Sermon for Sunday Evening, July 2nd, 2023 at First Presbyterian Church at Unionville, NY (BPC)
[Act 18:18-23 ESV] 18 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. 19 And they came to Ephesus, and he left them there, but he himself went into the synagogue and reasoned with the Jews. 20 When they asked him to stay for a longer period, he declined. 21 But on taking leave of them he said, “I will return to you if God wills,” and he set sail from Ephesus. 22 When he had landed at Caesarea, he went up and greeted the church, and then went down to Antioch. 23 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.
Paul has now left Corinth where he had stayed for a relatively long time of18 months and where he found considerable success in preaching the Gospel and seeing people come to faith in Jesus Christ.
A number of places are mentioned. Cenchare, Ephesus, Caesarea, Antioch, Galatia, and Phrygia. It is a whirlwind tour. It is the end of his 2nd missionary journey, and beginning of his 3rd.
It is instructive to give some explanation of these travels. Paul leaves Corinth by going to Cenchreae, its port city. There he went by set sail for Syria, stopping first at Ephesus on the way. Syria is back where his “sending church” is at Antioch. But he doesn’t land there precisely, but in Caesarea. From there he “greeted the church” which means the Church in Jerusalem before going down to Antioch.
The reason for these travels, some believe, is because of that vow Paul took at Cenchrae. If it was a Nazirite vow, then he would have needed to go to Jerusalem to complete the vow with a sacrifice in the temple. The temple still existed at this time, and while Paul knew that sacrifices and the old testament laws were not necessary to be followed, he continued to “live as a Jew” to not disturb any of the Jews.
From Antioch he then went to Galatia and Phrygia, strengthening all the disciples. Grammatically, it seems he is “strengthening all the disciples” in Galata and Phrygia. But since he just went through Ephesus, Jerusalem, and Antioch, he no doubt strengthened the disciples in those places as well with his visit.
So let’ s look at this text in two parts. First there is “the vow” which may give reason for his traveling to Jerusalem. And then there is “the strengthening of the disciples” which begins his 3rd missionary journey, again departing from Antioch.
I. Paul’s Vow
Paul set sail with Priscilla and Aquila. Before he did, we read that “at Cenchreae he had cut his hair, for he was under a vow.”
There is no previous mention of this vow.
But first we should understand the place of oaths and vows. Our confession has a whole chapter on it. Chapter 22 is “Of Lawful Oaths and Vows.”
It explains that a vow is to be made with care, performed with faithfulness, not be made to any creature, but to God alone; it is to be made voluntarily out of faith; and that no man may vow to do anything forbidden in the Word of God.
So there were many people who took vows in the Old Testament.
Jacob, in Genesis 28:20 vowed saying “If God will be with me and will keep me in his way that I go, and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, so that I come again to my father’s house in peace, then the Lord shall be my God, and this stone, which I have set up for a pillar, shall be God’s house. And of all that you give me I will give a full tenth to you.”
And there is the vow of Hannah in 1st Samuel 1:11 who vowed “O Lord of hosts, if you will indeed look on the affliction of your servant and remember me and not forget your servant, but will give to your servant a son, then I will give him to the Lord all the days of his life, and no razor shall touch his head.”
And there we see an element of the “Nazirite vow.”
This is found in Numbers chapter 6.
[Num 6:1-21 ESV] 1 And the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, 2 “Speak to the people of Israel and say to them, When either a man or a woman makes a special vow, the vow of a Nazirite, to separate himself to the LORD, 3 he shall separate himself from wine and strong drink. He shall drink no vinegar made from wine or strong drink and shall not drink any juice of grapes or eat grapes, fresh or dried. 4 All the days of his separation he shall eat nothing that is produced by the grapevine, not even the seeds or the skins. 5 “All the days of his vow of separation, no razor shall touch his head. Until the time is completed for which he separates himself to the LORD, he shall be holy. He shall let the locks of hair of his head grow long. 6 “All the days that he separates himself to the LORD he shall not go near a dead body. 7 Not even for his father or for his mother, for brother or sister, if they die, shall he make himself unclean, because his separation to God is on his head. 8 All the days of his separation he is holy to the LORD. 9 “And if any man 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 On the eighth day he shall bring two turtledoves or two pigeons to the priest to the entrance of the tent of meeting, 11 and the priest shall offer one for a sin offering and the other for a burnt offering, and make atonement for him, because he sinned by reason of the dead body. And he shall consecrate his head that same day 12 and separate himself to the LORD for the days of his separation and bring a male lamb a year old for a guilt offering. But the previous period shall be void, because his separation was defiled. 13 “And this is the law for the Nazirite, when the time of his separation has been completed: he shall be brought to the entrance of the tent of meeting, 14 and he shall bring his gift to the LORD, one male lamb a year old without blemish for a burnt offering, and one ewe lamb a year old without blemish as a sin offering, and one ram without blemish as a peace offering, 15 and a basket of unleavened bread, loaves of fine flour mixed with oil, and unleavened wafers smeared with oil, and their grain offering and their drink offerings. 16 And 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 peace offering to the LORD, with the basket of unleavened bread. The priest shall offer also its grain offering and its drink offering. 18 And the Nazirite shall shave his consecrated head at the entrance of the tent of meeting and shall take the hair from his consecrated head and put it on the fire that is under the sacrifice of the peace offering. 19 And the priest shall take the shoulder of the ram, when it is boiled, and one unleavened loaf out of the basket and one unleavened wafer, and shall put them on the hands of the Nazirite, after he has shaved the hair of his consecration, 20 and the priest shall wave them for a wave offering before the LORD. They are a holy portion for the priest, together with the breast that is waved and the thigh that is contributed. And after that the Nazirite may drink wine. 21 “This is the law of the Nazirite. But if he vows an offering to the LORD above his Nazirite vow, as he can afford, in exact accordance with the vow that he takes, then he shall do in addition to the law of the Nazirite.”
