Acts 18: The gosepl andf the soverign God-23rd March 9.45am-John Cooper

SERMON PREACHED AT CHRISTCHURCH ON 23/3/14 AM
"THE GOSPEL WITH THE SOVERIGN GOD" 

Reading: Acts ch.18 

             Jesus told the Apostles to take the Gospel message throughout the world and Paul took Him at His word! Initially he was concerned with telling his fellow Jews about Jesus but ultimately the message would spread further. Paul was to take the message to the Gentiles and in a way that was by accident. 

 Corinth and Philippi had two rather strange things in common. At both places the Romans had fought major battles. After they won they settled their veteran soldiers there. This enabled them to keep the ‘lid’ on any further troubles. The end result is that these two cities were primarily made up of Romans rather than Greeks. But because Corinth had both ex Roman soldiers and the defeated Greek citizens it was a fragile peace.

 In Corinth Paul met a couple who were going to become life-long friends, Priscilla and Aquila. They had much in common with Paul: they were visitors to Corinth; Jews by background; tentmakers by trade and probably already Christians. Obviously some people come to faith by merely reading the scriptures for themselves but a more usual scenario is that a friend leads them into the faith. Just as God led Ruth to Boaz (which we heard about in a recent sermon series) so He works on our friends and relatives.

The person who brought me to faith is known to some of you, Geoff Locke. Endlessly, he explained to me the fundamentals of Christianity. It was 3am on a Monday morning that he told me how much of a sinner he was and then I realsied that God could even accept me. So I became a Christian. And then he took me along to a Billy Grahan Crusade. Month by month, after I had become a Christian, we would discuss difficult issues: the evidence for the Resurrection, the problem of pain, Communism, Darwinism and Freud’s psychoanalysis. He also introduced me to Christian books and in particular a life-long interest in C.S.Lewis and Francis Schaeffer.

The pity is we Christians are reticent about sharing our faith. But there is something else I have noticed: that the Christian friend we have so leaned on is often taken away so our faith becomes much more personal as we stand on our own two feet. Geoff now lives in Staffordshire and I have not seen him for a number of years. 

Back to the passage! In verses 5&6 we see that some of the Jews in the synagogue objected to Paul explaining that Jesus was the Messiah. When he has to leave the synagogue he says “Your blood be on your own heads” (v6). We might think this a bit harsh but if people will not listen then the responsibility for their fate is theirs. 

            Paul’s stay in Corinth was to be a very difficult time for him so God spoke to him in a vision to give him encouragement. He was brought before the Proconsul’s Court, the bema, Legally there were two problems. Firstly was Christianity a separate religion to Judaism? The latter was allowed under Roman Law but if  Christianity  was a separate faith then it had no such protection and was under some scutiny. Secondly the whole legal system was corrupt. Judges could be bribed and groundless accusations could be made purely out of spite or to gain some favourable material benefit. Of course this is still a big problem in many parts of the world, such as Zimbabwe and the work of Sam Moody in Kenya.

            So some Jews brought a legal action against Paul. They were claiming that Paul’s message was contrary to their own faith. This would remove Christianity’s legal protection if they could show that it was not part of Judaism. The proconsul who was in charge of the proceedings saw that the issue was not one of civil obedience but one of, in his mind, insignificant religious detail. The Romans found the Jewish faith very difficult to comprehend. The Jews were fussy about what they ate and were intolerant of the faith of others. And for some bizarre reason had to travel all the way to Jerusalem from no matter where they were to practice their religion. The Romans could not understand it as they themselves had many temples in all their towns. In all honesty the proconsul could not be bothered with this issue and dismissed the case. The synagogue ruler was then beaten up. Obviously he wanted this doing to Paul but the tables had turned on himself. The blood was literally on his own head (cf v6)! I suspect he was pleased that the person who had brought this insignificant case was being punished. The proconsul was not interested in the beating. He had to keep the fragile peace between the Romans and the Greeks. He had much more important issues to deal with! He had to keep the rather fragile peace in the city. He was probably in Rome when the Jews were expelled from that city and presumably for causing some form of civil disobedience. However the is a warning to us. With progress in spreading the faith comes opposition. This happened time and time again to Paul and I suspect we have all been ridiculed for our faith. If we have not perhaps we should be talking more about it. 

            Paul and his new friends then went to Cenchreae, the harbour of Corinth where they boarded a ship going to Ephesus, which was one of the major cities of the Roman Empire. We do not consider how gruelling sea travel was in those days. Cicero did the same journey and it took him 17 days.

As was his custom Paul went and reasoned with the Jews in the synagogue in Ephesus but he was not long there and so did not arouse much interest. He did promise to come back if it was God’s will (v22). And he did return as we will discover in the next chapter. And so Paul returned to Antioch in Syria from where he started his missionary journeys. 

            When Paul went off to Syria Priscilla and Aquila stayed behind in Ephesus. There a fervent believer called Apollos was telling people about Jesus. Now I suspect he was a new convert. Nobody can be more fervent than the person who has recently come to faith. But here we see again that we all need to grow in our knowledge and understanding of our faith. I personally get very upset when I hear people say that you can be a Christian without going to church. How will they learn and grow and how will they serve Christ? God put us in churches for a purpose.

When I was in my twenties and thirties I was a leader on a number of Christian holidays for young people. Initially we would lead up to the big evangelistic address on the last night and we did indeed get converts. However it occured to us that we were leaving them adrift and probably unable to make much sense of  what had happened. So we started having the ‘decision’ time in the middle of the week with helpful talks for the rest of the time. Some Christians see the decision to become a Christian as all-important, which it is, but the new convert has to grow to be an active worker for God.

            Personally I dislike the term ‘mature Christian’ because we can all grow more. Nobody is sufficient in their thinking, emotions or actions to be fully mature. Once we start using that term about ourselves we have ‘lost the plot’!

             In Alexandria, which is where Apollos came from, the Old Testament had been translated into Greek. He obvioisly had been studying it for himself. This shows the value of having the Bible in your own tongue. We at Christ Church support a missionary couple. Gareth and Katherine, who are working in Nigeria translating the Bible into local langugues. At the moment they are in London doing further study and are often here with us in the congregation.

            Priscilla and Aquila take him in hand and invited him home. There, just as Geoff taught me, they strengthened his faith. But he wanted to move on to Achaia. He was obviously ‘mission-minded’! (As an aside, in chapter 20 we see how Paul had encouraged some to be missionaries from the places he visited.) But notice the practical help he had from the Christians in Ephesus. Not only did they encourage him, and I suspect that included praying for him, but they sent letters to their fellow Christians at his destination.

            Missionary work does not seem to capture the interest of modern Christians. This is a great pity. We have been hearing of the debt we owe to Paul for bringing the message to Europe. In many countries Christians are being persecuted today, much like Paul was in Corinth. We need to pray for them. Our church supports the Barnabas Project which tries to help persecuted Christians. Talk to Graham Turl about it or pick up information in the entry lobby. 

            In this chapter we have seen the importance of Christian friendship. Alas as we grow older we tend to have less non-Christian friends which is a great pity as it is usually friendship that brings people to Christ. And, no matter what stage we are at, we can all grow in our faith. We will not be fully mature Christians until we get to heaven! We have also seen the terrible lengths people will go to to oppose the faith – let it be on their own heads!