One of the most emotional moments in any wedding is when the bride and groom take their vows. That’s as it should be. As a minister, I want each of them to feel the sacred import of the promises they are making to each other: As God is my witness, I am yours, and you are mine, for life.
It’s a leap of faith. And hope. And love. No one can know in advance everything that such a promise will entail over the ups and downs of a lifetime. Anyone who doesn’t feel at least a twinge of awe at such a promise isn’t getting the whole picture.
In these days of broken promises, though, I worry that vows are quickly forgotten. When the wedding becomes a distant memory, when we no longer feel a need to impress each other, when we get wrapped up in the busyness of everyday life — do we ever think about those vows? Do they help inspire us to persevere through the tough times, to keep our commitments?
Or were they just words designed for the occasion of the wedding and not for the founding of the marriage?
I bring this up to help us think through what might seem like a somewhat strange sentence in Acts. Paul was finishing up his time in Corinth, getting ready to set sail for Ephesus from Cenchreae, one of the two ports serving Corinth. But before he boarded the ship, with his friends Priscilla and Aquila in tow, he had some business to attend to: “he had his hair cut, for he was under a vow” (Acts 18:18, NRSV).
It’s the kind of odd little detail that ironically lends the narrative an extra dose of realism: And oh yes, before Paul got on board, he got a haircut. Almost forgot that part. At first blush, it seems about as relevant as most status updates on Facebook.
Well, except for the part about being under a vow. To what is Luke referring?
No one knows for sure. It’s possible that the people of Luke’s day would have known exactly what he meant, but we’re confined to speculation. It sounds as if Paul had taken some kind of nazirite vow, in which people would specially consecrate themselves to God for a set amount of time, during which “no razor shall come upon the head” (Num 6:5). One thinks, of course, of Samson, who was consecrated as a nazirite from birth (Judg 13:5). Haircuts, it seems, weren’t his thing.
As we’ve seen, Paul had come to Corinth after a string of difficult experiences throughout Macedonia and Athens. He came to them “in weakness and in fear and in much trembling” (1 Cor 2:3), and needed divine reassurance. God therefore spoke to Paul in a vision: “Do not be afraid… for I am with you, and no one will lay a hand on you to harm you, for there are many in this city who are my people” (Acts 18:9-10).
It’s quite possible that Paul, in response to that word of grace, took a special vow not to cut his hair until his ministry in Corinth was done. That may sound strange to us, but it would not have been to him or his fellow Jews (see, e.g., Acts 21:23-24). Thus, he had his hair cut as he left Corinth, and to complete his vow, he would have to present himself in Jerusalem.
Some have worried that this doesn’t sound much like the famed apostle of grace who, for example, chastised the Galatians for believing that they needed to be circumcised to be saved. But this is a different situation. Paul’s vow has nothing to do with his salvation, and everything to do with responding to God’s generosity by taking his time in Corinth with the utmost seriousness. It is a voluntary act of dedication and gratitude that says to God, Take me, I’m yours.
If only every couple would take their wedding vows as seriously.