It was a Riot, I tell ya! (Acts 19:21-41)

Today’s passage talks about a riot that occurs in Ephesus, which is located today in the country of Turkey. I was in the center of a riot in Turkey one time in my life … really … it’s true! And I narrowly avoided being swept up in another. And I was a part of a secret underground meeting with church leaders from the region where the ruins of Ephesus are today. This may take some explaining.

All three of these events happened in the late 90s when I was on a missions research trip with a group of EFCA pastors and our international missions leader.

The near riot – Our group stumbled upon and was suddenly caught up in a traffic jam in the capital city of Ankara. We found out that we drove up upon an event of tens of thousands of people marching through the streets chanting, “Turkey will not become Iran.”  A prominent national news media figure (with a moderate political perspective) had been murdered by extremists, and this was his funeral procession.

The underground meeting – We were invited to come to a gathering of about 20 Christian leaders in Istanbul, which was a secret meeting in the basement of a business. We were to arrive at a certain time, not coming in any group larger than two people, so as to not draw attention. The topic of the meeting was how the church (local congregations) should respond to the increased hostility of local police groups. That previous Sunday the local authorities in the area of Izmir (near where the ancient city of Ephesus was located) had come into the church meeting to question what was happening, doing so with guns drawn. It was deemed best that we not actually go to the Ephesus ruins at this time and connect with the Christians there.

The riot – In Ankara, our local missionary there from that region was showing us around some historic sites. Nearby was an Islamic holy place – a shrine to a particular man who was venerated for his committed, holy life and many trips to Mecca. People could buy candles or other sorts of trinkets from local vendors, pray at the site (which was like a cave) and leave their objects with hopes of the prayer being honored. One could also buy cloths and trinkets that were said to have been somehow blessed by being in the cave for a time, supposedly thereby transferring blessings to the purchaser (and profits to the salesman). As this was being explained to us by our host, several local men were listening. One of them offered some additional comments, holding up a bandaged arm that he said was being healed because of his prayers. Another local man heard this and disagreed vehemently with certain points of the first fellow. Before long, others joined the increasingly heated discussion. As we slithered away through the rapidly going crowd, people were running into the center of the fray, yelling and fighting. The police were descending upon the scene as we escaped the crowded plaza. The whole episode was not unlike our passage today where a riot ensued, with the additional comment that most folks did not even know what the riot was about!

Acts 19:21 – After all this had happened, Paul decided to go to Jerusalem, passing through Macedonia and Achaia. “After I have been there,” he said, “I must visit Rome also.” 22 He sent two of his helpers, Timothy and Erastus, to Macedonia, while he stayed in the province of Asia a little longer.

23 About that time there arose a great disturbance about the Way. 24 A silversmith named Demetrius, who made silver shrines of Artemis, brought in a lot of business for the craftsmen there. 25 He called them together, along with the workers in related trades, and said: “You know, my friends, that we receive a good income from this business. 26 And you see and hear how this fellow Paul has convinced and led astray large numbers of people here in Ephesus and in practically the whole province of Asia. He says that gods made by human hands are no gods at all. 27 There is danger not only that our trade will lose its good name, but also that the temple of the great goddess Artemis will be discredited; and the goddess herself, who is worshiped throughout the province of Asia and the world, will be robbed of her divine majesty.”

28 When they heard this, they were furious and began shouting: “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!” 29 Soon the whole city was in an uproar. The people seized Gaius and Aristarchus, Paul’s traveling companions from Macedonia, and all of them rushed into the theater together. 30 Paul wanted to appear before the crowd, but the disciples would not let him. 31 Even some of the officials of the province, friends of Paul, sent him a message begging him not to venture into the theater.

32 The assembly was in confusion: Some were shouting one thing, some another. Most of the people did not even know why they were there. 33 The Jews in the crowd pushed Alexander to the front, and they shouted instructions to him. He motioned for silence in order to make a defense before the people. 34 But when they realized he was a Jew, they all shouted in unison for about two hours: “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!”

35 The city clerk quieted the crowd and said: “Fellow Ephesians, doesn’t all the world know that the city of Ephesus is the guardian of the temple of the great Artemis and of her image, which fell from heaven? 36 Therefore, since these facts are undeniable, you ought to calm down and not do anything rash. 37 You have brought these men here, though they have neither robbed temples nor blasphemed our goddess. 38 If, then, Demetrius and his fellow craftsmen have a grievance against anybody, the courts are open and there are proconsuls. They can press charges. 39 If there is anything further you want to bring up, it must be settled in a legal assembly. 40 As it is, we are in danger of being charged with rioting because of what happened today. In that case we would not be able to account for this commotion, since there is no reason for it.” 41 After he had said this, he dismissed the assembly.

