The Transforming Power of the Gospel in Corinth (Acts 18)

The Transforming Power of the Gospel in Corinth (Acts 18) from Stephen Sizer on Vimeo.

Today we are beginning the next stage of an amazing historical journey. Back in January 2010, we began to read the Acts of the Apostles and learn about the birth of the early church to see how it fulfilled the Great Commission given by the Lord Jesus. As we join the journey again this Autumn in acts 18, the gospel has reached as far as Corinth. In the weeks to come, up to half term, we are going to journey with the Apostle Paul and his colleagues to discover some of the principles of ministry that will help us to share in that on-going mission in our generation.

The Purpose of Acts

Why did Luke write Acts? What purpose was the Spirit leading him to fulfil? The years have produced several different answers to those questions. The opening verses of Luke and Acts mention Theophilus as the recipient of Luke’s writings. Many think Theophilus was a Roman dignitary sympathetic to the Christian cause. Perhaps Luke was writing a defence of Christianity for this official during a time of persecution to show him there was nothing subversive or sinister about the followers of Jesus. The geographical framework of Acts, the spread of the gospel from Jerusalem to Rome, lends credibility to this idea.

In 1:3 of his Gospel, Luke clearly states he is trying to make “an orderly account” of the events surrounding Jesus’ ministry.

It’s easy to think Luke’s Gospel focuses on Jesus while Acts focuses on the followers of Jesus who continued their Master’s work. But Acts 1:1, says “In my former book … I wrote about all Jesus began to do and teach…” Luke implies that Jesus continued to do and teach more, and that His story was incomplete where the Gospel of Luke ended. A careful reading of Acts makes it clear that Jesus remained the active, living, focus of Luke’s story. In 9:4 (NIV), Jesus spoke directly to Saul and asked, “Why do you persecute me?” Later, in the same chapter, Peter could say directly to Aeneas, “Jesus Christ heals you” (9:34 NIV). In Acts 10, Christ made His will known to Peter concerning a ministry to the Gentiles. These are but three examples of Jesus’ vital involvement in the spread of the gospel in Acts. While Acts begins with the ascension of Jesus, there is no evidence anyone in the early church perceived Him as “gone” from their midst. Jesus healed, spoke, and directed the work of His disciples. Even when they preached, the disciples thought of Jesus as literally present in their preaching. They asked the listeners of those first sermons, not merely to believe facts about Jesus, but to encounter , the One who died, rose again, and lives forever. The ascension marked not Christ’s departure, but a transformation in the way Christ performs His ministry of salvation and grace. Acts is the continuing story of Jesus’ work but no longer bound by the limitations of time and space.

Before Jesus ascended to heaven he said, “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:8).

Think of the Acts of the Apostles as a series of concentric circles, like the ripples created by a stone being thrown into a pond. Acts 1-7 record the witness of the Apostles in Jerusalem among the Jews and proselytes. Acts 8 the witness beyond Jerusalem in Samaria. Acts 9-12, the conversion of Saul and persecution of the church in Jerusalem. Acts 13-14, the witness among the Gentiles on Cyprus and in Turkey. Acts 15 records the decisions of the Jerusalem Council on bringing Gentile believers into what was mostly still a Jewish Church. Acts 16-18 records the witness in the major cities of Greece – Philippi, Thessalonica, Berea and Athens. Today the gospel has reached Corinth. Corinth, a city of 200,000 people, would not be the easiest city in which to start a church, and yet that’s where Paul was led by the Spirit after leaving Athens. Corinth’s reputation for wickedness was known all over the Roman Empire. ‘Corinthianize’ came to mean to live like the Corinthians; to lead a life of licentiousness and debauchery. Money and vice, along with strange philosophies and new religions, came to Corinth and found a home there.

But so too did the gospel. In Acts 18, Luke introduces us to some key individuals, both believers and unbelievers, who had a significant impact on the spread of the gospel. We are going to meet Aquila and Priscilla, Gallio and Apollos.

