12 But when Gallio was proconsul of Achaia, the Jews made a united attack on Paul and brought him before the tribunal, 13 saying, “This man is persuading people to worship God contrary to the law.” 14 But when Paul was about to open his mouth, Gallio said to the Jews, “If it were a matter of wrongdoing or vicious crime, O Jews, I would have reason to accept your complaint. 15 But since it is a matter of questions about words and names and your own law, see to it yourselves. I refuse to be a judge of these things.” 16 And he drove them from the tribunal. 17 And they all seized Sosthenes, the ruler of the synagogue, and beat him in front of the tribunal. But Gallio paid no attention to any of this.
18 After this, Paul stayed many days longer and then took leave of the brothers and set sail for Syria, and with him Priscilla and Aquila.– Acts 18:12-18 ESV
If you recall, during the time Paul was ministering in the city of Corinth, God had given him a vision, telling him to keep doing what he was doing. He reminded Paul not to be afraid, but to trust in His providential plan and protective power. We know from Paul’s own words, written to the believers in Corinth some time later, that he had struggled with feelings of fear when he first arrived in the city. He confessed, “I came to you in weakness – timid and trembling” (1 Corinthians 2:3 NLT). And while, at this point, nothing negative had happened up to him in Corinth, it was just a matter of time. And God had given Paul His unwavering assurance that all would be well.
“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.” – Acts 18:9-10 ESV
And then, almost like clockwork, the inevitable happened. A year and a half later, well into Paul’s ministry there, “some Jews rose up together against Paul and brought him before the governor for judgment” (Acts 18:12 NLT). Luke is very specific in terms of his timing, using the proconsulship of Gallio to provide a firm date for this scenario. Gallio was the Roman proconsul or governor of the province of Achaia. Interestingly enough, Gallio a Roman citizen of Spanish descent, whose brother happened to be the Stoic philosopher, Seneca. In some sense, the Roman proconsul served as kind of a supreme court and his decisions on legal matters were binding, containing the full backing of the bēma or judgment seat. This was a raised platform from which the proconsul tried cases brought before him. Their accusation against Paul is simple, but direct. “This man is persuading people to worship God contrary to the law” (Acts 18:13 ESV). Basically, they are claiming that Paul is proselytizing Roman citizens, a crime according to Roman law. The Jews or any other religious were free to promote their religion, but not among those who were of Roman citizenship. These men were trying to get Paul in trouble with the legal authorities. It is the same tactic used by the Jews in Jesus’ day, who tried to set Him up as a revolutionary and radical, who was stirring up trouble. When the had appeared before Pilate to state their accusations against Jesus, they had said, “This man has been leading our people astray by telling them not to pay their taxes to the Roman government and by claiming he is the Messiah, a king” (Luke 23:2 NLT). They tried to portray Jesus as an insurrectionist, stating, “he is causing riots by his teaching wherever he goes—all over Judea, from Galilee to Jerusalem!” (Luke 23:5 NLT).
The Jews in Corinth are attempting to use the same ploy in their confrontation with Peter, attempting to set Paul up as some kind of radical revolutionary who posed a threat to the government of Rome. One of the last things the Roman government wanted was anyone disturbing the peace or rocking the proverbial boat. They allowed other religions to practice their faith openly and without government interference. But if they stirred up trouble or attempted to sway the allegiance of Roman citizens away from their dedication to the Emperor, they would face stiff consequences.
But Gallio, sitting on his dais, interrupted the proceedings, even before Paul had an opportunity to defend himself. The proconsul simply stated, “Listen, you Jews, if this were a case involving some wrongdoing or a serious crime, I would have a reason to accept your case. But since it is merely a question of words and names and your Jewish law, take care of it yourselves. I refuse to judge such matters” (Acts 18:14-15 NLT). He turned them down flat, deeming their case as non-admissible in his court. He saw through their little ploy and labeled their case as fraudulent and frivolous. It had no business being brought before him for consideration. To him, this was nothing more than a theological dispute among Jews. He could have cared less and, in so many words, told them so. What is easy to miss here, is the weight of Gallio’s apparent non-decision. He had chosen to reject the case, but in doing so he was giving legitimacy to the Christian religion within all the Roman provinces. His action carried weight and set a precedent that would influence the decisions of other, less-powerful proconsuls. From this point forward, the Romans would merely view Christianity as just another sect of the Jews. They would refuse to see it as dangerous or a threat to the Roman way of life or the stability of the government. In their minds, it was a non-factor. This determination would provide a fertile soil in which Christianity was allowed to continue it spread. Because the Roman empire was so vast and encompassed a great many foreign nations, the gospel was given a freedom to go wherever Emperor’s power reigned – all the way to Rome itself.