What is it about the gospel message that creates such a stir, then or now? It is radical truth that changes everything. The gospel is an offence that upsets the natural ebb and flow of life in the natural world. It takes the emphasis away from material things and calls upon the natural self-centeredness of man to willingly yield to the true authority of God and live in the power of the Holy Spirit. And far from creating a new sort of bondage, this frees people to live truly independent lives of worldly systems by being dependent rather upon the truth of Scripture and a right relationship with God. Those who most benefit from the control systems of the natural order will be those most vehement in rejecting this message.

An interesting development from all of this is that the attention drawn to the gospel by loud opposition sheds a light upon God’s people. As Christians respond well to this with clarity about the gospel message, demonstrating and bearing witness to the truth through committed, godly lives, it is attractive to many who observe. Thus the church may at some times and in some places be purified and ultimately grow through the opposition that seems to merely be negative oppression.

How many of us may in our lives and in our country face such events is a question I often ponder, especially when looking at the news and observing the evolution of culture over decades now of life. May it be that we are willing in such an hour to not be ashamed of the gospel and to live openly for Christ.

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Messy Christians (Summary of 1 Corinthians)

Hopefully one of the outcomes of this devotional series for the consistent reader is to be renewed in understanding as to when Paul wrote his various letters to churches and individuals as it fits within the context of his overall ministry and travels. Today we look at the first letter of Paul to the Corinthians.

In the same way we in America often look at Vegas as “sin city,” Corinth had something of a similar reputation in the ancient world. In Plato’s classic work “Republic,” when making reference to a prostitute he used the expression “Corinthian girl.”  Indeed, much of the wealth and depravity in the city was due to the thousand temple prostitutes at the temple of Aphrodite.

Located on the sliver of land from the mainland that connected the large peninsula of Greece (known as Achaia), it was a crossroads of both land and sea commerce.

Likewise, the church of Corinth is well-known by even lesser-informed Christians today as the community of believers in the New Testament that was the most immature. Many factors worked together to make it a challenging environment for holy and sanctified living. Churches are essentially spiritual hospitals, and the church of Corinth was therefore the ultimate Mayo Clinic!

Here are some of the messy issues afflicting the Corinthians … issues that can repeat themselves even in modern era churches that give into human desires over obedience to divine revelation.

  1. Divisions, squabbling, fighting among themselves …

Paul had received reports about how they had divided into camps around their favorite teachers …

1 Corinthians 1:10-11 – I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought. My brothers and sisters, some from Chloe’s household have informed me that there are quarrels among you.

This behavior demonstrated their immaturity …

1 Corinthians 3:1-4 – Brothers and sisters, I could not address you as people who live by the Spirit but as people who are still worldly—mere infants in Christ. 2 I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it. Indeed, you are still not ready. 3 You are still worldly. For since there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not worldly? Are you not acting like mere humans? 4 For when one says, “I follow Paul,” and another, “I follow Apollos,” are you not mere human beings?

  1. Failure to live holy lives and deal with sin …

1 Corinthians 5:1 – It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that even pagans do not tolerate: A man is sleeping with his father’s wife.

1 Corinthians 6:18-20 – Flee from sexual immorality. All other sins a person commits are outside the body, but whoever sins sexually, sins against their own body. 19 Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; 20 you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies.

The practices of the surrounding world were simply a part of the church community and not confronted toward living a different life. This therefore led also to Paul needing to answer a variety of issues surrounding marriage in chapter 7.

  1. They were insensitive in regard to Christian liberties …

1 Corinthians 8:9-11 – Be careful, however, that the exercise of your rights does not become a stumbling block to the weak. 10 For if someone with a weak conscience sees you, with all your knowledge, eating in an idol’s temple, won’t that person be emboldened to eat what is sacrificed to idols? 11 So this weak brother or sister, for whom Christ died, is destroyed by your knowledge.

  1. Their focus on spiritual gifts was wrong, reveling in grandiose personal expressions, rather than seeing the gifts as given to serve others …

1 Corinthians 12:24-27 – But God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, 25 so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. 26 If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it. 27 Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.

  1. Some denied, while many others undervalued the central teaching of the resurrection …

1 Corinthians 15:3-4 – For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures…

We might tend to look back at these Corinthians and wonder how these folks could be so clueless and entirely messed up. But remember, this is still very early in the church era. They didn’t even yet have the gospels to reference, along with the writings of Paul, etc.  We’ve already referenced their geographical and cultural setting. They had been Christians for only a very short time and had no models around them of people who had walked with Christ for decades. This is not making excuses, as Paul himself said they should have been more mature in faith; but these factors do help to give some explanation for the complications unique to this church.

