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The Spreading Flame - Series 5: Episode 5

Corinth - the dynamics of church planting

| Martin Charlesworth
Acts 18:1-28

Paul moves to Corinth where he has a team to help him spread the gospel. They leave the synagogue along with the leader of the synagogue who had become a believer. Paul then travels back to his sending church in Antioch in Syria before his next mission.

Paul moves to Corinth where he has a team to help him spread the gospel. They leave the synagogue along with the leader of the synagogue who had become a believer. Paul then travels back to his sending church in Antioch in Syria before his next mission.


Thanks for joining us for this episode as we’re continuing the story of Paul as the Gospel goes to Europe. This all started to happen because, as we saw at the very beginning of this series, Paul had a vision while he was in the province of Asia Minor, modern day Turkey, where a man called him to come over and help them in the province of Macedonia in northern Greece.

Background and Introduction

We’ve seen in the last few episodes that Paul changed his strategy, he moved direction. He took a boat with his team to cross the Aegean Sea and ended up in Macedonia, the northern part of Greece. In the episodes since then in series 5, we’ve seen Paul travel from city to city, preaching in all sorts of complex and difficult circumstances with remarkable results but continuous opposition, in Philippi, Thessalonica and Berea, in the northern part of the country in Macedonia.

In the last episode we saw that he was separated from the main members of his team, Timothy and Silas, and travelled to work alone in the city of Athens, the cultural capital of Greece, 450 km away from Berea, where his colleagues were. In the last episode, we saw a remarkable series of events, by which Paul was able to get to the central debating society within Athens, and was able to present the Christian faith to those who listened, at a place called the Areopagus. One or two people actually believed at that point. Here is Paul working on his own in very different circumstances in Athens. We left the story at the end with the statement that just a few people believed. Acts 17:34 says,

34 Some of the people became followers of Paul and believed. Among them was Dionysius, a member of the Areopagus, and also a woman named Damaris, and a number of others.

Acts 17:34, NIV

That brings to an end the story of Paul in the city of Athens. It appears he didn’t stay there very long, he didn’t have a team and this might be the reason. He wanted to preach the Gospel because he preached the Gospel wherever he went but Paul always looked for a team, and his own team members were a long way further north in Berea. They were working with the new church there. Silas and Timothy hadn’t arrived yet in Athens. For reasons that are not entirely clear at the beginning of this episode, Paul decides to move to a new city - to go to Corinth.

Paul Goes to Corinth

We see church planting taking place in remarkable circumstances in the city of Corinth. Let’s read the first four verses and try to understand what is going on in this situation.

1 After this, Paul left Athens and went to Corinth. 2 There he met a Jew named Aquila, a native of Pontus, who had recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla, because Claudius had ordered all Jews to leave Rome. Paul went to see them, 3 and because he was a tentmaker as they were, he stayed and worked with them. 4 Every Sabbath he reasoned in the synagogue, trying to persuade Jews and Greeks.

Acts 18v1-4, NIV

He’s travelling 80 km west of Athens and is now at an even further point away from his home base in Antioch in northern Syria. He’s away from his team but he’s travelling to a new and, to him, an unknown city. What was he going to do about finance? What was he going to do about a team? How is he going to cope with opposition? Where was he going to stay? Why did he go to Corinth in the first place? It appears the Holy Spirit must have led him in this decision because it was a risky decision. He was getting even further away from his friends, the churches he’s planted and his home base. But he felt the Holy Spirit was calling him to go there. In these verses, we can see why because there are two disciples of Jesus already in Corinth, two that Paul didn’t know anything about, as far as we can tell. Priscilla and Aquila are a remarkable couple who had a business of leather working or tent making, exactly the same trade that Paul had been trained in. That was an interesting point. They had arrived in Corinth because they’d been forced to leave their previous home in the capital city of Rome because the Emperor Claudius had a time when he was opposing the Jewish religion and probably the Christian faith as well, and he expelled the Jewish people. They would have had a Jewish background too, but they were believers in Jesus. All these people had to leave. They decided, for reasons we don’t know, to come to Corinth. Isn’t it amazing that Paul could meet these people and immediately hundreds of kilometres away from his friends, away from any possible support, he finds people that he can work with? He even finds a home, he can stay in their house and they’re even doing a business that he can help with. They made all sorts of different leather products - saddles, jackets, belts and shoes and tents and sold them in the marketplace. This was a very important trade in the ancient world. Paul was skilled in this area. Here was a great base, a great formation for him to work with Priscilla and Aquila.

