Deep Relationships that Matter (Acts 20:13-38)

As you age and you think back more and more in retrospect about the preceding years, so many warm memories remain of people you have known along the race of life. For those of us who have lived in several different places, many of those friends were only intimately a part of our lives for a season. The rise of social media has been a wonderful tool for maintaining even a distant connection with people from earlier periods of life.

I recently reconnected with a friend from childhood and all through high school that I had not seen in several decades. It was immediately like old times when we got together, as we had previously shared so much of life and experiences.

It is great to have friends from a ball team from the past, or people you have known for many years from your place of employment. We often become long-term friends with others who have children who are the same age as our own – seeing them growing up together and sharing common experiences.

But honestly, the very best friends we should have in life are those we have known from serving God together, particularly in the church context. These should be the deepest relationships – folks with whom we have together been in the throes of not only making a church work in practical ways, but also in spiritual combat together as fellow soldiers in the kingdom of light’s eternal cosmic conflict with the powers of darkness.

Paul had many such relationships, forged in challenging times of building the institution of the church while also combating the opposing forces in a dark world.

Our passage today begins with some travel itinerary details as Paul is hurrying toward Jerusalem to meet a deadline …

Acts 20:13 – We went on ahead to the ship and sailed for Assos, where we were going to take Paul aboard. He had made this arrangement because he was going there on foot. 14 When he met us at Assos, we took him aboard and went on to Mitylene. 15 The next day we set sail from there and arrived off Chios. The day after that we crossed over to Samos, and on the following day arrived at Miletus. 16 Paul had decided to sail past Ephesus to avoid spending time in the province of Asia, for he was in a hurry to reach Jerusalem, if possible, by the day of Pentecost. 17 From Miletus, Paul sent to Ephesus for the elders of the church.

Rather than take the time to travel to Ephesus, Paul asks the elder leadership of the church there to meet with him at the relatively nearby coastal town of Miletus. His words to them comprise what is essentially a farewell speech. Paul rehearses the events of their several years together in that place – recalling the persecutions, the extensive teaching ministry, and all the hard work that had brought them together in mutual association. In total, it was all very intense!!

Acts 20:18 – When they arrived, he said to them: “You know how I lived the whole time I was with you, from the first day I came into the province of Asia. 19 I served the Lord with great humility and with tears and in the midst of severe testing by the plots of my Jewish opponents. 20 You know that I have not hesitated to preach anything that would be helpful to you but have taught you publicly and from house to house. 21 I have declared to both Jews and Greeks that they must turn to God in repentance and have faith in our Lord Jesus.

He also warns them of the inevitability of the work of the kingdom of darkness to infiltrate, as he pictorially speaks of such as savage wolves ravaging a flock. He reminds these leaders that they must be vigilant about preserving in the timeless truth, knowing that error would arise from within. These exhortations continue to this day to be wise counsel for leaders of churches.

Acts 20:22 – “And now, compelled by the Spirit, I am going to Jerusalem, not knowing what will happen to me there. 23 I only know that in every city the Holy Spirit warns me that prison and hardships are facing me. 24 However, I consider my life worth nothing to me; my only aim is to finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me—the task of testifying to the good news of God’s grace.

25 “Now I know that none of you among whom I have gone about preaching the kingdom will ever see me again. 26 Therefore, I declare to you today that I am innocent of the blood of any of you. 27 For I have not hesitated to proclaim to you the whole will of God. 28 Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood. 29 I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. 30 Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them. 31 So be on your guard! Remember that for three years I never stopped warning each of you night and day with tears.

But grieving the Ephesians most is the word from Paul that, as he heads toward inevitable persecution in Jerusalem and beyond, they will never see him again – in this world. They knell and pray (as always in the book of Acts), as Paul commits them to God and his care. The scene becomes very emotional, as the Ephesians accompany Paul to the very last steps of boarding the ship.

Acts 20:32 – “Now I commit you to God and to the word of his grace, which can build you up and give you an inheritance among all those who are sanctified. 33 I have not coveted anyone’s silver or gold or clothing. 34 You yourselves know that these hands of mine have supplied my own needs and the needs of my companions. 35 In everything I did, I showed you that by this kind of hard work we must help the weak, remembering the words the Lord Jesus himself said: ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’ ”

36 When Paul had finished speaking, he knelt down with all of them and prayed. 37 They all wept as they embraced him and kissed him. 38 What grieved them most was his statement that they would never see his face again. Then they accompanied him to the ship.

Relationships in Christ are indeed often very deep, especially when forged together in the inevitable challenges of mutual service – a sort of spiritual warfare in a dark world under the power of the Evil One. We are combat veterans together. Over 35 years ago as minister of music in a large Dallas church, I was especially close to the senior pastor. And when I parted from that place to serve back home on the east coast, we were both much affected at the departure. Though he continues, even as an elderly man now, to serve God as the retired Chaplain at Dallas Theological Seminary, when I see him on rare occasions or speak to him, it is as if no time has passed at all. And I can say similar things about many with whom I’ve served over the years. Just this week I have been invited to return and preach at my previous church in NJ – will be the first time in 21 years, and I am very much looking forward to celebrating the 125th anniversary of the church and the beginning of the ministry of a new, young pastor there.

