Jesus Builds His Church
Passage: Acts 18:1–17
Acts 18. Like I said two weeks ago, a temptation in this part of Acts is to skim over stories like this one because it feels like the same story once again. Paul goes to a city, preaches the gospel, some believe, some get angry, a church is planted, and Paul moves on. But, if we skim stories like this, we miss out on so much. This is an amazing story about the beginning of the famous and even infamous church in Corinth. A church we know Paul wrote four letters to, but in God’s providence, only two survived.
This passage is a story about what Jesus does to build his church. Sometimes we can forget that this is Jesus’ church. It’s not my church, it’s not our church. We get to be a part of it, praise God, but this is Jesus’ church and he is actively engaged in building it which is so vividly on display in this passage.
I remember years ago I was overseeing a worship event and this young man told me, “You just get me on that stage and I guarantee people will be saved.” In my head I was thinking, “Well, that comment just guaranteed that you won’t be on stage.” Who do you think that young man thought was ultimately building up the church? Whether he would have said it or not, what he was communicating was that he was the one building it up. That’s not what we see here. Now, yes, we have a part to play because God has chosen to really use us, but God has a way he is building up his church and we see four of those ways here in this passage.
- He builds his church through man’s wisdom
I have often heard people say that we don’t need a strategy when it comes to ministry, we just need to teach the word, share the gospel, and leave the rest to the Holy Spirit. I’ve heard this as a missionary, as a campus minister, and as a pastor. Now, I certainly appreciate the simplicity of this view and the trust in God’s sovereignty, but this just isn’t compatible with what we see Paul doing. We can see two parts of Paul’s missional strategy here. First as best I can tell, this is the fourth time we have seen Paul go to a city and employ the exact same strategy. He goes to a city, he goes first to the synagogue to teach, then he gathers those who believe and moves into a different location. Clearly Paul has a strategy that he’s consistently employing.
In this passage, Paul leaves Athens and goes to Corinth. He finds two Jewish people named Aquila and Priscilla. They have just come from Italy because Claudius has just kicked all the Jews out of Rome. Most scholars agree that by this time Priscila and Aquila are almost certainly already Christians because we know they are instrumental in the faith of Apollos and the work in the church in Rome and Luke does not record that they come to faith here in Corinth. Surely, if this was the moment these two incredibly important people came to faith, Luke would have recorded that.
The second part of his strategy is tentmaking. He had a plan as to how he would be supported. This is important because, unlike some false teachers, we offer the gospel freely. We don’t tell people that if they invest seed money as we proclaim the gospel that God will in turn bless them financially. Paul wanted to remove every possible barrier between him and the people he brought the gospel to.
But, some have taken this to an extreme by saying that you shouldn’t raise support in missions because Paul didn’t. All missionaries, campus ministers, and other parachurch ministers should stop raising support and find some kind of tentmaking occupation. I can’t embrace this view because of what happens in verse five. Timothy and Silas arrive and THEN Luke says that Paul was occupied with the word. Almost all the commentaries and scholars agree that this is when Paul made the transition from tent making to full-time gospel ministry because Timothy and Silas arrived with money from the churches for Paul to be supported full-time. My goodness, Paul’s letter to the Romans was in part a support raising letter to take the gospel to Spain.
So, I think we can embrace both tent making and support raising based on the unique ministry needs of different contexts. This is why we give our interns the opportunity to raise support while they intern here. This is why we pay our residents and give them the opportunity to raise more support if their family needs it. This is why we regularly put our missionaries before you to support them on the mission field. This is why the people here with Campus Crusade, Family Life, Pioneers, and others are faithfully supported by those of us in the church.
So, we clearly see Paul employing a strategy and we as a church do the same thing. Every year, we come up with our goals and strategies for the next year and we put them online. Our desire is to be as transparent as possible in this regard. You can go on our site and not only see our goals, you can see who is responsible for each goal, and you can see how much we have accomplished. Currently, we are at about 71% completed for our goals for 2023. We want you to know what we plan to do each year and how we are doing.
