Paul to Athens…God determines the location and duration of each nation
The birth of the church of Thessalonica
When we ended last week, Paul, Silas and Timothy had been led by the Spirit in a dream to go to Macedonia. There they led a woman named Lydia to the Lord who was living in the city of Philippi which was in the region of Macedonia. After they left there they came to this church of Thessalonica which is also in the region of Macedonia.
“(1) After they traveled through Am-phip-olis and Apol-lonia, they came to Thessalonica, where there was a Jewish synagogue.
(2) Paul went to the Jews in the synagogue, as he customarily did, and on three Sabbath days he addressed them from the scriptures, (3) explaining and demonstrating that the Christ had to suffer and to rise from the dead, saying,
“This Jesus I am proclaiming to you is the Christ.”
(4) Some of them were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, along with a large group of God-fearing Greeks and quite a few prominent women.
(5) But the Jews became jealous, and gathering together some worthless men from the rabble in the marketplace, they formed a mob and set the city in an uproar. They attacked Jason’s house, trying to find Paul and Silas to bring them out to the assembly.
(6) When they did not find them, they dragged Jason and some of the brothers before the city officials, screaming,
“These people who have stirred up trouble throughout the world have come here too, (7) and Jason has welcomed them as guests! They are all acting against Caesar’s decrees, saying there is another king named Jesus!”
(8) They caused confusion among the crowd and the city officials who heard these things.
(9) After the city officials had received bail from Jason and the others, they released them. (10) The brothers sent Paul and Silas off to Berea at once, during the night.
Though the pagan Jews of this area were hostile to the gospel, that in no way speaks to the nature of those who believed – both Jews and Gentiles. We know the church of Thessalonica was a good church. In Paul’s future letter to this church he mentions Silas and Timothy since they were familiar names and people to these believers. I mention this in order to make you more at home and familiar with the various churches in the New Testament and their relationship with those who first ministered to them the good news of the gospel.
Even though Macedonia in northern Greece was located nearly a thousand miles from Jerusalem, Paul did a fair amount of ministry there.
Since this too was well within Roman domain, the roads they built aided the accessibility of the gospel to these towns. One of the roads which you may have heard of before was called the Egnatian Way. It passed through several towns in Macedonia visited by the apostle Paul in the New Testament.
Later in the letters Paul wrote to them, Paul shows his deep, heart-felt gratitude for these believers because they first believed in the presence of persecution and still defended not only the faith, but also the lives of these men.
Paul mentions what are arguably the four most important aspects of the Christian faith, as being present in this church as it continued to grow.
- Your WORK of faith – by which is meant works which are produced by genuine faith. This was and is the highest form of praise for any believer.
- Labor of love – This was the force and motivation spurring on their faith and energizing the tirelessness of their work.
- Enduring hope – Hope, being a favorable expectation, also played a key role in their motivation. Knowing that their labors of love were not in vain, but would certainly end in the reward of their faith becoming sight at the return of the Lord when they would finally realize the fulness of their salvation by conformity to His image.
- Joy in the Holy Ghost – The one thing that enables us to persevere is the Joy we have in our koinonia (our fellowship with) the Holy Spirit Who has been given to us.
In his letters to them he has NOTHING to say by way of reproof or rebuke, but only praise and encouragement for their whole hearted response to the Gospel.
The birth of the Berean church
When they arrived, they went to the Jewish synagogue. (11) These Jews were more open-minded than those in Thessalonica, for they eagerly received the message, examining the scriptures carefully every day to see if these things were so. (12) Therefore many of them believed, along with quite a few prominent Greek women and men.
(13) But when the Jews from Thessalonica heard that Paul had also proclaimed the word of God in Berea, they came there too, inciting and disturbing the crowds.
(14) Then the brothers sent Paul away to the coast at once, but Silas and Timothy remained in Berea.
(15) Those who accompanied Paul escorted him as far as Athens, and after receiving an order for Silas and Timothy to come to him as soon as possible, they left.
