Acts 17:1 – 15
A tale of two cities
I’m sure that some of you, will have memories from your childhood of your parents saying to you, something along the lines of, “Why can’t you be more like your brother?”, or, “your sister”
Of course those of us who were the well-behaved younger sibling never heard that sort of thing, did we?!
But if you ever did have that experience, that will help you understand Acts chapter 17, where we’re presented with 2 very different responses to the good news of Jesus.
In Thessalonica, there were certainly some people who heard the good news of Jesus and responded rightly, turning from idols to serve the living and true God as we heard in Paul’s later letter to those Christians, but the response that gets our attention in Thessalonica is one of whole-hearted, deliberate, rejection to the good news of forgiveness and reconciliation with God through Jesus.
In Berea though, about 70 kilometres south-west, the response was very different,
And Luke uses the comparison to say “Be more like these Bereans.”
The example of “what not to do” from Thessalonica, makes the lesson from Berea all the more apparent.
Paul’s message is that the Jesus had to suffer and rise from the dead
Paul and Silas are travelling west across Macedonia, and Luke records that they passed through some smaller towns on the way. The archaeological evidence from these places suggests there was no synagogue there, which most likely means a very small Jewish population since only 10 Jewish men were required for the founding of a synagogue.
And as we’re told here that it was Paul’s practice, to begin his ministry among the Jews in the synagogue, mostly likely they passed straight through Amphipolis and Apollonia arriving in Thessalonica, a much bigger city on the main highway across the Roman Empire.
As his custom was, Paul went into the synagogue, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, 3 explaining and proving that the Christ had to suffer and rise from the dead. “This Jesus I am proclaiming to you is the Christ,”
In chapter 13, Luke gives us a more detailed explanation of Paul’s typical synagogue evangelistic sermon, here we just get the summary.
But it’s not a bad summary is it, of the way to engage people who are familiar with the Old Testament, with the good news of Jesus?
The Christ, the Messiah, God’s chosen king,
Had to suffer,
And rise from the dead,
“And this Jesus that I’m talking about, he is the Christ.
And look, it’s all here in the Old Testament”, Paul says, “Let me show you that the Christ had to die, in order for people to be brought into God’s kingdom”.
Such is the offence against God caused by our rejection of him, that someone has to suffer death and separation from God as punishment, and Jesus suffers in our place, and is raised from the dead as a vindication of his innocence, and a verification of his claims,
His death really is a sufficient penalty for our rejection of God.
He really is able to bring us to God
He’s not some religious nutter who throws himself under a bus, claiming that his death will achieve something for others.
Paul teaches the Thessalonians, from their own Scriptures, that this was what God had always planned.
Perhaps he took them to, Psalm 2, why do the nations rage, and the peoples plot in vain, against the Lord and against his anointed one.
Maybe he explained Isaiah 42, I will put my Spirit on him and he will bring justice to the nations.
Perhaps he got them to unroll their scrolls to Deuteronomy 21:23,
anyone who is hung on a tree is under God’s curse.
Paul’s message is that everything that God had promised in the Scriptures about the Messiah, his chosen king, had been fulfilled in the life of Jesus, and the key point of summary that Luke records, is that he had to suffer.
God’s chosen king, suffered for us.
This week I watched The Last Emperor, the story of Pu Yi, the Emperor of China, who ascended the throne aged 2 years. At one point in, the child emperor’s younger brother is inquiring about the amazing artificial life, this boy is living, surrounded by opulence, servants waiting on his every command.
The brother asks, “Is it true that you can do whatever you want?”
“Of course, I can”, says the boy emperor. “If I am naughty, someone else is punished. One of them!”, and he points to the hundreds of servants carrying him in procession down the street.
The Christian message is the opposite of that.
In the movie, the emperor does wrong, and the servants are punished,
The gospel of Jesus says that although the servants did wrong, the king is punished.
It is somewhat unusual, for a belief system, a religious movement, to be recognised universally, by the method of execution of its leader.
That’s the cross!
Christians wear it around their necks, and stick on their buildings, and we speak of it constantly!
The very first sermon preached in this church was Christ Crucified!
