The Three Results of Gospel Preaching – Acts 17:16-34

While Paul is waiting for his travelling companions to join him in the cultural center of the Roman world, he notes that the city of Athens was “full of idols.”  This was no expression of exaggeration whatsoever. The city had hundreds upon hundreds of idols, and some ancient writers said there were more idols than people!

There was also a significant Jewish population, so Paul used the opportunity to speak in the synagogue while also connecting with people in the Agora – the marketplace. The Agora in Athens was a particularly colorful place – sort of like the social center of the ultimate university town. Here, every idea under the sun was exchanged and debated, and Luke gives a parenthetical comment that the folks milling about this area loved to spend their time doing nothing but talking and listening to the latest ideas.

When they called Paul a “babbler,” it was not a compliment! The Greek word literally translates to “seed-picker” and pictures a bird in the marketplace, flitting from seed to seed and making a meal of a wide variety of scraps. Paul seemed to be talking about gods they had never heard of … called Jesus and Anastasis (resurrection) – ideas of a strange sort all thrown together.

So they asked him to speak at the Areopagus, which was both the name of a location as well as a council who met at that place in order to evaluate the validity of the ideas circulating around the city.

So Paul launches into a lecture/sermon. His introduction made reference to well-known facts about the idols in Athens. He first noted there certainly were a lot of them, and this therefore indicated a religiously-interested people. And secondly, he referenced one in particular (most likely there were many more) with the inscription as to an unknown god. Being very thorough and not wanting to offend any god about whom they did not know and erect a statue, the Athenians made some “generic” statues to unknown gods in hopes that these deities would be placated. So Paul therefore said that he wanted to make known to them what they had essentially admitted they did not know!

The God that Paul proclaimed was one who did not need to be served and brought objects of worship for sustenance; after all, Paul’s God was the creator who made everything. Clearly, the Creator is not dependent upon anything or anyone! Mankind is a part of God’s creation, as Paul even validated this idea by quoting from two of their own famous philosophers – Epimenides and Aratus. Paul further declared that mankind is dependent upon the creator God and should seek to know him. And now, this God has set a day of judgment, having evidenced proof of his greatness by sending his Son Jesus to die and raise from the dead.

As it does to this day among the intellectual elites of our culture, the idea of the resurrection set off a reaction, mostly negative … though not entirely. The response is threefold: many, probably a majority, sneered at the idea as ridiculous, some said they would like to hear more on another occasion, and a few became followers – including even one of the members of the Areopagus named Dionysius.

Three Responses

The takeaway from this passage is to understand that the preaching of the gospel will always have these three responses. Due to the lost condition of mankind who are blinded by sin and far from even a sense of needing to know God, a majority are going to reject the message of salvation. Along the way, there will also always be those who are struggling with the issues of the gospel message, still pondering and attempting to understand and evaluate it. We today often refer to these folks as “seekers.”  And as well, by God’s grace and sovereign work, there will be some who step out in faith and receive the message of truth. The final group is likely the smallest, and they are not seen on every occasion; but God uses the foolishness of preaching to bring them to salvation in him.

So we should not be discouraged by the difficulties of gospel proclamation, or that the majority of people resists and rejects, as this is normal. And it is truly a cause for great rejoicing when some indeed have that light of truth go on in their minds and hearts, and they become followers of Christ and sojourners with us in his body, the Church.

In Athens – Acts 17:16-34

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.’[b] As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’[c]

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.

The Spiritually Numb and the Spiritually Noble – Acts 17:1-15

Today’s reading will add two more towns to the list of those from which Paul is expelled. Both of these – Thessalonica and Berea – are places from which strategic advances for the gospel could go forward once a strong church was planted in each.

Thessalonica was about 90 miles to the southwest of Philippi. With a stronger Jewish presence in this city (as evidenced by a synagogue) Paul followed his normal custom of beginning there with the Jews on the Sabbath day. And he surely used other days to connect with Gentiles in varied ways and places.

Paul used the Jewish Scriptures – the Old Testament – to prove that Jesus was the long-promised Messiah. Though there certainly more than a few converts from the Jews, it is rather apparent that it did not comprise a majority; but the numbers were sufficient to create jealousy and subsequent conflict. It appears the number of Gentiles and “prominent women” who believed were actually more in number than the Jews who chose to follow Christ.

It was not really Paul who caused a riot, but using the tactics maybe more common to another Saul – Saul Alinsky and Rules for Radicals – the Jews incite a mob scene by engaging the ubiquitous townie trouble-makers, and blame it upon the missionary team. Not finding Paul and Silas, they rather drag their host – a man named Jason – before the authorities with a variety of increasingly common trumped-up charges. The result is that Jason and some of the other believers had to post a bond – giving money that would only be returned upon conditions being met. Those conditions likely included that there be no public upsets coming from this, and that Paul and Silas be sent on their way.

So Paul and Silas do leave and travel about another 50 miles to a place named Berea. Again Paul goes to the synagogue to carry on an evangelistic appeal through the Jewish Scriptures. The response in Berea was much more positive for the gospel message – as the folks here were spoken of in the passage as more “noble” … meaning they were genuine in their desire for truth and worked hard with the Scriptures to verify the accuracy of Paul’s teaching. Many did believe and follow, along with a good number of Gentiles. But before long, the bad element from Thessalonica had heard of Paul now preaching in Berea … followed him there, and made sufficient trouble for Paul to need to hit the road again. This time the journey would take him to no less than Athens.

There are two types of Jews presented in today’s reading. There was the group comprising the majority of the Thessalonica synagogue – those we may term as spiritually numb to truth and change. They liked things the way they were more than they liked researching to know the depth of God’s word. The second group comprised those who were seen by so many in Berea. They were open to change and truth, but not so open as to not weigh what was said and taught against that which was written in the Scriptures. They were spiritually noble in this regard.

So are you “numb” or “noble” spiritually speaking? It is easy to be numb; you don’t have to do anything but hold on to your traditional notions without growth or examination. Or are you noble in the sense of holding firm to convictions, while also looking to grow and examine everything against the truth of God’s Word? The Scriptures are pretty clear about what God prefers.

In Thessalonica – Acts 17:1-9

17 When Paul and his companions had passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica, where there was a Jewish synagogue. As was his custom, Paul went into the synagogue, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that the Messiah had to suffer and rise from the dead. “This Jesus I am proclaiming to you is the Messiah,” he said. Some of the Jews were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, as did a large number of God-fearing Greeks and quite a few prominent women.

But other Jews were jealous; so they rounded up some bad characters from the marketplace, formed a mob and started a riot in the city. They rushed to Jason’s house in search of Paul and Silas in order to bring them out to the crowd. But when they did not find them, they dragged Jason and some other believers before the city officials, shouting: “These men who have caused trouble all over the world have now come here, and Jason has welcomed them into his house. They are all defying Caesar’s decrees, saying that there is another king, one called Jesus.” When they heard this, the crowd and the city officials were thrown into turmoil. Then they made Jason and the others post bond and let them go.

In Berea – Acts 17:10-15

10 As soon as it was night, 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.