(16) While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, his spirit was greatly upset because he saw the city was full of idols. (17) So he was addressing the Jews and the God-fearing Gentiles in the synagogue, and in the marketplace every day those who happened to be there. (18) Also some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers were conversing with him, and some were asking, “What does this foolish babbler want to say?”
By calling him a “foolish babbler” they meant an ‘ignorant show-off, a charlatan’.
To them Paul was someone whose communication lacked sophistication. One who picks up scraps of information here and there – scrap-monger, a scavenger of words who haphazardly throws together various unconnected thoughts into a philosophy.
Others said, “He seems to be a proclaimer of foreign gods.” (They said this because he was proclaiming the good news about Jesus and the resurrection.)
The apostle here opposes the popular beliefs of both Stoical Fate and Epicurean Chance, these people were so familiar with.
Stoicism was at home in Athens since that is where Zeno of Citium founded it in the early 3rd century BC. He was a Phoenician who originally came to Athens and modified the philosophical system of the Cynics he found there.
His was a philosophy where God or the gods are seen in nature. It is a type of pantheism where God is all and is in all. It is a deterministic view of life where all events, including human will and action, are ultimately determined by preceding events consistent with natural laws or nature. Since God and nature are essentially the same to the Stoic, good and evil both are attributes of the divine. Life has no real meaning or direction.
Epicurus, on the other hand, was a materialist who argued against the involvement or intervention of any God or gods.
He would have made a good evolutionist since he taught that god was not involved in the creation of the world but that it was the chance result of atoms colliding with one another and then dispersing, formed all that exists. Their understanding of what constitutes an atom was rather undeveloped but not entirely wrong. Epicurus believed that the basic constituents of the world are atoms which are uncuttable, microscopic bits of matter) moving in empty space. Ordinary objects are conglomerations of atoms.
Philosophically he taught that the highest pursuit of man was modest, sustainable pleasure in the form of tranquility brought on from a freedom from fear and pain. The foremost view adopted by the epicureans was the belief that the material world and life is all there is and so there is nothing to fear in death. That also seemingly freed them from concern over eternal judgment.
So Paul comes in and addresses their beliefs in the context of the god they believe exists, but they do not know. It was a very good segway for presenting the gospel to these very lost and confused people.
Jamieson-Fausset & Brown say, “Paul, by inspiration of the Holy Spirit here opposes both Stoical Fate and Epicurean Chance, ascribing the periods and localities in which men and nations flourish to the sovereign will and prearrangements of a living God.”
We can see this very clearly in the prophetic fulfillment of the words of Noah over his three sons. Every prediction he made by the Spirit has been fully realized and is still the prevailing reality of those resultant people groups. [See – My Three Sons – Genesis 9-11].
“(19) So they took Paul and brought him to the Areopagus, saying, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are proclaiming? (20) For you are bringing some surprising things to our ears, so we want to know what they mean.”
(21) (All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there used to spend their time in nothing else than telling or listening to something new.)
(22) So Paul stood before the Areopagus and said,
“Men of Athens, I see that you are very religious in all respects. (23) For as I went around and observed closely your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: ‘To an unknown god.’ Therefore what you worship without knowing it, this I proclaim to you.
[Here Paul largely addresses the agnostic views of the Epicureans by showing God’s intimate involvement with His creation and His desire and ability to be known.]
(24) The God Who made the world and everything in it, Who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by human hands, (25) nor is He served by human hands, as if He needed anything, because He Himself gives life and breath and everything to everyone.
(26) From one man He made every nation of the human race to inhabit the entire earth, determining their set times and the fixeWhyd limits of the places where they would live, (27) so that they would search for God and perhaps grope around for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us.
I have often pointed to these verses to clarify other passages in our trek ‘Thru the Bible’ on Wednesday nights.
