It's Monday and we come back to our reading through the New Testament in a year. Today, we read Acts 18:1-28. After you've finished reading the Scripture, come back and we'll take some time to look at it together.
Luke begins chapter 18 with the words, "After this". After the events of Athens and the debate on Mars Hill with the Athenian philosophers and the strife with the Jewish synagogue. After the boat ride to Athens and after being forced to flee Berea. After the Experiences in Thessalonica and Philippi. After all of these events, a determined, but tired Paul came to Corinth.
Corinth...think San Francisco. The first time I visited San Francisco I was struck by the beauty of this city by the bay, and I was in culture shock by its decadence. Corinth was San Francisco times one-hundred. It was a city replete with decadence on all levels. High over the city sat the temple of Aphrodite with its 2000 temple prostitutes selling sexual favors as a religious high. Corinth was turned by the Romans into an adjective - the expression "to Corinthianize" meant to be sexually immoral. It is estimated Corinth's population was about 250,000 people at the time Paul landed in the city.
I believe Paul was determined to press on but tired. Sometimes it happens. It happens to all of us...we're reminded in the Scriptures that it happens to the best of us. Corinth was a city full of challenges, and Paul had had a lot of those lately. Paul arrived in Corinth and God helped him in his weariness with two new friends - Aquila and Priscilla - who "happened" to come to Corinth because the Emperor, Claudius, had expelled all the Jewish people from Rome. They couldn't have arrived at a more perfect time.
Later Paul described his coming to Corinth like this: "I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling." (1 Cor. 2:3). Aquila and Priscilla came from Rome - a thousand miles away - because God sent them to come alongside of Paul in Corinth. Paul had traveled for hundreds of miles through the coast of eastern Greece, through city after city, and it all took a physical, emotional, and spiritual toll on him. Paul found these two people God sent to him, and he moved in with them and began to work with them in his trade of making tents. Luke doesn't tell us how they came to faith in Christ, he only tells us they opened their home in hospitality to receive Paul in while he waited for Timothy and Silas to return.
With renewed strength, he entered back into the synagogue to reason with the Jewish leaders and people about the Gospel. When Luke writes "every Sabbath" we're given a hint that the time period was much longer than a few weeks. Finally, Silas and Timothy arrived from Macedonia. It must have been an overwhelming relief for Paul to know that the churches they established were alive and well. Paul discovered some problems that he needed to address and wrote letters to the Thessalonian church and also to the church in Philippi.
He told the Thessalonians: "We remember before our God and Father your work produced by faith, your labor prompted by love, and your endurance inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ." (1 Thess. 1:3). To the Philippians Paul gushed at his love and affection for this first child of a church to begin in Europe: "God can testify how I long for all of you with the affection of Christ Jesus." (Phil. 1:8).
Silas and Timothy also arrived back with gifts of money to support Paul and them in carrying the message of the Gospel (Phil. 4:15). Paul was willing to work in order to not be a burden on the young churches he had established, but he was appreciative of the gifts the churches provided to support him in his work.
With Silas and Timothy's arrival and the gifts they brought, "Paul devoted himself exclusively to preaching, proclaiming Jesus as the Messiah to the Jewish synagogue." (18:5). The pattern continued as before - the Jewish leaders "opposed Paula and became abusive". They rejected the message of the Gospel as blasphemy. To this, Paul "shook his garments in protest", as a person after a meal would arise to shake off the food particles that had dropped on his garments as he ate. They rejected him, and like crumbs, Paul shook them off while warning them of the peril of what they have rejected - then he left them.
He didn't go far - next door in fact. Titius Justus was a Gentile convert to Judaism who believed the message of the Gospel. He lived next door to the Synagogue and invited Paul to use his house as a meeting place. The Synagogue's leader, Crispus, came too. His entire household believed and many other Corinthians also - and the church in Corinth began as the new converts were baptized.
It all sounds so good, but it was an arduous task Paul was engaged in. The Gospel by nature was a message of exclusivity - Jesus is THE way, truth, and life - there is no other; and, the Gospel is divisive. Jesus himself had said this. The Gospel will turn a "man against his father, a daughter against her mother...a man's enemies will be members of his own household." (Matthew 10:34-37). The Gospel comes with a price and we are reminded that it means to "take up your cross and follow me (Jesus)."
Corinth was a hard place at the end of a hard journey. Paul was tired and even though converts came to the newly formed church, God did something to encourage Paul. Luke records it:
"One night the Lord spoke to Paul in a vision: 'Do not be afraid; keep on speaking, do not be silent. For I am with you, and no one is going to attack and harm you, because I have many people in this city.' So Paul stayed in Corinth for a year and a half, teaching them the word of God." Acts 18:9-11 (NIV).
