I Have Many People in This City
Topic: Missions & Evangelism Passage: Acts 18:1–18:17
Two major letters in your New Testament, Paul wrote to the church in Corinth. Let’s just say they didn’t have it all together. If you ever feel like complaining about your church, just read Corinthians and you’ll soon give thanks for your church. Wonderfully saved, but much immaturity and worldliness lingered. Still, Paul’s letters to this church serve us well as he applies the wisdom of the cross. Today we learn how the Lord birthed that church in Corinth through the gospel. Let’s start in verse 1…
1 After this Paul left Athens and went to Corinth. 2 And he found a Jew named Aquila, a native of Pontus, recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla, because Claudius had commanded all the Jews to leave Rome. And he went to see them, 3 and because he was of the same trade he stayed with them and worked, for they were tentmakers by trade. 4 And he reasoned in the synagogue every Sabbath, and tried to persuade Jews and Greeks. 5 When Silas and Timothy arrived from Macedonia, Paul was occupied with the word, testifying to the Jews that the Christ was Jesus. 6 And when they opposed and reviled him, he shook out his garments and said to them, “Your blood be on your own heads! I’m innocent. From now on I’ll go to the Gentiles.” 7 And he left there and went to the house of a man named Titius Justus, a worshiper of God. His house was next door to the synagogue. 8 Crispus, the ruler of the synagogue, believed in the Lord, together with his entire household. And many of the Corinthians hearing Paul believed and were baptized. 9 And the Lord said to Paul one night in a vision, “Don’t be afraid, but go on speaking and do not be silent, 10 for I am with you, and no one will attack you to harm you, for I have many in this city who are my people.” 11 And he stayed a year and six months, teaching the word of God among them. 12 But when Gallio was proconsul of Achaia, the Jews made a united attack on Paul and brought him before the tribunal, 13 saying, “This man is persuading people to worship God contrary to the law.” 14 But when Paul was about to open his mouth, Gallio said to the Jews, “If it were a matter of wrongdoing or vicious crime, O Jews, I’d have reason to accept your complaint. 15 But since it’s a matter of questions about words and names and your own law, see to it yourselves. I refuse to be a judge of these things.” 16 And he drove them from the tribunal. 17 And they all seized Sosthenes, the ruler of the synagogue, and beat him in front of the tribunal. But Gallio paid no attention to any of this.
Like Athens, Corinth was another major Roman city. But Corinth wasn’t known as a place of learning. It was known as a place of trade. It hosted two harbors for seafarers and merchants—one to the west, another to the east. As one author put it, “Paul must have seen its strategic importance. If trade could radiate from Corinth in all directions, so could the gospel.”[i] Paul plants the gospel in Corinth, and God causes great growth (1 Cor 3:6). That’s what happens in our passage.
But as we approach the passage, four movements or scenes stand out in my reading; and from them I want to develop four lessons for gospel ministry. If you’re a Christian, by the way, you’re in gospel ministry. Ministry belongs not just to leaders in the church; it belongs to everybody in the church. All disciples are in ministry; it’s just that our gifts and roles differ. Here are four lessons for your gospel ministry from Acts 18.
1. Faithful partners are the Lord’s gifts & hard work is instrumental in gospel ministry.
Lesson one: faithful partners are the Lord’s gifts and hard work is instrumental in gospel ministry. Paul leaves Athens; he enters Corinth. Verse 2 says he finds “a Jew named Aquila, a native of Pontus, recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla, because Claudius had commanded all the Jews to leave Rome.”
By saying Aquila was a native of Pontus, we’d do well to remember Luke’s ongoing theme of the gospel spreading to all nations. The last time he mentioned Pontus was in 2:9—the Spirit comes and people from all over hear the mighty works of God spoken in their own language. It’s not clear whether Aquila and Priscilla were already Christians or not. Many think it’s likely they were.[ii]
Whatever their status, though, notice how this follows an important truth we learned in 17:26. “[God] determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God.” God is sovereign over the movement of peoples. Claudius forces all the Jews to leave Rome—that’s not outside God’s control. Claudius may have evil motives, but God’s purpose remains right on track. The Lord has plans for this couple to meet Paul. Whether they were converted or simply matured under Paul’s ministry, Aquila and Priscilla become key partners in gospel ministry.
They’re people with a trade. Tent-makers, verse 3 says. They’re wealthy. They host Paul in Corinth (Acts 18:3). When they’re back in Rome, the church meets in their house (Rom 16:5). When they move to Ephesus, again the church meets in their house (1 Cor 16:8, 19). They show hospitality and use their wealth to bless others.
