Gospel Ministry in an Immoral Culture
Gospel Ministry in an Immoral Culture
Main Idea: Tired saints can draw much hope from the account of Paul’s visit to the influential and immoral city of Corinth. There the apostle was absorbed in work, weakened by trials, and then rejuvenated by the sovereign Lord.
- Stage 1: Tent Making (18:1-4)
- Paul’s coworkers (18:1-3)
- Paul’s work ethic (18:3-4)
- Stage 2: Full-Time Ministry (18:5-8)
- Support (18:5)
- Opposition (18:6)
- Fruitfulness (18:7-8)
- Stage 3: Weakness and Fear (18:9-10)
- The Lord’s Gentle Rebuke (18:9a)
- The Lord’s Strong Mandate (18:9b)
- The Lord’s Sovereign Promises (18:10)
- Stage 4: Long-Term Discipleship (18:11-17)
- Paul Returns to Antioch (18:18-22)
A friend sent me a picture of a chuckling man who must be in his eighties. Below the photo a caption reads, “Who said ministry was stressful? I’m 35 and I feel great!” Anyone who knows anything about ministry laughs at this because the joke highlights truth: gospel ministry is difficult and stressful not only for pastors but for every disciple-making Christian.
By Acts 18 Paul has already been through a long list of terrible challenges, and the trials in Corinth will only add to his list of afflictions. As we will see, however, the Lord rejuvenates his servant in some wonderful ways. The Lord gives him companions. He blesses Paul’s work. He gives Paul an assuring word. And the Lord fulfills promises to his faithful servant. Tired saints, then, can find a lot of hope in this passage about Paul’s absorption in work and weakness in trials that are eclipsed by rejuvenation by the sovereign Lord.
Corinth was another major city of Paul’s day, and it was the last major place of witness on his second missionary journey. John Stott is surely right in saying, “It seems to have been Paul’s deliberate policy to move purposefully from one strategic city-center to the next” (Message of Acts, 293). After proclaiming the gospel in the intellectual city of Athens, Paul moves forty-six miles west to proclaim the good news to the commercial and immoral metropolis of Corinth.
Today the need to plant the gospel in major cities remains urgent. Thus these chapters in the book of Acts, which highlight Paul’s ministry in Athens, Corinth, and Ephesus, are instructive.
Julius Caesar built a new Corinth after the Romans destroyed the old city. It was the largest and most cosmopolitan city of Greece. John Stott says that while the population of Ephesus was over a half a million, Corinth’s numbered nearly 750,000 (Stott, Message of Acts, 293), but others estimate the population lower. Timothy Keller helpfully says Athens was like Boston, an intellectual center; Corinth was like New York City, a commercial center; Ephesus was like Los Angeles, a popular culture and occult center; and Rome was like Washington, DC; it was the political center (Evangelism, 161).
No building was more than one hundred years old when Paul arrived in Corinth (Polhill, Acts, 381). The city sat on the southern end of the isthmus, a narrow land bridge, about three and a half miles wide, that connected the Peloponnese peninsula with the mainland of Greece to the north. Until a canal was dug there in the nineteenth century, ships were dragged across a wooden railroad connecting one harbor to the other.
Corinth was a flourishing center of political power, commerce, and sexual immorality. Politically, Corinth was a Roman colony, and it was the capital of the province of Achaia. Commercially it had “location, location, location” working for it. There north-south land routes intersected with east-west sea routes. Corinth had two ports, Cenchreae to the east, opening into the Aegean Sea, and Lechaeum to the west, giving access to the Adriatic. One could sail goods to Cenchreae, transport the goods by land over the isthmus, and then send them on ships to places like Italy. Morally, as in many port cities, Corinth was known for sexual promiscuity. In fact, the word translated “to live like a Corinthian” (korinthiazesthai) came to mean to live immorally (Polhill, Acts, 381). Despite the moral depravity, however, the city also had a well-established synagogue.
