In 1780, at the age of 21 years and two weeks, William Wilberforce was the youngest man ever to be elected to the British parliament. He was an eloquent orator, a gifted singer and was invited to join five exclusive clubs in London. He enjoyed the London social scene: dining, playing cards, dancing and the theater. Here was a man who “had it all” at such a young age.
In February 1785 be began to read a book entitled The Rise and Progress of Religion in the Soul by Philip Doddridge. During that spring he traveled on holiday to the Continent with Isaac Milner, a tutor at the Queens College, Cambridge. As they traveled they discussed the book by Doddridge and other spiritual matters. It was not until November or December of that year that the “Great Change”, as Wilberforce describes it, took place. William Wilberforce put his trust in the Lord Jesus Christ as his Savior from sin. What a change that was. Among other things, he was delivered from the power of darkness and conveyed into the kingdom of the Son of His love (Col. 1:13).
With his decision to trust Jesus Christ as his Savior, he began to struggle within himself over the issue of whether politics was compatible with the Christian life. Whether serving in parliament was consistent with his spiritual walk with the Lord, or should he leave parliament altogether and go into full time Christian ministry? During this struggle, he visited an old family friend, John Newton, a pastor in London, and asked for his advice. The former slave trader and author of the famous hymn “Amazing Grace” encouraged Wilberforce to remain in Parliament. As a result of that conversation, Wilberforce wrote: “When I came away I found my mind in a calm, tranquil state, more humbled, and looking more devotedly up to God.” John Newton later wrote to his friend and fellow song writer, William Cowper: “I judge he [Wilberforce] is now decidedly on the right track. … I hope the Lord will make him a blessing both as a Christian and a statesman. How seldom do these characters coincide!! But they are not incompatible” (Metaxas 2007: 59-61). Please notice Newton called him a statesman and not a politician. There is a big difference between the two.
As Wilberforce grew in his Christian life, his mind was transformed as he studied the truths set forth in the Word of God. He concluded that “all that was his – his wealth, his talents, his time – was not really his. It all belonged to God and had been given to him to use for God’s purposes and according to God’s will. God had blessed him so that he, in turn, might bless others, especially those less fortunate than himself” (Metaxas 2007:63).
You know “the rest of the story.” Wilberforce, as a member of parliament, got legislation passed in 1807 to abolish the slave trade in Great Britain. But it was only on his deathbed in 1833 that he learned that legislation had passed that abolished slavery throughout all the colonies in the British Empire. Here was a very influential Christian who understood the truths of the Word of God, the inhumanity of slavery, and became “salt and light” in a corrupt world and changed the course of human history.
The Apostle Paul wrote to the believers in the church in Corinth: “For you see your calling, brethren, that not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called [to Christian service]. But God has chosen the foolish things of the world to put to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to put to shame the things that are mighty; and the base things of the world and the things which are despised God has chosen, and the things which are not, to bring to nothing the things that are, that no flesh should glory in his presence” (I Cor. 1:26-29).
Let us examine the life of Erastus, one of the exceptions to the rule: “not many mighty”. Here was a “mighty” person in Corinth that God called to Christian service even while he was an important government official in the city, a man who was “salt and light” in his community for the glory of God.
Erastus in Scripture
The name Erastus appears only three times in Scripture. Scholars have debated whether all three passages refer to the same person, or if they are two or three different people. For the purpose of this paper, I will assume that all the passages refer to the same person, Erastus from the city of Corinth.
We first meet Erastus near the end of Paul’s stay in Ephesus during his third missionary journey in AD 55. Dr. Luke writes: “So he [Paul] sent into Macedonia two of those who ministered to him, Timothy and Erastus, but he himself stayed in Asia for a time” (Acts 19:22). There are two things to notice in this passage. First, Erastus ministered to Paul. He had a servant’s heart and helped Paul out in the work of the Lord in Ephesus. Second, most likely Timothy and Erastus were sent into Macedonia to organize the collection for Jerusalem. Erastus would have been a wise choice for this project because he had, as we shall see, a background in financial matters.
