The Book of Acts (Chapter 17:1-34) (Part 28)
God is controversial. The Lord Jesus is controversial. The Holy Spirit is controversial and so is the Bible. The message of the Gospel of the Kingdom is controversial because it cuts across the opinions, philosophies and religious aspirations of men, convicts them of their sins and need of righteousness before a Holy God and exposes Satan’s kingdom for what it is. Paul and his apostolic companions were God’s Storm Troopers or Commandoes that He had dropped behind enemy lines to disrupt and nullify the enemies activities. Wherever Paul went Satan’s kingdom was exposed and wickedness and rebellion brought to light. Into these places of spiritual darkness the light of the gospel in the Lord Jesus Christ penetrated that spiritual darkness in the hearts of men and women bringing them hope and salvation and out from under the clutches of the devil.
Furthermore, the message of the gospel turned the opinions and philosophies of man upside down and exposed all false religious activity. In the ministry of the Lord Jesus Satan always followed Him around to try to disrupt what God was doing through Him. Likewise, Satan was following after Paul and his companions as they went about faithfully preaching the Good News of the Kingdom, healing the sick and driving out demons. Satan could not get to them spiritually so he opposed them physically through unprincipled and unregenerate men, usually of the religious kind. Satan gets more people into hell through religion that he does through all of the other sins of the flesh combined. The religious always persecute those who live by faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. It has been going on since the situation with Cain and Abel. Paul and his companions left Philippi and had now come to Thessalonica.
(Vs.1-4) “Now when they had travelled through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica, where there was a synagogue of the Jews. And according to Paul’s custom, he went to them, and for three Sabbaths reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and giving evidence that the Christ had to suffer and rise again from the dead, and saying, “This Jesus whom I am proclaiming to you is the Christ.” And some of them were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, along with a large number of the God-fearing Greeks and a number of the leading women.”
Paul was clear in his message when he later wrote; “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (Romans 1:16). As was his custom when he entered any city he always went to the local synagogue to preach the gospel of the Kingdom to them. Even though he had been called by God to be an apostle to the Gentiles he always carried the burden of his unsaved Jewish brothers and sisters in his heart (Romans 9:1-5). For three consecutive Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the scriptures concerning the cross and the resurrection of Jesus and proclaiming Him as Israel’s Messiah. Undoubtedly the power of the Holy Spirit was present with Paul and his preaching bore some fruit.
Some of the Jews joined Paul and his companions and also a large number of God-Fearing Greeks. These were Gentile who were converts to Judaism who had renounced idolatry to live a morally upright life before God and who most probably were not physically circumcised. Of course as usual the religious hierarchy were threatened by these men who had turned the world upside down and had now come into their ‘hallowed halls’ of religious sanctity and disrupted their religious activity. So they employed means to evict Paul and his companions out of the synagogue. And so we read…
(Vs.5) “But the Jews, becoming jealous and taking along some wicked men from the market place, formed a mob and set the city in an uproar; and attacking the house of Jason, they were seeking to bring them out to the people.”
Satan has his servants even among those who profess to believe in God. The Jewish religious leaders felt threatened by Paul and his companions and were jealous of them because they did not have the same spiritual power and authority Paul and his companions had. So they rounded up some wicked men from the market place and formed a mob. These wicked men the text tells us were most probably lawyers of some description as they had some legal authority, added to this the religious leaders raised up a mob against those who had come to faith in Jesus. Under the revivals in the time of John Wesley it was often a local Anglican vicar that would lead a mob against the Methodists. In some cases they would break into the believer’s homes and take their furniture and wreck their houses.
The believers at Thessalonica were also to experience suffering for their faith in the future and Paul would later write two letters to them. Also Paul taught them a lot about Eschatology while he was with them. Paul also had to encourage them because there were those at that time who were actually teaching a secret rapture that had occurred and that they had been left behind (2 Thessalonians 2:1-12). When we read Paul’s letters to them the believers at Thessalonica were being persecuted. Indeed as Paul would later write to Timothy; “Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Timothy 3:12).
(Vs.6-10) “When they did not find them, they began dragging Jason and some brethren before the city authorities, shouting, “These men who have upset the world have come here also; and Jason has welcomed them, and they all act contrary to the decrees of Caesar, saying that there is another king, Jesus.” They stirred up the crowd and the city authorities who heard these things. And when they had received a pledge from Jason and the others, they released them.”
