Thessalonica, Brea and Athens: Starting where people are.
Acts 17 is a continuation of Paul’s second missionary journey. Paul and Silas had set off from the church in Antioch and had retraced some of the steps of the previous missionary journey. They visited Derbe and Lystra.
It was in Lystra that a young man by the name of Timothy was recruited. Paul took the pragmatic step of having Timothy circumcised – this was not a requirement of the church council that met in Jerusalem (see Acts 15), but Paul knew that this would make his work amongst the Jews much easier. Paul wanted to win people for Jesus and he was quick to see and remove potential barriers. We see an interesting mix of Paul’s initiative and pragmatism on one hand and his sensitivity to God’s leading on the other. Circumstances prevented him going to Asia and Bithynia and so he ended up in Troas – it was here that through a vision Paul worked out that he should head for Macedonia.
In Philippi, a Roman colony with no Synagogue, Paul and companions attended a women’s prayer meeting and Lydia became a believer. In the same place, (through Paul’s casting out a spirit from a fortune-telling girl) both Paul and Silas ended up in prison. In spite of a severe beating, Paul and Silas sang hymns and prayed in the prison. It was through this and a miraculous earthquake that the prison guard became a believer. The journey into Macedonia continues in chapter 17. Two things stand out; First Paul tailored his message to the audience and second many factors influence receptivity to the gospel – effective preaching recognises this and attempts to overcome such barriers.
You will recall that Paul, Silas and Timothy visited Philippi – we noted that the narration took on the first person plural ‘we’ indicating that Luke had joined the party too. In chapter 17 the ‘we’ is dropped for ‘they’ which suggests that Luke had stayed on in Philippi. Paul, Silas and Timothy travelled through two towns on their way to their next major stop in Thessalonica – a city of about 300,000 inhabitants today. It was a journey of about 100 miles. As was the emerging custom, Paul visited the Synagogue first. He reasoned with them from the scriptures – he explained and proved. This was not just dumping the gospel on people and hoping for the best, it was a well thought out approach that started with points of common connection. This was presumably much easier with the Jews as there was so much truth to build on. The question for them was not ‘who is God?’, but rather ‘who is Jesus?’. – We will see later a need for a very different approach in Athens.
Paul focused on Jesus from the start and explained by reference to the Old Testament that Jesus was the Messiah and that he had to suffer and rise from the dead. It’s easy for us to forget that the wider story of the Messiah was about fulfillment of national promises to Israel, of the nation’s deliverance and of a rule of peace and righteousness through the coming of the Messiah. These themes form much of the subject matter in the letters Paul later wrote to the Thessalonians.
There is no doubt at all that becoming a Christian is good for us – it improves the quality of our lives and of those around us – there is benefit for individuals and for society. The message of the gospel is however not about improving society, the message is about a relationship with God that extends to the coming of the Messiah and into eternity. It is when the Messiah comes that we will know what it is to live in a world which operates under God’s perfect rule. The Old Testament prophets spoke much of the conditions that will prevail on earth under the rule of the Messiah – the kingdom of God on earth. When Paul talks to the Jews about the Messiah, these ideas would have been in their minds.
The response to Paul’s message was good – some Jews were persuaded, as well as some God-fearing Greeks too, both men and women. But, as was becoming the pattern, there was fierce opposition. It seems likely that in the ‘invisible spiritual war’, the evil one was now fully alerted to God’s plans and purposes and the opposition experienced by Paul was part of this response. The source of the opposition was the Jews and the motivation was jealousy, and the method was crude in the extreme; they got the local thugs together and from then on it was ‘mob rule’. Paul and companions were staying at Jason’s house and on finding no sign of Paul there, the mob dragged Jason and the other believers before the leaders of the city. Interestingly their charge was reminiscent of the charge brought against Jesus; ‘They are defying Caesar’s decrees, saying there is another king, one called Jesus’. This was not wholly untrue as part of the wider gospel message is that there is hope for the planet when Jesus returns as king. Turmoil ensured. Jason and the others were eventually released on bail.
Thessalonica was no longer a place of safety for Paul and his travelling companions – as night fell, the believers sent Paul and Silas to the next town, about 46 miles further on the Roman Egnatian way: Berea.
Before we leave Thessalonica, it is worth thinking about the believers who were left there to build the church. Paul and Silas left an embryonic church that developed well in spite of significant opposition. Paul’s subsequent letters to the Thessalonian church are evidence of this.
There was a synagogue in Berea and that’s where Paul and Silas headed. Sometimes the seed falls on well prepared soil and sometimes it falls on hard and resistant soil. I suspect that the receptivity of people to the gospel is conditioned by a complex combination of factors, but two that seem to be of relevance are what I will call ‘self-directed-readiness’ and ‘environmental hardening’. The latter is clear in our age – the thinkers in our society have, for several generations, influenced minds against authentic Christianity and we are left with most people hardened by atheism and naturalism (that there is no need to invoke the idea of a God to explain the world in which we live). Other environments harden people to the gospel too, think of the countries in which Islam is the predominant system – Christian missionary work in these places bears very little fruit. The former idea of ‘self-directed-readiness’ relates to people’s own openness to the gospel. Many people simply close their minds to the possibility of a God and Christian things whilst others are open to the idea – I can think of Segius Paulus whom Paul met in Paphos as an example of someone who was open and perhaps Bar-Jesus as one who was not. There is no doubt that God prepares people too, John spoke of how the Spirit convicts the world of ‘sin, righteousness and judgment’ – but some people shrug off this prompting more readily than others.
