“DO NOT BE AFRAID; KEEP ON SPEAKING”
Key Verse: 18:9-10
“One night the Lord spoke to Paul in a vision: ‘Do not be afraid; keep on speaking, do not be silent. For I am with you, and no one is going to attack and harm you, because I have many people in this city.’”
“What is this babbler trying to say?” (17:18) That’s what the sophisticated philosophical people of Athens were saying about Paul and his gospel message. What a travesty that Jesus and his servants are treated this way, whether back in those days or even today. Most people, especially the stoic intellectuals and the egocentric philosophers who trust in intellect and logic, in science and ego more than they trust in their Creator God and his message, are expected to behave this way. They would naturally despise the simplicity of God’s message of grace through faith. Luke made a comment about these sophisticated brainiacs before he recorded the magnificent sermon Paul delivered to them at the Aeropagus (or Mars’ Hill) in order to reveal the futility of their true nature. He said: “(All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas.”) (17:21) You know, ideas change like the wind, as do all the learnings and teachings and philosophies of men who waste their lives on them. Paul’s sermon to the Athenians on that day had a message of life for a crowd of dead of men with rotting minds. It had the capacity to open up a window for them in the darkness of their diseased minds to see the beauty of God and the power of his Savior who rose from the dead piercing the shroud of death; to see the enormity of God’s love and of his immeasurable grace that reaches to cold and worthless men like them; to this loving God’s outstretched hand reaching out to every one of them trying to snatch them from the cold and lonely reality of a rational mind and to bring them into the warmth of a humble and contrite heart. And all they had to do is to ask God for mercy. It doesn’t matter whether a person is an academic or an illiterate. It all comes to one thing. Here’s what the Bible says: “God opposed the proud but gives grace to the humble.” (James 4:6) “For this is what the high and lofty One says— he who lives forever, whose name is holy: ‘I live in a high and holy place, but also with him who is contrite and lowly in spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly and to revive the heart of the contrite.” For “‘Has not my hand made all these things, and so they came into being?’… ‘This is the one I esteem: he who is humble and contrite in spirit, and trembles at my word.’” For “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” (Isaiah57:15; 66:22; Psalm 51:17) It doesn’t take a brain to humble yourself; it takes a heart, and that’s what you’ll be mostly held accountable for! (Proverbs 4:23)
Some may think that Paul’s visit to Athens was mostly a failure since so few believed in the Lord Jesus after Paul invested much labor there. But in truth there is no such thing as failure when it comes to the Lord and his work, regardless. It is never up to us to decide whether the work was successful or not, especially when its based on the mutable standards most Christians use to determine what success and failure are. We all ought to listen very carefully to Jesus’ words when he says: “Stop judging by mere appearances, and make the right judgment.” (John 7:24) And the right judgment is done by God’s standards, by the truth of his word and the wisdom of his Spirit as he works to fulfill the will of God. Paul’s labor in Athens may not have produced many disciples, but the fruit of his labor can only be seen through spiritual eyes that know God’s heart and mind in raising one Abraham of faith at a time for the world. (17:34) Look at verse 1. From Athens Paul went to Corinth, another huge, godless and utterly decadent city in the heart of the Gentile world. There, he again faced troubles and opposition and all that he’s now begun to anticipate as he travelled on in his journeys. The difference in this place is that he didn’t have to be rushed away from the city in the middle of the night by some new believers just because he had Christian haters on his trail. Not that he didn’t have new enemies on his tail; he did. But this time, the Lord himself appeared to him and spoke to him. They were enough to empower him to remain there for more than a year and the half doing what God wanted him to do, and what he himself was so eager to do— that is, preaching and teaching the Bible and raising disciples. And surely the Lord’s words weren’t for him alone, but for anyone who would listen and receive them as Paul did— as a foundation for their labor in the Lord. If we would only carefully listen and take them to heart! That’s what we hope to do today.