All of these factors made ministry to the city challenging; outreach required strategy. And those who became part of the church in this location soon found that living a godly life in the midst of Corinth was a major challenge. The temple of Aphrodite, the goddess of love, was at the city’s center; it stood on a nineteen hundred-foot tall hill overlooking the city. Thousands of female slave-priestesses related to the cult at this temple walked through the city as prostitutes in search of “worshipers.” Paul thus had to give the church much-needed instructions about sexual purity (cf. 1 Cor 6:12-20). In spite of such things, however, the city was a strategic spot for gospel advancement due to the city’s influence and to the mobility and diversity of the people there.
While Paul wrote his letters to the Corinthians after this initial visit, his letters still shed light on his early ministry and the Corinthian context. (He wrote 1 Corinthians from Ephesus near the end of his three-year ministry in Ephesus—see Acts 19:21-22; 20:31—and 2 Corinthians about a year later, probably from Macedonia—see Acts 20:2-3.) Most notable in these missives are Paul’s feeling of “weakness and fear” and his resolute commitment to preaching the cross in Corinth. In his first letter to the young believers there he said,
When I came to you, brothers and sisters, announcing the mystery of God to you, I did not come with brilliance of speech or wisdom. I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. I came to you in weakness, in fear, and in much trembling. (1 Cor 2:1-3)
These words make us wonder what could have possibly weakened and intimidated the apostle Paul. For starters, the immorality of Corinth surely impacted him: sin was rampant there. The idolatry could have also affected him as many “gods” and “lords” were worshiped in Corinth (1 Cor 8:5). The arrogance of the city too could have rocked him because the Corinthians were proud of their intellect, wealth, political power, and culture. (The world-famous Isthmian Games were hosted in Corinth every other year, and many professional orators who charged a fee for offering wisdom on how to advance socially were hosted by Corinth.) But it could also be that the cumulative effect of traveling and facing various trials that preceded Paul’s visit to Corinth had taken a deep emotional toll on him by the time he reached this stop. No matter what was behind Paul’s admission, he clearly had no allusions about being a superhero and wasn’t comfortable being surrounded by persistent evil. He thus admits weaknesses and fears.
Paul tells the Corinthians that the great solution to human pride and sexual perversion is the cross work of Jesus Christ (1 Cor 2:2). And it’s this message of the Substitute that Paul carried with him. The solution the apostle offered tells us what should we do about sexual perversion and human arrogance in culture today. We must preach the fully sufficient, self-humiliating, self-denying cross of Christ. We mustn’t proclaim it in arrogance but in desperate reliance on the Spirit’s power as Paul did (cf. 1 Cor 2:4-5).
We will probe more deeply into Paul’s fears soon. But for now let’s consider Paul’s journey to Corinth in four stages.
Stage 1: Tent Making
Paul traveled from Athens to Corinth. This adds to his extensive travelogue. Between the years 49 and 52 Paul traveled approximately two thousand miles by foot and about a thousand miles by boat (Schreiner, “A God-Glorifying Ministry”). That means this nearly fifty-year-old man walked the equivalent of the distance between Raleigh, North Carolina, and Denver, Colorado, just to tell people about Jesus.
Paul’s Coworkers (18:1-3)
In Corinth, Paul made new friends who not only shared his tent-making trade but also opened their home to him. Aquila and Priscilla provided wonderful strength to the missionary. The working friendship memorialized here confirms that Paul was no rugged individualist. He longed to be with his brothers and sisters, as his letters indicate. He even traveled with others as often as he could.
This couple is mentioned elsewhere in the New Testament (cf. Rom 16:3-4; 1 Cor 16:19; 2 Tim 4:19). They had much in common with Paul. They were Jews. They were tent makers. And it’s possible that they were the owners of a sizable business when they employed Paul.
Aquila and Priscilla may have been Christians before their expulsion from Rome. While they could have become Christians through Paul’s witness in Corinth, the text is silent on the point. According to the second-century historian Suetonius, Claudius expelled all the Jews because of an uproar instigated by “Chrestus” (probably a Latin transliteration of Christos, i.e., “Christ”). That means the disturbance in Rome apparently had to do with whether Jesus was the Messiah. Claudius expelled the Jews to maintain peace. Though his edict was never reversed, it evidently was not enforced carefully since many Jews, including this couple, resettled in Rome (cf. Rom 16:3-4; Johnson, Let’s Study Acts, 225).
