“After this, Paul stayed many days longer and then took leave of the brothers and set sail for Syria, and with him Priscilla and Aquila. At Cenchreae he had cut his hair, for he was under a vow. And they came to Ephesus, and he left them there, but he himself went into the synagogue and reasoned with the Jews. When they asked him to stay for a longer period, he declined. But on taking leave of them he said, “I will return to you if God wills,” and he set sail from Ephesus. When he had landed at Caesarea, he went up and greeted the church, and then went down to Antioch. After spending some time there, he departed and went from one place to the next through the region of Galatia and Phrygia, strengthening all the disciples. Now a Jew named Apollos, a native of Alexandria, came to Ephesus. He was an eloquent man, competent in the Scriptures. He had been instructed in the way of the Lord. And being fervent in spirit, he spoke and taught accurately the things concerning Jesus, though he knew only the baptism of John. He began to speak boldly in the synagogue, but when Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they took him aside and explained to him the way of God more accurately. And when he wished to cross to Achaia, the brothers encouraged him and wrote to the disciples to welcome him. When he arrived, he greatly helped those who through grace had believed, for he powerfully refuted the Jews in public, showing by the Scriptures that the Christ was Jesus.” (Acts 18:18-28 ESV)
Have you ever made a promise that you found difficult to keep? I’m certain, you have. We live in a world of broken promises. The question is not whether you’ve ever made a promise you couldn’t keep, but the impact of that broken promise upon you and the upon the recipient. Regardless of which side of those promises you stand on, broken promises hurt and they can hurt a lot. The good news is that God is able to rescue us from the pain and impact of both, giving and receiving broken promises.
If you view the story line of scripture as one grand story, then it is easy to see it as a story of God’s promises and their fulfillment. God made and makes amazing promises, but He keeps them. He not only has the desire and intent to keep His promises, He has the power and resolve to keep them. If God makes a promise then mark it down, it will be fulfilled. How can I be so sure? Simply put, experience. I see the evidence that God has done what He promised in the past and I have personally experienced the fulfillment of God’s promises in my life and in others. But, I know I’m not the only one. Have you?
What does all of this have to do with today’s focal passage? Stay with me, we’ll take a look…
Today’s passage begins with Paul leaving Corinth to head back to Jerusalem, and Antioch of Syria. As he heads out, he makes a brief stop at the port of Cenchreae on the east coast of the Corinthian Isthmus. Luke notes that Paul cut his hair at Cenchreae because he had made a vow. It appears that Paul may have made a vow either just after he arrived in Macedonia or during his early days of preaching there. Paul had taken a Nazarite vow and you can find specifics of this vow in Numbers 6, but the cutting of his hair would come at the completion of the vow and in preparation for taking the hair to the Temple in Jerusalem for a sacrifice to God.
The Jewish Encyclopedia indicates that this vow was often taken when someone was dealing with some kind of illness or another issue causing significant distress. Given these facts, it seems likely that Paul may have taken this vow as a means of dealing with the distress of the Jewish opposition throughout Macedonia (see Acts 18:9-10; 1 Thess. 2:2, 2:14-16; 1 Cor. 2:3-5; 1 Cor. 4:9-13). We often want to make deals with God regarding issues that cause distress in our lives, but it seems the deal we want to make is more about God removing the distress. It appears Paul’s vow was probably related to the work in Macedonia and Achaia and once that work was completed, he completed his vow and cut his hair in preparation to present it for sacrifice in Jerusalem.
So, Paul’s vow was obviously not a promise to remain faithful if God would make things easier and less difficult. It appears to have been a request for God to help him through the struggles and fears that plagued him throughout Macedonia. Once Christ had fulfilled his promise (see Acts 26:16-18) and Paul reached the shores of Cenchreae on his journey home, he knew his vow was complete and God’s promise had been fulfilled. He then cut his hair in preparation for sacrificing it before the Lord on the altar in Jerusalem.
