Recently a friend sent me a video of an American pastor who said he received a vision from Jesus detailing awful and terrible things that will happen to the USA in the fall of 2020. I’m writing this in July 2020, and the last few months have already been deeply troubling, considering divisive politics in an election year, the coronavirus pandemic, and police brutality against blacks. Perhaps it will get worse. I recently read a biography of Frederick Douglass, and the chapters on our Civil War reminded me that our country has gone through horrible periods in our past, and it could happen again.
I have to admit, though, that the video struck me as potentially motivated by fear. I don’t know that, of course. It could be that the Lord really did give this man a vision of the true future. I highly doubt it, but I recognize at least the possibility. What concerns me, however, is how fear can cripple us. It seems much more likely that this man, like the rest of us experiencing the tumult of 2020, is affected by strong emotions. If you are like me, one way those emotions and fears come out is at night in my dreams. Rarely are my dreams comforting. Frankly, they are usually bizarre, like the one a few nights ago in which I was wearing buckets for shoes, and in the middle of the dream I remember looking down at my bucketed feet thinking, “Why am I doing this? It is really strange.” As we continue our study of Acts 18, Paul also has a striking vision from Jesus one night, and fear plays a big part in it.
In the previous post we learned the exciting news that a new church has been started in the city of Corinth. Even the Jewish synagogue ruler and his family believed! Does the presence of a new church mean that Paul’s mission in the city of Corinth is complete? It could seem that way given Paul’s pattern of ministry, usually staying in a city for a short time, enough to start a church, and then traveling to another city. But in Acts 18:9-10, Jesus gives Paul a vision with some specific instructions. Before continuing with this post, please read Acts 18:9-10 to learn what Jesus has to say to Paul.
Since Acts 9 we’ve learned of numerous visions God gave to Paul. This one is unique because while many of the previous visions directed Paul to go here or there, in this one the Lord says, “Do not fear, stay put, keep speaking.”
Why would God mention fear? When I read about the choices Paul makes, and when I consider the teaching in his letters, it seems like he is one of most fearless Christians who ever lived. But do you know what Paul says when later on he writes to the Corinthians, reflecting on his first visit to them (the same visit we’re reading about in Acts 18)? Here’s what he wrote:
“I came to you in weakness and fear, and with much trembling.” (1 Corinthians 2:3)
As the years gave gone by, Paul has been beaten down, physically, emotionally, and relationally, enough times that it seems he is dealing with some fear in Corinth. So let’s read again, the words Jesus has for Paul in the 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.”
What an encouraging message! We can hear these as God’s words to us too! When we think of telling the story of Jesus, it can be very easy for us to get nervous, not wanting to offend, not wanting to bring negativity on ourselves, not wanting to alienate, all of which are important concerns. Is Paul dealing with some of that? For Paul the fear might have been more acute as he literally had to deal with the memories and threats of personal bodily harm done to him because he was preaching Christ. We need to see Jesus’ words to Paul as personal. Will Paul trust Jesus?
Maybe Paul could make the argument, “Well, Jesus, thank you for that encouraging vision, but there are plenty of other towns that need to hear about you, so I think I best be moving on from Corinth.” Or maybe that’s just what I might be thinking! Consider that Paul’s calling to mission was a legitimate calling. Therefore, Paul could have also made the argument, “Jesus, you yourself told us to make disciples everywhere. In fact, you told me to do that personally. So you’re sounding a bit inconsistent. First you tell me go, now you tell me stay.” I imagine all kinds of thoughts running through Paul’s mind!
Similar thoughts go through our minds. Fear can keep us down, keep us silent, keep us holed up in our houses. It’s tricky, though, because it is wise to practice caution. Fear, in that sense, can lead us toward wisdom. Imagine you’re having coffee with a friend, and maybe the topic of religion comes up, and as you’re talking, you start picking up from their body language the tell-tale signs of discomfort and anxiety. At that point, what happens inside you? Fear creeps up in you, saying to you, “Alert! Alert! Something’s not right here.” At that moment, fear could be a helpful guide, because we don’t want to unnecessarily offend people.
But if that fear alert system sounds off enough times, we can allow ourselves to get into a habit of fearful thinking, a pattern of seeing far too much from a fearful perspective, and that can be crippling. Fear can lock us down into non-action, into silence. Before long, then, we move away from pursuing the mission of God, and instead we can selfishly over-protect ourselves. We can become the helicopter parents of ourselves, insulating ourselves from any awkwardness or fear-inducing situation, so that fear actually keeps us from participating in the mission of God.
It seems Paul needs to hear this from Jesus, “Fear not, stay, speak up, keep teaching, there is more work to be done here.” Do you need to hear that too?
The last phrase of the vision is a curious one. “I have many people in this city.” When I hear that, it sounds to me like God might have secret agents in the city who will watch over Paul. Or maybe he was talking about guardian angels? It is highly likely that Jesus had something else in mind. It seems best that we should read Jesus as saying, “Paul, I want many more people in the city to become Christians through your ministry, so do not fear, stay put, keep preaching, and I will protect you, and those people will become disciples of Jesus.”
In the next post we’ll find out how Paul responds to the vision from Jesus. There is much we can learn from what Paul does next.