We as modern believers have a tendency to distance ourselves from the mighty apostle Paul, who is the main human character featured in much of the book of Acts. But the husband and wife about whom we read here were ordinary Christians, whom we can identify with and emulate.
First, it appears that the pair enjoyed a dynamic marriage. Each time Aquila and Priscilla are mentioned, they are mentioned together. At the end of this chapter we read how they together took Apollos aside and filled in some theological gaps in his thinking. They worked as a team. And it seems that Paul couldn’t think of one of them without mentioning the other.
Second, it seems Priscilla had remarkable influence in this family unit. Of the six times this couple is mentioned, Priscilla is mentioned first on four occasions. This unusual fact probably indicates that her ministry in particular stood out to the Christians—though we shouldn’t draw the conclusion that Aquila’s ministry was insignificant or speculate that Priscilla dominated their marriage. Instead, it’s possible that Priscilla, like Lydia, was an important female figure in the early church. Her inclusion provides another example of how godly ladies have played significant roles throughout church history. She’s proof that the church’s mission in Acts wasn’t a male-dominated movement.
Third, this couple was mobile. Aquila migrated to Italy from Pontus, on the southern shore of the Black Sea. When forced to leave Rome, he and his wife ended up in Corinth. They later undertook another move to Ephesus with Paul, where the church (or a portion of it) met in their house (18:18-19; 1 Cor 16:3). And then they eventually returned to Rome (Rom 16:3-4)—only to appear back in Ephesus in 2 Timothy 4:19. These two were sojourners whose movements suggest they didn’t think of any spot on this world as their home. Instead, they remained open to the will of God, refusing to limit their lives to whatever might happen within a certain circle they’d drawn on a map. While their vocation likely contributed to their mobility, it was ultimately their commitment to following Jesus that caused them to go from city to city. Their experiences are a reminder that while the Lord may sometimes keep a Christian couple in a certain place throughout their marriage, he takes others on complex journeys reminiscent of Aquila’s and Priscilla’s. So, treasure Jesus and follow him wherever he leads you. Life is good—though not always easy—when it is spent in service to the King.
Fourth, this married couple had Christ-centered passion. Because of that Paul held them in the highest regard. He called the pair “coworkers in Christ Jesus” who “risked their own necks” on his account (Rom 16:3-4), and this commendation was no cheap compliment. Paul knew the couple well. He worked with them. He traveled with them. He stayed with them. And whatever he meant by this phrase, “risked their own necks,” he literally owed his life to these risk takers. Since Paul calls them “coworkers in Christ Jesus,” we must conclude that they did what they did because of their love for the Lord.
You may work in the military, in medicine, in education, or in the tech industry. Whatever you do, follow the model Aquila and Priscilla provide us: they worked “in Christ Jesus.” Whether they were making tents or planning to host people in their home, they did everything in, through, and for Jesus. The pair viewed all their work in relationship to him. May God raise up millions just like this Christ-exalting couple!
Fifth, these two were hospitable. Whenever Priscilla and Aquila are mentioned in Scripture, they are opening up their home to others as they did for Paul in Corinth. They instructed Apollos in their home (18:26 NIV). And when they lived in Ephesus and in Rome, churches met in their house (Rom 16:3-5; 1 Cor 16:19; 2 Tim 4:19). Likely they were people of means who chose to use their sizable dwelling for the benefit of others. These ordinary Christians sought to show hospitality (cf. Rom 12:13).
In our busy modern culture, we must fight to overcome the many challenges to practicing hospitality: (1) overcommitment, (2) intentional isolation; (3) addiction to comfort; (4) selfishness; (5) pride; and (6) wanting recognition for our acts of service. Following the lead of this first-century couple can help. Their actions demonstrate what happens when Christians understand the grace of Jesus—the grace of the One who welcomes us into God’s family and is preparing a place for us (John 14:1-7). I encourage you to look for ways to practice hospitality, whether that involves welcoming orphans, hosting missionaries, or sharing a meal with your neighbors.
Paul’s Work Ethic (18:3-4)
Is there a better model of hard work than the one Paul provides? The man is always on the go; he never misses a chance to preach; he’s writing faith-building letters in his off hours; and oh, by the way, he makes tents!
