The gospel marches on in history and, all things being considered, there remains a lot of history still to be traversed. The Lord is building His church and even death (Hades) will not prevail against it—neither the death of Christ (who rose), nor the death of those who are currently under spiritual death (James 1:18), nor the death of preachers, nor the physical death of Christians. We are a part of something certain, though not without its challenges. We have seen this throughout our studies in Acts and as we come to chapter 18 we see it again.
As Paul left Athens and came to Corinth (some ninety kilometres west) he came alone, and for reasons that we will discuss soon, he came “with fear and trembling” (1 Corinthians 2:3). While there, Paul would face many difficulties, including rejection once again by his countrymen. And yet, in spite of all of the difficulties, the Lord Jesus Christ established His church in that city. And this local church, by virtue of two inspired letters written to it, has had a significant impact upon the church throughout history.
In this study, we will study this passage under the title “I Will Build My Church” and will note several key ingredients for the planting of a church. This is important for us to consider for several reasons.
First, we should be passionate about what Jesus is passionate about and that is His church.
Second, we need to be committed to the planting of local churches and we also need to understand what this involves.
Third, perhaps the Lord wants you to directly be involved in the planting of a local church, and so a study such as this may be used of the Lord to highlight how you can be used.
Fourth, and from our church’s direct context, BBC is a very mission-minded church and this will help us to appreciate what our church-planting missionaries go through on the field. It will help us to pray for them and to minister to them.
Church Planting Requires Persistence and Perspective
“After these things Paul departed from Athens and went to Corinth” (v. 1). Paul had not had an easy time in any city where he proclaimed the gospel, but perhaps he thought that surely things would be different in Macedonia. After all, he had received a call in the form of a vision to go there (16:9), and so he was assured that the Lord had called him. In fact, the entire missionary team was confident of this call (16:10).
Nevertheless, Paul had been beaten in Philippi, chased out of Thessalonica and had had little fruit to show for his witness in Athens. They had been somewhat polite to him there but had dismissed his message anyway. What would you do?
Perhaps you would have quit and gone home assuming that you had misunderstood the call. On the other hand, perhaps you would have done what Paul, and what multitudes of missionaries have done throughout history: persisted anyway. As David Livingstone once quipped when asked where he would go after a discouraging attempt at ministry, “Anywhere—as long as it is forward.” This is precisely what Paul did, and as a result a people were saved, disciples were made, a church was planted and Scripture, which has guided the church for two millennia, was written.
And yet, when he came to Corinth, he did so with “fear and trembling” (1 Corinthians 2:3). Harrison comments on this: “The combination of only limited success at Athens, loneliness, and the prospect of facing this city, with its commerce and vice, accounts for the weakness and fear that gripped the apostle as he arrived to begin his work.”1 And yet “the place of discouragement often becomes the scene of glorious victory.”2
It did for Paul as he persisted in his ministry of proclaiming the gospel as “he came to Corinth.” “The very iniquity of Corinth was the opportunity of Christ.”3
Corinth was a cosmopolitan city, famed as a commercial centre. It had a population of some 200 to 250 thousand. (In contrast, Athens’ population was in the region of 10,000.) It was the headquarters for the worship of Aphrodite (Venus), with 1,000 temple prostitutes plying their trade each evening. In addition, it played host to many other pagan and idolatrous temples. The city was thoroughly infamous for its immorality. In fact, in common parlance of the day, someone known for immorality was disparagingly referred to as “Corinthian.” The population was very proud. If Paul believed that he had left the frying pan, he found himself squarely in the fire.
The work of making disciples is laborious and requires persistence. Church planting is not for wimps! But when we have God’s Word on it, we are emboldened to persist in our efforts. And we do have His Word (Matthew 28:18-20)!
Church Planting Requires Partners
Thankfully, Paul would not be required to persist in this task alone. Arriving in Corinth, “he found a certain Jew named Aquila, born in Pontus, who had recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla (because Claudius had commanded all the Jews to depart from Rome); and he came to them. So, because he was of the same trade, he stayed with them and worked; for by occupation they were tentmakers” (vv. 2-3).
