Why do I think that Paul was probably quite discouraged as he entered Corinth? There are three reasons to suppose that he was.
1. Paul had experienced great difficulties. He had had a rough time both on the first and second missionary journeys. He had been opposed virtually everywhere he went, and instead of decreasing, the opposition actually seemed to be increasing. At the very beginning, when he crossed Cyprus, there was no mention of any real trials or persecution. When he went into Pamphylia and came to Antioch in Pisidia, he was opposed so strongly that he had to leave the city after being there only a very short time. The same thing happened in Iconium. At Lystra, the opposition that had been dogging his footsteps became outright physical abuse. He was stoned there.
Stoning was meant to kill the victim. When those who were with Paul saw him fall under the barrage of missiles, they must have thought that the missionary journey was over and Paul was dead. But we are told that after his assailants had left and gone back into the city, Paul rose up and went back in himself with the brethren. This may mean that God healed Paul miraculously.
Then, on the second missionary journey, when Paul went to Philippi, he was flogged. This was the first of several experiences of that particularly cruel form of Roman punishment. He and Silas were thrown into prison. This was the first time Paul was imprisoned for the faith, and it was fresh from that experience that he had passed down the coast from Philippi to Thessalonica, Berea, Athens, and finally Corinth.
I am sure Paul did not say this, but if you and I had been through those experiences, we might have said, “Who needs this? I had a perfectly good life in Jerusalem. There I was somebody. I set out to serve Jesus Christ. He said, ‘Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.’ Yet here I am abused, hounded from city to city, stoned, beaten, and imprisoned. I can do without this.” As I say, I am sure Paul did not say that; I am sure he did not even think it. But knowing human nature as I do, I think the abuse had an effect upon him personally.
2. The results had been meager in Athens. When we studied the account of his time in Athens in last week’s study, I said that we have to be careful how we evaluate it. The academic address Paul gave to the intellectuals of that city was a marvel of sharp communication. It shows his keen mind at work, including his extraordinary ability to adapt to any situation. When he spoke to Jews, he spoke as a Jew. When he spoke to Greeks, he spoke as a Greek. Only somebody of Paul’s great training and acumen could have given an address as brilliant as that one was. Yet the results were still meager.
When we come to the end of the story, we find that a few believed: “A few men became followers of Paul and believed” (Acts 17:34). One was Dionysius, a member of the Areopagus, an important man. But when the text goes on to name others, it says only “also a woman named Damaris, and a number of others.” It doesn’t even say, as it does in reference to other cities, “a large number” or “not a few prominent” people. Nothing is said about the founding of a church in Athens. We know that in time a church was founded. It endured for many years. But when Paul left Athens and went on to Corinth, as we find him doing in this chapter, it must have been with a sense, if not of failure, at least of disappointment, that what he had done in Athens had not borne any special evidence of the blessing of God.
I think, too, that Paul may have been disappointed with the address he gave on that occasion. As I say, we have to be careful when we say that. But we remember that when he wrote to the Corinthians later and in retrospect recalled his ministry among them, he said, “When I came to you, brothers, I did not come with eloquence or superior wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:1-2). We find the same thing in Acts 18, where verse 5 seems to make the identical point: “When Silas and Timothy came from Macedonia, Paul devoted himself exclusively to preaching”—that is, to an explanation and application of the Word of God.
3. Paul was alone. He had left his co-workers in Macedonia, though with very good reason. He had founded churches there. Paul had to leave, and he had not been able to teach the converts very long. Obviously, they needed teaching. So Silas and Timothy were left to teach them. It was the right thing to do. Nevertheless, having left Silas and Timothy and having gone on, as he felt called to do, Paul was alone. Some people apparently do well alone; we call them “loners.” But it is hard to be alone, and it is especially hard when you are trying to accomplish some important work or tackle some particularly difficult assignment. Paul must have been just a bit down because of it.