Sketches From The Life of Paul
by Ellen G. White
Chapter 17: Paul Revisits Corinth
It was autumn when Paul again visited Corinth. As he beheld the Corinthian towers and lofty citadel in the distance, the clouds that [p. 184] enshrouded the mountains and cast a shadow upon the city beneath, seemed a fitting emblem of the error and immorality which threatened the prosperity of the Christian church in that place. The mind of Paul was agitated by conflicting thoughts. He was to meet his children in the faith of the gospel. Some of them had been guilty of grievous sins. Some of his former friends had forgotten his love and the sweet friendship and confidence of earlier days. They had become his enemies, and questioned and disputed whether he was a true apostle of Christ, intrusted with the gospel. Though the majority of the church had turned from their sins and submitted to the commands of Paul, yet it could not be with them entirely as it was before their immorality. There could not exist that union, love, and confidence between teacher and people, as upon the occasion of his former visit.
There were still some in the church, who, when reproved by the apostle, had persisted in their sinful course, despising his warnings and defying his authority. The time had come when he must take decisive measures to put down this opposition. He had warned the Corinthians of his purpose to come and deal in person with the obstinate offenders: "I write to them which heretofore have sinned, and to all other, that if I come again, I will not spare; since ye seek a proof of Christ speaking in me." He had delayed his coming, to give them time for reflection and repentance. But now all who continued in their course of error and sin, must be separated from the church of Christ. They had charged Paul with timidity and weakness because of his long forbearance through love for their souls. [p. 185] He would now be compelled to pursue a course which would disprove this charge.
As Paul thus approaches Corinth, how striking the contrast to the close of a former journey, when Saul, "breathing out threatenings and slaughter against the disciples of the Lord," drew near to Damascus! How widely different the appearance, purposes, and spirit of Saul and Paul! Then he was intrusted with the sword of secular power, he was the agent of the Sanhedrim, the Jewish inquisitor, the exterminator of heretics, seeking victims to imprison, to scourge, or to stone. Filled with pride, he rode toward Damascus, with servants at his command to convey his prisoners to Jerusalem. Now he journeys on foot, with no outward tokens of rank or power, and no officers of justice to do his bidding. The utmost that he can do to punish those who disregard his authority, is to separate them from a society whose members are everywhere regarded as ignorant and degraded. His enemies declare that his bodily presence is weak, and his speech contemptible. Yet the apostle is not so powerless as he is represented. He bears a commission from the King of kings. All Heaven is enlisted to sustain him. His weapons are not carnal, but mighty through God to overthrow the strongholds of sin and Satan.
There has been as great a change in the spirit of the apostle, as in his outward appearance. Then he was "breathing out threatenings and slaughter against the disciples;" he "made havoc of the church;" he "haled men and women to prison;" he "compelled them to blaspheme;" he was "exceedingly mad" against all who revered the name of Jesus. His heart was filled with [p. 186] bitterness, malice, and hatred; yet he was so deluded as to imagine himself serving God, while in reality doing the work of Satan. Now the proud, passionate nature of Saul has been transformed by the grace of Christ. His heart yearns over his most bitter opponents. The thought of causing them pain, fills him with sorrow. He wrote to his brethren, "If I cause you grief, who is there to cause me joy?" He entreated them to spare him the necessity of dealing severely with them. All that was good and noble in the character of Saul remains, the same zeal burns upon the altar of his heart; but it has been purified, and sacredly consecrated to the service of Christ.
Paul was accompanied to Corinth by a little band of fellow-laborers, some of whom had been his companions during the months spent in Macedonia, and his assistants in gathering funds for the church at Jerusalem. He could rely upon these brethren for sympathy and support in the present crisis. And though the condition of the Corinthian church was in some respects painful and discouraging, there were also reasons for joy and gratitude. Many who had once been corrupt and degraded worshipers of idols, were now sincere and humble followers of Christ. Not a few still regarded the apostle with warm affection, as the one who had first borne to them the precious light of the gospel. As he once more greeted these disciples, and saw the proof of their fidelity and zeal, he felt that his labor had not been in vain. In the society of his beloved companions and these faithful converts, his worn and troubled spirit found rest and encouragement.
For three months Paul stayed at Corinth. [p. 187] During this period he not only labored unweariedly for the church in that city, but he found time to look forward to wider missions, and to prepare for new conquests. His thoughts were still occupied with his contemplated journey from Jerusalem to Rome. To see the Christian faith firmly established at the great center of the known world, was one of his dearest hopes and most cherished plans. A church had already been raised up at Rome, and the apostle desired to secure their co-operation in the work which he hoped to accomplish. To prepare the way for his labors among these brethren, as yet strangers, he addressed them by letter, announcing his purpose to visit Rome, and also by their aid to plant the standard of the cross in Spain.