Here we see God’s sovereignty over people & nations – even to the point of determining when and where a nation will exist as well as its duration. When coupled together with Romans 13 which tells us that every authority which exists are nothing more than channels through whom God’s authority flows. That the individuals wielding that authority were placed there by God for either our praise and peace or for judgment – we get a picture of God’s sovereignty which is perhaps greater than most expressions of Christianity acknowledge.
Also addressed is the affirmation that all nations are of one blood from one man. This is NOT to the exclusion of Eve, but it is a clear statement that all humans descended from an original set of parents who share in the same nature and blood as we (no macro-evolutionary change). Also that the blood of the human race comes from males.
These are HUGE issues with massive implications. They speak to and affirm…
- a literal, historical view of Genesis
- that sin entered the world through Adam
- that sin was passed on to all through the blood by him
- it explains and justifies the need for blood being shed for redemption.
Also in these verses is the revelation of the involvement of God with His creation, His heart towards them and His desire and availability to be found and known by the seeking.
These touch on some of the most important and fundamental tenets of our faith! Their value in the inspired work of scripture are unable to be calculated!
(28) For in Him we live and move about and exist, as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we too are His offspring.’
(29) So since we are God’s offspring, we should not think the Deity is like gold or silver or stone, an image made by human skill and imagination. [Here Paul addresses Pantheistic Stoicism]
(30) Therefore, although God has overlooked such times of ignorance, He now commands all people everywhere to repent, (31) because He has set a day on which He is going to judge the world in righteousness, by a man Whom He designated, having provided proof to everyone by raising Him from the dead.”
(32) Now when they heard about the resurrection from the dead, some began to scoff, but others said, “We will hear you again about this.”
(33) So Paul left the Areopagus. (34) But some people joined him and believed. Among them were Dionysius, who was a member of the Areopagus, a woman named Damaris, and others with them.”
Just to clarify, there is another well known man by the name of Dionysius who lived in the early 6th century but this is NOT him.
Now I believe if there is another lesson to be extracted from this chapter it would be to be familiar with those in your sphere.
If you are given the chance to speak on behalf of Christ – be ready with a reason for the hope you have! That was the heart behind the exercise I sent you home with last week.
You have moments, encounters of influence in your life where you either greatly influence others or they greatly impact you.
I had one such encounter while doing an assignment for high school. I was in DCT/OJT which stood for Diversified Cooperative Training and On the Job Training. This class was a program which allowed students to only participate in classes which were 100% necessary and then go to work with a view to this giving them a leg up in their field of interest. For me, of course, it was just a way to avoid having to endure any more of high school than I had to. This class was held at what was called ‘zero hour’ which meant it was 1 hour before any other classes on campus. I disliked high school SO MUCH that I made myself get up an hour earlier just to avoid having to stay until lunch!
At any rate, one of the assignments in that class was to investigate what was necessary to pursue a career in a field of your interest. I picked robotics and therefore went to the Vocational Technical Training [Vo-Tech] center in Bradenton to speak to the Robotics training professor.
As we talked, our common Christian faith came to light which greatly enhanced our time together. I explained that I had no real intention of pursuing Robotics as a career, but was aimed at becoming a minister. I was just using a passing interest in Robotics as the topic of my assignment. At this point in our conversation he looked at me in a way so as to capture my attention. In that moment he said, “I have made it one of my goals to know a little bit about every subject of general interest that I can, so that I will never be in a position where I could not enter naturally into a conversation and in the flow of it be able to introduce Christ to someone. Knowing something of interest in every field you can opens doors which might otherwise remain closed to you.” That was amazing advice and was an encounter with God which has had a profound impact on my life and ministry.
THAT is what I believe Paul was doing here.
He was a well educated man, but he also made it a point to study the people he was ministering to. In this case, he knew some of their poetry, their philosophy and even had a passing familiarity with their idolatry and pagan religious beliefs.
These he astutely used to his advantage in sharing the gospel with them.
After this he went to Corinth!
Now Corith was the roman capital city of Achaia, which will be important later on.