Since the first century Jesus’ followers have been dragged before magistrates who do not care less about God or Christians. The Lord Jesus said this would be so. “But before all these things, they will lay their hands on you and will persecute you, delivering you to the synagogues and prisons, bringing you before kings and governors for My name’s sake. It will lead to an opportunity for your testimony. So make up your minds not to prepare beforehand to defend yourselves; for I will give you utterance and wisdom which none of your opponents will be able to resist or refute” (Luke 21:12-15). These religious antagonists twisted their words to make it sound like Paul and the others had been violating Roman law, however, it seemed that the Magistrates were aware of these unproven accusations and made Jason and the others bail themselves out. It is interesting that Paul and the others had a reputation that had preceded them. “These men who have upset the world have come here also” or as another translation says; “These men who have turned the world upside down have come here also.”
This is what the Gospel of the Kingdom does! It turns people’s world upside down! It shakes their complacency regarding spiritual matters! It shakes their confidence in themselves, their abilities and their self-security! It challenges their philosophies of life and their ambitions, desires, their lusts and self-interest and their self-aggrandisement and their favourite sins. The Gospel of the Kingdom preached in the power of the Holy Spirit shakes Satan’s kingdom and the powers and principalities of wickedness in high places and in hell below! Nothing can hinder the Gospel of the Kingdom. God may bury His workers in due course but He continues His work! When you look at the revivals under Wesley, Whitfield and Booth and Finney and many others you see Satan’s kingdom decimated and thousands upon thousands being saved by the Lord Jesus and snatched out of the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of light.
In the revivals under such men of God sinners fell on their faces before God repenting of their sin and rebellion against His perfect law and lamenting their own sinfulness before a righteous God who judges the living and the dead and calling on the name of the LORD to be saved! We see this in the case of the Philippian jailor. He was desperate to be saved. Today it is seeker friendly, felt need syndrome, a take it or leave it gospel discussed over a cup of coffee. It’s Alpha or Purpose Driven or some other marketing strategy endorsed with random Bible texts to bolster their ideology. Its psychology, ecumenical unity, Postmodernism, Kingdom Now, Word of Faith prosperity and the mega-church syndrome with its entertainment and gimmicks and fads and clowns masquerading as preachers when in fact they are servants of Satan “fleecing the sheep!” An accursed brood of vipers that need to flee from the coming wrath!
The testimony given at Philippi was that “these that have come here have turned the world on its head!” When did you last hear this being said about believers in Jesus? In the last days this kind of testimony from unbelievers will be common place but it will be outside of the confines of the religious establishment called Christendom! Already in third world countries like South America and Brazil the churches whose members have been baptised with the Holy Spirit are winning their nation for Christ. Can this be said of Christianity in the western democracies today? Has your local church turned the world in your suburb upside down lately? And so we read…
(Vs.10-11) “The brethren immediately sent Paul and Silas away by night to Berea, and when they arrived, they went into the synagogue of the Jews. Now these were more noble-minded than those in Thessalonica, for they received the word with great eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see whether these things were so.”
There was no doubt that the prominent Jewish leaders of the city with their corrupt lawyers and their false accusations would attempt to have Paul and the others arrested or even worse kill them if they could. The believers in the fellowship at Philippi were realists in that they knew full well what would happen to Paul and the others if they were caught so they send them away at night. In God’s economy, where ministry to the unsaved is concerned, there is a time to stay and a time to go. When you look at the ministry of Elijah he fled from Jezebel because he knew what she would do if she caught him. Elijah was no coward but God still had work for him to do. As the Lord Jesus said; “When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next” (Luke 10:23). When the believers in Jerusalem had been persecuted by Saul before he was saved we read that “Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went” (Acts 8:4). If we can escape persecution we should and take the message of the Gospel with us but if we cannot escape them we need to entrust our souls to our faithful creator and seek his strength and wisdom.