Dallas, New Jersey, Hagerstown … wherever we are in Christ … we are comrades together in an eternal, cosmic conflict – co-workers for the King of Kings.

Friends, if you are not committed at a deep inter-personal level, but are only casually a part of the life of the church, you are missing the depths of relationships and service that is at once both required of you and personally beneficial for your well-being. Please bring both hands, both feet, your heart, your mind, and your soul. We need you; you need us.

Death by Sermon (Acts 20:1-12)

One of my favorite pastor jokes is that of the definition of preaching: the ability to talk in someone else’s sleep. And I’ve been doing it now for nigh unto 40 years! At my previous church there was a fellow who simply could not stay awake – for me, or anyone else for that matter. His wife made a career of poking him in the side, but they never changed from sitting in the third row. And though he never probably heard a full sermon, the guy loved me to death and was always such a great personal blessing.

In today’s passage as we pick up our chronology of Paul’s life, the first paragraph of travel details includes a “we” from the writer Luke, indicating that he is part of the road team again. Note the list of other names, many of these surely being younger men whom Paul was discipling. By this time, Paul is a well-known person in church communities of the Roman world, and spending time with him was probably a great privilege.

Acts 20:1 – When the uproar (in Ephesus) had ended, Paul sent for the disciples and, after encouraging them, said goodbye and set out for Macedonia. 2 He traveled through that area, speaking many words of encouragement to the people, and finally arrived in Greece, 3 where he stayed three months. Because some Jews had plotted against him just as he was about to sail for Syria, he decided to go back through Macedonia. 4 He was accompanied by Sopater son of Pyrrhus from Berea, Aristarchus and Secundus from Thessalonica, Gaius from Derbe, Timothy also, and Tychicus and Trophimus from the province of Asia. 5 These men went on ahead and waited for us at Troas. 6 But we sailed from Philippi after the Festival of Unleavened Bread, and five days later joined the others at Troas, where we stayed seven days.

It was certainly a pretty big deal for these people in Troas to have the Apostle Paul himself staying with them for seven days. Surely there were multiple gatherings and lots of conversation – we can easily picture this happening. And on the final night (a Sunday) while Paul was preaching, a fellow named Eutychus falls asleep, dropping out of the 3rd-floor window and meeting his demise upon impact in the street below.

Acts 20:7 – On the first day of the week we came together to break bread. Paul spoke to the people and, because he intended to leave the next day, kept on talking until midnight. 8 There were many lamps in the upstairs room where we were meeting. 9 Seated in a window was a young man named Eutychus, who was sinking into a deep sleep as Paul talked on and on. When he was sound asleep, he fell to the ground from the third story and was picked up dead. 10 Paul went down, threw himself on the young man and put his arms around him. “Don’t be alarmed,” he said. “He’s alive!” 11 Then he went upstairs again and broke bread and ate. After talking until daylight, he left. 12 The people took the young man home alive and were greatly comforted.

OK… let’s sleuth this out a bit, as there are some hints about what is happening …

Clue 1 – I know you’ve never named a child or pet by the name of Eutychus, but it was a very common name at that time – especially for slaves. So it is presumable that this young fellow had worked all day and now at midnight it was really very late for such a tired guy.

Clue 2 – The upper room (always the largest in ancient houses) is said to have had many lamps. We can take from this that the large crowd and the burning lamps had depleted the oxygen supply a bit – even for the guy sitting in the window.

Clue 3 – There was a lot of talking going on. This may shock the system of some you reading this, but, most of the world does not do church in mere 60 to 75-minute increments. Just this past Sunday I visited one of the African-American churches in town, and the service went on for a total of 2.5 hours. People returning from missions trips often remark about how long the services were at the local church of the people being served. Ask anyone who has been to Kazakhstan on one of our partnership journeys.

You will note from the passage that the words “talking” or “talked” or “speaking” are used – along with the “breaking of bread.”  There are a variety of Greek words used in this passage that get translated very generically into English. To see it in the original, you would be able to discern that Paul’s conversations involved formal preaching, a sort of give-and-take teaching, and the simple conversation between friends.

Warning Note – So Paul goes down to the street and brings the young man back to life, which, yes, encourages the crowd. Yep, that would be pretty cool! But here is the warning:  If you die while I’m speaking, don’t count on me being able to bring you back … I’d suggest you just stay awake!

Here is another inside scoop on this passage … I really love it!  In fact, this was the passage I chose for my senior sermon at Dallas Theological Seminary. In those days everyone presented one in homiletics class, and the top presenters got selected by the faculty to preach them in chapel for the entire student body. No, I was not chosen … guess I put them to sleep in the classroom, including the prof.

What I love about this passage is the picture of the great body life that goes on when the church is gathered. So many of my favorite memories of church people I’ve grown to love in my churches in Dallas, New Jersey and Hagerstown revolve around all the time together on Sundays just hanging out and talking. This is valuable time! It is one of the great blessings of church family and community. And to gain this blessing, you’ve got to be there regularly; and when you come, you should not just run off and escape as soon as the service is over. That is not what church is about. Hang out with us! We’re really cool people! Think of it like Thanksgiving dinner – you would not just run in after the prayer, sit down and eat, and then rush off as soon as the apple pie was gone, would you?

