Acts 18:1-17: Encouragement for the Weary
Topic: Default Passage: Acts 18:1–18:17
Acts 18:1-17: Encouragement for the Weary
We’ve been working our way passage by passage through the book of Acts, and today the next passage we come to is Acts 18:1-17. It says,
1 After this Paul left Athens and went to Corinth. 2 And he found a Jew named Aquila, a native of Pontus, recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla, because Claudius had commanded all the Jews to leave Rome. And he went to see them, 3 and because he was of the same trade he stayed with them and worked, for they were tentmakers by trade. 4 And he reasoned in the synagogue every Sabbath, and tried to persuade Jews and Greeks. 5 When Silas and Timothy arrived from Macedonia, Paul was occupied with the word, testifying to the Jews that the Christ was Jesus. 6 And when they opposed and reviled him, he shook out his garments and said to them, “Your blood be on your own heads! I am innocent. From now on I will go to the Gentiles.” 7 And he left there and went to the house of a man named Titius Justus, a worshiper of God. His house was next door to the synagogue. 8 Crispus, the ruler of the synagogue, believed in the Lord, together with his entire household. And many of the Corinthians hearing Paul believed and were baptized. 9 And the Lord said to Paul one night in a vision, “Do not be afraid, but go on speaking and do not be silent, 10 for I am with you, and no one will attack you to harm you, for I have many in this city who are my people.” 11 And he stayed a year and six months, teaching the word of God among them. 12 But when Gallio was proconsul of Achaia, the Jews made a united attack on Paul and brought him before the tribunal, 13 saying, “This man is persuading people to worship God contrary to the law.” 14 But when Paul was about to open his mouth, Gallio said to the Jews, “If it were a matter of wrongdoing or vicious crime, O Jews, I would have reason to accept your complaint. 15 But since it is a matter of questions about words and names and your own law, see to it yourselves. I refuse to be a judge of these things.” 16 And he drove them from the tribunal. 17 And they all seized Sosthenes, the ruler of the synagogue, and beat him in front of the tribunal. But Gallio paid no attention to any of this.
May God bless the reading of his Word.
As we’ve been working our way through the book of Acts, we’ve seen the Apostle Paul spreading the gospel in city after city throughout the Roman world. His efforts are even more amazing when you consider the persecution he endured in almost every city he visited. I mean, this man was a machine. In fact, the perseverance he exhibited is so remarkable that it can be tempting for us to view him like Superman at times—as if he were essentially indestructible and not subject to the weaknesses and limitations that “ordinary” people have. You know, if Superman gets shot with a bullet, it just bounces right off of him. And if we’re not careful, that’s sort of the way we can start to view Paul as well.
Yet that’s why I appreciate this passage of Scripture here in Acts 18 so much. It reminds us that nobody—not even the great Apostle Paul—is immune to discouragement. We all have limitations and times of weakness and depression and seasons when we’re just struggling. So I think we all need to hear the words of encouragement that God gives to Paul here in this passage.
Now, in some ways, the fact that Paul was discouraged here in Corinth might initially seem to be a bit odd—because, at first glance, things seem to be going pretty well with his ministry there. In verses 1-3, we read about how he meets a couple named Aquila and Priscilla, who would eventually become some of his best friends. And not only does Paul meet these new friends in Corinth, but his faithful missionary companions, Silas and Timothy, are able to once again join him. Paul had been forced to leave them behind in Berea as he fled for his life, but now they finally catch up with him here in Corinth.
And not only do Silas and Timothy come to Paul, they also come bearing a sizeable financial gift from the churches in Macedonia. That gift isn’t mentioned explicitly in this passage—we learn about it primarily from 2 Corinthians 11:9 and Philippians 4:15—but we do see at least an indication that this gift was received here in Acts 18. Verse 5 states that “When Silas and Timothy arrived from Macedonia, Paul was occupied with the word, testifying to the Jews that the Christ was Jesus.” The way the ESV translates the text as “was occupied” is admittedly a bit obscure. Other translations say that Paul “began to be occupied.” So, at first in Corinth, Paul relied on his tentmaking trade for income, but when Silas and Timothy came with the large financial gift, he was able to devote himself exclusively to proclaiming the gospel as his full-time occupation, we might say. So you’d think that would be an encouragement for him. I know I’m usually pretty happy when I receive large sums of money. It doesn’t happen that often, but whenever it happens, it’s usually a pretty good day.
