Sermon Text

Acts 17

Introduction


Personality Tests…INTJ: “I’m the type of person who goes to a party...and makes friends with the dog.”


Paul finds himself in Thessalonica which is in modern day Greece, but he would have valued access to the personality analysis tools of the 21st Century, because in this passage he meets two groups of people:


A) those who accept his massage and B) those who reject - and fascinatingly,, there is a pattern, a type, a characteristic shared by both rejectors and an opposite set of characteristics shown by acceptors.


The Gospel is resisted by closed minded play-it-safers.


Paul’s mission strategy has the emotional rollercoaster of a prank phone call.


He arrives in a new town, goes to the local synagogue, blags an opportunity to speak at a service, sounds like ‘the real deal’ - Yaweh God of the Bible is true - and then fires the big punch line of the talk - Jesus is God, died on a cross and rose again from the dead - so put your faith in Jesus or face the consequences.


Now what usually happens at that point a number of the Jews listening realise that Paul isn’t one of them - but actually a Christian and the chase begins.


Well, here in this passage it is business as usual. The synagogue preach in verses 2 and 10 are followed by two riots.


Now, the riots are initiated by Jews who are furious about what Paul is saying, in verse [...] they’re so mad they trek 45 miles on foot from Thessalonica to Berea to fight Paul and the mission team - that’s commitment from an angry mob.


But there’s a crucial suprise tucked away in [.....]. You see, you’d think the fury came from the Jews who were incensed that Paul was, in their opinion, teaching false theology. But no, it was motivated by ‘jealousy’.


Now, jealousy when you think about it, is a weird thing, that all of us are guilty of.


You see, jealousy takes two things that shouldn’t be connected. Someone gets a promotion because they worked hard, and a friend, who could live the otherside of the world, feels not joy but jealousy.


Isn’t that how Facebook often works?

Things that have nothing to do with you, end up making you feel bad.


The reason is jealousy, works by a simple equation:


Your gain, feels like my loss .


Now, sometimes they should be connected, such as God’s jealousy for his people when they worship idols - but he’s angry because their infidelity steals his glory.


But in most cases, jealousy is bad, it’s toxic and it specialises in killing joy.


In this passage, the Jews from the synagogue weren’t chiefly upset that Paul was teaching something they didn’t think was true, they were upset because Paul’s success in attracting the vibrant buzzing open-minded pioneers - stings hard because, I imagine, that used to be the thing that people praised about these synagogues in Thessalonica and Berea.


You can imagine, what they used say - “They must be doing something right if they’re even attracting Greeks to Sabbath worship.”


Jealousy can make you do crazy things in a moment, but some of us here know, jealousy of others can dog us for life time.


This isn’t just a first century problem for Paul.


Non-Christians…


But this isn’t just a problem out there, it’s in here amongst us too.


We’re vulnerable to this toxic jealousy when we begin to believe that making City Church work will fix the problems in our life.


If for you, City Church working is marked by the fact that:


Your child becomes an all star Christian, then when another child shows more gospel fruit than your kid, - their gain will feel like your loss. It shouldn’t but it will.


If the mark... is you find the love of your life, when anyone else gets engaged, or another married couple demonstrate their perfect happiness, by wearing matching Xmas jumpers - their gain will feel like your loss. It shouldn’t but it will.


If the mark is... that you overcome the key spiritual battles in your life, and your face shines with the very glory of God, then when other ministries or people get priority over you, and they start to grow and thrive - their gain will feel like your loss. It shouldn’t but it will.   


Like bacteria growing in a toilet, jealousy grows in an environment where people are self-focused on their own needs being met.


Your mind becomes closed - to the concerns and circumstances of others, your mind is narrowed to what works for you or doesn’t work for you,


your world, your faith, your joy shrinks to a small minded attitude:  “let’s keep everything the same and not risk anything that might mean my needs could be missed.”


When gripped by jealousy, fear reigns and everything becomes a possible threat.


That’s what we see in this passage, that’s why a mob walks 45 miles to chase some strangers.


What we’re talking about is being Grinch-ified by self-worship and the tragic result is a resistance to the gospel.


The Gospel is resisted by closed minded play-it-safers.


But in both cases there are people who become Christians, and I want you to see who they are.

The Gospel flourishes amongst open minded pioneers.


In verse 4 and 12 we learn that a number of God-fearing Greeks turn to to Jesus as their saviour for the first time.


