Today: [Acts 17:] Determining Truth and Declaring the Unknown God: In Acts 16 Paul and Silas travel from Thessalonica to Berea and on to Athens. In each city, they take specific strategies to reach to the population for Christ. Each time they impacted not just a few people but the entire city. In the different communities they were met with those ready to believe and those bent on their destruction. Coming to Athens Paul delivers a timeless message to the Athenians that we may emulate in proclaiming Christ to modern-day hearers even today.
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[Act 17:1-14 KJV] 1 Now when they had passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica, where was a synagogue of the Jews: 2 And Paul, as his manner was, went in unto them, and three sabbath days reasoned with them out of the scriptures, 3 Opening and alleging, that Christ must needs have suffered, and risen again from the dead; and that this Jesus, whom I preach unto you, is Christ. 4 And some of them believed, and consorted with Paul and Silas; and of the devout Greeks a great multitude, and of the chief women not a few. 5 But the Jews which believed not, moved with envy, took unto them certain lewd fellows of the baser sort, and gathered a company, and set all the city on an uproar, and assaulted the house of Jason, and sought to bring them out to the people. 6 And when they found them not, they drew Jason and certain brethren unto the rulers of the city, crying, These that have turned the world upside down are come hither also; 7 Whom Jason hath received: and these all do contrary to the decrees of Caesar, saying that there is another king, [one] Jesus. 8 And they troubled the people and the rulers of the city, when they heard these things. 9 And when they had taken security of Jason, and of the other, they let them go. 10 And the brethren immediately sent away Paul and Silas by night unto Berea: who coming [thither] went into the synagogue of the Jews. 11 These were more noble than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness of mind, and searched the scriptures daily, whether those things were so. 12 Therefore many of them believed; also of honourable women which were Greeks, and of men, not a few. 13 But when the Jews of Thessalonica had knowledge that the word of God was preached of Paul at Berea, they came thither also, and stirred up the people. 14 And then immediately the brethren sent away Paul to go as it were to the sea: but Silas and Timotheus abode there still.
After release from prison in Philippi Paul, Timothy and Silas traveled to Thessalonica and preached for three weeks in the synagogue there presenting Jesus as the Messiah. There was some success and certain of the Jews believed the things that Paul taught as well as many Greeks and notable women in the city. Here again, we wonder why if Paul turns from the Jews in Acts 13 he divides so much time between them and the Gentiles. There is great success among the Gentile population, but unfortunately, the unbelievers in the synagogue at Thessalonica stir up the rulers of the city and bring Paul’s host Jason before the magistrates with a great mob. The accusation is that Paul is preaching insurrection against Rome which was a very grave accusation. As a result, the rulers of the city take security (some form of bail money) from Jason and send him away.
Immediately the newly converted group of people in the city sent Paul and Silas away, and they travel to Berea.
At Berea Paul and Silas preach again in the synagogue and are received by a very thoughtful and studious people. When presented with the gospel these Jews set themselves apart to search out the scriptures themselves to see if they could independently confirm the things that Paul and Silas taught. This is a very rare group of people that would be unique even in Christian culture today. In this city many people believed not just because Paul preached to them but because they came convinced in their minds of the truth of the claims of Christ.
In my journey of faith I grew up in the church and as a pastor’s son heard the gospel preached on an ongoing basis. Many times as a child we went through seasons where for months we were in church every single night hearing the word taught by my father and different ministers as well. When older, I began to search out the scriptures to decide for myself things I was assured of by my teachers. I didn’t want to believe something just because my father proclaimed it or the organization I grew up in held to be true. I took the 16 tenets of faith of my denomination and set them aside, asking God to teach me not because someone said so, but because I saw it in the word. My father had done this as a young man, and his testimony was over time that each of these cardinal doctrines became confirmed in his heart through his own independent study. I had a different experience.
I felt in studying the word if I could not see myself laying down my life for one particular doctrine or another then my belief was not authentic. I asked myself would I under duress lay down my life for the doctrine of the Trinity? No, I would not. I could not see myself doing this. What about the doctrine of the rapture? No, this was not something I was willing to die for. This went on for over a year until one day as a young pastor I complained to God that I had to preach four times a week and I was running out of material. I told the Lord “all I have left after all these doctrines – is YOU!” Immediately I saw what God was doing. I understood that doctrine could be TRUE but Jesus in His person as He declared in John 14:6 was the WAY, TRUTH, and LIFE. From that day on I have held everything loosely and found myself to be more comfortable with my questions than I was with everyone else’s answers. I will more readily stand at the throne of God and answer for myself with my list of questions than to pull out of my jacket pocket a list of doctrines that my organization at the time impressed upon me were those things most commonly believed among us. In doing this, I made myself very teachable. If your truth is a person, then you can hold everything loosely and let God teach you. If on the other hand if you believe that you are saved because you believe a particular doctrine then challenging that doctrine can be a harrowing experience. I remember asking my father if I didn’t believe in the rapture would I go to hell? It was an honest question. Does that mean I don’t believe in the rapture? No, I have continued to believe within the confines of orthodoxy, but my posture toward truth is to set it in a secondary place to the security of the person of Christ living on the inside of me by faith.