When Paul and his companions arrived at Berea they went straight away into the local synagogue and started to preach the good news about the Lord Jesus. The Holy Spirit had gone before and prepared the hearts of those to whom Paul and Silas would be preaching to. We read about their response. Firstly; they were more noble minded in that they were much more open to the Gospel message than the religious Jews had been at Philippi. Secondly; they received the Word of God with great eagerness and wanted to hear the truth as it is in Jesus. Remember the Lord Jesus said; “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness for they shall be filled.” Sadly there are many today who hunger and thirst after signs, miracles, wonders, healings and manifestations of one sort or another but not many who hunger and thirst after righteousness. Thirdly; they examined the scriptures every day to see if Paul’s doctrine was sound and Biblical. They studied the scriptures daily and saw from the Holy Spirit that what Paul was preaching was true. Only the Gospel of the Kingdom preached faithfully in the power of the Holy Spirit will save sinners and sanctify saints.
No man-made programme for Church growth can do this. If a local fellowship seeks to be led by the Holy Spirit in their evangelism and discipleship then the LORD will add to their number daily those who are being saved. The problem is that most ministers and church leaders have become so sophisticated and have a programme mentality that the simplicity and power of the Gospel message has been eroded and in many cases watered down because they no longer make the scripture their final authority in matters of faith, doctrine and Christian living or open themselves up to the gifts of the Spirit practiced Biblically. By enlarge the spirit of the Bereans has gone from the Body of Messiah in the western democracies. As a result of Paul expounding the Word of God in the power of the Holy Spirit many were saved.
(Vs.12-15) “Therefore many of them believed, along with a number of prominent Greek women and men. But when the Jews of Thessalonica found out that the word of God had been proclaimed by Paul in Berea also, they came there as well, agitating and stirring up the crowds. Then immediately the brethren sent Paul out to go as far as the sea; and Silas and Timothy remained there. Now those who escorted Paul brought him as far as Athens; and receiving a command for Silas and Timothy to come to him as soon as possible, they left.”
Satan is a sore looser and so he sent the same bunch of religious legalists he had used at Philippi to Berea to disrupt and even persecute Paul. They all hated his guts because of what he was preaching and more so because God’s power through Paul showed them up for their religious hypocrisy and lack of spiritual insight. The persecution was on the account of the Word of God. Satan always attacks the Word of God because he knows full well that “faith comes by hearing and hearing by the Word of God” and that “the seed is the Word of God” and the soil is the mind and the heart. As usual they could not refute Paul directly because he had checkmated them last time and he would surely checkmate them again so they got others to do their dirty work for them. As they say “there’s always one in a crowd.” Paul had to leave once again as these “hounds from hell’ were on his heels. It was the brethren again that sent Paul off. Most probably he would have stayed on but as it is written; “there is wisdom in the abundance of counsellors.” He took their advice on this occasion and left Berea but also instructed the believers at Berea to send Silas and Timothy to him as soon as possible.
(Vs.16-18) “Now while Paul was waiting for them at Athens, his spirit was being provoked within him as he was observing the city full of idols. So he was reasoning in the synagogue with the Jews and the God-fearing Gentiles, and in the market place every day with those who happened to be present. And also some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers were conversing with him. Some were saying, “What would this idle babbler wish to say?” Others, “He seems to be a proclaimer of strange deities,”—because he was preaching Jesus and the resurrection.”
To a Jew idolatry was a very provocative matter in that it violated the first of the 10 Commandments given to Moses and written by the finger of God Himself. Idolatry was an anathema to a Torah loving Jew as in Deuteronomy the worship of idols was the worship of demons and Paul knew this (Deuteronomy 32:16-17). As he waited for his companions to join him he saw that the city was full of idols of every description and as was his custom reasoned with the Jews and the God-fearing Gentiles and with everyone he could whether they were from the synagogue or the market place. Athens of course was the epicentre of Greek and pagan philosophy and the latest ideas and the city was full of intellectuals who stood around debating the latest ideologies or theological issues of the gods.
In a situation like this God could use Paul because of his breadth and depth of learning and mastery of Greek thought, culture and philosophies and of their language. In a sense Paul was really in his element as the Apostle to the Gentiles. These intellectuals had heard many dissertations on one sort or another of philosophy or discourses on the gods and religious ideas and practices but they had heard anything like what Paul was preaching. Some thought he was babbling and speaking nonsense while others thought he was preaching about strange deities. The matter that drew their attention and curiosity was Paul testifying and preaching about Jesus and the resurrection that is in Him alone.
