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When God's Promises Meet Our Fears
When I served a group of pastors in Ethiopia with one of my professors in seminary, I’ll never forget an interaction that occurred between my professor, and the leader of all the pastors we were serving. Without going into the details, we were given an opportunity to meet with a Muslim woman and her son who my professor had a distant connection with. The fact that we were able to find this woman and her son was nothing short of a miracle—we basically went into run-down hut that served as an Ethiopian social services office, and we gave the person behind the counter the name of the woman and her son. That person then went into a back room, and began looking through massive files of papers. We suspected the woman and her son would be in this region of Ethiopia, but we weren’t sure. It was like finding a needle in a haystack. Yet, for various reasons, my professor was compelled to meet with them and tell them about Jesus.
A few hours after we left the rag-tag social services office, we received a phone call. They had found this Muslim woman and her son, and the woman agreed to meet with us. As we were getting into the car to go meet with them, the Ethiopian pastor whom we had been working with thought it wise to give us a warning. He said something to the effect—“This woman is Muslim, you know, and she knows we are Christians. This could be a set-up, and this may not end well for us”. I remember seeing a moment of fear in the man’s eyes as he said this.
I didn’t expect these words from this Ethiopian pastor, at all. This man was the leader and role model for hundreds of ministers throughout all of southern Ethiopia. At one point, he was the president of one of the largest denominations that truly preached the gospel in Ethiopia. He, like Paul in Acts, spent his weeks traveling hundreds of miles to serve the churches throughout Ethiopia, through incredibly difficult circumstances. He had a rich faith that had been tried through imponderable afflictions. Yet, this man had a moment of fear.
That was the moment when I realized that true fearlessness in the faith comes from the Lord. It doesn’t come from constant exposure to persecution—such that you grow numb to it. It doesn’t come from “just being a giant of the faith” like Billy Graham or Martin Luther. Every Christian is, indeed, a human. We’re all susceptible to the fear of man, and other related struggles. Fearlessness and boldness in the faith come from God—and, this Ethiopian minister needed some strength from God in that moment.
My professor looked straight at this Ethiopian pastor in the eyes, without skipping a beat, and reminded him of Jesus words from Matthew 10:28, “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” The reminder was gentle, but the words were powerful. A gentle rebuke? Yes—“Do not fear”. A powerful promise? Yes—in fact, two promises in that verse. Promise #1: Satan and this world can only harm the body, not the soul. So, don’t fear them. Promise #2 God can throw the soul and body into hell, and he will if you deny him! Yet the implicit encouragement is just as powerful—if you trust him, he won’t throw your body and soul into hell. He’ll deliver your soul from all harm and bring you into his grace of salvation.
That one verse—complete with its subtle rebuke and it’s powerful promises—completely relieved the tension. There was an immediate smile on the Ethiopian minister’s face when he heard these words. His faith was refreshed, his strength was renewed—end of discussion. The next words from his mouth were uttered with a chuckle, “well, let’s get going, then.” The matter wasn’t brought up again.
The power of God’s word—especially his promises—are a force to reckon with, folks. Paul himself needed to hear promises directly from Jesus’s mouth to move on in his faithful ministry, as we’ll see in our story today.
Paul’s Fear at the End of a Journey
Our story, this morning, covers the last part of Paul’s second missionary journey throughout the gentile world. If you turn back a few chapters to Acts 15, you’ll be reminded that Paul left on this journey from Antioch of Syria, his “home church” if you will. At the end of the passage we just read, you heard another reference to Antioch. Verse 22, “When he had landed at Caesarea, he went up and greeted the church”—by that, Acts means he went up the hill, or mountain, from Caesarea to the church in Jerusalem in order to greet them. After this, we’re told “and then [he] went down to Antioch.” Second missionary journey over. He’s made his way back home, and verse 23 tells us that he spent “some time there” before setting off on his third and final missionary journey.
Now, that’s just some background information in order to help you place today’s story in what’s happening in Acts. Paul is at the very end of his second missionary journey.
