FORCEFULLY ADVANCING: The Church in Acts, Part 4

Mars Hill where Paul preached

Different Responses, Same Gospel

Acts 17, 18

As we had discussed previously, it was Paul’s custom when entering a new area to preach the Gospel, to do so at the local Jewish synagogue.   While this practice may seem a bit odd to modern Christians, in Paul’s day it was a truly inspired practice.  Jesus was the Jewish Messiah, and even though Paul was known as “the apostle to the Gentiles,” he was a Jew.  In fact, Paul was a Jewish rabbi, and it was a common practice for traveling rabbis to teach in the synagogues they visited.

Paul used this Jewish custom to his full advantage, for he always preached on the necessity of Christ’s suffering and death.   The Jews would have been a ready audience, for the coming of their Messiah was a common theme in Jewish teaching.   From that common theme, Paul would always expand his teaching to include Jesus Christ and His work of salvation accomplished on the Cross.   This part, naturally, would almost always result in some opposition to Paul.  However, as strenuously as some might have objected to the Gospel, others responded positively.

1.  Trouble opens doors, 17:10—15

Paul encountered both great success and considerable danger while ministering in Thessalonica, 17:1—9.  Some Jews had been persuaded to accept Christ as their Messiah through Paul’s preaching, but far more Greeks came to saving faith in Christ.  Interestingly, Paul may have had a way with women, because a very large number of prominent women also found Christ as a result of Paul’s ministry.

However, verse 5 gives us a sense of the hatred directed primarily at Paul from the unbelieving Jews—

But the Jews were jealous; so they rounded up some bad characters from the marketplace, formed a mob and started a riot in the city.

I love what the unruly mob accused Paul and his friends of doing—

These that have turned the world upside down are come hither also…(verse 6)

This accusation was an unintentional compliment to our missionaries, because that is exactly what we, as followers of Christ, are supposed to be doing:  turning our world upside down for Christ!  Or , perhaps more accurately, turning our world rightside up for Christ.

(a)  Success in Berea, verses 10—12

As soon as it was night, the brothers sent Paul and Silas away to Berea. On arriving there, they went to the Jewish synagogue. Now the Bereans were of more noble character than the Thessalonians, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true. Many of the Jews believed, as did also a number of prominent Greek women and many Greek men.

Because of the trouble in Thessalonica, some believers spirited Paul, Silas, and Timothy a distance of some 50 miles southwest to a town called Berea.  The name “Berea” is common in Christian circles for it has come to represent serious Bible study by those who seeking a deeper understanding of what God has said in His Word.   The Bereans were a fiercely studious group of believers, questioning and probing and always searching the Scriptures for wisdom.  If the Church of Jesus Christ needs anything in the 21st century, it is an influx of Bereans!

From verse 11, we learn two outstanding characteristics of the Berean believers:

  • Noble-mindedness.  While Paul had a lasting and loving relationship with the church in Thessalonica, the Bereans admittedly surpassed them in terms of noble character.  Their openness to the Scriptures, in Paul’s estimation, proved their noble character.  The fact that they viewed the Scriptures as more than mere words written on a scroll really made an impression on Paul.

It was the Berean’s daily practice to study Scriptures to make sure the teaching of Paul and Silas measured up to them.  Verse 12 is significant—

Many of the Jews believed

This is in sharp contrast to the situation in Thessalonica, where very few Jews believed; and the Bereans believed because of their knowledge of Scripture.

  • Faith.  In addition to the many Jews who found Christ as Messiah, once again Luke records that a number of prominent Greek women were also converted under Paul’s ministry, as well as many Greek men.  It is interesting that Luke repeatedly mentions several “prominent women” in Paul’s life, including:
Eunice, Timothy’s mother, 16:1
Lydia, from Thyatira, 16:14—15;
Damaris of Athens, 17:34;
Priscilla, 18:2, 18, 26;
Philip’s four daughters who prophesied, 21:9

(b)  More trouble in Berea, verses 13—15

Upon hearing that the “Word of God” was being preached nearby, the trouble-causing jealous Jews of Thessalonica sent a group to Berea to stir up trouble for our missionary troupe.   These spiteful people were not content with muzzling Paul in their own town, they hounded Paul to shut him up permanently.  Though no riot is mentioned as occurring in Berea as one had taken place in Thessalonica, Luke intimates this Jewish delegation may have incited one.

Intent on saving Paul’s life, some Berean Christians outwitted the jealous Jewish troublemakers and him out of town and escorted him on to Athens.  Silas and Timothy would follow later.

Despite the great success our trio of missionaries had at Berea, we have no record that a church was established there.  There is no evidence that Paul ever revisited the town or even wrote a letter to them.  Scripture never mentions a church in Berea, although it is almost certain that Silas and Timothy remained behind to continue the work started by Paul.  It is possible, unfortunately, that the Thessalonian Jews were successful in stifling the work of Paul in Berea by preventing it to continue after the missionaries left.

