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  • Writer's picturePaul Cottington

It’s in the Bag!


"… 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." Acts 17:30-31

So, the gospel – the message about Jesus – has reached Europe, carried by Paul and Silas to Philippi, in Acts 16. There the Lord had opened hearts and those opened hearts had led to opened purses. Paul’s letter to those new believers (Philippians 4 16) informs us that they now willingly funded Paul’s mission for Christ. Acts 16 was set in Philippi, but Paul is on the move again. Acts 17 has 3 NIV headings. They are ‘In Thessalonica’, ‘In Berea’ and ‘In Athens’. Let’s start where Paul did – in Thessalonica.

Verse 2 says, ‘as was his custom’. His ‘custom’ was to seek out the place where Jews gathered. Actually, I think Paul’s ‘custom’ was more than that. Paul brought Christ to where people were at. He adapted his approach depending on his audience and this chapter will really show this. We’ve seen it before in Acts 14 in Lystra. Paul’s audience there were not Jews and Paul did not reference the Jewish Old Testament scriptures. Because that would have required people to move twice in their thinking – once to get to his starting point and then, secondly, to move again towards Jesus. Paul knew that if he could get to where people were at, in their God-thinking, then they only needed to move once to reach Jesus. And Paul’s heart’s desire was that people would reach out for and reach Christ.

Let’s say that I’m planning to visit Australia and I want my pen-pal to go with me. I say to them, ‘You come to me first, and then we will fly to Australia together’. They reply, ‘Thanks, but no thanks’. Why? Because they live in Singapore. If I had any sense and really wanted a favourable response then I would go to where they are first - to Singapore. Together we would then travel the much shorter distance, for them, to our destination.

However, when Paul visited new places and found Jews, it ‘was his custom’ to visit them first. It gave him an easy starting point. Their ‘Scriptures’ revealed God’s plan to send his Messiah, or Christ. The Jews were waiting for this special person to come. But their idea of who this person would be and what they would do had become rather mixed muddled. Let’s go back to my pen pal – suppose they are called ‘Charlie’. That’s a unisex name - you have boys called Charlie and you have girls called Charlie. Charlie has been communicating with me for years. I’ve been reading their writings looking forward to meeting them. I ‘know’ that Charlie is male – except she isn’t! When I get to Singapore Airport I’m looking. I see someone holding a sign saying ‘Paul, I’m here!’ But it can’t be Charlie for obvious reasons! I walk straight past, growing increasingly bewildered. Finally, I message my Mum, even mentioning the lady with the placard. She works it all out and explains that Charlie has indeed turned up – I’ve just been looking for the wrong type of person.

That is what Paul does in Thessalonica (v.2-3). He ‘reasoned’ with the Jews, ‘explaining and proving’ from their Scriptures what this Messiah would be. He has ‘to suffer’. He must ‘rise’ again from the dead. He tells them that Jesus suffered. He tells them that Jesus rose again. He tells them that Jesus is the Messiah – God’s own Son, who is our Saviour, if only we believe this message about him. So, do they believe?

Well, verse 4 tells us that ‘some’ did but then tells us something else. It refers to ‘God-fearing Greeks’. We’ve come across this, and similar phrases, in Acts before. When Luke uses this expression he is describing someone who wasn’t a Jew by birth, but who had embraced the one-God religion of the Israelites. While only ‘some’ of the Jews believed, ‘a great number of’ this other group moved their thinking towards Jesus. How could this be? The Jews had the benefit of an early years education in those Old Testament predications. Surely, they would have been the first to be ‘persuaded’? No. They did have the advantage of religious privilege. But many also had the barrier of religious pride. They weren’t willing to go past it to a new place.

I really like England. My children have grown up and now all travelled abroad. They now wonder why I never took them to other countries (apparently Scotland and Wales don’t count!). ‘But England is so good’, I say. ‘It’s full of good walks and museums - why would I want to go abroad?!’ That attitude could prove prohibitive - what about my friend Charlie? I could think that England is so not worth leaving, that I never go to Singapore and never meet Charlie. That is what happens here. These Jews in Thessalonica believe that the place that their present thinking occupies is great. Paul is now asking them to shift to another place. But that would mean leaving things behind. So they don’t move – so they never get to experience a new life with Jesus in it. Is that you?

