August 27, 2017 “Verbal Dispute” – Acts 18:1-17
August 27, 2017 – Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost
Philosophy is easier in the wilderness. On our backpack trip this week, four men and two boys had no access to cell networks, so we had to debate questions like whether society is immoral or if the smoke was worse, without looking up answers on our phones. The American philosopher William James told this story about his own camping trip debate.
Some years ago, being with a camping party in the mountains, I returned from a solitary ramble to find every one engaged in a ferocious metaphysical dispute. The corpus of the dispute was a squirrel—a live squirrel supposed to be clinging to one side of a tree-trunk; while over against the tree’s opposite side a human being was imagined to stand. This human witness tries to get sight of the squirrel by moving rapidly round the tree, but no matter how fast he goes, the squirrel moves as fast in the opposite direction, and always keeps the tree between himself and the man, so that never a glimpse of him is caught. The resultant metaphysical problem now is this: Does the man go round the squirrel or not? He goes round the tree, sure enough, and the squirrel is on the tree; but does he go round the squirrel? In the unlimited leisure of the wilderness, discussion had been worn threadbare. Every one had taken sides, and was obstinate; and the numbers on both sides were even.
James argued that the answer to the dispute depends on what you mean by “going round the squirrel.” If you mean that the man was first east, then south, then west, then north and then again east of the squirrel, then “Yes,” the man went round the squirrel. But if by “going round” you mean that he was first in front of the squirrel, then to the side of it, then behind it, then to the side and then again in front, then “No,” he did not go round the squirrel. The whole issue was a matter of what the words meant practically, a “verbal” dispute or disagreement. James goes on to argue that many of the great questions in the world are merely verbal disputes which disappear when you sort out the practical meaning of words. Truth is a matter of how you use words.
In the closing verses of today’s text, a Roman proconsul named Gallio registered his opinion that an argument over Christian faith was much like that silly debate regarding a man and a squirrel, a matter of words and names, a merely verbal disagreement. He wanted nothing to do with it.
The whole scene in Corinth shows us that both William James and Gallio were mistaken in their impression that words do not really matter. If words mean anything, it is only by some connection with reality, some correspondence with the truth about the world. We see that in the “back story” behind the first few verses.
In verse 1, we find Paul traveling north from Athens to the great Greek commercial center of Corinth. There he met a husband-wife ministry team who were to become great friends and co-workers. Verse 2 says that Aquila and Priscilla left Italy and came to Greece when Claudius the emperor ordered all Jews to leave Rome.
There is historical confirmation for this expulsion of Jews during Paul’s time in a biography of Emperor Claudius by Seutonius. There we read, “As the Jews were indulging in constant riots at the instigation of Chrestus, he banished them from Rome.” Since “Chrestus” and “Christus” were pronounced the same, many scholars believe Seutonius, writing seventy years after the facts, confused the two words. One is the Roman slave name, Chrestus. The other is the Jewish religious title, Christus, which means Messiah. It is not very likely that a slave incited the Jews to riot. It was Jewish reaction to the preaching of Christus, Christ, which caused the disturbance. Seutonius mixed up the words and thereby distorted the reality of what happened in Rome.
Names matter. Words which describe a person matter. When that person is Jesus, they matter more than a little. Verse 5 tells us that Paul waited for his partners Silas and Timothy and then made his usual first presentation of the Gospel in the synagogue, first to Jews. He argued for a crucial connection between a name and a word: “that the Messiah was Jesus.” It’s the same connection Peter made in our Gospel text this morning when Jesus asked him who He was. “You are the Christ, the Messiah.”
Verse 6 says the Jews in the synagogue opposed Paul and “reviled him.” It was no mere verbal dispute for them. That word “Christ,” “Messiah,” mattered. They refused to believe it could be applied to the man named Jesus who died on a cross. Their unbelief must have been particularly strong because Paul’s reaction to their opposition was strong in verse 6, “Your blood be on your own heads!” Accepting Jesus as the Messiah is no mere disagreement about words. It is a matter of truth, a matter of life and death. It still is.