But even more listen to what Paul says in Romans 16:3-4: “Greet Prisc[ill]a and Aquila, my fellow workers in Christ Jesus, who risked their necks for my life, to whom not only I give thanks but all the churches of the Gentiles give thanks as well.” A few times in his ministry Paul finds himself very alone. But what treasures such partners are when they come. Beloved, you and I need partners like that; we need to be partners like that. Gospel ministry isn’t something we do alone. Give thanks for one another. God’s sovereign hand has gathered us together for gospel ministry.
But something else to develop here is this. You’ll notice in verse 3 that Paul stayed with them because he was of the same trade. Paul had a trade, a skill by which to make money. Yes, at times he received money from other churches; and that money freed him to teach the word full-time.[iii]
But wherever it served the gospel’s advance, Paul didn’t shy away from working hard with his hands. Even more, Paul viewed working hard with his hands as instrumental in his gospel ministry. In 1 Corinthians 9, his reason is to image Christ. Christ set aside his rights to be seen as glorious, in order to serve us. Paul sets aside his rights to receive payment, in order to serve others the gospel free of charge.
Or, listen to what he says in Acts 20:34-35, “You yourselves know that these hands ministered to my necessities and to those who were with me. In all things I have shown you that by working hard in this way we must help the weak and remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he himself said, ‘It’s more blessed to give than to receive.’” Why work hard? To meet his necessities and to give to those in need.
Or 2 Thessalonians 3:7-8, “For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us, because we were not idle when we were with you, nor did we eat anyone’s bread without paying for it, but with toil and labor we worked night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you.” How did hard work serve Paul’s gospel ministry? It exemplified Christ by forgoing his rights to serve others. It gave opportunity to teach converts how to follow Jesus: it’s more blessed to give than to receive. And it offered his churches an example to imitate so they didn’t become idle.
That’s why he works with Aquila and Priscilla. Beloved working hard with your hands isn’t a lesser thing. It’s instrumental in gospel ministry. One of the greatest blessings was watching my younger brother, Brandon, and four other families move and plant a church in Philadelphia. All of them went with this mindset of “We’re going to find jobs and serve the church. It’s not a lesser thing to work hard. Outside support is a blessing, but we’re not dependent on it. We’re going to work hard with our hands and then use what we have to serve others."
2. Responsible evangelism exposes the consequences of unbelief while extending the gospel to others.
Lesson two: responsible evangelism exposes the consequences of unbelief while extending the gospel to others. Verse 4, Paul “reasoned in the synagogue every Sabbath.” He “tried to persuade Jews and Greeks.” Verse 5 shows him occupied with the ministry of the word, “testifying to the Jews that the Christ was Jesus.”
When I say he exposes the consequences of unbelief, don’t hear me saying, “All we need to do is speak the gospel one time and be done with people.” No! Paul is spending weeks with these people, trying patiently to persuade them that the Christ was Jesus. Many of the Jews, though, reject that message. They continue in unbelief (cf. Acts 19:9-10). Verse 6 says, “They opposed and reviled him.” They found it folly to identify their Messiah with the Jesus they crucified.
So Paul exposes the consequences of their unbelief. Notice the prophetic act in verse 6: “he shook out his garments.” Jesus taught the disciples something similar.[iv] The most detail comes when Jesus sends out the seventy-two in Luke 10:11-12. They were to shake the dust from their feet as a sign of judgment. It would be more bearable on Judgment Day for Sodom than for the Jews who reject their Messiah.
Then there’s also the prophetic word in verse 6: “Your blood be on your own heads! I’m innocent.” Ezekiel used this language. He was God’s watchman, right? A watchman would scan the horizon and warn people of any danger. Likewise, Ezekiel was responsible to warn Israel of God’s coming judgment. If he kept quiet, he was responsible for their blood. If he was faithful to warn them, they were responsible.
In a very sharp way, Paul draws from that Old Testament imagery: “I’m innocent of your blood. I’ve delivered the Lord’s message faithfully. Death be on your own heads.” So the consequences of unbelief are condemnation and death.
That’s still true. If you reject Christ, if you stiff-arm his words and think Scripture is a bunch of baloney, we’ll do everything we can to persuade you otherwise. We’d love the opportunity to hear your objections and work through the Bible with you, and show you the beauty of God’s love; show you God’s holiness, and why we’re so guilty, and how God sent his Son to remove our punishment and make us right with him. But if you still resist, only condemnation and death await you.