Arriving in Corinth, Paul met Aquila, who along with his wife Prisca (Priscilla is the diminutive form) had recently been deported from Rome under Claudius. They were evidently believers. We know from the Roman historian Suetonius that Claudius had expelled Jews because they were deemed troublemakers. He writes, “the Jews were constantly in tumult at the instigation of one Chrestus.”4 “Chrestus” no doubt is a reference to Christus—Christ.
It would seem that the Jews in Rome, as in other cities as we have seen in Acts, had stirred trouble with the Christians and the Romans, assuming that the two religions were essentially one, saw these conflicts as intramural ones. Claudius therefore expelled some 4,000 Jews and it is most likely that this included both Christian and unbelieving Jews. Aquila and Priscilla were among the Jewish Christians that had been expelled. Paul found them and they became partners—in a couple of ways.
First, but not most importantly, they were partners in trade. They were tentmakers. Paul, from Cilicia, was evidently a weaver of Cilician goat’s hair into tents and other articles. Rabbi Judah noted that “he that teacheth not his son a trade, doth the same as if he taught him to be a thief.”5 Paul’s father had evidently taught him this particular trade, and so, in need of material support (he would later write to the Corinthians he did not want to be a burden to them or bring reproach upon the gospel by looking like one who was a minister for gain) he laboured with his own hands as a tentmaker.6 In Aquila and Priscilla, he found fellow tradesmen alongside whom he could work to support himself.
Second, and most importantly, they were partners as fellow-labourers in the gospel. The testimony of this wonderful couple serves to encourage us to be people of hospitality for the cause of Christ. They used their abode as a vehicle to minister to those ministering. They were even willing to relocate for the cause of Christ: from Corinth to Syria (Acts 18:18), to Ephesus (Acts 18:24-26; 2 Timothy 4:19), to Rome (Romans 16:3).
They served ministers and missionaries well.7 It is an interesting study to contrast the only two couples specifically named in Acts—the other being Ananias and Sapphira. That couple was infamous for withholding their material blessings, whereas Aquila and Priscilla were famous for sharing theirs.
Partners in the ministry are essential for church planting. There were several partners in the early planting years of BBC. I am thankful for faithful ministry partners in church planting experiences that I have had. I know that our missionaries are thankful for God providing the same in their spheres of service. Such partners are an integral part of a “successful” church plant.
But let us note that, even if we are not in the field, we too can practically partner in church planting. As noted, we have a ministry in our own church that goes by the name “Aquila and Priscilla,” which is a ministry that is dedicated to caring for our missionaries. We can help as church members by practically ministering to our missionaries on the field: keeping in communication, sending parcels, informing the church of prayer requests, etc. Further, we can minister to missionaries on furlough: offer babysitting, make a vehicle or accommodation available to them, invite them over for meals, etc. There is a multitude of ways to minister to church-planting missionaries if you are creative enough.
We will look at v. 4 more closely under the next heading, but it can be noted here that, no doubt, there is a connection between the partnership with this couple and Paul’s proclamation that followed. That is, their practical aid served a missionary, who was perhaps heavy-hearted, which motivated him to keep on doing what he had been doing: preaching the Word. In other words, even if those in the synagogue rejected him, Paul knew that he had a loving and warm and welcoming home to return to. “How often has a missionary of the cross felt weighed down in the midst of heathenism by the sense of isolation and separation from friends!”8
Church Planting Requires Preaching
It may seem obvious, but we learn in vv. 4-5 that church planting requires preaching.
And he reasoned in the synagogue every Sabbath, and persuaded both Jews and Greeks. When Silas and Timothy had come from Macedonia, Paul was compelled by the Spirit, and testified to the Jews that Jesus is the Christ.
