Acts 20: 13 – 38 Paul’s farewell to the Ephesian elders

Acts 20: 13 – 38 Paul’s farewell to the Ephesian elders

We went on ahead to the ship and sailed for Assos, where we were going to take Paul aboard. He had made this arrangement because he was going there on foot. When he met us at Assos, we took him aboard and went on to Mitylene. The next day we set sail from there and arrived off Chios. The day after that we crossed over to Samos, and on the following day arrived at Miletus. Paul had decided to sail past Ephesus to avoid spending time in the province of Asia, for he was in a hurry to reach Jerusalem, if possible, by the day of Pentecost.

From Miletus, Paul sent to Ephesus for the elders of the church. When they arrived, he said to them: ‘You know how I lived the whole time I was with you, from the first day I came into the province of Asia. I served the Lord with great humility and tears and in the midst of severe testing by the plots of my Jewish opponents. You know that I have not hesitated to preach anything that would be helpful to you but have taught you publicly and from house to house. I have declared to both Jews and Greeks that they must turn to God in repentance and have faith in our Lord Jesus.

And now, compelled by the Spirit, I am going to Jerusalem, not knowing what will happen to me there. I only know that in every city the Holy Spirit warns me that prison and hardships await me. However, I consider my life worth nothing to me; my only aim is to finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me – the task of testifying to the good news of God’s grace.

‘Now I know that none of you among whom I have gone about preaching the kingdom will ever see me again. Therefore, I declare to you today that I am innocent of the blood of any of you. For I have not hesitated to proclaim to you the whole will of God. Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood. I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them. So be on your guard! Remember that for three years I never stopped warning each of you with tears.

‘Now I commit you to God and to the word of his grace, which can build you up and give you an inheritance among all those who are sanctified. I have not coveted anyone’s silver or gold or clothing. You yourselves know that these hands of mine have supplied my own needs and the needs of my companions. In everything I did, I showed you that by this kind of hard work we must help the weak, remembering the words the Lord Jesus himself said: “It is more blessed to give than to receive.”’

When Paul had finished speaking, he knelt down with all of them and prayed. They all wept as they embraced him and kissed him. What grieved them most was his statement that they would never see his face again. Then they accompanied him to the ship.

*       *       *

This is a different view of Paul. Mostly I’ve seen him as argumentative, arrogant even, insisting that he’s right and the others – whoever they are – are wrong. As someone who has occasionally had to present difficult truths to a reluctant public, I have sometimes frowned at Paul’s confrontational approach. It’s so much more effective to reframe the issue rather than simply argue against the others’ point of view.

At the same time, I’ve seen him as vastly dedicated, fearless, ready to dare anything, to suffer anything for the sake of the good news. Very admirable, but not very endearing. A man to respect rather than love, perhaps.

But look at verses 36 – 38.

“When Paul had finished speaking, he knelt down with all of them and prayed. They all wept as they embraced him and kissed him. What grieved them most was his statement that they would never see his face again. Then they accompanied him to the ship.”

The elders of the church at Ephesus embrace Paul, they kiss him. Most telling of all, they weep because he had told them he would never see his face again. Clearly, they loved Paul.

Paul himself explains a little.

“I served the Lord with great humility and tears”. Paul passionately desired the salvation of everyone with whom he came in contact.

“You know that I have not hesitated to preach anything that would be helpful to you but have taught you publicly and from house to house.” Paul has preached the word everywhere, in public and in private. If you met Paul, he would talk to you about Jesus; he would want to assure himself that you were as close to Jesus as you could be.

Paul cared for people – and people loved Paul.

Prayer

Heavenly Father

Thank you for the witness of your servant Paul. Thank you that the love he showed towards those round him expressed the love you feel for each one of us. Help us, in turn, to show your love to everybody we know.

In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Acts 20: 1 – 12 Through Macedonia and Greece & Eutychus raised from the dead at Troas

Acts 20: 1 – 12 Through Macedonia and Greece & Eutychus raised from the dead at Troas

When the uproar had ended, Paul sent for the disciples and, after encouraging them, said goodbye and set out for Macedonia. He travelled through that area, speaking many words of encouragement to the people, and finally arrived in Greece, where he stayed three months. Because some Jews had plotted against him just as he was about to sail for Syria, he decided to go back through Macedonia. He was accompanied by Sopater son of Pyrrhus from Berea, Aristarchus and Secundus from Thessalonika, Gaius from Derbe, Timothy also, and Tychicus and Trophimus from the province of Asia. These men went on ahead and waited for us at Troas. But we sailed from Philippi after the Festival of Unleavened Bread, and five days later joined the others at Troas, where we stayed seven days.