2.  Intellectual curiosity, 17:16—34

(a)  Athens:  a city of sin, verses 16—18

While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols.  (verse 16)

Athens was the greatest center of culture and education in the ancient world.  F.F. Bruce wrote this about Athens:

The sculpture, literature, and oratory of Athens in the fifth and fourth centuries BC have never been surpassed; in philosophy, too, she took the leading place, being the native city of Socrates and Plato, and the adopted home of Aristotle, Epicurus, and Zeno.

Athens was also an idolatrous city, with gods and temples all over town.  Paul would arrive first, with Timothy and Silas joining him later.  Paul sent Timothy back to Thessalonica (1 Thessalonians 3:1—3) and Silas he sent either to Philippi or Berea (18:5).  By the time they rejoined Paul, it was in Corinth, where he wrote two letters to the Thessalonians.

Paul’s ministry in Athens was two-fold.  He spoke to the Jews in the synagogue, then he spoke to the Greeks in the marketplace.  In fact, Paul did more than “speak” to the Athenians; the Greek indicates that he actually “argued” with them!   It must have been quite a sight; Paul the staunch Christian missionary, arguing with the highly educated Athenians in the shadows of monuments erected to their various gods, with their “capital buildings,” the meeting place of the Senate, nearby.

Though he gave it his best shot, the Athenians were not all that impressed with what Paul had to say, calling him spermologos, a word originally used to describe birds pecking away at the ground, trying to pick up some grain, and later used to describe simpletons who would parrot things they heard others saying, but understanding very little of what they heard.  In short, Paul was, to them, an uneducated, mildly interesting, though entertaining joker.

(b)  Paul on Mars, verses 19—21

You are bringing some strange ideas to our ears, and we want to know what they mean(verse 20)

Some commentators have suggested that Paul was taken “by force” to Mars Hill, others suggest Paul was “invited” to speak there.  It seems to me that Paul had aroused the curiosity of some of his listeners.  Though some had been quick to mock Paul, others had their curiosity piqued by these new ideas.  The town fathers, who would have been present, no doubt wanted to protect the reputation of Athens, perhaps worried that Paul was preaching low-brow, provincial ideas unworthy of thoughtful consideration.

(c)  The Unknown God, verses 22—25

Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: “Men of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious.  (verse 22)

Some scholars have considered Paul’s Mars Hill discourse the single most important discourse of his career.  If this is so, we must also conclude that it was as the greatest disappointment of his career.

At any rate, Paul begins by insulting his listeners.  These highly educated Athenians, who prided themselves in their intellectual prowess, Paul described as “superstitious.”  Though the NIV uses the word “religious,” “superstitious” is a better of describing why these people were so devoted to such a diverse pantheon of gods and goddesses.  Certainly, their religious devotion was at odds with their intellectualism.

Paul goes on to illustrate why he called them “superstitious.”  Walking the streets of Athens, one could not miss all the statues of the various gods the people worshiped, and because they were afraid to offend any god they might of forgotten, they erected a monument to “The Unknown God.”  One scholar has noted:

In such an inscription Paul wisely recognized that there was in the heart of Athens a clear witness to the deep unsatisfied yearning of humanity for a clearer and closer knowledge of the unseen power which men worshipped dimly and imperfectly.  (Knowling)

The great apostle’s teaching was truly an intellectual achievement.  He taught the great doctrine of Creation and even quoted famous Greek poets to prove the point that God created man.   Despite the intellectual content of his sermon, Paul zeroed in on the most important point of any sermon:  a call for repentance.  Because all men will be judged, Paul reasoned, all men must repent so that they may be judged favorably.  Paul even mentioned the resurrection of all men so that they may stand before God.  At this, some of the intellectuals in the group sneered and chuckled at Paul, others wanted to hear more, and even a few came to believe.

Of those few who came to faith in Christ, two were mentioned by name:  Dionysius, who according to tradition, would later become the leader of the church at Athens, and a woman named Damaris.  Damaris is never mentioned again in Scripture, but the fact that she was mentioned at all seems to suggest that she was yet another prominent woman who came to faith in Jesus because of Paul’s teaching.

3.  Informed belief, 18:1—11

As important as Athens was during Paul’s day, it was not the capital city of Greece; Corinth was, and it was Paul’s custom to go primarily to principle cities and capitals to preach and found churches.  Athens was likely not on Paul’s itinerary, but Corinth was, and after perhaps two days of travel, he arrived in Corinth, finding lodging with a husband a wife who were, coincidentally, tentmakers.

