For an introduction to this series, click here.
June 19, 2007
This chapter takes Paul to various places in Greece, preaching the Gospel.
He first came to Thessalonica, where he followed his normal practice, preaching in the synagogue first and then when the Jews who did not believe rejected him, he preached to the Gentiles. In Thessalonica the Jews stirred up so much trouble that many of the believers they thought were protecting Paul and Silas were arrested. Luke tells us Jason and others had to pay off the city officials to get themselves out of jail (this may have been some sort of bail or it may have been a bribe - either way it cost a lot of money).
Paul and Silas escaped to Berea, where the people were "more noble:" "Now these Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so. Many of them therefore believed, with not a few Greek women of high standing as well as men." (17:11-12) Here was a group of people honestly searching for the truth. This is the way we should treat every sermon or teaching we hear. We should never take it at face value just because we trust the speaker nor vice versa. We are individually responsible to God, and we should strive to live our lives by His word as best we can.
But the violent Jews from Thessalonica came to Berea and started stirring up trouble, so Paul left by himself and went to Athens. Athens was one of the leading cities of the world at that time. Apparently it was also without a significant Jewish community, because Paul apparently did not go to a synagogue.
I want to spend the rest of our time here noticing the difference between the way Paul addressed Jews and Gentiles. Early in the chapter we read a summary of Paul's message to the Jews at Thessalonica: "And Paul went in, as was his custom, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead, and saying, 'This Jesus, whom I proclaim to you, is the Christ.'" (17:2-3) Paul dealt with what the people knew. These Jews knew the Old Testament, and Paul used that to his advantage.
Paul uses a more existential argument with the Athenians: "So Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: 'Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, "To the unknown god." What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, in the hope that they might feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, for"In him we live and move and have our being;" as even some of your own poets have said, "For we are indeed his offspring." Being then God's offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man. The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.'" (17:22-31, ESV)
That's a long quote, but I want you to see the depth of Paul's argument. He appeals to their intellect, he talks to them on their level, he quotes some of their own ancient writings. I have met too many preachers who are proud of their (often feigned) ignorance of everything outside the scriptures. This is foolish. I know that we are told to be wise concerning good and simple concerning evil, but there is nothing evil about being familiar with the culture of the people with whom you are ministering. It doesn't mean you have to approve or participate, but Paul here gives us an example of what he meant by saying he was all things to all men. Paul's example is one we would be wise to follow.