Faithfulness and Flexibility Acts 18 v1 - Acts 18:1 - 11:1
Meet the Reverend Jones - superstar. He can preach, counsel, evangelise, administrate, conciliate, communicate and even sometimes, integrate. He can also raise the church budget. He handles Sunday mornings better than any quiz master on TV. He is better with words than most political candidates. As a scholar he surpasses many university professors and no church function would be complete without his wit. Struggling mediocre Christians look on with holy envy. Which of them would not like to be in the Reverend Jones shoes, not to mention his parsonage. Some of you will have come across that before. It is Howard Snider in his book New Wineskins as he comments with tongue in cheek on the modern day image of the successful Christian leader. And I think we have to admit, there is more than a grain of truth in that caricature. We do like to have our Christian superstars dont we? There is some sort of vicarious comfort to be drawn from knowing that our ministers are a notch above the rest of us, having that innate ability to boldly go where no ordinary Christian has gone before. Where we are timid, they are strong. Where we doubt, they are self - assured. So it may come as something of a surprise to some of us to discover that one of the greatest Christian superstars of all time, the apostle Paul, is very candid about the way he felt when it came to some pioneering evangelism in Corinth which we are looking at tonight in Acts 18; and what he says hardly matches up to our idea of the superstar at all. This is the way he described his feelings towards this mission later on in 1 Corinthians 2: 2: I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. I came to you in weakness and in fear, and with much trembling. Hardly what we expect from a superstar is it?. Now why? What was it about this city of Corinth which made Paul feel so intimidated?
Well, Corinth was widely known for two things: pride and immorality. To begin with the Corinthians were a proud people. They were proud of their city, rebuilt by Julius Caesar himself no less in 46 BC. They boasted of its wealth and culture, it had political prestige too, in being the capital of the province of Achaia, only second to Athens itself. Now do you think that a message which declares that such achievements count for nothing in the sight of God is going to be well received? That we cannot contribute anything at all to our salvation and what the God of the universe calls us to do is to trust in a crucified carpenter from Galilee? It is not the sort of message which exactly panders to the proud and self-sufficient is it?
But in the second place Corinth as a sea port, was notorious for its immorality, in fact so closely associated was this city with sexual promiscuity with its brothels on every street corner, that to Corinthians had become slang for to fornicate. So a message which spoke of a Saviour dying for sins and calling on people to change their ways as a result, is hardly going to be welcomed with open arms. It tells people they are wrong, it scuppers the sex trade. So its is not going to be a push-over coming here, it is scary imagining what peoples reactions are going to be.
And similarly today. We live in a society that is proud of its technological achievements, its wisdom. It boasts of its tolerance, tolerant of any view except the one which claims absolute truth. No perversion is so disgraceful that it cannot appear on TV or be openly described in newspapers and magazines. To even dare to raise the possibility that sex outside marriage is wrong, or that homosexual sex is a perversion is guaranteed not only to be met with incredulity but outright hostility. I dont know about you, but I get frightened in a situation like that. It becomes intimidating to speak out in a culture in which pride and immorality join forces. Well, that is how Paul felt. And what we have in this passage is a wonderful account of the way God encouraged and enabled Paul to do the job of an evangelist, and how we can be encouraged too. So do turn with me to Acts 18.
First of all, we have a marvellous example of providential provision, that is, the way God superintends all events to the advantage of his people - vv1 - 5.
Imagine going to a new town, or even arriving at university as a Christian only to discover you are the only Christian there is. You might at the moment be the only Christian on your course, but imagine being the only believer out of a university of 12 - 15, 000! How do you think that would make you feel? Isolated? Lonely? Odd? Probably. Homesickness is one of the most awful emotional states to be in, but cultural, social and religious isolation when you are hundreds of miles from the nearest friends amplifies homesickness to dizzying new heights. Well, how do you think Paul felt when he found himself in Corinth? That was his situation. And what is more he by himself had to get on with church planting. The emotional pressure would have been enormous. Now do you not think that God did not know that and care? Of course he did. So unbeknown to Paul, God arranged that two other Christians should be waiting for him - Aquila and Priscilla. And not only are they Christians, but fellow Jews. And not only are they fellow Jews but fellow tentmakers. For you see, every rabbi had to have a second string to his bow and be skilled in some craft and would you believe it, here were folk in the same line of business. That meant they could spend time together and talk together and prayer together not only did they share the same faith but the same trade. - talk about a Godsend.
