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To the End of the Earth (42): Do Not Be Afraid

Series: To the End of the Earth

Sermon by Derek Thomas on Apr 29, 2007

Acts 18:1-7

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The Lord's Day Evening

April 29, 2007

Acts 18:1-17

To the Ends of the Earth

Do Not Be Afraid

Dr. Derek W. H. Thomas

Turn with me to Acts, chapter eighteen…Acts 18, and we come this evening to a very important point in the missionary activity of the Apostle Paul, but also an important juncture in the spread of the gospel and the departure of Paul from the synagogue. There is a parting of ways here in Corinth which would have ramifications that would spill down the centuries to this very day.

It was an issue, I think, that caused Paul great pain and great searching of heart; and, I think, as we shall see in a moment, Paul was wrestling with this very issue when he later writes a letter to the church of Rome from, we think, this very city of Corinth, in which he spends three chapters asking and answering the question as to the relationship of Christianity to Old Testament Judaism. What is the relationship between Israel and the church? And now that God seems to have cast off His ancient people, are they to be cast off forever?

Well, that, I think, has its roots here tonight in the great city of Corinth. Well, before we read these first seventeen verses together, let's come before God in prayer.

Our Father, we thank You for the Scriptures. We remember, O Lord, not only the inspiration and preservation, but we remember tonight that there are those for whom it has cost them their very life to translate and provide for Your people a copy of the word of God. Our hearts again go out to these families in Turkey, of these three men who were so brutally murdered, and we remember their work as Bible distributors. Lord, we don't love the Bible enough to suffer that. And we pray tonight that by Your Spirit You would cause us to love Your word more than our necessary food. Help us, O Lord, to see it as that which gives us life. And we ask it for Jesus’ sake. Amen.

This is God's holy and inerrant word:

“After these things he left Athens and went to Corinth. And he found a certain Jew named Aquila, a native of Pontus, having recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla, because Claudius had commanded all the Jews to leave Rome. He came to them, and because he was of the same trade, he stayed with them and they were working; for by trade they were tent-makers. And he was reasoning in the synagogue every Sabbath and trying to persuade Jews and Greeks. But when Silas and Timothy came down from Macedonia, Paul began devoting himself completely to the word, solemnly testifying to the Jews that Jesus was the Christ. And when they resisted and blasphemed, he shook out his garments and said to them, ‘Your blood be upon your own heads! I am clean. From now on I shall go to the Gentiles.’ And he departed from there and went to the house of a certain man named Titius Justus, a worshiper of God, whose house was next to the synagogue. And Crispus, the leader of the synagogue, believed in the Lord with all his household, and many of the Corinthians when they heard were believing and being baptized. And the Lord said to Paul in the night by a vision, ‘Do not be afraid any longer, but go on speaking and do not be silent; for I am with you, and no man will attack you in order to harm you, for I have many people in this city.’ And he settled there a year and six months, teaching the word of God among them.
“But while Gallio was proconsul of Achaia, the Jews with one accord rose up against Paul and brought him before the judgment seat, saying, ‘This man persuades men to worship God contrary to the law.’ But when Paul was about to open his mouth, Gallio said to the Jews, ‘If it were a matter of wrong or of vicious crime, O Jews, it would be reasonable for me to put up with you; but if there are questions about words and names and your own law, look after it yourselves; I am unwilling to be a judge of these matters.’ And he drove them away from the judgment seat. And they all took hold of Sosthenes, the leader of the synagogue, and began beating him in front of the judgment seat. And Gallio was not concerned about any of these things.”

Amen. And may God bless that reading of His holy and inerrant word.

Well, we left Paul in Athens last Sunday evening. We half expected Timothy and Silas to join him. Actually, they did, but Luke doesn't mention it in the account in The Acts of The Apostles, but Paul tells us in a letter to the church at Thessalonica that he will write from the city of Corinth. And he tells us that both Timothy and Silas came down from Berea to Athens, but he immediately sent them back, sending Timothy back to Thessalonica, and probably Silas (although it doesn't say so)…but probably Silas he sent back to Philippi.

