Sunday, November 02, 2008

Acts 18: 1-17 Paul in Corinth

You may not know, but I’m really into history. Show me an old castle or a church, or a ruin, and I’ll explore it and wander round it happily. Over in Dromore, they’re preparing to celebrate 1500 years of Christian witness, since the building of Colman’s first church in 510 AD. I love going to Downpatrick and Saul, to where Patrick landed, the first Christian in Ireland. Imagine what it was like when the gospel first came to Ireland!

On Sunday mornings we’ve been working through 1 Corinthians. But what was it like when Paul first arrived in Corinth? How did the gospel come to Corinth? Tonight, we’ll see how the word advances through the Jews, the Gentiles and the Judge.

You might remember that Paul had been in Athens, and there were just a few converts. After his appearance at the Areopagus, he left that city, and moved on to Corinth. As we’re told in 1 Corinthians 2:2, Paul had resolved ‘to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.’ This was the message he was to proclaim in Corinth.

Corinth was a great port city, much bigger than Athens, situated on an isthmus (a long thin finger of land) between the Adriatic and Aegean Seas, with important trade routes by land north/south and by sea east/west. Being a port city, it was a wealthy place, full of trade, but also full of the immorality associated with ports – temples and prostitutes abounded. In fact, to act like a Corinthian was to practice immorality.

Paul, the traveller, finds a couple who had also recently been on the move. Aquila and Priscilla had lived in Rome, but had recently had to leave. This was in response to an imperial edict from Caesar that Jews should leave Rome because of an uproar that began because of a ‘Chrestos’ – commentators are agreed that this is the uproar in the synagogues as the word of Jesus the Christ came to town. Aquila and Priscilla, it seems, were already Christians, and they opened their home to Paul, and shared not only their trade, but also their faith.

The initial pattern was that Paul would work through the week with them, so as not to burden the new church being formed; and on the Sabbath, go along to the synagogue to persuade Jews and Greeks (God-fearing Gentiles) about Jesus.

Silas and Timothy arrive from Macedonia (Paul had been waiting for them in Athens), and they bring not only some money for Paul – gifts from the church at Philippi; but also the good news of the gospel growth in Thessalonica. Remember, Paul had been there, but the Jews had stirred trouble and so Silas and Timothy had been left behind to encourage the baby Christians in their faith. It was here in Corinth that Paul writes 1 Thessalonians in response to the good news. These encouragements enabled Paul to move into fulltime evangelism so that he was ‘occupied with the word.’ Look at his message – verse 5. ‘Testifying to the Jews that the Christ was Jesus.’ Normally we would say ‘that Jesus was the Christ’ but here, he starts with the Christ, the Messiah, who was expected by the Jews, and he shows how the Christ is actually Jesus.

But despite his faithful preaching, he finds opposition and reviling – the word for reviling comes from the word ‘blaspheming’. So what happens? Paul provides a dramatic action as he leaves the Jews. He shakes out his garments, as if to say that not even the dust from the synagogue would stay with him as he left – it’s similar to Jesus’ command to shake the dust off the feet as he sent out the disciples; and is the same as what Nehemiah does in 5:13 – ‘I also shook out the fold of my garment and said, “So may God shake out every man from his house and from his labour who does not keep this promise. So may he be shaken out and emptied.’”

Look also at Paul’s words here – “Your blood be on your own heads! I am innocent.” Paul had been declaring the way of salvation to them, and yet they refused to listen. So Paul draws a line and says that it isn’t his fault when they end up in hell – they’ll answer for themselves. If the Jews won’t listen to him, then he’ll go to those who will receive the message and be glad to hear.

But he doesn’t go too far. In fact, he only goes next door from the synagogue, and uses the home of Titius Justus as his mission base. Some people suggest that his first name was Gaius (who was one of the few people Paul baptised), but we can’t be sure. What a great location! Even as the God-fearers were coming to synagogue, Paul could still influence them.

Yet even as Paul begins his mission to the Gentiles of Corinth, there is tremendous growth. Among the many converts, Crispus, the synagogue ruler and his family believes. What an encouragement! And many more do as well – they hear Paul, they believe, and are baptised.

