Last week with Roland you were looking at verses 1 to 11 of Acts 18 and the account of Paul’s time in Corinth. As he did in other cities, Paul went to the synagogue where he tried to persuade the Jews and God-fearing Greeks to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ. But the Jews opposed him and reviled him. They would not listen to his message. And so, he left the synagogue and went next door to the house of this man, Titius Justus, where he continued to make known the gospel of Jesus Christ. And, at verse 11, we read that Paul spent another 18 months in Corinth, teaching the word of God among the people.
Verses 12 to 17
In verse 12 we read that the Jews made a united attack on Paul. After putting up with him for 18 months, they had had enough of him and wanted to get rid of him. And so, they brought him before the proconsul, Gallio, and began to accuse him. And their accusation is summarised in verse 13:
This man is persuading the people to worship God in ways contrary to the law.
And by ‘the law’, they mean the Mosiac law, or the Old Testament law. They thought Paul was undermining what they believed and that he was destroying their faith when, in fact, what he was preaching was the fulfilment of the Old Testament law. But they could not see this and they did not believe what he was saying about the Lord Jesus. And so, they were appealing to the Roman governor to do something to stop Paul.
In verse 14 we see that Paul was about to make his defence. But Gallio interrupted him and made clear that he’s not really interested in this case. If Paul was guilty of some kind of misdemeanour or a serious crime — in other words, if he had broken the Roman law in some way — then he would have done something about it. He would have taken action to uphold law and order and he would have punished Paul. But since their charge was concerned with their own Jewish law, then he wasn’t going to do anything about it. He wasn’t going to get involved. So, take care of it yourself.
And look at verse 16:
he had them ejected from the court.
The word Luke uses for ‘ejected’ implies that the Romans used physical force to remove the Jews from the court. Well, some commentators think that this means Gallio was sympathetic to Paul and to the Christian faith. And so, Gallio is held up as a defender of the faith. However, it’s probably more likely that his lack of interest in this case and his unwillingness to do anything on behalf of the Jews simply reveals his own hostility to the Jews. And sure enough, whenever the people seized Sosthenes, the ruler of the synagogue, and beat him in front of the court — and presumably they beat him because they were frustrated and annoyed that their plan to get rid of Paul had failed — whenever they beat him in front of the court, Gallio did nothing to protect him. He couldn’t care less about the Jews. —
Verses 18 to 22
Whatever Gallio’s reasons for doing nothing, the good news is that Paul was allowed to go free and he was able — we read in verse 18 — to stay for some time (or for many more days) in Corinth before leaving. In other words, he wasn’t compelled to leave as happened in Thessalonica and Berea; he was able to stay on for as long as he needed to stay. But when he did eventually leave, he wanted to head back to Syria, and especially to Antioch, from where his journey had begun.
Luke adds two details. First of all, Priscilla and Aquila went with him. And that’s important for what will happen in Ephesus. And secondly, at Cenchrea, which was the port in Corinth, Paul shaved his head because of a vow he had taken. We don’t know why he made a vow, but Jews typically took a vow either to express their thankfulness for some blessing they have already received from God or as part of a request to God for future blessings. And so, Paul may have shaved his head to thank God for helping him in Corinth. Or, he could have shaved his head to ask God to protect him on his journey home. But Luke doesn’t give us any more details about the nature of this vow.
In verse 19, Luke tells us they arrived in Ephesus. And, as usual, Paul went to the synagogue and reasoned with the Jews. Interestingly, though they asked him to stay longer, Paul refused. He wanted to get on to Antioch without delay. However, he said to them that he would come back to them if it is God’s will or he would come back to them God willing.
I’ve spoken before about the subject of God’s will and knowing God’s will. Remember? The theologians distinguish between God’s revealed will and his secret will. His revealed will refers to all his laws which he has made known to us in the Bible, all the things he wants us to do as his people. And so, he revealed his Ten Commandments to the Israelites and said to them: ‘This is my will for you, that you do all these things.’