These verses reveal Paul’s activity while in Corinth; that is, he preached the gospel. His initial ministry, as we have seen elsewhere in Acts, began in the synagogue. There he preached on the Sabbath to Jews and to Gentile proselytes. He “reasoned” with them from the Scriptures to show them that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah. The word means “to speak with,” “to dialogue” as well as “to preach.” Paul worked all week as a tentmaker and went “fishing” on the Sabbath—fishing for men, that is!
We do not know how long Paul did this, but eventually there was a change in his schedule and this was connected to the arrival of Silas and Timothy, who apparently had come from Thessalonica. First Thessalonians 3:1-10 gives some important background here:
Therefore, when we could no longer endure it, we thought it good to be left in Athens alone, and sent Timothy, our brother and minister of God, and our fellow labourer in the gospel of Christ, to establish you and encourage you concerning your faith, that no one should be shaken by these afflictions; for you yourselves know that we are appointed to this. For, in fact, we told you before when we were with you that we would suffer tribulation, just as it happened, and you know. For this reason, when I could no longer endure it, I sent to know your faith, lest by some means the tempter had tempted you, and our labour might be in vain.
But now that Timothy has come to us from you, and brought us good news of your faith and love, and that you always have good remembrance of us, greatly desiring to see us, as we also to see you—therefore, brethren, in all our affliction and distress we were comforted concerning you by your faith. For now we live, if you stand fast in the Lord. For what thanks can we render to God for you, for all the joy with which we rejoice for your sake before our God, night and day praying exceedingly that we may see your face and perfect what is lacking in your faith?
(1 Thessalonians 3:1-10)
When Paul came to Corinth from Athens he was without financial support and therefore needed to make tents. Further, he was burdened about the believers in Thessalonica. They faced intense opposition from the Jews (1 Thessalonians 2:14-16) and Paul, with a true shepherd’s heart, was concerned for them. But, as we read in 1 Thessalonians 3, when Timothy arrived (in Corinth) he reported that they were doing wonderfully well. And this greatly heartened Paul. He said, “Now we live since you stand fast in the Lord” (3:8). Such encouragement no doubt spurred Paul into more fervent preaching.
Church Planting Requires Provision
But v. 5 also tells us that Paul’s ministry intensified upon the arrival of these gospel partners: “When Silas and Timothy had come from Macedonia, Paul was compelled by the Spirit, and testified to the Jews that Jesus is the Christ.” There are two possible translations to be considered here. The NKJV says that “Paul was compelled by the Spirit, and testified,” while the ESV reads, “Paul was occupied with the word, testifying.” In this instance, the ESV is probably the more reliable translation.
This gives the picture of Paul now preaching the Word, not only on the Sabbath and confined to the synagogue, but daily and everywhere that he could find a Jewish audience. Why the change?
When Silas and Timothy arrived, they did so with material support (2 Corinthians 11:9) and therefore Paul could leave the workshop and devote all his time to proclamation. It is for this reason that he was now “occupied with the word” (ESV). The provision of believers, made available to Paul, was instrumental in the planting of this church. It usually is.
If churches will be planted then money must be given. This is essential for us to grasp. It costs money to disciple the nations. And those of us with means are responsible to be the means of such missions ministry. Yes, God provides for the missionary but He uses His people to do so. We have seen this throughout the book of Acts.
When a missionary is concerned about his next meal or about how he is going to pay for his rent or educate his children or whatever, it is difficult for him to be “occupied with the Word.” It is our privilege to supply the provision. When you think about not giving, then, think about this verse! We want unbelievers to know that Jesus is the Christ. So let’s put our money where our mouth is—or, rather, where our heart is. And if our heart is in the wrong place, then let’s move it to where it ought to be!
As an added matter, we should note that it is important for missionaries to acknowledge the provision of the local churches. Paul did. Read Philippians, which is a missionary’s “prayer letter.”
Church Planting Requires Perseverance
In vv. 6-11, trouble rears its ugly because sinful, fleshly and demonic, head as the Jews rise up to oppose Paul’s gospel ministry. We are not told what form this took, but most likely there were physical threats made (as this was usually the case elsewhere).
