In Corinth

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How can our friends, families, neighbours and colleagues come to turn to Jesus and trust in him?  How can the people of Gateshead come to do that?  How can the people of modern Britain do that?  Does evangelism work?  If so, how does it work?  How should we feel when it doesn't seem to be working?

We're back in the book of Acts in the evening services for the next couple of months, and we've parachuted back down to join Paul and his companions as they spread the good news about Jesus.  Jesus is the long-awaited Christ, the chosen King, foretold in the Jewish scriptures, the Old Testament.  By trusting in Jesus people can accept his offer of peace with God, peace that comes through forgiveness of their sin and peace that manifests itself in eternal life.

When we dropped in on Paul last week we found him in the Greek city of Athens, taking the gospel to sophisticated Europeans, as he had first in Philippi, then in Thessalonica and also in Berea.  Tonight we follow Paul almost 50 miles west to Corinth.  Essentially, we can think of Corinth as being Gateshead in terms of population and Las Vegas/Amsterdam in terms of culture.  Lots of money, lots of sex, lots of show.  How can the gospel possibly penetrate a place with such wealth and sophistication and sin?  How can people in Corinth be convicted about their sin and their pride, and persuaded to put their trust in Jesus?  Well we're going to see that for that to happen, Paul must play his part and God must play his part.  Those are the two angles we'll take in the two points, under the main idea, which is that…

The gospel spreads through our action and God's sovereignty

1) Paul reasons, persuades and teaches

     1After this, Paul left Athens and went to Corinth. 2There he met a Jew named Aquila, a native of Pontus, who had recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla, because Claudius had ordered all the Jews to leave Rome. Paul went to see them, 3and because he was a tentmaker as they were, he stayed and worked with them. 4Every Sabbath he reasoned in the synagogue, trying to persuade Jews and Greeks.

So Paul travels across from Athens to Corinth and he meets a Jew called Aquila.  Aquila is a well travelled guy; he's originally from Pontus, up by the Black Sea in northern Turkey. He's come to Corinth in Achaia, Greece, via Italy, following this order from Emperor Claudius that all Jews must leave Rome.  Why are we getting this detail?  We often refer to Luke, the author of Acts, as an historian, because of all the little details he includes about times and events, all the little historical footnotes.  The famous one is the Christmas one:

In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.)

Claudius expelled the Jews from Rome in A.D.49.  Gallio in v12 was proconsul of Achaia just for A.D.51-52, so this episode of Acts is a real anchor point for dates.  These details remind us that this book, which is narrative, belongs under History, not Fiction.  The famous archaeologist Sir William Ramsay, who didn't think Acts could be relied on as an historical source, eventually concluded "Luke is a historian of the first rank… this author should be placed along with the very greatest of historians."  Maybe you've had a discussion with someone who writes off the bible as unreliable.  That's a myth.  There's plenty of evidence for taking the bible seriously.

External sources tell us that Claudius kicked the Jews out of Rome because of disturbances that seem likely to have come from the gospel reaching the Jewish community there.  Aquila and his wife, Priscilla, have come over to Corinth and it seems they're probably Christians already, perhaps part of a church in Rome.  They are tentmakers, or leatherworkers, like Paul, so Paul stays with them and works alongside them, supporting himself financially.

The Corinthians who became Christians later were a bit confused about this.  They were more used to these celebrity speakers charging a fee, a bit like the after-dinner lecture circuit today.  We hear about people like ex-PM Tony Blair reportedly being paid £200,000 for one speech in China.  That's what the Corinthians were used to.  In Corinth, the fee you could charge said something about you and about what you had to say.  Yet here was Paul, speaking for free, supporting himself through manual labour.  Not very impressive.  But very much like Jesus, a carpenter by trade, speaking freely of a gospel of free forgiveness and grace.  Paul's work was in keeping with his master and his message.

Speaking of his message, v4, every Sabbath he went to the synagogue to reason with the Jews and Greeks, meaning those who followed God but who weren't part of the Jewish nation.  We quite often see them called 'God-fearing'.  Going to the synagogue with the message was Paul's usual approach – we've seen that lots throughout Acts so far.  And it made sense.  Paul was a Jew.  More than that, Jesus was the Christ, promised in the Jewish scriptures, for Israel and for the whole world.

Notice that Paul reasoned with them.  He didn't bribe them or dazzle them or manipulate them or even coerce them.  He reasoned with them, drawing parallels between the Christ promised in the Old Testament and Jesus, who lived and died and rose again.  The gospel was reasonable.  It involved evidence that people could engage with.  We've just started a new Christianity Explored course at HTG, with precisely this aim: presenting the evidence about Jesus in the form of Mark's gospel, so that people can engage with it.  That's got to give us confidence in that course, knowing that we're following Paul's lead.

