Paul Put the Pieces of a Puzzle together for Dionysius at the Areopagus

Some people want to fit the pieces to the puzzle together.

Perhaps, my favorite speech (sermon) in the Bible is Paul’s address to an elite group of people in Athens. The people in Athens were fond of spending their time “in nothing except telling or hearing something new”. (Acts 17:21) When some Epicurean and Stoic philosophers heard Paul in the marketplace, they brought him to the Areopagus.

Do you know people like that? They like to talk philosophy, but they don’t do it out of a love for the truth. They just like the intellectual challenge or the exercise of the imagination. Those conversations are ultimately unfulfilling unless truth is the object.

When Paul came to Athens, he was struck by all the idols he saw. (Acts 16:17) Athens was filled philosophies and gods of unending variety. In this way, Athens was like the modern Internet: a person might not ever exhaust all the possibilities. A person could spend a lifetime trying without ever synthesizing all the information and fitting the pieces to the puzzle of life together.

Paul cut the chase. Referencing an inscription: “To the unknown god”, Paul opened his speech with the statement, “What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.” (Acts 17:23)

I love that! Paul started where they were. He started with something familiar to them, and he used it as a segue into an introduction of “[t]he God who made the world and everything in it”. There were temples everywhere in Athens, but Paul was not shy in saying that the “Lord of heaven and earth does not live in temples made by men”. (Acts 17:24)

Paul wasn’t interested in small talk, or ideas for nothing but the novelty of them.

I also love that Paul quoted Greek philosophers and poets to them. He quoted Epimenides of Crete for the proposition that “In him [the God who made the heaven and earth] we live and move and have our being”; and he quoted Aratus for that proposition that we are His offspring. (Acts 17:28)

Paul was educated, and he could speak the language of educated people. He could take poetry and use it in a sermon on God. He didn’t play their games, though. He didn’t speak just to hear himself talk. He didn’t pander to their penchant for novel ideas.

He called them to account: “The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.” (Acts 17:30)

Paul preached the Gospel, the good news that Jesus died for our sins, redeeming us from destruction and giving us the hope of everlasting life, but Paul lost most of his audience at that point. They weren’t interested in “dogma”. They took offense at the exclusivity of Paul’s message. They liked ideas, but they weren’t interested in truth. Sound familiar?

Truth, of course, is exclusive. That’s the nature of truth. People like the Athenians, and people who embrace post-modern thought today, don’t want to want to hear ideas that are exclusive. They want variety. They want to keep their options open, ironically even to the exclusion of truth.

A few people, though, were moved by Paul’s sermon. They wanted to hear more. Among them was Dionysius, the Areopagite. For Dionysius, Paul provided him the missing piece to the puzzle of his life.

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How the Moorings of the Gospel Were Secured

God’s promise to Abraham was given 430 years before Moses

I have taken some time to reflect on the unity for which Jesus prayed in relation to the story of Peter & Cornelius and the tension that continued in the early church over extending the Gospel to Gentiles (non-Jews). The tension that persisted at the heart of the early Church threatened to unmoor the Gospel from its footing.

In previous articles, I reflected on the deeply ingrained nature of the belief that the Jews were God’s people. They were entrusted with the Law of Moses, and they had protected the Law God gave them for well over a 1000 years, painstakingly preserving it, passing it down from generation to generation.

They were instructed by God Himself to drive out all the inhabitants in the land God promised them, to avoid intermarrying and being corrupted by the influence of “Gentiles” to worship their gods. Thus, Hebrew descendants of Abraham avoided association with others – Gentiles. Like the plague.

So intent on sticking to the script were Jews in the First Century, that they didn’t recognize God when He shed his deity and came to them as Jesus from Nazareth.

John says that God came to His own people, and they didn’t recognize Him. When the Word through whom the universe was created, the Word who “was with God” and “was God”, became flesh (John 1:1-3, 14), “his own people did not receive him.” (John 1:12) “He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him.” (John 1:11) John continues:

“But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.”

John 1:12-13

“His own” were the Jews. The “all who did receive him, who believed in his name”, were Gentiles (and Jews) who believed in what Jesus said and trusted in him. They became children of God, not because they were born into it, nor because they or anyone else desired it, but because God Himself desired them to be His children.

But these things were far from clear to the early Church. Even Peter, who lived with Jesus and knew him intimately, had difficulty with the idea that the Gospel should be extended to Gentiles.

In the previous articles linked above, I summarized how God gave Peter a vision that occurred three times in a row for emphasis, an audible voice, and the voice of the Holy Spirit, directing him to go with men who appeared just then at the door to summon him. Peter’s experience was orchestrated with an angel that visited Cornelius, a Roman Centurion, who was directed to send those men to “a man named Simon who is called Peter”. (Acts 10:5) Then God poured out His Holy Spirit on the Centurion and his household to emphasize to Peter his intention to extend the Gospel to the Gentiles.

