Acts Week 9

Hugs and Kisses — and Heartache, Too: Acts 18:23–21:17

By Jack Levison

W. J. A. Power Professor of Old Testament and Biblical Hebrew, Southern Methodist University

Read this week’s Scripture: Acts 18:23–21:17


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If It’s Tuesday, This Must Be Samos

The year is 1969. Men land on the moon. My mother wakes me up in my little blue bedroom so that I can watch, in eerie black and white, as my heroes step onto the cratered landscape. But I am 13 — on the cusp of healthy adolescence. So I also watch the risqué movie, “If It’s Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium,” in which a womanizing tour guide leads a group of quirky Americans on a whirlwind adventure — a misadventure really — of nine countries in 18 days. When things go wild in our household, Priscilla and I still quip, “If it’s Tuesday, this must be Belgium.”

Paul’s third journey has the movie’s feel of hurry — though, smack dab in the middle of the flurry, Paul spends two years in Ephesus, which means the so-called journey lasted roughly four years, about 54–58 C.E. Paul stays put in Ephesus, but you get the feeling he is antsy, because, afterwards, Paul scampers from one place to another, anxious to land in Jerusalem in time for Pentecost (Acts 20:13–16). “If it’s Tuesday, this must be Samos.” Still, we mustn’t let the flurry of Paul’s frenetic pace mask insights for mission — and for life — that we need to know:

  • How to keep mission moving
  • How to face challenges
  • What — whom, really — to leave behind

How to Keep Mission Moving

Moving ahead in mission requires practical components. For starters, mission requires flexibility. The ability to turn on a dime is pivotal to people of mission. They float by boat (Acts 20:13–16; 21:1). They travel by land (20:13; 21:8, 15). Sometimes, they change their strategies at a moment’s notice: Paul “was about to set sail for Syria when a plot was made against him by the Jews, so he decided to return through Macedonia” (20:3).

Mission requires company. Paul is rarely alone. When Paul needed to be in two places at the same time, “he sent two of his helpers, Timothy and Erastus, to Macedonia, while he himself stayed for some time longer in Asia” (Acts 19:22). When he changed his strategy and returned through Macedonia, “he was accompanied by Sopater son of Pyrrhus from Beroea, by Aristarchus and Secundus from Thessalonica, by Gaius from Derbe, and by Timothy, as well as Tychicus and Trophimus from Asia” (20:4).

Mission requires a network of support. Look at those names again — where they come from. These are representatives of churches from four regions of the Roman Empire: Macedonia (Berea and Thessalonica), Galatia (Derbe and Lystra), Asia, and Achaia (Corinth). Paul is a pilgrim about to bring his offering to Jerusalem — not sheaves but faithful people, not goats but God-lovers from the expanse of empire. [Author’s Note 1] On a practical level, this network becomes the human roadwork of mission. When Apollos, for instance, left Ephesus for Corinth, Ephesian believers “encouraged him and wrote to the disciples to welcome him” (Acts 18:28). [Author’s Note 2]

Mission requires avid hospitality. Paul spent two years in Ephesus (Acts 19:9–10), three months in Greece (20:2–3), seven days both in Tyre (21:3) and Troas (21:6), one day in Ptolemais (21:7), and who knows how many in the homes of Philip (21:8) and Mnason of Cyprus (21:16).

Mission also requires purpose. Paul goes from place to place, like Galatia and Phrygia, “strengthening all the disciples” (Acts 18:23). Before leaving Ephesus “after encouraging them and saying farewell, he left for Macedonia” (20:1). Throughout Macedonia, he gives “the believers much encouragement” (20:2).

How to Face Challenges

These, in a nutshell, are the ingredients of mission: flexibility, companions, a widespread network of support, hospitality, and purpose. These ingredients guarantee that mission keeps moving. Yet, in each locale, local challenges rear their heads. We learn how to face these challenges by seeing what happens when Paul and company stop moving.

Making the change. Flexibility is necessary, not just on the move, but locally, too. In Ephesus, Paul is intrepid in the synagogue for three months, until he gets nowhere fast. So he takes his colleagues and heads to the lecture hall — schole, as in scholar — of Tyrannus, where for two years he teaches until the whole of Asia Minor, “Jews and Greeks, heard the word of the Lord” (Acts 19:8–10). Apparent stalemate, maybe even defeat, has led Paul to a different venue. No time for bouts of morose reflection on failure. There’s work to be done.

