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The Incarnation

Acts  17

Paul, in our lesson today, brings his first noted message to the Greek world. Up until this time his efforts have always started with the local synagogue. Now he is in Athens, the home of Greek philosophy, and his approach changes. In that change we will see some subtle differences of approach, and the revealing of Jesus as the Incarnation of God.

(Acts 17 NIV) When they had passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica, where there was a Jewish synagogue. {2} As his custom was, Paul went into the synagogue, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, {3} explaining and proving that the Christ had to suffer and rise from the dead. "This Jesus I am proclaiming to you is the Christ, " he said. {4} Some of the Jews were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, as did a large number of God-fearing Greeks and not a few prominent women. {5} But the Jews were jealous; so they rounded up some bad characters from the marketplace, formed a mob and started a riot in the city. They rushed to Jason's house in search of Paul and Silas in order to bring them out to the crowd. {6} But when they did not find them, they dragged Jason and some other brothers before the city officials, shouting: "These men who have caused trouble all over the world have now come here, {7} and Jason has welcomed them into his house. They are all defying Caesar's decrees, saying that there is another king, one called Jesus." {8} When they heard this, the crowd and the city officials were thrown into turmoil. {9} Then they made Jason and the others post bond and let them go. {10} As soon as it was night, the brothers sent Paul and Silas away to Berea. On arriving there, they went to the Jewish synagogue. {11} Now the Bereans were of more noble character than the Thessalonians, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true. {12} Many of the Jews believed, as did also a number of prominent Greek women and many Greek men. {13} When the Jews in Thessalonica learned that Paul was preaching the word of God at Berea, they went there too, agitating the crowds and stirring them up. {14} The brothers immediately sent Paul to the coast, but Silas and Timothy stayed at Berea. {15} The men who escorted Paul brought him to Athens and then left with instructions for Silas and Timothy to join him as soon as possible. {16} While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols. {17} So he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the God-fearing Greeks, as well as in the marketplace day by day with those who happened to be there. {18} A group of Epicurean and Stoic philosophers began to dispute with him. Some of them asked, "What is this babbler trying to say?" Others remarked, "He seems to be advocating foreign gods." They said this because Paul was preaching the good news about Jesus and the resurrection. {19} Then they took him and brought him to a meeting of the Areopagus, where they said to him, "May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? {20} You are bringing some strange ideas to our ears, and we want to know what they mean." {21} (All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas.) {22} Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: "Men of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. {23} For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. Now what you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you. {24} "The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by hands. {25} And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything, because he himself gives all men life and breath and everything else. {26} From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live. {27} God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us. {28} 'For in him we live and move and have our being.' As some of your own poets have said, 'We are his offspring.' {29} "Therefore since we are God's offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone--an image made by man's design and skill. {30} In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. {31} 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 all men by raising him from the dead." {32} When they heard about the resurrection of the dead, some of them sneered, but others said, "We want to hear you again on this subject." {33} At that, Paul left the Council. {34} A few men became followers of Paul and believed. Among them was Dionysius, a member of the Areopagus, also a woman named Damaris, and a number of others.

Jews and Gentiles

It is instructive to see how Paul approaches these philosophical people, by way of comparison to the Jews. We so often assume that the way to speak about Christ is to start by opening the Bible. This Paul often does when speaking to the Jews - but not to the Greeks.

Appeal to what they know

In the early section of this chapter Paul is speaking to the Jews. In his speaking to them, he appeals to them this way:

·         First, that the Resurrection was prophesied by the Old Testament - thus tying them back to the truth they know.

·         Next, that Jesus was in fact the promised Messiah - again going back to the Old Testament.

·         Note that he uses no miracles in these cities. His appeal is to the things they know, not to a sense of wonder.

To the Greeks as well he appeals to what they know - and what they care about:

·         These are a people who are full of intellectual curiosity - and the intellectual power of the Gospel is supreme.

·         They are religious in a sense - and obviously hunting for the right answer amongst the Gods.

·         Paul goes so far as to quote one of their own poets - to show them that the truth he is bringing is the completion of the truth they themselves have discovered, and the solution to its many problems.

But whether appealing to prophecy or intellect, one fact is central: the Resurrection.

More pain from the Jews

It is fascinating to observe that in the earliest days of the church the Apostles suffered far more from the Jews than from the Gentiles. Indeed, it was often Roman justice that restrained the Jews from mob violence. It is very puzzling. God has spent over two thousand years hammering into the Jews just what kind of God he is, and when he arrives, they reject him.

