That's tough - Acts 17:1-9
Have you noticed how some things really press people's buttons? Insulting your favourite football team, sitting in your seat on a bus, cutting in front of people in your car?
Sometimes surprising things can get people going & arouse a strong reaction but mostly people are provoked by something or someone, an argument or an idea that gets under their skin, that challenges & unsettles.
You may have heard the recent publicity about falling church attendance figures in England. Whereas in 1989 10% of the population was in Ch on a Sun by 1999 it was only 7.5%. Christianity seems to be on the decline. The message which is behind the Christian faith, to most people, seems bland & innocuous even irrelevant.
Yet did you notice what the communication of the true Christian message caused in our Bible reading from Acts? Just 2 (or maybe3) men bringing a message to a religious gathering & it ends in riot & turmoil in the city centre. Hardly seems likely in comfortable Britain [ not quite yet anyway.]
The truth is however, that when it is grasped the Christian message cannot produce a neutral response either we accept it or we reject it - & rejection can sometimes be aggressive making the life of the bringer of the message pretty tough.
If you've been here the last few weeks you'll know we're looking at sections of Luke's dynamic book of Acts - great Bible book of Church expansion & growth with its regular refrain that "the word of God, the gospel, spread & increased" (6:7,12;12).
Last week we saw how the good news of Jesus arrived in Europe for 1st time as Paul, Silas & Timothy go into Philippi. Great little story of 1st European convert Lydia whose heart the Lord opened to receive the message.
This eve we see Apostle Paul continue his Jesus 50 Mission (He was at work in about AD50 as opposed to us & our Jesus 2000!) He goes to the cosmopolitan Greek city of Thessalonica & what he does & what happens to him illustrate for us some vital truths as we seek to share the same gospel of Jesus in our City in our day.
Outline from sermon notes
1. Gospel Strategy V 1-3
In much of Acts Paul has a pattern, what Luke calls in v2, his "custom", that is to go the Jewish Synagogue.
In many ways what Paul was doing, going to such a gathering was, in football terms, playing a home match. As a visiting rabbi he came to a large congregation, to people with whom he had much common ground. They assumed there was a true God & that he had made himself known in the OT scriptures. They took for granted the belief that this God had promised a deliverer King, a messiah, who would one day bring rescue for his people & complete justice to the world.
Now later in this chapter Paul has to play away from home speak to those in Athens with a totally different way of looking at the world & he takes a different approach, but his message is the same.
Perhaps you're here tonight wanting to know what this Christianity thing is really about, or you want to share your faith in Jesus in this new century. What Paul says & how he goes about his evangelism his good news sharing, is very important for us all;
Notice 1st ;
i) Clear content of the message. Paul went into the synagogue"explaining & proving that the Christ (messiah) had to suffer & rise from the dead. 'This Jesus I am proclaiming to you is the Christ'".
The good news is all about Jesus. This is partly what makes it so provocative.
Some time ago during the war, a famous American art collector learnt that his son had been killed in action saving the life of another soldier. The following Christmas the soldier who survived and who himself was an amateur painter, gave the art collector a simple portrait he'd sketched of his son. It was nothing like a masterpiece but it became very special to the man in his loneliness.
Not long afterwards the collector died; and his paintings were to be auctioned, according to his will, on Christmas Day. To everyone's surprise the auction began with a painting on no acquisition list. It was this painting of the man's son.
"Who will open with $100?" the auctioneer asked. Nothing was offered. It was suggested they move on. But the auctioneer said, "No! we have to sell this one first." Eventually a friend of the old man - not a collector, and not very rich - offered a small sum: "I knew the boy, so I'd like to have it."
"Will anyone go higher?" called the auctioneer. There was silence. So the auctioneer said, "Going once, going twice. Gone." People sighed with relief thinking they could get on with the real business. The auctioneer, however, then looked at the audience and said the auction was over. There was stunned disbelief. "It's very simple," the auctioneer explained, "according to the will of the father, whoever takes the son ... gets all."
People then & now can talk about the 3 letter word "God" & mean a million things by it, but when we focus on God's son things get far more pointed.
Paul has to say to these Jewish people "Jesus is the messiah you have been looking for". This is not the way to be popular "You've got it wrong" he says, "The messiah has come & it is this Jesus!"
They would have said, "How can he be? If Jesus was the messiah why is he not ruling from Jerusalem? Why are we not ruling with him as God's people?"
