MESSAGE FOR JUNE 19, 2011 FROM ACTS 18:1-17
Read Acts 18:1-17
This morning we move to the Apostle Paul’s next stop on his second missionary journey as Luke records that in Acts chapter 18. This second-to-last church planting initiative on this journey is the city of Corinth. Paul has just completed his famous sermon at the Aeropagus in Athens we looked at last week. From that city of about 10,000, he moved about 50 miles east to the large seaport of Corinth, which had something like 750,000 people. It was a one of the larger commercial centers in the Roman Empire and Paul stayed there 18 months. Notice that Luke gives about the same number of verses to his treatment of Paul’s ministry to Athens as he does to Corinth--a much larger city in which he spent much more time than he did to his ministry in Athens.
That tells us that Luke, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit is not giving an exhaustive treatment of Paul’s ministry on this journey. He’s communicating what the Spirit has laid on him as being crucial for the church to know. Broadly, that is--to show that the gospel is now moving to the Gentile populations in the uttermost parts of the earth—as Jesus commanded his apostles in chapter one. God is enabling the apostles to do what he has commanded them. The text we heard read a few minutes ago is a powerful illustration of how God will equip and enable his children to do what he calls them to do. This may include becoming a missionary or speaking the gospel to a neighbor or loving a difficult spouse or wayward child, confronting someone about his/her sin or honoring God by quietly trusting in him as you battle some physical, mental or emotional infirmity. God will give us all the resources we need—spiritual and material to do what he has called us to do.
In each city on this missionary journey, Paul required different resources to reach the people with the gospel and plant a church. Luke’s account here in chapter 18 records God’s faithfulness in giving Paul all he needed to accomplish the mission he had given him. This is an important reminder for all of us because God is constantly calling his children to take risks. That is--do things they know they cannot do in their own strength. If you are not hearing that call from God on a regular basis, then something is very wrong because the Christian life at its very core is a supernatural life—manifesting God’s power to do impossible things. The aim here this morning is that as we unpack this powerful example of God’s faithful provision for Paul to do the impossible, that will encourage us to take risks for God, knowing that whatever he calls us to do—he will equip and enable us to do.
I see seven resources God provided to Paul so that he could plant a church in Corinth. The first resource is mentioned in verses one through five. Luke records, “1 After this Paul left Athens and went to Corinth. 2 And he found a Jew named Aquila, a native of Pontus, recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla, because Claudius had commanded all the Jews to leave Rome. And he went to see them, 3 and because he was of the same trade he stayed with them and worked, for they were tentmakers by trade. 4 And he reasoned in the synagogue every Sabbath, and tried to persuade Jews and Greeks. 5 When Silas and Timothy arrived from Macedonia, Paul was occupied with the word, testifying to the Jews that the Christ was Jesus.”
The first provision of God’s enabling of Paul’s ministry is: A sovereignly orchestrated and capable ministry team. Corinth is a much bigger city than Athens and more people were required to make an impact for Christ and establish a church here. These verses record God’s faithfulness in sovereignly raising up a team for Paul. “And he found a Jew named Aquila, a native of Pontus, recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla, because Claudius had commanded all the Jews to leave Rome.” That one verse expresses some earth-shaking displays of God’s sovereign provision. Paul is traveling in from Athens, brand new to Corinth. God has called him to plant a church there and as far as we know he knows not one living soul there. How do you suppose you would feel as you look over a city of three-quarters of a million people in which you were called to plant a church without knowing a single person? But Luke tells us, “he found a Jew named Aquila.” That word “found” is important. In the context, it doesn’t mean Paul was looking for an old friend and found him; it is more the sense that “he happened across” Aquila. This is one of those “divine appointments” God does so regularly to accomplish his purposes.
Luke the historian gives an interesting biographical sketch of Aquila and his wife. He was a native of Pontus and Pontus was a province near the Eastern border of the Roman Empire just above the province of Galatia. They had recently however been living in Rome--a 1000 miles across the empire from Pontus. Luke tells us that these two had recently been exiled from Rome by the Emperor Claudius along with the rest of the Jews in Rome—to Romans, Christians were seen as a sect of Judaism. Ancient Roman historians tell us that the Roman Christians and Jews were openly disputing about Jesus and in response; Claudius throws all of them out of Rome. So we have Claudius cleansing Rome of Jews and believers because the gospel had brought such division there between them. Because there is no account of their conversion in Acts, Aquila and Priscilla were probably part of the church Claudius exiled from Rome.
