By every appearance, the very thing Paul dreaded was happening. How many times had gangs of angry men surrounded him and dragged him to the police. In one situation after another government officials had conveniently sided with the mob. And here he was again being taken through the streets of Corinth to stand in front of the new Roman proconsul. It all felt horribly familiar. Would he be stripped and beaten publicly and then thrown into a filthy jail cell as he had in Philippi (Ac 16:19-24)? Or would the mob be allowed to take him out and stone him as they had in Lystra (Ac 14:19, 20)? But there was one thing that made this moment different from all the others. A year and a half earlier Paul had seen a vision of Jesus who told him not to be afraid, so when fear tried to surge up within Paul, he had a promise he could cling to.
The real enemy
The real enemy is fear. Most of the bad decisions we make are made in an effort to protect ourselves from something we fear. Fear weakens us, it breaks down our defenses, and actually seems to draw to us the very thing were trying to flee. You might say fear is a form of faith in reverse. When were afraid, were actively believing that bad things will happen. Fears almost like an odor or a magnetic field. If left unchallenged, sooner or later we tend to get the very thing we feared.
The culture we live in is full of fear. If you listen to the way people talk youll hear it. They say, You know what worries me is
, or Im really frightened for
Our news is full of horrible scenarios about what might happen. Books, films and music constantly envision coming catastrophes, and for that matter, so do religious materials. The effect all this has on us is to make us want to withdraw and hide. We cant dream of great things or step out into bold, new ventures because were waiting for something bad to happen. And living in fear leaves people tired, sad and angry. Frightened people build walls. We limit our own possibilities, we reduce our own potential, because in our mind what we fear is as real as if it had already happened. Its as real as if we had already seen it. So, we think of ourselves as being realistic, not fearful; as wise, not reactionary. And fearful thinking becomes a habit which gets more deeply ingrained in us as the years go by, until were not even aware its there.
Human nature naturally and easily moves toward fear, which is why the Bible says so much about faith. God is constantly calling us out of fear and into faith. He tells us to stop listening to the thoughts that come from our flesh, and to listen to the thoughts that come from His Spirit (Ro 8:5-8).
By his own admission Paul was quite fearful while he was in Corinth. He said, I was with you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling (1Co 2:3). Having traveled with him through the Book of Acts, it should be no surprise to us that he had to cope with fear. Weve watched him violently abused in city after city. Being the incredibly brave man that he was, he never changed course; he kept putting himself in danger for the sake of the gospel. But I think by the time he reached Corinth the psychological damage was accumulating and becoming a force he had to contend with. Fear was tormenting him and he couldnt stop it. And thats when Jesus came and gave him the very thing that would set him free: Jesus spoke a promise to him. He told him, Do not be afraid
for I am with you, and no man will attack you in order to harm you
(vs9-10). In other words, You no longer have any reason to be afraid because I have promised to protect you while youre in this city.
No one really knows why Paul took a vow in Corinth. It seems odd that he would do this very Jewish ritual while he was in a Greek city ministering primarily to Gentiles. But if we take the time to understand what such a vow meant, and then ask ourselves why Paul would do this, well discover a surprisingly beautiful possibility. We cant be certain, but we do know Paul pretty well, and that eliminates all but one of the options and the one thats left gives us a deep insight into how Paul fought against his own fears.
Three type of vows
Making a vow was a very common part of the spiritual life of Israel. It became so common there was a Court of the Nazirites in the Temple so people could fulfill their vows. They made vows for three reasons:
1) Bargaining: I will do this, if You (God) will do that
(Ge 28:20-22, Jacob).
2) Consecration: I commit myself (or my child) completely to Gods service (1Sa 1:11, Hannah).
3) Thanks: Because You have answered my prayer, I will
According to the Law of Moses there was a specific way in which a person was to make a vow (Nu 6:1-8), and a specific way to worship God afterward (Nu 6:13-21).
Why did Paul vow?
First, lets recognize why he didnt. He wasnt bargaining with God, saying, Ill make expensive sacrifices if youll protect me. Hes the one who taught us that all Gods promises are ours because of Christ (2Co 1:20). And he wasnt consecrating himself to Gods service. He already considered himself to be Gods slave (Ro 1:1). So, for some reason, he must have made that vow to thank God for something, something God had already done. What was it?