But when they opposed him and blasphemed, he shook his garments and said to them, “Your blood be upon your own heads; I am clean. From now on I will go to the Gentiles.” And he departed from there and entered the house of a certain man named Justus, one who worshiped God, whose house was next door to the synagogue. Then Crispus, the ruler of the synagogue, believed on the Lord with all his household. And many of the Corinthians, hearing, believed and were baptized. Now the Lord spoke to Paul in the night by a vision, “Do not be afraid, but speak, and do not keep silent; “for I am with you, and no one will attack you to hurt you; for I have many people in this city.” And he continued there a year and six months, teaching the word of God among them.
Paul laboured in the gospel for some time to his Jewish countrymen, but he now realized that it was time to bid them adieu. He would not tolerate their blasphemous belligerence any longer.
In a rather severe rebuke Paul “shook his garments” and pronounced his innocence as one who had fulfilled his God-given duty (see Ezekiel 33:1ff). “Those who had resisted had to bear the guilt of closing the door of faith for those who might otherwise have come to know the Saviour.”9 Paul then moved on to plant a church, primarily of Gentile converts.
When a Jew, having travelled outside of the Holy Land returned, he would customarily shake the Gentile dust from his garments so as not to defile the holy ground. In a remarkable and courageous ironic act, Paul in essence said to the Jews, “Before I go to minister God’s holy Word to the Gentiles, I need to be rid of the defiling dust of your unbelief.” He had obviously never read Dale Carnegie’s book on how to make friends and influence people!
We should be careful about flippantly using this approach when people mock our gospel, yet at the same time we should note that there are times when it is entirely appropriate to call a spade a spade. Missionaries and others who minister the Word are at times called to make a stand, which sometimes means moving.
Paul left them, but apparently did not go far; in fact, he merely went next door. Yet, in essence, he moved a world away.
In a remarkable act of grace, the Lord saved some individuals: a man named Titius Justus10 as well as the ruler of the synagogue, Crispus, and his household.
Justus was apparently a Gentile for he was “one who worshipped God.” He was thus a proselyte. He lived next door to the synagogue and opened his home for Paul’s preaching ministry. The Lord planted a church right next door to the synagogue! Wonderful!
Luke then tells us that “many of the Corinthians, hearing, believed.” This may have been upon hearing of the conversion of the ruler of the synagogue, which does show us the importance of influence. Yes, the Lord is the one who saves but He uses means. Let us be wise winners of souls (Proverbs 11:30; Colossians 4:1-5ff).
We can learn from this scene that perseverance is rewarded. Paul came to a point where he needed to change his audience, but not his message. The result of this faithful perseverance was that a church was planted.
It would seem at this point in the narrative that all was going quite well for Paul and his ministry, and yet from what follows we know that the apostle was disturbed, if not discouraged, about something, for the Lord spoke to him to encourage him to persevere. “Possibly the chief cause of depression was the character of the city in which he was attempting to work. . . . Commercialism and materialism were absolutely absorbing; and the intellectual pride was almost invincible.”8 Perhaps he was undergoing what Elijah experienced after his great victory (1 Kings 18—19). After the high came the crash.
Or perhaps there were other things occurring that gave Paul cause for concern about future fruitful ministry in Corinth. Whatever it was, the Lord gave him the tonic that he needed.
The Lord said to Paul, literally, “Stop being afraid, but speak and do not become silent.” And the reason for this commanded perseverance was that the Lord had other sheep in Corinth (cf. John 10:16). The Lord promised Paul that whatever fears he had need not debilitate him, for the Lord would protect him. And, as the next passage illustrates, this is precisely what He did.
The Lord then assured Paul that He had people in Corinth and that they would be saved. Stott wisely comments, “They had not believed in him, but they would do so, because already according to his purpose they belonged to him. This conviction is the greatest of all encouragements to an evangelist.”12
The doctrine of the sovereignty of God and the accompanying doctrine of God’s free and gracious election are of immense practical value when it comes to persevering in the ministry. These truths encourage us that, in spite of what sometimes seems to be evidence to the contrary, the Lord will certainly build His church. He has His people and our task is to find them.