But, having said that, how unique are they … really?  We too live in a crossroads community with many worldly problems. Issues of morality, sensuality, addictions, and generational dysfunction are all a part of our community as well (and to a large extent in most communities). If in our church community we ever allow division to rule the day, sin and licentious living to be unaddressed, and a focus upon wrong priorities to govern our values and energies, we have far fewer excuses or explanations. We live with the completed word of God. We have the resource of the cumulative writings of two millennia of Christian leaders and scholars. We have everything we need to run the Life Race well.

Power Encounters (Acts 19:8-20)

Ephesus was a major seaport city in Asia on the western coast of what today is Turkey. It no longer exists as a major metropolis in the fashion of the past as the harbor is totally gone, but the city was in its prime at the time of Paul as the 3rd largest city of the Roman Empire – populated by over 300,000 people. Here too was the magnificent Temple of Artemis, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, being four times larger than the Parthenon in Athens.

It was in Ephesus that the power of God in the expansion of the church and gospel message was particularly evidenced. Here, the Word of God was powerfully preached and honored.

In reading through this passage, one is struck with the way that God simply took charge by displays of his power and authority. Clearly it was God’s plan to bless and expand this church community toward the growth of the church in this entire city and region.

Acts 19:8 – Paul entered the synagogue and spoke boldly there for three months, arguing persuasively about the kingdom of God. 9 But some of them became obstinate; they refused to believe and publicly maligned the Way. So Paul left them. He took the disciples with him and had discussions daily in the lecture hall of Tyrannus. 10 This went on for two years, so that all the Jews and Greeks who lived in the province of Asia heard the word of the Lord.

The powerful teaching ministry that ensues is in a place called the lecture hall of Tyrannus. This was likely a building of some substantial size, as the word for a “lecture hall” denotes a place of leisure – but for the culture of the day, a great lecture was great leisure and fun. (I like these folks and that makes sense to me!) Of course, all of this occurred following the typical scenario of getting tossed out of the synagogue.

Acts 19:11 – God did extraordinary miracles through Paul, 12 so that even handkerchiefs and aprons that had touched him were taken to the sick, and their illnesses were cured and the evil spirits left them.

Of all the Graeco-Roman cities visited by Paul, Ephesus was the most inhabited by magicians, sorcerers, and charlatans of all types. This therefore explains the miraculous work of God through Paul in particular, as displays of greater power than that associated with the occult powers that did exist from demonic elements of the kingdom of darkness.

You’ve gotta love this passage in verses 13-16. Someday, if I live long enough, I’m going to write a book called “The Top 100 Most Humorous Passages in the Bible.”  This paragraph is going to be a part of it!

Acts 19:13 – Some Jews who went around driving out evil spirits tried to invoke the name of the Lord Jesus over those who were demon-possessed. They would say, “In the name of the Jesus whom Paul preaches, I command you to come out.” 14 Seven sons of Sceva, a Jewish chief priest, were doing this. 15 One day the evil spirit answered them, “Jesus I know, and Paul I know about, but who are you?” 16 Then the man who had the evil spirit jumped on them and overpowered them all. He gave them such a beating that they ran out of the house naked and bleeding.

Having heard Paul’s power displayed by casting out inferior demonic powers “in the name of Jesus,” some Jews went about doing the same thing with the same formula. But on one occasion, they ran into a nastier evil spirit than most. This demon answered the command by saying, “Jesus I know, and Paul I know about, but who are you?”  That is hilarious! And then the guy that the spirit inhabited went berserk and beat the tar out of them!

Acts 19:17 – When this became known to the Jews and Greeks living in Ephesus, they were all seized with fear, and the name of the Lord Jesus was held in high honor. 18 Many of those who believed now came and openly confessed what they had done. 19 A number who had practiced sorcery brought their scrolls together and burned them publicly. When they calculated the value of the scrolls, the total came to fifty thousand drachmas. 20 In this way the word of the Lord spread widely and grew in power.

But all of these events were orchestrated by God to expand the church. Through this, everyone in the city and region heard the gospel – likely gaining fame and notice through these powerful displays. One in particular is that of the burning of certain magic lore books and scrolls, the value of which was 50,000 pieces of silver. If the coin being mentioned was that representing a day’s wage, the comparative value for today would be about seven million dollars!

Though we possess in our day the completed Word of God, and displays of power such as are seen in Ephesus are not the normative way God works in our world, it is appropriate to remember that this power does still lay at the root of our faith and the truth it represents. That bolsters our confidence as we run our life race in a world that is hostile to God and to truth.

Validation (Acts 19:1-7)

Before we accept any large changes in our lives, we want to have an assurance that what we are committing to is true and that those presenting the information to us have the credentials to support their assertions. Before I recently allowed that doctor in Baltimore to chop out a hunk of bone in my knee and replace it with metal parts, I researched his credentials and the new robotic technological process he was promoting. When any of us have hundreds of thousands of dollars to invest for retirement, we only go to and receive investment counsel from someone who is accredited and reputable toward knowing how to advise us well.