The gospel is divisive. It troubles people. Jesus did not say, ‘I am one way to get into relationship with God’. Jesus said, ‘I am the way… no one comes to the Father except through me’ (John 14 6). Some of those in Thessalonica who rejected Jesus weren’t prepared to just walk away. The message about Jesus takes aim at the heart of our being – our person - and they took it personally. They reacted with violent intent. Their religion was exposed for what it really was as they aligned themselves with the ‘mob’ in verse 5. Verse 6 informs us that though Paul had not visited before, news of his exploits had already arrived in advance. ‘These men who have caused trouble all over the world have now come here’ - Paul was famous - ‘A riot’ has ‘started’. It’s a bit like Harry Styles. People are crying, ‘we want a piece of this man’. But, unlike Harry, it’s not because they love him and want to hear his lovely voice! They hated Paul - they want to shut him up.

And so Paul is on the move again. But not before a church has begun. In verse 10, they are already identified as a group – ‘the believers’. They ‘sent Paul and Silas’ the 45 miles ‘away to Berea’. On getting there, I’d be changing my ‘custom’. But Paul doesn’t. When it comes to Christ, Paul is so single-minded. Once again he goes to the Jewish synagogue to tell them about Jesus, and his faithfulness is fruitful. Verse 11 tells us that ‘the Berean Jews were of more noble character than those in Thessalonica’. What does this mean? What exactly is it about these Jews in Berea that was ‘noble’?

Is it that ‘they received the message with great eagerness’? No, not on its own. In Ephesians 4 14, Paul tells believers not to be ‘blown here and there by every wind of teaching’. We should not be moved in our thinking by everything we here. Ephesians teaches us that it is possible to be too eager to accept what we hear. If I told you that to be a true Christian you must own a giraffe, how would you respond? Would you say, ‘well the guy at the front said it, so it must be true’ and, straight after the service, head off to Chester Zoo, or would you be more cautious? Because these people also exercised caution. They were eager to hear Paul’s word, but they checked it against God’s word, ‘to see if what Paul said was true’.

So, we can be too eager to accept what we hear. But we can also be too cautious? We’ve already seen this in Thessalonica – those who weren’t willing to even consider Paul’s word and compare it with God’s word to see if they had perhaps previously been somewhat mistaken.

So, we can be too eager to accept any old teaching. We can also be too cautious, and unwilling to consider our ongoing need to learn and grow. Those in Berea were gifted with the correct balance. They listened ‘with great eagerness’ but also they, with caution, questioned ‘the Scriptures’ seeking God’s answer.

Jesus said, ‘Seek and you will find’ (Matthew 7 7). Acts 17 12 says, ‘As a result, many of them believed’. The ‘some’ of Thessalonica becomes ‘many’ in Berea. In Berea they had the better balance – the Bible calls them ‘noble’ in their attitude and response. It is clearly recommending their practice to us.

My bedroom gets the afternoon Sun. At the height of summer, it gets really bright, almost too much. Let’s say I’m standing there in early afternoon in July. I say, ‘Ah ha – that’s exactly the level of light that this room needs. I’ll stop anymore getting in – I’ll close the curtains’. But then, much to my surprise, everything goes dark. Sometimes we can be like that as Christians. We think that we have enough understanding on matters. We don’t need to consider anything that is a bit different to what we may have previously believed. We close the curtains, so to speak. Our Christian life will be more dimly lit. But, if we remain open – ‘open-minded’ (Acts 17 11 (NLT)), or ‘noble-minded’ (NASB), allowing God’s word to have the final word, then our experience will be brighter. We will say with Psalm 119 105, ‘Your word is a lamp for my feet, a light on my path’.

Then Paul gets chased off again. His opponents from Thessalonica prove that they weren’t NIMBY’s in their opposition to Christ. They weren’t just saying ‘Not-In-My-Back-Yard with your Jesus talk’. They wanted Paul gone from the back yards of the wider region, and pursued him again. For the fifth time in Acts, Paul meets with violent opposition. ‘The believers immediately’ moved him on and escorted him quickly to Athens, leaving Silas and Timothy to follow on asap.

Imagine being in Athens, ‘waiting’ for your mates to arrive, as Paul was in verse 16. There would be so much to take in. Paul took it in. He wasn’t your typical tourist. We don’t read of him being blown away by the magnificent architecture or taking selfies in front of a concrete Zeus. Paul saw the idols. Paul saw and understood what this told him about people’s hearts and where they were at. I’m sure it reminded him of himself before he met with Jesus. ‘He was greatly distressed’. And so, his mission to bring the ‘light of the world’ (John 8 12) to places darkened by Satan’s shadow continues. Here in Athens, we really see his willingness to move himself to where people were, to get them to then move towards the Saviour.

Verse 21 shows what these people were like. Twitter wasn’t yet invented but they didn’t need it – they ‘spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas’! And this creates an opportunity for Paul to speak further. He had been overheard talking about Jesus in ‘the market-place’ in verse 17, and some philosophers have taken him to a meeting of the ruling council in Athens. They are referred to as ‘the Areopagus’. Their name is taken from their meeting place. The Areopagus was a rocky outcrop on Mars’ hill, in Athens, which lent itself to the broadcasting of speech and debate. The Epicurean and Stoic philosophies, mentioned here, were very different, but both had an end goal which was the experience of peace for the individual.

