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Contextualizing the Gospel, Part 4 – Responsibility and Sovereignty in Evangelism

The danger with most discussions of contextualization today is that the imply that the work of evangelism is entirely up to us. In other words, if we can just figure out the best way to communicate the gospel to our culture, we can convince people to accept the gospel. This fails to correctly recognize that (1) men are totally depraved and (2) God is sovereign over salvation.

Now this does not for a moment imply that we do not have an important part in the task of evangelism — we do. But we must recognize the proper relationship between the sovereignty of God and human responsibility in evangelism. Acts 18 gives us a wonderful illustration of this relationship.

Acts 18 gives us a good opportunity to observe the work that Paul put into evangelism. He used common sense and logic, he developed a strategy, and he used his brain to decide what means would be best for the proclamation of the gospel. Sometimes he received direct revelation from the Lord; sometimes he performed miracles. But those occurrences are relatively few compared to the totality of his time evangelizing. Most of the time he just worked at it like you and I should. We’ve been talking about our responsibility to be active in evangelism, and so I’d like to focus on Paul’s active work of evangelism here in Acts 18.

Paul was active in evangelism

First I want us to notice Paul’s sense of responsibility in working hard to be the best evangelist that he could be. Let’s start right with verse 1:

After this Paul left Athens and went to Corinth.

Now look at the first verse of chapter 19:

And it happened that while Apollos was at Corinth, Paul passed through the inland country and came to Ephesus.

Paul picked strategic cities

Here we have three cities that occupy the bulk of Paul’s time during his missionary journeys. He just left Athens. Now in chapter 18 we find that he spends a year and a half in Corinth (the longest time in any one city up to this point). And beginning in chapter 19, Paul begins a two-year stretch in Ephesus.

Not only did Paul spend a considerable amount of time in these cities, but he also spilled a considerable amount of ink writing letters to the believers in these cities. He directed two entire epistles to the believers in Corinth, and another lengthy one to those in Ephesus.

Now, the question is, of all the cities that he could have gone to, why did Paul chose these three cities to spend the most of his time? Did he receive direct revelation from the Lord to do so? Not in these cases. He had received some kind of message not to go into Asia originally. He had received a vision instructing him to go to Macedonia. He did receive instruction to stay in Corinth once he got there. But his choice of spending time in Athens, Corinth, and Ephesus was completely his decision. So why did he do it?

Well let’s consider some facts about these three cities. Athens was an important Greek city. It was relatively large and was a central hub of cultural and intellectual activity. Corinth was one of the most important cities in the Roman empire. It was a major commercial center since it sat at a very crucial crossroads of commerce both for land and sea.  Ephesus also was a major commercial center being a port city, and had quite a large population.

Additionally, all three cities were relatively close to each other and surrounded the Aegean Sea right where Europe and Asia meet. From this area you could travel to Italy and Spain to the east, the rest of Europe to the north, and Asia and down to Africa in the west.

In other words, this was a very strategic location commercially, politically, religiously, and geographically. In fact, we could say that because Paul spent so much time in these three cities planting churches and strengthening the believers, this region became the launching pad for world evangelism.

So why did Paul spend so much of his energy evangelizing these cities? He used his God-given brain and common sense and chose strategic cities that he knew would be important for the advance of the gospel.

Paul worked so that the gospel would not be hindered

Now continue reading in verse 2:

And he found a Jew named Aquila, a native of Pontus, recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla, because Claudius had commanded all the Jews to leave Rome. And he went to see them, and because he was of the same trade he stayed with them and worked, for they were tentmakers by trade.

Here we see that Paul found some believers who worked the same trade as he did so that he could support himself while he gave the gospel.

Now did he have to support himself like this? Could he have asked for support from other churches or from the believers who were evidently already in Corinth? We can answer that question by looking at Paul’s own words to the believers in Corinth in 1 Corinthians 9.13-19:

Do you not know that those who are employed in the temple service get their food from the temple, and those who serve at the altar share in the sacrificial offerings? In the same way, the Lord commanded that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel. But I have made no use of any of these rihts, nor am I writing these things to secure any such provision. For I would rather die than have anyone deprive me of my ground for boasting. For if I preach the gospel, that gives me no ground for boasting. For necessity is laid upon me. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel! For if I do this of my own will, I have a reward, but if not of my own will, I am still entrusted with a stewardship. What then is my reward? That in my preaching I may present the gospel free of charge, so as not to make full use of my right in the gospel. For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them.

In this section, Paul is defending his right as a preacher of the gospel to receive his living from the gospel. In other words, he is saying that he would have had every right to expect financial support while he gave his full attention to preaching. But Paul chose to give up that right and work for his own living instead. Why? He explains why in verse 12:

If others share this rightful claim on you, do not we even more? Nevertheless, we have not made use of this right, but we endure anything rather than put an obstacle in the way of the gospel of Christ.