Paul immediately went to work preaching in the synagogue. As always, he chooses the point of contact with the local community, and what’s the best point of contact? The best point of contact is his fellow Jewish community. So, he goes there and he preaches to them. He’s taken a big step of faith and God has met him as he reached out into the unknown and obeyed the prompt of the Holy Spirit. There’s a great lesson for us there. In all of our lives, the same principle applies. There are times when God calls us to do something risky and it’s only when we step out in faith that we find God’s resources coming to us. It’s only when Paul arrives in Corinth that he realised he could really work here. In Athens he didn’t have enough human resources, he didn’t have enough people to form a community but here he could do it. He’s going to stay in Corinth for a long time. We find out later on that it’s eighteen months, which is a very long time for Paul to stay.


But what sort of a city has he arrived in? This is very different from Athens. Athens was a cultural capital, quite a sophisticated and educated city that liked the arts and architecture, a very religious city, filled with civic pride and with a great history, as the capital city of a previous empire. Corinth is a totally different place. Corinth is situated in a location near to ports on the north and south side of a small strip of land where goods had to cross over from one sea to another. It was on a trade route, it was the centre of trading. This was a commercial centre and a very cosmopolitan city. People from all sorts of places in the Roman Empire and beyond came to Corinth, traded there, and lived there. As a city, connected with seafaring and trading, it was associated with many people, including sailors who came, and all the loose morals of people working away from home - lots of prostitution, lots of drinking, lots of illegal activities and black-marketeering. That’s the city that Paul has arrived in. This city is going to be very challenging for him; it’s not going to be easy. But he knows he should be there and he’s going to invest a lot of energy and time in this city. Acts 18:5 - 11:

The Team Increases

5 When Silas and Timothy came from Macedonia, Paul devoted himself exclusively to preaching, testifying to the Jews that Jesus was the Messiah. 6 But when they opposed Paul and became abusive, he shook out his clothes in protest and said to them, “Your blood be on your heads! I am innocent of it. From now on I will go to the Gentiles.” 7 Then Paul left the synagogue and went next door to the house of Titius Justus, a worshiper of God. 8 Crispus, the synagogue leader, and his entire household believed in the Lord and many of the Corinthians who heard Paul believed and were baptised. 9 One night the Lord spoke to Paul in a vision: “Do not be afraid, keep on speaking, do not be silent. 10 For I am with you, and no one is going to attack and harm you, because I have many people in this city.” 11 So Paul stayed in Corinth for a year and a half, teaching them the word of God.

Acts 18:5-11, NIV

The great news for Paul is that his team doubles quickly. He’s got Priscilla and Aquila and now he’s got Silas and Timothy, they found him. It doesn’t tell us how they found him because they were told to go to Athens as Paul was going to Athens when he left Berea. That was the place he was in. They must have gone to Athens and got a message from some people who knew Paul, that he’d gone on to Corinth. Maybe he left a message with the few believers that were in Athens. This is one of those little details we don’t know the answer to. They found him, and Paul was thrilled when his teammates joined him. They must have had a great time sharing the stories of what had happened in Berea for them, what had happened for Paul in Athens and now, look at this new situation developing here. He devotes his energy full-time to preaching. Priscilla and Aquila are willing to fund the team. Probably they all stayed in the same house and they started meeting with people in the house. His work in the synagogue was controversial, as it always was with Paul there was always a division amongst the Jews wherever he went. Some believed in Jesus miraculously, and many opposed strongly.

Leaving the Synagogue

The opposition became too strong. Paul couldn’t continue with the synagogue any more but by then, amazingly, the house next door had a Gentile Greek family, who were very willing for Paul to use that as a base. That must have been really tough for the people in the synagogue. You kick out the man and he sets up next door, literally next door on the street. What is more, the synagogue ruler leaves the synagogue because he and his whole family have believed and goes next door with Paul. It has a tremendous drama in it. The synagogue ruler is the most respected leader of the Jewish community in the whole city, he carries tremendous authority in the Jewish community and yet God has broken through to him and he says, “I now believe that Jesus is our Jewish Messiah”. He has to leave the synagogue. Crispus joins Titius Justus next door with Paul, with Priscilla and Aquila, with Timothy and with Silas. These are the names of the first members of the community and Crispus’ family and Titius Justus’ family, no doubt, and others who are not named. A little church community starts in this house and it appears that many people get drawn in. Now, the local people in Corinth who are not part of the Jewish community, hear the Gospel and they respond and are baptised.