It's a lesson in perseverance and faithfulness no matter what the outcome. God was "with Paul"...that is all any of us need to know as we live faithfully. "There are many people in this city" reminds us that God knows his elect people. Luke tells us that Paul stayed in Corinth for another year and a half - longer than he had stayed at any previous location he had visited. Corinth was a secure place for Paul to work, write and live, and we cannot help but think that his friends - Silas, Timothy, Aquila, and Priscilla were a major factor in his persevering work.
God had promised Paul, "no one is going to attack or harm you", but it didn't take long for some to try. The Jews tried to take Paul to court charging him of "persuading" Jews to worship in ways that were outside the Jewish law. The judge - a proconsul - rejected their charge outright. Paul never had an opportunity to even mount a defense! When Gallio (Gal-lee-own), the proconsul, dismissed the charge, the crowd (we don't know if they were predominantly Jewish or Gentile) began to beat the Synagogue leader - Sosthenes - in front of the Proconsul. We can only guess as to why, but nevertheless, the Judge was ambivalent and walked away from it all.
Soon, Paul realized his time in Corinth was over. He had been in Corinth for eighteen months and he knew it was time to return back to his home church, Antioch, to make a report. He left Corinth for Cenchrea (Ken-kray-i), a seaport for travelers going east. Aquila and Priscilla accompanied him - probably because of what we discover in the next verses of a need in Ephesus.
Paul's unusual act - for us - cutting off all his hair was done because of a vow he had taken. A Nazarite vow is rooted in Old Testament law (Numbers 6:1-21). It involves a pledge to abstain from various things that normally were fine, but the vow was to abstain for the purpose of fulfilling a pledge to God. We think of the many who choose to abstain from various foods, drinks, or even activities during Lent. Paul had taken that vow and the proof of it was that his hair had grown long. The Jewish faithful, at the end of the pledge, cut their hair and presented it to the Priest to be burned on the altar as a sacrifice of thanksgiving and peace to God's purposes and God's will fulfilled in their life.
He arrived in Ephesus where once again he visited the Synagogue and received a much more welcomed response by the Ephesian Jews. They wanted him to stay but Paul was pressed for time and he sailed on to land at the western coastal Israeli city of Caesarea. From there he traveled to Jerusalem to visit the church there, and then finally - after 3 years away - he returned to his home church in Antioch.
Luke doesn't tell us how long Paul stayed in Antioch, but instead says that he began a third journey by traveling back through the Taurus mountain range to visit the disciples of the churches in Galatia.
The chapter ends with a story that we will follow in the next chapter. A new Christian leader emerges in the story of the church in Apollos - an Egyptian believer who Luke describes as "a learned man, with a thorough knowledge of the Scriptures" (18:25). Egypt's Alexandria boasted a large academic background and was considered to be the intellectual capital of the middle east, and besides Rome, the most important city of the Roman world. It was in Alexandria that the Septuagint - the Greek translation of the Old Testament - had been done several hundred years before.
Apollos had come to believe in Jesus - probably from the early days of the church after Pentecost. He had come to believe in Jesus, and was firmly knowledgable of the need of repentance - John's baptism - but he did not have the complete picture. John's baptism was a picture of the need for repentance, but Christian baptism is a sign that repentance has happened and now a new life, sealed by God's Holy Spirit, has begun under Christ Jesus' lordship. Apollos needed that understanding and Priscilla and Aquila taught it to him. The church celebrated Pentecost yesterday, and this is a reminder that the work of God is never possible apart from the power of the Holy Spirit behind it. I want you also to note, and realize, it is not a coincidence that Luke lists Priscilla first, as she had a predominant role in the church as a skilled teacher of the word.
Apollos, now equipped with the whole picture of Christ in the Gospel, and with recommendations from Aquila and Priscilla, moved over to Achaia - back to Corinth – where the need to help this fledgling church required a man with the wisdom, and now new knowledge, to lead the church.
The chapter division stops us for now, but the story continues. As we journey through the New Testament epistles, especially Paul's letters, we will return to this section again and again. It was a significant period for Paul's effectiveness in both planting and encouraging - sometimes with correction - the new churches and believers in them. Someone once said, “With great work, come great problems”. None of us are sufficient in ourselves - it is only possible through the power of the Holy Spirit at work in us, and some good friends to work alongside of us.