Paul departed from Athens and went to Corinth. Luke didn’t write much about Paul’s 18 months in Corinth, I assume because Paul wrote so much in 1 and 2 Corinthians (and one other letter Luke may have known about). But I have to admit I would have appreciated a bit more of Luke’s objective eye to balance Paul’s more introspective look. The most important thing Luke recorded however was the Lord Jesus’ encouragement to comfort Paul’s fear (Acts 18:9, 10 NET).
The Lord said to Paul by a vision in the night, “Do not be afraid (φοβοῦ, a form of φοβέω), but speak (λάλει, a form of λαλέω) and do not be silent (σιωπήσῃς, a form of σιωπάω), because I am with (μετὰ, a form of μετά) you, and no one will assault (ἐπιθήσεται, a form of ἐπιτίθημι) you to harm (κακῶσα, a form of κακόω) you, because I have many people in this city.”
Before attempting to discover why Paul was afraid to speak in Corinth, I want to review Jesus’ instructions to his twelve disciples when He gave them authority over unclean spirits so they could cast them out and heal every kind of disease and sickness.
I am sending you out like sheep surrounded by wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Beware of people, because they will hand you over to councils and flog you in their synagogues. And you will be brought before governors and kings because of me, as a witness to them and the Gentiles. Whenever they hand you over for trial, do not worry about how to speak (λαλήσητε, another form of λαλέω) or what to say, for what you should say (λαλήσητε, another form λαλέω) will be given to you at that time. For it is not you speaking (λαλοῦντες, another form of λαλέω), but the Spirit of your Father speaking (λαλοῦν, another form of λαλέω) through you.
Luke recorded a story about the apostles (including Peter, the others were not named) after they were beaten for disobeying the Jewish ruling council by continuing to preach in Jesus’ name: So they left the council rejoicing (χαίροντες, a form of χαίρω) because they had been considered worthy to suffer dishonor for the sake of the name. This is exactly how Jesus told them to behave: Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you and say all kinds of evil things about you falsely on account of me. Rejoice (χαίρετε, another form of χαίρω) and be glad… Paul was more than a little familiar with these phenomena, both people handing him over to councils to be flogged, and the Holy Spirit giving him the words to speak when needed. Paul and Silas were beaten and thrown into prison in Philippi. About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the rest of the prisoners were listening to them.
The account of the end of Paul’s stay in Pisidian Antioch is as follows (Acts 13:50-52 NET):
But the Jews incited the God-fearing women of high social standing and the prominent men of the city, stirred up persecution against Paul and Barnabas, and threw them out of their region. So after they shook the dust off their feet in protest against them, they went to Iconium. And the disciples were filled (ἐπληροῦντο, a form of πληρόω) with joy (χαρᾶς, a form of χαρά) and with the Holy Spirit.
Apparently the relatively new believers in Pisidian Antioch also shared in this counter-intuitive joy. If I hear Rejoice and be glad as a rule for me to obey when I am being mistreated by others, well, the stated reason—because your reward is great in heaven, for they persecuted the prophets before you in the same way—is scant help. My rejoicing and gladness of heart under those circumstances are either AWOL or so tepid they are rarely convincing, even to me. But if I hear this by faith, as a promise, then I realize that χαίρω doesn’t originate with me, but wells up from the χαρά (joy) that is an aspect of the fruit of the Holy Spirit.
If I consider Paul’s fear from a law perspective I see that every time he opened his mouth to speak people ridiculed or beat or stoned him. And, admittedly, part of the Lord’s comfort to Paul in Corinth was the promise that, no one will assault you to harm you. But if I think about it from a faith perspective, well, the apparent masochism of the early apostles and disciples makes perfect sense. Not only were their bloodstreams flooded with endorphins and adrenaline when their bodies were stressed, their spirits were filled with the χαρά of the Lord. A feedback loop like that could easily become addicting, and even progressive, encouraging them to risk new dangers and greater challenges.
If I think of Paul as fairly far along in this addictive feedback loop, initiated and perpetuated by speaking, I look somewhere other than the feedback loop itself for something that would cause him to be afraid to speak. More mistreatment simply resulted in more endorphins, more adrenaline and more χαρά. I need something that would disturb or distort that feedback loop, cause Paul to doubt himself or the Spirit of Christ in him. For better or worse I’ve latched onto the nature of some of the Lord’s people in Corinth as potentially troubling to the former Pharisee and self-proclaimed least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle. Some of them were sexually immoral (πόρνοι, a form of πόρνος), idolaters, adulterers, passive homosexual partners, practicing homosexuals, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, the verbally abusive, and swindlers, and some of them apparently had some difficulty shedding those sins.
Having said all that, I do believe that something about the people of Athens negatively impacted Paul even before he arrived in Corinth. I decided (ἔκρινα, a form of κρίνω) to be concerned about nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified. Paul judged, even prejudged or was prejudiced against, the Corinthians before he spoke to them. By his own admission his focus on nothing…except Jesus Christ, and him crucified denied the Corinthians wisdom: Now we do speak wisdom among the mature…not with words taught us by human wisdom, but with those taught by the Spirit, explaining spiritual things to spiritual people. I could not speak to you as spiritual people, but instead as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ.
Obviously, by the time I heard of any of this in 1 Corinthians Paul was already doing everything he could to correct that deficit, writing 1 Corinthians, sending Timothy to remind [them] of my ways in Christ, as I teach them everywhere in every church. And he did this even as he clung to his initial judgment regarding their unworthiness: I fed you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready. In fact, you are still not ready. But when I compare Romans to 1 Corinthians it seems all too apparent that the wisdom Paul withheld is the cause of spiritual maturity, not a reward for achieving it somehow by one’s own efforts.