Elsewhere Paul mentions that he supported himself (Acts 20:34; 1 Cor 4:12; 1 Thess 2:9; 2 Thess 3:7-9; cf. 2 Cor 11:7), but only here in Acts 18:3 are we told about his trade. Some of the church fathers rendered the term translated “tent maker” as “leather worker.” Since tents were often made of leather, this description is likely true in a sense; moreover, tent makers probably used their skills on other types of leather products, too. Some suggest Paul was more of a cloth worker, who manufactured tents using goat’s hair (cillicium). Regardless of exactly what his job involved, Paul, like other rabbis, knew how to work with his hands—not just with his mind. He was able to do what others have to do; he could make a living in a secular vocation. While in his letters to the Corinthians Paul encouraged believers to compensate pastors, he refused to take any support from them. He wanted to avoid any obstacle to the gospel’s progress (1 Cor 9:7-14; cf. Gal 6:6).
Throughout his week Paul made tents and surely witnessed about the faith during the course of the day. On the Sabbath he preached in the synagogue (v. 4). He picked up where he left off in previous towns, testifying that Jesus is the Messiah. He “reasoned” and “tried to persuade people.” He told them to repent and put their faith in Jesus and then left the results to God.
After Silas and Timothy arrived (v. 5), probably with funds, Paul would transition into full-time preaching ministry. But during the wait for such support, Paul remained flexible. It appears that his years of service to the church included seasons in which he was fully funded and times when he needed to resort to tent making to stay fed. Paul learned to be content in Christ no matter the season (Phil 4:11-13). That’s a lesson every Christian should embrace.
Paul was not effective merely because he was a gifted teacher; by God’s grace he also worked extremely hard (1 Cor 15:10). National Basketball Association all-star Kevin Durant once quipped, “Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work” (http://www.nba.com/thunder /team/kevin_durant.html). I love that quote. To me it’s a great reminder that Christians should value and pursue a noble work ethic, trusting God to bless their efforts even in situations in which skill alone might fall short. Paul told the Romans, “Do not lack diligence in zeal; be fervent in the Spirit; serve the Lord” (Rom 12:11). I have read lots of biographies about great saints, and they share one common denominator: they weren’t lazy! (I’ve noticed, in fact, that no one writes biographies about lazy people.)
Please don’t take this the wrong way. Each of us requires rest. In fact, we work best when we live in an established rhythm of work and rest. But we must not think that lounging by the pool or sleeping in all day or vacationing is what life is all about. We must work hard in all of our endeavors, as unto the Lord (cf. Col 3:23). We’ve got to stay on mission as Paul did.
In the world of ministry and mission, so-called tent making or bi-vocational ministry is becoming increasingly important. In fact, the SBC International Mission Board is calling for more business people and retirees to enter the mission field in order to send more people to the nations without the burden of fully funding them first. This approach is also a blessing as such Christians go overseas equipped to share both the gospel and valuable trades that can aid families facing financial hardships. And Ruth Simmons comments on how people are creatively using their vocations to get the gospel message into hard-to-enter countries:
A tentmaker couple translated the New Testament for five million Muslims while he did university teaching and she tutored English! A science teacher evangelized his students in rural Kenya, and preached every third Sunday in the local church. A symphony violinist in Singapore had Bible studies with fellow musicians. A faculty person and an engineer set up a Christian bookstore in the Arab Gulf region. (“Tentmakers Needed for World Evangelization,” quoted in Fernado, Acts, 498–99)
All Christians should consider how they might leverage their vocations for the good of the nations.
Working a secular job is no less important than working full-time as a clergyman: those in both positions can use their gifts and opportunities to help build Christ’s kingdom. The Bible, in fact, is filled with mentions of godly saints who held various vocations. Your job gives you the opportunity not only to provide for basic needs but also to love neighbors, to display Christ-honoring integrity, to speak the good news (either during work or in conversations after hours), and to make the gospel known around the world using whatever means the Lord gives you.
Stage 2: Full-Time Ministry
Paul is able to transition from bivocational ministry into full-time ministry once his companions, Silas and Timothy, arrive in Corinth. Let’s consider three aspects of this next stage in Paul’s journey: (1) support, (2) opposition, and (3) fruitfulness.