We are not told when Erastus came to faith in the Lord Jesus as his Savior. Nor are we told his financial status. One could speculate that he came to know the Lord Jesus as his Savior while Paul, Timothy and Silas were ministering in Corinth during Paul’s second missionary journey (AD 50-52; Acts 18:1-17).
Murphy-O’Conner speculates on how Paul might have met Erastus. He suggests: “Two aediles were elected each year, and ranked just below the duoviri, who were the eponymous magistrates of the city. Their responsibilities included the management of the public markets. It is not impossible that Paul first met Erastus in the latter’s official capacity – that is, when paying rent or taxes on his workspace, which would explain why he called Erastus ‘the treasurer’ of the city’” (1984: 155).
Erastus seemed to have some wealth because he could afford to take time off and rejoin Paul when he was ministering in Ephesus during Paul’s third missionary journey (AD 52-55; Acts 19:1-Acts 20:1).
After Erastus organized the collection for Jerusalem with Timothy he apparently returned to Corinth. He is not listed with the men that take the collection to Jerusalem (Acts 20:4). When Paul later visited Corinth in AD 57 he wrote a letter to the church in Rome. He sent greetings to the believers in the church in Rome from the saints in Corinth, including Erastus. “Gaius, my host and the host of the whole church, greets you. Erastus, the treasurer of the city, greets you, and Quartus, a brother” (Rom. 16:23). In this passage, Erastus is called the “treasurer of the city” (ho oikonomos tes poleos). It is interesting to note, that even though this was an influential position, Erastus was actively involved in the assembly in Corinth that apparently met in the villa of Gaius. The second thing to notice is that Erastus was also missions minded. He asked Paul to send his greetings to the church in Rome. Apparently he knew some of the people in the church in that city. More than likely he knew Aquila and Priscilla from the time when they lived in Corinth after they were expelled from Rome in AD 49 (Acts 18:2).
The third reference to Erastus is found in the last epistle that Paul penned during his second imprisonment in Rome right before his death in AD 67. He wrote: “Erastus stayed in Corinth” (II Tim. 4:20). He apparently decided to settle down and be “salt and light” within his community and be a help to the assembly in Corinth.
The “Erastus” Inscription in Corinth
In 1929, the excavator of Corinth, Theodore Shear, discovered an inscription that would become famous in Biblical studies. It was found on the edge of a public square near the theater.
In his preliminary report, Shear describes his discovery this way: “On a long pavement block at the entrance of the square from the street are cuttings for letters that were presumably for bronze and were fastened in place with lead. The stone, which is 2.26 m. long, is cut away at both ends, but the spacing of the second line of the inscription is such that probably not much of the stone is missing. The inscription reads ERASTVS – PRO – AED / S – P – STRAVIT. ‘Erastus, procurator, aedile, laid the pavement at his own expense.’ The archaeological evidence indicates that this pavement was in existence in the middle of the first century AD. A procurator of Corinth named Erastus, who was in office at this time, is mentioned by St. Paul in the Epistle to the Romans, XVI, 23. A Roman procurator of a great provincial city would normally be a man of wealth and influence and as an administrator of the city he would be opportunely situated for the execution of public works at his own expense. It is, therefore, most probable that the procurator Erastus who paved the square is identical with the Erastus who was ‘chamberlain of the city’ and a friend of St. Paul” (Shear 1929: 525-526).
Cicero and Paul on Wealth and Generosity
Cicero (106-43 BC), the great orator and political thinker, wrote a treatise on civic duties to his son who was studying in Athens in 44 BC and entitled it On Duties (2005). The early Church Fathers called Cicero “the model of the good pagan” (Everitt 2003: viii).
