References cited with no note of the book in which they are found are all from Acts.
In this chapter Paul covers about 300 miles, beginning in Thessalonica, stopping off at Berea, and ending in Athens. His movements are prompted by a troublesome group of Jews, resentful of the gospel, who hound him from city to city. However, their opposition did not stop Paul preaching; it simply moved his platform. Acts 17 demonstrates that there is always a reaction when the gospel is preached, ranging from the outright fury of these Thessalonian Jews to the noble faith of the Bereans. Paul's address from Mars Hill in Athens provides a template of how to preach the gospel to an audience with no background in the Scriptures.
Trouble at Thessalonica
Far from welcoming Paul's Scriptural argument that Jesus was the long-promised Christ, a vocal group of Jews in the Thessalonian synagogue reacted with envy-fuelled fury, hiring local thugs to help stir up a riot. They failed to hurt Paul, but regrettably Jason, his host, was caught in the cross fire. The angry reaction prompted Paul's departure to Berea, leaving the new Thessalonian converts in a hostile environment (1 Thess 2.14-16), although firmly sustained by Paul's prayers (1 Thess 3.10). Not content with driving Paul out of Thessalonica, the Jews followed him to Berea and repeated their disturbances, again prompting Paul to move on. What are we to learn? The evangelist is under no obligation to stay around to face down unhelpful confrontation. In fact, outright rejection by one audience seems to be one of the means the Lord uses to move His messengers to a new audience. Paul repeatedly faced rejection and repeatedly moved on (vv.10,14,33; see also Lk 9.5, Acts 13.46). Ironically, opposition serves to spread the word!
Believers in Berea
When Paul preached Christ from the Old Testament in the Thessalonian synagogue "some of them believed" (17.4), but in the Berean synagogue the response was even better, not just because "many believed" (17.12), but because of how they believed. They listened open-mindedly to Paul, they checked what he said against the Scriptures, and therefore they believed. Their rigour earned them the commendation of "noble" (v.11), and provides some striking lessons for preacher and listener alike today:
1. If the Bereans are commended for checking against the Scriptures what even the Apostle Paul said, how much more should we benchmark preachers today against the Word of God. It is all too easy to sit under the preached Word without having our critical faculties properly engaged, let alone imitating the follow up investigation at home which the Bereans practised.
2. If Paul preached in such a way that his hearers could check the message against his source and come to the same conclusions, then he must have adopted a straightforward approach that allowed the Scriptures to speak for themselves. There is nothing to beat contextual exposition of the Bible!
3. Faith is not a leap in the dark. The Bereans show that it involves intelligent surrender to the truth of the Word. Part of Paul's preaching involved demonstrating that Christ accurately fulfilled Old Testament prophecies, proof that the gospel is not from men but from God.
Address at Athens
While waiting in Athens for his travelling companions, Paul saw an idolatry epidemic which drew out an irresistible urge to proclaim the truth of God. He began with conversations in the synagogue and the market place, but with word spreading rapidly he was soon invited to address a group of philosophers from the Areopagus. It is encouraging to note that it was Paul's faithfulness in one-to-one evangelism that created the opportunity. His presentation of the gospel is a model in how to approach an audience with no background in the Scriptures. The crux of his message is summed up in v.30: "God…now commandeth all men every where to repent".
Among Athens' many idols Paul found an altar inscribed with the words, "TO THE UNKNOWN GOD", an apt starting point. As the local people were evidently confused over the identity of God, it was therefore necessary to clearly define Him. Paul did this by boldly proclaiming God as the singular, supreme, creating, sustaining and sovereign director of the universe. This flew in the face of their many idols, and cut across their impoverished concept of deity: the one true God does not need a man-made building to live in, nor does he need their offerings. In fact the reverse is true. Humans are the ones who are dependent on Him for everything, the God "who giveth to all life, and breath, and all things". Thus Paul was presenting the gospel as the ultimate message because of the unique greatness of "God" from whom it comes.
While the Athenians occupied their day discussing, debating and endlessly looking for new ideas, Paul presented the gospel as an urgent message from the God who "now commandeth". The gospel is not an idea to be admired, a theory to be debated, or a lifestyle to be chosen. It is a command from the Lord of the universe to be obeyed. It presents mankind as being in rebellion against God, yet provides an opportunity for rebellion to be replaced with obedience. If obeyed, the gospel brings eternal blessing, if ignored it seals one's eternal doom (1 Pet 4.17). Thus the urgency of the gospel stems from the fact that an eternal destiny rests on a choice made in time. The preacher must urge, with the Scriptures, "now is the accepted time…now is the day of salvation" (2 Cor 6.2), because one of the evils of the human heart is to presume on God's longsuffering (Rom 2.4-5), and delay in responding to His mercy.
The call of the gospel is to "all men everywhere" (v.30) for it is a truly universal message. The word used for "men" is anthropos, indicating a human being, either male or female. The "all" therefore embraces all genders, all ages, and every social status. Equally it embraces all persuasions: atheistic, agnostic, religious, irreligious, or any other description we may wish to use. The "everywhere" covers all locations on the globe. As such there is not a more universal, more relevant message. No one can exclude themselves from its call when God has included all.
The gospel is an uncomfortable message because at its centre is a call "to repent". Repentance involves a change of mind, a turning from whatever wrong belief we may have to a belief in the truth as contained in the gospel. For the atheist it involves an admission that he has been a fool (Ps 14.1; 19.1). For the agnostic there is the admission that he has suppressed his consciousness of the existence of God (Rom 1.19-20). For the do-gooder there must be the admission that his best is, in God's sight, not good at all (Eph 2.8-10), while the person who thinks there are many ways to God must repent and come to God via the one Mediator, Jesus Christ (1 Tim 2.5). Yes, the gospel is hard to stomach because it involves a contrite admission of wrongness and neediness. But when the sinner is in that state he is precisely in the place where God's grace flows (Is 66.2).
Lastly, the gospel is an unavoidable message: "Because he hath appointed a day, in the which he will judge the world in righteousness by that man whom he hath ordained; whereof he hath given assurance unto all men, in that he hath raised him from the dead" (17.31). The resurrection of the Lord Jesus is God's pledge to all that death is not the end. There is a day of judgment ahead, and each one of us will stand before God's chosen Judge (Rom 2.6). This means that all who have ever lived will be resurrected (Jn 5.28-29) in what will be a stunning display of divine power. Christ's resurrection is the guarantee that every resurrection will happen. Gloriously, those who have obeyed the gospel can face this day with confidence (1 Jn 4.17), for they are safe in Christ with a righteousness every bit equal to that of the righteous Judge (Phil 3.9). Solemnly, those who have disobeyed the gospel will face the terrible reality of God awakening in judgment upon them (Ps 73.20). Reflecting on this truth should sort out our priorities and motivate us to witness.
Finally, just as the message Paul preached in Athens is representative of what we need to preach, so the reactions of his hearers are typical of what we might expect. First, some mocked (v.32a), because the human heart unaided by grace thinks the things of God are foolish (1 Cor 2.14). Others procrastinated (v.32b), perhaps sensing something of the weight of the message yet not wanting their comfort disturbed. In reality, this is to presume on the longsuffering of God. But, and this is the power of grace, some believed (v.34). Thus the divine purpose was accomplished: "great is the mystery of godliness: God was…preached unto the Gentiles, believed on in the world" (1 Tim 3.16).
To be continued.