Paul speaks. He starts by moving to the ‘very religious’ place which their thinking occupied. He recognises the potential for God’s light to break through. Every idol proved capacity for God. Every temple demonstrated need for worship. Yet they are ‘ignorant’, as Paul says in verse 23. They have admitted this by having an ‘altar’ ‘to an unknown god’. They don’t know God. Paul says, in effect, ‘through his grace, I know him, and I know ‘the way’ to where he is’.

Paul explains God. If God exists then he must be like verses 24-25. ‘God… made… everything’. God gives ‘everything’. In verse 28 he even quotes their own philosophical writings to show that his starting point is something they already agree on. They had common ground in believing in a creator God and what he must be like. He reasons, if ‘we are his offspring’ then how can we give birth to him? - how can we create an idol image and call it God? He made us not the other way round. He doesn’t owe us anything. We owe him everything. And he is calling in that debt.

He has already spoken in verses 25-27 of God’s ordering of the appointed times of nations and empires. He is in charge when one rises and when it falls. But, though his hand is seen in the affairs of people en masse, his really big interest is people – individuals – ‘he is not far from anyone of us’. Paul is saying that, ‘when I was far from God, God was not far from me, and that goes for you too’. He talks of a new era begun. Verse 30 says, ‘In the past God (in pity and compassion and patient forbearance) overlooked such (idolatrous) ignorance’. ‘Now he commands all people everywhere to repent’. ‘Repent’ – turn from not knowing God to knowing him through the person he has sent. Because, as verse 31 says, ‘he has set a day’ when that person, called Jesus, is coming back. ‘He will judge the world with justice’.

They, and we, have two choices. We can have our life’s standard judged by God’s justice, or we can believe in the perfect life standard which Jesus lived, and receive it as our own by faith, and so be safe. Then Paul talks of the resurrection and says something extra-ordinary. ‘He (God) has given proof of this to everyone by raising him (Jesus) from the dead’. Proof of what? What does this proof mean… for me? Well, it is proof that is designed to convey the ‘full assurance which faith brings’ (Hebrews 10 22). This is not wishful thinking.

I’ve heard some wishful thinking recently. I’ve been following the World Cup journey of the England women’s football team. It ended in final disappointment. Following a football team usually leads to disappointment. But that doesn’t stop the wishful thinking beforehand. It is as if people think that if they really, really want something to happen, then it will happen. Before the England/Spain final, I heard an England fan being interviewed. They said, ‘we are definitely going to win. It’s in the bag!’

Of course, it never is. The trophy is only ever handed out after the final whistle in the final game. But what if it could be different? What if, on their way out of Heathrow to Australia, the England team were already carrying the trophy. ‘It’s ok’ they say, ‘there’s no need to stress over several intense ninety minute periods of full on anxiety – the governing authority has already confirmed that we have the victory. All the games are going to be organised in such a way that, even if we get hammered, we still win. We’ve been gifted it! Just keep your eyes on the prize’. How good would that be?!

But that is what Christians have. Jesus went to the cross because of sin – our sin. If we are believers, then he took our sin to the cross and met God’s justice on our behalf. Romans 6 23 says, ‘the wages of sin is death’. Christ died – the wages of our sin. But Acts 2 24 says, ‘But God raised him from the dead’. If sin means death and yet Jesus is alive forever, then where is our sin? Jesus lives forever because our sin is gone forever. If ever we question our eternal future as believers - if we are having a bad day, or month, or year, and want hope and certainty – the assurance of final victory - where should we look? When all other hope is absent there always remains this resting place for the people of God (see Hebrews 4 9) - the risen again Jesus.

Why did Paul endure such hardships for Christ? Even when, time and again, he seemed defeated, he knew that final victory was certain – that one day, when his service was over, he would rise again to live with God forever. God had already given him proof of this in Jesus Christ, his risen Lord.

On that day in Athens, verse 32 tells us that Paul was cut short. His time was limited, but the mighty hand of God was not. Some sneered and rejected Jesus, while with others there was further, future opportunity presented. And (v.34) through God’s grace ‘some… believed’. While others continued on a path of false hope – a quest for peace through philosophy – ‘Dionysius…Damaris, and a number of others’ found true and lasting – everlasting – peace in Christ Jesus.

In Acts 16 31 we heard that awesome line – ‘Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved’. He died for sin. ‘He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures’ (1 Corinthians 15 4). Our eternal safety? – it’s in the bag!


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