How is he doing? You might say he’s doing really quite well. He marches into Corinth, and what happens? The Jews get rebuked, and the Gentiles get saved. It’s classic missionary work, for Paul. As was his custom, he starts out in the local Jewish synagogue and was “occupied with the word, testifying to the Jews that the Christ was Jesus”. He’s resilient with this message bout Jesus. He is the Messiah! Only, these Jews in Corinth weren’t interested. You can hear Paul’s frustration in his words. Verse 6, “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’” Then, he marches out of the synagogue, and walks right into the house next-door in order to continue preaching there, in the house of a man named Titius Justus. It was at this point that one of the synagogue rulers was humbled to receive Jesus, along with “his entire household. And many of the Corinthians hearing Paul believed and were baptized” (verse 8).
So how is Paul doing, here at the end of his second journey? It seems like it’s all going pretty well, right? Well, things aren’t always as they might seem. If you look at that next verse after we hear of all these salvations, it seems that Jesus thought it wise to address Paul’s fear. Verse 9, “Do not be afraid, but go on speaking and do not be silent”. This command almost seems redundant, doesn’t it? When you have a really brave, bold soldier on the battle field, it might almost seem condescending to him in order to coax him along with words like this—“oh, don’t be afraid, keep marching—don’t worry, I’m here with you”. That’s the sort of thing you say to someone who is vexed in his spirit, isn’t it? Jesus doesn’t show up in visions for nothing! It’s quite possible that you thought Jesu’s vision was a bit odd, and out of place when you first read this. Again—things aren’t always as they might seem.
Paul is Afraid, Encouraged, and Vindicated
For the rest of our time this morning, we’re going to see three developments in Paul during his final stretch of this second missionary journey. I’ll just tell you up front what they are—(1) Paul is Afraid, (2) Paul is Encouraged, (3) Paul is Vindicated. Those are very simple developments, there—but as I hope to see together with you this morning, they’re incredibly insightful for us as we might consider how to handle our own fears and anxieties. Paul is Afraid, Encouraged, and Vindicated.
Paul is Afraid
Now as we’ve seen, the only reference to Paul’s fear in this passage is Jesus’s command to Paul, “Do not be afraid” (verse 9). Everything else points to a brave, fearless Paul who is pronouncing judgment upon the Jews, and saving the gentiles.
Yet, behind this boldness, I assure you, there was a fearful and discouraged Paul. There’s a reason why Jesus felt it necessary to show up to Paul in a vision.
Turn to First Corinthians 2, where Paul actually gives us his own personal window into this moment. Remember, First Corinthians is a letter Paul wrote to the Corinthians—to this church that Paul is meeting for the first time in our passage (Acts 18). Here’s what Paul says to them, recalling back to these initial moments—
1 And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. 2 For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. 3 And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, 4 and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, 5 so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.
It’s really quite interesting to hear this personal, autobiographical insight from Paul—and to read it in conjunction with our passage in Acts 18. Paul spoke “in weakness and in fear and in much trembling” (1 Corinthians 2:3). When Paul entered Corinth, he was terrified! He uses three verbs there in order to really impress upon our minds just how scared he was. Charles Hodge says of this passage in 1 Corinthians that Paul arrived in the city “as oppressed with a sense of his weakness and insufficiency. He had a work to do which he felt to be entirely above his powers.” He had “anxiety…arising out of a sense of his insufficiency, and of the infinite importance of his work”.
Paul himself said it. He entered Corinth a terrified man, feeling completely insufficient for the work of evangelism and church planting for Christ. Is it possible that he felt this way in every city he entered throughout his journeys? Possibly. God has a way of keeping us humble through our fears. John Piper—one of the more influential preachers of our day—regularly says that he was once plagued with paralyzing fear at the thought of public speaking, and that he still is overcome with fear to this day whenever he approaches the pulpit.
Regardless, it is reasonable to think that the unique circumstances surrounding Corinth posed some unique challenges which may have struck a bone of fear with Paul.
