. The very leader of those who sought to punish Paul is instead the one who ends up being punished. Yet that is the way of things when God’s kingdom is in the earth. It turns situations around for God’s glory. It works in spite of all the efforts of its enemies to bring about God’s victory in the earth. That kingdom was present but in part in the Acts period. Yet when that kingdom comes in full, it will turn everything in this world upside-down, and make it at last the way God always intended it to be. What a great day that will be! May it come soon.
18. So Paul still remained a good while. Then he took leave of the brethren and sailed for Syria, and Priscilla and Aquila were with him. He had his hair cut off at Cenchrea, for he had taken a vow.
So unlike in many other cities when persecution arose, Paul is not forced to leave Corinth at this time. The governor of the city and the powerful Greeks are now behind Paul. There is nothing his enemies can do without inciting their wrath. So Paul is able to remain there, which he does for a good while longer.
Finally, however, his work in Corinth is finished. So he takes his leave of the brethren there, his fellow-believers in the Lord Jesus Christ. Then, he sails back to Syria, his home base, having completed once again a successful mission to proclaim the kingdom of God and the Lord Jesus Christ in the regions beyond where he had proclaimed it before, and where it had not yet been set forth. As he goes, he takes his friends Priscilla and Aquila with him. We could call them his new friends, but that would not be entirely accurate, for he spent more than two years in Corinth, and so they are probably quite good friends by now.
Now Paul comes to Cenchrea. This was actually a harbor of Corinth, so he is just beginning his journey when this took place. While there, he has his hair cut off. We are told the reason for this is that he had taken a vow.
Now this matter of Paul’s vow is a mysterious one for many, but I think the reason is that they do not know the Old Testament or the law very well. There was a vow set forth by God in the Old Testament, and this vow involved head shaving. This was the vow of the Nazirite, and it is set forth in Numbers 6. Verses 5 through 12 tell about this matter of the hair as it is connected to the Nazirite vow.
5. ‘All the days of the vow of his separation no razor shall come upon his head; until the days are fulfilled for which he separated himself to the LORD, he shall be holy. Then he shall let the locks of the hair of his head grow. 6. All the days that he separates himself to the LORD he shall not go near a dead body. 7. He shall not make himself unclean even for his father or his mother, for his brother or his sister, when they die, because his separation to God is on his head. 8. All the days of his separation he shall be holy to the LORD.
This makes it clear that when one had taken a Nazirite vow, he was not to shave his head until that vow was fulfilled. However, this was connected to another law for the Nazirite: that he was not to go near a dead body. Even for his close relatives he could not go near them if they died while he had the vow on him. This was rather an extreme thing, but then, that is what this Nazirite vow was all about. It was separating yourself to the LORD in a very extreme way.
Now there is one problem with a vow that means you can’t go near a dead body. That is, of course, what happens if you break this accidentally? What if you unknowingly come in contact with a dead body, and your vow is inadvertently broken? The following verses in Numbers 6 explain what to do in such a case.
9. ‘And if anyone dies very suddenly beside him, and he defiles his consecrated head, then he shall shave his head on the day of his cleansing; on the seventh day he shall shave it. 10. Then on the eighth day he shall bring two turtledoves or two young pigeons to the priest, to the door of the tabernacle of meeting; 11. and the priest shall offer one as a sin offering and the other as a burnt offering, and make atonement for him, because he sinned in regard to the corpse; and he shall sanctify his head that same day. 12. He shall consecrate to the LORD the days of his separation, and bring a male lamb in its first year as a trespass offering; but the former days shall be lost, because his separation was defiled.
So in the case of an accidental contact with a dead body, the Nazirite was to shave his head seven days later, and then bring an offering to the LORD for having broken his vow. Then, all the time of his vow that came before was lost. It was as if he was starting his vow over, for truly he was.
We shall not complete looking at the entire Nazirite vow. The reader can go through Numbers 6 himself for that. But let us look at what was to happen when a vow was terminated in a normal fashion.
13. ‘Now this is the law of the Nazirite: When the days of his separation are fulfilled, he shall be brought to the door of the tabernacle of meeting. 14. And he shall present his offering to the LORD: one male lamb in its first year without blemish as a burnt offering, one ewe lamb in its first year without blemish as a sin offering, one ram without blemish as a peace offering, 15. a basket of unleavened bread, cakes of fine flour mixed with oil, unleavened wafers anointed with oil, and their grain offering with their drink offerings.
16. ‘Then the priest shall bring them before the LORD and offer his sin offering and his burnt offering; 17. and he shall offer the ram as a sacrifice of a peace offering to the LORD, with the basket of unleavened bread; the priest shall also offer its grain offering and its drink offering. 18. Then the Nazirite shall shave his consecrated head at the door of the tabernacle of meeting, and shall take the hair from his consecrated head and put it on the fire which is under the sacrifice of the peace offering.
