The city of Corinth is part of an isthmus about 5 miles wide, which had two harbors. Its western harbor, Lechea, was on the western side of the Grecian peninsula and faced the Adriatic Sea, while its eastern seaport, Cenchrea, faced the Aegean Sea on the eastern side of the peninsula, where the church at Corinth was founded (Romans 16:1). We are told in Acts 18:18 that Paul shaved his head at Cenchrea, because he had a vow, but what was Paul’s vow? The text doesn’t say, but I think we can gain some insight, if we consider what happened to Paul during his visit to the Roman province of Achaia.
First of all, when did Paul make this vow? Again the text doesn’t say, but I believe it implies he may have made it upon the arrival of Silas and Timothy in Corinth (Acts 18:5). It is here that we are told that Paul was “pressed in the spirit” (KJV). The Greek word for “pressed is sunecho (G4912). It is used of the people of the Gadarenes (Luke 8:37) who were “taken” with great fear because of what Jesus had done for the demoniac there. It is used of Jesus in Luke 12:50 when he expressed he was “straightened” for the crucifixion to be over. It is also used in a few places of people “taken” with illnesses. But, I think we can see from these two Scriptures that Paul fervently desired something in his spirit, but what was he desirous of? Well, the text says that Paul was “pressed in the spirit” AND “testified to the Jews that Jesus was the Christ.” However, if this is so, why was Paul so concerned for these Jews in Corinth, since the Scriptures don’t indicate he had taken a vow on the behalf of his countrymen anywhere else?
This leads us to the second indicator for the reason for Paul making his vow. If you have followed me throughout Paul’s missionary journeys, you would see that he met with trouble wherever he had gone. Paul had made a practice of going to the Jew first and then to the gentile. He would begin his testimony in a synagogue, if one were in a city, and seek to persuade the Jews and any gentile God-fearers who might be worshiping there. When he came to Athens, however, it seems the Jews there were of the liberal type that were willing to ‘live and let live,’ so to speak, as it pertained to witnessing to those ignorant of the God of Israel. The text says Paul disputed with the Jews and the devout people in the synagogue, and daily with those who would meet with him in the marketplace (Acts 17:17). Long-story-short, some of the city’s philosophers heard him and had him speak to them at the Areopagus on Mar’s Hill. Paul delivered what is arguably his best recorded speech in the NT, but some mocked him, laughing as they left, while others said “we will hear you again.” In other words, “don’t call us we’ll call you.” Which was worse for Paul, encountering people so excited about the message that they tried to lock him in prison and perhaps kill him or encountering people who mocked and laughed at him, believing him to be a “babbler” – i.e. a “seed-picker” or one who trifles with words, picking up scraps of knowledge where he can?
Paul established churches in Philippi, Thessalonica, and Berea, but in a large city like Athens, only a handful were interested in the God of Israel. The city was so taken with idols, that they had absolutely no regard for truth. Paul was absolutely eloquent in Athens, but his fruit was meager. When he came to Corinth he was determined to “know” nothing but Christ, and him crucified (1Corinthians 2:2). Athens was a bad memory he didn’t want to repeat. He spent his time working at his trade in the marketplace (Acts18:2-3) and disputed with the Jews and God-fearers in the synagogue (Acts 18:4). When Silas and Timothy arrived with their good news about the churches he had planted in Macedonia (Acts 18:5), Paul was both excited and in mourning. He mourned over the harvest fields of Athens and Corinth, but took encouragement over those in Macedonia. It was at this time and for the reasons mentioned that I believe Paul “was pressed in his spirit” and made a vow. Almost immediately afterward, the Jews became antagonistic, but Paul had a vision from Jesus that the harvest in Corinth would be plentiful.
I believe Paul’s vow was that of a Nazarite. It would have been an outward indication to his unbelieving Jewish brethren that Paul was devoting himself to the Lord and his work. Even his shaving his head at Cenchera would have been a sign to them of his intention to sacrifice the appropriate offering in the Temple at Jerusalem, which he did. He set sail for Syria (Acts 18:18), stopping off at Ephesus. He spoke to Jews there, but when they wanted him to stay, he told them he had to keep the feast at Jerusalem (Acts 18:19-21). After he landed at Caesarea, Paul went up (to Jerusalem) and saluted the church there (and made the appropriate offering) and went down to Antioch (Acts 18:22). According to Josephus Paul had 30 days to offer up the appropriate sacrifice after his vow was complete [JOSEPHUS: “Wars of the Jews”, book 2; chapter 15; paragraph 1].
When Paul wrote his letter to the Corinthians he told them to consider their numbers, that not many wise had been called of God (1Corinthians 1:26), thus showing, it is not in wisdom of words, eloquent speeches or great arguments that people are won to the Lord. God looks upon our works and the increase with which he blesses us is inversely proportional to the degree “I” am invested in the Gospel—how much of it is my words, my knowledge and my eloquence (1Corinthians 1:17). God is not impressed with what normally impresses man, so he will not bless this effort abundantly (1Corinthians 1:19). His blessings flow from those who know nothing but Christ and him crucified (1Corinthians 2:2). His is our Wisdom (1Corinthians 1:24, 30). Praise God!