In verse 5 we see that Paul was “devoted” to the Word of God. This term carries the idea of being “absorbed” or “engrossed” in a work. Previously the apostle was making tents and preaching as he could, but with the arrival of his old friends, he’s giving all of his attention to the Word. I like how the NLT translates verse 5: “And after Silas and Timothy came down from Macedonia, Paul spent all his time preaching the Word” (emphasis added).
How was Paul able to set aside the tent-making business? It seems Luke is here referring to the generous gifts given by the Macedonian churches, like Philippi, who financially supported Paul so that he could devote all of his time to making Jesus known. Consider these two texts (the first was written to the Philippians, and the second was addressed to the Corinthians):
And you Philippians know that in the early days of the gospel, when I left Macedonia, no church shared with me in the matter of giving and receiving except you alone. For even in Thessalonica you sent gifts for my need several times. (Phil 4:15-16)
When I was present with you and in need, I did not burden anyone, since the brothers who came from Macedonia supplied my needs. (2 Cor 11:9)
In addition to delivering financial support, Silas and Timothy probably also brought an encouraging report regarding the Thessalonians (see 1 Thess 3:6-7). Thus, the fellowship of Silas and Timothy, the news of the Thessalonians, and the generous gifts of the Macedonians strengthened the apostle.
This passage illustrates the truth that the whole body of Christ is important in fulfilling the mission of the church. You may not be a skilled Bible teacher, but if you can financially support the ministry of the Word, then you’re playing a vital role in making sure the gospel is shared! You may be so busy at home that you can’t help out in the children’s ministry, but if you are discipling your own kids around the breakfast table, you are playing a vital role in spreading the gospel. It takes the whole body of Christ to get the gospel to the whole world.
When Paul talks about generous giving in 2 Corinthians 8–9, including the example of the Macedonians, he reminds the church that Jesus has given us the greatest motivation for being cheerful, generous givers:
For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ: Though he was rich, for your sake he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich. (2 Cor 8:9)
Jesus gave everything so that we might be spiritually rich in him. The more we understand the grace of Jesus, the more generous we will be.
It wasn’t long before Jews opposed Paul’s message about the crucified and risen Jesus. And when they did, Paul—just as he did in Pisidian Antioch—shifted his focus to the Gentiles (v. 6; cf. 13:45-48). He even shook out his garments as a sign of protest against their hard-heartedness, just as he had shaken off his sandals previously in response to stubborn listeners (13:51). As he did so, he also used an image from Ezekiel’s prophecy to declare that those who refused to repent were bringing judgment on their own heads (cf. Ezk 3:16-19; 33:1-9). Paul had done his job, he knew, in preaching the message. Because the Jews refused to listen, he moved on to the Gentiles (a pattern that will continue: 19:8-9; 28:23-28). Later Paul told the Ephesian elders he was innocent of the blood of all, for he had proclaimed the whole counsel of God to Jews and Greeks (20:18-31, esp. 26-27).
Anytime we speak the gospel to unbelievers, we must tell them they’re responsible for responding to the message. Let’s do our job and leave the results to God.
Where does Paul go after being run out of the synagogue? Next door! A man named Titius Justus, a God fearer, apparently became a believer during Paul’s synagogue ministry. Titius opened his home to Paul and to the new church, although the Jews surely hated the idea of Christians meeting next door to the synagogue. And they had to be even more angered when the ruler of their synagogue, Crispus, professed faith in Jesus! Paul mentions Crispus in his letter to the Corinthians as being one of the few people he actually baptized (1 Cor 1:14-16). Crispus probably had a teachable Berean spirit and, after carefully considering Paul’s teaching against what he knew from the Old Testament, declared, “Jesus is Lord” and followed in baptism.
Many other Corinthians also believed, and presumably many Gentiles were among them. In time the church in Corinth was made up of many working-class people and a few “powerful” people of “noble birth” (1 Cor 1:26-31). Paul preached the message of the cross to those of every social class and regardless of ethnicity. By God’s grace, many were saved (1 Cor 1:17–2:5).
