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July 18, 2021

Preaching, Persecution, and Providence

Dave Zuleger (South Campus) | Acts 17:1-34

(Sermon notes follow Scripture passage.)

Now when they had passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica, where there was a synagogue of the Jews. And Paul went in, as was his custom, and on three Sabbath days 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.” And some of them were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, as did a great many of the devout Greeks and not a few of the leading women. But the Jews were jealous, and taking some wicked men of the rabble, they formed a mob, set the city in an uproar, and attacked the house of Jason, seeking to bring them out to the crowd. And when they could not find them, they dragged Jason and some of the brothers 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.” And the people and the city authorities were disturbed when they heard these things. And when they had taken money as security from Jason and the rest, they let them go.

The brothers immediately sent Paul and Silas away by night to Berea, and when they arrived they went into the Jewish synagogue. Now these Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so. Many of them therefore believed, with not a few Greek women of high standing as well as men. But when the Jews from Thessalonica learned that the word of God was proclaimed by Paul at Berea also, they came there too, agitating and stirring up the crowds. Then the brothers immediately sent Paul off on his way to the sea, but Silas and Timothy remained there. Those who conducted Paul brought him as far as Athens, and after receiving a command for Silas and Timothy to come to him as soon as possible, they departed.

Now while Paul was waiting for them at Athens, his spirit was provoked within him as he saw that the city was full of idols. So he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there. Some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers also conversed with him. And some said, “What does this babbler wish to say?” Others said, “He seems to be a preacher of foreign divinities”—because he was preaching Jesus and the resurrection. And they took him and brought him to the Areopagus, saying, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? For you bring some strange things to our ears. We wish to know therefore what these things mean.” Now all the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there would spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new.

So Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription: ‘To the unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, for

“‘In him we live and move and have our being’;

as even some of your own poets have said,

“‘For we are indeed his offspring.’

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.”

Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked. But others said, “We will hear you again about this.” So Paul went out from their midst. But some men joined him and believed, among whom also were Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris and others with them.—Acts 17:1–34 

Introduction: The Sorrowful Mess of this World

There are moments in life that mark you. You know what I mean? Happy moments. Sad moments. This past Monday I had one of those as I spoke with my friend about his soon-to-come resignation. That moment marked me with the sorrowful mess of this world in a new way. Our friendship isn’t up for grabs, but we’ll no longer labor side-by-side in the same way I hoped we would for the next few decades. I bring this up today for three reasons. 1) It’s just the reality of where we are in this moment, and it’s good to acknowledge it. 2) It’s easy to read through Acts—with all of the internal church struggles (not to mention those in the epistles), all of the persecution, and all of the brokenness—and forget how real it is. But, as we read about a mob today, or as we read about a conflict between believers in other places, or as we read about sickness and health struggles, we should let it land on us.

The book of Acts was not just some shiny road of uninterrupted triumph and ease, but these struggles really happened and really hurt. Which leads me to point 3): As I let the reality of this moment settle in this week and didn’t run from the pain but leaned into the pain of my heart—the preciousness of the gospel grew to me. Why? Because in spite of the turmoil of the past year of pastoring and now this last punch to the gut—despite all that—my sins are still forgiven! My ultimate hope is still secure. My eternity is not up for grabs. My eternal fellowship with other believers is not up for grabs. The Holy Spirit has been given to us to comfort us and dwell in us until we go to dwell with Jesus.

What’s the point? As we read through Acts and see the preaching of the Word and the persecution and pain that comes—we should see the providence of God in the mess. He is putting each of us exactly where we should be to refine us from all earthly comforts, refresh us in the rest of Jesus alone, and then from that rest, redeploy a people proclaiming to the world, “There is one place of rest. There is one sturdy hope. There is one Savior, one King, and one Friend that will never fail us and will surely complete the good work he’s started in us and in his church.”

So, I’m here, with you South family, to look the sorrows of this life right in the eyes and let them mold us and shape us to refine us, refresh us in Jesus, and redeploy us to our neighbors and the nations. And what we’ll do today is what will continue to be the thing we do together week after week—go the Word and see what God has to say to us. 

The Magistrates and the Integrity of the Gospel (Acts 16:35–40)

Last week, we saw the gospel save and shape a wealthy fashion executive with homes in two cities, a slave girl oppressed by her owners for gain and by Satan for his purposes, and a hardened jailer whose heart was softened by the gospel—the one who had inflicted the worst pain and put them in the worst place was the one washing their wounds. We left them sharing a meal and rejoicing in the saving work of Jesus.

