The Book Of Acts by William R. Cannon
Before his election to the episcopacy in 1968 United Methodist Bishop William R. Cannon served as Professor of Church History and then Dean of Chandler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta. Other books by Bishop Cannon include The Gospel Of John, Jesus The Servant, and The Book Of Acts. The Book Of Acts, Copyright 1989 by W.R. Cannon, published by Upper Room Books. This material prepared for Religion Online by Paul Mobley.
Chapter 6: The Mission to Greece
The second missionary journey began, as we have seen, with Paul's revisiting the churches he had established on his first missionary journey. He omitted Cyprus and took a different itinerary into lower Galatia, which is now the upper region of southwestern Turkey. His approach to the cities he had visited before was different, but the places themselves were the same.
Now, however, this second missionary journey takes a different turn altogether. Paul abandons the Asiatic continent and moves westward into Europe. There is no indication in Acts that he sought the guidance of the Holy Spirit when he began this second missionary journey. He just seems to have assumed that it was God's will for him to check up on the churches he had established and to assure himself of their moral and spiritual well-being. His sponsoring congregation in Antioch had evidently assumed the same thing, for it had sent him out again with its blessings.
At this juncture, the Holy Spirit takes the initiative and intervenes. If Paul won't consult the Holy Spirit, then the Holy Spirit will advise Paul and tell him exactly what to do. From this point, Paul seems not to be under the direction of the church of Antioch but to be led entirely by the Holy Spirit. From an earthly perspective, he seems to be an independent missionary.
At Troas, which was close to the Troy of Homer's Iliad, that fabled city to which Paris had allured Helen and against which the Greeks fought under her wronged husband, Menelaus, in order to bring her home again, Paul had a dream of a Macedonian beseeching him to cross the sea to Macedonia and help him and his people. In antiquity, revelation often came to prophets and seers through dreams. Certainly Paul to took the Macedonian's entreaty as a divine command.
As Paul accepts the invitation and prepares to go, Luke introduces for the first time in the text of Acts what has come to be known as the "we passages" (16:10). The traditional interpretation of these passages is that Luke, the narrator, is present as a member of Paul's company and an actual participant in what he is writing about. I find no evidence to contradict this assumption. At Troas, it would seem that Luke the gentile has been added to Silas and Timothy as one of Paul's traveling companions.
The little group sails via the island of Samothrace and lands at Neapolis, the port for Philippi, which is only 10 miles away. They had covered a distance of only 125 miles though Macedonia is separated from Mysia by the lonian Sea. Philippi, named for Philip, the father of Alexander the
Great, had under the Romans become a colony for retired soldiers who had to pay no imperial taxes and received many benefits in appreciation for their military services to the empire. Consequently, very few Jews were there, and those that were there were despised by the citizenry. It took ten men, according to Jewish law, to organize a synagogue. Presumably there were not enough men for Philippi to have a synagogue, for the Jews met outside town by a riverbank for their prayers. When Paul and his group discovered them on the sabbath day, only women were present.
A godly person among them was Lydia from Thyatira in Asia Minor. She sold exquisite purple cloth that she imported from her native city, which was famous in the Hellenistic world for its purple dye and the cloth it exported in that color. Lydia responded to Paul's message and accepted baptism from him. Indeed, he converted her whole household, and she invited him and his party to be guests in her home.
Lydia has the honor of being the first person converted by Paul to Christianity on European soil. It was in her home, no doubt, that the first Christian congregation in Europe was to meet and the first church in Europe was to be organized. Philippi has the distinction of being the Holy Spirit's beachhead on the continent of Europe, the place where Paul began his European ministry.
Paul's recognition by the general public in Philippi came about under most unusual circumstances. As he and his company went to prayer, they were accosted by a young woman, presumably a slave, for Luke tells us she brought her masters money through her gifts as a fortune teller. She told Paul's fortune gratuitously-that is, without his soliciting her services. As he would pass her on the street, she would cry out so that all could hear: "This man and his companions are servants of the most high God, and they can show us the way to salvation" (16:17, AP). This performance went on over a period of several days, and Paul got tired of it. He realized that her gift was in reality a curse, for she was possessed with a spirit of divination. The spirit threw her into an unnatural state, which enabled her to make these predictions. So one day after she cried out after Paul, the apostle turned to her and exorcised her of the spirit of divination.