Fear from Discouragement
It’s quite possible that he was discouraged. No doubt—he’s seen lots of conversion on this second missionary journey. He’s seen a church planted in Philippi, Thessalonica, and Berea. Although, his last stop in Athens wasn’t quite as successful—and, Paul had been hastily kicked out of Thessalonica and Berea at the threat of more beatings. As Paul mustered up boldness and strength in the Lord through all of these cities—repeating the same pattern over and over again only to face some form of serious rejection and persecution, I can imagine it’d grow on you. To over-simplify the matter—Step 1: Paul enters a new city, and is rejected in the synagogue. The Jews actually get angry with him. Step 2: Paul begins to preach to the gentiles in the city, and many are saved. Step 3: The Jews stir up a riot, and Paul is quickly escorted before he’s beaten or killed. Onto the next town, do it again. And yes, Athens only saw a small handful of salvations. Paul, you know, was tasked to bring Christ’s kingdom to the nations—to see it as an everlasting kingdom of peace over the earth.
The mobs and the little fruit in Athens may have weighed heavy on Paul by the time he goes to Corinth. Perhaps his strong rebuke to the Jews of the synagogue in verse 6 was Paul’s pent-up exasperation with his fellow Jews who wouldn’t receive the promised Messiah. It cut deep into Paul, to see them reject the Messiah. Paul speaks of his hurt in Romans 9:2 when he says of his stubborn Jewish brothers and sisters, “I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. 3 For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh.”. Paul was rhetorically wishing spiritual suicide, eternity in hell, if only his Jewish kinsmen would stop being so stubborn.
Paul’s fear and feeling of inadequacy, no doubt, could have been from all this discouragement and fatigue.
Fear from Corinth
Yet more than this, the city of Corinth itself was an extremely intimidating city. It was the capital city of this region that included Athens—the region of Achaia. So, it had some political prestige that made the people somewhat proud. Yet more than this, the city itself sat right on an isthmus—a land bridge—where a canal was made in order to allow ships to make a much shorter sail to Italy. It’s much like the Suez canal, today. If you remember recently how the entire world’s economy was backed up when the Suez canal was backed up—these canals are incredibly important. Corinth was a canal city.
Now, I don’t think you have to use your imaginations to consider what sailors and merchants like to do when they make land. There are sea shanties written about it—and, I can’t encourage you to go listening to them. In Corinth, there was a uniquely high demand for open and unmitigated immorality. While it’s neighboring city Athens was noted for its history, with a massive statue of Athena—the goddess of war—in her midst, Corinth heralded the goddess Aphrodite (or Venus). Any idea what she’s all about? Aphrodite is the goddess of love, and her temple in Corinth was nothing short of a brothel. Thousands of prostitutes were enslaved to the temple, walking the streets every night. The promiscuity of Corinth was so well known that for hundreds of years throughout all of Rome, you could refer to a sexually promiscuous person as a “Corinthianite”. Corinth was synonymous with adultery and fornication—and, they were proud of it.
You might remember Paul’s words in First Corinthians 5:1 where he’s speaking to the Corinthian church, “It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans, for a man has his father’s wife” In other words, a man is sleeping with his mom, or his step-mom. Paul continues, “And you are proud!”. Really, it sounds a lot like today. People—even folks in the greater American church who claim to believe in Jesus—are proud of their sexual deviations and promiscuity. Pride and gross immorality tend to go hand-in-hand. Hence, we find our culture celebrating “Pride Month”.
It’s no secret that we’ve become an increasingly sexualized nation in the name of tolerance, and the expectation isn’t just that you’re “ok” with it. The expectation is that you applaud. If you’re not applauding during this so-called “pride month”, then you’re a bigot. Applaud, or be ashamed. That’s meant to intimidate, and enculturate. Far too many Christians are falling for it.
When you think of standing up to a culture like ours—or, a culture like Corinth—what do you experience deep down, inside? If I asked you to go out into the street and hold up a sign that says “repent from your Sodomy and trust in Jesus, or end up like Sodom”—what might you feel in that moment? I can only imagine fear might be at least nuzzled down in your soul, somewhere. If not fear, perhaps you feel a sense of hopelessness for our nation. You feel paralyzed by the wickedness and brokenness we are seeing—so, you might think “what’s the point of even trying to persuade people to trust in Jesus?” This neighborhood we’re in, here at 9 Trinity Place, is not an easy neighborhood. Would we do better to try and reach a different neighborhood in Amsterdam? Perhaps that thought has crossed your mind.
