Much More Than A Matter of Words

“So he left there and went to the house of a man named Titius Justus, a worshiper of God, whose house was next door to the synagogue. Crispus, the leader of the synagogue, believed the Lord, along with his whole household. Many of the Corinthians, when they heard, believed and were baptized. Then the Lord said to Paul in a night vision, “Don’t be afraid, but keep on speaking and don’t be silent. For I am with you, and no one will lay a hand on you to hurt you, because I have many people in this city.” And he stayed there a year and six months, teaching the word of God among them. While Gallio was proconsul of Achaia, the Jews made a united attack against Paul and brought him to the judge’s bench. “This man,” they said, “persuades people to worship God contrary to the law! ” As Paul was about to open his mouth, Gallio said to the Jews, “If it were a matter of a crime or of moral evil, it would be reasonable for me to put up with you Jews. But if these are questions about words, names, and your own law, see to it yourselves. I don’t want to be a judge of such things.” So he drove them from the judge’s bench. Then they all seized Sosthenes, the leader of the synagogue, and beat him in front of the judge’s bench. But none of these things concerned Gallio. So Paul, having stayed on for many days, said good-bye to the brothers and sailed away to Syria. Priscilla and Aquila were with him. He shaved his head at Cenchreae because he had taken a vow.” (Acts 18:7-18 HCSB)

Last week, we focused on Christ’s encouragement and reassurance to Paul that he would not be harmed by the Jews in Corinth for his preaching of Christ, “Don’t be afraid, speak out.” There’s no doubt that Paul had come to Corinth with a genuine fear, “When I came to you, brothers, announcing the testimony of God to you, I did not come with brilliance of speech or wisdom. For I didn’t think it was a good idea to know anything among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified. I came to you in weakness, in fear, and in much trembling. My speech and my proclamation were not with persuasive words of wisdom but with a powerful demonstration by the Spirit, so that your faith might not be based on men’s wisdom but on God’s power.” (1 Corinthians 2:1-5 HCSB) Paul appears to have been significantly impacted by his negative experiences in Athens, and he determines to come to Corinth relying simply on the basics of the Gospel, Christ and His crucifixion.

As a pastor, I receive numerous pieces of mail, email and personal phone calls and contacts related to the latest and greatest church growth ideas and trends. “Attend this seminar and learn how to grow your church into the next megachurch. Join us for this webinar and learn how to use the latest techniques to promote your church and see phenomenal results.” In fact, some pastors of very large churches seem to have become nothing more than a media icon to promote their new book or seminar on “how to make your church like mine” or “as big as mine!” We somehow seem to have forgotten Paul’s admonition to the Corinthian church, “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.” (1 Corinthians 3:6 ESV) God GAVE the growth! Yes, we must educate ourselves on how to fully utilize the technological and media tools God has given us but ultimately the real growth in the church comes from God’s hand.

Why do I point this out and what do I mean by REAL growth in the church? Paul is proclaiming the gospel in the midst of a culture that is expressing some significant opposition to its message and messenger. As I noted above, Paul had come to Corinth afraid of how they might respond. It is easy, in an environment of such opposition, to soften the message or change its “words” and, thus, weaken its power. A watered down WORD is weak and ineffective and that’s what has happened in many churches, today.

We face opposition on several sides, some don’t like the church’s moral stance regarding sexual ethics or gender identity. Some oppose our stance on abortion and rights of the yet-to-be-born. We were told, by Christ Himself, that we will always face opposition, especially when we faithfully follow His teachings, but that’s not really my point. Paul could have compromised his message as a means of placating the Jews, and reducing the opposition but he wouldn’t do so because it would have created unregenerate followers. What are unregenerate followers? People who like the “feel good” teachings of Christ, but reject the “hard sayings” of Christ that require us to forsake our sin and turn to Him. In other words, they like the parts of the gospel that talk about God’s love for us, but they balk at the parts that call us sinners in need of God’s grace and forgiveness.

Many churches have begun backing away from a Biblical commitment to truth because it is rejected by and considered backward by our modern culture. In doing so, they have begun to emphasize those aspects of God’s character and Jesus’ teaching that they like while minimizing or outright denying the aspects of God’s character and Jesus’ teaching they dislike. For example, it is easy to emphasize that “God so loved the world” while completely overlooking the rest of that verse, “that He gave His one and only Son so that whoever believes in Him would not perish but have eternal life.” They emphasize God’s love but ignore the fact that, without faith in Him, we will all die in our sin. I will readily admit that in the past the church has often emphasized a “Nike” moralistic approach to faith, JUST DO IT! As if, being morally good is enough to merit God’s blessings and eternal life.