With the spirit gone, she lost her gift of fortune telling and thereby became profitless to her masters. They were incensed over their financial loss. What had been a profit for them became a liability. They therefore arraigned Paul and Silas before the city magistrates, complaining that they had fomented a disturbance in the city. In reality the only persons Paul and Silas had disturbed were the few men who owned the girl and had been deprived of their revenue by the exorcism Paul had exerted on her. But they were careful to conceal this under their general complaint that these two had caused trouble to the citizenry in general. They were accused of introducing customs that were unlawful for Romans to observe. The owners of the slave girl incited a mob.
When this happened, the magistrates became agitated. They had Paul and Silas beaten and then thrown into prison with stipulation to the jailer that they be kept safely. The jailer understood this to mean that their crime was such as to require maximum security. He must have thought that they were dangerous revolutionaries because he put them in the stocks within the inner prison. Luke and Timothy were not involved, so the "we passages" of Acts stop temporarily with the Philippian imprisonment.
At midnight, while Paul and Silas were recovering from the horrible beating that had been inflicted on them, the jail rocked under the impact of an earthquake, and all the doors of the prison were thrown ajar. When the warden of the prison realized what had happened and supposed that the prisoners had taken advantage of the earthquake and had escaped, he started to commit suicide. To be sure, Roman law held that a jailer was responsible for the safekeeping of his prisoners. If any escaped due to his negligence, he had to compensate to the state for their escape with his life. But the jailer could hardly be held responsible for an earthquake; and Rome, being famous for her justice, would hardly have punished the jailer for the results of something over which he had no control. Nonetheless, Luke says he was about to commit suicide when Paul called to him and assured him that the prisoners were all there and every one of them could be accounted for.
With this information, the warden no doubt recalled the announcement of the little fortune teller before her gift of divination had been taken from her: "These men are the servants of the most high God" (16:17), for he commanded a light and went to Paul and Silas and asked them what he must do to be saved. Paul gave him the answer: "Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved" (16:31). This, as all Paul's utterances and writings testify, is the only means of salvation. Luke says that Paul and Silas spoke to him and his household the word of the Lord. As a result, he and his household were converted and baptized, and Paul and Silas were made guests for the rest of the night in the jailer's home.
Lydia and her household had been Paul's first European converts. Before conversion, they had been Jewish proselytes. Now a Roman official and his household had been won by Paul to the Christian faith.
The magistrates sent word the next morning to release the prisoners. But they had overstepped their authority in punishing Roman citizens. Therefore, Paul would not be released until they came in person to him. After the public act of apology, he and Silas returned to Lydia's house, met with the infant church, and left the town.
Rome had covered her empire with a network of fine roads, linking major cities and terminating at ports from which vessels sailed directly to Italy. One of these roads was the Via Egnatia, which ran from Byzantium through the port of Neapolis on the east coast of Macedonia to Dyrrhachium on the west coast and served the cities and towns in between. Paul and his companions took this highway through Amphipolis and Apollonia and came directly to Thessalonica, which was the capital and chief city of the province of Macedonia.
Paul stayed there for at least three weeks, for Luke tells us that he spent three successive sabbaths at the Thessalonian synagogue reasoning with the congregation out of the He-brew scripture that their Messiah had to suffer and die and nse from the dead and that Jesus had done all these things and was therefore that Messiah. Paul had to provide for his needs by working; he refused to accept handouts from those to whom he preached (1 Thess. 2:9) except the hospitality that a man named Jason extended to him by keeping him in his home Jason, as his name would imply, was probably a gentile, perhaps even a Roman. His house was likely the place where the first Christian congregation in Thessalonica was organized, and his family its nucleus.
