What we do in life echoes in eternity – Acts 18:12-17

August 31st, 2014

“What we do in life echoes in eternity.”

Film fans here tonight will recognise this quote as coming from the film ‘Gladiator’. It’s one of those films that I admire but can’t watch it too often because it makes me cry. But that phrase, uttered by the hero of the film, Maximus, is powerful and resonant.

Few of us will have the opportunity to knowingly do anything that will shake an Empire or change history, but I do think that we often do things in our lives that have a bigger impact than we know at the time. Some years ago I interviewed a young man for a programming job and when we got to the part of the interview where he could ask us a few questions, he asked me whether I was ‘the Joe Pritchard that writes computer books’. I told him that I was, and he thanked me because he’d learned programming from a book I’d written, and he’d gone on to become a professional programmer, and his life had changed direction in a positive way. I was pleased to hear it – less pleased that I couldn’t offer him the job because he didn’t have quite what we wanted!

Acts – ‘The Acts of the Apostles’ details the travels of the Apostles and how they built the basis of the Christian Church across the eastern Mediterranean, in the years after Christ’s death and resurrection.

Tonight’s reading, culminates with Paul’s encounter in Corinth with the Roman proconsul Gallio, and I’d like to focus on this part of our reading – Verses 12 to 17. This is at first glance a record of something that must have been a reasonably regular occurrence for Paul and the other early Christians involved with setting up new Churches – a run-in with the local authorities. But in this meeting, Gallio’s words have a massive impact, not just on Paul but on the nascent Christian church and on its future. And his actions…well, let’s say there’s a twist in this story.

Paul had come to Corinth and originally spent time in the synagogue, talking and arguing with Jews and Greeks, putting over the point that Jesus was the long awaited Christ. Eventually, after the Jews repeatedly opposed his arguments and became abusive to him, we’re told in Acts 18:4 that he effectively washed his hands of the Jews and told them that he would henceforth preach and teach the Gentiles.

Shortly before the events described in tonight’s reading, we hear in Acts 18:9 that Paul was reassured by the Lord that this course of action was acceptable:

“Do not be afraid; keep on speaking; do not be silent. For I am with you. No one is going to attack and harm you because I have many people in this city.”

This was obviously good enough for Paul, and he settled in to stay in Corinth for 18 months.

“While Gallio was proconsul of Achaia, the Jews made a united attack on Paul and brought him to court.”

Achaia was the Roman administrative region that covered Corinth. It stretches from the large island hanging off of the Greek mainland – today what is called Pelloponsos, and then across the Gulf of Corinth, and up in to the Greek mainland, covering all areas south of Macedonia. The original city of Corinth had been destroyed by the Roman general Mummius in 146BC, and then was rebuilt as a Roman colony by Julius Caesar in 46BC. Unfortunately, the city had a bit of a reputation as a place of rather loose morals, and part of the reason Paul stayed in Corinth for the time he did was to try and make sure that he left a Church behind capable of surviving in one of the ancient world’s equivalents of Las Vegas.

Gallio was appointed proconsul of the region in AD51-52, and he was by no means your average Roman career soldier or administrator. Junius Gallio was the brother of the Stoic philosopher Seneca, who’d been Nero’s tutor. He was therefore a well-connected fellow, and from all reports was well educated and known for his calmness and exceptional fairness; in fact, as far as Roman administrators go, he sounded like a perfect example of a fair, well educated, just man who ruled with skill and humility. Gallio was a well-loved leader, and perhaps Paul’s persecutors might have expected that he would not be brow-beaten in to ruling against Paul without good evidence.

And they thought they had grounds that the Proconsul would have no alternative but to agree with.

The typical way that the Jewish opposition to the early Christian teachers had been shown was via mob rule or appeals to the city magistrates. By going to the highest authority, they were upping the stakes. The Romans only allowed certain religions to exist within the empire. Any religion or cult not expressly permitted was designated a ‘religio illicita’ and was not licensed under Roman law, and as such people preaching such a religion were open to prosecution. And so we see in 18:13;

“This man, they charged, is persuading the people to worship God in ways contrary to the law”

Judaism was recognised by Roman law; the Jewish leaders were accusing Paul of teaching a religion that was not expressly permitted. A decision taken against Paul by Gallio wouldn’t just put Paul in jail, or worse; it would specifically state that Christianity was a cult not recognised as legal under Roman law – basically establishing a precedent that would apply to all teachers of Christianity throughout the region, if not throughout the empire. Like I said – high stakes indeed.

Paul is clearly prepared to defend himself; in a later trial, described in Acts 24, he states in his defence that he follows God and believes everything that agrees with the Law, and that is written in the Prophets. By this Paul means the Jewish Law – the Pentateuch – and the Old Testament books of the Jewish Prophets. His defence in front of Gallio would have almost certainly been this – to state that he taught nothing that was not the faith of his ancestors – Judaism.