1. Aquila and Priscilla : Devoted Helpers (Acts 18:1-8)

After this, Paul left Athens and went to Corinth. 2 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 Jews to leave Rome. Paul went to see them, 3 and because he was a tentmaker as they were, he stayed and worked with them. 4 Every Sabbath he reasoned in the synagogue, trying to persuade Jews and Greeks.” (Acts 18:1-4)

There were many philosophers and itinerant teachers in Corinth, preying on the ignorant and superstitious population; and Paul’s message and ministry could easily be misunderstood. One way Paul separated himself from the “religious hucksters” was by supporting himself as a tentmaker. By the providence of God, he met a Jewish couple, Aquila and Priscilla (“Prisca,” 2 Tim. 4:19), who were workers in leather as was Paul. Jewish rabbis did not accept money from their students but earned their way by practicing a trade. Were Aquila and Priscilla Christian believers at that time? We don’t know for certain, but it’s likely that they were. We do know that this dedicated couple served most faithfully and even risked their lives for Paul (Rom. 16:3-4).

They assisted him in Ephesus (Acts 18:18-28) where they even hosted a church in their home (1 Cor. 16:19). Aquila and Priscilla were an important part of Paul’s “team” and he thanked God for them. Paul lived and worked with Aquila and Priscilla, but on the Sabbath days witnessed boldly in the synagogue. When Silas and Timothy arrived from Macedonia (Acts 17:14-15; 18:5), they brought financial support with them (2 Cor. 11:9), and this enabled Paul to devote his full time to the preaching of the Gospel. Back in July, in a sermon series entitled ‘Jesus and Women’ I preached on Priscilla’s ministry so I won’t dwell further on Priscilla and Aquila here other than to note that they worked as a team and on most occasions, her name appears first suggesting she took the lead in theological discussions.

“Paul devoted himself exclusively to preaching, testifying to the Jews that Jesus was the Messiah. But when they 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 innocent of it. From now on I will go to the Gentiles.” Then Paul left the synagogue and went next door to the house of Titius Justus, a worshiper of God. Crispus, the synagogue leader, and his entire household believed in the Lord; and many of the Corinthians who heard Paul believed and were baptized.” (Acts 18:6-8)

Whenever God is blessing a ministry, you can expect increased opposition as well as increased opportunities. “For a great and effective door has opened to me, and there are many adversaries” (1 Cor. 16:9). After all, the enemy gets angry when we invade his territory and liberate his slaves. As in Thessalonica and Berea (Acts 17:5-13), the unbelieving Jews stirred up trouble for Paul and his friends (see 1 Thes. 2:14-16). Such opposition is usually proof that God is at work, and this ought to encourage us. Charles Spurgeon used to say that the devil never kicks a dead horse! Jewish opposition had forced Paul to leave Thessalonica and Berea.

But in Corinth, the opposition only made him determined to stay there and get the job done. At just the right time, God brought another friend into Paul’s life—Gentile, God-fearing Titius Justus. Paul departed from the synagogue and began using the house of Titus Justus right next door! This was certainly a wise decision on Paul’s part, because it gave him continued contact with the Jews and Gentile proselytes; and as a result, even the chief ruler of the synagogue was converted. Aquila & Priscilla.

2. Gallio : Support from the Authorities (Acts 18:9-17)

“One night the Lord spoke to Paul in a vision: “Do not be afraid; keep on speaking, do not be silent. 10 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 in Corinth for a year and a half, teaching them the word of God. (Acts 18:9-11)

The conversion of Crispus, an important Jewish leader, opened up more opportunities for evangelism and brought more opposition from the enemy! The Jewish community in Corinth was no doubt furious at Paul’s success and did everything possible to silence him and get rid of him. Dr. Luke does not give us the details, but we get the impression that between verse 8 and 9, the situation became especially difficult or dangerous. Paul may have been thinking about leaving the city when the Lord came to him and gave him the assurance that he needed. The next time you feel alone and defeated, meditate on Hebrews 13:5 and claim the promise it contains.

“Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have, because God has said, “Never will I leave you, never will I forsake you.” (Hebrews 13:5)

When he was a young man, Campbell Morgan used to read the Bible each week to two elderly women. One evening, when he finished reading the closing words of Matthew 28 where Jesus says, “I will be with you always” , Morgan said to the ladies, “Isn’t that a wonderful promise!”. One of them replied, “Young man, that is not a promise—it is a certainty!” Jesus had already appeared to Paul on the Damascus road (Acts 9:1-6; 26:12-18) and also in the temple (Acts 22:17-18). Paul would be encouraged by Him again when he was imprisoned in Jerusalem (Acts 23:11) and later in Rome (2 Tim. 4:16-17). Our Lord’s angel would also appear to Paul in the midst of another storm. He would give Paul a message of assurance even for the passengers and crew (Acts 27:23-25). One of our Lord’s names is “Immanuel—God with us” (Matt. 1:23), and He lives up to His name. Strengthened by this assurance, Paul continued in Corinth, knowing that God was with Him and that people would be saved. During those eighteen months of witness, Paul saw many victories in spite of Satan’s opposition. Luke shares only one example of divine protection during Paul’s ministry in Corinth (Acts 18:12-17), but it is a significant one.

“While Gallio was proconsul of Achaia, the Jews of Corinth made a united attack on Paul and brought him to the place of judgment. “This man,” they charged, “is persuading the people to worship God in ways contrary to the law.” Just as Paul was about to speak, Gallio said to them, “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 drove them off. Then the crowd there turned on Sosthenes the synagogue leader and beat him in front of the proconsul; and Gallio showed no concern whatever.” (Acts 18:12-17)

The arrival of a new proconsul gave the unbelieving Jews hope that Rome might declare this new “Christian sect” illegal. They broke the law by attacking Paul and forcing him to go to court. This was not the first time that fanatics had tried to prove that Paul was breaking the Roman law (Acts 16:19-24; 17:6-7).

Being a Roman citizen, Paul was prepared to defend himself; but this turned out to be unnecessary because Gallio defended Paul! The proconsul immediately saw that the real issue was not the application of the Roman law but the interpretation of the Jewish religion, so he refused to try the case.

How wonderful is the providence of God! The Jews tried to force the Roman proconsul to declare the Christian faith illegal.  Gallio ended up doing just the opposite. By refusing to try the case, Gallio made it clear that Rome would not get involved in cases involving Jewish religious disputes. As far as he was concerned, Paul and his disciples had as much right as the Jews to practice their religion and share it with others. “If God wills” (Acts 18:21) was more than a religious slogan with Paul;

it was one of the strengths and encouragements of his life and ministry. After eighteen months of ministry, Paul decided that it was God’s will for him to leave Corinth and return to his home church in Antioch. He had been gone from Antioch perhaps two years or more, and the saints were no doubt overjoyed to see him and hear about the work of God among the Gentiles.

We have considered how the Lord used Priscilla and Aquila, Silas and Timothy, and Crispus and Gallio to assist in the spread of the gospel in the strategic city of Corinth. Luke has one more person to introduce us to in Acts 18 – Apollos.

3. Apollos: Defective Theology (Acts 18:24-28)

Paul had visited the city of Ephesus at the end of his second missionary journey. He had captured the interest of the entire Jewish community. Then Aquila and Priscilla decided to stay there and set up in business they met Apollos of Alexandria.

Alexandria, situated on the Nile delta in Egypt was the second largest city in the Roman Empire. It was famous for its lighthouse on the narrow island of Pharos, for its museum, and above all for its library, which contained 700.000 volumes. There was a large Jewish colony in the city. By this time we know that they made up one third of the population of the city. It was at Alexandria that the Hebrew Scriptures were translated into the Greek Septuagint version. Alexandria was also the home of the Jewish scholar Philo. He was deeply influenced by Plato. Philo tried to blend Biblical revelation to platonic ideology.

