Sosthenes is a figure mentioned briefly in the New Testament, specifically in the books of Acts and 1 Corinthians. He was a leader of the synagogue in Corinth during the time of the apostle Paul’s ministry there.
Though he is not a major biblical character, examining the passages about Sosthenes provides some interesting insights into the social dynamics and opposition the early Christian movement faced. In this comprehensive blog post, we will explore the biblical and historical background of Sosthenes, analyze the passages where he appears, and summarize the key lessons we can learn from this enigmatic figure.
In the book of Acts, Sosthenes is depicted as an opponent of Christianity who persecuted believers. However, just a few years later, he is mentioned by Paul in a positive light, as a “brother” in Christ. This dramatic turnaround invites examination – how and why did someone who persecuted Christians become a Christian himself and a leader in the church? Looking closely at the social and religious context of the story provides some clues.
The passages mentioning Sosthenes are:
Acts 18:12-17 – Sosthenes the synagogue ruler persecutes Paul and gets beaten by a mob when Paul is released.
1 Corinthians 1:1 – Sosthenes is called a “brother” by Paul and may have helped him write the letter.
By exploring Sosthenes’ background and these passages in which he appears, we can gain insight into the following key lessons:
- The courage and persistence of Paul in preaching the gospel despite opposition
- The Jewish community’s hostility and resistance to the gospel in Corinth
- The remarkable transformations that can occur when persecutors convert to Christianity
- God’s sovereignty in using both supportive and hostile people to advance the gospel
Let’s dive into these passages’ biblical background and exegesis to see what we can learn about Sosthenes and apply to our lives today.
Background of Sosthenes in Corinth
To understand Sosthenes’ place in the story, we need to know a bit about the city of Corinth and the Jewish community there in the 1st century AD during the time of Paul’s ministry.
Corinth – Corinth was a major city in southern Greece, a center of trade and religion. It had a reputation for sexual immorality and pagan practices. The city was cosmopolitan, with influences from Greek, Roman, and Jewish cultures. When Paul visited around AD 50, Corinth was the capital of the Roman province of Achaia.
Jewish community – There was a sizable Jewish population in Corinth. As in other cities of the Roman empire, the Jewish community maintained its monotheistic faith and customs but also interacted with the larger pagan society. The primary gathering place was the synagogue, where Jews would meet on the Sabbath (Saturday) for worship, prayer, and study of the Torah (Old Testament scriptures).
Synagogue rulers – The synagogue was led by a group of elders and officials that governed the community. The “ruler” or “president” of the synagogue had administrative oversight of services, meetings, and religious instruction. This role was respected in the Jewish community.
Sosthenes is identified specifically as the “ruler of the synagogue” in Corinth during Paul’s ministry there around AD 50-52. As a leader of the Jewish community, he would have been zealous in guarding the Jewish faith against perceived threats or heresies. This provides the backdrop for understanding why he opposed the Christian message proclaimed by Paul.
Passage 1: Acts 18 – Sosthenes the Persecutor
The first mention of Sosthenes comes in Acts 18, which records Paul’s 18-month stay in Corinth during his second missionary journey:
But when Gallio was proconsul of Achaia, the Jews with one accord rose up against Paul and brought him to the judgment seat, saying, “This fellow persuades men to worship God contrary to the law.” And when Paul was about to open his mouth, Gallio said to the Jews, “If it were a matter of wrongdoing or wicked crimes, O Jews, there would be reason why I should bear with you. But if it is a question of words and names and your own law, look to it yourselves; for I do not want to be a judge of such matters.” And he drove them from the judgment seat. Then all the Greeks took Sosthenes, the ruler of the synagogue, and beat him before the judgment seat. But Gallio took no notice of these things. (Acts 18:12-17 NKJV)
This passage paints a dramatic scene of conflict and mob violence. Let’s break it down:
The Jewish leaders – Sosthenes, as ruler of the synagogue, represents the Jewish community leaders in Corinth. They oppose Paul and his preaching vigorously, even bringing him before the judgment seat of Gallio, the Roman proconsul of Achaia. Their accusation is that Paul is trying to persuade people to worship God in unlawful ways, outside Jewish customs.
Rejected by Gallio – However, the Roman leader Gallio sees this as an internal Jewish matter and refuses to judge the case, expelling Paul’s accusers from the judgment seat. This was a blow to the Jewish leaders who wanted Paul punished.
Sosthenes beaten – In a surprising turn, a mob of “Greeks” (gentiles) then beat Sosthenes, probably out of anger that Paul was not convicted. Sosthenes became a scapegoat for Gallio’s dismissal of the case. Even though Sosthenes was just doing his duty as a Jewish leader, he bore the brunt of mob violence.
No help from Gallio – Gallio did nothing to protect Sosthenes, perhaps seeing it as justice or a fitting irony that Paul’s Jewish accuser got beaten instead.
This passage reveals several important themes:
- Jewish rejection of the gospel – Sosthenes represents how the Jewish establishment in Corinth forcefully rejected Paul’s preaching of Jesus Christ. They saw it as heresy within Judaism. Persecution frequently came from Jewish leaders who viewed the early Christians as a threat.