This process of vetting someone or something involves us seeking validation for our hopes and faith. And likewise, people who were familiar with a part of God’s grand story, though lacking knowledge of God’s magnificent work of grace in the person of Christ, would want to have assurances that the emissary and preacher of this was a valid representative of God. And they would want to have confidence that the message was truth.

As at the end of the previous chapter in the account of Apollos, we see again today some believers who were familiar with God’s truth to the extent of the teaching of John the Baptist. They gladly receive Paul’s additional instruction, are baptized, and the Holy Spirit comes in the same fashion as in previous examples of a new work of grace.

Acts 19:1 – While Apollos was at Corinth, Paul took the road through the interior and arrived at Ephesus. There he found some disciples 2 and asked them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?”

They answered, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.”

3 So Paul asked, “Then what baptism did you receive?”  “John’s baptism,” they replied.

4 Paul said, “John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance. He told the people to believe in the one coming after him, that is, in Jesus.” 5 On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. 6 When Paul placed his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied. 7 There were about twelve men in all.

This is the third occasion in the book of Acts of the occurrence of speaking in tongues. Each occasion is for the purpose of validation – here validating Paul’s message. The first was in Acts 2:1-4 where tongues validated the fulfillment of the passage quoted from Joel 2 about a new work of God. And in Acts 10:44-47 on the occasion of the conversion of Cornelius and his household, the validation was to demonstrate God’s acceptance of Gentiles.

Validating our message today is primarily the completed Word of God. Therein is the power and authority, as the Spirit of God uses His Word to convict and instruct those who hear. God may use extraordinary circumstances and events in such a way that are even miraculous (such as the way these people in the passage come into contact with Paul), but our primary source of truth and authority is the Scripture. We keep coming back to that, don’t we? There is no substitute for the hard but beneficial work of knowing and growing in God’s written truth.

Formal and Informal Biblical Education (Acts 18:24-28)

I burned up a lot of years of my life in just going to school, more and more – until there weren’t any more degrees to get. Looking back now much later, I’m surprised I did that, because I honestly didn’t especially like the rigors and pressures of academia.

And I sometimes wonder about the value of it all. I don’t regret it, and indeed the academic skills learned at Dallas Theological Seminary are a part of just about every day of my life. Even so, the experience gained in the large church in Dallas where I was privileged to serve on the eight-pastor staff as minister of music was even more influential and enriching.

Just this past weekend I made a biblical Greek reference in a local pastors’ forum – a remark that I thought was rather basic for clergy with a biblical education. But it apparently blew over everyone’s head except for one guy who caught the humor in it. I could tell that others thought it was just strange, at best. Oh well.

Sometimes people seem a bit in awe of formal theological education, as if I had spent years at the very feet of Jesus and gained a level of insight they could never attain. Other times I have encountered people who make off-the-wall theological assertions fully in error, and when I politely attempt to bring a biblical precision to the issue, they blow it off as the foolishness of a know-it-all who wasted his life in a classroom.

The enrichment that can come from a formal program of biblical and theological education can be a wonderful tool in life. Yet such is not a necessity for a person to have a very high-level, working knowledge of the Scriptures – that informs one’s own life and positions a person to instruct and disciple others.

We will see in today’s passage both types of people in Apollos and in the couple Priscilla and Aquila. All of them were a part of Paul’s close acquaintances and co-workers in ministry for the establishment of the local church throughout the Roman world. Recall from our earlier discussion that Aquila and Priscilla were Jews who shared the same occupational skill as Paul: tent making. They had interpersonal skills and leadership abilities, surely having been discipled by Paul while they stitched leather together. And this couple meets a true academic in a fellow name Apollos, a highly-educated university fellow.

Apollos was from Alexandria in Egypt, which was a significant center of education. As a man who would stand and teach in the synagogue, his messages were true to the Old Testament Scripture; and he was accurate about the Messiah in the same vein of teaching as was heralded by John the Baptist. However, he was unfamiliar with the rest of the story and its fulfillment in Jesus. Priscilla and Aquila take him aside and explain all of this to him. Get the picture here? Tentmakers are teaching the slick university dude! And it works. Apollos becomes a great early spokesman for the cause of the Gospel and heads out on his own tour of proclamation, crossing the Aegean and going presumably to Corinth.

Here is the passage …

Acts 18:24 – Meanwhile a Jew named Apollos, a native of Alexandria, came to Ephesus. He was a learned man, with a thorough knowledge of the Scriptures. 25 He had been instructed in the way of the Lord, and he spoke with great fervor[a] and taught about Jesus accurately, though he knew only the baptism of John. 26 He began to speak boldly in the synagogue. When Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they invited him to their home and explained to him the way of God more adequately.