Letting cooler heads prevail. The Jews aren’t Paul’s only opponents in Ephesus. Demetrius, a silversmith, is peeved at Paul’s anti-idolatry message, which sinks his sales. So he starts a riot that threatens Paul’s travel buddies, Gaius and Aristarchus. Paul wants to join the fray, but the Ephesian believers won’t let him. Good thing. The roar of the violent mob crescendos until the town clerk, a bureaucrat, a pragmatist, a pencil (or quill) pusher, a “scribe” — not a missionary or believer at all — steps in, unruffles the mob’s feathers, and quiets them by telling them, yes, of course, the goddess Artemis lives here. Thank goodness for cooler heads — both the church’s and the town clerk’s — than Paul’s. There’s other work to be done.           

Taking care of business. Luke, a fabulous storyteller, transports us from the thud of hostility and a harried travelogue (Acts 20:1–6) to a quiet evening, where Paul holds sway until midnight in an upper room (20:7). When oil lamps make the room too hot, a boy falls asleep and out the window. Paul hops down three flights, bends over him, takes him in his arms, and says matter-of-factly, “Do not be alarmed, for his life is in him.” Then back upstairs Paul toddles, where he spends time with them until dawn (20:11).

Paul, like Elijah and Elisha long before, may have brought the boy back to life. I’m not sure. Luke doesn’t say. [Author’s Note 3] Either way — and here’s the point — Paul gets on with life, with mission, eating and talking till dawn with believers he may never see again. Who needs fanfare? Who wants fantastic miracles? There’s compelling work to be done — eating and meeting together.

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What — Whom, Really — to Leave Behind

So much has happened since Acts 13, when Paul and Barnabas left Antioch on their first journey. This, the third journey, is full of people whom the missionaries may never see again. Quite an array of people are left behind to do mission work when Paul heads, come hell or high water, to Jerusalem en route to Rome!

An eloquent semi-believer. Meet Apollos, whose little story peeks out of the drama that swirls in Ephesus. Apollos, knowledgeable in the Way of the Lord — a shorthand expression for “how to follow Jesus” [Author’s Note 4] — teaches about Jesus accurately, although he knows only the baptism of John, a baptism of water for repentance rather than a baptism in the spirit. Apollos teaches accurately without the baptism in the holy spirit! Odd? Unlikely?

Add this to the mix: Apollos teaches while “burning with enthusiasm.” The Greek reads literally, “burning with the spirit.” You can see why some translators (e.g., NIV and NRSV) choose “enthusiasm” over “spirit” — Apollos hasn’t been baptized the right way so can’t have the holy spirit. But what if translators got it wrong? What if people who don’t know the whole of the Christian message can still, like Apollos, be “well-versed in the scriptures,” “burning with the spirit,” and able to teach “accurately the things concerning Jesus” (Acts 18:24–25)? If this is possible, our tidy little who’s-in-who’s-out circles explode. What if people who aren’t quite Christian can be knowledgeable, inspired, and competent communicators of Jesus? [Author’s Note 5]

An extraordinary couple. Apollos was the protégé, but the mentors Paul left behind deserve a word as well (Acts 18:1–4, 24–28). The evangelical church is tattered and torn by the question of women’s roles in church and home. Some are sure that women cannot teach; others are equally sure they can. We even turn the order of the couple’s names — Priscilla first — into a matter for debate. Let’s just take a breath, relax, and simply notice that Priscilla and Aquila are together.

  • They, Aquila and Priscilla, feel the wrenching impact of becoming refugees, of leaving their home in Rome due to the fickle distaste of a Roman emperor for Jews (Acts 18:2).
  • They, not just Aquila, work together as tentmakers (18:3).
  • They, not just Priscilla, are hospitable — hosting Paul for 18 months (18:3, 11).
  • They, not just Priscilla, take Apollos home. [Author’s Note 6]
  • They, not just Aquila, “explained the way of God to him more accurately” (18:26).

The winsomeness of this couple, the bond that held them together when they became refugees, the strength of their intellects, the depth of their knowledge, the vigor of their hospitality, their ability to teach in tandem at an incredibly high level — all of this makes the endless and furious arguments about whether women should be allowed to teach seem like a pale shadow of what the church should be.

An odd little band of disciples. Outside of Ephesus, Paul and company meet up with an odd band of about 12 disciples who, like Apollos, were baptized for repentance — the way John the Baptist baptized. Paul baptized them “in the name of the Lord Jesus,” laid his hands on them, the holy spirit came, “and they spoke in tongues and prophesied” (Acts 19:3–6). Then Paul left and headed for three months to the Ephesian synagogue (19:8).

Notice this: after a few moments of being hands on, Paul is totally hands off. He is happy, apparently, to transmit the holy spirit and leave them on their own. Why? Is he just one of those great leaders who know how to delegate, like Peter and company, who lay hands on the Samaritans and let them be? [Author’s Note 7]

Probably. Mission requires movement, and movement requires trusting the people left behind. Sometimes they screw up, like the people at Corinth, with whom Paul spent 18 months. Still, screw-ups can’t stop mission. [Author’s Note 8]

Paul probably also had no qualms about leaving these disciples alone because he recognized the authentic work of the holy spirit. He’d seen speaking in tongues before, and he knew that their version, which combined ecstasy and comprehension, was the right stuff.

