I have been away from the blog too long. A minister I hardly know was just kind enough to drop me an email asking if I was OK. That's the family of God in action! It's nice to know these wild, random ramblings are appreciated...
Anyway, I am back to my reflective wandering through Acts. We have reached Berea. Take a couple of minutes to read the account, it's very brief.
Once again I am set wondering what this account is doing here. Luke doesn't waste his words, so it isn't just a note of passing interest. It is here because Luke thought it was important. I think it works as something of a bridge to explain how we get to Athens. I don't mean how they got to Athens physically. I mean how they got to Athens theologically and in terms of evangelism method. We need to remember when we read the account in Athens that evangelism is being done in completely unheard of ways. It is utterly different to anything anyone has done before, it is methodologically radically inventive, for Europeans with no Old Testament background rather than Jews steeped in the Old Testament.
I think we are justified in reading the section from the Macedonian vision onwards as God preparing and training the team for radically innovative evangelism. Acts 15 established that you can become a believer in Jesus without becoming a Jew. That was blockbusting. The Macedonian vision is then fascinating for what it doesn't say. It doesn't say "a Jewish man from Macedonia was urging us to help them." This was a call from God to take the gospel not only to fresh geographic areas, but to think for the first time about how you do that for completely different religions and worldviews. Let's not underestimate how radical that vision was. It is God acting to take forward the gospel decision of Acts 15.
We subsequently heard about the conversion of Lydia (non-Jew but God-fearing), the Gaoler (non-Jew, probably not God-fearing) and maybe the slave girl (non-Jew, demonised pagan). The gospel is progressively starting to get out in some very different ways. At all points the message of Jesus and the resurrection is central to belief, but the methods are beginning to vary considerably according to the situation and the audience.
Then we get to Thessalonica and Berea. In both places Luke makes a lot of Jewish Greeks becoming believers. He also spends a good amount of time talking about the Jews who stir up trouble. The team appeal to the scriptures all the time, reasoning, explaining, proving. The opposition don't. You would have hoped they would, but instead they resort to violent mob tactics. They have no answer to the case that the Christ is Jesus, so they don't even bother to debate it in their irrational hatred.
As the team go, a greater and greater percentage of Greeks are coming to Jesus. The cultural background is changing, the amount of theological background they could assume was changing. Athens will be the highpoint - reaching an entirely non-Jewish culture and worldview, with no Old Testament background with an utterly different method that was completely contextualised to get the message out to a group who wouldn't get it by any of the old means.
I tend to be over-familiar with the Athens story. As with all over-familiarity I easily miss just how radically innovative it was. A dear elderly uncle of mine once complained to me that the youth in his church no longer knew how to do evangelism and that he was going to teach them. His method was to sit them in front of cine films of Billy Graham crusades in the 1950s and tell them that was how it was done properly. Bless him! He wanted young people doing evangelism. His mistake was to assume that what equated to successful mission in one generation and cultural situation is automatically helpful in another.
How common a mindset this is in churches. Especially if a previous generation saw more fruit than at present it is all too easy to assume that you just have to recover their methodogy to see the same kind of fruitfulness. For sure young people too often assume that they know how to do things best, but it can be equally true of older people who fail to see that the world has changed. In the worst case scenarios they identify the culture and methods of their youth with the gospel and assume that any change to method is falling away from the gospel.
The message from Thessalonic, Berea and Athens is that methods change continually in order to bring the same message to different cultures and worldviews. We don't change our message, but we have to be absolutely radical in altering our approach. It happened by degrees between Philippi and Athens, but it did happen. Let's teach our people to hold very loose to preferred evangelistic methods in order to continue to reach as many as possible