But you can be sure that is not the way things would have looked even a few days before. Did you notice why Aquila and Priscilla found themselves in the moral cesspit of the Roman Empire? It is because as we read in v 2, they were ordered to leave Rome when there was some pogrom ordered by the Emperor Claudius. Suetonius referred to this in his Life of Claudius as the Jews were making constant disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus, he banished them from Rome. The people expelled he called Jews but Chrestus seems to mean Christ, in which case the Jews were Christians and the disturbance in the Jewish community had been caused by the gospel. Now, how do you think that would have looked from the standpoint of Aquila and Priscilla as they were more or less hounded from pillar to post around the Mediterranean? Why is God allowing this to happen? Why doesn't he do something? But God had a bigger purpose in view - to get the Gospel message around the world. What appears to us as a mishap is in Gods grand strategy a masterstroke. Do you see how with God nothing is wasted? So the Emperor boots out some Christians, fine, God will then take those Christians to give encouragement to other Christians like Paul and so further the spread of the Gospel. Do you see?
Let me tell you something. One of the great instruments of the devil guaranteed to knock out a Christian from the game is self - pity. It is a killer. It is characterised by thoughts such as these: If only I had been given the opportunities. If only it wasnt difficult being a Christian here. If only things could have been different, if only, if only... Do you not believe in Gods providence - that though you may not be able to see it from where you are, there is a divine purpose in you being where you are and doing what you do and, who knows, you may be an Aquila and Priscilla, just the right person at the right time to do Gods work, right where you are.
But isn't God good? As if this is not enough he brings along two more workers - Titus and Timothy in v5 and, as we know from elsewhere in the NT, they brought with them some financial help from some other churches which then released Paul from his self - supporting tent making business to get on with Gospel proclamation full time - so as it says Paul devoted himself exclusively to preaching. And here we have a beautiful example of the Biblical balance between Gods sovereignty and our responsibility. God did not make money magically appear so Gospel work could happen. First of all, Paul had to work hard to support himself, taking on a part time job. But he didn't mind, he did it without grumbling because he wanted to see people saved. - do you? Then when Titus and Timothy arrived, they brought money willingly given by other Christians who wanted to support Gospel work - God used their generosity. Can I ask whether God is able to use your generosity? Derek, Gavin, Alison, Bev are mainly supported by people outside St Johns and we are the ones benefiting. Is it not time for some of us to start supporting more of this work so others might benefit? That means planned and prayerful giving. That means all of us doing this, including students. And just look at the result - the second source of encouragement - evangelism explosion - as we see in vv 6 - 8.
As we saw last week, Pauls normal method was to present the Gospel to those linked with the Jewish faith. And the way he did it was through reaching the heart through the head - talking them through the message of the Bible. And we have here the two responses which true Gospel work always evokes - opposition and belief. Evangelism is not a walk over. Paul was probably the most effective evangelist ever and he found it hard. If he did, so will we. The fact is people are responsible and we can go only so far with them. Here Paul persisted up to the point they became positively hostile, then using language reminiscent of the prophet Ezekiel he said OK, on your own heads be it - I have done my job, I have discharged my responsibility, if you will not listen I will go to people who will, and so off he goes to the non - Jews. My dear brothers and sisters, it is a difficult lesson to learn, but learn we must, and that is the limits of our own responsibility and the extent of other peoples. We may pray for people, we may explain to people and persist with people, but at the point when they say I do not want to know anymore, or they turn on us - then we have to respect their decision even though it is a disastrous one - in rejecting Gods Son. At that point for the sake of others we must move on. We may feel sad but we should not feel guilty.
And so what does Paul and his team do? Well, they set up shop next door to the synagogue in the home of Titus Justus - not exactly the most tactful move to foster interfaith relations is it? And to add insult to injury one of the synagogue leaders gets converted - Crispus, together with his whole family - as if God is saying - If I can convert him I can convert anybody - of course the Gospel makes sense. And just to show that this saving message is for everybody we are told in v 8 that many Corinthians believed and were baptised. Proud people? - yes they can get converted. Immoral people? - they can get converted too. Rich people - yes Titus was a big shot. Religious people - sure, look at Crispus. Poor people, you had plenty of them in Corinth. Are you ever tempted to look at someone and say: I can never imagine them ever becoming a Christian. so you dont even bother talking to them about the faith? Resist it. What happened at Corinth is a reminder for all time that no one is beyond the pale. Whether you live in Bransholme or Beverley, whether you are a cleric or a cleaner, is a total irrelevance - God can and does bring all sorts into a personal, loving relationship with himself through his Son. There is no colour or class bar to the Gospel.