[Acts 17:15-34 KJV]
15 And they that conducted Paul brought him unto Athens: and receiving a commandment unto Silas and Timotheus for to come to him with all speed, they departed. 16 Now while Paul waited for them at Athens, his spirit was stirred in him, when he saw the city wholly given to idolatry. 17 Therefore disputed he in the synagogue with the Jews, and with the devout persons, and in the market daily with them that met with him. 18 Then certain philosophers of the Epicureans, and of the Stoicks, encountered him. And some said, What will this babbler say? other some, He seemeth to be a setter forth of strange gods: because he preached unto them Jesus, and the resurrection. 19 And they took him, and brought him unto Areopagus, saying, May we know what this new doctrine, whereof thou speakest, [is]? 20 For thou bringest certain strange things to our ears: we would know therefore what these things mean. 21 (For all the Athenians and strangers which were there spent their time in nothing else, but either to tell, or to hear some new thing.) 22 Then Paul stood in the midst of Mars’ hill, and said, [Ye] men of Athens, I perceive that in all things ye are too superstitious. 23 For as I passed by, and beheld your devotions, I found an altar with this inscription, TO THE UNKNOWN GOD. Whom therefore ye ignorantly worship, him declare I unto you. 24 God that made the world and all things therein, seeing that he is Lord of heaven and earth, dwelleth not in temples made with hands; 25 Neither is worshipped with men’s hands, as though he needed any thing, seeing he giveth to all life, and breath, and all things; 26 And hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth, and hath determined the times before appointed, and the bounds of their habitation; 27 That they should seek the Lord, if haply they might feel after him, and find him, though he be not far from every one of us: 28 For in him we live, and move, and have our being; as certain also of your own poets have said, For we are also his offspring. 29 Forasmuch then as we are the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the Godhead is like unto gold, or silver, or stone, graven by art and man’s device. 30 And the times of this ignorance God winked at; but now commandeth all men every where to repent: 31 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. 32 And when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked: and others said, We will hear thee again of this [matter]. 33 So Paul departed from among them. 34 Howbeit certain men clave unto him, and believed: among the which [was] Dionysius the Areopagite, and a woman named Damaris, and others with them.
The unbelieving Jews from Thessolinica we find are now traveling behind Paul to raise up trouble for him in Berea and each of the cities that Paul and Silas go to. They are anti-apostles. These types of rabble-rousers are still in our midst today. Graham Cooke tells the story of three malcontents who followed his ministry for years, registering for each of his conferences, sitting on the front row to catch him in his words, standing outside his meetings with placards and passing out flyers calling him a false prophet. In our ministry we have had enemies who stood outside our meetings and in the parking lot handing out flyers, accusing and insulting us. What was Paul and Silas’ response? They didn’t answer their critics. They just moved on, in this case to Athens.
In Athens, Paul finds the city wholly given over to idolatry. On Mars hill, there are dozens upon dozens of pagan altars, each with a priest appointed to them and the people drifting from temple to temple to commiserate in the midst of a vertiable bazar of pagan worship. In the middle of this scene, Paul identifies even an altar to an UNKNOWN GOD. This Paul seized upon and declares to the city and all who will listen that he will now declare to them the unknown god. This altar to the unknown god is not absent from extra-biblical history. In the archaeology of the city, there was found in past years a record of the taxes raised to maintain this altar to the unknown god and to stipend the priests appointed to serve there. There is also a record of how the unknown god worship came to be.
In ancient Athens, before Paul’s time, a plague was devastating the city, and no matter what the rules of the city did they could not stem the tide of death. In desperation they begin to make a special effort to appease every pagan altar in the city, thinking they had offended Jupiter, Apollos, Minerva, Pan, or any one of dozens upon dozens of false gods. Nothing made any difference and people continued to die. Finally, the city leaders send for a poet from Crete by the name of Epimenides who upon studying the problem determines that they have offended an unknown god. The city promptly erects an altar to the “unknown god” and make a sacrifice to it. The plague miraculously stopped. Who was the unknown god? This the Apostle Paul now comes to declare to the Athenians.
In preaching to these people notice what Paul says to these pagan unbelievers in v. 27-28. “he (the unknown god) is not far from every one of us: for in him we live and move and have our being, for we are all his offspring…” Did you see what Paul is saying here? Evangelical teaching is that unbelievers are children of the devil, but Paul is saying that even though they don’t know who Jesus is they are still offspring of God, albeit misled and deceived by pagan beliefs. Paul is finding common ground with his hearers and identifying in their false belief systems the threads of truth that he can take and point them to Christ. In Paul then the discipline of missiology is now born. For centuries this tactic has been in use to bring whole nations to Christ. When you are witnessing and sharing Jesus, this is a pattern you can follow. The altar to the unknown god constituted a question that this entire city had been asking for centuries. You never answer a question that hasn’t been asked. Find the common thread. Ask God to show you how to declare Christ as the object of inquiry and desire that lost people in their ignorance are trying to fulfilled and satisfy. In so doing you will be a very compelling witness.
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