Paul simply left and went next door. There lived a Roman convert to Judaism named Titius Justus. He was more open than the other Jews. Paul set up to preach there in Justus’ house. Who should walk in, but the leader of the synagogue, a man named Crispus. At least he was ready to accept Jesus as the Christ. Verse 8 tells how Crispus and his entire household, as well as many other Corinthians, believed and were baptized.
So there were Paul and Silas and Timothy, parked in a large home right next to the synagogue. It irked those still at synagogue. At prayer times and Sabbath, here would come someone walking down the street, and just before he came to the synagogue, he would turn into Justus’ house instead and listen to the new and different words Paul was saying.
Despite the conversions, that strong opposition in the synagogue discouraged Paul, made him afraid. He may have been getting ready to move on, like he had just done from Athens. But verse 9 tells how Paul had a vision in which God told him not to fear but to keep on speaking. The Lord assured him, “I am with you, and no one will lay a hand on you.” Jesus said, “for there are many in this city who are my people.” In other words, they would be God’s people if Paul stayed and kept speaking that name, speaking about Jesus.
I will testify to that truth in my own life as a pastor. There have been a few times when I’ve been tempted to move on, to leave opposition and abuse behind and look for nicer people to work with. Like Paul in Athens and other places, I did that once 24 years ago. But God has spoken to me a couple times now and said, “Stay here. I am with you. You will be O.K. See the people in this place who belong to me.” And it’s happened. God has gathered you all together. He’s kept the doors open and the lights on. And as I’ve stuck around and joined some of you in teaching the Word we’ve seen Jesus at work like Paul saw Him at work for a year and a half in Corinth, while he, like verse 11 says, taught the word of God.
We’ve had long times of peace at Valley Covenant, but opposition never ceased for Paul in Corinth. His Jewish opponents never gave up. In verses 12 and 13 we read how they conceived a clever plan to finally silence him. They brought Paul before the Roman proconsul Gallio and accused him of teaching an illegal religion.
Judaism at that time was an officially tolerated faith in the Roman empire, a legal religion. So the Jewish plan was to argue that Paul’s preaching of Jesus had so far departed from Judaism that it was no longer legal. It was a new faith which did not enjoy government protection.
As I suggested at the beginning, Gallio had a little of the spirit of William James. In fact, Gallio was the brother of a philosopher, the famous Seneca. In 65 A.D. back in Rome, both of them were accused of a plot against Nero and were ordered to commit suicide. But in 51 A.D. while Paul was there. Gallio was the governor of the territory around Corinth. As a sophisticated Roman, he wanted nothing to do with what seemed to him a silly dispute about Jewish religion.
Paul would have spoken to the charges against him, but Gallio interrupted in verse 14 to say that if this were about some kind of serious crime he would care. But this is about “words and names and your own law.” Gallio saw it as an internal Jewish dispute, nothing that involved Roman law. It was merely about religious words, completely irrelevant to him. “See to it yourselves; I do not wish to be judge of these matters,” he said in verse 15 and dismisses them all in verse 16. In a way, it was helpful to the Christians because it made their religion legal by default because Gallio thought it was irrelevant.
Jesus refuses to be irrelevant. When Jesus asked Peter “But who do you say that I am?” He was asking the only question that really matters to anyone. What are you going to say about Jesus? How is your relationship with Jesus going to affect your life, to make a difference?
Unlike some other faiths, Christianity is rooted in history, in reality. Gallio’s service as proconsul is recorded on stone in an inscription in Delphi. When verse 12 says Paul was brought “before the tribunal” the words are literally that he was brought “before the bema.” The bema was a large platform in the marketplace where the Roman proconsul held court. It was a real place. Our family has seen it. In the ruins of ancient Corinth, you can still stand in front of the Corinthian bema. Behind you rises the temple of Apollo, down the street you see the stone arches of the market stalls. It’s all still there. The stones of that court, that bema, are just as real as the paving stones in our north parking lot. Paul stood below. The governor in his robes sat above. This is not just words. It’s reality. It happened
Christians have always argued and disputed about words. On one hand it seems petty, stupid, irrelevant to really important concerns such as love and kindness and freedom. But some verbal disputes make perfect sense once you realize that words do mean something, that we are talking about reality.