In his Epistle to the Romans, Paul set forth the great principles of the gospel which he hoped to present in person. He stated his position on the questions which were agitating the Jewish and Gentile churches, and showed that the hopes and promises which once belonged especially to the Jews were now offered to the Gentiles. With great clearness and power he presented the doctrine of justification by faith in Christ. While addressing the Roman Christians, Paul designed to instruct other churches also; but how little could he foresee the far-reaching influence of his words! The great truth of justification by faith, as set forth in this epistle, has stood through all the ages as a mighty beacon to guide the repentant sinner into the way of life. This light scattered the darkness which enveloped Luther's mind, and revealed to him the power of the blood of Christ to cleanse from sin. It has guided thousands of sin-burdened souls to the same [p. 188] source of pardon and peace. Every Christian has reason to thank God for that epistle to the church at Rome.
While Paul looked with interest and hope to new fields of labor in the west, he had cause for serious apprehension concerning the fields of his former labor in the east. Tidings had been received at Corinth from the churches in Galatia, revealing a state of great confusion, and even of absolute apostasy. Judaizing teachers were opposing the work of the apostle, and seeking to destroy the fruit of his labors.
In almost every church there were some members who were Jews by birth. To these converts the Jewish teachers found ready access, and through them gained a foot-hold in the churches. It was impossible, by scriptural arguments, to overthrow the doctrines taught by Paul; hence they resorted to the most unscrupulous measures to counteract his influence and weaken his authority. They declared that he had not been a disciple of Jesus, and had received no commission from him; yet he had presumed to teach doctrines directly opposed to those held by Peter, James, and the other apostles. Thus the emissaries of Judaism succeeded in alienating many of the Christian converts from their teacher in the gospel. Having gained this point, they induced them to return to the observance of the ceremonial law as essential to salvation. Faith in Christ, and obedience to the law of ten commandments, were regarded as of minor importance. Division, heresy, and sensualism were rapidly gaining ground among the believers in Galatia.
Paul's soul was stirred as he saw the evils [p. 189] that threatened speedily to destroy these churches. He immediately wrote to the Galatians, exposing their false theories, and with great severity rebuking those who had departed from the faith.
In the introduction to his epistle, he asserted his own position as an apostle, "not of men, neither by man, but by Jesus Christ, and God the Father, who raised him from the dead." He had been commissioned by the highest authority, not of earth, but in Heaven. After giving his salutation to the church, he pointedly addresses them: "I marvel that ye are so soon removed from Him that called you into the grace of Christ unto another gospel, which is not another." The doctrines which the Galatians had received, could not in any sense be called the gospel; they were the teachings of men, and were directly opposed to the doctrines taught by Christ.
The apostle continues: "But there be some that trouble you, and would pervert the gospel of Christ. But though we, or an angel from Heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed."
How different from his manner of writing to the Corinthian church is the course which he pursues toward the Galatians! In dealing with the former, he manifests great caution and tenderness, while he reproves the latter with abrupt severity. The Corinthians had been overcome by temptation, and deceived by the ingenious sophistry of teachers who presented errors under the guise of truth. They had become confused and bewildered. To teach them to distinguish the false from the true, required great caution and patience in their instructor. Harshness or [p. 190] injudicious haste would have destroyed his influence over those whom he sought to benefit.
In the Galatian churches, open, unmasked error was supplanting the faith of the gospel. Christ, the true foundation, was virtually renounced for the obsolete ceremonies of Judaism. The apostle saw that if these churches were saved from the dangerous influences which threatened them, the most decisive measures must be taken, the sharpest warnings given, to bring them to a sense of their true condition.
To deal wisely with different classes of minds, under varied circumstances and conditions, is a work requiring wisdom and judgment, enlightened and sanctified by the Spirit of God. The minister of Christ should learn the importance of adapting his labors to the condition of those whom he seeks to benefit. Tenderness, patience, decision, and firmness are alike needful; but they are to be exercised with proper discrimination. It is only by maintaining a close connection with God that his servants can hope to meet judiciously the trials and difficulties that still arise in the churches.
Paul had presented to the Galatians the gospel of Christ in its purity. His teachings were in harmony with the Scriptures; and the Holy Spirit had witnessed to his labors. Hence he warned his brethren to listen to nothing that should contradict the truth which they had been taught.
