Sermon: Thessalonica, Beroea, and Athens

Lord, open our ears to hear your Word. Open our lips to speak your truth, and strength our feet to walk the path you have placed before us. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

I invite you to open your Bibles with me to Acts 17. Acts is in the New Testament – Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and Acts. About three quarters of the way through your Bible. Acts 17, beginning in verse 1. This story takes place during one of Paul’s missionary journeys to share Christ. Paul has the opportunity to Share Christ in three different locations in Acts 17. Let’s look at each of them in turn and see what we can learn about what it might look like to share Christ in our community today.

Let’s start in verse 1:

After Paul and Silas had passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica, where there was a synagogue of the Jews. And Paul went in, as was his custom, and on three sabbath days argued with them from the scriptures, explaining and proving that it was necessary for the Messiah to suffer and to rise from the dead, and saying, “This is the Messiah, Jesus whom I am proclaiming to you.” Some of them were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, as did a great many of the devout Greeks and not a few of the leading women. But the Jews became jealous, and with the help of some ruffians in the marketplaces they formed a mob and set the city in an uproar. While they were searching for Paul and Silas to bring them out to the assembly, they attacked Jason’s house. When they could not find them, they dragged Jason and some believers before the city authorities, shouting, “These people who have been turning the world upside down have come here also, and Jason has entertained them as guests. They are all acting contrary to the decrees of the emperor, saying that there is another king named Jesus.” The people and the city officials were disturbed when they heard this, and after they had taken bail from Jason and the others, they let them go.

Paul and Silas at Thessalonica

Paul is traveling with Silas and, we later learn, Timothy. They reach the city of Thessalonica and enter the synagogue. As an observant Jew, this was part of Paul’s regular practice. For three weeks, Paul argued, explained, proved, and proclaimed Christ from the Scriptures.

Paul argued from the scriptures. It is verse 2: And Paul went in, as was his custom, and on three sabbath days argued with them from the scriptures. When Paul entered the synagogue and wanted to convince his hearers of the identity of Jesus and the salvation that is found in him, Paul went to the Scriptures. He opened up what we call the Old Testament, which was the only Bible they had, and based his entire argument for the Christian faith upon what it says.

Scripture – the Bible – was the source and authority for Paul’s proclamation of the gospel.

Opening the Bible, Paul explained and proved that it was necessary for the Messiah to suffer and rise from the dead. When it says Paul ‘explained’ the Word to them, this is the same word that was used to describe what Jesus does with the disciples on the Emmaus road. Paul makes what was unclear to them clear, what they were unable to see visible to them. While the Jews in Thessalonica trusted the Scriptures as the Word of God, they had false expectations about what the Messiah would be. Paul needed to change their expectations of the Messiah from a figure of political liberation to one who would suffer and rise again for the salvation of his people. Paul could only do this on the basis of the Word of God.

Paul begins with an argument from Scripture about what the Messiah would do and only then proclaims that Jesus is the perfect fulfillment of what the Old Testament teaches us to hope for.

Whatever else we are going to learn about receiving the message or sharing it in our post-Christian context, we cannot miss this. Paul’s message is a biblical message. That biblical message finds its center and purpose in Jesus Christ. Paul opens the Bible and points to Christ. He interprets the Bible and finds all of it is about Christ.

Some were persuaded by Paul and joined him, including a large group of devout greeks and leading women. This sparked jealousy among the Jewish leadership and they contracted a mob to stir up trouble in the city. When Paul and Silas could not be found, their host, Jason, was caught in the crossfire. Though a believer, Jason is literally ‘guilty by association.’ They are charged with treason and defying the emperor. The local authorities are disturbed, but evidently do not think this is serious enough to warrant a trial, so they simply take bail and let them go. This prompts the believers to send Paul and Silas out of town. Let’s continue to story:

That very night the believers sent Paul and Silas off to Beroea; and when they arrived, they went to the Jewish synagogue. These Jews were more receptive than those in Thessalonica, for they welcomed the message very eagerly and examined the scriptures every day to see whether these things were so. Many of them therefore believed, including not a few Greek women and men of high standing. But when the Jews of Thessalonica learned that the word of God had been proclaimed by Paul in Beroea as well, they came there too, to stir up and incite the crowds. Then the believers immediately sent Paul away to the coast, but Silas and Timothy remained behind. Those who conducted Paul brought him as far as Athens; and after receiving instructions to have Silas and Timothy join him as soon as possible, they left him.

Paul and Silas at Beroea

If Thessalonica tells us about the foundation of our preaching, Beroea tells us how to receive this message. Having to skip town to avoid mob violence, Paul and Silas enter Beroea. What set the Beroeans apart from the Jews of Thessalonia was both their eagerness to hear the message of the gospel, but also their willingness to search the Scriptures and test the truth of what Paul was teaching. The Beroeans were clearly eager for good news. Like all of Israel, they would have been longing for generations for God’s promised Messiah. But they were not going to be taken in by the first person to tell them a good story. They heard Paul’s proclamation of Jesus as the suffering and rising Messiah, and they went back to the Bible to determine if what he said was the truth.

This showed dedication. No one had personal bibles in those days. It was too expensive. A synagogue would have likely had only one copy for the whole community. So the Beroean Jews gathered every day to read and study together, to test the teaching they were hearing against the word of God.

The example of the Beroeans should inspire us and give us confidence. It should inspire us to take the time as families, as individuals, as a community, to search the scriptures and determine the truth of the gospel. What does God actually say? But it should also give us confidence that whoever examines the Bible with an openness to the truth will, in fact, find Christ there. We are told, Many of them, therefore, believed. Because they searched the scripture diligently, they learned that what Paul proclaimed about Jesus Christ was true, and they believed.