Corinth was a city of over half a million people, most of whom were actually slaves. It was a center for trade where commerce flourished. At the same time, you know what else flourished as well was all kinds of immorality. Aphrodite was at the heart of their religious ceremonies as they prostituted themselves with one another worship of her. The Roman people said of someone who had become completely useless because of his or her addiction to sex that they’d become corinthianized. What a city to be stuck in, especially for a holy man of God like Paul! I think Paul must have been so lonely for his companions, especially for Silas and Timothy, having been left all alone in Athens and now here again in Corinth. And to make matters worse, he was out of money. But there was no cause for concern, especially for someone who neither had a slave mentality nor was a beggar at heart. You know, those who get too comfortable being supported and cared for by others usually don’t know what to do in times of hardship or if they’re left to fend for themselves. Such people only know how to take and take and have no idea how to give. So they end up weaseling their way into someone’s generous heart. But Paul was no taker. He’s the one who repeated the Lord’s words: “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” (Acts 20:35) Like the Lord, at heart, Paul was a giver. And God was guiding his steps in Corinth. Look at verses 2-3. He met up with a couple of Jews Aquila and Priscilla who had recently been exiled from Rome, who like him were tentmakers by trade. And “He stayed and worked with them.”
It’s truly amazing how the sovereign God provided all that his servant needed in his time of loneliness and privation. He was alone and destitute in a city that’s seemingly a hub for wickedness and everything that’s contrary to the gospel in which Paul stood. Yet in the midst of all this, Paul trusted the Lord, and the faithful Lord led him to share common life with new coworkers and friends who turned out to eventually become one of his closest companions in the kingdom’s work. More than that, God Almighty didn’t leave him to be a burden on them, but rather he worked side by side with them as a self supporting missionary, even setting a good example for all who would walk in his footsteps of faith. It was Paul who loved and served this precious family of two banished Jews. He mentored them in the Christian faith until they basically became the first pioneers of the house church. As we will later see, this shepherd family did not waste time to walk in Paul’s footsteps of faith. They were quick to mentor others in Christ, and to nurture them in the word of God until they could stand on their own two feet and be ready to be sent out as missionaries to the world. One of these is the renowned Apollos who was raised in their house church. All this could happen in God’s glorious plan when Paul trusted God to take care of all his needs— as we all should. A child of God should never be “anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving” (Philippians 4:6) present any and every request to him in faith ever trusting God’s faithfulness.
So, Paul now became what is known as a lay missionary or a self-supporting missionary. Which means that while fully devoted to the work of God, he supported himself as well as the ministry or church he belonged to or the one he helped build wherever he was working. And so he did. Look at verse 4. It seems that he continued his custom of visiting the synagogue where his fellow Jews congregated to read scripture in order to reason with them. It’s not difficult to know what his topic of reasoning with them was all about. Look at verse 5. “When Silas and Timothy came from Macedonia, Paul devoted himself exclusively to preaching, testifying to the Jews that Jesus was the Christ.” And that was always the object of his testimony to the Jews, that Jesus is the Christ, the long awaited Messiah. Paul had been waiting for his coworkers to join him for a long time. He didn’t mind working as a tentmaker at all. But God had set him apart exclusively for preaching and teaching the gospel. While he was alone, he could not completely devote himself to the task. But now that they had finally arrived to relieve him of a few responsibilities, Paul was ready to spend every moment of the day preaching and testifying about the Christ.
What was his testimony like, and why was he so qualified as a witness? Paul had never believed his own testimony himself. He was a man devoted to the Law, preaching and teaching the laws of Moses. A Jews lives and dies by these laws. Lawbreakers are condemned to death, while those who honor the law are shown mercy. Gentiles were sinners. God is Judge. Things were black and white for Paul until the coming of Christ. Christ was love. He showed mercy. He forgave sinners. He gave his life on the cross to redeem the worst offenders of the law. He rose from the dead to bring in hope of salvation and new life to anyone who has faith, Jew or Gentile. At first Paul resisted and persecuted the Christ. But when the Christ didn’t condemn him but rather showed him mercy instead, Paul was won over by the Messiah’s love and forgiveness and endless mercy. His eyes were open to see the Savior, to acknowledge his one sided grace, and to preach only faith in him to ignorant people. Indeed Paul was the perfect witness to testify about Jesus. Surely, he was eager to devote exclusively to this mission.