This is the vow that Samson — with his long hair — was under. And perhaps it was a vow that John the Baptist was under. And now it probably is the vow that Paul was under.
It could be permanent or temporary, but while under the vow the person was to drink no alcohol or even touch grapes or any part of them. And they were not to cut their hair. And they were to have no contact with the dead. And at the end they were to make sacrifices in the tent of meeting or later the temple.
The reason it is called “Nazirite” is because they means “separate.” It was a reminder that God has called a people separate to himself.
Paul was separated, consecrated, or dedicated to the Lord.
We don’t know why Paul exactly made this vow. And we don’t know its duration. Perhaps it was only for his time in Corinth, because now that he leaves he has shaved his head, signifying the end of the vow. The final step is the sacrifices of animals. But we don’t have that recorded here, so we can’t say for certain that that happened.
We can actually be fully certain that this was a Nazirite vow. The text merely tells us that it was a vow. But the shaving of the hair is one good indication of it being a Nazirite vow. Regardless of what type of vow it was, we do see that it was not sinful.
In fact, making a vow to the Lord should be encouraged. Asking to be consecrated to him.
We sing in the hymn “Take my life and let it be, consecrated Lord to thee.”
Well, let’s see what a couple scholars says about this vow:
F. F. Bruce writes, Before setting sail, he had his hair cut: he had allowed it to grow long for the duration of a vow which he had undertaken. This was probably not a formal Nazirite vow, which could not properly be undertaken outside the Holy Land, but a private vow, the fulfilment of which was an act of thanksgiving—possibly for the divine promise of verse 10, which had been confirmed by his preservation from harm throughout his Corinthian ministry.
Simon J. Kistemaker and William Hendriksen wrote,
“[Paul] had his hair cut in Cenchrea, for he was keeping a vow.” Although the Greek word order can mean that Aquila had made a vow, the context points to Paul as the main subject in this verse. Paul followed the Jewish practice of making a Nazirite vow which stipulated that a person cut his hair at the conclusion of a specified period. Within thirty days following this period, a sacrifice had to be offered in Jerusalem. After Paul had made his vow, he was obligated to travel to Jerusalem and offer his locks with the sacrifice. Paul made this vow to express his thanksgiving to God for protecting him in Corinth and for blessing his work. To the Jews, Paul remained a Jew even in keeping vows and bringing offerings to the temple (21:23–26).
We find a vow mentioned one more time in Acts. It is the last time a vow in mentioned in the New Testament. Acts 21:17-24
[Act 21:17-24 ESV] 17 When we had come to Jerusalem, the brothers received us gladly. 18 On the following day Paul went in with us to James, and all the elders were present. 19 After greeting them, he related one by one the things that God had done among the Gentiles through his ministry. 20 And when they heard it, they glorified God. And they said to him, “You see, brother, how many thousands there are among the Jews of those who have believed. They are all zealous for the law, 21 and they have been told about you that you teach all the Jews who are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children or walk according to our customs. 22 What then is to be done? They will certainly hear that you have come. 23 Do therefore what we tell you. We have four men who are under a vow; 24 take these men and purify yourself along with them and pay their expenses, so that they may shave their heads. Thus all will know that there is nothing in what they have been told about you, but that you yourself also live in observance of the law.
So we see vows continuing acceptably among the disciples.
II. Strengthening all the Disciples
But Paul’s journey must continue. And generally this point is a break made between his 2nd and 3rd missionary journeys as Paul has come back to Antioch.
Though great things have been done and he’s reported back even to Jerusalem with the good news of the Gentiles coming to faith, there is more work to do.
He has spent a year and half preaching and teaching in Corinth.
But where does the Lord want him to go?
The Jews it the synagogue at Ephesus wanted him to stay there but he said “I will return to you if God wills.”
And Paul could have enjoyed staying among the believers in Jerusalem or Antioch.
But we see that he goes back out on the road visiting those place he went before in order to strengthen the disciples.
We see his focus now on teaching (as he did in Corinth) and generally on taking the next steps in the faith. It is not a hit and run preaching style, but Paul cares about Christian converts and want them to grow in the faith.
He doesn’t even charge money, like the Scientologists do. And he doesn’t hold back important truths like the Gnostics or even the Freemasons claim to do. Yes, Paul might in wisdom teach things in a certain order – teaching the simple first and the complex later. But he would only then be working towards those greater truths which he is glad to tell, pro bono, free of charge.
So we see the important of strengthening disciples.
How might we incorporate this idea? Providing Bibles and Christian books (or at least recommendations of them) to younger Christians. Following up with people. Calling them – where have you been? We’ve missed you at church. Checking up on them. Discipling them.