God has set up the church – the body of Christ – so that we need each other and have each other as resources for successfully running the race of the Christian life. It is a great blessing. Don’t undervalue it.

All Roads Lead to Rome (Survey of Romans)

As shared previously in this series, one of the items that define the meaning of “the fullness of time” for the incarnation (as stated in Galatians 4:4) is the rule of the Roman Empire and the system of roads and bridges throughout. Built for the use of the Roman legions in maintaining rule and order and defending the frontiers, they served as well to facilitate travel over distance as never before. And this likewise made possible the travel of missionaries and itinerant ministers like Aquila and Priscilla, etc.

The saying that “all roads lead to Rome” was literally true! They really did. The expression now is a metaphor, but in the time of Paul’s preaching and travels, Rome was the most amazing place on the planet. Having walked through the ruins of ancient Rome and been in the Coliseum, it is still plenty impressive even 2,000 years later.

As the missionary to the Gentiles in particular, Paul had a great yearning to visit the imperial city. (Romans 1:11 – I long to see you so that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to make you strong.) But circumstances had thus far prevented the fruition of this desire.

From the book of Romans we can see that the Christian community there was comprised of both Jews and Gentiles (probably many more of the latter), likely meeting in a variety of homes and gatherings (churches). And again, after Paul’s extended time in Ephesus on the third missionary journey, we turn to chapter 20 …

Acts 20:1 – When the uproar had ended, Paul sent for the disciples and, after encouraging them, said goodbye and set out for Macedonia. 2 He traveled through that area, speaking many words of encouragement to the people, and finally arrived in Greece, 3 where he stayed three months.

Just after the writing of 2 Corinthians, it is from Corinth in Greece that Paul writes to the Romans. It must have been even a bit frustrating and sad for Paul that his journeys had taken him to so many places but not yet to Rome. And finally, the Apostle feels compelled to write a greeting to them and tell them of his hopes to visit and fulfil his calling of preaching to both Jews and Gentiles especially …

1:14 – I am obligated both to Greeks and non-Greeks, both to the wise and the foolish. 15 That is why I am so eager to preach the gospel also to you who are in Rome. 16 For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile.

A question that arises in the minds of readers of Acts and Romans relates to how a church was established in Rome, since Paul was yet to get there. Well again, all roads lead to Rome, and anything that was happening anywhere else was going to find its way to the center of the Empire. Additionally, it says in the text in Acts 2:10 on the Day of Pentecost that there were “visitors from Rome” amongst those in the crowd that heard Peter’s sermon. Likely among the 3,000 converts that day were those who returned to the city, sharing the gospel and establishing some semblance of a church community.

But how would these folks know how to make a viable community of faith work? Well, Paul had such concerns about not only this practical matter, but also that they be clear in the detailed teachings of the theology of the gospel. Hence we have in the letter to the Romans the very best statement of the nature of salvation. All of this was bolstered by a wide group of people who had personal experiences with Paul in other places. In fact, Paul mentions greetings by name to a total of 28 different individuals in the letter, including Aquila and Priscilla who were originally from Rome and now having returned to live and serve there again.

We too, in our day as in every era, have a need to rightly understand the essence of the gospel. The clarity is needed not only for our own salvation, but also that we be accurately equipped to speak of it to others. The theme verse of the letter is verse 17 of chapter 1 … For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed—a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.”

This statement is at once both simple and complex – with books written upon this theme of righteousness. And just as Paul desired to draw to these hearers’ minds a clarity about the gospel, I trust that y’all at TSF will long remember the same from my teaching … remembering even that I talked over and over about this word: righteousness.

What is the one thing you need to be saved?

I’ve asked that question many times in small groups and will invariably get the following answers: faith, trust, forgiveness, justification, etc.  And all of these things are correct. But there is a better single word answer: RIGHTEOUSNESS.  This means you need perfect perfection. And that is a problem. As humans we have inherited the curse of sin at birth; we don’t actually become sinners and are therefore separated from God, when we sin we prove we are sinners who are already separated from God. And as this Romans letter goes on to teach so well, we can’t do anything to earn perfection (righteousness). We need to get it from somewhere else – the only source being to have it imputed to us by faith in Christ … so that at the end of it all, we stand not in the worthlessness of our own “goodness” but rather before God in the righteousness that comes by faith in Jesus Christ.

We could maybe even say that all theological roads lead to central truth of the Christian gospel of the need for righteousness.

But I Digress (Summary of 2 Corinthians)

Do you find some people difficult to follow in conversation because they chase every mental rabbit that crosses their brain? Before one thought can be finished, another is triggered by the first conversation, and then another, and so the pile begins to grow. Getting back to the original thought is like untangling that extension cord that has been pushed around on the garage floor for the past couple years.

The Apostle Paul was one of these sorts of people. It is evident in his writing style, especially in the book we survey today – that of the second letter to the Corinthians. It is believed to have been written at this juncture in our chronological study of the life of Paul, on his third journey, composed in Macedonia (the northern portion of modern day Greece. After his extended time in Ephesus, we turn to chapter 20 …

Acts 20:1 – When the uproar had ended, Paul sent for the disciples and, after encouraging them, said goodbye and set out for Macedonia. 2 He traveled through that area, speaking many words of encouragement to the people, and finally arrived in Greece, 3 where he stayed three months.