The first time, during the Jewish feast of Pentecost, Jesus’ followers “were filled with the holy spirit and began to speak in other languages” (Acts 2:4). You’ve got signs of ecstasy here — fire, filling with spirit, the appearance of drunkenness, and speaking in (other) tongues — alongside utter clarity, when they speak the praiseworthy acts of God in a slew of dialects. [Author’s Note 9] “Praiseworthy acts,” remember, is a shorthand expression for God’s acts in Israel’s history. [Author’s Note 10] At Pentecost, then, ecstasy is directly associated with clear speech.

The second time, the holy spirit comes upon Cornelius and his Gentile friends. Peter and his Jewish friends hear them “speaking in tongues and [praising] God.” Mention of praise takes us straight back to Acts 2, because the words “praising [megalunein] God” (Acts 10:46) connect to the words “praiseworthy acts [megaleia] of God.” In short, Acts 10 extends Acts 2. The pagan Pentecost, like the Jewish Pentecost early on, combines praise with the ecstasy of speaking in tongues.

The third time, the odd band of disciples near Ephesus “spoke in tongues and prophesied.” Prophesying in Acts, like praise, is always crystal clear. For example, the prophet Agabus predicts a famine (Acts 11:27–28). Prophets Judas and Silas head to Antioch with a mandate to interpret the Jerusalem Council’s letter (15:22, 27, 32).

On all three occasions of speaking in tongues, the holy spirit ties ecstasy at the hip with comprehension. Authentic inspiration takes the form of speaking in tongues that produces lucid speech, whether it’s God’s praiseworthy acts in “other tongues” (Acts 2), praise (Acts 10), or prophecy (Acts 19).

The resemblance among these three experiences in Jerusalem, Caesarea, and Ephesus explains why Paul is satisfied so quickly to leave the Ephesian disciples rather than digging his claws into them to maintain control. He doesn’t need to maintain control. They already bathe and bask in the presence of the holy spirit. They already speak inspired truth. They already prophesy.

Able leaders. Paul met this band of disciples serendipitously; later, he makes plans to meet a very different group of disciples in Miletus, to whom he delivers his third main speech in the book of Acts.

  • In the first speech, Paul addresses Jews in the synagogue (Acts 13:16–43).
  • In the second, Paul addresses Greeks on Mars Hill (17:16–34).
  • In the third, Paul addresses elders of the church in Ephesus (20:17–38).

This third speech is a marvel: thoroughly defensive (“I am not responsible for the blood of any of you” (20:26)) [Author’s Note 11], strangely void of the usual quotes from Jewish Scripture, pricked by a puzzling theological statement that God bled [Author’s Note 12], rich with dire predictions of wolves who will infiltrate the church with false teaching, rife with practical teaching (“we must support the weak” (20:25)), even ending with a quotation of Jesus we can’t find anywhere in the gospels (“‘It is more blessed to give than to receive’” (20:35)). Yet for all its defensiveness and dire predictions, despite its theological oddities and scriptural anomalies, the speech shows us the greatest legacy of Paul’s missionary journeys, of mission in general: people whom he loves, people who love him.

It’s a tough speech, setting the bar high with an honest assessment of the responsibilities and risks ahead. It’s been quite a run in Ephesus: three months of failure in the Jewish synagogue, a two-year stint in the Hall of Tyrannus, and riot in the theatre. Yes, it’s been quite a run, and, at its end, the words of Paul’s speech are eclipsed by wordlessness but not silence. After taking to their knees in prayer, “There was much weeping among them all; they [fell on Paul’s neck] [Author’s Note 13] and kissed him [again and again], grieving especially because of what he had said, that they would not see him again. Then they brought him to the ship” (Acts 20:36–38). [Author’s Note 14]

What is the legacy of successful mission? People we embrace in sheer heartache at the thought of their absence. People we kiss again and again in the face of inevitable loss. People we pray with, weep with, grieve with. That is — they are — the legacy of mission. 