Now I tell you frankly, if we got a response like this in Jesus 2000 we would be over the moon, wouldn't we? But somehow Paul needs even more encouragement, what we can call revelatory reassurance in vv 9 - 11 (read).
Now why this special message? Paul has already been given a set of unexpected friends, his two curates have arrived with a mission fund, he has already seen converts from every strata of society - surely thats enough? What is wrong with Paul that he has to have this extra revelation, saying preach on ?
Well, I think in part it is to do with the very special pressures of ministry. Let me be a little personal here. Generally speaking the times I feel the lowest spiritually and emotionally is on a Saturday night before I preach and on a Sunday evening after I have preached. I have noticed from what people kindly tell me, that when God has spoken the most powerfully that is when I have felt myself to be at my weakest, though outwardly it may not have looked that way. I think it is all part of Gods purposes for keeping his servants humble and dependent upon him. It is very unpleasant, I dislike the feelings immensely, but its all very necessary. And although by no means am I putting myself in the same class, but you look at the lives of all those so singularly used of God - Luther, Spurgeon, Lloyd - Jones - they all suffered from what Spurgeon called the preachers fainting fits - when even, and especially in the times of the greatest blessing you simply feel that you cannot go on, you want to give up. And let me say, if you want to be used of God - you will feel it too, it will cost you emotionally.
And maybe that is what Paul was feeling here. Why not? He was human too. It is a spiritual battlefield we are in, the devil will assault our minds and hearts - yes, God will even use these to shape us - and then on top of that for him there is physical opposition which is explicitly stated - so we need special encouragement. And that is what Paul received.
But notice how Paul is encouraged to preach on, the reason is given at the end of v10 for I have many people in this city. It is generally agreed that this is a term referring to those upon whom God has set his saving love - his people - but who have not yet heard the Gospel, what are sometimes called Gods elect. They are there, Paul doesn't know who they are, so he has to preach to everyone, but there are those who by Gods sovereign grace will respond. And that is meant to be an incentive to Paul in his evangelism as it should be for us.
I think a very moving example of this is given by the Bible teacher Don Carson. His father was a minister of a small church in French speaking Quebec in the early 1950s at a time when you had only 15 full time workers for a population of six and a half million French speaking Canadians. It was a time when evangelicals were beaten up and thrown into prison for doing gospel work. Then in the mid - fifties there was a rebellion in the Congo, now Zaire, when lots of French speaking missionaries were thrown out and so some went to Quebec to see what work they could do there. And do you know, not one of them stayed for more than six months - it was that tough. So Don Carson as a stroppy teenager asked his father, why didn't they stay, didn't they have any guts? And his father who was the mildest of men said; You must understand Don that these people have been in a part of the world where they have seen immense blessing, and understandably they want to go to a place where they can find similar blessing. So Don Carson said, Well, why don't you do that? Why don't you go to some spiritual lush place and make your life count for something? At that point his father rounded on him: I stay he said because I believe God has many people in this place. It was not until the nineteen seventies that he saw the tide turn, and then he had more converts than he could handle with thousands upon thousands coming to Christ. Now let me tell you: God has many of his people in Hull - those he has set his heart on. They have not heard the Gospel yet or responded, but they will. Hull gets a bad press, I have had folk from the Bible belt of southern England almost laugh at me when they hear I am ministering in Hull. But I am committed here, because God has many people and we have not even begun to see what he can do.
So Paul stayed a year and a half - a relatively long time for him in his work. And that is what we need if we are going to see in depth evangelism, folk committed to long term work - not hit and run and lets look for greener pastures elsewhere, but loving Gospel workers. Sure, you might be a bit scared, as was Paul, you might wonder how on earth will this lot ever be converted, but we have a wonderful God, who weaves every twist and turn of our existence into a glorious pattern which is his for the sake of his Son.
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