The various letters of Paul to the Corinthians involve one of the more complicated studies in New Testament literature. Not only do we have the two letters in the inspired Scriptures, there were at least two other letters that Paul references having written to them. Here is a best shot at a chronology of visits and letters …

  1. First visit of Paul to Corinth
  2. A letter written to them (lost to us) that they misunderstood (see 1 Cor. 5:9-11)
  3. A second letter – known to us as 1 Corinthians – to address a list of problems
  4. Second visit of Paul to Corinth – described in 2 Cor. 2:1 as a “painful” visit
  5. A third letter – lost to us – it was disciplinary in nature (2 Cor. 7:8-9) and grieved Paul to have to write it (2 Cor. 2:3-4)
  6. A fourth letter – the text of 2 Corinthians.\
  7. Third visit – mentioned above in Acts 20:2

Much of this letter of 2 Corinthians involves Paul dealing with the issue of false teachers who had come into the church family and created many problems. Beyond that, these self-appointed authorities sought to personally discredit Paul and the content of his teaching. Their exact doctrine is unknown, but it likely contained elements of legalistic Judaism and a rising error called Gnosticism – this latter heresy involving teaching that took away from the person of Christ and his perfect humanity.

It would have been understandable if Paul were to have essentially given up on the Corinthians and allowed them to go their own way. Sometimes we have to do that with people who have simply sold out completely to errant ideas and values. But Paul was unwilling to do this with the Corinthians, having a pastoral heart of compassion for them, even while confronting them in love. There is a balance in that.

We have had a slogan in TSF leadership circles that dates back over 20 years. Our history as a church in the early years was to work with people who had life crises, even of their own creation. We have sought to be a place of both mercy and compassion along with bold confrontation. The slogan goes something like this: We will exhibit grace and compassion to very imperfect people who are walking toward God and growing in faith, while also loving people enough to get into their face when they are walking away from God.

Ministering to broken people is a messy business. When you do it, there are going to be times where it does not succeed. Difficult people have a pattern of turning issues around and making their problem be your problem. While trying to help, you may well be accused of “handling the situation wrongly.” Whereas they spilled the milk all over the kitchen floor, you are accused of not cleaning it up the right way.

In such situations – actually in all situations – we need to hang on to truth and hang on to the Lord. This idea is seen in this singular passage we’ll share from 2 Corinthians … seeing here also Paul’s irritation, yet also his persistence to hang in there with these wayward people and get them connected rightly to God.

2 Corinthians 10:1 – By the humility and gentleness of Christ, I appeal to you—I, Paul, who am “timid” when face to face with you, but “bold” toward you when away! 2 I beg you that when I come I may not have to be as bold as I expect to be toward some people who think that we live by the standards of this world. 3 For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. 4 The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. 5 We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.

There is simply no way around the truth that ministry is difficult, and those who do it are going to have detractors and critics.

It was a Riot, I tell ya! (Acts 19:21-41)

Today’s passage talks about a riot that occurs in Ephesus, which is located today in the country of Turkey. I was in the center of a riot in Turkey one time in my life … really … it’s true! And I narrowly avoided being swept up in another. And I was a part of a secret underground meeting with church leaders from the region where the ruins of Ephesus are today. This may take some explaining.

All three of these events happened in the late 90s when I was on a missions research trip with a group of EFCA pastors and our international missions leader.

The near riot – Our group stumbled upon and was suddenly caught up in a traffic jam in the capital city of Ankara. We found out that we drove up upon an event of tens of thousands of people marching through the streets chanting, “Turkey will not become Iran.”  A prominent national news media figure (with a moderate political perspective) had been murdered by extremists, and this was his funeral procession.

The underground meeting – We were invited to come to a gathering of about 20 Christian leaders in Istanbul, which was a secret meeting in the basement of a business. We were to arrive at a certain time, not coming in any group larger than two people, so as to not draw attention. The topic of the meeting was how the church (local congregations) should respond to the increased hostility of local police groups. That previous Sunday the local authorities in the area of Izmir (near where the ancient city of Ephesus was located) had come into the church meeting to question what was happening, doing so with guns drawn. It was deemed best that we not actually go to the Ephesus ruins at this time and connect with the Christians there.

The riot – In Ankara, our local missionary there from that region was showing us around some historic sites. Nearby was an Islamic holy place – a shrine to a particular man who was venerated for his committed, holy life and many trips to Mecca. People could buy candles or other sorts of trinkets from local vendors, pray at the site (which was like a cave) and leave their objects with hopes of the prayer being honored. One could also buy cloths and trinkets that were said to have been somehow blessed by being in the cave for a time, supposedly thereby transferring blessings to the purchaser (and profits to the salesman). As this was being explained to us by our host, several local men were listening. One of them offered some additional comments, holding up a bandaged arm that he said was being healed because of his prayers. Another local man heard this and disagreed vehemently with certain points of the first fellow. Before long, others joined the increasingly heated discussion. As we slithered away through the rapidly going crowd, people were running into the center of the fray, yelling and fighting. The police were descending upon the scene as we escaped the crowded plaza. The whole episode was not unlike our passage today where a riot ensued, with the additional comment that most folks did not even know what the riot was about!

