A while back I helped on a Christian Union mission in Cambridge. And my hero of the mission was a Chinese student called Wun Jen. She’d asked a different friend to come on each of the seven nights of the mission week. All had said, ‘Yes’, but come the night, all had stood her up. None of them showed. And yet she kept coming and waiting outside the venue for them, night by night. And when I chatted to her on the final night she said, ‘It doesn’t matter that they’ve stood me up. I just wish they’d come for their sake. At least they were invited.’ She was my hero of that mission – not because she saw friends come to faith – she didn’t even see them come to listen – but because she didn’t give up.
And that’s what tonight’s passage in our series on Acts is all about. It’s an encouragement not to give up trying to share the gospel.
And we need that encouragement. You need it if, like me, you’ve tried to be a Christian witness to family members for years and years and nothing – apparently – has happened. You need it if, like me, you’ve led a Christianity Explored group where half have dropped out and no-one’s come to faith. You need it if you’re trying to lead a Christian Union in your school or university and the powers that be are making it harder and harder for you.
So would you turn in the Bible to Acts 18. And let me remind you what we’ve seen in this series so far, from Acts 17. We’ve seen the apostle Paul arrive in Thessalonica after being illegally accused, flogged and jailed in Philippi (his previous mission engagement). In Thessalonica the opposition organises a lynch mob to get Paul so that he has to be smuggled out of the city by night. He goes on to Berea, but the opposition in Thessalonica get wind of it and organise another mob that forces Paul on from there. So he lands up in Athens for a breather. But he can’t help sharing the gospel there – which results in him being hauled up in front of the Athenian Council – who are hostile to anything they think is going to upset the religious peace. So by the start of Acts 18, if anyone is a likely candidate for giving up, it’s the apostle Paul. But he doesn’t. And in this part of his Word, God is saying to us, ‘I want you to learn from this man’s example – from thefact that he didn’t give up; and, more importantly, from the reason why he didn’t give up.’ And what we see is that:
Firstly, PAUL CHOOSES TO DO WHAT’S STRATEGIC FOR THE SPREAD OF THE GOSPEL (v1)
Look down to Acts 18, v1:
After this, Paul left Athens and went to Corinth. (v1)
And the point is: Corinth was strategic with a capital ‘S’. Corinth was in fact the capital city of that region. It was also the business centre of the region, a major hub for travellers, and host every other year to the Isthmian Games – a massive sporting event that brought tourists in from everywhere. So in English terms, Corinth was London – in fact, London 2012. And that’s where Paul goes. He could have gone back to his sending church in Antioch for a quiet sabbatical. But instead, he chooses to do what’s strategic for the spread of the gospel. Strategic because Corinth was a fast-moving city where the gospel could spread fast. Strategic because Corinth was full of people passing through – who, if converted, would take the gospel all over the world. And strategic because a strong church in Corinth could plant more churches throughout the region.
And one reason I’ve chosen to stay at JPC is that we are in a similarly strategic position. By which I don’t mean we’re wonderful – I didn’t say that. I mean God has given us remarkable opportunities. First of all, because we’re in a major city. And, like it or not, most of the church growth that’s going on around the world is going on through large churches in cities. So, part of me would like to move my family to the country, which is where I grew up. And part of me would like to be in a smaller church where you don’t have the same challenges of big numbers and the constant effort of getting to know new faces. But I think this is strategic. And that’s not just because we’re in a major city, but because we’ve got two universities on our doorstep that bring a fresh mission field of students to us every year – including the thousands of internationals from countries where there’s little or no chance they’ll hear the gospel. And that’s why we pour significant resources into the student and international ministries here. And I wish there was a function on Google maps that you could click to show spiritual influence. So you’d get up a map of the world, you’d type in NE2 4DJ, and then you click on ‘show world-wide spiritual influence over the last 20 years’. And there would be lines from here going all over the world to people converted and built up and trained for a lifetime of serious commitment to Jesus and the gospel – through what God is doing here. And another thing is that we’re also in the strategic position of being able both to church-plant, and to help other churches in the region – although we need to admit that we’ve really only just begun in those departments.