Concerning wealth, Cicero wrote: “For the greatest privilege of wealth is, beyond all peradventure, the opportunity it affords for doing good, without sacrificing one’s fortune” (On Duties, Book 2.64; LCL 21:237). The Apostle Paul, on the other hand, put an eternal perspective on wealth and warned his son in the faith, Timothy, about it. He wrote: “For we brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out. And having food and clothing, with these we shall be content. But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation and a snare, and into many foolish and harmful lusts which drown men in destruction and perdition. For the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil, for which some have strayed from the faith in their greediness, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows. But you, O man of God, flee these things and pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, patience, gentleness” (I Tim. 6:7-11). Wealth, in and of itself, is not evil, but if it controls the life of the believer in the Lord Jesus, it could cause the believer to stray from his or her faith and this would led to greed and sorrow. Paul wanted Timothy to emphasize the eternal aspect of life and pursue godly living and be content with food and clothing.
Cicero wrote to his son about generosity in financial matters. He said: “Next in order, as outlined above, let us speak of kindness and generosity. … Now, there are many – and especially those who are ambitious for eminence and glory – who rob one to enrich another; and they expect to be thought generous towards their friends, if they put them in the way of getting rich, no matter by what means. Such conduct, however, is so remote from moral duty that nothing can be more completely opposed to duty. We must, therefore, take care to indulge only in such liberality as will help our friends and hurt no one. The conveyance of property by Lucius Sulla and Gaius Caesar from its rightful owners to the hands of strangers should, for that reason, not be regarded as generosity; for nothing is generous, if it is not at the same time just” (On Duties, Book 1:42-44; LCL 21: 47-49). One can not help but notice some modern political trends in what Cicero wrote: pay to play and spread the wealth around! Cicero said these things are not moral. That is why he is called the “model of a good pagan”!
Civic leaders used to spend their own money on such things as banquets for their friends and entertainment for the masses. The latter usually came in the form of gladiatorial games. Juvenal, at the end of the 1st century AD, would coin the phrase “bread and circuses”, in other words “food and entertainment.” As long as the people were fed and entertained, they were happy and the politicians could do what they wanted.
Cicero thought that spending money on food and entertainment was not a wise thing to do. He offered a better alternative for the civic leaders. He suggested: “Again, the expenditure of money is better justified when it is made for walls, docks, harbors, aqueducts, and all those works which are of service to the community. There is, to be sure, more of present satisfaction in what is handed out, like cash down; nevertheless public improvements win us greater gratitude with posterity” (On Duties, Book 2:60; LCL 21:233). In other words, Cicero believes that the investment of ones own money in public works projects, and not the taxpayers, would benefit more people over a longer period of time and was a better use of ones wealth. Apparently Erastus followed this advice and spent his own money on the pavement near the theater in Corinth when he was the “treasurer of the city.”
The Apostle Paul wrote about the Christians relationship to the civil government (Rom. 13:1-7). He admonishes Christians to “Do what is good, and you will have praise from the same [civil authorities]” (Rom. 13:3). Perhaps Paul had Erastus and the pavement he gave to his community in mind when he penned these words.
There are several important lessons that we can learn from the life of Erastus. The first lesson to be learned is that God’s ways are not always our ways. Generally, God uses the foolish things, the weak things, and the base things to confound the wise, the mighty and the noble. However, there are exceptions to this rule. Erastus was an example of a mighty person, in a very important civic position, that God used as “salt and light” in the government of Corinth. Christians are admonished to pray for all men including “kings and all who are in authority, that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and reverence” (I Tim. 2:1, 2). When we hear of a Christian politician (I realize that is an oxymoron) we should pray even more for them, that they would be honest, have integrity and not be tempted towards corruption.
The second lesson to be learned is that even though Erastus was an influential person in the city of Corinth, he did not neglect the Lord’s work in the city. He was actively involved in the assembly and he was missions minded because he had a concern for the Lord’s work elsewhere in the world.