This is the situation Paul is finding himself in, here in this massive and notorious city of Corinth. By ordinary standards, he might think the city is hopeless—it’s already been given over to judgement. At worst, he’s afraid of what a Corinthian mob might do to him, if one were to be stirred up. And beyond this, he could very likely be discouraged and exhausted by all the mobs and rejection he’s faced—much less the small number of conversions in Athens.
Initial Thoughts on Handling Fear
Now, it’s worth noting that Paul presses on in his word of the gospel regardless of these fears he’s likely struggling with. Jesus shows up to him and encourages him after Paul rebukes the Jewish synagogue, and turns to the gentiles. Jesus doesn’t say “start preaching, now, to the gentiles!”. No, he encourages Paul to keep going! “Do not be afraid, but go on speaking and do not be silent”. Keep going! You’re doing great! Fear is the devil’s tactic!
This is a reminder that experiencing fear may be a sin to fight by faith—but, to let fear keep you from obeying God is a greater sin. Based on how God works, I trust that the reason why Paul was able to keep preaching despite his initial fears was because God met him through his obedience. It reminds me of athletic events growing up—especially individual sports like running or swimming. There’s a terrible pain of anxiety that many experience leading up to the start of the race. Yet, for whatever reason, those fears and anxieties quickly fade away as soon as the starting gun goes off.
The same is often true for Christians. God has a way of giving us peace and rest at the moment we obey him—and by the way, that’s not works-based salvation. It’s obedience fueled by faith, and eager to receive the blessings of faithful obedience. When you need to confess sin, and you’re really anxious about what will happen when you do—perhaps you’ll hurt someone, or lose your job—the only reason why you’ll confess that sin is because you trust, by faith, that God will bless you through the obedience. You may have incredible anxiety and fear in the moments leading up confessing your sin—yet, as Hebrews 12:11 describes, it later “yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness”. Trusting God through frightening situations yields peace. It yields fellowship with God. Sometimes the best way to fight fear is to obey, by faith, despite the fear.
More keenly applicable to Paul’s situation, I’m reminded of 1 Peter 4:14. When you’re insulted for believing the Bible, or being a Christian, chances are you might experience a moment of fear or anxiety. This is what 1 Peter 4:14 says, “if you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you.” I love that. It’s an imagery that has helped me so much. If I need to go into a situation where I know I may be the target for Christian persecution, I deal with my fears and anxieties with this verse. “If you are insulted…the Spirit of glory rests upon you”. At the very moment I receive the sneer, I trust the Spirit will uplift my soul and call to my mind that I am, indeed, blessed.
In the moments before Paul heard the words of Jesus through that vision, he struggled with fear. Yet, I trust the Lord met him as he obediently worked through the fear and trusted in his Savior. It’s how many were saved, according to verse 8.
Yet, Verse 11 says that Paul stayed in Corinth “a year and six months, teaching the word of God among them”. That’s a long time to struggle with fear—however great it may have been for Paul. That’s where the mercy of Christ’s vision comes in. In that vision, Christ didn’t just tell him to not be afraid and keep preaching. He encouraged Paul with his precious, life-giving promises.
We’ve seen how Paul was afraid—and, how he may have initially worked through that fear to see a number of people saved. Now, I want to consider the actual promises which Jesus spoke to Paul, to keep him going for another year and a half. Let’s see how Paul was encouraged.
Paul is Encouraged
Look again at verses 9–10,
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, 10 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.”
There are three promises, here, for Paul to find encouragement in. Do you see them, in there? What’s the first promise?
“For I am With You”: A Promise to Uphold and Sustain
First, Jesus promises his presence to be with Paul everywhere he goes, and in everything Paul speaks. This is the greatest promise Jesus could give Paul, as Paul is feeling inadequate for the task before him in Corinth. This is, truly, the greatest promise God gives to his people.
