Monday, October 27, 2008

This week's sermon: Unexpected Protection

Acts 18:1-17.
We see Paul here settling into a familiar pattern of reasoning in the synagogue. He was a tentmaker, and when he came to Corinth, he met a fellow tentmaker and his wife. These people are mentioned here casually, but they become instrumental in the spread of the Gospel message. They disciple a man named Apollos and are mentioned by name in Paul's letters to the churches. When he meets them here, we don't know if they have accepted the gospel message, or even if they have heard it. Luke identifies Aquila as a Jew, not a believer, so I am inclined to believe that they were not followers of Jesus at this time.

Aquila and Priscilla were from Rome, but had to leave when Claudius, the Roman Emperor, ordered that all Jews be expelled. This puts the time of their meeting after AD 49—the earliest date given by scholars of the expulsion of Jews from Rome. They had made their way to Corinth, and here we see Paul sharing a common craft with them—tentmaking, and Luke tells us that he stayed and worked with them. So, he finds a niche in business, and settles in with friends in the Jewish community to whom he is bringing the message of the Messiah's coming.

Silas and Timothy had not caught up with Paul in Athens as planned because Paul moved on to Corinth before they got there. When they arrived, Paul was able to devote more time to preaching. Before they came, he had needed to work to provide for his physical needs and now he was free to preach and testify about Jesus. Paul did not receive a great response of faith from the Jewish community, in fact they so opposed him that he stopped reasoning with them. If we think about what Paul had been through up to this point and he continued to try to share the gospel, and here he is shaking out his robes and clearing himself of any responsibility for their lack of conversion; it must have been bad. What would they have had to do? He had already been run out of several towns, he had been stoned, and he still went back into that town. What would these Corinthians have had to do in order for Paul to give up on their salvation? He washed his hands of them and told them he was going to preach the message to the Gentiles!

Paul left the synagogue and didn't make it far, just next door. I wonder if that was just to spite the Jews in the synagogue. He left them and went next door to the house of a Gentile. But even though he was a Gentile, Titius Justus was a worshiper of God, and Paul probably met him at the synagogue. So, not only does Paul leave the Jews and go next door, not only to the house of a Gentile, but to the house of a frequent visitor to the synagogue. If I was a teenager, I'd say “Oh, snap!” Paul preached the gospel message there, and won several converts, including the leader of the synagogue, and his whole family. We had better believe that this was not acceptable to the synagogue crowd.

In spite of this situation where the message and Paul had been rejected and his moving on to the Greeks and the kind of escalating tension in Corinth between Paul and the Jewish community, God tells Paul to stay put. God had Paul in Corinth for a reason. He had him talking to these people for a reason. And he told Paul to trust him to provide protection if necessary to spread the message of the gospel to those who would receive it. “Do not be afraid; keep on speaking, do not be silent.” These are God's commands to Paul in spite of the fact that he is facing fierce opposition. In spite of the fact that they so abused him that he told them he wasn't going to talk to them anymore. God said, “I am with you and no one is going to attack and harm you, because I have many people in this city.”

God showed Paul his hand. He said, I have this one covered, you don't have to be afraid. Now for some of us, this is surprising. Why would God have to tell Paul he would protect him? Wouldn't Paul-Super Missionary know that already? Hadn't God protected him enough for Paul to just intuitively know that God was watching out for him? Maybe, but since God had to come to him in a vision, I am going to go out on a limb and say that he was not altogether confident that God was going to protect him here. He might have decided to move on because of the conflict. He had done that in the past few cities, moved on when the tension was too high. Maybe Paul was discouraged. Maybe he thought he would always be the Missionary on the run. God tells him here that he can relax and simply preach the word and trust God to protect him. Paul did, and he stayed with the Corinthian believers for a year and a half. This is the longest he has stayed anywhere except for Antioch.

When the unsettled people in the Jewish community decide to make a united attack against him, God proves his promise to Paul in an unusual way. The men brought Paul to court and made charges against him. Paul has been in places like this before and has probably been thinking about what he needs to say in his own defense, but before he can say anything, the proconsul makes a surprising statement. Gallio tells the complainants that they are wasting his time. The charges being brought, he tells them are not even a misdemeanor. They are disputes over their own law and religious practice and he refuses to hear them out. With that statement he is done with them and the trial is over. He had them thrown out of his court.

When they hit the street, the men who had come to prosecute Paul turn on their own leader and beat him up in front of the court, but Gallio ignores them. God protected Paul by means of an unconcerned Roman official, who could not be bothered by internal matters of a strange monotheistic religion. You can't get much more unexpected than that.

So what do we take home with us from this passage?

The first application we can take with us is that it is not bad to make friends and work with people who are not believers. That may seem obvious, but there are many people who avoid unbelievers like the plague. Paul lived with some. Aquila and Priscilla were just common tentmakers. Paul was too and he needed a way to supplement his income while he was separated from his travel companions. So, he stayed with them and worked with them. And guess what God did, he worked in the lives of Aquila and Priscilla to make them into a leadership training team like no other. When we encounter people who don't know Christ in the workplace or in our neighborhood, we may be tempted to shy away from them. I understand that we don't want to condone their sinful behavior or pick it up ourselves, but if we don't bear a little discomfort and reach outside of our bubble, we may miss out on the opportunity of leading them to Christ and watching them grow into their God-given potential. Don't be afraid to live and work with people who are outside the body of Christ, it may be the only way that they will become a part of it.

Another application in these verses is trusting the protection and provision of God. There may be times when we need to back off or move on from one witnessing opportunity or another, but when God is moving in your heart to do or say something, trust that he will be the one to protect you. I like to say, that when we are obedient, we can trust God to handle the consequences. Sometimes there are real consequences that are serious, like when Paul was dragged out of town and stoned at Lystra. God was able to handle those consequences. Sometimes God preempts the serious consequence like here where he stopped the trial before it started. Sometimes the consequence for sharing our faith is our very life, like Stephen testifying before the Sanhedrin. But even in that case, Luke tells us Stephen's face shone like an angel and he committed himself to the Lord, forgave those who were stoning him and fell asleep. God was able to handle those consequences as well, and you better believe there was a party going on in heaven to welcome him home.

For most of us, the consequences we face for sharing our faith have not been that serious, we may risk a friendship or a relationship with a coworker. We might face a little embarrassment, or rejection. We have got to trust God with that. He can handle the consequences of our obedience. We are in his hands, we are under his wings, we are subject to his protection. Knowing this gives us the confidence to be bold in sharing our faith, in loving the lost, and in following the Lord wherever he leads.

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