Perhaps Paul was fearful of what was to come – the Jews had been stirring up trouble for him in the last few places he visited, and now he was preaching under their noses. Would they attack him? Whatever the circumstances, the Lord (Jesus) has a special word of encouragement for Paul.

“Do not be afraid, but go on speaking and do not be silent, for I am with you, and no one will attack you to harm you, for I have many in this city who are my people.” Let’s break that down. First, Do not be afraid – this seems to be the signature message when God encounters his people. God tells Abraham (Gen 15:1), Joshua (1:9), Gideon (Judges 6:23), Jeremiah (1:8), and the disciples in the boat (John 6:20) ‘do not fear, or do not be afraid.’

Paul may have been afraid to continue preaching, but the Lord says keep on speaking and do not be silent – both positive and negative commands. Why? Why is he to keep on speaking? Because of the other great promise throughout the Bible – ‘I am with you.’ Isaac (Gen 26:24), Jacob (Gen 28:5), Jeremiah (1:8), the apostles (Matt 28:20)

Not only is Jesus with Paul, but he can also continue preaching because no one will attack him to harm him. Why? ‘For I have many in this city who are my people.’ Whatever could he mean? Is Jesus saying that he has loads of people in the city who are going to offer protection to Paul, like a security service or a mob? Or perhaps it’s almost a threat like we would have heard during the Ulster Workers Strike or the Drumcree disputes that they had many people in the city, people who could bring the country to a standstill?

Not at all. What Jesus is saying here is that there are many people in the city who are already his – they just haven’t come to faith yet. Paul will be able to continue preaching without harm so that they can hear and be saved. Paul is safe, so that they will be saved. [Yet we must remember that this is not always the case - Paul also spent time in prison so that some might be saved as well – think of the Philippian jailer]

Buoyed by this promise from the Lord, Paul remains 18 months in Corinth, teaching the word. But then suddenly, when Gallio becomes the Roman governor (proconsul), the Jews launch a united attack. What would happen? Was the promise of Jesus going to be as nothing?

The Jews attack Paul because ‘this man is persuading people to worship God contrary to the law’. The question, though, is which law – the law in scripture, or Roman law? You see, Roman law recognised minority religions to continue in the conquered regions, making them legal. But what the Jews seem to be saying here is that Christianity is not a part of the Jewish system any more, so it shouldn’t come under the protection for Jewish religion, and so should be banned.

However, even before Paul opens his mouth to defend himself – just as he’s taking in his breath to launch his defence, Gallio speaks instead. Do you see what he says? ‘If it were a matter of wrongdoing or vicious crime, I would have reason to accept your complaint.’ Had you been bringing a serious criminal to me, I would have listened. ‘But since it is a matter of questions about words and names and your own law, see to it yourselves. I refuse to be a judge of these things.’ Gallio clearly sees it as a matter of Jewish law, not Roman law, and in not stopping Paul, the Roman authorities give the green light for the gospel to continue to spread.

Jesus’ promise is fulfilled – Paul is not harmed in Corinth, and he is vindicated in continuing to preach the good news. Yet it wasn’t such a good day for Sosthenes – he was the ruler of the synagogue – either the successor or the colleague of Crispus (depending on whether there was just one ruler or several rulers of the synagogue), and he was beaten in front of the tribunal.

The text here isn’t very clear, and it’s hard to know if it was the Jews beating up their leader because he had failed in the court to stop Paul (possibly unlikely), or if it was an anti-Jewish mob from the city administering their own form of justice?

It’s interesting to note, though, that when Paul is writing 1 Corinthians, he writes it with Sosthenes – could this be a second ruler of the synagogue from Corinth who had come to faith later on?

As we’ve studied the passage tonight, we have seen the continuing advance of the good news, ‘the word’, through the Jews, the Gentiles, and the Judge. There is reason to take heart here, and to be encouraged to continue to stand for the gospel. Paul saw it bearing fruit in Corinth, just as it was in Thessalonica, and all over the world. Even here in Dundonald, we’re seeing the word bear fruit.

God was in control back when Paul was in Corinth, ensuring that gospel growth continued. The promise of Jesus was fulfilled. God is still in control, and so we can trust in him and his purposes tonight, and this week.

This sermon was preached in St Elizabeth's Church, Dundonald on Sunday 2nd November 2008.

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