Paul, you remember, had been provoked in Athens. Luke uses this astonishingly strong word here…he had something like a paroxysm: the sight of all these idols…he saw people that worshiped a multiplicity of gods, but they didn't know God. Any plans that the disciples, his fellow apostles, had had for Paul to have something of a vacation in Athens (because it looks as though that's why he was sent there)…any plans for a vacation of course were immediately scuppered, because the very sight of this idolatry at Athens forces the Apostle Paul to begin in the agora, in the marketplace, and later in the Areopagus, to debate and engage the Athenians about the true God and what it means to know God, and what it means to know God in Christ. And he preaches Christ, and he preaches the resurrection, and he preaches the Day of Judgment, and he preaches the demand for repentance.

Now there are those who suggest that the Apostle Paul was experimenting with a new style of preaching in Athens: preaching that engages the culture; preaching that quotes the poets and the philosophers and so on; preaching that is full of wisdom, and full of philosophy; preaching that is one step removed from the type of preaching that Paul had been doing in Berea and Thessalonica and Philippi, and in other places. Now, they think that because when he comes to Corinth and he writes his letter to the Corinthians later…remember he tells us in I Corinthians in the opening verse of chapter two that when he came to Corinth that he was determined that he wouldn't preach to them any more in high-flown wisdom and man's learning, but he was determined not to know anything among them save Jesus Christ and Him crucified; and some have concluded that Paul had been experimenting with a different kind of preaching in Athens, but now that he's come to Corinth, he's going to preach Jesus and he's going to preach Jesus crucified, and he's going to abandon that style of preaching.

Well, of course there's no evidence whatsoever that Paul…. Paul was certainly quoting some poets when he was in Athens. He quotes Aratas and others when he preaches and engages in dialogues and debates in Athens, but he certainly preaches Christ, and he certainly preaches the resurrection. And you know you can't preach the resurrection unless somebody's dead, so he has to preach the cross. And he preached the Day of Judgment, and he called men everywhere to repent. Sounds to me pretty much like the gospel that Paul was preaching everywhere.

But there's no doubt that when he comes to Corinth, Paul has a renewed zeal, a renewed conviction about the gospel. And we read in the opening verse of chapter 18, “After these things….” Sometime later he heads to Corinth. He's been in the capitol of learning and the cultural center at least of a former world; maybe by the first century it wasn't quite what it had been in the second or third century or fourth century B.C., but Athens was still a place of great culture. If you want culture, you go to Athens.

Corinth was base. Corinth was a city of licentiousness. What goes on in Corinth stayed in Corinth. There was a verb, korinthiasestha, it had been around for 400 years: to play the Corinthian. It was a euphemism for fornication, a well-known term for at least 400 years. Corinth had had this reputation as the sex capitol of the ancient world. The Isthmus Games took place in Corinth, second only to the Olympic Games in Olympia. The Isthmus Games took place every two years. At those games they would run races, and throw the javelin and the discus, and boxing, and wrestling–and all in the nude. The Romans frowned on it, but the Greeks did that. Isn't it interesting that when Paul writes to Corinth, that First Epistle to the Corinthians, you remember in the ninth chapter he uses all of those images and metaphors from the games. He says things like “Don't you know that in a race all compete, but only one wins the race?” “I box,” he says, “as beating the air. I discipline my body….” He's, as it were, alluding to those games that the Corinthians knew all too well.