27 When Apollos wanted to go to Achaia, the brothers and sisters encouraged him and wrote to the disciples there to welcome him. When he arrived, he was a great help to those who by grace had believed. 28 For he vigorously refuted his Jewish opponents in public debate, proving from the Scriptures that Jesus was the Messiah.

Formal education is a grand thing when it is available. But that is not the only way to be biblically literate at a high level. This is especially true in our modern era where advanced learning is only a few clicks away. If you’ve been in my office you know that I have thousands of books, many of them of the reference sort. They were expensive when purchased during my seminary years, as we were encouraged to build our own personal libraries. Now, most of those resources are available online for a fraction of the cost.

We live in a time with a wealth of information available to us. If there was ever a time when there was little excuse for not knowing the Scriptures, it is now. Paul encouraged Timothy with this timeless truth: Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth.

Frequent Flyer Miles (Acts 18:18-23)

As a guy who can go months and months at a time and never travel outside the Tri-State area, I’m the last person to gain frequent flyer miles or bonus travel points. It is too bad for the Apostle Paul that such deals did not exist in his day. I cannot imagine that there were many people in the ancient world who ever logged the total number of miles that Paul did on his various journeys.

Those who study and write about the New Testament era often include this following passage from Galatians 4:4-5 as a part of the background for understanding this unique era …

But when the set time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law, that we might receive adoption to sonship.

The King James Version began verse 4 with the famous phrase, “In the fullness of time …”  So what does this mean? Several items are encompassed to explain this, including the fervent Jewish expectation of a Messiah, a common trade language throughout the world (Greek), the “Pax Romana” (Roman peace and ruling authority) that lessened major conflicts, and finally the Roman system of roads. All of these contributed to the spread of the gospel. And of that final item, never before were people able to travel great distances from city to city with such relative ease.

However, by our standards, it was still quite an ordeal for someone like Paul to undertake his varied journeys. The distances are really substantial – then and now. Perhaps the point could be illustrated best by taking a look at a map of Paul’s three missionary journeys and his ultimate trip to Rome. You can click HERE to see one and to note the incredible distances.

Our passage today details events as Paul’s second journey ends, followed by what appeared to be a rather brief time in Jerusalem and the sending church of Antioch of Syria, before our writer Luke has Paul on the road again for the third journey.

Acts 18:18 – Paul stayed on in Corinth for some time. Then he left the brothers and sisters and sailed for Syria, accompanied by Priscilla and Aquila. Before he sailed, he had his hair cut off at Cenchreae because of a vow he had taken. 19 They arrived at Ephesus, where Paul left Priscilla and Aquila. He himself went into the synagogue and reasoned with the Jews. 20 When they asked him to spend more time with them, he declined. 21 But as he left, he promised, “I will come back if it is God’s will.” Then he set sail from Ephesus. 22 When he landed at Caesarea, he went up to Jerusalem and greeted the church and then went down to Antioch.

The third journey begins

Acts 18:23 – After spending some time in Antioch, Paul set out from there and traveled from place to place throughout the region of Galatia and Phrygia, strengthening all the disciples.

Just these few verses involve hundreds and hundreds of miles of travel by both land and sea. And the accommodations must have surely been oft difficult, especially on ships sailing the Mediterranean (as we’ll see graphically written about later in our studies).

We see our missionaries today when they report to us of their travels and foreign service, and we may at times see it all as an exotic adventure. Indeed they do get to see many things that most of us are not privileged to see in our lifetimes, but the personal cost of it all is very taxing physically and emotionally.

Missionary work is hard – then and now. It involves great effort to cover great distances, enduring all of the inconveniences of living in a foreign culture. But to be involved in it on either the going or sending end is our calling as God’s people. It is complicated; it is expensive; and it can be sometimes rather dangerous. But it is worth it to take the gospel to the ends of the earth. But best of all are Christ’s words in the great commission that he will be with us to the very end of time.

Time Together is Short (Thessalonian Letters)

Many years ago as a younger man I was leading a teen missions trip to Scotland, doing VBS ministry on the English Channel beach in Scarborough by day, while doing concerts at night with the musical group of high school kids we took over there. Some of the local Scottish young men we served with were intent upon learning American football, so I spent an hour or so each morning on the beach with them by dividing into teams and going over the basics (which aren’t very basic or obvious in another culture!).  I played quarterback for both teams since none of them could throw a spiral pass.

They did get better every day and remembered more and more of the many rules. But every so often, even toward the end of my time with them, they would simply forget what was taught or a unique game situation would rise that I had not yet covered. The competition at that point would immediately fall apart and essentially devolve into a rugby contest. Bedlam!

I just didn’t have enough time with them to really get them grounded in how to play the game so that they could do it on their own. We had to move on, but I gave the football to them in hopes they would keep playing and learning.