Now, having said that, we are under no illusion that God is somehow obligated to our annual strategic plan. He may in his perfect reasoning choose to block every goal. He may choose to bless every goal. He may choose to prosper and bless us in ways we could never have thought to even consider. This is his church and he will grow it the way he wants to, but we are commanded to be good stewards of what we have and we are to engage this city with as much wisdom as we can muster because doing that honors God and that is exactly what Paul did. God is no slave to our wisdom, but in his grace and providence, he does often work through it.
That’s the first way Jesus builds his church. The second is this.
- He builds his church through the preaching of the word
Luke says in verse five that Paul was occupied with the word testifying to the Jews that the Christ was in fact Jesus. People can sometimes think that Christ was Jesus’ last name. You had Joseph Christ, Mary Christ, and they gave birth to Jesus Christ. That’s not the case. Christ is a title. The Messiah. The anointed One. And Paul is trying to show them through the Scriptures that the Christ they were waiting for is in fact Jesus.
This is probably the best concise wording of our call to get the gospel out to the world. We want people to hear and understand that Jesus is in fact the long awaited Messiah who came to bring salvation for our sin, who came to unite us to himself and to each other, who through his perfect life makes us perfect in God’s sight, who then works in our hearts to actually conform us into that perfect image we are legally declared to be, and to bring us home to live eternally with him where we will never again know sin, fear, strife, or death. Jesus is that Christ!
In just a few chapters we see Paul recounting how he did this same thing in Ephesus. Paul says, 20 how I pdid not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable, and qteaching you in public and from house to house, 21 rtestifying both to Jews and to Greeks of srepentance toward God and of tfaith in our Lord Jesus Christ. - Acts 20:20,21 Paul is putting the Scriptures in front of them and teaching both Jews and Greeks, both in public and from house to house, that Jesus is the Christ and they must repent and put their faith in him.
And there is a view in some circles that we only preach the word and if people don’t believe that’s on them. But in verse four, we see that Paul reasoned with them and persuaded them too. I’ve seen ministries both here in the US and overseas that measure the success of their staff by how many times they give a gospel tract presentation. Now, in some contexts the soil is so fertile that that works. I remember being so jealous of my missionary friends in China because it felt like they could throw gospel tracts from the top of a building and whole churches were started. But, often someone needs more than just a gospel tract conversation. They need to be listened to and understood in the context of a relationship and a dialogue to be reasoned with and persuaded. As we engage our context in Orlando, we need to make sure that we are bringing the truths of scripture into dialogues with unbelievers where we listen well and reason and persuade that Jesus is the Christ and he is our only hope.
And just like Paul in Corinth, some will believe and some won’t. While God uses us preaching the word, he uses us the way he sees fit. The synagogue largely rejected Paul. They had heard the gospel from the scriptures and they had heard Paul’s reasoning and persuasion and rejected it. So, Paul shook out his garments and said, “Your blood be on your own heads! I am innocent.” This is almost certainly a reference to Ezekiel 33. The word of the LORD came to me: 2 t“Son of man, speak to uyour people and say to them, If vI bring the sword upon a land, and the people of the land take a man from among them, and make him their wwatchman, 3 and if he sees the sword coming upon the land and xblows the trumpet and warns the people, 4 then if anyone who hears the sound of the trumpet does not take warning, and the sword comes and takes him away, yhis blood shall be upon his own head. - Ez 33:2-4.
Paul has done everything he can do and now he formally breaks away from the Jews and says, “From now on I will go to the Gentiles.” Now, it is helpful to see that this doesn’t mean that from that moment in history, the gospel only goes to the Gentiles and not the Jews as some have suggested. Paul is simply talking about his interactions with the synagogue in Corinth. Later in this chapter Paul goes to Ephesus and engages the Jews again.
But, in Corinth, he moved from the synagogue to the house next door owned by a man named Titius Justus. Titius is such an under-rated baby name these days. Titius was a worshiper of God which means he was a Greek who worshiped in the synagogue. In his house, the leader of the synagogue, a man named Crispus, his entire household, and many other Corinthians believed and were baptized.