On the first day of the week we came together to break bread. Paul spoke to the people and, because he intended to leave the next day, kept on talking until midnight. There were many lamps in the upstairs room where we were meeting. Seated in a window was a young man named Eutychus, who was sinking into a deep sleep as Paul talked on and on. When he was sound asleep, he fell to the ground from the third storey and was picked up dead. Paul went down, threw himself on the young man and put his arms around him. ‘Don’t be alarmed,’ he said. ‘He’s alive!’ Then he went upstairs again and broke bread and ate. After talking until daylight, he left. The people took the young man home alive and were greatly comforted.

*       *       *

The last chapter was in Ephesus, and finished with an account of a riot instigated by the silversmith Demetrius against Paul. Although the civil authorities quelled the riot, it was clear that Paul’s presence was dangerous, so he encouraged the disciples and went to Macedonia. He spent some time there, going from place to place and encouraging the churches he had started, finishing in Greece where he stayed for three months.

He was about to travel by sea to Syria, but a plot caused him to change his plans and return via Macedonia.

“He was accompanied by Sopater son of Pyrrhus from Berea, Aristarchus and Secundus from Thessalonika, Gaius from Derbe, Timothy also, and Tychicus and Trophimus from the province of Asia.”

Why does St Luke give us a list of Paul’s companions on the journey?

Both St Luke’s gospel and the Acts of the Apostles, are addressed to Theophilus. The name Theophilus means ‘Friend of God’, or ‘Beloved of God’, or ‘Loving God’, and it could be either a form of address for anyone seeking the truth about God, or the name of a specific individual.

If it is the former, then the list of names in verse 4 may be Luke’s way of naming witnesses who could vouch for the truth of what he has written about Paul’s ministry. If the latter, Luke may be telling Theophilus that these people can be trusted.

It is important to remember that St Luke wrote his gospel and Acts in the expectation that Jesus would soon come again. He wrote for his contemporaries, and the people in this list in verse 4 would have been known to the other believers. They would have been alive and able to answer questions.

Eventually Paul and his companions reached Troas. The companions included Luke – note the word “we” in “But we sailed from Philippi after the Festival of Unleavened Bread…”.

And in Troas, a significant miracle may have occurred. A young man named Eutychus started to doze during Paul’s preaching. He was sitting in a window on the third floor. Gradually he went sound asleep – and fell out of the window.

Being on the third floor, he must have fallen at least 6 metres. It’s hard to imagine that he wasn’t at the very least seriously injured. The first people to examine him pronounced him dead. Paul, though, went down, threw himself on the young man and put his arms around him. ‘Don’t be alarmed,’ he said. ‘He’s alive!’”

Was Eutychus raised from the dead? It’s certainly possible that he wasn’t dead, and the text doesn’t say he was made whole, only that, The people took the young man home alive and were greatly comforted.”

Paul makes no claims for the healing. Luke does not state that Paul healed him, or raised him to life. Other raisings to life – Lazarus, Jairus’s daughter, the son of the widow of Nain, Tabitha – were different. It was clear in each case that a miracle had happened.

I feel very doubtful whether this event was miraculous. I think Eutychus was just…fortunate.

Prayer

Heavenly Father

You hold and sustain all life. Every day for every one of us is a miracle of life that you have given us. Thank you for my life, for the love that I have been fortunate enough to have been given and especially for the love of Jesus.

In Jesus’ name, Amen

Acts 19: 23 – 41 The riot in Ephesus

Acts 19: 23 – 41 The riot in Ephesus

About that time there arose a great disturbance about the Way. A silversmith named Demetrius, who made silver shrines of Artemis, brought in a lot of business for the craftsmen there. He called them together, along with the workers in related trades, and said: ‘You know, my friends, that we receive a good income from this business. And you see and hear how this fellow Paul has convinced and led astray large numbers of people here in Ephesus and in practically the whole province of Asia. He says that gods made by human hands are no gods at all. There is danger that not only will our trade lose its good name, but also that the temple of the great goddess Artemis will be discredited; and the goddess herself, who is worshipped throughout the province of Asia and the world, will be robbed of her divine majesty.’