So if at present you just see JPC as good for you (and maybe your family if you have one), can I call on you to lift your eyes above your personal horizon and realise that God is doing something strategic here? And I know that’s how many of you do see things, and why you have committed to JPC for all its faults and weaknesses – and I thank God for that. And if you’re graduating, or there are job choices facing you, can I encourage you to make it your default thought, if possible, to stay here as part of the gospel-workforce. I know that depends on jobs and other things – which in turn depend on God. But Paul’s example is to choose to do what’s strategic for the gospel.
But the Bible isn’t primarily about the human characters and what we can learn from them; it’s primarily about God and what we need to learn about him. And Acts says that explicitly, right at the start. So Acts 1v1 says this:
In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach until the day he was taken up to heaven… (Acts 1v1-2)
The implication being that the risen Lord Jesus is still doing and teaching. And the rest of Acts shows how the risen Lord Jesus is driving forward the spread of the gospel and calling new people to himself – which is what he’s still doing today. So let’s move on to see what the risen Lord Jesus was doing in Corinth – and is still doing today. So:
Second, THE RISEN LORD JESUS IS PROVIDING THE SUPPORT THAT GOSPEL MINISTRY NEEDS (vv2-5)
Look at v1 again:
After this, Paul left Athens and went to Corinth. There 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, and because he was a tentmaker as they were, he stayed and worked with them. Every Sabbath he reasoned in the synagogue, trying to persuade Jews and Greeks. (vv1-4)
So Paul shipped up in a city where he knew no-one. And he met this couple Aquila and Priscilla. And just as a quick aside, this is one of several places where writings outside the Bible confirms that Luke got his facts right. Because a non-Christian writer tells us that the Roman Emperor Claudius did expel Jews from Rome (quote):
… because the Jews were making constant disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus. (Suetonius, Life of Claudius)
And almost certainly ‘Chrestus’ means ‘Christ’ and what had happened is that converted Jews had gone to Rome, shared the gospel with their fellow Jews – and that had provoked opposition and ‘disturbances’ to the extent that Claudius had said, ‘I’m fed up with this; you Jews must leave.’ And almost certainly, Aquila and Priscilla had become Christians by the time Paul met them in Corinth.
And teaming up with them gave Paul two things. On the one hand, it gave him partnership. It’s very, very hard to be a Christian on your own. And finding just one or two more Christians as Paul did here makes all the difference in the world to your ability to stand and witness for Jesus day by day. So can I call on us to be very grateful for the extraordinary partnership we have here – the encouragement of coming from often being a minority of one, where we live and work, to being here among hundreds of fellow-believers. And can I call on us to be very careful with the partnership we have here. Because the Lord Jesus has provided it as a ‘spiritual base’ to give us the encouragement we need to keep witnessing to him. So anything we do to weaken the fellowship here will weaken our witness as well. For example, imagine a Christian newly arrived here in Newcastle, like Paul newly arrived in Corinth, with great potential to be a witness for Jesus. And imagine they come along here and we fail to welcome them and help them settle in – with the result that they just drift spiritually, and do very little for the Lord. That’s not a happy scenario. But that’s what’s at stake in how you behave every time you come to church or CYFA or your small group or whatever.
So teaming up with Aquila and Priscilla gave Paul partnership. But on the other hand it also gave him money. It meant he could use their workshop to ply his trade, which was the same as theirs. And in many contexts – especially in countries where ‘official missionaries’ are not allowed – that kind of self-supported ministry on the side of a job is how you have to operate. And maybe that’s the future for some of you, back in your home countries. But it’s not just for other countries. A friend of mine is a GP, and he and his wife are godly enough to live on a part-time salary and with the rest of his time, this friend pastors a church. And maybe that’s the future for some of you, here.