And then, perhaps most significantly, Paul’s ministry in Corinth seems to be thriving. Even though most of the Jews end up rejecting him, he nevertheless makes some significant inroads among the Jewish community in Corinth. Verse 8 tells us that even “Crispus, the ruler of the synagogue, believed in the Lord, together with his entire household.” That’s pretty incredible. The leader of the synagogue in Corinth embraced the gospel through Paul’s witness. And not only that, verse 8 goes on to tell us that “many of the Corinthians hearing Paul believed and were baptized. So things were happening in Corinth—wonderful things. The gospel was moving forward.
And yet…Paul was discouraged. We know he was discouraged because, as we’ll read about in a moment, God has to appear to him in a vision in order to encourage him. Also, later on in Paul’s ministry, in his first letter to the Corinthians, after leaving Corinth, he openly talks about how much he was struggling during his time in Corinth. He states in 1 Corinthians 2:1-3, “And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom….I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling.” The cumulative effect of all of the persecution Paul had faced was probably beginning to catch up with him, leaving him feeling weary and depleted. Again, everybody has limits, and Paul was getting very close to his limit of what he could endure. Also, remember that, despite the leader of the Corinthian synagogue embracing the gospel, most of the Jews in Corinth rejected it. Verse 6 in our main passage tells us that they “opposed and reviled” Paul. And, as Paul knew all too well by now, that probably meant there would soon be a riot and a public beating and jail time and perhaps even an attempt on his life. It was all too predictable. So, it’s actually understandable that Paul was battling discouragement and, in today’s language, perhaps even depression.
So, what did God say to Paul to encourage him? Look at verses 9-10: 9 And the Lord said to Paul one night in a vision, “Do not be afraid, but go on speaking and do not be silent, 10 for I am with you, and no one will attack you to harm you, for I have many in this city who are my people.” These verses communicate to us the main idea of the entire passage, which is that God encourages Paul to continue his missionary efforts by reminding him of his presence, promise, and purpose. Again, God encourages Paul to continue his missionary efforts by reminding him of his presence, promise, and purpose. So let’s spend the rest of our time looking at those three aspects of God’s encouragement to Paul.
First, God’s presence. He tells Paul in verse 10, “I am with you.” In other words, “It’s okay if you’re weak, because I’m with you. It’s okay that you’re struggling, because I’m with you. It’s okay if your circumstances feel like more than what you, in your own strength, can handle, because I’m with you.” And, of course, this goes not just for Paul but for all of us as disciples of Jesus. Here at Redeeming Grace, we’re reminded of that every Sunday when we recite the Great Commission together from Matthew 28:18-20. After Jesus commands us to go and make disciples, he tells us the very same thing he told Paul: “And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” Of course, Jesus himself ascended into heaven soon after making that statement, yet he continues to be with us in the Person of the Holy Spirit.
And that’s one of the most critical things for us to remember as we try to live for God and be faithfully engaged in the mission God’s given us of telling the world about Jesus—because there will be some very difficult days. We might at times feel fearful or anxious, as Paul apparently felt as he thought about what kinds of challenges might be right around the corner there in Corinth. We might also feel weak and overwhelmed and discouraged as we think about everything that’s going on in our society. You know, you don’t have to be an exceptionally astute cultural observer to notice that our society is becoming increasingly unfriendly toward Christians. We’re gradually being pushed out of the public square and are becoming outsiders. Yet, that’s okay, because God’s with us. And Scripture shows us time and time again that God plus nobody equals a majority. If we have God and nobody else, we have a majority. Just think about the Israelites as they conquered the Promised Land in the book of Joshua. Think about King Hezekiah when he prevailed against the mighty Assyrian army that had besieged Jerusalem in 2 Kings 19. If we have God, we automatically have a majority.