Corinth was a beautiful place. I've never been there. Some of you I know have been there. You can bring pictures to your mind, I'm sure…set on the Mediterranean. Paul may have made his journey by sea, landing at the port city of Cenchrea to the east of Corinth. He may have come down the Isthmus itself, 50-55 miles or so to the city of Corinth. There was another port on the western side of Corinth, ports that would lead to trade and the Mediterranean Sea, the coast of North Africa, and beyond. Up the Isthmus to the Peloponnese , to ancient Greece…it was a marvelous strategic place. It was built on the Acrocorinthus. Two thousand feet or so in elevation there on that great Acrocorinthus was the citadel of Corinth. It was there that the temple to Aphrodite was to be found, clothed in the armor of the war god Ares. On the plain below would be the rest of the city. It was a decidedly Greek city. Athough the Romans had 150 years before conquered the city, Julius Caesar ordered that it be rebuilt as a kind of home away from home for the Romans. You can imagine how the Romans would have loved the Vegas of the ancient world, especially the soldiers away from home for sometimes years and years and years on end. It was a city second only to Ephesus. Interesting, isn't it, that it's in Corinth and in Ephesus that Paul stays a long time.

This was a strategic city. It was strategic from a worldly point of view, from a cultural point of view, from an economic point of view, from a political point of view; but it was strategic also from a gospel point of view. It was necessary to have in Corinth a strong church (perhaps as it was necessary in Ephesus to have a strong church because of where it was located), because from Corinth Christians could go to all the parts of the world. They could sail off to North Africa, and probably many of them did. And some of them could go north and be God's ambassadors and missionaries.

I. Paul's decision to spread the gospel to the Gentiles.

Three significant statements are made in the course of these seventeen verses. One is by Paul, and you see that in verse 6; one is by the Lord to Paul, and you see that in verses 9 and 10; and one is by the proconsul of the region of Achaia, Gallio, and you see that in verses 14 and 15.

First of all, we read in verse 6 this enormously important thing that Paul does in the synagogue and with the Jews: that

“…He shook out his garments and said to them, ‘Your blood be upon your own heads. I am clean. From now on I shall go to the Gentiles.’”

According to F.F. Bruce, Paul traveled to Corinth in a mood of great dejection. Well, of course Bruce is picking up on what Paul says himself when he writes to the Corinthians, that when he came to Corinth he was there in fear and in much trembling, and in weakness and fear…and in much trembling. Was it Athens that had depressed him? Was it the reputation of Corinth that frightened him–this city where sex and sport rather than poetry and philosophy were the gods of the day? What does he do when he arrives? He goes straight to the synagogue, and he begins to reason with the Jews and with the Greeks.

As in Thessalonica, so here he engages in manual labor. He engages in tent-making. He discovers this couple, Aquila and Priscilla (we’ll come across them again next Sunday evening). Sometimes it's “Priscilla and Aquila”; here on this instance it's “Aquila and Priscilla.” They've come from Italy. They've been banished from the city of Rome by Claudius as Jews, but probably as already Christian Jews. Perhaps the gospel has already come to Rome, and already there are some who have professed faith in Jesus Christ. And Aquila and Priscilla are now back in Corinth, and they’re tent-makers. And Paul joins them…lives, probably, in their home…earns a living in order that he can survive.

Timothy and Silas are eventually sent for, and they come with news to the apostle about the church in Thessalonica, and the church at Philippi. And you can read I Thessalonians. It's a marvelously encouraging letter because that letter is written right now, here in Corinth. It's the first of Paul's many letters to be written, followed probably just a few months later by

II Thessalonians. He gives an extensive summary of his time in Thessalonica, and he gives thanks to God because of their work produced by faith and their labor prompted by love, and their endurance inspired by hope. He's encouraged by what Timothy brings to him of news of the work of the Holy Spirit in Thessalonica. The church is growing! This church is alive! This church is engaging in fruits of the Spirit. That's a matter of enormous encouragement to the Apostle Paul. It's a letter…you remember, I Thessalonians is a letter with that beautiful passage where Paul says, “I don't want you to be ignorant about those who fall asleep.” What happens when you die? He addresses that issue; that they don't grieve like the rest of men who have no hope, but that the gospel, that the forgiveness of sins, that the hope of glory means that we've got this confidence that when we die our souls immediately go into the presence of Christ.