But having said that, time is money. So if a missionary or minister can be freed up from earning it by being given it, then gospel-ministry can move forward faster and better. Which is what happens next. Look on to v5:
When Silas and Timothy came from Macedonia, Paul devoted himself exclusively to preaching, testifying to the Jews that Jesus was the Christ. (v5)
We know from elsewhere in the Bible that the church in Philippi (in Macedonia) sent Paul financial support. So almost certainly, Silas and Timothy came from there bearing money – which is what freed Paul up as it says to ‘devote himself exclusively to preaching’. And if you’re earning, then part of the reason the risen Lord Jesus has given you income above what you need is so that you can give to make gospel ministry move forward faster and better. So if you’ve settled here as a Christian and you’ve not yet found out about how to support this ministry and our mission partners around the world, please head to the giving display at the back and pick up our giving literature. To the many of you who are regular givers, I want to say I thank God for the support that I and all the staff receive. And to those of us on the staff, including myself, I want to say: we need to be worthy of that support: if others are giving to free our time, we need to be devoting that time – to use that word again – to seeing gospel ministry move forward faster and better. And that goes for you, too, if you’re on a summer mission team or camp this summer where others have given towards your expenses. Don’t take that lightly; use that time very well.
Third, THE RISEN LORD JESUS IS USING SOME PEOPLES’ REJECTION OF THE GOSPEL TO GIVE MORE PEOPLE THE OPPORTUNITY TO HEAR THE GOSPEL (vv6-8)
Look on to v6:
But 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.” (v6)
And that’s the pattern you see repeated in Acts. Paul goes first to the Jews. And as a group, at least through their leadership, they shut the door on Paul. And Paul accepts that, under the sovereignty of the risen Lord Jesus –and he takes it as a cue to move on and find where the Lord is opening other doors and hearts. So onto v7:
Then Paul left the synagogue and went next door to the house of Titius Justus, a worshiper of God [So that means he was a Gentile who’d become a believer in the God of the Bible through the witness of the synagogue – and who now either is opening up to the gospel or has actually come to faith in Jesus. Then, v8:]. Crispus, the synagogue ruler, and his entire household believed in the Lord; and many of the Corinthians who heard him believed and were baptized. (vv7-8)
What do we learn from all that? Well, for a start, we learn that we are responsible for what we do with the gospel – whether we share it or not – but we’re not responsible for what others then do with it – whether they accept Jesus or not. Which is why Paul can say in v6, ‘I am clear of my responsibility.’ And sometimes, sadly, that’s what you have to say about someone you’ve tried to share the gospel with – but, at least for now, they’ve shut the door; they don’t want to talk or come to anything or read anything.
The next thing to say is that even when the door is shut on us, at least for now, we shouldn’t give up on people. So, yes, Paul says in v6, ‘From now on I will go to the Gentiles.’ But he absolutely doesn’t say, ‘And I’ll never speak to you Jews again – you’ve had your chance.’ Because what happens in v8?
Crispus, the synagogue ruler, and his entire household believed in the Lord. (v8)
So Crispus – the leading Jew here – broke ranks. He wanted to hear more from Paul. And Paul gave him all the time he wanted: he accepted that as a group these Jews had shut the door. But he never gave up on them individually. And humanly speaking the most ‘unlikely’ of them – the leader – ended up coming to faith in Jesus. So let’s not give up on anyone, even if the door’s shut and has been for years and years. Let’s not think that in a group which is apparently negative, there are no individuals whom the Lord is opening up to the gospel. And let’s stop thinking in terms of people being ‘likely’ or ‘unlikely’ to come to faith. Because Jesus once said that we all by nature have this rejection of God in our hearts – so that it’s impossible for anyone to come to faith under their own steam (see Luke 18v23-27). He said people only come to faith because God works in them by his Spirit to overcome their resistance. And there are no degrees of difficulty for God, so that people are not ‘more likely’ or ‘less likely’ to come to faith. And in this instance, you have Paul – who was humanly speaking the most unlikely person to have come to faith – sharing the gospel with Crispus – who, humanly speaking, was equally the most unlikely person to come to faith. So the moral of the story is: let’s stop thinking humanly. Finally:
Fourth, THE RISEN LORD JESUS IS GOING TO BRING TO FAITH IN HIM MANY MORE PEOPLE WHOM HE’S CHOSEN (vv9-17)
Look on to v9:
One night the Lord [that is the risen Lord Jesus] 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 for a year and a half, teaching them the word of God. (vv9-11)
So Paul was afraid of the same two things we’re afraid of when it comes to sharing the gospel: afraid that we’ll get hurt; and afraid that nothing will happen – that no-one will come to faith. And the reason why Paul was not to give up is at the end of v10, where the risen Lord Jesus tells him to keep speaking…
“… because I have many people in this city.” (v10)
Which doesn’t mean, ‘There are already many Christians in this city’ – there weren’t. It means, ‘There are many people who don’t yet trust in me – who don’t yet even know about me – whom I’ve chosen to bring to faith in me. And I will bring them to faith in me as you share the gospel in this city.’ So speaking personally, I would give up trying to share the gospel right now if I thought it all depended on me to persuade people that Jesus is their rightful Lord, and that they’re in the wrong with him and that they need to be forgiven and put right with him through his death on the cross (which, if you’re not yet a Christian, is what the gospel says about you). But it doesn’t all depend on me. It ultimately depends on God. So our part is gospel-sharing – getting the gospel as far as peoples’ ears (which is as far as we can get it). The Lord’s part is bringing people to faith (by overcoming the resistance of their hearts).