The other piece to his response is this: they extend salvation to others, to Gentiles in particular. Look at the end of verse 6: “From now on I will go to the Gentiles.” Paul doesn’t mean that he’s just frustrated and finished with these stubborn Jews; that from now on he’s reaching Gentiles only and forever.[v] No, a Jew gets saved in verse 8. Later, in verse 19, he’s back in the synagogue in Ephesus.
What’s going on then? Romans 1:16 is helpful: the gospel is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also the Greek. Paul recognizes that the Jews hold a privileged place in God’s redemption story.[vi] But that same redemption story includes God extending his salvation beyond Israel to the nations by the ministry of a particular Servant, Jesus Christ. And—get this—that extension would happen in the face of Israel largely rejecting the Servant.
You can see this in Isaiah 49. The Servant’s mission wasn’t going to be smooth; it’s actually frustrating. The Servant cries, “I’ve labored in vain; I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity.” But then God responds, “It’s too small a thing to bring back the preserved of Israel; I’ll make you a light to the nations.” In other words, “Your work isn’t vain; I’m bringing the nations through you!”
Then all this is fulfilled in Jesus. He comes to his own people; the majority reject him. But once he dies and rises again, he says, “Go…and make disciples of all nations.” Not only did Jesus die for the nations, he rose to empower his people to win the nations—and all in the face of Jewish opposition. Paul then patterns his ministry after Christ, the Servant. He first offers the Jews their King. But in the face of Jewish rejection, Paul extends God’s salvation to the Gentiles—and rather provocatively, I might add. He sets up shop right next door.
Verse 7, “He left there and went to the house of a man named Titius Justus, a worshiper of God. His house was next door to the synagogue.” You know, Paul writes in Romans 11:13, “I magnify my ministry [to the Gentiles], in order somehow to make my fellow Jews jealous, and thus save some of them.” He does that alright here! “Let’s set up our outreach to Gentiles right next door to the synagogue.”
God blesses it! “Crispus, the ruler of the synagogue, believed in the Lord, together with his entire household.” That’s amazing! A key leader among the Jews gets saved. And then this: “And many of the Corinthians hearing Paul believed and were baptized.” A smattering of Jews and a whole lot of Gentiles. It fulfills Isaiah 49; and that’s how the church in Corinth was born and multiplied—responsible evangelism patterned after Christ, the Servant. Paul held up the warning of judgment and then continued offering salvation in Christ to all who’d listen. And God caused the growth.
Perhaps you know people who’re without Christ. Let me encourage you to write down their names. Carry their names with you. Pray for them to know Jesus. Look for opportunities to share with them. Reason with them. Truly seek to persuade them. Do the hard work of knowing them and where they’re coming from, and then apply the gospel in meaningful ways. Perhaps some of them need to hear the consequences of their unbelief more explicitly than you’ve stated in the past.
As a pioneering church planter, who was also single and sometimes supported full time, Paul certainly has a unique ministry that’s unlike what the majority of ours will look like. But his pattern of fervent evangelism is worthy of imitation. He’s anxious for people to know Christ. He’s burdened for them to hear the gospel. Romans 10 shows him agonizing in prayer over their salvation. Our risen Lord Jesus is one who comes to seek and save the lost. He lives in you to passionately compel the same.
3. The promise of the Lord’s presence and a people are integral to our perseverance in gospel ministry.
Lesson three: the promise of the Lord’s presence and a people are integral to perseverance in gospel ministry. To this point in Acts, Paul hasn’t stayed in any one town for very long. Normally, he’s driven out by persecution.[vii] If anything, he’s expecting the same to come very quickly in Corinth. The Jews hate his message. Now he’s got a ministry right next door, and their own synagogue ruler converts to Christianity. Talk about adding fuel to the fire of their jealousy! Will he need to flee again?
In this case, the answer is No. The Lord gives Paul very specific instructions not to leave yet. It comes through a vision. Remember 2:17? “…I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions…” That happens to Paul.
The Lord gives him a vision; and in that vision comes the command, “Don’t be afraid, go on speaking and don’t be silent.” Who’s in charge of the mission? It’s not Paul. It’s the risen Lord Jesus. He’s alive. He’s involved. He’s calling the shots. He wants Paul to persevere longer in Corinth than what he has in other cities.