These people would have been the culturally curious and the open minded.


Think about it like this, in order to end up being a Greek who happens to be sat in a Synagogue when Paul is in the pulpit...you would have had to undergone a significant adventure…


Equally, intriguing look at the other group who come to faith in verses 4 &12: prominent women.


Now, there is a sense that the Gospel would have appealed to women in the ancient world.


At the time, only the God of the OT would have considered women to be equal in value, access to God and intellectual capacity with a man.


Only the God of the OT would mandate for a society to offer women protection and justice regardless of whether her family had status or not.


Only the God of the Bible had a place of dignity and honour for women who were unmarried or without children.


But I don’t think it was feminist manifesto that would have attracted the women, because note that Luke (who was recording this) specifically observes that that they were ‘prominent women.


That is, this was a group of women in both Thessalonica and Berea who had refused to conform to the misogyny and oppression of women typical of the first century patriarchal society.


This was a group ladies who had taken the risk to be different, swim against the tide and claim for themselves a place of influence in their community that women were never afforded freely but would have to risk everything to achieve and have to fight vehemently to retain.


There is nothing new about prominant women being in these communities. From Joan of Arc to Rosa Parks, wherever a patriarchal culture has been dominant, there have always been examples of women who have refused the narrative of second class citizenship and servitude and have claimed a place of prominence.


What is interesting, is that it is amongst women such as this, that the radical gospel of Jesus Christ takes root.


It is amongst the open minded men and the risk taking women that gospel is, not merely stimulating, but beautiful enough to commit your life to entirely.


Curious about why?


Come with me to verses 2-3 and 11, and you’ll see why. Look at the words used to describe the discussion: ‘reasoned’ (over three Sabbaths, likely to reference this was over a period of time, not a rash decision), ‘explaining’, ‘proving’.


Look at verse 11, the Bereans were particularly commended for being of more noble character, because they didn’t leave their brain at the door but because they ruthlessly applied an eager desire to examine and test with scripture everything that they heard,


I love the fact, that in verse 10 it says that they examined the scriptures everyday to see if what Paul said was true. They refused to be sucked into the celebrity endorsement or fail to read the small print by the clever theologian.


My Dad was all about thinking logically...he modelled his parenting on Spock from Star Trek…”So if people are just higher up the food chain than a squirrel who has the right to say survival of the fittest isn’t the best way to live.”; “If every thing of value has to be empirically tested, why don’t you apply that to love.”


The conclusion I couldn’t shake off no matter how hard I tried, was that the most plausible explanation of who Jesus is and what he did, was that Jesus is God, that he did die for my sins, and he did rise again to new life.


Huston Smith, in The World’s Religions, argued that when it comes to great people throughout history, there are only two groups.


The first group had an impact on millions of people largely because of their teaching but also because their lives were attractive to their followers.


Yet, Jesus doesn’t quite fit here.


Of course his teachings have influenced the world, and interestingly, whereas all other religions are largely focused in specific geographical areas only Christianity has had significant traction across the whole world - without doubt Jesus is eligible for category 1.


Apart from one thing, everyone else in this very small group denied they were God. Buddah said no, Mohammad said no, Confucious said no.


Jesus is the only one in the ‘Champions League’ of pan historical global influencers - who said “I am God.”


The second group Huston Smith describes in his book, are those who claimed to be God, (kings, emperors, caesars, cult leaders) but the problem is they were never able to convince any more than a small group of people that was true.


Here’s the nose bleed conclusion, in the whole history of the world, there is only one person who not only claimed to be God himself but also had enormous numbers of people to believe it.


What would have been very clear to the believers in Thessalonica and the believers in Berea, Christianity has nothing to do with blind faith or leaving your brain at the door before you come in, it is compellingly reasonable, plausible and available for scrutiny.


Now, if you argue with reason and logic as Paul did, you’ll grab the interest and attention of the open minded and the pioneers, but that won’t be enough to get them to put the full weight of the life and hope on what you’re saying,


After all, these people have already sacrificed a lot to be where they are today - they’re not going to throw it away on a mere intellectual curiosity.


No, Paul had to demonstrate that the Gospel isn’t just the most plausible explanation of the facts, but also the most beautiful .


Look, I know that logic says “If I eat that box of donuts, I’ll get fat”, but 4 O’Clock on a Friday afternoon, that box of donuts is one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen.”


