Paul is travelling west into Greece, still preaching the gospel message faithfully. The apostle appears to be strategic in his outreach but he is clearly guided by the Holy Spirit; he targets large population centres with established Jewish communities. In this chapter, Paul goes to three places that were, and still are, major cities in Greece.
When Paul visited some areas, he was able to stay for years (e.g., Corinth and Ephesus). By contrast, he only stayed for a few weeks in Thessalonica, Acts 17. 2. Despite this short time, Paul preached the word powerfully and people were saved. He started, as always, at the synagogue, Rom. 1. 16.
The Message: Paul used the Old Testament scriptures to argue that the Messiah ‘had to suffer and rise again from the dead’, Acts 17. 3 NASB. He may have quoted passages like Genesis chapter 22 and Isaiah chapter 53. Then, he might have neatly transitioned to the oral accounts of the life of Christ, which we now have as the Gospel narratives, to argue that Jesus is the Christ, Acts 17. 3. When we share the gospel, we must adopt a similar style – both Bible-based and Christ-centred.
The Response: Paul reached out to Jews and God-fearing Greeks. Some were saved, and a local church was planted, Acts 17. 10. However, the jealous Jews, v. 5, caused trouble – expelling Paul, not only from their synagogue, but also from their city. But the apostle’s visit had lasting consequences: the new believers remained faithful, and Paul wrote two letters to them over the next few months.
Berea (modern day spelling: Veria) is the next location in Paul’s itinerary. As the headquarters of Greek resistance against the Nazis in World War 2, this city has an exciting and honourable history.
The Message: Paul took the same approach that he used in Thessalonica. He went to the synagogue, and preached the truth about Christ from the scriptures. The substance of his message is not given explicitly, but we presume it to be similar to that at Thessalonica. Even though the message landed Paul in trouble, he never tired of telling it, 1 Cor. 9. 16.
The Response: The audience at Berea was ‘more noble’, Acts 17. 11, as evidenced by their desire to read the Bible for themselves. They investigated Paul’s interpretation and application. ‘Honest and good’ hearts will always be ready to receive God’s word, Luke 8. 15. People were not converted by Paul, but rather by the word of God, Rom. 10. 17. We need to have the same love for God’s word, and the same readiness to communicate it.
Paul arrived at Athens in a hurry, bundled out of Berea by violent Jews. He took his time in this famous city, travelling about to sample the culture and view the monuments. Paul encountered two schools of philosophy in this academic hub: the Epicureans thought life should be enjoyed, whereas the Stoics thought life should be endured. Paul realized that their lives were empty without God, who gives true cause for joy, Phil. 4. 4, and true strength for endurance, Phil. 4. 13. Pseudo-intellectual disdain for this simple gospel message, Acts 17. 18, is similarly common today.
The Message: In this typical address to pagans (cp. 14. 15-17) Paul’s cultural sensitivity is apparent. He adapts his style but retains all the key elements of the good news, 1 Cor. 9. 19-23. Paul emphasizes the one true God is the creator and will be the judge of all men. God requires nothing from us, and gives everything to us. Notice how Paul requisitions typical Athenian sights (altar, Acts 17. 23) and sounds (poetry,1 v. 28). He uses these concepts, which are entirely familiar to his listeners, to press home the claims of God upon them. Two new words enter the consciousness of the Athenian audience – Jesus and resurrection, Acts 17. 18. These themes are grand challenges to the classical mindset – Paul is presenting them with a genuine hero (Jesus) and a genuine hope (resurrection). Greek mythology, theology, and philosophy were deprived of such genuine articles.
The Response: Paul is addressing the Areopagus – an intellectual debating society in Athens. Some of the audience laugh at the call for repentance, Acts 17. 30, 32. They treat the messenger like his master, John 15. 8. Others procrastinate, unaware that delay is always dangerous with respect to salvation, 2 Cor. 6. 2. A few souls believe, which must have given great encouragement to Paul in his service. It would be good if we could see souls saved too!
To summarize, 21st century society bears remarkable similarities to 1st century society. Some people are God-fearers, but they do not have a personal faith in Christ. Most people are pagans, with no spiritual understanding at all. We need firm evangelical convictions. Like Paul, we must have sensitivity to people’s needs, and an earnest desire to share the word of God with them.
The original Greek writers were describing Zeus, but Paul appropriates the poetry to describe the one true God. Similarly, I have no trouble singing decent hymns by suspect authors. For example, ‘Nearer my God to Thee’ was written by a Unitarian, and ‘Praise to the Holiest in the height’ was penned by a member of the Oxford movement.