Can you imagine a movement having as its symbol, a little syringe from a lethal injection,
Or followers of some religious leader, wearing little gold-plated electric chairs on chains around their neck?
But the suffering and death of Christ, are not the tragic end of some forgotten prophet, but the necessary saving acts of God.
And because that message came, not simply with words, but also with power, with the Holy Spirit and with deep conviction, as Paul says in 1 Thessalonians, Some of the Jews were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, as did a large number of God-fearing Greeks and not a few prominent women
As we see around our world, and even in our own experience, this kind of response to the message of Jesus draws opposition.
the Jews were jealous; we’re told, so they rounded up some bad characters from the marketplace, formed a mob and started a riot in the city.
This was the original Flash Mob! Literally it’s something like “worthless men of the marketplace.” Idle men, with nothing better to do, than sit around in the foodcourt, checking Facebook on their phone!
They rushed to Jason’s house in search of Paul and Silas in order to bring them out to the crowd. 6 But when they did not find them, they dragged Jason and some other brothers before the city officials,
Luke knew what he was writing about!
As a bit of an aside, city officials there in verse 6, is a rare word, the Greek word politarch . so rare in fact that in 1898, a famous articles was published saying there was no record of this word in any other Greek literature.
And so people used to say, clearly Luke, knew nothing about Thessalonica,
He’s obviously never been there,
He apparently didn’t speak to anyone who came from Thessalonica, to ask “Hey, what the city authorities in your town called?”
Because of his use of this word, Luke was written off as an unreliable source of history.
Until, a stone archway was discovered, bearing an inscription about city authorities, who were called . the politarchs!
Like much of Ancient Greece, it’s now in the British Museum, I have a photo of it.
But where do you think they found it? One of the main gateways to the city of Thessalonica.
And so the very argument levelled against Luke and his historical accuracy and reliability, becomes the knockout punch clearly demonstrating his very careful research.
No-one else at the time was writing about Politarchs!
Luke couldn’t have got that language from anywhere else!
Only by being in Thessalonica,
Only by speaking to people who were there,
Only by being very careful to preserve things as they actually were, would this title end up in Luke’s historical account.
We have every confidence that this is real history!
So back to Thessalonica, and it’s in the accusation raised against Paul and Silas before the politarchs, that we get a little bit more of the detail of Paul’s message about Jesus.
“These men who have caused trouble all over the world have now come here, 7 and Jason has welcomed them into his house. They are all defying Caesar’s decrees, saying that there is another king, one called Jesus.”
Paul’s message was that Jesus is king
This is the point where a bit of a hush, might have fallen over Luke’s original hearers,
Sure, it’s rent-a-crowd, and false allegations,
But to defy Caesar’s decrees,
To say there is another king,
All of a sudden the death penalty is on the table.
And actually not just death penalty as a judicial punishment following a trial, just the accusation, of treason, allegiance to another king, was enough, on occasion, to have people killed.
Townspeople and local authorities were so afraid of the Roman Army whose job it was to stamp out sedition, that they would take matters into their own hands, rather than deal with it through official channels.
Not only was the Emperor the ruler, emperors also demanded to be worshipped as gods.
Refuse to worship the emperor, and you’d be thrown to the lions, burned at the stake, or face some other painful and terrible death.
The Romans figured that the survival of the empire depended on the good favour of their various gods, and so neglecting any of the official gods of the empire, be they the emperors or other gods, that was considered treason!
A little while after these events in Acts, a man named Polycarp, the bishop of Smyrna, was, as an elderly man, arrested for being a Christian.
But the Roman proconsul urged him, repeatedly, to recant, all he needed to say was “Caesar is Lord”, and worship the emperor’s statue by offering a tiny pinch of incense, “Swear, and I will set you at liberty, reproach Christ;” the Proconsul urged.
But Polycarp famously responded, "Eighty-six years I have served Christ, and he never did me any wrong. How can I blaspheme my King who saved me?”
And so Polycarp was burned alive, because he would not renounce his king.
Friends, to repent, and turn to Jesus, means bowing the knee to him as king.