Acts 19:21 – After all this had happened, Paul decided to go to Jerusalem, passing through Macedonia and Achaia. “After I have been there,” he said, “I must visit Rome also.” 22 He sent two of his helpers, Timothy and Erastus, to Macedonia, while he stayed in the province of Asia a little longer.

23 About that time there arose a great disturbance about the Way. 24 A silversmith named Demetrius, who made silver shrines of Artemis, brought in a lot of business for the craftsmen there. 25 He called them together, along with the workers in related trades, and said: “You know, my friends, that we receive a good income from this business. 26 And you see and hear how this fellow Paul has convinced and led astray large numbers of people here in Ephesus and in practically the whole province of Asia. He says that gods made by human hands are no gods at all. 27 There is danger not only that our trade will lose its good name, but also that the temple of the great goddess Artemis will be discredited; and the goddess herself, who is worshiped throughout the province of Asia and the world, will be robbed of her divine majesty.”

28 When they heard this, they were furious and began shouting: “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!” 29 Soon the whole city was in an uproar. The people seized Gaius and Aristarchus, Paul’s traveling companions from Macedonia, and all of them rushed into the theater together. 30 Paul wanted to appear before the crowd, but the disciples would not let him. 31 Even some of the officials of the province, friends of Paul, sent him a message begging him not to venture into the theater.

32 The assembly was in confusion: Some were shouting one thing, some another. Most of the people did not even know why they were there. 33 The Jews in the crowd pushed Alexander to the front, and they shouted instructions to him. He motioned for silence in order to make a defense before the people. 34 But when they realized he was a Jew, they all shouted in unison for about two hours: “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!”

35 The city clerk quieted the crowd and said: “Fellow Ephesians, doesn’t all the world know that the city of Ephesus is the guardian of the temple of the great Artemis and of her image, which fell from heaven? 36 Therefore, since these facts are undeniable, you ought to calm down and not do anything rash. 37 You have brought these men here, though they have neither robbed temples nor blasphemed our goddess. 38 If, then, Demetrius and his fellow craftsmen have a grievance against anybody, the courts are open and there are proconsuls. They can press charges. 39 If there is anything further you want to bring up, it must be settled in a legal assembly. 40 As it is, we are in danger of being charged with rioting because of what happened today. In that case we would not be able to account for this commotion, since there is no reason for it.” 41 After he had said this, he dismissed the assembly.

What is it about the gospel message that creates such a stir, then or now? It is radical truth that changes everything. The gospel is an offence that upsets the natural ebb and flow of life in the natural world. It takes the emphasis away from material things and calls upon the natural self-centeredness of man to willingly yield to the true authority of God and live in the power of the Holy Spirit. And far from creating a new sort of bondage, this frees people to live truly independent lives of worldly systems by being dependent rather upon the truth of Scripture and a right relationship with God. Those who most benefit from the control systems of the natural order will be those most vehement in rejecting this message.

An interesting development from all of this is that the attention drawn to the gospel by loud opposition sheds a light upon God’s people. As Christians respond well to this with clarity about the gospel message, demonstrating and bearing witness to the truth through committed, godly lives, it is attractive to many who observe. Thus the church may at some times and in some places be purified and ultimately grow through the opposition that seems to merely be negative oppression.

How many of us may in our lives and in our country face such events is a question I often ponder, especially when looking at the news and observing the evolution of culture over decades now of life. May it be that we are willing in such an hour to not be ashamed of the gospel and to live openly for Christ.

Messy Christians (Summary of 1 Corinthians)

Hopefully one of the outcomes of this devotional series for the consistent reader is to be renewed in understanding as to when Paul wrote his various letters to churches and individuals as it fits within the context of his overall ministry and travels. Today we look at the first letter of Paul to the Corinthians.

In the same way we in America often look at Vegas as “sin city,” Corinth had something of a similar reputation in the ancient world. In Plato’s classic work “Republic,” when making reference to a prostitute he used the expression “Corinthian girl.”  Indeed, much of the wealth and depravity in the city was due to the thousand temple prostitutes at the temple of Aphrodite.

Located on the sliver of land from the mainland that connected the large peninsula of Greece (known as Achaia), it was a crossroads of both land and sea commerce.

Likewise, the church of Corinth is well-known by even lesser-informed Christians today as the community of believers in the New Testament that was the most immature. Many factors worked together to make it a challenging environment for holy and sanctified living. Churches are essentially spiritual hospitals, and the church of Corinth was therefore the ultimate Mayo Clinic!

Here are some of the messy issues afflicting the Corinthians … issues that can repeat themselves even in modern era churches that give into human desires over obedience to divine revelation.

  1. Divisions, squabbling, fighting among themselves …

Paul had received reports about how they had divided into camps around their favorite teachers …

1 Corinthians 1:10-11 – I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought. My brothers and sisters, some from Chloe’s household have informed me that there are quarrels among you.

