Friday, April 19, 2013

Acts 17 - The Incarnational Gospel

LINK: Acts 17

Maps by Gordon Smith can be used without further permission.


In Thessalonica (17:1-9)

Paul and Silas left Philippi (12) and went to Thessalonica (15) about 100 miles away. Thessalonica is modern day Solonika or Thessalonika. It was the capital of Macedonia and a major port. It was an important center of trade along the Egnatian highway

They went to the synagogue and concentrated on reaching the Jews for three weeks before they turned to the Gentiles. Some Jews and a large number of Gentiles believed. We learn from 1 Thessalonians 1:9 that the majority of the converts were from the Gentile community.  True to the "Acts Pattern," this led to persecution, but Jason (possibly Paul's relative, Romans 16:21) got the brunt of it. Paul and Silas left there to go to Berea (16), 46 miles southwest of Thessalonica.

In Berea (17:10-15)

Oh to be a "noble-minded" Berean and to find Berean-like seekers of God who "received the word with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so" (17:11)! The proclamation of the gospel here led many to believe and persecution (from Thessalonica) to follow.  This time, Silas and Timothy stayed behind to strengthen the church, and Paul went on to Athens (17). We know from 1 Thessalonians 3:1-2, 6 and Acts 18:1-5 that they did eventually rejoin Paul in Athens. 

From Macedonia to Achaia: Paul in Athens on Mars Hill (17:16-34)

Athens was in great decline during this time, but it was still a center of culture, philosophy, and education. Idolatry was rampant and new ideas were in vogue.

The Epicureans and Stoics invited Paul to speak to them in the Areopagus (meeting place for the council that oversaw religion and education):
  • Epicureans believed seeking happiness and pleasure was the primary goal of life. 
  • Stoics believed thinking was more important than feeling. They lived in harmony with nature and reason while suppressing the desire for pleasure. 
Paul presented the gospel in a culturally appropriate way. In past examples in Acts, we have seen Peter and Paul reciting Jewish history and reasoning from the Scriptures regarding Jesus, but these people from Athens had no background in the Scriptures. Therefore, Paul started with a case for the one true God using culturally relevant examples (17:22-23). He established what they agreed upon about God. He even quoted from Epimenides, a Cretan poet: "For in Him we live and move, and have our being." He also quoted Aratus: "We are His offspring" (Donald Miller reads the poem in the audio version of the sermon below). 

He established culturally relevant common ground, but Paul did not hold back in proclaiming that as God's offspring, they had a choice to believe in the resurrection and repent or face judgment (even though they had no concept of this in their culture). Some did believe in Athens.

Below is a wonderful "take" on this chapter by Donald Miller. 


The Incarnational Gospel

In October 2006, I visited Imago Dei Church in Portland, Oregon,  and we were surprised to have a sermon from Donald Miller, author of the book Blue Like Jazz. Here is a synopsis of his reflection on Acts 17:16-34 followed by a link to the actual sermon.

If we claim to be a Christ follower, then we are following the Prince of Peace. Why is it that when the world is looking for peace, the church is not typically a place they seek advice? Could it be that we really have no clue about what it looks like to be peace-makers? It is not quite that simple though, because our Prince of Peace is also described as bringing a sword. What is that all about? It appears Christ walked a tightrope of tension being a peacemaker, and turning over tables. Not very many modern day examples come into mind. Martin Luther King is perhaps one example of a man, sticking to his convictions of truth, who walked this tightrope well. Most of us fall victim to one or both of two common temptations; judging others, or enabling others.
The Apostle Paul is a biblical example of a man who walks the tension between peace and truth-telling in integrity. At Mars Hill, in Acts 17, he brings truth (the whole truth) to the Athenians in a peaceable way. Paul imitated Christ in several ways. First of all, he went to them. He initiated. He pursued. Second, Paul actually cared about them. He liked their culture to some degree (he knew their poetry and customs). The fact that he took time to share the gospel with them indicates that he cared about their spirituality. Third, he didn’t base his approach on pragmatism (what works), but rather on truth. He is not obnoxious about it, but he certainly does not limit what he says about Christ. He says Christ is the only way. Paul does not end up merely judging the Athenians. Nor does he enable them to continue in their pluralistic theology. He walks the tightrope of being a peace-maker and truth-teller. 
Audio Version Link:

Lord, help us to be messengers of Your peace, proclaiming the Prince of Peace. Amen.
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