“Then spake the Lord to Paul in the night by a vision, ‘Be not afraid, but speak, and hold not thy peace: for I am with thee, and no man shall set on thee to hurt thee: for I have much people in this city.’”
(Acts 8:9, 10)
The world is a visual place. The world makes our eyes busy. Videos, commercials, billboards—all these things stimulate and excite the eye. We live in a “seeing” culture where seeing is believing. Images flash before our eyes on TV like lightning; computer icons and ads try to make you look and click. The Christian faith, however, is different. It is not seeing to believe. The gospel is not something that stimulates our eyes. The eye is almost at rest in the Christian faith. The gospel is not “seeing is believing” but “hearing is believing.” The church is a place for the ears.
The book of Acts highlights speaking and hearing, not seeing. The whole book is really about Jesus’ saving word going forth to the ends of the earth. Chapter 18 is part of the building of Jesus’ church. Simply put, that is what these verses are about. The main point of these verses is this: through His word, Christ builds His church.
Christ is the one who takes the initiatives that lead to the expansion of the church. Notice how Jesus uses Paul to build His church in three ways. First, He builds the church with His commanding word. Then, Acts tells us how He builds His church with His encouraging word. Finally, Jesus builds His church with His Word proclaimed. Jesus and His Word are central to the whole enterprise. Do not miss that point! Jesus is on the throne as the great builder of His church—all authority has been given to Him in heaven and on earth. Thus, His apostles receive the commission to go to the ends of the earth with the gospel. Jesus is on the throne as a builder of His church.
Jesus’ Commanding Word
In Acts 18:9 Christ speaks to Paul in a vision. Paul is in the bustling city of Corinth, a trade-center, a busy city not too different from San Diego, perhaps. In Corinth, Paul met Aquilla and Priscilla, who would remain his brother and sister in Christ for years. While in Corinth, the Jews fought against Paul, hating the word that he preached; hating the gospel that he preached. Their opposition led Paul to tell them, “Fine! You reject this gospel—the blood is on your own heads. I told you about Christ, and you said no to Him; it is your own fault!”
This must have shaken Paul up a bit. A few years after this, Paul wrote a letter to this church (1 Corinthians), where he reminded them that he preached to them in “weakness and fear and trembling.” Paul was no doubt dis couraged, afraid, and ready to run away and just give up.
Then came the vision. Christ appeared to His despondent apostle, His servant. We know nothing of this vision, except that it happened at night. In the dark of night, perhaps awaking Paul, Jesus appeared and spoke to the apostle. What is important here is not what Paul saw, but what he heard. Luke, the author of Acts, makes us listen and hear, not see with Paul.
With three commands, the Lord of the church speaks to an apostle of the church. Stop being afraid, Paul (verse 9)! Paul probably thought about the Lord’s command to Joshua (Joshua 1:9) or maybe His command to Jeremiah (1:8). The Lord’s servants throughout history have been afraid in the face of danger, distress, or death. So the risen and glorified Christ spoke a word to Paul: do not fear; stop being afraid of those here who hate the gospel. Keep on speaking! Though you are afraid, preach on, Paul! Keep speaking! Sound waves must keep going out of your mouth; you cannot stop vocalizing the gospel here. Keep on telling people about Me!
Christ’s commanding words continue: do not keep silent! Again, like God’s words to His people in the past—especially the prophets—the Lord says, “Cry aloud! Speak my words!” Paul, how can anyone in Corinth believe in whom they have not heard? And how will they hear without someone speaking or preaching?
Paul soon came to realize that without gospel preaching, there can be no faith. These words of Jesus must ring aloud in Paul’s ears to his death, even when he is in chains in prison. Even when Paul is being persecuted later in life, he never stops telling people about the Savior who lived and died to save sinners. It is Jesus’ powerful commanding word that works: His word accomplishes its purpose. Jesus’ Spirit-driven voice made Paul go and preach.