Questions for Further Reflection

  1. In what ways do we see the body of Christ supporting the ministry and mission of Paul in Acts 18:23–21:17? Why is this important? How have you experienced this kind of intentional support and hospitality as you have served in ministry and mission? Think about a few practical ways that you might reach out to offer support for someone in ministry you are connected with.
  2. Dr. Levison draws attention to the ways in which Paul persevered amid challenges to his ministry. What are some of the strategies he notes, and how are they demonstrated in the text? Do any of these strategies challenge a situation you are currently a part of? If so, how might you work to see change?
  3. Dr. Levison also highlights Paul’s ability to delegate leadership as he continues onward in mission. Who are some of the leaders we see in Chapter 18, and what stands out to you about their stories? Why do you think delegation is an important leadership trait?
  4. Re-read the final paragraph of today’s Lectio. Do you agree or disagree with Dr. Levison’s assertion about the legacy of a successful mission? Why? What word of challenge or encouragement might the account of Paul’s departure from Ephesus have for today’s church?

Author’s Notes

Author’s Note 1

See Romans 15:14–21 for Paul’s own statement of this vision.


Author’s Note 2

Letters of support, of commendation, which Paul writes so much about in 2 Corinthians 3–6, paved the way for a warm reception in far-flung, young churches.


Author’s Note 3

See 1 Kings 17:21; 2 Kings 4:34–35.


Author’s Note 4

See Acts 8:25; 12:24; 13:44, 48.


Author’s Note 5

Apollos breaks the pattern in another way: he doesn’t convert. There’s no indication that he receives the spirit. No laying on of hands, no speaking in tongues, no confession of faith. What changes? Simply that his ability to teach the Way of God “accurately” becomes the ability to teach “more accurately” under the deft tutelage of Priscilla and Aquila (Acts 18:26). He leaves Ephesus for Corinth, where “he powerfully refuted the Jews in public, showing by the scriptures that the Messiah is Jesus” (18:28). Apollos’ persuasiveness becomes legendary; the Corinthians, we know from Paul’s letter, hold Apollos in such esteem that they pit him against Paul in their ill-advised effort to subdivide the church into cliques. See 1 Corinthians 1:12; 3:4–6, 22; 4:6; 16:12.


Author’s Note 6

The Greek word is proslambanō — literally, “take to oneself.” The ESV, NRSV, NASB, and Message all have “took him aside.” This is misleading; they didn’t pull him aside after a synagogue service and correct him. They took him home. Coming closer, the KJV and ASV render proslambanō “took him unto them,” the CEB has “received him into their circle of friends,” and the Amplified Version has “took him with them.” Right on the mark in this case are the NIV with “invited him to their home,” and Holman Christian Standard Bible, with “took him home.”


Author’s Note 7

See the discussion of Acts 8 in Week 5 of this Lectio series.


Author’s Note 8

The letter to the Corinthians reveals a deeply flawed church.


Author’s Note 9

See all of Acts 2:1–13.


Author’s Note 10

See Week 2 of this Lectio series.


Author’s Note 11

Acts 20:26. Scholars will call this an apologia. True enough, though defensiveness often plays a pivotal part in apologia. Paul describes his humility (if he does say so himself!), the trials he endured, his courage, the fidelity of his message privately and publicly, the three years of warning he gave them about false teachers, and the hard work of his hands so as not to take their money.


Author’s Note 12

Acts 20:28. Don’t let translators, some of whom try to avoid this statement, fool you. For a lucid discussion of this, see Robert W. Wall, The Acts of the Apostles: The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary (Abingdon Press, 2002), p. 284.


Author’s Note 13

I’ve adapted the NRSV translation. “Embrace” is far too mild; the Greek reads, “fell on Paul’s neck.” The translation “kissed” fails to express the force of the imperfect tense here, which should be translated either as “they began to kiss him” or “they kept kissing him.” See the same verbs in the father’s reaction to the return of his son in the parable of the prodigal son: “he fell on his neck and kissed him” (Luke 15:20).


Author’s Note 14

See the similar scene in Acts 21:1–6.


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Discussion and Comments

2 Comments to “Hugs and Kisses — and Heartache, Too: Acts 18:23–21:17”

  1. AE says:

    “our tidy little who’s-in-who’s-out circles explode.”

    when Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they took him aside and explained to him the way of God more accurately. Acts 18: 26… “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Nicodemus said to Him, “How can a man be born when he is old? He cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born, can he?” 5 Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter into the kingdom of God John 3:3b-5

    “the legacy of mission”

    Having so fond an affection for you, we were well-pleased to impart to you not only the gospel of God but also our own lives, because you had become very dear to us so that you would walk in a manner worthy of the God who calls you into His own kingdom and glory. For this reason we also constantly thank God that when you received the word of God which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men, but for what it really is, the word of God, which also performs its work in you who believe. For who is our hope or joy or crown of exultation? Is it not even you, in the presence of our Lord Jesus at His coming? For you are our glory and joy. 1 Thess 2: 8-20

  2. Kathryn says:

    Enjoying the study of Acts. Good thoughts and insights. But what about the third section in this lesson? Where is “What — whom, really — to leave behind”? I was looking forward to your thoughts there. Thank you.