If you are familiar with the Bible, you’ll likely have heard that promise before. “Fear not, for I am with you”. Or, more generically, “I am with you”. God says that to his people in all kinds of circumstances, to encourage them. It’s a promise for God’s favorable presence with his people. It’s not just any ordinary presence, we’re talking about. This is covenantal language—it’s the sort of language God uses with his people whom he has redeemed, created for himself, and pledged to protect and provide for in every circumstance.
You could think of Isaiah 41:10, for example. This is the promise that our passage reminds me of most. We read it in its context earlier in our service. Essentially, God is in the process of judging Israel, since Israel refused to worship God. Israel turned to Baal and other false Gods. So, God had to make good on his word. He kicked them out of the promised land—and, he used the Babylonians to do it. Yet, as the Israelites were being taken out of the promised land, God spoke these words to them through Isaiah, reminding them to be encouraged that God would not totally reject Israel, his chosen people. As God promised to bring the savior of the world through their nation, his protection was certain through a mercifully brief season of judgment. Isaiah 41:10, spoken to the exiles in Babylon—
Fear not, for I am with you;
be not dismayed, for I am your God;
I will strengthen you, I will help you,
I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.
That, right there, is a promise for God’s presence. In this situation, his presence meant Israel would be upheld and sustained.
“For I Am With You”: A Promise to Set Apart as Distinct
Yet, there’s more to this great promise, “I am with you”. You could also think of Exodus 33:16, when God threatens to leave Israel after they made the golden calf in the wilderness. Moses pleads to God, that he would not leave his people—
"Is it not in your going with us, so that we are distinct, I and your people, from every other people on the face of the earth?”
Moses knew that Israel was nothing without God. God redeemed Israel from Egypt. God made them a nation. God made them successful at war. God makes them distinct from every other people. If his presence leaves them, they’re nothing. God’s promise to be with us means we are distinguished from the rest of the world. We have a new identity, a new master and redeemer.
And, is that not 100% true? Ephesians 2, “you were dead in your trespasses and sins, in which you once walked… but God, being rich in mercy… made us alive together with Christ, by grace you have been saved”. God’s gracious presence, his life-giving presence makes us distinct. We’re “seated with Christ” in the heavenly places, already victorious! Any identity struggles, struggles with self-worth or value, or any other such struggles can be greatly relieved by trusting in those three words: “I am with you”.
“For I Am With You”: A Promise for Battle
So, “I am with you” are words that promise God’s grace to sustain us, and make us distinct. Yet, one more. When God promises to be with his people in Scripture, he promises to fight for them. When Joshua given the task to cross the Jordan and face the mighty nations who inhabited God’s promised land, you can bet that God promised to be “with” Joshua. Joshua 1:9—
Be strong [Joshua] and courageous. Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed, for the LORD your God is with you wherever you go.
Sound familiar? Just as God promised to fight for Joshua, and that he did. The walls of Jericho came tumbling down because God was with Joshua, and the people of Israel. Of course, Paul himself had a spiritual battle he was waging for Christ’s kingdom. Would Christ go before Paul, to subdue hearts to himself? That’s the promise.
The Other Two Promises Jesus Spoke to Paul
When you parse out that first promise which Jesus gave to Paul—to sustain him, make him distinct, and fight for him—the rest of the promises all seem to fall in line, don’t they? “Do not be afraid, but go on speaking and do not be silent, 10 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.”
Jesus was promising that he would be with Paul—he even gave the special promise that no Corinthian mob would rise up against him, to harm him. “No one will attack you to harm you”. That had to be freeing to Paul, I can imagine.
The Promise and Security of Sovereignty
Yet the most freeing promise in all of this was that last one. “for I have many in this city who are my people”. That’s a promise for success in evangelism. Jesus had claimed people throughout all of this wicked city of Corinth. He predestined a moment when they would stop being “Corinthianites”, and they would start being “Christians” by faith. Jesus will call them, and he chose to use his trusted servant Paul. “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me” (John 10:27). That’s the only hope for evangelism and missions, folks.