     5When Silas and Timothy came from Macedonia, Paul devoted himself exclusively to preaching, testifying to the Jews that Jesus was the Christ.

Now we last saw Paul's companions in Berea in 17.14.  They stayed behind as Paul went to Athens, and it seems from pulling the pieces together from other letters, that they travelled back through Macedonia to check how churches in places like Thessalonica and Philippi were coping with persecution they faced very soon after hearing the gospel for the first time.  They rejoin Paul in Corinth with encouraging reports and probably also a financial gift from those churches.  Paul writes about that elsewhere.

We're thinking about Paul's part in evangelism just now, but let's not miss how God encourages and provides for Paul through his friends and co-workers Aquila and Priscilla, and then by the return of his missionary team, probably bringing that gift of money.  When Silas and Timothy arrive, Paul puts away his tent pegs and goes full time with preaching, testifying that Jesus is the Christ and calling on people to repent and believe.  V6:

6But when the Jews opposed Paul and became abusive, he shook out his clothes in protest and said to them, "Your blood be on your own heads! I am clear of my responsibility. From now on I will go to the Gentiles."

7Then Paul left the synagogue and went next door to the house of Titius Justus, a worshipper of God. 8Crispus, the synagogue ruler, and his entire household believed in the Lord; and many of the Corinthians who heard him believed and were baptised.

Paul will spend time with people who don't believe if there is some interest or discussion, but not when all he sees is abuse and opposition.  He's fulfilled his obligation to tell them the gospel, but their response is not his responsibility.  So he goes next door, to the home of a gentile.  He's not completely shutting himself off from the Jews – they don't have to work too hard to find him – and Luke records that this move brings results.  Crispus, name-dropped in 1 Corinthians 1, ruler of the synagogue – he believes, along with his whole household, and many Corinthians, we assume gentiles, also believed.  God vindicated Paul's decision by moving people to repent and believe.  And if we just cheat slightly and look ahead to v11, we see what Paul did with these new Christians.  He taught them the word of God.

How can the gospel penetrate a place like Corinth?  How can people inCorinthbe convicted about their sin and be persuaded to put their trust in Jesus?  Someone had to speak up about Jesus.  Someone had to make the case the Jesus is the Christ, God's chosen king.

How can people in Gateshead come to put their trust in Jesus?  Someone has to make the case for Jesus.  Someone has to explain about who he is, why he came, why each of us needed him to come.  If we love God and are concerned for his glory, and if we love people and are concerned for their welfare, then we will seek out every opportunity to point them towards Jesus, to reason, to persuade and to teach the word of God.

That can be so exciting.  Christianity Explored is exciting, invitation services are exciting and talking to people directly about Jesus, breaking new ground in their understanding of him, that's exciting too.  But sometimes it's hard.  Sometimes we seem to get nowhere.  Sometimes our friends and loved ones seem to be going backwards, getting further away from trusting in Jesus, despite our best efforts.  It's then that we need to remember that our part is not the whole story.  God must play his part too, so let's think about that.

2 – God saves, encourages and protects

     7Then Paul left the synagogue and went next door to the house of Titius Justus, a worshipper of God. 8Crispus, the synagogue ruler, and his entire household believed in the Lord; and many of the Corinthians who heard him believed and were baptised.

This success wasn't down to Paul.  A clever argument or an engaging speaker might win us over on all sorts of topics, but in his letter to them Paul reminded the Corinthians that that wasn't what happened.  I came to you… not with human wisdom, not with eloquence or superior wisdom, not with wise and persuasive words, but with a message of foolishness: Christ crucified, God's chosen king dying under God's curse to achieve God's purpose.  A crazy story.  And, he writes, I came to you in weakness and fear, and with much trembling.  The success wasn't down to Paul.  He's just stirred up abuse from the Jews with the same message.  No, Corinthians became Christians because of God's work in them, bringing them to understand the message and accept it.  God saves.  In this section we see this in v10, so let's read again, from v9.

     9One night the Lord spoke to Paul in a vision: "Do not be afraid; keep on speaking, do not be silent. 10For I am with you, and no-one is going to attack and harm you, because I have many people in this city."

Attacks, especially from Jews, often forced Paul and his companions to leave a place and move on.  That's partly how they've come as far asCorinth.  And just as it looks like it might be happening again, Jesus appears to Paul in a vision to encourage him.  "Do not be afraid; keep on speaking, do not be silent."  'Keep doing your part, Paul.'  "For I am with you, and no-one is going to attack and harm you,"  'I've got your back, Paul.  I won't let them move you along this time. Why?'  "Because I have many people in this city."  'You don't know it, Paul, but there are many people who will respond to your message here.  I'm going to open their hearts to be convicted of their sin.  I'm going to open their minds to understand the cross.  I'm going to transform them by my Spirit.  You don't know it yet, Paul, and they don't either, but they are my people.  I have many people in this city.'