Evidently with Paul’s knowledge of the Corinthians and their culture, he knew that if he had not worked to support himself, it would have been a hindrance to the gospel. And so he gave up that right for the sake of the gospel.

Again, was he commanded to do this? No. In fact, 1 Corinthians 9.14 says that the Lord has commanded that those who preach the gospel should receive their living by the gospel. Paul chose to give up this right based on his own discernment and evaluation of the situation.

Paul used a logical method of evangelism

Now continue reading in Acts 18:4-8:

And he reasoned in the synagogue every Sabbath, and tried to persuade Jews and Greeks. When Silas and Timothy arrived from Macedonia, Paul was occupied with the word, testifying to the Jews that the Christ was Jesus. And when they opposed and reviled him, he shook out his garments and said to them, “Your blood be on your own heads! I am innocent. From now on I will go to the Gentiles.” And he left there and went to the house of a man named Titius Justus, a worshiper of God. His house was next door to the synagogue. Crispus, the ruler of the synagogue, believed in the Lord, together with his entire household. And many of the Corinthians hearing Paul believed and were baptized.

Here we see example of the method of evangelism that Paul used in almost every city he visited. He began by preaching Christ in the Jewish synagogue, and then when he encountered too much resistance, he left and began preaching primarily to Gentiles.

Now why did he do it this way? Had he ever received instruction to do this? No. In fact, Jesus had told him that he would be the apostle to the Gentiles. So why, in almost every city, did Paul try to evangelize the Jews first? Again, through common logic, Paul new that he would have a more equal point of contact with Jews, and so he began with them in order to establish a foundation of Christians before he focused on the Gentiles in the city.

So was there anything supernatural or unusual about the way Paul did evangelism? Nor normally. Usually he used common sense and logic to determine the most strategic locations and methods for his evangelism.

This should be no different for us. As we think through how to do evangelism better, we simply need to use common sense and just work hard at it. We need to think through the most strategic ways to reach people. For instance, going door to door used to be a good way to reach people in our country, but it really is no longer very effective. People today will most often listen to you only after you have established a relationship with them. And so we need to use common sense to determine the best ways to make that happen.

We need to work at evangelism, just like Paul did.

Trust in self alone will always produce fear

So Paul worked hard, he used logic, and he made wise decisions. But there is always a danger when we work hard and trust our own common sense when doing ministry, and this danger is illustrated beginning in verse 9:

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.”

These verses provides a crucial understanding that must support anyone who works hard and uses his own intellect when doing ministry. But in order to get at the heart of this, we need to look more closely at what the Lord really said in this vision. In verse 9, the phrase “Do not be afraid” is a present imperative verb. In other words, the Lord is commanding Paul not to be afraid like he is right now. Evidently Paul was experiencing fear, and the Lord was commanding him to not be afraid. The NASB gets the phrase a little more accurate: “Do not be afraid any longer.”

But then he continues, “keep on speaking, do not be silent.” Why would the Lord have to say that? Evidently, because Paul was afraid, he was tempted to stop speaking.

This fear is made even more clear by Paul’s own words in 1 Corinthians 2.1-3:

And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling.

And again in 2 Corinthians 1.8-9:

For we do not want you to be ignorant, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead.

We must not underestimate the reality of the fear that Paul experienced here. He even despaired of his life.

You see, as we do ministry; as we seek to spread the gospel, there will be pleasures and there will be fear. We must work hard and we must use logic in our efforts, but if we trust only in that, we will be overcome by our fear.

Jesus Christ the Lord is active in evangelism

The only remedy is trust in the Sovereign Lord who promises that He is with us. Yes, we must be active in evangelism, but under it all we must recognize that it is really Christ Jesus the Lord who is the primary actor in evangelism and in all of life! And the Lord emphasizes this in his vision to Paul. Look again at verse 9-10:

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.”

The Lord’s Promise

The Lord starts with a promise: “I am with you.” Is that promise unique to the apostle Paul? No! In the Great Commission of Matthew 28 He promised that He would be with us always, even to the end of the age. He says in Hebrews 13.5: “I will never leave you nor forsake you” And so when the pressure comes and there is a temptation to give up and stop preaching the gospel, this knowledge will allow us to say with confidence just like the author of Hebrews: “The Lord is my helper; I will not fear; what can man do to me?”

It is a deeply rooted knowledge of the sovereign activity of God in all things that gives us the confidence to keep being active ourselves even in the face of intense pressure. The Lord promised Paul, “No one will attack you to harm you.” Do you realize that no one can touch a hair on your head without the Lord’s permission?

Well then how do we know if it is in the Lord’s plan or not that we be harmed? Even Paul was eventually killed, wasn’t he? The Lord’s final statement of purpose to Paul reveals a hope-filled foundation to it all: “I have many people in this city.”