Soon after, the magistrates who had ordered them to be jailed sent word to let them go. (vv. 35–36). This might indicate that they didn’t really believe they were that big of a problem, and they wanted to please the crowds.

Yet, in verse 37 the apostle Paul refuses to go quietly, but instead says: 

They have beaten us publicly, uncondemned, men who are Roman citizens, and have thrown us into prison; and do they now throw us out secretly? No! Let them come themselves and take us out.

The magistrates hear this and they are afraid because they didn’t know they were Roman citizens. They thought they were getting in good with the people and just making a point to some weird religious folk. But they had not treated them or given them the due process of Roman citizens. That was a big deal, especially when you pride yourselves on being a Roman colony. So they go and apologize and ask them to leave so as not to stir up any more trouble. Paul and his companions go and visit Lydia once more, encourage the brothers, and leave.

Now why not just go in peace? Is he just rubbing it in the face of the rulers? Is he spiteful? I don’t think so. I think he’s setting a precedent. As they will continue going on in their travels, he’s maintaining the integrity of the gospel. He wants it to be known that they were unlawfully imprisoned. They weren’t criminals inciting an uproar, they were citizens who had a right to due process and didn’t receive it. This would grant the gospel message they were proclaiming an integrity in the city of Philippi for the church and the members who had been established, and it would grant an integrity for the message of the gospel as they continued on.

The Mob and the Incitement of the Gospel (Acts 17:1–15)

They head from Philippi to Thessalonica in 17:1–9. Paul goes into the synagogue of the Jews for three Sabbath days as was his custom, and he reasoned with them from the Scriptures (vv.1–2). What was he reasoning about?

He was explaining and proving that the Messiah they were longing for and hoping for needed to suffer and to rise from the dead. The Jewish hope was this expectation of a Messiah and he goes right there with them. He’s probably going to passages like Isaiah 53 to show them this reality:

Yet it was the will of the LORD to crush him; he has put him to grief; when his soul makes an offering for guilt, he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days; the will of the LORD shall prosper in his hand.—Isaiah 53:10

And then he’s talking to them about the life, suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus and saying, the One you are looking for has come, his name is Jesus and you can salvation in his Name alone! He is the King in the line of David. He is the root of Jesse that springs up. He is the Lion of Judah. He is the suffering Servant. And he is alive and reigning and working even now by his Spirit.

In verse 4 some of them join him—some Jews, some devout Greeks, and some leading women. Luke, the author of Acts, is always highlighting the diversity of people the gospel saves. But, of course, the Jews are jealous again. And in verses 5–9 they stir up a mob of the city and go looking for them to hurt them.

They can’t find them, but they find the leader of the synagogue, who it seems has been saved by the gospel and again has immediately shown gospel hospitality and housed them. And just because of his association with them, they drag him out to the city. We don’t know if they beat him or not. It says, “they attacked the house of Jason.”

They tell the rulers that “These men have turned the world upside down” and proclaim “there is another King, Jesus.” Well, we know the Jews don’t care about honoring Caesar, except for their own gain. They are jealous. They want these witnesses of Jesus out so they can maintain their power and their place.

Oh, that we would be careful not to find ourselves in the angry mob these days. We could find that our defending what seems good and right could really just be our protecting our own rights and place and not in accord with the gospel at all. This brother, Jason, was saved and shaped by the gospel to offer hospitality and then suffer for Jesus even when it was costly and those in his own religious tribe ganged up on him to bring him to ruin. Oh, that we would follow in those costly footsteps as we treasure Jesus deeply together.

They take some money from them and let them go. And the brothers in verse 10 smuggle Paul and Silas away by night to Berea and they immediately go to the synagogue again. They treasure Jesus so much that they are undeterred by the prospect of suffering and they again proclaimed the word of God about Jesus.

These Bereans search the Word daily to see if things are so. Oh that we’d be like them in our own lives—and many of them believe. Let’s get our neighbors together and open the Bible with them and ask the Holy Spirit to work and to save. Let’s grow this place by conversions through the gospel, not the typical American church-hopping. The gospel keeps running and saving by the power of the Spirit.

