–by Nico Bougas
“It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.” With these words Charles Dickens began one of his most famous novels. “A Tale of Two Cities” I want to introduce you to a Tale of Three Cities as we explore the Apostle Paul’s visits to Thessalonica, Berea, and Athens as recorded in Acts 17.
Thessalonica – resisting the Word (Acts 17:1-9)
Paul laboured at tent making each day in order to pay his way. Then on the Sabbath day he went to the synagogue where he ministered to the Jews and Gentile proselytes. In that limited period of time he did his missionary work. Paul used the synagogue as a springboard to get into a city or a community. This would lead him to devout Jews of the city, some of those Jews would believe. But most would reject him and his Message, and this would push him right out to minister to the Gentiles. Some of those Gentiles believed and this is this is how a church would come into existence.
Paul preached the death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ, showing that it was necessary, as set forth in the Old Testament. There is no message in the book of Acts, either by Peter or Paul, where the resurrection is not at the heart of the Message. Often time today the Resurrection just doesn’t seem to be the heart of the Message. We talk about the Cross, and that is important, but we have a living Christ! Jesus said, “I am the living One. I died, but look—I am alive forever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and the grave.” – Rev 1:18.
Results of his preaching
Paul saw a large number believe. The Jews envied Paul’s success and were grieved that the Gentiles and influential women were leaving the synagogue. Paul had hoped that the Gentiles finding salvation would prompt the Jews to study the Scriptures, but instead it only provoked hostility and more persecution. So they manufactured a riot and wanted to seize Paul and Silas and drag them before the city magistrates. But they were unable to find them so they seized Jason, their host, and took him and some believers instead.
The accusations they brought were similar to those brought at the trial of Jesus, of “disturbing peace and promoting treason.” Their crime was that of “saying there is another King, one Jesus.” Eventually Jason had to pay bail with the condition that Paul and Silas did not return.
Turning the world upside down
What was their problem? Their message wasn’t to overthrow the government or to undermine the moral standards of nation. They charged that, “the people that have turned the world upside down have come here also.” – Acts 17:6.
They could not have paid them a greater compliment. The world was the wrong way around and needed to be turned upside down. Our world is being shaped by unbelief and immorality. We have glorified sin. We are being squeezed into the world’s mold.
The prophet Isaiah said, “Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who substitute darkness for light and light for darkness.” – Isa 5:20. Our society has made heroes of people whose lives are a mess and whose words are a disgrace. We consider Hollywood celebrities as people whose lives we want to emulate and aspire to rather than regarding them as a warning to our children.
Why are we keeping the world happy?
We are under no obligation to keep the world happy. The Bible says, “friendship with the world is enmity with God.” – James 4.4. When we try to carry favour with the world and adopt its standards it is tantamount to capitulating to the enemy. Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “Don’t team up with those who are unbelievers. How can righteousness be a partner with wickedness? How can light live with darkness?”– 2 Cor 6:14.
If you are going to live an authentic Christian life in this world you will stand out as a light in a dark place, so you had better get your batteries re-charged. There is no shame in being different. The world is upside down – we need to turn it right side up. We need to be the light of the world. It is a world filled with darkness and evil. We have an obligation to change it.
Berea – receiving the Word
Following the growing hostility of the Thessalonians, Paul and Silas left the city under cover of night and made their way to Berea that was 45 miles away. Paul discovered a group of people in Berea that were keenly interested in the study of the Old Testament Scriptures. They met daily to search the Scriptures to determine whether what Paul was saying was true. These “noble Bereans” must have really encouraged his heart.
We should imitate these Bereans by faithfully studying the Word daily, we should be discussing and testing the messages we hear. As we read in 1 Peter 2:2, “Like newborn babies, you must crave pure spiritual milk so that you will grow into a full experience of salvation. Cry out for this nourishment.”
They searched the Scriptures themselves to see if what Paul was saying was accurate. They didn’t just come and nod their heads in agreement. They went back and did their homework. We must not just honour and respect the Scriptures as the Word of God, we must diligently dig into them. We must search the Scriptures because they point us to Jesus, the way, the truth and the life.
But Paul’s fruitful time in Berea was short-lived. Again satan brought unbelieving Jews to Berea to stir up the people. How did these men hear that Paul and Silas were ministering in Berea? Perhaps the growing witness of the Berean believers reached as far as Thessalonica. Perhaps some troublemaker took the message to his friends in Thessalonica. Satan also has his missionaries, and they are busy.