Why they (in their minds) decided to settle down in Corinth, rather than go back to Pontus, we don’t know. We DO know that these two arrive in Corinth just in time to be “found” by the apostle Paul. Even more remarkable is that Aquila was a tentmaker or leatherworker and Paul shared that trade. Rabbis were required to learn a trade and Paul’s happened to be tent making. In those days, tradesmen grouped together and formed guilds, so Paul forms this “guild” with these two fellow laborers and a relationship and ministry partnership that will endure for the rest of Paul’s life is born. The sovereign hand of God is unmistakable in all of this. God had moved Aquila from Pontus to Rome. He then used a godless Roman emperor to push them to Corinth--just in time for them to be two of the truly pivotal human means through which Paul would start this and other churches. They initially gave Paul a place to stay and offered him, not only professional, but more important--spiritual and ministerial support. In addition to Aquila and Priscilla—who by no coincidence we discover are very gifted for ministry, verse five tells us that Silas and Timothy arrive from Macedonia about this time as well. So, Corinth is invaded by this small army of God that remained in Corinth for several months and as we’ll see, were powerfully used of God.
Another expression of God’s provision to Paul was: Adequate funding for the ministry. Then as now, ministry cost money and God needed to provide it. We see two sources of funding for the Corinthian ministry God provides. First, Silas and Timothy probably brought an offering from the miraculously generous Macedonian churches. After the church in Corinth is established, Paul later writes them in Second Corinthians 11:9, “9 And when I was with you and was in need, I did not burden anyone, for the brothers who came from Macedonia supplied my need. So I refrained and will refrain from burdening you in any way.” Those “brothers” who had come from Macedonia were almost certainly Silas and Timothy. The churches in Macedonia were part of God’s bank to supply the financial needs for his work in Corinth. Second, as we said before--Paul was a tentmaker and its doubtless true that not only the money he earned was used to support the ministry, but also the money Aquila and Priscilla earned making tents with Paul.
Paul wasn’t ashamed to work with his hands. This great and learned scholar was also a craftsman. Though it was Paul’s labor, it was still God’s provision. Paul’s tent making was one of the means of grace through which God supplied his needs. Because Paul took nothing from the Corinthian church, much more outside funding than usual was needed. If God has called you to do something requiring money you simply do not have and cannot get by downsizing your life—you can be sure--God will provide the money. You may have to work for it at times, but he will enable you the means to fund his ministry.
A third area of provision God gave to Paul was: A sense of personal responsibility to those to whom he ministered. Not all of God’s provisions are material. Many are spiritual and Paul had one that is crucial for a person to faithfully preach the gospel. Look at verses five and six again. “5 When Silas and Timothy arrived from Macedonia, Paul was occupied with the word, testifying to the Jews that the Christ was Jesus. 6 And when they opposed and reviled him, he shook out his garments and said to them, “Your blood be on your own heads! I am innocent. From now on I will go to the Gentiles.” The Jews “…opposed and reviled” Paul. These are strong words—this wasn’t civil discussion or friendly opposition—this was outrage. They stood against him literally face to face and strongly resisted his teaching. They reviled or blasphemed him, probably accusing him of all sorts of wickedness. Notice Paul’s equally strong response in the second half of verse six, “…he shook out his garment,” Paul makes a powerful gesture of exasperation when he shakes out his cloak on them as if to say, “I don’t want one speck of your dust on me—I totally disassociate myself from you and your stiff-necked opposition the truth—you know better.” He practices what Jesus taught in Matthew 7:6, “Do not give dogs what is holy, and do not throw your pearls before pigs, lest they trample them underfoot and turn to attack you.”
Paul picked up his pearls and walked away from his fellow Jews. He follows this same pattern in Acts 19 when he visits Ephesus. He says to these Jews before he leaves, “Your blood be on your own heads! I am innocent. From now on I will go to the Gentiles.” He is alluding to a text in Ezekiel 33. God tells Ezekiel in verse seven, 7 “So you, son of man, I have made a watchman for the house of Israel. Whenever you hear a word from my mouth, you shall give them warning from me. 8 If I say to the wicked, O wicked one, you shall surely die, and you do not speak to warn the wicked to turn from his way, that wicked person shall die in his iniquity, but his blood I will require at your hand. 9 But if you warn the wicked to turn from his way, and he does not turn from his way, that person shall die in his iniquity, but you will have delivered your soul.”