That is a “wee illustration me lads” (to speak Scottish with you) of how Paul felt about the Thessalonians. His stay with them was very brief before controversy arose and he had to leave town. There were some wonderful folks who had come to faith and who could be strong leaders in a church, if only someone had the time and access to disciple them. Paul was frustrated and sad that he could not personally see this happen, and he also had a great concern for them. So it was during his 18-month time in Corinth that most scholars believe he wrote twice to these new Christians.

So today we think about the second and third of Paul’s letters in the order that he composed them: 1st and 2nd Thessalonians. Previously we looked at his first letter: Galatians.

We immediately see Paul’s affection for them and his thanks for their faith and their endurance even in the midst of suffering …

1 Thess. 1:2 – We always thank God for all of you and continually mention you in our prayers. 3 We remember before our God and Father your work produced by faith, your labor prompted by love, and your endurance inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.

4 For we know, brothers and sisters loved by God, that he has chosen you, 5 because our gospel came to you not simply with words but also with power, with the Holy Spirit and deep conviction. You know how we lived among you for your sake. 6 You became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you welcomed the message in the midst of severe suffering with the joy given by the Holy Spirit. 7 And so you became a model to all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia. 8 The Lord’s message rang out from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia—your faith in God has become known everywhere.

When Paul went from Berea to Athens, he sent Timothy back to Thessalonica, knowing he could not himself dare to go there. He knew they would face difficult times, and Paul’s heart for them is again evident …

1 Thess. 3:4 – In fact, when we were with you, we kept telling you that we would be persecuted. And it turned out that way, as you well know. 5 For this reason, when I could stand it no longer, I sent to find out about your faith. I was afraid that in some way the tempter had tempted you and that our labors might have been in vain. 6 But Timothy has just now come to us from you and has brought good news about your faith and love. He has told us that you always have pleasant memories of us and that you long to see us, just as we also long to see you.

Much of the rest of these two letters deal with what appears to be a series of questions about faith and doctrine that were likely passed on to Paul from Timothy’s visit with them. These involve matters of morality and godly living, an exhortation to not be lazy but rather to be industrious, and also some of the best instruction we have about the coming again of the Lord and of the final times. Paul summarizes some of these thoughts in the second letter …

2 Thess. 2:15 – So then, brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold fast to the teachings we passed on to you, whether by word of mouth or by letter. 16 May our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who loved us and by his grace gave us eternal encouragement and good hope, 17 encourage your hearts and strengthen you in every good deed and word.

A devotional thought that comes to me today is to remind ourselves that we only have a window of time – in our lives, and in our lives together – to learn, grow, and apply God’s Word in service with and to each other. This is a precious time, every bit of it. Let us make the most of that time, before it passes.

Just Keep On Talking (Acts 18:1-17)

It is difficult to endure and maintain doing anything when there are few visible results relative to the efforts applied, or worse yet when your activity seems personally disadvantageous. The response to Paul’s gospel preaching in Athens was rather minimal, and all of the controversies in Macedonia were not very far in the past.

Paul goes on to Corinth where we see that he meets and stays with a Jewish couple – Aquila and Priscilla.

Acts 18:1 – After this, Paul left Athens and went to Corinth. 2 There he met a Jew named Aquila, a native of Pontus, who had recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla, because Claudius had ordered all Jews to leave Rome. Paul went to see them, 3 and because he was a tentmaker as they were, he stayed and worked with them. 4 Every Sabbath he reasoned in the synagogue, trying to persuade Jews and Greeks.

We don’t know if they all knew each other previously, if this couple had become Christians in the past, or if their salvation was through this association with Paul. Perhaps they merely came into partnership because of the common trade of tent making (leather working). This likely also indicates that Paul needed to make some money for personal sustenance. But when Silas and Timothy arrive, they bring an offering that thereby set Paul free to concentrate on preaching.

Acts 18:5 – When Silas and Timothy came from Macedonia, Paul devoted himself exclusively to preaching, testifying to the Jews that Jesus was the Messiah. 6 But when they opposed Paul and became abusive, he shook out his clothes in protest and said to them, “Your blood be on your own heads! I am innocent of it. From now on I will go to the Gentiles.

Ugh! It happens again – Jewish opposition. You can’t blame Paul for being very disgusted and exclaiming how he would focus now on Gentile ministry.

Acts 18:7 – Then Paul left the synagogue and went next door to the house of Titius Justus, a worshiper of God. 8 Crispus, the synagogue leader, and his entire household believed in the Lord; and many of the Corinthians who heard Paul believed and were baptized.