Paul knows in verses 3, that no matter who the audience is, the cross and resurrection of Jesus is the most plausible and beautiful thing anyone will ever see ever.


We see in Jesus someone who is strikingly beautiful: Jesus combines high majesty with the greatest humility, he joins the strongest commitment to justice with astonishing mercy and grace, and he reveals a transcendent self-sufficiency and yet entire trust in and reliance upon his heavenly father.


We are surprised to see tenderness without weakness, boldness without harshness, humility without any uncertainty, towering confidence without hint of arrogance. Beautiful.


Yet, on the cross that beauty was stripped from him as the skin was stripped from his back by a soldiers whip. And he took upon himself the ugliness of our sin, and thrust into our hands as a gift, the righteous beauty of his life,


and he took upon himself our ugliness our jealous self worship, as he fell into to the grave, so that we who trust him, might be made permanently beautiful in the eyes of God - that’s why when Paul explained the cross the open-minded and the pioneers said: “I’m in!”


But you know, Jesus astonished everyone by willing to eat with tax collectors, the pay-day loan sharks of their day and the abusive military.


This outraged those on the “left”,  those zealous against oppression and injustice.


But he also welcomed and ate with prostitutes and the long term unemployed which offended those promoting conservative, traditional morality on the “right”


He touched the unclean and regularly ate with pharisees.


He was free of prejudice. Yet, he continually showed his freedom from the racial and gender barriers of the day, associating and eating with all sorts of people, high and low.


He didn’t avoid the rich and powerful, yet he showed no need for their approval at all...

He constantly saying to people, “Fear not.” ...confidently telling one his judges that they had no power to do anything that isn’t part of his plan.


In this age that values freedom almost more than anything else, Jesus confronts us as the most liberated man ever.


And when Paul taught them in verse 3 that this Jesus rose from the dead, and says “being united to him, by faith, means becoming as beautiful as he is.”


That’s why when the open-minded and the pioneers understood the significance of the resurrection - and said: “I’m in”.


Application:


Real Christian reason is both intellectually compelling and utterly heart moving - ‘beautiful logic’


That’s why we like the ‘noble Bereans’ want to hear preaching with our Bibles open, so that we can together examine it, check it, and only then devote our energy to living it - life’s too precious to waste chasing after nonsense -  it’s got be truth or nothing. But if that truth happens to be beautiful too - then wow!


Conclusion:


So with two categories of people present in this passage: which category are you in?


Before you answer that, let me finish with a story.


In 1939 during a WW2 there was a prison camp  called the Shandong Compound, and amongst the overcrowded camp, there 2 men of particular note.


One of them, a man called Langdon Gilkey considered himself to be one of the most open minded men in the camp. He was a committed humanist, who believed that there was no God and no need for God, human reason and instinctual goodness was enough for humanity to flourish.


He  expected that in the camaraderie and friendship of the prisoners who were in horrific conditions, where each man was squeezed into a tiny space, where there was too little food, and 20 toilets for 2000 men, not to mention the brutality and torture - could be be overcome.


There was another guy there, who 21st century society would consider the most closed minded, he was a conservative presbyterian missionary.


Two men, seemingly worlds part. But here’s the thing, Gilkey saw with his own eyes, not community and brotherly love triumphing over adversity, but selfishness, those who had little stole from those who had more, those who had more crushed those who had less.


And the reasons were all rational - you’ve got to look after yourself first.


One incident saw a room of 11 men pleading with a room of 9, to take an extra guy to fairly relieve the crush and pain of the overcrowded space. The reply from the room of 9 was rational - that’s your problem not ours, we cope better with fewer - if you send him will throw him out.


To live according to what is rational always leads to closed minded selfishness not loving self-sacrifice.


There was one man in the compound who lived with a hope, as if he was free, but with a generous self-sacrifice for others. The man was called Eric Liddel, the missionary, who was a person friend of Jesus, and he poured himself out looking after the teenagers in the camp…


Gilkey’s conclusion was startling, the only way to live consistently championing reason and being genuinely sacrificially loving - requires not just a mind set change but a heart change.


The heart of Paul’s message in this passage, is that you can get this


Through acknowledging our closed minded selfishness


and accept the forgiveness and friendship of the one who both invented physics and sacrificed himself for you  - in the greatest act of love in human history.


That’s how God fearing Greeks, prominent pioneer women, and Langdon Gilkey - became friends of Jesus.


So then, 2 categories: closed minded self focused and open minded pioneers - which are you?