But Paul's message is not just about Jesus but what Jesus did & what happened to him; v3 "..The X had to suffer & rise from the dead"
If God's ancient people the Jews had really understood their Bible (OT) they would have seen that there are 2 key things about the messiah it reveals - yes he is to be the reigning King who will rule, but he is also a suffering servant who rules through a purposeful death.
Both these ingredients come together in Jesus of Nazareth. He had to suffer as Jewish OT prophet Isaiah puts it "He was crushed for our iniquitiesall like sheep have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way & the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all". [53:5,6]
We can never make ourselves good enough for God. The 613 commandments that rabbis identified in the OT can not all be fulfilled in us all the time, but Jesus has taken the cost of our failure to live God's way, he has borne in himself the offence God rightly feels against our rebellion. Jesus opens the way for forgiveness for failure, cleansing from defilement in God's presence we can be in relationship with God if we rely on this Jesus the Messiah.
Do you need to know that this eve? Do you know you need God's forgiveness? Jesus the messiah died for sins, a good man on behalf of sinners to bring us to God. [1Peter3:18]
And how do we know? Well he came back to life as Paul explains v3; "the Christ had to suffer & rise from the dead". The resurrection of Jesus is God's validation of Jesus he is unique no one has ever been raised from the dead never to die again. He is indeed "another king" as the jealous religious people say in v7 they speak better than they know he is another king other than the emperor but a king of a very different kind.
Good news is Jesus the dying & rising messiah. Also see the approach Paul used to get it over.
ii) Thoughtful approach he used.
Did you notice the different verbs used to describe Paul's communication? V2 he "reasoned " with them, v3 he "explained" & "proved" that the X had to suffer
All these words speak of a logical argument that addresses the mind.
Important to be reminded that the gospel is not irrational - yes it goes beyond usual human reason the idea that God's power is made known through his son dying a humiliating death, is a wisdom of a different kind to that we humans so often admire, but the gospel is not illogical. One of the things that impressed me deeply when I was looking into Christianity as a teenager, was that the message of Jesus & the Bible's interpretation of the world as we know it, coheres, it has a logic to it, it makes sense.
Like Paul we need to take the trouble to explain, answer questions along with challenging people's assumptions & getting over God's truth from the Bible.
Also need to remember that God's way is to address the mind first in order to activate the will. Perhaps the reason why the word Evangelism is difficult for many is that it suggests some sort of emotional hype-up that gets people going & induces a response based on the atmosphere of the moment. But real evangelism as we see with Paul seeks to present Jesus so the mind is engaged & convinced first. So there should be "persuading", reasoning, explaining & proving as we get over the message of Jesus.
Need help in this. Great through our Church to have so many opportunities like speakers at Jesus 2000 or Simply Christianity eves. Or from Christian books or booklets, or lending a sermon on tape - or whatever. And with people we're close to - close friends or family or housemates - bringing people to hear a third party is a good way in.
iii) Bible centred Means he employed.
In the Thessalonian Synagogue Paul reasoned with the congregation "from the scriptures". He used the Bible in his evangelism.
A week last Wednesday at central meeting Gideons brilliant stories of how people who had been given NT's & Bibles had read them & God had opened their hearts to believe in Jesus & be rescued out of all kinds of difficult situations & given strength to live through others.
We mustn't lose our conviction about the power of God's word. As Hebs 4;12 puts it "For the word of God is living & active, sharper than any 2 edged sword..it penetrates..it judges the thoughts of the heart" It is after all as Paul says elsewhere the "sword of the Spirit".
It's great to think of gospels going to every home in the Parish, great to know that Philip Hacking in his speaking in J2000 will use the Bible & explain it allowing God to do his work as the sword of the Spirit is wielded.
Sharing the good news using the Bible doesn't mean that we just need to throw Bible texts at people. Here Paul explicitly reasoned from the scriptures, he explained them, he proved the significance of Jesus from them, but later in this chapter he outlines the Bible's key teaching without mentioning the Bible explicitly when talking to those who weren't familiar with it or who weren't naturally disposed towards it. Evangelism whether formal, from an up front evangelist or informal as its gossiped over a drink must have a Bible shaped content (as see here) & be done in a Bible shaped way.
2 Gospel Responses
i) Some are persuaded to believe v4
Paul got the gospel over with Jesus centred content, appeal to the mind that God could use & he got it across using the Bible. And the result?
Well partly very encouraging v4 "Some of the Jews were persuaded, & joined Paul & Silas, as did a large number of God-fearing Greeks & not a few prominent women".
