Paul in the book of Acts through chapter 17 reminds me of Ironman. Paul was the Tony Stark of the Pharisees and in his conversion he becomes a missionary Ironman. He goes into city after city in the Eastern Roman Empire starting churches, raising up leaders, making converts, showing people how the Old Testament spoke of Jesus.
At the same time Paul has been suffering greatly in his missionary journeys. His life is regularly threatened, he is beaten, charged with crimes, imprisoned, and kicked out of town multiple times. As we saw in Philippi Paul, like his master Jesus, joyfully bears his cross, it yields good fruit and Paul is vindicated. Paul had to flee Thessalonica and Berea to Athens and then he gets hauled before the Areopagus. Now he moves on to Corinth and seems seriously depleted.
Paul notes in his letter to the Corinthians his state when he came to them.
1 Corinthians 2:1–3 (NRSV)
1 When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom. 2 For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified. 3 And I came to you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling.
After being in other places days or weeks, Paul would stay a year and a half in Corinth.
God’s Provision for Paul
Right out of the gate we learn about Aquila and Priscilla who have fled Rome possible because of the same kind of turmoil Paul has been enduring in conflict with synagogue leaders. Paul finds in these two, possibly also recent arrivals to Corinth, kindred spirits. Together they ply their trade making tents.
Soon with gifts from the churches in Macedonia brought by Silas and Timothy Paul is about to continue to do his missionary work full time.
Same work, same result, conflict. Paul is now kicked out of the synagogue but is able to meet next door to the synagogue together with some who have believed because of his work, including a synagogue ruler. God is blessing Paul’s work, but it is taking its toll.
Paul now receives a dream of encouragement from God.
Acts 18:9–10 (NRSV)
9 One night the Lord said to Paul in a vision, “Do not be afraid, but speak and do not be silent; 10 for I am with you, and no one will lay a hand on you to harm you, for there are many in this city who are my people.”
The purpose of the dream is obvious, but we might pause a moment and look upon with with a bit of a critical eye. If Paul were the complaining type I might well imagine he might say to the Lord “Is this going to be the kind of protection you gave me when they stoned me and left me for dead, or when they beat me and put me on the floor of that Philippian prison?”
If the Lord were to answer him, the answer would be “yes”.
If I were Paul I’m not sure I’d be happy with this answer. I would have preferred an answer like “your tents will sell well, the churches in Macedonia are covering all of your expenses, the synagogue rulers will stop trying to get the civil authorities to put you to death (like they did to me), the church won’t fight, rich and poor will be like they were in Jerusalem in the early days, the Corinthians will stop “corinthianizing“, and you’ll settle down and be a wonderful successful pastor, live a long life and retire with a nice pension.”
What happens is of course, that a new proconsul come into town and the synagogue leadership will try to get Paul in trouble. That proconsul will be anti-semitic and refuse to get involved in the dispute and do nothing when Sosthenes is beaten in front of him.
A Time of Testing
Paul will deal with the question of testing in his letter to this same church.
1 Corinthians 10:12–13 (NRSV)
12 So if you think you are standing, watch out that you do not fall. 13 No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.
I often hear this passage paraphrased as a proof text for common religion, the assumption that loyalty, faithfulness and obedience somehow afford good Christians a pass on suffering. This “common religion” was condemned by the LORD in the book of Job, and disproved by Jesus’ own life, yet it keeps seeping back into the church.
Paul says this in the context of addressing the struggles of the Corinthian Christians with participation in pagan temple feasting and revelry. Paul locates their struggles with this quite aptly with recently freed Israel’s struggle to be faithful to their deliverer in the desert.
Paul’s admonition here is not an embrace of common religion. The image is that of endurance. Look at how Paul describes this to Timothy later.
2 Timothy 3:10–12 (NRSV)
10 Now you have observed my teaching, my conduct, my aim in life, my faith, my patience, my love, my steadfastness, 11 my persecutions, and my suffering the things that happened to me in Antioch, Iconium, and Lystra. What persecutions I endured! Yet the Lord rescued me from all of them. 12 Indeed, all who want to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.
A frequent image of the Christian life in the New Testament is that of the process of child birth. Notice here that the final encouragement is “for I have many people in this city”. For years I understood this in a very political way, that allies would rally around Paul to rescue him from calamity and give to Paul what he was looking for. I now think of it in the opposite way. God had many people in that corinthianizing city that Paul need to minister to, to suffer for, to witness to the sufferings of Christ before their eyes. There was a harvest, a new birth that needed to come and Paul’s pain would be their gain. Their wellbeing at his expense.
The Last Temptation of Paul
Paul would be tempted to quit, to be silent, to just stop, but God would not allow that. He would encourage him to keep going, even until death, which would eventually be where Paul would go, like his master Jesus.