In the fourth century the Christian church was caught up by the greatest dispute in its history, a turning point which shaped our faith and western civilization ever since. It was not even a word they argued about, it was one single letter. At the Council of Nicea, the great question was whether to say Jesus was homo-ousia with the Father or homoi-ousia with the Father. One little letter in Greek, an iota, a mere stroke of a pen. Yet it made a huge difference in reality.
Homo-ousia meant that Jesus was the same being, the same substance as the Father, truly God. Homoi-ousia meant that His being, His substance, was merely like the Father, similar, but not the same. A god, but not God; divine, but not the Divinity.
Nicea adopted the strong and correct view that Jesus was God, homo-ousia with the Father. But afterward there was great pressure to soften up. Homoi-ousia became the popular position. It was the tolerant, inclusive view. Everyone could agree Jesus was similar to God. If you wanted to believe more, fine, but let’s all just agree on the minimum, said the other bishops.
A church leader named Athanasius would not settle for the minimum. He wanted the whole truth about Jesus. He was banished from his home in Alexandria five times by five different emperors. The slogan was coined, Athanasius contra mundi, “Athanasius against the world.” For awhile he was all alone. His concern with truth and orthodoxy was just trouble-making, mere words, it didn’t seem to matter. But it did. Christianity is what it is today because Athanasius stood firm. He took Jesus seriously when the Lord said not one iota must be dropped from God’s Word.
In our Gospel from Matthew 16, Peter said, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Athanasius understood that means Jesus is God, not something else. That’s why when Jesus told Paul not to be afraid, that “I am with you,” Paul had nothing to fear. God Himself was with him. Words and names matter. The name of Jesus matters. Everything we believe and do as Christians depends on that.
As Christians think about and react to events around us, that name of Jesus is all that really matters. We don’t stand with African-American brothers and sisters to say “Black lives matter,” because we’re liberal or politically correct or any of that. We do it because that’s what the name of Jesus means. Jesus told Paul that many people in Corinth belonged to Him. And black lives belong to Jesus. So they matter.
And we don’t cherish and protect the lives of unborn babies because we are conservative or kind-hearted or any of that. We oppose abortion because the one named Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me.” They matter because they belong to Jesus.
We do what we do because of that name, the name of Jesus Christ, the Son of the living God. Gallio and so many modern politicians are wrong. Political words and disputes may or may not matter, but following Jesus always matters, no matter where that puts us on the political spectrum.
Lack of concern with important words lands us where Gallio ended up. When a mob decided then to beat up the new synagogue leader in verse 17, “Gallio paid no attention to any of these things.” When he tossed everybody out of his court, the Greeks there took the opportunity for a little anti-Semitism, to rough up a Jewish leader named Sosthenes. But Gallio didn’t want to be involved, to take sides, to say helpful and meaningful words. So he just looked the other way.
Christians don’t look the other way when people are getting hurt in this world. Our Lord says those people belong to Him. Jesus told Peter in Matthew 16 that He was building His Church full of people of who believe He is the Messiah. That’s what He was doing in Corinth. That’s what He’s still doing. That’s what the name of Jesus means. It is a name by which people of all races and social status come together because they are His.
William James wrote another essay saying it was O.K. to believe whatever religion works for you. If it’s a genuine option to believe and believing makes you happier or more prosperous, then go ahead and believe it. But believing in the name of Jesus is not about what works for you, but about how you will work for Jesus, about how His name will transform the way you live from selfish indifference to loving concern. The name of Jesus makes everyone around you matter because they matter to Him.
You matter because you belong to Jesus, whether you know it or not. He wants His name to be your name. He would like you to be a Christian, a Christ-follower who loves like He loves and lives like He lived. Be baptized, if you haven’t been, like Crispus and his family, and let the name of Jesus be yours. He will always be with you.
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2017 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj
 William James, “What Pragmatism Means” in Pragmatism and Other Essays (New York: Washington Square Press, 1963), p. 22.
 From Life of Claudius, xxv. 4, quoted in F. F. Bruce, Commentary on the Book of Acts (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans Publishing, 1980), p. 368.