Acts 17 (New Living Translation)
Paul Preaches in Thessalonica
The Via Egnatia was a road built by the Romans in the second century BCE. It went west from the Bosphorus across Greece (Macedonia, Thrace) to the Adriatic, some 700 miles. Like other major Roman roads, it was nearly 20 feet wide, surfaced with large slabs of carefully fitted stones. It linked Neapolis, Philippi, and Thessalonica. Paul would have walked this very road.
1 Paul and Silas then traveled through the towns of Amphipolis and Apollonia and came to Thessalonica, where there was a Jewish synagogue. 2 As was Paul’s custom, he went to the synagogue service, and for three Sabbaths in a row he used the Scriptures to reason with the people. 3 He explained the prophecies and proved that the Messiah must suffer and rise from the dead. He said, “This Jesus I’m telling you about is the Messiah.” 4 Some of the Jews who listened were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, along with many God-fearing Greek men and quite a few prominent women.
Part of the credit here goes to the believers Paul had left behind in Philipi:
Philippians 4:15-16 (New Living Translation)
As you know, you Philippians were the only ones who gave me financial help when I first brought you the Good News and then traveled on from Macedonia. No other church did this. Even when I was in Thessalonica you sent help more than once.
5 But some of the Jews were jealous, so they gathered some troublemakers from the marketplace to form a mob and start a riot.
Doesn’t this sound familiar? Paul encountered the same envious reaction to his successful ministry during his first missionary journey in Antioch of Pisidia (Acts 13: 45 and 50), in Iconium (Acts 14:2 and 5), and in Lystra (Acts 14:19).
They attacked the home of Jason, searching for Paul and Silas so they could drag them out to the crowd. 6 Not finding them there, they dragged out Jason and some of the other believers instead and took them before the city council. “Paul and Silas have caused trouble all over the world,” they shouted, “and now they are here disturbing our city, too. 7 And Jason has welcomed them into his home. They are all guilty of treason against Caesar, for they profess allegiance to another king, named Jesus.”
Any talk of a rival to the Emperor was strictly forbidden by Rome.
8 The people of the city, as well as the city council, were thrown into turmoil by these reports. 9 So the officials forced Jason and the other believers to post bond, and then they released them.
Paul and Silas in Berea
10 That very night the believers sent Paul and Silas to Berea.
The believers sent Paul to a safe place. Cicero calls Berea an “out-of-the-way town.” Here Paul and his friends can stay until things settle down in Thessalonica.
When they arrived there, they went to the Jewish synagogue. 11 And the people of Berea were more open-minded than those in Thessalonica, and they listened eagerly to Paul’s message. They searched the Scriptures day after day to see if Paul and Silas were teaching the truth. 12 As a result, many Jews believed, as did many of the prominent Greek women and men.
I want to be a Berean! — searching the Scriptures to know what the Lord says is true and right! Here is Henry Purcell’s “Thy Word Is a Lantern,” sung by the Choir of the Kings Consort, directed by Robert King.
Thy word is a lantern unto my feet, and a light unto my path.
I have sworn, and am steadfastly purposed to keep thy righteous judgements.
I am troubled above measure: Quicken me, O Lord, according to thy word.
Let the freewill offerings of my mouth please thee O Lord, and teach me thy judgements.
The ungodly have laid a snare for me, but yet I swerved not from thy commandments.
Thy testimonies have I claimd as mine heritage for ever:
And why? They are the very joy of my heart. Alleluia.
Psalm 119: 105-108 and 110-111
13 But when some Jews in Thessalonica learned that Paul was preaching the word of God in Berea, they went there and stirred up trouble. 14 The believers acted at once, sending Paul on to the coast, while Silas and Timothy remained behind. 15 Those escorting Paul went with him all the way to Athens; then they returned to Berea with instructions for Silas and Timothy to hurry and join him.
Paul Preaches in Athens
16 While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was deeply troubled by all the idols he saw everywhere in the city. 17 He went to the synagogue to reason with the Jews and the God-fearing Gentiles, and he spoke daily in the public square to all who happened to be there.
Athens was an old city by the time Paul came, and its glory days were behind it. But it was still the intellectual center of the Roman Empire, a city known for its culture and education and philosophy.
18 He also had a debate with some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers. When he told them about Jesus and his resurrection, they said, “What’s this babbler trying to say with these strange ideas he’s picked up?” Others said, “He seems to be preaching about some foreign gods.”
To over-simplify: Epicureans, believing in chance and indifferent to the gods, lived for pleasure, which was best produced by virtue — while Stoics were pantheists who fostered an indifference to pain and pleasure, since each came from the gods. Both philosophies were popular in the Roman era.
19 Then they took him to the high council of the city. “Come and tell us about this new teaching,” they said. 20 “You are saying some rather strange things, and we want to know what it’s all about.” 21 (It should be explained that all the Athenians as well as the foreigners in Athens seemed to spend all their time discussing the latest ideas.)
22 So Paul, standing before the council, addressed them as follows:
“Men of Athens, I notice that you are very religious in every way, 23 for as I was walking along I saw your many shrines. And one of your altars had this inscription on it: ‘To an Unknown God.’ This God, whom you worship without knowing, is the one I’m telling you about.
24 “He is the God who made the world and everything in it. Since he is Lord of heaven and earth, he doesn’t live in man-made temples, 25 and human hands can’t serve his needs—for he has no needs. He himself gives life and breath to everything, and he satisfies every need. 26 From one man he created all the nations throughout the whole earth. He decided beforehand when they should rise and fall, and he determined their boundaries.
Paul starts not with an overview of Hebrew history, as he often did in Jewish synagogues. Instead, he begins with God as Creator, distinct from His creation, and mindful of the people He had created. This is a very different philosophy from the Epicureans, who believed the gods had little to do with people, and from the Stoics, who saw gods in everything.
27 “His purpose was for the nations to seek after God and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him—though he is not far from any one of us. 28 For in him we live and move and exist. As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’ 29 And since this is true, we shouldn’t think of God as an idol designed by craftsmen from gold or silver or stone.
First Paul uses “the unknown god” as a bridge to his audience. Then he takes a similarly sympathetic approach by quoting from Aratus, a Stoic poet:
Zeus fills the streets, the marts,
Zeus fills the seas, the shores, the rivers!
Everywhere our need is Zeus!
We also are his offspring!
30 “God overlooked people’s ignorance about these things in earlier times, but now he commands everyone everywhere to repent of their sins and turn to him. 31 For he has set a day for judging the world with justice by the man he has appointed, and he proved to everyone who this is by raising him from the dead.”
32 When they heard Paul speak about the resurrection of the dead, some laughed in contempt, but others said, “We want to hear more about this later.”
Greeks believed in the immortality of the soul. But they believed the body was material and inherently evil; the idea of a glorified, resurrected body made no sense to them.
33 That ended Paul’s discussion with them, 34 but some joined him and became believers. Among them were Dionysius, a member of the council, a woman named Damaris, and others with them.