He will be held divinely responsible if he does not tell the people of their guilt and warn them of the coming judgment. The judgment will come, not only to those who are rebelling against God in their wickedness, it will also fall on those who fail to warn them of the coming judgment. Paul takes that Old Testament truth and applies it to his own New Covenant apostolic ministry. This should sober us in the church who are God’s apostles--“sent ones” to a lost world and yet who so often fail to tell them the truth of the gospel. Paul declares his own innocence here in the light of his faithful proclamation. The question for us is--can we confidently declare OUR innocence because we have been faithful to tell our family, friends, co-workers and neighbors the truth of the gospel? Where does their blood lie---on their own heads or also on ours? We must be measured in how we apply this text—we can repent of our unfaithfulness, but Paul clearly applies this standard to himself as an apostle. He unmistakably saw himself as one who, through his faithful proclamation of the gospel, had cleared himself of the blood of those he preached to. He had a God-given sense of personal responsibility for those to whom he ministered. He couldn’t divorce their judgment from his own if he failed to warn them. God equipped him with this powerful motivating truth and in recording it in Scripture; he has equipped us with it as well.
A fourth area of provision God gave to Paul was: A strategic location and convert. Luke records in verse seven that when Paul was finished with the Jews, “…he left there and went to the house of a man named Titius Justus, a worshipper of God. His house was next door to the synagogue.” These aren’t random details Luke simply throws in. He wants us to know that the Lord provided Paul an excellent and strategic location right next to the synagogue. He could see who was coming and going and pursue those he saw going to the synagogue. Although God can use locations that are not strategically located, he often does arrange for just the right place to reach people and we should trust him to provide that if that is important for us to do his will. Also, notice the strategically important people who were converted under Paul’s ministry. Verse eight tells us that “Crispus, the ruler of the synagogue believed in the Lord together with his entire household…” Scholars tell us the rulers of the synagogue made things run smoothly and typically had the greatest influence of anyone in the synagogue. God doesn’t always seek to reach people of influence, but in the early stages of a ministry, it’s often crucial. This is not because they are more important than the others. We know from First Corinthians chapter one that the vast majority of the church in Corinth were those with no position or privilege—who had no worldly status. But sometimes at the beginning of a ministry, God will convert a particularly influential person to open some important doors. Paul is a case in point. God know that the church needed a theologian who could articulate the gospel of grace as over against the Law. So, he converts a highly trained expert in the Law—a Pharisee of Pharisees to be his theologian.
Notice verse 17. After the Jews who opposed Paul lost their legal battle, the Greeks openly persecuted them. Verse 17 tells us, “And they all seized Sosthenes, the ruler of the synagogue and beat him in front of the tribunal. But Gallio paid no attention to any of this.” The plan to persecute Paul had backfired and resulted in Crispus’ replacement as ruler of the synagogue being beaten—a man named Sosthenes. First Corinthians 1:1 says, “Paul called by the will of God to be an apostle of Christ Jesus and our brother Sosthenes,” Now, we don’t know for certain if this is the same Sosthenes, but if it’s not, why does Luke would mention him by name? Wouldn’t it be just like God to pick Sosthenes up off the ground and convert him, making a second follower of Jesus an influential synagogue ruler? If what God has called you to do requires a strategic location or people, God will be faithful to provide those.
A fifth means of provision for Paul is also spiritual in nature and is: Two encouraging promises. Notice in verses 9-10 God tells Paul, “And the Lord said to Paul one night in a vision, “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...” This implies that Paul was afraid. In most cities he had visited, by this time he was either by driven away, in jail or had been severely punished. In light of that precedent, you wonder if Paul wasn’t thinking, “Well, it’s about time for me to get the stuffing beat out of me—pretty soon I’m going to get it.” He was afraid of this persecution and, as he does so many times in Scripture, God comes to a frightened man and reassures him that he need not be afraid because he is with him. When you are afraid to do God’s will because it’s risky, we should remember God’s response to you is the same one God uses to dispel the fear of many people in Scripture, “I am with you.”
Are you afraid of doing God’s will for you this morning? You’re in good company--Abraham, Jeremiah, Joshua, the apostle Paul. Don’t think your fear disqualifies you or means that you have missed God somehow! God’s word to you is the same as it was to each of them, “Do not be afraid…I am with you.” If the omnipotent, invincible, almighty, sovereign Lord of the universe promises to be with you—there is no more solid ground of assurance available. Isaiah 43:2 says, “2 When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.” We can be assured of these promises if we are doing God’s will.
The second promise to Paul is in the second half of verse 10. “…for I have many in this city who are my people.” He doesn’t say, “I have many in this city who I foreknow will become my people.” They are his people—they are not yet saved, but they are his people because he has elected them as his people. God would be with Paul for this reason—he has “many people in this city.” That is—God would protect Paul from attack so that he could gather in God’s many elect people from Corinth. Notice the balance of Paul’s understanding of God’s sovereignty with his own responsibility in this chapter. On the one hand, you have Paul working tirelessly to persuade people of the truth of God’s word. Verse four says, “And he reasoned in the synagogue every Sabbath, and tried to persuade Jews and Greeks.” On the other hand, you have Christ giving Paul the assurance of God’s prior electing work in the lives of many Corinthians who ARE his people. They aren’t converted yet, but they are HIS people through election. This text and many others like it undermine the objection, “Well, if believers are elect and predestined, then why bother preaching or trying to persuade them?”