Though we have not seen Christ as Paul had, we have heard Him in the preached word. Jesus’ commanding word remains powerful. We have heard this very word, the sound that hits our eardrums: “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved.” In the midst of a noisy world, bustling and busy cities—like Corinth or San Deigo, Des Moines or Jacksonville—in the midst of a world with so many glittering things to see, on the Lord’s day we stop. We stop what we have been doing all week to listen to Christ.
We pause; we let our eyes rest, as it were, and open our ears wide to the voice of Christ. We need this external word; we need a word from the outside to save us from a world that wants to stimulate our eyes and drown out the voice of Christ. The sound of the gospel, the sound waves of a pastor giving the absolving words, “If you trust in Christ, your sins are completely forgiven.” This sound breaks through the noisy world and reminds us that Jesus saves. Jesus builds His church. The sound of Jesus’ voice draws us out of ourselves and out of this busy world to the source of the sound—Jesus on the throne commanding and comforting His church.
Jesus’ Encouraging Word
Jesus does more than command. He comforts as well. He shouts in Paul’s ears, “I am with you!” He shouts in Paul’s ears not to confound Paul but to comfort him. The sound of comfort is the Abrahamic promise: “I am with you, I will bless you, I am your God.” Here in Acts, God’s promise to Abraham is being fulfilled. Do not fear, Abraham. Do not fear, Paul. I am with you. I will be your God forever. These are covenant of grace sounds.
We are reminded of Jehovah’s comforting word to the prophets: I am with you! When you go to the stubborn, Mosiac-covenant breaking people of Israel, do not worry; I am with you! God also speaks these words in the New Testament era. Remember the Great Commission in Matthew 28? “Go ye therefore and make disciples of all nations…teaching them” Jesus said in the Great Commission, “Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” God’s gracious Abrahamic covenant promise is repeated to a frightened Paul in Corinth around 50 AD.
These are words of life. Paul would never be without his Savior; his Savior will never be without Paul. I am with you are also words for all who have received Christ and rest in Him, trusting in Him for salvation from sin and death. Jesus says to you even today—I am with you! Jesus was with His prophets and His apostles. He is always with His church. This is a comforting word of Christ. It is encouragement for the church. In Hebrews 13:5 the Lord swears an oath never to leave or forsake His own. This is what Immanuel means: God is with us; the gates of hell will never prevail over the church.
One commentator on Acts wrote “Calm confidence in the face of suffering springs from the assurance of our Defender’s presence with us.” Remember when you walk through dark valleys that Jesus says to you, I am with you. Remember when your doctor tells you that the tumor has spread that Jesus says, I am with you. Remember when you face people who distort the gospel and attack the church that Jesus says in your years, I am with you. Jesus never leaves His people!
In Corinth, Jesus continued to speak to Paul: No one will harm you. Of course, later in his life Paul was harmed, but on this occasion, Paul has a divine and comforting promise that he would not be hurt in Corinth. You might be opposed, but that opposition will not result in harm. “Paul,” says Jesus, “I know you faced some opposition and hatred here in Corinth for preaching me, but who has been given all authority? For Whom do you work? Who is the head of the church? Who is the King of kings and Lord of lords?” Who builds the church?
Christ continued: I have many here who are my people. Jesus spoke authoritative words, words of comfort to Paul. Many in Corinth are written in the book of life. Many are elect. Paul was assured that his work would not be in vain. Paul was promised that many would receive and rest in Christ.
This is one of those places in the Bible where we learn a little about election. Election means, “chosen for eternal life.” “My people” in verse eleven are the elect, those who belong to Christ; those who are written in the book of life. There are not two kinds of election. This passage is talking about those who have been granted salvation—not a salvation that can be somehow lost, but eternal salvation. The Canons of Dort teach: Before the foundation of the world, God chose a definite number of people to be saved through Christ. And He decreed that He would call and draw them effectively into Christ’s fellowship through His Word and Spirit (CoD I.7). Paul went to Corinth to preach and God’s elect were brought into the fold of salvation. The same thing happens in Acts 13:48: God appointed some to eternal life. This eternal life is heaven, salvation, and forgiveness—anything less would hardly be comforting for Paul.