But the Berean believers outwitted the enemy by taking Paul and putting him on a ship bound Athens. Paul had to leave a place of rich ministry and break away from people he had come to love.
Notice the courage of Paul – he was imprisoned in Philippi, then left Thessalonica in peril under cover of darkness. In Berea, Paul again had to flee for his life. Most men would have abandoned a struggle which seemed bound to end in arrest and in death, but not Paul.
When David Livingstone was asked where was prepared to go he answered, “I am prepared to go anywhere so long as it is forward.” The idea of turning back never occurred to Paul.
Athens – ridiculing the Word
Athens was the most learned city the world. Paul was called before the most exclusive of courts to state his faith. This might have daunted anyone. But Paul was never ashamed to preach the Gospel. “For I am not ashamed of this Good News about Christ. It is the power of God at work, saving everyone who believes—the Jew first and also the Greek.” – Rom 1:16. Paul saw this as a God-given opportunity to share his faith and witness for Christ.
Paul arrived not as a sightseer, but as a soul-winner. Europe is looked over by millions of visitors and is overlooked by millions of Christians. Europe needs the Gospel as it did in Paul’s day and we dare not miss the opportunities. Like Paul, we must have open eyes and broken hearts.
A religious people
Athens was the largest city in Greece. And Paul was quick to compliment them, “I see that in every way you are very religious”. They were so religious that they even had an altar to an unknown god. If they did not know this god how could they worship him? How could he help them? It was this God that Paul declared and introduced to them.
Greeks are still a very religious people. Speak to any 100 people in Greece and 97 of them would be members of Greek Orthodox Church. There are churches everywhere. Every town and village is dominated by the local church. Every taxi, hotel, and business has its little icon and patron saint. At Easter time everybody goes to church and greets you with Christos Anesti! (Christ is risen!). There were three different responses to Paul’s message to the Athenians: Some laughed and mocked did not take Paul’s message seriously. Others were interested and wanted to know more. Small groups accepted what Paul preached believed on Jesus Christ and were saved.
The Greek philosophers soon heard about the new thing going on in the market place. They came and listened to Paul and probably debated with him. One group ridiculed Paul and his teachings and called him a “babbler”. This literally refers to a “bird picking up seed”. He collects various ideas and teaches as his own. These are secondhand thoughts he borrows from others. This was not a very flattering description of the church’s greatest missionary and theologian. Through the years there have been many scoffers ridiculing Christianity and the Bible. They have come and gone but the Bible continues to be the best selling book in the world. Christianity is expanding rapidly throughout Africa, South America, and Southeast Asia. In China an estimated 100 000 people per year are coming to Christ.
There will always be those that hesitate and fail to make a commitment to Christ. They think they can put it off to a more convenient time. “I am still young; I want to enjoy my life.” They don’t realise that there is joy in serving Jesus. There is a peace, satisfaction, and fulfillment they will never find chasing the world’s entertainment and lifestyle. Jesus does not come to rob us of our joy. John 10.10 says, “The thief’s purpose is to steal, kill, and destroy. My purpose is to give them a rich and satisfying life.” Many delay making a commitment because they think they will lose out on life’s great experiences. Paul went before King Agrippa and challenged him with the Gospel. Agrippa replied, “You almost persuade me to become a Christian… go your way and I will call for you at some more convenient time.” If there ever was a more convenient time we surely would have read about it in the book of Acts.
Some immediately recognised the words of Paul as genuine and were set free. Jesus said in John 8.32 “And you shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free.” To some there is a dramatic change. To others a gradual move from darkness to light. But either way you are a new creation. This means that “anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person. The old life is gone; a new life has begun!” – 2 Cor 5:17.
We have complicated everything
Johnny Cash wrote, “A few years ago I was hooked on drugs. I dreaded to wake up in the morning. There was no joy, peace, or happiness in my life. Then one day in my helplessness I turned my life over completely to God. Now I can’t wait to get up in the morning to study my Bible. Sometimes the words of the Scriptures leap into my heart. This does not mean that all my problems have been solved, or that I have reached the stage of perfection. However, my life has been turned around. I have been born again. Jesus made everything so simple and we have made it so complicated. Paul told the Philippian jailer who asked what he must do to be saved, “Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved.” – Acts 16:31.
All you have to do to be born again is to repent of your sins and believe in the Lord Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior and come just as you are.