Many of us understand Paul well enough. When the Lord has rescued you from the clutches of hell on earth or even from the gutters of life and brought you into the peace of his loving hands and kingdom, how can you but devote your life to testifying to his glory? Indeed he is the Christ, for who else would show such mercy to us who were once lost in sin, pursuing nothing but the pleasures of sin, doing nothing but sinning and causing others to sin by our life and influence. But when no one cared what judgment we would received on the day we would stand before God’s judgment seat, one Man did— the Christ. He laid down his life for us and redeemed us from the curse of sin; he forgave us our offenses against God and against one another; he adopted us as his brothers and sisters— the children of God. It is our honor and privilege whether we are lay or full time gospel workers to testify to this amazing grace and mercy. Paul couldn’t wait to help his people who were still caught up by their slavery to the law to be set free by the gospel of Jesus’ grace. All they had to do was to trust the Lord Jesus and put their faith in him.
Astonishingly, the Jews who should fully understand Paul’s incessant reasoning from the Scriptures in regards to the Christ, did not! Actually as expected, they opposed him, and became abusive. So this time, unlike all other times, what did he do? Look at his macabre words in verse 6. “You blood be on your own heads! I am clear of my responsibility. From now on I will go to the Gentiles.” Wow. He could have argued and pleaded with them some more. But he didn’t. Paul took this as God’s clear direction for him to leave off, for from the start when God had called him to ministry, the Lord already indicated to him that his calling was not particularly to the Jews but to the Gentiles. And it took a while for him to finally digest or accept this painful reality. It’s like telling you, “It’s not for you to be the agent through which your children will turn their hearts to the Lord, it will be others by whom they will be converted.” How painful it to for a parent to accept that his or her son or daughter will not receive the gospel through anything they can do, but that strangers will one day come and eyes will be opened, and light would shine through, and a soul will be born again— but not through them. Paul finally accepted God’s direction. “Your blood be on your own heads”, however, is an ominous statement. When the message of life is given time and again, and explained and a soul is pleaded with and encouraged and warned and loved over and over again, and is only met with pride, there’s a danger that where God’s message of life takes no root, only blood and death follow that soul— and by its own doing. “From now on I will go to the Gentiles” Paul said, and so he did.
Actually he didn’t go all that far— just next door it seems to the house of Titius Justus, a worshiper of God (7). And this probably became the location of the Christian church in Corinth. Something else happened to probably to the dismay of the Jewish community who opposed Paul. “Crispus, the synagogue ruler, and his entire household believed in the Lord; and many of the Corinthians who heard him believed and were baptized.” (8) We cannot deny that it was surely the incredible work of the Holy Spirit who did this— the conversion of the leader of the entire Jewish community there and his whole family. That’s how the church in Corinth began to grow from infancy to become one of the leading churches in Europe. And that was just next door to this Jewish synagogue that harbored such hostility and hatred for Paul. You can imagine what it felt like for him to go and come to church every day having to pass that way! You might think that Paul by now is used to all kinds of hardship and hostile attacks, that such things might be easier to endure when one has grown familiar with them. But no one can become used to suffering. Suffering is the one thing in life that forever remains a thorn we humans— regardless of how mature we may be— must face either with valor and endure it, or with cowardice and give in to. One produces perseverance and character (Romans 5:3) and the other produces shame and a sense of loss and failure. (2 Timothy 1:12) In this situation however, God intervened for Paul. He hadn’t done so like this before.
Look at verses 9-10. “One night the Lord spoke to Paul in a vision: ‘Do not be afraid; keep on speaking, do not be silent. For I am with you, and no one is going to attack and harm you, because I have many people in this city.’” We wonder why the Lord did this. Paul had been in worse situations than this before, and the Lord had not intervened in this dramatic way. Why now? We ourselves can never tell why the Lord did this because we are only human and we have no capacity to read nor to know hearts. To our eyes Paul was the most courageous man on the face of the earth. He was stoned to near death in Lystra and then when he recovered, he got up and went straight back! (14:20) Right after being severely flogged to near fainting, he began singing hymns in his prison cell in Philippi. (16:25) Look at the list of his unpleasant encounters in 2 Corinthians 11:21-29. The point is that to our eyes, Paul is almost inhuman in facing trials and hardship. But that’s our own judgment based on what we see with our limited vision. But God who sees the heart knows differently. God says to this seemingly invincible undaunted man “Do not be afraid.” He says to him: “Keep on speaking.” He says to him: “Do not be silent.” He also says to him: “I am with you, and no one is going to attack and harm you, because I have many people in this city.” These words shed a different light on the state of Paul’s heart and mind. Apparently he was human just like you and me! And apparently, he needed much encouragement in many areas of his life, just like you and me do on occasion.