The Jews, who could not get the better of Paul through argument, stirred up a mob of lewd persons who came to Jason's house to take him. Fortunately, Paul, Silas, and Timothy were out at the time and, learning of what was happening, escaped to Berea, which was forty-five miles away. Jason was taken captive in their place and arraigned before the rulers of the city. The accusation was that Jason had entertained those who violated Roman law by claiming there is another king besides Caesar and that king is Jesus. That mob made a prophecy without knowing it by saying, "These that have turned the world upside down have come here also" (17:6, AP). Indeed, the gospel would in time revolutionize the entire Roman world. Jason was forced to put up bond against harboring the likes of Paul and Silas again.
The people in Berea were more open to the gospel than the people of Thessalonica. It was easier to reason with them, and many were converted, including prominent Greek women and men. However, their prominence did not shield Paul from danger; when accusers came from Thessalonica, they realized that Berea would be no different in its reaction against him than Thessalonica had been, so they spirited him away to Athens. Silas and Timothy stayed, however, in Berea until Paul sent for them.
Paul was alone in Athens. Though he had never been there before, he seems to have been no stranger to the place. He handled himself adeptly with the Athenians, so well in fact that he seemed to be one of them. As was his custom, he started his evangelism with the Jews in their synagogue, but the real object of his mission seems to have been to the population as a whole. He went directly to the people, encountering them in the marketplace. In this regard, he recapitulated the teaching methods of Socrates, who made himself available to any who would listen to him and sought to teach the people through open discussion and disputation with them.
As Paul made his case in the agora, or marketplace, he attracted the attention of the philosophers who were present there. It was the custom of Athenian society to gather in the agora to listen to speeches by any persons who felt they had something to say and then to quiz them and often to debate them on the validity of their ideas. It seems that the Athenians were less interested in the truth than they were in hearing new ideas. In this regard Paul appealed to them, for he presented a strange god about whom they had never heard before and talked about a dead man who had arisen alive from his grave. They asked themselves, "What will this babbler say next?" (17:18, AP). A babbler to the Athenians was a ne'er-do-well who liked to talk and pick up whatever scraps of food and clothing he could find that people had cast off in public places. Babbler denoted the image of a bird pecking away at a scrap of bread.
But after they listened to Paul, he made a better impression on some of the philosophers, for they summoned him to the Areopagus to explain in full his doctrine to those assembled there. The word Areopagus means "Hill of Ares," the Greek god of war. His Latin name is Mars. Hence the Areopagus is called Mars' Hill as well (17:22). On this hill met the chief council of Athens, which served as a forum to appraise various opinions being given the people and also as a judicial body. It was as an elite group to sift and appraise his doctrine that Paul was brought before it.
The two schools of philosophical thought represented on this occasion were Epicureanism and Stoicism: the former, discounting reason and advancing pleasure through experience, or self-satisfaction at the highest and noblest human level, as the true impetus for living; and the latter, exalting human indifference, or submission to the exigencies of existence through rigid self-discipline, treating with sublime disregard good fortune and bad fortune alike. Paul rejected both schools of thought and offered in their place belief in and allegiance to the one true God, whose rewards extend beyond this present life.
Paul began his discourse on Mars' Hill with the observation that the Athenians had an altar erected to the unknown god. It is this unknown God in whose name Paul speaks to them. This God, who made everything that is, does not dwell in the small temples that we build; neither can this God be worshiped in idols made with our hands. Rather, it is in and through God that we live and move and have our very life and existence. We are basically all alike, since God has made of one blood all nations that dwell on the face of the earth. We are God's offspring, and we ought not to think of God in terms of gold and silver objects, which we have designed and made. God has overlooked our folly in times past but now calls on us to repent. God has set a time to judge us and the whole world in righteousness by One whom God has appointed as the judge and has given evidence of this by raising that man from the dead. Some mocked Paul over the resurrection, but others said they would reserve judgment until they had heard him again.
A woman, Damaris, and a man, Dionysius the Areopagite, believed, and so did others with them. They became the nucleus of the Athenian church.
Corinth was the last major city Paul visited on his Grecian itineration. If he had had trouble from the populace in Thessalonica and Berea, what might he have expected from the people in Corinth, for Corinth was one of the most disorderly and corrupt cities in the Roman Empire? It was situated on a narrow isthmus connecting Peloponnesus with the mainland of Greece. It was the center of commerce between Rome's Asiatic provinces and the city of Rome itself and all its provinces in the west. It was on the main highway of Greece connecting the north with the south and itself the focal point of the two. There was no city in Greece of as much commercial importance as Corinth, and it was the capital of the Roman province of Achaia. It was a larger and, except for Hellenistic culture and intellectual refinement, a more influential and important city than Athens itself. It was a cosmopolitan city made up of peoples from all over the Roman world, including the Jews, who had a sizable colony there.