The fact that the ruler of the synagogue was converted adds force to the truth that the gospel is powerful enough to transform anyone (Rom 1:16). To put Crispus’s conversion in modern terms, we might imagine that Christian missionaries enter a hostile Muslim context and slowly build relationships with the people there. In time they are introduced to a local imam, and after a series of conversations, that Muslim leader becomes a Christian! Is such a thing really possible? Yes! Because the gospel is true and life changing.
The work in Corinth started off rather slowly (especially during the tent-making phase), but over time Paul’s ministry produced fruit. This is a great indicator that we need to take the long view in terms of evaluating ministry effectiveness. Though it’s sometimes difficult to maintain patience in this fast-food, microwave culture, where we want to see immediate results, we will need to go through slow seasons before seeing fruit. So keep being faithful to the mission, and ask God to bless your efforts.
Stage 3: Weakness and Fear
Despite such remarkable success in outreach, Paul’s confidence seems to evaporate by verse 9. He acknowledges his weakness in 1 Corinthians 2:3, and his condition is evident from the Lord’s word of encouragement here.
Paul seems to be ready to quit at this point, even after great fruitfulness. Given his previous trials in general and his trials in Corinth in particular, maybe Paul was too tired to enjoy these evangelistic blessings. So was Paul experiencing what some call burnout? That theory is possible because when we’re overworking, we tend to find it difficult to delight in our work.
We will never know all the reasons for Paul’s condition here, but what most blesses me when I read this passage is that even the apostle Paul needed encouragement in order to press on.
Up to this point Paul’s missionary visits have been relatively brief due to opposition. But this time the Lord encourages Paul’s spirit through a gentle rebuke, a strong mandate, and some sovereign promises. Paul needed these in order to remain in Corinth.
The Lord’s Gentle Rebuke (18:9a)
In verse 9 the Lord tells Paul something he has been saying to his people for centuries: “Don’t be afraid.” We sometimes think of Paul being immune to fear. But apparently the opposition and Corinthian context frightened him. He wasn’t the first messenger to need the gentle rebuke about not being fearful, and he wasn’t the last to need it either. Paul was like a boxer that needed his corner man to encourage him to get back in the ring and go another round.
How loving of the Lord to speak to Paul in this vision! Kent Hughes comments on the Lord’s grace here:
The vision and its opening words—the fact that God made the effort to encourage Paul not to fear—meant that God loved and cared for his ambassador. This assurance ministered to Paul’s heart, just as 1 John 4:18 teaches us: “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear.” The simple words in the vision filled Paul’s heart with God’s love, and fear was put to flight. Time and time again the Scriptures tell us to fear not—to stop worrying about tomorrow, to stop borrowing trouble—because we are divinely loved, and God’s love is enough! (Acts,241–42)
As followers of Christ, we don’t need to fear man because the sovereign King cares for us. The psalmist says,
When I am afraid,
I will trust in you.
In God, whose word I praise,
in God I trust; I will not fear.
What can mere mortals do to me? . . .
This I know: God is for me.
In God, whose word I praise,
in the Lord, whose word I praise,
in God I trust; I will not be afraid.
What can mere humans do to me? (Ps 56:3-4,9-11)
God loves his people. We can trust him. We have no reason to fear humans.
The Lord’s Strong Mandate (18:9b)
In the face of intimidation, Paul is told by the Lord to open his mouth and boldly proclaim the truth (cf. Eph 6:18-20). This suggests that Paul went through a season in which he was tempted to be silent, though that’s difficult to imagine! Whatever was behind his state of mind here, he needed to be told to keep on speaking about the Messiah because only through hearing about Jesus can people come to faith in Jesus (cf. Rom 10:17).
The Lord doesn’t tell Paul to keep on speaking because Paul is so good at it. Elsewhere, Paul mentions the brother who is “praised among all the churches for his gospel ministry” (2 Cor 8:18), suggesting some other preachers were more gifted than he. Paul obviously had remarkable gifts, but that’s not the primary reason the Lord gives this mandate here. Instead, God told him to speak because Jesus was gathering a people in Corinth. And what he was doing in that city wasn’t about Paul; it was about fulfilling the Lord’s own will. God delights in using the weak to accomplish his purposes and to magnify himself (cf. 2 Cor 12:9-10).