And here and elsewhere, the Lord promises that people will come to faith through our gospel-sharing – as well as reject it. So thinking of my hero of that Cambridge mission, Wun Jen: her friends didn’t come to faith that week. But others’ friends did, and she rejoiced in that and accepted that the Lord is sovereign over who he brings to himself at any given time.
So to the fear that no-one will come to faith, the Lord Jesus says, ‘Yes they will, because I’ll bring them to faith.’ And then to the fear that we’ll get hurt, he says, v10:
“I am with you, and no one is going to attack and harm you…” (v10)
Now he doesn’t say, ‘No-one is going to attack you’ (which is precisely what happens next). He says, ‘No one is going to attack and harm you.’ So the Lord also promises to protect Paul and this particular opportunity to share the gospel – although he doesn’t promise that the opportunity will be a bed of roses for Paul. So look on to v12 to end with:
While Gallio was proconsul of Achaia, the Jews made a united attack on Paul and brought him into court. “This man,” they charged, “is persuading the people to worship God in ways contrary to the law.” (vv12-13)
Now Roman law was very intolerant of non-Roman religions. But it tolerated Judaism because it respected a religion that was both ancient and moral. So these Jews are basically saying to Gallio, ‘You officially tolerate us living by our Bible, our law. But this guy Paul is twisting the Bible – his message isn’t really Judaism at all – so you should run him out of town, you shouldn’t tolerate him as you do us.’ Well, read on, v14:
Just as Paul was about to speak, Gallio said to the Jews, “If you Jews were making a complaint about some misdemeanor or serious crime, it would be reasonable for me to listen to you. But 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.” So he had them ejected from the court. (vv14-16)
So Gallio was basically saying, ‘I will tolerate this man’s message because I regard it as just a variation of Judaism.’ And whatever you think of that judgement, it secured a place for Paul in Corinth – and set a legal precedent that would have protected Christians (for a time) throughout the Roman Empire.
So just as the Lord uses the human means of our gospel-sharing to bring people to faith, so he also uses human means to protect our gospel opportunities – in this case, the means of a legal judgement. So one lesson is that we should thank God that, in this country, the law does still give a high degree of religious freedom. But we will need to fight for it to stay that way for the rest of our lives. And one way to be involved in that is to support the Christian Institute which, among other things, helps Christians whose liberties have been infringed to take their case to court. And there’s a Christian Institute information area at the back. The other lesson from this is how important the judgement of a single individual can be for our gospel opportunities. For example, most of the teaching staff at my school despised the Christian Union and probably wished it shut down. And yet the Headmaster – who wasn’t a Christian – defended it. He was God’s means of keeping that opportunity open. And that’s why elsewhere in one of his letters, Paul wrote:
I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone – for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. (1 Timothy 2v1-2)
I.e., so that we may have the kind of freedom and opportunity for the gospel that Gallio gave Paul in Acts 18.
So what is the Lord saying to us through this part of his Word? He’s saying, ‘Don’t give up. Keep working for the spread of my gospel – because that’s what I’m doing – providing for it, protecting it and bringing people to faith through it. I’m working – so you keep working.’