What about the gospel don’t you like?
by Jack Wald | June 5th, 2011

Acts 17:1-9

My oldest sister is four years older than I am. When she went to university, I was a freshman in high school. She came home at Christmas to tell us she had become a Christian which was news to us because we thought we were Christians. We went to Sunday School and church each Sunday. I was in the church youth group. She came home with the expectation that we would receive with great joy the good news she brought home, but we rejected her message and I, being the only brother, ridiculed her. It was six years later that I submitted to God and became a follower of Jesus. Three more of my sisters followed suit although not all have persevered.

Why was my sister’s message rejected? Why did we not immediately embrace her good news?

She was not the first Christian to be rejected because of the message of Christ she brought. From the very beginning of the church, there was opposition to the gospel of Jesus. Saul persecuted those who were followers of Jesus until he met Jesus in the noonday sun on the road to Damascus and then when he took the gospel of Jesus out into the gentile world, he was rejected over and over again.

It is not that rejection is the whole story. Some of those who reject the message, like I did, later come to believe the message. But why is the truth of Jesus rejected?

Mike Russon preached last week from Acts 16 and the account of Paul and Silas in prison in Philippi, from which they were miraculously delivered. They left Philippi and made the 160 kilometer journey to Thessalonica. When Paul came to Thessalonica, in present day Greece, he went first to the Synagogue, as was his custom. In fact, it was because Amphipolis and Apollonia did not have synagogues that he passed through those towns and headed to Thessalonica. Although it seems evident from the two letters Paul wrote to the church in Thessalonica that Paul spent several months in Thessalonica, Luke focuses only on the Jewish phase of his time there.

It was customary for the synagogue leader to invite a traveling rabbi to speak in the service. So Paul stood up and shared the truth of Jesus, showing that Jesus of Nazareth was the Christ, the Messiah, of the Scriptures. He preached in the synagogue for three consecutive Sabbath days, three Saturdays, and some of those who listened were persuaded and joined with Paul and Silas.

There were three groups who became convinced by what Paul taught and became followers of Jesus. There were Jews, both Hebrew and Greek Jews, in the Synagogue who believed what Paul preached was true. There were also what Luke calls God-fearing Greeks who attended the synagogue and who believed Paul’s message. These were Greeks who were seeking God but unwilling to do what was required to become Jews. Circumcision was a big step to take as well as all the dietary prohibitions. And then Luke lists a third group who were persuaded by Paul: leading women. These were wives of wealthy and influential men in Thessalonica.

Luke wrote that the synagogue leaders were jealous and so set out to get rid of Paul and Silas.

Why were they jealous?

Imagine that you are pastor of a church in your country. Week by week you preach and teach and from time to time you see yawns during your sermon. It is difficult to get people to volunteer for the work of the church. The offerings are meager, barely meeting the expenses of the church. Each week you call people to live the Christian life and then people go out and live as though they had never come to church.

And then a visiting preacher comes to town and you invite him to speak. He has a new message, a powerful message and there are no yawns when he speaks. After church people are all talking about what he has said. The second week there are more people in church than normal because word has gotten out about this preacher. The third week the church is packed and you hear reports that many people are meeting with this visiting pastor during the week. He is able to do what you were not able to do and when you look into the future, you see that he will have the largest church in town and you will be a small afterthought.

The first week Paul spoke I imagine the synagogue leaders listened with great interest. After all, Paul was a prize student of the famous Rabbi Gamaliel. They met to discuss what Paul had shared and read the Scriptures to see for themselves if Paul could be right.

But then the second week the synagogue was packed. Everyone, it seemed, wanted to hear Paul speak. And now they began to be uncomfortable. The way this was going, Paul would take over the synagogue, or perhaps start an alternative meeting. But what could they do? If they did not allow him to speak, all the people who came to hear him would be upset.

So they let him speak again a third week. But now they heard reports that he was meeting with people during the week and it was not just that so many were attracted to his teaching but some of the people who were the best financial supporters of the synagogue were meeting with Paul. Not only were they losing power and influence, they were also facing a drastic drop in their financial situation.

It was time to take action.

Whenever you observe conflict, look to see how money, power and sex are at the root of the conflict. There may be theological disagreements as well, but the energy that feeds the conflict tends to come from money, power and sex.

Paul was a threat to the power and financial interests of the institutions that existed and so he was opposed.

You can see this pattern throughout Paul’s missionary journeys.

On his first missionary journey with Barnabas, Paul came to Cyprus where they met a magician, a Jewish false prophet named Bar-Jesus. He had the ear of the proconsul, Sergius Paulus, and when Paul and Barnabas were summoned so the proconsul could hear what they had to say: (Acts 13:8–11)
Elymas the magician (for that is the meaning of his name) opposed them, seeking to turn the proconsul away from the faith.

Bar-Jesus saw his influence and income decreasing and resisted these men who had come with a message that worked against him.