This behavior demonstrated their immaturity …

1 Corinthians 3:1-4 – Brothers and sisters, I could not address you as people who live by the Spirit but as people who are still worldly—mere infants in Christ. 2 I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it. Indeed, you are still not ready. 3 You are still worldly. For since there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not worldly? Are you not acting like mere humans? 4 For when one says, “I follow Paul,” and another, “I follow Apollos,” are you not mere human beings?

  1. Failure to live holy lives and deal with sin …

1 Corinthians 5:1 – It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that even pagans do not tolerate: A man is sleeping with his father’s wife.

1 Corinthians 6:18-20 – Flee from sexual immorality. All other sins a person commits are outside the body, but whoever sins sexually, sins against their own body. 19 Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; 20 you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies.

The practices of the surrounding world were simply a part of the church community and not confronted toward living a different life. This therefore led also to Paul needing to answer a variety of issues surrounding marriage in chapter 7.

  1. They were insensitive in regard to Christian liberties …

1 Corinthians 8:9-11 – Be careful, however, that the exercise of your rights does not become a stumbling block to the weak. 10 For if someone with a weak conscience sees you, with all your knowledge, eating in an idol’s temple, won’t that person be emboldened to eat what is sacrificed to idols? 11 So this weak brother or sister, for whom Christ died, is destroyed by your knowledge.

  1. Their focus on spiritual gifts was wrong, reveling in grandiose personal expressions, rather than seeing the gifts as given to serve others …

1 Corinthians 12:24-27 – But God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, 25 so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. 26 If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it. 27 Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.

  1. Some denied, while many others undervalued the central teaching of the resurrection …

1 Corinthians 15:3-4 – For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures…

We might tend to look back at these Corinthians and wonder how these folks could be so clueless and entirely messed up. But remember, this is still very early in the church era. They didn’t even yet have the gospels to reference, along with the writings of Paul, etc.  We’ve already referenced their geographical and cultural setting. They had been Christians for only a very short time and had no models around them of people who had walked with Christ for decades. This is not making excuses, as Paul himself said they should have been more mature in faith; but these factors do help to give some explanation for the complications unique to this church.

But, having said that, how unique are they … really?  We too live in a crossroads community with many worldly problems. Issues of morality, sensuality, addictions, and generational dysfunction are all a part of our community as well (and to a large extent in most communities). If in our church community we ever allow division to rule the day, sin and licentious living to be unaddressed, and a focus upon wrong priorities to govern our values and energies, we have far fewer excuses or explanations. We live with the completed word of God. We have the resource of the cumulative writings of two millennia of Christian leaders and scholars. We have everything we need to run the Life Race well.

Power Encounters (Acts 19:8-20)

Ephesus was a major seaport city in Asia on the western coast of what today is Turkey. It no longer exists as a major metropolis in the fashion of the past as the harbor is totally gone, but the city was in its prime at the time of Paul as the 3rd largest city of the Roman Empire – populated by over 300,000 people. Here too was the magnificent Temple of Artemis, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, being four times larger than the Parthenon in Athens.

It was in Ephesus that the power of God in the expansion of the church and gospel message was particularly evidenced. Here, the Word of God was powerfully preached and honored.

In reading through this passage, one is struck with the way that God simply took charge by displays of his power and authority. Clearly it was God’s plan to bless and expand this church community toward the growth of the church in this entire city and region.

Acts 19:8 – Paul entered the synagogue and spoke boldly there for three months, arguing persuasively about the kingdom of God. 9 But some of them became obstinate; they refused to believe and publicly maligned the Way. So Paul left them. He took the disciples with him and had discussions daily in the lecture hall of Tyrannus. 10 This went on for two years, so that all the Jews and Greeks who lived in the province of Asia heard the word of the Lord.

The powerful teaching ministry that ensues is in a place called the lecture hall of Tyrannus. This was likely a building of some substantial size, as the word for a “lecture hall” denotes a place of leisure – but for the culture of the day, a great lecture was great leisure and fun. (I like these folks and that makes sense to me!) Of course, all of this occurred following the typical scenario of getting tossed out of the synagogue.

Acts 19:11 – God did extraordinary miracles through Paul, 12 so that even handkerchiefs and aprons that had touched him were taken to the sick, and their illnesses were cured and the evil spirits left them.

Of all the Graeco-Roman cities visited by Paul, Ephesus was the most inhabited by magicians, sorcerers, and charlatans of all types. This therefore explains the miraculous work of God through Paul in particular, as displays of greater power than that associated with the occult powers that did exist from demonic elements of the kingdom of darkness.

You’ve gotta love this passage in verses 13-16. Someday, if I live long enough, I’m going to write a book called “The Top 100 Most Humorous Passages in the Bible.”  This paragraph is going to be a part of it!

Acts 19:13 – Some Jews who went around driving out evil spirits tried to invoke the name of the Lord Jesus over those who were demon-possessed. They would say, “In the name of the Jesus whom Paul preaches, I command you to come out.” 14 Seven sons of Sceva, a Jewish chief priest, were doing this. 15 One day the evil spirit answered them, “Jesus I know, and Paul I know about, but who are you?” 16 Then the man who had the evil spirit jumped on them and overpowered them all. He gave them such a beating that they ran out of the house naked and bleeding.