The third lesson has to do with the questions: Should a Christian be involved in politics? Or, should a Christian run for public office? The Bible does not give a definitive “yes” or “no” answer to these questions. The answer to these questions would be based on our motives. Why do you want to get involved in politics? Or, why do you want to run for public office? If the believers answer is: I want to run for fame, fortune, glory and power, then the motive is wrong and the venture should not be perused. If, on the other hand, the answer is: I want to be “salt and light” in a corrupt political system and want to be a “servant” to my community, state or nation, then the motives are proper and one should pursue this avenue of service.
Sergius Paulus, the proconsul of Cyprus, trusted Jesus Christ as his Savior under the preaching of Paul and Barnabas during their first missionary journey. Interestingly, the proconsul did not resign his post after he got saved but he continued to govern. He apparently did have a concern for the spiritual well being of his family and friends. Since he could not leave Cyprus, he sent Paul and Barnabas to his hometown of Psidian Antioch to reach his family and friends with the gospel (Acts 13:6-14).
The fourth lesson to be learned from the life of Erastus is that we should give back to our community in a practical way. Erastus paid for the pavement and had his name placed on an inscription. Whenever he shared the gospel with fellow Corinthians they would remember seeing that inscription and say to themselves, “This man is genuine, he’s one of us, and I should listen to him.” Perhaps this is what Paul had in mind when he penned the words: “For we are not, as so many, peddling the word of God; but as of sincerity, but as from God, we speak in the sight of God in Christ” (II Cor. 2:17). “Peddling the word of God” has the idea of trying to sell something for personal gain. Erastus did not do this. He gave a practical gift to his community and this afforded him an opportunity for the gospel.
I always tell my students, tongue-in-cheek, that the best business to be in is the religious business. You can sucker more people, con more people, in that business, than any other business in the world. The only drawback is that you will have to answer to the Lord for it at the end of the day!
Believers in the Lord Jesus do not peddle the gospel. We are not trying to make money on it. We are sharing something that is free to any and all who would put their trust in the Lord Jesus Christ as their Savior. We all have a problem, it is called sin. We have all come short of God’s glory, or perfection. If we were to pay for our own sins, we would spend eternity separated from God in Hell. That’s the bad news. The good news is this: the Lord Jesus Christ, God manifest in human flesh, died on the Cross and paid for all our sins. He rose from the dead three days later. This proved that sin had been paid for, death had been vanquished and Satan defeated. He offers His righteousness to any and all who would put their trust in Him. Over and over in John’s gospel, the word “believe” is used. The word means to put ones trust in, or rely upon, the Lord Jesus as ones Savior.
What can we do to demonstrate to a cynical world that we are not peddling the gospel? A good practical demonstration to those around would be to give something back to the community. How can a church or individual do this? If there is a local disaster, the church can step in and help in a practical way: food, clothing, and shelter. A church could also have a day-care center for the community. If the church has a gym, allow the youths to use it for recreation. The church as a body could get involved in some civic project. I am aware of one church that was involved in the “adopt a highway” project. They clean a segment of one of the highways in the vicinity of the church. A sign was posted along the road saying: “Highway cleaned by (and the name of this church).” Or perhaps have a teaching English as a second language program. On a personal level, one could volunteer as a fireman, or ambulance worker, or in the library. Even a public school teacher is giving back to the community.
Erastus was a “mighty” man in a very influential government position. He was “salt and light” in a corrupt city, but did not neglect his responsibility to the local assembly in Corinth. He was also missions minded and had a concern for the Lord’s work beyond Corinth.
In a society that is starving for true heroes, Christians should talk about, and emulate such Christian statesmen as William Wilberforce, but also realize an example of a Christian statesman is grounded in Scripture: a good example being Erastus.
2005 On Duties. Vol. 21. Trans. by W. Miller. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University. Loeb Classical Library 30.
2003 Cicero. The Life and Times of Rome’s Greatest Politician. New York: Random House.
2007 Amazing Grace. William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery. New York: Harper San Francisco.
1984 The Corinth that Saint Paul Saw. Biblical Archaeologist 47/3: 147-159.
1929 Excavations in the Theatre District and Tombs of Corinth in 1929. American Journal of Archaeology 33/4: 515-546.