The Lord then grounds his command in two basic promises.[viii] The first is the promise of his presence, and with that his protection: “for I am with you and no one will attack you to harm you.” Throughout Scripture, the Lord regularly reassures his people of his presence, especially when they’re facing great difficulty.[ix] Not only is our God near to his people, but he tells us that he’s near. His word confirms his presence. It’s a word that we need to hear over and over again. This man had an encounter with the risen Christ; and he still needs to hear the assurance of God’s presence.
To be clear, the promise here is specific to the situation in Corinth. Later, Christ also promises that Paul will suffer greatly in Jerusalem. Christ would still be with him, just as much as he was in Corinth. But Christ’s presence with us doesn’t mean we we’re automatically protected from persecution all the time. Christians are protected in other ways all the time.[x] We’re just not protected in all ways in every situation. So be careful how you apply this.
What we can say is promised us in all situations is the Lord’s presence. Jesus says, “I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” The idea is that he’s with the disciple “the whole of every day, even to the end of the age.” Nothing can be more encouraging than Christ reassuring his presence with us. Nothing can be more encouraging, because there’s no one greater than Christ. He’s the Almighty God. He has all authority in heaven and on earth. Ultimately, we need not fear anything. As long as he is with us, we have God in all his strength and glory.
That’s why Paul can say elsewhere, “I’m sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation [fill in the blank: terminal illness, financial insecurity, loss of your beloved…nothing!], will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Why? He’s with us. Never will he forsake us.
The second reason for Paul to persevere is the promise of a people. Look at the end of verse 10: “for I have many in this city who are my people.” You sometimes hear people say that doctrines like predestination and election undermine evangelism. But verse 10 shows just the opposite. Election actually fuels evangelism.
God has people in the city. He chose them before the foundation of the world. They’re already his—“my people,” he says. God will save them when they hear the gospel. It’s the same truth we see in Acts 13:48, “…as many as were appointed to eternal life believed.” It’s the same truth behind Jesus’ words in John 10:16, “I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice.” He already has the sheep. His Father gave them to him. He purchases them with his blood. They will listen to his voice and come into Jesus’ fold.
That assurance keeps Paul speaking the gospel. That assurance should keep us speaking the gospel. God has a people for himself. We see their future already secured in Revelation 5:9—the Lamb purchased for God a people from every tribe, tongue, language, and nation; and they will reign on the earth. So, let’s go. Let’s find them. Let’s speak the gospel far and wide, that they might be saved. God is with us; God has a people. What better assurances could we ask for?
4. Even when government rules in our favor, God’s faithfulness to his word remains our only hope, not government.
Lesson four: Even when government rules in our favor, God’s faithfulness to his word remains our only hope, not government. Verse 11 says Paul “stayed a year and six months, teaching the word of God among them.” When you consider how short his time has been in other cities, that’s remarkable. Nearly every city where he ministered before, the Jews ran him off. It was best to keep moving along. But here, a year and a half. That confirms God’s faithfulness to his promise. He told Paul to stay put and that he was going to protect him in Corinth. That’s exactly what happens.
Now a bit of tension rises in the next paragraph. All of a sudden the Jews rise up and bring Paul before the tribunal. In verse 13, they try to get him in trouble with the law: “This man is persuading people to worship God contrary to the law.” What’s meant there is Roman law, not the Mosaic law. That’s clear in Gallio’s response. The Jews are trying to convince Gallio that Paul’s Christianity isn’t a legitimate religion. It’s not recognized by Rome. He’s doing wrong; it’s a vicious crime against Rome.
So the tension becomes, “Oh no! What about God’s promise? I thought God was going to protect Paul in Corinth?” Well, God does protect him. Keep reading in verse 14: “But when Paul was about to open his mouth, Gallio said to the Jews, ‘If it were a matter of wrongdoing or vicious crime, O Jews, I’d have reason to accept your complaint. But since it’s a matter of questions about words and names and your own law…’”
See, Gallio is separating Roman law from “your own law;” and by doing so he views this as a matter they need to work out on their own. He says, “…‘see to it yourselves. I refuse to be a judge of these things.’ And he drove them from the tribunal. And they all seized Sosthenes, the ruler of the synagogue, and beat him in front of the tribunal. But Gallio paid no attention to any of this.”
So, a couple things here. One, Gallio rules in favor of Paul. Gallio implies that Christianity should be a legitimate religion in the government’s eyes. People in high places like Theophilus could read this account and see that Gallio didn’t see any trouble with Christianity. But does that mean Christians should put their hope in government, even when that government rules in their favor? Not at all.