Election is one of the reasons why we preach the gospel to all nations, as the Apostles were doing in Acts. Unlike Paul, we cannot tell if there are many elect in certain cities, but we leave it in the hands of Christ to bring home His people through hearing. Acts 1:8 is important: Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, ends of the earth—that is how the gospel will go forth! To bring the Abrahamic gracious promise into view again, His spiritual offspring are being brought in, and Jehovah is proven to be faithful to His gracious covenant promise. The family of believers is a truly international family!
And thus Jesus builds His church. Paul; be of good cheer: I am with you, you will not be harmed, and many in this very city will respond to your gospel preaching. I am building my church, says the Lord. It is still true today. We should continue to support mission work, we should continue to reach out to the lost even here in this city, we should continue to pray that Jesus would keep on building.
Jesus’ Proclaimed Word Remember, the word is central.
Speaking and hearing are more important than seeing. The word “word” is used around fifty times in Acts relating to gospel preaching and teaching.
Paul stayed at Corinth for a year and a half teaching the word of God. Paul taught: “Jesus Christ and Him crucified.” Paul knew the power of Christ’s word—Jesus’ word had converted him on the Damascus road. Paul knew the power of the gospel, that Jesus lived and died to save His elect. Paul knew that Jesus’ death killed death, sin, and hell and that Jesus’ resurrection was the victory over sin. Sin was wiped out and canceled by resting in Christ’s finished work. Paul knew that gospel well. That gospel is the main point of all of his epistles, and truly, all of Scripture.
Paul did not use the latest trends in Corinth to help him spread the gospel. He did not hand out booklets of ten steps to build a bustling church. He did not lure the Corinthian civilians by promising he would make them feel at home and give them a hot cup of designer coffee before the service. Instead, he used something that the world calls foolish and weak, stupid, and crazy. He used the gospel—foolishness and a stumbling block to the world. The situation is the same today.
Preaching and teaching the gospel is commanded by Christ. It is not an option up for grabs. Preaching the gospel is a mark of the church. No preaching Christ, no church. You can have all the bells and whistles, the smoke and drums, the feelings and smiles, the health and wealth, the healing and spirituality, but if your church does not preach Christ, it is no church at all. Jesus commanded Paul to teach the word—not the word according to Corinth, or San Diego, or wherever—but the word of Christ, the gospel.
Luther called the church a “mouth house.” The Heidelberg Catechism says that God wants His people instructed by the living word. Through speaking, Jesus gathers His people. Through the word, Christ brings His sheep home. Paul came to Corinth with the words of Christ, the very voice of Christ, and look what happened—people repented and believed the gospel! Jesus’ told Paul the primary church growth method: preaching the gospel. Through the preached gospel, Jesus builds His church.
Through speaking—sound waves through the air—Christ creates His church. Christ builds His church through vocal chords telling about Christ and eardrums receiving those sound waves. Christ built it in Acts; He will build it across the world.
Believing is hearing, not seeing! Many churches will stimulate your eyes, many things will delight your eyes and ears, but not everything has been commanded by Christ. Not everything creates a people or a faith. Christianity is all about speaking and hearing, about sound waves shaking your eardrums and by the power of the Spirit bringing new life according to Christ’s command. The preached word is Christ’s rock-splitting, faith-creating, heart-warming voice.
We, too, are a hearing people. By Christ’s commanding word, by His encouraging word, by His proclaimed word, Christ is building His church. Christ’s command is to preach. His promise is: I am with you. I am with you always.
Rev. Shane Lems is a pastor of a United Reformed Church church plant in Sunnyside, Washington.