Having heard Paul’s power displayed by casting out inferior demonic powers “in the name of Jesus,” some Jews went about doing the same thing with the same formula. But on one occasion, they ran into a nastier evil spirit than most. This demon answered the command by saying, “Jesus I know, and Paul I know about, but who are you?”  That is hilarious! And then the guy that the spirit inhabited went berserk and beat the tar out of them!

Acts 19:17 – When this became known to the Jews and Greeks living in Ephesus, they were all seized with fear, and the name of the Lord Jesus was held in high honor. 18 Many of those who believed now came and openly confessed what they had done. 19 A number who had practiced sorcery brought their scrolls together and burned them publicly. When they calculated the value of the scrolls, the total came to fifty thousand drachmas. 20 In this way the word of the Lord spread widely and grew in power.

But all of these events were orchestrated by God to expand the church. Through this, everyone in the city and region heard the gospel – likely gaining fame and notice through these powerful displays. One in particular is that of the burning of certain magic lore books and scrolls, the value of which was 50,000 pieces of silver. If the coin being mentioned was that representing a day’s wage, the comparative value for today would be about seven million dollars!

Though we possess in our day the completed Word of God, and displays of power such as are seen in Ephesus are not the normative way God works in our world, it is appropriate to remember that this power does still lay at the root of our faith and the truth it represents. That bolsters our confidence as we run our life race in a world that is hostile to God and to truth.

Validation (Acts 19:1-7)

Before we accept any large changes in our lives, we want to have an assurance that what we are committing to is true and that those presenting the information to us have the credentials to support their assertions. Before I recently allowed that doctor in Baltimore to chop out a hunk of bone in my knee and replace it with metal parts, I researched his credentials and the new robotic technological process he was promoting. When any of us have hundreds of thousands of dollars to invest for retirement, we only go to and receive investment counsel from someone who is accredited and reputable toward knowing how to advise us well.

This process of vetting someone or something involves us seeking validation for our hopes and faith. And likewise, people who were familiar with a part of God’s grand story, though lacking knowledge of God’s magnificent work of grace in the person of Christ, would want to have assurances that the emissary and preacher of this was a valid representative of God. And they would want to have confidence that the message was truth.

As at the end of the previous chapter in the account of Apollos, we see again today some believers who were familiar with God’s truth to the extent of the teaching of John the Baptist. They gladly receive Paul’s additional instruction, are baptized, and the Holy Spirit comes in the same fashion as in previous examples of a new work of grace.

Acts 19:1 – While Apollos was at Corinth, Paul took the road through the interior and arrived at Ephesus. There he found some disciples 2 and asked them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?”

They answered, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.”

3 So Paul asked, “Then what baptism did you receive?”  “John’s baptism,” they replied.

4 Paul said, “John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance. He told the people to believe in the one coming after him, that is, in Jesus.” 5 On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. 6 When Paul placed his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied. 7 There were about twelve men in all.

This is the third occasion in the book of Acts of the occurrence of speaking in tongues. Each occasion is for the purpose of validation – here validating Paul’s message. The first was in Acts 2:1-4 where tongues validated the fulfillment of the passage quoted from Joel 2 about a new work of God. And in Acts 10:44-47 on the occasion of the conversion of Cornelius and his household, the validation was to demonstrate God’s acceptance of Gentiles.

Validating our message today is primarily the completed Word of God. Therein is the power and authority, as the Spirit of God uses His Word to convict and instruct those who hear. God may use extraordinary circumstances and events in such a way that are even miraculous (such as the way these people in the passage come into contact with Paul), but our primary source of truth and authority is the Scripture. We keep coming back to that, don’t we? There is no substitute for the hard but beneficial work of knowing and growing in God’s written truth.

Formal and Informal Biblical Education (Acts 18:24-28)

I burned up a lot of years of my life in just going to school, more and more – until there weren’t any more degrees to get. Looking back now much later, I’m surprised I did that, because I honestly didn’t especially like the rigors and pressures of academia.

And I sometimes wonder about the value of it all. I don’t regret it, and indeed the academic skills learned at Dallas Theological Seminary are a part of just about every day of my life. Even so, the experience gained in the large church in Dallas where I was privileged to serve on the eight-pastor staff as minister of music was even more influential and enriching.

Just this past weekend I made a biblical Greek reference in a local pastors’ forum – a remark that I thought was rather basic for clergy with a biblical education. But it apparently blew over everyone’s head except for one guy who caught the humor in it. I could tell that others thought it was just strange, at best. Oh well.

Sometimes people seem a bit in awe of formal theological education, as if I had spent years at the very feet of Jesus and gained a level of insight they could never attain. Other times I have encountered people who make off-the-wall theological assertions fully in error, and when I politely attempt to bring a biblical precision to the issue, they blow it off as the foolishness of a know-it-all who wasted his life in a classroom.

The enrichment that can come from a formal program of biblical and theological education can be a wonderful tool in life. Yet such is not a necessity for a person to have a very high-level, working knowledge of the Scriptures – that informs one’s own life and positions a person to instruct and disciple others.