Gallio didn’t brush this off so innocently. He turns a blind eye to the beating of Sosthenes. Yes, government ruled in Paul’s favor but with mixed motives. Right to afford Paul the freedom. Wrong to overlook injustice to Sosthenes. Therefore, we can’t count on government. Governments are run by fallen people. They can’t always be trusted. Who’s to say the next guy in line wouldn’t turn a blind eye to the beating of Christians.
What then ought we to trust? We can trust that God will always be faithful to his word. He spared Paul. Ironic isn’t it? The Jews come to get Paul in trouble; and all they did was get themselves in trouble. That wasn’t the case before. In Acts 12:2-3 the Jews have favor with King Herod, and he kills James and puts Peter in prison. Not here though. Gallio brushes them off; and the ruler of their own synagogue ends up getting a beating. Why not Paul? God made a promise.
He revealed that promise to Paul in the vision. He assured Paul that he would protect him from harm in Corinth; and that’s exactly what he does. Again, that doesn’t mean the Lord promised protection from harm all the time, in every city. He didn’t. But he promised it for Paul in Corinth and remained true to his word.
It fits the much greater story of God’s faithfulness to his word throughout Acts, and throughout history. Again and again Luke points us to God’s faithfulness to his word. All his ancient promises had reached their fulfillment in Christ. His life, his death, his resurrection, his reign, his mission—all of it confirmed God’s faithfulness to his word. He’s not a liar. Everything he reveals about himself and his plans is trustworthy, even down to the vision he gives Paul in Corinth.
I know that most of us have conservative political leanings. And I’ve noticed a number of folks very excited about the possibility of appointing another conservative Supreme Court Justice. For a number of reasons, we can even give thanks if that were to happen. But don’t put your hope there. Nothing is certain when it comes to fallen and sinful people who run broken institutions.
The only thing that’s certain is the word of the Lord; his promises are guaranteed by omnipotent power and an unwavering allegiance to his glory. Only with our Father is there no variation or shadow due to change (Jas 1:17). God is the only unchanging and unchangeable constant in the universe. Only the risen Lord Jesus possesses the supreme right, the perfect wisdom, and the infinite power to ensure that every word he speaks is fulfilled. Nobody and nothing can keep the Lord’s promises from their completion. That’s good news, beloved.
Peter also took comfort in this in his gospel ministry: “‘All flesh is like grass and all its glory like the flower of grass. The grass withers, and the flower falls, but the word of the Lord remains forever.’ And this word is the good news that was preached to you.” Beloved, set your hope in God’s faithfulness to his word.
[i]John Stott, Message of Acts, BST (Downers Grove: IVP, 1990), 294.
[ii]Factors suggesting they could’ve been Christians at the time of meeting Paul include: (1) the gospel had spread to others from Pontus (Acts 2:9); (2) the gospel had reached Rome by that point, and within a matter of 4-5 years Aquila and Priscilla had returned to Rome and hosted the church there (Rom 16:5); (3) the obvious maturity indicated later in the present account (Acts 18:19, 24-26).
[iii]In fact, notice in verse 4 how he reasons in the synagogue every Sabbath—so, once a week while making tents. But when Silas and Timothy show up in verse 5, there’s a shift. The NASB is clearer: “he began devoting himself completely to the word.” What freed Paul to give himself completely to the word? 2 Corinthians 11:9 answers that question: Silas and Timothy came with a gift from the churches in Macedonia.
[iv]Matt 10:14; Luke 9:5.
[v]We also know from Romans 9-10 that Paul had great sorrow—he prayed fervently for Jews to believe in Jesus.
[vi]Romans 9:4-5 says, “to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises. To them belong the patriarchs, and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ, who is God over all.”
[vii]E.g., Acts 9:25, 30; 13:51; 14:5, 10; 16:39; 17:10, 14.
[viii]The Greek shows two main clauses marked with a causal conjunction: “Do not be afraid, but go on speaking and do not be silent, (1) for [dioti] I am with you, and no one will attack you to harm you, (2) for [dioti] I have many in this city who are my people.”
[ix]E.g., Gen 26:24; 28:18; Isa 41:10; 43:5; Jer 1:8, 19; 15:20; 30:11; 42:11; Hag 2:4; Matt 28:20.
[x]E.g., 2 Thessalonians 3:3, for example: “The Lord is faithful; he will strengthen and protect you from the evil one.”