Many Christians aren’t afraid to serve, but they are afraid to speak. And many assume they’re not gifted enough or powerful enough for the Lord’s work of making the gospel known. Even Paul experienced timidity and weakness. But in spite of this, the Lord commissioned him—not because of his oratorical gifts and his commanding presence. So be encouraged! The Lord uses ordinary, fragile people (2 Cor 4:7). Cast your insufficiencies on the Lord’s totally sufficiency, and you will find that weakness is the secret strength of God’s ambassadors.
The Lord’s Sovereign Promises (18:10)
The Lord first promises Paul this: “I am with you.” This guarantee of God’s presence basically repeats Jesus’s words in the Great Commission (Matt 28:20). This same promise was made during the callings of Moses (Exod 3:2-12), Joshua (Josh 1:1-9), and Jeremiah (Jer 1:5-10). Because the Lord is with his servants, they can persevere in the mission.
The second promise was unique to Paul’s situation: no one would attack Paul to harm him. In other cities Paul was attacked and harmed, but in this location the Lord made a promise of protection that would cover him throughout a certain window of time (Hughes, Acts, 243).
While we can’t claim this protection of an attack-free witness, we too can be certain that our lives and times are in the Lord’s hands. We can trust him in every situation. We can be assured that Romans 8:28 is true for every believer!
The final promise assured Paul of the Lord’s sovereignty in salvation. In it he tells Paul to go on speaking because “I have many people in this city.” To this Paul doesn’t reply, “Well, since you already have people here, Lord, I’ll go to the next town.” No, Paul accepts the Lord’s words to mean that some people in Corinth will be saved when he preaches the gospel to them. In other words, the Lord was letting Paul know that some people in Corinth were Jesus’s property even though they hadn’t realized it yet. Paul, therefore, needed to go on speaking the gospel with confidence because Jesus was determined to have a people in Corinth.
Now you might be tempted to think, I wish I had such promises to go on when it comes to sharing about Jesus. Take heart because you do! The Lord has already told us that he is with us (cf. Heb 13:5) and that he is drawing people to himself (cf. John 6:37,39). And while we can’t claim God’s final promise to Paul exactly, we do have God’s promise to work for the good of his people (cf. Rom 8:28). With that in mind, we must daily fill our minds with the promises of God. That, in fact, is how we fight fear today. So saturate your mind and heart with the Lord’s sovereign and sweet promises.
Several of my historical heroes experienced serious bouts of discouragement, fear, and depression. Zack Eswine recently released a book entitled Spurgeon’s Sorrows. Consider what acclaimed preacher Charles Spurgeon had to say on the reality of sorrow:
“I am the subject of depressions of spirit so fearful that I hope none of you ever get to such extremes of wretchedness as I go to.” (Quoted in Eswine, 15)
“I wonder every day that there are not more suicides, considering the troubles in this life.” (Quoted in Eswine, 119)
“The Road to sorrow has been well trodden, it is the regular sheep track to heaven, and all the flock of God have had to pass along it.” (Quoted in Eswine, 17)
But also consider Spurgeon’s counsel to look to God’s promises, providence, and strength:
An ointment for every wound, a cordial for every faintness, a remedy for every disease. Blessed is he who is skilled in heavenly pharmacy and knows how to lay hold on the healing virtues of the promises of God! (“Obtaining Promises”)
To be cast down is often the best thing that could happen to us. (“Sweet Stimulants for the Fainting Soul”)
It is an unspeakable consolation that our Lord Jesus knows this experience. (“The Roots of Depression”)
From both Paul the apostle and Charles Spurgeon, we can learn about the necessity of leaning on the cane of God’s grace. In your sorrows, meditate on the promises of God; draw near to Jesus, the Man of Sorrows; and trust in God’s providence. What this means practically is that in your sorrows you don’t need to skip worship gatherings. You need to listen to Scripture. When facing trials, you must not remove yourself from community. Instead, press in to God’s Word, be around God’s people, and allow the Lord of promises to rejuvenate you.
Stage 4: Long-Term Discipleship
This is the first time Paul stays an extended period in a city. He uses the extra time to disciple this new congregation, grounding them in the Scriptures.