And then, afterwards, he sent his prophets to the people of Israel to remind them of his laws and commandments which he wanted them to keep. And then, in the New Testament, he continues to teach us how he wants us to live as his people in the world. He says to us in the Old and New Testaments: ‘This is what I want you to do and this is how I want you to live. This is my will for you.’ So, he’s made these things known to us.
But then there’s his secret will. And his secret will refers to what will happen later today, and tomorrow and the next day and the next and so on. He knows what will happen tomorrow because he has planned it. And everything that happens, happens according to his will. But he has not revealed to us what he has planned. He’s kept that from us and we won’t know what he has planned until it happens.
And, of course, the classic text for this is James 4 verses 13 to 17. In these verses, James commands us not to boast about what we intend to do today or tomorrow. He writes:
Now listen, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.’ Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow.
Don’t boast about what you’re going to do in the future, because you don’t even know what will happen tomorrow let alone in a year’s time. And then James adds:
What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.
In other words, don’t boast about what you intend to do in the future, because we can’t be certain what’s going to happen in the future and whether or not we will go on living on the earth. So, what should we say? Well, James tells us. He says:
Instead, you ought to say, ‘If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.’
If it’s the Lord’s will. In other words, we might have our plans and all that we intend to do, nevertheless what really counts is God’s will, because he’s the one who has planned what will happen to us today and tomorrow and the next day. He’s the one who is in control of the future and all things happen according to his will and not according to our will.
But notice very carefully what James said. He said:
you ought to say, ‘If it’s the Lord’s will….’
If it’s the Lord’s will. And he has to say ‘if’ because we don’t know what God has planned for us. He’s kept his plans from us. He’s kept them a secret.
And so, back to Acts 18 and verse 21, Paul tells the people in Ephesus that he will return God willing or if it’s God’s will. It might be God’s will, but it might not be God’s will. Paul doesn’t know. The Ephesians don’t know. Paul would like to come back, but whether he does or not is in the hands of the Lord.
And I think that’s a helpful way of thinking about what God wants us to do. First of all, we always ought to obey his revealed will. So, whatever he has commanded us to do in his word, that’s what we have to do. But when it comes to the future, and what he wants me to do later today, or tomorrow, or the next day, I have no idea about that, because he hasn’t revealed it to me.
Some Christians want to hear a voice, a still small voice in their head or heart. They want God to speak to them directly about the future. But in the Presbyterian Church we teach that, while in the past God used to speak directly to his people, now, now that we have the written word of God, God only ever speaks to us through his written word. And in his word, he has revealed his laws and commandments for us to keep. But in his word, he hasn’t revealed to us what will happen to us today or tomorrow or the next day. He’s kept those things from us. But he’s taught us to believe that whatever he has planned for us is good and will bring glory and honour to him.
So here’s Paul, hoping that he will return to see the Ephesians, but leaving it up to the will of God. Paul doesn’t know what the future holds, but God does. So, Paul set sail from Ephesus, but he left Priscilla and Aquila behind.
Well, in verse 22 we read that when Paul landed at Caesarea he went up and greeted the church. The question is: What church? You see, we’ve never before heard about a church in Caesarea. Well, some of the commentators suggest that the phrase ‘went up’ refers to going up to Jerusalem which wasn’t very far from Caesarea. And so, perhaps what Luke means is that Paul went up to Jerusalem and greeted the church there. Whichever church was meant, Paul didn’t stay there long, because he soon moved on to Antioch where he spent some time with this congregation who had sent him off on his missionary journey. In other words, he wanted to report to them all the things that had happened.
But Paul couldn’t stop for long. Having spent some time in Antioch, he wanted to travel back to some of the places he had been previously in order to strengthen the believers in all the churches he had planted. And, of course, that meant he wanted to strengthen their faith. He wasn’t interested in strengthening their bodies, and building up their muscles. If that’s what he wanted to do, he would have made them lift weights and do press ups. But no, he wanted to strengthen their faith in the Lord Jesus. And the way to do that is to do what we do week by week in church. We preach the word of God, and the good news of Jesus Christ, and whoever receives his word with faith and humility, will find that their faith is strengthened so that we’re able to keep believing, and we stay on the narrow way that leads to life.