Different receptions in Greece


Chapter sixteen of Acts tells us about the journey to Philippi: how the Lord led Paul, Silas, Timothy and the others who travelled with him to Macedonia, after they had wanted to head into the province of Asia and tried to go to Bithynia. Now it is time to continue the journey and to see what happens when Paul and his colleagues visit Thessalonica and Berea, with Paul himself going on ahead alone to Athens.

Paul preaches in Thessalonica (Acts 17:1-9)

Second Missionary Journey

Paul’s desire to reach people and tell them of the amazing love of God for them knew no bounds. He wanted them to have the same assurance that he had, that they could spend eternity in the presence of their loving, heavenly Father. Firstly, they had to come to terms with the fact that they were lost and separated from God because of what Adam had done all those centuries before. Adam had turned his back on God and decided to run his life his own way. As a result, sin was introduced into the world and into human nature. God is holy ("set apart" by His distinctive nature and character) and human beings became sinful. Holiness and sin can have nothing to do with each other, so God separated Himself from humanity. When He created human beings, God had intended them to live in fellowship with Him for ever, but sin changed their destiny from an eternity spent in the presence of God ("heaven") to an eternity of separation from Him ("hell"). Adam, as a representative of the human race, had been seduced into disobeying God by an enemy that the Bible calls "Satan". In creating the universe, God had put laws in place to protect His creation from Satan's attempts to corrupt it. When He created human beings, He made them in His own image, giving them freedom of choice and making possible an enhanced relationship based on love. Adam’s decision to disregard God and go his own way threatened to deny human beings from ever having a loving relationship with their Creator - unless some solution could be found.

Paul had come to understand that only those who are "righteous" can hope to have an ongoing, loving relationship with God. He saw that the deepest desire of human beings is to return to God and to know Him, but trying to be good and doing good things from time to time is never going to be enough to change our sinful natures. That sinfulness must be put to death. As he says (in Romans 3:23), "all have sinned and come short of the glory of God". Making sinful choices is what we do naturally and it only stops when we die. (See also 1 John 1:8.)

But Paul had also seen God's response to this problem in the person of Jesus. Jesus was a human being - born of Mary, but also born of the Holy Spirit of God. He started life, like Adam, as a new creation: both human and divine. Unlike Adam, the choices that Jesus made always put God first, even when obeying God led to His own death. But, in that death, something truly amazing happened. "God made Him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that, in Him, we might become the righteousness of God." (2 Corinthians 5:20-21) Jesus took on Himself the entire sinfulness of human nature, which was then put to death. With that sinfulness destroyed, God raised Jesus to life once again: fully human and fully divine. As a result, all those who put themselves, as it were, "in" Jesus - who submit to His teaching and obey what He says, who trust Him to direct and lead them in their lives, who identify wholly with Him and become part of His body (the church); everyone who is "in" Jesus is a new creation. The New Testament talks about being "born again" and this is what it means: being recreated in God's image, adopted into His family, invited to spend eternity in the presence of God Himself.

The empty tomb

At the time, Jesus' disciples thought that His death was a denial of all that they had come to hope and believe might be true: that Jesus was the "messiah" (saviour) sent by God to redeem human beings from the curse of sin. They could not see how His death was anything but the end of their hopes and dreams. But, three days later, Jesus rose from the dead. The stone that covered the mouth to the tomb was rolled away and the tomb was found to be empty. Jesus had risen! It was not Jesus who had been defeated but Satan. Eternal life in the presence of God is available to all who are prepared to accept what Jesus has done for them. Again, the New Testament has a special word to describe this: grace. Grace is all about receiving something really good as a gift; not something that we've earned or that we deserve or expect, but simply something that God gives to us because He loves us. (Ephesians 2:1-8)

Of course, like any gift, this new life needs to be received, accepted, opened and used. This may seem obvious but, as with many gifts, this new life is given to us as a replacement for the old, broken one. We will all be familiar with this: a new bike, a new 'phone, a new jacket, car, house or whatever it may be. In most cases, we are more than happy to receive the new version and start using it straight away. But we need to recognise that there can be problems in accepting a gift. We may feel that we don't deserve something that is overwhelmingly generous or "too good to be true"; we may still have hankerings for the previous version with all its faults and limitations, or we may even think that the old version was better in some respects. When it comes to something as important as how we shall spend eternity, we may need to think carefully about what we are doing and the following may help.