You remember how Paul begins in I Thessalonians to speak about the Second Coming, that Jesus will come again upon the clouds of heaven with the trumpet of God and the archangels, and the dead in Christ will rise first; and those who are alive will be caught up to meet the Lord in the air, and so shall they ever be with the Lord.

In verse 5, it looks as though Paul is no longer making tents. It looks as though Paul began devoting himself completely to the work. It looks as though now he's given up tent-making. Why? Perhaps because the church at Thessalonica–or was it the church at Philippi through Silas?–brought to Paul perhaps a gift, as the Philippian church was wont to do, freeing the Apostle Paul now to devote his whole time to gospel ministry.

And there is hostility, blasphemy even, in the synagogue. And it is at this point that Paul shakes his clothes and utters these words: “From now on I go to the Gentiles.” And he moves. And this is delicious! I mean, you have to smile. How far does Paul move away from the synagogue when he shakes his clothes at these Jews who are rejecting the gospel, and they’re rejecting Christ, and they’re saying no to the offer of mercy and clemency, and the forgiveness of sins? How far does Paul go? Next door. Right next door. He moves in with this man Titius Justus. We don't know whether he stayed there, or he probably still stayed with Aquila and Priscilla, but he's there every day. These Jews who were so hostile would see him; perhaps they would even hear him. I wonder if he stood in the open doorway proclaiming the gospel so that they could hear it in the room next door, in the synagogue.

And then, lo and behold, in verse 8, this man Crispus, the synagogue ruler, the one who would be in charge of the synagogue services, the most respected Jew in Corinth, no doubt, is converted! Now to a man who is dejected, to a man who comes to Corinth in trembling and fear and much weakness, in need of the Lord's help and benediction, what better help could there ever be than the sight of a sinner coming to Christ and confessing Jesus, and what better therapy for the Apostle Paul and his dejected spirits than the ruler of the synagogue professing faith in Jesus Christ! Perhaps he had heard Paul standing in the doorway preaching the gospel.

And there are others. We read in verse 8 that “…many of the Corinthians when they heard were believing and being baptized.” And you see again this extraordinary movement of the Holy Spirit as God comes down, and there's a work — and a definitive work, and a powerful work — now beginning to emerge in the city of Corinth.

But there's a division…a division between Jews and Gentiles. It's a turning point. Paul is now heading in the direction of Gentile ministry. I think it's deeply significant that it's from Corinth later, when Paul returns to Corinth on his third missionary journey, that he probably writes his letter to the church at Rome. And it's in that letter in the city of Corinth that he reflects, you remember, in chapters 9 and 10 and 11, on the relationship between the Jews and the Gentiles, and the relationship between the church and Israel. And he asks those great and profound questions as to what that division means, and as to what the rejection by the Jews of the gospel means: that Jewish rejection means Gentile acceptance. And he talks, you remember, about jealousy on the part of the Jews because of the Gentiles growing in numbers and faith, until all Israel shall be saved. [Well, I'm so glad I'm not preaching on Romans 11:26 tonight so I don't have to tell you what it means…and there are a variety of opinions as to what that means, of course.] But one thing is absolutely certain: Paul is reflecting on the relationship between the Jews and the Gentiles, and he's saying that none of this (what has happened in Corinth), none of this has thwarted the redemptive purposes of a sovereign God in saving His people, because all of Israel will be saved. Whatever happened in Corinth, whatever this rejection by the Jews of the gospel means, you know there's nothing like conversions to cheer the soul.

It's a wonderful thing to see a fresh convert, and to see that joy that bursts forth from a heart that has fallen in love with Jesus Christ for the very first time. You know, Spurgeon says, “When I see one conversion, I do not envy Gabriel his throne or angels their harps,” he says. Oh, that we would see more conversions! Oh, that we would see our neighbors converted! Oh, that we would see our families converted…that we’d see those with whom we work converted, brought to saving faith in Jesus Christ.