Strange as it may seem, however, Paul had little trouble in Corinth, certainly not enough to be driven out as he had been from Thessalonica and Berea. And he was not imprisoned there, as he had been in Philippi. When he left, he left voluntarily, as he had from Athens. But whereas in Athens he had stayed only a short time, just long enough to become known in the agora and to make his classical apology on Mars' Hill, which gave him a few believers who became the nucleus of the Athenian church, he remained in Corinth for a year and a half. There he not only started a church but supervised its early development.
When Paul first arrived in Corinth, he had gone, as his custom was, to the synagogue to declare the gospel first to the Jews. A few of them and their Greek proselytes believed, but the majority were so hostile and blasphemous that Paul dusted the dust from his raiments and left the synagogue with this malediction: "Your blood be upon your own heads; I am clean. From now on I will go unto the gentiles" (18:6, AP). Silas and Timothy came from Macedonia and joined him in Corinth.
Paul struck up a friendship with a Jewish couple from Pontus, Aquila and Priscilla, who had resided in Rome until Claudius had driven the Jews out. Their occupation was tentmaking, as was his. They gave him room and board at their home, together with an opening into their business, so that he was able to make a living as a tentmaker during his stay in Corinth.
Jewish rabbis did not receive compensation for their religious services in the first century; they worked at secular employment in addition to performing their sacred duties. Paul did the same, though he did accept voluntary gifts from his converts. Paul received no compensation whatever from the Corinthians for his services to them; but he did receive material gifts from his converts in Macedonia while he was in Corinth (2 Cor. 11:9), especially from the congregation he left at Philippi (Phil. 4:15). Whether this was enough for him to give up his secular employment in Corinth and devote full time to the gospel is dubious.
Perhaps he did receive enough because he moved from the house of Aquila and Priscilla into the house of Titius Justus, which was next door to the synagogue. This enabled him to proclaim the message in the very environs of those Jews who opposed him and to win as many of their proselytes as he could to the Christian faith as they went on the sabbath to the synagogue. Evidently, Titius Justus had been one of those proselytes whom Paul had converted and was now a prominent member of the Christian community, as were Aquila and Priscilla.
To be sure, the Jews tried to give him trouble, but they got nowhere with the Roman deputy Gallio, who considered their complaints against Paul groundless, based entirely on their own religious regulations and having no foundation in Roman law and totally irrelevant to the dispensing of justice. The Emperor Claudius had had the Jews deported from Rome because of their quarrelsomeness and troublemaking. Therefore, Gallio sent them away from his tribunal.
Paul had success in evangelizing some of the Jews. He actually converted Crispus, the chief ruler of the synagogue, and all his household with him. When Gallio dismissed Paul's Jewish accusers, the Greeks from the streets took Sosthenes, who had succeeded Crispus as head of the synagogue, and gave him a good beating in Gallio's presence at the tribunal. Gallio did nothing to stop them.
Paul's success in Corinth is testimony to the fact that the right place for the church is in the midst of the wicked and ungodly. Though we do not learn this from Luke in Acts, we know from Paul's Corinthian letters how unruly, contentious, and at times even immoral the congregation at Corinth was and what heartache it caused its founder. The members had come out of such a corrupt and degenerate environment. They were, as Paul admitted, just babes in Christ. Nonetheless, Paul called them saints, and saints by the grace of God they were to become. Corinth became one of the greatest centers of Christianity in the ancient world.