When all hope seems to be lost, we should flee to Scripture, which points us to the doctrine of election, and take heart that God still saves sinners and that He will save every one of His people (Matthew 1:21).
But just how do we find them? We do so by doing precisely what Paul did upon receiving this revelation: “He continued there a year and six months, teaching the word of God among them.” As he persevered in doing so, he found those for whom Christ died, literally, “among them.” This is precisely how we find those who are His in the city: We preach the gospel. Keep witnessing, keep sowing the seed, keep casting the net, keep passing out tracts, keep praying, and keep being winsome. God’s chosen ones are out there and, by His grace, one day they will be in here! It takes time and it takes perseverance. That is, it takes faith. But as Adoniram Judson famously said, the future is as bright as the promises of God.
Church Planting Requires Providence
In the closing verses of this section, we learn that church planting requires providence.
Therefore many of them believed, and also not a few of the Greeks, prominent women as well as men. But when the Jews from Thessalonica learned that the word of God was preached by Paul at Berea, they came there also and stirred up the crowds. Then immediately the brethren sent Paul away, to go to the sea; but both Silas and Timothy remained there. So those who conducted Paul brought him to Athens; and receiving a command for Silas and Timothy to come to him with all speed, they departed. The Philosophers at Athens Now while Paul waited for them at Athens, his spirit was provoked within him when he saw that the city was given over to idols. Therefore he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and with the Gentile worshipers, and in the marketplace daily with those who happened to be there.
This is a wonderfully edifying passage, which is far more than a mere historical reference point. It is history and in fact is a passage that shows how careful a historian that Luke was. It testifies to his integrity as a writer of history, for his comments about this proconsul Gallio are spot on both with reference to his character as well as to the dating of his governance in Corinth.
The account is fairly straightforward and tells us that there came a time, later in Paul’s ministry in Corinth, when opposition arose over his success as a church planter. The Jews therefore dragged him before the judgement seat, which was a platform outside of Gallio’s house. Having done so, they laid a charge against Paul of instigating Jews to worship contrary to the law. Presumably this was the law of God as contained in the Old Testament.
Gallio wanted no part in it and dismissed the case as outside of his jurisdiction. That is, it was not up to him to debate theological, hermeneutical issues among the Jews; his responsibility was to adjudicate Roman civil law. “Gallio was absolutely impartial, [he] refused to allow himself to be influenced or prejudiced, [and] he brought impartial Roman justice to his task.”13
It needs to be emphasised that the Jews knew quite well that Gallio would not settle a theological dispute between Christ-rejecting Jews and Christ-accepting (and therefore the truly orthodox) Jews. The law, however, with which Gallio might have been concerned was the religio illicita—“illegal religion.”
The Romans tolerated various religions of the peoples whom they ruled. They were the precursors of the pragmatic pluralists of our day. As long as such religions served no threat to the Pax Romana, then they were granted legal status. Judaism had been given such status: It was religio licita. What the Jews were doing was attempting to get Gallio to make the legal decision declaring Christianity to be illicita and therefore banning it from the Empire. Had Gallio done so, the Great Commission would have been, practically and hugely, impeded. A number of points need to be highlighted.
First, the Christ-rejecting Jews understood the difference between Christianity and unorthodox Judaism. Sadly, they did not see that truly orthodox Judaism culminates in Christ and thus in Christianity. “This decision of Gallio does not establish Christianity in preference to Judaism. It simply means that the case was plainly that Christianity was a form of Judaism and as such was not opposed to Roman law. This decision opened the door for Paul’s preaching all over the Roman Empire”14 because “the decision of Gallio was bound to be normative in similar situations elsewhere.”15
Second, Gallio, at this point did not see the difference—and thankfully so. Had he seen that Christianity declared Christ to be the ultimate King, then perhaps he would have ruled on this case with the result that Christianity would have become a banned religion and more persecution would have attended the church’s obedience to the Great Commission.