  1. Firstly, we have to recognise the brokenness of the sinful nature that we have inherited and our inability to mend it ourselves. Are we happy to live with this for all eternity or do we want something better? If we are serious about wanting to live life to the full and discovering how good it can be, then we should start by saying this (or something like it) to God. "Lord, I recognise that my life is broken in all sorts of ways and that my nature and character fall a long way short of what you intended me to be. I am sinful and I need your help to change this."
  2. Secondly, we need to decide whether we are going to cling on to our old life or accept Jesus' new one. We cannot hold on to both. We have to choose. The Bible's word for this is "repentance". If we're going to accept God's new life, we have to throw the old one away. "Lord, I've grown used to my life and, although I can see that some of it is filthy and tattered, I'm struggling to throw it away. Please show me how much better your new life is and give me the strength to get rid of my old one."
  3. Finally, it's good to say "thank you" and, as is often the way with new gifts, we often only get to know just how good the new version is over time. Also, we often need help in getting to grips with something new, finding out how it works (or how it works best). Let's not forget to keep thanking God as we make progress in our new lives and let's not be afraid to ask for help and guidance on how to get the best from our new lives "in Christ".

man at door

The apostle John recorded Jesus' words to seven churches in "Asia" (modern-day Turkey) and they can be found in the last book of the New Testament: Revelation. The last of those churches was Laodicea, not far from the modern tourist site of Pamukkale in South-West Turkey. In New Testament times, the city was fed by an aqueduct from the hot springs at Pamukkale but, by the time the water reached Laodicea, it was only lukewarm. Jesus accuses the church there of also being "lukewarm". They had accepted Jesus' new life, but were trying to cling on to the old one as well. As a result, they were neither hot nor cold. Jesus concludes His words to them with a fresh invitation: "Here I am! I am standing at the door (of your life) and knocking. If any hear my voice and open the door, I will come in and eat with (be at home with) you and you with Me." (Revelation 3:20)

God will never force us to accept His gracious gift. He created us with the capacity to make free choices so, whatever we choose ultimately, we shall have to live with it! But we need to think carefully about it when we hear Jesus knocking at the door. In the Old Testament, God said: "When you come looking for me, you'll find me. Yes, when you get serious about finding me and want it more than anything else, I'll make sure you won't be disappointed." (Jeremiah 29:13 - "The Message" version)

In the same way, Paul was anxious to talk about Jesus to all those who were prepared to listen to him. He identified Jesus as being the "messiah" ("Anointed One") of God - the person about whom the Old Testament prophets spoke so excitedly - and described Him as the fulfilment of the prophecies. Every Jewish person in the synagogue would have known exactly to whom Paul was referring. Some of them were won over by what he said and joined ranks with Paul and Silas, among them a great many God-fearing Greeks and a considerable number of women from the aristocracy. But the hard-line Jewish people became furious over the conversions. Driven by jealousy, they rounded up those who were hanging around in the market place and soon had an ugly mob terrorising the city as they hunted down Paul and Silas.

Those Jewish worshippers understood that Paul was calling them to make a decision on whether or not to exchange their existing lives for new ones. If we are faithfully presenting people with the good news about Jesus, we can expect that people are going to find it difficult to accept God's gift of new life, because it always involves giving up the old life first of all.

Hey Tim!

Some religious leaders today can suffer from a similar form of jealousy. When men and women are challenged by God and decide to respond to Him, the results can be astounding. (We do not have to look far to know that this is true.) If we allow Him, God can and will transform our lives. When we start reading the Bible each day and doing what God asks us to do, we soon see for ourselves changes – at home, at school or work and amongst our friends. When people see the reality of God's love at work in us, they are much more prepared to listen to what we have to say and that can cause embarrassment to those who are expected (by virtue of their age or position) to be more influential in matters of faith.

The mob in Thessalonica was unable to find Paul or Silas, so seized some others who had responded to Paul's message and dragged them off to the city officials instead. This presented the Roman authorities with an awkward problem. They didn't particularly care about theological disagreements between the Jewish people and some itinerant preachers. Treason, however, was a serious offence in the Roman Empire. Although Paul and Silas were not advocating rebellion against Roman law, their loyalty to another king sounded suspicious. It was decided not to make any hasty decisions but to release the accused "trouble-makers" on bail and see if anything further developed.

Acts 17:10-21

Meanwhile, Paul and Silas were taken by the believers to Berea, a town about fifty miles away. (Acts 17:11-12) The starting point for reaching the people of Berea with the good news about Jesus was the synagogue. It was the favourite starting point for Paul and Silas and is helpful for us as we think about how best to make contact with people today. In short, we need to meet people where they are. This can be both literal and metaphorical. For example, we meet lots of people each day as we travel around - from home to school or work, to the shops or taking the dog for a walk. So sharing the good news about Jesus can begin naturally with friends, colleagues, neighbours or those we meet regularly - even if only occasionally. We also need to learn something about where people are at in their own thinking, so that the Holy Spirit can prompt us to find some "common ground" on which to build a relationship. Paul regarded it as an honour and privilege to share the good news with people and to guide them towards Jesus and the kingdom of God. In writing (later on) to the believers at Thessalonica, Paul said: "For what is our hope, our joy, or the crown in which we will glory in the presence of the Lord Jesus Christ when He comes? Is it not you?" (1 Thessalonians 2:19)

Verse eleven says that the Bereans were "of more noble character" than the Thessalonians because they received the message with great eagerness and then examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true. This draws a sharp contrast with those at Thessalonica who were unwilling to give up their existing lives and rejected out of hand the life-changing message that Paul brought. As a result of their willingness to investigate and find the truth, many of the Jewish people in Berea believed. We need to encourage those we are speaking to about Jesus to read the Bible to see if what we are saying is true. Many people will reject what we have to say because they have never bothered to read the word of God for themselves. It is God's word that will persuade, rather than any wise and persuasive arguments that we may make.

