I am in lovely Schloss Mittersil teaching a Bible overview on the brilliant Bible and Culture course. The only time in the year I get to interact with folk from Europe, central Asia, war-torn ex-Soviet republics and materialistic western cultures, all thinking together about how to glorify Jesus in this mixed up world. Its an exciting and stimulating course.
I haven't blogged about Acts for a while, for a good reason. I am not sure I know what to do with Acts 18:1-17. There seem to be few obvious standout features but I am persuaded that Luke didn't put it here for merely tangential interest. After all Paul stayed a long time there. I've been pondering "do I say nothing and just omit it from my blog musings just because I don't understand what it is here for?" I can't bring myself to do that because of how easy it is to then say "lets ignore or treat as irrelevant bits of the Bible I don't understand." That we mustn't do. So figuring it's better to own up to my ignorance and challenge readers to keep on working and mulling over the difficult bits, here are a few very incomplete thoughts. If anyone's got any better wisdom than me, it would be deeply appreciated.
I identify five main facts in the passage:
1. The arrival and addition to the work of Priscilla and Aquila (v1-3)
2. The synagogoue preaching which, when opposed, led to yet another fresh initiative in evangelism - predominently Gentile house meetings next to the synagogue (v4-7)
3. The conversion of the synagogue ruler and his household. Possibly Luke wanting to give an indication of how the influential Corinth fellowship was founded (v8)
4. A vision from God about protection, resulting in a stay of a year and a half (v9-11)
5. Subsequent to which an attack in which they were protected and through which the gospel was declared in court to be not illegal. The case was literally thrown out of court. They were protected from a harming attack as God promised in the vision (v12-16). This last incident in the passage was possibly more about people saying the gospel is illegal because it is immoral. The charge is one of false and misleading worship that is against the Mosaic Law.
So much seems quite clear. But how to apply, that's the question I am wrestling with. This is what I have so far:
1. The details are all instructive, about team, about God bringing believers from elsewhere and about the initiation of house evangelism but I don't think they are key.
2. I always look for where God is most obviously breaking into a passage like this, and here it is with the vision. The main components of it are: don't be afraid but keep speaking; God's presence will protect from attacks to bring harm (in this instance); don't be discouraged because God knows of many people who are going to get converted that Paul doesn't know anything about. On the basis of the vision faith is strengthened enough to continue where otherwise it seems he might have stopped out of fear or discouragement
3. But so what? For us today? I fear I am going to be vague, not specific and focussed as I think we should be. We can't say "God gave Paul this vision, so he will give us similar ones" (though he may). We can't say "Paul was protected from attacks to harm, so we will be protected from attacks from harm" (although we may be). We can't say "the gospel was legally recognised as not being immoral, so we can expect the same today" (because we definitely can't).
So what can we say? We can say that there was fear and discouragement even when people were becoming Christians, including significant religious leaders. We can say that Paul didn't see all the scope of people God had planned to bring to himself in Corinth. We can say that God gave guidance for bravery and endurance that led to concrete plans and assurance when the attack came. We can say that when they needed it God did guide with specificity. He didn't do it that way all the time, but on this occasion he did. We can say that in the situation of Corinth which clearly made Paul nervous ("I came to you with fear and trembling" 1 Cor.2:3) God multiplied the team and gave the encouragement of the admirable Priscilla and Aquilla.
I think Luke wants to tell Theophillus how the church in Corinth started, that he has probably heard about. And in the process tell him that God was sovereignly in control when Paul wasn't. God provided a team, God protected in distressing circumstances. God showed in the vision that he overrules proconsuls, and committed himself to doing so before the event, showing he was in control fo the event when it happened. God is the one who energises and keeps going and gives visions at the crucial moments his servants need them.
I think I have to settle for this big application: this is a passage of God protecting His gospel and God saying he will save people that we don't know anything about yet.
I am humbled and challenged by this scripture. Humbled because I think there is more that God has for me here. Challenged to stand and gaze and read around it and saturate myself with it a lot more. I invite you to do the same any time you come across a passage of scripture that seems either mundane or impenetrable. Stop and gaze and ponder and pray. May God give us insight as we take his word seriously and refuse to give up until he shines his light.