Originally, Paul began this missionary journey after seeing a vision in which a man from Macedonia begged him to come and evangelize the Macedonians.  But persecution and problems plagued Paul, and he found himself in Athens, where he experienced very limited success.  Now he went to Corinth, a cesspool of at least 200,000 souls, almost none of which were redeemed.  What an opportunity!

It should be noted that while Paul apparently wanted to go to Corinth, he was not excited about it—

And I was with you in weakness, and in fear, and in much trembling.  (1 Corinthians 2:3)

So far, Paul’s second missionary journey had not gone as he had expected.  Unlike the first go-around, Paul and his friends met with very strong opposition.  Paul himself was stymied in Athens, and probably left discouraged and arrived in Corinth dejected.  Paul was, after all, only human.

(a)  A welcome partnership, verse 1—3

Paul went to see them, and because he was a tentmaker as they were, he stayed and worked with them.  (verses 2b, 3)

God works in strange ways.  Tired and likely frustrated, Paul met two people who became his lifelong friends.  Priscilla and her husband Aquila welcomed Paul into their home, their business, and their hearts.  Though he helped them in their family business, tentmaking, that did not stop Paul from his habit:  preaching and teaching in the local synagogue.

This new partnership must have strengthened and encouraged Paul greatly.  Working with his hands probably gave his mind a rest.  This partnership occurred because Silas and Timothy were not with Paul; God gave Paul exactly what he needed in this family.  They gave him a place to live, friendship, employment, but most of all breathing room to recharge his batteries, and with their encouraging fellowship, his effectiveness and ability increased.  Romans 16:3—4 gives us an idea how important these two people had become to Paul—

Greet Priscilla and Aquila, my fellow workers in Christ Jesus, who risked their own necks for my life, to whom not only I give thanks, but also all the churches of the Gentiles.  (NKJV)

God’s timing is always perfect; He leads people in and out of our lives for reasons that usually become obvious long after the fact.

(b)  Preaching, verses 4, 5

At first, Paul spent most of his days plying his trade as a tentmaker as part of the family business, but when his friends finally arrived from Macedonia (Philippi, Thessalonica, Berea), Paul put his tentmaking on hold, and gave himself entirely to preaching and teaching the Gospel.   As to why he retired form tentmaking, Silas and Timothy brought with them not only good wishes from other churches, but also a monetary gift, so Paul did not need to work outside the ministry (2 Corinthians 11:9; Philippians 4:14—15).

(c)  Persistence, verses 6—8

“Your blood be on your own heads! I am clear of my responsibility. From now on I will go to the Gentiles.”  (verse 6b)

Up to now in his Corinthian ministry, Paul had been preaching to the Jews.  However, when he pressed the fact that the Messiah had already come, the opposition to his preaching grew and his message was soundly rejected.  Paul then left the synagogue to take his message next door, to the Gentiles.  The house next door belonged to a Gentile believer, Titus Justus, probably a Roman citizen.  Among Paul’s first converts in this house church was Crispus, and his entire family.  How ironic; the first convert outside the synagogue Paul had been kicked out of, was the ruler of that very synagogue!  God must have been smiling.

From this point on almost all of Paul’s energies were directed toward the Gentiles, further angering the non-believing Jews of Corinth.  In their estimation, everything Paul did was wrong;  it was wrong for him to preach to Jews and it was wrong for him to preach to the Gentiles.  As far as the Jews were concerned, Paul was a man who needed to be silenced.

(d)  Progress, verses 9—11

So Paul stayed for a year and a half, teaching them the word of God.  (verse 11)

Frequently, “progress” is linked to “persistence.”  This was certainly the case in Corinth.  Paul was persistent; tired and frustrated, Paul did not give up preaching the Word.  He was rewarded with the new friends and the return of old friends.  He was rewarded with much needed financial blessings and success in ministry.  Paul was also rewarded with another vision from the Lord.

Paul had been lied about, accused of things he hadn’t done, run out of town in a riot and had been dogged by Jews who wanted to stop him from preaching and Judaizers who wanted to steal his converts from him.  That’s enough to get even the steadiest saint down a bit.  The Lord gave Paul a vision and a personal word of encouragement:  “Do not be afraid.”  So powerful was the Word of the Lord to Paul, that he and his friends stayed in Corinth for some 18 months, experiencing great success in their work.

God’s vision was important to Paul, and it is important to us today; it tells us that Christ is always with us.  The presence of God may not always be felt, but He is always present.  God is always interested in those who are laboring for Him; He is always ready to provide what we need and to reveal Himself and His will in exact proportion to both our needs and our faith.

No matter how tired or fearful you may be, never fail to speak up for Christ.

Let us not abate our courage in doing what is right; for in due time we shall reap a reward, if we do not faint. (Galatians 6:9, WEY)

(c)  2009 WitzEnd


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