II. God's encouragement to Paul: Do not be afraid.

Well, secondly, you see in verses 9 and 10 a word from the Lord to the Apostle Paul: “Do not be afraid any longer, but go on speaking and do not be silent; for I am with you, and no man will attack you in order to harm you, for I have many people in this city.”

And there are at least four things that the Lord now seems to be saying to the Apostle Paul.

Do not be afraid. It's hard to imagine the Apostle Paul being afraid…afraid of men. Afraid of the Jews? Afraid perhaps of pain. You know, if you've had 39 lashes on your back once, you don't want it a second time. Maybe God in His wisdom is speaking a word in anticipation of what the Apostle Paul is now experiencing in his soul, and He's saying to him, “Do not be afraid.”

Do you know how many times in the Bible that little phrase occurs? Do you know? If you've got some software on your computer, Bible software on your computer, or if you've got some concordance, do it as a piece of homework. Look up in the Bible how many times God uses the words, “Do not be afraid.” When Joshua is given the charge to become the successor to Moses, do you remember what God says to Joshua? “Do not be afraid.” When Elisha, you remember, is surrounded by the armies of the Syrians on the mountains all around, do you remember what God says? “Do not be afraid.” When the disciples are in that storm on the boat on the Sea of Galilee, do you remember what Jesus says to His disciples? “Do not be afraid.” When the women come to the tomb, what does Jesus say to them? “Do not be afraid.”

“But go on speaking and do not be silent….” I wonder why Paul was even tempted not to speak. Perhaps — and this is only a conjecture on my part — it is about this time that the Apostle Paul would now be beginning to formulate in his mind as the Spirit now is preparing him and working on him as the apostle that will write all these epistles. It's about this time in his life when he's beginning to think through the implications of the doctrine of the sovereignty of God, of the doctrine of predestination and election, as he will write that in all of its fullness and glory in letters to Ephesus and letters to Rome, especially; in the letter to the Philippians, in the opening chapter — about verse 6 — he's talking about the sovereignty of God. I wonder if that was beginning to formulate in his mind, and God is saying to him categorically ‘Whatever the doctrine of predestination is, do not stop speaking. Do not stop evangelizing. Do not stop doing what I asked you to do.’ And you see those beautiful words, “I am with you. I am with you.” Redolent as those words are, of course, of the covenantal promises of God in the Old Testament–and Paul would have been well-familiar with the fact that when God expresses His covenant, that covenant expresses we are the Lord's, and the Lord is ours. “I am with you.”

There's that beautiful passage, isn't there, in the ministry and life and circumstances of Joseph in the Old Testament–sold, you remember, into slavery; accused of rape, and imprisoned and abandoned in that prison for ten years. And you remember in the book of Genesis that the Lord was with Joseph, and he prospered. And there's that beautiful translation of William Tyndale that “the Lord was with Joseph and he was a lucky fellow.” That's William Tyndale's translation of that text! I think it's a beautiful translation. God was with him, and when the Lord is with you… when the Lord is by you, when the Lord is round about you, and the Lord is underneath you, when the Lord is sustaining you and carrying you, what else is there to fear? What harm can befall you? What terror can come by night? ‘Paul, do not be afraid, because I am with you! The sovereign Lord is with you. The God who delivered the people through the Red Sea is with you. The God of Moses is with you. The God of Elijah is with you. The God of Elisha is with you. The God of the prophets is with you.’

“And I have many people in this city.” What an incentive that must have been as Paul stays on now another eighteen months in this city, that God has His people in this city. Maybe people who as yet have not been converted, but they are the Lord's. They are His elect, and through Paul's ministry and through Paul's preaching and through Paul's work of evangelism and speaking, God would draw these people to Himself.