So certain is God's work in them that he already calls them his people.  What an encouragement to Paul, not to sit back and watch God do it, but to keep on speaking, to keep on doing his part, to keep on sowing the seed of the gospel in Corinth.  Yes, some seed will come to nothing, but some will result in fruit.  As Paul wrote later, 'I planted the seed… God made it grow.'  God saves and, here, God encourages.  Lastly in this section, God protects.  v12:

     12While Gallio was proconsul of Achaia, the Jews made a united attack on Paul and brought him into court. 13"This man," they charged, "is persuading the people to worship God in ways contrary to the law."

So the protection promised by Jesus in that vision is now needed.  The Jews take Paul to the highest court of the whole province, that is, before Gallio, the proconsul, the chief judicial officer.  Now debates about the inner workings of Jewish law were beyond his jurisdiction, so the Jews must have been trying to make out that Paul's teaching was against Roman law.  They must have been arguing that the gospel was not an authentic version of Judaism.  Judaism was an authorised religion in the Empire, but Paul's teaching was something new and un-Jewish.  They argued that it shouldn't be allowed to shelter under that same authorised status.  They wanted the gospel to be banned by Roman law, and they wanted Paul to be punished for spreading it.

This is a big moment for the future of the gospel in the Roman Empire.  The verdict of a governor would be effective in his whole province and could be a legal precedent for other provinces.  If Gallio agrees now that the gospel is part of a new, unauthorised religion, whole countries could be out of bounds for open, legal evangelism.  It's a cheesy thought, but if you were making a drama series out of Acts, you'd definitely end an episode right here, maybe even a series.  'Tune in in the new year to see what Gallio said...'  Look at v14:

     14Just as Paul was about to speak, Gallio said to the Jews, "If you Jews were making a complaint about some misdemeanour or serious crime, it would be reasonable for me to listen to you. 15But since it involves questions about words and names and your own law – settle the matter yourselves. I will not be a judge of such things." 16So he had them ejected from the court. 17Then they all turned on Sosthenes the synagogue ruler and beat him in front of the court.   But Gallio showed no concern whatever.

Gallio wouldn't hear the case.  Effectively, he found in favour of the gospel and established a significant precedent.  The policy of the Empire was now that the gospel was legal.  So, v18, Paul stayed on in Corinth for some time.  Jesus would keep his promise to protect Paul, and the chief means would be Roman law.  Sosthenes cops a beating in an outbreak of anti-Semitism, which was pretty common in the Roman Empire, and Gallio isn't bothered.  How much more amazing that God achieved his precise purposes through a man like that.  God saves, encourages and protects.

The big idea tonight is that The gospel spreads through our action and God's sovereignty. You might have heard the comparison between God using his people to achieve his purposes and a mum involving a child in baking cookies.  The mum is perfectly capable of baking cookies alone, and would make much less mess and much better cookies if that was the case, but isn't it wonderful that she involves the child.  As God's children it's a great privilege to be involved and used by him, but there's more than that going on here.  When Jesus said in that vision that he had many people in Corinth, look at Paul's reaction in v11:

11So Paul stayed for a year and a half, teaching them the word of God.

Partnering with God in evangelism isn't just a privilege – it's a massive encouragement.  Paul knows that he sows the seed and God causes the growth.  He throws out the seeds but God brings them to life.  Paul knows that God's sovereignty in evangelism is his only hope for success.  He's preaching to deaf ears.  He's holding up Jesus before blind eyes.  He's talking to spiritual corpses.  You can reason and persuade and teach all you want to a corpse.  There will be no response at all.  But Jesus had people in Corinth.  What more motivation to sow that seed than the promise of growth?

God's part was huge encouragement to Paul to keep speaking, and it's the same for us.  Without God's work we have no hope of seeing the growth of people trusting in Jesus for the first time.  We don't have a specific promise that Jesus has many people in Gateshead.  Maybe he will generate just a little growth, maybe a huge explosion of new life.  We can trust him for that and get on with our part, sowing the seed as widely as we can, trusting God to provide for us, trusting him to achieve his purposes by whatever means he sees fit.  We can be bold in telling anyone about Jesus.  We can be patient when we aren't seeing much progress.  And we can be prayerful, bringing those we know and love to the God who saves.  The gospel spreads through our action and God's sovereignty.

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