Reading through Acts 18, we see suffering and struggle mixed with hope and victory. Paul’s story is one of difficulty and emotion mixed with hope and joy. I love this chapter because we see a totally different side of Paul: the human and relatable sides. We often think of Paul as superhuman; however within this chapter, we see a side of Paul that, like you and I, sometimes needs a little encouragement.
In Acts 18, Luke gives us insight into the humanity of Paul. You see, opposition and hatred against Paul and the gospel are increasing and Paul was becoming afraid and having doubts about whether he should leave Corinth and become silent for a while. Basically, Paul thought this was becoming too dangerous to continue. This is when the Lord showed up to a discouraged and frustrated Paul in a vision during the quiet of the night. Let’s catch the back story before making some observations from Paul’s vision.
Paul was in one of Greece’s largest and most prosperous cities. His routine entering cities was to take the gospel to the Jews first by preaching at the synagogue. In turn, the Jews rejected Paul’s preaching and abused him. Paul responded by shaking his cloak out at them. Paul then moved “next door” and took his message to the Gentiles. It is in this backdrop that the Lord showed up to speak with Paul. Luke left out the details as to what Paul was feeling, but we have some clues based on what the Lord said to him. First, because this was a vision and not a dream, Paul likely was up at night, agonizing over the repeated frustrations that disturbed him in preaching the gospel. Here are a few things Paul heard God say, as recorded in Acts 18:9-10; things that should encourage us in our lives even today:
“Do not be afraid,” which all of us can relate to, whether it is stepping out in new ministry or staying in a difficult place or season. We all have fears to which the Lord says, “Take courage.”
“Speak, and do not keep silent,” this counters what is often the response of a fearful person. We can easily stop speaking up, because we think, “What is the use?” God encourages us to keep speaking, encouraging us and saying, “Don’t give up.”
“I am with you,” These words to Paul do not refer to Christ's general presence everywhere as we so often refer to as His omnipresence. Rather they refer to his special nearness to his faithful children. Christ's nearness means that he is personally here to communicate his will, love and fellowship to us. He is present to act in every situation of our lives to bless, help protect and guide.
We see this even in the Old Testament passages where God stated that he was with his faithful. When Moses was afraid to return to Egypt, God said I will be with you, we see this in Exodus 3:12. When Joshua assumed the leadership of Israel after Moses's death, God promised again, I will be with you, I will never leave you nor forsake you, found in Joshua 1:5. And God encouraged Israel with these words, when you pass through the waters; I will be with you. Do not be afraid, for I am with you—Isaiah chapter 43: 2 and 5.
Now looking in the New Testament Matthew states that the purpose of Jesus coming to Earth was to achieve the nearness of God to His people. His name is Emmanuel, meaning God with Us found in Matthew chapter 1 verses 23. Again, at the end of his Gospel, Matthew records Jesus's promise to His disciples, and surely I am with you always, found in Matthew chapter 28, verse 20. Mark and his gospel speak this as well with the words; then the disciples went out and preached everywhere, and the Lord worked with them. Found in Mark 16:20.
4. Another thing we see is that God reminds Paul that he isn’t alone in this. Not only does God remind Paul that He is with him but also, there is a community of people there to surround him as well. He says, “I have many people in this city.” Not only do we have the promise of the presence of God but also, a present people in Christ to pick us up when we’re down, to encourage us when we’re weak and to help us realign ourselves to the mission God has called us to.
After receiving this vision from God, Paul stayed another 18 months (about a year and a half), establishing one of the most dysfunctional churches in recorded history. But God knew what was coming and still wanted this church to exist.
We can take comfort in the realization that God reminded Paul that He was with him. Even in his distress, his fear, his doubts and anger. God knows where we are and what we are facing. He even knows the future problems that will come, but He asks us to persevere anyway with the promise that He will never leave us nor forsake us.