III. God's promise of comfort to all His people in times of trial.

Then there's trouble. In verses 14 and 15, another word, and this time it's from Gallio, the proconsul of Achaia, the chief civil magistrate of the district, based in Corinth. And it is brought by the Jews against Paul, and he's brought to what is Greek is called the bema. It's a raised platform, and Paul is put there to stand there before Gallio to answer the charges that the Jews are making against him: “This man persuades men to worship God contrary to the law.” And whatever the sense of that, Gallio interpreted that that what Paul was saying was something that belonged essentially to Judaism. As far as Gallio seems to be concerned, what Paul is saying about words and names about which he had no interest, it was an internal matter to be settled by Jews.

And then, all of a sudden they began to attack Sosthenes. In verse 17, “…they all took hold of Sosthenes.” Who are they all? Are they Gentiles now? Now that Gallio has pronounced a verdict that has gone against the Jews, is it the Gentiles who are now attacking Sosthenes as the leader of the synagogue, like Crispus was? Because anti-Semitism was always just below the surface in the Roman Empire. Or was it the Jews themselves? Attacking their own leader because he had made them look so stupid in the eyes of Gallio?

Turn with me to I Corinthians 1, and the opening verse:

“Paul, called by the will of God to be an apostle of Christ Jesus, and our brother Sosthenes.”

Is it the same Sosthenes? He's writing to the Corinthians, and right up front he has a greeting not just from himself, but from Sosthenes, who at this point in Acts 18 is still the leader of the synagogue, but now has been turned on–perhaps by the Jews. I have no means of proving it, but I want to suggest to you tonight, wouldn't it be an extraordinary thing…wouldn't it be a wonderful thing…wouldn't it be the kind of thing that God would actually do? That not only did He convert Crispus, the synagogue leader, but when they elect Sosthenes as his replacement, God converts him, too! And thereby an extraordinary work of the grace of God is evidenced here in the city of Corinth, and all, I think, to encourage the Apostle Paul. Certainly to bring God glory, but to encourage the Apostle Paul and to reaffirm to him that he had no need to be afraid, because the sovereign God of heaven and earth, the God of covenant mercy and grace was with him.

And do you know, my friends, there are details of this of course that belong entirely to this story, but there is a general principle here that we can apply to ourselves, because God speaks to all of His children, and He says ‘You have no need to be afraid.’ He doesn't promise that no harm will befall us, as He promised Paul. He doesn't promise that. He promised that to Paul one time, in Corinth. It wasn't true of Paul in Lystra or Derbe, or Philippi, or in Thessalonica, or in Berea; it was just true here in Corinth. It was a period of respite. So don't take this text, now, and run with it! But you know wherever you are and whatever circumstance you are, whatever vicissitude comes into your life, God always says to us, “I will never leave you or forsake you. I will be with you.” Even in the valley; even when the waters come over my head, the Lord is with me. And He will never leave me, and He will never forsake me.

Let's pray together.

Father, we thank You for the extraordinary richness of Your words. Thank You for the Apostle Paul. Thank You for this great gift that You gave to the church. Thank You for these wonderful evidences of conversions in the city of Corinth; we pray for such conversions here in the city of Jackson, and in First Presbyterian Church. We want to see those who have never been baptized before as believers coming here and being baptized, and owning the name of Christ and confessing Him to be Lord and Savior, King of Kings, and Lord of Lords. Father, You can do it, because with You nothing is impossible. So bless us and encourage us, and draw us near to Yourself and set our hearts ablaze, for Christ's sake. Amen.

Please stand and receive the Lord's benediction.

Grace, mercy, and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ be with you all. Amen.

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This transcribed message has been lightly edited and formatted for the Web site. No attempt has been made, however, to alter the basic extemporaneous delivery style, or to produce a grammatically accurate, publication-ready manuscript conforming to an established style template.

Should there be questions regarding grammar or theological content, the reader should presume any website error to be with the webmaster/transcriber/editor rather than with the original speaker. For full copyright, reproduction and permission information, please visit the First Presbyterian Church Copyright, Reproduction & Permission statement.