I’m reminded of the church father Athanasius, who was the bishop of Alexandria in the fourth century. At that time in church history, a heresy called “Arianism” was spreading through throughout the Roman Empire. Arianism taught that Jesus, as the “Son of God,” was similar to God and like God but not truly and fully God. Instead, it was claimed, Jesus was God’s first and highest created being. The way this was commonly expressed was by saying, “There was a time when the Son was not.” Thankfully, this heretical teaching was formally condemned at the Council of Nicea in 325 AD. And typically, that would settle the matter. However, in this case, because of political interference on the part of several Roman Emperors, the debate continued. The Emperor Constantine, who had been the one to call the Council of Nicea in the first place, became sympathetic to Arianism, and many bishops in the church continued to hold Arian beliefs.
Yet, Athanasius recognized that this is an issue that’s absolutely fundamental to the true biblical gospel. If Jesus isn’t fully divine, his death in the cross can’t possibly redeem anyone. So Athanasius took a stand. He spoke out very boldly against Arianism and refused to accept Arians into the church. As a result, he was forced into exile a total of five times—sometimes for as long as seven years. Yet, through it all, he never wavered. Even though it seemed, at times, as though the vast majority of political leaders and even church leaders were against him, he remained resolutely committed to what he knew to be the teaching of Scripture on that critical issue of the deity of Jesus. For this reason, he came to be known in Latin as Athanasius contra mundum—"Athanasius against the world.” He was willing to stand against the whole world, if necessary, in his advocacy for the truth of the gospel. By the way, thankfully, his view did end up prevailing in the end.
And that’s the courage and confidence we can have as well. It all comes back to this understanding that God is with us. No matter what we face, he’s by our side every step of the way, giving us strength, fighting our battles, and using us to accomplish his perfect purposes.
Second, Paul’s reminded here in Acts 18 not only of God’s presence but also of God’s promise. Of course, there are many promises God makes to his people, but one of them in particular is mentioned here. After he tells Paul, “I am with you,” God then assures Paul that “no one will attack you to harm you.” Now, the immediate application here is for Paul while he’s in Corinth. Even though people had attacked and harmed Paul in many of the previous cities he visited, God’s promising him that that won’t happen here in Corinth.
And further down in the passage, in verses 12-17, we see how God keeps that promise. Look at what it says: 12 But when Gallio was proconsul of Achaia, the Jews made a united attack on Paul and brought him before the tribunal, 13 saying, “This man is persuading people to worship God contrary to the law.” 14 But when Paul was about to open his mouth, Gallio said to the Jews, “If it were a matter of wrongdoing or vicious crime, O Jews, I would have reason to accept your complaint. 15 But since it is a matter of questions about words and names and your own law, see to it yourselves. I refuse to be a judge of these things.” 16 And he drove them from the tribunal. 17 And they all seized Sosthenes, the ruler of the synagogue, and beat him in front of the tribunal. But Gallio paid no attention to any of this.
So the Jews do indeed make an attack on Paul—specifically a legal attack—but they’re not able to harm him. They bring him before the Roman Proconsul Gallio with accusations that his ministry activities are contrary to Roman law. But we read how God gives Paul favor with Gallio so that Gallio dismisses the case without Paul even having to speak one word defending himself. What a clear picture of how God is the one defending and protecting Paul—just as he promised he’d do. And, by the way, Gallio’s decision set an important judicial precedent in the Roman Empire. This favorable decision would likely help the Christian cause down the road the next time it’s brought to court. So God shows himself faithful in protecting Paul so that no one can harm him.
Yet even though the immediate application of God’s promise in verse 10 was for Paul in Corinth, this promise that “no one will attack you to harm you” can also be applied more broadly. In a very real sense, all Christians are protected from harm—if not in this life, then certainly for eternity. As long as God the Father sits on the throne of heaven ruling and reigning over all things, and as long as Jesus is functioning as our Intercessor and Advocate at the Father’s right hand, and as long as the Holy Spirit dwells within us in order to sustain us in our faith all the way to heaven, then, dear friends, we are eternally secure.