From here Paul & Barnabas went to Pisidian Antioch where Paul preached in the synagogue. Acts 13:42–45
As they went out, the people begged that these things might be told them the next Sabbath. 43 And after the meeting of the synagogue broke up, many Jews and devout converts to Judaism followed Paul and Barnabas, who, as they spoke with them, urged them to continue in the grace of God.
44 The next Sabbath almost the whole city gathered to hear the word of the Lord. 45 But when the Jews saw the crowds, they were filled with jealousy and began to contradict what was spoken by Paul, reviling him.

The leaders of the synagogue opposed Paul, not because they disagreed with him but because they saw their power and influence disappearing. Notice that Luke says they were jealous and then began to contradict what Paul said. Jealousy first and then theology second.

In Philippi Paul and Silas were met (Acts 16:16–20)
by a slave girl who had a spirit of divination and brought her owners much gain by fortune-telling. 17 She followed Paul and us, crying out, “These men are servants of the Most High God, who proclaim to you the way of salvation.” 18 And this she kept doing for many days. Paul, having become greatly annoyed, turned and said to the spirit, “I command you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.” And it came out that very hour.
19 But when her owners saw that their hope of gain was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace before the rulers.

The owners of this slave girl saw their income disappear and retaliated against Paul and Silas.

Later on when Paul was preaching in Ephesus, the followers of Jesus grew to the point that they were a threat to the dominant worship of Artemis which involved buying little silver images of her. The guild of silversmiths were losing business and decided to do something about it. (Acts 19:23–30)
About that time there arose no little disturbance concerning the Way. 24 For a man named Demetrius, a silversmith, who made silver shrines of Artemis, brought no little business to the craftsmen. 25 These he gathered together, with the workmen in similar trades, and said, “Men, you know that from this business we have our wealth. 26 And you see and hear that not only in Ephesus but in almost all of Asia this Paul has persuaded and turned away a great many people, saying that gods made with hands are not gods. 27 And there is danger not only that this trade of ours may come into disrepute but also that the temple of the great goddess Artemis may be counted as nothing, and that she may even be deposed from her magnificence, she whom all Asia and the world worship.”

The opposition to Paul and his message was, most often, not primarily a theological conflict. His message threatened the wealth and power of the established institutions and that always produces resistance.

Proof that this was not first an ideological conflict, a conflict about differing theologies, is the manner in which the leaders went about to deal with Paul.

Luke records that in Pisidian Antioch (Acts 13:50–51)
the Jews incited the devout women of high standing and the leading men of the city, stirred up persecution against Paul and Barnabas, and drove them out of their district.

He does not say how they incited the women and men of the city, but look what the owners of the slave girl did in Philippi. (Acts 16:20–23)
And when they had brought them to the magistrates, they said, “These men are Jews, and they are disturbing our city. 21 They advocate customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to accept or practice.” 22 The crowd joined in attacking them, and the magistrates tore the garments off them and gave orders to beat them with rods. 23 And when they had inflicted many blows upon them, they threw them into prison

Notice that they did not say that Paul and Silas had driven demons out of the slave girl that they were using to make a living. They fabricated an excuse for their opposition and got the crowd stirred up and pressured the magistrates to deal with them harshly.

You might expect this from men who owned a slave girl and used her as income, but surely synagogue leaders would be more pure.

What did the synagogue leaders in Thessalonica do to protect their status? (Acts 17:5–9)
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. 6 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, 7 and Jason has received them, and they are all acting against the decrees of Caesar, saying that there is another king, Jesus.” 8 And the people and the city authorities were disturbed when they heard these things. 9 And when they had taken money as security from Jason and the rest, they let them go.

The synagogue leaders said nothing about the fact that too many people and too many wealthy and influential people were following Paul and leaving the synagogue, they accused them of being trouble makers and made the very serious accusation that they were trying to replace Caesar as king with Jesus.

Those in authority who are threatened by someone who might take away their power and wealth will use lies to protect themselves because it is not the truth they are protecting, it is themselves and their position in the world. The establishment resisted Paul and his message.

There was a second group of people who opposed Paul.

When the synagogue leaders in Thessalonica decided to deal with Paul, what was the first thing they did?
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.

In every culture there are people who love to fight. It does not matter what cause it is; they love to fight. In Nazi Germany the climate was created where these kind of people were able to rise to positions of power. In Serbia and Croatia where I just spent a couple weeks for my Dmin studies, these thugs had an opportunity to fight and destroy.

Why do thugs like to fight? Maybe it is because they were mistreated as children. Maybe it is because they were picked on by others and are looking for a chance to get back at the world. For whatever reason, some people are eager to fight and will be pulled into persecution of Christians when they have the opportunity. They do not have theological objections, they simply want to act out violently against somebody.

There was a third group of people who opposed Paul.

In every culture, the majority of the people in that culture fiercely protect the values of their culture. Most people fiercely defend the values with which they were raised. They defend whatever religious system they were taught as children. They defend the way things are done in their culture. They defend the status quo. It is only a small percentage of any culture that stands back from their culture and chooses for themselves the values they will live by and defend.