- Roman indifference – Gallio’s dismissal of the case showed the Roman authorities had little concern for internal Jewish affairs and disputes. At this point, Christianity was still seen as a branch of Judaism.
- Mob justice – The fickle crowd turned violently on Sosthenes, illustrating how quickly mob mentality could lead to injustice.
Sosthenes the synagogue ruler was actively opposing the gospel and persecuting believers like Paul. But within a few years, we see a dramatic turnaround…
Passage 2: 1 Corinthians 1 – Sosthenes the Brother
The next reference to Sosthenes comes in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, written around AD 54-55:
Paul, called to be an apostle of Jesus Christ through the will of God, and Sosthenes our brother, To the church of God which is at Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, with all who in every place call on the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, both theirs and ours: (1 Corinthians 1:1-2 NKJV)
Here, Sosthenes is mentioned in the opening greeting as “Sosthenes our brother.” This warm description signals a dramatic change.
The leader who once persecuted followers of Jesus in Corinth is now described as a “brother” in the faith. Not only that, but it seems he is present with Paul as he writes to the Corinthians and may even be helping compose the letter or contributing input.
What has happened? Although Scripture does not explicitly narrate the details, by piecing together some clues we can imagine a likely scenario:
- Sosthenes converted – At some point after Acts 18, Sosthenes has become a Christian himself. Perhaps Paul’s courageous testimony or the beating he endured soften his heart to receiving the gospel.
- Now a partner of Paul – Not only that, but Sosthenes is now working together with Paul in ministry to the Corinthians. Formerly he persecuted the apostle; now he is a fellow laborer.
- Sent as emissary – It is possible that Sosthenes was sent from Ephesus as an emissary to deliver 1 Corinthians and represent Paul in addressing issues in the Corinthian church. As a former synagogue leader in Corinth, he would have added authority and familiarity.
This concise verse in the greeting of 1 Corinthians packs a lot of punch when we understand Sosthenes’ background. It testifies to the complete turnaround Christ can bring in someone’s life. What lessons can we draw from Sosthenes’ transformation?
4 Lessons from the Story of Sosthenes
As we’ve explored the background and biblical passages about Sosthenes, we gain some valuable insights applicable to our lives and ministries today:
1. Opposition cannot stop the advance of the gospel
Paul faced intense resistance from Jewish leaders like Sosthenes who rejected his message and wanted to stamp out the Christian sect of Judaism. They brought charges against him and tried to have him convicted and silenced.
But despite this opposition, the gospel continued to spread throughout Corinth, gaining followers like Crispus the synagogue ruler (Acts 18:8). God’s purpose cannot be thwarted. Persecution and hardship only serve to purify and strengthen the church.
Like Paul, we should persist in preaching Christ in the face of resistance. Opposition is expected when challenging the status quo with the claims of the gospel. We should not let it discourage us from fulfilling the Great Commission.
2. God can change the hardest hearts
Sosthenes progressed from vigorously persecuting the followers of Jesus to becoming a leader in the church himself. This demonstrates the remarkable transforming power of God’s grace.
A similar story is seen with Paul, who was “breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord” (Acts 9:1) until his life-changing encounter with Christ on the road to Damascus.
No heart is too hard for God to break through with his love and wisdom. We must not write anyone off as unreachable. Pray for and lovingly engage even the strongest opponents of the gospel.
3. Unity in Christ transcends differences
For Paul to call Sosthenes “brother” shows the unifying power of the gospel across social divides. Sosthenes was a Jewish leader, Paul was a Jewish-Roman citizen. Clearly they had intense disagreements in the past. But now they stand together as brothers in Christ.
As Christians, we must put aside prejudices and differences to partner with fellow believers from all backgrounds in serving God’s kingdom. If Paul and Sosthenes could unite, we can too.
4. God uses both supporters and opponents to further his plan
Sosthenes initially persecuted the gospel message. But God used even his opposition to strengthen the resolve of leaders like Paul and spread Christianity further after Paul’s trial before Gallio.
Later, as a convert Sosthenes became a helper of Paul in ministry. God sovereignly incorporated both his hostility and support to build up the Corinthian church.
We can take confidence that God will work all things – even resistance to the gospel – toward his ultimate purposes. We should avoid viewing people simply as opponents or allies, but see them as instruments in God’s redemptive plan.
Though just a minor character, Sosthenes provides valuable insights into the early Christian movement. Within his story we see courage in the face of persecution, the dramatic power of conversion, and God’s sovereignty through both friends and enemies of the gospel.
Sosthenes is a testament that no one is beyond the reach of God’s mercy and transformative grace. His life encourages us to keep preaching the word, even in resistant contexts, trusting that God can change hearts and draw people from darkness into his marvelous light.
- Sosthenes was the Jewish leader of a synagogue in Corinth who opposed Paul’s preaching and persecuted the church.
- He later converted to Christianity and even helped Paul write a letter to the Corinthians, showing his complete transformation.
- Paul persisted courageously in the gospel despite resistance from Jewish leaders like Sosthenes.
- No one is beyond God’s ability to change their heart, no matter how strongly they oppose the gospel initially.
- God uses both the hostility and the support of individuals like Sosthenes to advance the spread of Christianity according to his sovereign plan.
- Christians should unite as brothers and sisters in Christ no matter what social or religious differences they had in the past.