Why do I share these things with you? Because Christ has made similar promises to you and me. Promises to be with us in the midst of our struggles as we follow Him, promises to never leave us or abandon us, promises to keep us eternally safe in God’s hand (see John 10:27-30, 14:3, 14:23, 16:1-4, 17:15-19; et. al.). Like Paul, we will experience struggles, challenges, rejection and, perhaps, even beatings and prison but it is critical that you understand that these things are NOT signs of God’s abandonment, they are a sign of His presence and His power…
“I have said all these things to you to keep you from falling away. They will put you out of the synagogues. Indeed, the hour is coming when whoever kills you will think he is offering service to God. And they will do these things because they have not known the Father, nor me. But I have said these things to you, that when their hour comes you may remember that I told them to you. “I did not say these things to you from the beginning, because I was with you.” (John 16:1-4 ESV)
I know, encouraging words aren’t they? I mentioned last week that many who once claimed belief and faith in Christ are now questioning and even abandoning the truth of God’s Word. There have been several big name “celebrity” Christians who have recently abandoned the faith and now deny the truth of the gospel. In my opinion, they never truly knew Christ and must have simply embraced an emotional faith or a “feel good” gospel. Scripture does speak to those who will fall away due to persecution: “And these are the ones sown on rocky ground: the ones who, when they hear the word, immediately receive it with joy. And they have no root in themselves, but endure for a while; then, when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately they fall away.” (Mark 4:16-17 ESV)
Jesus tells the disciples later, “Then they will deliver you up to tribulation and put you to death, and you will be hated by all nations for my name’s sake. And then many will fall away and betray one another and hate one another. And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray. And because lawlessness will be increased, the love of many will grow cold. But the one who endures to the end will be saved.” (Matthew 24:9-13 ESV) So, I want to encourage you to stay strong, develop deep roots in the faith, recognize the danger of shallow, comfort focused faith and to develop and maintain a deep, deep love for God.
Next, I want you to notice what happens in Ephesus. Paul makes a brief stop in Ephesus on his way to Jerusalem and Aquila and Priscilla have accompanied him there. Paul goes to the Synagogue and engages the Jews as he seeks to persuade them to trust Christ as the promised Messiah. He then makes preparations to leave and continue his journey to Jerusalem, but Aquila and Priscilla decide to remain in Ephesus. It isn’t clear whether Paul asks them to stay or if they make this decision on their own. Either way, it is clear that God is at work in Ephesus. In fact, the believers in Ephesus beg him to stay longer, but he won’t be deterred. Luke briefly tells us that Paul completes his trip as he lands at Caesarea, briefly visits the Jerusalem church and, while there, fulfills his vow, and then travels back to Antioch of Syria.
Meanwhile, back in Ephesus, we learn that a new, young and very dynamic preacher, an Alexandrian Jew named Apollos, has arrived and begins to make a very BIG impression on the Ephesian church. Luke describes him as being eloquent, fervent, competent in the Scriptures (Old Testament – Jewish scriptures), instructed in the way of the Lord and that he taught accurately the things concerning Jesus. Except… he only knew the baptism of John. It is important to understand this distinction, because it can be very misleading. In fact, we will look next week at just how misleading it could be. Simply put, Apollos seems to have known what John taught regarding the promised Messiah and its fulfillment in Jesus. But his knowledge and understanding seem to end there, just short of the Cross and the resurrection.
It is possible to have some knowledge, some understanding, some truth while lacking full knowledge, understanding and truth. Partial knowledge is better than none, but it certainly isn’t enough. It’s lacking essential details and can cause you to miss out on saving faith. There are two dangerous areas of spiritual belief. First, to be lacking in knowledge and understanding and having just enough to feel comfortable and safe while lacking essential aspects of truth that lead to real saving faith. We see this in Apollos and we will see it some other “disciples” that we will encounter, next week. Second, there’s significant spiritual danger in trying to add elements to Christian faith that go beyond scriptural teachings. In other words, you need to believe in Christ but you must also “do, say, or have” these other things for faith to be real.
Now, don’t misunderstand me. Faithful obedience to Christ and His commands are the natural results of saving faith. Jesus himself said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” (John 14:15 ESV) James and Paul do NOT disagree on this issue. While Paul emphasizes salvation by grace through faith apart from works (see Eph. 2:8-9), he certainly expects obedience to Christ. For example, read Rom. 12:9-21 and notice how similar it is to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount or Plain (in Matt. 5-7 and Luke 6). James emphasizes that faith without actions (obedience or works) is simply dead faith. What is dead faith? It is knowing and understanding what God promised and what Christ did but without “denying yourself and taking up your own cross” to follow Him (see Luke 9:23).
You might have missed it above, but Paul addresses this very issue with the Ephesian church. In his letter to the Ephesians, he states: “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” (Ephesians 2:8-10 ESV) He told them this in his letter because they needed to hear it, again. By GRACE, through FAITH and not a result of works (personal morality or religious obedience). We need to hear it, again.
Many in our modern culture tend to think that God owes them something. Well, He does owe them something, but not what they are wanting or expecting. Maybe you’ve approached God this way, in the past. If so, stop and recognize that even the smallest and most innocuous sin in your life is a bold and glaring declaration that God is not Lord, you are. Now realize that’s a HUGE sin. The smallest sin screams out “I’m GOD of my life, you aren’t!” That’s nothing but outright idolatry. Scripture then declares that what God “owes you” for that egregious sin of idolatry is death (see Rom. 6:23).
But Grace… grace through faith. Grace that is undeserved flowing through faith in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Not because of something you’ve done, but because of what HE has done. By GRACE alone, through FAITH alone, with nothing else needed and nothing else added, because Jesus’ death and resurrection are completely sufficient. Will you trust Him, today?