Wonderfully, during this process, when Paul was wondering where this was all going and what he should do, and the Jews were threatening him, God spoke to him in a vision. Remember, the threats of the Jews were difficult for him because they were next door to the meeting place. They could interrupt the meetings, they could infiltrate, they could go on the street, they could slander him, or they could represent their case to the civic authorities and say, “You need to get this man, Paul, out of this city because he’s causing trouble and is dividing the Jewish community.” That’s the sort of trouble that they were causing. The Jews were abusive, it says in the text here. But while all this was going on, this beautiful vision comes, “Do not be afraid, keep on speaking, do not be silent.” In other words, don’t be intimidated by the threats of your opponents. This is a word for us even today in our churches all over the world because very often there’s such pressure on us and God often comes and says, “Keep speaking my words, don’t be silent, for I am with you.” He says to Paul, “No one is going to attack and harm you, because I have many people in this city.” The thing that Paul feared, probably more than anything else, was kidnapping. A Jewish community could just take him off the streets, kidnap him and take him out and then beat him, or even murder him. These were everyday occurrences in the ancient Roman Empire, as they are today in many parts of the world. Your opponents can kidnap you, can murder you, can take you out, can imprison you. But the Lord says, “No one is going to attack or harm you.” Paul felt that there was divine protection for him to continue his mission. In some other cities, he has been in, on this trip, he hasn’t had that same promise, when the pressures come on, he has decided to leave the city. He left the cities of Philippi, Thessalonica and Berea in a hurry. He didn’t have that divine promise of protection. It’s not a universal promise in every circumstance. It’s a particular promise to this situation in Corinth. Paul felt that this was the place to invest his time and build up a strong Christian community that could reach out to the neighbouring cities. So, he stayed eighteen months. That’s a long time in Paul’s ministry. There are very few places that he stays that long. It was a strategic investment.

More Opposition

There was trouble, Acts 18:12 - 17:

12 While Gallio was proconsul in Achaia, the Jews of Corinth made a united attack on Paul and brought him to the place of judgment. 13 “This man,” they charged, “is persuading the people to worship God in ways contrary to the law.” 14 Just as Paul was about to speak, Gallio said to them, “If you Jews were making a complaint about some misdemeanour or serious crime, it would be reasonable for me to listen to you. 15 But since it involves questions about words and names and your own law— settle the matter yourselves. I will not be a judge of such things.” 16 So he drove them off. 17 Then the crowd there turned on Sosthenes the synagogue leader and beat him in front of the proconsul and Gallio showed no concern whatever.

Acts 18:12-17, NIV

The word that God had given to Paul was fulfilled, he was protected. Here was a very dangerous situation where he was being accused before the local ruler who had the power to punish him but it all went wrong for the Jewish accusers and Paul never had to face trial. His freedom was maintained.

It’s important to think for a moment about the fact that we have a great record of Paul’s engagement with the Corinthian church, because we have the two letters 1 and 2 Corinthians; two long letters written to this very church, shortly after this period. As he was travelling around, he had communication with the Corinthian church. Various problems arose in the church. They even sent a deputation of people to see Paul. They sent a letter to him asking him various questions and he responded by writing the letters which we know as 1 Corinthians and 2 Corinthians. We know that in this church, although there was a living faith and strong believers, there was a very difficult situation with some wrong practices and wrong relationships and some misunderstanding of basic doctrine taking place. It appears that the ongoing leadership in that local church wasn’t very strong. None of these people stayed here. Priscilla and Aquila, as we’ll see in a moment, travelled away from the city with Paul. Silas and Timothy also left after a period of time. The other people who were left looking after this church struggled and we can see that as we study 1 and 2 Corinthians. We’ll leave that aside for the moment because our story moves on from Corinth.

Preparations for the Next Step

We come to the final part of our story for today, Acts 18:18 - 28:

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 in Caesarea, he went up to Jerusalem and greeted the church and then went down to Antioch. 23 After spending some time in Antioch, Paul set out from there and travelled from place to place throughout the region of Galatia and Phrygia, strengthening all the disciples. 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 fervour 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.