You see, the greatest harm that could ever come upon us is us receiving the judgment our sins deserve. Yet the Bible tells us that Jesus took that judgment on himself when he died on the cross. He suffered the full force of it so that we wouldn’t have to and then resurrected from the dead as a decisive display of his victory over sin and death once and for all. As a result, Romans 8:1 tells us that “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” So the question we all need to ask ourselves is, “Am I ‘in Christ Jesus’? Have I turned away from my sins and put my trust in Jesus alone as my only hope of rescue?” If so, then we can have the confidence that nothing will ever cause us any eternal harm. As Paul says so well at the end of Romans 8, 38 For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. And I believe all of that is contained in at least seed form in God’s promise to Paul back in our main passage, when he tells Paul that “no one will attack you to harm you.”
And, again, what courage and confidence that should give us. Religious liberty may be eroding in our country, popular opinion may be turning against Christians and Christian ideals, yet we know that, in Christ, we’re eternally secure. No one can harm us in any lasting way.
Then, finally, not only is Paul reminded of God’s presence and God’s promise, he’s also reminded of God’s purpose. The Lord says to him in the final part of verse 10, “for I have many in this city who are my people.” God had a purpose to save many additional people in the city of Corinth, and nothing could thwart that purpose. A couple of months ago, while examining Acts 13, we discussed the sovereignty of God in salvation. Acts 13:48 tells us about how the Gentiles—or non-Jews—of the city of Antioch responded to Paul’s sermon. It says, “And when the Gentiles heard this, they began rejoicing and glorifying the word of the Lord, and as many as were appointed to eternal life believed.” So, “as many as were appointed to eternal life believed.” That means exactly what it says. God “appointed” certain individuals to eternal life, and on the basis of that sovereign decree, those individuals “believed.” This is a doctrine often known as predestination. God chooses certain individuals to be saved and passes over others. If you want to learn more about that—and especially how it relates to human freedom and human responsibility—go back on our church website and listen to that sermon on Acts 13:42-52.
But one thing I didn’t discuss in that sermon that I’d like to discuss now is how predestination relates to evangelism. Many Christians are very concerned that this idea of predestination will discourage us from sharing the gospel with people. Why share the gospel if God’s already determined who is and isn’t going to be saved? And that’s a great question. The answer is that God’s sovereignly determined not only the end (of certain people being saved) but also the means by which that end will be accomplished (us sharing the gospel with them). We might say that God has not only a chosen people but also a chosen plan. That plan consists of Christians sharing the gospel. And it’s only through God’s chosen plan that his chosen people will come to faith. So that’s why we share the gospel. That’s the only way people will come to faith—because God’s sovereignly determined not only the end but also the means by which that end will be accomplished.
However, there’s more. You see, not only does a correct understanding of predestination not hinder us from sharing the gospel, it actually encourages us to share the gospel. Just look at our main passage. Paul, you’ll remember, is discouraged in the midst of his missionary endeavor there in Corinth. So what doctrine does the Lord use to encourage him? None other than the doctrine of predestination. He tells Paul, “I have many in this city who are my people.” You see, when we understand that there are people out there who are, as the Lord says here, “my people”—that is, chosen or predestined—that should inspire us to share the gospel with greater confidence and excitement—because there’s a level of success that’s, in a sense, guaranteed.
Imagine, for example, that you really wanted to get a certain job. I don’t know, maybe you had some sort of entry-level position at a company but really wanted a management position. So perhaps you might look around on a few job search websites or talk to a recruiter and just see what was out there. Maybe you’d even apply for a few positions here and there. That’s probably a pretty typical scenario. But if the Vice President of a company personally reached out to you one day and said, “Hey, you don’t know me but I’ve heard about you through some mutual friends and done a lot of research on you, and I think you’d be a great fit for a management position that we have available at our company. Wonderful pay, wonderful benefits, wonderful work environment, everything. Would you consider applying?” I’m guessing you’d probably apply, right? Knowing that you’d have an excellent chance of getting hired for that very desirable position would be a significant encouragement for you to put in an application.
And the doctrine of predestination works in a similar way. Even though we don’t know exactly which individuals God’s chosen for salvation, the simple fact that God has indeed chosen some people should encourage us to share the gospel—since we can be confident that our efforts will be fruitful at least some of the time. So that’s why having a high view of the sovereignty of God in salvation should lead us to share the gospel more, not less, and should lead us to do it with greater confidence, greater excitement, and a greater sense of expectation.