You can preach about Jesus as a good man, or a prophet, or a teacher or a man who was a force for good in the world and people will take it or leave it. However, when you start preaching about the resurrection of Jesus and the resurrection of the dead and of judgement to come it arrests people’s attention because it is dealing with something that is beyond their understanding of the human mind to comprehend. Undoubtedly many in Athens would have believed in some form of afterlife as many do today but that would be all they would know as the rest would be speculation at most. As far as we know no one in Athens had come back from the dead!
(Vs.19-21) “And they took him and brought him to the Areopagus, saying, “May we know what this new teaching is which you are proclaiming? For you are bringing some strange things to our ears; so we want to know what these things mean.” (Now all the Athenians and the strangers visiting there used to spend their time in nothing other than telling or hearing something new.)
In preaching the resurrection in Jesus Paul had aroused the interest of the intellectuals so he took advantage of this and allowed them to bring him to the Areopagus (a kind of outdoor amphitheatre of sorts but known as Mars Hill, the seat of the ancient and venerable supreme court of Athens) where the rest of the intellectuals could hear what Paul had to say.
(Vs.22-23) “So Paul stood in the midst of the Areopagus and said, “Men of Athens, I observe that you are very religious in all respects. For while I was passing through and examining the objects of your worship, I also found an altar with this inscription, ‘TO AN UNKNOWN GOD.’ Therefore what you worship in ignorance, this I proclaim to you.”
Paul began his sermon by appealing to their penchant for religion and religious ceremonies and observances. He was starting at a common point of view among them that they could comprehend. Paul had observed many statues and idols but also an idol to an unknown god. This gave him the opening he needed and referred to the fact that they know nothing about this unknown god that they worshipped along with all of the other deities. Paul now spoke to them about this “unknown god” that they could know and that had revealed Himself to man in the person of the Lord Jesus Christ. Religious minded people may have many theories about God but unless there is spiritual insight and revelation given to them they will forever remain in spiritual darkness, ignorance and sin. And so he begins by explaining the character of God.
(Vs.24-25) “The God who made the world and all things in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands; nor is He served by human hands, as though He needed anything, since He Himself gives to all people life and breath and all things; and He made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined their appointed times and the boundaries of their habitation,”
The Greeks like many cultures of the day had their temples erected to their gods as they had in Greece and Paul started to correct their thinking in this matter and focused on God Himself and not on man-made objects or buildings. Firstly then Paul said that God made the world and everything in it. Secondly that He does not dwell in man-made temples. Thirdly; Paul said that God did not need human affirmation or assistance of any kind and that He was totally sufficient within Himself. Fourthly; he said that God Himself was the source and sustainer of the life of all living things. Fifthly; Paul said that all men came from Adam. Sixthly; he said that God had predetermined where people should live and appointed their geographical boundaries. In revealing Himself in this way God wanted men to see Him for who He really is. And so we read…
(Vs.27-29) “…that they would seek God, if perhaps they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us; for in Him we live and move and exist, as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we also are His children.’ Being then the children of God, we ought not to think that the Divine Nature is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and thought of man.”
The Bible says that God is one “who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1Timothy 2:4) and that God is “not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9b). Paul understood this and let his listeners know that they were all God’s offspring and that his nature was not something physical at all but spiritual. As the Lord Jesus said “God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth” (John 4:24). In calling them God’s children he was not meaning that they were born again of course but referring to the fact that God was the source of their very existence and life and held that existence in His hand. So the first thing Paul did was to correct their thinking about God Himself. Of course this undermined the Greeks concept of a ‘god’ as such. Now these intellectuals were confronted with a living God who had given them life and breath and demanded a response from them. Paul went for the spiritual jugular.
(Vs.30-31) “Therefore having overlooked the times of ignorance, God is now declaring to men that all people everywhere should repent, because He has fixed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness through a Man whom He has appointed, having furnished proof to all men by raising Him from the dead.”
In the past men had a limited knowledge of God although God had given men just enough light to make them accountable to Him. Paul would later address this issue in his letter to the Romans where he would clearly state that men would be judged on the light they have received. All men without a saving faith in Jesus will go to hell but there are levels in hell. How far down one goes will depend on how they have responded to the light they had received when they were alive on earth. Those who have heard the gospel and rejected it will suffer a far worse sentence and a deeper place in hell.
