Thessalonica, Berea and Athens (November 22, 2015)


Uniform lesson for November 22, 2015
Scripture passage and lesson focus: Acts 17:1-4, 10-12, 22-28

In this chapter Luke describes Paul’s powerful preaching in two synagogues and in Athens, the cultural center of ancient Greece. At the same time he is cataloging the opposition that Paul encountered when he preached.

Acts 17:1-4 — Paul preaches in Thessalonica
Paul and Silas traveled on foot from Philippi along the Egnatian Way to Thessalonica, the most important city in Macedonia. There he initially directed his message toward his fellow Jews and their Gentile adherents in the synagogue. 1 Thessalonians 2:1-12 describes the beginning of the congregation there. In Paul’s own very personal and poignant words, he was “gentle…like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children.” He also supported himself financially quite possibly as a leather-worker (Acts 18:3), toiling “night and day” (1 Thessalonians 2:9).

Luke provides a brief summary of Paul’s Bible class in verse 3. The NRSV translation says Paul “argued with them from the Scriptures.” The Greek word used here suggests a theological discussion that would have been based on passages from the Septuagint, a common activity in the synagogue. Paul emphasized that it was necessary for the Messiah to suffer (also a theme of Luke’s Gospel). Furthermore, Paul declared that God raised the Messiah from the grave and that the Messiah is Jesus.

Some of Paul’s listeners in the synagogue were convinced by his interpretation of Scripture. Thus the congregation in Thessalonica was founded.

Acts 17:10-12 — Preaching in Berea
The Christians in Thessalonica escorted Paul out of town and out of potential trouble. He went to Berea, some 60 miles away. There he again went into the synagogue. Luke describes his hearers there as “more gracious” (“more receptive,” NRSV) than those in Thessalonica. Many in Berea, including some prominent residents, carefully evaluated Paul’s claims for the Messiah and became believers in Jesus.

Acts 17:22-28 — Preaching Athens
The city of Athens had lost much of its political and military prominence long before Paul and Silas arrived. What remained was the intellectual and spiritual heritage of ancient Greece that made the city the cultural equivalent of Cambridge, Massachusetts, or Berkeley, California, today. Luke and other contemporaneous writers described the residents of the Athens as persons very interested in religious ideas, especially new ones.

Paul looked closely at the many temples for which Athens was famous. He noticed that one of the altars was inscribed “to an unknown god.“ What he saw troubled him. He recognized that it was all idol worship. So he began to speak in the marketplace, which was also the city center. Paul assumed the role of a street preacher in this sophisticated city. And his audience wanted to hear more of what he had to say, so they invited him to Mars Hill (Areopagus).

Paul began his address to the Athenians by complimenting them for being “extremely religious…in every way.” While some might interpret this as an ironic statement, it is more likely that Paul was following the pattern of Hellenistic speechmaking that called for the speaker to establish a positive relationship with the audience by saying something positive about them. Certainly highly religious people would want to know more about an “unknown god” they vaguely acknowledged.

So Paul offered to identify the deity described by the Athenians on one of their altars as “an unknown god.” He told them about the God of the Bible, the creator who is the source of life. “The Lord of heaven and earth” does not live in shrines erected by human beings, Paul declared.

Paul continued his address by describing more fully the God of the scriptures. Alluding to the creation story in Genesis, Paul told the Athenians that God created all nations starting from a single human being. To each nation God granted time and space for a specific purpose: that they might seek God. Paul’s terminology indicates that on their own, human beings can only blindly grope for God.

Paul was convinced that God is not so distant from human beings. On the contrary, human beings live and move and exist in God. We are all God’s family, Paul argues, quoting the Greek poet Aratus.

JAMES A. BRASHLER is professor emeritus of Bible at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Virginia.