Are you a pastor, a small group leader, a Bible study teacher, seeking to help people grow as followers of Jesus? Or maybe you are a parent, or a grandparent, and you would love to help your kids or grandkids better follow Jesus. I’ve preached countless sermons and had numerous conversations with people, many times thinking, “This is going to be the sermon or conversation that makes a huge impact in their lives.” I can get very excited thinking that from this day forward, things will be different, and the people I’m interacting with grow like crazy in their relationship with Jesus. Except that almost never happens.
A number of years ago, I preached a sermon about the importance of prayer, and the following week, our attendance at Wednesday evening prayer meeting more than doubled. I was so happy. Was this the beginning of a new movement of prayer in our church?
A month later, the answer was a clear, “Nope.” Attendance had dwindled back to its regular level. I understand that people can pray in many ways, and thus we don’t need to have a Wednesday prayer meeting. But I had hoped that my sermon was the start of something, and now I was disappointed with the reality that it didn’t last. Maybe you’ve been in that position as well, as you seek to reach out to people. It can be frustrating, as we wonder how to help people, sometimes feeling like we are failures. What we’ll see in Paul’s life as we continue studying Acts 18, I believe, is a realistic vision for what it takes to help people grow as followers of Jesus.
After receiving a vision from Jesus to not fear, but to stay in Corinth and continue teaching, look what happens in Acts 18:11. Paul remains there for a year and a half. It seems Jesus wanted Paul to settle down for a while and help this church get established.
For years and years Jesus had led Paul to journey from city to city, mostly staying in one place only a short time. Why does Jesus now guide Paul to take a different approach, to stay longer? Is it possible that Corinth has a unique situation as compared to the cities Paul had visited? Is there something going on in Corinth that would necessitate Paul to stay there longer?
As I wrote in the first post in this series on Acts 18, Corinth could be described as a very dysfunctional town. Temple prostitution is one piece of evidence, and we see more evidence in Paul’s letters to the Corinthian Christians. The church would go on to have numerous struggles. It seems that Corinthian culture had a history of instability, affecting behavior and relationships.
Consider how different the way of Jesus would have been for them. Jesus calls us to practice self-control, selflessness, love for one another, including commitment in marriages, and in families. Jesus calls his disciples to a very different way of life from what the Corinthians were accustomed to. Skim through the letter of 1st Corinthians, for example, and you’ll see they struggled with issue after issue after issue. What’s even more striking to consider is that the struggles described in letter of 1st Corinthians come after Paul had already spent the 18 months with them!
It is a reminder to us that while the Spirit of God can change people cold turkey, instantaneously, and permanently, so that they rarely again struggle with sin, that is most often the exception that proves the rule. The rule is that our Christian journey is a lifelong process, filled with ups and downs, as we learn to live like Jesus lived. But we press on, and like Paul with the Corinthians, we give ourselves to the long haul with people. That is what discipleship is about. Building a solid relationship can take time and investment. It takes patience. And more patience.
In time Paul’s struggles flared up again. Look at verses 12-17. The Jews who disagree with Paul previously just can’t let things go, so they try to get Paul in trouble again. But the message Jesus had for Paul in the vision, as we read in verses 9-10, came true. No one harmed Paul. Yes, he was threatened, but he was not harmed. As a result, Paul has confidence to stay in Corinth further, as we read in verse 18.
Eventually the time comes for Paul to journey on. Read verses 18b-22, and you’ll find it is an itinerary of sorts, where Luke catches us up on the end of Paul’s mission trip. Paul, along with his fellow tent-makers, Priscilla and Aquila, leaves Corinth, headed for nearby Cenchrea. There Paul shaves his head as part of a vow, the reason for which we know nothing. With his now bald head, Paul, Priscilla and Aquila board a ship and sail to Ephesus.
We read that Paul leaves his friends in Ephesus. Before continuing his journey, he visits the synagogue in Ephesus, which is usually a recipe for trouble. This time things go okay for Paul, as the Jews want to hear more. Paul is on the move, though, so he declines their request, promising to return, if it is God’s will. And it will be God’s will, as we’ll see in chapter 19! Furthermore, Priscilla and Aquila remain in Ephesus to keep teaching, so it is not as if Paul is avoiding ministry in Ephesus.
He sails to Caesarea, which is a port city in Israel. Verse 22 reads that Paul “went up and greeted the church,” which most likely means that he traveled from Caesarea to Jerusalem to give a report of his missionary journey to the leaders of the church. Then he returns to his home church in Antioch. His multi-year mission trip that started all the way back in Acts 15:39 has now come to an end.
But look at verse 23. Paul starts yet another mission trip! We’ll hear more about in the coming weeks. For now, did you notice how that next mission trip is described: Paul visits places where he had previously started churches, strengthening the disciples.
With that word “strengthening,” we have a theme emerging! Do not fear, but press on to strengthen the disciples. This theme is one way to describe the mission of Jesus. Our lives are not to be ruled by fear, but marked by courageous, persistent strengthening of the disciples. This theme continues through the end of the chapter, as we’ll see in the next post.