Coincidentally, this was the birthplace and training ground for Apollos.

3.1. Apollos was a Gifted Person

“Meanwhile a Jew named Apollos, a native of Alexandria, came to Ephesus. He was a learned man, with a thorough knowledge of the Scriptures. He had been instructed in the way of the Lord, and he spoke with great fervor and taught about Jesus accurately, though he knew only the baptism of John.” (Acts 18:24-25)

The word Logios occuring only here in the entire NT can either mean eloquent or learned. The next phrase implies that he was indeed learned, for it says “he had a thorough knowledge of the scriptures” The word for “thorough” is actually dunatos which means “mighty”, the same word used of Moses in Acts 7.

So somewhere along the line Apollos had been brought into contact with Jesus. Based on what he had been told or read, he had become a believer. Luke uses the word zeo which means “to boil” to describe his fervour. Apollos arrived in Ephesus full of zeal. Apollos was a gifted person.

3.2 Apollos was a Teachable Person

“He began to speak boldly in the synagogue. When Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they invited him to their home and explained to him the way of God more adequately.” (Acts 18:26)

Apollos had a teachable spirit. Aquila and Priscilla were deeply impressed with him, but they detected a serious flaw in his preaching. Tactfully they made no attempt to correct him in front of everyone at the synagogue.

Nor did they try and put him straight over coffee after the service. They had a better way. They invited him home for lunch. Perhaps it was at the kitchen table that they led the conversation round to the morning’s sermon, told Apollos what a blessing his ministry had been, asked him how he had become a believer, and then introduced the question of baptism. Gently and lovingly, they filled in the gaps. His knowledge was deficient. He knew only about the baptism of John. This suggests perhaps that he was more familiar with the earlier part of Jesus’ life and teaching than perhaps with his death and resurrection. Nevertheless He soon grasped the progression from John’s baptism of repentance, to Christ’s baptism of salvation. With a clearer grasp of the gospel, Apollos moved on to Achaia with the endorsement of the church in Corinth. Apollos was a gifted person and a teachable person.

3.3 Apollos was a Fruitful Person

“When Apollos wanted to go to Achaia, the brothers and sisters encouraged him and wrote to the disciples there to welcome him. When he arrived, he was a great help to those who by grace had believed.” For he vigorously refuted his Jewish opponents in public debate, proving from the Scriptures that Jesus was the Messiah.” (Acts 18:27-28)

The word Luke uses to describe Apollos is a medical word.
It means vigorously, intensely, with sheer strength and zeal. Apollos made a profound impact on the Jewish community in Ephesus.

There was nothing secretive or private about his witness. His witness was open and public. The word the Holy Spirit employs for “proving” occurs only here. It is an intensive form of the word “convict”, meaning to confute, or refute with the purpose of putting the convicted person to shame. The Jews may have driven Paul out of town, so the Holy Spirit sent Apollos in to bring the same truths in a different way with a different personality. That is always God’s way. No one, not even an Apostle is indispensible. An older, wiser minister told me once, “Don’t kid yourself that you are God’s gift to your church. You go for a limited time, for a specific task, for particular people. When you realise it, seek your next assignment before they do”

Humility is the sign of a godly person. Apollos was a gifted, teachable and fruitful, first and foremost because he was sold out to Jesus. He had given his life to Jesus. Next week, Peter Nevins will bring us the next episode when the Apostle Paul reaches Ephesus in Acts 19. Let’s summarise the principles we learn from the key individuals we have met in Acts 18.

1.  Aquila and Priscilla : Devoted helpers who opened their home for hospitality and ministry (Acts 18:1-8)

2.  Gallio : Support from the Authorities who recognised the integrity of the disciples (Acts 18:9-17)

3.  Apollos : While his theology was initially defective, he was nevertheless gifted and teachable and therefore ultimately fruitful.