To be saved from our sin and rebellion doesn’t mean to accept Jesus as “mate”,
Or to take him on as “advisor”,
We don’t rely on Jesus as our “personal assistant”
We come to him, and accept him as Lord and king.
And that kingship unavoidably means that there is an allegiance that we will not and can not give to earthly rulers.
See all this opposition, whether in Acts 17,
The way Polycarp and others in the following centuries suffered,
The Christians being persecuted in different parts of the world, who numbers of you in Bible Study Groups prayed for especially this week,
It all shows us the uniqueness of Jesus.
If the message about Jesus was news about just another teacher, that people could just slot in to their existing religious framework, then religious people wouldn’t feel threatened.
But it’s because Jesus kingship trumps all others,
Because he claimed to be the way to God,
It’s because obedience to Jesus as God’s king, necessarily takes a higher priority than obedience to earthly rulers, that we see this kind of opposition and resistance to the gospel.
When people say things like, “Oh Jesus was a good man, a great religious leader”,
“All the religions are basically the same”,
They’re showing themselves to be ignorant not just of the various religions, which contradict each other at significant points, but they’re showing themselves to be ignorant of history!
A Jesus who was just another religious leader wouldn’t get this sort of opposition.
This kind of opposition comes from the realisation that Jesus claimed to be king over all.
The claim that Jesus was a king above Caesar, was one that couldn’t be tolerated in Thessalonica, so the officials made Jason and the others post bond and let them go.
It all means Paul and Silas had to leave for the safety of the new believers, Verse 10, As soon as it was night, the brothers sent Paul and Silas away to Berea.
How to please your preacher!
But in Berea, we see the other response to the good news of Jesus. And we could call this response, “How to please your preacher”!
I realise that pleasing the preacher might not be on the top of your list of priorities, but this is the response to the message of Jesus that Luke urges us to make,
On arriving in Berea, verse 10, they went to the Jewish synagogue. 11 Now the Bereans were of more noble character than the Thessalonians, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true.
To say more noble character, isn’t just a way of saying , they were a bit more middle-class than the rabble at Thessalonica, the word also means open-minded.
Today when someone says they’re open-minded, they seem to mean that they’re happy to let all the competing ideas and claims float around, without making any attempt to try and evaluate or discern their truthfulness.
There was someone on the ABCs Q & A once, who kept stating repeatedly how open-minded they were, but they didn’t seem to have ever reached any meaningful conclusion about anything at all! Which led one journalist to comment that he was so open-minded that his brain had fallen out!
Being open-minded doesn’t mean believing nothing!
Being open-minded, noble minded, means following the argument,
Seeking the truth,
Checking the evidence,
And then being willing to accept what you find.
What did these open-minded Bereans do when they heard Paul’s message? They examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true.
They turned to God’s Word, to determine if what they were hearing accorded with what God had already made known.
Study the Scriptures daily
And notice that Luke tells us they did it every day.
The Bereans knew that just turning up to synagogue on Saturday wasn’t enough to wrestle with, and learn from, God’s Word.
Once a week wasn’t enough to work out if what they were being taught was true or not!
I’ve said it before, opening up your Bible only on Sunday is like trying to survive on one Weet-Bix a week.
It’s good for you,
It provides some nourishment and sustenance, but there’s no way you can survive, let alone grow, with that kind of diet.
Replace speculation about God with revelation of God
Karl Barth was one of the most significant theologians in the 20th Century, even to the point of having his photo on the cover of Time magazine! His major work was 13 volumes of Christian theology, running to 6 million words!
One of the chapters is titled “The revelation of God as the abolition of religion.” He defines religion as humanity’s quest for knowledge about God, and our attempts to justify ourselves before God.
Barth says, God’s self-revelation of himself, brings an end to those human attempts.
How do we work out what God is like,
What God’s plans and purposes are?
We turn to what God has already made known.
I imagine that none of us have met Catherine, the Duchess of Cambridge. If she and William were due to visit us this morning, I expect there would be a bit of a buzz around the place, and probably, we’d be talking to each other, saying things like, “Well, I think she’s like this,
I reckon she’d like us to do such and such,
Presumably, she like’s tea and not coffee,
We’d have ideas and speculation about who she is, what she’s like, and what she expects of us,
But the moment she walks into the room, all speculation must end!