When they heard this, they were furious and began shouting: ‘Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!’ Soon the whole city was in an uproar. The people seized Gaius and Aristarchus, Paul’s travelling companions from Macedonia, and all of them rushed into the theatre together. Paul wanted to appear before the crowd, but the disciples would not let him. Even some of the officials of the province, friends of Paul, sent him a message begging him not to venture into the theatre.

The assembly was in confusion: some were shouting one thing, some another. Most of the people did not even know why they were there. The Jews in the crowd pushed Alexander to the front, and they shouted instructions to him. He motioned for silence in order to make a defence before the people. But when they realised he was a Jew, they all shouted in unison for about two hours: ‘Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!’

The city clerk quietened the crowd and said: ‘Fellow Ephesians, doesn’t all the world know that the city of Ephesus is the guardian of the temple of the great Artemis and of her image, which fell from heaven? Therefore, since these facts are undeniable, you ought to calm down and not do anything rash. You have brought these men here, though they have neither robbed temples nor blasphemed our goddess. If, then, Demetrius and his fellow craftsmen have a grievance against anybody, the courts are open and there are proconsuls. They can press charges. If there is anything further you want to bring up, it must be settled in a legal assembly. As it is, we are in danger of being charged with rioting because of what happened today. In that case we would not be able to account for this commotion, since there is no reason for it.’ After he had said this, he dismissed the assembly.

*       *       *

Probably because I’m a writer, I like to read scriptural passages like today’s in the same way I would read a piece of fiction. And in this case, when I reached the end, I would ask, “Why did St Luke choose to include this in his account of the Acts of the Apostles?”

It’s a graphic piece of story-telling. We have conspirators plotting to silence Paul; the exploitation of religion and nationalism to enrage the citizens of Ephesus; a riot (I admire the way Luke puts us in the moment, with his description of the crowd chanting “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians,” over and over for hours!); and the heroism and diplomacy of the unnamed city clerk. And isn’t that striking? The city clerk faces down a large crowd of enraged and potentially violent people and sends them home – and we don’t even know his name!

Read in this way, this passage is a tribute to civic virtue, Roman-style. There is a system in place and easily available for citizens to get justice; “If, then, Demetrius and his fellow craftsmen have a grievance against anybody, the courts are open and there are proconsuls.” Just as important, there is a civic official whose concept of duty was to deal with the situation and ensure a peaceful resolution at whatever cost to himself.

So why did Luke include the story?

I think it was possibly to illustrate the nature of the threat faced by Paul and his co-workers. They are no longer facing spontaneous anger from individuals or small groups. It’s no longer only the Jews who reject his message. It’s organised opposition by people whose self-interest is threatened by Paul’s preaching of Jesus. They’ve taken care to ensure there is a solid coalition among those whose livelihood may be damaged. They deliberately appeal to the base motivations of nationalism and fanaticism. This is ruthless and dangerous.

In the case of the Ephesians, it was the worship of Artemis in the temple that brought prosperity, and which was undermined by Paul’s teaching. The worship of a false god wasn’t remotely compatible with Christianity. What false gods are there in my life that may compromise my faith in Jesus?

Prayer

Heavenly Father

Thank you for Jesus, whose life shows us what it means to love you, and to love each other. Please help me to follow him more obediently.

In Jesus’ name, Amen

Acts 19: 11 – 22 Paul in Ephesus – part 2

Acts 19: 11 – 22 Paul in Ephesus – part 2

God did extraordinary miracles through Paul, so that even handkerchiefs and aprons that had touched him were taken to those who were ill, and their illnesses were cured and the evil spirits left them.

Some Jews who went around driving out evil spirits tried to invoke the name of the Lord Jesus over those who were demon-possessed. They would say, ‘In the name of the Jesus whom Paul preaches, I command you to come out.’ Seven sons of Sceva, a Jewish chief priest, were doing this. One day the evil spirit answered them, ‘Jesus I know, and Paul I know about, but who are you?’ Then the man who had the evil spirit jumped on them and overpowered them all. He gave them such a beating that they ran out of the house naked and bleeding.

When this became known to the Jews and Greeks living in Ephesus, they were all seized with fear, and the name of the Lord Jesus was held in high honour. Many of those who believed now came and openly confessed what they had done. A number who had practised sorcery brought their scrolls together and burned them publicly. When they calculated the value of the scrolls, the total came to 50,000 drachmas. In this way the word of the Lord spread widely and grew in power.