Well, he doesn’t actually get to say anything at all:

“Just as Paul was about to speak, Gallio said to the Jews, “If you Jews were making a complaint about some misdemeanour or serious crime, it would be reasonable for me to listen to you. But sice it involves questions words and names and your own law, settle the matter yourselves; I will not be a judge of such things.”

Gallio is effectively washing his hands of the matter as far as the allegations against Paul are concerned. He has thrown the case back to the Jews, and in doing so he has ruled that Paul has no case to answer under Roman law. In doing this, Gallio has also effectively ruled that Paul’s teachings are close enough to Judaism to allow them to be covered by the permissions granted to Judaism as a legitimate religion.

The consequences of this decision for Christianity were:

• Gallio’s decision made a precedent ruling in the region, and when other Roman administrators heard of his decision they might well have decided ‘Well, Gallio knows his stuff so I’ll go with his thinking; leave this stuff for the Jews to sort out amongst themselves.

• It effectively ended the legal challenge to Christianity under Roman law, and so removed a significant risk to life and limb for Paul and the early Christians, at least in the short term.

Of course, times and circumstances change and we all know about the eventual fate of Paul and many other early Christian teachers – to be tried and executed under Roman law.

But Gallio’s decision gave the early church about 10 years of relative peace in which they could grow and spread – a critical 10 years in which the Gospel was treated as a form of Judaism, and was hence a legitimate religion under Roman law. 10 years in which Christianity would grow and take root in many other places.

Now, so far we might be looking at Gallio and thinking ‘Yeah, good bloke. Just ruling. Paul rules!’…..

But remember how I said that this story has a bit of a twist in it? Well, here comes the twist.

The VERY next verse after the end of our reading tells us the REAL ending of the trial:

“Then they all turned on Sosthenes, the synagogue ruler, and beat him in front of the court. But Gallio showed no concern.”

Gallio’s words have indeed echoed in eternity; we can’t say whether Christianity as we know it would have survived the next few years without them. In fact, we can’t even be sure that Paul would have survived the next 10 minutes without Gallio’s ruling, as the Jewish petitioners turned on Sosthenes, the ruler of the synagogue, and beat him up right in front of Gallio’s court – that could well have been Paul!

We might have expected Gallio to stand up, and shout to his soldiers to come and split up the fighting factions and clear the court. We might possibly have expected him to grab the ring leaders and maybe give them a good talking to or a night in the cells to calm down.

“But Gallio showed no concern whatsoever.”

Quite why the group turned on Sosthenes in this way isn’t made clear in the reading. It’s possible that they thought he’s made a mess of putting the case in front of Gallio, and there is also a Sosthenes named as being a co-author of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians – First Corinthians 1:1 – so maybe they already had a bit of a grudge against him, assuming the two Sosthenes are the same fellow.

Whatever the cause, Gallio’s behaviour surprised me when I first read this. He just turns a blind eye to the whole business – he has moved from fair and just arbiter to a facilitator of mob vengeance in a matter of moments! In the blink of an eye he moves from being just and showing humility in his role as proconsul, to arbitrarily and rather mercilessly allowing a vicious beating to take place.

Paul’s reaction to this turn of events isn’t recorded in the reading; but we need to take a look at this but how do WE feel about it. Is Gallio a good man? Does he live up to his reputation, as I described earlier on? Is he a friend to the Christian Church? Or is he just showing that he doesn’t really care less about the sensitivities of the Jewish people?

His ruling that the Gospel can be treated as part of Judaism seems to be fair and sensible, based on how Paul defends himself in a later trial, but his attitude towards the beating? That is not just, and certainly lacks mercy – after all, he has the power to prevent such a beating taking place.

Is he being expedient here? Having delivered a ruling against a group that he might regard as ‘troublesome’, does he allow the beating to take place as a means of punishing the Jewish leaders, indicating to them that they should not bother him again?

We don’t know – but it is thought provoking.

A common saying is ‘my enemy’s enemy is my friend’ – that we might be cynical enough to regard the actions taken against someone who is opposed to us as being supportive of our own position. It might be easy – if short-sighted of us – to look at Gallio’s turning of a blind eye of being supportive of Paul and the early Church – easy and foolish. Gallio hasn’t reached the position he occupies without some guile and cunning, and it is most likely that Gallio’s actions are only supportive of Roman rule. Historically, we know that Gallio did involve himself in Roman politics and met his death by suicide – which may have been ‘encouraged’ by others to avoid the shame of trial and execution.

As Christians we all face trials as we go through life; we may sometimes find ourselves in difficult positions where we are being asked to make decisions like Gallio, or where we are being expected to answer for our behaviour like Paul. As Christians, Christ is our ultimate and perfect judge; but in our human existence we should expect fair judgement to all, irrespective of colour, creed, faith and belief – whether we are being judged or in a position where judgement is expected from us.

“What we do in life echoes in eternity” – may we, in our actions and words, be consistent in our attitude toward Jesus and God. We need to reflect on the words of Micah in their entirety – Do justly, love mercy and walk humbly with God, and not take the partial and expedient approach of Gallio, however it may benefit us at the time.

Amen

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