Throughout the long history of the Old Testament you’ve become familiar with names that move southward and eastward from Judea: Egypt, Edom, Moab and Ammon; Aram and Damascus, Assyria and Nineveh, Elam, Babylon, Media and Persia. These were the people and places that had intersected with Israel; they were also the centers of culture and power of the time.
But during the five centuries between the fall of Babylon and the rise of the church, new powers had emerged – Athens, and Rome – whose culture and influence emanated from the Mediterranean basin, to the west. The world’s cultures intersected on the Greek and Apennine peninsulas. This is where ideas were heard, vetted, and disseminated; this is where Paul wants to go.
His second missionary journey continues today in the port cities of Thessalonica, Corinth, and Ephesus. In each place Saul – now named “Paul” – goes first to the Jewish synagogue to reason and persuade them about the kingdom of God. When this is unsuccessful he goes to the heathen marketplaces and halls of debate, such as the Hall of Tyrannus in Ephesus.
As the word of the Lord continued to increase, so did the resistance to it. Inquiries are launched and riots are instigated by those who have something to lose from adherence to “The Way.” Heathen magistrates see through the Jews’ tactics, but Luke is making a case that the strongest reception for the gospel comes from outside the synagogue. This perhaps influences Paul’s observation in chapter 19, “I must also see Rome.”
I want to invite you to read carefully when Paul finds himself in Athens, that great ancient center of debate, early in today’s reading. He intends to simply wait for Silas and Timothy, but his spirit was provoked within him when he saw that the city was full of idols. He begins to reason with them, both in the synagogue and in the marketplace. He takes on Stoics and Epicureans. He receives an invitation to debate at the Areopagus, the ancient rock of deliberation, investigation, and trial.
There, overlooking Athens, Paul begins: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way, you are very religious…”
Our verse for this week is Hebrews 13:8: Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.
Acts 17 through 19. Now let’s read it!
Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.