After all this had happened, Paul decided to go to Jerusalem, passing through Macedonia and Achaia. ‘After I have been there,’ he said, ‘I must visit Rome also.’ He sent two of his helpers, Timothy and Erastus, to Macedonia, while he stayed in the province of Asia a little longer.

*       *       *

“Some Jews who went around driving out evil spirits tried to invoke the name of the Lord Jesus over those who were demon-possessed.”

The result was a disaster for them; they were beaten up by the possessed man, and fled his house naked and bleeding. Let’s compare this with another story in Luke’s gospel.

“’Master,’ said John, ‘we saw someone driving out demons in your name and we tried to stop him, because he is not one of us.’

‘Do not stop him,’ Jesus said, ‘for whoever is not against you is for you.’” (Luke 9: 49 – 50)

At first sight this seems contradictory, but is it? There are several different ways of comparing the two events.

What is going on in the story of the sons of Sceva? They try to cast out a demon by invoking the name of Jesus. This was Ephesus, and sorcery – as we see later in the chapter – was rife. When a sorcerer tried to invoke a spirit to do something – for example, to heal somebody – he thought of it in terms of having power over the spirit he invoked. So in this case, the sons of Sceva were trying to cast out demons by ‘controlling’ or ‘using’ the spirit of Jesus. In the case of the gospel story, however, Jesus endorsed the healer’s actions; although the man wasn’t one of the group of disciples closest to Jesus, he was witnessing to Jesus and that was what mattered.

Then, there is the motivation of those who were trying to cast out demons in Jesus’ name. The sons of Sceva may well have been expecting payment for the healing. We can assume, I think, from Jesus’ endorsement of the man mentioned in the gospel that he was doing it purely as a witness to Jesus. It is important for our hearts to be right before we even think of attempting prayer for healing.

Finally, another way of looking at the events is through the lens of what God wants to happen. Anyone who has had contact with a Christian healing ministry knows that prayer doesn’t always lead to physical healing. Before praying for healing, it is better to pray for guidance. Consider the raising of Tabitha from the dead.

“Peter sent them all out of the room; then he got down on his knees and prayed. Turning towards the dead woman, he said, ‘Tabitha, get up.’ She opened her eyes, and seeing Peter she sat up.” (Acts 9: 40)

Why did Peter pray? I believe it was so that he was completely sure that God wanted him to raise Tabitha.

What was God’s will in the attempt by the sons of Sceva and their failure to heal the demoniac? Look at the consequences. The populace of Ephesus had a stark sign against sorcery – and they heeded the warning.

“Many of those who believed now came and openly confessed what they had done. A number who had practised sorcery brought their scrolls together and burned them publicly. When they calculated the value of the scrolls, the total came to 50,000 drachmas. In this way the word of the Lord spread widely and grew in power.”

The big lesson that I take away from today’s reading is that it is God’s will, and God’s power expressed through Jesus. My role is to witness to that truth.

Prayer

Heavenly Father

Thank you for the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Please help me to witness about Jesus, in whose name I pray.

Amen

Acts 19: 1 – 10 Paul in Ephesus – part 1

Acts 19: 1 – 10 Paul in Ephesus – part 1

While Apollos was at Corinth, Paul took the road through the interior and arrived at Ephesus. There he found some disciples and asked them, ‘Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?’

They answered, ‘No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.’

So Paul asked, ‘Then what baptism did you receive?’

‘John’s baptism,’ they replied.

Paul said, ‘John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance. He told the people to believe in the one coming after him, that is, in Jesus.’ On hearing this they were baptised in the name of the Lord Jesus. When Paul placed his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied. There were about twelve men in all.

Paul entered the synagogue and spoke boldly there for three months, arguing persuasively about the kingdom of God. But some of them became obstinate; they refused to believe and publicly maligned the Way. So Paul left them. He took the disciples with him and had discussions daily in the lecture hall of Tyrranus. This went on for two years, so that all the Jews and Greeks who lived in the province of Asia heard the word of the Lord.

*        *        *

Greeks.

What does Luke mean when he refers to people as Greeks?

The territories through which Paul travelled were ruled by the Roman empire. Sometimes the Romans ruled directly but more often they used local leaders. Provided the taxes rolled into Rome’s treasury, and the province was kept stable, they weren’t too concerned who held day-to-day power.