I know today it’s easy to feel like our culture is so corrupt and feel like it’s harder and harder to share the gospel with people who are either apathetic or even hostile to it. Well, there is a good argument that this would have been even more true in the Roman Empire. Many have made a lot about how Corinth was more morally corrupt than other Roman cities, but I think that’s a hard case to make. Most of the archeological and historical arguments we have for this come from Corinth two centuries earlier before it was destroyed by the Roman army. Even so, Corinth was at least as bad as any other Roman city and I do think we can argue that the believers in Corinth, for whatever reason, were more worldly, factionalistic, and theologically confused than their sister churches. The idols of their city were more deeply ingrained in them after they believed than the other churches. The lesson here is that God builds his church through the preached word both to bring people into the kingdom and to conform us in the way we live in that kingdom.
In Paul’s letter to the Corinthian church later he says that to some, the gospel will smell like the fragrance of life, but to others it will smell like the stench of death. We can’t control how people respond to the gospel, but we can control that the gospel goes out through us and that it goes out with humility and grace. We can control whether we preach a gospel that is only true or if we preach a gospel that is true, good, and beautiful. A gospel that presents God’s good and beautiful vision for mankind. And if we feel inadequate for that task, the next way Jesus builds his church should be encouraging and helpful.
- He builds his church through unlikely men
One thing that isn’t made explicitly clear in this text, but is clear from what we will see Jesus say to Paul in just a minute is that fear is settling in on Paul. We know that Paul wrote this to the Corinthian church in 1 Corinthians 2: “And aI was with you bin weakness and in fear and much trembling.” There had likely been some prominent Jews who had believed Paul’s message and the opposition was mounting against Paul by the Jewish leaders. This opposition became increasingly powerful and discouragement and fear settled in and I and others would go so far as to say that it even began to hinder him in his ministry.
Now, some might argue against me saying that Paul has been through all this before and he’s seen God work powerfully, so why would he get scared now? Well, I think it’s precisely because he’s been through this before that he is more prone to this fear. This makes me think of the movie The Patriot. Mel Gibson’s character, Benjamin Martin, is the most hesitant to go to war with England. He’s the most fearful of the coming revolution. Why? Because he has seen this before. He was a war hero from the French and Indian War and he knew the trials ahead of them better than the eager young people.
Paul had been arrested, he’d been in riots, and he’d been stoned. He knew better than any what the Jewish opposition could bring and it got to the point that it was hindering his ministry. I hope this is encouraging to you, because it’s encouraging to me. If the Apostle Paul is affected by fear and opposition, then my goodness why would we not be? We fear what others think, we fear our own inadequacies in the task before us, we fear circumstances in our workplace or social relationships, and we fear how our sharing the gospel might affect our futures. Maybe we won’t go to prison in our context, but increasingly, we could lose our jobs. We could lose our friends. We could lose invitations to certain social events. We could be gossiped about or slandered.
And if you fast forward to the end of this story, that is exactly what happens. The Jews did not harm Paul, but likely after about a year of Paul’s ministry in Corinth, they brought him to the court of law. They went to the proconsul, Gallio, and tried to have him outlaw Christianity in the province. These Jewish leaders claimed that Paul was teaching contrary to the law. Now, we don’t know if they were specifically talking about the Mosaic law or the Roman law. You may remember that in Acts 17 in Thessalonica, the Jewish leaders falsely accused Paul of teaching that Jesus is king and Caesar is not. It could be that a similar thing is going on here because Gallio would not have given a rip about Paul teaching something contrary to the Jewish law. And this shows when the Jewish leaders make the mistake of saying that Paul is persuading people to worship God contrary to the law. Gallio knows they are talking about the One True God in the Jewish faith and he quickly dismisses the whole case even beating the rulers of the synagogue.
But, before this tribunal ever happens, Paul is scared. Remember back in Acts 9 after Paul’s conversion Jesus says about Paul, “I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” This can sound so harsh if we don’t see that Paul gets something so much better. He gets Jesus. Jesus, Immanuel, says, “I am with you.” One of my favorite Christian songs is Christ Is Mine Forevermore by Cityalight. The chorus goes “Come rejoice now, oh my soul. For his love is my reward. Fear is gone and hope is sure. Christ is mine forevermore.”
His love and his presence is our reward and here we get a sweet picture of that. Paul needs a word of encouragement and that is exactly what he gets and this takes us to the final way Jesus builds his church.
