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  • Writer's picturePaul Cottington

Behind the Scenes of God’s Play in Corinth’s Theatre


'One night the Lord 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.”' Acts 18:9-10

Acts 18 begins with, ‘After this, Paul left Athens and went to Corinth’. When Paul was in Athens he tried to understand Athens. He worked out where those people were at in their thinking, in order to lead them, from there, to Christ. In a similar way, it’s important for us to understand Corinth if we are to understand Acts 18.

Corinth occupied a significant position in the Roman Empire due to its unique geography. Corinth is on a strip of land which is only 4 miles wide at its narrowest. It has harbours on each side. It had a trackway which crossed the land between the two harbours. This was like an ancient railway line. Goods were unloaded in one harbour onto the trackway carts, and then pulled by animals, or slaves, the few miles to the other harbour, where they were loaded up into another ship to continue their journey. This saved a particularly perilous sea journey of several hundred miles. This meant that Corinth had a stream of goods and accompanying humans, arriving on a daily basis. Most of the goods quickly left and most of the humans just passed through. But what seemed to have stayed in Corinth was all the vices of all the humans from all over the Roman world. Corinth had a reputation and it wasn’t a good one.

Daniel has recently started a series here, opening up Romans. Paul’s letter to the church in Rome doesn’t explicitly tell us where Paul was when he wrote it but there are several clues which point to Corinth. Paul wrote Romans from Corinth. In Romans 1 26 we had that list of sins which Paul called ‘shameful lusts’. Paul could well have focused on other sins and made a similar argument. Why was his mind on those particular things? Probably because he was in Corinth. Corinth was a byword for loose living.

This was in the days before social media or the internet. I don’t think they even had TVs! News travelled, but much slower. Yet, even over 600 miles away in Rome, a sex-worker could be referred to as a ‘Corinthian Companion’. Corinth was that kind of place. And that is the place which Paul reached in Acts 18.

Here we find another connection between Rome and Corinth. Paul met two people who have been expelled from Rome, ostensibly by the Emperor’s edict. Priscilla’s name indicates that she belonged to an important Roman family. Her husband Aquila has a Jewish background, like Paul, and this works to get Paul some work. Back in the day, Paul had evidently done a tent-making BTEC, and that was also the trade of Priscilla and Aquila. We’ve considered before, how Paul had been funded in his missionary endeavours by the relatively new, relatively well-off, church at Philippi. Evidently, though, there were times when that gifted-income was not available (see Philippians 4 12) and, here, Paul worked to support himself for a period. Consequently, his mission work for Jesus seems curtailed, in verse 4, to just a Single Saturday Synagogue Session! There he brought the good news of God’s rescue plan in Christ, ‘trying to persuade Jews and Greeks’ to believe. Again, similar to last time, this reference to ‘Greeks’ means non-Jews who had strong sympathy with the Jewish religion – Fairly obvious this time, seeing as they were ‘in the synagogue’!

But verse 5 tells us something really important, particularly when we combine it with Bible-info found elsewhere. ‘When Silas and Timothy came’, Paul stopped tent-making and ‘devoted himself exclusively to preaching’. Why? How? Did Silas and Timothy start sewing canvas so that Paul could assemble sermons? No, there’s another reason.

When Paul writes his second letter to the church which forms in Corinth he talks about how he had supported himself. In 2 Corinthians 11 9 he says, ‘I have kept myself from being a burden to you in any way, and will continue to do so’. That church was not wealthy – it didn’t have a great deal – and, reading between the lines of Paul’s letter, amongst its other shortcomings, it doesn’t seem to have been over-willing to give a great deal of what it did have. But Paul then says this, ‘I was not a burden to anyone, for the brothers who came from Macedonia supplied what I needed’. Evidently, in Acts 18 5, ‘when Silas and Timothy came from Macedonia’, they brought money supplied by the wider church. It had an effect - we are meant to question - was Christ’s kingdom better served when the apostle Paul was preparing tents, or when he was preparing and preaching ‘that Jesus was the Messiah’?

Anyway, time to celebrate - we’ve got five verses in and Paul hasn’t yet faced any opposition! Let’s take a look a verse 6 – Oh! The familiar pattern continues! This time it is verbal abuse, rather than the physical threat of previous chapters, but Paul has run short of patience. I’m so thankful for God’s wisdom in giving us Acts 18. It’s so easy to believe the idea that Paul was somehow radically different to me or you. The way he seems able to dust himself off, time and again, is extra-ordinary to little me, and I’m sure I’m not alone. But his negative experiences do have an impact. The trauma becomes apparent in this chapter. Like Elijah, in James 5 17 (NLT), Paul ‘was as human as we are’. This time, as soon as the opposition starts, Paul has to walk away. But not before faithfully warning his opponents of the perilous position that their rejection of Jesus leaves them in. And, much like at work when we do something really bad, they don’t just get a verbal warning! Paul gives them something more concrete – a visual demonstration of their accountability.

