Acts (Part 25) - Bereans and Athenians
In the jealous zealousness for their position as law-holders of the old covenant, the Thessalonian Jews react to Paul’s message as did the Jews of Antioch, Iconium, and Lystra. They want Paul and his message stopped. But Thessalonica was in the heart of Greek/Roman civilization. These Jews could not, as did the Jews in Lystra, simply sentence Paul according to the charge of blasphemy. That sentence—stoning—would not be allowed in the Greek Thessalonian culture. But these Jews were cunning. Two things they knew would upset the civil authorities—violence in the streets and threats of sedition against Caesar. And so they orchestrated both. The Jews found some worthless, wicked men in town (an element that every town has) and paid them some money to start a ruckus, charging it to the message of Paul and Silas.
In the midst of the trouble, the Jews burst into the house of Jason—a man who had invited Paul to stay in his home. But Paul wasn’t there. So the Jews grab Jason and a few others and drag them before the authorities. Imagine yourself as one of these civil adjudicators. A crowd storms in claiming that someone named Paul is creating riots and speaking against Caesar. You, of course, ask, “Well, which one of you is Paul?” The Jews answer that Paul isn’t with them. “So, what do you want me to do?” you ask. They push Jason forward and say that he allowed Paul to stay in his house. “Uh…yeah, so?” Well, if Paul didn’t have a place to stay, then…then…there may not have been any trouble.
ou probably would have reacted exactly as the Thessalonian authorities did. They took a security or bond from Jason and the others, telling them that they’d get their money back if no more trouble occurred. They also probably told the Jews to go away unless they could produce Paul himself. But when Paul hears of what happened, he and Silas decide it is time to head out of town. So they travel to Berea.
The situation in Berea is much different. Luke tells us that the Berean Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica. These Jews listened to Paul and instead of becoming jealous/zealous for their own status and position, turned to the Scriptures. These Bereans were interested more in truth than in mere cause. Although these are old covenant Jews that are described as noble, their activity should be copied by us as Christians. Following a pastor or teacher or leader because of cause, charisma, or any other reason is simply not the practice we see honored in the Word of God. God wants us to know the reasons why we believe what we believe. We do participate in a communal Christianity, but another person’s knowledge of God cannot make up our own lack as we seek growth in relationship with him. We are individually responsible to know God and His Word, although corporately responsible to encourage each other toward it.
Additionally, Luke seems to have the point in mind as he portrays Paul’s evangelization as a presentation of reason rather than as some emotional draw that we are so fond of today. On three Sabbaths in Thessalonica, Paul “reasoned with them from the Scriptures.” The Greek emphasis is that of discourse with argumentation—inviting questions, thinking through logically. It is not that we want to divorce emotion from our witness. Emotion is indeed a magnificent result. But it is not the means. God created for relationship, and that purpose was for the shared joy to be realized. But to enter that relationship and have that relationship grow requires knowledge. And so Luke as well as the other Scripture writers emphasizes our study and knowledge building and reasoning with others.
Just as the trouble-making Jews of Antioch and Iconium traveled to Lystra during Paul’s first missionary journey, the Jews of Thessalonica travel to Berea to stir up trouble. With their challenge, the Berean Christians decide that Paul, the main object of attack, should leave. So Paul heads for Athens, leaving Timothy and Silas behind to finish the work of establishing the new Christians in the gospel.
At this point, some critics have decided that Luke confuses events. Acts 17:14 does say that Timothy and Silas are left as Paul goes to Athens. But 1 Thessalonians 3:1-2 says that Paul sent Timothy to Thessalonica. Then in 1 Thessalonians 3:6, Paul says that Timothy came from Thessalonica to Paul. But Acts 18:1 and 5 indicate that Paul traveled from Athens to Corinth alone. How do all these comments make sequential sense?
Here is the probable sequence:
1. Acts 17:14 – Paul leaves Silas & Timothy in Berea as he goes to Athens
2. Acts 17:15 – Paul sends word by those returning who had guided him to Athens to tell Silas and Timothy to come to him as soon as possible
3. It appears that Silas & Timothy, upon receiving word from the messengers, join Paul in Athens
4. 1 Thess 2:18 – Paul is thwarted from returning to Thessalonica to encourage the Christians there
5. 1 Thess 3:1-2 – Paul sends Timothy (& probably Silas) back to Thessalonica
6. Acts 18:1 – Alone in Athens, Paul departs for Corinth after his Areopagus defense
7. Acts 18:5, 1 Thess 3:6 – Timothy & Silas return to Paul in Corinth
8. Paul writes 1 Thessalonians while in Corinth
An interesting and important point must be made about the thwarting of Paul in 1 Thessalonians 2:18 (#4 in the list). Paul mentions that it is Satan that hindered him from returning to Thessalonica. This should not be interpreted as God wanting him to go to Thessalonica but Satan won out in hindering him. God’s sovereignty is evidenced here exactly as it was in Acts 16:6 when the Holy Spirit forbade them to speak in Asia and in Acts 16:7 when the Spirit directed them away from Bithynia. We see this kind situation in other places in Scripture. God gave Job into Satan’s hands, yet Job tells his wife he must accept evil from God as well as good. We’re told that Pharoah hardened his own heart in Exodus 9:34; yet in Romans 9:17-18 Paul says that God hardened Pharoah’s heart.
