In the US today, most church planters estimate they need at least five years to establish a new church and perhaps four decades to establish a network like Vineyard or Acts 29. And this in an era of instant communication and rapid transportation.
When Paul and his team of synergos (“co-workers”) spread out across the Roman Empire to share the gospel in the first century, they did not enjoy such advantages. And yet we know that within three decades of the death and resurrection of Christ, groups of believers were firmly settled from Spain to Persia.
How did the early apostles do this? Let’s set aside for the moment the powerful work of the Holy Spirit. What were the means by which the gospel spread across this vast region?
Key Ministry in Ports
From Acts we know that Paul travelled by using both Roman roads (often paved) and commercial shipping. Travelling by ship was expensive, equivalent to first class air travel today in cost per mile, but it was the fastest and, in the summer months, the safest. But shipping was not as primitive as we might be lead to believe.
The shipping of the first century had been developing in both technology and speed over the previous seven centuries. Written records of trans-national shipping go back to the Phoenicians, who inhabited a coastal strip to the north of Israel. They rose to power around 700 B.C., about the time of David and Solomon, and used their expertise in building warships to also develop outstanding ships for commercial use. What may be the first written record of a supply chain appears in 1 Kings 5. The passage contains a commercial contract for supplying timber for building the temple in return for wheat and olive oil from Israel. In addition, detailed designs of ships appear on pottery of this period.
However, it is in the Greek and Roman empires that commercial shipping really develops. Estimates vary; the Roman merchant shipping fleet had in it around 3,000 ships.
Along with the ships came the construction of large ports. Take Corinth, which had two ports. The west-facing port across the isthmus was Lechaeum, and Cenchreae faced to the east. Lechaeum was the port for ships to Rome and Cenchreae was for ships going to the Greek islands and the Levant.
Corinth had the kind of reputation for low life and aggressive trading practices that is typical of ports up to the present day. David Prior, in the introduction to his commentary on Corinthians, writes, “Like most sea ports, Corinth had become both prosperous and licentious—so much so that the Greeks had a word for leading a life of debauchery: Korintiazein. Homer talks of ‘wealthy Corinth’ and Thucydides refers to its military importance.”
Prior also quotes scholar Austin Farrar’s description of Corinth: “This mongrel and heterogeneous population of Greek adventurers and Roman bourgeois, with a tainting of Phoenicians; mass of Jews, ex-soldiers, philosophers, merchants, sailors, freedmen, slaves, trades people, hucksters and agents of every form of vice.”
Luke tells us that Paul stayed “for some time” (scholars estimate about 18 months) in this port city teeming with men and women in desperate need of the gospel. Its shipping culture made it a crucial hub in the Roman Empire, bringing in people from all corners of the empire.
From here, Paul took one of the 20 daily sailings out of Corinth’s two ports to go to Syria (Acts 18:18–19) to further his work.
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SOURCE: Christianity Today