The apostle reverts to his own experience, of which the Galatians have been previously informed. He reminds them of his proficiency in the learning of the Jews, and his zeal for their religion. Even in early manhood he had achieved [p. 191] distinction as an able and zealous defender of the Jewish faith. But when Christ was revealed to him, he at once renounced all his prospective honors and advantages, and devoted his life to the preaching of the cross. He appeals to his brethren to decide whether in all this he could have been actuated by any worldly or selfish motive. He then shows them that after his conversion he had no opportunity to receive instruction from man. The doctrines which he preached had been revealed to him by the Lord Jesus Christ. After the vision at Damascus, Paul retired into Arabia, for communion with God. It was not until three years had elapsed that he went up to Jerusalem; and he then made a stay of but fifteen days, thence going out to preach the gospel to the Gentiles. He declares that he was "unknown by face unto the churches of Judea which were in Christ. But they had heard only, that he which persecuted us in times past, now preacheth the faith which once he destroyed. And they glorified God in me."
In thus reviewing his history, the apostle seeks to make apparent to all that by special manifestation of divine power he had been led to perceive and to grasp the great truths of the gospel, as presented in the Old Testament scriptures and embodied in the life of Christ on earth. It was the knowledge received from God himself which led Paul to warn and admonish the Galatians in that solemn and positive manner. He did not present the gospel in hesitancy and doubt, but with the assurance of settled conviction and absolute knowledge. In his epistle he clearly marks the contrast between being taught by man and receiving instruction direct from Christ. [p. 192]
The apostle urged upon the Galatians, as their only safe course, to leave the false guides by whom they had been misled, and to return to the faith which they had received from the Source of truth and wisdom. Those false teachers were hypocritical, unregenerate men; unholy in heart, and corrupt in life. Their religion consisted in a round of ceremonies, by the performance of which they expected to receive the favor of God. They had no relish for a doctrine which taught, "Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God." Such a religion required too great a sacrifice. Hence they clung to their errors, deceiving themselves, and deceiving others.
To substitute the external forms of religion for holiness of heart and life, is still as pleasing to the unrenewed nature as in the days of the apostles. For this reason, false teachers abound, and the people listen eagerly to their delusive doctrines. It is Satan's studied effort to divert the minds of men from the one way of salvation, —faith in Christ, and obedience to the law of God. In every age the arch-enemy adapts his temptations to the prejudices or inclinations of the people. In apostolic times he led the Jews to exalt the ceremonial law, and reject Christ; at the present day he induces many professed Christians, under the pretense of honoring Christ, to cast contempt upon the moral law, and teach that its precepts may be transgressed with impunity. It is the duty of every faithful servant of God, to firmly and decidedly withstand these perverters of the faith, and to fearlessly expose their errors by the word of truth.
Paul continues to vindicate his position as the [p. 193] apostle of Christ, not by the will of men, but by the power of God. He describes the visit which he made to Jerusalem to secure a settlement of the very questions which are now agitating the churches of Galatia, as to whether the Gentiles should submit to circumcision and keep the ceremonial law. This was the only instance in which he had deferred to the judgment of the other apostles as superior to his own. He had first sought a private interview, in which he set the matter in all its bearings before the leading apostles, Peter, James, and John. With far-seeing wisdom, he concluded that if these men could be led to take a right position, everything would be gained. Had he first presented the question before the whole council, there would have been a division of sentiment. The strong prejudice already excited because he had not enforced circumcision on the Gentiles, would have led many to take a stand against him. Thus the object of his visit would have been defeated, and his usefulness greatly hindered. But the three leading apostles, against whom no such prejudice existed, having themselves been won to the true position, brought the matter before the council, and won from all a concurrence in the decision to leave the Gentiles free from the obligations of the ceremonial law.
Paul further disproved the accusations of his enemies, by showing that his position as an apostle of Christ had been acknowledged by the council at Jerusalem, and that in his labors among the Gentiles he had complied with the decisions of that council. Those who were seeking to destroy his influence, professed to acknowledge Peter, James, and John as pillars of the church. [p. 194] They were constantly extolling these apostles, and endeavoring to prove them superior to Paul in position and authority. But Paul showed that his enemies could not justify their course by a pretended regard for these apostles. While he honored them as faithful ministers of Christ, he showed that they had not attempted to instruct him, neither had they commissioned him to preach the gospel. They were convinced that God had called him to present the truth to the Gentiles, as he had designated Peter to go especially to the Jews. Hence they acknowledged before the council Paul's divine commission, and received him as a fellow-laborer of equal position with themselves.
It was not to exalt self, but to magnify the grace of God, that Paul thus presented to those who were denying his apostleship, proof that he was "not a whit behind the very chiefest apostles." Those who sought to belittle his calling and his work were fighting against Christ, whose grace and power were manifested through Paul. Hence the apostle felt that he was forced, by the opposition of his enemies, and even by the course of his brethren, to take a decided stand to maintain his position and authority.Click here to read the next chapter: "Paul's Last Journey to Jerusalem"