A Commentary by John Stott
Acts 18:1 – 19:41. Corinth and Ephesus.
‘The rise of urban civilization’ wrote Professor Harvey Cox in *The Secular City*, is one of the ‘hallmarks of our era’. ‘Urbanization’, he continued, ‘constitutes a massive change in the way men live together’, as they have moved from tribe to town to technopolis. The urban experience includes a cluster of things like communications and mobility, the disintegration of traditional religion, impersonality and anonymity, human planning, control and bureaucracy. And in the decayed inner cities of our time we would have to add economic neglect, racial disadvantage, unemployment, poor housing and education, crime, violence, family breakdown, and tensions between the police and the community.
In 1850 there were only four ‘world class cities’ of more than a million inhabitants; in 1980 there were 225, and by the year 2000 there may be 500. Or consider the so-called ‘megalopolis’ or ‘megacity’ of more than ten million people. In 1950 only London and New York qualified. But by AD 2000 it is calculated that there will be 23 cities of this size, with Mexico City taking the lead at nearly thirty million inhabitants, and Sao Paulo and Tokyo following at nearly twenty-five million. Most of these magacities will be in the Third World; only four will be in Europe and the United States. Already two-fifths of the world’s population are city-dwellers; by the end of the century the ratio will be more like one half.
This process of urbanization, as a significant new fact of this century, constitutes a great challenge to the Christian church. On the one hand, there is the urgent need for Christian planners and architects, local government politicians, urban specialists, developers and community social workers, who will work for justice, peace, freedom and beauty in the city. On the other, Christians need to move into the cities, and experience the pains and pressures of living there, in order to win city-dwellers for Christ. Commuter Christianity (living in salubrious suburbia and commuting to an urban church) is no substitute for incarnational involvement.
It seems to have been Paul’s deliberate policy to move purposefully from one strategic city-centre to the next. What drew him to the cities was probably that they contained the Jewish synagogues, the larger populations and the influential leaders. So on his first missionary expedition he visited Salamis and Paphos in Cyprus, and Antioch, Iconium, Lystra and Derbe in Galatia; on his second he evangelized Philippi, Thessalonica and Berea in Macedonia, and Athens and Corinth in Achaia; while during the greater part of his third journey he concentrated on Ephesus. Indeed Luke deliberately describes how the gospel spread ‘by the gradual establishment of radiating centres or sources of influence at certain salient points throughout a large part of the Empire.’
It is true that some of the towns Paul visited were small and insignificant. This could not be said of Athens, Corinth and Ephesus, however. It has been reckoned that Athens may have had less than 10,000 inhabitants, but that Ephesus had half a million, and that Corinth at its zenith had nearly three-quarters of a million. All three were leading cities of the Roman Empire, situated round the shores of the Aegean Sea, while Corinth and Ephesus were also provincial capitals. They could perhaps be characterized as follows.
Athens was the *intellectual* centre of the ancient world, as we saw in the last chapter, the city where Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Epicurus and Zeno had all expounded their respective philosophies. It was also the birthplace of democracy, and of the three famous universities of antiquity (Alexandra, Tarsus and Athens), Athens was the most distinguished. Although it had now declined from the peak of its brilliance, the brightest students still flocked to it from all parts of the Empire. For the world’s younger intelligensia it retained an almost irresistible magnetism.
Tomorrow: Acts 18:1-19:41. Corinth and Ephesus
The John Stott Bible Study is taken from The Message of Acts. The Bible Speaks Today John Stott. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press UK, Nottingham. All rights reserved.