And the Lord said to Paul one night in a vision, “Do not be afraid, but go on speaking and do not be silent, for I am with you, and no one will attack you to harm you, for I have many in this city who are my people.” And he stayed a year and six months, teaching the word of God among them. Acts 18.9-11.
Having had a cold reception in Athens (Acts 17), Paul moved on to Corinth but, despite preaching the Gospel in the synagogue Sabbath by Sabbath, he initially fared no better there. The Jews to whom he preached were largely unresponsive; so Paul — discouraged and frustrated — washed his hands of them and turned to the Gentiles. He moved into the house of a Gentile next door to the synagogue and, at that, two things happened. First, Crispus, the ruler of the synagogue (the very synagogue that Paul had just turned his back on!) became a Christian, along with all his household. Second, many of the Gentiles to whom Paul preached became Christians too.
And at that point, Paul seems to have been unsure how to proceed. Presumably, the Jews who had earlier “opposed and reviled” Paul (Acts 18.6) were now ready to do him violence in the wake of Crispus’ conversion, so perhaps Paul was wondering if it were time for him to move on before things spiralled out of control. But then Paul has a night vision in which Jesus speaks to him.
Jesus’ words are all words of reassurance. “Do not be afraid,” he tells Paul — just as he once told his disciples on the Sea of Galilee (Matthew 14.27) and just as he once told the women as he met them by his empty tomb (Matthew 28.10). “Go on speaking and do not be silent.” Why? “For I am with you, and no one will attack you to harm you, for I have many in this city who are my people.” But those two connected reasons for Paul to carry on evangelising in Corinth simply do not make sense if we take them at face value.
Why should Paul carry on because there are already lots of Christians living in Corinth? … Particularly when that was not even true! The fact was that, viewed from the “now” that Paul was living in, there were not lots of Christians in Corinth that Paul knew nothing about … there were just the recent converts and one or two others that Paul did know about. But, in the “now” that Jesus lived (and lives) in, the now of eternity, there were lots of Christians in Corinth that Paul had not yet met — all those who would become Christians as Paul heeded Jesus’ command to go on speaking and not be silent.
I find that such a lovely thought. That “the Lord knows those who are his” (2 Timothy 2.19) even before … from the perspective of this world’s time … they have actually become his. But they do in fact become his, and are his, from the perspective of eternity, only because I keep on doing what God calls me to do in my here and now. That has two implications. First, I cannot and must not say, “Oh well, if they are yours anyway I can keep quiet and say nothing and stop bearing witness to you and your reality”, because that might mean that the “they” who are the Lord’s will, from all eternity, never have included some people who, but for my silence, would otherwise have been there. But, second, I have no need to fret and worry about the effectiveness of my words and witness because, if what I am saying is what the Lord is prompting me to say at the time when the Lord is prompting me to say it, the outcome will be as he has already foreknown (and therefore predestined) it to be. It is all summed up in that phrase, “God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility”.
“And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified” (Romans 8.28-30). Yes … but as the Paul who penned those words knew full well, he had to make himself available as one of the instruments through whom God would do that calling … and so must I.