It’s ludicrous to say “Well I think she’s like this”, when she herself is saying, perhaps the complete opposite!
“I’d like a cup of tea, please,” she says, and you give coffee, because that’s what you imagine she likes?!
No, ideas and speculation are no match for God’s own revelation of himself.
We must always turn to the Scriptures to hear God speak, and to determine the truthfulness of what we hear.
And the result of doing this, was that Many of the Jews believed, as did also a number of prominent Greek women and many Greek men
The message of the apostles is the message of Jesus is the message of God
And the reason for everything that happened in Berea,
The response of faith,
The fact that the Bereans could check what Paul was saying,
The reason even for the opposition that follows them from Thessalonica in verse 13, is because the message of the apostles, is the same as the message of Jesus, is the same as the message of God in the Old Testament.
I remember when I was at university, reading the graffiti in one of the toilets, and alongside all the rude comments about lecturers, and the arrows pointing to the roll of toilet paper saying, “Collect your arts degree here”, someone had written: “How can Christians reconcile the God of the Old Testament with the God of the New Testament?”
And maybe that’s your question! Maybe you were the one who wrote it, and if you were, I’m sorry that I didn’t scrawl an answer underneath!
But what does Luke tell us in recording these events in Acts?
There is no reconciliation required!
The message of the Apostles, is the message of Jesus, is the message of God!
The particular actions of God are different,
The context within which God relates to his people is different,
But God’s character hasn’t changed,
His message hasn’t changed,
The Bereans were able to check the accuracy of Paul’s message, by reading their Scriptures, what we call the Old Testament.
Imagine you come to God, Church & Me this Wednesday night.
This week’s session is “Growing and Giving”, it’s about the various ministry areas in our church, how to get involved, how we handle money, how people can partner with us to share the good news of Jesus in our region.
Imagine I say to you, “I’d like you to check the truthfulness of what I say about those things in the workshop time, and so I’ll give you all the paperwork for you to check me against.”
So you turn up, Wednesday, 7:30 in the office, and I give you a big fat booklet, which is the instruction manual, for my coffee machine.
Are you going to believe the things I say,
When that’s what you’re comparing my words against?
The Bereans believed Paul’s words, because Paul’s message was about the same things that their Scriptures were about!
The reason it’s so easy for them to check the truthfulness of Paul’s message is because Paul’s message was contained in their Old Testament Scriptures!
Not to the same detail sure,
The revelation of God is progressive and unfolding,
But it’s all throughout the 2 volumes Luke wrote, his gospel and Acts:, Paul’s message, and Jesus’ message, is the same as the message of God in the Old Testament.
There are some people who don’t like the apostle Paul.
And they try and drive a wedge between what Paul says and what Jesus says, or what the Old Testament says.
I mentioned a few months ago, someone I read who said: “the Christian religion would have been entirely different, if the Apostle Paul hadn't screwed things up. , he got it all wrong.”
But if we’re willing to listen to what Luke is telling us, we can’t possibly reach that conclusion!
Luke demonstrates the gospel of Jesus as fulfilment of God’s promises
Paul’s message is a message of the fulfillment of the plans and purposes which God has been working out for centuries!
Luke’s gospel opens with Jesus’ teaching in Nazareth, where he reads the prophecy of Isaiah, of the time of the Lord’s favour, freedom for prisoners,
Sight to the blind,
and Jesus says . Luke 4:21, Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing
When John the Baptist sends his disciples to find out from Jesus if he really is the Messiah, Jesus’ response is to quote Isaiah again, those things long-promised are now here. (Isa 29:18–19; 35:5–6; 61:1–2).
After his resurrection, Luke tells us that Jesus taught the two disciples on the Emmaus road, “beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself”, Luke 24:27
And then to the wider group of the disciples, Luke 24:44 “This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms”
In Acts 1:16, Peter explains the treachery of Judas and the necessity of replacing him by quoting the Psalms, situation. (69:25; 109:8)
In chapter 2, The resurrection of Jesus and the pouring out of the Spirit of God on all God’s people is explained as fulfillment of God’s promises. Acts 2:16–21 & Joel 2:28–32
Peter’s speech to the crowd in Acts 3, the Christ must suffer, it was all promised in the Scriptures.