It’s similar to what Paul and Barnabas did in Acts 13 51 when expelled from Pisidian Antioch. There ‘they shook the dust off their feet as a warning to them’. Here, Paul ‘shook out his clothes in protest’. This is similar to what the prophet Nehemiah does in Nehemiah 5 13. Perhaps Paul draws from that Old Testament passage, familiar to his opponents. There is also a connection with the instructions that Jesus gave his twelve disciples, in Luke 9, when he sent them out ‘to proclaim the kingdom of God’, and when he also sent out a further seventy-two in Luke 10. There he told them, ‘But when you enter a town and are not welcomed, go into its streets and say, “Even the dust of your town we wipe from our feet as a warning to you. Yet be sure of this: the kingdom of God has come near.” I tell you, it will be more bearable on that day for Sodom than for that town’.

The kingdom of God had come near to these people but some had rejected Jesus, the only way into new-kingdom-life. Paul tells them that they are responsible and they will be held accountable. And, like Jesus instructed, he gives a demonstration. The idea is to give them something that will stick in their minds. In two weeks’ time, if I asked you to recount something I said this week, would you instantly remember Paul’s protest here or would you likely not remember? But if I stood here and shook out my raincoat, would you be more likely to remember? Paul wants these people to keep this demonstration in their minds. He wants their accountability before God not to be something which is quickly lost.

In verses 7-8 we find that all is not lost. Sheep have been found by Jesus, the good shepherd (see John 10 11), through Paul’s preaching of the Messiah. They are provided with a building in a way which reminds me of my brother-in-law, Rodney. In the speeches at his wedding, it was remarked upon how lazy he had been in looking for a wife. He didn’t quite marry the girl next-door, he married the girl next-door-but-one! It’s a wonderful thing that he found his future wife, Leanne, so close by.

Here we have a similar provision. A new meeting place for those who want to hear about Jesus, right next door to the synagogue, in the house of a Roman who has come to faith in Christ. And, look at this (v.8) – while many from the synagogue rejected Jesus, ‘the synagogue leader and his entire household believed in the Lord. 1 Corinthians 1 14, tells us that while Paul himself baptised very few of the believers in Corinth – that task was left to others – Paul did baptise Crispus.

And then we have a most beautiful thing spoken about the ‘Corinthians’, which refers to the Gentile population, that now had an audience with Jesus through their audience with Paul. In this desperately wicked town, people were just like Paul describes in Ephesians 2 12-13. How close to God did society here look? – Far off! They ‘were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world’. Yet, look at Acts 18 8. Faith – belief in Jesus turns the world on its head! What good news for them – what good news for us! ‘But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ’. ‘Many… Corinthians… believed and were baptised’.

‘Many… Corinthians’. And there were more to come. The Lord tells Paul this in verse 10 - ‘I have many people in this city’. Many religious people had rejected Christ. Many irreligious would yet find him. What is this? Well, it’s 1 Corinthians 1 28 (NLT) – ‘God chose things despised by the world, things counted as nothing at all, and used them to bring to nothing what the world considers important’. Why would God choose in this way? Because his love is breathtakingly awesome!

In 1 Corinthians 6, Paul talks about the practices that were rife in this city. He puts his hand right down into the sewer of our existence. He lists sin after sin and then turns his gaze to this new church and says, ‘and that is what some of you were’. ‘Many’ had been far off from God but he was ‘not far from any one’ of them (see Acts 17 27).

So, all sorted – it’s all going to be an easy ride home to heaven now – except it isn’t. God’s word promises many wonderful things to those who put their faith in Jesus, but an easy ride isn’t one of them. Paul’s first letter to these Corinthians really shows this. It details the struggle that these people had to rise above the surrounding culture – to let go of a way of thinking and way of life that had been theirs from birth. People so often comment on 1 Corinthians about how bad that church looks – some of the things that they allowed to go on. It’s viewed as God’s illustration of how the church should not look. But, actually, it’s much more than that. What 1 Corinthians really illustrates is just how much help believers need in order to rise above their surroundings and live lives worthy of their calling.

Perhaps this was another of the things on Paul’s mind here. He tells us in 2 Corinthians 11 28 that he faced ‘daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches’. Added to that time had taken its toll. Paul’s mental picture of his future saw him being very soon thrown out of another city. What then for these ‘mere infants in Christ’? That is what Paul calls them in 1 Corinthians 3 1. Paul was like their spiritually mature parent and he was going to be absent.