I believe the vow began after Jesus spoke to him in the vision. By becoming a Nazirite he was thanking Jesus every day for protecting him from what he feared. He made the vow because in that moment of his life he needed:
1) Something to remind him daily of Jesus words
2) A way to constantly give thanks for a protection that was not yet complete. But the vow said it was complete. In Pauls mind, Jesus promise to protect him was so certain he could give thanks for it as if it had already happened.
Ro 8:24, 25 For in hope we have been saved, but hope that is seen is not hope; for who hopes for what he already sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, with perseverance we wait eagerly for it.
Notice: Paul didnt repeatedly ask for protection. He didnt promise to give something to God in order to get God to protect him. It all began when Jesus spoke to him. Then, by becoming a Nazirite until the day he left Corinth, he daily, and publicly, thanked Jesus for protecting him. But once he arrived at the harbor the need for the vow was over. The danger was passed, so he cut his hair to end the vow. At that moment he also committed himself to be in Jerusalem within 30 days in order to perform the proper sacrifices according to Numbers 6:13-20.
How can you and I cope with fear when were forced to live in dangerous situations for a long time? Should we keep asking Him to protect us, as if He didnt hear us the first time? Or, should we only ask once and hope He wont forget? When fear begins to rise up inside us how do we silence it? By watching Paul confront his own fear we learn how to deal with ours. He built into his life a discipline that continually reminded him of Jesus promise. Every day, when he remembered his hair growing long, he remembered why, and his heart would rise up in thanks. When men seized him and stood him before the proconsul for judgment, when it looked as if it was all going to happen again, he must have clung to those words to steady himself. He must have silenced the fear with faith.
Fighting fear with thanks
We dont live in the same culture as Paul, so a Nazirite vow isnt a practical way for us to remind ourselves of Gods promises, but we do need to discover a way to discipline our thoughts. The way Paul fought against his own fear is the way we should overcome ours. His suffering gives us a model from which to learn. Like Paul, we need to:
1) Wait for Jesus (v9). Yes, Paul had a vision, and no, we dont all get visions. But we all have the same Jesus, and if we wait for Him, Hell speak to us as well. Hes the Source of all faith. One way or another we must hear our Lords voice speak to our heart (Sabbath, silent prayer retreat, time in the Word).
2) Listen carefully (v10). Then once we hear from Him, its important to remember exactly what He said. We tend to forget quickly. We need to write down what we hear, even memorize it. He will speak a promise to us, but He wont keep saying it over and over again. He wants us to say it over and over again. He expects us to remember.
3) Use thanks to confess faith (v18). No single word captures the essence of faith better than thanks. The word implies its already done, the blessing has already been received.
Listen to Paul: Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God (Php 4:6). Hes talking here about new requests, but notice hes telling us to thank God for answers even though this is the first time weve asked. Jesus taught this same certainty: Therefore I say to you, all things for which you ask, believe that you have received them, and they will be granted you (Mk 11:24). So when fear rises, we remember what He said, and thank Him for it.
4) Publicly honor God for His faithfulness (v21). Jesus tells us God notices ingratitude (Lk 17:11-19). When the crisis is passed, many people forget to return and openly honor Him for what He did. Thanklessness exposes our own selfishness, but it also denies others the uplifting power of our testimony. Many who are struggling to believe are greatly helped when they hear you tell how God helped you.
All the promises of the Bible are ours (2Co 1:20; 1Co 3:22, 23), but that doesnt mean weve personally heard Him speak that promise to us so that we are able to truly believe it. God is our Source. Everything begins with Him speaking something into existence. Then when were tested, we cling to the word He spoke to us. When we grow frightened or discouraged its likely because weve forgotten what we heard. Weve begun listening to another voice. So, like Paul, when were in weakness and in fear and much trembling we can do the same thing he did: listen carefully, remember daily, and thank Him publicly.
1) Has God ever spoken a promise to you? If its not too personal, please tell us. How has that promise changed you?
2) Do you have an area youd be willing to share where you face fear? How do you respond when fear rises up inside?