We will see in today’s passage both types of people in Apollos and in the couple Priscilla and Aquila. All of them were a part of Paul’s close acquaintances and co-workers in ministry for the establishment of the local church throughout the Roman world. Recall from our earlier discussion that Aquila and Priscilla were Jews who shared the same occupational skill as Paul: tent making. They had interpersonal skills and leadership abilities, surely having been discipled by Paul while they stitched leather together. And this couple meets a true academic in a fellow name Apollos, a highly-educated university fellow.

Apollos was from Alexandria in Egypt, which was a significant center of education. As a man who would stand and teach in the synagogue, his messages were true to the Old Testament Scripture; and he was accurate about the Messiah in the same vein of teaching as was heralded by John the Baptist. However, he was unfamiliar with the rest of the story and its fulfillment in Jesus. Priscilla and Aquila take him aside and explain all of this to him. Get the picture here? Tentmakers are teaching the slick university dude! And it works. Apollos becomes a great early spokesman for the cause of the Gospel and heads out on his own tour of proclamation, crossing the Aegean and going presumably to Corinth.

Here is the passage …

Acts 18:24 – Meanwhile a Jew named Apollos, a native of Alexandria, came to Ephesus. He was a learned man, with a thorough knowledge of the Scriptures. 25 He had been instructed in the way of the Lord, and he spoke with great fervor[a] and taught about Jesus accurately, though he knew only the baptism of John. 26 He began to speak boldly in the synagogue. When Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they invited him to their home and explained to him the way of God more adequately.

27 When Apollos wanted to go to Achaia, the brothers and sisters encouraged him and wrote to the disciples there to welcome him. When he arrived, he was a great help to those who by grace had believed. 28 For he vigorously refuted his Jewish opponents in public debate, proving from the Scriptures that Jesus was the Messiah.

Formal education is a grand thing when it is available. But that is not the only way to be biblically literate at a high level. This is especially true in our modern era where advanced learning is only a few clicks away. If you’ve been in my office you know that I have thousands of books, many of them of the reference sort. They were expensive when purchased during my seminary years, as we were encouraged to build our own personal libraries. Now, most of those resources are available online for a fraction of the cost.

We live in a time with a wealth of information available to us. If there was ever a time when there was little excuse for not knowing the Scriptures, it is now. Paul encouraged Timothy with this timeless truth: Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth.

Frequent Flyer Miles (Acts 18:18-23)

As a guy who can go months and months at a time and never travel outside the Tri-State area, I’m the last person to gain frequent flyer miles or bonus travel points. It is too bad for the Apostle Paul that such deals did not exist in his day. I cannot imagine that there were many people in the ancient world who ever logged the total number of miles that Paul did on his various journeys.

Those who study and write about the New Testament era often include this following passage from Galatians 4:4-5 as a part of the background for understanding this unique era …

But when the set time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law, that we might receive adoption to sonship.

The King James Version began verse 4 with the famous phrase, “In the fullness of time …”  So what does this mean? Several items are encompassed to explain this, including the fervent Jewish expectation of a Messiah, a common trade language throughout the world (Greek), the “Pax Romana” (Roman peace and ruling authority) that lessened major conflicts, and finally the Roman system of roads. All of these contributed to the spread of the gospel. And of that final item, never before were people able to travel great distances from city to city with such relative ease.

However, by our standards, it was still quite an ordeal for someone like Paul to undertake his varied journeys. The distances are really substantial – then and now. Perhaps the point could be illustrated best by taking a look at a map of Paul’s three missionary journeys and his ultimate trip to Rome. You can click HERE to see one and to note the incredible distances.

Our passage today details events as Paul’s second journey ends, followed by what appeared to be a rather brief time in Jerusalem and the sending church of Antioch of Syria, before our writer Luke has Paul on the road again for the third journey.

Acts 18:18 – Paul stayed on in Corinth for some time. Then he left the brothers and sisters and sailed for Syria, accompanied by Priscilla and Aquila. Before he sailed, he had his hair cut off at Cenchreae because of a vow he had taken. 19 They arrived at Ephesus, where Paul left Priscilla and Aquila. He himself went into the synagogue and reasoned with the Jews. 20 When they asked him to spend more time with them, he declined. 21 But as he left, he promised, “I will come back if it is God’s will.” Then he set sail from Ephesus. 22 When he landed at Caesarea, he went up to Jerusalem and greeted the church and then went down to Antioch.

The third journey begins

Acts 18:23 – After spending some time in Antioch, Paul set out from there and traveled from place to place throughout the region of Galatia and Phrygia, strengthening all the disciples.

Just these few verses involve hundreds and hundreds of miles of travel by both land and sea. And the accommodations must have surely been oft difficult, especially on ships sailing the Mediterranean (as we’ll see graphically written about later in our studies).

We see our missionaries today when they report to us of their travels and foreign service, and we may at times see it all as an exotic adventure. Indeed they do get to see many things that most of us are not privileged to see in our lifetimes, but the personal cost of it all is very taxing physically and emotionally.

Missionary work is hard – then and now. It involves great effort to cover great distances, enduring all of the inconveniences of living in a foreign culture. But to be involved in it on either the going or sending end is our calling as God’s people. It is complicated; it is expensive; and it can be sometimes rather dangerous. But it is worth it to take the gospel to the ends of the earth. But best of all are Christ’s words in the great commission that he will be with us to the very end of time.