Who thinks it would be a good idea to have a group of toddlers round to their house and then to go somewhere else while the little ones decide how they are going to spend the day on their own? It would quickly be carnage! Paul, sees spiritual carnage when he inevitably leaves. Paul is afraid. How do I know? Because the Lord tells him not be in verse 9. Why does he tell him, ‘Do not be afraid’? Is it because fear is sinful? No, that isn’t the reason. Fear, trepidation, anxiety are part and parcel of who we are. The Lord isn’t giving Paul a put down – he is giving him a promise, to pull him back up. Paul feels so small, and the task in hand seems so great. Paul is having a confidence crisis. The Lord is saying ‘don’t look to yourself for confidence – look to me! ‘For I am with you’. I’ve got it all in hand. I’ve got a plan for you in this place. You have the best interests of these people at heart, but my loving heart is bigger than yours.

It’s like Paul, here, feels like he is playing Top Trumps against sin, the world and Satan, and everything seems to be riding on the outcome of that game in that moment. Do you ever feel like that? You’re all out of cards except one. You know you are going to lose because it’s the worst card in the pack. It’s the ‘My Weakness’ card and it fails in every category. That is all Paul had, until he received a tap on the shoulder that night. He turned and Jesus was standing by him and handed him another card. It was the ‘Grace & Power of God Almighty’ card. That card is perfect. It scores 100 in every category. But, only on one condition – it has to be played with the ‘Weakness’ card to be valid. It’s as if Jesus speaks the words which Paul will later quote in 2 Corinthians 12 8. Jesus says, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness’. Paul now knows that despite the desperate hand that life seems to have dealt him, he will triumph once again.

It’s so instructive what the Lord tells Paul to do here. He points to his providence – his plan, his purpose, in verse 10, already worked out for the lives of his people. In effect he says, ‘You can’t manage this situation Paul. But don’t worry because you’re not in charge, I am’. All that Paul is actually instructed to do is very little. Just carry on doing the bit that is yours – the part that you can manage’. You just ‘keep on speaking, do not be silent’ (v.9) - that’s your little part to play – nothing else! But what about everything else? The Lord says, in effect, ‘I’ve got everything else’. That is what he is telling Paul – that is what he is telling us.

This chapter is full of God’s unfolding plan. He can promise Paul this period of protection so that he can reside here and do his important church work. Why? Because he’s in charge. In verse 2, Priscilla and Aquila come to that city to help Paul. They are going to risk their lives for Paul in future. The church will be grateful for them (see Romans 16 3-4). Who caused them to come? Was it chance? Was it Claudius? Or, was it really Christ! Who really provided the meeting place for the new church in verse 7? Was is Justus? Or, was it just Jesus! In verses 12-17, when Paul is brought before the courts, even before he has the opportunity to defend himself, the judgement goes in his favour. Who makes that judgement? We aren’t meant to see Gallio, so much. We’re meant to see God. Then, when Paul finally does leave Corinth in verse 18, what then? We are going to see that next time? Without any input or organisation on Paul’s part, a man named Apollos is already being moulded to be the right man to go to Corinth and serve.

Oh yes! - another special man! – No! Paul will write that famous summary about Corinth in 1 Corinthians 3 6 - ‘I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow’. These men weren’t particularly special. But their God sure was... and is!

In 1 Timothy 1 15-16, Paul speaks of his pre-conversion life. He was vile. The things he did were hideous. He calls himself, ‘the worst of sinners’. ‘But (then)… I was shown mercy… as an example for those who would believe in him (Jesus) and receive eternal life’. Corinth is, likewise an example. Surely, this was the last place on earth to find converts to Christ! Yet God chose to confound us by having many people there. God had rescued them by sending his Son, Jesus, to die for all their sin on Calvary’s cross. He then raised him from death to show that their life’s greatest threat was gone for good. The sin of the Corinthians was massive. What an example! By choosing those who seem to least deserve his love, God shows how great his love is.

Then read 1 Corinthians – many of those new believers there found the ongoing fight against sin, and its effect on their Christian life, really, really difficult to get to grips with. But God made Paul do his little bit. He wrote them a letter to get them back on track and re-establish their hope and confidence in him. God had to – they were his. He purchased them at huge cost at the cross. He didn’t up on them. He won’t give up on us.

But, someone may say, ‘You don’t know - my sin is just so big’. No, I don’t know, and I don’t need to know. Because, by God’s grace, I know something that out-trumps your sin problem. It’s the Bible’s good news in Christ Jesus the Lord. Your sin may be big – too big for you to handle – but God’s grace, and forgiveness, and ongoing love, are just so much bigger!


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