So in Ephesus, what happened? Demetrius called a meeting of those who made their living selling images of Artemis and warned that their livelihoods were in jeopardy and then he stirred up the culture that defended the worship of Artemis. (Acts 19:27–30)
And there is danger not only that this trade of ours may come into disrepute but also that the temple of the great goddess Artemis may be counted as nothing, and that she may even be deposed from her magnificence, she whom all Asia and the world worship.”
28 When they heard this they were enraged and were crying out, “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!” 29 So the city was filled with the confusion, and they rushed together into the theater, dragging with them Gaius and Aristarchus, Macedonians who were Paul’s companions in travel.

Demetrius told the guild their livelihood was in jeopardy but to bring the people against Paul, they rallied them around the worship of Artemis. Demetrius charged that Paul was upsetting everything they held near and dear. He used the cultural values of Ephesus as a weapon against Paul.

When Paul came with the good news of Jesus, he brought change and most people do not like change. Even many of the nicest people in a culture will defend that culture and resist change.

There were the religious and business leaders who resisted Paul and his gospel because their power and wealth were threatened. There were the rabble who joined in because they liked having someone to fight. And there were those who fiercely defended the values of their culture.

Why is this important to know? Most often when there is opposition, we sit back and say that the devil is resisting our attempts to share the good news of Jesus. We blame Satan for the resistance and we pray against the work of the devil. But evil is not as simple as that.

In his Large Catechism, Martin Luther explains: Nothing is more effectual against the devil, the world, the flesh, and all evil thoughts than to occupy oneself with the Word of God, talk about it and meditate on it

My church history professor, Richard Lovelace, used this teaching of Luther to point out that sin exists in the form of the world, the flesh and the devil and it is critical that we be able to distinguish between these.

You cannot blame the devil for all the evil in the world. Our human nature and the institutions we create will also resist the gospel and it is important that we be aware of the differences so we respond appropriately.

How did Paul respond? Martin Luther said we are to occupy ourselves with the Word of God and that is what Paul did.
And Paul went in, as was his custom, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, 3 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.”

The first thing Paul did was reason with them from the Scriptures. Paul took the Scriptures, which at that point were the books of what we call the Old Testament. From these he read the prophecies that were fulfilled in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. We have the advantage of having also the New Testament books and the obvious question to be asked is whether you have a knowledge of the Scriptures that would allow you to reason with someone and show them that Jesus is the Messiah. You need to be able to do that and if you don’t you need to be involved in Bible study that will help you to be familiar with the Scriptures so you could show through the teachings of the Bible that Jesus is the Christ.

But remember that Paul was speaking to a Jewish audience plus those who were not Jewish but were familiar with the Jewish scriptures. They knew the scriptures he referred to. But what do you say when you come to someone that knows nothing about the scriptures? How do you then reason with them? Notice that when Paul came to Athens and talked with the philosophers who did not know about the promises in the scriptures of the Messiah who was to come, he did not start with the Scriptures, he began with the altar to the unknown god.

It is not that the Scriptures are not relevant or helpful, but there needs to be an introduction to the Scriptures that helps others to hear the truth they contain. First we reason with people and then we proclaim Jesus.

What this means is that you need to know the culture in which you live. You need to understand the philosophy that underlies the culture. In the culture in which we live, you need to know the Koran and how people interpret the Koran. You need to read the Koran. You need to understand how Muslims in this country believe they will come to God at the end. And you need to be able to reason with them from their viewpoint in order that they will be able to hear the truth of the gospel when it is proclaimed.

If you are talking with someone who is a secular atheist, you need to understand the worldview that they have. How do they deal with the basic human questions like: What is the meaning of life? Where do I find purpose in this life? Reason with them about the basic questions of life and then share how your faith in God relates to these questions. Before you open the Bible and share the truth it contains, there must be a discussion about how you answer these questions and what the implications are if these questions are ignored.

You have to know who you are speaking with and then be able to reason with them from their cultural worldview before you can open the Bible and look together at the gospel of Jesus. Reason from the values of their culture and then proclaim Jesus as the one who came to rescue us.

If we reason with people and they begin to ask questions, then when we proclaim Jesus they want to hear what we have to say. And when we proclaim Jesus as Messiah and Lord, there is power in that proclamation. Never forget that the Triune God is at work to bring men and women, boys and girls into his kingdom. The Holy Spirit is at work in the lives of those God is bringing to faith in him. It is not our responsibility to convert people because we are unable to do that. Conversion is always and only God’s work. It is our responsibility to study the lives of people in our culture and know how to share the words of life we received and then God will use our efforts to accomplish his purposes.

Peter wrote: (1 Peter 3:15)
but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect,

God called you into his family and the work of the family business, which is to bring others into the kingdom of heaven. So be prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you why you have hope. But take time to study the culture in which you live. Find how your faith interacts with that culture.

When you do this and share your faith, reasoning from the values of the culture and then proclaiming Jesus, do not be surprised if there is opposition. From the beginning of the church this has been the pattern. The world does not want to be challenged. Human nature does not want to be disciplined. The devil does not want to lose.

Do not be surprised by opposition to the gospel but also do not be discouraged. The gospel will be opposed but God will not be thwarted. God will prevail. The gates of Hell will not prevail against the faith God is building in us. The t-shirt on the bulletin cover says, “Jesus is coming. Resistance is futile.” God’s purposes will be accomplished.