And the Jews from Thessalonica hear about it, and they come and stir up the crowds again. So the brothers send Paul off again to keep ministering and leave Timothy and Silas. They likely stay to strengthen the infant church there a bit, and Paul tells them to join quickly when they can. Paul’s gospel ambition keeps him boldly going forth and proclaiming the gospel. The Jews selfish ambition has them continue to seek their own interests and not the interests of Christ. 

This is the story of Christianity. King Jesus keeps sending witnesses for the sake of his Name. Some receive the gospel and move from death to life. Some reject the gospel and even try to hurt those who proclaim it. But those who have been saved keep going because they count all else as loss compared to the surpassing worth of Jesus, and they want others to come into the abundant life of Jesus with them as they seek the interests of Christ. 

The Marketplace and the Inquiry of the Gospel (Acts 17:16–34)

In verses 16–34, we have Paul hanging out in Athens waiting for his friends to catch up—he is walking around the city and his spirit is provoked as he sees all of their idols. So, as he always does, he goes to the synagogue to reason with the Jews. We know what he did there: reason and explain and prove that Jesus was the Christ. But here he also goes to the marketplace (v. 17) and eventually a place called the Areopagus (v. 19).

He speaks with Epicureans and Stoics. Epicureans believed the point of life was to find pleasure in avoiding pain and living simple lives. They said the gods were far off and uninterested in human affairs. They would try to avoid anything that could cause conflict or pain as the way to pleasure. The Stoics thought the gods were in everything and were everywhere, but that God was not transcendent or all-powerful. They would try to live as virtuously as possible to earn these gods’ favor. Paul gets brought to this place, and they ask him to tell them about this new teaching: It says this was a place where “Athenians and foreigners who lived there would spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new (v. 21).

In other words, you’ve got a kind of pluralism—who knows what is really true? Maybe it’s this idea of gods that are distant, and we just try to avoid pain. Maybe it’s this idea that the gods are everywhere, and we try to earn our way by virtue. Maybe it’s something else.

We live in a kind of pluralistic world ourselves with all sorts of different things serving as gods. We could name a few in our day, right? Maybe it’s sexuality. Maybe it’s self-expression. I get to be whoever I want whenever I want. Maybe it’s comfort and self-gratification. If you walk through our cities, we wouldn’t find physical altars everywhere, but we live in a place that is very spiritual in the mystical way where we are the gods, and our pleasure and comfort must be fed and protected, just like these wooden altars had to be fed and protected.

Paul addresses them in verse 22, and he preaches a little different message than he normally does to the Jews. He preaches a God who is transcendent in his creation and rule and reign and yet immanent in his nearness to humanity. This doesn’t fit either the Epicurean or Stoic philosophy. He says they have an altar to an unknown god—they needed an altar like that just in case they missed one.

And he wants to tell them that this god they don’t know the name of is actually the only God who is different than all of their ideas and all of their idols. Who is this God? He made the world and everything in it. He rules over the world as Lord.

He doesn’t live in temples. He doesn’t need to be served or washed or fed by us (v. 23) because he’s the one that gives life, breath, and everything to us. He is not like silver or stone—some kind of art created by us and our human imaginations (v. 29). Rather, he is the Creator.

He doesn’t need anything from us. He doesn’t need our service. He made creation. And he made all of humanity. And not only did he make all of humanity, but he determined where they would live and how long they would live. He is transcendent—but also very immanent. He is not far from us. In him we live and move and have our being.

In other words, Paul is looking at these idols, provoked for the souls of those around him and for the glory of God and saying, “Why would you settle for your little ideas? Why would you settle for your little idols? Why would you serve something that requires you to carve it and care for it when you could serve a God who formed you and cares for you? Why would you spend your time feeding, defending, and protecting your little idols when you could have a God who feeds, defends, and cares for you? That’s verses 22–29. 

South Campus, why do we feed and protect our idols of lust, anger, bitterness, and selfishness? Why do we work so hard to maintain our idols of comfort, convenience, power, and popularity? Isn’t it wearying to spend all that time feeding those things? Do they ever deliver on their promises? What about your neighbors around you? Don’t you see them working so hard to protect and feed their idols? Can’t you point them to something that is so much better and that will actually satisfy?

