Studies in Acts
Lesson 33: Comfort in Shaky Times
In Acts chapter 17 we read that when Paul toured the city of Athens “his spirit was troubled within him when he saw the city given over to idols.” Interestingly enough the word translated “troubled” is a word that literally means “shaken up.” We are hearing more and more about earthquakes these days (which, interestingly enough, Jesus said would be one of the signs of His return.) so we know that after an earthquake there usually are some “aftershocks” following it. If Athens was an “earthquake” for Paul, Corinth must have been a series of “aftershocks.” And this is what is described in the first part of chapter 18. By way of outline, the whole chapter consists of four parts:
I. The Missionaries – verses 1 – 4The Ministry – verses 5 – 11
II. The Magistrate – verses 12 – 18
III. The Maintenance of Relationships – vv.18 – 28
So let’s begin looking at Paul’s experiences in Corinth by noticing the missionaries whom he meets in verses 1 through 4. And the first thing we see about these missionaries is their location as it is specified in verse 1.
After these things Paul departed from Athens and went to Corinth.
Now that seems like a very simple little statement, but it is one that forecasts very difficult times of ministry for Paul. To walk into Corinth would be very much like getting off a bus in one of the seedier districts of a major city – times square in New York before it was cleaned up by Mayor Julianni some years ago. Or San Francisco’s tenderloin district or Hollywood’s “sunset strip.”
And this was no shanty town, either. Corinth was a town of awesome wealth It was located close to the isthmus which joined Greece to the Peloponnesian peninsula. Thus it commanded trade routes north and south by land and east and west by sea. For that reason, it actually had two harbors, one on each side of the isthmus. Naturally, then, it was a wealthy city with merchants and goods from all over the world – with all of the wealth and the worldliness that went along with them. In Greek plays there was a standard character known as “the Corinthian,” who was always a drunk or a womanizer. On the highest peak of the city was the temple of Aphrodite, the goddess of love, where 1,000 priestesses, who were actually male and female prostitutes, officiated. It was into this atmosphere, then, that Paul walked as he wound down his second missionary Think about what an assault on his senses this must have been for Paul! Even though we know that before his conversion he had chased down Christians and dragged them into prisons or even to their deaths. In that sense Paul had led a very sheltered life in the theological schools and teaching in the synagogues. Think what thoughts and questions must have filled his mind “How can these people be reached with the gospel? What can I do?” Why should they listen to me? In a letter that he wrote to the Corinthians years later, he wrote about those feelings. Look at I Corinthians 2:1, 3
And I brethren, when I came to you, did not come with excellence of speech or of wisdom declaring to you the gospel of God . . . (3) I was with you in weakness and in much trembling
Corinth was probably a low point in Paul’s life, physically, emotionally, even financially (in the next verses we see him working for a living.) But unbeknownst to him God was about to provide him with new friends who would remain close to him for the rest of his life, and a fruitful, long-lasting ministry. This is the location, then, of the missionaries whom Paul is going to meet, their identification is given in verse 2:
And he found a certain Jew named Aquila born in Pontus, and he came to them. recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla (because Claudius had commanded all the Jews to depart from Rome)
At just the right time God gave Paul just the right people to welcome him. Not only were they fellow Jews but they, too, were new to the area, and thus not tainted by it. Another similarity to Paul was their vocation Look at verse 3:
(3) So, because he was of the same trade he stayed with them and worked. For by occupation they were tentmakers
The Greek word translated “tentmaker” actually means “cloth worker” in Greek, so it is conceivable, though not provable, that Paul was a weaver or a tailor. But whatever the work was, Paul’s character is shown by the fact that he joined right in with them in their work – he didn’t presume on their hospitality at all. His trade kept him busy during the week, but along with Priscilla and Aquilla, their real motivation is demonstrated in verse 4
(4) And he reasoned in the synagogue every Sabbath and persuaded both Jews and Greeks
Notice that nothing has changed. No matter what problems it had caused him in the past, Paul still went to the synagogue on the Sabbath to preach Christ to the Jews.
Suddenly the scene changes in verse 5. There we see details of a couple of different kinds of ministry that go on down through verse 11. First there was a ministry to Paul. Look at verse 5a:
When Silas and Timothy had come from Macedonia . . .”
The text doesn’t say so, but probably Silas and Timothy brought an offering from Philippi, which was in Macedonia, when they came and this enabled Paul to stop working and devote his full time to preaching and writing – a ministry to him as well as to the Jews. We base that on the statement of Philippians 4:15:
Now you Philippians know also that in the beginning of the gospel, when I departed from Macedonia, no church shared with me concerning giving and receiving but you only.
And this is another illustration of the fact that when we give to a missionary (or any kind of ministry, for that matter, you have a part in everything he is able to accomplish – you “free him up” to work on ministry, rather than having to spend time supporting himself.
So first there was a ministry to Paul, and that, in turn, enabled him to have a ministry to the Jews.