So we see that when the vow was completed, it had to be completed at the tabernacle, or in Paul’s day the temple. At this time, the one who had completed his Nazirite vow was to bring certain offerings to the LORD. Part of this was that he offered his consecrated hair to the LORD, putting it on the fire of his peace offering. That was how his hair was finally to be shaved.
Now Paul knew the law very well. When he made a vow to the LORD, there can be little doubt but that he did it the LORD’s way, and that meant a Nazirite vow. When Paul took this vow, he knew that however he meant to end it, he had to end it at Jerusalem, so he could complete it properly with the proper offerings and sacrifices. It is impossible to think that he was so careless as to end his vow purposefully in Corinth, and then went through the shaving ritual there. So why was it that he shaved his head at Corinth? You did not shave your head when beginning a vow, only when ending it, or when starting it over because your previous vow had been defiled. So there is only one possible answer here: Paul had been defiled, and had to shave his head in order to start his vow over.
Now according to what we read above, we know that Paul should have done this too at Jerusalem, and offered certain sacrifices and offerings to atone for this broken vow. Yet he could not do that. While he certainly must have planned for this vow to end at Jerusalem, there was nothing he could do about when it might accidentally be defiled. Perhaps in traveling to this harbor and searching for a ship to take him back to Syria, the accident had happened. Paul had contacted some dead body washed up from shore, or some corpse carelessly cast off a ship, and so his vow to the LORD, entered into with all honesty and integrity, was accidentally defiled. There was nothing Paul could do in this case. He was much too far from Jerusalem to ever hope to reach there in time to make the proper sacrifices to atone for this broken vow, as the law called for. There was nothing he could do but shave his head on the proper day, and let the Lord’s sacrifice on the cross, which Paul had taught others could justify you from all things from which you could not be justified by the law of Moses, justify him in this case. He had broken this vow, and could not restore it properly. Thus, he did what he could, and left the rest in the hands of God.
We might wonder what vow it was exactly that Paul had made? I think there can be little doubt of this, for Paul tells us later in the chapter, if we are looking for it. In verse 21, he tells the Ephesians that he cannot remain with them a longer time, telling them, “I must by all means keep this coming feast in Jerusalem; but I will return again to you, God willing.” Now Paul had missed many feasts while on his mission for God, including during the years he was in Corinth. Why was it so important that he keep this one in Jerusalem? I think there can be little doubt about it: Paul had vowed with a Nazirite vow that he would keep this next feast in the city where the LORD had chosen to place His name. Therefore, as much as he wanted to proclaim the truth to the Ephesians, he had no choice but to leave them now and head to Jerusalem. He might be allowed to inadvertently break a vow by accidental contact with a dead body, but he could not purposefully break a vow that he could very easily keep. So that is what this vow was about: he had vowed to keep this feast at Jerusalem.
This becomes even more likely when we consider the record of Acts 20. There, we learn that Paul again cut short a meeting with the Ephesians, and it tells us, “he was hurrying to be at Jerusalem, if possible, on the Day of Pentecost.” Acts 20:16b. Moreover, when he gets to Jerusalem, there is every evidence that his desire to be at Jerusalem for Pentecost was part of a vow. For the apostles there command him, “23. Therefore do what we tell you: We have four men who have taken a vow. 24. Take them and be purified with them, and pay their expenses so that they may shave their heads, and that all may know that those things of which they were informed concerning you are nothing, but that you yourself also walk orderly and keep the law.” Acts 21:23-24. Notice that they tell Paul to be purified with these men who have a vow on them. Paul could not be purified with those who had a vow on them unless he had a vow on himself as well. And what could that vow be? Again, I do not think that there is any doubt but that this was a Nazirite vow, and that the vow Paul had made was to live as a Nazirite until he kept the feast of Pentecost in Jerusalem.
But notice too what this tells us about Paul. For as we saw clearly in Numbers 6, the Nazirite vow was completed with a burnt offering, a sin offering, a peace offering, a grain offering, and a drink offering. Moreover, Acts 21 tells us that Paul was going to not only make these offerings for himself, but was also going to pay for four other men to make them. This shows us that, whatever he might have taught about the Jews outside the land who could not keep the law, Paul himself still was a lawkeeper, especially when he was in the land of Israel. Paul had voluntarily entered into these vows. There can just be no doubt about that. So it must be that Paul considered the vow of the Nazirite to still be valid. But for him to consider that, he also had to consider the temple with all its rituals to still be valid as well, including animal sacrifices, and EVEN SIN OFFERINGS. These things had not passed away with the resurrection of Jesus Christ, nor with the pouring out of the Holy Spirit in Acts 2, nor with the call of Paul himself. Israel and the law were still functioning in the book of Acts. It would wait until the writing of Colossians, when Paul proclaimed us to be “complete in Christ,” that the law and all having to do with it would be set aside, only to be resumed in the kingdom of God to come. Christ’s sacrifice did not end that, nor anything that had happened after that time up to Acts 18.
But to get back to Acts 18, Paul shaves his head in this harbor, because of his vow, and apparently because he had accidentally come in contact with a dead body. Yet when his shaving is completed, he continues his journey.