The Return to Antioch (18:18-22)
The second missionary journey ended where it began, in Antioch. But Paul did not sail directly to Seleucia, the port of Antioch. Instead he sailed from Cenchreae, near Corinth, to Ephesus in order to drop Aquila and Priscilla off in that city. From there he sailed again, not to Seleucia, but to Caesarea on the Judean coast. That is because he wanted to observe one of the religious feasts in Jerusalem. Apparently in preparation for the feast, he temporarily took the vow of a Nazirite in Cenchreae, where he shaved his head and abstained entirely from wine and strong drink. If the vow of the Nazirite was not for life, as it was not in Paul's case, it could be abandoned only in Jerusalem at the Temple, where the person who had taken the vow could be relieved of its obligations. It was generally taken as an expression either of one's gratitude to God for some extraordinary benefit or of a petition to God to satisfy some need or confer some special blessing. In Paul's case it was probably an expression of gratitude to God for the success of his Grecian mission.
He tarried at Ephesus only long enough to explain the gospel to the Jews in their synagogue. They showed interest, and he promised to come again to them for a longer stay if God so willed. He felt compelled to keep the feast at Jerusalem.
Consequently, he sailed from Ephesus to Caesarea. All Luke says is that after landing, he went up "and saluted the church" (18:22). This statement is ambiguous. If we did not know what had gone on before, it might mean just the congregation in Caesarea. But since Paul left Ephesus in order to reach Jerusalem in time to keep the feast and since he had taken a vow that he could be released from only in Jerusalem, we realize that Luke means Paul went up from Caesarea to Jerusalem to salute the mother church-the church of the apostles.
After he had kept the feast and fulfilled his vow, he returned by land to Antioch. No doubt he inspired the church with an account of his mission, especially that part of it in Greece, and confirmed its members in their belief in and support of his mission to the gentiles.
Questions For Reflection and Study
I. There is no indication in Acts that Paul sought the guidance of the Holy Spirit when he began his missionary journey into Europe. He seems to have assumed that it was God's will that he do so. Do you think that Paul was on shaky ground in making this assumption? Would you be comfortable in assuming that your action is God's will? Under what circumstances might that be true for you?
2. Acts relates a number of instances in which God spoke to the apostles in a dream. For instance, in a dream a Macedonian asked Paul to come and help him and his people, and following a dream, Peter spread the gospel to the gentiles. Do you think that God still speaks to people through dreams? Have you ever experienced such a revelation?
3. The New Testament often tells of the conversion of a person along with the whole household, for example, Cornelius, Lydia, and the Philippian jailer. What do you suppose is meant by this? Does one person in the household make the decision for everyone, or is it an individual decision? Would this be likely to occur today? Why or why not?
4. Paul exorcised the demon from the young woman who told fortunes because he realized that her gift was actually a curse to her. What gifts do we encounter today that may in reality be a curse? Name some examples of ways in which we might use others for our profit and to their detriment.
5. In the case of the Philippian jailer, near personal disaster led to his conversion. Even today, times of personal crisis often lead to conversion or to a deepening of one's faith. Why do you think this is true? Does it ever have the opposite effect? What factors might contribute to these two different reactions?
6. We are told that in Thessalonica Paul worked in order to provide for his needs, refusing to accept handouts from those to whom he preached. Why do you suppose Paul did this? What are the implications of Paul's actions for today's church, both positive and negative?
7. In Athens, Paul went directly to the people in the marketplace and handled himself so adeptly that he seemed to be one of them. What does this say about the role of an ambassador for Christ? What would be the marketplace for modern Christians?
8. The Athenians' first impression of Paul was that he was a babbler, a ne'er-do-well. After hearing him speak, some of them had a better opinion of him and wanted to learn more about his doctrine. Do you form snap first impressions of people? How accurate are they? Have you ever had to change your mind about someone after you had formed an opinion?
9. What is your reaction to the statement that the right place for the church is in the midst of the wicked and ungodly? How do you interpret this statement? Is this true for your church?
10. We know from Paul's letters that members of the congregation at Corinth were unruly, contentious, and at times even immoral, and yet Paul called them saints. How do you account for this? Do you agree or disagree with Paul?
11. Paul took the vow of a Nazirite in preparation for observing a religious feast in Jerusalem. He shaved his head and abstained from wine and strong drink. This vow was usually undertaken as an expression of either gratitude or petition to God. For what religious festivals do modern Christians prepare in special ways? What form do those preparations take? What forms of preparation for religious observances are meaningful to you personally?