Today we pick back up in Acts 15:36-18:11, where we join Paul on his second missionary journey. One website calculates this journey as taking around 100 days and covering 3,000 miles! The Bible doesn’t tell us how they traveled; it’s possible that some of the trip was by ship, as they followed the coastline up from Jerusalem, traveled through parts of modern-day Turkey into Greece, and back across the Mediterranean to Jerusalem.
There is a common pattern as Paul visits each city. His habit is first to visit the Jewish synagogues, teaching and preaching Jesus because he believes Jesus came first to the Jews. Also, these are his people. Even though God has called him to take the gospel to the Gentile nations, his heart longs for his own people to believe (Romans 9). The response to Paul’s message falls into one of three categories, as illustrated by three of the cities he visits: Thessalonica, Berea, and Athens.
In Thessalonica, Paul reasons from the Old Testament scriptures to prove that Jesus, whom God raised from the dead, is the promised Messiah. Some Jews are persuaded, as well as quite a few Greeks. But the religious Jews grow jealous, and stir up trouble against Paul and his companions, claiming they are trying to overthrow Caesar by pronouncing Jesus as King. With the city in turmoil, the believers sent Paul and his companions out at night, to escape to Berea. Thessalonica was a place of jealousy and grasping for position.
The Berean Jews have gone down in history as those of “more noble character” than their fellow Israelites. They are seekers of truth, and they eagerly search the Scriptures to see if Paul’s words are accurate. The Jews in Thessalonica are still upset, however, and they have followed Paul to Berea, where they again agitate the crowds and stir them up. Paul again must leave town quickly and heads to Athens but leaves behind Silas and Timothy to continue teaching. Berea is a place where truth was welcomed and received.
Athens is a place much like our big cities today. As Paul walks the streets, he is disturbed to see all the idols. As a melting pot of cultures, Athens is a place of religious debate. The people love to talk about ideas and philosophy, and every ideology is accepted as true for the man who believes it. Paul speaks their language, bringing attention to one of their own altars built for “an unknown god.” He tells them he knows the God who is unknown, and His name is Jesus. The response is mixed; some make fun of Paul, but others are curious and ask to hear more. A few people believe before Paul moves on to Corinth.
How about you? Are you a Thessalonian? Too preoccupied with your position and entrenched in your beliefs to consider Jesus? Are you an Athenian? Open to talk about everything, to philosophize and debate, but not believing in anything? Or are you a Berean? A seeker of truth, willing to examine the words of Jesus with an open mind and heart?
You can’t be “neutral” when it comes to Jesus. The gospel will always demand a response.