Then in verses 12-17 we see how the vision God provided him prepared Paul for a legal assault by the Jews. They leveled a complaint to Gallio, claiming that Paul was persuading people to worship God in ways contrary to the law. In the long run, Gallio dismisses the whole matter, refusing to get involved in some internal theological debate. Paul goes free as a result.
The person attacked by proxy is actually Crispus’s successor, Sosthenes. We’re not told why Sosthenes was beaten or who was behind the violence. It could be that the Jews attacked him because he, too, was on the verge of becoming a Christian or because he had already become one (cf. 1 Cor 1:1). Jews may have attacked him simply because they were upset about their loss of pubic image. Or perhaps the Gentiles attacked him in a moment of anti-Semitic rage. All we know is this: the Lord kept his promise to Paul. He really did protect him. And he protected him on this occasion in an ordinary way—not through a miraculous escape but through a judicial decision.
So Paul stays for a longer period of time in Corinth, grounding the saints in the Scriptures as he rests in the promises of God. The Lord in his grace and sovereignty may give us longer seasons of discipleship in some places than in others. Let’s make sure we are expounding the Word of Christ and exalting the Christ of the Word no matter the duration of our assignments.
Paul Returns to Antioch
Here we have a travelogue that shows how Paul completed the final part of his second missionary journey, returning to the church in Antioch where it began (15:35-41).
Paul must have intended to go to Jerusalem before going to Cenchreae because he shaved his hair to conclude a Nazirite vow (cf. Num 6:2,5,9,18). Doing so may have been Paul’s expression of thanks to God for protecting him at Corinth. The ritual would include offering a sacrifice at the temple and burning hair devoted to God on the altar (Johnson, Let’s Study Acts, 230). The action shows that Paul never disregarded the law’s relevance to Jews, contrary to false charges from others (ibid.; cf. Acts 18:13; 21:21-26; 1 Cor 9:20). John Stott comments,
Once Paul had been liberated from the attempt to be justified by the law, his conscience was free to take part in practices which, being ceremonial or cultural, belonged to the “matters indifferent,” perhaps on this occasion in order to conciliate the Jewish Christian leaders he was going to see in Jerusalem (cf. 21:23). (Message of Acts, 301)
Though Jerusalem isn’t mentioned in the Greek here, most interpreters see it as implied by the verbs “went up” and “went down” (v. 22; cf. 11:2; 21:15). Paul visited “the church” there (v. 22).
This passage helps us look forward to what will become the primary place of ministry during Paul’s third missionary journey, Ephesus. The Spirit blocked Paul’s attempt to minister there previously (16:6), but on this return trip he visits briefly, teaching in the synagogue and promising to return “if God wills” (v. 21), which is a practical expression of belief in God’s sovereignty. Paul left his friends Aquila and Priscilla there. They will give some important instruction to a character we’ll meet in the next chapter, Apollos (vv. 24-28; cf. 1 Cor 3:5-9).
Paul finally returns to Antioch, the sending church, concluding the second missionary journey. We’re reminded again that Paul wasn’t an isolated missionary. He ministered in association with the church.
This chapter reminds us that Paul loved the gospel, the church, and the King’s mission. So let’s follow this model. Paul encountered weakness and fear but found strength in God’s abundant grace. So let’s look to the sufficiency of God’s grace in our trials. Paul resolved to preach the cross in the midst of an arrogant and immoral culture. So by the power of the Spirit, let’s do the same.
Reflect and Discuss
- What kind of trials had Paul experienced before arriving in Corinth? What additional trials did he encounter there?
- What facts about Aquila and Priscilla most resonate with you?
- What does it mean for Christians to be “tent makers”? Explain why we need tent makers today.
- What allowed Paul to switch to ministering full-time in Corinth? What does this teach about the body of Christ’s role in advancing the gospel?
- Why does Paul keep preaching to the Jews in the synagogue?
- Why should the conversions in Corinth encourage us?
- How did the Lord rejuvenate Paul (18:9-10)?
- What should Christians do when experiencing weakness and fear?
- Explain how God fulfilled his promise to protect Paul in Corinth.
- What does Paul’s return trip teach about the importance of the church? Take a few moments to pray for your local church in light of this passage.