Luke only refers specifically to Romans a few times, but he refers frequently to Greeks. He almost seems to use the description as a synonym for Gentile.

I think this is probably because Greek was the common language of countries surrounding the Mediterranean. Educated men and women would have spoken Greek as their first or second language in the same way that most people today speak English/American. Greek culture was also all-pervasive. The Romans had adopted Greek gods – the names were changed, but the characters and myths persisted. Greek philosophy underpinned intellectual life.

It’s interesting how many Greeks found Paul’s teaching attractive. Possibly that is to do with the Jewish ethical principles. Greek ethics were based more on philosophy than religion, but there is a good deal of common ground between Stoicism and Judaeo-Christian ethics.

There were Greek converts to Judaism in all the synagogues; it’s clear that Judaism was attractive to the Greek mind. Paul’s teaching of the Way (or Christianity as we now call it) differed from Judaism mainly through proclaiming Jesus as Messiah. However, it was also based on Jewish ethics – only without the emphasis on ritual purity.

Whenever Paul taught in the synagogue, eventually a core of Jews would take such exception to his message that he would be forced to leave. Possibly it was the removal of the need for ritual purity that caused the split? And at the same time this change to Judaism made it even more attractive to the Greeks, hence Paul’s success when he left the synagogue and taught elsewhere.

At all events, we have no requirements for ritual purity today. We have a much tougher challenge – to love our neighbour as ourself. May the knowledge of God’s love for us give us the strength to accept the challenge!

Prayer

Heavenly Father, thank you for the message preached by Paul. Thank you for the love you have for each one of us. Please help me to love my neighbour as myself.

In Jesus’ name, Amen

Acts 18: Priscilla, Aquila and Apollos

Acts 18: Priscilla, Aquila and Apollos

Paul stayed on in Corinth for some time. Then he left the brothers and sisters and sailed for Syria, accompanied by Priscilla and Aquila. Before he sailed, he had his hair cut off at Cenchreae because of a vow he had taken. They arrived at Ephesus, where Paul left Priscilla and Aquila. He himself went into the synagogue and reasoned with the Jews. When they asked him to spend more time with them, he declined. But as he left, he promised, ‘I will come back if it is God’s will.’ Then he set sail from Ephesus. When he landed at Caesarea, he went up to Jerusalem and greeted the church and then went down to Antioch.

After spending some time in Antioch, Paul set out from there and travelled from place to place throughout the region of Galatia and Phrygia, strengthening all the disciples.

Meanwhile a Jew named Apollos, a native of Alexandria, came to Ephesus. He was a learned man, with a thorough knowledge of the Scriptures. He had been instructed in the way of the Lord, and he spoke with great fervour and taught about Jesus accurately, though he knew only the baptism of John. He began to speak boldly in the synagogue. When Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they invited him to their home and explained to him the way of God more adequately.

When Apollos wanted to go to Achaia, the brothers and sisters encouraged him and wrote to the disciples there to welcome him. When he arrived, he was a great help to those who by grace had believed. For he vigorously refuted his Jewish opponents in public debate, proving from the Scriptures that Jesus was the Messiah.

*       *       *

Baptism.

Apollos was teaching accurately and fervently about Jesus, “though he knew only the baptism of John”. What background could he have had that would have left him not knowing about baptism in the name of Jesus?

It was Pentecost when the Holy Spirit was first poured out: “When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.” (Acts 2: 1 – 4)

All the apostles were together when this happened, and – presumably – all subsequent teaching about Jesus came through the apostles and those close to them. And yet here we find Apollos lacking knowledge of the Holy Spirit.

Perhaps one lesson from this is that God uses anyone who is willing to obey him. Apollos was eager to tell people about Jesus, so God let him. Indeed, he encouraged him and sent him to the place and the people (Priscilla and Aquila) where his knowledge and experience of the faith could be both enhanced and used.

Prayer

Heavenly Father

Thank you that anyone who trusts Jesus, no matter how weak and insignificant we are, can witness to him.

In Jesus’ name, Amen

Acts 18: 1 – 17 In Corinth

Acts 18: 1 – 17 In Corinth

After this, Paul left Athens and went to Corinth. There he met a Jew named Aquila, a native of Pontus, who had recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla, because Claudius had ordered all Jews to leave Rome. Paul went to see them, and because he was a tent-maker as they were, he stayed and worked with them. Every Sabbath he reasoned in the synagogue, trying to persuade Jews and Greeks.