The people of Berea were open to the gospel. Luke describes them of more noble character than those in Thessalonica – the soil was good in Berea. The Bereans received the message with eagerness and ‘examined the scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true’. What a wonderful attitude! The result of their enquiries was that many of them believed.
Sadly the jealous Jews from Thessalonica made the 100 mile trip to Berea to disrupt things. This was not a casual opposition, but was rather an organised, calculated and determined effort to stop the spread of the gospel. The situation was dangerous for Paul in particular. The concerned believers sent Paul to the coast and it is highly likely that Paul boarded a boat there bound for Athens. Timothy and Silas stayed on in Berea – and once Paul arrived in Athens word was sent for them to join Paul.
Athens was the great cultural capital of the world at that time. There was sophistication and learning in abundance – but there was little truth. As Paul spent time in Athens he was greatly dismayed by the number of idols on display. Paul preached the gospel in two places; in the synagogue to Jews and God fearing Gentile and in the market place to the residents of Athens. As he spoke, two distinct groups criticised him. The Epicureans believed that the gods was not interested in mankind, but that people ought to focus on pleasure, but avoid excess. The Stoics believed that god was in everything and that mankind ought to fit in with the triumphs and tragedies of the world. Neither seemed much impressed with the gospel: ‘what is this babbler trying to say’ they said. But there must have been something about Paul’s preaching that impressed them – Paul was invited to the Areopagus an official body that had responsibility for religion and education in the city.
Luke gives us a fairly detailed account of Paul’s message – it perhaps could be of some help to us as we think about how to bring the message of Jesus to a town in a country that has largely forgotten its Christian heritage.
- Paul’s point of contact
Paul first of all talks about something that is of relevance to his audience – he complements them on their religious perspective and remarks on his discovery of an alter ‘To an unknown God’. Paul then said that since they have this ignorance of God, that he would tell them who the unknown God was. I think if Paul had launched straight into his message about God and Jesus that he would not have met with much success, but he connects with the audience right at the start to engage them and get them ready for the main part of the message.
- Who is God?
Having stated that he would tell the people about the unknown God, Paul starts to describe what he is like. The gods in Athens were man-made – they occupied temples made by humans, they were dependent on mankind for their existence. But the God that Paul talked about is of an altogether different nature – he does not need man for his existence – because he is the one who made man and everything in this world. Not only that, but he made the nations and has a role in the history of the world. He is far bigger than any other god they had encountered.
I find it interesting that we still today have this idea of personal gods that suit our circumstances. Dave Allen famously ended his comedy talk shows with the catch phrase ‘may your God go with you’. How often have you heard well meaning people say – I don’t need to go to church, the god for me is the one I meet when I go for a walk or spend time in nature etc. : a personally constructed god to suit one’s circumstances. Paul says, no, no, no – God is not something we make, rather he made us!
I’m interested to note how for some, evolution has become their god. As I read Richard Dawkins I’m struck by the reverence he has for ‘natural selection’ it made everything from nothing by blind chance – natural history programmes talk of ‘Mother Nature’, oddly enough their naturalistic thinking takes them pretty close to the pagans who worship the sun and the moon!
Also of note is that Paul states that the nations and history are working under God’s timetable. You will recall that when we studied Daniel we saw that the world would be dominated by four great powers (Babylon, Median Persia, Greece and Rome) before the Messiah would come and reduce their systems to nothing. That day of the Lord has not yet come, but God’s plans will be realised in his time.
Paul goes on: if God made this world and mapped out the appointed times in history - can he be known by ordinary people? Absolutely yes – God’s hand is discernable in creation (see Romans 1) and in history and because of this people may seek him and reach out for him and find him. How can this be? How can we as fallen and time-bound human beings reach out and find him? Because we are his offspring! This is a truly wonderful thing! We are made in God’s image – we are fundamentally like him. Of course we are damaged by the fall of Adam and Eve, you will remember when they sinned they hid from God and their circumstances were changed by the curse of sin, but they (and we) still retain a nature that has features that are like those of God. Because of this likeness to God, we can reach out to him – we speak the same ‘language’. Paul quotes two Greek poets to make his point – what a great approach to use familiar and trusted Athenian poets to reach Athenians!
- What God wants
Since we are God’s offspring, we should not try to create God in our image, but rather we should recognise that we are created in God’s image. Making our own gods out of gold, silver and stone with our own skill just will not do – we must turn from this now. Why?, because there are consequences for us in the future. Jesus will come to judge the world and he will do it with justice!
How can we be certain of what Paul was claiming about Jesus? Paul stated that Jesus had given proof of his rights to rule and judge by rising from the dead. We must keep this fact of history ever before us – it is the basis of our faith.
The response was mixed, some sneered whilst others were prepared to hear more from Paul and some believed! A member of the Areopagus believed: Dionysius, as well as a woman named Damaris and a number of others.