This is consistent with what Paul writes to the Thessalonian church some time later. We read of Paul's mission in the city in 1Thess1; 5, 9 "Our gospel came to you not simply with words, but also with power, with the HS & with great convictionturned to God from idols to serve the living & true God". preached .
When the gospel is communicated we should trust God that he will work by his word. Easy not to believe this & to lose confidence.
I mentioned earlier the recent church attendance research.
The overall figures collected from individual Churches show the loss of a million church goers in 10 years. They are subdivided into local churches across denominations, according to what the researches call "Churchmanship"; that is their style, but more importantly the message they stand for. These findings are very revealing; Those who call themselves "Catholic" Churches (more ceremonial style emphasising the sacraments & Church tradition usually on at least a par with the Bible) have declined 50% in the last 10 years.
"Broad" or "liberal" churches (Who usually put human reason above or on a par with the Bible & seek to cut the cloth of the gospel to make it fit the culture) they have declined almost 20%. But "Mainline evangelicals" what St John's seeks to be; Bible believing & practising, emphasising (as the Bible does) Jesus & his death in our place for our sins, & seeking to offer this message to those around us, such churches grew, & they grew by 68%!
Granted statistics are notoriously difficult to interpret fairly, but this evidence points to what the Bible tells us - when Christians are determined to teach what the Bible does including the unpopular, politically incorrect parts like sin/judgement/God's righteous anger against sin, God's gospel is heard & is effective.
Do we believe the gospel is effective? Do we believe that it's worth inviting people to Jesus 2000? Do we believe those we know can be persuaded like these people in 1st C Thessalonica?
The great 19th C preacher CH Spurgeon was once talking with one of his students about his evangelistic preaching; "You don't believe anyone is going to become a Christian when you tell them about Jesus do you?" "No" said the student, "Well that's why they don't" replied Spurgeon!
We must also notice that there was another response to the sharing of the gospel of Jesus;
ii) Some are provoked to oppose v5-9
Do you remember what happened in the 2nd half of our passage? The jealous religious establishment, seeing their market share dwindling, as some became Christians, rounded up some loafers from the town centre & got a riot going!
Then they tried to get the civil officials on their side; made accusations against Paul & his team that were untrue but they couched in terms that would get a favourable response. "They have caused trouble all over the world" they said, then they made it political v7 "They are all defying Caesar's decrees - saying there is another King called Jesus ".
This is a timely reminder that communicating the gospel of Jesus will bring opposition. We must trust & expect that God will work & some will be persuaded when we evangelise, but we must also be prepared for disappointments & struggles.
There are likely to be set backs, disappointments even opposition from people we know who perhaps we invite to come & hear the gospel let's not be discouraged by that, let's not let such disappointments stop us continuing to pray & invite.
There is likely to be opposition from authorities. According to a newspaper article I saw this week the Independent Television Commission have just fined a Christian satellite broadcaster for screening an advert which claimed that Jesus said he was the only way to salvation [& that Homosexual practice is against the Bible's teaching]. There may well be a lot more of that sort of thing in the next few years.
But perhaps harder to take there is always likely to be opposition from religious authorities. When organised religion is threatened or challenged the cause is likely to be attacked, even if the cause is the gospel itself.
Sadly in my own experience I've known this horrible irony. Denominational Church officials seem sometimes to reserve their strongest words & greatest lack of co-operation, not for those who have deviated from the historic faith of the church in its beliefs about God or its implications for behaviour & practice, but for those who are keenest to hold to those teachings.
The challenge of Jesus & his gospel remains a cause of provocation & opposition with established religion even to this day. But this passage reminds us we shouldn't be too knocked back by that.
The former Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill was invited, in his old age, to speak at Harrow School for their Speech Day. He was introduced, he got slowly to his feet, shuffled to the lectern and said:
'Never, never, never, never, never, give up.'
And he sat down again. That's all he said. And I take it Churchill said that because he knew from experience that giving up is a constant temptation.
Sharing good news involves content, approach & a means, it leads to some responding positively but for others buttons are really pressed, the gospel gets under the skin & irritates & provokes so opposition results towards those who bring it. But we mustn't give up. So much of the Acts of the Apostles & this incident included, shows us that God's message goes on spreading, because of & in spite of, human opposition.
We trust an amazing God who offers a powerful message that can change people & break down the hardest resistance, but it is also a message that will bring opposition Let's not be surprised by that & let's never give up.
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