In my last article in this series of articles on the life of Paul I described his visit to Philippi, which ended with the city’s magistrates asking him and Silas to leave it. After visiting and encouraging the believers, they took the main east-west Roman highway, the Via Egnatia, to Thessalonica, the capital and the largest and most prosperous city in the province of Macedonia and about 151 kilometers from Philippi. On the way they passed through Amphipolis and Apolonia, possibly spending a night in each of them but not doing any preaching in them because didn’t have a synagogue.
Thessalonica (Acts 17:1-9)
On his first three Sabbath days in Thessalonica Paul spoke in the synagogue, where he “reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead, and saying, ‘This Jesus, whom I proclaim to you, is the Christ'” (ESV; all Biblical quotations are from the ESV). Notice what he focused on when preaching in the synagogue: (1) the necessity for the Christ or Messiah to suffer, an idea which they resisted even though it was found in the Old Testament (Psalm 22; Isaiah 53); (2) the necessity for him to rise from the dead; and (3) identification of Jesus as the Christ. Some of the Jews were persuaded and joined them. So did a great many God-fearing Greeks and some of the leading women. God-fearers were Gentiles who accepted the truth of the Jewish religion and had a loose connection with the synagogue without being circumcised and becoming full proselytes.
Although Luke doesn’t refer to it, Paul’s three weeks of preaching in the synagogue were probably followed by a purely Gentile mission. This is indicated by his settling down to his trade–tentmaking (Acts 18:3)–in order to not be a burden to the believers (1 Thessalonians 2:9; 2 Thessalonians 3:7-8) and by the Philippians’ sending him supplies at least twice while he was in Thessalonica (Philippians 4:16).
However the success of Paul and silas’ ministry brought trouble. Seeing supporters becoming Christians, the Jews became jealous and, recruiting some wicked men from the marketplace, formed a mob. They started a riot and attacked the house of Jason, the host of Paul and Silas, in order to bring them out to the crowd. Not finding them, they dragged Jason and other believers before the city authorities, shouting, “These men who have turned the world upside down have come here also, and Jason has received them, and they are all acting against the decrees of Caesar, saying that there is another king, Jesus.”
Disturbed by what they heard, the people and the city authorities required Jason and the other believers to give them money as security that there would be no more disturbances and probably that Paul and Silas would leave Thessalonica and not return. The believers immediately sent Paul and Silas away by night to Berea, 81 kilometers southwest of Thessalonica.
Berea (Acts 17:10-15)
After Paul and Silas arrived in Berea, they went as usual to the synagogue. The Jews there “received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so” (leading Luke to describe them as more noble than the Jews in Thessalonica) with the result that many of them believed. So did a number of prominent Greek women and men.
When the Jews of Thessalonica learned that Paul was preaching the word of God in Berea, they came there and stirred up the crowds against him. The believers immediately sent Paul to the sea and accompanied him by sea or road (the text doesn’t specify which) to Athens. Luke observes that Silas and Timothy remained in Berea, meaning that Timothy, who had stayed in Philippi when Paul and Silas had left it, must have rejoined them in Berea. After bringing Paul to Athens, those escorting him returned to Berea, taking with them a command from Paul for Silas and Timothy to join him in Athens as soon as possible.
Athens (Acts 17:16-34)
While Paul was waiting for Silas and Timothy in Athens, he was deeply troubled on seeing that the city was full of statues of the Greek gods. Thus he began ministering without them, witnessing in the synagogue to the Jews and God-fearing Gentiles on the Sabbaths and in the marketplace to whose who happened to be there–Luke observes that “all the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there would spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new”–on weekdays.
Among those with whom Paul talked in the marketplace were some Epicurean and Stoic philosophers. Epicureanism and Stoicism were two of the most popular philosophies of the time; please ask in a comment on this post if you’d like me to summarize their beliefs. Some of them said about Paul, “What does this babbler wish to say?” and others said about him, “He seems to be a preacher of foreign divinities.” Luke notes that they said the latter because Paul was preaching Jesus and the resurrection–apparently they thought that Paul viewed Jesus and Anastasis (“resurrection”) as gods.
Those with whom Paul talked brought him to the Areopagus or hill of Ares, where the Athenian council met, and asked him to explain “this new teaching.” Some scholars think that they brought Paul before the council itself and others that they just brought him to the place where the council held its meetings. Paul’s response to them is the prime example in Acts of preaching to the Gentiles and I’ll devote my next article in this series of articles on the life of Paul to it.
After interacting respectfully with some of their thought, Paul presented the gospel to them thus:
Being then God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man. The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.
On hearing this, some mocked and others expressed an interest in hearing more about this at another time. Paul then left them. Some men joined him and believed. Apparently there was no persecution nor was a strong church established.
Paul’s ministry in Athens is often described as a failure, with the suggestion being made that it would have been more effective if he’d been less intellectual. However I think that its relative lack of success just illustrates the difficulty of witnessing to intellectuals. Thus I still admire Paul’s policy of becoming like those to whom he witnessed in order to win more of them (1 Corinthians 9:19-23).