But the tradition of shunning the Gentiles would not die easy. Despite the obviously divine orchestration of events to drive home God’s intentions to Peter, Paul had to confront Peter publicly in Antioch over the issue when Jews from Jerusalem came to visit, and Peter disassociated himself from the Antiochian Gentiles. (See Galatians 2-3)

Paul encountered the same issue in Galatia where people were insisting that the Jews continue to follow the Mosaic law. In his letter to the Galatians, Paul described his confrontation with Peter. More importantly, Paul explained why the Mosaic Law no longer applied to the people of God – who now included not just the Jews, but everyone!

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Tension Leads to Accord: Peter, James & Paul

The big issue that threatened to divide the early Church

Paul wrote to the Galatians to address a grievous error in their thinking. They were holding on to a belief that followers of Christ, even Gentiles, must continue to follow Jewish law. Though Jesus prayed for unity among his followers (John 17:20-23), it was a rocky start for the fledgling following.

To emphasize the gravity of the point, Paul recalled to the Galatians a time when he opposed Cephas (Peter the Apostle, himself) “to his face” over the issue! (Gal. 2:11)

Paul seemed to have a lot of gall, didn’t he? Peter lived with Jesus for 3 years. He was one of the closest people to Jesus during his life. He was there when Jesus died, and he was one of the first people to see Jesus when he returned, risen from the dead.

Paul was never around back then. He despised Jesus and his followers! He was there, holding the cloaks of the people who stoned Stephen to death, and he was hellbent on quashing the “rebellion” of the Jesus followers to the traditions of Judaism… until Jesus dramatically revealed himself to Paul. Then, Paul changed completely and became the boldest of proclaimers of the Gospel.

Still, what gall to confront Peter of all people! Right? First for a little back story.

In my last post, I described Peter’s vision of animals on a great sheet and the encounter with the Roman Centurion that convinced him Gentiles can be saved from their sins, the same as Jews. It was no small revelation. It took quite the orchestration of visions, angels, voices and a powerful outpouring of the Holy Spirit to convince Peter to accept the fact that God wanted to share the Gospel with Gentiles.

Peter experienced his own change, though not as dramatic. He went from being concerned that he should be not associating with Gentiles to baptizing the Centurion and his entire household and welcoming them into the family of believers!

I also wrote about this story in relation to the theme of the unity of believers: Reflection on the Unity for which Jesus Prayed: Peter & Cornelius. The great shift from the following law to faith, was a change to beat all changes.

It took a nothing short of a divine appointment of Peter, the Apostle on which Jesus said he would establish the Church, orchestrated by God with all the bells and whistles to provide clear direction. We might think that this encounter settled the score for Peter, once for all, right?

Not so.

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A Story Demonstrating How God Works to Reveal Himself to People

The evidence for God is more often a string of improbable circumstances happening in the context of a message that is delivered with intimate, personal meaning.

As I have been reading through the New Testament, on my way through the Bible chronologically from start to finish, I have come to the Book of Acts. I wrote most recently about the prominence and importance of testimonial evidence for Christ. I continue to be struck by the key importance of this eyewitness testimony and the highly relational way in which He reveals Himself to people, which is still true today .

Jesus, of course, attracted people who gathered, joined and followed him. Literally, they lived with him, ate with him, traveled with him, and followed him where he went. Thus, they became witnesses to everything he said and did.  

As I continue reading in Acts, I have come today to the story of Peter, the apostle, and Cornelius, the Roman Centurion who lived in Caesarea. I wrote about this story not long ago, in Reflection on the Unity for which Jesus Prayed: Peter & Cornelius, but today I see a different twist that runs with the theme of eyewitnesses and God revealing Himself to people.

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The Case for Jesus Christ Rests on the Evidence of Eyewitnesses

As a lawyer, I am keenly aware of the central importance of eyewitnesses to getting at the truth of any matter. There is no better proof in the law than eyewitness testimony. The rules of law allow hearsay testimony (the testimony of what someone else said) only in extreme and limited circumstances because eyewitness testimony is considered much more reliable inherently.

Eyewitness testimony is light years more reliable than secondhand testimony, but even eyewitness testimony can be unreliable at times. People aren’t always good at observing details accurately. People sometimes fill in the gaps in understanding of what happened with details that are assumed which aren’t accurate. People do this consciously and unconsciously. Eyewitnesses can be influenced by subconscious biases and influences. Sometimes eyewitnesses even lie about what they have seen.

Because eyewitness testimony isn’t foolproof, we look for other evidence that will either corroborate or contradict the eyewitness testimony, but cases are built on eyewitness testimony. A case can be built on the testimony of a single, good eyewitness, but multiple eyewitnesses is gold. The more eyewitnesses that agree with each other, and the more evidence that corroborates that testimony, the stronger a case is.

We see this principle at work in the documentation that presents the evidence for Jesus Christ – which is the Bible of course. The Bible reveals a primary emphasis on the testimony of eyewitnesses. Following is a summary of the ways in which the theme of eyewitness testimony runs throughout the New Testament.

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