There is a humorous component to this story, in that Paul ends up teaching immediately next door to the synagogue, along with Crispus (the former synagogue leader) coming to faith. Surely it was a daily irritation for the stubborn and intransigent Jews to see the life of the growing church immediately next door, including their former leader! And I could imagine how this difficulty would add to all of the other wearying elements in Paul’s life. And the Lord gives Paul a timely word of encouragement …

Acts 18:9 – One night the Lord spoke to Paul in a vision: “Do not be afraid; keep on speaking, do not be silent. 10 For I am with you, and no one is going to attack and harm you, because I have many people in this city.” 11 So Paul stayed in Corinth for a year and a half, teaching them the word of God.

I’ve never had a vision in the night, but I have had a couple of incidents in ministry where the weariness, discouragement and opposition brought me to a point of nearly quitting it all … and God intervened with a timely and unexpected encouragement from some person or circumstance to keep me going.

Also on this occasion, Paul gets the encouragement of a positive outcome in court, seeing his opponents disgraced and driven away…

Acts 17:12 – While Gallio was proconsul of Achaia, the Jews of Corinth made a united attack on Paul and brought him to the place of judgment. 13 “This man,” they charged, “is persuading the people to worship God in ways contrary to the law.” 14 Just as Paul was about to speak, Gallio said to them, “If you Jews were making a complaint about some misdemeanor or serious crime, it would be reasonable for me to listen to you. 15 But since it involves questions about words and names and your own law—settle the matter yourselves. I will not be a judge of such things.” 16 So he drove them off. 17 Then the crowd there turned on Sosthenes the synagogue leader and beat him in front of the proconsul; and Gallio showed no concern whatever.

So the new synagogue leader takes a beating, this event probably also revealing some anti-Semitic sentiment in this secular city. It also set a legal precedent that this Jesus teaching was (in Roman eyes) just a dispute within Judaism rather than an illegal new religion.

Just keep on talking – that was the encouragement from the Lord to Paul. Out of Paul’s talking in these 18 months in Corinth would come the effective discipling of Aquila and Priscilla. As well, many in the church at Corinth would be discipled toward the growth of a substantial body of believers.

Likewise for us, we should not be discouraged but continue to keep on speaking truth. Someone said in the Scriptures to “not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.”  Oh … wait … Paul said that!  (Galatians 6:9)

Results are Overrated (Acts 17:16-34)

Let us imagine what living arrangements will be like in the Celestial City.

There will be an elite section of town with all of the biggest mansions on Goldstone Street. These residences will be the eternal abode of the most famous preachers in the history of the church. Spurgeon will be living next to D.L. Moody, with Martin Luther just across the road. The largest mansions will house American mega-church pastors of 15,000+ congregations. Smoke machines on the front porch will run 24/7 so as to capture the glow of the varied-colored spotlights shining upon the home from the front yard. To enter the mansion, a man needs to wear a three-piece suit and sport a continuous grin, even when talking… although, for those who came to inherit these homes after 2012 in earth years, one may enter with blue jeans over European-styled, shiny, pointed shoes, along with a plaid shirt purchased from Untuckit.com.

There will also be a poor part of the city, on the other side of the river and near the edge of town. Though still nicer than earthly homes (this is heaven, after all), these basically functional structures will serve as the eternal abode of those who just didn’t pull in the results (numbers) during their earthly ministries. The worst of these comparative cottages will house those missionaries who spent a lifetime in a remote, third-world country that was hostile to the gospel. It is only logical that a mere 15 converts to Christ over 40 years of preaching simply cannot buy you much of an eternal crib. In homes only slightly more upscale are those pastors who labored in rural America and never once grew a church to a point of needing a building campaign.

Really? Is that how God operates? It’s all about results, right?  Is that not what we are led to believe? And Paul always had huge results with his preaching, right?

Today’s passage about Paul’s time in Athens is our text today from Acts 17, where it says …

Acts 17:16 – While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols. 17 So he reasoned in the synagogue with both Jews and God-fearing Greeks, as well as in the marketplace day by day with those who happened to be there. 18 A group of Epicurean and Stoic philosophers began to debate with him. Some of them asked, “What is this babbler trying to say?” Others remarked, “He seems to be advocating foreign gods.” They said this because Paul was preaching the good news about Jesus and the resurrection. 19 Then they took him and brought him to a meeting of the Areopagus, where they said to him, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? 20 You are bringing some strange ideas to our ears, and we would like to know what they mean.” 21 (All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas.)

22 Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: “People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. 23 For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: to an unknown god. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you.

24 “The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. 25 And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else. 26 From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. 27 God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. 28 ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ [From the Cretan philosopher Epimenides]  As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’ [From the Cilician Stoic philosopher Aratus]

29 “Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by human design and skill. 30 In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. 31 For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.”

32 When they heard about the resurrection of the dead, some of them sneered, but others said, “We want to hear you again on this subject.” 33 At that, Paul left the Council. 34 Some of the people became followers of Paul and believed. Among them was Dionysius, a member of the Areopagus, also a woman named Damaris, and a number of others.