Many people say that Calvinism and predestination hinders evangelism. “If God has chosen his people, there’s no point in evangelism—they’re going to get saved either way”. That’s dead wrong. The reality is, God has commanded us to be the means he uses to call his people to himself. His people are out there—go get them! “Do not be silent, keep on speaking!”, is what Jesus said to Paul. To encourage Paul in his task of evangelism, Jesus appeals to his sovereignty. That’s the chief motivator for us, right there. One minister quotes John Piper saying—
So far from making evangelism pointless, the sovereignty of God and grace is the one thing that prevents evangelism from being pointless. For it creates the possibility—indeed the certainty—that evangelism will be fruitful. Apart from it there is not even a possibility of evangelism being fruitful. Were it not for the sovereign grace of God evangelism would be the futile and useless enterprise that the world has ever seen, and there would be no more complete waste of time under the sun than to preach the gospel. But because God is sovereign—because he’s called a people to himself before the foundation of the world, evangelism is necessary.
So with that—Jesus meets a discouraged and frightened Paul in Corinth with these promises. “I am with you, no one will harm you, I have some in this city who are mind—go get them”. Can you imagine what these promises do to a man like Paul? He came “in weakness and in fear and much trembling” (1 Corinthians 2:3), and yet the Lord encouraged him.
When you read 1 Corinthians, you’ll quickly realize that the church in Corinth truly is the most unlikely church. It’s the crack-head church, if you will. But they’re still a church, redeemed by the blood of the lamb—and Paul labored for a year and a half with faith in Jesus’s promises.
If you’re ever struggling with fear, depression, grief, laziness, complacency, pride—there’s a blood-bought, specific promise in Scripture for you, to help you. You need only to know the promise, and receive it by faith, and you’ll be strengthened. I commend you to search the scriptures for such promises, and so be helped as God meets you through them.
So Paul was afraid, and then Paul was encouraged. I mentioned that Paul was also vindicated. That’s the last paragraph of our story.
3. Paul is Vindicated
To keep it brief—the Jews united against Paul in order to take him down after Paul served in Corinth for a year and a half. They took him to the civil authorities, and charged him with treason. At this point, I trust that Paul had Jesus’s promise in mind—"no one will attack you to harm you”. Paul likely thought, “they attacked me, yes. But they won’t be able to harm me.” As we might expect, Jesus was quick to make good on his word. When Paul opened his mouth to provide a defense, the governing authority essentially said, “why are you bothering me with this Jewish controversy?”. In other words, it seemed like an ordinary, religious debate within the Jewish people to him. He didn’t care about it at all, so he sent them away.
Was Paul made to be a fool for trusting in Jesus’s promises? Are we made to be fools when we trust God’s promises? Not at all. In this unique situation, God literally vindicated the whole church as the Roman authorities recognized it as a valid expression of the Jewish faith. It was therefore an authorized religion. Yet more than this, Paul’s faith was validated as Jesus made good on his promise. Paul was never hurt. Sosthenes was (verse 17), and that may have been even more painful for Paul to see. Yet Paul wasn’t hurt, just as Jesus promised.
Our faith may make us look like fools to the world. But there will be a day when our faith will be vindicated as we are openly acknowledged and acquitted by Christ before everyone in glory. When our Lord says “well done, good and faithful servant”, his sustaining grace will be proven true, and our faith will be proven sure.
Receive the Promises, Find the Encouragement
Paul was afraid. Paul was encouraged by Jesus’s promises. Paul was vindicated through Jesus’s promises, as Jesus truly did make good on his promise. Brothers and sisters, receive such promises. Search for them in the Bible, and know that Jesus secured them for you as certain when he died on the cross, and rose in victory. They truly are powerful. Be encouraged by them, and so glorify God.
 Charles Hodge, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, published by Banner of Truth. 6th edition (1959), page 31.
 Rev. John Shaw’s sermon, Go On Speaking, on Acts 18:1–11. Preached to Mission Orthodox Presbyterian Church in St. Paul, MN on 2/17/2013. See https://www.sermonaudio.com/sermoninfo.asp?SID=6813209420