Who would ever imagine that Paul could be afraid. But he was. Paul experienced fear which the Lord alone sensed in his heart. Who knows how and why such fear may have surfaced. After much abuse from so many people in so many places, it may be that he was tired of it. It may be that he began to have bad dreams of the abuse and suffering he received, dreading the next one coming. Even the most faithful and devout people of the Lord experience this at times. Sometimes, the fear of something bad recurring may haunt their nights such that they cannot sleep well. Even a recurring sin problem may terrify a faithful soul and paralyze it with dread of future recurrence. But at a time like this the Lord spoke to Paul’s heart saying: “Do not be afraid.” It was the same counsel and encouragement the Lord had to often give his disciples when they felt afraid. The Lord is our Father, he is not a slave driver who expects us to be at our best at all times. He is also our healer who wants to see us well. He is our loving Mother who wants to comfort us in our troubles. What else can melt the fear of our hearts, whatever that fear may be, other than the Lord’s sure love and his encouraging words.
“Keep on speaking, do not be silent.” What an amazing encouragement and command. And what an amazing insight into Paul’s heart as well. What might Paul have considered I wonder? Could he have considered a hiatus from speaking? Or a short break from preaching the gospel? Perhaps a vow of silence? I don’t know! Sometimes when I’m really frustratingly tired of saying something to those I love and they’re bent on not listening, I think to myself: “I’m just going to keep quiet, let them suffer the consequences. They need to learn the hard way!” I’m not sure what was going on in Paul’s heart, but the Lord surely caught him on this and encouraged him, basically commanded him not to be silent, but to keep on speaking. I know it’s hard for gospel workers in this day and age to continue going out to the field of work in obedience to the Lord’s command in order to share the gospel of life with those who haven’t heard it. People today have an “I don’t care about anything except what’s in it for me” attitude, and they won’t give you the time of day to even stop and talk about, especially the Lord or his gospel. Who can blame us for wanting to keep silent, for not wanting to speak anymore? But in all honesty, the Lord’s words touch us at the core of our hearts urging us never to be silent. They are not just words. They are his command to those who belong to him, to those who have been touched and transformed by his words, and know the value of the spoken word. We cannot, should never be silent. We should ever be vocal speaking, preaching, teaching, testifying, declaring, communicating, expounding his gospel of grace. More than that, we should also be raising the banner of his majesty anywhere and everywhere without fail, even if it costs us our lives. Whenever there’s a temptation to give up, let the Lord’s words be the strength of your heart.
The Lord also told Paul these words: “For I am with you, and no one is going to attack and harm you….” Paul expected attacks because every time the gospel took root some place, there was always a strong opposition to this glorious work of God. Satan will not rest when the gospel is finding its way into people’s hearts and the kingdom of God is growing. Paul understood the spiritual world and reality well enough to know that attacks on him and on the gospel work are sure to come now. Maybe it troubled him to envision the angry faces of those who would be his new enemies, cursing and abusing his new converts who would have to suffer for no other reason than for their love for Christ. Who would be safe with such a crowd living next door! But the Lord deeply comforted Paul on this occasion, saying to him: “I am with you”. It was these words that brought comfort and strength to his heart. Not being attacked is good. But knowing that the Lord is with us is even better. To know this is the source of spiritual power. How can I know that the Lord is with me?
Almost every year we study the passage “Emmanuel God with us”, in order to deeply understand and accept this spiritual reality and truth. Yet, many soon forget it. The Lord is with us, indeed, in Christ who gave his life for us, and rose again for us, and ascended and sent the Holy Spirit to dwell with us, that he might be with in us and with us— always and forever. You need not ask: Is the Lord with me? You only need to acknowledge his words: “I am with you” from your heart. As a child of God how can he but be with you, and in you. Our relationship with the Lord is the source of our strength and power and comfort and joy. The Lord merely reminded Paul of his presence and made him a promise that this time no one will be attacking you. Paul took this to heart. You and I need to take this to heart as well. During this time of year, “I am with you” should be the most important message we hold on to because the message of Christmas is largely a message of his leaving heaven to come and to be with us. And his death and resurrection which followed is also a confirmation of his coming to be in us and with us. With faith, this is what we glory in not only during Christmas season, but at thanksgiving, we give thanks for the Lord who tells us: “I am with you”, and we pray to always remember this truth, because it is the source of our strength and driving force behind everything we do for his glory. Amen.