A much needed gift

It was my first trip to Sweden, there to teach a seminar. It had been a long, long flight, with a layover in London, and I hadn’t slept. When at last we landed in Gothenburg, I trudged off the plane with my carry-on to find baggage claim and retrieve my other suitcase.

I watched the carousel go around and around, growing increasingly anxious as other travelers snatched up their bags and left. Mine was nowhere to be seen. After what seemed like an eternity, I was the last man standing. There I was, with no suitcase, in a foreign county.

Dazed, I found a customer service window. “Hej,” the young woman behind the counter said cheerily. She quickly realized that I was American, and switched seamlessly to perfect English. I gave her my sorry story as she checked my itinerary. After a few phone calls, she found my suitcase, and told me the airline would deliver it directly to my hotel in a day or two.

I was grateful and relieved. Sure, I’d have to lecture in blue jeans for a day and find myself a toothbrush — but other than that, crisis averted.

Still, I’ll tell you: when I was standing at baggage carousel, waiting in vain, I could really have used a friend.

Acts 18 begins with a simple declaration: “After this, Paul left Athens and went to Corinth” (Acts 18:1, CEB). To us, that might sound like nothing more than a travel itinerary: Next stop, Corinth.

But Corinth had quite the reputation in Paul’s day. In centuries past, the Romans had first razed it to the ground and later rebuilt it, eventually establishing it as a Roman colony and the capital of the province of Achaia. Every two years, it was the site of the Isthmian Games, which brought throngs of athletes and spectators. It also controlled a narrow land bridge linking a port on the Aegean Sea to the east to another port on the Ionian Sea to the west, and thus had become an important center of commerce.

You know the reputation of seaports.

Corinth had two.

In terms of today’s stereotypes, Corinth was something like a mashup of New York and Macau: bright lights, big city, lots of opportunities for… um… less than godly living. It was an interesting place to bring the gospel.

As I suggested in the previous post, Paul was fresh off a string of difficult experiences in Macedonia and Athens. Newly arrived in Corinth, he could have used a friend.

And he found one. Two, in fact.

Aquila, Luke tells us, was a Jew who originally hailed from the Roman province of Bithynia and Pontus, a region we would think of as the northern coast of Turkey. He and his wife Priscilla (the more familiar form of “Prisca,” as Paul referred to her in his letters) were in Corinth because Emperor Claudius had expelled the Jews from Rome (Acts 18:2).

Scholars debate the timing and reason for the expulsion. The Roman historian Suetonius later wrote that Claudius had kicked the Jews out because of continual “disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus.” Many interpret this as meaning conflicts among the Jews over Christus — or Christ. If this is true, the gospel had already come to Rome without Paul’s help (perhaps through visitors to Jerusalem from Rome who heard Peter preach at Pentecost, cf. Acts 2:10,41), and that Priscilla and Aquila were already Christians when they met Paul.

And the three had even more in common: they were all “tentmakers.” This means they made tents and other goods by hand — from leather. It was difficult, smelly, grueling work. But Paul often did this to support himself, in order to preach the gospel for free. This was particularly important in Corinth, where accepting someone’s financial patronage could mean getting entangled in their purse strings.

What a blessing, therefore, it must have been to Paul to stumble across two fellow Jews who already followed Jesus and were tentmakers like himself! They set up shop together, partnering in both their craft and the gospel. Priscilla and Aquila would become lifelong friends to Paul, loyal to the point of risking their lives for him (Rom 16:3-4).

Perhaps you know the feeling. You’re a stranger in town, and not at your best, dazed by recent events in your life. Then, unexpectedly, you run into a friend. Or you meet someone with whom you can identify, someone with whom you feel an immediate sense of mutual understanding.

It feels like a much needed gift.

And for Paul, the friendship of Priscilla and Aquila was a much needed and gracious gift of encouragement from God to his faithful but beleaguered apostle.