Third, it would appear that the Roman government, at this point, did not see Christianity as a threat to the stability of the Empire. In other words, Christians were not seen as belligerent. However, it also appears that those practicing unorthodox (i.e. Christless) Judaism were noticeably belligerent. The presence of the church should be a blessing to a nation even though she is a very real threat to evil in a nation (see Proverbs 14:34).
Fourth, we should be encouraged by this scene, for it reminds us that the king’s heart is in the hand of the Lord (Proverbs 21:1). This is so important when it comes to the promise that Jesus will build His church. There are plenty of obstacles in the way of this promise, but God’s sovereignty assures us that it will happen, even in the face of political opposition. There really are no closed countries when it comes to missions.
The Lord had promised Paul that a church would be planted and immediately this promise was put to the test. And God proved His faithfulness. We should take encouragement that the Lord overrules kings because He is the King. We therefore should have great expectations.
Let me remind you of a common theme throughout Acts: opposition and persecution by the Jews and protection by the Romans. This is clearly seen in the passage before us.
Gallio was actually a wise, sagacious, and by other historical accounts, gentle and kind man. He was not indifferent as v. 17 may seem to imply. Rather Gallio probably figured that Sosthenes was merely receiving what he deserved, or perhaps it indicates that Gallio refused to be involved in religious disputes. He knew the sphere of his authority and stuck to it. “Gallio shows up well in Luke’s narrative as a clear headed judge who would not be led astray by Jewish subterfuges and with courage to dismiss a mob.”16
The point, however, is that God had appointed this civil leader (see Romans 13) and used him to protect His people so that the local church in Corinth, and subsequently in other parts of the Empire, would be planted. God has His ways and we are wise to submit to His hand.
Finally please note that the name Sosthenes is mentioned in 1 Corinthians 1:1, where Paul calls him “our brother.” Was this the same person as mentioned here? If so, we might say that the beating that he received did him good, for it lead to repentance and faith.
The late Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, once a prisoner at the Gulag Archipelago, who was in fact converted there, reflected many years later on his incarceration, and wrote, “Bless you prison, bless you for being in my life. For there, lying upon the rotting prison straw, I came to realize that the object of life is not prosperity as we are made to believe, but the maturity of the human soul.”17 His suffering did him good, as it seems to have done for Sosthenes, and as it so often does for us.
So, in conclusion, let us rest in the promise that Christ will build His church and that the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. But let us not rest for long, but rather let us labour in the Great Commission with great expectations.
- Everett F. Harrison, Interpreting Acts: The Expanding Church (Grand Rapids: Academie Books, 1986), 292. ↩
- Charles R. Erdman, The Acts: An Exposition (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1966), 144. ↩
- William Barclay, The Acts of the Apostles: The Daily Study Bible Series (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1955), 146. ↩
- Arno C. Gaebelein, The Acts of the Apostles: An Exposition (Neptune: Loizeaux Brothers, 1983), 311-12. ↩
- A. T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament, 6 vols. (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1930), 3:295. ↩
- Even today, missionaries and pastors who are required to hold a secular job in addition to their ministry responsibilities are known as “tentmakers.” ↩
- In our church, there is a missionary care ministry that has taken the name “Aquila and Priscilla.” ↩
- Erdman, The Acts, 143. ↩
- Harrison, Interpreting Acts, 294. ↩
- While the NKJV simply calls him “Justus,” the ESV, translating an alternate Greek text, includes the full name. ↩
- Erdman, The Acts, 143. ↩
- John R. W. Stott, The Message of Acts: The Bible Speaks Today (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1990), 298. ↩
- Barclay, The Acts of the Apostles, 148. ↩
- Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament, 3:302. ↩
- Harrison, Interpreting Acts, 296. ↩
- Robertson, Pictures in the New Testament, 3:303. ↩
- Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago, http://goo.gl/2HYmTA, retrieved 4 August 2013. ↩