This passage will be our focus for more detailed discussion this coming Sunday. But quickly here today – Here is Paul in Athens, having been recently tossed out of another city for preaching. He is waiting for Silas and Timothy to finish in Berea and catch up to him. You could not blame him for taking some time off and having a tourist-like good time in the ancient city of Athens.

But while walking around town, the sight of the city full of idols was just too much for him. And when it says “full of idols,” read that very literally. Someone wrote that it was easier to find an idol in Athens than to find a man. And Paul begins preaching and evangelizing in a place where folks spent all of their time (again, literal) listening to see if someone had any sort of new ideas to consider that had never been debated before. And Paul’s preaching about what sounds like a god named “resurrection” and a god named “je-sus” fit the bill… enough to humor them by bringing him before the official town council.

Paul begins with the familiar – their own admission that they did not know everything, evidenced by the fact of a god labelled as “unknown.”  Wanting to be thorough and to also not massively irritate some god they simply did not know about, there were statues to unknown gods so that they could be pacified.

Let’s hurry to the results: they were huge, right?  Not really. Most of them wrote off Paul completely. Some said they would listen again another time, and finally there were just a few who responded positively. Among them was Dionysius, a member of the Areopagus, also a woman named Damaris, and a number of others.

Paul really blew it, didn’t he?  Nope. I don’t think so. I think this is among his best sermons.

Here’s the point. Results aren’t our responsibility; they are the work of God, through the Word of God, by the power of the Spirit. Our responsibility is to be faithful and speak the truth. And when we do, we will get the same results as Paul: most will blow it off, some will be willing to listen again another time, and by God’s life-giving grace a few will respond in faith. We plant; we water; but God gives the increase – Paul said that too!

Yes, results are overrated, but faithfulness is not!

Winning the NOBLE Prize (Acts 17:10-15)

It is seen as a great honor to be a winner of the Nobel Prize, though some recent winners have tainted it in my view. However, I’ve got something better for you to gain: it is not the Nobel Prize, but rather the “noble prize.”

In any endeavor, true success comes when you get to the center of understanding how to do something the proper and best way. Do you desire to live life the right way? Then you need to gain a deep understanding of the manual about what life is all about – God’s Word. It contains all of the big ideas of what life is about – what makes it difficult, and how a relationship with God brings victory over that difficulty. Knowing the Bible is THE big difference-maker in life.

Paul and Silas had to escape from Thessalonica because of the uproar created by the hostile Jewish element in that town. They travel on through a couple of smaller towns before coming to the city of Berea, where again they commence ministry through the synagogue. And we read that there is a marked difference with this particular Jewish group as compared to others encountered in their missionary travels …

Acts 17:10 – As soon as it was night [in Thessalonica], the believers sent Paul and Silas away to Berea. On arriving there, they went to the Jewish synagogue. 11 Now the Berean Jews were of more noble character than those in Thessalonica, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true. 12 As a result, many of them believed, as did also a number of prominent Greek women and many Greek men.

13 But when the Jews in Thessalonica learned that Paul was preaching the word of God at Berea, some of them went there too, agitating the crowds and stirring them up. 14 The believers immediately sent Paul to the coast, but Silas and Timothy stayed at Berea. 15 Those who escorted Paul brought him to Athens and then left with instructions for Silas and Timothy to join him as soon as possible.

So these Jews were said to be more noble of character – the Greek word literally meaning that they were more noble-minded in a desire for deep understanding. As well, they had great eagerness – a word that speaks of energetic zeal and a quick readiness of mind. Man, you put all of that together in the direction of studying God’s Word, you’ve really got something – then or now.

Paul’s preaching would have involved what we know as the Old Testament. Surely he majored on the prophetic Scriptures that anticipated the Messiah, thereby proving that Jesus was the fulfillment of this expectation. Whereas the vast majority of Jews everywhere else were more interested in maintaining old traditions than discovering the fulfillment of truth, this group was committed to gaining truth from the objective source of all truth.

But the same pattern repeats as before. The militant faction from the previous town hears of the next place of missionary activity and follows Paul, Silas and company to that location. There again they agitate (a Greek word that means to move something from side to side) and stir up a crowd of opposition. The focus was particularly on Paul, so he is escorted by some of the faithful brothers to move on, ultimately to Athens as we will study tomorrow. Silas and Timothy are able to stay for a time and do some more work is setting up a church community.

Over the decades of my ministry work I have been occasionally told that I am too academic in approach. I’m recognize a personal weakness in that I am too thin-skinned for leadership and have been too often easily wounded, but this accusation is one that never much bothered me. There is simply no substitute for knowing (and of course, applying) the Word of God. Those who do, they live successful Christian lives. Those who don’t, they struggle to put the pieces together. Be noble!