In these chapters, we’re being introduced to places that we perhaps know better from Paul’s letters to them: Philippi and Thessalonica, and here in chapter 18, Corinth and Ephesus. Reading these chapters in Acts not only tells us about the spread of the Gospel in the areas, but also gives us strong connections to the history and occasions of the letters that we know about. Paul had a strong connection with these people, since he had lived and worked among them. And so we read this chapter not only to see God at work in those instances, but to deepen our understanding of the larger body of the Scriptures: the New Testament and the whole Bible.
18:1 Corinth is just west of Athens, in the region of Achaia. It was a significant city for trade and cultural influence, and this fact was also part of the pattern of Paul’s missionary work: he often went to smaller towns and villages but we get the most detail about his work in the larger centres. This makes sense; it’s a strategy. God’s work isn’t random, but full of purpose. As we’ll see as the chapter goes on, Paul’s work in these places begins to multiply the effects of God’s work through him when others carry it on.
18:2-4 Again some of the first connections in a new city are those for whom Paul already has religious connections with; remember that he was a Pharisee, a leader among Jews. It’s also in this verse that we learn that Paul was a tentmaker. Though his ministry was full of travel, it wasn’t necessarily “full-time” in the way that we would think about it. Certainly at times it was, but there were stretches like this where he devoted time to both his trade and the ministry of the Word.
18:5-7 One point in connection with the rejection of the Word by some is the response of those doing the proclamation. In our day we often envision developing relationships and “the long view”, where there is patient work done. And there is certainly merit in that within the context of some ministry work. But we also see another approach not only here but in the Gospel accounts as well (e.g. Luke 9:1-6, Luke 10:1-12): a shorter-term one. In Luke, Jesus sends out the Twelve and the seventy-two, and their commission is quite short-term: if received, well and good, but if not, they are to “shake the dust off their feet” as a testimony against those who rejected the Word. Here in Acts 18, Paul spends a while in this specific effort (18:4) but it seems like it’s a matter of weeks, not even months or years (though he will end up staying in the area for about 18 months but not among the Jews who rejected the Word (18:11). And when rejected, Paul testifies that their rejection is “on them”, not on him.
18:9-17 Those who receive the Word become a gathered people; this is the founding of an ongoing congregation in Corinth. We also see here not only religious conflict between Jews and Christians, but also attempts by the Jews to invoke the Roman law of the land to bring persecution against Paul and the Christians there. We’ll see this again in later chapters of Acts.
18:18-21 Paul continues to journey. It’s what he was set apart to do. At this point he may have also taken a Nazarite vow (see Numbers 6:1-21) as an act of thanksgiving. Ephesus was also a strategic city, and we will hear much more about Paul’s return to Ephesus later. The language of “if God wills” is important, and can be a learning for us too: we may make our plans, but it’s always best to recognize that God may have something different in His will than we do (see also James 4:13-16).
We’re now introduced to others who also carry on ministry. It’s never been just Paul, though the focus has been on him. Apollos begins to teach and is fulfilling the ministry of the Word. Though we know he was at Ephesus, it seems as though he also was teaching in the synagogue at Corinth, due to his connection to Aquila and Priscilla.
18:26 And even men as eloquent and competent as Apollos need guidance and learning, and so we hear that Priscilla and Aquila, who Paul had first encountered in Corinth (18:2) and who had traveled with him (18:18), now bring a better understanding by privately instructing him in the Word so that he can better understand and proclaim it. This was probably in reference to Baptism, since Apollos only knew about John’s preparatory baptism of repentance, and didn’t have the full understanding of Christian Baptism (baptism for repentance and the forgiveness of sins in the name of the Triune God).
18:27-28 Note again the involvement of the church: Apollos doesn’t do ministry on his own but is encouraged and commissioned for it. And it is a great blessing from God that multiple people are called by Him through the commissioning of the Church to labour in the ministry of the Word. His message is exactly the same as Paul’s—Jesus is the Christ— and even his own methods are the same: as a Jew, he did his proclamation in the synagogues.