October 16, 2011

They turned the world upside down

You may remember in the Oct. 2 blog we saw how Paul and Silas were imprisoned and then asked to leave Philippi, which was located in Macedonia, the northern part of Greece on the Aegean Sea. They travelled about 50 miles west to Thessalonica at the end of the Thermaikos Gulf. In Thessalonica, as elsewhere in the Roman Empire, there was a Jewish synagogue. “Paul went in, as was his custom, and on three sabbath days argued with them from the scriptures, explaining and proving that it was necessary for the Messiah to suffer and to rise from the dead, and saying, ‘This is the Messiah, Jesus whom I am proclaiming to you.’” (Acts 17:2-3)


The preaching proved popular and many were converted including “great many of the devout Greeks and not a few of the leading women.” (Note that women are important enough to be mentioned as converts!) However, as elsewhere in Paul’s travels those who did not convert became angry and started a riot. “They attacked Jason’s house. When they could not find them, they dragged Jason and some believers before the city authorities, shouting, ‘These people who have been turning the world upside down have come here also, and Jason has entertained them as guests. They are all acting contrary to the decrees of the emperor, saying that there is another king named Jesus.’ (Acts 17:5-7)

Whether from misunderstanding or the desire to misrepresent Paul, the opponents claim that Paul is proclaiming another king. Isn't it often that way, we twist other people's words to seem negative when we disagree with them. Sadly we see this too often in our leadership, even in churches.

Wisely, the “believers sent Paul and Silas off to Beroea.” This town is further inland than Thessalonica and about 20 miles further west. Slowly but surely the opposition and persecution by the Jewish and Greek non-believers is pushing the word of the Gospel further and further into the Empire. God's word is not stopped because of resistance. If anything, it grows stronger.

In reading the Book of Acts, it is apparent that Paul’s teaching especially disturbed the Jewish leaders. In fact, once again, “when the Jews of Thessalonica learned that the word of God had been proclaimed by Paul in Beroea as well, they came there too, to stir up and incite the crowds. Then the believers immediately sent Paul away to the coast, but Silas and Timothy remained behind. Those who conducted Paul brought him as far as Athens; and after receiving instructions to have Silas and Timothy join him as soon as possible, they left him.” (Acts 17:15)

Paul has now arrived at one of the major cities in Greece, and in the Roman Empire. Athens is located at the southern tip of Greece where the Aegean and Mediterranean Seas come together. He is “deeply distressed to see that the city was full of idols,” and starts to debate with the philosophers and Jews in the city. “Now all the Athenians and the foreigners living there would spend their time in nothing but telling or hearing something new.” (Acts 17:21)

The Athenians are interested in this new religion/philosophy Paul is presenting and invite him to speak at the Areopagus. Paul starts to preach to them by identifying something they recognize: “I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, “To an unknown god.” What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.” (Acts 17:23)

Paul knew that when you can find common ground with the person you are talking to, it is easier to reach their heart. I wonder if we could 'turn our world upside down' by doing more listening and less complaining...just wondering.

The Areopagus was an open outcropping north-west of the Acropolis where, in the pre-Roman era, court cases were heard. In Paul’s time, it served as a venue for hearing famous speakers or interesting presentations. The Athenians are intrigued by Paul’s presentation, “When they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some scoffed; but others said, ‘We will hear you again about this.’ At that point Paul left them. But some of them joined him and became believers, including Dionysius the Areopagite (a councilor or perhaps judge) and a woman named Damaris, and others with them.” (Acts 17:32-34)

After Paul leaves Athens, he travelled just a little further west to Corinth. The narrow land bridge between Athens and Corinth is called the Isthmus of Corinth. Paul meets Aquila, who had just relocated from Rome when the Emperor Claudius expelled the Jews. He was originally from Pontus (in the northern part of Turkey, bordering the Black Sea). Aquila was a tentmaker, and we learn that is Paul’s trade as well. Paul stays with Aquila and his wife Pricilla. Silas and Timothy finally arrive from Macedonia they find “Paul [occupied] with proclaiming the word, testifying to the Jews that the Messiah was Jesus. When they opposed and reviled him, in protest he shook the dust from his clothes and said to them, ‘Your blood be on your own heads! I am innocent. From now on I will go to the Gentiles.’ Then he left the synagogue and went to the house of a man named Titius Justus, a worshipper of God; his house was next door to the synagogue. Crispus, the official of the synagogue, became a believer in the Lord, together with all his household; and many of the Corinthians who heard Paul became believers and were baptized.” (Acts 18:5-8)

Because the Corinthians were so receptive to the Gospel, “He stayed there for a year and six months, teaching the word of God among them.” (Acts 18:11) Eventually Paul leaves and “sailed for Syria, accompanied by Priscilla and Aquila…When they reached Ephesus, he left them there…on taking leave of them, he said, ‘I will return to you, if God wills.’ Then he set sail from Ephesus…[he] landed at Caesarea, he went up to Jerusalem and greeted the church, and then went down to Antioch. After spending some time there he departed and went from place to place through the region of Galatia and Phrygia, strengthening all the disciples." (Acts 18:18-23)

Once again Paul discovers that the Gentiles, those considered ‘unbelievers’ by faithful Jews, are more receptive to the Good News of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. I wonder how often we pre-judge the people who cross our paths. They are thirsty for the Word of God, and we may assume that they are too…poor or evil or rich or unrepentant or something… Who are we to judge? Perhaps we should seek common ground and share the Good News with them instead, welcoming all of God’s people into communion with us. Maybe we have more in common than we think...

Next week we'll start, with Paul, on this third journey.

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