Paul, while not necessarily vindicated, was at least liberated. But the Jews would find that their attempt to get Paul in trouble would backfire on them. Luke records that “they all seized Sosthenes, the ruler of the synagogue” (Acts 18:17 ESV). The phrase, “they all” most likely refers to the Gentile audience who had gathered to hear what Gallio was going to do. When they heard him reject the case, their anti-Semitic sentiments welled over, causing them to lash out at the Jews by grabbing one of the men who had most likely dragged Paul before the proconsul. Gallio did nothing about this obvious act of vigilantiasm, most likely thinking it would discourage the Jews from bringing their internal debates before him again.
For Paul, it was business as usual. He continued to preach and spread the gospel. Paul would develop a strong affection for the church in Corinth, later penning two separate letters that he would use to encourage and, in some ways, admonish them in their faith.
4 I always thank my God for you and for the gracious gifts he has given you, now that you belong to Christ Jesus. 5 Through him, God has enriched your church in every way—with all of your eloquent words and all of your knowledge. 6 This confirms that what I told you about Christ is true. 7 Now you have every spiritual gift you need as you eagerly wait for the return of our Lord Jesus Christ. 8 He will keep you strong to the end so that you will be free from all blame on the day when our Lord Jesus Christ returns. 9 God will do this, for he is faithful to do what he says, and he has invited you into partnership with his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. – 1 Corinthians 1:4-9 NLT
Paul’s work among the Corinthians had not been without its opposition, but there had also been an eager reception on the part of many. God had made it clear to Paul that there were many in the city who were His (Acts 18:10). He had already chosen them for salvation. All Paul had to do was share the gospel, boldly and faithfully. The results were totally up to God. And God not only saved these people, He filled them with His Spirit and equipped them with all the spiritual gifts they would need to grow as individuals and as a congregation. As Paul later wrote them, they were enriched because of Christ. They were gifted because of Christ. They were going to stay strong to the end, because of Christ. In essence, they were in partnership with Christ – doing His will, growing His church, spreading His gospel and furthering the scope and reach of His Kingdom on this earth.
This little scene involving Paul, the Jews and Gallio, the Roman proconsul, can be easy to blow right by when reading through the Book of Acts. It can be even easier to see it as some kind of divine payback or justice for the Jews because of their efforts to oppose Paul and the message of the gospel. But for us as believers, this event should act as a reminder of the sovereignty of God. The actions of the Jews are almost predictable. They were only doing what they thought to be right. They saw Christianity as a growing threat to Judaism, and they saw Paul as its primary proponent. They were blind to the truth, but didn’t realize it. The Gentiles who beat Sosthenes were only doing what the believed to be right and true, protecting the integrity of their Greek culture and the Roman rule under which they lived and because of which, they enjoyed peace and security. And Gallio was simply doing his job, refusing to waste his time or governmental resources listening to a case that had no merit or business being brought before him.
But all of these people were operating under the divine umbrella of God’s will. He was silently, invisibly accomplishing His preordained prerogatives through the lives of men, whether they realized it or wanted it. Sometimes we mistakenly think that we can somehow thwart or inadvertently derail the plans of God. When we read these words of Jesus in his model prayer: “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10 ESV), we somehow get the wrong impression that we are the ones who bring about God’s will. We have to pray for it or request it. We have to help make it happen. But God’s will is going to be done whether I help or not, pray or not, and even desire it or not. The Jews could drag Paul before Gallio, but not without God’s permission. The proconsul could refuse to take the case, but not apart from God’s sovereign will. The Gentiles could beat the local leader of the Jewish synagogue, but their actions, while unjust and ungodly, would somehow be used by God to further the spread of His Son’s Kingdom. We have no way of knowing how the events of that day impacted the local Jewish community. Perhaps it made them more receptive to the gospel. It could have put a damper on their desire to stand up to Paul and oppose the message he was proclaiming. We don’t know. But God does. None of the things we see happening in the Book of Acts were arbitrary in nature. Every action had a God-ordained reaction associated with it. Seemingly chance encounters were really divine appointments. What appear to be the spontaneous reactions of unruly mobs would end up producing amazing God-inspired outcomes. The entire Book of Acts is a primer on the sovereignty of God, providing us with a behind-the-scenes glimpse into God’s irrefutable involvement in the world as He unfolds and fulfills His plan of redemption for a lost and dying world.
New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.