This example should give us confidence not only to search the scriptures for ourselves, but to invite others to do the same, because when they do, they will find Christ there. The gospel holds up as being utterly true to the Word of God.

So far, we saw in Thessalonica that the preaching of the gospel must be founded on and come from the Word of God. Gospel-preaching is biblical-preaching. In Beroea, we have also learned that receiving this message involves testing it against the Bible to make sure what we believe is actually biblical, is actually in accordance with what God has said.

But in both Thessalonica and Beroea, Paul is preaching to Jews in synagogues. He is preaching to people who already believe the Bible is God’s Word. Paul’s teaching begins with the shared starting point – the Bible. He is arguing with people who know the Bible and trust that it is true.

But honestly, that is not the shared conviction of most of the people we meet in the grocery store or live in our neighborhoods. Even if, as a church, we rightly want to proclaim Christ from the Scriptures and test our faith by its faithfulness to the Word of God, how do we Share Christ with people who have never opened the Bible? How do we Share Christ with those who have no defined concept of God or follow a completely different religion? What then?

Paul’s last stop on this whirlwind period of his missionary life will put him face-to-face with the kinds of questions we face as we share Christ with the wider world. The response to the gospel in Beroea is great, but word gets around and the Jews from Thessalonica makes their way to Beroea to stir up more trouble. Paul is sent away again, while Silas and Timothy remain behind. He gets as far as Athens, before Paul stops to wait for his companions to join him. Let’s continue the story:

While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was deeply distressed to see that the city was full of idols. So he argued in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and also in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there. Also some Epicurean and Stoic philosophers debated with him. Some said, “What does this babbler want to say?” Others said, “He seems to be a proclaimer of foreign divinities.” (This was because he was telling the good news about Jesus and the resurrection.) So they took him and brought him to the Areopagus and asked him, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? It sounds rather strange to us, so we would like to know what it means.” Now all the Athenians and the foreigners living there would spend their time in nothing but telling or hearing something new.

Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is 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 too are his offspring.’

Since we are God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals. While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”

When they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some scoffed; but others said, “We will hear you again about this.” At that point Paul left them. But some of them joined him and became believers, including Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris, and others with them.

Paul at Athens

Athens was the cultural capital of its day. It was one of the chief centers of philosophy and religion in the ancient world.

But rather than being impressed, Paul is distressed by the idolatry of Athens. Every temple and every shrine was not only a monument to human creativity, but a perversion of true worship of God. Paul is so concerned that, even exhausted from his journey, he sets to work. He argues with Jews and God-fearing Greeks in the synagogue, and then anyone who happened to pass by in the marketplace, including philosophers.

When they call Paul to the public forum, known as the Areopagus, Paul shares Christ with them.

At its heart, his message is about idolatry. Paul, who is distressed by the city full of idols, confronts those who hear him with the consequences of idolatry and calls them to true worship of the living God.

Paul does three key things in this sermon. First, Paul begins by affirming their religious impulse, but this is a soft affirmation. You want to worship? Good. Everybody worships something. We are made to worship.

But then, second, Paul shows how apart from Christ, this desire only leads them away from God and away from the life they are called to. Their desire to worship has lead them farther from God, not closer. By making idols with their hands and worshipping them, they had rejected God. God is the creator, ruler of heaven and earth, lord of the nations. He is not a creature of creation of human hands. To make idols or to offer sacrifices to them is to treat the God who made all things as if he needed something from us or as if he were made of gold or silver or stone. By trying to fulfill their desire for worship with something other than God, they have rejected God.

Then, third, Paul calls for them to repent and turn to the true worship of God in the face of coming judgment. God is the true fulfillment of their God-given desires. We were made to worship, but we were made to worship the true God. Our desire to worship finds its joy when we worship the one God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

There is no soft-pedaling of the gospel here. Paul is not telling them that they are already on their way and just need to add Jesus to their regularly schedule lives. Paul engages then where they are – as worshipping, religious people – and then confronts them with the truth of gospel in order to call for them to turn to Christ.

I do not think it was an accident than when Paul enters Athens, a city of idols, he speaks about worship and idolatry.  Paul knows his audience. In some ways, while circumstances change, the natural bent of the human heart does not. Apart from Christ, all our God-given desires will be twisted to lead away from God and away from life. So to share Christ in community, we need to diligently search the scriptures and listen to the hearts of our neighbors. We can then engage them where they are, confront them with the truth of the gospel, all in order to call them to turn to Christ. Perhaps in Brantford, we wouldn’t always talk about idols, but say, “Brantfordites, I see how extremely hard working you are. But you have found no rest. You turn back to your work thinking in there you will find meaning and hope, but this leads you farther from rest and farther from the one who can give you true meaning and hope. Repent and turn to Christ, who is our true rest and peace.” Work is good, but when it becomes and idol, it destroys us. Only in Christ is there true freedom and rest. Maybe it isn’t work, but shame or self-righteousness or brokenness or defilement that people struggle with in our midst. Scripture speaks of all of these things and more and how Christ came to save us from all of them.

Paul preaches the same gospel in Athens as he does in Beroea, but in a slightly different way – focusing on idolatry more than the promise of the Messiah. Part of Sharing Christ in community will involve deeper Beroean and Thessalonian work – rooting ourselves in the scriptures as they speak of the truth, beauty, and goodness of God and find their fulfillment in Jesus Christ. But it will also involve a listening to hearts of our neighbors, that we might be able to hear those underlying God-given longings that have gone astray and then we might be able to share the confronting, freeing call of the gospel: repent and believe.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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