And as we take a step back now and think about the way in which this passage as a whole applies to us, I believe it shows us that there’s always going to be a temptation to disengage from our mission of sharing the gospel with people. Paul’s life is an especially vivid demonstration of what any Christian who’s tried to live as a faithful gospel witness already knows to be true—that consistently sharing the gospel with people isn’t easy. It’s not easy to live out our missionary calling. It requires an incredible amount of effort and energy and endurance. The temptation will always be there to let off the gas pedal just a little and gradually start allowing ourselves to coast and eventually make only the most nominal and half-hearted efforts at sharing the gospel—if we even do so at all. That’s the temptation. Unless we make a deliberate effort to remain faithful and engaged in the work Jesus has called us to do, we’ll always gravitate toward a more comfortable way of living.
I came across a story that I’m not sure actually happened or not, but nevertheless serves as a sobering picture of what can happen—and what often does happen—to churches. There was once a dangerous shoreline where shipwrecks were very frequent. And so, to help rescue people from these shipwrecks, a crude little life-saving station was built. The building was just a hut, and there was only one boat, but the few devoted crewmen kept a constant watch over the sea. With no thought for themselves, they went out day or night, tirelessly searching for anyone who might need help—and they saved many people’s lives through their courageous efforts. After a while, this life-saving station became famous. Some of those who were saved, as well as others in the surrounding area, wanted to become a part of the work themselves and were more than willing to give both time and money to support the station. New boats were bought, additional crews were trained, and the station grew.
Some of the members then became unhappy that the building was so crude. They believed that a larger, nicer building would be more helpful as the first refuge of those rescued from the sea. So, they built a much larger facility and replaced the emergency cots with hospital beds and the basic furniture with much nicer furniture. Soon, the station became a popular gathering place for its members to discuss the work of rescuing people and also to visit with each other. They continued to remodel and decorate until the station increasingly took on the look and character of a club. Fewer and fewer members were interested in actually going out on lifesaving missions, so they hired professional crews to do the work on their behalf. The lifesaving motif still prevailed in the club emblems and stationery, and there was a decorative lifeboat in the room where the club held its meetings. One day, a large ship was wrecked off the coast, and the hired crews brought in numerous boatloads of cold, wet, half-drowned people. These people were bruised, sick, and, of course, terribly dirty. As a result, the beautiful new club facilities were all messed up.
This led the property committee to immediately have a shower house built outside, where the shipwreck victims could be cleaned up before coming inside the nice building. Also, at the next club meeting, there was a split in the club’s membership. Most of the members wanted to stop the club’s lifesaving activities altogether, since they were rather unpleasant and got in the way of the club’s social life. A few of the members insisted on keeping lifesaving as their primary purpose and pointed out that, after all, they were still called a lifesaving station. But those members were voted down and told that if they wanted to save lives they could begin their own station down the coast somewhere. So, they decided to do that. Yet, as the years went by, the new station gradually started to face the same problems the original station had experienced. It, too, became a club, and its lifesaving work became less and less of a priority. The few members who remained dedicated to actual lifesaving began yet another station. But history continued to repeat itself, and today that coastline is home to a number of exclusive clubs along the shore. Shipwrecks are still frequent in those waters, but most of the victims simply drown because they have no one to rescue them.
What a sobering picture of the way it often works with churches as well. Brothers and sisters, this is why I talk so much about our calling to share the gospel. This is why we have our church’s disciple-making mission printed on the front our bulletin just about every Sunday. This is why we recite the Great Commission at the conclusion of just about every worship service. This is what’s driving all of that. If we’re not deliberate about staying engaged in the missionary lifestyle Jesus calls us to, then this church will become essentially another social club. And I can tell you right now that this area doesn’t need another social club—it needs the gospel. There’s not a doubt in my mind that Jesus has the same message for us in this church as he had for Paul in verse 10: “I have many in this city who are my people.” And we’re the ones he’s called to reach them with the life-saving message of the gospel.