Saturday 16th May
Cameos from Corinth
Acts 18 is like a series of little cameos, with the character and passion of Paul as the common thread, and all kinds of responses from those he meets. We begin in Corinth, a strategic city in so many ways, and while Paul stays a long time, it isn’t easy for him. He is opposed and reviled, he takes his bat and ball away and storms off. He is still a man of powerful emotions!
But in the midst of it all, God shows him, through the conversion of Crispus, that he needs to be on the lookout for the good things that God is doing in the midst of the opposition and hardness of heart that he, Paul, is so frustrated by.
God even speaks to him in his sleep, telling Paul that things aren’t quite how they seem: “Do not be afraid. I am with you…there are many in this city who are my people.” And so Paul persists, and sees fruit. That’s our first cameo.
Then, still in Corinth, we see Paul subject to a coordinated attack. Brought before Gallio. Falsely accused. And Gallio washes his hands of the situation – “I do not wish to be a judge of these matters”, handing Paul back the Jews with precisely the words of Pontius Pilate: “see to it yourselves.” The connections can’t have escaped Paul.
In a moment of complete frustration, it is Sosthenes, the synagogue official, who takes a beating, not Paul. Sosthenes has failed to deliver the result they were looking for. He has to suffer. That’s our second cameo, and it is a vile one.
Then Paul moves on, to Syria, via Ephesus, with his faithful friends, Priscilla and Aquila. Luke doesn’t follow this through, but he tells us Paul had a haircut! Did you know there are at least 20 references to haircuts in the Bible?? It’s a significant act in scripture – check if you don’t believe me.
Anyway, Luke does tell us Paul did this because he was under a vow, so perhaps this apparently silly detail is meant to show us that this was a time of Paul being really focused on God. And the reaction in Ephesus couldn’t be more different – the Jews don’t want to throw him out and make trouble, they want him to stay longer so that they can really engage with his message. Cameo number three. The same Paul, but a completely different reaction.
Then finally, we have a two-fold cameo. In the first half, Paul is on a different mission now, strengthening the disciples rather than confronting the unconverted. Maybe that’s what his vow led him into, via prayer and fasting? Who knows.
In the other half of the cameo, the spotlight falls on Apollos, another passionate man, well versed in the scriptures, but also with an incomplete view. Perhaps he was too like Paul for them ever to work shoulder to shoulder, but they become gospel partners even so.
But the detail we could miss in all of this is that image of Apollos, who goes on to great things, being gently taken aside and privately given the missing piece of his jigsaw by humble, faithful, quiet Priscilla and Aquila. Our fourth cameo, and a fascinating picture of Paul being the encourager for a change, while Apollos takes on the mantle of challenging and refuting those who were opposing the gospel.
I find myself thinking that we need to sit with some of these passages and ask ourselves: “What did Jesus teach that would prepare us for what Paul and the others were facing?” And “Why has Luke selected these precise cameos?” In other words, what bit of teaching from the gospels sheds a light on these cameos and holds them together.
Well, I have an idea. I want to suggest that you re-read Acts 18, but first read the story of the sower in Matthew 13, remembering Paul’s statement in 1 Corinthians 3 where he says: “I sowed, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.”
Cast Paul in the place of the sower in the story, and think about what happened to the seed that Paul sowed in Corinth, in Ephesus, in the other places he travelled to. In some places, the seed certainly fell on stony ground, in some it sprang up but quickly withered, in some it was choked, and in some it fell on good soil. But look at the big picture: God gave the growth, or we wouldn’t be here thinking about this today.
In our first cameo, Paul sowed and saw no fruit, and fell foul of his own frustration, needing to be corrected by God (“there are many in this city who are my people”). As time goes on, he learns to see what God is doing.
We mustn’t let our frustration blind us to what God is up to. There are many in this city – this town, borough and region – who are his people too. Let’s open our eyes and look again with God’s eyes.
Reflection by David Brooke