When Silas and Timothy came from Macedonia, Paul devoted himself exclusively to preaching, testifying that Jesus was the Messiah. But when they opposed Paul and became abusive, he shook out his clothes in protest and said to them, ‘Your blood be on your own heads! I am innocent of it. From now on I will go to the Gentiles.’

Then Paul left the synagogue and went next door to the house of Titius Justus, a worshipper of God. Crispus, the synagogue leader and his entire household believed in the Lord; and many of the Corinthians who heard Paul believed and were baptised.

One night the Lord spoke to Paul in a vision: ‘Do not be afraid; keep on speaking, do not be silent. For I am with you, and no one is going to attack and harm you, because I have many people in this city.’ So Paul stayed in Corinth for a year and a half, teaching them the word of God.

While Gallio was proconsul of Achaia, the Jews of Corinth made a united attack on Paul and brought him to the place of judgment. ‘This man,’ they charged, ‘is persuading the people to worship God in ways contrary to the law.’

Just as Paul was about to speak, Gallio said to them, ‘If you Jews were making a complaint about some misdemeanour or serious crime, it would be reasonable for me to listen to you. But since it involves questions about words and names and your own law – settle the matter yourselves. I will not be a judge of such things.’ So he drove them off. Then the crowd there turned on Sosthenes the synagogue leader and beat him in front of the proconsul; and Gallio showed no concern whatever.

*       *       *

Yet again we see Paul facing conflict and rejection from many of those to whom he preaches. “But when they opposed Paul and became abusive, he shook out his clothes in protest and said to them, ‘Your blood be on your own heads! I am innocent of it. From now on I will go to the Gentiles.’”

Why did the Jews of Corinth become abusive? It may have been as simple as the feeling, ‘Oh, no, not again!’ as Paul stands up in the synagogue. “Every Sabbath he reasoned in the synagogue, trying to persuade Jews and Greeks.”

What was Paul teaching so persistently and forcefully?

He was teaching that the Messiah spoken of by the Jewish Scriptures had to suffer before his kingdom could come. He was teaching that if you compared the life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth against the Scriptures you found that he fulfilled every prophecy of the Messiah. He was teaching that this was God’s plan to save mankind from sin, and that it was a free gift from God.

Paul believed this message was the most important good news he could give anybody; the most important good news anybody could receive. Of course he was forceful!

In Corinth, he persisted with the Jews in the synagogue until they became abusive; until they made it perfectly clear that they rejected his message. By that point it was obvious that nothing that Paul said to them would convince them. He would have been wasting his time.

So he went next door to the house of Titius Justus and won many for Jesus.

We know the nature of Paul’s message to the Corinthians, and the urgency he felt about it,  because he wrote letters to them. This is what he says in the first letter:

“For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance; that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the twelve.” (1 Corinthians 15: 3 – 5)

Prayer

Heavenly Father

Thank you for the witness of your saints in every age. Thank you especially for St Paul, who brought your good news to the Gentiles.

In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Acts 17: 16 – 34 In Athens

Acts 17: 16 – 34 In Athens

While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols. So he reasoned in the synagogue with both Jews and God-fearing Greeks, as well as in the market place day by day with those who happened to be there. A group of Epicurean and Stoic philosophers began to debate with him. Some of them asked, ‘What is this babbler trying to say?’ Others remarked, ‘He seems to be advocating foreign gods.’ They said this because Paul was preaching the good news about Jesus and the resurrection. Then they took him and brought him to a meeting of the Areopagus, where they said to him, ‘May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? You are bringing some strange ideas to our ears, and we would like to know what they mean.’ (All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas.)

Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: ‘People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. So you are ignorant of the very thing that you worship – and this is what I am going to proclaim to you.

‘The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else. From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him. Though he is not far from any one of us. “For in him we live and move and have our being.” As some of your own poets have said, “We are his offspring.”

‘Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone – an image made by human design and skill. In the past, God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.

When they heard about the resurrection of the dead, some of them sneered, but others said, ‘We want to hear you again on this subject.’ At that, Paul left the Council. Some of the people became followers of Paul and believed. Among them was Dionysius, a member of the Areopagus, also a woman named Damaris, and a number of others.