- He builds his church through his presence
We see Jesus’ presence through his comfort and his call. This takes us to this fascinating verse, verse 9, where Jesus shows up to Paul in a vision says, n“Do not be afraid, but go on speaking and do not be silent, 10 nfor I am with you, and ono one will attack you to harm you, for pI have many in this city who are my people.” - Acts 18:9b,10 This is the comfort. Jesus says, “Do not be afraid. Continue to speak.” The Greek literally says, “Do not become silent.” How sweet is it of God to give the encouragement his people need? And this is certainly not the first time. To Joshua he said, “ 9 Have I not commanded you? nBe strong and courageous. oDo not be frightened, and do not be dismayed, for the LORD your God is with you wherever you go.” - Joshua 1:9 To Isaiah he said, 10 fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with cmy righteous right hand. - Is 41:10 To Jeremiah he said, “ “Do not say, ‘I am only a youth’; for to all to whom I send you, you shall go, and nwhatever I command you, you shall speak. 8 oDo not be afraid of them, pfor I am with you to deliver you, declares the LORD.” - Jer 1:8 and 9 iThey will fight against you,but they shall not prevail against you, for jI am with you, declares the LORD, to deliver you.” - Jer 1:19
Jesus tells Paul that no one is going to attack or harm him and we know that that is exactly what happened. No hand was ever laid on Paul in Corinth. It’s one thing for me to tell you not to fear or for your spouse or your parents to tell you not to fear, but it is a whole different thing when Jesus says it. In John 16, Jesus says, “Fear not, for I have overcome the world.” I haven’t overcome the world. Your spouse hasn’t overcome the world. Your parents have not overcome the world. But Jesus has which uniquely qualifies him to tell us not to be afraid of the world.
So Jesus comforts and then we see how he calls at the end of verse 10. This is the why behind the what. You are not to be afraid. Why? For I have many in this city who are my people. Jesus is talking about people who are not Christians yet! In the clearest display of his elective will, he is claiming people as his own before they even believe! And can’t you see how comforting this would be? Paul, there are people in Corinth who are already mine. People in whom the Holy Spirit is already working and all you need to do is preach the gospel to them and show them that Jesus is the Christ.
And this isn’t some outlier verse. Look at Acts 13:48 48 And when the Gentiles heard this, they began rejoicing and sglorifying the word of the Lord, and as many as were appointed to eternal life believed - Acts 13:48 or Acts 16:14 14 One who heard us was a woman named Lydia, from the city of Thyatira, a seller of purple goods, twho was a worshiper of God. The Lord uopened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul. - Acts 16:14
People say that if you embrace election and predestination then you will stifle evangelism. They say that if God already has it planned out, that we won’t engage unbelievers with the same vigor. Don’t you see how the exact opposite is happening to Paul. This truth gives him the motivation to go back, to be bold, to speak, and to share the gospel. This passage gives us such a vivid illustration of Jesus’ active engagement in the growth of his church.
Church, we are not the ones building up this church, Jesus is. And because he is doing the supernatural work and he is guiding our teaching and using our wisdom and strategies however he sees fit, we should be all the more motivated to join in the world. Our confession has this great line about God’s providence and how he works. It says, “God, in his ordinary providence makes use of means, yet is free to work without, above, and against them at His pleasure.” He does use means. He uses our work. But He is free to work without means as he did in the virgin birth of Jesus. He is free to work above these means as he did by allowing the only truly innocent person who has ever lived to be crucified on the cross for our sins. And he is free to work against means as he did when instead of staying dead, Jesus rose from the grave declaring his defeat of death for all who place their faith in him.
It’s great that we have plans and, Lord willing, we will stick to them. It’s great that we have a model of discipleship in this church and, Lord willing, we will continue to employ it. It’s great that we preach the Bible as faithfully as we can, and Lord willing, we will continue to do so. But, none of that does anything if God does not call his people in this city to himself. And what we see in this passage is that is exactly what he does.
This is the God we serve. This is the God building up his church and by his grace we are a part of it. Will we take that grace for granted or, like Paul, will we allow that grace to be the fuel in our own ministry.