·         The rejection is that of works rejecting faith. The Jew is stuck on the rules and regulations, and the unbridled mercy of God just doesn't fit into their preconceived notions.[1]

·         But in all this, as throughout the history of the Old Testament, there is a faithful remnant of the people of Israel.[2] These have watched and prayed, and they rejoiced to see the Messiah's coming. Who are these people? The Bereans give us the example here, those who diligently searched the Scriptures were the ones most likely to accept their Lord.

·         Ultimately, however, God takes this rejection by the Jews - an evil thing - and turns it into a greater good, the salvation of the Gentiles.[3]

Many who read Paul's writing on this subject hold that the time for the conversion of the Jews is not yet arrived - but that when it does, it will herald the return of the Christ in glory.

Care of the church for its leaders

We cannot pass this passage by - though it seems an incidental point - without noting the care that even the youngest of the church have for the leaders in the church. This is evidence of true worship for God, for it shows concern for the things of God. We see two examples here:

·         Jason is a newly minted Christian - but he puts up bail for Paul and Silas, then takes the loss to himself and sends them out of town quickly. Even the newest Christian can learn to sacrifice.

·         The Bereans are another example. They keep Timothy and Silas, so that they might learn more. Paul they send on his way, to keep him out of trouble.

In both of these we see the echo of Christ - those willing to sacrifice for the kingdom of God.

The Revelation of God - to the Greeks

Paul reveals God to the Greeks in terms they would understand. We may amplify this a bit, trusting that Luke only gave us the highlights of Paul's speech before the Areopagus.

God, the Creator

His first point is simple, and very deep. God is to be seen as the creator of all things:

·         He needs nothing from man - for He is self-existent, the uncaused cause.

·         He is the one who created all things.

·         He is Lord of the Universe - not a creator who wound up the universe and set it spinning in space, but its active ruler.

·         He is not only active ruler, but active sustainer. Why should gravity work tomorrow the way it does today? Only because the sustainer of the universe never changes.

·         His rule is so minute that he determines the times and events of men's existence.

This is an awesome beginning. If Paul stopped here he would have had their nodding attention - but no change in their lives, just in their concepts.

God's relationship with man

So many today are willing to concede the existence of God - but not the God who cares about man. The uncaring God who set the worlds and stars in motion is just fine, but we want nothing to do with a God who would want a relationship to man. Paul corrects that notion quickly:

·         To repeat, God needs nothing from man - but that does not mean that He wants nothing from man.

·         Indeed, Paul tells us, his set purpose is that all men would seek him out. So it is that we search after meaning in our lives.

·         But it is not sufficient just to solve the intellectual puzzles of life. We must not only seek him in our minds, but reach out to him - in our actions.

·         God is said here to be the source of life itself. Without him, life - spiritual or biological - does not exist.

·         Indeed, we not only live in him, we have our being in him. We borrow from God the very idea of existence itself.

·         Because of all this, he is not a distant God, hard to understand or reach. He is said to be "near us." But how?

The Incarnation

How can God be said to be both the cosmic creator and "near to us?" The ultimate answer to this is in the Incarnation - the coming of Jesus, the Christ. Is he near to us?

·         He became a man like us, so that we might become like him - children of God (even their poet knew it). As a human, he was very near to us indeed. The relationship is like a circle; he becomes human that we might become like God. In him we live, the echo of the Incarnation.

·         The God who controls the times and events of history inserts the ultimate intellectual answer to the meaning of life - The Word. As the man Jesus touches like any other man, the Word Jesus reaches to the depths of the mind and beyond.

·         And is God superior to all things, Lord of Creation? Though humble even to the point of death, He rises from the grave - Lord over even death.

What Shall We Do?

All of intellectual debate is useless unless translated into action. Paul shows us here what we should do:

·         Recognize God for who he is - creator and Lord, sustainer and lover of our souls.

·         Realize that the time of ignorance is over - the Word has come, and the choice cannot be avoided.

·         Repent - and note that Paul uses the word "all" in regard to that - so that we may draw closer to him, reaching out to him.

The Judgment

Paul ends his argument with a curious argument - that the Resurrection implies the coming judgment. We might expand upon it this way:

·         Christ, as the perfect man, is fit to judge, and no one else is. Therefore God has accorded judgment to him.

·         He was dead - and Lord; therefore he is Lord of the dead. He is alive - and Lord; therefore he is Lord of the living.[4]

·         The keys of death and hell are his; therefore he has the power of judgment.

The early church argued (as perhaps Paul did here) that the bodily resurrection of the dead was absolutely a requirement for the judgment. Think of it this way: if judgment is to be passed, must not the accused be in court to defend himself? Then turn it around: you will be raised at the last day - to face judgment, heaven or hell, reward or damnation. The results of that day for you depend upon your dealing with the Lord of Judgment now.

[1] Romans 9:30-33

[2] Romans 11:1-6

[3] Romans 11:11-15

[4] Romans 14:8-9

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