Paul doesn’t think that way. He stayed 18 months in Corinth—second in duration only to his time in Ephesus. If anything, God’s prior electing work causes him to work longer than in other cities. He knew God had many of his elect people in Corinth. That however, did not deter him from feverishly working to persuade them to come to Christ. In truth, it is the knowledge of God’s prior electing work that gives hope and endurance to our personal evangelism and to missions. One reason you can share the gospel with boldness and the reason you go to the nations with a good hope is because God has promised there WILL be people from every tribe, tongue and nation who will worship before his throne. This is a huge MOTIVATOR for missions and evangelism—not a de-motivator.
Another expression of God’s provision is: A victory over opposition. Look at verse 12. “When Gallio was proconsul of Achaia, the Jews made a united attack on Paul and brought him before the tribunal, saying, “This man is persuading people to worship God contrary to law.” All religions had to be licensed by Rome in order to be legal. Judaism had been licensed, but these Jews are claiming that this new Christian sect was not Judaism and was unlicensed and therefore illegal. The charge was not as serious as others we have seen in Acts where the complaint was that Christianity was subversive to the Empire. Based on what we have seen so far in Acts, it’s unlikely that charge would have been thrown out of court. Verse 14 says, “But when Paul was about to open his mouth, Gallio said to the Jews, “If it were a matter of wrongdoing or vicious crime, O Jews, I would have reason to accept your complaint. 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 sees that complaint calls for him to make a decision on Jewish law, not Roman law and he rightly throws the case out of court. Notice here the importance of the law of the state. Roman law upholds the Christian faith at this point and is a powerful tool of God. Historians tell us that in the providence of God, an important legal precedent is established here in Corinth that for years gave believers a right to practice their faith in the Empire. When we hear about laws establishing the legal legitimacy of homosexual marriage, prohibiting Bible studies in public schools and other egregious attempts to expel Biblical values and Christianity from our culture, we mustn’t bury our heads in the sand. We must be praying and acting on these developments if we want to continue to live in a land with laws that support our faith instead of undermining it. The law of the land can be either an ally or an opponent to the church. We must work to keep it an ally—as it has been since our nation’s founding.
Opposition came to Paul in Corinth just as it came in other cities. In Corinth however, God knew that a longer term ministry was required. A successful attack against Paul at this point would have prevented that. So, in his sovereign will, God has the complainant voice his legal charge in terms that would keep it out of the jurisdiction of Roman law. The attack failed and 18 months of ministry ensued. God doesn’t always do this for Paul but he will give you all the victories over your opposition you need to do his will and he will be with you.
Finally, let’s quickly look at one more expression of God’s provision and that is the end result of all his other enabling. That is: The FRUIT of Paul’s ministry. Paul’s ministry bore much fruit in Corinth during the time he stayed there. Verse eight tells us “...many of the Corinthians hearing Paul believed and were baptized.” God started a church of many people—the gospel continued to spread! But beyond the fruit of many souls, look at a few individuals who were changed. First, Aquila and Priscilla—what was the fruit in their lives from Paul’s ministry in Corinth? If you were to read the end of this chapter, you would discover that when Paul left Corinth for Ephesus, so did Aquila and Priscilla. From this point on, their lives are closely intertwined with Paul’s ministry. In verses 18-24 we will see that in Ephesus, when an eloquent man named Apollos came and boldly shared a good, but incomplete message to those in the synagogue, it was these two anointed tentmakers mentored by Paul who, after hearing Apollos [verse 26] “took him and explained to him the way of God more accurately.” Where do you suppose they learned to disciple people like that if not from the apostle Paul?
Jesus calls us to live radically obedient lives filled with risks for which he must provide the resources if we are to be successful. Think about this question: what risks are you now taking for Jesus? What are you doing that—if Jesus stopped enabling and providing, you would immediately crash and burn? How are you out on the end of the limb for God? For many of us, this text that so powerfully illustrates God’s provision is frankly irrelevant because our errant brand of Christianity is more about avoiding risk than taking risks. That’s not Biblical Christianity. God calls us to do impossible things for him so that when, by his gracious provision, we do them, he gets the glory. We know from this text that God will give us everything we need when we step out for him—he will give us everything we need in impossible situations as a believer. The question is never God’s faithfulness but rather--are we risk-takers who seek to be obedient? Do we trust in God’s provision for us? If we do, we will, like Paul find that Christ is sufficient for all our needs. May God give all of us the grace to live in radical obedience to Christ so that his provision will be clear to all for our joy and his glory.
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