Philip and the Ethiopian,
Peter speaking to the Gentiles in Cornelius’ house,
The Jerusalem council,
Right through to Paul’s very last speech from his rented house in Rome in Acts 28,
The message preached by the messengers of the early church, is same message of God’s plans and purposes as announced by Jesus,
And that message is the same message, albeit the fulfilled version, of the message, spoken by God through his prophets in the Old Testament.
Why study the Scriptures?
Why did the Bereans believe?
We know there was a significant response to the gospel, Verse 12, Many of the Jews believed, as did also a number of prominent Greek women and many Greek men.
Well it wasn’t because Paul was such a great preacher!
He didn’t win them to faith, with convincing arguments!
They believed Paul, because his message, was the message that God had been bringing to his people for centuries, and now they understood how it was being fulfilled.
So it raises a question for us, How do people come to faith in Jesus today!
Well it has to be the same way, doesn’t it?
We might be tempted to think it’s through clever arguments,
Always having a well thought-through answer, when our friends ask us a question about what we believe,
And some of those things are important, and good to strive for,
But if people are to come to know God, then speculation about God has to stop, and the Word of God, the revelation of God about himself, the explanation that God’s king had to suffer in our place, that message has to be put before people, doesn’t it?
You can’t come to faith in Christ, without hearing what Christ has done in suffering in your place.
You can’t be welcomed into God’s family, without knowing the God who makes himself known in the Scriptures.
Which says something about how we do evangelism, doesn’t it?
If that’s what people need to hear, then that’s what people need to hear from us!
It has something to say about how we choose a church, doesn’t it?
If you’re with us this morning because you’re looking to join a church and you’re wondering if this one’s a “good one”, that’s the question you need to answer.
Is this a place of speculation and ideas about God, or is this a place where what God has said about himself and his plans and purposes is taken seriously?
If you’re not a Christian, we’re really pleased to have you here!
It seems to me that’s the question you need to answer too.
Forget people’s ideas and speculations about God, they are as useless as my ideas of whether the Duchess of Cambridge prefers tea or coffee, what has God said?
What has God made known of himself in the Scriptures, in the person of Jesus?
See that heading I put there “How to please your preacher”, who cares if the preacher’s pleased or not, this is the response that pleases God.
Although I would say, if the preacher is ever displeased, that you are studying the Scriptures to see if what you’re hearing is true,
If your preacher is displeased, that you question, “Where in the Scriptures is this message coming from?”
If your preacher is displeased, that you check everything that they say against the Word of God, then it’s time to get a new preacher!
That is dangerous territory, friends.
Up until the time of the Reformation in the 16th Century, Bibles were generally in Latin, which the general population couldn’t read, and they often kept chained up, in church buildings where people couldn’t get at them.
The Reformers though, translated the Bible into the vernacular, so people could read it for themselves, and taught that every Christian person, had what they called “The Right of Private Judgment.” Not that each of us can just decide “Well I think the Bible means this”, we’ve already seen that that kind of speculation is useless!
But it means that every Christian person has been enabled by God to study the Scriptures.
We don’t depend on others, to tell us the plain message of the Bible, and we can’t abdicate our responsibility, to study it for ourselves.
The way we evaluate what we hear, the competing claims about God, is not “does it feel right?”
Does it suit my politics?
Is this socially acceptable?
Will it fit with my lifestyle?
But does this accord with what God has said in his Word?
This week I read a fascinating article by a woman who described herself as a “lesbian feminist professor”, who, despite her best efforts, came under the sound of the gospel message.
It didn’t fit with her politics,
It certainly didn’t fit with her lifestyle,
And yet she was irresistibly drawn, by the truth of what she heard.
And in God’s great kindness, this prominent woman, came to trust in Jesus and her life was transformed.
Is what you hear true?
And if it is, what are you going to do about it?