The point in this all is the same. God does not cause sin; yet God is sovereign. Calvinists (that is, the majority who do not believe that God causes sin) have a logical dilemma. According to their definition of sovereignty (evidenced in the soteriological discussion), God must cause or else he is not sovereign. Yet rebellion to God’s will exists. The two—sovereignty and rebellion—coalesce in the Faith Electionist’s understanding. God’s sovereignty is in purpose, fulfillment, and control. Purpose of everlasting perfect love relationship requires an element of non-coercion or else you do violence to the meaning of love. But the fulfillment of that purpose is controlled through the infinite knowledge and control of God. He knows all possible impacts, both internal to a person and external, that could occur. He has imagined in his knowledge of potentiality what all the infinite possibilities of competing and meshing factors could produce. He so orchestrates in his controlling sovereignty to accomplish his purposes, his will. Of course we cannot grasp in full measure this managerial control because of the limitations of our abilities to imagine infinite potentiality. Yet we trust our infinite God in this control and in his decisions. So Satan does act. But God controls. Satan acts to prevent Paul from going to Thessalonica, but God’s will is accomplished in Timothy and Silas going to Thessalonica while Paul takes the gospel to Corinth. It is God’s will, God’s way.
When Paul arrived in Athens he took a tour of the city. The very first thing that Luke wants us to know about Paul reflection on Athens is that he is provoked within him because of the idolatry. This is no mere “tsk, tsk” and shaking of the head. The Greek word translated provoked is the same word the Septuagint uses to describe God’s extreme vexation at the idolatry shown in the Old Testament. Deuteronomy 9:18, Psalm 106:29, and Isaiah 65:3 all use this word to show God’s anger in provocation. Perhaps Hosea 8:5 shows it best as we hear God saying, “My anger burns against them.” This point of Paul’s vexation is meant for us to understand what is going on internally with Paul as he approaches his address to the Athenians just a few verses later.
Verse 17 tells us that Paul goes to the synagogue as usual to reason with the Jews. But Paul also speaks of Jesus in the marketplace. And it is there that Paul meets with some of the philosophers of the day—Epicureans and Stoics, neither of whom believe in a physical resurrection (although one could make a case for Stoics believing in a resurrection of the physical, though markedly different from what Paul preaches). But their charges against Paul are important. First, they ask, “What does this babbler wish to say?” (17:18). What they imply is that Paul is someone who may have a little knowledge, introducing something new, but who is most probably deficient in full philosophical reasoning. In other words, they believe him to be someone without real knowledge who has an interest in proclaiming something new and startling.
The second charge is more serious. They say, “He seems to be a preacher of foreign divinities” (17:18). While we could understand this as innocuously pointing out that he is talking of the Jewish God rather than a Greek god, it carries more implication. The charge is not just that this is not a Greek god, but rather that it is promoting a religion that will be destructive to Greek religion, culture, and society. That is something that must be judged by the Greeks’ high court—the Areopagus. The Areopagus was both a location—a hill off the northwest corner of the Acropolis—and the name of the council or court that met there. The Greeks “took hold of him and brought him to the Areopagus” (17:19). This isn’t a pleasant invitation to preach or discuss his views. This was very close to a civil arrest. They took Paul to examine him to see whether he was guilty of promoting a society-harming strange god.
It is very interesting that Luke makes a point of this particular charge just as they drag Paul to the Areopagus to be tried for it. About 450 years earlier, the same charge was leveled at Socrates who was subsequently dragged to this same spot—the Areopagus—to be tried for that charge. Plato provides the charge against Socrates in his Apology: “Socrates is a doer of evil, who corrupts the youth; and who does not believe in the gods of the state, but has other new divinities of his own” (Plato, Apology, 24).
So it is with extreme vexation at the idolatry of the Athenians that Paul stands before their high court to give defense against a charge that he is possibly bringing destructive religion to their society. This basis must be firmly planted in our minds as we begin to study what Paul tells them.