We read what the Lord Jesus said about this. “Then He began to denounce the cities in which most of His miracles were done, because they did not repent. “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the miracles had occurred in Tyre and Sidon which occurred in you, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. Nevertheless I say to you, it will be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon in the day of judgment than for you. And you, Capernaum, will not be exalted to heaven, will you? You will descend to Hades; for if the miracles had occurred in Sodom which occurred in you, it would have remained to this day. Nevertheless I say to you that it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom in the Day of Judgment, than for you” (Matthew 11:20-24). And so Paul did not mince words with these intellectuals but gave them God’s prerequisite for approaching Him.
He mentioned two things to them. Firstly; he said to them that they needed to repent first of all which also implied that they should also believe in Jesus. He has already been speaking to them about the reason the Lord Jesus came to earth even though it is not strictly recorded in the text of Acts. Secondly; Paul told them in no uncertain terms that God had fixed a day when He would judge the world by the standards of His righteousness through the Lord Jesus Christ whom He had appointed to do this because God had proven this by raising Him from the dead. Preaching the resurrection of Jesus sends out a clear signal to the unsaved that they must give an account to God for how they respond to the Lord Jesus.
This is why preaching on the resurrection of Jesus really gets the devil angry. Men will have Jesus the philosopher. Jesus the good man, Jesus the prophet, Jesus the great teacher, Jesus the great humanitarian of all time but they will not have a Jesus who has risen from the dead! This makes sinners accountable to God for their sins. How much Paul got through to them we are not told but their intellect was the main barrier to them receiving all that God had for them. And so we read…
(Vs.32-34) “Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some began to sneer, but others said, “We shall hear you again concerning this.” So Paul went out of their midst. But some men joined him and believed, among whom also were Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris and others with them.”
The intellect can be useful in discovering the truths in God’s word and assimilating Biblical knowledge but the intellect cannot save a man or a woman from the power of sin. No intellectual reasoning can produce the new birth from above by the Holy Spirit. This is something God has to do supernaturally ( 1 Corinthians 2:15) (Ephesians 2:8-9) (John 3:3). Now He can and does work on the intellect but saving faith is not a product of the intellect alone but of the inner human spirit being enlightened by the Holy Spirit. That part of man called “spirit,” that is capable of knowing God is dead spiritually and incapable of spiritually regenerating itself. We are born into this world dead in sin and incapable of responding to God (Ephesians 2:1-2).
Satan, the god of this world, has blinded the spiritual sight of unbelievers so that they cannot perceive and respond to spiritual truth as taught in the Bible and revealed by the Spirit of God (2 Corinthians 4:4). The sinful mind is hostile to God and cannot submit to God’s law neither can it discern spiritual truth. In fact spiritual truth is foolishness to the mind that is not spiritually renewed by the Holy Spirit (Romans 8:7) (1 Corinthians 2:14). There will always be those who sneer at the resurrection even though they are ignorant of why they do this because of the spiritual veil over their heart. It is a veil that only the Holy Spirit can remove.
Now God does not arbitrarily choose some for hell and some for heaven. While a sinner has no capacity to respond to God the Holy Spirit gives that sinner just enough light to enable them to respond but will not do the responding for the sinner. To teach that God chooses some for heaven and others for hell is a distortion of the nature and character of God as revealed in the Bible. Those who pursue this unbiblical and unbalanced doctrine nullify texts such as John 3:16 where the emphasis is on; “whosever will come.” Even though all things are foreknown to God the choice is still given otherwise the logical conclusion to God arbitrarily choosing some for heaven and others for hell is to make Him the author of sin.
Well some sneered at the resurrection Paul was preaching while others would hear him again another day. However, there were some who believed but it would seem not many. Intellectual pride is one of the main hindrances to simple and childlike faith. Even though our faith is based on facts it must be produced in the life by the Holy Spirit. Grace (God’s unmerited and undeserved favour) goes before faith but God holds us responsible for what we do with the knowledge we receive. Our faith is based on the Word of God but unless that Word is made a living reality within our spirit by the Holy Spirit we will never understand, perceive or enter into the Kingdom of God. This is why it is absolutely essential to our spiritual survival in eternity to embrace by faith that timeless truth; “Except a man be born again he cannot see the Kingdom of God.” Having said this God’s pre-requisite for being born again from above is to first repent and as the Lord Jesus also said; “except you repent you will also likewise perish!”