God does all that he does for his own glory and pleasure, and one of the primary ways in which he does that is by saving people. And he has commanded us to be the means through which people are saved. And so we can be absolutely confident that nothing will harm us until God has reached every single soul that he has chosen to save through us. That is a powerful fact that should fuel our active evangelism in spite of fear!

The Lord’s Protection

And in verses 12-18 Luke records a magnificent example of this kind of sovereign protection. This arrest and trial before Gallio could have been very serious. It could have had devastating ramifications for both Paul individually and the cause of Christianity all over the Roman empire. Here he is arrested in one of the most important cities in the Roman empire. Gallio was one of the Roman elite whose brother was a tutor of Emperor Nero himself. Had Gallio ruled against Paul and Christianity, Christians throughout all of Rome would have felt the severity of it and the swift spread of the gospel would have been significantly hindered.

But “the king’s heart is in the hand of the Lord, and he turns it wherever he pleases.” Gallio doesn’t just rule in Paul’s favor; he refuses to even hear the case. And this is no small town judge. This is like the Supreme Court refusing to hear a case. It sets a precedent, and this set an important precedent of tolerance for Christianity in this whole region and potentially the entire Roman empire.

You see, Paul was active, but God was active, too.

The Lord’s Providence

God is sovereign; God knows what is best; and so God is active in the spread of his gospel. And we can see evidence of this clearly in the rest of the chapter.

Paul spent a year and a half in Corinth. He evidently planted many good seeds, but as we’ve already seen here and with Paul’s own words in 1 and 2 Corinthians, he faced many hardships and persecution. And so after Paul had planted the necessary seeds, God set in motion a plan to put another key figure in Corinth who would be able to water those seeds and see some great fruit in this key city.

After Paul leaves Corinth, he visits Ephesus for a while. Two important facts here. First, verse 19 tells us that he took Priscilla and Aquilla with him and left them there. Second, verse 20 tells us that he decided not to stay because it was not the Lord’s will. Now we might wonder about that. Wouldn’t it have been more convenient for him to stay since he is just going to come back and spend two years here anyway?

But God had better plans. After Paul leaves and heads for Jerusalem and then Antioch, verse 24 says that a man named Apollos comes to Ephesus. Apollas had many unique strengths. He was a learned man; he had a thorough knowledge of the Scriptures; he was well-spoken. But he evidently did not know enough to be converted to Christiantiy.

But it “just so happened” that a Christian couple named Aquilla and Priscilla were in Ephesus for a while, and God used them to patiently teach Apollo the truth about Jesus Christ, and he was saved.

Now why God chose to use Aquilla and Priscilla to do this and not Paul we may never know. Many think Aquilla and Priscilla were better equipped to patiently teach this strong man. Maybe the similar personalities of Paul and Apollos would have clashed. We can only speculate. But we can be sure that God’s choice to send Paul away and keep Aquilla and Priscilla to teach Apollos was the best.

After Apollos’ conversion, he goes to Corinth, where, according to verse 27, “he was a great help to those who by grace had believed. For he vigorously refuted the Jews in public debate, proving from the Scriptures that Jesus was the Christ.”

And while Apollos was at Corinth, Paul traveled back to Ephesus. Paul had planted seeds in Corinth, but had faced much difficulty. So God moved his chess pieces around in just the right way to send Apollos to Corinth and move Paul eventually to Ephesus where he had greater success.

Paul himself recounts the results of this brilliant chess play in 1 Corinthians 3.6: “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.”


Yes, we must be active in evangelism. We must plant the seeds, we must water the seeds. But God is active in evangelism, too. And it is he who works out His ultimate plan in His providence.

And this fact should just lift the pressure right off of us. We must work hard! We must be active and use logic and common sense. But belief in the providential action of God in all of it will do two things for us:

1. We should have no fear, no pressure. We can have complete confidence in the promises of God.
2. We can leave the results to God. If someone rejects us, we need not fret; God is in control.

God has chosen a group of sinners to be His children. And God has chosen us to be the tools by which he brings those people to himself. And nothing will harm us until we are finished.

God not only has many people in the city of Corinth, but he also has many people left to save in this world. Consider with me John’s vision in Revelation 7:

After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!”

Here we have a glimpse into the future where there are people from every nation, tribe, people and language standing before the throne as His people. And today there are still 11 thousand people groups in this world who have never heard the gospel.

There is still work to be done. God is with us. No one will harm us while he still has plans to use us to reach his elect. So have no fear. We must work, and we must trust.

About Scott Aniol

Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is director of doctoral worship studies at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he teaches courses in ministry, worship, hymnology, aesthetics, culture, and philosophy. He is the author of Worship in Song: A Biblical Approach to Music and Worship, Sound Worship: A Guide to Making Musical Choices in a Noisy World, and By the Waters of Babylon: Worship in a Post-Christian Culture, and speaks around the country in churches and conferences. He is an elder in his church in Fort Worth, TX where he resides with his wife and four children. Views posted here are his own and not necessarily those of his employer.