Acts 18:18-28, NIV

This passage describes people moving around in preparation for the next part of the story. Paul leaves Corinth but he takes Priscilla and Aquila with him to Ephesus. He’s travelling back across the Aegean Sea, back to Asia Minor, to modern day Turkey, to the city of Ephesus - a major port city on the coast that he wanted to pass through. He left Priscilla and Aquila there. He spoke briefly in the synagogue but he felt it wasn’t the right time for him to be there. Paul clearly had in mind to come back to this city in the future, if God indicated that it was right for him to do this. Silas and Timothy stay on in Corinth for a bit longer. Paul presses on, travelling east, going back to Judea, ending up in the church in Jerusalem - the mother church - and greeting the church there, and then travelling to Antioch.

Antioch in Syria, of course, is very central to Paul’s life and very central to the book of Acts. It is his base. This is where he set out from for each of his missionary journeys. The first missionary journey he set out with Barnabas and John Mark. The second missionary journey he set out with Silas, his current main travelling companion and later he added in Timothy on the journey. He returns to his home base church and it appears that he spent some time there. He rested. He spoke to the church. They shared together all the news of things that had happened. Then Paul set off again on what we know as his third missionary journey, going back to some of the churches in nearby Asia Minor that he’d founded in the first missionary journey. The story ends here by describing things happening in Ephesus because the focus of the story is going to be Ephesus in the next episode, and this becomes a major part of Paul’s story. In Ephesus, we have Priscilla and Aquila and it appears that Paul has placed them there deliberately so that he can come back there and work with them to build the church. Another man is introduced into the story, a man called Apollos, who was clearly a believer with considerable communication skills and knowledge but he didn’t have a full understanding of all aspects of the Gospel, particularly the doctrine of baptism. Priscilla and Aquila help him while he’s in Ephesus and he then goes to Greece, and the story ends at that point. What Luke is doing in telling us about all these movements is preparing the way for the next major development, which is a massive mission that Paul initiates in the city of Ephesus.


What have we learnt from this episode, this story of the church in Corinth? I want to just say something about teamwork. There are lots of significant comments here about Paul’s team. As we are functioning in Christian ministry, whether you’re in a local church, planting churches, evangelising or trying to develop the work of God in any way, the key component for almost all ministry is effective teamwork. Paul was very concerned about this. This is why he didn’t stay in Athens; he didn’t have a team and this is why he invested in Corinth where he had a very good team - Timothy, Silas, Priscilla and Aquiler were all mature and talented people. We should be praying for, and seeking, healthy teams and being part of healthy teams to extend the Kingdom of God. This is how God does it.

I just want to comment briefly on Priscilla and Aquila as team members. These are some very significant people in the New Testament but they’re rarely focused on in Bible teaching. They are a married couple. We don’t know whether they had children or a family but we know they had a good business as leather workers and tent makers. We find them appearing first of all, in Rome and then they’re expelled from Rome. They came to Corinth, so they’ve moved from one country to another. Then Paul asked them to travel to Ephesus - that’s moving to another country, and later on in the New Testament, we find they end up back in Rome again. Here are people willing to travel as part of a team. They are not top leaders, they are enablers. They use hospitality, spiritual maturity, and are like mother and father to a growing church. They use their home for a house church movement and they disciple new believers. They’re not looking for the limelight, they’re looking to enable other talented leaders to move the Kingdom forward. We need many people like Priscilla and Aquila in the church. Paul depended heavily upon them. He knew that teams needed these sorts of people. The church today needs the Priscillas and Aquilas in every country, in every situation, in every generation. It might be you are one of those people. This episode is for you because it highlights the significance of those servants in teams - church planting, developing mission in the local church, discipling and raising the church to maturity.

Thanks for listening to this episode and please join us as we continue into the next episode and talk about the incredible work that Paul does in Ephesus.

Study Questions

The following questions have been provided to facilitate discussion or further reflection. Please feel free to answer any, or all the questions. Each question has been assigned a category to help guide you.

  • Exploring Faith
    Exploring Faith
    1. Who are the mature people you look up to like Aquila and Priscilla?
  • Discipleship
    1. What words has God given you in your situation - to stay or to go? Pray that you will know his will for you clearly
  • Further Study
    Further Study
    1. Use tagging to research jobs that the Apostles and disciples had. How did God use them?
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