*       *       *

As Rome was the centre of civil power in the pagan world in the 1st century AD, Athens was its spiritual heart. The Athenians had a long tradition of intellectual enquiry, which, at the time of Paul’s visit, dated back at least 500 years. St Luke describes it rather scornfully – “All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas.”

Paul started his visit by going to the synagogue where he would doubtless have used the Scriptures to show the significance of Jesus as the Messiah. However, he also went to the market and spoke to the people there.

It wasn’t long before a group of Epicurean and Stoic philosophers began to debate with him. Epicurean philosophers were materialists, rejecting superstition and divine intervention. They thought that the greatest good was to seek modest sustainable pleasures through knowing the workings of the world and limiting desires. Stoic philosophy, by contrast, held that one should accept the moment, not allowing oneself to be controlled by the desire for pleasure or the fear of pain. One should use one’s mind to understand the world, do one’s part in nature’s plan, and work together, treating others fairly and justly.

At first there was mockery: “What is this babbler trying to say?” – but it wasn’t long before Paul was invited to speak in a formal meeting of the Areopagus.

He started from an observation he’d made while walking around the city. He had found an altar inscribed “TO AN UNKNOWN GOD”. Paul tells his listeners that this refers to God the Creator. He works from there, via quotations from Greek writers, to proclaiming the good news of Jesus. He then says that God has proved the significance of Jesus by raising him from the dead.

For most of them, this was a step too far. Some sneered openly, while others said ‘We want to hear you again on this subject.’ (with an implied – “but not right now” added silently). Nevertheless, even from this sophisticated group of intellectuals, Paul found some who were receptive to what he had to teach them.

I want now to look a little at Stoic philosophy. It’s an admirable set of principles. If you suspected that Christianity has something in common with its teaching, you would be right. Stoicism has informed Christian ethical teaching in many ways.

But – and it’s a big but – Stoicism gravely underestimates the strength of sinfulness in human beings. None of us are exempt from sin, and sin damages individuals, families and society. The judgment on sin is here and now; we see how it damages others; we feel how it damages us.

It is only the love of God that can overcome sin, and even then the struggle is mortal. God loves each one of us far more than we can comprehend. As we start to experience that love, we are strengthened to do his will. As we learn how to listen to him, we know better what it is he wants us to do.

And God has given us a supreme example to follow, the example of Jesus. His death on the cross is a statement of the worst that sin can do. Betrayed, abandoned, unjustly condemned, tortured, humiliated and killed. It is God saying, “I know this is what the world is like, I know this is what you humans do to each other and to the world…BUT…

…nevertheless, I love you, and I have overcome the world.” And there is the empty tomb, and the resurrected Jesus greeting his disciples, and the flames of the Holy Spirit dancing on the foreheads of the believers, and the love of God in our hearts as we pray in the Spirit. How could we not want to do his will?

Prayer

Heavenly Father

Thank you for your love. Thank you that you answer prayer. Thank you for faithful witnesses to your love.

In Jesus’ name, Amen

Acts 17: 10 – 15 In Berea

Acts 17: 10 – 15 In Berea

As soon as it was night, the believers sent Paul and Silas away to Berea. On arriving there, they went to the Jewish synagogue. Now the Berean Jews were of more noble character than those in Thessalonica, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true. As a result, many of them believed, as did also a number of prominent Greek women and many Greek men.

But when the Jews in Thessalonica learned that Paul was preaching the word of God at Berea, some of them went there too, agitating the crowds and stirring them up. The believers immediately sent Paul to the coast, but Silas and Timothy stayed at Berea. Those who escorted Paul brought him to Athens and then left with instructions for Silas and Timothy to join him as soon as possible.

*       *       *

Was it only the gospel provoking opposition or did Paul contribute? The Berean believers sent Paul away out of trouble, but kept Silas and Timothy.

Paul was an abrasive character; earlier in Acts 15: 39, we read that he quarrelled with Barnabas to the extent that they parted company.

Look back at Acts 16: 37. “But Paul said to the officers: ‘they beat us publicly without a trial, even though we are Roman citizens, and threw us into prison. And now do they want to get rid of us quietly? No! Let them come themselves and escort us out.’”

Paul was fully justified in terms of demanding reparation for his ill-treatment. He and Silas were Roman citizens and as such were protected against arbitrary detention and punishment. The magistrates had broken Roman law by beating and imprisoning them.