That’s precisely the the issue that Paul is dealing with here. The Jews believe that their moral superiority, Biblical heritage, beliefs and ethnic lineage guarantees their relationship with God. As Isaiah reminded them, their moral goodness, when devoid of absolute and true love for God, is nothing more than dirty, filthy, blood soaked linens in God’s sight (Isaiah 64-65). Their moral goodness and religious devotion had abandoned its focus on God and had refocused on themselves. They had stopped offering up sacrifices, love, worship and devotion to an eternally holy and just God had begun performing mere religious rituals. They claim that they are obediently following God’s laws and commands, but their heart is not in it. Malachi documents this, as well, when he says that they offer up sacrifices of animals that are lame, blind or sick or when the Levites only serve in the Temple because of the pay.

Just like the Jews, we often get these things reversed. We think that our actions and moral goodness ought to merit God’s love when, in reality, God’s love and sacrifice for us ought to merit our obedience and adoration of Him. In other words, the Jews didn’t believe they needed a religious Savior because they were their own savior. They were simply looking for a political savior who would resolve their political and social struggles. Wow, doesn’t that sound like our modern culture? We don’t need God to save our souls, because we are all, basically, good moral people. We can save ourselves, religiously or spiritually. Instead, one side searches for a political and social savior who can help us resolve our shortcomings in those areas while the other side searches for a moral and economic savior who will address those failures.

Why am I so focused on this issue today and what does it have to do with our focal passage? First, notice the charges brought by the outraged members of the Synagogue, “this man persuades people to worship God contrary to the law!” They claim that the gospel Paul is preaching puts them in direct opposition to the Roman law. Rome had given the Jews lots of religious leniency when it came to their worship and obedience to the Mosaic law. However, these Jews are trying to claim that Paul is forcing them to choose between obedience to God and obedience to Caesar. In reality, Paul is forcing them to really choose between God and themselves. That’s the very claim that the prophet Malachi was making, they only serve God for what they receive from it and they claim to be obedient when, in reality, they are not.

This is the same issue we face today with obedience to scripture in our culture. We aren’t really in opposition to our laws, per se, but we are in opposition to a cultural perception of our personal rights and freedoms (if you think I’m off base, consider the argument surrounding just abortion – our culture focuses the issue on women’s rights, sexual health and personal choice). What Christ demands is that the person who wants to follow Him “must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow Me.” (Matthew 16:24 HCSB) Are there times and places when following Christ puts someone in opposition to their government? Absolutely. There are many examples in scripture and throughout history. Most of the Apostles would, eventually, die at the hands of their government or religious leadership for their faith. But, in all honesty, Caesar is never our primary threat to obedience, we are. The church has always grown and blossomed in the heat of persecution and the blood of martyrdom. But we often whither, wilt and sometimes die in the heat of selfishness, prosperity and materialism.

Next, notice what Gallio said, “these are questions about words, names, and your own [religious] law.” In other words, he saw no relevance to Rome or the people of Corinth in regards to these issues. He saw it as a strictly Jewish religious question that had no bearing on his rule over Achaia or his people’s lives. That is exactly how our culture views these very same questions, today. When we start talking about Jesus and the gospel, they often tune us out because they believe it is irrelevant, old fashioned and out of touch with their lives. It isn’t that they have no interest in spiritual things, they are very interested in those things. They just feel that the differences among modern religions are just matters of “words, names and your [religious] laws.” Like Gallio, they dismiss us with a wave of their hand and a curt comment of “that may be fine for you, but not for me.”

In other words, they think that all religious roads lead to the same place “so don’t get so stressed out about it. Just do the best you can. We’ll all get there, eventually.” Modern Universalism. In essence, they spout a false gospel of “God loves us, so He wouldn’t condemn anyone to Hell. The whole idea of Hell is just ludicrous and doesn’t represent a God of love like the Bible portrays.” Jesus told us that our hearts would relentlessly pursue whatever it was that we most treasured, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Luke 12:34 HCSB) If you understand that admonition, God doesn’t condemn you to Hell for your choices, you do. He simply gives you what you wanted most and, tragically, that’s not Him.

God loves you so much that He doesn’t force His love upon you and He doesn’t force love, for Himself, out of you. He has given each of us the ability to choose, to choose life or death, blessing or cursing, Him or you. If your treasure is your own personal satisfaction and fulfillment, He allows you to pursue it. If your treasure is personal achievement, He allows you to pursue it. If your treasure is sexual pleasure and self expression, He allows you to pursue it. But each of these pursuits (along with so many others) simply lead you away from Him and from real life. You see, the promise of eternal life is not really about longevity or quantity, it is really about quality. It is about finding the real source, satisfaction and joy of life, Him. That can’t be found anywhere else or in anyone else, only Jesus.

C.S. Lewis made the observation that “Christianity, if false, is of no importance, and, if true, of infinite importance. The one thing it cannot be is moderately important.” If Jesus is who He claimed to be, then His words are exclusive and knowing and following Him is of the utmost importance. Lewis went on to say, “A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic– on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg – or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronising nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.”

Let me end with this simple reminder from Jesus, “I am the door. If anyone enters by me, he will be saved and will go in and out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.” (John 10:9-10 ESV)

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