In verse 30, Paul says that God has overlooked the times of ignorance, but now, in Jesus he is no longer overlooking them, but calling all people to repent: Turn from those things and walk toward Jesus. No one can avoid the judgment coming. You will either be found to be covered in the righteousness of Christ as made plain by his death and resurrection or you will found judged for worship of other things and despising the glory of God. The need is urgent. Jesus is coming back soon. We will be judged by his perfect righteousness. Do you feel the desperation for your neighbors and the nations?

The death of Jesus pays for our sinful ignorance, and the resurrection of Jesus proves he was who he said he was. In repentance, we turn from those little idols of our lives and turn to Jesus as our source of joy, life, satisfaction, and salvation. He is transcendent and immanent. He is going to come again to judge the world. Earlier in Acts we saw that we are to repent that times of refreshing may come. Today is as good as any day to repent and walk into the refreshment of Jesus as we gladly turn to him. Today is as good a day as any to begin praying for your neighbors and the nations as they worship idols of this life. Begin to ask the Lord to give you opportunities to speak of repentance in Jesus and eternal life in him.

Just like Paul said, “I know the true God you’re looking for.” So, we can say, I know the true God you’re looking for. I’ve met him. He’s changed me. He never leaves me nor forsakes me. He’s forgiven me. He’s a solid place of joy and rest. Come to Jesus.

And as always, some believe in this story and some mock—and so it will be with us. But for Dionnysius and Damaris, they were born again to eternal life by the good news of Jesus, and a new church was born as others believed with them. The message of the gospel brings mocking. The message of the gospel brings the miracle of new life.

Application: The Sovereign Mission of Witness

And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him.—Acts 17:26–27 

I want to end by speaking to two groups of people. Let me start with those who don’t yet trust in Christ. I don’t know what things in your life you are treating as if they can satisfy your soul’s desires. Maybe you’re running after a career, a platform, prestige, popularity, security, or comfort. You just want a happy, comfortable, successful life. Or maybe you’re here and you’re stuck in sin. Addictions or other ugliness in your private life, and you feel trapped and defeated.

In either case, God is not far from you. He determined that you’d be where you are for as long as you are—even listening this morning—that you might feel your way toward him. In Jesus, you can have forgiveness from sins, a joy that isn’t circumstantial, and you can begin to find freedom from sin by the power of the Holy Spirit. Would today be the day you see his sovereignty in your life and turn to Jesus?

And let me also speak to those who have trusted in Christ. Perhaps there is a situation in your life right now that you wish you weren’t going through. You wish it would go away or end. Perhaps, in some ways, as a church we all feel that way a little bit. Let us not forget that God has determined our times and our boundaries, and that we are here, in this place, for this season, for his sovereign reasons—one of which is that we might feel our way toward him in deeper ways and find him in deeper ways. 

Let’s not lean away from his providence in our personal life or corporate family life together. Let’s lean in and learn all we can learn. Let’s repent from all we can repent from. In hard times, let’s see all of Christ that we can see as he walks close to us. And let’s rejoice in the gospel that has saved us and the Savior and King who has died and rose again to forgive our sins and guarantee our eternal life. Let’s be refined in Jesus. Let’s be refreshed in Jesus. Let’s be redeployed by Jesus. He has brought us. He will pursue us with goodness and mercy. He means to draw us toward him and help us see more of him in these times. He will see us through it.

Sermon Discussion Questions

Introduction: The Sorrowful Mess of this World
  1. The Magistrates and the Integrity of the Gospel (Acts 16:35–40)
  2. The Mob and the Incitement of the Gospel (Acts 17:1–15)
  3. The Marketplace and the Inquiry of the Gospel (Acts 17:16–34) 
Application: The Sovereign Mission of Witness 
  • Why is it good news that the Bible is honest about the mess of this world? Where do you feel the messiness right now?
  • Why didn’t the apostle Paul simply leave quietly when the magistrates asked him? How did this preserve gospel witness for the future?
  • How does Paul approach his preaching in the synagogues? Why is it that this preaching incites the Jewish leadership so much that they follow Paul around to hurt him?
  • How does Paul change his message for the pagan people and philosophers?
  • How can we seek to be unfading and unchanging in our faithfulness to the gospel, but wise and winsome in our sharing of it?
  • What is our place in the sovereign mission of God?
  • From where does our confidence come that our God is working his purposes through us in the here and now?
  • In the midst of sorrows, how can we treasure and share the good news of Jesus?