Paul was compelled by the Spirit, and testified to the Jews that Jesus is the Christ (6) But when they opposed him and blasphemed, he shook his garments and said to them, “Your blood be upon your own heads; I am clean. From now on I will go to the Gentiles,”
Obviously, the ministry to the Jews did not go well. And this reminds us that the same message will not be heard by everybody in the same way. Some will accept and some will reject. But the real focus of these verses is Paul’s reaction to their rejection? Actually, he was just doing what Jesus had said to do in Matthew 7:6
Do not give what is holy to the dogs; nor cast your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet and turn and tear you in pieces.
This is not talking about being lax in in giving the gospel to people who are hard to deal with. In the context in which Jesus said this, it was referring to people who refuse to accept what you have to say. Later Paul wrote this same principle to Titus in Titus 3:10, 11
Reject a divisive man after the first and second admonition, (11) knowing that such a person is warped and sinning, being self condemned.
The word “divisive” describes a person who is “argumentative,” always disagreeing with what you are saying. And notice that it says, “after the first and second admonition.” What this boils down to is that if you have given the gospel clearly to a person two times, you should move on. You have better things to do than to keep hammering away at him. there are plenty of other people who haven’t heard it even the first time. Of course, keep in mind that it may take many conversations to get the gospel across even one time. Paul had done all he could for the Jews and still they rejected the “precious pearl” of the gospel, so with a clear conscience he very practically said, “that’s it” and, striding briskly out the door turned to the Gentiles. So with a clear conscience he very practically and striding briskly out the door went all the way . . . .next door!
(7) And he departed from there and entered the house of a certain man named Justus, one who worshiped God, whose house was next door to the synagogue (8)Then Crispus, the ruler of the synagogue, believed on the Lord with all his household. And many of the Corinthians, hearing, were baptized.
This must have seemed like a breath of fresh air! Paul was now preaching in the personable atmosphere of a home, no longer stifled by the traditions of the synagogue. Ironically, even Crispus, the leader of the synagogue, heard the gospel there and joined in believing in Christ. So, there was ministry to the Jews, to the Gentiles, and, interestingly enough there was also ministry to Paul. look at verses 9 through 11
(9) Now the Lord spoke to Paul in the night by a vision, “Do not be afraid, but speak and do not be silent (10) “for I am with you and no one will attack you to hurt you; for I have many people in this city.” (11) And he continued there a year and six months, teaching the Word of God among them.
Evidently Paul had not been able to completely shake off his feelings of fear and inadequacy even with the good results of the home bible study, so God speaks to him in this special way. And not only did He promise protection, but reassurance of a fruitful ministry – “I have many people in this city.” This is an interesting statement, because as far as we know, Paul was already acquainted with all of the believers in Corinth at that point. But God knows those who are going to be saved and considers them “His” people too. How many of those around us are “His” people waiting to find out that they are? But the reassurance from God was effective, because we read that Paul then stayed there another year and a half. And many Bible scholars believe that this when Paul began his writing ministry, writing to the Thessalonians.
With the ministry of Paul prospering, even to the point of taking away their former rabbi, the Jews couldn’t stand it any longer. And so in verses 12 through 18 they bring charges against him before the local magistrate. First, we see the hearing in verses 12 through 16.
(12) When Gallio was proconsul of Achia, the Jews with one accord rose up against Paul brought him to the judgement seat, (13) saying, “This fellow persuades men to worship God contrary to the law.” (14) And when Paul was about to open his mouth, Gallio said to the Jews, “if it were a matter of wrongdoing or wicked crimes, O Jews, there would be reason why I should bear with you. (15) But if it is a question words and names and your own law, look to it for yourselves; for I do I do not want to be a judge of such matters.” (16) And he drove them from the judgement seat.
Here is an amazing provision from the Lord! This is demonstrated in the fact that Paul didn’t even have to speak in his own defense. But the real significance is that this ruling established a legal precedent. Since Gallio was a “proconsul” his ruling could be used in future cases. And that ruling was, in effect, that Christianity could not be considered illegal. Probably in their excitement about the ruling the Gentiles began the heckling of the Jews described in verse 17.
Then all the Greeks took Sosthenes, the ruler of the synagogue and beat him before the judgement seat but Gallio took no notice of these things (18) So Paul still remained a good while.
It is interesting to notice that “Gallio took no notice of these things. This doesn’t mean that he was indifferent to justice, but probably just that he didn’t want to get drawn into a racially charged situation. But with all that as background it is not surprising to read that “Paul remained a good while” in verse 18a.
As we wrap this up it is interesting to see that Paul had entered the morally corrupt city of Corinth “in weakness and in fear and in much trembling” (I Corinthians 2:3b). But even though his spirit was shaking, God was at work protecting him and turning him and the lives of others around. Later Paul wrote with confidence:
And He said to me, my grace is sufficient for you, for my strength is made in perfect weakness”
As we analyze this “shaky” experience in the life of the Apostle Paul, there are at least three principles that we can distill from it: First, the darker the scene the greater the challenge. Whether in first century Corinth or 21st century America, where there is little light there is great need and therefore great opportunity.
Second The weaker the spokesman, the stronger the message. Paul came to them in fear and trembling – too weak to depend on his own wisdom, he later wrote:
And He said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my strength is made perfect in weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9)
Third: The greater the resistance, the less the fear. When resistance grows great enough it throws us on the Lord’s strength. And when we depend on his strength we realize that, as Paul also wrote, “If God be for us, who can be against us?