But to demand the magistrates came in person and escorted Paul and Silas was a humiliation for them. It would have made them angry. It would have made them enemies. What about “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger” (Proverbs 15: 1)?

The towns in Macedonia were in contact with each other, as we see in Acts 17:13 “But when the Jews in Thessalonica learned that Paul was preaching the word of God at Berea, some of them went there too, agitating the crowds and stirring them up.” I wonder whether the magistrates in Philippi also played a part in this?

There is no doubt that Paul was a dynamic man, with great personal courage, a deep knowledge of the Scriptures and a fierce intellect. Maybe the abrasive nature of his personality was an unavoidable consequence of its strengths? Maybe it was one of the reasons God picked him for the task of spreading the gospel?

I suggest, though, that it’s worth thinking about. Paul’s epistles are the earliest written records we have of the Christian faith. They pre-date the gospels, and a great deal of church doctrine is based on them. To what extent should we consider Paul’s character when we seek to understand the epistles that he wrote?

Maybe the answer to that is that we shouldn’t consider it at all. Maybe I should simply work to show as much zeal as I can for spreading the good news of Jesus. For there is no doubt at all that Paul was exemplary in his zeal.

Prayer

Heavenly Father

I’m sorry that I am so slow to spread the good news of Jesus. Please stir up the Holy Spirit in me. Please increase my love for you and for those around me.

In Jesus’ name, Amen

Acts 17: 1 – 9 In Thessalonica

Acts 17: 1 – 9 In Thessalonica

When Paul and his companions had passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica, where there was a Jewish synagogue. As was his custom, Paul went into the synagogue, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that the Messiah had to suffer and rise from the dead. ‘This Jesus I am proclaiming to you is the Messiah,’ he said. Some of the Jews were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, as did a large number of God-fearing Greeks and quite a few prominent women.

But other Jews were jealous; so they rounded up some bad characters from the market-place, formed a mob and started a riot in the city. They rushed to Jason’s house in search of Paul and Silas in order to bring them out to the crowd. But when they did not find them, they dragged Jason and some other believers before the city officials, shouting: ‘These men, who have caused trouble all over the world have now come here, and Jason has welcomed them into his house. They are all defying Caesar’s decrees, saying that there is another king, one called Jesus.’ When they heard this, the crowd and the city officials were thrown into turmoil. Then they put Jason and the others on bail and let them go.

*       *       *

Both support and opposition came from the Jews. Luke writes as though there was some support from the Jews – “Some of the Jews were persuaded,” – but considerable opposition – “But other Jews were jealous”. There was more support from God-fearing Greeks, and a large number joined Paul and Silas. Luke feels it is important to mention that “quite a few prominent women” joined Paul and Silas; it’s important to remember that women played an active role in the faith throughout Jesus’ earthly ministry. Here, Luke is emphasising once more that women were important in the early church.

“But other Jews were jealous”. What was the cause of the jealousy? Luke tells us that “Some of the Jews were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, as did a large number of God-fearing Greeks and quite a few prominent women.” It had been clear for several years that Christianity was becoming separate from Judaism. These influential people, who had discarded paganism in favour of Judaism, were moving away and joining the new religion – and no doubt all their energy and their material contributions went with them. Judaism was losing power, influence and cash.

The jealous Jews were unscrupulous in their tactics. Luke says “so they rounded up some bad characters from the market-place, formed a mob and started a riot in the city”. This puts the Jews of Thessalonica in a very poor light. Christianity was meeting political, as well as religious, opposition.

Those instigating the disorder knew where to find Paul; at Jason’s house. By God’s providence Paul wasn’t there; perhaps word reached him from a supporter. Not to be denied, the crowd seized Jason and some others and dragged them before city officials. What was the accusation? Jason has allowed his house to be used by men “who have caused trouble all over the world” And then, very tellingly, “They are all defying Caesar’s decrees, saying that there is another king, one called Jesus.”

What an echo! “We have no king but Caesar!” (John 19: 16) said the chief priests as they put pressure on Pilate to have Jesus crucified.

Truly, we must be very careful that we speak only the good news of Jesus, and don’t become trapped by the political system!

Prayer

Heavenly Father

Thank you for sending Jesus as our king. Please help us to truly acknowledge him as Lord, to listen to his voice, and to do his will.

In Jesus’ name, Amen