It is amazing how good news travels! The Jewish leaders from Thessalonica heard that the Bereans had received Jesus with joy and a delegation came to agitate and stir up the crowds! But Paul saw that God's word had been well and truly sown in the hearts of the Berean people and trusted that, in due time, the Holy Spirit would reap a harvest, so he left them and was taken to the coast where he boarded a ship and went to Athens. Silas and Timothy stayed on in Berea for a while to encourag the new believers and, when Paul arrived in Athens, he sent for them to join him.

Paul had some time on his hands as he waited for Paul and Silas. He strolled around the city of Athens and could not help noticing how many idols there were on display. (Acts 17:16-17) The Greeks had many gods and they made idols to them all. The entire country was awash with religious sects and groups, temples and idols, as people all chose what suited them best. The thought of all these people wandering around in spiritual blindness and ignorance upset Paul considerably and he longed to bring them some good news.

He saw that the Athenians took great pride in their academic learning and were somewhat full of their own importance. The Epicureans and Stoics were the dominant philosophers in Greek culture at that time. The Epicureans believed that the pursuit of happiness and pleasure was the primary goal of life. By contrast, the Stoics placed rational thinking above emotion and sensory stimulation. They tried to live in harmony with nature and reason, suppressing their desire for pleasure and living more disciplined lives. Regardless of which "camp" people might be in, there was also a great fascination for new ideas, concepts and belief systems throughout the entire city. (Acts 17:21) We can certainly find some today who have similar attitudes.

As always, Paul began his "campaign" in the synagogues and at the market-places and his preaching soon attracted some interest and attention. Paul was invited to address a gathering of the "great and good" at the "Areopagus" - not far from the "Acropolis". The venue had started life as a judicial court but was probably also used for other civic gatherings in Paul's day. His address to the philosophers and other influential people is a good example of how to communicate the good news about Jesus.

Acts 17:22-34

First of all, Paul starts where his audience is at - not with a recap of Jewish history (which would have meant very little to most of them) but by establishing some common ground with them on the question of knowing God. He does so by picking out one particular altar which he'd noticed that had the inscription: "TO AN UNKNOWN GOD". Paul turns this around and starts to talk to them about the nature of this "unknown" God, referring to the broader story of creation that would have been familiar to all educated people of the day. He appeals to the innate instinct that has driven people to create representations of "God" in gold, silver or stone and quotes their own poets who have written of people being "offspring of the gods". If this is true, argues Paul, then surely we need to look beyond crude images and idols and consider how we can know the one true God. In fact, says Paul, God has taken the initiative here and has appointed someone who is going to lead us out of ignorance into truth and God has given proof of this by raising this man from the dead.

Paul's last point proves to be too much for some of his listeners. They were happy to consider intellectual propositions and ideas, but now Paul is suggesting that the supernatural might actually intrude on real life and they would rather stick with inanimate idols than contemplate the thought that God might actually want to be a part of their day-to-day lives. Eventually, if we are faithfully sharing the good news about Jesus with others, it will provoke a reaction. Some may be incredulous or simply sneer at what we say; some may be unconvinced but still interested to know more and some may respond immediately and positively.

In any event, we can learn something from Paul's approach here:

  • establish some common ground around the sort of needs that we have and the questions that people ask;
  • use examples that those we're talking to will be familiar with;
  • then link the questions to what Jesus has said and done and how His life, death and resurrection can provide answers to our questions.

We don't need to tackle abstract, intellectual problems. Every person is made in God's image and has a spiritual need to know God. Some may try to avoid this by raising unanswerable questions, but we all hunger to know God's love and purpose in our lives and that is where Jesus speaks to every one of us. If people are not yet ready to embark on a personal journey of spiritual discovery, then we can leave them for the time being. Some may remain uncertain but have genuine questions that deserve answers. Again, allow the Holy Spirit to lead them in His own time and simply offer to meet them again for further discussion. Others may already be at the point of making a decision to accept God's gift of eternal life in Jesus. If so, this is your chance to be a "midwife". Allow the Holy Spirit to lead things and encourage the person you're talking with to pray in their own words, confessing their need, giving up their past life and asking Jesus to give them His new life.

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