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For various reasons this being a Christian can be hard. It can be challenging to be called to love and serve God in a large city. It has its challenges as well as its opportunities. A city that is thought of as a big deal. A capital. A city that is a centre of commerce. A multicultural city that attracts people from all over who hold all kinds of different beliefs. A vibrant busy place in which sports are loved and people who can speak and present themselves well and express themselves well are well thought of.
A place a lot like the city in which we live, in fact. This is where Paul finds himself in chapter 18 of the book of Acts. Paul’s Greek tour continues. After this, Paul left Athens and went to Corinth. We said last week that Athens was not the big deal city we might think of as we’re familiar with it in our time. There were still things going on in Athens as we said – educationally and philosophically especially – but the big town was Corinth. It was the capital of the region. It was located on the Isthmus of Corinth, which inevitably and perhaps tragically leads me to remark that upon arrival, Paul must have thought “Isthmus be an important place!” It was located along a trade route that meant ships did not have to go all the way south around the Peloponnese Peninsula. Their cargoes would be transported across. Today there’s a canal that serves the same purpose. People from all over were there. There was a sizeable Jewish population. From our story we see that it was a place for refugees. Every two years the Isthmian games were held – second in importance to the Olympic games themselves.
This is where Paul is called to serve God. Throughout our time in Acts we’ve been constantly reminded that serving God is not something we’re called to do on our own. Remember that Paul had left Silas and Timothy behind in Beroea, and he’e been on his own since. Coming to Corinth, Paul finds a Jew named Aquila, a native of Pontus who had recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla (a familiar form of Prisca) because they had been ordered to leave Rome by the emperor Claudius. So we have the introduction of this wonderful couple – usually designated as Priscilla and Aquila which might denote a certain primacy of place to Priscilla. Two great friends of Paul. Famous in early church history and known to many. If they were around today they probably would be known as Priquila yes? The couple whom Paul would describe in his letter to Rome as risking their necks for his life (Rom 16:3-4), and for whom not only he gave thanks but all the churches of the Gentiles. The couple with whom he shares a trade. Tentmaking. Not just like camping tents but workers in leather. They take Paul in. Once again we see the importance to the work of Jesus in welcoming one another in. Jason entertained them as guests in Thessalonica. Lydia urges Paul and Silas to come and stay at her home. The jailer in Philippi took Paul and Silas to his home and cared for them and washed their wounds.
Because we do this together.
So they lived together and they worked together. Every day off Paul would go to the synagogue and tell them about the Messiah (because – synagogue). Silas and Timothy arrive from Macedonia and I’m sure that was a happy reunion. Perhaps they brought a monetary gift from Macedonia. Paul did not want to be thought of by those to whom he proclaimed the good news of Jesus as in it for the money. Either way he is able to occupy himself with proclaiming the word and testifying that the Messiah was Jesus full time.
This proclaiming life can be hard. He is opposed and reviled. Not just opposed but reviled. He has done his part. He shakes the dust off his clothes and tells them that he is innocent of their blood. This is language that goes back to Ezekiel and the role of the sentinel prophet whose job it is to speak the truth. The rest is out of the sentinel prophet’s hands. “From now on I will go to the Gentiles,” Paul says. It doesn’t mean he’ll never go near a synagogue again but that right now he’s going to go across the street (funnily enough and very “in your face” as someone has said) because the good news is not to he kept hidden away. He goes to the house of Titius Justus and sets up church there basically and the official of the synagogue becomes a believer in the Lord, once again with all his household. We read that many of the people of Corinth who heard Paul became believers and were baptized.
There are encouraging things happening sure, and Luke might not want to be making too many presumptions about Paul’s general state of mind here. I want us to look though, at how Paul himself describes his coming to Corinth “And I came to you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling.” (1 Cor 2:3) Look at some of the things that Paul has gone through before he’s arrived at this point. Having to escape a city by being lowered over the wall in a basket. Being jailed with Barnabas in Philippi. He’s been stoned and left for dead outside Lystra. He’s incited riots. Now he’s been met with revulsion and scorn.
There have been things that encourage him too.
Isn’t this much like our lives? A commonality in the human experience is suffering. We’ll be talking more about this as we get to the last section of Acts and Paul’s arrest in Jerusalem and Paul hears from the Holy Spirit that the road ahead of him is marked with imprisonment and persecution.
Of course we meet encouragement and joy and good times too. These are our lives and we do well to recognize it and celebrate it too.
Into the middle of this comes a word from God. One night the Lord said to Paul in a vision – “Do not be afraid, but speak and do not be silent, for I am with you, and no one will lay a hand on you to harm you, for there are many in this city who are my people.”
I am with you. God with us. God in us. Christ in you, the hope of glory. This is the essence of what we’re doing here. These prepositions – with, in. Someone has said that Christianity is at heart not propositional but prepositional. We’re not simply dealing with a set of propositions. We proclaim God who created us to be with him. To follow Christ is to place our lives in the middle of the story of how God chose to be with us in the person of his son. Of how God is with us in the person of the Holy Spirit and how one day we will be with God in a whole new way hear a voice saying look the home of God is among mortals.
God with us. Paul is reminded of this promise.
We need to be reminded do we not? We may not have a vision like Paul did, but we can hear God’s voice in God’s word. How do we rest in the promise of God’s presence with us? We’re going to take some time this morning to stop. To hear the words of God. To sit with them.
Words like this:
Gen 28:15 – Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.
Gen 48:21 Then Israel said to Joseph, “I am about to die, but God will be with you and will bring you again to the land of your ancestors.”
Josh 1:9 I hereby command you: Be strong and courageous; do not be frightened or dismayed, for the LORD your God is with you wherever you go.
1 Chron 17:2 Nathan said to David, “Do all that you have in mind, for God is with you.”
Jer 1:8 Do not be afraid of them. For I am with you to deliver you, says the LORD.
Luke 1:28 And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favoured one! The Lord is with you.”
Matt 28:20b And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.
Acts 18:10 … for I am with you, and no one will lay a hand on you to harm you, for there are many in this city who are my people.
That’s the other thing going on here of course. Not only is God with us, but there are many of us here in this city as we meet those discouragements and encouragements, those sorrows and those joys.
As this scene closes we have a ruling being made by Gallio. An attack is made on Paul, and he’s brought before the tribunal, accused of breaking the law in his worship of God. Paul doesn’t even have to speak here. Gallio decrees the dispute to be a matter of “words and names in your own law” and Paul and his fellow Christians remain free to worship together. Some breathing space is opened up in the church’s early history as they won’t need to worry about the Romans (for now anyway).
In v. 17 we have a violent postscript. All of them seized Sosthenes, the official of the synagogue, and beat him in front of the tribunal. But Gallio paid no attention to any of these things. We don’t know why Sosthenes is beaten. Has he become a follower of Christ? Is the crowd generally just looking for someone to beat up? We don’t know. We’re reminded of something though, as someone has said – “Luke doesn’t want us to imagine that Gallio, or any officials, have suddenly become saints, able to do no wrong and administer an absolute justice. They can bring a measure of good judgement into play, but the world still waits for the true judgement which will sort everything out once and for all.”
This is what we await, but we await actively. We await together. We await standing firm in the promise that God is with us in our waiting. May God continue to help us wait actively and well, assured and aware of His presence. May these things be true for us all.