Bible study: Acts 18 – Helpers

Some thoughts from my personal Bible study, mainly asking questions of the text and pondering some potential answers.

Who are all these other people?

We’ve been hearing a lot about Paul in recent chapters of Acts. It’s the story of the beginning of the Church, as directed by one of its most famous missionaries. But here in chapter 18 it almost feels like Paul is taking a back seat, surrounded as he is by so many other Christians. Let’s just list them, shall we? In this chapter alone we hear about Aquila, Priscilla, Silas, Timothy, Titius Justus, Crispus, and Apollos. We don’t hear a huge amount about their individual stories, but we get a glimpse of them.

It struck me as I was reading all these names that something has fundamentally changed since the beginning of Acts. At first, it was all about the Apostles in Jerusalem. Then Paul comes along, along with a few hangers-on, and by the time we get to chapter 18 we’ve got influential and committed Christians all over the place. Paul may be one of the most famous, but he’s certainly not alone in his ministry.

Not too long ago, I felt quite like a lone Paul, weary from the solitary journey of service, feeling the weight of responsibility on my shoulders. I was leading worship almost every week, and if I wasn’t leading then I was providing the music, because we were very thin on the ground at church. Thankfully, that has all changed. New people have joined our congregation, and several have been musicians and worship leaders. The burden has been lifted, and I’m so grateful to God for them.

I feel a lot like Paul sometimes. When I came to the end of my time as a Chaplaincy Assistant a wise old friend prayed that I would have an “apostolic ministry” – I didn’t understand what he meant at the time, but in recent years I’ve begun to understand. I start things. I may not see them through to completion, because I let other people join in and take it onwards, but my ministry is a catalyst in getting it going in the first place. I can’t really claim credit for where all those people and groups are now, or where they’ll end up in the future, but I’m overjoyed to have been able to be part of their beginning. But the most wonderful part of an apostolic ministry is seeing it grow after you’ve left; I imagine Paul had the same joy, seeing all those other Christian leaders popping up all over the place!

How many Jews does it take to change a lightbulb?

Now, at this point I must apologise to any Jews who might read my blog. Reading through Acts does generally cast Jews in a very negative light, which isn’t really fair because we rarely get their side of the story. In Acts 18 we have yet another instance of the Jewish leaders rising up against Paul, taking him before the authorities to get something done about him. I’ve lost track of how many times it’s happened so far, and I’m sure it won’t be the last time either. It seems that no matter how many Jews oppose Paul, they just can’t do anything about him.

Let’s take a moment to think about the story from their perspective. The Jewish community today thrives on tradition (granted, my understanding of this is largely based on the musical “Fiddler on the roof”), and that was true 2000 years ago too. The Jewish nation, Israel, had been chosen by God to be set apart, special, chosen, to live differently to the rest of the world. They had clear rules about what was expected of them, how they should tackle pretty much any situation, from atonement to mildew, and the very best Jews were the ones that followed the rules to the letter. That kind of society breeds a resistance to change. It must have been very hard for them to hear Jesus’ message of grace, which did away with the regulations and brought everyone (not just Jews) into a personal relationship with God. That’s massive. That would be like the Church of today having to suddenly figure out whether aliens from Mars could be made bishops.

So, as much as we may joke about how the Jews were completely ineffective at stopping Paul, and clearly didn’t understand what was going on, let’s take a moment to appreciate how hard it was for them. Paul, amongst others, made a concerted effort to reach out to the Jews with Jesus’ message of grace, and in some cases were successful. But it wasn’t easy, on either side. I’m pretty sure there are things that I struggle to accept sometimes, too. Change can be difficult.

At the moment I’m really struggling with the results of the US Presidential election, and all the comments about Donald Trump. I’m not a supporter, not even close, but at the same time I’m not comfortable with all the ridicule and abuse that is being thrown his way. He’s doing his best to do what he believes is the right thing, and I’m pretty confident he’s not finding that easy right now. And, at the end of the day, he is a person, just like me, and Jesus loves him as much as he loves me. I need to remember to be gracious with other people, and forgiving, and understanding, even if I don’t agree with them. I need to make a conscious decision not to get involved in mud-flinging. I don’t want to be on that band-wagon when it falls over. As with the conflict between the early Church and the established Jewish leaders, time will tell.

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